“Then it’s settled. I shall meet you outside Tyr.” Kivrin rose and left the tavern. “What have we got ourselves into?” asked Maro. “A long trek through the desert with the constant threat of violent death or sunsickness and the vague promise of a reward at the end. Just another ordinary day for people like us,” answered Gwen, breezily.
They travelled day and night, as Kivrin was in a hurry; this time sunsickness took its toll on Gwen and Naivara. Oddly, Sha-karn seemed indifferent to the heat and occasionally spread his arms, as if embracing the crimson sun’s rays. Despite their normal caution the group were ambushed by a band of the undead creatures that frequent the wastes, backed up by a gaj – a giant insect with psychic powers – but fortunately there were no losses.
On the second night they saw Slither. The great fortress of bone was stationary, its legs folded so the huge bulk of its superstructure was quite close to the ground. Here and there they saw lights moving among the framework. Though Slither slept, it was not unguarded. Kivrin pointed at a spot in the side. “That’s where we get in, through that gate. Once we’re inside, I’ll have to leave you – I have my own mission. You’ll have to find the crystal yourselves.” “What mission?” asked Mik, suspiciously. “To stop Slither,” Kivrin replied simply. “Time to move. Let’s go!” One by one they raced across to the gate, the sand muffling their footsteps. Maro paused a moment as he and Althaea prepared to make their run. “Here, lend me that crown thing a moment.” The bard looked him quizzically but fished in her pack and handed over the thin circlet they had recovered from the chamber beneath the Face of Stone. The mul whispered a few words to it and a dust devil sprang up behind them. “All right, let’s go,” he said to Althaea, and together they ran across to join the others. The little sandstorm followed, completely erasing their footprints. Althaea looked on approvingly. “Nice.”
Gwen meanwhile had set to work on the gate’s lock with her picks, but the tumblers proved stubborn. Eventually she gave up and simply climbed lithely over the space above the barrier. The others followed, with varying degrees of grace. Althaea smiled to herself and fey stepped through. Kivrin pointed to a tall structure above them. “That’s the tower with the crystal, I think. There’s no way in at this level – you’ll have to climb up. Good luck.” With that, he hastened into the passageways and was soon lost to sight. “Fine. As you said earlier, just an ordinary day for people like us,” said Mik, turning to Gwen. The girl, however, was not there. “Gwen? Gwen?” he called, as loudly as he dared. “Damn her, she’s wandered off.” “Guards, look out!” hissed Naivara, pointing to where several points of torchlight were converging on their position. Just then they heard a female voice call out in fear and surprise, faint sounds of struggle, then the dull thud of a falling body. Mik closed his eyes, then spoke, “We can’t go looking for her now. Let’s get the crystal, then maybe she’ll turn up on the way out.”
Ascending the tower proved fairly easy for Mik; there were plenty of hand and footholds in the bone walls and he was able to secure a rope at the top. In about ten minutes they were all perched uncomfortably sixty feet above the ground on a ledge that ran around the tower summit. Above them, rafters supported a patchwork roof made of hides. The ledge dropped about five feet to the circular roof; in the centre were some steps going down. Four statues of elf raiders, bearing crossbows, stood at each corner of the stairwell, and the roof was littered with piles of bones. By far the most alarming feature was the beast that prowled around the area, pausing occasionally to gnaw at a fragment of flesh that stil clung to a skeleton. From a distance it could have been mistaken for some kind of giant lizard; it walked on four feet, each ending in long claws, though queerly its tread was all but inaudible. The body was large and muscular and the back was armoured with a row of raised ridged scales, while obscenely huge fangs protruded from the misshapen head. Maro took a deep breath. “A tembo,” he said. “Not a baby like the one we killed back in the desert, but an adult. This… will not be easy.”
With that, he dropped quietly down to the roof. Mik slid after him, but misjudged the drop and sprawled noisily, bones cracking beneath him. The tembo turned to face them instantly. At the same time, the statues began to move on their pedestals. The elf-figures’ crossbows were now lowered as they swivelled and sought targets. Quarrels began to strike around Mik and Maro. Above them, four large spiders descended noiselessly on fine threads and launched themselves at the two adventurers. Maro found himself fending off the tembo and yelled in agony as its foul maw closed on his shoulder. He recovered and sliced at the fat bodies of two spiders, bursting them open. Mik, pierced by a bolt and stung by a spider, stumbled blearily towards a statue and began smashing at it. Sha-karn lost his footing, fell to the roof, and was promptly bitten by the tembo. On the ledge, Althaea made good use of her longbow while Naivara engaged enemies with deadly psychic attacks. After a furious minute the spiders lay dead, and two statues were in fragments. Sha-karn lay unconscious, struck down by a poisoned bolt. Maro and Mik had managed to enter the stairwell. As they did so, the two remaining statues began to direct their fire against the only moving object on the roof – the tembo. Enraged, the beast smashed one from its pedestal. One statue toppled over – then mysteriously rose into the air. The tembo continued to swipe at the last statue, too angry to notice the heavy object hovering above it. Naivara released her control and the mass of stone slammed squarely into the monster’s back, crushing it to the floor. Mik sprang forward and landed the killing blow with his greataxe.
A few minutes later the group had recovered and prepared to descend into the tower. Mik, Maro and Sha-karn went first. The stairs ended in a circular room, lit by candles. A space opposite the stairs held several beds and a cautious glance around the stairwell wall revealed a barred-off area, behind which several corpselike forms lay. The genasi called forth his bear spirit and sent it ambling off. Just before it passed out of sight, something vaguely humanoid ran across the room. The spirit evaporated as it passed and Sha-karn gasped in pain. Then, the three at the foot of the stairs heard the ringing of a small bell.
Entranced by the sound, they wandered out of the stairwell, and as they did so the dim light of the room darkened to impenetrable pitch black. Unseen by them, the four corpses behind the bars lurched to their feet and reached between the bars, hoping to snare an unwary combatant. Enveloped in darkness, Naivara fey stepped to find some light, but misjudged her jump, hit the wall, and fell stunned. Though they could not see them, the party faced two belgoi – fearsome undead fey – and a ssurran – a lizardlike sorceror. They had heard the sounds of battle from the roof and had prepared their ambush well.
Sha-karn was pierced by belgoi spears and cried out in anguish, his pain manifesting in a blast of solar fire that scorched his enemies but did not kill them. Maro sprinted clear of the darkness and leapt at the lizard-man, broadswords outstretched like the claws of a pouncing lion. Surprised, the ssurran was impaled by both and died instantly. Naivara regained her senses and revived the injured Sha-karn. His spirit bear returned to the battle, swiping at the belgoi with spectral paws. As Mik and Maro fought, they felt as if an animal’s strength fortified their blows and drove them on to greater ferocity, driving the belgoi back and back and beating them to the ground. The zombies fortunately remained where they were, Naivara stood well back and focused her mental energy, destroying them one by one.
Maro stood breathing heavily. “Second time today… thought we were dead for sure…” The others were either recovering their strength or rummaging through the unsavoury contents of the room. “That sssuran was a thrifty bugger – found some gold here,” said Althaea. Now they were able to examine the chamber properly, they saw that there was a pit cut into the floor at one end, and at the other a circle of magical symbols. Naivara looked at it thoughtfully. “I think it’s a portal – somewhere you can teleport to. That’s not good. I’m guessing that only (she lowered her voice) Yarnath could make something like this, which means he must need to visit here sometimes.” “Then I hope he’s busy elsewhere,” said Mik, glancing fearfully at the painted runes. “Looks like the only way out of here is that hole. Come on, who wants to go first?”