Mavriy is struck by savage hunger when the night hags appear. A curse for failing to join in the feast laid out by Mr. Threadneedle? She and Krag attempt to leap from the balcony onto the tops of tables barely visible below the churning green mist. Only Mavriy is successful. She stumbles over a tabletop to engage the nearest hag, but is foiled by the curse and high stone railing. Krag disappears into the fog after losing his footing.
Hoxton dances along the railing and gets behind Peggy Deadbells, who is just starting to cast a spell. Seconds later the hag is lying flat on her back. Leelo strikes her with Nidarchus and the magic dagger, dealing terrible wounds. Mavriy attempts to behead the hag but her battleaxe glances off the rail and cartwheels through the air to disappear somewhere in the fog. Only later will she find her axe near the empty iron cage.
Mesmer and the two hags across the chamber engage in a duel of spells and counterspells lasting nearly the whole of the fight. The wizard is unable to isolate the nearest hag with his magic wall of force due to Widow Groat’s effective counterspells. In return he foils a lightning bolt and another unknown spell from Baggy Nanna. Hoxton is busy keeping Peggy Deadbells stunned and ineffective while Leelo stabs her repeatedly. But the hideous fiend proves difficult to kill, even lying stunned on the floor.
Finally Widow Groat gets off a poisonous ray that nearly incapacitates Leelo with agonizing pain. Baggy Nanna paralyzes Krag with a spell as he struggles to get his bearings in the fog. Apparently the hags can see through the thick fumes boiling from their cauldron.
Mavriy draws her last javelin of thunder and uses it to stab Peggy Deadbells. Between Hoxton, Leelo and Krag, the fiend is reduced to bloody chunks. The coven is broken! Baggy Nanna sees the fight is not going her way and disappears into the deep spirit realm where the Eye of Barbatos cannot see.
Hoxton rushes to confront Widow Groat. Krag recovers and applies healing magic to Leelo, who sends Nidarchus dancing through the air to assist Hoxton. At the same time she transfixes Groat with an arrow through the spine. Mesmer finishes her off with a powerful sphere of thunder magic. The hag’s cauldron stops bubbling and the fog soon dissipates.
Baggy Nanna knows Mesmer can pursue her into the spirit realm thanks to Strawbundle’s charm. The trembling hag reappears before the Skeleton Gate and seeks to make a bargain. The imprisoned child-spirits jump from their guardians and surround the pathetic hag. Strawbundle chants “Die witch die! Kill the hag, she’s the worst one of all!” and so on. The terrified hag looks nervously this way and that, as if Asmoday might arrive any moment to punish her failure. In exchange for her wretched life, she offers three pieces of information she claims will “save your lives”, but whoever reneges on the pact will suffer a terrible curse. Leelo negotiates with the fiend and gains an additional promise that she will never again work against the Rune Heroes.
“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.”
After divulging this information, Baggy Nanna flees into the spirit-realm. Its unlikely she can go far, for undoubtedly the Vault of the Nine is bounded across multiple planes of existence. Her only hope is that the Rune Heroes can somehow destroy the Vault. The bodies of Widow Groat and Peggy Deadbells yield a trove of arcane adjuncts, five more of the lustrous black marbles and a ring of eight iron keys.
Something less than half a day remains for final exploration and rest before confronting whatever lies behind the Skeleton Gate. The Rune Heroes climb the steps back to the hall of decay. Hoxton will access the cog control room via the mechanus and armillary chambers while his companions wait in the wardrobe-cog.
But what of the moon-demon? Hoxton discovers its whereabouts soon enough. Somehow the hulking fiend has escaped the armillary chamber and waits invisibly on the high ledge of the mechanus-chain conduit. When Hoxton leaps from the lower ledge, horned hands attempt to grapple him. Despite being exhausted after battling the night hags, he manages to evade the nine-foot-tall demon and scurry into the crawlspace.
As the demon reaches for him, Hoxton points the adamantine fighting fan. Howling wind straight from the Vault of Tali blows the clumsy demon off the ledge. Not waiting to see how well the fiend can fly, Hoxton reaches the control room where he reorients the cogs several times before rejoining his companions in the central cog.
