Belmarniss can now sorta muddle along in the local common thanks to aggressive use of comprehend languages to hand-translate books after roping a local into teaching her the alphabet. Also she hates teleport traps with every fiber of her being. Also she has figured out at this point that she somehow leveled in sorcerer instead of wizard during the business with the pirates and has no idea why that happened or whether it will happen again. And she has sold this stupid arrowhead to two different curio shops and given up as it seems to be cursed. And she just needs to keep doing what she does, she guesses, till she can teleport herself home. The Yawning Portal is a nicely ironic name.
It's also pretty good as an inn, all things considered; the food's inconsistently spiced and the beds aren't as soft as they could be, but it's clean, and she's able to fall asleep just in time to catch the prophetic dream channel.
A drow woman, stomping around in armor that truly must be seen to be believed, growls at a nearby wizard wearing black-and-red robes. "Do not test my patience, iblith. Would you have me wait? I, the Valsharess? I, the great queen of shadow?"
"No, dread Mistress," he trembles.
"Then proceed with the ritual. I wish to see this being that my agents say has the potential to stop my rise to power."
"I do not believe anyone could stop you now, dread Mistress."
"So I thought. But my agents have resources beyond the means of mortals, and they say this one may yet defeat me... if I do not act."
An illusion of Belmarniss appears, after an amount of arcane fanfare that can't have been strictly necessary for a simple divination.
The Valsharess prowls around the image like a cat examining a bird it doesn't know yet if it can kill. "What is this? This... child... wearing the signet of no house? Have your spells grown faulty, fool?"
"N-no, dread Mistress. This is indeed an image of the one who shall defeat you."
"I will not be defeated." The Valsharess incants a quick spell, and the wizard screams as he dies. "This image shows but a threat which will be dealt with like the others. You, other male. Remove this trash and summon my assassins." A nearby wizard casts some kind of spell which causes the body of the first wizard to vanish, bows, and scurries out of the room.
"And you, iblith," the Valsharess says to Belmarniss' image. "Whoever you are, and whatever threat you pose... you will not be able to hide. My Red Sisters will strike quickly and without mercy."
Well, points towards the "something is up" hypothesis: there is another drow in her room, carrying a knife that could not be more obviously coated in deadly poison. Currently she's going through Belmarniss's stuff; she doesn't seem to have noticed that her prospective thievery/murder(?) victim has woken up.
"Oh my goodness!" the girl exclaims. She puts her tray down carefully and takes the towel cocoon much more carefully. "I suppose I'll, um, put that in the armory? Or, no, I'll bring it to Father, he'll know what to do with it. I'm so sorry this happened, is there anything I can - well, I can take this dagger. That's what I'll do. Thank you for telling me."
She takes the dagger-in-towel and hurries downstairs.
No one stops her, though she gets a couple of double-takes and at least one hostile look from the non-adventurer patrons of the inn.
The lizardfolk gives her an appraising glance as she passes. "Are you that fourth adventurer Durnan's been waiting for? If so, welcome. If not, welcome anyway, I'm not stingy."
"Alright. So, there was this big magic-resistant plague in the city of Neverwinter, right? Jojo here was a monk in the service of Tyr in that city, when suddenly the Lady Aribeth, this big-time paladin higher-up, comes to him and says, basically, 'we screwed up.' They'd brought in some magical creatures to use parts of them to make a cure for the plague, but the creatures escaped. So Jojo and some compatriots hunt down the creatures, and they make the cure, and along the way it turns out the plague was actually an enemy action, and Aribeth's boyfriend was in on it. So he gets executed. Now, they're searching for who sent the plague in the first place, and Aribeth's having a real hard time because her boyfriend got killed. Jojo finds out the plague was inflicted by this archmage from Luskan, and whoops-a-daisy, Aribeth vanishes, and next thing anyone knows she's a blackguard leading a Luskan army against Neverwinter. But Jojo found out along the way that the archmage is looking for these ancient artifacts called the Words of Power, and the best idea anybody has is 'find them before he does'. So they do. And it turns out along the way that the archmage is a servant of the ancient lizardfolk - no relation - who ruled the world before the dragons, and they want to turn the planet into an eternal jungle and rule again, and so they're puppeteering this archmage, and that's why the plague and that's why the Words of Power. And then Jojo vanquishes Aribeth in single combat and defeats the archmage and uses the Words to go into the pocket dimension with the ancient lizardfolk and kill their evil queen. And we're all very proud of him."
