The harpies began crooning an eerily discordant song, and the adventurers’ minds clouded over. Entranced, Besilana walked toward the source of the music. Felicity squeezed through the bars of the portcullis, scraping her chest painfully in the attempt, and stumbled a few steps toward the music. Furnok tried to follow, but he was too large to fit and struggled in vain to lift the heavy gate. Taliesin transformed into a giant spider in order to better be able to approach the source of the enchanted singing. When the druid reached the ledge where the harpies stood, his mind shook off its fugue – just in time for him to come under attack! The harpies bashed him with a club and slashed him with filthy talons.
Scrabbling at the base of the wall, the paladin came to her senses as Felicity called for sacred flame on one of the monstrous bird-women above. It screeched in surprise and pain as the radiant lance struck it between the wings. Taliesin bit the burned harpy, injecting spider poison from his fangs. He got clubbed a couple more times for his trouble. On the ground a pair of ghasts emerged from a secret door. Besilana interposed herself between the flesh-eaters and Felicity. The halfling attempted to turn the undead, but they weathered the divine compulsion and rushed forward.
When Taliesin finished off the singing harpy, Furnok snapped out of the enchantment and readied his bow to start helping his friends. He took aim at the remaining harpy to assist the druid, while Besilana and Felicity battled the ghasts. Several intense moments of combat later, the monsters lay dead at the heroes’ feet.
Pausing to make sure Felicity was okay, Besilana moved to help Furnok raise the gate. Taliesin descended from the wall and resumed elven form. “What an amazing voice from such horrible creatures,” he said. “It never ceases to amaze me the kinds of methods that hunters develop to bring in prey.”
“Frightfully charming,” muttered the rogue, heading toward the ghasts’ chamber. “Gross,” he said unhappily as he stepped inside.
From the look of the chamber, it was once the sanctuary of some lesser priest of the Temple. The walls were plastered and painted with scenes of evil nature, featuring the earth principle. The rotting remains of a large bed, two couches, and several carved chairs, now broken, testified that the room was once a comfortable place. The whole room reeked horribly. Bones were tossed here and there, and a partially eaten orc carcass lay on the floor near the south wall. No exits were visible, save the open secret door.
“Is it even worth searching?” asked Furnok, resigned to the likely response.
Taliesin nodded. “I believe so. There might be information.”
“May as well,” Besilana agreed.
In the course of their search, Furnok asked the paladin to help move the bed. She moved it on her own before he was even in position. Once she had, a section of stonework with plaster missing was noteworthy. Behind a loose block was a large gold cup, which contained a sum of gold and three onyx gems.
“Beautiful!” the half-elf exclaimed, raising the goblet. “I look forward to raising a toast in this someday.”
“Okay. I guess that was worth it,” Furnok admitted. “Cheers.”
* * *
The party made its way back along the twisted hallways to the north until they rounded a corner to find a dark curtain. Pushing through, they came to a great open area – obviously the one in which the principle of the Elemental Evil of Earth was served. The walls were rough-hewn sandstone, but the entire floor was dark brown earth. Some sort of phosphorescent lichen provided a dim illumination throughout the vast area. It grew on the walls and ceiling, supports and arches. Cressets and wall sconces indicated that, during ceremonies, other light sources were likely used.
In the center of the room, occupying a twenty-foot-square area, was a pyramid of hard-packed dirt; the sides rose about six feet, and the top was flat, forming an area about six feet square. Stone steps were set in the four faces of the pyramid. Atop it was a stone column, each of its four faces bearing a carved triangle and sporting a pair of bronze manacles dangling from bolted rings. At the base of the south face of the column rested a bronze box.
Three doors were in the south wall. Those to the left and right were normal, but the center pair were familiar huge bronze valves. These bore a strange set of silvery glowing runes, obviously chiseled into their face by someone other than their maker. They were sealed shut, with soft iron filling all the cracks.
The adventurers proceeded cautiously toward the earthen pyramid, but before they’d made it halfway in four stony elementals rose up out of the earth near the four corners of the grand chamber and stood motionless. The adventurers froze in place, and Felicity whispered, “What the heck?”
“We should back out of here,” Besilana advised. “Slowly.”
They had to pass near one of the sentinels to get back out through the curtain from which they’d entered. When Taliesin drew near to the elemental, its large appendages lashed out! The druid avoided the first, but the second struck him hard enough to knock his breath out. The druid reflexively transformed into a spider, and – throwing caution aside – the adventurers fled the chamber in a rush. Once they were on the other side of the curtain, a tense moment passed as those nearby waited for the guardians to follow. The curtain gradually stilled. No pursuit appeared to be forthcoming.
“Huh. Well. That was terrible,” said Furnok.
“To say the least. Let’s… let’s leave that for later,” suggested Besilana.
