Fly spells brought everyone down to where Helanda had landed. She was in an octagonal room, with a corridor leading off to a massive pair of black metal doors. Carved into their faces was a detailed carving of a vast mountain rage under a night sky, the tallest peak capped by an eerie castle of immense size.
“We’re gonna have to go through those doors, aren’t we?” Helanda asked.
“Yes,” Milacent answered, “and there’s also a trap.”
Everyone concurred, and they flew back up the shaft while Zelcor stayed behind to magically open the doors from as far away as possible. As soon as he did, a shrieking blast of frozen wind shot out from them, pushing Zelcor back and coating his robes in frost.
“Good job,” Theodora commended him as she drifted back down.
“H-h-healing, please?” Zelcor requested through chattering teeth.
Everyone passed quickly through the now-open door. The room they found themselves in was a vast cathedral, lit by flickering blue lights in its yawning upper reaches. The floor was made of sickly blue stone polished to a mirrorlike shine, and in six alcoves on either side stood the familiar statues of winged women with empty faces.
“Watch for metal swords,” Theodora warned. Fortunately, there were none.
As the party advanced cautiously forward, they saw another set of double doors to the side, this one made of stone but with the same vast mountain range engraved upon its face. Ahead of them, against the far wall, a series of steps rose up to a wide pulpit upon which crouched an elephantine faceless sphinx carved from black stone.
Scratchy by now had gotten the mages to put a permanent Detect Magic spell on him, and he was the first to notice the aura of magic emanating from the sphinx. “Illusion magic,” he informed everyone.
“I’ll take care of that,” Zelcor offered, as he and Theodora moved to the front, ready to dispel the illusion and discover what was hidden.
They needn’t have bothered. There was a shimmer in the air, the telltale sign of an Invisibility spell ending, and a nauseating tapered tower of flesh, eyes, and tendrils came into view. Even without the spell, parts of it seemed to fade in and out sight, and it coiled its awful maw to face the party.
Scratchy began shooting his bow, but a blast of wind knocked him down and pushed him back toward the wall. Everyone else was felt a strange sucking sensation, as if the wind was holding them in place. Helanda pushed forward to strike at the creature, but it shot forth a mouth-covered tentacle, wrapping it around her and crushing her in its grasp. She got her sword hand free and began to hack away at her opponent, yelling for Milacent to join her. If this thing had power over wind, it would have to be killed up close and personal.
Zelcor fired acid bolts at the creature, but they sizzled away harmlessly against its skin. Theodora shot forth her own magic missiles, and the thing winced in pain. It let go of Helanda to back away slightly, then three of its many mouths, silently gibbering words of arcane power. There was the sound of a thunderclap, and a tremendous blast of wind struck down the party. Scratchy was knocked back into the wall, Zelcor fell down and heard a sickening crunch as his shoulder slammed into the cerulean floor. Milacent, however, stood firm. She rushed forward to assist Helanda and began to slash away with her spine flail, causing great gouts of reddish-purple blood to shoot forth from the creature. Helanda, meanwhile, was bleeding from her ears after the wind blast, but staggered forward to strike anyway. With one final titanic blow, she cut the thing in half, and it collapsed lifeless to the ground.
“When I say there’s illusion magic, dispel it before you get close!” Scratchy reprimanded the wizards.
“What?” said Helanda, wiping blood from her ear.
“Everyone gather round,” replied Theodora, “It’s time for some healing.”
Once everybody was whole again the party moved through the stone doors. They were prepared for strangeness, but what they found was still breathtaking: an immense chamber stretching up into the darkness like a silo, its walls glittering with sparkling blue and purple crystals. Across from where the party was, a fountain of glowing blue liquid rippled in an alcove set into the wall, flanked by six black metal doors set into the remaining walls of the octagonal room. What dominated the chamber, however, was the vast pit that took up the majority of its floor. Seventy feet wide and forty feet across, it was filled with a rolling fog that shined with a silver light. Every now and again, deep rumblings and immense sloshing sounds, like a whale floundering amid the waves of a distant beach, echoed up from its shrouded depths.