"Deekin certainly imagine so."
He roots around in his backpack and pulls out a slightly beaten-up copy of The Shadows of Undrentide, the cover of which features a human in black armor facing off against a medusa. "Here, Deekin lend you copy. Deekin not want you buying from publisher unless you have to, bastards stiffed Deekin."
Durnan sighs heavily. "Aye. Tamsil told me what happened. I cannot apologize enough. Once, I would have been able to ensure the safety of my guests, but no longer. The damnable - invaders," he stumbles only very slightly, "come and go as they please, it seems. The enemies of Waterdeep must have somehow learned you had answered our call for heroes; I don't know why they attacked you specifically, but it does not bode well."
Durnan's eyebrows raise. "Well, that's very unusual. Usually prophetic dreams are quite vague, and concern events of the future. But I've seen enough to know that having a powerful ally in your corner is something to be grateful for... usually. If someone sent you that dream, it might be a good idea to find out who."
"I'm not a man of much faith," Durnan admits, "so I don't know which gods might be interested in this little venture."
Jojo speaks up. "It's not likely to be one of the gods themselves; divine visions almost always go to the faithful, and as Durnan said they don't tend to be quite so clear-cut as what you saw. I'd put money on it coming from some high-level mortal caster. Unfortunately, there's no shortage of those. I think our best bet might be to simply keep an eye out for other clues. At least, as Durnan said, it's likely to be someone who wants to help - after all, it woke you in time to intercept the assassin."
Durnan nods thoughtfully. "It's possible that her job was to leave you defenseless for a more experienced killer, but we can't be sure. At any rate, I've gathered you all here for a reason. The city is under siege. Raiding parties of drow and other creatures rarely seen on the surface are attacking the city. We've determined that these attacks are coming through Undermountain."
"But Undermountain has existed for centuries. Why hasn't there been any trouble before?" Garrus wonders.
"That's what I need you all to find out. The labyrinth of Undermountain was created centuries ago by Halaster, a mage whose power may have rivaled Elminster himself. Halaster rules Undermountain with a tyrannical fist; it was his magic that kept the creatures within from pouring out to overrun Waterdeep. Now Halaster has suddenly decided to unleash his creatures on my city, and I want to know what that madman is up to!"
"That's the going theory. It's odd that Halaster would ally himself with the dark elves; he's never been too fond of them. But the drow are attacking through Undermountain, and that would be impossible without Halaster either cooperating or out of the picture. And if they somehow took out the archmage, we've got an even more serious situation on our hands."
Durnan nods grimly. "I fear so. If they are, they're going about it the right way; the Lords' Alliance is reeling from the losses they've suffered in recent weeks, and our military forces are largely engaged elsewhere. This is why we must stem the tide at the source. If the drow retain free access to Undermountain, a war would be untenable."
"Now, as many of you know, this inn is built around one of the stable entrances to Undermountain: a magical well that descends thousands of feet down into the depths of the ever-changing labyrinth. But I don't intend to send anyone into Undermountain unprepared. That would be suicide. I'll offer you what advice and equipment I can. In fact, I think it might be a good idea if-"
The door to the basement swings open, and a fireball bead streaks out and detonates in the middle of a cluster of civilian patrons. Three drow saunter into the room, a priestess and two swordswomen, followed by a handful of ashen-skinned duergar.
