“I think our lives are surely but the dreams Of spirits, dwelling in the distant spheres, Who as we die, do one by one awake.”
― Edgar Saltus, Poppies and Mandragora
19 Elient, the revealed chamber below the Ankheg nursery.
On regaining the sunlight and relative security of the surface, the ‘Stoners rendezvous with a delighted Tagen Brunt. He listens attentively to their recount of the destruction of the Queen and her attendants. On the mention of the nursery chamber and the thorough neutralising of the eggs therein, he is visibly pleased. It is only when mention of the magical emittance is made that he visibly tightens up and a scowl passes over his face. At this point, he makes it clear that, while he recognises a place for magic during both peacetime and war, he is uncomfortable with it and does not want to become involved in any further investigation of the source of this supernatural signal himself. He does sanction further investigation by our heroes, offering them support from the Stanipavel retainers (an offer they team politely decline) and reminds the PCs to return to the house to celebrate the successful expedition and collect their reward!
It is during this debriefing that it becomes clear that the mission was an overwhelming success with only one real casualty, Harda Sneels is quite badly injured. The professional guard went head-to-head with an exceptionally large bull-ankheg, and while he did his best, holding his ground and getting in some telling blows on the monster, he was badly gored by its powerful pincers and when the Circlestone Six see him he is being attended to by his soldiering partner, Toofas Auldenboots.
In a characteristic bout of the emotional tenderness that belies his physical form, Remy offers his newly acquired proto-surfboard to Tagen and the team as a makeshift litter upon which Harda can be more delicately transported back to the manor house. In gratitude for this unsolicited kindness, Tagen asks Remy if he can let the estate artisans, the blacksmith, leather-worker and carpenter, start preparing the carapace for its eventual role as wave-rider. Remy makes some simple suggestions and Tagen promise that, under the watchful eye of his brother Rudyard, the master manipulators will begin the transformation.
Eventually, after the necessary redistribution of rope (it might sound trivial, but a good piece of rope is worth its weight in gold) the Stanipavel regulars head off on the return leg of their journey, hoping to make the homestead not too long after nightfall. The six friends slip easily into the routine of setting up camp, preparing food and sharing the night in watches.
They pitch up a safe distance from the last remaining portal into the hive, the others having been collapsed by explosive charges set by Tagen’s team, and settle in for a well deserved, and long, rest. It is during the night, while Maena, J’Wi and Connor are all awake, the Elven cleric having no need for sleep after her meditation and the Halfling and Yuan-ti being in the process of changing watch duty, that something remarkable happens. In the darkness of the small hours, something moves at the lip of the hole, something comes up and out of the tunnel. Whatever it is, it moves with a speed and dexterity that make its movement almost undetectable, and if it were not for the long sedge and prairie grass that showed its passage as ripples through the veldt, the trio might have wondered if there was anything there at all.
But there was, and while Connor decided his best action was to stay near his sleeping friends, all the better to raise the alarm should that become necessary, J’Wi found herself revisiting the intangible feeling she had felt before, in the Queen’s cavern, and became drawn towards the movement in the grass. Maena, wary, but also with a desire to discover what might have surfaced in such a subtle way, followed her companion as she moved slowly, but surely, to intercept the visitor from below.
As the two women got to within 20 feet of the flora in which the thing was hidden its direction changed, heading straight towards J’Wi, and Maena who still followed just behind her. J’Wi waited, no sense of danger, just a sense of familiarity and of kinship. And from the coarse greenery emerged a might and majestic creature, a snake, the like of which neither adventurer had seen before. It’s head, with alert eyes that glinted with intelligence in the moonlight, was the size of a bar-room table, its body, thicker than that of a hale and hearty peasant. It moved with purpose and power, directly toward the Yuan-ti; she stood still and calm. At first, there was just a strengthening of the sensation of shared experience, then as the creature got closer, a whisper, like a warm breeze across distant shores. The snake arrived at J’Wi’s feet and with a nudge that might be called affectionate on her shins, began to gracefully encircle her, its coils spiralling up first around her ankles, then legs, her stomach and eventually completely encompassing her. It was in this embrace, surrounded by what was clearly a musculature of significance, but also of surprising gentleness, that J’Wi heard the soft, sibilant sigh of the snake’s voice, and it said this, “South, go south, south … Sifanti. Go south, sister, to Sifanti.”
