G. Down Where It’s Wetter
i. Implications and Deliberations
Felkar was delighted to learn of the agent’s success in ridding themselves of the activation phrases, their accounts collaborated by Finric and Alston (who had not fallen victim to Umeren’s wiles). He quickly relayed word to the Order via his Sending Stones, while the agents deliberated their next move.
Rock-in-Water was still a little uneasy about the implications. Destroying their activation phrases, while liberating, had only confirmed their worst fears: they were ooze copies of their original bodies, which existed somewhere else in the universe (if at all). Alexis encouraged her, noting that there was no specific evidence that Umeren would ever regain control of them, even should they physically die. (After all, Syldrey had fled when she’d fallen, not remained to fight.) Plus, the circumstances of Syldrey’s demise had hinted that, even as oozes, they might retain some portion of their personality and memories.
Not everyone was as convinced by Alexis’s soothing words. Alston muttered that oozes were hardly intelligent; and that if they were ever killed and reduced to their primal form, he doubted they’d retain any control.
“Our souls still exist somewhere else, but this doesn’t make us any less ‘ourselves’ now,” Alexis explained, “and we shouldn’t fear because of it.”
Charli shrugged in response. “So what you’re saying is…we have free will, but no actual soul? Does this mean there are no eternal consequences for our actions?”
Their discussion turned towards the kuo-toa. Finric recapped what they’d already learned. “From what we’ve seen, the duergar have been using a fake monthly ritual to an invented god to threaten the kuo-toa into slavery.”
“We have here a lie for profit of epic proportions,” Alexis stated. “The kuo-toa have created a god before through sheer power of belief. Might they do it again? And what should we do about it? Prevent it? Merely document it? Something else?”
Rock cautioned that the kuo-toa, despite being victims of subterfuge, might be no more morally upright than the duergar. After all, they’d attempted to either enslave or kill the agents when they’d first met each other.
“Innocent or not as actors,” Alexis counterpointed, “they are still victims of a lie. And our code demands we fight deception, wherever we find it.”
“Indeed,” Finric added, “this lie they’ve been fed has great potential to do more harm than good–whatever good might be attained from this arrangement. I wonder…are the duergar even aware of the danger in which they’ve placed themselves?”
“Well, we could certainly broach the topic,” Alexis reasoned, “but to do that, we’ve have to explain we understand the deception in the first place.”
“And it’s not as if the duergar will give up this profitable arrangement just based on our word,” Rock added. “They’ve already described the kuo-toa as hopelessly superstitious. We’d need something a little more concrete as evidence.”
Alexis furrowed his brow. “What if we…what if we tricked the kuo-toa into not believing the deception? Would that itself count as a lie?
“If we can show the duergar fiction is indeed as dangerous as we fear–that the kuo-toa are, in fact, manifesting something into reality,” suggested Finric, “it may be enough to goad the duergar into changing their strategy.”
“That is assuming, of course, that the process can be halted at all. The kuo-toa priests may be worshiping the lie on their own now, and events might be irrevocably set into motion.” Alexis tapped his forehead scar in thought. “All our deliberation keeps bringing us back to the same simple fact: we need to learn more about the kuo-toa.”
The group decided on their next course of action: they would approach the kuo-toa openly, leveraging their present good standing with the duergar as a sort of calling card.
It was early evening on the first of Flamerule. The group decided to take an extra-long rest, ready to brave the lake around eight in the morning on the morrow.
ii. To Beat a Decapod
Felkar was thrilled to finally use the “barrel” that had accompanied him for the past few days. In reality, it was an Apparatus of Kwalish, but heavily modified to his specifications: the legs and claws had been removed, the cabin enlarged, and the air supply extended. Now it served as a submersible, allowing him and his entire party to travel as deep as they needed in the water.
Felkar rolled the barrel to the water’s edge and pulled a lever. Over the next fifteen minutes, the apparatus slowly extended and expanded itself, settling into its new vehicular shape.
The submersible’s design was simple enough. There was a single array of windows at the front, and a hatch at the top and bottom. A screw at the rear propelled it forward. Felkar settled in one of the pilot’s chairs and declared their ship seaworthy.
