6.2. The Belly of the Beast

6.2. The Belly of the Beast

Session Date: June 8th, 2020
Dale Reckoning:
 1523 DR (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), 4 Mirtul (4th of the Melting)

E. Far From Prying Eyes

i. No Rest for the Wicked

There were injuries and magical exhaustion throughout the party, and a good rest was in order. As he still had a store of divine magic from which to call on, Asura volunteered to stand guard while the rest of the party slept. They chose the room they’d cleared of the “oozebear,” closing themselves inside to hide from any wandering threats.

The night proceeded uneventfully enough, until Asura’s eyes noticed the chamber door seemed to have grown slightly closer. Not wanting to wake the others, he spread some gravel directly in front of it to confirm his suspicions. Sure enough, not five minutes later, there came the crunching sound of the door gliding over his makeshift alarm.

At first eager to take on the upstart jelly on his own, Asura recalled that the last door he’d fought had beat him into unconsciousness with two blows. He reluctantly woke the others to help him deal with the threat.

The upstart jelly was dispatched without much fanfare, though Syldrey had not fought one of the stone block jellies before, and she yelped in surprise when its acidic blood splashed across her. Alexis handed Asura his magical staff, which was immune to the acidic damage; Asura used it to help pummel the stone into motionless gravel.

The party were not bothered beyond this short scuffle, and they finished the rest of their sleep uninterrupted. It was now about ten o’clock in the morning.

ii. Monty Hall

Three more doors awaited them along the same side of the hallway. Before they left their room, however, Rock used her Wand of Secrets to look for any hidden treasure. She had not been successful in its use until now, but here it pinged and pointed toward a cleft between two wall blocks.

Following their suggestions, Syldrey took a closer look at the space indicated by the wand. The “rock” of the stone blocks looked more than simply worn; pockmarks in the surface implied it had been burnt or boiled away. Further back, winding itself through crevices between the wounded jelly stone blocks, a fuzzy mossy surface was visible.

Rock decided to see what awaited in the room adjacent to theirs. Sure enough, the same fuzzy green slime that had nearly taken Charli’s hand covered the east and south end of the chamber, steadily eating away at the jellies that formed the floors and walls.

A Flaming Sphere burnt up the majority of the slime that had claimed the area, leaving only the threads hidden within the crevasses in the walls. Deciding to save some for later study, the group experimented with moving the slime safely into an emptied water canteen, including Charli’s dagger and a Shape Water. In the end, Alexis’s Mage Hand seemed the best option.

It seemed Umeren’s slime breeding had been more successful than even the engraved messages implied. At least one of his new species had evolved itself into a predator, feasting on the oozes and jellies that made up its world.

iii. Master of Your Own Destiny

The second of the three closed doors disclosed a clump of weathered, half-eaten clothes at the far wall. The scene felt very familiar; it closely resembled what they’d found of (then-unnamed) Sevrin’s remains, with the bloody journal entry.

Sure enough, a crumpled letter lay where a grasping hand might once have been. It was written in Common.

Within the crumpled letter was a familiar golden key. Its lines and edges reminded them of a time, not too long ago, when they’d battled hell and devils to return with it alive.

“Damn that bastard!” Syldrey cursed when they’d finished reading the letter. “I knew he was hiding something from us, but this is the worst. For all I know, he was probably going to sell us as slaves at the end! This definitely means I’m not getting paid.”

Asura spoke up in an attempt to be helpful. “I’m sure we could make sure the lady is paid for her services.”

Syldrey’s fiery gaze turned on the cleric. “Watch your phrasing,” she warned. “You may be a dwarf, but I’m still at the perfect height to clock you one in the balls.”

Charli was acutely familiar with the Zhentarim mentioned in the letter, thanks to his previous experience as a private investigator in the city of Westgate. Westgate thrived on illegal goods and corruption, and it had a reputation as one of the most sordid cities in all of Faerûn. Charli had encountered the “Black Market” of the Zhentarim more than once in his time there, and he recounted what he knew:

A Quick Primer on the Zhentarim

By offering the best guards and mercenaries, with the final aim of an iron-fisted monopoly on protection services in the Realms, the Zhentarim seek to make the merchants of Faerûn, and thus the continental economy, completely reliant upon them as an organization. While many of their practices and services they offer are completely legal, they are not above spending a tremendous amount of gold to destroy their competitors and secure future profits to increase their wealth, influence, and power.

In order to achieve their financial goals, the Zhentarim agents often deal in illicit goods and contraband, using their extensive mercantile contacts via the Black Market to move products throughout the Moonsea, neighboring lands and over Faerûn’s more hazardous terrains. The types of commodities they deal in are slaves, poison, drugs, and even smokepowder weapons.

