Desperately fighting the kython on the fourth level, Vatex sees the two thralls from the third level begin crawling around the outer scaffolding and climbing along the wall to the level below. The elf calls out for assistance, and Emeris and Early begin rushing up the western ladder to join him at level 4.
Vatex falls back as the two thralls begin moving along the outer ring towards him. If he gets pinned between the kython and a thrall, he is not sure he will be able to hold them off. So he withdraws back towards the western ladder to meet his friends coming up. The kython crawls up the machine, maneuvering around shifting parts. It launches blobs of acid towards Emeris. Despite being splattered, the half-dragon shadowcaster moves to intercept one of the thralls on the outer ring. He unleashes his destructive gaze of shadow magic, and the thrall wails in pain. Vatex exchanges shots with the kython, while Earth moves past Emeris at the wailing monster. Vatex curses as another shot deflects off the kython’s carapace, and Emeris takes down a thrall. As a thrall closes in on Vatex the elf is splattered with more of the kython’s acid. Vatex shoulders his gun and slashes at the legs of the thrall, while Early jumps from the outer ring to the catwalk behind the thrall, hacking into its back fatally.
The kython fires acid at the elf and warblade, who dodge aside. Cryssaegrym disappears into its scabbard and two double-pistols enter Early’s hands. He fires off a series of shots that deflect off the kython’s natural armor moves around the spinning mechanisms. Emeris hurls bolts of black energy from his hands, Vatex fires a shot wide, but the creature recoils from the richochet and is suddenly struck by an extended, spinning gear. It falls from its perch but manages to grab onto the edge of the inner ring with two claws. It pulls itself up, to find Early upon it in an instant, Cryssaegrym slashing at its head. Cryssaegrym cuts, but so do the slashing claws of the kython, and Early falls back. Emeris helps him to the outer ring, while Vatex exchanges a final shot with the kython. He ducks as a glob of acid hurtles at him, but through the motion he keeps his rifle’s sights trained perfectly on the creatures face and squeezes the trigger. The contents of the creature’s skull burst through the back of its head and it goes down at last.
Emeris has exhausted his magic, and everyone is badly hurt – they have no choice but to return to the surface.
When the three of them return to Emeris and Early’s house, they find a shadowy figure knocking on their windows. Getting closer, they see it is Dziga! The rogue-cum-shadowdancer looks tired, like he hasn’t slept well in quite some time. They sleep into the early afternoon, and when they awake the group gathers around the kitchen table to exchange stories of what has been happening the last few days.
Emeris relays the latest, including the attack on the Mrathrach Machine and the plot made with Nicalon Regalis to break into the Vladaam’s mansion to get the Banewarrens key. Although the Banewarrens key is of great importance, more urgent is continuing the assault on the Mrathrach Machine before it can bolster its defenses.
Dziga speaks of when he returned from the Temple of Deep Chaos five days ago, he returned home, bloody, burned, and bruised. His girlfriend, Marin, greeted him and he collapsed into her arms. As she guided him to the bed to rest, an image flashed in Dziga’s mind—an image of the cursed dais he touched inside the chaos temple, much in the same way an image of his apartment flashed in his mind when he touched it. Then he felt a strange force within the dais making contact with him across the great distance. Suddenly a blast of chaotic energy exploded around him, blowing apart furniture and bashing him forcefully against the wall. When the dust cleared, he could see Marin on the ground, killed by the blast. When the landlord investigated the noise and saw the situation, he called the City Guard and accused Dziga of murder. The rogue fled, heading to the South Market and taking a room at an inn called the Sleepy Giant.
Over the next few days, he acquired some forged identification papers, began looking for a new place to live, and snuck around the city trying to find his friends. Each time he stopped by their house, he seemed to miss them. When he slept on the first night at the inn, he dreamed again of being visited by Keziah and Jenkins. They wandered the city on the a particularly rainy night, splashing through muddy puddles beneath stormy skies, with Dziga listening to Keziah’s cryptic whispers about the “Emerald Moon,” the rune-bearing children, mathematics, the “Black Man,”and the Night of Dissolution. Eventually they climbed through the second-level window of a residence in Riversgate. There, Keziah and Jenkins snatched up a sleeping infant girl with a rune on the back of its neck. Before the dream concluded, Dziga was left standing outside the Sleepy Giant as the hag walked off into the night with the crying child in her arms. Jenkins, the hideous human-faced fiendish rat, follows her with a perverse smile.