Not everyone took advantage of the dry interior. Charli, Finric, and Alexis all took up swimming positions along the outside of the craft, helping to guard it as it traveled. (As it barely traveled more than two miles per hour, the ship was not even as speedy as a person briskly walking.) Additionally, Rock-in-Water cast Water Breathing on all who required it.
(Alexis made a point of showing off a gold fish-shaped amulet that he claimed independently gave him the ability to breath water. Charli wasn’t so sure, however, and he wondered what profit Alexis would gain from this deception.)
The submersible scooted along thirty feet below the surface of the lake, and twenty feet above the bottom. As it had been designed to compress into the volume of a barrel, it could only afford one set of windows to the fore. Felkar had cast Light on a rod at the center of a parabolic mirror; this served as the forward-facing spotlight. (Alston stood near him, a look of child-like wonder on his face as the new vista opened before him.)
The waters of the lake were dark and concealing. None of the swimmers escorting the submarine noticed when a large chunk of the sand they passed over shifted suddenly, raising itself on eight massive legs.
They did notice, however, when a deafening scraping sound assaulted their ears. The vehicle stopped dead in the water and began yawing to port.
“I’ve lost control!” Felkar exclaimed, wrestling with his levers. He double-checked the view-ports to make sure they’d not run aground. He rapped his hand on the side of the ship to alert the swimmers. “Something’s latched onto the ship!”
Alexis noticed the ship’s sudden sway when it nearly collided with him. Swimming quickly away, he saw the huge crab holding onto the stern of the vessel, its claws piercing the hull as easily as tinfoil.
On the starboard side of the submarine, Charli and Finric were having their own troubles. Four kuo-toa approached quickly in the water. The two nearest threw nets at both of the agents, though only Charli was snared. In response, Charli retrieved another Essence of Ether from his pockets. The aquatic environment made its application far more difficult, but luck was in his favor; the spreading cloud of particles was caught up in the kuo-toa’s gills, and the creature promptly fell asleep. Its lidless eyes stared blankly as it drifted.
Unfortunately for Charli, the kuo-toa were not finished with their tricks. The two rear-most swimmers held their staves parallel and chanted in unison. Bolts of electricity ran up the length of the space between the two, forming an impromptu Jacob’s Ladder. Then, at their command, a bolt of lightning arced through the water towards the agents, intersecting Charli, the sleeping kuo-toa, and the submersible itself.
Those inside the craft felt a distinct tingle as they touched the metallic skin of the craft. Rock’s fur stood momentarily on end from the static charge.
Alexis had requisitioned a few specific items for use in the sea, and he brandished one now. After double-checking with his eldritch sight that there was not already a spell of command on the beast, he pointing his Trident of Fish Command and ordered it to cease attacking.
Nothing happened. The crab didn’t even struggle against the effect; in fact, it seemed quite immune.
The disappointed Alexis was force to draw on his other sources of arcane might. Both he and Alston (working from inside the craft) assailed the crab with Thunderwaves, Magnify Gravities, and Magic Missiles, but the tremendous beast barely flinched. Its thick carapace helped protect it against all but the mightiest of magics.
The water gushing in through the rents in the hull had filled the craft higher than Felkar’s diminutive height. He sputtered as he kicked himself away from the controls, already lost underwater. “I can Mend those tears in the hull, but you’re going to have to get the crab claws out of them first!”
Rock-in-Water, hydrophobic from an early age, found herself chest-deep in her least-favorite medium. Though she had intended to “sit this one out,” events conspired against her. She remembered from her studies that kuo-toa hated bright light. She cast Daylight on her quarterstaff, opened the hatch in the floor, and swam downwards, hoping to catch the enemies off-guard with its brilliance.
A member of a rare species offshoot known as “ghostwise halflings,” Finric possessed some latent psionic talents. These came into play as he forced his thoughts into the mind of the kuo-toa attacking him. “We are here as emissaries of the duergar. Stand down or be punished.”
The intimidation tactic worked, and the kuo-toa immediately dropped its weapons. “This wasn’t up to me,” it stammered in Undercommon. “Our queen commanded you be brought before her, willing or otherwise.”
“Stop attacking us, and we will come before her willingly,” answered Finric, also in Undercommon and loudly enough for his friends to hear. After all, they were planning on making diplomatic contact with the kuo-toa anyway, in one form or another. “Otherwise you risk the anger of the duergar.”
