A strange elven apparition stopped us dead in our tracks as we approached the fried orc's corpse. It was difficult to discern what he was trying to tell us, but we got the message that things were happening very swiftly and that we'd best head to the gatehouse as soon as possible, army at the White Knuckles be damned. We scrambled outside and Kanar, still in an incorporeal form thanks to very strange magicks, scouted the gatehouse for us and found nothing. We all followed after and confirmed that whatever Leptor and his minions had been up to, it was clear that they were no longer using this location as a base. I think Adderwood was looking forward to seeing what prizes could be found in Leptor's laboratory, but we didn't have time to sulk. A brief discussion led us to the conclusion that the culmination of this dog chase would occur at the temple site. Back to the teleport pad we went.
I was very eager to confront the foul wizard and discover what he'd done with the ruby Lord Baltron had been keeping safe, but Kanar, Adderwood and Bariel all petitioned for a night of rest. Novarg joined their voices and it was settled. We returned once again to the desert city and slept, although this time we also 'dropped off' Verna in one of the abandoned houses with a supply of food to last her until we're able to return. This path seemed cruel and unusual to me at first, but after some thought it really was for the best. We couldn't simply let her go, nor could we afford to keep carting her around. Except for a trip to a town with a suitable jail, this was the only real option. Soon we were rested and ready to face whatever may come. We approached the teleportal and the mages cast and prepared their most helpful spells for what we expected to find on the other end. But we were greeted by silence. The small island was eerily quiet in the afternoon light. We found some recent tracks showing a large passing to the temple proper and followed the road up the hill. At the temple gate we found ourselves alone again. Worries began surfacing regarding the Guardian we'd heard about, but I was too impatient for any sort of reconnaissance and simply pushed open the temple's doors. Again, we were alone! All we could see in the temple was a pedestal with a glass dome atop it. I approached and spotted the prize we'd been seeking! The Starkin Ruby lay under the glass. My cautious side set in again and I examined the pedestal, finding some strange writing that almost seemed to be alive. I called Kanar over and she used her knowledge of such things to try deciphering it. As she tried however, the temple began to shake and rumble as if the island itself were attempting to shake the building into the sea. Caution again took a back seat and I smashed the dome and reached for the ruby, only to be disappointed (but not surprised) and find that it was an illusion. An image of the vile wizard's head appeared in its place and smirked at us before disappearing as well. The building kept convulsing and we quickly split up to search for exits. The two sets of doors from the main room led only to disgusting walls seemingly made of black flesh that smelled of rot. I managed to find a third exit behind one of the tapestries along the wall, although it was not ideal as it proved only to be a tunnel also constructed of this dark rot. I thought we had no choice, and made ready to head into the tunnel. Kanar is significantly cleverer than I am and attempted to find another option by throwing pebbles at one of the barricades behind the main entrances. It was a good idea, but unfortunately it made the building shudder more and the black wall then proceeded to (at lack of any more appropriate term) give birth to an ebony giant with glossy, empty eyes and a scream like none I've ever heard. We ran to the tunnel.
The darkness along this path was choking. Our brightest torches only produced the merest flicker of light, and the path was growing narrower as it went on. The walls seemed to breathe with a regular, organic pace and we had no desire to touch them. Dukek's vision, Adderwood's torch, Bariel's light spell were all useless. In a fit of desperation I pulled out the mace I had taken from a cultist on our initial assault of Baltron's Keep. The black flame ignited around the head and much to my surprise we were now able to see, at least a few meters ahead of us. Dukek followed with the second mace and we were much better equipped to navigate this rancid passage. I felt dirty having to use such an obviously evil artifact, but desperation breeds strange bed-fellows. The tunnel continued to narrow as we made our way along, and it took all of our concentration to simply avoid touching the walls. By the time we'd found an open area Dukek, Novarg, Adderwood and Bariel had all accidentally grazed the walls and were feeling "tingly". Novarg even had a patch of black skin seemingly trying to crawl over his own. I attempted to see how useful the mace was and tried to repel this infection with the black fire, but it seemed to cement the bond more than anything. We rested for a moment and examined our new surroundings before moving on. We didn't get far before we were assaulted by a small group of zombie-like creatures that displayed both frightening agility and the vilest stench I have ever experienced. We may consider ourselves well traveled and immune to such petty issues as a bad smell, but even we were overcome by this supernatural odor. Thankfully our assailants vanished when one of their leaders (seemingly, anyway) was dispatched. We continued our exploration and moved between rooms and tunnels and found ourselves beset upon again by a similar group. This band did not vanish as easily, and we were forced to slay all of the beasts before we could finish examining the room we were now in. This room presented us with two new sights since we had entered this complex (which we were now referring to as The Bowels, and for good reason). A pair of alcoves along one wall greeted us with frescoes, built in to the black skin that constructed this place. The one on the left was that of a gaping mouth of indeterminate species. The one to the right displayed a group of hooded monks in black in procession and hurling a body or a mummy into a large pit overflowing with black flames. Kanar's curiosity got the better of her and she set about experimenting with the alcoves. We swiftly found that they both had teleport magicks built in, and soon after found that they were apparently one way as Rufo was unable to return after he was persuaded to try the left passage. We had little desire to attempt a one way trip ourselves, and had little fear that Rufo was in any more danger on that end of the portal than he would be on this end, so we set about exploring The Bowels further.
