Arcanearth

Session 64: Vault of the Nine - VII

The Skeleton Gate

AE-session64-VaultoftheNine-MoonDemon_20191215.jpgA swarm of flying machines descend the lightning-spattered shaft. Mesmer steps back and runs up the hall, warning his comrades of the approaching danger. Leelo commands “Nidarchus, fly!” in the alfar tongue and her strange new sword takes to the air. She has a telepathic link with the bard’s spirit inhabiting the blade. Now her hands are free to wield either bow or blade as conditions dictate!

Cube-shaped beings appear past the archway. They fire a half-dozen projectiles from odd devices like and yet unlike crossbows. The bolts miss Mavriy and Leelo then impact the floor halfway between Mesmer and Krag. The concussion peppers both with flaming fragments. Mesmer responds with a fireball. A number of the hovering cube-creatures fall away in flames. Others dodge out of sight.

Mavriy advances alongside Nidarchus in case the cube-creatures brave the ‘hall of decay’. Just then the transparent crystal vehicle appears at the arch. The metallic starfish inside projects a cloud of scintillating vapor into the hallway. Leelo and Mesmer stumble back and struggle to shake off a sudden paralysis. They look back to see Mavriy frozen motionless, but still standing.

Hoxton returns to the upper balcony upon hearing the roar of Mesmer’s first fireball. Peering out into the windy, flashing conduit he sees a half-dozen cubic machines flying on spinning rotors mounted to either shoulder. A strange crystal dodecahedron hovers at the lower arch. Another fireball scorches past the magic vehicle and explodes, filling the entire shaft with a sphere of raging flame. Most of the cube-beings tumble burning toward the planar rift far below.

AE-session64-VaultoftheNine-mechanusbeings_20191215.jpgLeelo fires arrows at the vehicle while Nidarchus attacks it, inflicting a blast of force that cracks the crystal. A few surviving cubes land on the alcove and fire poorly-aimed bolts at Mavriy, but these explode harmlessly in the empty hallway. Mesmer hits the shell with a ball of thunder-magic. Krag is just close enough to risk a throw with his hammer, which disintegrates the vehicle into a spray of whirling shards. A bizarre starfish-being of shining metal falls out of the destroyed vehicle and attacks Mavriy with silvery-gold tentacles.

Nidarchus chops off one of the tentacles. Leelo fires a magic arrow from her Svartalfar bow. Mavriy recovers control over her paralyzed muscles and shatters the creature with a solid blow from her magic battleaxe. Mesmer destroys the remaining box-beings with spells. A pile of burning metal spindles, gears, rotors and bearings litter the balcony. Hoxton yells down that the shaft is clear of enemies.

From Hoxton’s description of the machine beyond the upper balcony, Mesmer concludes it must be an ‘armillary’, a mechanical model of the local heavens. A few minutes later Mavriy and Leelo spring across the gap to join Hoxton in the sphere chamber. Mesmer and Krag remain behind to watch for the appearance of more mercenaries from Mechanus. The wizard should be close enough to communicate with his familiar-cat left in the cog-control chamber, but nothing responds to his call. Either the cat has left the nearby area for some reason or was destroyed.

Mavriy stands guard while Hoxton investigates the central hemisphere from which metal arms suspend rings and spheres of various diameters. Leelo climbs into another crawlway to the left. From her map, it appears this passage must connect to the rotating-cog control room. Leelo turns to see part of the central hemisphere slide back, revealing a padded couch with two levers on either arm. Hoxton climbs inside. The bronze cover slides back.

Hoxton discovers the hemisphere is transparent from within. He cautiously moves first one arm then another in various directions. The rings and attached spheres rotate in response. “Hmmm…what if I line up all the spheres?” When the last sphere swings into line, this one a white globe three feet in diameter, several things happen at once.

First, the controls seize up. Lighting arcs across the chair and levers as the hemisphere fills with thick poisonous green smoke. Hoxton draws on his monk’s training to counter the deadly poison.

The white sphere explodes. From a rip in space where the moon hung appears a muscled green arm holding a massive bronze battleaxe, followed by a leg and finally the entire nine-foot tall ‘moon-demon’. The fiend glares around the room and spots Leelo crouched in the south crawl-way with mouth agape. The massive demon bellows in rage and dashes sparks from the walls with it’s deadly axe. Leelo scampers back out of reach. She finds and opens a metal panel at the end of the crawlway to reveal the expected control room. A single yellow eye briefly glares down the passage before the demon turns to spot Mavriy.

