The Skeleton Gate and hag’s lair fade from sight. The assembled host appears in a hall five paces wide and twice as long, ending in a broad stairway. A huge green-lit chamber is visible through the thirty-foot-high opening.
Two wide and deep balconies overlook a triangular lake of churning green and black liquid filling most of the chamber. Suspended above the glowing miasma is an enormous crystal cylinder held aloft by three adamant struts. Four huge tentacles sprout from the top. Thousands of small wraith-like forms swirl inside the glowing cylinder. The echoes of otherworldly screams hang in the air.
A shriveled monstrosity the size of an elephant floats near the cylinder. Its body is wet and malformed, its arms and legs atrophied, and it’s oversized head drips black goo into the boiling lake far below. The creature is attached to the cylinder by a twisted umbilical cord. Beyond the floating monster a third balcony hosts an archway filled with glowing blue mist.
The spirit of Zubakhan speaks to Hoxton: “This is the Soul Forge, Asmoday’s phylactery, and Thanatos the atropal. Now is the time to die in a blaze of glory as we take them with us to hell!” Hoxton agrees with everything but the dying part.
A twisting spiral of darkness links the Eye of Barbatos to the Soul Forge and the monk feels very vulnerable to death magic. Hoxton finds he can no longer remove the amulet. Mavriy comes to his aid and dispels the new curse.
Zoa weeps for the thousands of souls trapped in the Forge and urges Mesmer to free them. “Thanatos collects souls from the crowded spirit-realm to sustain Asmoday’s unnatural life.” The wizard thinks this is easier said than done.
Insanely greedy Lingnang tells Krag to “be on the lookout for treasure. We must be the first to find it! Now is when your companions will betray you for the huge wealth that must lie hidden here.” The war-cleric has long since dispensed with Mammon’s curse of greed and ignores Lingnang’s perverse suggestions.
Tlaxacotl advises Mavriy that “the atropal may be vulnerable to radiant energy, but killing it could summon forth its evil master, Asmoday, who recovers within the Soul Forge.” Thanks to her dual nature, the gift of demonic and angelic ancestry, Mavriy does indeed possess the ability to smite foes with radiant power. But how to reach the hovering Thanatos?
Kobah’Lao, who has been with Leelo almost from the start, provides guidance: “Dear Leelo, Asmoday is recovering within the Soul Forge. He may become aware of us at any moment and emerge to do battle!” Even Kobah’Lao dispenses with her usual aversion to risk. All the spirits burn with the desire for revenge and freedom from their long imprisonment.
Mavriy and the mighty dao Keshma lead the charge down the steps, but the infernal paladin finds little scope to maneuver her hellhorse and quickly dismounts. The monstrous Thanatos begins gibbering and moaning in a barely-comprehensible mix of celestial and infernal. Mavriy hears only a stream of nonsensical obscenities. What terrible being did the Cabal of Six enlist to extend their horrible lives?
All agree that the yard-wide metal struts must be a weak point. Mavriy leads Lukanu and Zaal in smashing the nearest strut. Keshma summons an earth elemental from the stones of the right-hand balcony to begin working on the second strut. The mighty elemental deals heavy blows causing the entire Soul Forge to shudder.
A glowing humanoid figure appears within the crystal Soul Forge. The spectral skeleton is struggling toward the top of the cylinder. This can only be Asmoday, now fully aware of his peril.
Mavriy, Lukanu and Zaal attack the nearest metal arm. The paladin’s battleax and Lukanu’s magical scepter are very effective: the heavy span is soon cracked and split along it’s length. But Zaal’s mundane bronze battleaxe cannot even scratch the metal. Keshma takes the minotaur’s place with her maul from the plane of elemental earth. One of the massive tentacles lashes out and knocks Mavriy back with a savage blow.
Hoxton, powered by the divine strength of Zubakhan, makes an incredible 30-foot leap to the left-hand balcony. A tentacle deals him a savage blow when he attacks the third support with his adamantine fighting-fan. The quivering bulk of Thanatos looms near. Wisps of darkness emerge from the misshapen head to form a deadly wraith. Hoxton is forced to dodge this way and that as tentacle and wraith conspire to destroy him. Krag sees Hoxton is in trouble and shouts a word of magical healing. Maybe leaping onto the balcony alone wasn’t such a good idea!
