I always thought the appeal for vampires are the same as religion, the desire to avoid death and live forever.
While exploring the underwater landscape in the form of a graceful porpoise, a slightly wounded Kor’lec was unexpectedly set upon by a frenzied silvertip shark!
Thinking quickly, the shapechanged druid temporarily cursed the hungry animal with a spell that made it afraid of the water! The panicked beast began thrashing and breaching in a vain attempt to get away from the very environment it depended upon, obliterating the upper decks of a nearby shipwreck in the process. Soon thereafter, the poor beast leapt out to open sea in search of easier prey.
Familiar Hilarity Breeds Contempt
Returning to humanoid form, Kor’lec thought he’d seen something aglow in the lower decks of the shark-whacked shipwreck. After making his way to the submerged upper deck, a voice called out “Stand and Deliver!”
Out from the water popped a little impish creature wearing a soggy bicorne. “You stand before captain Ekubus of the Salty Strumpet!” challenged the mephit, and gesturing to the innocuous sea life crawling about the hulk, “and me crew has you surrounded!”
By this time the rest of the party had reached the thin strand between the bluffside of Red Mountain and the lagoon. From there, the adventurers observed the parley betwixt Kor’lec and Ekubus with bemusement. The druid had managed to convince the funny little creature to “stand down.” It was clear that Ekubus was quite mad, believing that the Strumpet was still at sea. Kor’lec asked if he’d seen anyone strange pass by.
“Aye, yes!” admitted the mephit, “a funny-looking lady nearly scuttled me ship when she pushed back the ocean and entered the scary doors leading into the mountain yonder.” Kor’lec prompted Ekubus to elaborate on what he meant by “funny-looking” and “scary.”
“Well, the lady had a long snake-tail, and well, her head was also like a snake.” As to the doors that Kor’lec had only seen from afar when he was a porpoise, Ekubus added, “they’ve got pictures of vampires on ’em what makes ’em scary!”
Kor’lec played along with the mephit’s fantasy, and said he was a captain as well of the Briny Demon. After a little hiccup where the half-elf had to explain he wasn’t a spy, Ekubus let slip that his ship’s original captain was a wizard transporting magic booty to Mediogalti. The elemental being then allowed his fellow captain to return to his own crew.
Everyone else had already decided that they wanted to try using the occult ritual from the Typhonian Proposal to activate the Tide Stone and allow them all access to the secret sanctum below the surface of the lagoon. Kor’lec wasn’t sold on participating in ancient serpentfolk ceremonies, but he did think it was probably the right thing to warn Ekubus as to what was coming. All of the party, Kishtari especially, were interested in the Strumpet’s treasure.
The half-elf returned to the Strumpet, this time with Kai, and practically had to reintroduce himself all over again to the insane mephit. Kor’lec made a diplomatic play for the mephit’s plunder, saying he’d help get it to its destination while the Strumpet was forced to anchor during the coming storm. Ekubus, perhaps a little more savvy than anyone realized, invited the druid to go into the cargo hold and haul the treasure topside.
Kor’lec dove down into the dark, submerged cargo hold with a magical light. Sleepily perched in front of the glowing treasure was a spear urchin, which wouldn’t have been too much of a problem if it weren’t as big as a fucking horse.
Kor’lec tried his best to mollify the creature, but his druidly efforts only succeeded in raising the urchin’s hackles – particularly pointy hackles that injected a potent paralytic venom. After the half-elf had surfaced in utter “nope!” a jocular Ekubus asked Kor’lec if he’d talked to the “quartermaster” about the ship’s stores.
To Eschew What Lies Below
Satisfied that mephits were some kind of cruel prank perpetuated on the cosmos by some demented overpower, Kor’lec returned to the strand to catch up with the others. On the way back up the bridges and ledges, the party came upon none other than Gelik, Jask, and Aerys! And the Castaways were not happy to see their dear friends. “I thought we all agreed you’d stay put.”
Gelik surrendered and admitted it was all his idea, but Jask and Aerys interjected before anyone could beat the snot out the gnome. Both said they were of sound mind and agreed to come on their own. Aycenia had ensured the speed and safety of their travel before having to return to her tree. Sasha opted not to come, which Aerys chalked up to the teen not taking Nemanji’s death well. It was the first time anyone had verbalized what was probably so. The tiefling hadn’t been seen since he and Tyst made their heroic stand against the fungoid horde – and wasn’t coming back.
Gelik explained that he’d gotten a look at the charcoal rubbings of the Typhonian rites when he was helping Monica gear up for the away team’s destined date with Ieana. Familiar with occult magic, Gelik knew the group stood a better chance for success – and averting the ofttimes deadly consequences of failure – if they had more participants in the dangerous rite. Casters like himself and Jask were especially valuable, and Aerys was happy to lend a hand, and a fist. The trio – whose lives were secured and bettered by Dornas, Kish, Kor’lec, Likki and Monica – felt they owed their friends at least their support.
