D. For Your EnterPAINment
i. A Booming Good Time
the stone walls around them changed from layers of granite to layers of limestone. Within these sedimentary stones, the agents could make out skeletal fossils of reptilian animals long extinct. Ferns, fleet-footed predators, and plated herbivores were captured frozen in death. The breakneck pace at which eons passed on Faerun meant that these creatures were perhaps tens of thousands of years old, but not necessarily more than that.
The way opened into a chamber, from which magical eternal light glowed from a spot near the ceiling. Fossils spotted the walls here too. It was difficult to tell which had been laid first – the remnants of long-deceased creatures, or the foundations for the room.
As they hesitated to enter, the bones-turned-stone shifted about them, emitting a sound like dice thrown across a tiled floor. One small, toothy skull turned to address them directly.
“I must say, you’ve certainly put up more of a FRIGHT than my last guests! Keep it up, and I might just have to roll out the DEAD carpet! *cackle* Now, this might come as a bit of a SHOCK to you, but you’re going to have a real BLAST in this next part! Let’s just say, the results will be most ELECTRIFYING. I think once you’ve set foot in this apprehensive antechamber, you’ll have…‘A BOOMING GOOD TIME!’”
With these apparent warnings in mind, the agents cast their eyes about the chamber. Ten tall stone statues lined the space, with five to the left and five to the right. Each statue stared across the space at another, comprising five paired sculptures. The statues did not closely resemble any humanoid the agents were familiar with; while certainly snake-like, the faces themselves were far too reptilian to represent Yuan-ti, the most similar living species.
While Charli studied the figures, ancient stories recurred to him. Long, long before the Yuan-ti came into being (and, indeed, long before most of the races alive today), five Creator Races populated the world of Toril. It was through their actions that many of the species alive today were born. The Yuan-ti themselves owed their existence to one of these five – the Sarrukh, to be specific. In an age 35,000 years prior, the Sarrukh had established their first empire of Okoth not far from Impiltur.
The fossils in the walls conceivably hailed from the same era of the rule as these progenitors. It seemed the dragon Korvicros was a student of the classics, as he had established his lair in an old and forgotten Sarrukh city.
With his Eldritch Sight active, Alexis could confirm that all statues were heavily endowed with Necromantic energy, and that each pair of statues oversaw some form of field that passed between them, stretching from floor to ceiling. His best guess was that the statues represented some sort of security system, and that they were only waiting for a trigger to activate – likely by something in particular passing through the field between the statues. But what was the activation?
Charli, Alexis, and Asura had already entered the room to inspect the nearby statues, without incident. However, as soon as Berkin’s ghostly friend Milo stepped between the first statues, a Harm spell erupted from the serpentine forms. Fortunately, she was immune to the necrotic damage, but the event startled the agents. Why had it triggered for her, but not for them?
The second pair of statues again responded only for Milo, ignoring Alexis when he passed between them. This time, dark tendrils of Enervation lashed out and hooked themselves into her small form – again dealing no damage, but neither withdrawing.
As Berkin crossed the first line himself, the initial statues activated again. He winced reflexively, but the spell didn’t target him. Instead, it leaped into the mimic skull drum he’d awakened at the Living Gate…greatly injuring it, but not enough to kill it outright.
“What the hell is going on here,” he murmured in confusion.
The agents quickly discussed the implication of these traps. Berkin found himself the most befuddled, as the puzzle of the room did not lay itself out in any obvious fashion. At first, he considered that the dragon’s words held within themselves the key to each trap, but eventually discarded it: whereas the dragon had implied each trap using a different form of energy, all had applied necromancy. Berkin was convinced the dragon had not spoken flippantly, but the lack of a coherent message vexed him. Next, the kobold tried parsing why his undead friend and a mimic might have triggered a trap, while four of the agents themselves had not.
Assuming that he was safe from the statues’ influence, Alexis crossed the chamber. The wall at the far side was comprised of carefully-cut and fitted limestone blocks. Unlike the other limits to the space, this wall appeared to have been built. Seeing an indentation of a five-fingered hand in the center of the surface, Alexis placed his hand on it. The stone surface moved to the side; it was a door, and it responded to any living humanoid, it seemed.
Berkin’s face suddenly lit up, and he crowed his satisfaction. “It’s the dragon! He’s just messing with us! The traps only spring for our scouts, not for us. And his ‘riddle’ didn’t really mean anything at all; it was just to confuse us!”
