1:13 – 11:35 – The Kitsune's tails are rescued by the swordmage and Ulnyrr, and then, despite the parties arguments against, the pair try to rescue the wretched people sat, staring blankly in the other cages. In the end, they manage to rescue only five; the rest either refusing to move, or falling to their deaths, impaled and splattered on the stalagmites below.
“Why?” Snarls Grigori to the barbarian as he clambers down the chains, two shivering women thrown over his massive shoulders.
The Ulnyrr gives a cold grin, and simply licks his lips.
Understanding at once, his hunger suddenly returning in a flash of almost painful fire within him, the priest nods, and manages to hold his own pale features in a neutral expression, afraid that the good hearted genasai, or his other squeamish allies may object if they realise the source of the undead's sudden “compassion”.
Nendenaki, having attached his tails, is now wearing the form of a wizened old man of Kai'Yassanian appearance, his attire the simple garb of a peasant farmer. Even in human form his “fur” is silver, and his eyes brilliant green.
“So, what now? It wont take the Oni long to work out we are not dead, and we really do not want to be here when Gasharo returns. I can open a portal to the mortal plane if you wish, though it will take me a little time to do so.”
Everyone nods at this suggestion, eager to be away from this plane and more importantly, the wrath of the T'ien Lung.
“Or,” He continues, his face suddenly taking on a cunning look, his green eyes becoming slitted as a grin curls his wrinkled face, “We could locate the hidden entrance to the monster's treasury that must be here somewhere, and steal his stuff before leaving.”
Everyone looks dumbfounded. “You mean?” Begins Lia.
“Oh yes.” Replies the Kitsune. “Many times have I seen the T'ien Lung here, only to see him slip into some hidden place within the rock. It doesn't take a genius to see the sense in hiding ones treasure in a place as inaccessible as this does it?”
No one can argue with the spirit's reasoning, and it is decided that they are due a little reward for their efforts.
“Let's get searching then.”
11:45 – 11:50: A cunningly hidden doorway, 6' across is located, cut into the ground. Jaeger and Varracuda spend a few moments checking it over for any signs of warding spells, guardian mechanisms or other unpleasant surprises. They find nothing.
11:51 – 11:53: Lia, to the utter amazement of her colleagues, grabs hold of the massive chunk of solid stone, and with barely a grunt, hauls it from its resting place, revealing a tight coil of stone stairs which drop into the belly of the rock. The stairs are curious in that they do not appear to have been carved with chisels or hammers, but somehow shaped from it, much like a potter shapes clay – a sign of potent magic being used.
It is decided that Jaeger shall take the lead, his keen eyes able to spot any harmful wards placed on the way. There is some discussion on what to do with the prisoners liberated by the genasai and Ulnyrr, with Nendenaki suggesting they are sent down first to locate any “surprises” (an idea that not everyone disagrees with). However, it is decided to keep them at the back – though they continue to show little real awareness of their situation or concern about their fates.
11:54 – 12:05: The assassin moves ahead, his gaze scanning the stones, walls and floors for anything harmful. Progress is slow, and in the claustrophobic confines of the coiling steps, the group fight to keep their breathing steady.
“How can a massive monster like the dracani fit down such a narrow stairway?” Wonders Shnecke out loud, his voice a harsh hiss in the darkness, his eyes cold circles of bloody light.
“He can become mist.” Replies Nendenaki in a voice that suggests the answer should be painfully aparent, “Like all T'ien Lung.”
12:06 – 12:20 - The group reach the end of the stairs after descending some 35', a gaping darkness looming beyond the last step. Grigori leans over, and calls for Jaeger, the assassin silently fading into view next to him, before, without a word, leaning over the final step, allowing his senses to reach out into the utter darkness below.
“It's a vast cavern.” He reports, his voice a hollow whisper, “The floor is at least sixty foot down, and the walls, at least a hundred foot removed. Lots of stalagmites and stalactites.”
“I have a rope that should reach.” Replies Grigori.
The group wait whilst a rope is tied around the bottom step, and dropped into the darkness. Grigori immediately moves to begin climbing down, whilst Shnecke activates his Feather Fall ring and steps into the void. At the back of the group, the dazed humans rescued from the cages are encouraged to sit on the steps, and to wait for the parties return.
