The chamber below is filled with cold water. Wooden racks on the walls hold unstrung bows and crossbows, all bloated and warped by the water, along with their ammunition. Another staircase in the northern half of the room leads upward into a lit room, indicated by the bright patch of water near the ceiling. Amaya leads her cousins up out of the water.
Two reptilian humanoids in breastplates guard the next room. More wooden racks containing all manner of bludgeoning weapons line the walls. A few inches of water cover the whole floor here, as well. Apparently unconscious, a human man in half-plate is tied to a rack in the northwestern corner.
The xulgaths raise their weapons and Amaya advances, striking the nearer of the two. The other one engages with the half-elf and feints, following up with a savage blow of its greataxe. Seeing the xulgaths conveniently lined up, Nasti strikes them both with a lightning bolt. Nova pours some of her last healing magic into Amaya.
The heavily wounded xulgath brings its axe down heavily on Amaya, hitting a nerve. The half-elf shakes off the potentially debilitating blow, and counterattacks, slaying the creature and further wounding its companion. It retaliates with another weakening strike; Amaya staggers but stands firm. Nasti blasts the remaining xulgath with fire, and Nova resorts to wands to heal her cousin. So bolstered, Amaya brings the combat to a close.
After patching their own wounds, the cousins turn their attention to the xulgaths’ captive. The bound fellow is unconscious but stable, obviously the victim of cruelty. Nasti revives him, and the man stirs. He blinks at the tiefling’s surprising visage then glances down at the dead xulgaths in the water and the other humanoids. “Huh. Am I … saved?”
“Yes, you’re okay now. I’m Nasti; that’s Amaya, Nova, and Canter. Who are you?”
“Tybalt. Er, I don’t suppose you could untie me? Also, have you seen my horse?”
“Sure, one moment.” She begins the work. “I think your horse might have run afoul of Walter.”
He blinks again. “Walter?”
“Another denizen of this place. Were you down here with the Luminous Order?”
“I … hoped to be. I came down here to show my mettle. I’m afraid that I have,” he finishes glumly, rubbing his rope-chafed wrists. “Thank you.”
“Don’t blame yourself, Tybalt. It’s very dangerous down here.” She’s trying to give Tybalt her full attention, but a magical cloak that Amaya lifts off one of the xulgaths is very distracting.
“Indeed. I don’t suppose you could use a … passable swordsman?”
“We could always use the help. But you are not exactly prepared at the moment,” Nova says.
“Too true, madam,” he concedes. “Perhaps it would be wisest for me to retreat to the surface.”
“Oh, my sword!" the young man exclaims. “Have you seen an engraved greatsword? It’s an heirloom.” He glances at the racks of bludgeoning weapons.
“I’ll go and see if I can find it, or at least one that will serve. Be right back,” Nasti says, descending the watery stairs once more. She returns a minute later towing a greatsword with etching on the blade.
“Yes, that’s it exactly,” Tybalt says. “Thank you, Madam Nasti. Now, if you think I should head back out, I will take your advice.”
“I think we should escort you out, to be more precise,” Nova says gently.
“Ah. Emasculating, but likely the prudent course.” He says it with nary a blush.
“Walter may have woken up by now,” Nova says. “He could be going back and forth to get dragon bones. Not worth tempting him.”
“As you say. Very well. Lead on.”
Tybalt is safely escorted out and the cousins continue to the camp, deciding to follow the better part of valor rather than risk pressing forward with Nova tapped out of spells.
* * *
9 Sarenith, 4720 AR
They descend the final set of stairs in the Slaughtergarde Armory. At the bottom, they find a pool of water that stretches beyond the crumbling wall to the northwest, with sagging timbers bracing the ceiling. Across the pool is a beautiful woman in red robes. She’s standing next to a fire beetle cage. Behind her, to the east, are four copper doors. “If you got this far, you must be capable,” she says. “Good. I need capable allies.”
“Well, hello. What’s your name?” Amaya says.
“Amaya. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Hopefully, dear. I take it you’re here for the Gates.”
“Yes. I’m guessing you’re here for the same reason?”
“Rather. The savage has bound me here and opening the gate is the only way to break the damned curse.”
“So ONE good thing could come out of opening the gate,” Nasti mutters.
Laura glances at Nasti. “Ah. So, opening the gate is not your preferred course of action. I should have figured it would not be as simple as all that.”