From the depths ahead, a distant rumbling was felt. A minor earthquake perhaps…or, perhaps, a dragon chuckling with mirth.
“Well, that would certainly be ‘on brand’ for the dragon,” Charli admitted.
There was still the matter of shepherding the two Mimics to the far exit without triggering any more of the traps. The agents briefly considered tunneling through the rock itself to circumvent the room, eventually discarding the notion. In the end, Alexis used Dimension Door to ferry Berkin and his mimic drum directly across the space, while Alston did the same for Rock and her mimic staff.
Milo, on the other hand, simply walked the length of the room. In addition to the first two spells, she was also subjected to a Circle of Death, a Negative Energy Flood, and a Bestow Curse. She either evaded or was simply immune to all effects.
“Those were some high-level spells,” Alston remarked, as he watched each ignite in turn. He was glad none of his party had been subjected to one.
Under the Hood: The Apprehensive Antechamber
ii. A Grave Mistake
The party took an hour to rest in an alcove beyond the antechamber. As they did, they took stock of what awaited them. Statues and stone figures were set at intervals along a winding corridor leading farther into the Sarrukh city. With his Eyes of the Rune Keeper, Alexis was able to decipher some of the ancient and forgotten Sarrukhar language. These were not crypts or tombs; they were ancient figures of note for the Okoth empire, and inscriptions beneath them seemed to pay homage to their legacies.
When the agents were ready to move on again, another animal skull in the wall next to them chattered with barely-contained glee.
“Oh, there you are, fellow inFESTors! I was just putting away some GROSS profits for safe keeping. I can just hear you asking now…so what does that ENTRAIL? Well, let’s just say some of these withdrawals can cost AN ARM AND A LEG! *cackle* Now be careful of where you step in this next part…you never know what you might SCARE up! And that would be what I’d call a real ‘GRAVE MISTAKE’!”
“I feel like we’re being PUNished in this dungeon,” Charli grumbled.
The agents were to soon find out what the dragon meant as they traversed the winding corridor. Asura the cleric, trailing at the back of the party, had no time to react when a fossilized Tyrannosaurus Rex erupted from the limestone wall behind him, seizing him in its mighty jaws.
As the others turned towards his startled cries, the fossilized dinosaur raced back into another limestone wall, moving through it as quickly as it might have a fog bank. Watching its movement, Charli was reminded of the Xorn they’d fought once upon a time in the Underdark – though, here, it seemed the dinosaur had more of a “Fossil Glide” than an “Earth Glide” ability.
The passage of the monster left Asura encased in solid limestone rock. His feet and arms struggled futilely as he suffocated. Quickly racing to his side, Alexis grabbed his leg and used another Dimension Door to extricate him to a safer location.
But the agents were not safe yet. They waited for a moment – weapons drawn and spells readied – but the monster failed to show. Then, grouped a little more closely together, they continued down the same corridor, prepared to strike the moment they were assaulted.
This time, it was Alexis that was scooped up in toothy jaws erupting from the wall nearby. The others immediately pivoted. Charli, whose left hand held a bag of caltrops, was quick enough to throw it directly under a descending foot. The metal spikes mixed themselves up in the tarsals of the Tyrannosaurus’s foot, and the creature came to a sudden, limping halt.
With this sudden opening, Charli’s friends lay into it with their own attacks, but they found their attacks lessened against a skeleton made of – not bone – but fossilized stone.
As he was swung about in the air like a plaything, Alexis reached with his free arm into his backpack for a magic scroll. Casting Misty Step for the third retreat that day, he again placed himself beyond the reach of his assailant.
The battle abruptly ended when Berkin ran to face the monster head-on, casting a powerful Thunderwave. The petrified predator, already stumbling from Charli’s caltrops, was blown away by the spell…back into the limestone it had sprung from.
The agents again waited for a third ambush that never materialized. They huddled even more closely together to take advantage of a Pass Without Trace spell from Rock, and they carefully exited the corridor.
iii. Fortune Favors the Grave
Beyond the limestone corridor, the entrance to the Sarrukh city began proper. On an staircase leading to a welcoming archway, three cultist bodies lay silently. An arcane circle had been drawn next to them, and a rucksack sat nearby.
Even though the Pass Without Trace spell was still active, something responded to their presence. The central-most body picked its head from the floor and sneered.
