The Gatekeeper

18. City of Ogremach and Cave 333

Of Tainted Dwarves, the Elder Elemental Eye, and an Insane God Freed

At last, the heroes came to the end of the plague cave through a spellplague waterfall, only to find the way forward guarded by a group of mysteriously malformed dwarves. These creatures seemed to have uncut precious stones growing out of their bodies: the older and more seasoned among them having more than others. Brandis and Fiona stole subtly upon the dwarves, keeping out of sight so as not to betray the group’s true power.

The dwarves were tight-lipped, particularly as none of the heroes spoke Dwarven. Vayne and J’Div were able to communicate with them in Primordial, and discovered that they were set to guard this place against incursion by the creatures of the plaguecave. The only way to ensure travelers do not carry a disease or incubating creatures was to hold them in quarantine. “If you survive seven days,” they said, “you may pass.” Indeed, they recently detained a group of delvers led by a suspiciously familiar halfling and guided by a “stoneshaper” (sp?) through—they just left not a day ago. Wanting to get after their rivals, who suddenly seemed so close (and yet so far) the heroes attempted to talk their way through and proved unsuccessful. They would have no choice but to wait, stewing in their drive to get after Henri.

Apparently, the dwarves were not jesting in their suggestion that the heroes would have to “survive” the quarantine. Shortly after they set camp, the heroes were beset by strange dreams and portents. Tristan began having night visions of being imprisoned in an extradimensional space—a prison of air—from which he could not escape and woke only through falling. Ysabelle’s activities grew even more disturbing: she began tracing a curling symbol in the stone with her bare finger. The heroes recognized this symbol and even the dwarves seemed to know it—or at least a version of it: the Chained God Tharizdun in his aspect as the Elemental Eye. The heroes tried various methods to help her—Tristan with healing, Brandis with meditation, Vayne with swordmagic hypnosis—but nothing seemed to work. Indeed, going into a meditative state seemed to make Ysabelle worse.

The heroes tried numerous times to get past the dwarves. First, Vayne, J’Div, and Tristan sparred to distract the dwarves while Brandis and Fiona attempted to sneak past. They made it past the dwarves but to no good end: they succeeded only in killing one of the sentries, purely by accident. His body merged with the stone upon his death. The next day, the heroes begged the dwarves for help with Ysabelle, who was beginning to frighten even them (they had called for reinforcements soon after the heroes arrived).

The dwarves’ leader Thrumm (a particularly mottled dwarf that seemed largely crystal) arrived to take Ysabelle into custody. The rest of the party (including Brandis, who had revealed himself, but not Fiona, who hadn’t) insisted on going along, and they were all of them taken as prisoners to a stone-warped outpost called (in the Common tongue) Mine 333. The tiefling followed subtly, always avoiding notice from the dwarf guards. When the group crossed a long bridge over a chasm of lava, she had to pause, uncertain how to get past, and as she hesitated, the bridge collapsed into the lava. Trapped on the other side, Fiona considered how to get across when the skull of Cyric began whispering to her, promising a way . . .

The heroes were imprisoned in cells sculpted of living stone—Brandis with J’Div, Vayne with Tristan—while Thrumm took Ysabelle to his main audience chamber. He explained that she was not a prisoner but indeed a chosen emissary of his god, the Elemental Eye. This outpost (translated to the Common tongue as Mine 333) was meant to delve into the earth and discover the last of the three-hundred and thirty-three precious gems required to free his bound deity from its captivity, and Thrumm believed that Ysabelle’s coming presaged the recovery of the gem. Ysabelle sought to persuade Thrumm to release her and her friends if they helped, but the dwarf would have none of it. He demanded that Ysabelle help and said that her traveling companions would be immediately executed. With no obvious choice and desperately overpowered, Ysabelle contacted the dark voice inside her and surrendered her body to the entity inside. All went black for her.

Ultimately, Fiona fell prey to the whispers of the skull and opened herself to its dark powers. The winds of Pandemonium swept through the chasm, filling all (except the tiefling) with temporary madness. Even the heroes, on their way to imprisonment, heard this sound, and Brandis and Tristan immediately suspected it was Fiona’s doing. The skull held true to its word, and teleported Fiona across to the opposite ledge. She hurried after the captive heroes, only to find them taken in opposite directions. She followed the main group far enough to see where they were going—to the prison—then stole back to Ysabelle only to see a horrific sight in the audience hall: Ysabelle floating amongst the dwarves, surrounded by an aura of warped and torn flesh that had once been her victims, including Thrumm and several other of the dwarves. Fiona turned to flee, then thought of the skull in her hand. If there was ever an opportunity to rid herself of it, she thought, this was it. She threw the skull at the aura, made to flee then thought better of it again, and watched what transpired. Her eyes widened.

The alarm rose and the heroes broke out of their cells. They fought off the guards, including a captain who chose the prudent path and ran, rather than died in combat against them. Fiona arrived to tell them what had transpired—though she didn’t mention having thrown the skull at Ysabelle, or what happened next.

Falling to the floor as her power drained away, Ysabelle awoke from her Blood Angel state to find the skull of Cyric absorbing her Far Realm-tainted magic. Purple flame erupted around the skull, forming a new body to go along with the head. She crawled away then fled as Cyric himself appeared—a new avatar loose in the Realms—and began crying out for “Ruha!” and “Gatekeeper!”

The heroes regrouped and fled that awful place, as the newly freed Cyric set about destroying everything and everyone in sight. They plunged into Mine 333 and ran blindly, coming ultimately to two potential paths, one of which (a black abyss) was the path Ysabelle felt like following. Perhaps it would lead to the 333rd gem? Even though time was of the essence, Vayne urged them to choose carefully, and she and Tristan flew down the abyss to see if it was safe. They found themselves choking and nearly dying as they descended, so they flew back up and barely made it: that way was blocked by odorless, invisible poison gas. Unable to go that way, they chose the other path.

This led at length to a massive pair of stone doors that Ysabelle opened with the gatekeeper staff. They swung just ajar. Before the rest of the party could pull them open all the way, Fiona (who’d been feeling suspicious stares from Brandis and Tristan) teleported through the crack, only to find herself flanked by two massive guardian golems that lurched to life around her. She blasted them with her intense fire magic, only to burn away the golems’ armor and reveal them as magma creatures—immune to her attacks!

The heroes made it through the doors and defeated the magma golems in a hard-fought battle. Finally, they stood in the darkness, finally able to catch their breath for the first time in hours.

Then treachery befell . . .

TO BE CONTINUED!

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