As a means of eliminating their competition, the Zhentarim use the Zhentilar army of Zhentil Keep or recruited bands of monstrous humanoids to take down rival caravans, often completing the route under their own banner to earn good faith and new business with merchant groups. They are not above resorting to sabotage, blackmail, or arson to outright murder to undermine their mercantile or political opponents. They are even known to purposefully upset the balance of natural beasts, stir up aggressive monster populations within the wild, and even have their mages summon foul monstrosities to threaten isolated towns and villages, in effect forcing the residents to rely upon the protection of the Zhentilar.

The Zhentarim, as a collective, hold fast to three core beliefs:

  1. The Zhentarim is your family. You watch out for it, and it watches out for you.
  2. You are the master of your own destiny. Never be less than what you deserve to be.
  3. Everything—and everyone—has a price.

(Adapted from the Forgotten Realms fandom wiki and the Wizards of the Coast websites.)

The agents discussed what they remembered of both keys they’d seen, and the implications. The previous key had been discovered on a cultist’s body on the eighth circle of hell. While the key itself had not been mentioned in any of the devilish dealings, the agents wondered if each key were attuned to a specific destination. In the present case, their key might have been intended for use with Juiblex’s realm in the Abyss.

“If what this letter implies is true,” noted Rock, “we might be able to use this key to open any door or chest that has a keyhole. We might even be able to reorder the labyrinth on our own, and ‘open’ the way to the exit!”

“Recall,” reminded Charli, “that the hag Gertrude, even with her abilities, was mindful enough to be cautious with these keys. We should be very careful how we use it…if we use it at all.”

“Whatever the case,” Alexis added, “I don’t think our work here in this temple is done. Not by a long shot.”

The agents took note of the new items they’d discovered:

• The letter from the Zhentarim
• The cultist Key
• Potion of Superior Healing
• A shortsword that emitted a faint magical aura to Alexis's eldritch vision

iv. Dinner for One

The last unopened door of the hallway proved to nearly be the druid’s undoing. Though Syldrey and Charli both reported no traps on the door itself, they could not have sensed the twenty-foot-wide trapdoor that awaited just inside. As soon as Rock-in-Water had entered the room, the floor fell out from underneath her, and she plummeted into the void.

No typical spiked pit awaited its victim here. Instead, a hungry Gelatinous Cube patiently sat, anticipating its next delivered meal. With no opportunity to dodge out of the way, the unfortunate tabaxi plunged directly into its body, feeling her flesh dissolving immediately.

Above her, the trapdoors resealed themselves with an audible click. There were mere seconds left on the druid’s life.

Using skills he’d long honed, Charli flipped out his burglar’s tools, slipped a file between the edges of the trapdoors, and undid the latch that held them in place. Below him, Rock was already unconscious, her blood seeping into the jelly around her like a drop of ink in water.

Alexis leaped down into a space between the cube and the nearby wall. His magical tome, held before him, began shuffling through its pages like in the breath of a strong wind. A shielding aurora surrounded Alexis–one he prayed would be enough to distract the cube.

His prayers were answered. Its attention seized by the new light and sound, the cube moved to envelope Alexis, leaving the druid behind on the stone floor…and mere moments from death.

Extracting Rock from the pit was simple enough; Asura cast a quick Healing Word to restore her to consciousness, and from there the druid was able to wild-shape into a spider and escape. Alexis, however, was beyond the cleric’s reach; though Asura could clearly see him form inside the gelatinous mound, the surface of the cube gave total cover against the effects of any spell.

Alexis knew he could last perhaps a dozen seconds in the cube before he was consumed. An attempt to drink a potion of healing failed; it was too difficult to get the liquid to his mouth without spilling it into the ooze around him. He also struggled to breach his head above the surface, nixing any spells with verbal components.

Above him, the party assailed the cube with their ranged weapons and spell attacks, but they dealt too little damage, too slowly.

Alexis’s second attempt to breach the surface succeeded, and he instantly used this opportunity to Misty Step up to the doorway, where his friends awaited. Syldrey, who had been tying one end of her rope about her waist, breathed a grateful sigh of relief.

“Oh, thank the gods,” she exclaimed. “I was not looking forward to diving head-first into that thing.”

The gelatinous cube was unable to climb out of its pit, and the party safely fired upon it from range until it was dead. Testing a theory, Rock threw her canteen full of green slime onto the cube. She was pleased to see a dark area blossoming inside the ooze’s form, where the green slime ate away at it.

Eventually, there was nothing left but a patch of mossy green on the floor. After searching the room, the agents came away with 15 electrum pieces, plus two new glass vials and a canteen full of the useful mossy slime.

