Yellow eyes float in the pitch-black jungle like evil jewels, first a few dozen then quickly over a hundred. A spell cast by some unknown shaman dispels Mesmer’s magical hut. The Rune Heroes are naked to their foes!
The hovering eyes draw back, opening an ominous path to the glowing whirlpool. Scores of reptilian abominations advance out of the dark to herd the interlopers forward. Far too many! Leelo and Hoxton lead the way. Everyone dives into the churning well.
Seven adventurers prepare to ambush snake-men falling from the swirling well, but none follow. That’s when the underground lake begins slowly rising. Mesmer estimates the temple will be submerged in twenty minutes and the entire cavern fifteen minutes later. An ominous sign: the rope falls from the well. Are the Rune Heroes a sacrifice to whatever foul god these abominations worship?
During her previous impromptu visit to the water-cave, Leelo saw that one of the stone doors was cracked open a few inches. Now Mavriy pushes open the door to reveal a low stone dais caved with cuneiform runes. Another identical pair of stone doors lie just beyond. To either side are narrow halls and alcoves filled with glimmering treasure! Heaped gold and silver coins, piles of gemstones, fabulous jewelry, chests and amphorae filled to the brim with more of the same, all lit by glimmering magical torches. Hoxton and Krag investigate, being careful not to touch anything. But it does seem real!
Seeing the water rising up the steps, Mesmer begins casting a charm of water breathing. All will be able to survive should the cavern be entirely submerged. Water is already flooding across the temple floor when the charm is complete.
Meanwhile, Leelo and Mesmer inspect the stepped dais and doors. These appear to push outward but resist the combined efforts of Mavriy and Krag. The half-orc wades through the flooded halls to gather up treasure. No one else dares touch a single coin.
The inscription yields to Mesmer’s magic. It tells of how the clever god Lingnang, fallen angel of Mammon, stole a spear belonging to the weakling goddess Mugambi, herself a fallen angel of Sirona, goddess of wisdom. A mantra carved into the dais reads “Lingnang teaches us to serve only ourselves.” Above the inner double doors are the words “Whoever among you is the richest, bring me your gifts.”
After trying various unsuccessful ploys including laying treasure upon the dais, both their own and from the temple, Krag and Hoxton hit on the solution. The doors now open effortlessly to Krag’s touch, no doubt because the war-cleric is loaded up with treasure from the temple. Water floods through the opening.
Atop a familiar dais and stone pillar rests one of the stone keys to the Vault of the Nine. This one depicts a lizard-man, presumably an avatar of the long-dead demi-god Lingnang. Krag wades through chest-deep water and snatches up the cube. When the half-orc touches the cube, he is filled with unreasoning lust for treasure. A few minutes later Mavriy and Mesmer corner Krag in one of the nearby alcoves and manage to drag him out. His pouches, sacks and backpack overflow with the wealth of kings!
Leelo, Hoxton and Krag swim to the top of the temple. A ring of colored lights pulses atop the stone roof. Mesmer recognizes this as a permanent teleportation circle with the arcane command sigil inscribed nearby. With no way out of the flooding cave other than the well, the party takes positions around the circle. Mesmer chants the activating sigil and seven desperate heroes disappear into thin air.
The Broken Sepulcher
Moon and stars peek from gaps in ragged clouds racing across a dark sky. The Rune Heroes stand around another glowing circle atop a high step-pyramid at the center of a clearing scattered with tumbled stone blocks and columns. Unbroken jungle canopy surrounds the ruin as far as the eye can see. Distant mountains smudge the horizon far to the north.
A vast plateau surmounted by a jagged hill rises from a swamp six or seven miles to the northwest. Above the plateau circle two black dragons, perhaps the same as those spotted by Mavriy the previous evening. Creatures move along the steep slopes of the plateau. Mavriy’s enchanted red-dragon-scale armor shivers briefly, but otherwise communicates nothing of substance.
All turn at the sound of a choking sob. Krag stands clutching a tin crown festooned with dull glass baubles. Paste gems and worthless pot-metal coins spill from his pouches and backpack. “Mah treasure! All gone….awwww. Need to find more right away.” Krag carefully counts and fondles his remaining real wealth. The party sneaks down the pyramid and across the ruins into the jungle where Mesmer conjures his magic bubble. Krag attempts to rid himself of the curse but his magic is not up to the task. Lingnang’s curse of greed continues in full force.
At first light Mesmer renders Hoxton invisible. The diminutive kobold monk employs the Fan of Tali to make an aerial reconnaissance of the surrounding lands. The jagged hill atop the plateau resolves into a colossal black dragon perhaps three hundred feet long from head to tail. The giant being rests its head upon a broken slab of basalt fifty feet on a side. A cyclopean staircase descends into the plateau beneath the cracked slab. This can only be the ‘Broken Sepulcher’ and the titan Abashi, first and greatest of all black dragons. Apparently the all-father dragon has woken from his long sleep and come to guard or plunder the Sepulcher.