Mesmer commands his gang of flying mephits. The horde blankets Thanatos in a cloud of stinging ash and red-hot cinders. The blinded atropal wails in grief and pain. All can feel their strength being sapped by the terrible cry. Much more of this and no one will have the strength to stand upright much less face the lich-king.
The wailing atropal floats near Hoxton. The kobold feels an aura of death drawing away his life. He sees that the spar being worked on by Mavriy, Keshma and Lukanu is about to break. Four of the mephits expire in puffs of smoke as their life-force is leeched by the mighty atropal. The remaining four expire in a blast of flame as Mesmer casts his first fireball. Again Thanatos wails in terror and pain, further weakening many in the chamber.
Krag throws his hammer to help shatter the nearest support. The adamant span finally cracks apart. The remaining spans slowly bend as the massive Soul Forge dips toward the boiling pool thirty feet below.
Asmoday emerges from the top of the falling cylinder. A staff tipped with a glowing skull appears in his right hand, undoubtedly the ‘Staff of Barbatos’ thought to be recently recovered from the Broken Sepulcher by Os-Gabella or her dragonborn servants. A sphere of utter darkness appears to Asmoday’s left.
The lich hisses in consternation at the unexpected enemies arrayed against him. Undoubtedly Asmoday recognizes Leelo and Mesmer, who confronted him as a faded wight after his release from magical imprisonment. He even paused to offer Mesmer a position with his future retinue, cursing him with a lich-geas at the same time. Krag, who fled in terror from Asmoday-wight years ago, now stands firm and inflicts a divine bane upon his old enemy.
The vengeful lich sends forth the sphere of annihilation to chase his foes back and forth across the wide ledge. Krag is not quite fast enough and suffers the ice cold bite of the sphere. Asmoday then attempts a spell of teleportation, but Mesmer is ready and snuffs the spell with great effort.
Hoxton makes a fantastical leap across space from the balcony to the Soul Forge, catching the lich by surprise. Even so, only one of his blows defeats Asmoday’s powerful arcane shield. Asmoday’s Ki is well protected and the monk cannot stun him as would normally be the case. He leaps from the falling cylinder to join his companions.
Mavriy shouts at Keshma, “smite the lich, do not let him go! Bring him to us!”. Keshma flies to intercept the falling Forge and deals Asmoday a solid blow with her magic maul. Mesmer traps both in a sphere of impenetrable force. Asmoday retaliates with a sparkling gray beam, instantly disintegrating the sphere.
As the broken Soul Forge plunges into the glowing pool, Keshma grapples the screaming lich and bears him up through the air toward her ‘servants’. He retaliates with a wave of life-disrupting force, but Keshma is undeterred. Now she will destroy this presumptuous scion of Os-Gabella, who imprisoned her so long ago!
The crystal cylinder shatters and thousands of tiny lights coil upward through the air like a tornado. The chamber is filled with ethereal light and cries of joy as the spirits trapped in the Soul Forge are freed. Asmoday screams in terror at the destruction of his phylactery. Now it is ‘all or nothing’ for the cornered lich-king. But the Rune Heroes must face both Thanatos and Asmoday together.
Leelo pours magic arrows into the approaching atropal while her flying sword Nidarchus slashes its undead flesh. Krag slams his magic throwing hammer into Thanatos from afar. The hulking creature is an easy target!
Mesmer survives a spiraling black beam of life-draining force projected by the approaching monstrosity. The captive wraith floats across the gap to assault Mesmer directly, but he destroys it with a sphere of magic thunder and turns to blast Thanatos with another fireball. The godling of undeath finally collapses howling into the lake of boiling poison.
The ember cleric sees that the horrible wailing of the atropal has crippled many of his companions. He raises his hammer and utters a thunderous oath to Aeron, god of war. Amazingly, the deity hears and responds from his iron throne somewhere beyond the cosmos. Dark ethereal wings brush across the faces of Krag’s companions. All feel a surge of energy as their exhaustion is dispelled!