“Hello again, BOILS and GHOULS. I’ve always thought being in a cult was a DEAD-end job, but lately, it seems people have been just DYING to get in! Gotta be careful with these CUTTHROAT organizations, though…I hear it’s easy to get STABBED IN THE BACK! Well, I guess it just goes to show you: ’FORTUNE FAVORS THE GRAVE!’”
“I’ve got a BONE to pick with this necromancer,” Charli grumbled again. The dragon’s questionable taste in humor was getting to him.
With an eye out for any hiding dangers, Berkin approached the nearest corpse. He set his awakened mimic drum on the tile floor nearby, where it hummed a simple, encouraging tune.
What Berkin was not anticipating was the face that greeted him when he rolled the corpse over. It was the face of a man they’d met only just that afternoon in the bank office – a man who’d explained the tense situation at the bank and had led them down into the vault – but whose corpse, by any indication, had already been lying in these vaults for a tenday.
“There is definitely something suspicious happening here,” the kobold declared, before casting his spell to confirm what their eyes beheld.
The corpse started back into action with the application of Berkin’s Speak With Dead. Berkin’s magic did not call the soul back to life; instead, it inhabited the body with an animating spirit that rifled through its memories. (This kind of energy was very similar to that used in animating the undead, such as those they’d seen in Songhal; however, Berkin’s spell would not hold the corpse longer than ten minutes.)
“What is your name?”
The corpse hissed a reply, in a voice far different than that of the dragon’s. “Lord Veu Ordarth Clearridge.”
“Why are you here?”
“To meet with the dragon.”
“What killed you?”
Berkin paused in his questioning. He had only two questions left, and they had learned little beyond what was easily deduced. The kobold decided to pause while his friends gathered additional clues from the area around them.
Alexis used his knowledge of the arcane to study the circle of sigils covering the tiles. Recognizing it as Conjuration magic, he further deduced that it was an altered form of a Teleportation Circle. While the standard spell created what was essentially a new destination on a universal transportation system, each location open to anyone who’d memorized its identifying sigils, this version was much more private.
When activated by a spoken passphrase, it would link to only a single paired destination, and vice versa. While it could not access the general “public” system of Teleportation Circles, neither could outsiders trespass in. Such a design was perfect for coming-and-goings of those who wanted to remain secretive…such as thieves, or cultists. These trespassers seemed to be both.
Additionally, such links remained operational until the circle itself was in some way defaced. As they did not give off a magical glow until the moment of activation, it was a simple thing for a spellcaster to hide one behind a tapestry or under a floor rug.
The agents then turned to the implications of Lord Clearridge’s apparent livelihood in the bank office earlier that day. Alexis’s Eldritch Sight had noticed nothing special about him; and indeed, nothing had changed when he’d stepped through the vault’s Antimagic Field with them. This implied that whatever effect was in place was nonmagical in origin; even a dragon’s Change Shape ability would be suppressed in the vault. However, someone skilled with a Disguise Kit could present himself as Lord Clearridge, although the individual would still need to be familiar with day-to-day bank operations.
This still left the question of who would impersonate Lord Clearridge, and why. Was it a political opportunist? A Clone? A twin brother? A body double? Another First-Born Oblex from deep within Umeren’s Temple?
Where the agents being set up as the “fall guys” for the real bank heist?
Only time (and further investigations) would tell.
As his friends dialogued, Charli noticed an odd detail about the dead cultist to the left, across from Clearridge and the backpack. Through the partially-closed eyelids, he noticed distinctly slitted irises. Examining the body, he also uncovered two long fangs in place of incisors. This was a Yuan-ti pureblood, and one that hailed from the Vilhon Reach, if his guess were correct.
The Cult of the Dragon patch that the dead Yuan-ti carried also interested Charli, as it was a different design than that on the body of Lord Clearridge, and on the third corpse to the right. While Charli was not personally aware of any Vilhon-based chapters, a well-concealed society could have easily escaped his notice.
It was no secret that the Cult of the Dragon was not a single homogenous entity. In fact, there were often arguments within the Cult about how prophetic texts should be best interpreted. For example, as recently as 1489 DR, a Dragon cult chapter from the Sunset Mountains had allied themselves with the Church of Tiamat. Under a new self-proclaimed prophet, they had sought to bring the devil queen of dragons into the world to begin their rule. Though defeated, the gambit had demonstrated the deep ideological fractures normally invisible in the Cult of the Dragon.
These thoughts suggested to Charli two things. First, that representatives from multiple cult chapters had participated in this incursion into Korvicros’s vault – some from Sembia, and at least one from Hlondeth. Second, that their animosity had turned to mutual bloodshed, undermining whatever plot they originally planned.