Jask had brought the copper helm he cooked with to provide seawater in a “vessel of purest metal,” pouring it into the basin atop the pyramidal Tide Stone. Aerys smeared a bloody palm onto the monoliths, the “blood from a thinking creature.” To fulfill the “tempered with the kiss of a serpent’s tongue” Kishtari tried kissing the stones, but they didn’t light up with magic writing until Kor’lek summoned a tiny snake to touch them with its tongue. The last ingredient seemed to necessitate calling upon Ydersius, which put the divine acolytes in a difficult position. Jask wondered, as it was concocted by serpentfolk, if the ritual would work just as good if it called upon another god, in other words, was the final element faith? After carefully studying the magical notations on the text and those illuminated on the stones, the mages confirmed the priest’s suspicions. As they knew of no one whose faith was as unshakable as Jask’s, he would call on Nethys.
With only a little further ado, Monica took the lead in the ritual, explaining that the ceremony depended on the focus and noesis of its practitioners. Elemental forces, biofeedback, magical awareness, and theosophy were required of the minds of the participants – Kor’lec, Kish, Dornas, and Monica would handle each respectively.
And as they began to focus their minds, the heroes and friends immediately felt themselves awash in eldritch energies. The air was charged with static that detonated into lightning around them. It fed from the Tide Stone and lashed into the pillars before arching skyward into the swirling clouds. Jask called on Nethys, over and over, using the ancient deity’s titles and anonyms. “Nethys! All Seer! Great Eye!” and so forth. Miraculously, the janus mask of the god appeared at unpredictable intervals in the vortex of clouds that formed a black funnel around the peak of Red Mountain.
Monica was losing her focus as the occult powers plumbed her mind for an awareness that she was doing her damnedest to feign – when Gelik grasped her hand and said “I haven’t been entirely truthful with you, about me, but I love you…”
Great, dark hands, crackling with lightning, appeared in the lagoon and seemed to push back the ocean! And behold! the waters of the bay were pushed back to reveal a seabed of rocks, scuttling crabs, plants, flopping fish, and sunken ships to the open air! And across the exposed shelf of the bay were great, spiky stone doors that ground noisily as they slowly opened beneath Smuggler’s Shiv to the secret dungeon beneath it.
Rust and Stardust
The ceremony took just under an hour, but the party was sorely drained by its effects. The dark clouds dispersed, yet the lagoon remained laid bare, and the doorway to the dungeon beckoned. Dornas looked at Jask, Aerys, and Gelik and – admitting that if he couldn’t get them to stay put – asked if any of them intended to come with? Gelik readily made no bones about his cold feet (er, foot), and also that he’d never been a part of the Pathfinder Society, which was his original lie. The gnome, hat in hand, admitted he tried to get in the organization by passing off fake artifacts. He was nothing but talk – a fraud and a crook. Monica replied that she’d known all along.
Jask repeated what he’d said on his last impromptu adventure with the a-team – he was just too old for this shit and was looking forward to being a free man on the mainland. As for Aerys, the pirate seemed torn – until a silent nod from Kishtari let her off the hook. Aerys opined everyone would be better off if she’d just kept an eye on Jask and Gelik, as her pegleg would only slow everyone down. The proud half-elf’s pain and frustration were evident to everyone.
Dornas, Kish, Likki, Monica, Kor’lec and Kai once again left their friends at the apex of Red Mountain to do what only they could do.
By the time the party reached the shore, their exhaustion had subsided. The march over the emptied lagoon was surreal, but uneventful. Finally, the adventurers arrived at the scary doorway, and it lived up to the name. In addition to the jagged spikes protruding from the open stone doors, images of demonic vampires, dressed in cultish Azlanti garb feasting on maidens, dominated the reliefs. The embellishments likewise betrayed their Azlanti design.
Dornas admitted his keen interest in Azlanti culture, and Monica stated that their ruins weren’t often found in Garund, though their presence in the south had long been a theory in fringe academia. Beyond the doors awaited a seemingly endless stairwell going up.
The long stairs continued upward for about fifty feet, which put the adventurers just above normal sea level and deep inside the crag. The first chamber was a vaulted cathedral exalting the demon goddess Zura. Columns decorated with demons supported the ceiling arches. A crumpled, bloodstained altar listed on a dais in the room’s center, and urn-cluttered alcoves were arrayed in the west and east walls. An arching walkway, forty feet high, crossed the south quarter of the chamber, with no apparent access from the temple floor.
The decorum was a fitting tribute to the Queen of Vampires. Reliefs and frescoes depicted cannibalistic blood orgies and all manner of vile atrocities visited upon people and serpentfolk alike by fang-bearing men and women wearing capes and high headdresses. Images of bats, bat-like humanoids, and themes of bloodletting and the consumption of still-living victims were ubiquitous.
