Dahloy’s youthful face seemed filled with awe and trepidation as he stared across the expansive swamp and mire towards the towering structure that signified that the party had reached the once-mighty Bodach.
City of the dead.
Tales were still told of the majesty and grandeur that Bodach had embodied during the Green Age. It said a lot that Dahloy, skeptical as he was of any history he found in the tablelands, believed at least the basis for the tales. He had seen enough of the devastation wrought by arrogant minds and Defilers of his own era to know that such self-destruction that Bodach exemplified was borderline historical cliché for the Tablelands.
Almost. None had managed to dig their own grave quite-so-well as the ancient Bodachians had.
“No one stands in front of you,” Morrah intoned politely in his head, and Dahloy instinctively turned to face the dark figure that had stepped out of the shadows to grace their presence once more. Dahloy sniffed appreciatively – the musky smell of death, layered over the slightly acrid tones of belladonna, surrounded this figure, but it was quiet, controlled, compared to his own party’s amphibious monstrosity.
Beyond the Rae-Jsha was a canyon, of sorts, and Dahloy could smell the odor of tar bubbling at the bottom. He idly toyed with the thought of what would happen if he shoved some of their party into the tar from this height. Words of the conditions of their contract flashed through his mind, dampening all would-be images of his companions flailing about beneath the tar – unable to see or breathe as their death approached with open arms.
Now was not the time to dwell on such pleasurable thoughts – work needed to be done.
“Then you know what needs to be done?” intoned the Rae-Jsha in its usual soft-spoken monotone.
“Don’t spill blood, return the hatchlings, and learn the nature of this new enemy,” said Rymyr, who was once again checking her damnable book.
“To be clear,” interjected Dahloy, staring into the shadowed depths of the Rae-Jsha’s hood. “The agreement we have is for the return of two of your hatchlings, regardless of their condition.”
The hood moved in a nod.
“And what is the criteria for having learned the nature of your new enemy?” said Dahloy. The Rae-Jsha seemed to be a race obsessed with code and conduct and honor – which, of course, meant that they would not do things on good faith. It had to be spelled out.
“We wish to know where this enemy comes from, and how it can move as we do. Learn this, and we shall consider that task complete.”
“Are we in agreement, then?” asked the Rae-Jsha. “I will remind you that you may still offer payment for our loyalties for your time in the Sunless Citadel.”
“I will pa-” started Aeislun, but the Rae-Jsha interrupted him.
“The decision rests upon the Delver,” he said, and a webbed hand motioned towards Zwaithe, who shrugged and offered up a ruby they had recently procured from Kalak’s treasury. The Rae-Jsha seemed to consider this, and eventually reached out for it. A reptilian head appeared from the inside of its sleeve and swallowed the ruby whole before retreating back into the Rae-Jsha’s sleeve. Disgusting creatures.
“We are in agreement then. Living blood may be spilt on your path through the Sunless Citadel, but we remind you that, regardless the terms of our agreement, you do so at your own peril.”
The creature motioned toward a knotted rope dangling down to just above the tar river. “The path lies below us, below even the river of tar. The abomination in your midst shall guide your way. Traverse only the tunnels where this moss does not grow,” he said handing Zwaithe a small amount of glowing moss. “Within the Underdark under the Ivory Triangle, you shall reach our associates, the Shadows, waiting. They will know of your task and objective, and should you come to them with the hatchlings, you will reach Nibenay in little time. This is the only way for surfacers to enter the Sunless Citadel. You may want to leave guards to guard the path back out, should you fail in your endeavours.”
He did not mention what would happen should they not appear with the hatchlings in their burden. No one asked.
While Aaromal and Umata decided to stay, the Rae-Jsha added, as an aside, “Trust not the lighted paths and follow only the darkness. The citizens of Bodach follow their own laws.”
“How did you like my hawk?” asked the damnable elf, but, gratefully, the Rae-Jsha was already leaving, and the darkness around it seemed to haze until he disappeared beyond the polished skulls.
As Dahloy began to pull rope from his pack, Aeislun was the first to jump onto the rope already hanging over the ledge and begin to climb down, preventing Dahloy from suggesting it. The pity.
The party watched as Aeislun finally reached the tar river itself and begin to flail. No one moved to help him, however, and soon enough the surface of the tar lay still.
Dahloy ignored the shock of some of the others – as it seemed, for all intents and purposes, Aeislun had died in the tar. He instead tossed his own rope to Aliin and told the undead Rae-Jsha to go down first and have the rope trail behind him.