What seemed most alarming at first was not the dream itself, but the fact that Dziga awoke the next morning fully dressed, despite having mostly stripped before going to sleep. Worse still, his boots and pants were covered in mud from the streets and his clothes were quite wet. Was he sleepwalking outside or something? He did not entertain the possibility that the events from the dream had occurred, until the next morning while he explored Riversgate following a lead on what might be Emeris. In one neighbourhood, he hears of a baby girl named GERA FASTUS who was kidnapped from her home the previous night. How could this be?
These were the only details Dziga shared, but in truth he had been visited by Keziah twice more on the last few nights. On the second night at the inn, Keziah came to him, but rather than riding his back, she led him by the hand. At an abandoned warehouse in the Guildsman District, she told him it was time to meet “the Black Man.” Dziga did meet him, or it, inside, and it was an experience so horrible he shuddered to think of it.
The Black Man almost seems human, a tall, lean man of dead black coloration that shimmered like polished steel. Wholly devoid of either hair or beard, with a long thin face, the Back Man wore only a shapeless robe of heavy black fabric. But something about the man was ineffably terrifying. As Dziga got closer, his flesh seemed to deteriorate, slowly at first but then faster and faster. He began to struggle but Keziah’s grip held him tight. She and Jenkins were completely unaffected by the stabilizing aura of the Black Man, and seemed utterly in awe of him. Coughing on his blood, his body wracked with agony, the Black Man spoke in a booming voice of such magnitude that it seemed as if his skull would explode. The words are forever etched upon his memory:
“YOU WILL COME WITH ME TO THE FORTRESS OF NUCLEAR CHAOS AT THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE. YOU WILL SIGN YOUR NAME IN BLOOD IN THE BOOK OF THE GALCHUTT. THEN YOU SHALL BE GIVEN A NEW NAME BY AZATHOTH, THE LAUGHING IDIOT GOD…”
He could not listen any more. Whether this was a dream or not, he knew if he stayed in the presence of that thing, much less go with it as it commanded, he would die. Overcome with horror, he tore himself free of the hag, her claws stripping flesh away as he did, but he barely noticed the pain against the screaming agony of his disintegrated flesh. He ran from the warehouse into the night, then he awoke, drenched with sweat.
After a few days of searching, Dziga ended up finding the perfect apartment on a narrow street called Auray Avenue in Oldtown. The landlord of the old building, SHMEE, asked few questions, and the whole street seemed quite lower class and ignored by the authorities. The only minor issue would be the strange, atonal cello music he could hear being played every few hours in the apartment above him.
The first night sleeping at the new abode, Keziah and Jenkins visited him again in another dream. This time, she brought the rune-bearing infant to his apartment. It cried and cried as Jenkins held it down on the bed. Keziah gave Dziga a curved sacrificial knife and a bowl made of a strange metal. She told him the rune-bearer must die and Dziga must cut out her heart. Dziga did as she commanded, killing the child and dropping its severed heart into the bowl. Then he awoke. Although his room showed no signs of the bloody sacrifice, he somehow could not be sure whether or not it had happened. Yet real or not, Dziga had made the choice to complete the sacrifice. Did that make him truly evil, or would that only be the case if the events of the dream had actually transpired?
The others heard nothing of these two dreams, although they sense something palpably darker about the rogue.
During their discussion, Emeris receives contact from Saharasahla, so he visits the shadowcaster’s library afterwards. The eccentric sage tells him he investigated the symbol worn by the strange visitor from the other day. He says he found it, and it was the symbol of a great wyrm shadow dragon called ASHARDALON who caused great destruction in the regions north of Elan a few decades ago. The conventional history says that Ashardalon bred six half-dragon lieutenants.
However, the druid GILANAEUS and his powerful allies defeated the armies of the great shadow wyrm, hunted down and killed his lieutenants, and dealt Ashardalon a devastating wound, and he fled to the northeast. It is said that the heroes pursued Ashardalon halfway around the world before finally destroying him. Saharasahla also learned that Ashardalon was worshipped by a cult led by a vampire named GARLOTH GULTHIAS. Sometime around Ashardalon’s defeat, Garloth was slain in a seemingly unrelated clash with adventurers. Was the stranger some sort of cultist then? It was hard to say.