The kuo-toa casters, in the rear, seemed to be the ones calling the shots, and they conferred with each other quickly. Eventually, they accepted the agents’ offer and instructed them to follow closely behind.
With the aid of Tongues, Alexis convinced them that manacles were not necessary. The kuo-toa escorted the procession toward the mammoth stone pillar in the center of the lake, where the lights of the kuo-toa village awaited them all.
iii. The Coral Throne
Kuo-toa architecture relied heavily on the use of polished shells, shimmering chitin, pearls, sponges, and even coral–all things formed or secreted by undersea creatures. From what the agents could discern, the kuo-toa would punch holes in the rocks of the lake bed (possibly with the help of friendly giant crabs) before embellishing upon the space with their own additions.
The overall effect was like picking one’s way through a crowded (though very orderly) beach after low tide had revealed its secrets. While the agents were led to the royal court, Felkar stayed at the water’s edge, to drain and repair the submersible.
Queen “Bloppdagadil” held her court at the border between lake and air, in a self-contained pool formed by the stone column towering over them. She spoke in slow, measured tones.
“It is good you have come. I saw your first arrival to our lake, and also your introduction to the short ones. You shine brightly in the darkness–your book and the light-footed one–and it was not difficult to follow your movements.”
Alexis leaned over to Finric. “She’s referring you to and my book…which means she must be psionically sensitive.”
“I had already hoped you might aid us in this, our time of crisis,” the Queen continued, “and my hopes were confirmed when you returned from the realm of the mind with The Key. We have only until tonight if we are to avert a Great Evil…an Evil that will finally awaken and doom us all.”
Finric raised his voice. “We are aware of your race’s…unique ability to bring things to life, through the sheer force of collective belief. Did this ‘Great Evil’ you describe already exist before the duergar told you stories of it, or did you dream it into reality?”
“Consider this riddle,” Queen Bloppdagadil replied. “When you traverse the land, do you walk because you move your legs, or do you move your legs because you walk? Likewise, can one have the day without night, or night without the day?
“For us, there is no separation between the belief and the reality. We cannot believe in something unless it already be true, and something cannot be true unless we already believe in it. The two are parts of a greater whole; you cannot have one without the other.”
Noticing Finric’s perplexed expression, she elaborated. “To answer your question more directly, landwalker, the distinction matters little. The moment we kuo-toa learned of the Great Evil’s existence, then It had already long existed.”
“If you can recognize, at least in some fashion, that your belief shapes reality,” reasoned Finric, “couldn’t you just believe the Great Evil away?”
“If a large, hungry shark was about to swallow you whole, could you simply close your eyes and wish it gone?” the Queen returned. “No, it is not so simple a thing as that. The story of the Great Evil has already taken root in my people’s mind, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending most foul. If we wish to change this, we must not simply pretend the story never existed. We must present a new ending.”
“You spoke earlier of a door, and a lock,” Charli pointed out. “Where is this lock and this door?”
“The short ones conduct their ritual when the Great Evil comes closest to the surface, so they say. Likewise, the Great Evil now comes closest to the surface when they conduct their rituals. Shapes in the depths of the lake, which were before only simple boulders, take on new eldritch forms. Slime-covered columns become perceptible, and a door that was hereunto invisible reveals its outline.
“And, at its center, there lies a keyhole.”
Queen Bloppdagadil pointed a taloned finger directly at one of the agent’s bags; wherein an ornate golden key sat hidden. “A Key that may open any door is also a Key that may lock any door. With your new gift, we now may seal this foe away for the rest of time.”
The agents glanced among each other uneasily. So far, they’d been able to keep the cultist keys from ever being used, in any capacity.
“You said you could see both the Key and my book,” Alexis wondered. “Do they shine the same way?”
“Oh, yes. They both resonate with intents of their own.”
“Would using the Key to seal the door be a permanent solution?” Finric asked.
“The door is the only way the Evil might enter our world, so the legend goes,” the Queen explained. “Once the way be permanently closed, there will be no further reason to fear it. The short ones may continue their rituals, or they may not; it will matter little then.”
The agents stepped away for a moment to consider together.