• 4 electrum pieces

v. But Be Transformed

Around the corner, a staircase led downwards to a new and third level. Still in her spider form, Rock scouted ahead by crawling along the ceiling. From her vantage point, Rock was able to see two suspicious dragon-head carvings flanking the corridor ahead. Each had a hollow tube poking from their mouth, as if to emit some substance.

Alerted to the danger by the spider’s leg motions, Charli crept forward, checking for traps. Finding two simple pressure plates across the hallway ahead, he jammed a piton under the edge of one, holding it up. The rest of the party were safe to progress across it.

The next room north held two fountains of indeterminate substance, flanking a table on which sat familiar ceramic cups. Sure enough, along the table were inscribed the words:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be renewed by the transformation of your body.”

One of the vessels still held a liquid within its shape. The group decided to forgo a taste test.

Alexis read the room’s Abyssal engravings aloud to them:

The group wondered why Umeren hadn’t, in fact, built himself an army, if it was indeed so easy.

Directly to the east, another chamber awaited. This one contained a pedestal, flanked by images of twisted aberrations, upon which a bound tome lay. Standing well away, Alexis used his Mage Hand to flick open the latch on the tome, smiling in satisfaction as a needle trap sprung harmlessly. Then, finding the rear cover of the tome bolted to its stand, he withdrew a vial of the green moss and used his Mage Hand to rub against along the top surface of the pedestal.

Alexis’s tactics bore fruit. The moss would only eat things that were alive; and while the book itself was inanimate, the pedestal itself was made of ooze. The moss worked not unlike a solvent, gradually releasing the pedestal’s grip on the book; and soon Alexis was the new owner of an unsettling catalog of rituals:

Rituals to Honor Exalted Ghaunadaur the Ancient One Through the Worship of His Venerated Aspect Juiblex the Lord of Slime

The first portion of this book described general, well-established rituals common to all Ghaunadaur temples were described. The Elder Eye expected each prayer to be coupled with a sacrifice. It preferred living offerings, but when that was impossible, it also accepted bones and food which were burned in oil while braziers of perfumed incense were burned as well. If the worshiper could not deliver any offerings to the deity, they were required to perform their prayer while holding one unprotected hand in an open flame.

Cultists would go on the Gathering, which consisted of incursions meant to kidnap and abduct sentient beings that would be destined to the sacrificial altar of Ghaunadaur. These individuals would be drugged and held under compulsion, pushing them to walk up to the altar, where the leading cleric would pray and turn into slime. The slime would envelop the victim and consume it.

In the second portion, ceremonies more specific to Juiblex, the Lord of Oozes and Shapeless Things were recounted. Greed, gluttony, and consumption were enumerated upon in countless detail. Central to the worship of Juiblex was a large basin filled with a relatively-docile and well-fed slime, viewed as an agent of Juiblex upon the earth. Typical ceremonies honoring Juiblex involved the feasting upon of raw meat, feeding live animals to the venerated slime, and or consuming live humanoids as quickly as possible, then giving leftover scraps to the ooze. Thanks to the religious emphasis on seizing, using, and consuming, larger ceremonies often transformed into impromptu riots, orgies, or mass sacrifices.

Included also were several specific, unusual rites:

  • Those wishing for a good harvest the coming year would be required to eat a bushel of wheat during the ceremony, each. Then they fed the venerated slime two bushels for every head at the mass.
  • Those wishing for wealth would fill their entire bellies with gold, matching each gold piece consumed with a piece for the enclave’s slime. The ceremony would be concluded with the sacrifice of a pregnant cow to the slime basin, with the promise of an identical ritual each coming month.
  • Those wishing for true love would convince the congregation to kidnap a married couple. Much like all rites detailed thus far, physical consumption was key in the execution of this ritual.

Finally, towards the rear of the tome, there were new ceremonies written in the margins by hand. They involved petitioners consuming a variety of the holy ooze itself, giving themselves over permanently to their god, taking upon themselves both his form and his eternal hunger. The agents felt they had already seen evidence of this particular ritual in the temple.

(Adapted from the Forgotten Realms fandom wiki entry on Ghaunadaur Rituals and a related reddit post.)

vi. When “Orcs” Attack

A booming roar from behind them, farther into the dark recess of the temple, surprised the party. Asura and Alexis’s conversation on the tome had not been in hushed tones, and their voices had alerted a patrolling group of an orc war chief and his two dire wolves.

Or what appeared to be an orc war chief and two dire wolves. The agents were cognizant that everything they encountered, from the creatures they fought to the stones they stepped over, was in reality some species of specially-bred slime.

As expected, as soon as the first dire wolf fell to their blows, its shape shifted and melted, and an angry ooze continued the assault in its place.

While the foes individually were not much of a threat, each had two forms to battle, with the second being the more dangerous. Slapped in the head by a pseudopod, Asura felt his mind slow and his memories plundered (much like Gorodash had been in a previous confrontation).