Felicity nodded emphatically. “Yeah, those things were HUGE! What the heck was that for? They didn’t do anything until we tried to leave. Do you think they wanted us to stay? Maybe they thought we were new recruits?”
“Maybe,” said the paladin. “The hammering of my heart is making it hard for me to think right now.”
She led the party down a nearby side passage they had passed earlier, coming to a wooden door. Behind it, they found a large chamber that was once an extensive library, as evidenced by the charred remains of books and litter of broken tables and chairs. Scraps of torn and burned scrolls were tossed here and there. With a bit more caution than she might have shown an hour ago, Besilana walked in.
“Maybe something useful has survived?” said Furnok. His tone was not optimistic.
“Maybe a scroll or text on that room,” said Felicity.
“Let’s find out,” said Besilana.
A careful search revealed several remnants of works on the ethos of Chaotic Evil — double-dealing, self-advancement, treachery, etc. The tenth such book examined revealed the “sacred” earth triangle and mentioned the “trial of earthy terrors awaiting the foolhardy”. According to the text, this trial awaited “below/elsewhere.” In the margins, they found notes to indicate that “the guardians will not attack one attired in priestly vestments – right away.”
“Interesting,” said the paladin. “I thought they’d be smarter than that.”
Reading further, Besilana gleaned from the writing that a ewerful of blood must be spilled upon the altar to accomplish whatever the ritual did. She paled visibly. She re-read a section and realized that the elementals must each have a ewerful of blood poured upon them.
“So, that’s out,” she said after telling the others. “But the robes might buy us a chance to try the doors in there.”
“Didn’t Romag have some robes with that Triangle?” asked Furnok. After a beat he added, “Wait a minute. We have that cassock.” Reaching into his backpack, he produced the slightly crumpled and begemmed garment. “Because money,” he grinned. “So. Who wants to … test it?”
Besilana ran tentative fingers over the garment. “I’ll put it on.”
Felicity nodded. “Yeah, let’s try to just get to the doors, I don’t feel like sacrificing any blood today.”
“We could collect blood from the enemies we have already slain, could we not?” asked Taliesin. “I’ve drained a carcass many times before. But I’m not sure I want to see this ritual succeed.”
After Besilana had shrugged out of her adamantine chainmail and donned the Earth Cassock, Taliesin asked, “Were there any other vestments on them? There were sub-priests in that fight, right?”
“None as nice as these,” said Furnok. “And the rest are tattered and bloodstained. With bodies in them.”
Felicity glanced away from the druid, frowning as she spotted something. “HEY! What’s this?” Hanging on a peg was a cloak of protection.
“Something for you, I think,” said Besilana.
“Seems to be just your size,” agreed Taliesin.
“Oh?!” She waves it around over her head, then donned the cloak. Then she lifted it and ran around the library to make it billow out behind her. “THIS IS AWESOME! Oh my gosh I’ve neverhadacloakbeforethisissogreatthisadventuringthingisamazingIcan’tbelieveitthankyouguyssomuch!”
Besilana grinned broadly, then hid it behind her hand. “It’s definitely you.”
Wearing the magical cloak, Felicity’s spirit rallied, and she launched into an upbeat speech to bolster her allies.
Afterward, Besilana looked thoughtful. “I feel… different. I think I can talk to the elementals now. I’ll go first.”
She led the others back toward the curtain and pushed it aside. The sentinels were nowhere to be seen, so she stepped inside. Once more, when Besilana neared the pyramid, the elementals emerged from the ground. “Stop!” she shouted in her most commanding tone. The guardians did not move for a long moment. Encouraged, the paladin ordered, “BEGONE!” The elementals stood idle, making no move to leave.
“Umm. LEAVE!” she tried.
The elementals began to move, but not toward the exits. The others shuffled toward the pyramid, and the sentinel nearest Felicity raised an appendage to strike her. “I said STOP!” shouted Besilana. The elemental held its “fist” aloft but did not bring it down.
“Eep…” said the halfling.
“Hurry,” Besilana hissed. Felicity bolted across the room with Taliesin close behind. Furnok lingered near the curtain uncertainly. The paladin looked at him impatiently. “Furnok, now would be a good time.”
“To what? Why don’t you tell them to go over there or something?” he asked, indicating the west wall.
“Go to that wall!” Besilana pointed, erupting in nervous laughter when they complied.
“Specific instructions are better, I guess,” the rogue said.
When the elementals were inches toward the south wall, the paladin added, “And stay there!”
“Okay. So far so terrifying-but-good,” said Furnok.
“Under the circumstances, maybe someone else should try the door?” said Besilana. Taliesin obliged.
A heap of large and small stones filled the center of this ten-foot-square room behind the eastern door. Piles of different types of dirt were in the corners and along the walls, and only a narrow path through the room remained clear. Twelve small kegs were stacked along the south wall, three across and four high. They saw no exit, save the door they had opened.