Hoxton can’t resist turning the red knob one more time before leaving. The voice of ‘Glee’ sounds in his mind. “Hello? Have you come back to help me escape? There is a seal under the water on the north side of the lake. You can just see the top of it from the surface. Do you have a wizard who can dispel the magic holding it shut? We can escape that way! Oh no, it is coming closer…I must go!” The ‘boy’ is again silent. The mystery of ‘Glee’ and G’lyh’rul may never be unraveled.
The party ascends Withers’ secret stair to Belchorzh’s level and from there reaches the grand staircase through Yaka’s secret chamber. The jester’s golden skull is not in residence and with any luck is entombed forever within the juggernaut-hall. They climb to the second level of the staircase and camp next to Tlaxacotl’s tomb. Here they play musical chairs with the god-spirits freed so far. Mesmer ends up with Zoa, enabling him to become invisible. He also hangs on to the unused totem of Jin’ri. Krag tries his luck with Lingnang, ironically a former angel of Mammon who previously cursed Krag with insatiable greed, and is granted the power to breath underwater and swim as fast as a man can run. Perhaps not all that useful unless the party elects to revisit the lake-cavern far below. Mavriy sticks with Tlaxacotl, Leelo with Kobah’Lao and Hoxton with Zubakhan. Krag removes the curse inflicted by the nighthag-beer so that Zubakhan’s mighty strength once again flows through the kobold.
While Krag, Mavriy and Hoxton take a brief rest, Mesmer calculates the distance to Wither’s chambers behind the sealed secret door. He and Leelo step through a dimension-door into the dark space. A few undead claws scramble away to hide among the bookcases and drawers, but the room is otherwise empty. The office is carefully searched and looted, hearkening back to their first successful ‘job’ years ago at Scylia in the castle of Baron Almeriaq. Mesmer finds a Luchuirp manual of clay golem manufacture, one of those rare single-use examples containing all the necessary schematics, rituals and spells. All that is missing is the workshop and materials.
A moment later the wizard shouts in triumph. “Finally, the decrepit sage’s spell book!” Within are many useful spells, some not yet known to Mesmer including passwall and wall of stone. This explains how Withers sealed and unsealed secret doors and otherwise rearranged his demesne as needed. Inside the back cover two words are scrawled: “Khomara Blackfire”. A name or a command word? Mesmer also retrieves Wither’s journal, which describes his recruitment by Asmoday almost four years ago, arriving at the ruins and beginning the job of turning it into a trap for any adventurers that managed to find it. Unfortunately Withers was careful to avoid recording any specific details of the dungeon’s layout and defenses.
Leelo listens at the door north of the stairwell and hears clanking, hammering and scraping. It sounds like a smithy or workshop. Both Leelo and Mesmer make themselves invisible. Leelo silently opens the door to reveal a long hall occupied by tomb-gnomes hard at work with strange tools and mechanisms. A man-sized metal sarcophagus sits upright on a dais at the far end of the hall, tended by crawling claws and a pair of undead gnomes. Mesmer whispers “They are likely creating more tomb-golems, or perhaps even reanimating Withers.” The nearest tomb-gnome notices the door is ajar. Seeing nothing, the white-eyed wight simply closes the door. Being alone and short on spells, the pair retreat back to the grand staircase via another dimension door.
While Leelo and Mesmer take a much-needed breather, Hoxton recalls the jeweled skull-amulet worn by Withers. The kobold was loathe to touch it and no one else dared pick it up. The wight was reaching for it when Leelo stabbed him in the eye. Could this explain the secret of Withers’ surprising mobility? Hoxton returns a few minutes later to report the body has been removed from the clay-golem chamber. Bloodstains lead away from the scene, but Hoxton loses the trail in the passage above the drum-chamber.
While resting, Leelo hears the ghostly notes of a lute accompanied by the voice of Nidarchus.
Mirror, Mirror on the wall.
Who is the greatest bard of all?
Surely me, but for hubris.
