As much as Milacent was in a hurry to get out of the room, the thin air was getting to her. Theodora and Scratchy were arguing about whether to go after the dragon immediately or to investigate the side rooms, so while they went at it she looked at the other treasures recovered from the room where Scratchy claimed he had killed a demilich. One of them was a black, horned mask with two eyeholes but no other facial features. According to Theodora, it was for protection from gaze attacks, and more relevantly it allowed the wearer to function without breathing. That sounded like a great remedy for the air being too thin, so Milacent put it on. Immediately the eyeholes vanished, but still she could see – it was as if the whole face of the mask functioned as a single giant eye. She was also no longer breathing, as expected, and no longer bothered by the thinness of the air. She turned to ask Helanda how she looked, but found she was unable to speak, probably as a side effect of not breathing. Nevertheless, Helanda answered the unspoken question.
“Great,” she said, “Now you look even scarier.”
Scratchy and Theodora, meanwhile, had finally decided to check out the side passages before going after the dragon. What they found was uninspiring. To the south they found the ghouls’ refuse pit, a huge room filled with bones and patrolled by strange four-armed creatures with mouths on the crown of their heads. When the party started to attack these things, the ghouls stared on in shock. “What are you doing?” they asked, “Why are you killing the cleaners?”
The party thought better of it and left the ‘cleaners’ alone. They did manage to swipe a sphere of purple crystal that was there, and assiduously managed to avoid reading a spiral rune on a nearby wall. “Odd runes in magical temples are never a good thing,” Theodora advised, and the others agreed.
To the north they found the ghouls’ larder, a room filled with half-eaten bodies and six ten-foot-tall sarcophagi that looked suspiciously like teleportation receptacles. Whoever set this place up, they made sure the ghouls were well fed. Milacent kept her mask on the whole time they were in the foul-smelling abattoir, then took it off so she could speak. “Okay,” she demanded, “now can we go after the dragon?”
The party proceeded to the west, where the ghouls had indicated the dragon had gone. They found more statues of the Black Pharoah, these magically attuned to assist natives of Leng, and beyond those a door, beyond which they heard a rhythmical humming sound. They opened it, ready for an ambush, and found themselves in a vast cathedral of purple stone, its ceiling a hundred feet above. There was a broad set of stairs leading downward, and around a corner the source of the now-much-louder humming sound.
Scratchy went down and looked around the corner. There, gathered around an immense stone bowl sitting on an altar, four pallid froglike monsters with faces made of tentacles waved back and forth, humming as they went.
“It’s a ritual spellcasting,” Theodora advised everyone, “Let’s disrupt it.”
The plan that they came up with was dramatic, if not particularly subtle. Everyone would move stealthily into attack positions and then Aevaenthial, the possessed Nalfeshnee, would wade in and begin the combat.
Fortunately, the creatures were fully absorbed in their ritual, and failed to notice anyone moving into position. Once everyone was set Aevaenthial came bounding down the stairs as noisily as he could. He turned the corner, came in full sight of the spellcasters, and bellowed, “Hello there!”
The creatures turned around, their weird humming turned to what were presumably sounds of alarm. They began to gesticulate in what everyone recognized as the motions of spells being cast, and the already minuscule chance of the encounter ending peacefully quickly fell to zero.
Scratchy was first to attack, sending arrows flying into the nearest enemy. He staggered backward, but his friend was ready, casting the dreaded Confusion spell and sending everything into chaos. Theodora struck out at Togbad, who struck at Helanda. Milacent’s Seducer’s Bane failed to protect her, and she began to lash out at Togbad, wounding him badly. The situation was bad, but Aevaenthial came to the rescue, spreading an aura of holiness around him that freed Theodora from the Confusion effect, but unfortunately not Milacent or Togbad. Theodora threw up a Wall of Force before Milacent to keep her from harming the rest of the party, then turned his attention back to the enemy.
The creatures backed away, attempting to hide behind the 30-foot high bowl. One of them slipped and fell, the victim of a Grease spell Zelcor had cast underneath it. Another one fell when Theodora picked it up with magic and telekinetically threw him at his comrade. Helanda was soon upon these two, slashing furiously with her sword. Togbad managed enough lucent moments to follow her up to the enemy, and was soon pounding away with his club. Zelcor summoned up a triceratops to attack the creatures that were hiding behind the pot, and the fight seemed well in hand.
In desperation, one of the creatures managed to charm the triceratops and turn it against the party, but Zelcor just dismissed it with a wave of her hand. As the two creatures that had fallen down died beneath Helanda and Togbad’s attacks, Zelcor moved to get line of sight on the area behind the pot, and Aevaenthial went to join him. Flying through the air, he passed just a little too close to the rim of the pot, and the party got its first surprise. Slimy black tentacles shot out of the inky water, wrapping around Aevaenthial and attempting to pull him under.
He wriggled around and got free, but the fight had taken a definite turn for the worse. Scratchy had come around to the side and finished off a third creature, but the last one let out a horrible scream and clambered up the side of the pot. There it poised exultantly on the rim as tentacles wrapped around it and pulled it unresisting into the bubbling concoction. Seconds after it went under, there was a vast burst of dirty water from the pot, and a giant horrible form emerged, an undulating mound of black slime with tentacles, eyes, mouths and other things all protruding at odd angles from its awful form. Zelcor fired a volley of acid bolts into it as it heaved over the rim, but its magic resistance meant the bolts disappeared harmlessly as they struck. It moved quickly, far more quickly than a thing that size should be able to, and in an instant had its tentacles wrapped around Fleabait, forcing Scratchy to jump off his mount as it was engulfed by the slimy monstrosity.
Fortunately, where magic failed weapons were still handy. Scratchy had gotten a number of arrows into the thing as it was coming out of the pot, and Helanda, Togbad, and Aevaenthial were all free to attack. Theodora removed the Confusion effect from Milacent, then Zelcor dropped the Wall Of Force so she could join as well. They swarmed around the creature, Aevaenthial’s aura protecting them from the madness brought on by its gibbering. It lashed out at Scratchy, but he was just able to dodge its tentacles, even if it did splatter slime all over him as it passed above. He kept on firing, and the others kept on hitting, and soon this terrible creature too lay dead upon the floor.
And then the second surprise. They heard the sound of someone clapping, and everyone turned to see a woman in blue step out from a large fissure in the wall. “Bravo,” she said with a smile, “you have destroyed the very weapon they were summoning to defeat me. I thank you for that, but I’m afraid we have little time for congratulations, as we have some unpleasant business to attend to.” And with those words she began to shift before them, growing steadily larger, more winged, and more reptilian, until finally the form of the blue dragon Cadrilkasta towered before them.
“Now,” she bellowed, “GIVE ME MY SHARDS!”