Before Hoxton left his monastery at the Pool of Tears, Master Cosmas related a tale of the arch-mage Barbatos, master of death magic, who was imprisoned in this sepulcher by Kylorin during the Age of Magic. The sepulcher did not weather the Age of Ice well. The giant stone block Kylorin used to seal the tomb was broken by the advancing glaciers. With the retreat of the ice, the prison of Barbatos lay exposed to the Age of Rebirth. The Order of the Elohim quickly established a ‘guardian monastery’ to watch over this place. They have not been heard from in decades. Cosmas asked his pupil to investigate the fate of the guardian monks.
Hordes of dragonkind inhabit the cliffs below the plateau, including many black dragons of varying sizes. Blackdragon-born, and kobolds much like those elsewhere in the southern peninsula, have built a maze of warrens into the two-hundred-foot cliffs. A horde of this size could not possibly subsist on the surrounding lands for long. They must be gathering for some fell purpose soon to be revealed.
Sanctuary of the Guardians
Hoxton flies a broad loop thirty miles east and south. The ruins of Thogor appear on the southern horizon. The magic circle has transported the party almost fifty miles north! As he returns to the Rune Heroes’ hidden camp, Hoxton notices an ethereal stair rising into the air above the treetops several miles north. Following the mystical trace, Hoxton finds the guardian monastery spoken of by Cosmas. It seems this kobold has come far in his trials, for only experienced monks of the Elohim can see and follow these hidden paths.
Hoxton passes into the border of the spirit-realm as he follows the misty path higher and higher into the air. The mortal realm recedes into hazy shades of gray as if viewed through sandblasted glass. He enters the lost monastery: towers and halls floating unseen in the ethereal sky six hundred feet above dim jungle canopy. Skeletons of dead Elohim monks, blackdragon-born and kobolds litter the silent entry hall. Shattered bodies and blasted stone reveal the use of powerful magic and Ki powers. The spawn of Abashi found and destroyed the monastery. But how? Hoxton returns to the jungle to alert his companions.
Xar and Grenl remain in the hidden camp while Leelo, Mesmer, Krag and Mavriy follow Hoxton up the invisible stair and into the border of the spirit-realm. Only Hoxton can see into the material world. The others see only a wall of swirling gray shadows.
The small monastery is quickly searched. Not a living soul is found. Any wealth has been removed by the presumed victors. One dragonborn skeleton, this one with small wings, wears a six-pointed black star on a steel chain. Mesmer detects necromantic and divination magic. The amulet also seems to be a node of death mana. The wizard finds a magical makers mark: the ‘Eye of Barbatos’ was created by none other than Barbatos, arch-mage and discoverer of death mana. This fabled magic amulet allows its wearer to see into the border ethereal and identify things hidden there such as the secret Elohim paths, possibly other powers as well. No one is willing to risk putting the amulet’s powers to the test. Leelo tucks it away into the same lead-lined box previously used to transport the Green Pearl. The Eye of Barbatos rests uncomfortably next to the Diadem of Laerlith (retrieved after her cursed armor was removed from Finch in the Shrine of Zencota).
Hoxton finds a secret message scrawled upon the floor by a dying monk, visible only to other Elohim: “We have failed. Os-Gabella has retrieved the Staff of Barbatos from the Broken Sepulcher. Abashi will soon follow she who wields the staff…” This leaves no doubt as to who is responsible for the return of Abashi. The Rune Heroes debate various approaches to the Broken Sepulcher but can’t agree on a feasible plan. The dragon-horde infesting the plateau seems to be an insurmountable obstacle at this point. In any case, the Staff of Barbatos has already been carried off.
The Rune Heroes decide the abandoned monastery is a safe place to rest and recover. With plentiful skeletons available, Krag begins experimenting with necromancy. While his friends rest and recover in the nearby entry hall, the half-orc war priest discovers he’s really got a knack for this. “Haaahaha! I’m gonna rule this place with mah army of the dead!” Krag ignores the shadowy vortexes spiraling toward him from the gray void beyond the walls of the monastery. No one else notices. By the end of the day, thirty-six skeletons dance to the cleric’s commands before he is exhausted and must take a rest. Krag arranges the jangling platoon of dragonborn, kobold and monk skeletons in good positions to defend the monastery entrance.
Krag wakes early the next day with a feverish glow in his eyes. “Now we gonna see what I can really do! We could sure use a skeleton army to get into that sepulcher.” A few hours later every single skeleton in the monastery is animated with a foul mimicry of life, over seventy in all and far beyond Krag’s normal capabilities. Now even the others can see dark tendrils emanating from Krag. Hoxton follows one to a nearby window. The writhing vortex stretches across space to join with others coalescing upon the Broken Sepulcher! Even as Hoxton shouts a warning, the gargantuan form of Abashi takes notice. The great dragon launches into the air in search of the mana-thief poaching dark energy from the Sepulcher.
Drunk with an excess of necromantic power, Krag still argues against dispelling his precious undead army. As the Rune Heroes squabble, Abashi arrives and flies into and through the ethereal monastery, indeed through the bodies of all present. Only Hoxton can see him coming but everyone feels the dark shape as it passes. Krag shouts in pain and disappointment when his connection to the Sepulcher is rudely severed. Falling bones make a rattling symphony as skeletons collapse throughout the monastery.
