22 March (Continued)
The three made their way back up to the Glitterhame and crossed the large chamber to the iron door set into the east wall. After deciding it was not in fact trapped, Bhavik put the key they’d found in the dwarven gaol into the door and turned it. The lock clicked, and he easily pushed the door open. Beyond it, the path turned to the north and a stairway set with evenly carved stone steps led up and beyond their light.
The stairs terminated at an octagonal chamber roughly thirty feet across. The floor was inlaid with cracked, dusty blue tiles, and the walls were dressed with polished marble. Large doors of ironbound oak exited to the northwest and northeast and three cast bronze statues standing almost ten feet in height stood stoically on the west, north and east walls. Each represented a dwarven warrior armed for battle – the east and west carried axe and shield, and the canter statue was armed with two axes. The ceiling rose in a dome almost thirty feet above the floor. Somewhere in the distance, they could hear the faint ringing of hammer on anvil.
Eyeing the chamber with more than a little paranoia, the heroes searched for hidden traps. After entering the chamber, they could easily determine that the clanging sounds they heard came from the east, and so Bhavik posed the question, “East or west, towards the sound or away?”
“To the east, quietly,” Azal asserted. “I will check the door.” After a few moments of searching the northeast door more carefully, the tiefling determined that it was magically trapped, though she couldn’t quite determine the nature of the threat the trap posed.
When she reported this, Bhavik said “Perhaps the other door is trapped too. If so, perhaps the whole room is a trap.”
“Only one way to find out,” Azal muttered, moving to the northwestern door to give it the same treatment. Aramis took a sharp breath as she crossed the space, but after another few moments she said, “This one is clear.”
“Let’s go that way, then,” suggested Bhavik.
Aramis nodded, “Agreed.” Azal slowly opened the northwestern door only to reveal a blank stone wall.
Then the statues animated and attempted to murder them all.
The bronze guardians proved to be stalwart threats, resistant to damage by virtue of their metal bodies and unconcerned with damaging one another as a result. They all slashed wildly about them with their bronze axes, even striking at the other warders so long as they could bring their blades to bear against the invaders. Azal and Aramis quickly took bleeding injuries before Bhavik could intervene.
“Get over her, you hunk o’ junk!” the warden cried as he lashed out at a flanked statue. The heroes fought a desperate battle against the warding constructs, Bhavik attempting to rally the others with his taunts while all three jockeyed for every advantage they could against the silent uncaring bronze animates. Clearly, Durgeddin’s halls were still well protected from unwanted guests.
Aramis provided a constant stream of healing energy for himself and his allies, but he couldn’t keep pace with the blood drawn from the vicious blades of the bronze dwarf warders. The cleric succumbed to his injuries, leaving Bhavik and Azal for a few desperate moments before the warden broke off from the melee for a second to revive the human while the rogue continued destroying joints and digits from their metal foes. What seemed an eternity in reality took just over a minute, and as the last construct fell, Aramis slumped against the wall gasping.
They spent several minutes recovering their strength after the brutal combat, and then they turned their attention to the remaining door. “It’s still trapped,” Azal announced. “Let me try to do something about that.” The others agreed – from across the chamber near the stairs. Their caution proved unnecessary as the tiefling easily dissipated the enchantment on the door. Maddeningly, it also opened to a blank stone wall, and the sounds of the forge still rang out from somewhere to the east.
Then Bhavik noticed a brick slightly out of place on the eastern wall of the octagonal chamber, and there they found a secret door with another short and narrow stair leading farther up. Azal silently led the way forward until she reached the thirteenth step and set off a very audible alarm. A voice emanated from nowhere and everywhere, and Aramis easily recognized the language. “It’s Dwarven,” he said. “’Alert! Intruders approach!’” he translated.
Azal looked down at the ground and muttered, “Sorry.” Then she looked up at the stone door carved with a glowering dwarf face at the top of the stairs. Behind it, she could hear the movement of heavy boots on stone and said, “Umm…something is coming.”
Bhavik moved ahead and searched the stone door for the opening mechanism, determining that the mustaches bent down to allow it to swing into whatever room lay beyond. He shoved the heavy portal open to reveal a mighty dwarven hall fully one hundred feet in length and half that distance wide. The chamber was lined with ten great pillars carved into fantastic images – giants and dragons straining to support the massive vaulted ceiling some thirty feet above. Guttering orange torches set in sconces ten feet above the floor illuminated the room, and a mighty throne sat on a dais at the far end of the hall. The walls might once have been covered with tile frescoes, but these were long gone, smashed into tiny fragments and replaced by orcish graffiti.