As Mavriy and the demon join battle, Hoxton opens the hatch and springs out. He jumps upon the back of the fiend and hammers it with a flurry of blows. The demon shrugs off the hits with ease, nor is it stunned. Mavriy attacks with her magic battleaxe, but even a solid blow has only small effect. The demon’s axe seems drawn to the head and neck of its opponents. Surely one lucky strike would mean the death of any mortal warrior.

The chamber is plunged into unnatural darkness that neither kobold nor half-demon eyes can pierce. Mavriy finds the east crawlspace and clambers out. For a brief terrified moment, Hoxton can’t find either exit. He dodges this way and that as the hulking demon pursues, apparently unhindered by the dark. Finally Hoxton finds the south crawlspace and joins Leelo in the control room.

They find the control panel stained with new blood. Mesmer’s feline familiar? Leelo and Hoxton reorient the cogs to allow Mesmer and Krag to return to the control room. Mavriy remains behind on the high ledge of the chain shaft to block the moon-demon in, though as yet it seems unable to fit through the narrow passage.

AE-session64-VaultoftheNine-nighthag-1_20191215.jpgAfter some discussion, the Rune Heroes conclude that the deadly fiend is best left alone in the armillary chamber. Mesmer sends a magic message to Mavriy, “Meet us in the wardrobe-cog, from there we will investigate the conduit to the southeast.” Mavriy jumps past the speeding chain down to the lower balcony. As she passes the mysterious stair descending into green fumes, three hideous night-hags emerge from the spirit realm. The evil sisters have been waiting for this opportunity to catch one of the adventurers alone.

In the harrowing half-minute that follows, Mavriy bursts past the hags and escapes up the stairs into the wardrobe-cog. Ominously, the cackling hags attempt to subdue and bind their quarry with magic rather than kill her outright. Should the paladin fail to resist their magic even once, she will be taken.

The hags become increasingly frustrated, screaming and clawing at Mavriy as she struggles forward. The hags pursue their quarry into the central cog. Mavriy takes several wounds from long black claws, but again fends off a barrage of spells. Now Mesmer contacts Mavriy by magic and learns of her desperate situation.

Hoxton uses the control panel to connect the central cog with the dragon-mural cog, where Mesmer, Leelo and Krag now wait. The closest hag, this one with a squirming leather sack for a head, spots Mavriy’s companions. A mangy dogs-head emerges from the sack and yowls in disappointment. The hags immediately retreat into the spirit-realm. Against all odds Mavriy has survived a brush with death, or worse.

Despite this close call, the Rune Heroes must split up yet again. Hoxton is left in the control room, but the hags don’t try their luck this time. Perhaps the hags consider Hoxton too difficult a target, especially after their first brief encounter in the mirror-tomb. But the moon-demon still waits in the armillary chamber where Hoxton must pass in order to reach his friends in the wardrobe-cog.

Hoxton sneaks to the end of the crawlspace. The darkness has abated and all is quiet save for the windy roar of the nearby mechanus chain. He makes a dash for the far passage, but trips on a piece of wreckage from the armillary. With a roar the demon appears out of thin air and manages to nick Hoxton with his massive bronze axe. Sparks fly as the axe carves a six-foot gouge into the stone wall. Hoxton regains his footing and leaps into the far conduit and from there across the mechanus chain to the lower balcony. The demon is again either unable or unwilling to pursue.

The party moves down the exposed metal passage to find a dead-end chamber. A life-size golden statue of a mastodon stands atop a foot-high stone cog in the center of the room. Jeweled tusks sweep from its jowls and its trunk is raised in a roar. Kobah’Lao warns Leelo, “The golden mastodon is dangerous, do not provoke it’s anger!” Otherwise, the spirits recall nothing of the mastodon.

AE-session64-VaultoftheNine-SkullChaliceofCh_gakare_20191215.jpgInscriptions coil around the statue’s body. Mesmer uses magic to read them: Let your bones watch over my treasure, brave Ghom. As you carried me from the inferno, so shall I rise from death to defend my riches. Leelo and Krag examine the murals. Seven panels along the curved walls depict a barbaric warrior banished to hell by the sorcerers of an ungrateful king, riding a mastodon through a series of five hellish landscapes where he battles different infernals, and finally returning to destroy the sorcerers and lop off the king’s head.