As we explored Kanar, Dukek, Adderwood and I began comparing hunches as to where we were and what we were to do. We all swiftly came to agreement that this was the realm of Sirrith, the goddess of Death and matron of the Grimorden. We assumed that she had also taken these demons Famine and Pestilence under her wing, although what they had to do with Kanar we still didn't know. Adderwood also mentioned a story among his studies that suggested all Elves who wish to find the next world as Tirimth taught us would have to follow a hidden path through the realm of Sirrith. I had never heard this version of the story, but was interested and soon found that through concentration I did indeed receive a general sense of a correct path. Correct for what, I'm not completely sure, but it's a comforting feeling never the less. And we need all the comforting feelings we can get.
We found only two other landmarks of note in this complex. The first was a cavernous pit that was home to at least one giant black man-thing wielding a massive mace. Bariel dispatched this beast handily through calling upon his god and directing a beam of pure goodness and light through the foul beast's chest. The second landmark was another pair of alcoves. The right one had a fresco of a mouth matching the other almost exactly. The left-hand alcove was blank. I was in favor of attempting to use it as our next path, but Kanar's curiosity came into play again. As the rest of us were debating our possible paths she tossed a small pebble from the bottom of her pack at the blank alcove. All of our heads turned to watch as a sizzling sound and smell of burning skin resulted in the stone's passage. We went back to the initial room with the alcoves and, impatient again, I volunteered to step through the sacrifice alcove first. Adderwood joined me and, his hand grasping my cloak, we stepped through.
The destination room was a frightening area to behold. The walls had not improved and if anything seemed more ichorous here. A few tapestries helped hide the vile surroundings, although I did not examine them closely for fear of the atrocities they might present. Scattered along the dark floor were small puddles of black flame, popping and crackling in a foul mockery of the light that true fire brings to the world. Directly in front of us stood a tall statue of a hunched figure that was either examining or preying upon a spot on the opposite wall. Adderwood stepped around the statue first and immediately ran forward. I followed and saw him attempting to help a captive dwarf from a torturous prison. The older dwarf was naked and gaunt, fastened directly to the wall by a series of small hooks through his skin securing him at his wrists and ankles. I heard the call of my ancestor Daimisan through the gauntlets of his that I now wear and my hand went to the bag holding the shards of Esseriel. I found the hilt of the ancient sword and used the short piece to strike at the wall where it held this poor dwarf. As the holy sword struck the unholy architecture I was briefly blinded, but it had worked and I swiftly cut the remaining three bonds. Adderwood swiftly and deftly removed the hooks from the dwarf's skin, but the dwarf was too hurt to remain conscious for long. He shook from the pain of movement and gasped out "Leptor!" Adderwood was thinking two steps ahead and simply asked the dwarf "Is here?" to which the dwarf nodded before passing out. We covered him with my cloak and discussed a few things (such as our artifacts and the identity of our new companion) before we noticed the wall where we had appeared turn into a portal back to the room from whence we came. There was still a tunnel off of this room, but we thought it more important to return to the group with Lord Baltron at this point.
[Insert story of other half of the group's fight against the ear worms here]
We found ourselves alone in the room without even a note from Kanar and the rest, but reasoned easily enough that they must have gone through the alcove where Rufo had vanished earlier. I carried Lord Baltron as we stepped through and found the rest of our group (including the thief) cleaning up after a battle with some mind-eating centipedes, or something. Dukek ran over immediately as soon as he caught a glimpse of Baltron. Adderwood pulled Bariel over as well, and the cleric's prayers and protestations were answered by a small healing spell. It seemed enough to stabilize the old dwarf, although it was fairly obvious that nobody that close to dead could escape so easily in death's home itself. There was only on path from this area, and so Dukek hefted Baltron over his shoulders and we all proceeded deeper into Sirrith's realm. From this path we arrived at a fork, but I concentrated and determined that the right path felt correct. Again, I'm not sure where it's leading us, but it feels good to be led. We were briefly stopped by a massive, icy shadow barring our way and warning us not to continue in death's domain. We attempted to reason with it, and ensure it that we would not be stopped, but it assaulted us anyway. We fought with a renewed fury as the legendary Lord Baltron was now in our care. The shadow fell swiftly, dissipating into the foul air around us. Our way clear, we now continue...