"Foul drow! You dare to attack my inn?!" Durnan roars, drawing a longsword from his belt.
"Your inn, your city, your race... all will fall before the Valsharess, fool!"
Deekin is... humming a strange little tune to himself. The tune fills Belmarniss with a feeling of power, a feeling of precision, a feeling like her body will do exactly what she tells it to do. From the looks of the people around her, it's not lying; the various inn patrons and staff are putting up a shockingly competent show of force against the duergar minions.
He's so fast. He hops off the now-unmoving swordswoman and weaves through the shrinking crowd of duergar, felling them rapidly.
Once the duergar are taken care of, Durnan raises his sword. "Adventurers, to the well room! We must secure the entry!" He charges down the stairs to the basement, followed by the three adventurers.
(A white-robed surface elf priestess is channeling positive energy over the wounded and dying, such that they are no longer wounded or dying respectively. There appear to have been few actual casualties thus far.)
Durnan does not have time to explain why he built an inn here, no, though the explanation probably makes perfect sense at least to him.
The well room is... weird. There's a railing separating the part of the room with a floor from the part of the room without; the floor has an outcrop containing the eponymous well, a large elevator-bucket that descends into a deep pit which can be sealed off by a convenient lever. There are several bodies on the floor, guards in the uniform of the Lords' Alliance. There are also several more drow, currently having the living hell beat out of them by an incredibly fast mouse-man and a pissed-off innkeeper with a sword.
After the invaders have fallen, Durnan goes to seal off the pit with the lever. "I don't know how they got in," he mutters. "It should have been sealed, the guards know to pay constant attention, and how did they get in without raising the alarms, anyway? At any rate," he says, turning to the party, "I need you all to guard the well room while I-"
A beholder rises up past the cliffside from behind him and shoots him with a beam that freezes him in place.
Garrus shoots it several times, and it retreats whence it came. "We have to follow that thing before it gets away!" he says, going for the lever.
Belmarniss feels, perhaps unusually, inclined to agree.
Durnan dusts himself off reflexively and exhales. "Thank you for stopping him, Belmarniss - I have no doubt that this was planned in advance, that you all would have run into some kind of trap or ambush. I'm going to re-engage the magical defenses that should have already been in place, call in some guards to stand watch, and stay right down here to make sure those defenses stay in place."
He goes to fiddle with a panel set into the wall, and a transparent sheet of force covers the sheer drop. "There. That's got an antimagic field below it - no beholder is getting up that way again. Though there hasn't been a beholder this high up in Undermountain as long as I can remember - the invaders must have brought it with them."
Deekin makes a note in his tome, which has reappeared. "What can you tell Deekin about Undermountain, while everybody wait for new guards?"
"I suppose I'm as much an expert on the place as anyone can be... short of Halaster himself, of course. I can't tell you what to expect to see - the layout and inhabitants change, not constantly but frequently enough that foreknowledge is close to useless. One thing I do know, however, is that while you can find anything from goblins to gold dragons in Undermountain, things trend more dangerous the deeper you go."
"How we get out once we in there?" Deekin queries, scribbling away.
"Well, you can return to the well's terminus and I'll pull you up. There's not many options besides that, given teleportation is nullified within the dungeon."
"Teleportation not work?"
"Yes. Any magic that takes you from one place to another, even traveling by the planes, is completely forbidden by Halaster's magics. Only his own devices - shimmering portals that take you from one part of the dungeon to another - work inside that place."
"Thanks," Deekin says. "That all Deekin needed to know."
"I wouldn't call anything in Undermountain trustworthy," Durnan warns her, "but yes, while their destination is unpredictable they will reliably transport you to a different portal's location rather than, say, disintegrating you."
"I like nobody getting disintegrated," Garrus comments. "That's a positive outcome for me."