They could see five doors, excluding the one to the secret stair in which they stood. A small fire smoldered on the floor before the dais, and a half-dozen sleeping pallets lay empty there, surrounded by packs and supplies. Hammers rang on iron somewhere beyond the doors to the south, but before they could think much more about that a harsh voice called from the shadows of the pillars in the Dwarven tongue, “Go back the way you came! This is the only warning you’ll get!”
They noted a pair of gray-skinned dwarves with wild red beards lurking behind nearby pillars with crossbows leveled at the open door. Neither of these appeared to be the one making demands, however. Aramis quietly translated for the others and Azal whispered, “Tell them we mean no harm. Tell them why we are here.”
The priest nodded and replied to the hidden speaker’s challenge. “We mean you no harm, but we have come too far to turn back now.”
“To arms!!!” Bhavik yelled in the Common tongue.
The visible duergar tensed at the warden’s shout, but held their fire. Aramis frowned at the shifter who had the good grace to look mildly chagrined, and then turned back to the hall as the hidden speaker (a female, the priest thought) continued in Dwarven, “What are you doing here?”
The cleric responded, “We’re looking for something that was taken from the Sunless Citadel.”
The speaker’s tone became suspicious. “And what is that?”
“A golden apple,” said Aramis. “A duergar whistle was left at the scene.”
“Whistle?” rasped the voice. “You found Azan-gund?”
Aramis swiftly and quietly brought the others up to speed and asked his companions, “Should I tell them? They may try to kill us and take it for themselves.”
“Try to reason with them?” Azal said uncertainly.
“Tell them what you will,” said Bhavik. “If we can avoid a fight and possibly gain an ally then we will have won two fold.”
Aramis nodded, “Or we may be able to make a trade. Alright.” He turned back to the hall and said, “Yes, we found the Night Caller. Are you willing to parley?”
“The apple…is not mine to give,” the speaker admitted reluctantly. “But perhaps I could arrange for an…audience with its possessor.”
Aramis translated for the others and asked for their opinions.
“We should enter into this deal,” Bhavik said without hesitation.
Azal nodded enthusiastically. “Do it! We need the apple…as soon as possible.”
Aramis nodded at their proffered advice and whispered, “I think we may as well head inside. Let me lead.” Then he strode into the Great Hall, trying not to let his fear show. Bhavik remained in the narrow stairwell, while Azal followed the priest in, remaining one step behind.
“That’s close enough,” warned the speaker, who seemed to be lurking behind the southern of the third set of pillars.
The tiefling gently rested her hand on Aramis’ shoulder, lending him silent encouragement. “I am Aramis Shepherd, servant of the Raven Queen,” he said.
“I am called Ghared,” said the speaker. Moments later the cleric’s suspicion about the speaker’s gender was confirmed as she peeked around the side of the pillar.
“I am honored, Ghared,” he intoned, cradling his staff in a slightly less defensive position.
“Show me the Night Caller,” she said.
“Very well,” said the priest. He dropped to one knee to retrieve the nephelium whistle from his pack. As he did this, Azal’s eyes darted across the room at the many doors, trying to guess where the apple might be.
“Is the Common tongue among your talents?” asked Bhavik from the stairs.
Looking past the cleric to the shifter lurking in the shadows, Ghared replied, “Of course. I just don’t prefer it.” Aramis held Azan-gund up by the chain, drawing Ghared’s attention back to him. “You’ve found it,” she said in an awestricken tone.
“It’s important to your people, then?” prompted Aramis. The heroes all noted a significant glance pass between the two soldiers, who still held their crossbows trained on the adventurers.
“We may be here of the same purpose,” Bhavik insisted. “Please, speak to us all. I am Bhavik. We are here to aid another. Our intrusion is of the utmost necessity… If we fail, someone will die.”
Apparently ignoring Bhavik’s request, Ghared replied to Aramis’ question gruffly, “I would like to reacquire it, yes.” As Aramis translated, Azal’s grip tightened on his shoulder. The tiefling fidgeted impatiently, wanting to know more about the apple. More sternly, Ghared said, “Tell me why we should not take it from your corpse, and use its magic to raise you as servants.”
Sensing imminent danger if he did not respond swiftly enough, Aramis answered without consulting the others. “Because we have endured everything that has led us to your door, and because we may be able to help one another.”
Ghared nodded, conceding the point. In Common she said, “You must be strong to have bested the Ogre. Were we to fight, you might prevail, but I do not think you would survive the wrath of our clan…or her.”
Aramis noted the emphasis Ghared placed on the last word and probed, “Is she the one who has the apple, then?”
