We returned to action with another long argument over how far Cane can swim underwater. But when Cane actually swam down the steps he quickly found the way back out, steps leading up into a large room.
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Cane and Trask led the way to a set of bronze double doors, opening them with a noisy rasp. Inside, we passed two shallow alcoves, each harboring the painted statue of a fierce cyclops warrior, before reaching a room crowded with sixteen more. At least a dozen had been vandalized. That's when one of them lurched angrily to life.
“Rawlargh! Rawlaaaargh!” it cried, hitting Sizzles with a stroke of its battleaxe, slamming her to the ground, and then taking a big bite out of the wolf, who whined, fighting back desperately.
Trask quickly shot a flurry of arrows into the cyclops’s head until it looked like a walking pincushion, its head as soft as an overripe cheese.
Lev told us what a great job we were doing and that with a little more effort we’d send this creature to the ancient gods where it belonged and, sure enough, with my next shot I finished it off.
Cane watched anxiously as Vlad ministered to his grievously injured wolf and, before long, Sizzles was limping gamely along behind us. A secret door hid a portcullis blocking our way. That’s when we noticed the large shuttered gates in the ceiling.
“Uh oh,” someone muttered as they ratcheted open, the river rushing through. Worse, the deluge was accompanied by an enraged moray eel that fell right on top of my head. Fortunately, the torrent rushing through the ceiling swept me away from its snapping jaws. As the water filled the room to waist level I struggled to reach Cane, trying to lift the portcullis, but slipped and fell underneath. Meanwhile, Trask was using the eel for target practice as Cane just managed to lift the gate open. That's when another dread zombie cyclops emerged from the room behind us.
“Yuck, if we kill them all the room will be filled with dead zombie juice,” Cane complained unhappily, coughing out a mouthful of water.
Lev made a quick speech encouraging us to follow him under the portcullis. Trask followed, taking a hit from the zombie. The second zombie attacked Vlad as he swam gratefully under the portcullis. I slashed at it but missed as I ducked behind Vlad. Finally, Sizzles and Cane emerged as the trap slid back into place. We could hear the zombies grunting as they tried to lift it.
Steps, hewed from "living" stone led up to a shrine where softly colored slate tiled the floor and pillars were carved in the likeness of leering fiends. Friezes on opposite walls depicted processions of animal-headed creatures marching along a black river’s bank. As the pilgrims reached the far corners of the shrine they approached a shadowy creature awaiting them in his sinister longboat. An altar stood beneath each twin and between them was a bronze double door. The doors were decorated with a mosaic of a winding river crafted with obsidian tiles. We were in a shrine dedicated to Charon, one of the Horsemen of Death. The smoke of the shrine lamps symbolize the rising spirits of the dead as they approach the river Styx.
“That’s nice,” Cane said approvingly.
A third altar stood near where we’d entered. On it was another basin and unlit lamp. I remembered Bert Askew telling us, "In some temples lamps such as these are magic keys used to help seal doorways." just then we heard the portcullis roll up and soon we were fighting zombies again. Sizzles took his revenge on the nearer one as Cane ignited his flaming sword and, with Lev and Vlad’s help, finished them off. Blocked from the battle by combatants, Trask and I ducked through the farther door where a long tunnel disappeared into darkness.
When we returned we found Cane bleeding profusely into a ceramic drinking cup, at one of the altars. They'd found the cup there, recently used to collect blood for a sacrifice. As Vlad lit the lantern Cane offered himself. He was about to drink his own blood when we stopped him.
"Dude, that's messed up," Trask said, objecting. But after trying every way of offering bloody sacrifice we could think of we gave up and let him pollute himself further. Quaffing his life's blood like a light ale, he watched smugly as the doors opened with a rusty squeak.
One way led to a dead end but from the other a hideous monster emerged out of the darkness. It was part lobster, part octopus, and part human—a piscodaemon’s caress is not a loving one. To quote your picture book, Tintin and the Throne of Flies: “Blistering blue barnacles, these aquatic daemons roam the lower planes sowing misery and blight, threatening enemies with powerful claws and writhing tentacles! They delight in drawn-out deaths, poisoning creatures or dismembering victims to watch them slowly bleed out!”
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That’s when Trask heard a voice speaking to him from inside his head. “In whose name do you dare intrude upon the inner sanctum of the horseman of death?” it snarled.
“The one true god, Aroden,” Trask thought in return, which is a shame because the right answer was Vordakai. Puzzled, we watched Trask strut around in silence as he debated the piscodaemon in his head, “Aroden’s dead, son! He’s the dead god!—his death heralded the end of prophecy! What do you say about that?”
“You shall die,” it answered succinctly.
“We shall use you for a soup base,” Cane told it when he heard the news.
I didn’t help our cause by missing my first thrust, although Trask found his target. “Ha hah ha hah ha!” he crowed before it swept forward, embracing him in its poisonous tentacles. Cane stabbed it but I completely missed my next two strokes, like a boy with his stick. Lev somehow called a fire elemental into being but, having no use for it, he blasted a sonic honk at the piscodaemon. With Trask's encouragement it left our plane of existence with a loud pop.
The next room was circular, held up with masonry columns grouped to form shallow alcoves. In the center one immense pillar held up the flat ceiling of the chamber. Manacles hung in each alcove and ancient bloodstains in most. Across the room a young female centaur stared vacantly at us. Manacled, she had been beaten an humiliated, bewilderment dazed her eyes.
Thinking she was under a spell I cast dispel magic over her but it didn’t help. Lev suggested using one of our scrolls of remove paralysis instead.
“Let’s tie her up first,” Cane blurted. “As soon as we let her go she’s going to go psycho!”
“We’re here to help her!” Trask objected, horrified.
“We’ll let her go if she’s sensible.”
“I have a freaking!" Lev started, waving his arms frantically. "I can calm people relatively well!” he finally said. He then turned to her. “I free you from your shackles in the name of Milani!”
She was bewildered at first but quickly assessed her situation.
“Who are you guys?”
“We were sent by your mamma,” Cane replied.
“Aecora Silverfire,” Trask reminded him. “And you’re Xamanthe.”
“Are we still in the . . . tomb?”
“How did you get stuck here?” Cane asked.
She sighed. “I underestimated that frickin’ dread zombie cyclops! Other than that . . . in and out memories. A nearly skeleton cyclops would come and visit me. It was a giant thing. A glowing gem wedged in its eye socket.
"It told me, ‘You should be honored to be a guest of Vordakai, beast woman.” She pondered us with a tear stained look. “He promised to return when, ‘Your fear and dread drive all semblance of will from your mind at which time you will thank me for these gifts of pain!’” she wailed. “Then he would laugh.”
“Probably shouldn’t look at the eye,” Lev speculated.
"That was Vordakai—an ancient enemy of my tribe!” She said, disbelieving her own eyes.
“An ancestral boogieman, if this truly was that. Pshaw!” she spat. “I can’t believe those old tales.”
“The good news is that you’re free to go,” Trask said graciously. We wasted several minutes arguing about the best way out without wading through floating zombie guts or tipping off Vordakai. Finally, Lev said with some exasperation, “I need to rest!”
I guess we all did. We returned the way we came in, wading through the rotting water and lifting the portcullis. Having no more trouble with zombies, we emerged into the golden late-afternoon sun, the air smelling of early summer flowers. At our camp, we fed and watered Xamanthe, before stabling her for the night. In the morning we’ll bid her goodbye and safe journey before finishing this business with Vordakai.
Eat your vegetables,