“Corpses sour you. They are bad for objectivity.” ― Bertolt Brecht
20 Elient, the Red Room
As Maena prepared to interrogate the corpse by first casting a spell to ensure that no matter what language is used, she will comprehend every word that the body might utter, then she begins a prayer to reanimate the dead body in such a way that it will be able to converse with her.
Jonathon seems to be in a thoughtful mood, his gaze resting on his friend J’Wi, who herself seems to be lost in her own reverie.
Connor and Remy cook up a side project that is less focussed on discovering the history of the underground void and more about testing the theory that when a pendulum is displaced sideways from its resting, equilibrium position, it is subject to a restoring force due to gravity that will accelerate it back toward the equilibrium position. So while the Elven cleric channels her faith to gain insight from the corpse she in kneeling before, the Tortle throws the Halfling up so that he can grab onto one of the vines hanging from the cavern’s ceiling. The diminutive barbarian starts singing a song he recalls from around the campfires of his youth, a tale explaining how a mighty warrior would get her sisters-in-arms to launch her into battle in full plate armour by swinging her towards their enemies on a length of chain, “She came in like a wrecking ball!”. His singing echoes through the cave.
Remy calls to his friend to be careful and to not spend more than 6 seconds (or possibly 6.5 seconds, opinion differs) on any one vine, lest it should break. Connor then swung from vine to vine, eventually falling to the floor where his partner in crime failed spectacularly to break his fall. J’Wi rolls her eyes, Anahita shakes her head; Remy and Connor try again!
Maena completes her spiritual commune and feels a minute shift in the Weave. The corpse before her makes the slightest of sounds, as though it had been holding its final breath in for all this time, and Maena knows that a line of communication has been opened. With careful consideration Maena begins questioning the body:
“Who are you?”
A rasping voice, like wind blowing through the dry leaves of autumn, responds with three words,
“Protector, servant, sacrifice.”
“Why were you sacrificed?”
“Service, honour, war.”
Maena ponders briefly on this reply and then continues her inquiries, “Against whom did you fight?”
Again the whisper brushes up against her ears, “The Enemy, the Empire, the Snakes.”
At this news a shadow of concern passes across Maena’s face, the implication of what she is learning starting to impact on her, starting to make her wonder how J’Wi will react. To Maena, the snakes are most likely the Yuan-ti. This place is looking more and more like it might be some sort of relic from an ancient war in which the Yuan-ti were likely not the victors.
“What is this place?”
“Safe, hidden, protective.”
“What is hidden safe here?”
“One. Of the five … Danger.”
As the last syllable drifts from the corpse’s desiccated lips, a feeling of the Weave re-aligning itself signifies that there will be no more post mortem oration, the spell has ended. Maena is left with the information she has gained arranging and rearranging itself in her mind. A voice, very much alive and embodied, disturbs her contemplation.
“What did it say?”
J’Wi is standing just behind Maena.
At first Maena is concerned that J’Wi might have heard the words of the dead body and be upset or angered, but it turns out that she overheard only that last word, danger.
In fact there is nothing for the noble-woman to be worried about. J’Wi, with her customary lack of emotion reveals that she has already started to connect this place with the stories of her childhood. In those tales the Yuan-ti are at war with their immortal enemies, the Naga. The war is bloody and terrible and largely perpetrated by agents of both sides, the Yuan-ti coercing, bribing, charming and enslaving various races to fight for them and the Naga holding lesser beings in their thrall through magic, intimidation or just good old fashioned religious devotion. Thousands perish, hundreds of thousands suffer misery and loss and neither side makes any great gains. Eventually the Naga decide to fight fire with fire and hatch a plot to infiltrate the Yuan-ti ranks and strike at the heart of their power, their sorcerers. They send agents into their enemies ranks and through immense efforts involving intricate plans, powerful magic and some amount of luck, they are able to locate and steal five powerful religious items; relics that the Yuan-ti magic users used to power their armies in unnatural ways. The items are taken as far from the Yuan-ti homelands as possible and hidden in locations spread around the cold and, at this time in history, desolate Northern wastes of the young continent of Faerun. Without their supernatural devices to amplify and intensify their magicks, the Snake Sorcerers lose control of their forces, the Yuan-ti armies begin to scatter, collapse and desert. The Naga strike, hard and fast and the Ophidian Empire starts a descent from which it will never recover. The Yuan-ti are defeated. That was thousands of years earlier.
J’Wi shares these stories with Maena, Anahita and Jonathon (Rembrandt and Master Beatenpath are still getting their Foucault on) and then Maena reciprocates by detailing her discussion with the corpse. The group seems to reach a consensus, that whatever is encased in the large sphere hanging above their heads should probably stay there, and the chamber be sealed, if not forever (Maena indicates that at some point, when she is armed with more data, she may wish to return to this place and investigate further the powerful magic it enshrines) then certainly for the foreseeable future. They agree that it is time to leave here, return to House Stanipavel and instruct Tagen to send a team to collapse the final tunnel. Before they do this though Anahita decides to check the now-mute corpse for any items that might be important, or valuable. She runs her hands over the robes, looking for pockets or pouches but finds nothing. Maena, noticing the Genasi’s disappointment, decides that the ceremonial dagger might make a nice souvenir for the blue-hued woman, and removes it from the death-grip of the dead fingers. Those fingers, so long held in that final clasp, in the position in which they were when the last charge of life left them, seem to demonstrate a resignation, a recognition that their job is done, and crumble away to dust and bones in Maena’s gentle caress.
