The hidden door ground open, yielding to the combined shoving of Mikar and Maro. It was Maro who had spotted it first, trailing his fingers idly along the wall and noticing a channel that ran floor to ceiling. The party had rested in the chamber of the wyrm; Graven had pronounced with satisfaction that the defiling magic pervading the placed seemed to have gone once the beast was slain. They were on their way back to the stairs leading back to the caves when the secret door was discovered. Going further, an unlit corridor ended in another door, which opened on to a room floored with sand. A long table, upon which bowls of various sizes had been placed, stood in the middle. At each end of the table was placed a statue of a seated person; curiously, there was a large hole in the top of each statue’s head. Naivara, ever inquisitive, drew nearer to the table and noticed runes carved into the surface. “More riddles!” she declared. “Let’s see… Fill my body with the essence of my power to show you follow my path …what could that mean?” The others stepped warily into the chamber, looking around. “Well, those holes in the statues must be for something – but there’s nothing to put in them but sand,” said Mikar, grasping a handful and letting it run through his fingers. “Perhaps… perhaps that’s it,” said Naivara, picking up a bowl and using it to scoop up some sand off the floor.” As she did so, the sand covering the chamber swirled and resolved itself into five man-sized dust storms. One rushed over to Naivara and dashed the bowl from her hands, scattering its contents. Ku-ki’cha swept a bowl up from the table and filled it hastily, then sprang towards one statue. Before he could empty it into the head, two converged on him and engulfed him in a choking blizzard. The bowl was torn from his claws and he staggered about blindly. Naivara transported herself across the room but misjudged the distance and her bowl broke against one wall. After a mad minute or so dodging the dust devils, Mikar emptied a bowlful into a statue’s head. Instantly, the dust devils sank back into the ground, and two doors ground open, revealing steps leading up.
They passed through the rooms of the complex cautiously, but everywhere was quiet. After a time they found themselves back at the temple where they had fought the flaming skeletons. Ku-ki’cha chattered with excitement. “Now we make strong place here. Mountains behind. Sand storm in front. We hold against army! Best of all – magic water! Good, yes? Maybe we sell to Tyr for much coin – fill caves with food. Then we kings here.” Naivara and Althaea shared amused glances at the thri-kreen’s uncharacteristic behaviour, but Ku-ki’cha barely noticed. He scuttled off to the two fonts which had dispensed the water that had restored strength, and drank off a draught. After a moment, he turned slowly toward the others and, though his insect face remained its usual impassive mask, it was turned towards the floor and the antennae drooped mournfully. “Magic gone. Water is stale. No strong place now.” “Rejoice, monk,” said Graven sternly. “The magic we destroyed sustained those springs. Ever it is that defilement brings gains at the price of soiling the land.” Behind him, Althaea shifted uncomfortably. She turned to Maropona, holding out the fragment of the Crown of Dust. “Will you hold this for me? At least for a while?” He looked at her, puzzled, then nodded and took the object and stowed it in his pack.
Some minutes later they were approaching the entrance chamber, when Mikar held up a hand. “Wait – there are people up ahead. Let me see how many.” He peered around a turn in the passage and counted four elves in raider garb. Each bore the same mark – a snake wrapped around a skull – branded on their foreheads. One held a leash and the ranger recognised a j’kar – a small lizard, trained as a tracker. Disturbingly, two other figures stood nearby. Mikar shuddered as he realised these were walking dead, evidently under the elves’ control. He moved back to the others quietly and reported his findings. “Well, we could make a fight of it,” he concluded, “but I’m curious as to what they want with us. Shall we see what that is?” There was a general muttering of assent, and the party moved to meet the newcomers.