Rock’s magic, veritable lifesavers in previous battles, had little impact on this occasion. First a Flaming Sphere, and then a pair of summoned Brown Bears, were lost when she failed to maintain her concentration on her spells.

Fortunately, the party had a few new improvised weapons. Charli and Asura threw the slime-filled glass bottles they carried, dashing them to pieces against their enemies. Sure enough, the green mold took immediately hold on their enemies’s bodies, as the voracious predatory slime cannibalized its own.

The party retreated to the door to the chamber and forced the enemies to combat them one-at-a-time. Even so, Alexis was beaten unconscious before Asura’s healing magic could put him back on his feet.

Ever curious and always questioning, Alexis downed a Potion of Mind Reading and turned his attention to the “orc.” Seemingly-ordinary thoughts awaited him. Even after plumbing deeper into the foe’s mind, Alexis only gathered that the “orc” believed it had been charged with a specific mission: defending this area against any and all intruders.

When they were finally alone again, panting from the exertion, Alexis briefly turned his attention to Syldrey’s mind. “Whew,” he heard in her thoughts, “at least this group fights better than my old one. At this rate, we might actually make it out of this dungeon alive.”

vii. An Unholy Sanctuary

Continuing further north, the party discovered a large ceremonial area, complete with the largest statue to Juiblex they’d seen yet. Along the western wall, a fresco depicting ritual sacrifice made clear the intent of this chamber.

But perhaps the most unsettling discovery awaiting them were the words in Abyssal that circled the room:

The party thought long and hard about what they’d heard about these “oblex” creatures. Rock recalled hearing stories about merchants, priests, or even politicians being impersonated by oozes, often in smaller towns. An oblex’s mimicry was always connected to the central mass by way of an umbilical cord, and a perceptive observer might notice a distinct scent of sulfur about the puppet.

Oblexes generally only impersonated those who stayed in once place; and they were easily ferreted out by an organization like Torm’s Shining Blade, whose agents were trained in their anathema.

Alexis too recalled concerning facts about oblexes, including some of their more potent abilities. When queried on his opinion, he shook his head in apology.

“It would certainly appear, from Umeren’s words, that he was able to create a stronger version of the mimics we’ve encountered so far. More than that will have to wait; I need to perform some of my own research before I can comment further.”

The party had just endured several notable attempts on their life, and they enjoyed a breather together in the unholy sanctuary.

Session Date: June 15th, 2020
Dale Reckoning:
 1523 DR (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), 4 Mirtul (4th of the Melting)

F. What is a Man

i. Who Turned Out the Lights

The agents spent an hour resting and recuperating in the ceremonial chamber. Alexis brought a thoughtful touch to a new scar on his forehead. Asura’s restorative magic had pulled him from the brink of death, but the wolf-turned-ooze had left a lasting mark. It was just as well. Scars were like a road map that showed where Alexis had traveled, and he welcomed them.

The break was not uneventful. While Alexis was socializing with Syldrey, a fleeting image in the distance caught Rock’s eye. Perhaps sixty feet away, in a room separated from her by broken floors and chasms, a fleeing figure flashed in and out of view. The torch it carried illuminated familiar-looking orange fur. The figure was in obvious danger; as it fled, shadows stretched and reached to catch it.

“Did you…see that?” Rock asked. No one else had, though Charli’s keen ears confirmed distant retreating steps. The group decided to carefully investigate.

The path to the next room over was blocked by a fifteen-foot-wide gap. Though the space didn’t appear deep, a slick, rippling wetness awaited at the bottom. The party decided to take no chances. Gorodash grabbed an end of one of the party’s fifty-food ropes and leaped to the other side. There he would find a way to anchor it as a guide for the rest.

As soon as he had landed in the space across the chasm, however, all light disappeared. Even Gorodash, whose orc eyes gave him a limited ability to see in shrouded areas, was completely blind. And especially vulnerable.

Something lashed at him from behind his head.

Charli immediately sprang to action. He dropped his pack and lit up a torch by feel alone. Though he could feel the warmth radiating from the oiled stick, his sight was not restored. It was not until he stepped backwards that he emerged from a wall-like fog of pure night. He called out his findings to the others.

This did not, however, make it any easier for the rest of the party to assist Gorodash. Whatever the effect, it was not magical, and Alexis couldn’t pinpoint it with his eldritch sight. Neither could Rock easily sense the foe, it being on the other side of a very large and fully-armored orc.

Luckily, Gorodash could go toe-to-toe with the monster on his own. Ascertaining that it hung from the ceiling immediately adjacent, he gave it several lucky strikes with his war whip, empowering each blow with divine energy.