"Indeed. While I've sold off much of my old adventuring gear, I keep some items around in case of emergencies, and I want to encourage you all to go through it and take anything you need. There's nothing really game-changing in there, but I know some adventurers prefer to shore up their strengths than their weaknesses; if you've got a flank exposed, a Ring of Minor Resistance can mean the difference between life and death."
Garrus has the decency to look a bit guilty.
They turn up a couple of Rings of Protection, a middling-tier Cloak of Resistance which Garrus admits to needing pretty badly, an Amulet of Natural Armor, a Belt of Dexterity, and a Robe of Infinite Twine, along with an amount of more or less useless enchanted knick-knacks sufficient to fill up a decently sized treasure chest.
And Garrus gets the cloak and the other ring - "I know I said it's pretty cheap, but every time I get a spare couple of gold together I end up thinking about how cool it would be to add something new to my bow or my armor or my belt, so I'm a little short on accoutrements that aren't, uh. Those exact three things."
"Sensible. Undermountain is by all accounts a place of fabulous treasures, so we're likely to stumble across at least some equipment worth keeping anyway."
At this point, a small troop of new guards tromps into the room to replace the old, dead guards who were here before (who have since been removed by that priestess from the common room). Durnan, who had been talking with the priestess, looks up. "Ah, here they are. I'm going to stay in the well room for a while until I'm sure the incident from before won't be repeated; are you all ready to go into Undermountain, or do you need some more time to prepare?"
And Durnan sends them down.
They spend a few minutes in the elevator. When they reach the bottom, they exit into a room that looks like it might have been lifted from some ancient, evil temple. In the room with them is a circle of glowing red runes, inside of which is a yellowed skeleton.
"Poor soul," Jojo says.
"Yes. Now that I think of it, it's odd that the bones would be left undisturbed so long, so close to the entrance... perhaps as a warning to newcomers? Hm."
Jojo leads the way out of the room, carefully circumnavigating the runes. They come out in a large central chamber, where there is a bridge blocked by brightly-colored, glowing pillars in four rows of three. In front of the bridge are four levers, each of which appears to be missing a central rod.
Four rows of three pillars each stand on the bridge. There are five colors of pillar: blue, yellow, red, green, and white. No row has more than one of the same color of pillar, nor any column. There are four levers in a row in front of the bridge, each with a slot that is clearly missing something rod-shaped.
North they is!
It's twisty-windy, but there's no forks in the road for a while. There's a couple of minor traps that Garrus spots before they can do anything, along with another couple of runic circles that everyone gives a wide berth. Belmarniss's map is looking pretty straightforward so far.
They come to a small alcove containing a treasure chest, lid invitingly open, overflowing with gold coins stamped with Halaster's own face.
Garrus sighs. "Is it wrong that I expected a higher caliber of trap? Is that tempting fate?"
"Hall of Sleeping Kings famous Undermountain feature," Deekin says with a hushed sort of tour-guide cadence. "Bodies of ancient humanoid kings Halaster steal from tombs. 'Great kings and queens and sorcerers, all from lands that existed before other lands that have also been forgotten.' They be very old. And here they sleep. Supposedly they not do much unless you try to steal their stuff."
Garrus is the one to actually open the door. It swings open without a hitch, or for that matter a lock.
The room is in a flattened horseshoe shape, with thrones along the walls each containing a skeleton, or in one case a withered corpse, all in variously ostentatious regalia and bearing ceremonial weapons.
There doesn't appear to be anyone with a pulse on this side of the room; the voice comes from the other side of the horseshoe.
"Over here," he calls. "I'll explain when you see."
Garrus, an arrow nocked, leads the way.
There's no one over here either, but the voice comes again, seemingly originating from one of the skeletons, who's carrying an ebon-bladed longsword with a strange red glow to it. "Hello. No, I'm not the skeleton, I'm - well, I'm in the sword he's carrying. Enserric the Grey, at your service."
