Moments later, we were looking up at a pair of large stone doors, dripping seaweed and other dying sea life clinging to their surfaces. Every inch of the doors was covered with a multitude of horrific scenes of grotesque, vampiric demons chasing and feasting on beautiful maidens. Who had carved such scenes, I could not – did not wish to – guess. The doors stood open, revealing a wide stone staircase leading up into darkness.
The doors must have been air-, or rather, water-tight and tightly sealed until the water had receded, for the steps were bone dry. Before rushing up them into the unknown, Phi lighted a stone and tossed it upward into the inky darkness. As the clatter died away, we slowly ascended the stone steps. Suddenly, a low moan issued from somewhere ahead as, preceded by a soft shuffling sound, two monstrous skeletons lurched into the faint light at the top of the stair. From the shape of their heads, as well as the bony tails extending from their lower backs, they appeared to be the undead remains of two long dead Serpentmen.
Immediately, Toshe threw a small vial in the direction of the skeletal Serpentmen as they simultaneously loosed a pair of javelins in ours. The javelins flew by harmlessly. But Toshe had better aim; the vial hit the leading skeleton squarely, bursting into bright, orange flame.
As Toshe tossed a second vial, Phi and Rarsk rushed the monsters. Phi’s club smashed into the skeleton on the right, then Rarsk was on it also, his fangs gripping its arm. As the skeleton tried to pull its bony limb from the leopard’s mouth, Rarsk swung a paw at its midsection. A loud cracking sound echoed through the darkened hall as one of the thing’s rib bones snapped.
Attempting to be of assistance, I cracked my whip at the scorched skeleton on the left, but the bladed tip passed harmlessly between the thing’s ribs. As I swore under my breath, Toshe raced past in the direction of the stairs. “I’ll be right back!” she yelled, as she disappeared down the stone steps.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the skeleton to my right crumble under the claws of Fi. The the small lizard and its mistress then turned on the blackened skeleton in front of me and it was quickly dispatched. As the bone dust settled slowly to the floor, Toshe reappeared, holding a large piece of driftwood in one hand. She seemed somewhat put out upon seeing both skeletons destroyed.
Looking around the dimly lit room, I could tell it was large, with an elevated walkway running lengthwise across the space, about twenty feet above the floor. The walkway was supported by thick stone columns. At the far end of the room, I could just make out a tall bronze door. Disturbingly, in the dim light, the doors appeared to be dripping blood.
My attention was diverted from the doors by a cry from Phi. She’d spotted a large trap door just to the left of the stone stair. To our dismay, the door was stuck fast and despite repeated efforts – including a rope tied to the door’s thick iron ring – we could not budge it. Eventually, we were forced to admit defeat and I headed for the bronze door at the far end of the hall. Inspecting it closely, the “blood” turned out to be simply an illusion created by moisture and firelight on the golden bronze of the door. I breathed a sigh of relief, then pulled on the ornate handle and the door opened easily onto a short hallway. On either side of the hall, a staircase led downward into darkness.
After a short discussion, we decided on the left hand stair. At the bottom, it opened into a narrow passageway. We continued along this for several yards until, without warning, a rectangular section of the floor began to drop away beneath our feet, eventually revealing a score or more of steel spikes waiting to impale anyone unfortunate enough to fall into the pit. With little time to spare, Phi, Fi and Rarsk quickly leaped for the far side of the pit, while Toshe and Mwembe grabbed desperately for the floor’s edge. All of them made it to safety on the far side. I, on the other hand, had been a short way behind the others when the flagstones disappeared into the depths, leaving me unharmed, though on the wrong side of the spike pit. It also left me a jump of almost a dozen feet to join the others. I was not confident in my ability to jump so far and despaired of getting across to my companions. Then, like a flash, a solution came to me.
The passage had many rough stones projecting from its walls at odd intervals and, taking out my whip, I managed to wrap the end around one of these projecting stones. With the others looking on in astonishment, I easily swung myself across to the opposite side. As my feet touched the stone floor, I offered them what I hoped was a roguish smile and said, “That’s one way to avoid a pitfall.”
Gathering ourselves and continuing along the passage I began, a little belatedly, to keep an eye out for more traps. After climbing a short stair, we took a side passage on the left. As we started along the new passage, I noticed a narrow, and very straight, crack across the floor of the hallway. It differed noticeably from the uneven seams between the flagstones. Realizing it was probably the edge of another drop floor, I carefully searched the walls and floor until I located the switch. Pressing a large flagstone downward with all my strength, I was rewarded with the sight of the floor ahead falling away, revealing a second floor further down, covered bristling with metal spikes.
We all managed to jump safely across the gap and continued down the passage unhindered, eventually reaching a pair of doors that opened onto the “bridge” through the main hall. The bridge ended in a small empty room. Scraps of wood and bone littered the floor and the walls were heavily carved with strange runes. Here and there, a large snake head was repeated, it’s mouth gaping wide.