Torchlight returned as a dying black ichor dripped from the ceiling tiles. This particular species, it appeared, had been bred to consume all light near it, making it a formidable ambusher.

ii. The Pit of Despair

Another chasm separated the new room from the area Rock had sighted the fleeing tabaxi. Taking no more chances, Gorodash borrowed a tactic from the “Gauntlet,” back in Lyrabar. He piggy-backed each party member in turn and hurdled the two chasms, relying on his massive strength. He was out of breath by the end of his task, but everyone was safe.

A pit lay at the center of the new room. It was deeper than the chasm they’d cleared, but the bottom was clear. A magical bundle caught Alexis’s eldritch sight, and he used his Mage Hand to carry it up from the depths.

“My Cloak of Elvenkind!” Syldrey called happily, taking it from Alexis and putting it on. “I was wondering where it went. I probably lost it when I hit my head, falling into this pit. These things aren’t cheap, you know.”

Alexis didn’t respond. Instead, he was reading a scrap of paper cradled in his palm. It had been written in rough, pained slashes with some kind of oil-based paint–likely something from a disguise kit:

The mage chose not to mention the existence of the death note in front of Syldrey, instead passing it to Charli when he was unobserved. Such suspicions had been plaguing him for a few hours now; it was not much of a stretch to wonder if Umeren had made oozes indistinguishable from orcs in mind and body, could he not also make ones that looked like lost halfling rogues?

Using the signals they’d been taught by the Order, Charli signed that Syldrey was compromised, and that they keep the halfling in front of them. The implication was that, out front, she would put her trap-finding skills to best use…and that the others could best keep an eye on her.

There was little else the agents could do at this time.

iii. The Laboratory

The room directly to the east contained a large basin of pristine, motionless liquid. The substance was so still and clear that one might be reminded of pools from deep in secluded caves, where neither animal nor traveler trod.

However, the engravings on the wall hinted the truth. Here awaited the relatively-docile, inert ooze that was the center of many of Juiblex’s ceremonies. Offerings and sacrifices were made here; and the venerated slime was too well-fed to seek out sustenance on its own. The party would be fine as long as they did not venture directly into the pool.

The walls around them, surprisingly barren for the nature of this dungeon, rippled on their own. Words in Abyssal appeared at eye-level, much as the other rooms. The effect was not unlike watching the ribs of a large man inhaling deeply:

The room to the was an alchemist’s dream come true. Arrayed on stone tables were vials, tubes, and concoctions of various colors and viscosities. Subtle movements within the containers suggested these were more than simple chemical mixtures. Notes confirmed suspicions: it was here that Umeren tinkered and tampered with the fundamental makeup of the oozes–mixing, matching, and adjusting to develop the perfect specimen for each job.

Rock studied the array of vials and test tubes before her. Oozes (and jellies, cubes, and slimes) involved a chemistry that were wholly unfamiliar to her, save perhaps for slime molds. Her familiarity with nature did little to help her here.

However, there was a large, heavily-annotated book of many of Umeren’s bred oozes, including detailed illustrations and descriptions. Using the book, Rock was able to identify one of the squirming fluids in a nearby bottle as an “Ink Guardian”…a useful but also potentially dangerous alchemical aide.

Rock swept the book, the bottle, and an array of laboratory vials into her backpack. These would help the Order much in decoding Umeren’s work, when they eventually returned.

The pit of pristine slime took up the center of the room. Rather than wade through it, the agents returned to the outside. There was another hallway leading south.

As Syldrey led the way, Alexis scribbled a message and passed it to Charli:

The original Syldrey is definitely dead, but we may still save this one.
The Oblex may have copied here PERFECTLY. Don't act rashly.

Charli nodded his understanding. If there were no means by which to tell a copy from the original…would not the copy be then just as authentic?

iv. If You Prick Us…

As they journeyed south along the hallway, a distant and distinctly-orcish yell came to their ears. The source seemed filled with anger, pain, or terror…or perhaps all three. Following the sound, the party entered a larger space.

An elf wizard awaited the party on a platform, at the south end of the room. Gorodash, already sensing danger, broke into a run directly at the figure.

His distrust proved warranted. The “elf” raised her hands, releasing a crackling ball of lightning to bisect Gorodash, Alexis, Syldrey, and Charli all at once. However, Alexis had an ace up his sleeve; he opened his book, pointed directly at the spell being cast, and spake “No.” The spell fizzled in the elf’s hands.

“Valdove!” Syldrey shouted in astonishment. “What are you doing? It’s me, Syldrey! And how are you still alive? I watched you die!”

“Stay close,” Alexis warned her. “Whatever you see here, it’s isn’t the real ‘Valdove’.”