Krag recalls the tale of a pre-Patrian barbarian hero known as Ch’gakare. Like the orcs of the Deadstone Highlands, Ch’gakare celebrated his victory by creating a golden chalice from the king’s skull, the fabled ‘Skull Chalice of Ch’gakare’. Might this be the riches told of by the runes?

Hoxton climbs up onto the golden mastodon and finds a star-shaped depression on its head. This exactly matches the star on the control-room handle. Hoxon sets off to retrieve the handle. He must again brave the invisible fiend laying in wait. This times things go easier, but it is not a trip to make lightly. Fortunately the demon seems confined to the armillary room. The handle slides out of its mounting with ease.

Meanwhile, Leelo determines the stone cog below the mastodon is intended to rotate and has done so in the past, but it fails to budge now. Hoxton returns with the handle and verifies it should fit into the depression atop the mastodon. However the party is exhausted and doesn’t care to hazard the trials of Ch’gakare in their current condition.

The fourth day in the Vault comes to an end as the Rune Heroes settle down for their rest. Hoxton recalls the star-shaped black amulet recovered from the Guardian Monastery near the Broken Sepulcher. Leelo confirms she still has this item secreted away in her lead-lined box (along with Laerlith’s diadem). Hoxton considers the six-pointed black star. Mesmer previously verified the ‘Eye of Barbatos’ emits necromantic and divination magic, is a node of death mana, and is supposed to allow its wearer to see into the spirit-realm. Do the hags watch the party even now?

When Hoxton dons the amulet a ghostly world springs into being all around him. The walls of the mammoth-chamber are now translucent, but still have substance to the touch. Three shadowy forms hang in space around the mastodon-chamber: night hags! The fiends seem to have full access to the spirit-realm, allowing them to pass through walls and transit the vault of the nine wherever they choose. At least now Hoxton can keep an eye on them. But what ill effects might the Eye inflict? Hoxton discovers he can remove the amulet, so at least it is not cursed in the conventional way.

The hags quickly realize the small monk can see them. Soon they disappear, but during the party’s rest one or another of the hags appears every hour to keep tabs on them. Hoxton makes rude gestures to which the hags respond in kind.

During her rest, Leelo receives another cryptic rhyme from Nidarchus, this one but a single half-quatrain:

Wielded by Alazkan once was I
When he finds me, then you must die.

DAY FIVE

The Rune Heroes know they must locate Asmoday’s phylactery this day or very early the next. Should the archlich regain a corporeal body, he might spirit his phylactery away to some far realm, then return to deal with interlopers at his leisure. Or perhaps simply ignore them and rejoin battle in the world above, confident in the knowledge that his phylactery is once again safe.

The mystery of the golden mastodon and Ch’kagare will have to be left for the future, assuming there is one. No further machines have appeared from Mechanus and the hags make themselves scarce. Five adventurers make haste through the wardrobe cog, into the hall of decay, and down the narrow stair into boiling green mist.

Green smoke billows out of a bronze cauldron in the center of a twenty-foot-high vaulted hall. Barely visible through the haze are three rocking chairs, several work-benches heaped with materia-magica, a spinning wheel, and a rusty iron cage containing a prisoner. Hoxton and Leelo cautiously examine the caged humanoid. It is a misshapen and naked clone of Mesmer, but marred with various deformities and the drooling countenance of an idiot.

All think back to the time one of the ethereal night hags was caught hovering above Mesmer’s bedroll somewhere in the Plains of Perdition. Perhaps they collecting a hair, a fingernail or a minim of blood from the wizard. Mesmer attempts to communicate with his pathetic simulacrum and soon discovers the poor creature knows all he knows. The hags no doubt tortured this knowledge from him. Meanwhile, Krag finds a lid and covers the boiling green pot. Within a few minutes the green haze abates.

AE-session64-VaultoftheNine-hagdolls_20191215.jpgHoxton hears the squeak-squeak-squeak of a wheel needing oil. A small monkey-doll rolls along the floor through the green fog, followed by a clay doll with no face and a straw doll stuck with pins. The straw-doll speaks in a child’s voice, “You need to run away! The Sewn Sisters will be back any moment now. The last person to come here, a ‘Captain Brixton’, was turned into a spider and eaten by Widow Groat!”