And the spite of a bard named Xolbrys.
Now he lives eternal in a mirror.
Leeliona, won’t you fix this error?
Clearly Nidarchus is urging his new mistress to investigate the mirror previously spotted by Hoxton during his flying sortie into the depths of the grand staircase. The monk barely resisted a powerful magical compulsion after only a brief glance at the magic mirror. No one else is eager to try their luck.
Somewhat recovered, but still very much worse for wear, the Rune heroes re-enter Withers’ stairwell through Yaka’s secret chamber and descend to the unopened secret door. According to Hoxton, they should be roughly on the same level as the bottom of the grand staircase. Leelo sees a dark vaulted chamber behind the door. A ten-foot-deep sunken floor is surrounded by a wide ledge with no railing. Six alcoves to the north and south hold painted wooden statues of hornet-headed humanoid warriors, each wearing a golden kilt and wielding a green bronze spear.
A gruesome throne of bones lashed together with strips of skin stands atop the far side of the ledge. A fearsome horned skull surmounts the throne, apparently of a minotaur, and small humanoid skulls are piled around the base. They appear to be those of human and centaur children. A metal scepter rests on the seat.
Three gaunt humanoid figures in dusty paint-stained robes shuffle slowly along the walls of the central depression. Their eyes and mouths are sewn shut. Armed with brushes and clay pots of pigment, they paint the walls and pillars with grim, poorly rendered illustrations.
Krag anoints Hoxton with a spell of magical sanctuary and the monk proceeds to check the alcoves and walkway around the pit. He notices the blind artists are engaged in painting familiar scenes. The Rune Heroes are depicted in various harrowing circumstances, most recently Leelo is shown screaming when struck by Widow Groat’s poison ray.
Avoiding the horrible throne, Hoxton checks the north alcoves, but finds nothing. Satisfied instant death doesn’t wait in the chamber, Leelo proceeds to check up on Hoxton’s work. She finds a secret door in the far alcove. Behind the door is a small crypt adorned with Kuriotate-style tile mosaics depicting a city intermingled with frescoes of birds, insects and flowering plants. Both human and centaur citizens wear gold kilts and white togas. The curved ceiling is painted to look like a clear blue sky. A jeweled scarab beetle rests atop a sarcophagus of black basalt in the center of the room. A two-foot-diameter golden orb hammered to depict a smiling sun hangs from the ceiling.
Mesmer identifies Kuriotate letters carved into the top of the sarcophagus: TARANEH. This can only refer to Empress Taraneh of the House of Thonis. It appears that like her young daughter Nepartak, Taraneh fell foul of Os-Gabella. Only the Emperor is still unaccounted for.
Leelo mage-hands the jewelry box from the crypt. The smiling sun-face briefly fades to an inscrutable expression and glows hot, lightly scorching Hoxton’s backside. Inside the jeweled beetle-box Leelo finds a bronze key with a horse-head handle and a gold necklace with marble-sized golden spheres attached.
When the heat abates, Hoxton returns and proceeds to chisel away the lead seal around the lid. The stone proves too heavy for Hoxton or Mesmer to budge, so Krag lends a hand while Leelo stands guard outside. Mavriy remains behind at the secret door. “I’ve had my fill of deadly traps.” The magically-preserved body of Empress Taraneh lies within. She wears the tattered remnant of a black gown. A hornet-mask of gold and jade conceals her forehead, eyes and cheeks. Clasped to her breast is a scepter of iron with adamantine head, seemingly identical to the one on the throne of bones. Apparently Os-Gabella respected Taraneh well enough to grant her a small tomb and magical protections. Despite her pristine appearance, Krag verifies the empress is well and truly dead for over two millennia, if the historians of the Catacomb Libralis are correct.
Hoxton checks the scepter on the throne and finds it almost identical, but slightly rougher in workmanship. All shout and dodge for cover when the kobold picks it up. A cloud of red rage passes over the monk’s vision, but he masters the curse and returns the mace to the throne. This is a lucky break, for the tiny monk’s Ki is at full power and he could probably do serious damage to the party if possessed by a vengeful spirit.
