A few minutes later, Maro edged cautiously down the staircase that descended from the laboratory. In one hand he held the green globe that Aramil had wielded against them. The stairs opened on to a room about twice as long as it was wide, with a circle of runes inscribed on the floor similar to the one they had seen before. There were three doors in the wall on his right, two smaller ones flanking a double set in the middle. A peculiar clicking sound came from behind the doors which Maro recognised as thri-kreen speech. Taking care to avoid the circle, he approached the middle door and peered through the keyhole. Three kreen were visible, and Maro guessed there were more out of his arc of vision. Behind them he could make out a pedestal surmounted by a crystal dome. A scarlet object glowed beneath.
Maro flung the door open and hurled the orb into the midst of the three kreen warriors. It exploded in a shower of acid; two of the thri-kreen fell, legs thrashing wildly in their death throes. The third, though injured, signalled to more of his comrades, who took up positions behind the smaller doors, ready to flank the intruder. Maro closed the door and retreated towards the foot of the stairs. Mik, bow in hand, met him there. “Thri-kreen. I killed two, but there’s at least three others, maybe more. I saw a red thing under a dome on a pedestal straight in front of the door.” “That’ll be the Blood Jewel,” said Mik. “I’m going to try something; maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t.” “Better do it quick, then,” the mul replied, “this room’ll be full of thri-kreen soon.” Mik loped over to the middle door, flung it open and loosed an arrow at the dome. The arrow pierced the fragile crystal and it shattered, scattering pieces all around. This seemed to trigger some kind of magical warding on the pedestal, and a wave of psychic energy pulsed out, inadvertently slaying several kreen unfortunate enough to be within its radius of effect. Mik, in the doorway, escaped unscathed.
A second or two after the dome shattered, two thri-kreen appeared in the circle inscribed on the antechamber floor. These were larger and stronger than the others and, like their fellows, wielded chatkchas – the fearsome crystalline knives said to be created from the thri-kreen’s own bodily secretions. They somersaulted over Naivara, Sha-karn and Maro and set about them. As the three turned to meet the threat, more kreen rushed through the side doors and battle began. A thri-kreen is a difficult opponent; its multiple sets of arms mean both weapons and sharpened claws can be deployed against an enemy either defensively, offensively or both. Mik was cut several times by chatkcha blades, but recovered well and slew two kreen before charging to engage another. Maro barrelled into three kreen like a stampeding bull, crushing carapaces and breaking limbs. Sha-karn reeled beneath the blows of two kreen, but once more the sun’s fury blazed out from him as he roared in pain, consuming his enemies in fire. Mik sprang at one of the larger warriors like a great cat, arms extended. He ploughed into the kreen and slammed it to the ground. The thri-kreen had lost most of their number but fought on with fanatical determination. Mik, bleeding profusely, stumbled into the Blood Jewel chamber and shot another with his bow, but the kreen did not go down and clawed fiercely at him. The goliath’s strength failed him and he sprawled unconscious. However, the thri-kreen had misjudged the follow through and struck its arm hard on the floor, snapping the bone so it hung limp and useless. As Sha-karn tended to the fallen ranger, Maro came up and struck the injured kreen a mortal blow.
The party rested awhile among the corpses of the slain. Maro examined the Blood Jewel, glistening brightly amid shards of crystal. He could hear the voice of the Crown of Dust, urging him to take the artifact and join it to the Crown. A moment’s hesitation – and it was done, the crystal floating above Maro’s head, shedding bright blood red light. “One more piece to find,” sighed the Crown, contentedly.