13 Planting, 595 CY
At Xan’s suggestion, the four would-be adventurers had left town separately, to avoid drawing attention to themselves, and one-by-one, they gathered at an abandoned mine office about an hour north of Diamond Lake. They wasted little time at the gutted structure, and made their way east, navigating by the landmarks on the old map that Drake had acquired from a thug just last week. They walked perhaps ten minutes before they found what they sought – a wide monolith-lined portal partially obscured by underbrush and boulders.
“Let’s have a look around,” Liberty suggested, eyeing the darkened interior of the cairn and casting a simple light spell to illuminate her staff.
“Stay here for a moment,” Xan suggested. “I want to check out the entrance first.”
Drake glanced around, then turned to Mom and said, “Let’s look for some way to cover the entrance a little better, eh?” They half-orc, who had been gazing southwest towards Diamond Lake, nodded agreement.
When Xan was satisfied that there were no immediate dangers lurking for them within the entrance, he waved the others over. Natural light dimly illuminated a long hallway extending north into darkness, and taking a cue from Liberty’s eldritch light, Drake and Xan each lit their own lanterns. Mom shrugged, his night-kissed eyes having no need of artificial lights in darkened places.
As they entered the cairn, a faint breeze brought with it sibilant whispers that sounded almost like sighing breath. It had to be a trick of the wind, but the effect was almost lifelike. The walls bore horizontal bands of deceptively simple geometric patterns at about waist level. In places, the bands revealed startling detail, but in others the walls looked as though they had been hacked apart with weapons or perhaps simply eroded by the rigors of time. Flakes of ancient paint, brilliant purple and a dull mustard hue, still clung to the walls in places, hinting at what must once have been a riot of color. A thin layer of dust coated the floor.
Just inside the tomb, the hallway branched into shallow alcoves to the east and west. There the walls bore the most significant damage. Dozens of clumsy etchings marred the beautiful ancient masonry like graffiti on a city wall. A clump of soiled cloth about the size of a small child rested in the rounded terminus of the western alcove. Outside, the wind picked up, and a chorus of almost human sounds arose from the lantern-lit hall.
“Wow. Creepy much?” Liberty commented. “I guess now we know why they call it the Whispering Cairn.”
Xan nodded. “Indeed. I wonder what it is trying to tell us.”
“Just the wind,” Drake said gruffly. “I doubt it means much more.”
“Keep an eye out as we go,” Xan suggested. “These cairns had a history of being trapped.” The rogue drew his rapier and said softly, “I wonder if I will finally have to use this today.”
Mom advanced to inspect the cloth bundle in the alcove, which proved to be a moldy old bedroll. He shook it out and part of it crumbled. Liberty and Drake inspected some of the wall etchings, but made no comment about it.
A little farther down, hallways to the east and west extended from the main corridor. Fifteen feet down the east passage, a huge pile of collapsed rubble blocked the alcove from top to bottom. It looked like it would take weeks to tunnel through the densely packed debris. The western hall extended perhaps forty feet, ending at a small marble platform raised about six inches off the floor. A strange, shattered arcane apparatus rested upon the platform, its curved ovular frame giving the appearance of a noble’s dressing mirror. Only a third of the frame remained. An unusual arcane glyph about the size of a man’s head was delicately carved into the baseplate of the support platform.
“That’s what we are talking about!” Xan exclaimed. “Old magic!” Mom kept watch while the others moved closer to inspect the device. A cursory search turned up a few shards of an unidentifiable (and likely valuable) shiny black substance that felt like smooth stone. As the rogue gathered these pieces up, he nodded to the device and asked the sorcerer, “Can you tell us anything about it?”
“Let me see,” Liberty replied. She noted numerous runes and glyphs carved into a slot on the inside of the frame and pointed them out to the others.
“Transportation,” Drake opined. “They are arcane sigils indicating transportation,” he clarified.
Xan puzzled over the large glyph on the baseplate for a few moments. “Anyone ever heard anything about someone named Icosiol?”
“Never heard of them,” Mom offered from the hall.
“This sigil seems to imply that this mirror was owned by him…or her, I guess.”
“Huh,” Liberty said, tilting her head to the side as she examined the large glyph. “It doesn’t seem to be a proper alphabet, but this reminds me of symbols for elemental air. From the size of this one, I’d say this ‘Icosiol’ was probably the boss. Maybe it’s his tomb?”
