Mavriy was mortally wounded during the recent encounter with Belchorzh. Only Krag’s intervention saved the fiendish paladin from the Soul Forge burning somewhere below. It could be ten or more days before Mavriy fully recovers, unless something can be done.
Leelo rubs the violet bottle. The dao emerges atop a swirling cyclone of sand. Keshma glares down imperiously at her ‘subjects’. Leelo genuflects and speaks with a voice learned from two decades in the Ljosalfar diplomatic service, “Oh mighty Caliph of the Bashaw Sultanate, wise and powerful beyond reckoning in this or any other realm, have you magic to aid our companion?” Keshma deigns to tell Leelo of the powers she commands: tongues, passwall, summon a mighty elemental servant, and various other spells, but none so great as to restore Mavriy to full health.
But she knows one who can: a minor Sultan of the elemental plane of earth who owes Keshma a favor. “I will draw upon this favor if you release me from my prior commitment.” Leelo demurs and after ten minutes concludes a successful negotiation. Keshma is even taking a liking to her ‘pet’ alfar. “Very well. I see fit to provide this boon and it will count toward two of my promised services.” The Sultan’s magic works through Keshma and Mavriy is fully recovered. “It is done. I will aid you one more time only before I leave for my palace.” Keshma returns to her bottle.
“We must investigate the chambers of Withers for spells and other magic. I will transport myself and one other using my dimension door. Who will accompany me?” No one feels like risking a solo trip with Mesmer at this time. The wizard grouses for a while before finally accepting the inevitable, though he doesn’t give up on the idea of looting Withers’ domain.
Leelo and Hoxton lead the way down Withers’ secret spiral staircase. After eight paces a short dead-end hallway is discovered. Leelo easily spots the secret door. The party leaves the door for later and continues downward. A faint fishy smell of corruption wafts up from below. Another eight or ten paces brings the Rune Heroes to the end of the stairwell. A small stone door with a single brass knob stands on the wall of the landing. According to Hoxton this must be the door he saw on the stone column rising from the subterranean lake.
A short hallway of iron plates leads to a narrow stone hall not unlike others encountered above. Except a thick layer of viscous greenish-gray slime covers much of the iron floor. Mesmer blasts it with fire, but the gelid mass appears totally immune. A disturbing sign. Krag commands his last surviving skeleton and at first the minion seems unharmed by the goop. Then its skull bursts into dust and the remaining bones crumble. Hoxton easily sidles along the one wall where the slime doesn’t quite reach, followed by Leelo and Mesmer. The wizard summons the floating magic disc to give his less agile companions a lift over the slime. Otherwise Krag and Mavriy must risk treading on the deadly goop.
The stone hall turns left and dead ends after ten or twelve paces. More slime coats the floor, but the Rune Heroes use their new system to get around it. Leelo finds the expected secret door and opens it to reveal a dim narrow hall.
To the left an iron-plated passage turns out of sight. Hoxton scampers down the hall and peeks around the corner to see a pentagonal-shaped iron chamber fifty feet across. The floor is overgrown with noxious-looking vegetation. How does such stuff grow in this lightless tomb? A man-high metal post with what appears to be a sprinkler head rises from the center of the sickly foliage. This must be the interior of the central cog Hoxton previously viewed during his sortie into the underground lake.
Dim yellow light glows from a wider passage just a few steps to the right. Scrawled in old blood on the ceiling at the entrance are the words ‘AWAKEN TARANEH’ in common script. Leelo hazards a glimpse beyond. Large puddles of the gray slime spread across the floor of a ten-foot-wide, gently sloping hall. Candles flicker in riveted sconces along the walls, casting dim light across a sequence of sculpted reliefs depicting humanoids with bestial heads kneeling before a black star. A thick purple drape conceals the lower end of the hall. The high end of the hall terminates in a blank stone wall about 20 paces distant. One of the bestial carvings near the higher end depicts a horse-headed man holding a stone coffer.
Hoxton is feeling desperate after hours of nonstop ridicule from his new companion Yaka, cursed jester of the long-dead House of Thonis. “Don’t die frog, or i’ll have to wait thirty seconds for one of your idiot companions to touch me and gain the pleasure of my company!” Hoxton grits his teeth and walks up the slope to the horse-headed carving. The coffer features a keyhole. The outline of a secret door is obvious, but the monk lacks the knowledge needed to open it. The upper end of the hall ends in a single slab of stone ten feet across. He glances toward the entry where Leelo and Mesmer watch. Neither are willing to enter the hall.
Now Hoxton walks back down the slope to the heavy curtain, stopping briefly to converse with his companions. Still no one else wishes to risk what looks like a deathtrap. Yaka ridicules them for cowards, but that is easy to do when you are a 2200 year old indestructible golden skull.