"Well, yes, there is that. The catch, as it were, is that these Sleeping Kings do not take kindly to having their belongings removed. I was myself once an adventurer much like you, exploring the infamous Undermountain, when my compatriot Jeets had the bright idea to try to 'nick' the circlet off the Sorceress - the one over by the lizardfolk. I was at that very moment examining the plaque on the throne of Chief Urdon here, when he abruptly resumed animation and stabbed me in the neck. My soul was drawn into his enchanted blade, and here I have sat for the last four or five decades, growing ever more bored."
"No - the weapon's design was such that my soul was intended to be, well, digested some time ago, but I, fearing oblivion, attempted to escape and return to my body, which had by then been looted by adventurers and consumed by rats. Instead of escaping, I seem to have gotten myself stuck. So I'm no longer being digested, but neither can I be displaced, at least without substantial arcane assistance."
"From what I've seen of the Kings in action, Chief Urdon is the heaviest hitter due to his possession of the black blade, which is quite powerfully enchanted even without its ability to steal souls; your taking it before the bout can properly begin can only help. The heaviest hitter after him is King Krolon, with the greatsword and plate mail. The Sorceress loves her magic missile storms, so if you’ve got Shield in your spellbook now would be the time to use it. And if you’ve got any specific kind of blade you’d like me to be for the fight, from falchion to estoc, just say the word.”
"I'm... not especially a sword person but if the rest of y'all are also not especially sword persons I guess I'd take a falx? Also if they all wake up at the same time each of us should take something we do not want them to have at the same moment. Also also does tying them up or finding heavy objects to put on their laps count as taking their stuff."
"I'd go for the Sorceress' Staff of Defense next, and those three are the ones who'll wake up immediately - if you want to get out you'll have to fight your way through a couple of others, but then there's a tradeoff between fighting more undead at once and fighting armed undead one at a time."
"I'm not prepped for undead, I was expecting mostly drow this morning, but if I take the staff I can cast shields out of that, and I dunno if any of you three benefit from fox's cunning but I have it qua sorcerer, and I have lots of true strike and a magic missile. You lot?"
And lo, she is shielded! The Sorceress stands up while casting a Quickened magic missile, which gets sucked into the shield. She doesn't seem to notice, already casting another magic missile.
Jojo tosses Krolon's sword to the ground and starts punching him in the skull before he's fully gotten out of his throne.
Jojo's duel with Krolon is going well - Krolon gets in one good scratch with his phalanges, but after a particularly devastating open-palm strike, the king's skull shatters and he collapses into a pile of bones. Jojo goes to help against Urdon.
The Sorceress notices after the failure of her second magic missile that Belmarniss is shielded, and hisses with rage. Her hands glow green and she fires off an acid arrow instead.
In that case Jojo will go and aggro the next skeleton in sequence, Lady Fensor. She has a slightly impractical-looking orc double axe, but she doesn't get to use it, because as soon as the monk's fist touches her skull, she collapses into a clattering heap.
"Oh, excellent," he says. "I've been hitting them all with Disruption, but she's the first to actually succumb to the effect."
(If someone was looking fairly closely, they might notice that one of the bones looked different than the others. Whiter, for one thing, and with slightly beveled ends.)
They advance through the territories of Revisionist Balorthon, King Bolon (Krolon's descendant, or so Deekin informs them), and the withered corpse, identified as "the Vivisectionist", without any significant casualties, although the Vivisectionist hurls a dart that lodges in Deekin's upper arm, forcing Jojo to heal him before they exit the Hall.
"Sweet, sweet freedom! The taste of fresh air!" Enserric says joyously. "Relatively speaking, of course, on both counts."
"Oh boy, a crazy alternate world, my ticket home. I kind of think the concept of alignment is bullshit so I'm really curious what an 'evil me' would be like, but if there's no reason we need to be in there, and there might not be, it's not like our evil selves are already a menace that must be destroyed. Also don't care for mirrors of madness."