As if to prove his point, the “elf” teleported away from the threatening orc paladin, narrowly avoiding Gorodash’s attempt to disarm her. A green miasma replaced her, catching all the agents in its toxic fumes. The heroes gagged and retched, struggling to leave the threatened area.

“Whatever she really is, she’s an ass!” Syldrey coughed, withdrawing her crossbow and diving into the fray.

A handy Compelled Duel from Gorodash prevented the adversary from any more teleportation tricks, and Rock used an Entangle to further hamper her movements. Alexis countered the “elf’s” most potent spells, and the foe’s face distorted in frustration. Interestingly, the last blow came not from one of the agents, but from Syldrey’s crossbow.

As the halfling watched, unbelieving, Alexis’s words rang true. The dying form of “Valdove” wobbled and ran, melting into a new and more formidable form.

The new and truer form “Valdove” was a bobbing, pulsating mass of infused slime. Much like the wizard it had imitated, the thing crackled with electrical energy. Asura’s teeth rattled in his head, and his warhammer tingled with static charge; he figured striking it with metal would not be in his best interests.

Her Entangle now useless, Rock dropped the spell and instead summoned her trusty Brown Bears. However, the arcane slime was deadly, and it finished off one of the ursidae with two quick strikes and landed a blow on the other, all in a single flurry of movement.

The party kept their distance; and among the bears, Syldrey’s crossbow bolts, and a lucky Chill Touch from Alexis, they defeated the distorted foe.

v. Do We Not Bleed?

The words forming themselves along the walls reassured Alexis little:

He could guess the intent of the message; Umeren referred to their newest compatriot. “But does Umeren want us to kill Syldrey?” he wondered.

With the final demise of “Valdove,” Syldrey stood quietly, the sudden shock of events evidently taking it toll on her. Fighting a stone door was maddening enough; here she had just struck down the figure of a one-time friend, then watched it then distort into something even more monstrous.

For the others, however, different implications presented themselves. There was a very good chance that Syldrey too was one of these creatures in disguise. Rock considered if something ever happened to the rogue–whether through combat or accident–then the party might be assailed by a new enemy.

The druid piped up. “Wow. I sure hope that if I’d turned into one of…whatever those things is…that the rest of you would put me out of my misery.” She carefully eyed Syldrey for any reaction, but the rogue was not forthcoming.

Alexis took this opportunity to ingratiate himself with the halfling, discussing her options once they’d exited the dungeon. It seemed Syldrey was not on good terms with her parents (she usually just explained they were dead when asked); and she was appreciative of Alexis’s offer to introduce her to the Order. While she could make no promises, being a member of a prestigious organization would certainly be a feather in her cap when she returned to her family.

Using this offer as a pretext, Alexis then convinced Syldrey to allow Gorodash to use his “Compel Honesty” ability on her, to verify she hadn’t been replaced by an impersonator. Under magical compulsion, the halfling was able to state for the record that she was still Syldrey, the same halfling who had entered the dungeon. (She was also unable to state the opposite, a notable distinction.)

“Well…good enough for me,” Alexis said.

Rock-in-Water’s Wand of Secrets, having come up empty before this point, finally pinged the location of a nearby hidden door. Along one set of stone blocks, a tiny message had been scrawled:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where adventurers break in and steal. 

It appeared someone had not taken this message to heart, as the secret door opened to reveal a stockpile of treasures–likely belongings left over from acolytes that had taken their final journey.

Rock began indexing the items with an eager, then chagrined, enthusiasm. It mattered little what she found in this place; anything they didn’t immediately use for their mission would be turned into the Order offices at the end of their mission. She could then submit a Requisition Note to request back the loot she’d already found.

This process, while vexing to some, was indispensable for keeping the Order’s storerooms well-stocked. The equipment they now wore probably had been discovered on a previous Shining Blade mission, and they were about to return the favor to future agents.

• Cloth of gold vestment
• Pair of engraved bone dice
• Silver ewer
• Small gold bracelet
• Potion of Fire BreathPotion of Growth
• 1000 copper pieces
• 6000 silver pieces,
• 2200 gold pieces
• 120 platinum pieces

vi. The Blessings of Ghaunadaur

A nearby staircase led down to the final level of the temple. An open, dimly-lit space greeted the heroes, rising to twenty-five feet at its center. At the far end, a sealed stone door sat atop a wellspring of familiar ooze. This appeared to be the origin of the “pristine ooze”–the “blessed stock” that Umeren’s writings had described.

A figure awaited: a man dressed in priestly clothes, but beneath whose hands and face something altogether alien shifted. Blood stained the cobblestones before him–blood that seemed altogether a bit too fresh.

“Ah, the newest challengers appear. Step forward, and see if you indeed possess the mettle to finally open the door behind me.”

