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  | Asymmetry | Role-Playing | Villains & Vigilantes | The Revolution | Revolutionary War | Sunrise Sea |





    Being methodical in this instance was nearly our undoing. The center way led into another labyrinth, which we continued searching. We encountered an animate jelly of some sort, a dumb creature that we dispatched without difficulty. Eventually the corridor widened into a sort of room. In the center was a pedestal, holding a round object covered by a black cloth. The corridor continued on beyond this place. We gathered around the globe; both it and the cloth radiated magic strongly, the latter also giving off an intensely evil aura, the former simply powerful. Scott poked a pseudopod under the cloth and reported that the globe gave off a daylight glow. He removed the cloth, and seemed to take no harm from touching it, although most things that damage the living do not affect him. We weren't sure what to do. It could be another decoy, it could be a case of hiding valuables in plain sight. Phoenix Talon decided to take the chance, and picked up the globe.
    And died.
    Luckily for him, Scott was able to get in between him and the lightning bolts that then arced out from the trapped globe—lightning is food for the golem, but it would have damaged Talon's body beyond my ability to bring him back, and I'm not sure we would have survived what awaited us without him.
    After the lightning, things quieted down again. I was able to get Talon back—reminded rather bizarrely of how not too long ago I had done the same for a giant toad, and wondering how they were getting on back in Fimbulwinter's lands—and after a brief rest to recover we continued on our way, berating ourselves for having fallen for the trap. Down the third way, after some more twists and turns, we found the doors.
    They were tall and strong, with bars extending from them into the surrounding stone. Each door had four keyholes, and an inscription.
    On the right-hand door the keyholes were set in colored metal plates in symbolic shapes, a brass table, a lead sword, a bronze coffin, and a silver diamond. The inscription (in magical runes, which Thunderbolt could read) said, One man makes me, does not need me; one man buys me, does not use me; one man uses me, does not see me.
    The left-hand door held four simple square plates of the same four metals but in a different order, and said, I fall first the heaviest, then the heaviest from a man's purse.
    We pondered. Stephanie rubbed between Thunderbolt's legs and remarked, Lightning bolts suck. It seemed fairly clear that we would have to select the correct lock or locks from each door to use our four keys on—unless we were missing some keys, perish the thought—and perhaps operate them simultaneously. If we chose incorrectly, it seemed safest to assume that something unpleasant would happen.
    The riddle on the right-hand door referred to a coffin. So that was the bronze key for that door. That left silver and lead for the left door riddle, and the brass key... for nothing? For another door inside? I retreated around the corner; if they had it wrong and triggered some kind of deadly trap I might be able to help, but not if I was dead.
    Privateer inserted the keys and sent the rope to turn the one he couldn't reach at the same time. There was a loud grinding noise as the bars retracted. The men pushed open the doors, revealing an enormous gloomy cavern with a passage opening to the left; it appeared to be a natural cave, unlike the halls we had seen previously. We saw piles of loose rock, of the bones and the remains of those things they had once borne—rusted swords, armor, packs rotted away to nothing. It appeared that some score of others had made it this far—and no farther. I examined the remains, such as they were; they had died violently, it seemed.
    A wind began blowing from our left, building to an eerie howl, accompanied by an otherworldly light.
    "Let's go, this could be the closest I ever get to seeing the afterlife," Scott chirped.
    "Huh. You'll forgive us if we don't share your enthusiasm," Thunderbolt grunted.
    "I'm pretty sure about what the afterlife is going to be more for me." I shrugged. Storms.
    Still, we moved forward. The passage narrowed to perhaps ten feet across, and became a set of stairs leading down. The wind and light continued.
    "I am in so much trouble. This is great!" Scott said.
    He's almost unbelievable sometimes. "Your attitude is a prop for all of us."
    After thirty feet the stairs ended in a room of roughly worked stone. Crystals were set in the walls, and a massive pile of gold and silver glittered in the center of the room; we exchanged rather jaundiced glances and hesitated at the bottom of the stairs for a moment. There were also more bugs, which we hadn't seen here since the room with the mummy, so they stood out. A couple of spiders, some locusts, a couple of flies.
    Privateer entered the room, and was immediately struck by the same sense of wrongness that had afflicted us all in the first battle. "Bad hoodoo, guys." We followed cautiously, bracing ourselves against the spell's effects.
    That was when the Chaos Hammer descended, a flash of eldritch energy staggering those of us who are vulnerable to these things—which included me. And then, directly in our midst, the horsefly polymorphed into a six-armed woman with a weapon in each hand—four longswords and two spears—and a snake's lower body: the marilith whose statue we had seen in the temple above.
    "Now, as I attempted to tell you before..." she said, weapons whirling around her in a statement that required no translation. Phoenix Talon leaped to the attack, but she parried more swiftly than he would have thought possible. Privateer unlimbered his crossbow and fired twice; the daemon spun one of her spears without even looking his way, knocking the bolts aside. Then she opened her mouth; a thick green smoke poured out. The rope grabbed Stephanie and dragged her out of the room before the Cloudkill could work its terrible effect on her small body; the rest of us staggered and coughed, but it would take some time for the smoke to do extensive harm to us. I patted at my gear, looking for a fan I've been carrying around for years now and hardly ever use, and which would come in very handy right now.... The smoke filled the room, slowly sinking down toward the floor.
    Thunderbolt threw a lightning ball at her. It struck, arced around from arm to arm and down her length, and fizzled out.
    The marilith laughed. "Well, you've caught my attention...."