“Maybe so,” Xan said. “Hopefully, there are more relics farther in that are not quite so beaten up.” The sorcerer took a few moments to sketch the symbols into a small journal, and then she rejoined the others in the main corridor.
“I see some light farther in,” Mom reported, pointing to the north. The others squinted against the lantern-light and could just make out a faint flickering green light.
The rogue was grinning. “Tis exciting… Just getting started and already learning about powerful people and their toys.”
“Less exciting. More of a warning against what befell them,” Drake said somberly.
The central hallway opened into a large chamber with wings leading to the east and west. Across the chamber to the north yawned a twenty-foot-wide open arch draped from top to bottom in translucent cobwebs. The eerie green light flickered from beyond the webs, casting strange shadows about the room, which smelled of animal spoor and wet fur.
To the west, three short stairs led to a wide marble dais, but the far end of the wing was obscured by darkness. Huge slabs of cracked masonry and irregular piles of scattered debris choked the eastern wing, giving the appearance of complete collapse. The sibilant, almost human whispers present in the passage became a chorus in this massive chamber, eerily echoing off the walls.
Mom was the only one to notice the wolves before they rushed the party.
Two of the mangy curs looked as if they hadn’t eaten in days. The third wolf was a little larger than the others and did not look hungry in the least. A straight line of scar tissue bisected its face from forehead to muzzle. The big wolf hung back, but the half-starved ones barreled down on Xan and Liberty, who were the closest. The rogue’s leathers protected him, but Liberty was not armored, and the beast sank its sharp teeth deeply into her thigh and jerked her from her feet. Her head hit the stone floor with a sickening thud, and she lay there senseless. Having downed its quarry, the wolf turned its attention to the rogue.
Mom reflexively called out to Kord, and a wash of healing energy filled the chamber, knitting the gash in Liberty’s leg. Her eyes fluttered open, but she wisely lay still, avoiding drawing the wolf’s attention back to her. They seemed content to drag Xan from his feet, and then the big wolf joined the fray. Drake finally snapped into action, lobbing a firebomb behind the wolves, the flames licking at their fur. Xan took advantage of the burned skinny wolf’s distraction and plunged his rapier into its heart from the floor. Liberty lashed out at the other starved wolf with a magic missile and regained her feet. The tide had turned.
Between Mom’s belligerence, Xan’s flashing blade, Liberty’s fiery magic, and Drake’s mean right hook, the remaining wolves were dispatched without too much further blood loss. The smell of burned wolf added a certain je ne sais quoi to the otherwise wet fur smell of the chamber. The alchemist quaffed one of his healing concoctions and Mom’s prayers restored the rogue. They rested a moment to catch their breath and let the adrenaline fade. While they did, Xan caught a glimpse of something in the eastern hall (where the wolves had lurked) that drew his attention. The rogue crawled beneath the rubble to investigate, and a few moments later, the others heard him say, “Jackpot.”
Liberty shook her head and went to have a look at the dais to the west. The wide platform spanned the back half of the western wing and called attention to a faded fresco upon the south, west, and north walls. From a vantage point at the center of the dais, the wall painting made it look like she stood within a massive room with seven short hallways radiating outward from a central point. A chain dangled from the ceiling at the end of each hallway represented in the mural, and each chain bore a gleaming colored lantern. Clockwise, the colors were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
“Ooo,” she said.
“I wouldn’t touch just yet, Liberty,” Drake cautioned.
“No, I know better’n that,” she assured him. She noticed Xan dragging something out of the wolf den and called out to him. “What did you find in there?”
The rogue lifted up a filthy backpack and an ornate lantern with deep blue, almost purple panes. “Some people weren’t so lucky with those wolves. And they had some valuable items.” He pulled an intricate armband out of the bag. “This should be worth something,” he added with a grin.
Drake cocked an eyebrow. “Fancy.”
Xan handed the indigo lantern over to Drake and asked, “Is this thing enchanted?”
The alchemist took a moment to examine it, then shook his head. “Doesn’t seem to be.”
“Worth some coin, at least.” The rogue smiled and headed over to where Liberty stood. “What have you found here, my dear?”
“Not sure yet,” she admitted. “Maybe there’s another one like this farther in.”
“Let me take a closer look,” Xan said. He didn’t find anything noteworthy.
“Should we light this lantern here?” Drake asked. They tried it, but there were no grand revelations.
