The cousins stand knee-deep in the dead, but a few minutes later they are only calf-deep in the dead as the duergar bodies shrink back down to normal dwarven proportions. They take refuge behind a spiked wall and patch up their hurt. Only slightly battered, they press forward to the northeast corner. A carved and paved tunnel provides a long ten-foot-square passage to the north, which is empty and silent.
“So. Trap?” Nasti says.
She and Amaya stayed alert, and their efforts paid off. Four separate sections of the hall look suspicious, as though they might drop from beneath anyone who walked across them. Nasti works her questionably legal talents to make the way safe. The hall terminates in a stone door.
Beyond the stone door, the hand-worked passages give way to mostly unworked caverns and tunnels. This large cavern is rough and filled with many rocky protrusions, as well as stalagmites and stalactites. Three rough tunnels lead off into darkness, though two of them have collapsed, filled with stony rubble leaving only one exit leading west. Near the northern wall is a large boulder that apparently crashed down from the ceiling long ago. What looks to be a skeletal hand protrudes from beneath it.
When they search the rubble around the rock, they discover a leather pouch with the initials DW. After a moment’s reflection, they realize it must have belonged to Derek Warcaller, a member of Nigel’s adventuring group. Within the pouch is a tattered scroll tied with leather. The scroll is almost decayed past legibility, but the following can be read in what is recognizably Nigel’s graceful script:
…the Alienist has reached the font of his power under Firestorm. When next the Vast Gate opens, Madreus may command unclean powers the like of which could drive men mad. This Vast Gate is the source of his power, reaching as it does into a realm so incomprehensibly far from our own that the entities there may not abide by the laws of reality as we understand them. The only way to end this threat is to kill Madreus and refocus the Gate to another location, using the three Crystal Components which we’ve so arduously gathered from across the face of the world. To reach his inner complex, many obstacles must first be overcome, the first of which is the Duergar complex. However, research has revealed that far more insidious creatures lie deeper…
“Fascinating,” Nasti says.
Amaya notes the gleam of metal beneath the boulder and moves it aside. She finds a still intact ring upon the crushed skeletal hand that was hidden beneath the boulder, which proved to be an enchanted ring of sustenance. Grasped in the crushed hand is a magical cold iron bastard sword enruned as “Thalkainen.”
Canter calls out, “Dibs on the sword! Damn, too slow.”
Amaya rolls her eyes at the familiar, gives the ring to Nasti, and lovingly admires the sword.
They head west for a short distance until they come upon a T-intersection. The tunnel continues west for some distance, but another small cavern opens to the south. They opt to inspect the southern point of interest first. A rough cavern looks empty, save for scattered rock debris upon the floor. There is a small hole in the lower portion of the southern wall, but it is large enough for them to traverse if a little slowly.
It empties into another worked stone room with an eight-foot ceiling that contains several dwarf-sized cots and a pair of surprised duergar guards. The dark dwarves are in their smallclothes, and reach for whatever is nearest at hand that might serve as a weapon.
“I wouldn’t recommend that,” Nova says with little hope they might understand her.
Amaya addresses them in Dwarven. “Please surrender.”
“Who in Droskar’s name are you?” the nearer duergar demands.
“We’re just passing through.”
“There is no ‘through’ here. Also, why would we surrender to passers-through?”
Amaya holds up one finger to indicate that the duergar should wait a moment as she turns to her cousins. “Uh, I need help with this.” She translates the exchange so far.
“They should surrender because everyone who’s tried to stop us so far is dead,” Nasti says flatly, staring directly at the dwarves. Amaya nods and delivers the message with a more menacing tone and expression.
The duergar exchange a nervous look before putting down their improvised weapons. “What exactly do you want?”
Nova and Nasti supply the first couple of questions, which Amaya translates. “Where’s the gate, and I don’t mean the front gate. And how do we get there without having to fight everyone and everything in here.”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘gate’ if not the outer doors to the mountain.”
“Probably above their pay grade,” Nasti says thoughtfully.
“Then what are you doing here?” Amaya asks.
“We are on break from guarding the front gates against outsiders.” He squints. “Like you.”
“Wellfast,” the other duergar chimes in, and they both shudder, “threatened death to anyone who let an upperworlder breach the city.”
“Promised is a better word.”
Nasti catches the name in all the dwarfspeak. “Wait, that was another one of Nigel’s companions.”
“Where is Wellfast now?” Amaya asks.
“In the city. Where he rules.”
The cousins exchange surprised looks. “He doesn’t want any skybreathers besides himself.” Nasti says.
“How can we get to the city?” the half-elf says.
“You can’t. You MIGHT kill us, but Wellfast WILL kill us. Or worse.” The duergar shudder again.
“Is he the only upperworlder still alive? What happened to the people he came in with?”