The door opens without incident, revealing a room with a treasure chest inside! The chest is the source of the illusion and transmutation, or at least the subject of it.
Garrus taps his foot thoughtfully. "Hmm. Is 'behind a secret door' enough reason to trust a treasure chest in this place?"
"Archmages be like that," Deekin nods.
They continue along the path, which twists in weird and unnecessary ways several times, and fight a couple more ogres and one troll, each of whom declares his allegiance to "Da Boss" and declares them "small folk" to be exterminated. There's not much challenge (or treasure) to be found, but at least it breaks up the monotony.
Eventually they come to a hallway-terminating door, behind which can be heard much ogreish carousing. "Deekin think this be room of Boss," Deekin whispers.
And Jojo casts the spell and hands it back, and then they open the door.
It's a large room, with several mess tables and a few kegs of unknown provenance; there's a side door. The ogres (of whom none really stand out as a "boss") react to their intrusion predictably: they get up and charge. Jojo charges too, as Deekin begins singing and Garrus begins shooting, and general violence ensues.
And Jojo opens the door.
The ogre who bursts out definitely looks like he could be "da boss". His skin is a blueish lilac color, his tusks magnificent, and his skin wreathed in a curtain of flame. "Me crush you good!" he roars, before manifesting a Cone of Cold that crashes into the tabletops like a wave. Jojo leaps above the effect.
Jojo strikes several times, wincing at the heat, but the glow around his fists doesn't seem to be doing anything. He looks surprised, but doesn't let up.
The ogre mage roars with fury and casts a fireball at the center of his foes' territory; the warding tables catch fire, though they don't let the blast through.
He tosses the rod gently. "Well, he was the mad king of Undermountain, as I'm sure you know, but as of about three weeks ago he vanished without a trace, along with the magics controlling the monsters - myself included - within the dungeon. And the magics that occasionally caused the dungeon itself to shift; the place has been solid as a rock, lately. Needless to say I decided to capitalize on the opportunity, and began to recruit some followers and spread my influence through this level of the dungeon. Apparently, however, the Faerie Queen to the south had similar ambitions, and our minions clashed in the middle."
"I don't know terribly much about her, only that she was once a pixie but that for some reason she's now the size of one of you. Oh, and that her minions are vicious little creatures - I didn't even know grigs could learn necromancy, but they've taken to it like ducks to water. Perhaps the lack of plant life has driven them to madness. She's also got a handful of harpies on her side, but they're easy enough to crush."
"It's a hall of enchanted mirrors - most of them are full of treasure, but one is a Mirror of Opposition, and if you look into it your reflection will come to life and try to kill you. Inconveniently, I have reason to believe it's the hiding place of one of the other rods. -but before you ask, I don't know about the fourth or fifth, I just know that Halaster has a particular fondness for the Hall of Mirrors and he'd hate to neglect it."
"Hrmm... there's a cache of gold and gemstones in my desk, which I've been collecting for no particular reason except general magpie instinct. You're welcome to it, as long as you continue not to kill me; theoretically you could kill me and take it anyway but it'd be terribly rude. Other than that, I can't really think of anything."
"My desk is in my office, the door to which I came through in my attempt to crush you. The monsters of Undermountain are actually sustained by Halaster's magic, and fortunately, like the teleportation ward, it's one of the spells that didn't vanish when he did, otherwise we'd be in quite a pickle and would likely have resorted to cannibalism by now. Not that we are not occasionally anthropophagic, but I wouldn't want to live off my subordinates."
Deekin shakes the bag a couple of times, then closes it up and shoulders it again. "Deekin find bag in ruins of Undrentide. Deekin find like six bags of holding in ruins of Undrentide actually, but most of them go to Boss and Boss die in big mythallar explosion so Deekin not have them anymore."