Alexis muttered just loud enough for his compatriots to hear: “Whatever you do, don’t give him the key.”

Rock attempted to derail Umeren’s prepared speech with snarky quips, but the high priest of Ghaunadaur would have none of it.

“A quaint display of bravado, but futile just the same. In the end, each and every one of you is at my command. Observe!”

And, with this, he pointed his finger at the halfling rogue of their group, barking five distinct words:

Unknown! Dislodge! Strongbox! Detective! Landslide!

As soon as the full activation phrase had been uttered, Syldrey’s shape rippled. Her skin began flowing off her face and hands like wax from a hot candle.

“What’s happening?” she shouted in terror, reaching out for the nearest of the other party members. That person was Alexis.

Asura summoned his trusty Spiritual Weapon, and Charli dashed for a nearby balcony for a vantage point on the high priest.

Rock gauged the height of the ceiling above her and then summoned a swirling cloud of thunder into being. A stroke of lightning struck the priest in the chest, but he seemed to barely flinch.

Umeren shrugged in response and raised his hand. An undulating blob emerged from between the temple stones nearby, quickly assuming the appearance of an identical Umeren. The second figure copied the same motion, and a third arose.

“We could do this all day,” the first Umeren declared. “Do you have any idea just how many millions of stone blocks there are in this temple?”

Alexis stepped to Syldrey’s side and grasped her softening arms with his hands. “Don’t listen to him!” he ordered her. “Remember! You are Syldrey! Whatever happens, don’t lose sight of that. Don’t lose sight of me!”

The halfling locked eyes with Alexis, and, for a moment, her transformation paused. Then, the last humanoid traces of the rogue disappeared, and she collapsed in a pool of sludge.

Alexis stood solemnly as the thing that had been Syldrey struck him with its pseudopods. One, two, three times it lashed at him, drawing blood, but he did not move.

Finally, the thing ceased its attack. It paused for a moment, then retreated to the shadows.

Alexis let it go. He turned his fury instead to the first Umeren figure that had greeted them upon arrival. “You didn’t have to kill her! She meant nothing to you!”

“Your little tantrum is meaningless here. And ironic, considering who and what you really are. Just remember, adventurers, none of you made it out of this temple alive.” And with that, the third form of Umeren wavered and spilled back between the stones of the temple, from where it had risen.

“I am not your enemy here,” grinned the first Umeren, with an unsettling-toothy smile, “nor one you could hope to best. I believe the best course of action for you, right now agents, is to sit down and carefully consider your situation.” He too melted and withdrew into the floor.

“In the end, all of you kneel to Ghaunadaur,” declared the second iteration of the high priest. He pointed his finger at the door still awaiting at the end of the hall. “Now, go forth, my servants; Unlock, Unseal, and Unseat the false kingdoms of the earth. Go forth…and spread the Ancient One’s blessings.”

With these final instructions, the last shape of Umeren disappeared, and the agents were left alone with their thoughts.

vii. A Gordian Knot

Alexis searched for Syldrey, but all he found was a stain along one wall, where the thing had hidden for a moment. What had finally stayed her killing hand? Umeren’s bidding? Or the lingering words of Alexis? It was likely he would never know.

With a heavy heart, Alexis went to collect the pile of equipment that was the rogue’s only remains. Wrapping the belongings within the cloak, he was reminded of the other bundles they’d encountered along the way–Sevrin’s, Garlyn’s, and now Syldrey’s.

With any luck, the Order might be able to track down her living relatives, who could put the halfling to rest.

Rock-in-Water experimented with sabotaging the “pristine ooze” that made up the pool in front of her. She opened one of the bottles containing the aggressive green slime and poured it into the liquid.

The results were informative. Though the green slime ate at the blessed stock, the progenitor ooze could simply replace itself faster than it was injured. Something of a stalemate was reached, with neither side able to effectively harm the other.

Perhaps there was some way to better weaponize the green slime. Rock decided to submit her remaining samples (along with the alchemy set and notes) to the Order for further study.

Nearest to the large stone door at the end of the room, Charli inspected the portal. Several details stood out to him.

First, a shaft of sunlight was clearly visible, piercing through the space between the doors from the outside.

Second, there was a distinct smell of dirt and trees on a thin breeze that entered through the gap.

Third, and most importantly, there was a folded piece of paper wedged in the crack between the doors. It was addressed to a familiar name, and it had been written by a familiar hand. When alerted, Alexis used his Mage Hand to pull the paper from the door.

He was wholly unprepared for its message:

“Are you…okay, comrade?” Asura asked, noting the color change in his friend’s face.

Alexis crumpled the paper with shaking hands, before throwing it at the concerned cleric. “Of course not! How could I be?”

