The company briefly discussed what to do next, and it was decided to attempt climbing the chain for the glowing blue lantern to the upper level they’d seen. Drake managed the climb then tied a rope around his waist and tossed the other end down to the others. A few minutes later, all four adventurers stood at the end of a thin passage extending into the shadows to the northeast.
“Hey, look at this,” Liberty said. “Here on the floor.”
“Hm?” Drake said. She pointed at several long scratch marks.
“Looks like something was dragged to the edge here,” Mom suggested.
“That’s what I was thinking,” Liberty agreed.
Xan took point as they moved down the hallway, scanning the area for any threats. Before they’d gone far, they saw that the passage ended after about seventy feet in what appeared to be an enormous stone face, its mouth open in an angry scream. The physiology of the face was identical to that of the near-human sexless figure depicted in bas-relief upon the sarcophagus below. The screaming visage dominated the entire ten-foot-square wall at the end of the corridor.
“This is a dead end. Let’s go back for now,” Mom advised as they drew closer. Xan turned his head to offer up agreement, when he heard an ominous click and felt the floor shift slightly beneath him. A pressure plate!
The stone face animated, and a terrible wind erupted from its wailing mouth. At the same time, the eyes began to spin with hypnotic patterns of color in red, violet, green, orange, yellow, and indigo. Mom and Liberty stood transfixed, and the wind grew ever stronger. Xan desperately sought a way to shut down the magical trap and Drake retrieved his rope and looped it around the sorcerer.
Mom snapped out of his hypnosis just as the wind reached hurricane speeds and his companions were blown away, sent sprawling back down the hall towards the forty foot drop. Xan and Liberty banged their heads as they tumbled and lay senseless on the floor. The half-orc braced against the wall and followed at a controlled pace, laying a hand on the rogue’s prone form. Drake regained his feet, hopped over the edge to hang, then had an even better idea and kicked off the wall to grab hold of the lantern chain, gripping the rope tied to Liberty with his other hand.
The sorcerer’s limp body was blown the rest of the way out of the wind tunnel, but her fall was arrested by Drake’s tether, and the big man managed to maintain his grip on both the chain and the rope. Mom continued to weather the gale and prevented the rogue from following Liberty over the edge. He channeled Kord’s strength and healing energy washed over his companions, bringing both of the senseless ones back to consciousness.
Liberty freaked out more than a little, and Drake cursed her. “Stop squirmin’! I’m barely holding on as it is.”
“Drake, what the shit?” she screamed.
“You’re lucky, that’s what!” he shouted right back.
Mom helped Xan to his feet and half-dragged the smaller man to the edge. At which point they lost their battle with the wind and were blown out into empty air – towards Drake. The alchemist cursed under his breath, then released the chain for a moment, dropping several feet and clearing space for the cleric and rogue to grab hold and arrest their fall.
As the four hung from the chain and the wind raged above, Drake turned a sour glance on Xan. “Up, you said…”
“Having fun yet?” he quipped.
“No, not much fun yet.”
“Adventure!” Mom said gamely.
“Down. Must get down. Please, down,” Liberty insisted. The party carefully made its way back to the ground. As soon as the sorcerer’s feet were back on the floor, she started breathing again.
Drake sighed. “A minute to catch our breaths and we can try another way.”
“Thanks,” Liberty said earnestly. “All of you.”
“Everyone all right?” the alchemist asked.
“I will be,” Liberty said.
“I’m good,” Mom affirmed. “So, ‘up’ is a bad idea. We’ll try down next?”
“Drake, how about you decide our next direction,” Xan said. “I would hate to make all the fun choices.”
“Down,” the big man rumbled.
“Stop it,” Mom said. “We go down. It’s the only option for now.”
Liberty nodded. “All right, then.”
The climb down the shaft to the lower level was markedly easier than the ascent to the wind tunnel had been. When they reached the bottom, they saw dozens of bas-relief figures similar to the one on the sarcophagus lid staring disapprovingly from the walls. Many sported crossed arms and stern expressions. A few of the statues’ heads were missing, and some had huge chunks torn out of them. Others had a weird melted appearance, as if they’d been sprayed by something terrible. A large glyph that looked like a stylized arrow pointed down a short corridor to the north that shortly led to a four-way intersection. Drake and Liberty examined the glyph and agreed that it was another name: “Nadroc”
“Do you all hear that?” Xan asked, pointing at the intersection. “More bugs. Drake, you might want to have another bomb ready.”