Alston rummaged through the backpack set near the cultist towards the right. He discovered the following items:
- Large Gold Bracelet
- Potion of Greater Healing
- Potion of Healing
- 50 gold pieces, 200 silver pieces
There were also two bloody knives in the cultist bodies’ hands, but none in Clearridge’s. This seemed to match the stab wounds they’d received: the two cultists had wounds in their chests, but Clearridge only had wounds in his back.
Additionally, there was an interesting letter in the pocket of the cultist with the backpack:
These findings seemed to answer a few questions. The cultists, Lord Clearridge included, had performed a “ritual” involving the dragon – likely the titular ritual of the Cult that transformed their dragons into dracoliches. However, through some manner, the dragon had escaped their control, and they were attempting to forcibly regain it.
(This did cause the agents some consternation. A number of the spells and equipment they’d prepared for the mission depended on being able to charm or otherwise influence the dragon’s attitude…and undead were notoriously immune to such shenanigans.)
The phrase “undying Lord” from the letter in particular stood out to Alexis, and he thought deeply if he’d ever heard that particular moniker before. He was aware that warlocks (such as he) had a wide selection of potential demigods and other powerful entities for pacts. He also knew that it was possible to strike a deal with those who had crossed the line between life and death, and now ruled from beyond the grave.
He had also heard rumors about deathless entities that granted power in return for servitude, some of which did not even reside on their world of Toril. Queen Vlaakith of the githyanki race, perhaps one of the most famous liches, ruled from the Astral Plane in the Outer Realms. Other entities, even more powerful, were said to exist, traveling the crystal spheres and keeping their own counsel. Still, try as he might, the specific phrase “undying Lord” sparked no memory for Alexis.
The student of the arcane reminded himself that this was not the first time a patron of the undead held a name new to them. Sarnelis had spoken of the “Nameless” when they’d visited Songhal. Perhaps this “undying Lord” was just another sobriquet for the same mysterious being.
The aforementioned staff (reminding Alexis of the wands used at the Terrace) was nowhere to be found; but disturbed dust suggested footsteps leading further into the abandoned Sarrukh city. Someone had survived and absconded with it.
Berkin plied his two remaining questions.
“Where does this Teleportation Circle lead?”
“The hills above.”
This confirmed their thoughts on how the cultists hid their general movements in and out of the vault, out of sight of the other bank executives. A spellcaster need only visit the vault once to inscribe this end of the linked magical circles. (Perhaps the previous cultist bodies were from an original expedition into the vault to do just this.) After that, they could place the pairing circle in a safe, distant location; and their accomplices could use it at their leisure, without fear of discovery. The other circle might be hidden in a cultist’s basement, or even secluded among rocks on an unsuspecting farmer’s field.
“Why did they kill you??”
The corpse paused for a moment, as if collecting undead thoughts.
“Some of the cultists didn’t want us to control the dragon.”
With that, the late Lord Clearridge’s head sank back to the floor, the spell’s magic now depleted. While there were two other subjects at hand, Berkin knew that a corpse was not obligated to answer the questions put forth in a Speak with Dead spell, should the corpse recognize the caster as an enemy. He figured the two cultists would be far more reticent, and he wished to conserve his magic.
(As they left, Alston took a quick moment to study the unique teleportation circle the cultists had used. He estimated that, with a little time and practice, he’d be able to recreate it on his own later.)
The agents proceeded deeper into the buried city, and the entryway opened into larger, less classically-ordered spaces. Stairs ran up and down beside them, connecting points of space set in walls in non-linear fashions. Door that should have been immediately accessible required twenty minutes of looping and back-tracking along a labyrinthian three-dimensional maze.
The tiled paths were not completely barren. Skeletons lined the subterranean avenues directly ahead – skeletons that were far too old, and far too serpentine to be hapless cultists or adventurers. More likely, they were ancient Sarrukh remains, deposited where they fell…or, perhaps, where the dragon had carefully arranged them.
E. Conclave at the Bone Grave
i. Never Scare Out Your Welcome
The ancient Sarrukh skeletons cheered their approach, the dragon’s voice erupting from each one in turn. (Again, it seemed the dragon’s control of corpses at a distance was confined to only one at a given time.)
“Now here, at Lyrabar’s Royal Bank and Trust, we can help you get MORGUE for your money! Whether it’s mutual FIENDS you want, or cold HORRID cash, we can guarantee you’ll CORONER the market! Just always remember, when you’re the guests of a dragon, ‘NEVER SCARE OUT YOUR WELCOME!’”
