It was on our fifth day out of Storm Reach when we spotted the hands and damned relieved I was to see them too. It is fair to say that, for me, the romance of river travel had long since worn off; what with the humidity, the bugs, the squawking birds and the crocodiles. The latter I much preferred when they were basking on the river bank rather than swimming along beside us. Not to mention it was rapidly approaching two weeks since I had stolen anything. So, all in all, it was a great relief when we saw a pair of absolutely titanic stone hands, one either side of the river, come into view.
This, according to the notes we had been given, was where we would have to say goodbye to the river and head in land.
We were not the first to arrive however. Tethered to the left bank was a smallish airship. It was some twenty feet up in the air and we could clearly make out a pair of Emerald Claw goons on deck. There was some talk by my colleges of turning the Marlow about and hiding around a bend in the river but as the Emerald Claw sentries would have had to been blind not to have spot us already that idea was, sensibly, dropped. We pulled into the left riverbank and, leaving The Marlow in the safe hands of its captain and remaining crew, disembarked. We headed straight for the air-ship. As we approached the airship both Altera and Toryil whispered that they had spotted another Emerald Claw goon. This one had been hiding in the undergrowth and nipped off as soon as it was clear we were headed their way.
Unsurprisingly the sentinels demanded to know who we were and what our intentions were. Our answers were pretty evasive. For their part the goons were pretty open, almost boastful, about their mission. They were here to advance the cause of the nation of Karnnath.
It pretty soon became apparent that our conversation, if you could call it that was getting us nowhere. For my part I was contemplating some cunning plan to get aboard unseen and engage in a bit of sabotage. Altera, however, as eager to head off after the third guard in case he was going to get reinforcements. Muroni, who was acting a little less like her ditzy self, was also eager for us to be on the move, warning that we had an appointment with destiny to keep.
So we left the airship and its guards and headed deeper into the jungle. Altera was able to pick out signs of the third goon’s passage easily enough and after a while she led us to a wide glade dominated by the single biggest building I had ever seen. This thing was massive. It was at least three hundred feet tall and I shudder to think how long. And it was old: very, very old. Both of my palms began to tingle as I imagined what forgotten treasures might be hidden within, just waiting for the right treasure hunter to come along and claim them.
My companions all looked as awe-struck as I felt (except for Toryil behind his mask, the gods alone knew what he was thinking) but there is nothing cool about looking like a tourist so I kept my game-face on and pretended to take it all in my stride.
The obvious way in was a massive set of stairs. And when I say massive each step rose some ten feet above the one below. Luckily there was a second, smaller, set of stairs flanking the big one; no doubt for the giants’ elf slaves. Scattered at the base of this staircase were a large number of bodies. A quick count gave us fourteen Emerald Claw goon and four of those Karnnath Skeletons. Our rivals hadn’t gone down without a fight though as there must have been ten, ebony skinned elf corpses for every Claw foot-soldier. The elves, “drow” I understand they are called, were clad in what appeared to be primitive armour fashioned from insect-like carapaces. At least some of the Emerald Claw forces had made it on (or got away) as I could see no sign of a war-forged, the elven airship pilot or a vampire (not that I knew what a vampire’s corpse looked like) amongst the fallen.
With Altera taking point we headed up the smaller set of stairs, senses alert for danger. Danger found us just as Altera was reaching the top of the stairs as suddenly we were plunged into darkness. The darkness only lasted a moment as Aaron exerted his magic to dispel it. In that brief moment Altera had reached the very top of the stairs and as soon as she could see she yelled out a warning, ducked to one side as a fast moving boulder rolled in to sight. We all hurled ourselves out of the rocks path, picking up grazes and bruises as we did so, as it started to crash down the stairs. All that is except Aaron who took a pretty solid hit from the rock and was almost hurled back down the stairs.
Back on my feet in a flash I ran the short distance to the top of the stairs. I caught a glimpse of a huge open area overlooked by huge, open galleries high overhead and supported by thick stone columns. What was more pressing however was the small band of enraged drow elves running towards us clearly hoping to finish off what their rock had started.
Like the drow corpses we had just passed these were clad in shiny, insect shell armour and were waving sharp daggers.
I put and arrow in the foremost drow. It injuring him but didn’t kill him. By now the rest of my comrades had reached the top. Vorj finished off the drow I had shot with a bolt of fire and Toryil and Altera met their elves’ charge head on and were soon hacking and slashing away.
Just as the drow reached us the area was plunged into darkness once again. If they thought that would slow me down then they clearly had not had much experience with Shifters. I could see well enough to determine that they were concentrating their attacks on Altera and Toryil. One dagger found its mark and while the wound was a superficial one Altera cried out and reeled for a moment.
I took advantage of the chaos of battle to slip up behind one of the drow attacking Toryil and slit its throat. A moment later the darkness was gone again, this time dispelled by Vorj.
With blade and spell we quickly whittled down our opponents until there was only one left. This one was engaged in battle with Altera. He had managed to hit her a couple of times with his dagger. Oddly, although the wounds were comparatively minor Altera was looking pale and drawn. At this point the fight turned really ugly. The first casualty of a fight to the death of fair play. We had the drow out-numbered by six to one and we mobbed him, attacking form all sides without mercy. I got sloppy, let my guard down and was slashed by the drow before we finally finished him off. By the gods did that wound burn! Now I knew why Altera was looking rough, the blade was clearly smeared in some kind of venom. I threw the effects off pretty quickly but while they lasted they weren’t nice.
The fight over we saw to our injuries. Muroni, acting much more her old self, did most of the work with her wand of healing although most of us downed a potion or two as well.
When we were feeling more confident be began to explore the huge stone space we were in. It was massive, bigger than the biggest cathedral I had ever been in. You could probably have held horse races in there.
Following one wall around we came to a huge door; twenty five feet tall and fifteen feet wide. Exerting her massive strength Altera pushed it open to reveal a chamber some sixty feet long with a similar door at the far end. Entering the chamber we would feel the weight of ages resting heavily upon the place. Altera and Aaron put their backs into opening this new door but it didn’t budge and inch so we headed back to the main chamber and carried on around.
Soon we found ourselves at the far end from where we had entered. There was a set of stairs here heading upwards as well as another, massive door. This door, however, was ajar. Also in this area were a series of structures (or perhaps one large, irregularly shaped structure) that were clearly not part of the original design. These structures were crafted out of dried mud and formed a series of interconnecting spheres and tubes. There seemed multiple ways in to the mud structures, in fact more than probably were intended as several had been smashed open. The damage looked new and Vorj went over to poke around. He quickly reported that there were burnt corpses in there as well as damaged tool and the general brick-a-brak of living. We quickly came to the conclusion that this was where the drow had lived and that the Emerald Claw had passed this way.
Ignoring the “nest” for now we headed for the open door. Beyond it was another sixty foot chamber with, once again, a door in the far end. Unlike the first chamber this one looked like it had seen use. There was a definite trail leading from one door to the other worn smooth by the passage of feet over thousands of years. As we crossed the room we made out that there had once been a number of large dishes placed in from of the opposite door but these had been knocked aside by who ever had visited this place before us. If you think the sight of what was clearly sacred offerings laid out before us put our nerves on edge that you would be right but what choice did we have?
Once again the door was ajar, just wide enough for someone to slip through. Rather than risk getting bottle-necked if we had to retreat Altera and Aaron pushed the door further open. We had a glimpse of a chamber beyond that was about comparable in size to the one we were in but what really captured our attention was the single biggest damn black scorpion I had ever seen and it was charging right towards us with murder in it’s eyes!