“Even with what we know now, I doubt the duergar would listen to us if we told them to stop their lies and their rituals,” Rock reasoned. “They would just chalk our stories up to kuo-toa superstition and change nothing.”
“Then we can do this action to give the kuo-toa their independence,” Finric declared. “They would no longer fear the duergar’s lies and perform whatever tasks are asked of them. (Even if, for the sake of exactness, the lie is no longer technically a lie.)”
“Agreed,” said Alexis. “I’m not in the habit of rewarding slavery, and I see no reason to help the duergar maintain it. Plus, the duergar had already lived down here for centuries without the aid of slavery, and we’ve helped improve their city’s operation significantly in just our short time here. Perhaps we can could the duergar to cease their enslavement of the kuo-toa. Or perhaps not. In either case, they do not need the extra labor.”
“These kuo-toa used to live above, on the surface, correct?” Finric thought aloud.
Rock confirmed this theory. While most kuo-toa already dwelled in the Underdark, she remembered tales of ships harassed by fishmen on the Sea of Fallen Stars, until a subterranean earthquake struck the coast eighteen years ago. There were no more reports of the fishmen after that.
“Then what would your people do after we finish this risk?” Finric asked of the Queen. “Would you return to the surface?”
“Ah, would that we could,” answered the Queen. “We can walk out of water, yes, but our bodies are hardly designed for overland travel. None of us would survive the dangers of the Underdark in our climb. For better or for worse, this is now our home.”
“I do not think we should use the key,” Rock firmly stated, during a lull in the conversation. Nothing good had come from its existence, and they were still uncertain of all its abilities.
“While I’m unsure if the cultist key is actually powerful enough to do what this Queen claims,” Alexis noted, “it likely doesn’t matter. The kuo-toa probably place enough faith in our actions that the results would be the same.”
“Perhaps there are other things that the kuo-toa can also place their faith in,” Rock returned. She addressed the kuo-toa in a loud voice. “We know something of the kinds of dangers you face, Queen! We’ve faced monsters like this Great Evil, but in the realm of the mind, and we vanquished them all!”
“Are you aware of the literal size of this being?” the Queen admonished. “Its shoulders would brush the roof of this cavern, and its waking alone would bring the world down upon our heads.”
Sensing Rock’s gambit, Alexis interjected his own support. “What we’re trying to impress upon you is that we already have experience in resisting such a monster. And that you can believe in our ability to accomplish what must be done.”
The Queen would have raised one eyebrow, if she had had one. “So you are telling me…you are heroes of some renown?” She scratched the barbels that formed a sort of beard under her chin for a moment. Then, she stood to make a loud proclamation.
“Then there is only one way to properly welcome such honored guests! A feast! We will hold a proper banquet, so that all may gather and learn of your great deeds, and of the strength you wield!”
She finished with a loud, bold laugh that began rippling among those present. As it passed from kuo-toa to kuo-toa, each mirrored it with increasingly hysterical and wild-eyed abandon, until the floor was filled with cackling laughter.
Alexis leaned in towards his friends. “I think the Queen is in on the plan. She seems cleverer than she might look.”
“That’s probably why she’s the queen,” Finric agreed.
With a clap of her taloned hands, the Queen summoned attendants to arrange that afternoon’s diversion. It would take a few hours to properly prepare the entire feast. Until then, the agents considered what tales they could spin to impress the kuo-toa (and how best to embellish the stories, while yet remaining technically accurate).
H. Lutulu Awakens
i. Be Our Guest
The agents had met the Queen before ten in the morning; the feast was planned for around four that afternoon. The adventurers found themselves guided to a level expanse near the shore–so near, in fact, that the walking surface was covered by two inches of water. Marble tables were flanked on three sides by mounds of carefully-arranged coral, sponges, and giant urchins. The party guessed these elements had been transported here from deeper in the lake.
Queen Bloppdagadil had already taken her place at the head of the table, on a smaller version of her proper throne. Around them, throngs of kuo-toa waited for the agents to choose their seats. Once they had done so, the fish people joined them for a hearty celebration.
Before they began, the Queen led her people in a chant…a sort of mantra or doxology, it appeared, and perhaps a prayer to the Sea Mother.
