A sonorous, resonant tone echoed through the tunnel. The group heard three clicks and the right eye of the bulette statue opened with a screech of metal. Inside they could see the balding head of an elderly duergar with an eye patch. He looked at the party, shook his head, and moved his eye patch to the other eye.
“This better be good,” he said, in Undercommon.
“We’re expected,” said Maire, seeing Cundall’s blank look of incomprehension.
“Oh, are you the entertainment?” said the duergar.
“Yes, yes we are,” replied Marie, doing a small illusion of fireworks.
“Great, great, you better come in then.” The eye shrieked closed, and a few second’s later the gate shuddered and there was some colourful cursing faintly heard. Then another shudder and the bulette’s jaws opened.
“Come on in then,” said the duergar, waving them in. “Welcome to Zortagra.”
Behind him was the town of Zortagra, basically some buildings carved from rock walls with one main street. The party could see some kind of commotion going on some distance away.
“I am Laird Shant Duerna,” said the duergar. “Noble veins run in my blood.”
Marie translated this to the others. They eyed his poorly fitting purple scale mail, and thought it was unlikely he was middle class, let alone nobility. Shant Duerna ignored the commotion behind, including the shouting and screaming. It looked like a fight and one side had won and were coming this way.
“There’s something happening..” said Marie, pointing behind Shant Duerna.
“Oh no, that’s just the voices in my head,” said the duergar, smiling. “I’ve learned..erk!”
An arrow hit the duergar in the back of the neck. A female svirfneblin, dressed in rags and carrying a shortbow ran to the dying duergar and catapulted off his back. She leapt into the bulette’s mouth and pointed to the tunnel the party came from. More emaciated svirfneblin ran through the gate, streaming past the party, pushing against each other, trying to emerge from the statue’s maw. Their clothes were ragged and torn. Most did not carry weapons, but a few had picks, axes, and bows. Near where the combat was, dead or dying duergar lay.
“What happened here?” said Cundall to the fleeing gnomes. None answered. Minimus grabbed one and held firm, his gauntlets of ogre power allowing him to easily stop his captive from escaping.
“What. Happened?” asked Cundall, firmly. Then got Marie to translate.
“Been slaves in our own city for years,” said the female with the bow in Common, who was still at the gate. She walked towards the party, ignoring the cries of the other svirfneblin for her to hurry and follow them. She seemed to be a leader. “Let him go, I’ll tell you what you want.”
Minimus let the gnome go. He didn’t run off, but hovered anxiously.
The female svirfneblin was named Tanglehair. She told the party that the svirfneblin were captured by the duergar five years ago when they took the town over and forced them to work in the main smeltery of Zortagra. The gnomes have been treated poorly and only given a handful of mushrooms to eat once and awhile. The leader of the duergar in Zortagra is a female calling herself Deep Duerra. She had been strengthening the duergar against an impending mind flayer attack. She was making all the duergar drink her “special brew” which was supposed to make their minds strong against intrusion of mind flayer powers. However, five days ago their duergar overseers started acting strangely, handing out random beatings, acting as if they were nobility and too good to work and would go home, leaving the slaves to themselves. Four days ago all work in the smeltery ceased as all the duergar who worked there started killing the svirfneblin and each other for minor reasons. Three days ago, in the midst of the chaos, the svirfneblin managed to escape their cages and hid in the smeltery’s inactive kilns. Today when they peeked out of their hiding place, they noticed most of the duergar had collapsed into some kind of delusional stupor. They took a chance and made a run for it, taking their weapons. They met some duergar who tried to stop them just then, but the duergar was slow and delusional. From what they saw a few duergar were still conscious, but the bulk of the town had succumbed to madness.
“Where will you go?” asked Zelda.
“Blingdenstone,” Tanglehair replied. “We know how to get there, it will be a hard journey, but we know the Underdark, we can survive. At least, most of us can.”
“Here, take some food,” said Cundall, taking rations from his pack. The others did likewise.
“Well, thanks,” she said, gathering the food up with the gnome who had stayed. “This will give us a start. Look us up in Blingdenstone if you get there.”
They ran off and joined the others, and were soon lost to the darkness.