Grimacing, the duergar replied. “She is. It was for her benefit that I procured the damned fruit.”
Bhavik said, “We are here for the apple and, ultimately, will side with whatever power can procure that apple. Of this we are not proud, but duty demands our mission succeed. Will you help us?”
Ghared glared at the warden and said, “You talk to much.”
Aramis returned to respectful, if accented, Dwarven and said, “Do you serve her because it suits you?”
Ghared grumps, “It suits me not to be eaten, yes.”
“Eaten?” Aramis said, surprised. “Who – what is she?”
Ghared only smiled mysteriously. “All in due time. I still haven’t decided not to kill you.”
“I see,” the priest said.
“Still...” the duergar seemed to be considering the possibilities.
“If you wish to end your servitude, we may be able to help,” Aramis offered, as the thought occurred to him.
Ghared scoffed. “You may be strong, but I doubt you are that strong…mortal.”
After Aramis translated Bhavik said, “If there is a devil among you or some demon under which you are sworn to fealty, our presence is your best chance for freedom…best chance to ultimately survive. What say you?”
The priest shrugged and added, “As he says. Our strength is better put to your use than fought against.”
“Your words are harsh in my ears, but what you say has merit,” admitted Ghared, grudgingly returning to Common for a moment. Give me Azan-gund, and I will see about an audience with our…leadership.”
Bhavik frowned, noting a subtle tone behind her words. “If there is to be an accord here, you must stop lying,” he said, his voice iron.
Ghared frowned at that, saying, “Strong and not fools, it seems.”
Bhavik changed direction. “Come to the light, and let your master fall prey to the natural order of life. It is her price to pay now. We will help you for payment of the apple.”
The duergar spokeswoman scoffed. “Perhaps I spoke too soon. There is no light for my kind, fool. Nor would you receive any aid such as you imply. You have something I want. You have nothing to offer my clan.” She seemed almost chagrined to make this admission.
“Words of the under-races ring hollow. If you will not help us, then what are we to parley about?” insisted Bhavik. Another thought inspired him then, and he gave it voice. “You could rule. Do you not wish this?”
“Hah!” said Ghared. “I definitely spoke too soon.” She turned her gaze back to Aramis who still held Azan-gund aloft and switched back to Dwarven. “Well?”
“Very well,” said the cleric. “Shall I to bring it to you, then?” Bhavik frowned, but said nothing more as the conversation returned to Dwarven. Azal looked between the speakers expectantly.
Ghared grinned. “Bring it here,” she doesn’t quite sneer victoriously.
“Cover me,” Aramis muttered to Azal before crossing the hall slowly.
The tiefling started to follow behind, hand at the ready, but Ghared hised, “Not you! Stay back.”
She paused, looking to Aramis for guidance, and he said, “It’s alright Azal,” he said softly.
“My apologies,” she said, her voice shaking a little. Then she reluctantly backed away as her friend continued to walk toward the duergar.
As Aramis drew near, Ghared reached out a hand expectantly. With as much respect as he could muster, the priest handed Azan-gund over to her. “We’re all friends, here,” he said, his tone pacifying.
Ghared accepted the whistle and a look of nigh-euphoria came over her face. “My love,” she whispered in Dwarven to the nephelium instrument. Aramis swallowed, and took advantage of her distraction to take several steps back. Sighing wistfully, the duergar actually put down her crossbow so she can caress Azan-gund as the cleric departed. After a prolonged moment, she places the dark item into a hidden pocket and looked up at the adventurers once more. “You have bought passage through the Great Hall,” she declared. “I will not bar your way nor hinder you.” She nodded at the two soldiers, who reluctantly lowered their crossbows.
“We thank you, Ghared,” said Aramis, holding back a sigh of relief. Then he swiftly translated for the others. Azal nodded while Bhavik remained reluctantly silent.
In Common, Ghared continued, “I would not expect similar treatment should you run into others of my clan. They lie east and south,” she pointed to indicate the doors she meant. “The north is haunted by the restless dead, and they bear us no love.”
“Is it,” Aramis said coldly. “That, I can definitely help you with.”
“Ah, yes,” she said with a grin. “Raven Queen.”
After clarifying that a more certain path to the being who held the golden apple could be found through secret passages to the north, all three duergar returned to the makeshift camp near the throne. The heroes then approached the northern door nearest the entrance to the Great Hall. The door was inscribed in Giant. Aramis spent several minutes working through a ritual that would allow him to comprehend the scrawl and once he’d finished he read it aloud to the others:
“Beyond this door the Maker of Death is chained. May he gnaw on his own hate until the sun dies and all things end...”