Everyone scurries from the crypt as Hoxton approaches. Once all are clear of the door, Hoxton lifts the scepter from Taraneh’s grasp. Rays of blazing fire from the golden sun scorch the room, narrowly missing Hoxton as he darts outside. Unfortunately he dropped the mace in his haste to depart. Krag returns after the rays abate. When the cleric grabs the mace, Taraneh’s beautiful corpse opens her mouth in an obscenely-wide yawn and exhales a black cloud of death. Krag stumbles away choking and gagging, but survives. Mesmer determines the scepter can serve as a low-order magical weapon if needed, but doesn’t possess any special powers.
Leelo finds secret doors to either side of the large stone door. These must connect to the grand staircase. On the reverse side Hoxton previously observed a pair of stone viper heads projecting from the walls with fangs bared. Fearing another horrible trap, the party elects to return via Withers’ secret stair.
The fifth day in the Vault is waning. Only hours remain before the party must rest and make final preparations for the Skeleton Gate. After some hesitation the Rune Heroes agree to descend the grand staircase and investigate the mirror spoken of by Nidarchus.
Hoxton approaches the large blue-glowing mirror with eyes averted. From the corner of his vision he sees faint lines in the mirror delineating a dozen cells in four rows of three. Mesmer hisses from the side passage, “Try the words ‘Khomara Blackfire’.” Khomara does the trick and the mirror’s blue light fades.
Each of twelve cells is either empty or harbors the shadowy profile of a creature. Three are definitely humanoid. Hoxton tries the word ‘Blackfire’ and the number ‘one’. A drooling, gibbering middle-aged man appears in the chamber. He wears archaic clothing like that depicted in the art of Kuriotate ruins. The man is an ancient merchant rendered insane by events before or during his incarceration in the mirror. Leelo can understand his language by virtue of Joho’s charm, but can get no useful information out of him beyond the name A’tan Cymri. The fellow seems harmless enough. He wanders about the room attempting to barter with anyone he bumps into, as if he still walks the markets of Thonis.
Next, Hoxton tries ‘Blackfire 7’. A handsome alfar man bearing an archaic lute appears. Leelo understands his elven dialect. It is from a time soon after the sundering of the elves into Winter and Summer courts, but before the advent of Svartalfar (dark) and Ljosalfar (light) elves. This elf is none other than Xolbrys from the rhyme of Nidarchus. The bard hails from the latter years of the Age of Dragons, a time ancient beyond reckoning when Sucellus still walked among the elves.
At that moment Nidarchus leaps from the scabbard and attacks Xolbrys, who flees for his life. Leelo likewise gives chase. Seconds later Xolbrys is struck down by the vengeful Nidarchus before Leelo can wrestle him back into the scabbard. Krag is on hand to heal the poor bard’s mortal wound, though he will be unconscious for hours and recovering for many weeks.
Hoxton, Leelo and Mesmer return to the mirror while Mavriy and Krag guard the passage. Three more prisoners of the mirror are freed. The first is a Grigorian human warrior named Kretha Longsteel who claims to have joined the Company of the Yellow Banner shortly before they entered the Vault of the Nine. The journal of Devlin corroborates Kretha’s story, though there is scarcely a word about him after the Company entered the Vault.
The last two prisoners are a mighty centaur champion named Lukanu and her minotaur companion, Zaal. Lukanu wears heavy armor made from what looks like the chitin of a giant scorpion. Both hail from the fall of the House of Thonis, around 2200 years ago according to the chroniclers of Midgar. This makes them participants in the epic struggle recounted by Eurabatres the gold dragon! Hoxton removes the magic mirror from the wall. It shrinks to a small size for transport. Should be useful for bouncing troublesome guests in his future tavern / monastery.
“I am champion and protector of Empress Taraneh. We were trapped by a minion of the evil high priestess during an attack on the palace at Thonis. Where is the empress?” Leelo inquires about the ‘high priestess’ and verifies this must be Os-Gabella, who thousands of years ago planned a new pantheon of gods with herself as the chief divinity.