He and Mom advanced to the corner and took a peek to the east down a short hall opened into a large chamber. The north and south walls of the room tapered in somewhat, and in the nook of the far eastern wall rested a wide stone basin backed by a five-foot-tall shelf. A hardened orange paste spilled out over the two-foot basin lip and covered much of the shelf. Thousands of tiny beetles with bright blue carapaces skittered and tunneled through the chalky substance, and a keening insect chorus filled the room. A huge organic mass completely filled the room’s southwest corner, and judging by the beetles spilling from within it, it appeared to be an enormous nest. Xan retreated while Mom retrieved a couple bottles of lantern oil and Drake readied a bomb.
Before they could react, a hound-sized bombardier beetle scuttled from around the corner and came to a stop right in front of the adventurers. It proceeded to spew a caustic acid across the two large men and unfortunate sorcerer. The cleric beseeched Kord for healing again and readied another flask in anticipation of the swarm. Liberty burned a hole through the large beetle’s face with an elemental ray, then Drake stepped up and slugged it hard in the side of its horned head. The swarm advanced but was unable to overwhelm the adventurers before Xan made an end of the queen with the point of his rapier.
Mom tossed a pair of oil flasks on the ground amidst the swarm, and Liberty set it ablaze with a simple cantrip. The squealing and popping of burning bugs filled the immediate area in a horrific din, and Drake scattered the rest with a well-placed bomb. With the threat removed, they entered the room, though it was clear from Xan’s cautious steps that he was not pleased about walking through the muck. Liberty’s expression was a mixture of horror and wonder.
Three oblong lumps completely covered with orange sludge sat in the southeast corner, and Drake moved to examine them. From the ruined remains of the beetle nest Xan pulled a mummified hand. “Check out this ring,” he said, removing it from the hand. It had been crafted with a feather pattern all around its edge. “Oh, this is good. Can anyone see if this is enchanted?”
Liberty obliged him and concentrated for several moments. “Well this would have been useful up top,” Liberty declared. “It’s a ring of feather falling.”
“Very nice. How does it work?” Xan wanted to know.
“You put it on, and when you fall, it slows you down,” she explained.
“Ladies first,” the rogue said smoothly. “Anyone object to Lib wearing the magic ring?” No one did.
Meanwhile, Drake had extricated the skeletonized remains of three long-dead human figures from the muck. Each wore moldy and soiled red leather armor with an eight-pointed star symbol marking the left breast. “Hrm,” he rumbled. “Found a lost group. Star insignias.”
“A lost group?” Xan asked, turning toward the alchemist. He saw the corpses and made a face.
Looking over at the armored skeletons, Liberty frowned. “Does anyone recognize the symbol?” Again, no one did.
They returned to the four-way intersection and looked into the western chamber. Eight man-sized stone slabs about four feet off the ground were arranged in two rows in the large room. A long-dead corpse, possibly a human, lay sprawled out upon one of these slabs, his red leather armor the only hint of color in the otherwise drab chamber. The north and south walls tapered in somewhat – a mirror of the eastern room – and the short west wall abutted a small stone stage. A red clay statue of a powerfully built warrior wielding a cylinder-headed greatclub stood tall upon the stage, its eyes surveying the room.
Another giant bombardier beetle stumbled about between two of the slabs, and Xan entered the room stealthily. As he crossed the threshold into the chamber he felt a wave of fatigue wash over him. Thinking to kill the beetle before it got a chance to spit acid, he crept around the room to a nearby position. Then Mom cast a spell and drew the beast’s attention.
Liberty sent a magic missile streaking across the room to slam into the beetle, then Mom threw one of his meat cleavers and stuck it deep into the creature’s carapace. He entered the room next, feeling the same fatigue that Xan had, and warned the others, “Don’t come in here!” Xan made the most of the beetle’s distraction and stabbed it deeply. Alas it was not enough to kill it, and so he had to duck the acid spray. He was unable to avoid it completely. A fiery ray from the sorcerer ended the bombardier beetle.
“This room makes you tired,” Mom elaborated.
“I’ll look around a bit,” Xan offered. Nothing but the corpse on the southwest slab proved of any particular interest. It wore masterwork leather armor emblazoned with the eight-pointed star symbol and a silver ring. The rogue relieved it of both and returned to the hall – where he no longer felt fatigued. “Hey, Mom. Come on out. The tired feeling goes away.”
