The stairs curled down into darkness. As they approached the bottom, an entrance could be seen; dim light issued forth, as well as the smell of damp rock and cave moss. A large cavern opened up, an underground lake. Small, sloped, grassy islands linked by rope bridges made their way across the lake to the other side.
“Trouble, ” said Sly.
“Good.” Gheshkan replied.
Two bulky lizardmen stalked towards them. “Cousins of yours?” Sly asked. Ghesh turned to retort, but the elf was already gone. “Idiot.” Ghesh hauled out his axe. “Two more on the far side,” the paladin called out; he strode directly at the lizardmen.
Indeed, across the water the archer was waiting for them again, along with a scaled figure in robes. They were ready as the party sprang into action. Almost immediately, Gheshkan was dumped into water, a strategic shove by one of the lizardmen. Piranhas swarmed around him as he found his footing and shot upright. “Don’t fall in here!” he yelled.
The two lizardmen were effective combatants, and kept the party engaged while the wizard and archer launched attacks from afar. Asha drew deep cuts, and launched her radiant missiles, but a quick charge put her into the water as well. Sly, having worked his way ahead, unseen, was nevertheless also knocked into the water by a spell. The piranhas fed well for a while.
Despite the terrain, the party began to overwhelm their opponents. Asha grew divine wings and quickly shot across the water. Gwydion calmly fired arcane missiles into the lizardmen, with Morgan supporting. Gheshkan regained land and promptly returned the favour shown him by shoving the remaining lizardman into the water. Sly took out the mage, the archer fled-
“Yet again!” spat Asha in frustration-and the lizardman—well, clearly the piranhas were not discerning in their tastes.
The next stairwell lead farther down, and the room at the bottom, Sly noted, was oddly…clean. Two stone doors, with intricate locking mechanisms. And four massive snake heads, one on each wall. Their lower jaw hinged. Sly felt the tell-tale tingling in the arches of his feet. He halted the party, hand raised—something wasn’t right.
“Well? Can we come in?” Morgan finally asked. Sly, not seeing anything else, dropped his hand, and shrugged. “Might as well.”
The trap sprung as Asha crossed the threshold at the bottom of the stairs. A door shot up behind her, cutting off their return. At the same time, the jaws of the snakes opened with a grinding of rock on rock. Massive gouts of water began pouring forth from the gaping maws, filling the floor to ankle height in mere seconds.
“Quick!” Asha leapt to the nearest snake head. Although it was nearly half her size, she didn’t hesitate. Dropping under the head, she spun around, and then jammed her shoulder up against the jaw. She reached up and grabbed the upper jaw for leverage. Asha strained, pushing hard upwards, and slowly forced the jaw shut. The water still squeezed between the fangs of the snakehead, but the flow had been reduced to a stream. Asha gasped, arms trembling; the sprung jaw pressed back against her, but she held.
Gheshkan, Morgan, Gwydion, and Sly stood rooted, mouths slightly agape, ignoring the three other gushing fountains. They stared at the lithe deva kneeling in front of them, legs apart and chest heaving. She was now soaking wet, with water continuing to shower over her. Her outfit, already flimsy, clung to her, nearly transparent.
Water poured into their boots. No-one reacted.
Asha, breathing hard, glanced up to see how the others were faring. The four males suddenly took off towards the other doors and fountainheads, very busy indeed. Sly leaped and jammed his feet against the sides of the nearest doorway, supporting himself halfway up. From a pouch he slid out a small leather toolkit, and quickly began working on one of the three keyholes he’d noted above the mantle.
One down. Asha slipped, tried to jam her sword under the jaw, but to no avail. The water was at Morgan’s waist. He, too, struggled with the jaw of the snake he faced. Gheshkan looked on helplessly, easily holding his snake’s jaw closed. But he could reach only one. “Gwyd! How’re you doing?” The slender eladrin, grimly holding the last jaw clamped shut, said nothing, only nodded.
Two down. Morgan had managed to close his fountainhead, as did Asha. Sly stared at the last keyhole, brow creased. The water, although reduced, continued to rise. Morgan glanced down. The water had reached his beard.
“I’d say ‘no pressure’, Sly, but comin’ from me—“
“You’d be lying, I know,” Sly finished. He chose a lockpick and popped it into the hole.
A sudden thought stopped him, and he turned to the dwarf. “Hey, Morgan! You remember, that time by the river, you know, with the slip and the plop and the yelling and thrashing and all that?” Morgan’s eyebrows shot up. “Ya? Did you ever, actually, learn to, you know…swim, after that? You said you were going to…”
Morgan’s face turned crimson. “ELF!” he roared.
Sly grinned, flicked the lockpick with his thumb, and the door popped open. Morgan immediately released the snakehead and began pushing his way urgently towards the portal, churning his arms in the water to help propel him forward. Sly’s grin widened. “Ya, just like that!” Morgan, furious, yanked the door open, then shoved the chuckling elf into the hall. The others quickly followed, and Gheshkan dragged the door shut after them.
‘You like poopin’ standin’ up, eh? That right?” Morgan faced Sly, smiling dangerously.
“Oh dear, Morgan’s going to ‘kick my ass’,” Sly sang.
