An early morning of spring sun greeted the party, but few felt any joy.
The group had been largely silent on their travels to the northeast, each downcast in their private thoughts; the bright, shining dawn did little to change their mood. Melissa had informed them the night before that they were now in Zehir territory, and their destination lay not too far ahead. Morgan Ironhews offered a gruff thanks, and, knowing Melissa placed little value in gold, said they’d return the favour ‘with future considerations.’ Melissa smiled slyly. “Future considerations are potentially…considerable…” She turned and disappeared into the woods.
“Let’s git goin’” Morgan growled.
Slyron had already faded from view up ahead. Gwydion floated along on his Tenser’s Disk, a dark cloud upon his face, occasionally coughing up a bluish phlegm. Gheshkan thrashed along with a furious determination, as though each branch he snapped from his path eased a personal affront. Morgan followed, his usual scowl distant, his bluster silent. Asha glided along, her serene countenance marred with nervousness. Her tentative attempts to speak with Gwydion had been waved away irritably, while every time she looked to Morgan, she found him already staring at her, a wide eyed look that he quickly snapped away. Unsettled, she too lapsed into a silent march.
The forest began to clear, albeit unnaturally. They came upon hundreds of stumps, medium sized, as the forest had been selectively culled. Ghesh nearly ran into Sly. The elf pointed to the ground silently. The others looked down, and saw tracks, heavy boots, and many of them. They were not alone.
Morgan nodded to Sly, who quickly slid ahead into the underbrush. He was gone several minutes, then reappeared suddenly among them. “Just up ahead. Come, they shouldn’t be able to see us…hopefully,” he added, eying Ghesh in his wall of armor. The massive dragonborn shrugged, noisily and uncaring.
The ziggarut towered three levels high, each massive step rising 15 feet. The party, however, had to look down onto it; the strange structure had been dug out of the earth, as evidenced by the enormous pile of dirt upon which they now crouched. The structure was clearly ancient. Thousand of carvings, all serpents in bas-relief, covered the walls; even from here, though, the party could see the carvings were worn down, pitted and scarred. A ramp lead down into the pit. A clearing surrounded the snake-adorned ziggurat, and numerous humanoids wandered around, fulfilling menial tasks or simply standing and watching. Guards.
Morgan went to speak, but Gwydion cut him off. “Leave them to me,” he snapped, eyes narrow.
The assault was swift, and decisive. Making their way initially down the ramp hidden against the wall, they leapt into action as Gwydion unleashed a torrent of fire upon the guards. Sly jumped clear over the gap from the ramp to the first level of the ziggurat, firing off his daggers. Ghesh also jumped, in his own way, down to the clearing. He landing neatly on his chest in a massive crash. He staggering to his feet, gasping. “Didn’t…need…to breathe…anyway…”
Morgan and Asha followed up, the deva firing astounding bolts of radiant light from her eyes, the dwarf thundering his charge into a large warrior, timed perfectly to follow another explosion of magical frost from Gwydion.
Their opponents stood little chance. Ghesh pounded them from one side, Morgan and Asha from another, Sly from above, and Gwydion from afar. Even after the bulky leader shoved Asha off the edge of the ramp and charged upon the eladrin wizard, his time was running out. Morgan cut him down, hard.
One almost got away, however. The remaining cultist sprinted desperately for the temple entrance. Sly threw his dagger aiming for the spine of this not-so-lucky emeny. A small rock tripped up the cultist and as he caught himself, he accidentally dodged Sly’s dagger. A second, more precise dagger was thrown with a little more conviction. But as the cultist saw the first dagger whiz by him, it startled him and he flinched, accidentally again, out of the way of the second dagger. Sly, astonished and a little amuzed, ponders to himself, “Maybe it’s not his time.” At that moment, a blast of light ripped past Sly, tagging the cultist just as he was about to disappear around the corner. He tumbled down dead, his back smoking. Sly looked back over his shoulder. Asha stood nearby, a small smile on her lips. Sly, a little embarrassed, muttered “Oh, I guess it is.”
Buoyed by their initial success, the party pressed forward into the depths of the temple. A mummy and more cultists all fell under their weapons. A meditation hall and unholy pool were quickly searched. The party was slowed somewhat by a peculiar set of winding passageways, their ceilings and walls full of holes. “Watch for damn snakes,” Morgan warned, nodding at the apertures.
Ghesh, who had turned and moved up ahead into a long, straight, wide hall, suddenly shouted. “That’s no damn snake!!” A gigantic boulder came rumbling swiftly down towards him. Nowhere to run—no time anyway—Ghesh lowered his shoulder with a furious bellow to Kord. The boulder slammed into the dragonborn, flattening him and rolling right over top. Sly was luckier—well, smaller—and squeezed himself down into the corner of the floor and the wall as the boulder spun past. Asha jumped back into the narrow, hole filled passage with Morgan and Gwydion, and the boulder slammed into the end of the hall with a resounding crash.
Ghesh staggered to his feet. “Wow,” he groaned. “That really did not work.”