As he turned away to his pensive thoughts, the rest of the party reviewed the letter. The implication was clear. The agents had already entered this room recently, and very likely even died here. Upon which Umeren had crafted duplicates of each of them, letting them loose in his personal playground.

(Or that was what Umeren wished them to believe. The paper was genuine, but there was no easy method to judge its truthfulness. Syldrey’s impostor, after all, had been completely undetectable, until the uttering of her activation phrase.)

With that in mind, Asura and Alexis turned inwards to find answers. The cleric, while unable to directly Commune with Lathander at this point, could still quiet his mind and seek fellowship with his god. The results were promising: he felt a divine connection, that his god was pleased with his actions thus far, and that Lathandar would continue to impart his power each dawn, when Asura asked for it.

“Lathander says I am me,” Asura declared, “and that is good enough for my reasoning.”

Alexis conferred with his book. Much like in the sewers of Songhal, he sought an Augury: What would the results of opening the door be?

He gained two encouraging pieces of information from his actions. First, the book replied with a strong “Weal” answer, indicating Umeren had not been playing head games with the exit. Second, it meant that Alexis still had contact with his patron, and that his patron still recognized him as its progeny.

Alexis explain his reasoning to the party, going even so far as to describe the “Voice in the Pages” he had learned so much from. Until this point, only Felkar and certain need-to-know members of the Order were aware of this fact. This revelation spoke volumes to the trust Alexis now put in his friends.

For all their contemplation, however, the agents could only confirm they still had access to their divine and arcane gifts. They could not, however, verify if they were their original selves or a cleverly-crafted copy…one so adept, in fact, that “not even the gods might discern” the difference.

Having reached a dead-end in this line of questioning, the agents returned to the door. Joining the sunlight and the smell of the forest, a new sound greeted them from the far side: a knocking noise, and the unmistakable voice of Felkar, asking them if they were all right.

Rock began beating against the stone door with Asura’s warhammer and a spare piton. With his eldritch sight, Alexis noted magical sigils flaring with each strike. A Dispel Magic removed these, and the door swung open, reuniting the agents with their team leader, and freedom.

“You have no idea how happy I am to see you guys again,” Felkar exclaimed, as they exited the dungeon. “You hear stories about team leaders who’d lost their entire party on an ill-begotten mission, and…I’m not sure what I would have done if that’d happened to me.”

The others smiled grimly. They had plenty to tell.

Alexis allowed the others to go on before him a spell. Then, turning back to the dark, empty room behind him, he whispered once into the darkness. “I’m sorry, Syldrey.”

viii. A Somber Journey Home

On the eight days’ journey back to the Order, the team had plenty of time to discuss their collective conundrum. They were open and honest about their experiences with their team leader. Felkar was certain the Order would set up some form of quarantine around the temple area, even if just to keep out sentient humanoids. It might be a futile gesture, but something had to be done.

There was also, of course, the matter of their individual “personhood,” and how they and the Order should best handle it.

Charli was of the opinion that potential activation phrases in their psyches made them too much of a threat. They were compromised as agents, and could not continue as such. It was both their responsibility and their duty to remove Umeren’s control over them…even if it meant dismantling the ooze temple brick-by-brick.

Rock seemed unbothered by the possibility she was no longer “herself.” Instead, she was more concerned about being a potential threat to her friends. To that end, as long as she was reassured she could not accidentally become a ravenous slime, she was content with her lot in life.

Alexis sought to find peace, despite the insoluble enigma. As he explained later to his friends, “If you think about it, we are each one Dominate spell away from being as much of a threat as we would be as sleeper agents.” Mechanically, nothing had changed. They would continue to trust each other implicitly with their lives.

Gorodash was perhaps the one who wrestled the most with self-doubt. A simple orc who desired only truth in all things, he struggled with not knowing, and being wholly unable to know. His depression spiraled, and the others were concerned he might try to take his own life, to finally answer the question one way or the other.

It was the cleric who stepped up to help Gorodash shoulder the weight. Like the orc, Asura was a simple man of simple faith. He hadn’t applied himself to his religious studies much in either his old church or the Order’s College, but he felt he had a strong grasp of the important things. Lathander said he was still Asura, and if the Morninglord had decreed it, it was good enough for him.

In fact, Asura had been so sure of his faith that he offered to stab himself to death, in front of the party, to settle the dispute. If he were still a man, they could pay for a resurrection at the next city; and if he were an ooze, they could kill it where it stood.

In the end, the rest of the party were able to reassure both Gorodash and Asura; the paladin still had worth to the team and himself, and the cleric’s suggestion was unnecessary (for now). In fact, it would do everyone well to focus on the good they could still do in this world…such as returning Syldrey’s effects to her parents, wherever they might live.

But even the same, the road ahead would be long and arduous.