“Good,” the cleric said. “I’m out of spells, by the way.”
Liberty reported that the ring was not magical, but judged it to be worth a tidy sum of gold. They stashed the masterwork armor in a sack and proceeded down the hall to the north. Halfway down, they found a pair of alcoves with numerous pegs jutting from the walls. Unable to determine the purpose, they continued on to a stair leading farther down.
They descended these and entered a large sodden chamber containing a four pillars set with rusted metal spigots. A half-wall separated the entrance from these primitive showers, and it was clear that the ancient drains had become clogged. The rogue advanced to the east then stopped at the corner when he noticed movement from an opening in the wall across the room. He put a hand up to stop the others then pointed toward the corner. Mom moved up beside Xan, and the lurking ghoul emerged into the light, naked hunger on its emaciated face.
The half-orc unsheathed his greatsword and charged the undead, bringing the blade down in a powerful slash. Liberty joined the fray with a magic missile, while Drake and Xan jockeyed for better positions. The ghoul lashed out with fang and claw, but Mom’s armor took the hits. The monster avoided a follow-up slash of the greatsword, but another magic missile – Liberty’s last of the day – struck true. The ghoul’s claws dug into the half-orc’s side, and Mom froze in place, paralyzed from the unnatural touch. It managed to slash Xan as well before the adventurers brought it down. A pregnant moment later Mom was able to move of his own accord once more.
The ghoul wore a shining silver ring with the eight-pointed star symbol, and Cornelius whistled appreciatively. “This ring … is valuable.”
“Exactly how much is ‘valuable’? Exactly,” Xan pressed.
“I’d say no less than two hundred gold pieces.”
Each of the side rooms contained four long benches and several niches along the walls. They found a number of coins in one locker and a dead human in the western locker room with another suit of masterwork red leather armor. A gleaming short sword hung in a molding scabbard on its belt, and a rotted bag contained a stylized red lantern – like the ones in the sarcophagus chamber.
“Nice sword,” Liberty commented. She confirmed that it was magical but was unable to determine its exact properties. At Mom’s suggestion the rogue took custody of the enchanted blade.
“Looks like this could work out to be worth the pain,” Drake commented.
“The day’s events have been rough but oh so profitable,” Xan agreed.
“I suggest we fall back for now. I’m injured and out of spells now,” Mom advised.
“I was just about to ask,” Xan said. “Should we head back into town for supplies and rest?”
“Yeah, I’m just about worn out,” Liberty admitted. “Did we wanna go all the way back, though?”
“I’m not sure about town, but we should definitely store our things, get some rest, and strike back out tomorrow,” Drake said.
“At least back to the old mine office,” the half-orc suggested.
“That sounds like a plan,” Liberty said.
* * *
Once back at the mine office they made the place as homey as possible, and Xan pulled out a metal flask. After a few moments Liberty said, “Huh. I was just thinking about those Free City adventurers tooling around that empty cairn.”
“They had a map to a different location, right?” Mom asked.
The rogue smirked. “That was pretty clever, I must admit … leading them in the wrong direction.”
“Yeah, well. Better they not cross our paths while we’re here. For us and them,” Drake said.
“They are going to be pretty upset if they ever find out,” Xan commented.
“I know,” Liberty said, a bit of color rising in her cheeks. “The story I told them keeps it from being my fault … I still feel kinda bad about it, though.”
Mom grunted and began his daily regimen of sit-ups and pushups.
Drake lay down. “Yeah, well. They get a nice danger-free place to explore. Not much risk of death in an empty cairn. They just come out poor.
“I don’t imagine that will make them feel better,” Xan commented. “Anyhow, the big one is an arena champion. I think they’ll be okay.”
“Lousy braggart, that one,” the alchemist groused. He yawned with a somber look upon his face. Then he rolled over to face away from the others.
“I still haven’t seen either of the men around town,” Liberty said. No one replied.
“I must admit that I’m hooked,” Xan said. “This is just the edge and we have made more money in one day than I have made in weeks.” Mom grinned.
Liberty nodded. “It’s weird, being here. But the weird thing is that it feels like it should be weirder. Does that make any sense?” Mom grunted.
“Just your imagination,” Drake rumbled. “It’s time to sleep.”
“All right. I’ll try,” she said in a small voice. “Night.”