The Sea granteth life,
And the Sea exacts its toll;
All waters return to the Sea.
And the feast began. The tables were piled high with all forms of fish, fronds, clams, and shelled animals that could be gathered from the waters. The party noted that the kuo-toa seemed to have no aversion to eating fish themselves; unsurprisingly, really, when one considered how often fish preyed on each other in the wild.
The inversion of this natural order came, however, when the main entrees were produced. The kuo-toa tittered with sheer delight as four spit-roasted humanoids were served up on platters. Though the heads had been removed, the agents guessed the creatures had once been male drow.
“Where, uh, where did you get this meat?” Rock asked the kuo-toa sitting next to her.
“Slaves!” the kuo-toa responded. “They had reached the end of their usefulness anyway, so it was good to get one last service out of them.”
“How had they reached the end of their usefulness?” Gorodash inquired. “Don’t elves live for many years?”
“‘Slave’s melancholy’ we call it,” another kuo-toa explained. “Once they catch it, they barely do any real work anymore. No point still feeding them after that.” He giggled, and the laughter spread from him to the next kuo-toa, and the next, until the entire table was quivering with spontaneous laughter.
The overworlders exchanged silent glances but said no more. Likely the situation would have been exactly reversed if the drow had captured the kuo-toa first.
That being said, the agents made a point to fill up on fish and leave the drow meat alone.
When the feast was complete, and overworlders and kuo-toa alike were left to pick their teeth in satisfaction, Queen Bloppdagadil clapped her hands.
“Such a banquet, in and of itself, is always a cause enough for celebration, but today we honor special guests! For in our midst are adventurers from the sunlit lands we once inhabited. They boast of strange tales and mighty deeds! So let us listen closely and marvel at what manner of heroes have graced us today!” She swiveled an encouraging eye at the agents; it was their time to shine.
The agents swung into action with an ensemble they had spent the afternoon preparing. Gorodash used Faerie Fire to outline Rock-in-Water with a mesmerizing glow, and Alexis called a distant, invisible orchestra into being with Prestidigitation. Nearby, Charli used a special magical pipe to weave dancing smoke creatures; these small figures tangled with shapes Rock pulled from the water, to illustrate her story. She cleared her throat and leaped onto the surface of her table, capturing the audience’s attention with a grand, sweeping gesture.
Let me tell you the tale of the Bright Shining Blade,
Gathered together from lands far away!
We’ve traveled the world, to the circles of hell,
Slaughtered foul demons, vicious and fell;
Summoned the judge of the infernal court
And saved a whole town with wit, soul, and word!
And that’s the beginning! We’ve helped raise the dead–
Then fought ancient minions and sought witch’s dens,
Unraveled the secret of a lich’s strange hold
In a city of people who recycle the old!
In a deep, jungle temple, an ever-changing place,
We fought off the snares of the Lord with no face!
The madness, the mire! The ab’rrant obscene!
We faced our undeath, and live, and still breathe!
That Eldritch Horror thought he held us all bound–
But each furtive hook we sought out and found!
And thus, we reclaimed, within our own minds,
Where deep nightmares lurk, and took back the lines!
Now WE hold the lure, set the lines here and wait,
And bide with our nets, and fish hooks, and bait,
So when the time comes, with one final rite
We SHALL turn the tides, and lock the beast tight!
We seek your belief, and return faith in full:
Your madness is mighty, a God-fighting tool!
Together, true fervor shall face ancient deep–
We’ll light up the dark like your madness-blest priests!
Fierce fin, shark tooth, sharp claw, bright Key!
You thought, so it WAS; now believe, it WILL be!
(Poem composed by Rock-in-Water’s player)
With the crowd now silent and spellbound, the agents took turns weaving their own accounts of danger and dominion. Gorodash described the ambush by the drow and the umber hulks in the Underdark; he punctuated his reenactment with grunts and howls as he acted out each part of the desperate scene. Familiar with these foes, the kuo-toa gaped in amazement.
Next, Alston regaled them with how they had defeated the twin dangers of the Howlers and the Otyugh in the nearby caverns. He emphasized that even the duergar had been too frightened to battle these monstrous beasts, whereas the agents had defeated them handily. Having avoided the same caverns for the same reasons, the kuo-toa applauded their approval.