Hoxton glumly moves on to the purple drape. A leering four-armed gargoyle stands against the back wall five paces beyond the curtain. One broken arm with a clenched fist lies nearby. The three intact arms all have open hands as if waiting to receive something. There is not enough light to read the words inscribed upon the wall behind the statue. Hoxton shortly returns with a magically-illuminated stone from Mesmer, who still remains with Leelo at the entrance. The words are in magical script much like the bronze plaques in the grand staircase:
Three I need
Then three more
Three more still
Opens the door
First Hoxton tries placing coins in the palms to no avail. Leelo provides 27 lesser gems from the eye-tyrant’s hoard. The fists close to grind the first nine gems into dust. After Hoxton repeats this process twice more, the fist of the broken arm opens to reveal a huge tear-drop shaped gemstone: a fabulous ruby as big as Hoxton’s head! Hoxton quickly scoops up the prize. “Here is my future tavern. With attached monastery, of course.”
The monk is not able to celebrate just yet. The sound of shattering stone echoes down the hall, followed by a rumbling tremor. Hoxton parts the curtain to confront a massive stone juggernaut thundering down the hall. Mesmer frantically waves from the side passage. A wall of stone is dropping to seal the exit. Hoxton is too late. The slab slams to the floor with finality.
With the badgering skull of Yaka bobbing and jerking along behind, Hoxton vaults over the stone behemoth. Death by grinding stone passes only inches below. He sees his opportunity and kicks Yaka into the massive gears. The skull screams obscenities as it disappears into the inner workings of the construct.
The juggernaut instantly reverses, but Hoxton is faster and reaches a space revealed by the shattered false wall. An empty display stand sits on a shelf in the back. Hoxton leaps into a fortuitous crawlspace before the juggernaut can crush him. Now it rumbles back and forth in the hallway outside.
The C-shaped passage ends at what must be the back side of the horse-head relief. The door defies Hoxton’s attempts to open it. Where is Leelo when you need her?
Hoxton is forced to return back to the hall and once again risk death by leaping the giant stone contraption. He makes it over without a scratch. Meanwhile, Mavriy and Mesmer have used pry-bars to lift up the stone wall blocking the entryway. Truly a miraculous feat of strength! Now the stone is propped open by a single 18-inch iron bar.
As Hoxton dashes for the small opening now in view, he can’t resist glancing back over his shoulder…full into the gleaming eye-sockets of Yaka! The horrid little jester vents a ululating scream of triumph. Hoxton slides under the slab of stone. Mesmer kicks out the pry-bar and the slab falls before Yaka can slip through. No one hears the tirade of curses on the other side.
Hoxton brings forth the incredible ruby. Such a magnificent gem will likely fetch tens of thousands if auctioned at any empire capitol or other major city. Leelo is the first to grant that Hoxton has well and truly earned this reward. To he who risks all go the spoils! Not the least of which is freedom from the terrible Yaka.
Now the Rune Heroes turn their attention to the pentagonal chamber of iron. A short passage connects this chamber to another pentagon. Mesmer discovers the sickly vegetation burns easily enough, but the party is able to sidle around the edge of the chamber to avoid touching it.
The iron pentagon to the northwest is decorated with five large friezes depicting five black dragons with mouths agape and pointed into the hall. Leelo readily notices small holes in the dragon’s gullets. A large mass of slime coats the center of the floor. The stones of the floor are pockmarked and deeply marred. Opposite the entrance another narrow iron passage gives way to a smaller chamber also plated with riveted iron. The dragon-head traps seem to have expended whatever ammunition they possess, for the Rune Heroes make it across the chamber without incident.
The floor of the narrow iron passage is solidly coated with twelve feet of slime. Hoxton leaps across with ease. Leelo almost tips backward into the goo at the end of her jump. Mesmer makes an even riskier jump, but luck is with him. He conjures the magic disc and once again Mavriy and Krag ride over the slime in safety.
A wide iron lectern stands in the middle of the next room. The slanted top appears to be a control panel. Set into the top are a golden lever with a star-shaped handle, two dials in red and blue, and two buttons of the same colors. Engravings on the far wall appear to depict five configurations of the three pentagonal cog-chambers. A small crystal is embedded under each. The crystal under the center configuration, labelled “3”, glows brightly.
Leelo finds a faint rectangular outline in the center of the north wall, but no apparent way to open any door that might exist here. Mesmer, Krag and Mavriy stuff three iron pipes with sacks, clothes, backpacks and rope. No one likes the look of the slime that trickles from the pipes.
The party spends a good deal of time debating what to do with the control panel. Finally Hoxton turns the red dial to the right. Instantly a weird voice sounds in the iron chamber, or is it only in their heads? “Who are you? Is that you, Gorrah…no? I am G’lyh’rul. So long have I been here, I almost forget who I am.” The doleful words are barely recognizable as true speech. Rather, it is as if some alien entity taps their minds to simulate speech.