Leelo’s elemental myrmidon joins Mavriy, Zaal, Hoxton and Lukanu as Keshma arrives with her deadly captive. The shriveled lich lacks the physical strength or dexterity needed to escape, but even now is chanting another spell. The threads of time begins to fray: one strand for the arch-lich and another for the rest of creation. With great effort Mesmer again counters the spell, otherwise the lich would surely escape and no doubt arrive at a position of advantage.
Everyone pounds the struggling lich with all the weapons at their disposal. Lukanu charges and circles back to charge yet again, inflicting massive punishment with the adamant scepter of her dead empress. Hoxton joins in after gulping a powerful healing potion looted from the crypts above. Blue Ki power flashes as he rains hammer-blows down upon the lich.
A wave of deadly necromantic power sweeps out from the raging archmage. Everyone nearby feels their life-force fleeing. How long can the Rune Heroes and their allies hold up to such punishment?
Keshma has been taking terrible damage from Asmoday and even a few accidental strikes by her allies. Now her seemingly indestructible form finally disintegrates in a cloud of swirling sand. The dao returns to the realm of elemental earth. Her summoned elemental goes berserk, but fortunately is stranded on a balcony. Mavriy is ready and leaps forward to grapple Asmoday again. Still the lich cannot escape! This proves to be Asmoday’s weak spot.
Zaal is the next to fall. Lukanu cries out as her minotaur companion collapses into a pile of rotting bones. She charges again, but is unable to overcome the mighty undead archmage’s magical protections. Indeed, all are having difficulty striking home despite Mavriy holding fast to the hissing lich. Mesmer dispels the protective magic while also countering a final spell from Asmoday, a terrible 9th level circle of death. Three in a row! But now the wizard’s magic is nearly exhausted.
Asmoday counters with another wave of life-disrupting negative energy. Both Hoxton and Krag are struck down. Leelo falls to her knees, but Nidarchus is unaffected by the death-magic. Mavriy is on her last leg. She clings desperately to the lich. Her battleaxe glows with radiant fire, a gift from her mother Nevena and symbol of her dual nature. The lich howls in agony as his twisted soul burns under the blade. Leelo and Lukanu also score massive hits now that Asmoday’s protections are briefly disabled.
The crumbling lich prepares a final potent spell that may well take down everyone nearby. Will Mesmer have the strength left to counter it? Luckily, this question will not be put to the test. All gasp to see Krag stand upright, swaying and gray-faced. The half-orc is barely recognizable. He blurts out a spell of healing and Hoxton crawls away as best he can. Krag’s hammer whirls across the narrow space, impacting Asmoday’s head with explosive force.
Unseen by his companions, cosmic forces concatenate upon Krag’s soul. A long-imprisoned rose of fire glimmers in the vast dark expanse, beckons to Krag, then vanishes. The war-cleric is irrevocably changed by Asmoday’s destruction and freeing thousands of tortured souls. When and how will these changes manifest?
The once-immortal lich disintegrates into a cloud of black ash in Mavriy’s hands. In response the chamber rocks back and forth, sloshing the poison lake high into the air. Cracks appear everywhere as tremors shake the stone. The Rune Heroes and their allies have achieved the impossible and destroyed Asmoday before he could fully recover. Now to escape the crumbling tomb!
Leelo and Hoxton find an amulet and the lich’s staff still intact. Mesmer is at first loathe to touch either artifact. Hoxton sets up his magic mirror on the wall and invites everyone to ‘hitch a ride’ on the Hoxton Express. All but Mesmer and Leelo disappear into the mirror. Eleven of twelve cells are now occupied. At Hoxton’s command, the fragile magic mirror shrinks to a size convenient for transport.
Hoxton uses the strength of Zubakhan to leap to the middle and then far balcony while carrying his little mechanical sphere-buddy. He disappears into the arch of blue mist. Mesmer has magicked Leelo with spider-climbing so she is not far behind.