They burned away the cobwebs filling the northern exit and continued deeper into the cairn. A wide stairway descended into an immense domed chamber. Seven short tunnels branched from the room in all directions, extending some thirty feet before ending in rounded walls. At the terminus of each passage, a thick chain dangled from an unseen high ceiling. Five of the chains bore colorful lanterns like the fresco in the preceding chamber, but two held nothing at all. Opposite the entry stairs, a bright green lantern containing what looked like a torch cast a weird, murky light about the room. Countless chips of glass and shiny metal inset into the chamber’s domed ceiling reflected this light, giving the impression of starlight and falling snow. The dome started about ten feet off the ground and reached an apex about thirty feet over the center of the room. Unlike the rest of the tomb, the chamber was completely silent.
Below the dome’s peak at the center of the chamber was a long dais held what appeared to be a marble sarcophagus. As they drew nearer, they saw that the lid bore a white stone relief of a tall figure cloaked in a simple garment of flowing cloth. The figure wore a scarab-like amulet around its neck, inscribed with a strange glyph. The outfit conjured thoughts of ancient times. The figure at first looked human, but a cursory examination revealed that it was about seven feet tall, completely hairless, and of indeterminate gender. Its arms and hands rested at its sides with the left hand curled upon itself in a fist, but the right hand lay palm up, with the thumb turned in and all but the index finger, which appeared to have been broken off, held parallel to the arm.
“That’s … pretty weird,” Liberty observed, regarding the glyph on the scarab and comparing it to her notes. It was different, but she thought she saw a pattern beginning. “This is the personal glyph of some powerful elemental entity, like the one above. The name seems to be … Zosiel.”
“Element of air, if I recall,” Drake opined.
“That sounds right, yes.”
“I can only imagine what this holds,” Xan said, pouring over every inch of the sarcophagus, searching. The stone coffin rested upon a small raised platform that had been carved in the shape of a stylistic arrow, with the tip aligned with the head of the relief figure upon the lid and a short “shaft” extending from the foot. “This can be rotated!” Xan realized. “There is a puzzle of some kind here. Let’s turn it towards the green?” he suggested, indicating the glowing lantern to the north.
Mom approached the glowing green lantern. Though the ceiling of the tunnels was only ten feet off the ground, the alcove at the end extended up to forty. The green lantern dangled perhaps five feet off the floor, hung from a long chain affixed to the high ceiling. A five-foot-diameter circle was carved into the stone floor, directly below the hanging lantern. “Is it safe to touch?” he wondered aloud.
Xan came over to check it out. “Should be okay, but don’t remove it,” he instructed before returning to the sarcophagus.
Mom shrugged and opened up the casing of the green lantern. “There’s an everburning torch in this one,” he reported.
“More of value,” the rogue crowed. “I like it. Leave it for now, though. We might need it.”
“Aye,” the burly cleric confirmed. He rejoined his companions and took a look around. “I don’t see the red lantern,” he said, pointing at the hall where it should have been.
“Huh. Well, it’ll turn up somewhere, I’m sure,” Xan predicted. Turning to the alchemist, he said, “Drake, would you mind replacing the indigo lantern?”
“Yeah, no problem.”
“Might stand back for this, everyone,” the rogue advised, pulling a stone finger from the backpack he’d found in the wolf den. He waited for the others to take a few steps away, and examined the break. Apparently, the broken index finger had originally curled under the thumb. He took a steadying breath, then gently placed the finger in place.
“Huh,” he said. “Well, let’s see if we can get this thing pointed at the green lantern, eh?” He stepped back to allow Drake a place. The beefy alchemist had no trouble moving the stone coffin. It clicked into place as it came to the yellow lantern hall, but after a moment, he was able to push it the rest of the way.
When the arrow platform pointed at the green tunnel, a cacophonous creaking of stone against stone emerged from the floor below the green lantern. The party drew closer, curious. In the corridor they could feel the floor rumble slightly, as if something were about to give way. Xan took a few steps back, and just as Drake was advising Liberty to be cautious, the stone circle and several feet of the floor completely gave way, forcing the adventurers to dive to safety.
As they picked themselves up, Mom heard an unsettling noise like the skittering of thousands of insects making their way up from below. He looked at the hole in alarm and said, “Shall we leave? Now?!”
Liberty, her ears still ringing, said “What? Why?”
“Liberty, Move!” the half-orc roared, dragging the smaller sorcerer back toward the sarcophagus, while Xan lobbed a vial of oil at the ground near the edge of the ruined floor. A moment later, a living geyser of green beetles burst from the shaft, rushing south toward the party!
