Beyond the bronze doors a long passage leads to a stairway disappearing into the shadows high above. Leelo creeps forward a few paces and spies a dim landing high above. The elf carefully checks for booby traps as she leads the way. The silence is broken by a stony rumbling as the party nears the top. A dragon hissing steam rolls out on a wheeled platform from behind a concealed room. Krag is tripped up in the headlong flight back down the steps and partially caught in a howling blast of super-heated steam. Leelo creeps up the steps twice more, dodging nimbly back each time the stone dragon sends a billowing white cloud down the stairwell. Finally the source of the steam seems expended. The stone dragon slowly rolls back into the hidden chamber. Investigation reveals a clever slot and counterweight system with a steaming vent into the earth, but the trigger mechanism is either magic or too well concealed for even Leelo to spot. After a minute the concealing stone panel rumbles back into place. Leelo leaps back out into the hallway.
A passage of heavy stone blocks and arched ceiling leads onward, much like the others in the hidden shrine, but dry and dusty. Clearly the party has ascended to a higher area of the ruins. Around a corner lies a suit of armor slumped against the wall. Ropes and mage-hand magic are employed to retrieve parts of the armor from a safe distance. Inspection reveals the battered and rusted plate-mail lacks any occupant other than a goodly quantity of fine powdery dust. The armored breastplate has suffered several blows from a round hammer-like weapon, sufficient to break the steel open. The wearer must have made it least this far before expiring, but what could have caused a decomposition into fine dust? The armor looks contemporary and probably has been here no more than a few years, probably less. Of the expired adventurer’s equipment, only a backpack with assorted sundries remains. No weapons other than a rusty dagger are in evidence. Within the backpack is a crumbling paper journal. Finch spots a reference to ‘Baron Almeriaq of Scylia’ before the journal falls into dust. Mesmer doesn’t notice. A reference to the father he never knew?
The next passage on the right ends in ornate bronze doors bearing the Zencotan sun symbol on one panel and moon symbol on the other. A pile of dusty gold lies at the other end of the passage. From the gold protrudes a sword hilt. A skull lies atop the gold. Finch and Mesmer quickly determine the gold is a magical illusion, but the hilt and skull are real. Both protrude from a small mound of mustard-yellow mold. Recalling the events in the caverns below Fang Mountain, Mesmer quickly shrivels the mold into ash with a bolt of fire. The mold concealed the skeleton of a half-elf or slight human wearing the remains of leather armor. The dusty room at this end of the hallway is otherwise empty.
The rune-heroes spend an hour carefully searching the entire hall for traps and secret doors. Stones worn smooth to the touch reveal the location of a small secret door giving access to a short crooked chamber ending in a plain stone door. A second identical door is given away by a dark smear upon the floor disappearing beneath the stones of the wall. Blood?
Leelo leads the way through the hall beyond the smear of blood. At the end of a narrow passage hangs an ornate mirror. A heavy door of heavy stone pulls outward just to the left. There are many glyphs carved upon it. In the center a clawed eagle kills a serpent. Two stylized stone warriors wearing puma masks form the doorposts to left and right. Mesmer deciphers the story on the door: a mythic warrior embarks upon a journey to find truth and light, but ends in failure and the hero’s imprisonment in ‘Mictlan’, the land of the dead.
Leelo glances into the mirror. From the smokey depths emerges a female warrior in green-feathered headdress and cape, bearing a stone-headed mace in one hand and obsidian dagger in the other. The warrior’s face is Leelo’s. A deadly battle begins: phantasm-Leelo versus flesh-and-blood Leelo.
Finch notices Leelo has frozen still, but fears to disturb her. The mirror appears smokey and dim, but otherwise normal. A few seconds later blood drips from Leelo’s ear. Krag shoves his way past the others and drags Leelo back down the hall just as she strikes down her Zencotan double. She wakes from the deadly trance more than a little worse for wear. Krag uses magic to heal the psychic wounds manifesting as cuts and bruises upon the half-elf’s body.
Beyond the door to the right of the mirror is a wide foyer leading into a circular room. On the right hand wall of the small entry foyer hangs a large jade death mask. In the center of the chamber is a cross-shaped dais with a set of stairs leading up to it at each of the four ends. Between each arm of the dais is a low shelf covered with small offerings: silver bracelets, earrings, neck collars, and anklets, piles of coral beads, and silver and jade statuettes. The set of stairs facing the entrance are cawed with the heads of many deities. The steps to the left are bloodstained while the far stairs are hidden in unnatural shadow. The right-hand staircase slowly changes hue across a rainbow of different colors. Standing at the top of the left steps is the statue of a Zencotan warrior. In the center of the dais rises a transparent cylinder of crystal enclosing a tall spiral column ending five feet short of the ceiling arches.