In the event, passage was a simple matter of each party member handing over fifteen gold to the elves – a loss they felt their booty from the past few days would more than cover. The relief they felt at having escaped a battle soon evaporated as they stepped, blinking, into the sunlight. A vast creature towered over the plain before the Face of Stone, casting long shadows in the sand. It was hundreds of feet long, and moved over the sand with a mechanical action that shook the ground at each step. Six legs supported a giant body and long tail, and two more reached out in front of the beast, tipped with great claws of bone. A head, formed of the bones of some vast long-dead lizard, swung this way and that, its eyeless gaze sweeping the way ahead. As the adventurers’ eyes accustomed to the light, they perceived that the thing was no living creature but constructed of a fantastic webwork of bones and rope. Standing there, dumbstruck, they saw that several towers had been built on the back of the construction. Here and there, they saw figures moving around the great structure, like ants swarming over a corpse.“Slither… that’s Slither…” Naivara’s voice dwindled and her mouth dried up. Maropona spoke next. “Yes, Slither, Yarnath’s fortress. I had heard the tales, everyone has, but…” He recovered himself. “We shouldn’t stay here. If Yarnath is here, then he’s after the… thing we found.” The ranger hesitated to mention the Crown aloud. “Let’s make for the hills behind the Face. I think we’ll have company soon.” They set off at a gentle jog, glancing behind fearfully. The juggernaut had started to turn in their direction, and already they could hear shouts carrying down from the structure and returned by soldiers on the ground. The terrain became irregular and boulder-strewn, and they dashed frantically on, hoping desperately to put some distance between themselves and the terrible citadel of bone.
Over a rope bridge, strung across a sinkhole, and onward to the base of a cliff. There was nothing for it but to climb. The ascent was difficult, but not impossible, despite a couple of nasty moments for Maro and Naivara, and eventually everyone stood at the top, breathing hard. Below them, they could make out the shapes of their pursuers; large, muscular warriors. “Tareks,” said Mikar, “Come on.” Naivara did not move. “What is it, girl?” asked the goliath. “Aramil… I dreamed I saw him, suffering… I’m sure he is in that… thing. I have to go back. I have to know.” Mikar laid a great hand on the eladrin’s slim shoulder, and forced himself to speak gently. “We cannot. It is too dangerous. You saw how many of them there were.” Already, Althaea, Graven and Maropona had pushed on ahead, leaping across a bridgeless fissure. Naivara laid a hand on top of Mikar’s and gazed pleadingly into his eyes. “Please, let me try. You don’t have to come. I could steal a uniform, disguise myself…” Ku-ki’cha scissored her arm in one strong claw and started dragging her towards the fissure. “No! No more stay! Think of clutchmates here. Now jump!” Naivara, eyes brimming with tears, sprang across the gap and landed safely on the other side.
As Mikar and Ku-ki’cha retreated , two burly tarek warriors scrambled over the cliff edge and advanced on them. Naivara composed her mind and focused her pain and distress into one single sharp thought, which she hurled like a javelin. One tarek halted, its face frozen in anguish, then toppled over face down and did not stir. More tareks were climbing up over the lip of the cliff and soon Mikar and Ku-ki’cha were locked in combat. A mighty swing from the goliath split one tarek from shoulder to groin, but the one at his side pierced Mikar with his bone pick and followed up with a hard shove that sent the goliath stumbling back and over the edge of the fissure. Ku-ki’cha and Naivara fought on in their respective fashions and soon the first wave of tareks lay slain. The thri-kreen climbed down to where Mikar lay, unmoving. He manhandled the goliath’s broken, bleeding body on to his back and climbed up carefully. At the top, he laid Mikar down and looked at Naivara. “I think he lives, still. But it fades. Can you save him?” Naivara worked quickly, binding the worst cuts and thumping Mikar’s broad chest to stimulate his heart. At length the goliath drew a long, noisy breath, followed by a paroxysm of coughing. He sat up, and looked around. “Did we win?” His companion replied, “Yes, for now. But more come soon. We must go.” Mikar climbed unsteadily to his feet, then bent down next to one of the fallen tareks. Quickly, he stripped it of the clothes and insignia it wore, then presented them to Naivara. “For later. Now we go”. The three of them hurried off through the rocky landscape.