“It’s complicated. I was sent here to open it, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
“I see,” she says.
“How long have you been down here?” Amaya asks.
“The gnoll warchief dragged me down here with him to assist with his foolhardy plan. A couple of weeks?” Laura says.
“What’s the curse about?” Nova asks.
“Oh, it’s a classic wither away and die if I ever stray from the task of making sure he is successful in his endeavor to open a gate. Tiresome but effective.”
“If we remove the boss, is that enough to break the curse?” Amaya asks.
“It’s possible killing Gashkarr would break the curse, but there’s an even chance I would die anyway.”
“Well, how about we start with that and see where it gets us,” Amaya says, earning a slightly incredulous stare from Laura.
“I expect you’re bound to try to stop us if we try to stop him, Laura,” Nasti says.
“I wonder,” the woman says thoughtfully.
“I can’t raise the dead yet,” the tiefling admits.
“I’m not keen to roll the dice. Are you sure you won’t reconsider opening the gate? Just for a moment or so?” she addresses Amaya and Nova. “Surely that would fit the letter of the curse.”
“We aren’t too excited about the idea of opening a bridge to allow demons to flood the valley,” Nova says.
“Can’t take the chance of something slippin’ through,” Amaya says.
“You would condemn someone on the off chance that a fiend might slip through? I see.”
“We’re still missing one of the three things I was told we’d need to open it,” Nasti says. “’Pages, used to foretell the stars.’"
“I imagine those pages would be within Gashkarr’s Tome of Slaughtergarde.”
“That sounds quite likely. Do you know where this Tome is?”
“With Gashkarr. Of course. Beyond.” She points to the eastern doors.
“I wonder if we could coerce the chief to end the curse,” Nova says.
“Perhaps, but he strikes me as the zealous type,” Laura says.
Nova sighs deeply and turns to address her cousins. “I can’t believe I’m saying this … but JUST to consider all options. How confident are you that the portal COULD be closed immediately after opening?”
“In the strictest and most technical sense, I was asked to ‘make the gate functional.’ Which may or may not mean throwing it all the way open,” Nasti says.
“I don’t know,” Amaya says honestly.
“Laura if there is a way to avoid risking your life, that would be preferable. But between your safety and the safety of my home, home wins. No contest. Sorry,” Nova says.
“I see. Well, perhaps I should simply embrace my doom.” She sits down beside the wall and draws her knees up, putting her arms around them.
“If we interrupt the ritual, then the gate will close,” Nasti says. The body language of her tail suggests that she’s trying to convince herself of this.
“I think so too. I really wish I didn’t. But I do,” Nova says.
Laura sighs. “The gate is restless now with the gnoll warchief’s meddling. Defeat the guardian and the warchief, and it’s yours to do with what you will. Though it seems you are already decided."
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Nasti says. Laura offers the tiefling half a smile.
Canter flies up and sits by Laura’s side. “They’ll figure something out. They’re quite clever, really.”
“Oh, I’m sure they could. Were they so inclined,” Laura says. Then she blinks. “The flying cat talks. All right, then.”
“Okay,” Nova says. “Here’s my position. Laura gets what she needs by us opening the gate just long enough. Nasti gets to make the gate operable … can’t believe I’m saying this. BUT, Laura that’s it. And Nasti, the gate will not remain functional for long. The ark goes where Amaya chooses. The sigil goes with me. And the pages go with Nasti. Then no one person has them all.” She takes a deep breath. “That seems fair. Thoughts?”
“See?” Canter says. “Quite clever.”
“That’s… that’s very good, Nova,” says Nasti.
Laura gives Nova an appraising look. Then she looks to Amaya.
“Sure,” the half-elf says with a shrug.
“Well, it seems like the best offer I’m going to get, so.” She smiles. “I’m in. I would prefer that we have all the pieces handy in case he dies in the attack so we can perform the ritual right away if that is not too onerous a condition.”
“Does that mean we have to drag the fucking ark back down here?” Canter says.
“We’ll be fine. I’m not looking forward to dragging that thing around, but if we do it, it’ll be done,” Nasti says.
Within the hour, the cousins collect the ark from camp. They get some strange looks from the soldiers, but they are the experts tasked with dealing with the Slaughtergarde Armory, so no one stops them.