The agents quietly surveyed the corridors and ledges ahead. While the large looming doorway certainly seemed the path ahead, a faint plucking noise met their ears from down below. Within one of the doorways to the side, a monotonous and rhythmic strumming was audible, as of a single string on a lyre being periodically played.
Seekers of wisdom at heart, the group decided to investigate the more immediate mystery first. It took a few moments to navigate the confusing stairways to the entrance in question; the Sarrukh had taken a non-linear approach to city building, and stairs were often indirect. Perhaps the Sarrukh’s serpentine bodies allowed them to travel up and down along the walls, as well as on the floor.
The sounds emanated from a dark, secluded room. Within, piles of treasure lay discarded in various corners. Rock’s quick attention for shiny trinkets noticed that there were only pieces of artwork, pottery, and items crafted from steel and other non-precious metals. Gems, jewels, gold, silver, and even copper were completely absent.
The agents wondered if a bank heist had already occurred.
Alexis’s Eldritch Sight noticed an aura of Illusion about each of the items in the room, and he stepped forward for a closer look. It seemed Nystul’s Magic Aura had again been used, to enchant a slew of finely-crafted but ultimately mundane items. Whether this was to make his treasure trove seem more attractive to the dragon, to act as bait to unsuspecting thieves, or even simply to make looters hesitant at touching the items was unknown. The agents decided to leave the items of treasure where they found them, following the musical sound further.
They discovered, in the innermost corner of the treasure room, a half-elf man hunched over a lyre. He plucked a string atonally and muttered under his breath: “The puns, the puns, the horrible puns…” His cheeks were sunken, and black bags hung under his eyes. It looked as if he had not eaten in a tenday, nor slept in that time. He responded to no hails, and his eyes showed no recognition of the agents’ presence.
Alexis used a Potion of Mind Reading to peer into the man’s mind, then immediately withdrew in horror. Whatever the poor bard had experienced had left him crippled mentally, a mere shell of a man. The half-elf’s mind had retreated from reality, and it would take serious magical healing (or years of therapy) to undo the damage. While Asura was aware there were means by which a cleric could restore the bard, he was unable to recall them specifically.
“I specialize more in the mending of the flesh than of the mind,” Asura admitted.
“This certainly seems to put a new spin on the dragon’s demeanor,” Alexis considered sadly. “Until now, it appeared he’d only killed those that sought to do him harm. But this bard was hurting no one…”
One more detail impressed itself upon Asura. Save the bard’s haunted murmurs, this particular room was as silent as the grave. No taunts by Korvicros had greeted them upon arrival, and no skeletons rose to deliver poor jokes. It was entirely possible the bard had retreated here because it was the one place the dragon had decided not to exert its control.
The agents left the forgotten treasure room behind and returned to the main hall. As they left, Alexis couldn’t help but ponder, in his solemn way, that this seemed the land of discarded toys – trinkets the dragon had grown bored with and discarded, baubles and sentient beings alike.
ii. A Dying Art
If the dragon was finished with the bard, he most certainly wasn’t finished with the agents. Upon the adventurers’ reappearance, the Sarrukh bones atop the bridge began knitting themselves together unholy fashion. One skeleton lurched to its neighbor and joined together with it. The resultant heresy soon dragged itself to a third, and then a fourth, until an abomination of bones pushed itself from the tiles into the air.
Korvicros had only been able to remotely animate a single corpse at a time…but there seemed to be no limitation to how large that corpse had to be. Nor that it follow any particular rule of biological form.
The same familiar voice rang from the new beast:
“They say an artist is never appreciated in his BONE time…but now I’d like to show you a true DYING ART!”
Quick with his reflexes, Charli hit the monster with an Explosive Arrow, knocking it off whatever feet it used. The agents swiftly moved to flank it from whatever vantage points they could; for example, Rock used a Misty Step to perch atop a nearby ledge.
Asura had few ranged weapon options, and the stairs leading back to the bridge were long and winding. Instead, he waited for the monster to show its face(s) again over the lip of the bridge before channeling divine power into a Turn Undead.