Mesmer and Finch enter to investigate the mask while Mavriy guards the foyer. Leelo remains just outside the door. Finch finds the large hollow jade mask is hanging on the wall by what appears to be a metal lever in a slot. The warlock triggers the trap from the far side using his conjured spear. The mask smashes into pieces on the floor as a cage of bronze bars falls from the ceiling to enclose anyone foolish enough to seize the mask from close by.
The gods carved into the near stairs begin speaking in a cacophony of unintelligible voices when Krag sets foot upon the first step. Krag retreats from the room to guard the passage. The right hand steps slowly change from one glowing color to the next: blue, red, yellow, green, violet. Mesmer tries to walk the steps but seems to go nowhere. The shadow-wreathed steps cause Mesmer to trip and fall. Attempting to climb over the offering-shelves at the corners summons an invisible force to push the interloper rudely to the floor. Only the left-hand stair seems to allow free passage. The stone warrior statue at the top seems truly a statue and not a petrified warrior. The crystal wall is impenetrable and completely surrounds the fluted column rising from the center of the dais.
Mesmer is convinced that offerings placed upon the four niches will solve the riddle. Mesmer, Finch and Mavriy offer ancient silver coins looted from Xipe’s chambers. Each time, a scintillating flash of light appears in the supplicant’s peripheral vision. But nothing else happens. Finally Finch gets greedy and sweeps some of the dusty offerings into a sack. Instantly the door slams shut with a boom, trapping Krag in the outer hallway. Leelo jumps through the doorway to be trapped in the chamber with her companions. A voice speaking in the birth tongue speaks into the minds of Finch, Mesmer, Mavriy and Leelo:
“Interlopers, you have trespassed on my sacred chapel. For this affront, retribution has already begun, for you are breathing a toxic gas which will kill you shortly. It is possible your actions were not from malice or green, but only idle curiosity. Therefore, you will find the cure atop the column in the center of the dais, if you can solve the riddle of the steps. Choose your path wisely, and act quickly”
Mavriy, Finch and Mesmer return to the left-hand steps, but now the seven foot stone golem animates and attacks with a stone great-hammer. Mesmer casts a spell of magical enlargement upon Mavriy, who is thereby able to grapple the golem and bash it with her adamantine battleaxe. Leelo, Finch and Mesmer join in with weapons and spells. Mavriy suffers only a few weak blows from the stone hammer before the ancient stone warrior is broken into bits.
“So you have passed the first test. Perhaps you are not the fools you first seemed. But it will take the best tool of your most perceptive person to breach these crystal walls. Your time is running out.”
Everyone feels short of breath. A trick of the mind, or does invisible gas indeed poison the party? Leelo touches the crystal wall with her thieves tools. A doorway appears in the barrier.
“So you have reached my altar, but your time is nearly exhausted and the curse is just beyond your reach. Trust your souls to the gods, foolish mortals.”
The rune-heroes realize that Krag is needed, but he is trapped outside the room! All his efforts to open the magically-sealed door have been fruitless. Mavriy and Mesmer rush from dais to door. With a titanic effort, the pair are able to force the door open long enough for Krag to tumble through. Rushing into the crystal prison, Krag finds a small glowing rune at the base of the spiral column. Krag touches the symbol of Aeron to the rune, which Mesmer identifies as the Zencotan glyph for ‘Kukulkan’. A glowing flask appears atop the column. Everyone except Krag falls unconscious from the effects of the poison. Krag has no choice but to climb the tall column, a task the burly half-orc is not at all suited for. Somehow he makes it to the top and sips from the flask. Krag falls halfway down the column. His fall is cushioned by the sprawling mound of his companions. Krag dribbles the potion into the mouth of each unconscious comrade. Slowly they begin to stir.
A mighty feathered serpent appears before the awestruck cleric: “Priest of War: thank you for releasing me from my millennia-long imprisonment. I now return to the eternal struggle.”
Kukulkan fades from this realm and into another. Krag notices a silk bag at his feet. Within glows the soft shine of precious jewels: a king’s ransom! Being the honest comrade that he is, Krag declines to take possession of the jewels before his friends recover from their slumber.
Upon the departure of Kukulkan, magic fades from the chamber. The four stairs are dull and lifeless, their enchantment fled. The crystal column disappears from the dais. The rune-heroes take this as a sign the offerings are free for the taking. The tomb-robbers are now burdened with over seventy pounds of various looted treasures.