Laura fills them in with additional information as they prepare to face the warchief. “Gashkarr and his ceustodaemon minion can manipulate the gate, but you took the two items required to open it.” Laura briefly explains her understanding of how the gate should work with relation to the Ark of the Resurgent Mountain and the missing sigil. She also explains that the Tome of Slaughtergarde controls the gate once it is open.
“I’m sure we’ll have to fight Gashkarr, but maybe we won’t have to kill him,” Nasti says.
Nova nods. “Can you help with that, Laura? As recompense for us taking the risk for you?”
“Aside from my arcane knowledge, I’m afraid my magic lies more in enchantment. I will try to make myself useful in the fight, but I don’t want you to get your hopes up too high.”
“They won’t be suspicious of you opening the door, right? Could be you just getting their attention to give us time to ambush would be help enough.”
“Oh, he cast me out in a fit of pique after my last suggestions, so I guess I could get his attention, but not AWAY from the doors,” Laura says. Nova frowns but nods. The red-haired woman steps up beside Nasti and touches the tiefling’s arm. “Thank you,” she mouths.
“You’re welcome,” Nasti replies. Her tail twitches suddenly.
Amaya pushes open the two central doors into a huge chamber, the vaulted ceiling at least a hundred feet overhead. In deep alcoves to the north and south are immense, crumbling gate arches like the ones the cousins saw in the ruins inhabited by the goblins and the drow. Similar alcoves are set in the northeastern and southeastern corners, but the angle prevents the adventurers from seeing what’s in them. Iron spiral staircases ascend to a lit balcony high on the eastern wall.
Between the adventurers and the stairs, a brown, shaggy-furred beast stands on slate grey hooves near the center of the room. Its head resembles that of a maniacal horned ape. It turns toward the opening doors, takes a step forward, and tries to shut down Amaya’s central nervous system with a spell. Amaya grits her teeth and wills herself through the magical paralysis, staggering forward to attack. Her blade carves large wounds into the hairy daemon’s hide.
Laura steps into the room and utters a spell at the ceustodaemon. “Stand down,” she commands. The beast lowers its arms. “This may not last, but hopefully it will.”
Nova nods and conjures a vision to determine the creature’s weaknesses. “Attack its mind,” she says. “Good aligned weapons will hurt it more effectively." Nasti attempts a more direct approach, but the daemon resists her banishment. It stands its ground in the thrall of Laura’s spell long enough for Amaya to cut it up some more. Nova’s searing light nearly ends the daemon, and Nasti’s hydraulic torrent finishes it off.
“If you can’t go to the Abyss, by Lamashtu, bring the Abyss to you!” bellows a powerfully built gnoll who suddenly stands up atop the eastern balcony, ending his rant with a howl of diabolic laughter. Then he begins chanting as he ducks out of sight again.
Before they can react, the remaining sigils on the northeastern gate flash briefly. A blast of fetid and hot wind slams into the adventurers, carrying on it the screams of the tormented. In a wavelike mass, a vast pile of skulls crashes through the gate. The skulls spill across a large portion of the room, many crumbling to dust as they tumble. Amid all the skulls lurches a demon with goat horns, leathery wings, and a long tongue. It rumbles and growls, turning its awful gaze on you as it extends its clawed fingers. A flickering bubble of translucent energy surrounds it and the skulls, and a tendril of the same energy extends back into the center of the gate.
“Aw, HELLS no!” Canter says.
Amaya advances on the new demon, but it is too swift by half for her opening strikes. Laura approaches the demon and says, “Why don’t you go stand by the gate and wait?”
Nah, a demonic voice scrapes in everyone’s heads. Cute trick, though.
Nova hits it with a ray of enervation, which doesn’t seem to faze it much. Nasti surprises everyone with her next action. She strains to call forth batlike wings from her back and takes flight. “Hey! Flying’s MY thing!” Canter complains amusedly. The skulls and strange aura being to pull back toward the flickering gate.
The demon tears into Amaya, who staggers under the assault. Nova’s spell saps the least of its vitality and it leers at the adventurers. Amaya struggles to recover from her injuries and still cannot land a single telling blow against the demon. Laura steps through a dimension door to the balcony above, while Nova focuses her magic on healing the half-elf. The demon grins and casts grim tendrils, catching Amaya and Nasti in the spell’s darkness. Afterward, it sinks its large teeth into Amaya’s flesh again.