“People he came in with? He only came in five years ago from deeper within the mountain. And he came alone … but not.”
“Nightmares … slide beneath his skin.”
“Aye. He serves the Master beyond the Twisted Caverns.”
“That sounds like this Madreus,” Nasti says. “We should get on with it, then.”
“What’s in the cave to the west?” Amaya asks, pointing north.
“Don’t know. We don’t travel those tunnels. Too dangerous, we’ve heard.”
“We’ve answered your questions, but we cannot let you continue. As I said, whatever you do to us pales in comparison to the alternative.”
“So be it,” says Amaya, reaching for Thalkainen.
The duergar stood little chance against the seasoned adventurers, but before the last one fell he said, “Droskar calls all of us home someday. But at least the horrors won’t claim me. I wonder if you will be able to say the same…”
“Sucks dealing with all these zealots, but you gotta respect that kinda dedication…” Canter says.
Amaya nods. “I’d like to heal up a bit more before we face the horrors they were talking about.”
“I dunno. Is it worth it?” Nova says. “Sometimes I think Dren is the smartest person I know.”
After some translation and time conversion, the cousins determine that the logbook on a nearby table indicates the guards in this chamber won’t be relieved until tomorrow noon. The adventurers conclude that this might be a safe place to rest if they overexert themselves against the dangers of the northern tunnels. Additionally, they find a cassock of devotion depicting Sarenrae and a greater choker of elocution. The loot is divided, injuries are tended, and the cousins return to the T-intersection in the north, turning west.
“Perhaps we should gather up poor Derek on our way out, give him a decent burial when we get back,” Nasti says.
“I think that would be a good idea,” Nova replies.
Eventually, the tunnel empties into a 30-foot-high rough cavern. The floor is littered with bones of various creatures, some of them humanoid and some monstrous. Some of the bones are charred and scorched, and the unmistakable charnel smell of decay wafts through this area. The chamber curves out of sight to the southeast, but a flickering light washes across the floor from around that corner, reminiscent of firelight.
More immediately relevant, however, is the hulking figure made entirely of bone straight ahead. It lurches forward and squeezes into the tight tunnel, reaching for Amaya. Nasti mutters something about a “skeletal hulk” and “resistances” before turning the undead animate’s shadow against it. Then Amaya steps inside the skeleton’s reach and strikes it twice with her new magic blade. Nova flings her icy attack spell just past an undead shoulder.
The skeletal hulk unleashes another flurry of massive claws, but only one draws Amaya’s blood. Nasti and Amaya manage to shatter the creature only to have a second one step up to take its place, absorbing the shattered bones into itself. As the skeletal hulks form up, Canter groans, “Oh, gross.” The new hulk slams its claws deep into Amaya’s side. It hits harder but falls just as fast, prompting a third skeletal giant to step forward and draw in the bones of the previous two.
The cousins manage to dispatch it a few moments later, then enter the cavern to inspect the strange firelight in the southern alcove. There floats a peculiar orange glow that undulates and shivers in mid-air. As the adventurers gaze upon it, the oddest thoughts occur to them, like tendrils in their minds. They consider the layers of their existence, meat packed inside and around bone, wrapped in flesh, draped in plant-fiber clothing, and in Amaya’s case, covered in metal. Ambulatory meat, sentient by a whim of reality, shuffling through their lives barely aware of how small and insignificant they are in the scope of the whole of the multiverse. Flickering candles easily snuffed by the Hurricane winds that buffet them from all sides.
“This is like thinking in Abyssal,” Nasti comments.
You aren’t half-wrong, says Laura’s voice in Nasti’s head. You really shouldn’t stare into such lights, dear.
The tiefling’s eyes widen briefly, and she shakes her head to clear it as she does so.
The cousins exit the northeast passageway and head north until they come to another intersection with a larger area to the southeast. This is another cavern scattered with rocky debris and not much else. The ceiling of the cavern is at least twenty-five feet above and filled with stalactites. A heavy stone door is set in the northern wall.
Nasti’s keen eyes and healthy sense of paranoia prompt her to examine the door more closely. After a moment’s consideration, she gingerly steps back and explains her findings. A pressure plate spans both sides of the door and probably drops away into a pit when there is sufficient weight on both sides. She produces her thieves’ tools and sets to work, stepping back in satisfaction a short time later. Amaya nods and nudges the door open.
The air in this room is quite cold – condensation beads on the stone walls. The high ceiling is etched with designs of skeletal beings standing in a queue before a flaming furnace. Three stone sarcophagi lie scattered and broken in the room as if they were dropped from above.
“Makes you yearn for the welcoming warmth of the Slaughtergarde sites…” Canter says.
Without preamble, ghostly figures emerge from three of the coffins, red glowing eyes glaring with malevolent light!