Hoxton turns the red switch to the left. Now the voice of a child, a boy of perhaps nine of ten human years, calls out. “Hello? I am Glee, who is there? Have you come to rescue me? I was turned into a fish by an evil hag and trapped in this lake! I just want to go home. Please, please come out and meet me at the dock by the boats.”
Leelo and Hoxton make only tentative attempts to speak with the child. Mesmer flatly declares, “These are but two halves of a defective personality rendered insane by torture or incarceration. Leave them be!” Leelo asks the child if he is alone. “N-n-no…it is coming, I must hide!” Nothing more is heard from the child.
After some trial and error, it is determined that the blue switch and button can be used to reorient the massive cogs into new configurations indicated by the illuminated crystal. No one dares touch the golden lever. A plan is hatched to expose the far cog while the party is in the center cog. Mesmer summons his black cat and instructs the poor beast. After all are assembled in the cog of rotting vegetation, Mesmer commands the cat to push the blue button. Mesmer plans returning to the control-room using his dimension-door spell if necessary. The entire chamber slowly grinds to life, briefly exposing views of the lake-cavern as the two open passages rotate clockwise 120 degrees.
Two new passages are revealed, one north and one northeast. A steam of thick greenish-gray gas instantly vents from the north passage. All choke and gag, but none are brought low by the poison. Three huge piles of animated plant matter emerge from the vegetation amid the swirling fumes. Each is ten feet high and almost as wide. Mesmer attempts to fireball the monstrosities, but they only smoke and hiss. All retreat into the third cog beyond the northeast passage.
Leelo is first into the pentagonal chamber. She immediately sees a yellowed skeleton with octagonal-shaped cranium standing idle. With no way to escape, Leelo easily catches and shatters it. The party possesses five of the mysterious skulls: triangle, square, pentagon, hexagon and now octagon. Hoxton, Mavriy and Mesmer deal with the shambling mounds one at a time as they try to squeeze through the narrow passage. Soon all are reduced to smoking, hacked piles of stinking slime.
Five teakwood wardrobes stand against the ironclad walls of the third cog, each with a door carved to depict a different scene. A passage to the north is blocked by adamantine bars. Five red crystals adorn a metal plate above the bars. Avoiding the viscid patches of gray slime, the Rune Heroes inspect each of the massive wardrobes.
After discussing the possible meanings of the scenes and creatures carved into the wardrobe doors, Leelo opens the south wardrobe. Rather than a normal interior, Leelo is greeted by a panoramic vista of enormous interlocking gears and cogs stretching as far as the eye can see. Suddenly, a small spherical being flies through the open doors on a whirring propeller. Leelo slams the doors shut, then peeks in again. Now only a dusty closet greets her eyes. The magic portal seems transitory in nature.
Mesmer is soon able to understand the odd whirring, clicking and chirping that seems to pass for speech in the ‘clockwork world’. The small construct has a vocabulary of perhaps two hundred words. It appears to be charged with cleaning and maintenance of a simple nature. Hoxton takes to the small chirpy sphere and declares “This creature will adorn my future monastery aka tavern!” The construct is certainly confused when it can’t get back home through the now-empty wardrobe, but readily follows Hoxton’s commands. Leelo points out that one of the five crystals is now illuminated with bright red light.
Hoxton opens the southeast wardrobe. A radially-organized cityscape spreads out as far as Hoxton can see. The viewpoint seems to be six or eight stories above the city. Only twenty feet away a pair of grotesque midget-demons perch atop a brass onion-shaped dome. They notice the portal and flit through before Hoxton can shut the doors. Rather than attack, both proffer large oval-shaped coins depicting a profile of the god Mammon on one side and a gate with various insignia on the reverse.
Krag recognizes the heavy brass ovals as legendary ‘petitioner coins’. These tokens are coveted by souls consigned to Mammon’s great world-city in the first of seven hells. Only by gathering the coins can a petitioner’s soul exit the city and move on to the next level of hell. More than anything else, the point of the coins is to debase the petitioner so that they become ruled entirely by their desire for the coins.
After brief haggling, Hoxton pays over the fiend’s price and obtains one of the coins. “It will make an impressive memento of my journeys.” Krag also barters for one of the coins. “This is a valuable religious artifact! Also useful should I need to escape Mammon’s city.” Now a second crystal glows red above the blocked northern passage.