Maena hands the dagger to Anahita and tells her that it seems to be either imbued with some protective charms, or of exquisite crafting, or perhaps both, so unharmed by the passage of time does it seem to be. Anahita regards it carefully, noticing the delicate engraving and carving on the hilt, images of snake-like creatures swirling around and entwining with each other. The blade is a steely grey inlaid with another metal, darker again, in intricate geometric patterns, beautiful in their elegance and abstract nature. Anahita holds this beautiful piece of sacred metal and wonders, “What is this worth, in gold?”
J’Wi also takes the opportunity to make a final pass around the cavern before the team leaves and it is shut up. As she walks around the edge, tracing an anti-clockwise trail across the black-glass floor, she notices a long, almost invisible gossamer-like tube of the finest material resting in the curve where the wall meets the basalt. It is a skin, a shed snakeskin, and clearly from a large creature. She delicately collects, folds and stores this item amongst her other belongings. She then continues her perimeter walk until she comes across another, previously unnoticed, feature of the void; a tunnel heading down, at an angle, into the rock. She enters it, without hesitation, on her hands and knees. Inside she sees that this funnel travels forward a short distance, maybe ten feet, before plummeting straight down in the depths. She leaves the hole and calls the others over.
The PCs hatch a plan which involves J’Wi being secured by the extra rope Tagen supplied them with for just such an occasion, and then lowered slowly over the lip of the shaft by Remy. She will use her exceptional darkvision to see if there is anything of interest, or danger, lurking in the deep.
Again, Jonathon finds his knotting proficiency being called upon, and again he excels in his ropey endeavour, constructing a simple, elegant and comfortable harness for J’Wi. Remy places himself carefully at the opening and Connor comes up alongside him, ever vigilant. Maena and Anahita watch as J’Wi crawls back into the tunnel and disappears from sight.
Inside the cylinder of rock J’Wi wastes no time in achieving the lip of the shaft and lowers herself, a little gingerly, over the edge. Outside Remy, feeling the rope go taught, takes the strain and then starts to carefully let the rope play through his giant hands.
J’Wi allows gravity do what gravity does best and drops down, putting her energies into looking around for any clues that might explain this new level.
The first thing she notices is that the walls of the vertical passageway have regular, concentric circles marking them, almost as though it had been drilled out of the living rock.
The second thing she notices is a faint, pale shape in the depths of the hole, a broad, roughly circular thing that seems to be patterned with dark abscesses.
The third and final thing that she notices is that the pale shape is moving up the funnel, straight at her, and it is a skull, a giant snake-like skull, with fangs! Thinking quickly, J’Wi uses her sorcery to send a message to Jonathon, “Giant skeleton coming, get me out, prepare for a fight.” No more than a second later she feels the powerful pull of Remy’s strong and steady arms and before she even has time to glance back at the morbid creature below her she is up and over the lip and being dragged back into the red light of the chamber above.
Remy and Connor are already bracing themselves to strike whatever follows J’Wi out of the hole. Jonathon has retreated slightly, the better to deliver a volley of arrows. Maena stands to the side, already communing with her gods and Anahita steps forwards with a plan in mind. It is clear that this group of friends who came together to serve their town have become a tight unit, only bolstered by the addition of Connor the barbarian.
They wait, nothing happens, nothing emerges, the tension mounts and eventually J’Wi can take it no longer and she sends a blue bolt of electrical energy searing into the darkness of the hole. The lightning lights up the cavern, emphasising just how black and glassy the floor really is. From the depths comes a dusting of sound, a ghost of a scream, but still nothing emerges.
Then, from behind them comes another, altogether more substantial scream, an unholy cry from the ruby depths of the cave. Maena and J’Wi both strain into the gloomy glow, but they can see no source for this bone-chilling screech.
Still nothing exits the tunnel so J’Wi sends three magical missiles in and there is a brief moment of quiet before three dull explosions are heard, followed by another thin cry of pain. Anahita, deciding that a good defense is strong offence, casts magic that causes roots, vines and viciously barbed branches to spring forth from the very rock inside the mouth of the tunnel, blocking the exit. A little distractingly the scream from the Northern end of the cave still echoes in the PC’s ears.
And then it arrives. Bursting through Anahita’s thorny barricade and soaring up towards the roof, a huge skeletal snake-like creature. Great jaws open wide and a spine the thickness of a man’s leg, supporting a rib cage along a length of at least 60 feet, twists and turns, a nightmare in bone. The scream from the rear stops as the creature arrives.