Now alone in the quaking chamber, Mesmer examines the amulet and staff. The amulet is probably a legendary aid to mages seeking to safely harness a sphere of annihilation. The Staff of Barbatos may or may not deliver a terrible curse to whoever touches it. This is certainly the same legendary artifact recorded in the Catacomb Libralis at Midgar. The glowing skull floating at the tip of the staff seems human. Carved into it’s forehead is the symbol of the Storm Queen, known as a sign of doom across all the realms of Creation. Most recently the Rune Heroes saw this staff in the hands of Os-Gabella’s illusion at the destroyed temple above Thonis. How did Asmoday come to possess it? Perhaps the association of Os-Gabella and the Cabal of Six lingers into the present age, though the last member of the Cabal is now destroyed.
With no time remaining, Mesmer snatches up both amulet and staff. The artifacts give him a big boost when attempting to mentally control the sphere of annihilation. Otherwise he would certainly have to leave it behind. Mesmer has no desire for either staff or sphere, but thinks he may be able to trade them for magic more to his liking. If only the artifacts can somehow be transported back to civilization.
Mesmer uses magic to transport himself first to a middle balcony where he can safely move the black sphere across the chamber, then joins the sphere at the far balcony. It is a risky affair. More than a few times the deadly globe slides out of control toward him. Finally he mentally nudges the dark orb into the blue mist and steps through to join his companions.
Only a minute earlier, Hoxton emerged from the blue mist-gate into a dark chapel of black basalt with a polished obsidian altar at the far end. Resting on the altar is a leather bag holding a body of humanoid proportion. Behind the altar, a heavy black drape hangs from an archway.
Eight emaciated, twisted humanoids hang from iron shackles along the walls of the chapel, four to each side. Each turns a single eye to gaze balefully at Hoxton. All at once the monsters begin babbling a cacophony of complaints, entreaties and demands in a plethora of unknown languages. Hoxton brings forth the magic mirror and summons Krag and Mavriy.
Krag and Hoxton approach one of the deformed beings and attempt to communicate without success. However, when Hoxton presents the ring of keys taken from the Sewn Sisters, the creature urgently motions to the shackles. Hoxton at first declines to free them, but all eight shake their shackles and wail in furious protest. Their huge single eyes begin to glow green. Fearing some sort of attack is coming, Hoxton hastily frees one, then finally all eight. They wander about the chapel mumbling to each other as if bereft of their senses, but display no further hostility.
Now Leelo arrives from the mist-gate. She joins Krag to investigate the sack on the altar. Within is an unconscious dragonborn male of golden scales and impressive physique. The half-dragon is wounded by deep scratches from night hag claws and hovers on the edge of death in a state of unnatural somnolence. A healing spell from Krag wakes him. This is Sephirius, the dragonborn paladin mentioned in Devlin’s journal.
Sephirius reveals he was cornered alone and captured by the night hags soon after the Yellow Banner became separated. The Sewn Sisters kept Sephirius in a magically induced sleep over the intervening years, only occasionally waking him for torture or sustenance, as their whim dictated. Apparently the night hags were preparing to sacrifice the paladin for some baneful purpose, but fell to the Rune Heroes before they could complete their foul ritual, leaving Seph upon the altar. Mavriy muses “There but for the grace of Esus go I!” Seph confirms he is indeed the son of Eurabatres by a mortal woman and joined the Yellow Banner at the behest of his father when they arrived at the valley five years ago.
Mesmer dives through the mist-portal, rises and shakes the dust off. He reports the vault of the Soul Forge is well and truly collapsing. Now the Rune Heroes feel the stones of the altar tremble. Cracks appear along the walls. Obviously time is of the essence!
Hoxton sets up his mirror and releases Kretha Longsteel and Lukanu the centaur. As he turns to suggest the sorely-wounded Seph take refuge within the mirror, the dragonborn points a shaking finger at Kretha and shouts “He is a foul shape-changer! Slay the monster!” Kretha does not even attempt to dissemble and is quickly cut down by Leelo, Hoxton and Krag as he flees toward the mist-gate. In death his body transforms into a gray-blue humanoid with a face of featureless putty, not unlike the ‘Nahual’ destroyed years ago in the Shrine of Zencota.