Everyone else clambers around the top of the rope, watching the priest and the barbarian, clearly outlined by the glow of Grigori's enchanted lantern, as they drop into the darkness towards the caverns floor...
Zunde, an ancient being of elemental earth, bound to the service of the dread Gasharo, awakes, the stillness of the cavern disturbed the arrival of scurrying, soft, warm bloodied things. Thrumming power rumbles silently through his body, and the ground around him, alerting his lesser kin to the danger, and with a deep roar that booms like a shockwave he unfurls his massive bat-like wings, flexes his four muscular arms, and leaps into the air, swooping towards the robed mortal on the ground, who frantically searches for the source of the noises he can hear, a melted sword held high in puny defence.
...Gargoyles, hidden amongst the forest of stalactites and stalagmites swoop in to harry Shnecke and Grigori, and before they have even had chance to raise their weapons or to utter the words to a spell, both are bleeding heavily, attacked from above and besides by the fleeting, shredding aggressors. Five of the monsters are roughly the same size as a human; rocky, daemonic creatures with grotesque horned heads, bat-like wings and razor-sharp claws. One however is three times their size; a four-armed brute with luminous red eyes and fearsome, unnatural strength.
Seeing the critical state of their allies below, and the circling monsters that even now prepare for their next assault, the rest of the group scramble to get down the rope. In his haste, Varracuda slips, and tumbles to the floor. Fortune however smiles upon him, and he manages somehow to briefly snare upon the rope, slowing his tumble somewhat – though he is still seriously hurt when he smashes, standing, to the ground.
Jaeger opts to stay above and to fire at the monsters from the cover of the stairwell's exit, whilst Nendenaki and Lia begin a slow clamber down the rope to the battle below. Thatari hangs back, offering to keep an eye on the humans.
What unfolds is a desperate battle.
The ardent struggles to climb down the rope, and at one point is almost killed by Zunde when he turns his full attention to her; slashing her sides with his claws, trying to dislodge her and send her wailing to a painful, sudden stop far below. The rest of the group fight desperately against the gargoyle's hit and run tactics, struggling to land blows against their elusive enemies, though little by little, they begin to pick apart their foes. The battle is rough however, and within moments all of them are left bleeding and panting, weak and light headed from the gargoyle's relentless assaults.
Zunde proves a truly awesome enemy, and Lia fears that she will soon be slain by him, as she endures another ripping flurry of clawed slashes at her flanks, her blood falling like crimson rain to the stones below. Weakening, she begins to lose her grip, and fights desperately to move safely to the ground, so she can properly defend herself. However, Zunde gives her no chance to gather her wits, and it is only a twist of fate against him that stops his focused attacks on the ardent; his wings clipping the rope to which she clings, his flight suddenly upset.
With a bellow, the massive gargoyle crashes to the ground, his stony flesh cracking as he crunches into the stalagmites that cluster below, the air filling suddenly with both his roars of pain, and billowing clouds of gritty, choking dust. Seeing him downed, the Ulnyrr charges him, axe raised, his eyes feral in the flickering gloom. Reaching the horror he jumps up and hacks down at it whilst it struggles to rise. The axe chops in, but to his horror the stone where the blade touches turns liquid, forming tentacles which reach out, trying to rip it free from Shnecke's hands. With a roar, the barbarian shifts his blade aside, plunging it into a still solid area, scoring a solid hit. The blow is accompanied by a devastating roar, which sends a terrible blast of elemental thunder booming forth on the wings of the Ulnyrr's battle cry, weakening the stony hide of the beast. Berserk, the Ulnyrr is not yet done, and with a howl, he focuses his fury into another ferocious blow, hoping to end the fiend before him quickly. However, the massive gargoyle turns aside the worst of this blow with an arced, intercepting wing.
Varracuda also darts in towards the downed monster, his body wreathed in crackling sparks, the air around him sharp with ozone. A burst of lightning, focused through his blade, sizzles into Zunde, tearing through the minute fractures opened by the barbarian's attack, chipping a sheet of stone from his forehead. As this stone slides free, it reveals a pulsing, violet sigil on Zunde's forehead, rendered in tiny shards of crystal.