The power of Lathander erupted in the vaults of Korvicros, and the cobbled-together creature went running. Under Asura’s advisement that the effect would only last a minute, the agents hurried for the final archway into Korvicros’s sanctum.
iii. Deads I Win, Tails You Ooze
The ceiling over the agents’ heads rose away, and the floor ended at a cavernous maw in the center of the city. A scene of destruction lay about the adventurers, from collapsed pillars to rubble-strewn tiles – the final days of an ancient city, perhaps, or the tantrums of an angry dragon. Bodies littered the area, though the agents noted that not all were time-worn skeletons of a bygone era; many nearby were very recent kills, clothed in purple and stained with blood.
“These didn’t kill each other,” Asura noted, examining one of the dead cultists. “Some giant beast ripped this one right in two.”
They proceeded towards the nearest edge of the chasm in the center of the city. Deep below their feet, Rock could hear faintly rushing water: a secret underground river lay in the depths, likely feeding runoff from the surrounding farmlands directly into the nearby Sea of Fallen Stars.
Alexis peered through the dim lighting towards the central dais. While his ability to see in the dark was not as good as either Charli or Rock’s natural darkvision, he could still make out a magical glowing orb floating at its center. It appeared to be some form of Crystal Ball – likely the means by which the dragon had directly tracked their progress through its lair, and even the route by which it had cast spells to animate nearby corpses.
But there was, also, something unusual about the piles of glittering metal that lay coiled about the Crystal Ball. Something about their outlines seemed a bit too orderly – a bit too patterned – to be disorganized heaps of bullion. In fact, as the agents squinted in the gloom, the treasure hoard itself shifted, stretched, and stood to its feet.
The form of Korvicros itself greeted them: a dracolich covered in fashioned plates of gold, silver, and copper. It wore a suit of armor crafted from its own treasure hoard, and its mouth stretched in a grin of malicious intent.
The dragon hissed in a booming voice that shook the dust from the ancient stone walls.
“Ah, at last we meet, my final guests! It was amusing to toy with you, for a time, but all good things must come to an end. Truth be told, I’d grown tired of this little prison, and of the small-minded vermin that sought to control me, both of the sneering Bank and the sniveling Cult – “
“Oh great and wise Korvicros,” Rock-in-Water began in an ill-advised attempt to negotiate directly with the beast, “we come humbly before you in peace, and – “
The dragon roared its anger; it was clear it would brook no more interruption. Rock gulped and held her tongue.
“What would you care of the opinion of insects – insects whose only interest in you is for their own purposes?! Even speaking to you is more than you deserve!
“I had considered seeking out new petitioners – perhaps those of the Vilhon Reach, who sabotaged the ritual to ensure my free will – but in truth my fate lies elsewhere, with minds of my own stature. There is a storm brewing in the north, an oncoming storm at whose forefront I intend to place myself.
“But as for you, my little roaches, well, fear not. I will permit one of you to survive, so that you may spread my fearsome name.
“So let’s play a little game of chance…DEADS I win; tails, you OOZE!”
Korvicros launched himself into the air, his gold and silver plates screeching in the air. The agents chugged potions as quickly as they could in preparation for a desperate fight for their lives; any adult dragon was a credible threat, but a dracolich doubly so.
Even so, some of the agents attempted to parley with the dragon, to talk it down even in its fury. Half-hidden behind a fallen pillar, Rock drew out a hand mirror and a ballad she’d composed for the dragon’s benefit. “Look! I have brought the countenance of your beautiful majesty…and I have brought a book that has chronicled your wit – “
Sailing high her head, the dragon opened its toothy jaws and expelled a forceful blast. It was not the acid of a copper dragon that assaulted them, but a spray of glittering metallic coins. The flying flechette ripped through the agent’s armor and skin like a bomb; the agents were not prepared to deal with such massive non-magical damage.
Then, the dragon tensed in flight, and a ringing noise echoed around him. Waves of magnetism erupted, drawing inward every piece of metal, from the largest sword to the smallest fragment. Asura, clad in full plate, felt himself abruptly dragged across the tiles and unceremoniously dumped far too near the dragon’s claws. (The other agents wore leather armor or cloth and were gladly unaffected.)
Most importantly, perhaps, the rain of blood-stained coins that had pierced the agents were drawn back into Korvicros’s greedy maw. It seemed the dragon could use its own treasure as a weapon, but it refused to lose even a copper piece in doing so.
“I think the time for diplomacy has passed,” Alexis shouted to Rock. The dragon had shown no interest in bargaining, or (in fact) any interest in recognizing the agents as anything but vermin.