Morgan’s toothy grin was fierce. “And how!”
The dwarf’s fury abruptly ceased as Asha laid a hand on his arm. “We’d best press on,” she said. Morgan, diverting his eyes, nodded gruffly.
“Ya, we’d breast AH I mean, I know. By the way, good idea, shutting the naked. Snakehead! Dammit!” Morgan spluttered. He spun away. “Get movin’!” He once again shoved Slyron forward. Ghesh followed, smirking.
The tunnel took a few early twists, and then, oddly, ran on straight for several hundred feet. If finally ended in another spiral staircase, this one leading up. Morgan stood at the bottom for a number of minutes, frowning. His mind’s eye was distance.
Suddenly, he straightened up, and his face cleared. “Centre,” he announced.
“Centre? Centre-what?” Ghesh asked.
“Of the temple?” added Sly.
Morgan reached down and tugged on his boots, then shouldered his shield. “ Start climbin’, he said. “Figure we’ve a serious upward march ahead of us.”
His dwarven senses did not fail him. The party wound round in a spiral, climbing for many minutes. Eventually, Sly whispered, “Light ahead.” The party halted, and let him continue on to scout.
The elf returned, visibly excited. Up above, the stairwell opened onto the top of a column, some thirty feet off the ground. The column was indeed, he acknowledged the dwarf, in the centre of the ziggurat. The inside walls of the ziggurat surrounded the column, mimicking the three outside stepped levels. The top of the column poked into the third, smallest upper level. On the wall of the second, larger level was a platform. No visible way to get to it. On it, Slyron reported in hushed tones, lay Lord Marquelhay, bound and unmoving. A surge of excitement ran through the others. Sly continued. The first level, the largest, could be reached by another stair, this one winding down around the outside of the column to the floor.
“About that floor, though…”
Covered with snakes. Millions of them, Sly surmised. And with them? The keepers of the snakes. That damn archer, again, plus another extremely large, well armed and armored half man, half snake, probably yuan-ti. And a further, strange, reptilian creature; a human face and head, but snake everything else. Gwydion tensed.
“Naga,” he said.
“Naga?” Morgan asked as he drank from a waterskin, and passed it on to Asha.
“A dangerous, arcane wielding creature,” Gwydion mused. “Unpredictable. Sometimes good, sometimes…well, I’m guessing we can predict on which side of the line this one falls…”
Ghesh snorted derisively. “Here’s what I predict. Naga gets in my way, ‘na gonna’ live much longer.”
The spray of water hit gwydion directly in the face. Asha clamped her hands over her mouth, mortified. Ghesh’s comment had coincided perfectly with Asha’s deep pull from the waterskin. Her reflexive, choking laugh ended with unfortunate, albeit vastly humourous, results. Despite the fact the party was in a shaft in the middle of a Zehir temple, trapped, with powerful enemies ahead, everyone managed a smile.
Plans were discussed, hurried and hushed. Tactics suggested, discarded, refined. Finally, their stratagem in place, they moved forward. Sly, unseen by everyone, slipped out of the shaft, and scurried down a secured rope to the stairway.
Their enemies, however, had plans of their own. As Asha emerged onto the top of the column, the assassin appeared out of thin air and struck a vicious cut. Asha, off balance, swung back widely, missing the target. As the rest of the party managed to push their way past Asha and her assailant out of the stairwell, it was clear their plans were going to have to immediately change. The Naga, archer, and warrior had all shifted positions, spreading out around the column. And as dazing spells began to explode and poisonous arrows whipped past, Kord’s Deliverance realized how dangerously exposed they were.
Sly was able to avoid most of the deadly spells, and did his best to try to neutralize the yuan-ti archer. Slipping back and forth from the shadows, he fired his enchanted dagger time and again into the flank of his foe. Wounded and frustrated, the archer turned his missiles against targets that he could see.
Gwydion, wisely, was not one of those targets. Almost as soon as he gained the surface of the tower, he could see their vulnerability. Quickly readjusting his strategy, the wizard dropped low, out of sight of the archer, and began launching explosive spells of his own at the Naga. The temple chamber was soon full of the smell of charred snake, as hundreds of the lizards were scorched by his arcane fire.
Unlike Gwydion, Morgan, Ghesh, and Asha were not as lucky, particularly the Deva. Already reeling from the sudden, invisible attack, Asha found herself struggling to stay on her feet as an arrow thudded into her shoulder. Poison spread quickly. To compound matters, a massive thunder clap erupted in their midst, stunning the three combatants. The assassin, the only target within reach, had evaporated. Invisible, or simply not there, they could not tell.
Gwydion, too, was caught by the naga’s spells, but was able shrug off the worst of the effects. Keeping his voice calm, he nevertheless urged the others on. “You must get down there. I’ll clear the snakes.” Asha, pallid and shaking, nodded weakly.
Ghesh, too, suffered the debilitating weakness of poison. He snarled and whipped his axe around unsteadily. “Show yourself, coward!” he bellowed. Morgan chanted a prayer to kord; the pain in Ghesh’s legs eased.
