|Art by Jez Gordon|
Ash, finally tired of his new form, doused himself in powder of reversal and, after several excruciating minutes of transformation, resumed his familiar, elven shape. As he and Grimnir discussed long-term goals and what to do about their new 'allies'--aboleths, giants, and crazed wizards--Melastasya tied off a rope and rappelled down towards the city. Halfway down she noticed an old trail, winding its way up the cliff to the peak and pointed it out to the others, who took the less dramatic route down.
Mel made a bee-line for the center of the ruins and the more-or-less intact buildings she had seen from above, anxious to seek shelter from cold before the sun had completely hidden its face. The building they passed seemed to be of predominantly wooden construction and impossibly old, the wood having completely petrified. The last rays of the sun were fading behind the mountains when they reached the first of the intact buildings. An ancient stable by the look of it.
A quick search revealed nothing immediately dangerous, but did find a strange bevel-edged stone covering a hole in the ground in one of the stalls. Ash, still in the prime of his youthful strength compared to Mel, Grimnir, or Ginger, pried the thing open and sent 'Zorch', a brightly-glowing, electrified imp-like creature whom he had freed from its confinement in his wand of lightning, down the pit to investigate. The living lightning spouted some quick commentary about a tunnel at the bottom of the shaft before his speech was quickly cut off.
Mel dropped down the narrow shaft behind the mephit, finding nothing but a trace of ash smeared on the damp, bare-earthen walls of the tunnel. A discharge from her ring of shocking grasp was sufficient to revive the creature, however. As the light brightened from the reconstituting lightning mephit, Mel noticed a grim, gray, silent humanoid figure standing immediately behind where the mephit was manifesting. Ash's sword erupted with black flames, and he and the mephit quickly gunned down the poor undead.
Mel did a quick examination, finding that the undead beast, like buildings above, had almost completely calcified--to the extent that even its stony eyelids were permanently frozen shut. Unperturbed by the presence of the undead, the party all climbed down and struck out to the west. After a shot jaunt up the twisting, curving tunnels, Ash heard the sounds of footsteps above. They backtracked and closed the stone hatch to the tunnels to make sure they were not followed, then pressed on.
They wound their way through the dark, narrow confines of the tunnels for close to an hour, mapping the many branches and intersections as best they could and occasionally hearing more activity from above. After passing several more vertical shafts similar to the one they came down, they finally came to a five-way intersection centered on another such shaft. Deciding that this must be some sort of hub for the city's 'sewers' (as Grimnir seemed convinced they were in) they decided that Ash and Zorch should climb up and investigate the source of the sounds they continued to hear above them.
As soon as the brilliantly glowing mephit stuck its head aboveground, a squadron of gnolls who had been searching the ruins charged the hole Ash had opened, with nine of the creatures baring down on them, and one breaking off and running the other way (whether for reinforcements or because gnolls are notoriously unreliable is hard to say). Ash threw off the lid and dropped down the shaft. The party arrayed themselves in the many side-passages and waited.
When the gnolls poked their heads, and their spears, over the lip of the pit, Grimnir let loose with an eldritch blast, catching one of the creatures under its ample chin. The gnoll was hurled up into the air, only to land spread-eagled over the mouth of the pit. Ash lit the prone gnoll up with a firebolt and Melastasya planted a crossbow bolt in the it's groin. When the gnoll curled up against the pain, one of its companions stomped on it, lodging it in the top of the pit, and another dropped the stone back in place, apparently uninterested in tangling with whatever was in the pit further.
Grimnir pulled the poor, stuck gnoll down and put it out of its misery. At the same time, another of the undead creatures had snuck up on Ash and tore into his back with its rock-hard claws. Grimnir disintegrated the thing with a pair of eldritch blasts and they all headed down the right-most passage.
After a ways, the passage opened up into a large chamber with three exits, in which were waiting a half-dozen more of the undead. Ginger strode nonchalantly out into the middle of the chamber, provoking the things to rush her en-masse, only to blow them back with a well-timed thunderwave. Then, protected by a protection from evil from Grimnir and armed with her shillelagh, she and Ash proceeded to beat on them soundly. Grimnir held back in the passage, keeping the undead from massing again with his repelling blasts, while Mel, unable to harm them with her fists or crossbow bolts, distracted them with her generally insane antics (up to and including dumping buckets of water on their heads).
Even with their magical, the undead landed a few lucky hits, draining Ginger's life energy. Then finally fled when two of their were killed, dispersing into the many side passages. Two escaped, but one was made particularly easy to follow thanks to Zorch clinging to its back and glowing brightly. They ran down the mephit-burdened creature, as well as one of its companions. After a prolonged chase, the companion was plastered on the walls by repeated eldritch blasts and the one was curled up on the floor of the passage, cornered between a flaming sword and a shillelagh, and trying desperately to shake off the electrified imp clinging to its arm.