Leelo discovers the three dolls are named Strawbundle, Clay No-Face and Joho the Monkey. They are the spirits of children caught by the ‘Sewn Sisters’ in ages past. Strawbundle speaks for the group. Leelo takes up Joho the Monkey and gains the benefit of understanding all languages for seven days. Hoxton tucks Clay No-Face into his pouch and no longer needs to eat, drink or sleep for 30 days. Mesmer somewhat reluctantly carries Strawbundle and gains the ability to pass into the spirit realm three times before the charm vanishes.

The children have hidden their sentience and independence from the hags for some time. They are happy to relate information about the ‘Sewn Sisters’: Widow Groat, Peggy Deadbells and Baggy Nanna. “The hags nurse some terrible being that lurks beyond the ‘Skeleton Gate’” The children confirm the five ‘skeleton keys’ are needed to unlock the Gate, but anyone who unlocks the Gate disappears and never comes back! To be able to use the Skeleton Keys in the Gate, five trials designed to weaken and confuse intruders must be completed.

Indeed, five doors line the balconies, three to right and two on the left. Each is inscribed with one of five geometric symbols: triangle, square, pentagon, hexagon and octagon. These of course exactly match the skulls of the five skeletons.

At the south end of the hall is a massive twelve-foot-high, ten-foot-wide door of green stone, its surface carved with grinning goblin skulls. A belt of smooth stone spans the door at a height of four feet, set with five gold seals arranged in a row: triangle, square, pentagon, hexagon and octagon. Each symbol is engraved into a recessed circular seal.

AE-session64-VaultoftheNine-skeletondoor_20191215.jpg

Leelo cautiously tries the triangle skull, but nothing happens. The gold seals apparently hide the true keyholes. Hoxton spots the three ‘Sewn Sisters’ lurking in the spirit realm nearby and watching with interest, but no great concern. The three child-dolls disappear into the pouches, packs or robes of their rescuers. There seems to be no choice but to play the hag’s game and undertake the five trials.

The first door bears a triangle. Within is a small room containing a glass column filled with light. An iron lever projects from the floor inside the column. A tiny triangular hole pierces the two-inch-thick column at a height of six feet.

Krag has been standing outside on the balcony, somewhat apart from his companions. Without warning the hags appear on the opposite balcony and strike with rays of poisonous green. The half-orc is taken by surprise and crumples to the floor retching. Before anyone can strike back the hags disappear, leaving only fading cackles of mirth. After this incident, everyone is careful to stay within sight and very close together!

As the column is impervious to damage, Mesmer grudgingly accepts the need to expend a precious spell to transport himself inside the tube. Leelo checks outside as he throws the lever. Sure enough, the triangle-seal rolls away to reveal a deep triangular indentation. All troop down to the green door where Leelo collects up the five skulls and tries the triangle-headed specimen. A muted clicking of tumblers sounds within the gate as the skull turns a full circle. It is now fixed into place and can’t be removed.

The next door depicts a pentagon. Inside a feast is laid out on the tables, consisting of frothy beer, a platter of roast boar and iced cakes. A gaunt human male in a dusty black suit stands quietly arranging items on the trays. He motions politely toward the food and stands ready to serve out portions on request. The walls are covered with tapestries made of pentagonal red patches sewn together.

Wild Zubakhan urges Hoxton to try the beer. Hoxton doesn’t need much convincing and downs a mug before Leelo can slap it out of his hand. Now the kobold discovers a special charm he can use to amend the result of fate once only in the next day. However, the tremendous strength granted by Zubakhan leaves him for the time being, though he can still hear the dead god’s voice. Krag and Mesmer are eager to gain the fate-charm and likewise quaff beer. Hoxton additionally partakes of the roast boar. Some of his super-strength returns, but of a different sort than afforded by Zubakhan. Leelo finally gives in and samples the squash stew: she feels immediately healther and tougher! Only Mavriy declines to partake of the feast.

AE-session64-VaultoftheNine-scarecrow_20191215.jpgBut surely the hags are not giving away these boons for nothing. Hoxton notices them following the action closely. The hags exchange something as if bets have been placed and money, or whatever hags value, is now changing hands.

