"Haven't you ever heard of a sorcerer?!" the frustrated aristocrat asked Ash. Ash, it seemed, was completely unable to accept the thought that the three women who had been wearing the Maalthiir were not in possession of spellbooks, despite several weeks of evidence to the contrary.
As Mel and Kevorkian were working on destroying the Maalthiir, Ash searched the Citadel, room by room. . . every room. He flipped through every book. He attempted to detect magic on every knickknack. He wound his way through every secret passage and servant's corridor. He questioned every ex-slave.
These last were the most frustrating, as it seemed that the slaves had zero memory of their time in the service of the Maalthiir, despite some of them having served since the first humans wore the crowns, nearly six generations past. Hundreds of years of memories lost. When Ash questioned the aristocrats, they seemed more concerned with the party having "given away all of the Maalthiir's wealth" (read as 'slaves').
Eventually he turned to the (very boring) life history that had been transcribed by a hand of the dead placed on one of the Maalthiir. This also made no reference to a spellbook, but did speak about weekly visits to the 'book-keepers room' to speak with a slave accountant. In the bookkeepers room, he finally found a stained glass window, showing mermaids lounging in a pool of red water, which radiated a strong aura of conjuration magic.
He performed all the normal tests, short of casting a spell at the window, but learned little useful. Back to the corpse...
A speak with dead spell revealed that the window was a kind of teleportation aid that would guide anyone casting any kind of teleporation on the window to a set location, regardless of their knowledge of or distance from that location. Not knowing anything about what was on the other side, Ash decided to wait until his friends were available to accompany him.
When Ash and Mel were done with the Hat of Hoopdy (or the "Thirsty Crown" as Ash called it), Ash convened everyone in the room with the window and opened a dimension door. They stepped through to find themselves standing near the bottom of a large, stone staircase. Behind them the stairs stretched up into darkness, while ahead the base of the stairs descended into a pond of dark, red liquid. A stone pier jutted out from the far shore.
Mel stepped out onto the surface of the pool, to confirm that their rings of water walking would work on blood. The ring worked, but the slight ripples from the pressure of her feet apparently alerted the pool's denizens. Seven lines of wake began converging on her position from the far side of the pool.
Grimnir targeted one of the ripples and let loose with an eldritch spear, sending a very pale mermaid with posterior and caudal fins reminiscent of a lamprey, splashing up out of the pool, spinning end over end through the air. Kevorkian and Traithe both locked on with witch bolts, setting the mermaid to jerking wildly as she splashed back into the pool. Muttering about mer-vampires, everyone took a few steps up the stairs and prepared to engage the remaining creatures at range.
Then, of course, the level of the blood pool rose dramatically and instantly, submerging Kevorkian and Dame, and leaving the others standing on the surface well above the now-submerged stairs. Pale arms shot out of the blood pool, digging into Mel, Ash, and Traithe's legs with sharp talons and dragging them down into the pool. Grimnir felt a bite on his heel and looked down to find a mervamp latched onto his leg with jawless, lamprey-like fangs.
Ash used a control water spell to lower the pool, landing the party, and the mervamps holding them, back on the stairs. He tried to lower the level even further, but met resistance from the last, still submerged mervamp that was itself attempting to control the fluid. Once they were all exposed, Grimnir set to blasting the mervamps off of his companions. Zorch, meanwhile, hovered over the pool, ringing his bell of blasting again and again.
Mel and Traithe kept them beaten back and in the pool until Kevorkian was able to turn the undead merfolk, forcing them away. After the first fireball from Zorch's bell detonated, they turned tail and fled to the far end of the pool, vanishing in a flash of silvery light.
Once the resistance ended, Ash used his control water to clear a path to the floor of the pool. Beneath the blood, they found two doors. One was a shimmering, silver gate, very similar in appearance to a dimension door, directly beneath the overhanging, cantilevered, stone pier on the far side. The second was an empty stone archway, backed by a solid stone wall bearing a palm-sized carving of a hexagon with six sigils repeated across it three times each. Mel mentioned that the hexagon symbol has also appeared on the three crowns that she had so recently beaten to a pulp, and Ash identified the six runes as representing: "Secrets", "Flesh", "Madness", "Electricity", "Steel", and "Death".
With the spell nearing its end, the party withdrew to the steps to rest, recuperate, and plot. Curious about the stone archway and the odd sigil, Grimnir called up his crown and inscribed the 'Dead' rune on the forehead of one of the defeated mervamps.