Nasti ascends on her new wings, then considers what she recalls about the demon. She recognizes it as a Nabasu and rattles off what she knows about such creatures to her companions. As the skull aura continues to retract back into the gate, Amaya considers the new information and adjusts her tactics. She manages to slash the demon twice with her next flurry before raising her sword defensively.
Oh, so you DO have some skill with that sword, the demon’s “voice” comments in the adventurers’ heads.
Nova keeps pouring healing into Amaya, whose defenses hold against the demon’s next round of attacks. With an angle on the gnoll warchief, Nasti hits Gashkarr with a lightning bolt, though he manages to avoid catching it in the chest. The third time the skull aura retracts, it drags the Nabasu a step toward the gate.
Noting this development, Amaya breaks off and begins running up the stairs. Nasti overhears Laura say, “You’re losing, Gashkarr. Your pet demon is being dragged back home.” The gnoll snarls something impolite in Abyssal and captures Nasti in a resilient sphere. The Nabasu, too far away from anyone to affect the combat, gnashes its teeth impotently.
Nasti pops the bubble with her ray of frost then taunts the gnoll in Abyssal. "Your magic is weak. Yield, fool.”
Laura nods emphatically. “Yes, yield, Gashkarr! There’s nothing more to be gained here!”
Amaya gains the balcony and positions herself between the warchief and the eastern wall. The gnoll glares at the half-elf, then clicks his heels together and utters a word of magic. Wings sprout from his boots and he takes flight. Amaya slashes him as he flies away, drawing up right beside Nasti. Below, the demon is dragged back to the Abyss as the tenuous magical opening collapses within the cracked frame of the Gate.
Nasti flies away from Gashkarr toward the southeast alcove and tries to hit him with a cone of cold, but he evades the spell completely. In desperation, Amaya pulls her mace from its loop on her belt and lobs it into space, where it strikes the warchief in the back. Nova exchanges fears with Gashkarr, the enormity of the void debilitating him much more than his dreams of demonic invasion impact her mind.
Gashkarr flies away from Nova and her nightmares then strikes Nasti with a lightning bolt of his own. Hurt but still conscious, the tiefling hexes the warchief’s shadow to attack, and it begins to choke the life out of him. Nova heals Nasti, while Amaya bolts back down the stairs. Then the warchief casts a fireball that envelops Nasti and Nova both. However, his wounds steal most of the spell’s power. Nasti’s spell renders the gnoll unconscious, and his body floats to the floor on the wings of his magic boots.
“Right,” Laura calls down from above. “Let’s get everything into position.”
* * *
The Tome of Slaughtergarde is written in Abyssal, and Laura offers to read and direct the ritual if needed. Nasti thanks her for offering but asserts that she will manage the ritual. The red-haired sorceress nods and smiles, her gaze appraising Nasti’s face. After a moment she says, “Then I will support your efforts as you direct.”
Once everything is in place, Laura approaches Nasti and takes her hands. “I wanted to thank you again for helping convince your cousins to attempt this for me. I would like to offer you a gift if you would have it.”
“I would be honored,” Nasti says.
Laura smiles brilliantly and leans forward, her eyes smoky. At the last moment, she raises on tiptoes and brushes the lightest kiss upon Nasti’s forehead, directly upon the strange symbol upon it. Canter watches, his ears swiveled back in anxiety, but not pressed flat. A moment passes before Nasti suddenly fills her empty lungs with air. “Thank you,” she manages. Laura smiles, releases the tiefling’s hands, and takes her place to the side.
Nova places the sigil in the gap of the stones, and the adventurers begin the ritual to open a Slaughtergarde Gate. It takes an hour of chanting, gestures, and positioning their bodies relative to the ark and the Gate itself. When the fiendish light ignites within the boundaries of the Abyssal stones, the Obelisk shard disintegrates, absorbed into the glowing Gate.
Laura sighs in obvious relief. “I think we’ve done it,” she says, standing before the glowing gates. “I feel the curse lifting.” She takes a step toward the light, attempting to see beyond the veil. “And for what it’s worth, I don’t think any hordes are waiting to swarm.”
She turns and smiles. “I’m so grateful to you all for helping me. Especially you, great-granddaughter,” she says to Nasti as wings and a tail morph out of her back. With a wink, she steps through the Gate and is gone.
As the cousins watch the light within the Gate fade away, they exchange wide-eyed glances.
“I KNEW something was up with her!” Amaya says.
“Yeah. Something,” Nasti agrees, mystified.