It did not take long for Aliin to reappear from the surface of the tar and tell them the way down and that Aeislun was unfort- was very much alive.
The party slowly but surely made their way through the tar afterwards, with a few close calls for Rymyr, Zwaithe and Xaus, even after Dahloy had greased them.
What greeted them was darkness. A sandy ledge overlooked a subterranean gulf of utter blackness to the west. The ledge was wide but rough. Mud, rocky debris, and the bones of small animals covered it. A roughly hewn stairwell zigged and zagged down the side of the ledge, descending into the all-consuming dark. Someone cast a spell to enhance everyone’s vision with the ability to detect magical auras as Rymyr’s dancing sigils provided them the only illumination with which to see the sandy region normally.
The floor below them, however, was stone, worked by mortal, or immortal, in this case, hands and, as Dahloy peered into the Asker, he could see that the sheer drop a ways off. He could also spot a humanoid figure shuffling about, glowing slightly through his enhanced vision through the sword, to the side, but it did not seem to have noticed them. Aeislun was already peering down the ledge and stated he could see nothing below.
“Maybe we should throw a torch down there?” asked Aeislun, looking back towards the party.
Rymyr, who had been checking to make sure that her books remained safe and unharmed from the tar, seemed to agree and the two began preparations to light up the cliffs below them.
While the Rae-Jsha’s suggestion to follow the darkness and beware the light within the Sunless Citadel never strayed far from his thoughts, Dahloy remained silent as Aeislun and Rymyr searched for a torch.
“No no no no no no no!” said a panicked voice in Trade Tongue from the shadows. Dahloy watched curiously as two indistinguishable figures emerged from behind where the ledge met the winding staircase down. The two children finally came into the small circle of light that surrounded Rymyr. Both were covered in mud, wore nothing but rags, and sported eyes more knowing than their young age implied. The similarities stopped there.
The first, a young girl, seemed to approach on all fours… although something about her creeping gate seemed eerily unnatural. A shaft of light revealed how coarse, thick, dusty golden hair with brass and silver highlights spread over her face and framed the rest of her head. A single, striking blue eye shone from between her bangs with feral intensity while hints of a brass-colored mask, dark tan skin, and huge leonine fangs flashed briefly between her wild, yet fascinatingly graceful movements. As her full body came into view, Dahloy swore that she was the product of a defilier’s nightmare gone wrong, for the golden-brown fur that started at her waist continued down into the shape of a lion’s fully body – complete with four legs ending in sharp claws, a long, tufted tail, and coarse golden-brown fur. Pulling up the Asker to see if this girl was for real, he quickly realized that some parts of her were not – the leonine mask and creeping lower body were something of an illusion, and that in her true form she appeared to be something like a nubile half-elf.
The owner of the hushed voice also seemed a child, but not so afflicted as his companion… save for his strangely long limbs and face. Though he appeared thin, Dahloy decided this was mostly due to his height, and figured that he actually had normal proportions for a human (being keen to such details). The boy had arranged his rags to cover most of his all-but-albino skin – rightfully so, for fair skin is a rare thing in all the lands under the crimson sun, said to be the sign of a witch… or worse. Though his lithe legs strode with the kind of determined intention that only comes from being entirely immersed in the moment, his eyes seemed unfocused, or perhaps staring out somewhere beyond the party. As if sensing Dahloy’s observation, the boy’s eyes quickly snapped back into focus and met his own. Back in the present, he spoke simply, but clearly. “Fire – bad. Light – it makes snakes come.”
“Snakes. Why does it always have to be snakes?” cursed Zwaithe.
“And they call me rhetorical…” muttered Rymyr.
As if to snuff out any more foolish questions, she immediately supressed the dancing sigils that circled her head, once again plunging the group into darkness. Dahloy was forced to open Supernal Clarity once more and peer through it to see into the darkness. The feral child, no older than Dahloy appeared to be, was whole within Supernal Clarity’s vision, just as Dahloy could see the man that Aliin had once been through it. The damnable sword refused to tell him more, and he had to ignore Morrah as it suggested that he put his face deeper between the hilts.
“Who are you?” asked Rymyr kindly. “How did you get here?”
“We escaped,” said the boy, his voice still a bit raspy. “We got away.”
“Maybe they know where the hatchlings are,” someone murmured, and the boy and glanced at the girl, who, while oblivious, simply seemed to be sizing them up like they were her next meal.