Remy and Connor push back the fear that starts to build and both strike, fast and hard, smashing their weapons into the rapidly passing ribs and cracking several of those. Jonathon draws a bead and calmly releases two arrows, straight and true. The first smashes into the monster’s ribs, smashing in with a vicious cracking sound. The second delivers a significant impact directly to the spinal column, severing it and causing the creature to lose a 12 foot section from its length.
Maena, Anahita and J’Wi all deliver more destructive spells as the creature dives straight down towards Connor, it's great mouth spread wide, it’s 6 foot fangs ready to impale the halfling. The jaw slams shut, but remarkably Connor keeps his cool and allows the creature to close it’s jaws around him like a cage. Then from within the beast itself, Connor swings his axe. Tough barbarian steel, smelted in forges fuelled by heat from lava fields, cooled and tempered by the freezing waters of the Northern mountain streams, slams against the ancient bone of this evil re-animation. A sound, like nails being dragged across slate pierces the cavern mixing with the roar that emanated from the very core of the Halfling. Bone smashes, fangs crack and the undead horror stops, Connor has delivered the blow that ends it’s unnatural existence.
Like a tree blown over by a strong wind, the snake-like skeleton falls, it’s great length crashing down towards Anahita and Jonathon. The Genasi ranger manages to dodge the tumbling tower, but her colleague is less lucky, slipping on the sheer surface of the cavern and being buried in a calcified collapse of ribs and vertebrae.
When the noise abates and the dust settles, the beast is destroyed. The Bone Naga is no more.
Maena decides that when it comes to leaving, there is no time like the present and she urges the others to follow her, which they all do, but not until Connor and Remy add to their growing collection of body parts from conquered foes by removing the fangs from the giant skull. Remy, excited at the strength and lightness of them, speculates that they might be fashioned into claws ot be attached to his hands, to enhance his already devastating punch, just like one of the folk-heroes of old, Wulf Erine of Low Gan.
Eventually, all the ‘Stoners manage to get themselves up and out of the tunnels and into fresh air. They are relieved to see there horses safe and sound where they left them and waste no time in mounting up and moving off. With luck, they hope to reach the estate and the Manor House before nightfall, even moving at a walking pace so as to match Remy’s speed.
The journey back to the Stanipavels is uneventful except for one thing. Anahita and Jonathan both become aware that something, or someone, is tracking the parties progress, paralleling their movement along the forest road, some 30 or 40 feet into the forest foliage.
Using his forest skills, Jonathon slips subtly back behind the group and into the greenery, behind their shadow. He moves with stealth and grace up behind the stalker until he can see them. It is a diminutive humanoid creature, dressed in leathers the colour of the woods, dull greens and browns, but with a shock of unruly rose-red hair.
He returns to the party and shares his observations and the group decides that as there seems to be no immediate or credible threat from the individual, they will not react, but rather monitor it and then alert the guards they know will be posted on the road at the edge of the estate.
So, when they come across the Skatta twins, Torville and Deane, Maena tells them of the tracker and when Jonathon describes what he saw they seem to know the individual, calling him Inta Dawuds. They confirm the parties assertion, Inta is of no threat, he is eccentric and certainly seems to know magic, but he is not considered dangerous. Torville mentions that he will alert “Miss Clara” to this sighting, and the ‘Stoners move on.
At last they arrive back at the manor where they are greeted warmly by the farm hands and artisans they see on their way to the house. There, seemingly awaiting their arrival is Alfredo, standing in the open doorway, smiling warmly. He expresses the pleasure of his Lord and Lady, Dragar and Clara, and even his own happiness at their return and then informs them that “the girls” (he gestures towards the house maids who are carrying bowls of hot water and fresh linens) will prepare their rooms and that once they are refreshed, Lady Clara will host them in the dining room.
Maena asks if she might have an immediate word with Tagen and Alfredo departs to see if the veteran is available. Remy spots Kat Tooker, the maid he had disturbed earlier by pretending to steal her nose. Determined to make amends he is inspired and using a cantrip conjures up what appears to be a small humanoid nose. He shows this to Kat telling her that he is sorry he stole her nose before but that it is all good, he has her nose right here! She looks with terror as he waves the tiny snout at here and dropping the bowl of hot water she was carrying, runs away screaming and covering her face with her hands. Remy is perplexed. The feisty Gnome house maid, Sunrise, angered by the situation fronts up to the massive Tortle and gives him a dressing down, before her colleagues grab at her, reminding her that guests are not to be admonished by staff.
Maena lets Remy know in no uncertain terms that what he did was frightening and a little cruel. Remy casts the same cantrip again, and grabs at Maena’s visage, shouting, “Got you nose!” Maena is not amused. J’Wi tries a more direct approach, simply saying in a quiet and quite menacing voice, “Remy, no!”
The tension is broken by Alfredo announcing, “Master Tagen.”
Maena takes a breath and prepares to share all their news with the old soldier.