And then, with a speed which matched its stealth, it was unwound and away, leaving J’Wi with a sense of purpose and Maena with a sense of wonder. They both watch as the snake slides back into the void.
The remainder of the night passes without incident and as Jonathon brings the watch home, he sees a herd of deer, mostly mature roes and bucks, but with a smattering of younger creatures, most likely only five or six months old. As he watches the herd edge out onto the grasslands, almost ethereal in the early morning, grey light, he muses on how no matter how intense their own lives might get, the natural world simply keeps on going. Life, change, death.
Morning arrives and camp is broken. The team gather themselves, make sure the horses they have been left are securely fastened to the stakes Anahita fashioned for the purpose and head back to the tunnels. It is noticeable that even just in the few hours that the tunnels have been blocked of the atmosphere has changed, the natural ventilation which the Ankheg ensure through clever construction now no longer moving the air through the tunnels and various chambers. What is evident is the track left by the giant constrictor left as it moved into the under-earth, a track which both Jonathon and Anahita confirm is the track one would expect to see after the passage of a large ophidian. If there had been any doubts about the physicality of the late night visitor, these tracks seem to dispel those.
The trip back to the hidden chamber is uneventful, the tunnels are quiet, no sign of any Ankheg, nor any other life. In the chamber formerly occupied by the queen and her nursemaids, now occupied by increasingly decayed bodies, the trail from the snake veers off into a tunnel in the western wall of the void.
Eventually, the PCs make their way down to the ancient void under the nursery. A plan is hatched (unlike the destroyed eggs, still mouldering where the PCs left them) and Jonathon is the first into the hole, carefully climbing down a rope, into the chamber. Once down he gets a better picture of the space. The floor is a shiny, extremely hard glassy substance, the cavern is huge, receding into darkness in all directions, hanging from the roof are substantial vines which seem to be made from individual strands intertwined, rather like a rope. And then there is the sphere, a good forty feet across in diameter, hanging some twenty feet below the cave’s roof, thirty feet off the ground. It is formed from a translucent substance, almost like something weaved by a giant moth or butterfly, a cocoon of physical and magical substance, and at its centre something radiating a red light.
Remy is next down, using his monk’s training to fall carefully to the bottom where he lands as light as a feather. Once there he uses his heft as an anchor for the rope and the rest of the group follows.
Connor immediately begins to investigate the cavern, fascinated by the floor which is reminiscent of sheets of glassy rock he has seen in the wilds of the north in areas where volcanic activity is common.
J’Wi stands and stares at the giant, glowing sphere. It reminds her of stories from her childhood, of mighty sorcerers from the Yuan-ti empires of old who could capture dreams in light, push realities together to create new planes of existence and travel on the planar winds to the very stars. Most significantly though her mind is cast back to a story her mother told her about a war between the Yuan-ti and their bitter enemies the Naga.
Maena moves under the large sphere, having noticed a shadowy shape on the floor of the cavern, against the wall behind it. Once directly under it, she experiences a flash of imagery, a warm climate, the sky tinged with a pinkness, the foliage a hint of alien purple, then it’s gone. The experience leaves her slightly disoriented, but she shakes off the feeling and continues on to the mysterious shape. Even before she reaches it she can see it is a figure sitting in what she takes to be the lotus position. Its head is bowed, a good covering it and obscuring its face. Its hands are clasped together and rest in its lap. It is completely stationary. Meena approaches carefully and when there is no sign of life she checks for breath. Remy, having wandered over, used his favoured check-for-friendship and waved. He received no response.
Now that she is up close Maena sees that what she thought we hands clasped in prayer were actually going the handle of a long blade which had been plunged into the abdomen of this poor unfortunate. She begins to prepare a spell. She means to find out what this place is, what the large sphere is and what exactly it is imprisoning and if that means speaking with this individual, drawing their very soul back to the body it left, apparently at its own volition, then that’s exactly what she will do.