A hissing sound filled the small passageway where Asha, Morgan, and Gwydion had retreated. “Ah. NOW come the snakes,” Gwydion noted dryly. However, instead of serpents, a sweet, translucent gas issued forth from the numerous openings and enveloped the three.
Confusion. I have to get away. No Gwydion! This way! You—you are zehir! Feel the bite of my sword! Asha, stop, it’s me, Morgan! No, I won’t move. Get off me, dwarf. Oh for—not you too, damn Eladrin! Gimme that stick. What the—
Sly caught Asha as she stumbled from the gas filled hall. He couldn’t help but notice that her eyes were a dazzling emerald hue, and her skin, so soft, was—“Quick, Sly, get a rope!” “Right!” Sly snapped back into action.
With much travail, Sly, Asha, and Ghesh (stuck on the other side of the rock) managed to finally pull the other two from the hall. Morgan has managed to escaped, but then tied the rope to himself and plunged back in after the disoriented eladrin. The gas, which caused potent hallucinations and confusion, affected Gwydion the most, although Morgan himself was not immune, even when trying to hold his breath. Fortunately, in the end, no-one was hurt.
“Whaddaya mean, ‘no one was hurt’!?” Ghesh yelled irritably. Holding up an unrecognizable lump of steel, he snarled. “Look at my shield!”
The next room contained a floor of green, translucent, swirling snakes, tongues flicking menacingly. A few flagstones were bare. At the far end stood a twisted altar. A sharp incantation from Gwydion and a central section of glowing snakes twisted together, and with a discordant hiss, disappeared.
Ghesh stared at the snakes skeptically. “They’re not real, ya know.” He stepped onto a glowing flagstone. Immediately, he began yelping, and he staggered off. The others stared at him. “Uh, yes. Don’t step on them. Especially you, ” Ghesh added, pointing at Gwydion in an attempt to appear authoritative. Gwydion, sitting atop his floating Tensor’s Disk, raised his eyebrow. “Nevermind,” muttered the dragonborn paladin.
However, as they began to make their way from bare spot to bare spot, danger struck. A yuan-ti slithered into the room, taking cover behind the altar, and began shooting arrows at the group. Arrows tipped in poison, as it turned out. The party returned fire as each tried to make the leap to safe ground; the target, however, was not where it seemed to be. Light shimmered and shifted around the yuan-ti, concealing its true location. Only Sly, nimbly leaped to the altar, was not dangerously exposed.
Arrows continued to fly. But as Asha leapt close to the altar, the serpent archer had seen enough. He retreated from the two strikers through the doorway behind the altar.
The heroes did not hesitate, and dashed into the room. Brazier burned in the corners closest to them, revealing a large hall, its walls covered with the same serpent carvings as they’d found else where, with one significant difference: these carvings were human sized.
As Ghesh charged through the doorway at the archer, three statues tore themselves free of the wall and turned towards the paladin. The paladin had a full head of steam, and did not hesitate, turning and charging the nearest statue.
As the others entered, a final surprise. Three walls slid out quickly from each of the two side walls, and the furthest back wall. The heroes tumbled out of the way; one statue was not so lucky. Kord’s Deliverance avoided being crushed—but were now cut off from each other.
A few seconds later, the walls retreated, leaving again the open hall. “By Kord! ‘Member where they came from,” shouted Morgan. “And stay outta their way!”
Asha and Ghesh battled one statue while dodging arrows from the archer. Morgan, Sly, and Gwydion faced the other two. Asha was not having much luck; the stony lizard was faster than it appeared. Her luck worsened moments later as the three walls shot out again—but this time from different locations. Asha narrowly dodge one wall, but was left in complete darkness, trapped. She could hear the lizard statue slithering towards her, and then felt it’s stony claw rip across her left thigh. Breathing deeply, she summoned her Astral Splendor. Light exploded from around her, brightly illuminating the trapped area, and her opponent. She slammed her sword off his scaled hide, and drove it back.
The walls retreated once more, then returned again. Only Morgan was unable to avoid a wall this time. Luckily his armor absorbed most of the punishment. The heroes quickly finished off the statues, and Sly tumbled to the far doorway. The archer was gone. “It ran down some stairs,” he called out. The grinding of gears started up again and the heroes tensed. Sly quickly kicked a lever beside the doorway, and the grinding abruptly halted. No walls appeared. The others breathed sighs of relief.
Morgan strode up to the doorway, joined by Ghesh. Asha limped up with Gwydion, supporting herself against the floating disk. Sly was trying to tie a bandage around Asha’s bleeding, but shapely, thigh; he seemed distracted, however, and kept fumbling the knot.
Ghesh suddenly snorted, laughing.
“What?” the dwarf asked.
“Now your shield looks like mine.” Morgan looked at his arm; indeed his shield was bent askew. “Damn walls,” he grunted.
Morgan stared down the spiral staircase; no sound could be heard. He glanced back at everyone.
“Five minutes. Then we press on.”