None of us could interpret the runes, unfortunately. When this adventure is finished, I must return to study these ruins. Oh, just thinking of the knowledge to be gained…! There is so much we don’t understand about the world before Earthfall, when the Starstone ended the empires of Thassilon and Azlant. The carvings on this island could fill many of those gaps. When I return to Kintargo, I shall have to discuss funding for an expedition.
With difficulty I brought myself back to our present situation. We continued through a small door in the far wall, entering a narrow passage. Around a corner to the right it opened on a large room with four small alcoves at regular intervals. Standing in the center of the room were four human skeletons. There was probably a connection there. The skeletons turned and began to move toward us, but they posed little threat and in moments they lay in pieces scattered across the stone floor.
The room itself was empty, however, and was apparently the end of the passage. Left with no alternative, we turned and retraced our steps back across the bridge and, returning to the original passageway, continued northward. Before long, we approached a large door. It stood open, and in our haste to enter the room, someone sprung another trap – either I missed the clues in floor, or this one was more well hidden than the last. Regardless, once again, the floor fell away, but also once again, none of our party ended up impaled at the bottom of a pit.
We did all end up inside the room, however, Phi once again in reptilian form. The moment the last of our feet hit the flagstones inside the chamber, I heard the sound of gears turning and chains clanking as a large sheet of bronze fell with a crash, completely blocking the door through which we had entered. Simultaneously, a matching sheet of bronze fell in front of the door on the opposite side of the room. Quickly, I looked around the room for an avenue of escape, but saw none. The room was small, with a series of large holes in the walls – I counted at least ten – at about the height of a man’s chest. In the center of the room was a circle of four stone pillars. At their feet, inside the circle, was a large pool of what appeared to be blood. There was no way of telling how deep the pool was.
Our inspection of the room was cut short when, with more grinding and turning of gears, a large, gleaming metal blade swung down from the ceiling and flashed across the small space, cutting a long gash in Rarsk’s back as it went. Reaching the far wall, the blade retracted into the ceiling and disappeared. No one else appeared to be injured. Immediately Mwembe dashed for the far door, searching for a means of opening it. Phi and Fi stood frozen in place and Toshe…well, Toshe dove headlong into the pool of blood. She floated there, looking incongruously, and ridiculously, relaxed in the disgusting pool. The bronze sheet, however, resisted all Mwembe’s efforts to lift or break it. And while she struggled with the metal barrier, I began to search for a mechanism to open the door.
Again, there was a sound of gears and again the blade swung down. This time, however, it came from an entirely different direction. Phi cried out in pain as the blade flashed through the room and disappeared into the ceiling once again. Calling Rarsk to her, Mwembe redoubled her efforts at the door as I searched frantically for the release mechanism or for some way of stopping the deadly blade. As the blade came down a third time, from yet another spot in the arched ceiling, I finally located a small switch or button inside a small recess near the far door. I pressed and fumbled with it, attempting to determine whether it worked the bronze barriers or the blade, or something else altogether. Suddenly, I saw a bright flash out of the corner of my eye and felt a sharp pain in my left arm; the blade had struck one more time. With this additional motivation, I pressed the button as hard as I could. There was an audible click, but nothing happened. At least, nothing obvious. Soon, it became clear that something had happened, as several minutes went by and the blade did not come down. Convinced it was now safe, Toshe climbed out of the pool, dripping from head to foot with sticky, oozing blood. Leaving a trail of crimson footprints, she crossed the room to aid Mwembe.
I continued fiddling with the mechanism while Mwembe, Rarsk and Toshe attempted to lift the bronze sheet blocking our escape. Eventually, Toshe managed to reach her hands under the bottom edge of the metal sheet and strained upward, grunting with the effort. When it was a few feet above the flagstones, Rarsk put his shoulder underneath the sheet and stood to his full height. Mwembe lent her strength to the effort, as well.
Suddenly, there was the all-to-familiar sound of gears and the blade swooped across the room. Toshe held the door as high as she was able, as Phi, Fi and Mwembe bent through the opening into the passageway beyond; Rarsk followed his mistress.
“Are you coming?” Toshe yelled to me, straining to hold the heavy metal plate.
“Give me a second.” I replied.
“I can’t hold this forever, you know.” Toshe said in return.
With a sudden revelation, instead of pushing the button, I turned it to the right. It clicked into place. “You won’t have to.” I said to Toshe as the bronze panel lifted out of her hands and into a slot in the ceiling above. Smiling, I walked calmly from the room.
A short distance farther on, the passageway opened into another large, cathedral-like space, with a high arched ceiling held up by two rows of thick stone pillars. A wide trough ran the length of the room, between the rows of pillars. Once again, the liquid in the trough appeared to be thick crimson blood. Against either wall was the remnant of a large pool, both long since dried up. At the far end of the hall was a small, circular alcove holding a stone statue; it appeared to be some kind of bizarre, bat-winged demon. In all my studies and excavations, I have never seen another like it. And standing in front of the statue was Ieana. But not the Ieana we had known on the Jenivere. She had been hideously transformed; her head was no longer that of a beautiful Varisian woman, but a venomous snake, with long curving fangs and a narrow forked tongue. From her back trailed a long, sinuous snake tail.