Xan was quicker. He jerked open his lantern and tossed the entire thing into the midst of the swarm. It shattered on the oily floor, and the flaming oil washed across the insects, which sent up an unnatural keening as they burned. Drake lobbed a firebomb into the swarm for good measure, and the surviving beetles dispersed and scattered back down the hole…
…just in time for a horrible aberration to spring out of the shaft and charge the party! Six sharp legs sprouted from a central body that was little more than a disgusting slitted eye. “GAH!” Mom shouted in alarm, swinging his greatsword wildly.
“Dear gods, what is that thing?” Xan cried aloud, before rolling forward in a somersault and drawing his rapier with the other. He was unable to take advantage of the flank he’d created with Drake, his narrow blade striking only floor when he stabbed at the monster. The alchemist found it similarly hard to land a blow on the spider-like abomination. Fortunately, Liberty was able to concentrate sufficiently to singe it with a burning ray.
The skittering slasher went mad, launching a flurry of appendages at the three melee combatants, but its chaotic assault was thwarted by armor, spell and/or natural dexterity. The neophyte adventurers did not give the creature another chance to attack, bringing weapon and magic to bear with extreme prejudice. The last thing it saw was Drake’s fist.
“Anyone know what the fuck that thing was?” Mom wanted to know.
“Nope,” Drake said, shaking ichor of if his hand. “Ugly, though.”
“I only know what it is, which is dead. Good work, fellows,” Liberty said.
Xan looked over at his shattered lantern. “Hmm. Could anyone use seven vials of oil that I no longer seem to need? I’ll have to buy a replacement in town.”
“Might as well hang on to them,” the sorcerer advised. “We might run into more bugs.”
“I’ll take a couple for now,” Mom said. The rogue handed them all over, and the half-orc stashed them in his sash.
Drake eyed the hole in the floor to the north. “I’ve got a rope,” he commented.
“Okay, good, because I don’t,” Liberty said.
Mom walked to the edge and looked down into the darkness. “I can see a floor down there,” he reported after a moment.
“Let’s keep turning the sarcophagus for now,” Xan suggested. “Mom, would you please move the everburning torch to the blue lantern?” The cleric obliged, but there was no reaction when Drake adjusted the sarcophagus.
While removing the light from the blue lantern, the half-orc noticed a humanoid skeleton lying in a heap on the floor with a number of crushed bones. This inspired him to look up, and in so doing, he noticed that the ceiling above the blue lantern was a little higher than the others. There appeared to be an opening heading off to the east from the top of the chamber. “There looks to be another level above us, as well.”
Xan grinned. “This place is a gold mine, I can feel it.” Drake harrumphed.
The others joined Mom at the end of the blue hallway. They all noticed the skeleton then and looked to the cleric for explanation. He shrugged and said, “Looks like someone tried to climb up and failed.”
“Huh,” Liberty said.
“We can go up or down now,” Xan observed.
“I’d prefer we not leave an unknown region at our backs,” Drake opined. “We have a permanent opening in the green hallway. I think it would be best to make sure it’s clear before we start on other places, lest we have ‘spiders’ at our backs."
“Seems prudent, sure,” Liberty agreed.
“Even if it leads to more openings?” Xan asked. “This could be a maze. Either way, though. One direction is as good as any. Oh! Maybe there are clues inside the sarcophagus itself! I just remembered that we haven’t even considered opening it yet.”
“We could check if you think it’s safe,” Mom said.
Xan nodded confidently. “I’ve already inspected it closely. I don’t think it’s dangerous.”
“Cornelius? Liberty?” the half-orc looked to each in turn.
“Do it,” Drake said.
“Yes. Let’s see what’s in there,” Liberty agreed hesitantly.
“Let’s open it,” Mom said, clapping Drake on the shoulder.
“Yeah, I’ll let you two strongmen take care of it,” Xan said. They gathered around the sarcophagus, and the burly young men heaved at the lid.
A fan of flames erupted from within as the sarcophagus came open, catching Mom full in the face. The others were able to avoid the worst of it, but each was still a little singed.
“Ow! Shit!” Liberty exclaimed.
Drake turned to Xan. “Not dangerous?”
The rogue looked upset. “I couldn’t see a trigger,” he said.
They all looked at Mom, who was staring down into the stone coffin.
It was empty.