When the undead creature began moaning something almost intelligible, Ash used a comprehend languages to learn that it was signalling its surrender in the ancient language of Nog. Unable to respond in a traditional fashion, Grimnir used his staff of enslavement to dominate the creature and speak directly to its mind.
The creature, dubbed 'Radar', explained that it and its companions, fifteen in all, were the last remnants of the Noga. They were warriors, mystics, and leaders, slain and buried in honor in the heart of the city (called "Deckon Thar") and that when they awoke as undead, their culture was many thousands of years gone. The undead Noga served their king, Vinjarek, collecting the souls of would-be looters or explorers as tribute for their king, who in turn gave them as tribute to 'The Parasite'. Radar further explained that their king, as a great Mystic feared nothing from magic, being vulnerable only to sunlight and silver.
When questioned about 'The Parasite' and silver treasures, Radar explained that all items of silver were thrown into a bottomless pit as tribute to 'The Mountain', all else he said was collected for Vinjarek. The Parasite, he said, was an outgrowth of 'The Mountain', feeding on the souls of the dead that were once also tribute to The Mountain (The word used for the Mountain was "Duvan'ku" in the Noga tongue). Though Radar was rather circumspect, it became clear that he believed Duvan'ku was some ancient god buried beneath the mountain.
When questioned as to whether any books or writing had been preserved, Radar explained that they preserved their records in a 'shrine' on the second peak. Radar then informed them that sixteen living, sentient creatures had assembled on the surface, almost directly above them and that the other undead had massed in King Vinjarek's throne room--revealing that, for all that his eyelids were petrified closed, these undead were apparently able to sense the presence of any living creatures, regardless of barriers, at great distance, as well as communicate telepathically with their own kind, and earning his name.
Radar lead the party up out of the tunnels through a shaft that led up into one of the burial mounds, and then another up to the top of the mound. From this vantage, they were able to see that the full moon had risen, illuminating a brilliantly glowing staircase of silvery light, reaching up to the clouds, superimposed over the foundations of the collapsed tower. Radar informed them that this stairway "lead to heaven" (with some admonishment from Grimnir that he should mind his language). Ash clarified that this was one of the mythical "Moon Steps", a place where the Infinite Staircase which linked all plains of existence extended into the material realm.
While the gnolls, nomads, and manticores were all clearly distracted, the party followed Radar through the city and up the slope of the north-eastern peak. The wind picked up as they went higher, blowing flurries of snow and ice into their faces. Near the top of the peak they found a graveyard, with thousands of ice-crusted bronze markers, eerily reflecting the moonlight.
Radar informed them that 'the library' (as the party insisted on calling it) was underground, but that they would find the main log in the shrine at the top of the slope. They followed Radar to the shrine, a small building of petrified wood. The roof sagged, as if it were already weighed down with snow and dead centuries long before the petrification occurred, and the exterior walls were scrawled with neurotically minute calligraphic writing in the ancient language of Nog.
Griminir and Ash again used comprehend languages to read the walls (at least those sections not eroded away or buried in snow), making out such obtuse sayings as “Look Upon The Seven Faces of Immensity Look Upon The Breaker of All Things” and “This Is The Fifth Octacle, This Is The Greater Servitude”. Bands of long-cancelled protective runes circled the building, indicating it was once defended like a fortress. As well as runes referencing a “bound and conquered god”. There were names that come up a lot: "The Twin Inquisitors Eizethrat Nexx and Gorgulos Nexx", "Vorgen Pox the Slaughterer", "Nazir An-Azat the Red Architect", "Exalted Interrogator Aetheldredd Aleph", and "Praetor-Pontifex Cyris Carnithrax Maximus"—all claimed to be “Resting in splendor”, “Gracing this place with death and that which they liberated from life” and other euphemisms for “buried here with a lot of stuff” in “crypts beyond the black tunnel”. There was also what appeared to be an (incomplete) formula for trapping and channeling the energies of tortured and obedient souls in some kind of liquid, which Grimnir hastily copied into his book of shadows.
The petrified and iced-over front door collapsed inward at a touch from Melastasya, revealing a single, large room, containing by a large, petrified desk, three ancient-looking bronze chairs (all arranged to face directly at the door), the taxidermied and petrified head of some kind of elk, and a tall mirror. The desk was dominated by a single, massive book, the size of a man's torso, bound in bronze and covered with what Ash immedaitely recognized as elven skin.
Grimnir and Ash quickly moved to the book, taking advantage of their lingering enchantments to read it. The cover read "That Which Was Given" in Noga, and it contained what appeared to be a record of nine millenia worth of sacrifices, with dates written in sixty-seven different calendars. The handwriting and ink varied from page to page, and it was clear that the book had not been in continuous use, with time gaps ranging from a few years to over a thousand. Despite this, there were more than six million names entered in the log, with the most recent dating to the earliest days of Netheril, and some references to corresponding events (a historian's wet dream).