Finch leads the way through the crooked passage beyond the second secret door. On the other side of the stone door is a rectangular chamber filled with layers of amber haze. The chamber is unoccupied, but strangely shaped and colored mirrors hang on the walls and a large stone basin or trough occupies the center. The mirror on the eastern wall is red and seems to be composed of fire and framed in bronze. The mirror refracts the green light from Mesmer’s torch into myriad flames. Ghostly shapes seem to flicker in its depths. On the northern wall are two mirrors: a striking black panel of obsidian framed in lacquered wood, and a stark white mirror in a wrought iron frame. The black mirror has a distinctive earthy odor and the blackness of subterranean caverns, but it seems of crude construction and only reflects objects very close to it. The white mirror has a pungent odor of nutmeg and spice and its depths are gelid and smoky. The last mirror hangs on the western wall in a stone frame and is blue in color. Reflections in this mirror ripple as if looking into a pool of sunlit water. The stone basin is filled with a steaming golden liquid. The amber haze in the chamber seems to originate from the basin.
Finch feels ready for the burden of a new load of curses! He approaches each mirror and looks within. In the red mirror he sees his own reflection murdered by a looming mass of eyes and fanged mouths, then the mirror goes blank. The hazy white mirror assaults his mind with stunning force, but he resists and flees to a safe distance. The black mirror presents the ethereal image of an Zencotan priest superimposed over Finch’s own reflection. The image speaks a phrase in the ancient tongue unknown to Finch, but Mesmer recognizes it as an invitation or query in the Zencotan language, “Command me to answer, and I shall”. The rune heroes shout encouragement and lewd suggestions from the doorway. Krag suggests “how can we understand women!”, eliciting the only response the rune-heroes receive to any of their questions: a helpless shrug.
Finch is wary of the watery mirror. His recently-acquired phobia of watery depths quickly rises to the fore. Nor will his companions dare the blue mirror. Leelo has had enough of magical mirrors and never once sets foot in the chamber.
Using his conjured spear, Finch lowers a gauntlet into the golden liquid, which lacks heat and is not unlike a gold-colored mercury. The retrieved gauntlet has turned to solid gold! Minutes later the article returns to it’s former leather material. Apparently the enchantment is fugitive in nature.
The rune-heroes leave the hall of mirrors and turn to investigate the bronze doors of the sun and the moon. Leelo is reasonably certain there are no traps. The bronze lock is not engaged, so she pulls open the great portals with the help of Mavriy. Beyond is a vast irregular chamber with vaulted ceiling soaring high above.
The chamber is decorated with a magically-animated diorama depicting Mictlan, the land of the dead. Small, brightly painted clay statues have been animated to represent the inhabitants of this realm and the unfortunate men and women they have under their care. The figurines range 4" to 8" high and resemble the painted figures in the dioramas where the rune heroes fell into the ruins. Eerie silver light illuminates the spectacle.
In the center the floor rises to form a small hill with earthen palisades on all sides. Groups of naked men and women struggle fruitlessly to roll boulders up the hill. Barbed and horned devils drive them on. Each time the toiling figures near the top, the ball rolls back down and they must start their hopeless task anew. Above the hill in the ceiling is a dark, narrow chimney angling upward and away. A clear pebble path leads from the door to the foot of the hill. Another fork of the path leads to a barred stone door in the far right corner.
Before the door at the near side side of the room is a region covered in burning sands and the crumbled remains of ruined cities half submerged beneath encroaching dunes. Here devils torture unfortunate mortals given onto their care.
On the right side of the room is a region depicting a grassy plain where mortals frolic and hunt antelope and deer: Elysium, the ‘happy hunting grounds’, or some equivalent? Alone among the environments depicted in Mictlan, this region is free from horror and torture. Each explorer feels the urge to cast off their burdens and run out upon the lush grass.
Between the central hill and Elysium, the floor opens into a miniature canyon down which flows a river of lava. Flames lick up from the blazing crevice. A stone arch spans the canyon where the pebbled path ends.
On the far side of the hill is a counterpart to the burning sands and fiery canyon: an icy waste. To the left of the hill are putrid, bubbling marshes where figures of men strive desperately to keep their heads above the surface. Out of this swamp a black, torpid river wends its way past the left side of the hill and flows west to pour over the lip of a steam-filled chasm in one corner. Within this dark chasm, great worms pursue the fleeing forms of naked men and women.