Being satisfied the Rune Heroes are friends of his father, Seph enters the mirror to recover while the Rune Heroes try to find a way out of the crumbling tomb. Speaking of which, the spirits have gone silent. Zubakhan, Zoa, Lingnang, Tlaxacotl and Kobah’Lao have disappeared without so much as a ‘by your leave’. The horn likewise inhabited by Jin’ri is now empty and mundane. What will these rogue angels do with their newfound freedom?
Mesmer identifies the formerly imprisoned one-eyed creatures as ‘Nothics’. All speak Patrian, the language of the Age of Magic. These pathetic beings are remnants of mages corrupted by foul magics, no doubt henchmen punished by Asmoday for failure or conspiracy against their master. Now their powers are gone and their minds as well.
Several of the Nothics become trapped in Hoxton’s mirror. Two others wander through the drape concealing the archway behind the altar. Leelo follows to discover a hall set with four decorative arches, but no visible doors. Paths marked in red, gold and purple snake along the floor to three of the arches. A charred skeleton lies on the floor pointing to a fourth archway. A single magic torch burns in a wall sconce at the far end. Mounted below it is a bronze plaque bearing a warning in familiar magic script: Behold the fate of those who defy me. Leelo recalls the departing words of Baggy Nanna:
“Hidden beyond the Skeleton Gate is a library of lost lore, guarded by an arcanaloth whose true name is Ygga Raxyg”
“There is only one way to leave the Vault of the Nine: the Ebon Pool. Charred bones point the way.”
“The Red Trail leads to death.”
Before Leelo can intervene, one of the Nothics touches the nearest archway at the end of the red trail. The curious Nothic disappears in a flash of blood-red and is not heard from again. So much for the Red Trail.
The Rune Heroes soon discover the arch at the end of the purple path teleports those stepping through into a hidden library warded by an elderly librarian wearing gold horn-rimmed spectacles. The library is a trove of historical, arcane and divine knowledge from across the multiverse. Krag and Mesmer begin searching for the most valuable tomes and scrolls. Mesmer soon finds precious books of spells acquired by Asmoday across hundreds of years. This trumps even the trove recently looted from Os-Gabella’s temple!
Hoxton converses with the mild-mannered librarian. Leelo swipes his gold-rimmed spectacles left sitting on a nearby table. These exactly match the destroyed glasses retrieved from the boar’s-mouth trap and also those worn by Eurabatres’ human form, the hermit Rabat. Later Mesmer determines the spectacles are nodes of conjuration magic. Rabat subsequently reveals the spectacles are keys to other planes of existence, but declines to provide more details.
The librarian becomes obstreperous when his books are looted. Hoxton utters the name ‘Ygga Raxyg’ and the librarian transforms into a fox-faced feminine fiend, now briefly stunned and paralyzed by the utterance of her True Name. Hoxton quickly traps Ygga in his mirror. It’s getting crowded in there.
With the hall rocking and rolling like a ship at sea, the Rune Heroes stumble through the arch indicated by the charred skeleton and find what must be the ‘Ebon Pool’. Dropping black marbles into the pool allows each to pass through an obelisk matching the one outside the tomb entrance far above. A sixth magic marble allows Lukanu to pass through without ‘riding the mirror’.
Pre-dawn light illuminates the desolate valley, last seen six days ago when the Rune Heroes entered the Vault of the Nine. The battlefield has been cleared of corpses by scavengers. Save for the blood-red comet hanging overhead, the sky appears almost normal. Stars wink out as the sun peeks over the horizon.
Mesmer discovers he is able to access the teleportation circle in the temple ruins above Thonis. Krag can once again summon edible food and water. Has the death of Asmoday and the destruction of Os-Gabella’s under-fortress reduced the effect of their magic in the region? Either way, the Rune Heroes will avoid another long slog through a hundred miles of demon-infested hell terrain.