They Won’t SSSssstay Dead
But very little of all that imagery was immediately apparent, for as soon as the heroes reached the top of the stairs they came under fire from assailants on the walkway. Kor’lec’s keen elven eyes spotted two serpentman skeletons up there hurling javelins at them.
Deciding they’d had it with these guys, Kor’lec launched a spear that struck true and shattered a few dozen ribs. Dornas moved to the archway under the bridge and saw stone doors leading out of the room to the south, decorated with spikes and motifs just as the ones outside, and called Monica over to check them. The undead snakemen tossed the last of their javelins, and deciding they’d also had it, leapt to the temple floor. The one Kor’lec had already hit shattered into pieces, and the other arose just in time to get taken apart by Kai.
A thorough search of the room found a lever behind one of the alcoves that Kish couldn’t resist messing with, which, fortunately, just open and shut the outside doors. The urns had nothing but dust within them. Kor’lec discovered a pit in one of the alcoves leading twenty feet down to a pile of jagged bones and a lit cavern.
Kishtari sent her serpentine homunculus, Naga, down the pit to investigate. For the first time, Naga protested. And everyone heard it. “Have we considered all options?” it asked, “it might be dangerous down there!”
“Oh, you can hear that now?” asked Kish of the others, somewhat surprised. The psion explained that her mother’s psicrystal would speak, sometimes. It was a sign of her own psionic development. Kishtari insisted that Naga do what was asked of it.
Naga slithered into the pit and described a natural cavern lit by glowing crystals. Aside from the skeletons, mostly human, there were old beat up crates, broken pottery, and other detritus. The psicrystal described a shallow pond of mineral soup containing motes of crystal. “There is a rather unpleasant doll sitting on a shabby box,” Naga reported, “and oh! it’s turned its head to look at me. And there’s another coming out a vase. I’m fleeing now.”
The snake-like construct bee-lined back up the pit and resumed its regular job as its master’s hairband. The tiny dolls floated off the floor up after it, brandishing tiny knives. Worse than the knives were the nimbi of blackness around their hands. “Come on, they’re just stupid little dolls!” Kor’lec teased as he walked up to the lip of the pit and slashed hard with the scimitar that he’d painstakingly sharpened that morning to a razor, toy splitting edge. Yet, he barely chipped the puppet-like monster. “Hey, why didn’t that work!?!” the druid gasped.
Dornas, dodging the dolls’ deadly negatron touch, identified them as a type of construct animated by soul-gems – precious stones that confined a sapient creature’s soul indefinitely. Which meant they had minds.
“Interesting,” yawned Kish. One of the soulbound dolls lost consciousness and plummeted down into the pit, breaking on the spiky bone pile. “Couldn’t get both of them.”
But the other one wasn’t long for the world, as Dornas jammed the butt of his magically-enhanced staff into the construct’s eye-socket in an attempt to dislodge the gem he’d guessed was rolling around in the skull. Head and gem both cracked, and the doll spun itself around to flee. But its toughened shell could only withstand so much punishment. Kor’lec and Dornas bashed the fleeing thing to bits.
“So, if those things have souls in them,” asked Kish, “can we eat them and gain their power?” Likki hugged his ‘big sister’ and said “Welcome to family!”
The party had all descended into the cavern for a look around. Dornas ruminated deeply on one the Azlanti skulls he’d picked up, gazing into the face of a person ten millennia dead. The magus bagged up the skull to add to his ancient head collection. Then the conversation turned dead serious. Kish had sensed the emotions of the gems – they were suffering and insane from confinement. But they were also rubies and incredibly valuable, especially after she psionically repaired the crack.
Monica asked to see one, then tossed it upward, quick drew her gun with a twirl and BANG! The blast resounded around the cavern and echoed throughout the complex.
But Dornas had snatched the ruby into hand with some speedy legerdemain. The Taldans didn’t so much argue as disagree, icily, on the fate of the gems. Monica felt in her heart the relics were abominable and their inhabitants deserved to be released into the afterlife. Dornas thought just as strongly that it was foolish to try and free them without knowing more about them. Nobody else seemed to have strong feelings about them one way or another, save Likki who thought Kish’s joke about eating them had the most merit.
Liturgy of the Devourers
The cavern contained several tiny twisty tunnels leading who-knows-where, so Kishtari dispatched her homunculus into them. Most were dead ends, but the slithering crystal did find some larger passageways and a chamber that contained a bath filled with congealed blood.
The Castaways returned to the temple and climbed up onto the bridge, opting to check out the western wings of the structure. Opening the stone doors, the party shone their magical lights on that most dangerous of dungeon discoveries – knowledge!
They’d found the temple scriptorium.
As one with the library’s shadows, a familiar and deadly predator lies-in-wait…