Leelo leads the way cautiously down the path to the bronze-barred stone door. Burning sands lie on the left, green verdant fields on the right. Finch and Mavriy experiment with the animated figurines. When picked up, they cease moving. The rune-heroes retrieve a dozen various figurines including tortured mortals and a variety of demons and devils. As an experiment, Finch sets down the three god-like 8" figures he retrieved from the central diorama in the first chamber. They instantly animate and run out upon the sands to chase and squash demons and mortals alike.
Mesmer and Leelo unbar and open the stone door while Finch, Mavriy and Krag stand guard along the fork in the path. Beyond is a darkened storage chamber. A stone rod, glazed flask and stone urn stand on shelves in each corner. When Mesmer thrusts his green torch past Leelo’s shoulder, the floor shudders and squirms. A bubbling mass rises from cracks in the flagstones. First one then a multitude of glowing eyes and gibbering fanged mouths appear in the bubbling mass of red goo that rolls forth from the room.
The mouths set up a babbling outcry: voices of a hundred trapped souls scream, laugh, shout and cry. Leelo is stunned and confused by the unearthly cacophony. She attempts to flee but the ground traps her feet in stone changed to the consistency of thick gooey tar.
Mesmer covers his ears and shouts wordlessly to block the horrid babbling. He sees Leelo draw her rapier and smallsword, but rather than attack the mass of eyes and fangs rising beyond, she twists around and attacks him! Leelo’s face is twisted by terror, her eyes empty and staring. Mesmer shouts a spell of shielding and barely escapes being run through by Leelo. As she leans to reach Mesmer, a psuedopod of fanged mouths sweeps past through the dark doorway, barely missing the half-elf. The mouths eject blazing motes of spit out across the room. The spittle explodes in flashes sufficient to blind Mesmer and Finch. Mesmer staggers blindly along the path and straight into Finch, fortunately falling flat before stepping off either side.
Leelo manages to extricate herself from the rippling stone liquefied by the presence of the trans-dimensional horror. She slices parts from the looming monster then flees over the prostrate form of Mesmer and around the other rune heroes lined up on the narrow path. The burning sands heat up her blades almost too hot to hold before she returns to the safety of the path. The horror-from-beyond bulges through the open door into the silvery light of Mictlan and moves up the path in search of victims. Mesmer casts a spell of quick-travel and reappears with his comrades between him and the advancing monster. He turns and begins firing off spells of magical fire. The pulsing blob of eyes and fangs sizzles and burns with each impact.
Mavriy moves across the sand to confront the oncoming blob, but is quickly blinded. She accidentally steps off the path into the happy-hunting-grounds. The seven-foot demonling wanders off across the grassy sward, casting aside her axe, then shield, then begins removing her armor as well! Finch casts spells of psychic dissolution upon the approaching horror, but fails to drive it away.
Krag summons ferocious demonic guardian spirits from Aeron’s realm. In an unexpected twist, the spirits attack not only the ‘gibbering mouther’, but also the animated figurines scampering around the floor. The babbling, spitting monster is finally reduced to quivering heaps of burning flesh.
At this juncture the rune-heroes attempt to rescue Mavriy, who is frolicking half-naked out of reach among the grass and streams of Elysium. Finch has no fear of heaven and strides confidently out upon the grass. Seconds later he casts away his pact weapons and joins Mavriy at her revels. Next Mesmer ties a rope around Leelo’s waist. She runs out to tie the rope around Finch, but instead unties her own safety line before Mesmer and Krag are able to drag her back. Now three adventurers sit weaving daisy-chains in heaven.
Mesmer and Krag contemplate the possibility of spending eternity here, or at least until starvation finally kills everyone. Using magical mage-hands and repeated attempts with a lasso, Mesmer and Krag finally jerk Leelo back into reality. The elf runs to tie a rope to Finch and the three drag him back to the path. After an hour of exhausting effort, Mavriy is rescued along with all the discarded gear and weapons.
Within the store-room are a number of magical artifacts, including a flask containing a dried potion of strength, a stone ‘rod of the pact-keeper’ and a mummified heart from some large beast (imbued with necromantic magic). Leelo takes the potion, Finch the rod and Mesmer the shrunken heart.
The adventurers turn to contemplate the steep sides of the hill and the narrow opening in the stone ceiling ten feet above. Finch crosses the stone foot-bridge and joins the figurines at their toiling. He scrambles to the top of the hill without too much difficulty. A powerful invisible force attempts to throw the warlock off the hill, but he maintains his footing for the moment.