Saharasahla also inquires about Emeris’ study of the Book of Inverted Shadows. He helps the young shadowcaster understand some more difficult passages and Emeris begins to comphrehend the complex lore with greater clarity. Then Saharasahla, seemingly pleased with the progress so far, gives the Emeris three shadow orbs that will give him more power from which to draw the power of shadow. The small, pitch black spheres orbit around Emeris and he can feel the different levels of magic they contain. The old sage bids Emeris to get the Banewarrens key, but silently the half-dragon knows the Mrathrach Machine comes first.
The rest of the group sells its loot at the market and gets healing from the Temple of Ashe. Dziga takes Gravele’s magic bow and boots for himself. The city is abuzz with news of the approaching Silmarian horde, which is estimated to reach the city within a few days. Price controls on food and various commodities have been mandated by the Twelve Commanders, and it is said that the Inverted Pyramid will be formally contributing to the city’s defense. Many speak with fear about how no help is coming from the imperial capital Tairon, with the the Holy Empire’s forces stretched too thin throughout its many regional conflicts.
They meet Emeris later that afternoon, and the four companions head down to renew their assault the machine and its defenders. The huge iron door at the end of the long passage is relocked, It takes Dziga several minutes to overcome the challenging lock. It seems Burger is the better security expert.
Back in the huge chamber at the top of the machine, they look around and see no enemies, so they descend the western ladder. Early is blasted by venting steam which reminds them to be careful in this dangerous place. As they move to the next level, Vatex spots a thrall performing maintenance of some kind, crouched down on its legs with its upper body ducked into a hatch on the machine. The group notes that each level seems to have a hatch that accesses the interior of the huge tower. Dziga disappears into the shadows and sneaks down to level 3, where he takes aim at the labouring monster. Using the bow Roguefriend, he fires a perfect shot that hits the monster right between the shoulder blades. It lets out a loud wail and hits its head on the machine as it pulls back. At that moment, arrows of dusk and gunfire are showered upon the thrall from the level above. Blood spurts from various wounds, and the thrall flees down the tower, crawling around the scaffolding and moving around the spinning pieces with ease. Early and Vatex move to pursue it, .while Emeris and Dziga move around to investigate the cavern on the eastern side from whence the thralls came previously.
As the shadowcaster and the shadowdancer towards the cave, another kython and a thrall emerge from it. The thrall moves around the outer ring to charge Emeris who is followed by Dziga. Vatex and Early change direction and head up to join the battle on the third floor. As the thrall rushes Emeris, he throws up a long line of black fire through which the thrall charges recklessly. The cold flames of shadow cause it to wail and stumble, but it continues undaunted. The monster attacks the shadowcaster with stinger and claw, but encased in steel shadows he is protected. Dziga suddenly slips by him and slides under the thrall’s legs and slashes the vicious dagger into its guts as he does. Black gore splatters over him and he jumps to his feet behind the monster. Emeris dodges past a stinging tail and stabs at the thrall with his sword as further crippling hits from Dziga finish it.
The kython moves in the other direction, to intercept Early. In one of its four claws it wields a crossbow-like weapon of cartilage and bony carapace, which it holds ready as Early leaps nearly 40 feet, Cryssaegrym slashing before him. A small shard-like projectile fires from the bone crossbow and the silver katana sweeps across and deflects it with a clang. Early makes the reverse stroke cut across the kython’s extended arm, and he takes off a few clawed digits. Vatex joins him with his slashing swords, and they flank the monster on the catwalk. Chunks are cut from its thick carapace and some blows draw thick green blood. Early fires off a shot from his pistol with one hand, and the round punches through the armor into its chest, while his sword fends off the flurry of attacks.
The kython’s maw snaps at Vatex as he cuts the monster twice more, and Early uses the distraction to lunge forward, dragging his weapon through the Vajra, and he smashes the kython with a Rabid Wolf Strike. Green gore sprays through the shattered exoskeleton in its side. Slow to recover from the aggressive attack, Early is shredded by claws as the kython concentrates on him suddenly with fury. Early is cut across his arms and chest as as Vatex finally it down from behind.
With combat temporarily resolved, the group checks out the eastern cavern on the third floor. A series of connected caves appears to be the lair of the thralls, judging from the long wood trough filled with disgusting slop, the shed pieces of carapace, and the piles of feces in all corners. There is nothing valuable here.