The bloody pool parted again, this time seemingly of its own power, vomiting forth a spectral throne of bones and shell upon which sat the ghostly image of the slain mermaid. Grimnir grilled the spirit about the door, learning that behind the door was "my lord and master's greatest treasure" and that it was opened by "touching the rune". Grimnir asked the name of her master only to be answered with a question, "If you were my master would you tell me your name?"
Mel swam down to the door and tried pressing combinations of the runes inscribed on the hexagram. One at a time, and then together, poking it daintily with her fine, girlish fingers. When nothing happened, they asked the merghost again how to open it, with the same answer. Finally they realized that the spirit was only using the singular, and Mel covered the entire hexagram with her palm, causing an unseen door to open, revealing another staircase going up, half submerged in the bloody pool.
Beyond the door lay a flight of steps that lead up to a beautiful domed chamber; all crimson and midnight blue. The dome was decorated with numerous stars that illuminate the chamber with a pale, cold light. The dome rests on six columns of shiny red metal; in between each is an alcove containing a single tapestry. At the heart of the room stood a red-gold pedestal, waist high and covered with arcane runes, with a plain stone urn resting on top and ashes scattered all around. At the base of the pedestal lay the ancient remains of two previous explorers.
Each alcove contained a large dark tapestry, woven from human hair in many hues, that depicited scenes of the Maalthiir. Under each tapestry an esoteric symbol had been carved; under each symbol a phrase written in a mysterious code.
A tapestry depicting a mangy cat wearing a shiny red crown, cringing at the feet of a trio of elven mages, bearing the inscription "the scraps matter most” and the sigil for "Secrets".
A tapestry showing a dashing young human male wearing the crown, with eight elven warriors dead at his feet, bearing the inscription "lots of fingers, lots of pies" and the digil for "Steel".
A tapestry showing three weary-looking elderly humans wearing red crowns, tearing their garments and hiding their faces from a black-robed effigy of death. It bore the inscription "in sanity lies" and the sigil for "Madness".
A tapestry depicting a beautiful human maid, armed with an axe and wearing nothing but the red crown, wildly charging an army of 'deaths', with the inscription "to the last breath" and the sigil for "Flesh".
A tapestry depicting the same maid, dressed in noble finery with the crown on her head and bolts of lightning issuing from her fingertips, surrounded by six floating triangles of the same red metal as the crown. It bore the phrase "ingenuity is the key" and the sigil for "Electricity".
A tapestry showing an old woman on her deathbed, passing a trio of red crowns to a kneeling child, with the effigy of death hovering peacefully above them both. It bore the inscription "fear the touch but once" and the sigil for "Death".
Grimnir floated up into the dome, where he examined the strange, star-like lights, which perfectly matched the night-sky above Hillsfar--complete with the familiar constellations of the duck, hedgehog, and twig and berries. Each light was a small incandescent marble. They were movable, but always drifted back into their proper position when released.
Dame went to the two ancient corpses. One bore a sword of biting. The other had a dagger of dislocation and a sling backpack containing a head in a jar, a starfish made of tongues, 50’ of superior rope, a bunch of imitation flowers, a 10’ pole, a collection of 27 non-magical knives from around the Realms, a metal pick comb, two potions of healing, and a rough sketch of an enormous black tower that reaches far past the clouds and into space, with the phrase “feet in the clouds, head in the stars” scrawled underneath it.
Ash sent Zorch to examine the stone urn on its pedestal, only to have the mephit sucked bodily into the thing when he touched it. Grimnir stepped up and cast identify on the urn, learning that it was a device that consumed souls to fuel a kind of perpetual prison for purpose of preserving the soul of whoever was last interred within the vessel, keeping the soul within the earthly realms and delaying their journey to whatever heavenly or infernal enternity awaits them.
Ash lifted the dangerous object out of the way using a mage hand, and Kevorkian carefully blew the layer of ash off of the pedestal to reveal seven hexagrams of the same strange, red metal, each bearing the same six symbols found in the alcoves, in varying orders. The six outer tiles appeared movable.
Unsurprisingly, Mel stepped forward and flipped one of the movable tiles. Almost immediately, a semi-humanoid figure of twisted hair tore free from one of the tapestries and attacked her. Kevorkian dropped a protection from evil on Mel and everyone cut loose against the strange tapestry-demon. After a couple of rounds of assault, it became clear that the creature was only being harmed by Mel's attacks, but, with the protection in place, Mel made short work of the creature.