At last, Alexis took to the impromptu stage. “Friends, kuo-toa, compatriots. My companions have recounted our numerous victories, but there is more to valor than simply strength at arms. There is also spirit.”
He pointed far above them to where, some six miles removed, the waters of the Sea of Fallen Stars still moved. “I would like to take this opportunity to remind you of things you’ve perhaps forgotten. The warmth of the sun. The symphony of the stars. The movement of the waves as the hushed winds race across its surface.”
As he spoke, the older of the kuo-toa stared upward in rapt fascination. Many of those present could still remember a life under the sun, though distant and ancient it felt. Alexis’s words reminded them of a hope they had lost for years.
“Your home is here now, but never forget that you too are creatures of the sun; and that you bring its spirit with you, even in these dark tides. We will do the same. We will carry the sun’s touch even into the blackest depths of these waters, chasing away all shadows, and using its strength in banishing this beast forever.”
There was a full ten seconds before the hypnotized crowd reacted, but when they did, they responded with rapturous applause.
The Queen nodded in satisfaction. “You are rich with strength and vigor, speed and wit, skill and charm. Go now, brave adventurers,” she declared. “Defeat the Great Evil. And know this; where you travel, our faith follows!”
As the agents left the banquet hall, a strange sensation of well-being suddenly filled them, giving them a new sense of courage and confidence.
ii. In His House at Roolileh
While the others readied to depart, Charli asked about poisonous creatures or organisms the kuo-toa knew of. Having witnessed the efficacy of drow arrows in person, he was interested in crafting new and more potent poisons for his own crossbow bolts.
The kuo-toa exchanged uneasy glances before leading him to a shallow tide pool. Even this far beneath the ground, the action of the moon caused regular (if shallow) tides in the lake; indeed, it was the only reliable method of telling time at this depth. Sometimes creatures were deposited in crevasses when the waters retreated.
They pointed at a barely-visible translucent jellyfish. “That one,” they declared. “Be very careful. It’s incredibly dangerous.”
Charli, who was immune to poisons, merely shrugged as he dipped his hand in the water. “I think I’ll be fine.”
Felkar piloted their submersible out to the middle of “Lake Roolileh” (the name the kuo-toa had given it). Before they sealed the hatch for descent, the agents looked to the western shores of the lake. Distant figures against red lights marked where the duergar were preparing their false ritual to a false god, unaware of the very real danger that they had unwittingly spawned.
It did not take long for Felkar to find the deepest part of the lake, a trench that cut between the walls of stone. He stopped a short distance from its terminus; the agents would swim the rest of the way to deal with whatever awaited.
Just as had been described by the kuo-toa, a slab of stone marked the end of the trench, immediately before where the stone walls joined together to close off the space. It was here, the Queen had promised, that the shape of things would change: columns would become pillars, and a door would appear–a door with the keyhole they sought.
With his eldritch sight, Alexis reported wisps of a magic-like energy entering the trench, following the path of their submarine. This implied the wisps originated from the kuo-toa village; likely they were another psionic manifestation of their combined beliefs. The energy draped itself across the stone walls and settled in the recesses.
Around them swam five bioluminescent manta rays. The adventurers watched their movements carefully for any sign of aggression. They seemed to be simple filter feeders, idly coasting in the water, neither retreating from nor approaching the group. The agents let them be.
(Interestingly, strands of psionic energy were also collecting against the forms of the manta rays, like strands of clinging spider webs. Alexis wondered what this could signify.)
When the duergar ritual was likely nearing its peak, the incoming strands of magical energy began doubling, then tripling. Soon there were too many to count, and the undersea trench became soaked in magical psionic energy. Though Alexis attempted to explain what only his eyes could see, it was soon no longer necessary. The shape of the stones themselves shuddered, melting under the newfound transmutation magic.
Stalagmites warped into ancient obelisks covered in blasphemous runes. Stone structures arranged themselves in non-linear fashions, assembled via angles confusing any eye that lingered too long.
The surface of the stone wall at the end of the trench buckled and collapsed into itself. From the depths of a now impossibly-long distance, dark tendrils of energy stretched forth. Or rather were they unimaginably-large tentacles of a beast, hailing from beyond space and time? Whatever the case, something beyond understanding was about to wrench its terrifying bulk into their world.