Theodora strode cautiously forward, her curiosity overcoming her caution. She peered over the pit for a few tense minutes before turning back to the party and announcing, “It’s a portal.”
“A portal? To where?” Scratchy demanded.
“Um, I don’t know. But I know it’s connected to that fountain somehow. There’s probably some kind of ritual you have to perform to activate it.”
“What kind of ritual?”
“I don’t know that either.”
“Some wizard you are!”
“Hey, you try identifying the …”
Milacent took it upon herself to end the burgeoning argument. “Let’s just go around and check these doors, alright? Maybe we’ll find something there.”
Scratchy and Theodora exchanged nasty glances, but proceeded to do as Milacent suggested. Proceeding to their left, Scratchy listened at the first door. “Something’s … eating in there,” he told everyone, “eating something crunchy.”
They burst in, weapons drawn, to find a room with several sarcophagi propped against the walls. Opened sarcophagi. With their former contents splayed across the floor. And in the center, trying to suck the last bit of marrow from a dessicated bone, a semi-canine humanoid with rancid green flesh and hoof-like feet.
“Ghoul!” shouted Theodora, “Kill it!”
“No wait!” Scratchy shouted back, “Remember the ghoul beneath the Crow? The one that made the paintings? Maybe we can talk to this one too.”
It was worth a shot. One ghoul was certainly not a threat to all of them, and could be a valuable source of information. Meanwhile, the creature in question dropped its bone and backed away, then spat out some words of its own. “Who are you?” it demanded in Common, “Servants of the dragon?”
Servants of the dragon? That was interesting. Theodora put aside her apprehensions and stepped forward, “No, we are not servants of the dragon,” she responded, “but we are seeking it. Do you know where it has gone?”
“Through the portal,” the ghoul hissed.
“And where does the portal lead?”
“Leng?!!” Theodora exclaimed. Leng was a place that she had heard of only in whispered rumors, a distant and inhospitable demiplane that only the most learned of scholars knew of, let alone visited. Some said it was the essence of nightmares given physical form; some said it was the only surviving piece of a dead plane from before the current Multiverse was born. Whatever it was, it appeared they were going there.
The ghoul, whose name was Morcruft, told his full story in exchange for promises not to be harmed and to be helped to return to his home. He had accidentally fallen through the portal from Leng, and had learned to his chagrin that unlike on the other side, a ritual was necessary to activate the portal from the Prime Material plane. Unskilled in magic himself, he had despaired of ever returning until, a little over a year ago, he had seen a large blue dragon successfully enter the chamber, perform a ritual, and pass successfully through. He didn’t know the details of the ritual, but he did know that shortly after the dragon departed, “a sparkly skull floating on a dust ghost” had passed over the pit, carrying a large crystal in its jaws, before returning to where it had emerged from: the room next to Morcruft’s.
The party left Morcruft alone while they discussed this information. The “sparkly skull” sounded uncomfortably like a lich, or worse yet a demilich, but it did seem that if they were to pass through the portal, they would have to face it, whatever it was. They moved on to the next room.
Opening the door, they found a wide flight of stairs leading up to a large hall. Four black stone pillars supported a thirty-foot high arched ceiling, while a pale green curtain blocked their view of the room beyond. To either side, large faces were carved into the walls, their mouths agape.
“Careful of those,” Theodora warned, “those are malfunctioning teleporters, like the one we saw beneath Windsong Abbey.”
Scratchy nodded and went forward to scout. Peering around the curtain, he saw a gem-studded skull sitting atop a pile of dust on the seat of a throne. Was it treasure or a demilich in torpor? He decided not to take any chances, and pulled out all the undeadbane arrows he had purchased in Magnimar. He cast his daybreak spell on them, and the spell to make undead his favored enemy. Then he reached forward to pick up the skull.