Leelo gently explains that the House of Thonis is no more. Indeed, the entire Kuriotate empire is reduced to ruins and legends. Realization of her fate slowly dawns on the centaur’s battle-scarred face. “Then all is lost. Can you take me to her tomb?” The Rune Heroes escort the shattered champion to her empress where she stands like a stone for the space of five minutes.
“I take it we are in the stronghold of Os-Gabella” Ironically, Lukanu and Zaal’s sacrifice, and Eurabatres’ intervention, defeated Os-Gabella and saved the Kuriotate empire, but the line of succession was forever broken. The land was ravaged by poisonous magic and the depredations of Abashi’s black dragon army. Within a few centuries the empire collapsed under the onslaught of barbarian hordes. By the time the first Patrian explorers arrived, only noble ruins and a few scattered tribes remained to tell of the empire that once ruled wide lands and commanded mighty armies of men, centaurs and minotuars.
When Lukanu learns of the Rune Heroes goal and the relationship of Asmoday to her ancient arch-enemy Os-Gabella, she is more than willing to join the fight. Zaal is fanatically loyal to Lukanu and accompanies her without question. The exhausted adventurers return to the night hag’s eerie lair to rest and prepare.
Leelo places Xolbrys in the iron cage formerly occupied by Mesmer’s defective simulacrum. It would be a tragedy if the ancient bard were killed and his store of knowledge lost, should Nidarchus get away from her again. Four hours later Xolbrys wakes and manages a brief conversation with Leelo before drifting off again. According to Xolbrys, he and Nidarchus were the ‘greatest alfar bards of the age’ and vied for the formal title of ‘Bard to the Winter Queen’. Xolbrys accuses the dastardly Nidarchus of trapping him in the magic mirror on the eve of their competition at the Winter Court. Of course, this is only Xolbrys’ side of the story. Nidarchus is either unwilling or unable to communicate except through infrequent and cryptic rhymes.
The Rune Heroes wake and begin preparations. Leelo summons Keshma from the violet bottle. The Dao will make good on her end of the bargain despite learning what likely awaits the Rune Heroes beyond the Skeleton Gate. Leelo has discovered how to make the horn summon a single powerful elemental myrmidon from the watery Vault of Danalin. She winds the horn and a fantastic warrior in opalescent armor appears atop a surging column of blue-green water.
Hoxton traps A’tan, Kethra and Xolbrys in the mirror. A’tan is too feeble to resist, Kethra is more than willing to ride out the coming fight, but Xolbrys requires some convincing by Leelo, who promises he will be freed soon. ‘Beebop’, Hoxton’s new mechanical buddy from Mechanus, is unaffected by the mirror and will have to join battle. Or at least hide somewhere inconspicuous.
Krag uses the jewelry box from Taraneh’s crypt to conjure a mighty ‘Heroes Feast’ from the realm of his lord Xrarog. All dine to repletion at a table of black onyx loaded with smoking meats, bloody roasts, and sizzling pigs. Each is touched by divine power and fortified for the ordeal ahead. He then anoints Mavriy, Mesmer and Leelo with magical death-wards. Finally, Krag gives the magic scepter of Taraneh to her long-lived centaur champion, Lukanu. The centaur bows in gratitude and takes her place at the door. The war cleric lines up with three new skeleton bodyguards summoned yesterday from Tlaxacotl’s tomb. They might not last long, but it’s nice to have them back!
Mesmer summons a gaggle of eight smoke mephits from the border regions of the elemental planes. He enchants himself with spells of long-striding, mage-armor and at the last moment, a kaleidoscope of whirling mirror images. Now to deal with the lich who once thought to hire him.
Mavriy whispers a prayer to Esus. Her red-eyed warhorse appears in a flash of fire. She lines up at the Gate next to the ten-foot-tall Dao.
Leelo magicks herself with a bevy of floating illusions, then fits the square-headed skull into the last of five keyholes. There is a muffled click as the skull turns and locks into place. The Skeleton Gate and the night hag’s lair fade from sight.