But the Queen had spoken true: the stone slab before them also changed in form. It settled into an ornate door, adorned with a myriad of knotted sigils. And, at its center, there lay a keyhole.
There were no hinges on the door’s surface, nor any way for it to be physically shifted. Its purpose was clear: the stone door was itself a metaphor for the widening abyss before them, and only the artifact they possessed could seal it.
Currently the holder of the strange arcane Key, Finric swam towards the keyhole. But other creatures had other plans.
The strands of psionic energy that had draped themselves across the manta rays worked their own fell magic. Twisting and shifting into newfound abominations, the creatures shrieked in challenge and dove towards the agents. Caught off-guard by their sudden transformations, Alexis and Alston gulped in fear.
At the rear, Charli readied his crossbow; its strong cord made it especially useful for underwater combat. With an audible *thwip* he skewered the nearest monstrosity with a poison-tipped bolt. It instantly fell asleep. A second bolt sang, and a second aberration succumbed to his unique methods.
Their confidence renewed by Charli’s quick handling of the beasts, Alexis and Alston turned back to combat.
Rock-in-Water had prepared Daylight, primarily for use against the light-addled kuo-toa, but she realized its usefulness here. She spoke a few quick words and anointed a nearby rock outcropping; in the spell’s brilliance, the muddled lines of the nearby rocks were thrown in sharp relief. The malformed manta rays recoiled in the sudden radiance, hissing and attempting (unsuccessfully) to avoid its glare.
Gorodash stabbed the nearest foe with a trident. In reaction, it shivered and attempted to cast off multiple visions of itself to befuddle the orc, but these illusions melted instantly within the borrowed sunlight.
Finric arrived at the central stone slab and inserted the Key in the waiting receptacle. As he turned it purposefully, he felt the canyon around him quiver in response. The transformations seemed to hiccup, then reverse themselves.
The gaping maw through which the antediluvian tentacles protruded halted its spreading stain. In response to the key, it began receding and closing back upon itself.
Then everything went black. One of the malformed manta rays had wrapped itself around Finric’s head, pulling his hand from the key. He was also quickly suffocating.
Then, suddenly, he could see again. Rock-in-Water had shifted into a giant octopus; one of her tentacles had simply ripped the offending creature from his head, like one might rip a blindfold.
As the gnome turned the key from a distance via his arcane magic, another of the aberrations rushed at him. It wrapped him up inside its dark folds, narrowly missing his head. He responded with a signature Magnify Gravity but found himself bludgeoned as well; half of the damage dealt to these creatures’ leather-like forms was transferred to creatures they gripped.
Gorodash’s smites, Alexis’s Chill Touches, Charli’s crossbow bolts, and Rock’s tentacles worked to keep the twisted apparitions at bay. Meanwhile, Finric and Alston held the key in place. The mutating walls of the canyon shook themselves from their nightmare, the abyssal maw collapsed back upon itself, and the color out of space retreated into the unknown.
Soon the bottom of Lake Roolileh was restored to normal. The eldritch door faded back into a simple stone slab, from which Finric pulled the Key.
The one remaining manta ray righted itself and eased back into the currents, unable to explain its recent experiences. As the agents watched it go, a nearby glow of magical energy caught Alexis’s trained eyes.
The arcane Key in Finric’s hand had momentarily emitted a bright white flash of psionic energy. Its red ruby eye blinked once and was still.
iii. Heroes Oft Remembered
The kuo-toa somehow already knew of the agents’ success, and they greeted them at the shore with shrill cheers and applause. The Queen greeted them directly and gave them her lasting blessing.
“Seek your adventures where your feet may guide you, in the sunlit lands. We shall remember what you have done for us this day. We shall sing songs of you to our children and our children’s children.”
As the agents departed the lake (and the greater cavern) towards the exit into the Underdark, they noted the duergar finishing up their false ritual. The party conferred, but they ultimately decided not to make contact with the duergar on their way out, much less inform them of the night’s events. They had left each of the Underdark factions better off than they’d found them; their work here was done.
There would be time enough for all to learn of what new balance had been struck between the deep-dwelling dwarves and the aquatic race they could no longer enslave.