The party moved into Zortagra, moving past the bodies of the dead duergar and down a narrow street lit by torchlight. The smell of burning coal was mixed with something sickeningly sweet. Buildings on the party’s left and right were carved into the green-brown stone, leaving no spaces between the buildings. They had rock-cut monumental façades that feature up to four levels of unadorned balconies.
Several duergar had collapsed in the middle of the road, still alive but barely able to move, as if exhausted. A young female svirfneblin with a fishtail braid in her long, white hair danced and twirled toward the party, leading a group of several others stumbling from nearby buildings.
“Our goddess Duerra has returned to save us from the mind flayer incursion,” said one, gasping a little from effort. They all smelled of alcohol and sweat.
“Come join us in our celebration and revelry,” said another, attempting to grab Zelda roughly and force her to dance with him. He sank to the ground with a groan after Zelda’s knee had connected with his groin. The others stopped dancing and snarled at them, their faces going ugly.
There was nothing for it but to fight, but despite their numbers the duergar were outmatched and not fit for fighting. The female svirfneblin produced a handaxe and joined in the fighting against the duergar. The party conserved their spells for the most part, and relied on brute force, of which they had plenty.
“I’m starting to run out of arrows,” said Zelda, counting the arrows left in her pack. “I only have 40 left.”
“Next time we’re on the surface,” said Cundall. “We can’t do with you not having arrows.”
The thin female svirfneblin who joined you in battle used her dress to wipe the blood off her axe. She then hailed the party, saying, “You helped the others escape. The duergar have taken my family to the Temple! They plan to feed them to Deep Duerra!”
“Wait, who are you?” asked Cundall.
“Ashroot,” the gnome said. “I was a slave, I would have fled by I have been looking for my family.”
“Deep Duerra is the duergar demigod of conquest and expansion,” said Marie. “Surely there isn’t a deity here. More demon induced madness I suspect.”
“Deep Duerra is the leader of the clan of duergar,” said Ashroot. “She is doing some kind of ceremony, we should be able to catch them by surprise.” The gnome shot off down the street. The others hurried after her.
The street opened up to an immense, circular cavern. Two, wide columns of intricately carved stone – extensively defaced – framed the 30-foot-wide entry way. The area was dimly lit by the light of permanent faerie fire; pale green, purple, and blue flames flickered throughout the area. Within the cavern, an impressive pyramid of smooth-hewn stone, the peak of which touched the exact center of the cavern’s ceiling.
A handful of duergar danced ecstatically but exhaustedly in front of the structure amongst the mangled bodies of duergar and svirfneblin, alike. Through it all, the sound of frantic stringed music could be heard within the structure.
Ashroot pushed her way through the exhausted duergar, more than 30 in number, who seemed too tired to stop her, or the party. Some dropped to the floor where they lay, panting, perhaps even dying from exhaustion.
“The Temple of the Sundered Skull was formerly a temple devoted to Callarduran Smoothhands,” she said to Zelda who was right behind her as she pushed through the crowd. “When the duergar took over Zortagra, it was converted for use in the worship of Deep Duerra.”
“Look at all these bodies,” said Zelda, wrinkling her nose at the strong smell of blood and eyeing the corpses on the ground.
They approached the pyramid entrance, which had an unusual skull hanging from iron chains.
“Without the tell-tale tentacles it is difficult to tell, but I think that skull belonged to a mind flayer,” said Marie.
Water cascaded down the walls of the pyramid, collecting in a shallow “gutter” that ringed the pyramid just above the structure’s entryway. The gutter channels the water towards the entryway, where it falls in a sheet in front of it. Ashroot lead the approach to the structure and walked directly through the wall of water, which distorted her form as she emerged on the other side.
“I guess we’re going in,” said Cundall, “but I think be on guard, I don’t quite trust our little gnome guide.”
They moved through the curtain of water, only to find the sheet of water had functioned as a dispel magic and Marie’s mage armour was gone, as was all of the protective magic spells the party had been using.