Charli sank bolts between the dragon’s armor plating; but even with his ability to discern critical weaknesses, it was difficult to injure a creature this large and powerful. The dragon was also surprisingly agile, moving faster than most creatures its size. It landed in a space among Charli, Rock, and Asura and tore into each of them with tooth, claw, and tail. A magical aura of fear too blasted their minds, but fortunately even those that failed its maddening effects regained their self-control in seconds.
Then, deciding direct assaults alone were not enough, Korvicros flapped to the top of a nearby forty-foot pillar, the gusts from his wings tossing nearby adventurers to the ground. He raised his claws in summoning, and a large arcane circle of necrotic sigils glowed on the platform where Alexis stood. The dragon’s lair seemed enchanted as well, and with the activation of its potent magic, skeletons in the area arose to their new master’s beckoning. Alexis was now surrounded by ancient Sarrukh skeletons. Soon, they all would be.
Rock was feverishly rummaging through her bags, throwing items together. Thanks to a Telepathic Speech bond that Alexis had formed with her earlier (in the event of Rock wild-shaping), she hatched a plan with the warlock. She was quickly assembling a rucksack bomb that held her six flasks of Holy Water, twenty Caltrops, Dust of Sneezing and Choking, Sovereign Glue, and a Blasting Powder primed as a detonator. If Alexis were willing to Dimension Door them on top of the dragon itself, she would set the device off where it could do the most harm…perhaps even in the dragon’s mouth!
Before the two could carry out their plan, however, a new figure suddenly appeared at the doorway. Dressed in the clothes of the deceased banking executive, the man used one hand to wipe smears of makeup from his face and discard a fake mustache. In his other hand, however, he held a long magical staff; it seemed cobbled together from bones, and a skull adorned its tip.
This was likely Drajet Traginza, and this was likely the same powerful Staff of Undying Command mentioned in the letter they’d recently recovered.
It was entirely possible Drajet had fled after his first doomed attempt, a tenday ago, when his cultists had turned on each other. It was also quite possible that Drajet had retreated to weigh his options, finally deciding on making best use of the imminently-visiting Shining Blade agents. It was entirely plausible that he’d convinced them (as Lord Clearridge) to enter the dragon’s domain first, drawing Korvicros’s direct attention and allowing him to trail in secret. Moreover, it was even likely that he’d hoped (if not intended) this final confrontation from the start, as his best chance for regaining control of the rogue dracolich.
“Quick!” Drajet shouted. “Draw his attention!” The cultist then raised his Staff into the air and concentrated.
The agents had little choice in the matter either way. Korvicros again launched an aerial attack, catching Rock, Alexis, and Asura with another flechette coin blast. Only through pure luck did Rock not fall to the barrage. As it was, the agents were frantically downing whatever Potions of Healing they’d brought and casting spells to stay upright.
The cultist finished his litany of movements, and the light that flared from the dragon’s eyes abruptly dimmed. Whether distracted by the battle or simply surprised by the gambit, Korvicros had fallen victim to the Staff’s powerful magic. His will was no longer his own; rather, he now followed the command of the cultist.
“Excellent,” breathed Drajet. “Now…finish the job. Kill them!” he ordered, pointing to the agents. The dragon snarled in reluctant obeisance.
The agents exchanged quick glances, and a flurry of silent signals erupted among them. There was now a new primary target, and they needed to take it down fast.
First, Alexis put his hand – not on Rock’s shoulder – but instead on Asura’s, jaunting them both closer to Drajet with a Dimension Door. Next, Asura prayed to Lathander, calling down a divine Bane upon the cultist that undermined all his actions. Then, Rock ran her fingers over the place where Alexis had inked a magical tattoo into her skin; the tattoo disappeared in a flash of magic, and the resulting Hold Person took hold of the surprised cultist’s mind and body.
Finally, with the cultist magically paralyzed, Rock coached every ounce of speed from her feline agility to bound the distance to Drajet and yank the Staff from his unresisting fingers. As a last flourish, she wild-shaped into a Crag Cat, choosing to have the Staff meld into her new form.
If the cultist wanted the Staff back, he was going to have to fight for it; the artifact could not be physically retrieved until she had been beaten out of her stocky beast form.
Not that Drajet was the only person who’d try. Freed from its momentary mental domination, Korvicros rattled the foundations of the vault with a cry of fury.