Not a moment too soon. Another poisonous cloud engulfed the heroes. The Naga smiled, its pink tongue sliding gleefully across tiny fangs. The intruders were dying, she could tell. Zehir would be truly pleased.
A moment later, its smile vanished. A skeletal mastiff suddenly materialized beside her, and sank fangs of its own, considerably larger than hers, into the naga’s body. Atop the tower, Gwydion smiled grimly, then vomited.
Morgan staggered over to the eladrin, and rolled him over. “I got ya, elfie,” he muttered, and focused his divine magic upon the wizard. Gwydion replied weakly, “Thanks, gnome-face…” Morgan grinned. He glanced around, ducking with annoyance as an arrow ricocheted off his helm. Ghesh was still yelling at the air, immobilized. Asha stood nearby; a blast of radiant light fired from her eyes, and he heard the archer scream. Good on ya, girl, he thought. Best stay with the wizard. She’s doin ok.
Asha was not.
The radiant light burned feverishly in her eyes as the deva stared at the floor, weaving with snakes. The swirling pattern was oddly beautiful. Hypnotic. A spasm passed through her slender frame as the poison in her blood slammed into her heart. She was distantly aware of a voice, yelling at her to focus. Leave me, Galad, she thought dreamily. The spinning pattern on the floor seemed to draw closer to her—or was she closer to it? A delirious falling sensation engulfed her.
The archer gagged as the dagger spun into its throat. The body of the yuan-ti dropped to the ground heavily. The dagger disappeared, and reappeared in Sly’s hand. The elf spun it deftly, a satisfied smirk on his face. He nearly choked a second later; slithering around the corner on the stairs below him came the huge armored yuan-ti, scimitar raised. The yuan-ti did not see the camoflauged elf, but Sly had nowhere to go. It ran straight into him. “Company!” he yelled to his companions above as he tumbled away from a heavy chop.
“Finally!” Ghesh growled. He had managed to land one blow on the shifty assassin before it vanished again, but the paladin’s frustration was evident. He had shaken off the effects of the last poisonous spell. He turned towards the stairs. “Let me at it—ulp!” Ghesh’s eyes bulged. “MORGAN!” he yelled, pointing over the dwarf’s shoulder.
Morgan spun. His breath caught in his throat as he saw Asha swaying precariously, the toes of her slender boots off the edge of the platform. She began to tip. A furious yell to Kord propelled the dwarf desperately into the air, and, as she slowly tilted forward, he snared the deva’s limp left wrist. Morgan dug in his heels and leaned back, struggling for balance as Asha’s form swung out into the expanse, her own heels still caught on the lip of the platform.
Dwarf and Deva teetered dangerously. Gwydion, too far, could only watch helplessly; he focused his fury into his constructs, burning and harrying the Naga. Ghesh wavered; the assassin suddenly reappeared near Gwydion, and he could hear the yuan ti pushing its way up the stairs. Swearing, he charged the assassin.
Morgan gritted his teeth. With agonizing slowness, the dwarf’s heavier weight won out. He and Asha balanced, a fragile triangle. Asha blinked, and her silver, far away eyes gradually focused. She stared up at Morgan. A dreamy smile played across her lips.
“Morgan,” she murmured.
“Hey gal.” The dwarf, straining, managed a crooked smile in return.
“Ya, I know.”
The battle raged behind them. Morgan risked a quick glance, then back to Asha.
“Asha,” he said quietly. “We need ya. C’mon.”
The pale Deva closed her eyes. She took a ragged breath, held it. Then: eyes opened, white hot. “Strength,” she said to Morgan, voice clear.
“KAGLEM GULM ASHA!” Divine light poured down his arm into Asha as he hurled himself backwards. The Deva swung up onto the platform over the dwarf, and used the momentum of his pull to launch herself towards their enemies.
Gheshkan was bleeding badly, and Gwydion lay on his back, fending off attacks with his staff from the assassin. It reared back, aiming a strike at the prone wizard. Suddenly, the assassin jerked his head around, startled. Asha leaned against him, her lips brushing his ear. He coughed up a gout of blood. Her sword protruded from the side of his ribcage.
“Favour returned,” Asha whispered coldly, then yanked her sword free. He stumbled back, gasping.
The situation was still desperate. But Morgan’s actions helped turn the tide. Sly slew the assassin before he could vanish once more. Ghesh collapsed, mortally wounded by the massive yuan-ti warrior. Morgan shoved it from the stairway before it could finish off the paladin. It plunged to the floor, crushing some snakes, but easily survived the fall. Morgan then revived Ghesh, who staggered to his feet.
“Scar?” asked the dazed dragonborn.
“For Kord!” Ghesh roared. He readied his axe, turned and jumped off the stairway after the yuan-ti, crushed more snakes and bending more armor. Sly shook his head.
“We really have to adapt that strategy of his.”
Divine wings blossomed upon Asha, who flew down to engage the Naga. Between her blade thrusts and Gwydion’s freezing storm spells, the reptilian mage did not last long. With his allies gone, the brutish yuan-ti’s power diminished greatly. The party hacked it down. The finishing blow delivered by Gwydion.
“Naturally,” he remarked. Over his shoulder, two mage hands shook each other proudly.