She looked up as we entered the hall and a look of surprise crossed her face. It was quickly replaced by one of hatred. “Ah, I see you survived the shipwreck. No matter. You will not halt my research here. Prepare to die.”
She gestured peremptorily at a small knot of skeletons standing in the middle of the great hall. They raised their rusted weapons and advanced on Phi-Fi and Toshe. Mwembe edged along the near wall, in the direction of Ieana, loosing a crossbow bolt as she went. The missile struck a glancing blow and Ieana laughed disdainfully. “You are as pathetic as you were on the ship. They should have left you with your tribe, savage.” she said, her lip curled in a sneer. Then, turning towards Toshe, she made another quick gesture and yelled, “Protect me!” Toshe merely stood where she was, frowning in confusion.
Ieana’s growl of frustration was lost in the echoing crash of my pistol. I had made my way along the far wall to the edge of the dried pool. Steadying myself against the cool stone of the wall, I fired at the serpent woman. Blood spurted as the bullet struck her hard in the left shoulder. I saw her wince in pain before she turned toward me, eyes narrowed. She hissed in pain and anger.
She had no time for me then, as Rarsk was upon her with claws and fangs and a second bolt from Mwembe’s crossbow left a bloody gash across her rib cage. Then a large, feathered shape shot past me, as Phi charged Ieana, slashing with her claws. Unfortunately for Phi, at the same moment, Ieana, opening her gaping serpent mouth wide, bent away from the attack to sink her poisoned fangs into the leopard’s thickly muscled neck as Phi’s claws cut through empty air. The cat yowled in pain and backed quickly away from the Serpentwoman.
Seeing an opening, I advanced, loosening my whip, and as Phi renewed her attack, I snapped it in the direction of Ieana. Unfortunately, the leather cracked harmlessly in the air over her head. As I pulled it back to try again, a small whirlwind appeared out of nowhere and zipped by and over Ieana. If she noticed, she gave no sign.
Taking a moment to glance around the room, I saw Rarsk run to his mistress, who appeared to feed him something from a small vial. Toshe was handling the skeletons with little trouble. Hearing Ieana’s hissing voice, I turned. Phi hesitated as six identical Ieanas appear out of thin air, surrounding the original. They had to be illusions, but in the confusion of battle, telling the real Ieana from the false ones was well-nigh impossible. Then the transformed druid struck viciously with her large, clawed foot. One of the Ieanas winked out of existence. She had “killed” one of the illusions. This must have thrown her off-balance as her next attempt missed badly and her large, reptilian head hit the stone wall of the alcove with a sickening thud.
At that point, with no idea which Ieana was the true sorceress, I picked one at random and struck with my whip. She vanished; it was another false image. The small whirlwind made another pass and a third image disappeared.
Then, surreally, all four remaining Ieanas raised their arms to the sky and chanted loudly in a language I did not understand. When they had finished, a small globe of intense blackness appeared in the center of the room and, faster than the eye could follow, expanded. As the blackness burst over us, I felt an intense pain, such as I’d never felt before and barely managed to remain upright. I heard the others cry out in pain as well. Quickly, Toshe and the two feathered lizards recovered and charged the four remaining Ieanas. One of them disappeared as Fi’s jaws clicked shut on empty air. A second false Ieana was destroyed with a flick of my whip. There were only two Ieanas left. And after another pass by the whirlwind, which I have since decided must have been a small air elemental summoned by one of my friends, there was only the true Ieana.
Looking about and finding herself alone, she repeated her chant and the blackness exploded outward again. This time, Rarsk whimpered and fell lifeless to the floor. The air elemental vanished. Staggering, I swung my whip again and watched the blade at its tip slice across Ieana’s serpentine cheek.
Again came the blackness and the pain. I struggled to stay on my feet and advance on the erstwhile Varisian woman, swinging again. Again, the blade bit. This time, Ieana had no chance to channel her dark energies; Rarsk was back on his feet, charging the snake-woman. She managed to evade the infuriated beast, but was not so lucky with the bolt sent from the crossbow of the cat’s mistress.
Alone and outnumbered, bleeding profusely, Ieana turned and ran toward the hideous statue at the far end of the hall, raked by one of Phi’s large claws as she went. Following as quickly as I could manage, I struck her again with my bladed whip. Thinking we had her cornered, we paused to catch our breath. It was nearly a fatal mistake.
Reaching out her bloody hand, Ieana lightly touched the cold stone of the statue. Instantly, her body became translucent, then quickly turned to mist and she floated up toward the ceiling and disappeared through a small hole. She was gone.