“They could not come,” he said. “Could not escape. Only Nizhoni and I escaped. Call me Conor.”
“But you know where to find them?” asked Rymyr, and Dahloy could already tell that Rymyr had fallen prey to some maternal instinct mechanism and was fully planning to bring the children along. The boy, Connor, nodded, and the group readily agreed to use their local knowledge and other talents.
“Whatever the case,” said Dahloy, not voicing his own objections to bringing two starved and unhelpful bodies along with them, “We need to rest before we head further. This seems as good a place as any, so long as we keep watch, which Aliin can do, seeing as he doesn’t sleep.”
Aliin gave him a scowl, but the rest of the party agreed the zombie (and perhaps someone else) would make the best guard(s), and Aeislun and Rymyr began to feed and clothe the children as Dahloy laid out his bedroll upon the hard stone floor, but stopped as he heard a shuffling noise in the distance. He glanced over at where they had seen the figure moving about at the opposite edge of the ledge, but could not see farther than a couple meters in front of him.
Dahloy could smell whatever it was, however, as the stench of half-decayed, half-preserved body began to make its way towards them. For a second he wondered if it was just Aliin, but then he was forced to crinkle his nose a bit – the stench was not pleasant. He reluctantly unlocked the Asker once more, and saw that the figure was, indeed, approaching their direction, but its gait did not signify that it was moving towards them.
The party stood still for a tense moment, hands on hilts and words of power upon lips, but the figure halted a fair few feet from them, right in front of the shapesand that held back the tar from entering the room. The figure, which, upon closer inspection, looked to have once been a man, knelt and opened a bag that he had been carrying. Dahloy heard Aeislun hiss as a psicrystal appeared from the depths of the bag, carried by spindly legs, as it approached the shapesand and created a faucet out of it – Aeislun must have destroyed the shape as he had come through, Dahloy surmised.
As the figure began to fill the bag up with tar, Dahloy glanced at Aeislun – there was greed in those eyes, and soon enough, the psicrystal seemed to approach for a second, then scamper off. Aeislun watched it longingly, and Dahloy half-wondered if the elf would chase it. Unfortunately, the enhanced vision of the elves helped Aeislun listen to reason as he, too, settled down to sleep. The figure had long-since made its way to the other side of the ledge again, where it appeared to be repairing the roof of the citadel with the tar it had filled its bag with.
Dahloy glanced around him once more before he pushed Supernal Clarity into the shapesand that surrounded Morrah. He fell asleep to the sound of was either a fiddle or Morrah’s slight alarm in his head as he idly wondered if he could replace Morrah with the psicrystal Aeislun had just connected to.
When he awoke, it was still dark – the Sunless Citadel was named as such for a reason, and Dahloy spent a moment trying to reorient himself as he tried to ignore Morrah’s suggestions in between his own thoughts.
With rest, however, came confidence. The dark paths that the party dared not tread the night before seemed like the natural decision. Rymyr had once again turned the dancing lights above her head on, and Aeislun idly conversed behind them with Xaus as Connor and Scarlett took the head of the group as they made their way down the winding staircase.
That left Dahloy with the female half-child. The feral child did not say anything, save for a few growls and grunts, and Dahloy wondered if she did not know language at all.
“Do you speak trade tongue?” asked Dahloy. “Do you speak my language?” he said in Nibenese, then once again in Tyrian. When the girl did not respond to either of these, he finally asked, in the gutteral language of the dragons, “Do you speak in the Draconic tongue?”
And it was to this that the girl finally turned to look at him and answer, “You speak like the pride… grr… do you speak for this pride?”
Dahloy smiled. “What is your name? I am called Dahloy, though some call me Fool.”
The girl frowned, then answered, “_Nizhoni. It has been long since anyone has called me by name. The other children merely called me:” , “The Wild Thing_.” "I… do not know what it means."
Dahloy told her, and added when he saw her lone visible eyebrow furrow at the meaning. “No more, then_. For I shall call you Nizhoni and you shall call me Dahloy_._ _”
“What language is that?” demanded a voice from behind them. Dahloy turned, although he did not need to recognize Rymyr’s voice or distinctive aroma of dry leather, ink, and parchment.
“They call it the language of the dragons and sorcery,” said Dahloy, shrugging. “How this girl has come to know it as her own is something I do not know yet.”
“Can you teach it to me?” asked Rymyr.