After that, they decided to be a little more cautious. Traithe got out paper and charcoal and made a rubbing of the tiles. Ash, Mel, and Traithe then spent some time examining and experimenting with the copy of the tiles before finally feeling confident enough to move the real things. Traithe quickly grabbed the tiles and slapped them into the desired configuration. Six more hair-fiends tore free from the tapestries. Ash used his mage hand to sweep them up with the urn, sucking away the soles that animated them.
As the last piece was fitted into the correct position, the central hexagon lifted into the air and split open into six floating triangles, about three inches on a side, with a finger-sized hole in the center. The holes were also the same size as the marble-light above, and Kevorkian floated up by Grimnir and tried threading the pieces over various stars and constellations, with no effect. They stuck their fingers in them, held them, turned them, poked at them, cast spells on them, all with no effect. That is, until Melastasya, of course, suddenly held up four of the triangles, arranged into a tetrahedron pattern...
The sides of the tetrahedron had fused and the entire thing had begun glowing. There was a collective groan from the rest of the party and Ash and Kevorkian looked down to see that they were still holding the pieces bearing the "Secrets" and "Electricity" runes.
The tetrahedron hung in the air beside Melastasya, rotating slowly. They stared at it for a long while, waiting for something horrible to happen. When it didn't Grimnir stepped and quoted "lots of fingers, lots of pies" and stuck his middle finger into the side of the tetrahedron bearing the 'Madness' rune.
When that, in turn, did not cause anything horrible to happen, Mel, Traithe, and Kevorkian stepped up, and each put a middle finger into the other three sides, representing 'Steel', 'Flesh', and 'Death' respectively. At the same time, Ash stuck his finger through the remaining piece bearing the 'Secret' rune and Dame, shrugging, stuck a finger into 'Electricity'.
The tetrahedron spun wildly, tearing off the fingers of Grimnir, Mel, Traithe, and Kevorkian, and there was a brilliant flash of lightning shuddering around the room. When their vision returned, they found all six pieces had vanished and everyone felt very strange:
Ash suddenly found that he had unmatched insight into the workings of his favorite spell, lightning bolt, such that he no longer needed to expend spell slots to cast it. Unfortunately, they soon learned that Melastasya had become some kind of living lightning-rod, attracting all electrical attacks of any kind to her. Grimnir, meanwhile, had become frighteningly obsessed with lightning, driven to the point of madness in his desire to catch it and hold it.
Kevorkian suddenly found that all of his thoughts were written boldly on his flesh, anything he thought was printed out on his exposed skin in real-time. Dame suddenly understood that thoughts were nothing more than electrical impulses in the brain, gaining the ability to read any person's surface thoughts with a light touch to the head. In addition, Dame and Ash had both gained knowledge of the fundamental workings of electricity and how to generating it mechanically, harness it, transport it over wires, and use it to power devices.
Traithe felt...fine...and unchanged.
Rattled, and finding nothing else of interest in the strange, domed chamber, they descended the steps back into the pool of blood and headed for the silvery door, through which they assumed the mervamps had fled. They stepped through into a strange, alien world of swirling mists and colorful fogs, behind them was a shimmering curtain of metallic quicksilver. They could perceive outlines of the walls that contained the pool of blood, but found them to be no physical impediment. Grimnir informed them that they had stepped into the Ethereal Plane.
Waiting for them were another half-dozen vampiric mermaids, swimming through the mists as easily as their watery home. Two of them lashed out immediately with banishment spells, one succeeding in forcing Traithe back into the pool of blood in the material realm. Grimnir retaliated by similarly banishing one of them, a large burly merman armed with a trident.
One of the mermaids tried to grapple and drain Kevorkian, but met his gaze in the process, turning her into an ethereal statue. Dame stabbed one of the two casters with the dagger of dislocation, causing it to vanish. The three left with them did not put up much of a fight, being quickly dispatched by Mel's fists and Ash and Grimnir's spells.
Meanwhile, Traithe was locked in single combat with the last merman. He took several devastating blows from the trident, each hit only seeming to make his opponent stronger. Grimnir bombarded the mervamp from the ethereal using his force blasts, but the vampire easily dodged most of his attacks.
Mel dove back through the gate and joined in the fight, just as Ash finished off the mervamp that had banished Traithe. Traithe reappeared in the Ethereal, leaving Mel alone with the mighty mervampire...and an entire school of frenzied reef sharks that had suddenly appeared in the pool of blood.
To be continued...