“You’ve seen that we come only in search of truth,” Alexis spoke loudly, once more trying to to appeal to its good nature. “This man here is your enemy, not us. Would you accept at least a tru – “
There was no indication that Korvicros had even heard him; it was like a spider attempting to address an elephant. The dragon immediately set upon Rock, biting and clawing her body to knock the Staff loose. An artifact capable of subsuming his will was one that he could not let fall into enemy hands. But Rock held her own, and her form remained intact.
Escape was now the clearest option. A race to the dungeon’s entrance was out of the question, and the cultist’s earlier teleportation circle would only work if they knew the activation phrase. There remained one more avenue of retreat for those brave enough (or foolhardy enough) to attempt it.
Rock leaped to the nearest ledge of the Sarrukh city that overlooked the chasm, let out a meaningful growl to the others, and jumped over.
The others gritted their teeth and followed suit.
iv. Taking the Plunge
The distance to the water below was fraught with peril, with bridges and byways crossing the space the agents traversed. As they neared the inky water, Charli used a Grapple Arrow to slow his fall, while Alexis used one of his last Scrolls of Misty Step to bleed off some of his momentum. Rock used her last remaining wild-shape to transform into a Giant Octopus, tucking her tentacles to enter the water like a practiced diver. Asura, on the other hand, had access to no such ploys, and he hit the water’s surface in his full plate like a two-ton boulder. His eyes rolled in his head, and he only barely kept his mouth above water.
A booming, crashing thunder above announced the rapid approach of the dragon, leaping downwards from ledge to ledge. The Staff was far too valuable to simply allow its easy escape, and Korvicros ended his descent on a nearby broken bridge. His greedy eyes surveyed the fast-flowing waves beneath him. The space in this portion of the cave was too tight for him to make best use of his flight; and he was intelligent enough not to enter the treacherous currents of the river, where he would be at a serious disadvantage.
To escape the dragon’s gaze, the agents dove beneath the surface, and Rock surrounded them with an obscuring ink cloud.
The speed of the underground river picked up quickly, and the adventurers were quickly swept out of Korvicros’s domain. The torrents twisted and turned, threatening to smash the agents into crevices each step of the way. As soon as the current slowed enough, the party dragged themselves out of the water onto a shallow rocky beach – little more than a breathing space between the floor and the ceiling.
For now, the agents were safe from Korvicros; even if the dragon could fit in this narrow passage, it would not chase them into such a potentially confining trap. However, the agents could neither return nor press on. The fast-moving waters threatened to crush them through speed alone.
Additionally, the agents guessed these waters dove deep before exiting into the Sea of Fallen Stars. Had this river fed into the Sea at sea level, there would have been a beachside cave, and enterprising humans would have explored these vaults long ago. The party had not prepared Potions of Water Breathing, and it seemed they were trapped.
Luckily, they had one last option available. Retrieving their Sending Stone from the depths of their rucksack, the party composed a message that would express their most salient thoughts, while remaining within twenty-five words:
clearridge dragon cultist stop
cultists turned dragon but were destroyed stop
hostile dragon plated itself with treasure stop
team secured necromantic artifact and need extraction
Felkar’s reply came back immediately:
hold position and wait for extraction
Still, it was nearly an hour-and-a-half of shivering in the wet dark before the agents were rescued. At first, it was a sudden pricking on the back of their necks, as if they were being intently watched. Then, a glimmering portal abruptly appeared next to them. Through its shimmering curtain, the agents could see the interior of one of the Order’s divination towers, complete with scrying bowl, attendants, spellcasters, and one very worried gnome team leader.
The full implications of their harrowing ordeal were not apparent until the following morn, when the agents were debriefing with their team leader at the Shining Blade’s offices. Felkar was explaining the Order’s unsettling discovery that the gold wand they’d recovered from the Terrace had, at its core, a single strand of white human hair…and that initial probing into the Staff of Undying Command had suggested a mummified human finger at its center.
Just then, a distant rumbling noise was heard, and people ran to nearby windows to gesture in the distance. Joining them, the agents watched a cloud of dust erupt over the hills directly north of Lyrabar. From a new rent in the ground, a familiar shiny dragon clawed itself from beneath the earth and leaped into the sky. The sunlight reflected off its metallic plates in resplendent wonder.
After circling twice, the dragon flew off, its course aimed towards the “oncoming storm” it had prophesied in the north.
The team looked glumly at the hundreds of witnesses in the streets of Lyrabar below. “They’ve been using fiat currency for some time now,” Charli noted, “but they’re only just realizing that today.”
The nation’s economy had already been struggling in recent months. This newest revelation carried dire implications for the future of the markets of Lyrabar.