23 March (Continued)
Defeating the wraiths had required most of the adventurers’ strength, but they felt strong enough to press forward a little farther. After all, though it felt like they’d already expended a full day’s worth of effort, they’d only awoken perhaps an hour before. Bhavik led the others in a room by room search of the doors lining the eastern hallway. Most of them were empty except for orc graffiti, broken furniture, and ancient corpses littering the floor.
The first chamber to the south, however, had surprisingly not been looted. It must once have been the personal quarters of an important dwarf, decorated with tapestries and furnished comfortably, although age had taken its toll on the room’s contents. A beautiful rug easily twenty feet across covered the floor in the center of the room, and a simple bed and writing desk stood in the southwest corner of the chamber. Searching the room, the heroes discovered a small wooden chest beneath the bed containing jewelry and gems – the deceased owner’s personal wealth perhaps. The name Arundil was carved into the chest, though it meant nothing to any of the three.
The eastern hallway terminated in a second open chamber containing another dark pool in a low stone basin toward the center. The room was likewise littered with the remains of old warriors – no less than seven dwarven corpses lay where they’d fallen a hundred years before, surrounded by at least a dozen orc bodies. Someone had apparently gone to the trouble of stripping the dead of their arms and armor, leaving only a handful of broken weapons and shattered shields.
As they drew farther into the chamber a door creaked open to the south, and they could see the flickering of angry flames as a burning skeleton emerged, a fireball floating above its hands. From all around, they heard the telltale clicking of bones on stone. Looking back down the hall, they could see perhaps a dozen skeletons emerging from the doors lining the corridor, even those that had appeared empty!
Bhavik led the retreat back down the hallway, destroying one of the decaying skeletons while engaging another enveloped by black shadows. The blazing skeleton lobbed its fireball just past Aramis’ head and he dashed down the hall past the warden. Azal leapfrogged past her companions and dropped another skeleton, and then the skeletons swarmed the heroes with swords, claws, and malevolent magic. More than once, the heroes had to douse the flames that burned their flesh, or shake off the deathly energy of the shadow skeleton’s assault. A skeletal hobgoblin warrior led the lesser undead in the west, but the adventurers’ attacks left it largely impotent. When all but the two sorcerous skeletons were so much dust and bone, the heroes advanced back to the east to finish the task.
They accomplished the feat, but had exhausted the rest of their strength in order to do it. They retreated to one of the empty chambers to hole up for the day, until they could regain their strength.
24 March, 103 CY
The next day, they emerged to find the halls just as empty and quiet as they had left them. They explored a few more of the chambers off of the east-west hallway, discovering quite a bit of loot on the body of a fallen adventurer before they came to the room from which the blazing skeleton had emerged. The chamber had once been a library, or perhaps the study of a dwarven scholar. Bookshelves stood against the walls, and several piles of books rested on a reading table in the middle of the room. The entire place fairly reeked of moldy paper, and two doors exited the room – one each to the east and to the south.
Searching the chamber revealed an enchanted cloak (which Azal claimed) and a ritual book containing several rituals that Aramis had not seen before, as well as a pouch filled with residuum. He believed that he could master them all given time to study the tome, and he stowed the ritual book with his own. Behind the eastern door, they found a smaller study chamber that appeared to have been ransacked and left in a hurry. A small book penned in Dwarven recalled the last several harried minutes of the Halls of Durgeddin. The cleric read the grim tale aloud, translating for the benefit of his allies.
Afterwards, a search of the second pool chamber revealed the secret passage that Ghared had promised them existed. It formed a T intersection, and they found more secret doors at each of the other ends. Choosing the southern exit, they found themselves on the ledge of a great chasm. The underground river tumbled down into the darkness below, although they thought they could hear the roar of distant waters over the shrill sound of the waterfall beside them. A rusty chain ladder hung from their ledge down into the great pit.
“This must be it,” Aramis said.
“Then let us be about it,” said Bhavik, clapping the cleric on the shoulder before he moved toward the chains.
When they reached the bottom, they could hear nothing but the thundering spray of water that filled the small chamber, pooling and flowing out to join a larger river to the north. The air was damp, and the roaring of the waterfall was deafening. A broad ledge headed north toward the river, and then turned out of sight to the east, following this, they found themselves along the muddy banks. Aramis noted the tracks of a large, four-legged reptile possessed of a long, wide tail, and mentioned his discovery to the others.
The path came to an end at an old dwarven bridge that crossed the river and rose to a higher ledge that continued to the east. They could see a second such bridge forty or fifty feet to the east, but to get to it, they would first have to cross the river. The first bridge was traversed without incident, but as they neared the second, Bhavik and Aramis both noticed that it had settled alarmingly, the stone blocks leaning precariously outwards. The stone itself had a curiously pitted appearance to it, and they doubted that it could handle too much weight.
They bid Azal cross first, and she did so slowly, making it across the stone safely. When Aramis tried to follow, however, the bridge collapsed beneath him and he crashed down into the water with heavy stones crushing him down into the current. The tiefling and the shifter both tossed ropes into the river to try to give him something to grab ahold of, but even Bhavik’s keen senses had trouble keeping track of the cleric under the water. Still, Bhavik was able to fish him out as he crossed beneath the first bridge, and they returned to the now open span.
Azal and Bhavik worked together to secure a rope across the collapsed bridge, and with a little effort, all three were safely across. “I hope to the Shadowfell there’s another way out of this place,” swore Aramis. The dilapidated bridge led to another ledge that wound southeast alongside a very large lake – the source of the underground river. The cavern was huge, the lake’s far shore lost in shadow, though an island far from their shore glittered with gold.
They stopped for a moment to get their bearings, and Aramis frowned as he caught a glimpse of a serpentine form moving in the dark water. “Look. There,” he said.
Azal nodded as he pointed. “I see it. What is that?” she asked. Try as he might, Bhavik couldn’t identify what they were seeing. As such, he was caught completely off guard when a black-scaled dragon the size of a horse as it burst out of the water.
Its sheer presence inspired stark terror in Aramis and Bhavik, and their baser instincts took over – they froze in place. Though Azal was not paralyzed by the dragonfear, her hand shook too much for her to aim her dagger properly. In that moment of hesitation, the dragon exhaled, spewing acid across all three adventurers. The caustic liquid began to dissolve clothing and flesh almost immediately. Then the treacherous creature conjured shadows up in a dark cloud all around it and disappeared from sight.
Shaking off his initial fright, Bhavik quickly mastered himself and followed his senses to where he believed the dragon to be hiding. He struck down into the water, and though his strike missed, it did provoke the wyrm to lash out at him with its tail. Azal had just been waiting for a target, and her dagger flew a second time, though it did not pierce the thick scales. Aramis gained a little ground when he conjured a spiritual hammer, which distracted the dragon and gave his allies an edge.
A cat and mouse melee ensued, with the dragon vanishing into the shadows or the water only to reappear later with claw, fang, or acidic breath. The heroes finally bloodied the beast, but that only earned them another face full of acid, and then the black disappeared for almost a full minute, leaving the dark waters unstirred. Bhavik believed he caught a glimpse of the wyrm for a fleeting moment before it disappeared again.
When the beast had had enough of the heroes’ blades and stinging prayers, it retreated into the water again, and apparently crossed the span to lurk behind the island. With no easy way to get to the damned thing, they three reluctantly retreated to consider their options.