Leelo opens the third wardrobe, this one to the northeast. Dust and smoke billow from the doors and the air thunders with the roar of battle and clash of steel. Armies of hobgoblins, orcs and others fight beneath a blood-red sky. A giant iron cube floats in the sky like some huge, distant moon. Clouds of ash boil out of the wardrobe and transform into eight screaming orc warriors led by an eight-foot-tall war-chief. The orcs are obviously looking for a fight, but Krag knows their kind. He charges forward bellowing a religious injunction to overawe the war-chief. The warriors quickly fall into line. All nine troop back into the vault of Aeron, known as Xrarog to the ember clans, and the wardrobe doors slam shut. Three of five crystals are lit.
Hoxton opens the southwest wardrobe. Waves of heat assail the kobold. An iron road leads to a basalt citadel surrounded by the charred remains of an ancient city. Victims scream from iron gibbets adorning the walls. This must be Nyx, domain of Agares and lowest of the Seven Hells.
A single glowing ember floats out of the wardrobe and transforms into a winged, bony fiend with a whip-tail and skull-like visage. The Rune Heroes dispatch the bone devil after a short, sharp fight. Fortunately no one suffers any serious injury, as Krag is running low on healing magic. At least the healing potions are still available. The fourth crystal now glows blood-red.
Leelo opens the last wardrobe. Beyond the doors is a twilight realm with few stars and only the sliver of a moon above scurrying clouds. The portal seems to open in the center of a cemetery. Canted tombstones disappear into the swirling fog. Hoxton sees that one tombstone fifty feet away bears a teardrop shaped red crystal matching those above the portcullis.
Krag wards the speedy kobold with sanctuary from attack. While Mesmer and Leelo stand ready to rescue him if needed, Hoxton darts out into the charnel scene and quickly reaches the headstone. He cannot hear Leelo and Mesmer shouting from the hovering portal. Hoxton grabs the crystal and races back. Four bouncing white lights intercept him. One of the will-o-wisps zaps his leg, crippling him. The other three fail to overcome Krag’s magical ward. Hoxton manages to stagger out of the wardrobe where Krag can use his dwindling magic to mend his seared leg. All five crystals are illuminated.
The portcullis slowly sinks into the iron floor at the north passage. Only a few hours remain until exhaustion sets in, so the party makes haste to explore as much as possible before resting. The narrow iron conduit opens to a landing with stone steps descending into a long hallway littered with all manner of corroded and rusted metal gear. Flashes of purple and white light illuminate an arch at the far end of the hall. Another narrow opening to the south reveals steps descending ten paces into a swirling green fog.
Just as Krag is about to step off the staircase into the ‘hall of decay’, black wings brush across his face and something pushes him back. A warning from Xrarog? Krag’s adamantine breastplate is spared! Seconds later Leelo shouts that her silver short-sword has rusted to nothing before her very eyes. All check their gear and find that any non-magical metal is now nothing but rust. Mesmer’s antique silver longsword is reduced to shards. Fortunately Hoxton commanded his metal sphere-servant to remain at the top of the steps.
Hoxton and Mesmer wonderingly inspect the flashing archway. Beyond is a small balcony perched along a forty-foot-diameter shaft. Another balcony lies across the gap and fifteen feet above. Hot wind tinged with the smell of burning oil and electricity swirls through the shaft.
Two massive chains rattle in the gulf between the balconies. One chain ascends two hundred feet before disappearing into a cloudy vortex lit by arcs of purple-white lightning, the other wraps around an enormous metal gear floating one hundred feet below. A second vortex rages another hundred feet below the gear. The gear drives a metal shaft spanning the gap at right angles.
Mesmer identifies this as a ‘Mechanus chain’. Such devices are crafted by the clockwork inhabitants of Mechanus, of which Hoxton’s sphere-buddy is the lowest ranking inhabitant, and used in conjunction with other machinery to keep the plane of Mechanus in running order. Such a chain could deliver awesome power to whoever harnesses it, but this is unheard of except in tales whispered by the most erudite sages and arcanists.
Hoxton uses the incredible strength granted him by the spirit Zubakhan to jump across the windy gap and up to the opposite balcony. A narrow crawlway leads to a brightly lit room containing a strange bronze and brass apparatus measuring fifteen feet across. Carvings of tall, headless humanoids decorate the walls.
The machine consists of various brass spheres mounted on concentric rings of bronze attached to a central arm. The arm ends in a large central hemisphere embedded in the stone floor. The spheres slowly rotate around the central dome at various rates. The innermost sphere seems to depict a topographic map of strangely familiar oceans and continents.
Just then a cacophony erupts back in the mechanus-chain shaft. Mesmer peers up from the lower arch to see a portal open near the crackling vortex high above. Nine cube-shaped creatures with whirling propeller blades and missile projectors emerge from the trans-dimensional gap. They streak downward with obvious hostile intent. These are quickly followed by a large crystal decahedron containing a weird metallic starfish-creature.