Hoxton rifles the pockets of the servant and finds only dust and…straw? The straw-man transforms into a hideous scarecrow-monster. The feasters drop their food and quickly deal with ‘Mr. Threadneedle’ (according to his nametag). The remaining food and drink is dashed to the floor as tables are overturned. Hoxton searches the remains and finds a lustrous black sphere and a yellowed glass eyeball not unlike those used to unlock the chamber of Belchorz.

The hags seem particularly exercised about these items. Hoxton holds up first the black marble and then the eyeball. The eyeball illicits an alarmed response from one of the hags, who turns to berate her sisters. Hoxton makes as if to dash the eye against a wall. The hags quickly disappear from ethereal sight.

Leelo carefully searches the tapestries. One presents the subliminal illusion of a grinning skull-face. Inside the mouth-patch she finds a hidden compartment and lever. Pulling it unlocks the pentagon-seal. The party returns downstairs and is able to insert the appropriate skull-key which turns with a muffled click.

The third door shows a hexagon. A six-side cracked mirror adorns the far wall of the small chamber beyond. Five unlit candles stand on a shelf below the mirror. Two iron levers jut from either wall. Above the mirror are scrawled words in dried blood, “PIGGY PIGGY PIGGY”.

Leelo finds a sixth candle hidden below the shelf. Krag lights the candles and arranges them on the shelf. Hoxton intones PIGGY PIGGY PIGGY and sees two more levers appear in the mirrors reflection, but looking back only sees the original levers. He instructs Leelo where to find the new levers. Upon pulling the invisible lever to the north, nothing happens. Outside, the Rune Heroes find the hexagon seal is open. The hexagon-skull is soon clicked into place.

Moving to the other balcony, the second-to-last door features an octagon symbol. Beyond the door is a plaster-walled chamber with a fifteen-foot-high ceiling. A tome lies open upon a lectern bolted to the floor facing the far wall. Embedded into the plaster of the far wall are eight humanoid skeletons arranged as if falling in panic.

Leelo quickly finds a suspicious seam down the center of the floor. Mesmer fills the top ten feet of the chamber with sticky magical webs that anyone can reach should the floor fall away. Leelo creeps around the edge of the room and makes out Infernal script upon the open pages. She also finds a hidden compartment at the base of the lectern, but decides against pulling the iron lever within.

The demonling paladin enters attached to a life-line held fast by Krag, Mesmer and Hoxton standing outside the chamber. She reads eight pages of a simple rhyme silently and returns to confer with her companions. Once all are in agreement, Mavriy returns to read the script aloud in reverse order from page 8 to page 1:

Forward, forward, one to eight.
Speak the rhyme and meet your fate.
Turn their flesh and bones to cider.
Spin, spin, iron spider.
See the lever, clear as day.
Keep the spider locked away.
Speak the rhyme until it’s done.
Backward, backward, eight to one.

Leelo enters and pulls the iron lever. On the green door another keyhole is revealed and the fourth skull-key quickly fitted. Only the square skull remains! Hoxton looks all about him and finally sees one of the hags lurking stealthily in the spirit realm at some indeterminate distance.

The last door bears the expected square. Inside is a small chamber filled with a whirling cyclone of paper. Each bears writing which Leelo and Mesmer quickly confirm are spells. Mesmer suddenly finds himself willing to take great risks! But not too great. He gets Leelo to pluck one of the scrolls out of the air. Out of four tries she grabs three scrolls. Two bear unknown spells, neither cleric nor wizard, but one is a spell of polymorph. A useful find!

Upon this third success, the whirling scrolls disintegrate into dust which form into screeching dust elementals. Mesmer casually tosses a fireball into the room and all are reduced to fine gray ash. A spectral lever extends from the far wall. In the dust on the floor Mesmer finds a stick of black charcoal. After some false starts, he draws a square around the lever. Mesmer pulls the solid iron bar that appears. The single hag watching from the spirit-realm disappears.

The Rune Heroes shuffle quickly along the balcony toward the skeleton gate with all eyes watching right, left, up and down. The lid has been removed from the bubbling pot and thick green fumes already fill the space below the balconies. With a shriek of frustration, three night hags emerge from the deep ethereal. Peggy Deadbells blocks Leelo at the steps. Baggy Nanna and Widow Groat stand on the far balcony. It appears the Sewn Sisters consider their game to have run its course.

AE-session64-VaultoftheNine-fivetrials_20191215.jpg

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