Grimnir and Ash speculated that, given the ritual for trapping tortured souls in liquid inscribed on the outer walls, so many millions of dead might be the true source of the Pool of Radiance, especially given its supposed source being in a cavern just below them.
|Art by Jez Gordon|
Ash made his way over to the head hanging on the wall. He noticed that the eyes were clearly separate, looking like small glass orbs filled with some yellow liquid. Gingerly he pried the eyes loose with his knife, but shattered one, spilling the yellow, syrupy fluid on the ground which began flowing towards the door. The party chased the stuff, blasted at it, and threw things, but it managed to make it over the threshold and sink into the snow--or, more specifically, into a corpse that lay buried in the snow right outside the shrine.
The corpse began to making choked moaning sounds. Grimnir asked Radar about the body and was informed that the body was previously one of the Noga, by the name of Norquorve, and that he was still "more dead than undead", lacking the other half of his soul. Just then Melastasya found a locked trap door in the floor, and Norquorve was left to his moaning.
Beneath the trap door was a fifty-foot shaft with rungs in the walls, leading down into the mountain. After being reassured by Radar that this was not the pit of Duvan'ku, Mel climbed down, followed by the others. At the bottom they found a pair of large, double doors made of solid ice and a table with an elaborate water-clock on it which used no reckoning they were familiar with. They watched in fascination as the clock struck the time, releasing a pair of taxidermied ravens--which seemed to enrage Grimnir.
Ash stepped forward and examined the birds, finding that their chests had been replaced with clear ice and filled with what looked like marbles. Mel slashed the birds open and carefully extracted the marbles, which, like the eyes of the head above, were small spheres of ice filled with liquefied souls, and stowed them.
Grimnir began messing with the clock, trying to set the time forward, and vanished. Mel jumped forward and tried to set it back, only to see everyone around her, except Radar, freeze in place. After waiting a rather long time, Mel found that everyone was still frozen, so she climbed back up the shaft, trekked down the mountain past unmoving snowflakes, and into the city where the nomads and the manticores were still locked in combat, the latter hanging unmoving in the air. Enjoying her prolonged time-stop, Mel stashed scribbled some notes and shoved them into the Eraka's pockets, and pelted the frozen manticores with stones until they were black and blue.
Five hours, for her, after the freeze began, Mel climbed back down the shaft in the shrine to find her friends just beginning to move again. Mel explained what had happened to Ash and Ginger, and, with still no sign of Grimnir, sat down to rest. Ash had a good night's sleep, but Mel and Ginger were plagued by nightmares. Nearly ten hours later, Grimnir reappeared standing directly in front of the clock, accompanied by Mel's almost immediate shout of "Don't touch it again!"
|Art by Jez Gordon|
Mel turned the key and the jaws opened, allowing them into a room with a massive pair of bronze doors, and ten small tables, each baring a single skeletal left hand inscribed with the Noga words for "transcribe" and "replace". Grimnir collected the strange hands and they pushed their way past the doors into what Radar said was a chapel.
14 Hammer, 10:00 am
The room was filled with three-foot plinths carved of ice and the sound of rattling chains could be heard further on in the darkness. The vaulted ceiling reached a height of thirty-feet, and around the walls were murals, an altar, and an organ, each behind a thin wall of ice, and twelve jawless, toothless skulls made of ice hanging in the center of the room from hooks on chains, dripping.
A wall mural depicted a man in a crown and cape from behind, with many demons bowing before him: the Bloated Goat, The Empress of All Widows, The Primordial Demogorgon, the Ringwolf, and many more. Another wall murals depicted unimaginable violations—one showed hundreds of women hanged from a single spreading tree, another showed hundreds of men impaled on leaning pikes. It bore an inscription in the Noga tongue reading “Name them yet build to them no monument”. Another mural depicted a man stabbed with nine swords being dropped into an hourglass—an inscription read “He is made holy, an eater of souls”.
Melastasya walked towards the organ, whose keys were made of fingerbones, punched her way through the ice-wall to reach it, and sat down and began playing Tocata and Fugue in D Minor. There was a deep tremor in the earth as she played and one of the skulls fell from its hook, shattering and spraying the party with a strange, icy-cold liquid which instantly aged Melastasya another 20 years. Grimnir only barely saved himself from the same fate by employing the all consuming shield (sacrificing much of his intellect to do so). The tremor also caused a panel of the organ to pop loose, revealing a small alcove containing an onyx bowl and a sapphire locket inscribed with the Noga heiroglyph for "death".
14 Hammer, 10:10 am
Grimnir then shoved Melastasya aside and began playing The Entertainer, accompanied by another tremor and causing the remaining walls of ice to shatter and collapse, as well as the ice marbles the Mel was carrying. The souls released from the marbles quickly lodged themselves in Melastasya, who briefly referred to herself as Magen Eisenthrast before the possession was suppressed by another casting of protection from evil by Grimnir.
14 Hammer, 10:15 am
To be continued...