On the other side of the curtain, the party waited impatiently for Scratchy to finish scouting. They heard him casting spells, then silence, then several twangings of a bowstring. Moments later, Scratchy came running out from behind the curtain.
“Guys!” He shouted, “It was a demilich! And I killed it!”
“Yeah, I prepared my best undead-killing arrows, then I reached for the skull, and its eyes glowed and it rose up into the air! So I shot at it repeatedly before it could act, I got some great hits, and it crumbled into dust! And it was sitting on this gem!” Scratchy held up a large glittering sapphire.
“Oh right,” Zelcor retorted, “You came upon a demilich, one of the most feared undead in the multiverse, and killed it in a single volley, before it could act.”
“But I did! Milacent, you saw it all through the spy eyes, didn’t you?”
“Well, I wasn’t looking at that moment, I was talking to Helanda,” Milacent answered, “but you know, it’s good enough that you got that gem and whatever other treasure there was. There’s no need to lie. Let’s go on to the next room.”
“But, but …”
Scratchy’s story notwithstanding, they moved on to the next room. This one was empty, with the door smashed in. The doors were lined with empty niches, suggesting that something had once been there, but it was long gone now.
“Hey Scratchy,” Theodora called out, “did you loot this room while you were killing the demilich?”
“Shut up,” Scratchy murmured.
The fourth room contained three alcoves, each containing a statue of a woman with no mouth. The one in the center was twice as large as the others, while the ones on either side held out coppery platters on which sat golden braziers emitting dark gray smoke. In the center of the room a 10-foot diameter blue-green metal grill was set into the floor. As soon as the party entered, faces appeared in the smoke above the braziers. In the one to the left was the leering, pig-like face of a nalfeshnee demon, while to the right was the androgynous but beautiful face of an astral deva. Immediately both began begging the party to free them by taking the brazier of the other creature and dumping the ashes into the grill, thus destroying that creature and freeing the other one. And there was a twist.
“The wizards, here, the servants of the runelord, have switched our bodies!” the nalfeshnee cried out, “I am a deva trapped in this demon’s body! Free me and destroy the foul monstrosity that has taken my form!”
“Don’t listen to him, he’s trying to trick you!” the deva countered, “Don’t listen to his foul words and free me!”
“Oh great. A puzzle.” Helanda snorted.
“It shouldn’t be too hard to solve,” Theodora reassured her, “A simple Detect Evil should tell us which one is which … oh, no.”
“Well, I cast the spell, but they’re both radiating good and evil in equal amounts.” Theodora thought it through a little more, then said, “Free the nalfeshnee.”
“What? How do you know?”
“The only way they could both radiate good and evil is if a good mind was trapped in an evil body, or vice versa. The nalfeshnee is telling the truth, so we should free him.” Theodora paused, then said, “but be ready to fight, just in case.”
Helanda took up the censer beneath the deva’s face and poured out the ashes into the center of the room, the creature all the while crying out “No, no, you’re making a terrible mistake!” in its melodic voice. As soon as the last ashes fell, the cries stopped and the nalfeshnee appeared in the flesh before them.
Everybody froze, ready to fight, until the creature croaked out in its raspy voice, “Thank you my friends, you have done the right thing. Now I must find a way to return to my home, and to my true form.”
“Wait, why can’t you return home now?” Zelcor asked.
“No one can travel through the dimensions in or out of this place,” the creature said, “except through the portal. Not as long as the abysium reactor still functions.”
Zelcor smacked his head for forgetting about the dimensional lock which had kept him from teleporting back to Magnimar before. But it was the other thing the demon had said which was truly interesting. “The abysium reactor?” he asked.
“In the room that hums.”
Scratchy nodded when he heard this. The way they were going around the rooms, that would have been the sixth one. It emitted a strange humming sound which he’d been curious about; now even more so. On impulse he asked, “And what’s in the other room? The one next to this one?” That would be room number 5.
“The Whisperstone, the repository of knowledge. Touch the blue crystal to it, and it will tell you what you want to know.”
“Well,” announced Theodora, “I think that’s our plan.”