The ceiling of the pyramid sloped gently inward to a height of 100 feet. The central room was large with a single door on the wall opposite the entry. The entire area was dimly lit, again by the light of permanent faerie fire; pale green, purple, and blue flames flicker throughout the area. A female duergar sat atop a plinth playing a lute with reckless abandon. A dozen or so duergar danced wildly around the room while a dozen more were lined up in the back of the room. There, a female duergar poured liquid from a huge samovar-fashioned in the shape of a six-armed woman with the lower limbs of a snake-into a large, clay mug.
Marie heard her say; “The maddened mind is bitter and ill-tasting to the illithid! Drink deeply and defend yourself against them!” to each person as they drank. The duergar in line took turns to drink from the mug and then moved to join their peers in the center of the room; dancing and cheering with eyes burning with madness. Ashroot was no where to be seen.
“I knew it,” whispered Cundall. “Right team, looks like a straight up fight, crowd control spells ready, Marie!”
The fight was joined quickly before the duergar realised what was happening. Marie’s wall of fire burnt more than a dozen to cinders before they knew they were attacked, while Zelda’s arrows found and killed the closest duergar guards. Cundall’s confusion spell affected a group of duergar, most of which stood doing nothing while others moved in random directions or attacked a random target. Then he cast insect swarm from his staff to plague a duergar spellcaster. Ashroot appeared, looking more like a succubus now than a svirfneblin, and then quickly charmed Minimus, but Marie cast dispel magic to nullify the effect. Ashroot then summoned four shadow demons, and these took some time to destroy, all the while having to deal with the duergar also. Ashroot moved away and used the attacking duergar to stop any attacks on herself. Just as the duergar were thinning out and Ashroot was being cornered, she ran to a carved and decorated bell near the plinth and rang it, crying out in a terrible chanting voice, laden with power.
The ringing still echoed in Minimus’ ears; seeming to echo and bounce around inside of his skull until it became a cacophony of senseless noise. He could see the others holding their ears and so knew it was affecting them also. The lights dimmed in the room and the air filled with the stench of brimstone and excrement. Something was in the room that was not there before…
The battle had been tough before, this monster, which seemed to combine all of the most terrible and aggressive elements of ape, boar and demon in a huge savage beast more than twice as tall as a human. It was resistant to magic, it was terrible in it’s strength and fury, and could teleport short spaces. It was perhaps the most terrible single foe the party had fought thus far.
With everyone in the party bloodied and having to use healing after an epic battle, it was Minimus who delivered the killing blow, kissing his dagger before hurling it at the creature, who had also taken terrible wounds from sword, spell and arrow. The dagger struck the creature in the face although it barely responded. The halfling followed it up with an acrobatic tumble before launching himself off the side wall to bury Companion into the creature’s chest. Minimus was flung away, but the demon was down and dying, it’s body disintegrating in the manner of demon flesh until it was dissolved into foul smoke and a thick, tarry residue.
As the party recovered, using their healing magic, it was found that Deep Duerra had been hiding under a table for the entire battle. She was dragged out and interrogated none too gently. They found out the following bits of information:
- Deep Duerra was, in fact, a goddess, and as such did not demonstrate her godly powers at the request of mortals.
- Deep Duerra realized she was the reincarnation of the goddess after drinking from the marilith-shaped samovar.
- A month ago Duerra’s consort was captured and put into slavery by the fire giants of Maerimydra.
- Two tendays ago Duerra led a raid on Maerimydra to rescue her consort, who was being held in one of Hledh’s lairs.
- Though she was unable to save him, Deep Duerra stole many treasures from Hledh’s lair, including the marilith-shaped samovar, and the fiddle.
- The fire giants of Maerimydra were amassing a great many weapons and engines of war, as if they were preparing to march. Oddly they also had a pile of everyday items made for Medium and Small sized creatures. Some like the samovar and a fiddle were quite pretty and the grey dwarves helped themselves to them.
“This is bad,” said Marie. Cundall nodded.
“Why?” asked Minimus.
“Graz’zt has been creating these items to sow madness in areas where there is no faerzress,” said Marie.
“Let’s smash all of these items that we find, and maybe take one back to Elventree for them to study,” suggested Marie.
They forced Duerra to show them her stash, and there were clothes, more instruments, and the like. These were all destroyed and set on fire. They left Duerra there, wailing for her subjects to come to her, and headed back to the surface.
To be continued…