The party piles in, the lesser gargoyles desperately trying to distract them from their downed lord, raking at the adventurer's with their talons, shrieking deafeningly. However, the party ignore them as best they can, and focus on bringing the deadly brute down, raining blow after blow upon him, his weakened skin allowing them to sink deep into his living stone body.
In the end it is Grigori, wielding the snarling chainblade of Balskus Morvel, that ends Zunde, the powerful artifice weapon chewing through his stony hide as if it were paper. The massive elemental monster shrieks in pain, his life force finally spent, and crashes to the ground in cloud of dust and hot, peppery air. As he dies, so the rune on his forehead pulses with malevolent light, sending a wave of pins-and-needles through everyone in the chamber as its magic is unleashed – an alarm beacon, sent to Gasharo, that warns the T'ien Lung of his primary guardians death, and that his treasury is being invaded. In response, a thousand tiny bells, like delicate crystal wind chimes, begin to ring around the chamber, and everyone realises at once what the sound means.
“Change of plan!” Screams Grigori, “Nendenaki, get that portal open, everyone else kill these bloody gargoyles! Fuck the treasure, we need to get the hell out of here.”
Several members of the party agree with this, and the Kitsune (grey from blood loss, having been seriously wounded by Zunde, and rescued by Grigori and Lia's restorative powers), begins to inscribe a circle of runes on the bloody floor of the cavern.
“Wait!” Yells Varracuda, smashing one of the remaining gargoyles out the air (only two remain now, the others having been chopped down into piles of fuming rubble), “What if we can locate the entrance to whatever place holds the dracani's treasures? Could we not hide in there, or at least use its defences to slow the monster's approach?”
Jaeger fires his crossbow in the face of one of the remaining monsters, wincing as his own wounds grate against themselves, feeling a hot line of blood arcing down the small of his back. “Could be a good idea.”
Varracuda nods, breaking away from the whirling melee, and allowing his senses to slip into a different level of being; a level where the lines of magic are clearly visible. It takes him a while, but soon he can see the various energies as pulsing webs and lines of light; the rigid, edged lines within his allies weapons and armour, the flowing, liquid lines of spells being woven and focused. He can see the dazzling mists of innate power flooding through the gargoyles as they try to draw upon their own magics, and sees the lights go out entirely in one as it is brought down, and shattered by one of the Ulnyrr's deadly attacks.
Scanning the chamber, the air is thick with the magics of the triggered alarm; a confusing “static” of grey and violet energy that makes focusing on fine details difficult. Luckily, what he seeks is neither small or subtle, and he quickly locates a section of floor, 10' x 10' that is covered in a layered net of stable magics, that he immediately recognises as an illusion.
“Over there!” Yells the swordmage, pointing, “An illusion covers something.”
With a force of effort, he focuses a wave of disrupting energy towards the illusion's nets, breaking them like a strong breeze ripping cobwebs. At once, everyone looking at that area sees a heavy circular doorway of Gothniir appear, set into the floor, its front heavily armoured with scaled plates of the hard golden metal.
“Get it open!” Bellows Varracuda, allowing his senses to slip back to normal, a wave of dizziness briefly stealing his breath. “Get it open before the dracani arrives!”
The last gargoyle, almost cracked open, has furled its wings around itself protectively, and hardened its flesh, becoming all but invulnerable to the attacks of the group. Frustratingly, they can see the cracks in its body slowly mending as its innate regenerative powers begin to work, restoring it slowly to full health. Whilst Grigori hammers at the thing with the artifice weapon, hoping its sharp teeth will find some weakness and open the monster up, the rest of the group scramble over to the revealed portal.
12:21 - “It's a bi-metallic strip.” Mutters the assassin after a moments examination, “A powerful source of heat must be used on the door to activate its mechanisms. Without that, the door will need literally days of hammering to get open.”
“It makes sense,” Replies the Kitsune, his ritual abandoned now that a possibly more secure locate for it to be worked has been found, “A T'ien Lung can breathe fire hot enough to vaporise stone. Luckily, Arjiin, is harder to melt than almost any other metal or stone.”
“Arjiin?” Asks Jaeger quizzically.
The Kitsune taps the Gothniir.