    From behind her, Scott launched himself in the sort of blow that has songs and stories built around it later and actually managed to stagger her back for a moment with the second blow's impact; the daemon gave a furious screech. Phoenix Talon slashed in at her again; one attack just bounced from her coils, the other was parried as she turned to face Scott and lashed out at him with half of her limbs in a flurry of blows that nearly scythed him into pieces—shocking the rest of us. Most things simply don't hurt Scott; she was obviously wielding a magical weapon of some potency.
    Seeing her distracted, Privateer lunged in with his rapier, to some effect. Unfortunately one of the effects—quite aside from the devastating sword and spear wounds he suffered in retaliation for this sting—was that she immediately seized him in her coils and began to crush the remaining life from him.
    I stopped messing with my fan and grabbed the mummy hand; after what I'd just seen, I believed that if we were in this place long enough for the Cloudkill to do us in, it would be because we were already dead. But the spell failed to affect her. For the first time in many years, my prayers were the undisciplined sort long resorted to by those in dire straits: Just get us out of this alive!
    Thunderbolt threw a lightning bolt into Scott, restoring him of some of the damage he had suffered. The marilith, assuming that she had been his target, gave him a contemptuous look. Scott coiled himself back up and struck again, to less impressive effect but every little bit helped.
    Phoenix Talon realized that he had to do something drastic if any of us were to survive the day. He ran toward the marilith, threw down the entire necklace of fireballs, and backflipped madly away from the massive series of explosions that engulfed her—and the rest of us. The noise was deafening, the ceiling of the cavern shook, and we were tossed around like rags as the first fireball set off four of the others on the necklace in a chain reaction that spread flame a full forty feet from the center of the action.
    Those of us still alive saw her—saw her vanish. I wobbled a few times, unable to do anything but blink, on the brink of unconsciousness until Phoenix Talon poured a healing a potion down my throat.
    "Owie," Scott whimpered.
    There was nothing in the room that looked like the Eye of Da'an, of course.
    "If she shows up again, I'm going to call in a Flame Strike on her, so keep your distance," I croaked. Hoping, praying, that she wasn't going to show up. Phoenix Talon used his sword's shocking touch on Scott, giving him some renewed energy. Thunderbolt was in decent shape—the marilith had never touched him. Privateer... there wasn't very much left, trapped as he had been in the daemon's coils. We stood there for a while, shell-shocked and trying to regain our bearings, dreadfully aware that we might not have much time but unable to do anything just yet. I found myself watching the shadows nervously.
    Scott was the first to recover. The pile of gold and silver had sort of run together; he started digging through it, using a spear salvaged from one of the corpses in the other room. Underneath it he found a door in the floor. It was locked. Behind it was a narrow passage—a human would have been forced to crawl, but he drifted down it as mist. At the end was a five foot square "room." In it lay a mithril coffer and an iron chest, both locked, clearly ancient and covered with ancient and arcane inscriptions. They looked like magical runes to him. He returned to us and reported these findings. Phoenix Talon groaned.
    Thunderbolt followed him down, uncomfortably, in hopes of being able to read what was written there. The ones on the wooden chest only looked impressive and were there to frighten the ignorant; the coffer, on the other hand, had the real thing. Very powerful ones, and all of a power-retardant nature, all centered inward as if confining something. He returned, and Phoenix Talon took his place.
    "Give it a shot," he told the golem.
    Scott incautiously touched the coffer, but absorbed the lightning from the trapped glyph without difficulty and indeed with some pleasure. The lock was going to take a long time, but he thought it might lie within his skill. He pulled the coffer down the narrow passage and into the main room—if this was what we were looking for, it could be opened later. Then he went back down to look at the chest while Phoenix Talon squirmed back to join the rest of us.
    The lock on the chest was less intricate; there was a poison gas trap on it, which he ignored. Inside it were ten gems ranging in size from a fingertip to a closed fist: ruby, sapphire, garnet, emerald, opal, topaz, aquamarine, jade, and black opal, with the largest an uncut corundum sphere worth thousands in itself, he guessed.
    In other words, just money. He dragged it down the passage as well and said, "Don't go down there. Poison gas." He started working on the coffer's lock while Thunderbolt checked the gems for magic—nothing—and the rest of us healed as best we could. About twenty minutes later Scott opened the lock and lifted the coffer's lid, revealing an object about a foot in diameter, made of a milky-white substance, glass-like to look at; it glowed. And Phoenix Talon recognized the presence of his god.
    "I'm thinking now the important phrase is 'get the fuck out,'" Scott commented; there are limits to even his optimism.
    The rest of us agreed. We swept what remained of Privateer into his cloak in hopes that we would be able to restore him later on, packed up the gems—just money, yes, but money can buy useful things—and headed out at the best speed we could muster in our exhausted and starving state, none too sure of how long we had been down there but unwilling to spend another moment under the ground. On our way out we closed the doors and turned the keys, locking the doors again—they might slow her down for a few moments—and kept the keys, for no clear reason. Habit, I suppose.
    We knew our way through the labyrinth, worked our way back around the loop it seemed we had followed overall and back through the door to the daylight world. It was about ten o'clock in the morning, and the sight of the sun was unsurpassed relief and joy. The silver ring was no longer there, burned away by the magic of the portal.
    Back at the ship, the dryad first mate took the news relatively well, and chivvied the men about their duties. The ship emerged from the cleft with only minor damage, turned her prow westward and raised sail. Phoenix Talon took possession of the mithril coffer, tied the lid shut and wrapped the whole thing in burlap so it would draw less notice, and kept it in his sight at all times. The following morning, Tempest granted my petition and returned Privateer to us, to much rejoicing among the crew, and I was able to remove the curse of the mummy's kiss from Phoenix Talon as well.
    We had the Eye of Da'an, and dragons lay in wait to the south....

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© 2003 Rebecca J. Stevenson