“What do you suppose is in those kegs?” asked Taliesin. “Wine, rum, blood?”
“Oil, maybe?” suggested Furnok.
“You want to go check or shall I?”
The rogue swallowed loudly. “Sure, I’ll check it out.”
The kegs were filled with fuel oil for the cressets; each held about seven gallons. “Yep. Oil.” He shrugged. “Wanna move your friends?” he asked Besilana.
“Move north,” she told the closest two." They complied.
The western door was probably a robing room, with no exit save the one door. A padded bench ran the length of the east wall of the ten-foot-square room. A number of pegs and hooks were along the north and south walls, and a large cabinet stood by the west wall. Seven cloaks of brown cloth were hanging on the pegs, and three pairs of sandals were tucked under the bench.
“Looks clear,” said Furnok.
Taliesin entered the room and reached for one of the cloaks. The garments and sandals were human-sized. There were no designs on them. In the cabinet were eight padlocks and their keys, several large jars of wine, twelve pewter drinking cups, five plates with small amounts of different sorts of dirt (red, yellow, brown, black, and pale gray), an ivory bracelet set with a huge carnelian, and a bone scroll case containing a scroll of protection from earth elementals.
Besilana stepped toward the double doors, still watching the elementals. “Furnok? Might I borrow your crowbar?”
“Sure,” he said, handing it over.
She wedged the tool in and with a mighty heave, cracked open the doors. A terrible groaning sound was heard as the runes melted away and the bronze faded to a duller brown before their eyes. Steps beyond the broken doors led upward.
“That I did not expect,” she said, winded from the effort.
“Up is … good, right?” asked Felicity.
“One way to find out, I suppose.”
“Seems like a backward step,” said Furnok.
“We have been up already,” Taliesin agreed.
“Then it must be time to descend,” said Besilana.
“What do we do about them?” asked Furnok, indicating the elementals.
“Tell them to crumble!” said Felicity.
“Crumble!” Besilana ordered. Nothing happened. “Oh, well. They’ll probably vanish again when we leave.”
“Probably,” said the halfling.
“What exactly are they guarding, tho?” Furnok wondered aloud. “And what about that box?” The rogue pointed at the southern face of the column. “Maybe something valuable in that box?”
“Let’s take a look,” said Besilana.
The bronze box by the column was not locked. It contained a bronze maul, knife, bowl, and ewer. All of these items radiated evil.
“The devices for collecting the blood,” said Taliesin.
“I don’t need money badly enough to carry those things around,” said Besilana. “Shall we get out of here?”
“Yuuup,” said Felicity.
“There’s got to be something more,” said Furnok. “But I’ll be damned if I can think of what. Yeah, let’s go.”
Besilana commanded the elementals to slide out of the way, and the adventures made their way to the steps northwest of the zombie cells. They found that the bottom was blocked by a collapsed wall. The only paths remaining to them were the spiral stairs shown to them by the orcs they had freed or the path that led past the hydra.
“How far do we ‘scout’?” asked the rogue. “I mean, I’m game to roll these turkeys for as long as you all are. I just wonder how deep we can make it on our own. I don’t think we can count on them continuing to ignore us as we kill off more of them.”
“By which you mean, ‘when will we find ourselves in over our heads?’” said Besilana.
“At this point I agree that the message needs to go out about how active this place has become,” said Taliesin.
“At the very least, we should figure out a way to secure a foothold near the ruins that is actually safe,” said Furnok. “I think we’ve been lucky so far. Despite almost dying a few times.”
Besilana nodded. “I agree. With all of this.”
“Yes, we’ve been pushing the limits it would seem,” said Felicity.
“Can you send a message out with magic?” Furnok asked Taliesin.
“I could send a message through a bird, yes,” said the druid. “We would have to find one, and it would have to be tomorrow.”
“We should let Eiravain know. Anyone else we could reach out to for help? Your family are druids, right? They’d care about this corruption as much as you, surely.”
“They would, but reaching them might be tricky any time soon. They travel throughout the forest.”
“Your magic bird message couldn’t locate your family?”
“No, I have to provide specific instruction about where to go and who to talk to. I don’t know where they are.”
“Damn,” said Furnok. After a thoughtful silence he added, “Well, we’re resolved at least. We’ll send out messages and wait for backup before descending further into this mess.”
“So where do we set our redoubt? Here, or outside the Temple?” asked Besilana.
“Outside, surely. The Tower, perhaps. If we can get enough men to hold it,” said the rogue.
“We can hold that tower until reinforcements arrives,” said Taliesin. The paladin nodded in agreement.
Furnok nodded, gazing thoughtfully to the east, where the Earth Temple sat. A sly grin crossed his face. “As a parting gift, I think I may have an idea about how to piss in the cultists’ porridge. Tell the elementals to fight each other.”