They next explore the western passage off level 5, from which the shapeshifter had joined the battle from the morning assault. There find a few storage rooms, one containing strange machine parts, another containing food, dry goods, and drinks. Behind a locked iron door they find six strange gray cubes on a table. Emeris takes them, curious as to what they are. Beyond the chamber connected to these rooms is a cave full of random objects and large stones arranged like tables and chairs. They search the eclectic collection and find a few crystal and silver items that will catch a good price.
Vatex is caught in a blast of steam on the way to the seventh level, where they find another passage on the southeast side. Dziga picks the locked doors, taking several minutes on each the difficult locks. The first chamber is a bedchamber with a voluminous pile of notebooks, on a desk. Emeris flips through a few of them but they are filled with incomprehensible formulae, equations, and technical data. In the adjacent bedchamber, Vatex is ambushed by a hiding chaositechnician when he opens the wardrobe. The cultist, a human named HAO with a shaved head, and four-inch chaositech claws coming out of his fingers. He swings at Vatex, who dodges him easily. Vatex and the warblade proceed to plunge their blades repeatedly into the open wardrobe, piercing the helpless cultist numerous times until he collapses in a bloody mess. Hao's locked chest contains a box with three flasks of thick, clear liquid, and two glass jars. The jars contains the same liquid with objects suspended inside. One looks like a coil of hemp rope, the other dark-colored fleshy sphere three inches in diamter atop a metal base. The group takes these items out of curiosity. The final room on this level is a workshop of some kind, full of half-finished devices scattered about carelessly.
From here they make their way past the blasts of steam to the tenth level, where the machine is embedded into the stone at the bottom of the cavern. A cavern to the south enters into a chamber with several adjoing passages and two doors, so they take the right passage for the moment, their eyes caught by a trail of dried leaves, bits of wood and metal leading to the right. The goes down the passage and round a corner into a rhodintor’s nest. It holds its flaming staff calmly and looks as if it expected them to walk in.
The rhodintor calls out for its brothers to assist in destroying the intruders, but the companions hurry to ensure aid will be too late to arrive. Vatex rushes the demon and cuts past its spinning staff, but the magic flames of the Elmekian blade seem to snuff out as the blade cuts its flesh. The earthbound demon dodges the stabbing tip of Cryssaegrym and unleashes a bolt of scorching lightning that arcs through the warblade and into Emeris twenty feet behind him. Emeris falls to one knee but Early bites back the pain and continues his assault as Dziga lunges to the side of the monster and drives Asura into its ribs. Emeris casts a gazy of shadowy death upon the rhodintor, but its spell resistance repels the attack. A furious assault of hacking blades overcomes the rhodintor and it goes down, black blood spreading quickly beneath it. Emeris watches the chamber’s entrance, ready to unleash the life-freezing breath weapon at any other monsters that enter.
When the first rhodintor appears, Emeris waits, expecting more attackers and not wanting to hit only one. The rhodintor calmly holds out its flaming staff as it strides down the passage. A cone of raging inferno bursts from the staff and engulfs the chamber. Dziga quickly hit the ground but the others are ravaged by fire that blisters their flesh. The rhodintor laughs as Vatex hits it with a round from his rifle as the flames clear. Then another rhodintor rounds the corner and joins its ally. Emeris takes his shot, blowing a wave of shadowy cold over the rhodintor. The demons seem hardly affected, and Emeris begins to dive when he sees the second rhodintor hold out its staff, but he is too late. Again the chamber is turned into an inferno. Dziga the shadowdancer runs up the wall as the flames roar past. Early and Vatex scream as their exposed flesh burns terribly. No sounds come from Emeris though, and the shadowcaster goes down, unconscious and dying. His scaly flesh is blackened and bones can be seen where the clothing and flesh has burned away around his torso.
Despite every movement being pure agony, Early is first to react and rushes towards the fallen half-dragon. The warblade knows that if Emeris is still alive, he will likely be dead in seconds if he doesn’t get a healing potion. The two rhodintor each begin the arcane gestures of another magical attack…
Next: Will the companions destroy the Mrathrach Machine once and for all? Will everyone make it out in one piece? What will happen when the barbarian horde reaches the city?
Random Elanian Factoid: The Commissar of Elan, IGOR URNST, maintains a regiment of elite troops called the Commissar’s Men, stationed in Dalenguard. He also has a regiment of 2,000 imperial soldiers. Additionally, he keeps a battery of two dozen specially designed cannons, which he used in Rhoth during the Gnoll War. These “Commissar Guns” are very mobile and positioned to bombard a foe from the north, the south, or along the cliffs to fire at approaching enemy vessels.