Dahloy made a small, strangled noise, but nodded. “For a favour, though. To be named later.”
Rymyr nodded, and Dahloy began to teach her as they walked. Unsurprisingly, she was a quick study of words and they made quick progress until they finally hit the base of the winding staircase.
“Shhh,” whispered Connor from the front. “Snakes here. Take care, take care.”
Dahloy peered out through the darkness and saw that the room before them was about the size of a small courtyard, apparently the top of what was once a crenelated battlement. The buried citadel had sunk so far into the mire that the battlement was now level with the surrounding cavern floor. The floor stretched away to the north and south, and it was apparently composed of a layer of treacherous, crumbled masonry, which reached to an unknown depth. To the west loomed the surviving structure of what must have been the Sunless Citadel. A tower stood on the western side of the courtyard.
Though Dahloy could not see them, the smell of tar and snake droppings was distinctive. He quickly manifested an invisible suit of armor and held Supernal Clarity, blade in front of him, as the party slowly navigated its way through the maze of traps and snakes. Aeislun found at least one trap filled with half-decayed slig remains – apparently a feast for several tar kluzd still inside. The party slowly crept past the pit and toward the tower beyond it.
A collective breath was let out as they safely made their way past a collapsed section of the tower’s crenelated wall. Once inside, Dahloy took note of his new surroundings.
This area was cobbled with cracked granite, upon which sprawled four sligs, all seemingly slain in combat. One stood with its back against the western wall, the killing spear still skewered it and held it upright. Three wooden doors led off from the area. Above, a hollow tower of loose masonry reached 30 feet, but the intervening floors and stairs were gone, except for a couple of crumbled ledges.
The party looted the sligs and made two discoveries. First, on the wall behind the upright, skewered slig was some kind of arcane mark – Rymyr managed to make out the name “Irikos” in a stylized language most resembling ancient giustinel or draconic. Second, on the southern wall was a secret door of some kind with a trap already triggered by fallen rubble.
Careful not to remove the rubble and re-arm the trap, the party opened the secret door – revealing three undead archers locked in eternal vigil against an enemy that no longer existed. Aliin placated the archers when their attentions turned towards the party, and they returned to their posts as the party shut the door behind them.
Looking over the crumbled opening in the western wall, the party surmised that a collision caused by the uneven sinking of the citadel linked the two rooms. Nizhoni and Conor indicated that they had escaped from within.
Following them through the crumbling hole, Dahloy noticed that the masonry walls of the 20-foot wide hall were in poor repair. The far end was especially bad, as it had completely collapsed filling the southern section with rubble. Before he could better examine it, however, someone noticed a sithering shape coiling into an aggressive stance in the darkness. Nizhoni took the initiative and contorted her body in a slithering motion of her own. After about a minute, she managed to calm the frightened creature and appease its appetite with a small bit of food she had been saving. The tar kluzd subsequently retreated into a tiny-sized crack in the floor.
“We escaped and climbed up through there. It took hours… strange, there weren’t any snakes in there before,” said Conor, pointing to the tiny crack.
Zwaithe cut in, “You were probably just lucky. Anyway, I’d rather not go down that way.”
“I bet you wouldn’t.” Scarlett stung back. “I’m up for the challenge.”
Dahloy cautioned wryly, “Best not to split the group. We’ll need almost everyone for whatever is down there.”
“Yes, you will.” Conor said, ominously.
With that settled, Dahloy took a moment to examine the door at the far end of the chamber. A stylized balance beam scale was carved in relief upon it. At the fulcrum of the balancing beam was a single keyhole, sitting upon what looked like an ivory tower. Arrayed around the door along the walls was a relief sculpture of similarly stylized women burning at the stake.
Instead of screaming in anguish, the women appeared poised and focused, staring directly at Dahloy as he stood in front of the door. Rymyr chimed in that the arrangement of the women harkened back to traditional Bodachi accounts of jurors listening intently to a court case in session. The substitution of witches for jurors was meant to instruct citizens as to “what was at stake” should they fail to reach an “honourable judgement.”
Dahloy ran his hands over other carved figures of blind justices and Lawmakers, frowning at their meanings. He didn’t need anyone to tell him that the door was securely closed and locked – and given the meticulous and serious nature of its relief – likely trapped.
“This is a dead-end,” he said softly. “I won’t cut this.” With no other exit from the chamber, he returned with the party to the tower shell to examine other paths of descent…
Xaus Nebes: 3