Hoxton reports that Abashi is circling the invisible Elohim sanctuary a thousand feet above the misty jungle. A dozen other smaller dragons have taken wing and fly about in confusion, wondering what has so agitated their great master. Abashi makes two more circuits around the sanctuary and turns toward the step pyramid. As Hoxton watches, the raging dragon obliterates the hundred-foot structure. Massive blocks fly like paperweights. Within minutes the pyramid is reduced to a jumble of broken stone and earth.
All agree that now would be an excellent time to vacate the premises. Hoxton leads the way down the ethereal staircase into the jungle below. As the material world comes back into focus, Leelo spies a dark opening now exposed in one corner of the destroyed pyramid. Abashi doesn’t seem to notice. Again, the all-father dragon takes wing. Jungle a hundred paces in every direction is flattened outward by the tremendous blast of wind. A great roar of rage sounds across this remote corner of Arcanearth. The Rune Heroes can only tremble and dig deeper into the leaves and mud of the jungle floor.
In the darkest hour of night with dragons still circling above, the Rune Heroes sneak through the jungle to the tumbled remains of the step-pyramid. The dark gap opened by Abashi reveals one end of a processional hall flanked by square stone columns. The last columns stand beside a heavy stone door depicting warriors training with spears and stone war-clubs. Mesmer decrypts ancient glyphs carved into the stone: “Mugambi teaches us to fight evil with honor”. Xar and Grenl remain behind to guard the shattered hall while their liege-lords explore the shrine of Mugambi.
Mavriy hauls open the massive door to reveal steps leading into a chamber flanked by four statues standing in alcoves, overlooking a gladiatorial pit covered with heavy bronze bars. The warriors once held spears which have gone missing. On the far side of the chamber stands a stone column atop a low dais. No cube-key is in evidence. A relief carving in the wall behind the column depicts a monstrous jaguar with six snakes protruding from its shoulders. The jaguar-being battles a burly lizard-man armed with a spear. This must be the avatar of Mugambi battling Lingnang. It appears the worshipers of these competing demigods lived in close proximity.
Leelo finds no secret doors in the carving or walls. A faint square is outlined atop the column. A secret door? There seem to be no obvious traps, but eight small holes are found in the bas-relief of Mugambi and Lingnang. Mavriy and Krag back into the stairwell beside the mural. Hoxton and Mesmer retreat to the other side of the chamber. When Leelo attempts to pry open the top of the column, a hissing from the wall announces poison gas. Leelo, Hoxton and Mesmer escape the fumes, but Mavriy and Krag stumble back, choking and gagging. They will require several hours to fully recover.
Hoxton explores the dusty steps and hall leading to the pit. Others seem to have come this way in years past, but not recently. Beyond the twenty-foot-deep pit is a series of gated cubicles. The stone statue of a warrior armed with a spear stands in the first. As soon as Hoxton sets foot onto the floor of the pit, the nearest gate opens and the stone statue strides forth. Mesmer prepares to blast the golem with magic, but Leelo screams “It is a test from Mugambi, we must face the golems in single combat to win the spears!”
Hoxton, Leelo, Mesmer and Krag destroy the four golems while Mavriy stands guard in case of need. There are a few tense moments when the shield-armed stone warriors knock down Hoxton and then Leelo. The animating spirits are cunning and experienced warriors equaling anything the Rune Heroes have faced up to this point. Fortunately each hero triumphs with no assistance from their friends.
Hoxton has some difficulty and suffers a number of bad wounds. He never is able to stun the golem, though it is animated by a ‘life force’ and so is vulnerable to the kobold monk’s Ki powers. Krag wins an impromptu contest to see who can finish their foe the fastest. His mighty hammer and terrible touch of death crumbles the golem in well under half a minute. Leelo comes in a close second when Mesmer holds back his most powerful spells. All gain valuable experience using their own skills in single combat and watching their comrades do the same.
As each golem is destroyed, Leelo places the spear into the frozen hands of one of the four warriors in the chamber above. When the fourth spear is replaced, a wave of golden radiance passes across the carving. Mugambi’s stony eyes seem to sparkle. The cubic key of Mugambi rises from beneath the hatch atop the pedestal.
The Rune Heroes now possess the keys of Kobah’Lao, Jin’ri, Krango, Khunar, Lingnang and Mugambi. Only three remain undiscovered: Zoa, Tlaxacotl and Zubakhan. The temples of Zoa and Tlaxacotl are said to be far away in the wasteland between Malakim and Calabim empires. According to Toric, the closest should be Zubakhan’s temple located somewhere in the swamps near the Lanun city of Bolans at the end of the Candaba peninsula.
Black dragons still glimmer in the night sky. Leelo and Hoxton lead the way, helping their less able companions sneak through the ruins and back into the jungle. A sixty mile crawl through unknown wilderness stands between the Rune Heroes and the ruins of Thogor.