"We don't know that we don't. The ogre said there were five, and there were four levers; on the other hand we have no information on the location of any other rods and so it might be a good idea for us to go for the one we're pretty sure is there, in case one of them is behind a particularly cunning secret door or its owner dropped it down a hole or something."
"Alright, alright. I'm just trying to be efficient, here."
They continue on, and reach the central chamber in good time. There it stands, just as they remember it, with the bridge blocked by a sequence of colorful pillars, and four levers with rod-shaped slots. The pillars are in the following sequence:
R G B
W B G
Y R W
G Y R
Deekin's book is quite well-written, and bears no trace of its author's linguistic difficulties. The prologue briefly details the birth and childhood of a kobold named Deekin, who is runty and does not get along with his peers but is eventually taken under the wing of the great white dragon Tymofarrar, who teaches him reading, writing, and magic. The book then clarifies that this is not Deekin's story, and switches to talking about a young adventurer-in-training named Alan Tagan, the paladin apprentice of a dwarven mystic theurge by the name of Drogan. Alan is a well-intentioned lad, but slightly off; he has a temper, and there's a darkness to him that he does his best to fight and doesn't always succeed. A few incidents are recorded: fights with residents of nearby Hilltop over philosophical differences, a near-fatal brawl with an adult named Toman Bross based on an insult to one of Alan's co-apprentices, and an ongoing feud with a young woman named Nora Blake, cause unknown.
Disaster strikes one day, as kobolds from the tribe near Hilltop attack the village. The reason for the attack: several artifacts under Drogan's care. The casualties: about a dozen villagers, and Drogan himself is poisoned and lies near death. The result: Alan and two of his fellow apprentices are sent to recover the artifacts. Along the way, Alan acquires the ingredients for an antidote to the kobolds' poison, helps a wandering Red Wizard of Thay, and rescues Nora Blake's child from the kobolds who have already killed her husband. Then, he tells her that he's not giving the child back, and she attacks him, and he kills her. When he does so, he experiences the sickening, vertiginous sensation of a paladin's Fall from Grace.
The murder is described with a clinical eye for detail. Alan receives neither condemnations nor apologia. His actions are not explained, because the narrator readily admits that he does not know why Alan did this. Alan looks at the blood on his hands, looks at the sleeping infant in his arms, and looks at the path ahead of him.
The chapter ends as Belmarniss's companions begin to stir.
"I guess fighting a dragon's a classic I haven't gotten around to, and we're fresh. - The advantage if we're feeling pressed for time of the mirror is that it doesn't benefit from being fresh, presumably they'll match us however we go in even if that's down to cantrips and beat up."
"The other advantage to the mirror, as I see it, is that we can send one person to look into it and take out their reflection together from a distance - and pick which one we send, too. I'd rather fight an evil you than an evil Jojo. Uh, no offense intended, it's just, he's so fast."
The dragon opens its jaws and prepares to spit acid, but the rod makes it out first, and Deekin slams the door. There's the sound of a pressurized jet of liquid hitting the door and surrounding wall, and the hissing of wood being eaten away. The dragon roars, enraged.
"We run now?" Deekin asks.
The pixie sucks in a breath and opens her eyes, useless as they are due to glitter. "How dare you! I'll have you know that I am the Marquise of Green-on-Yellow, and I will defend the Queen with every drop of blood in my body!"
"I apologize for your rough treatment, but you did attack us unprovoked. We're not here to kill your Queen," Jojo says soothingly. "We're just here to get a puzzle piece from her and we'll leave her in peace afterwards. Besides which, we've defeated the ogre mage and his henchmen, so you'll be free to take over this level unopposed. All we ask in return is the rod in her possession."
The Marquise of Green-on-Yellow blinks a couple of times. "Really?"
"Will you lead us to your Queen?" Jojo asks.
The pixie looks around suspiciously. "Alright, fine. But if you try to hurt her, know that the full might of our Queendom will fall upon you!"
"We would expect nothing less," Jojo assures her, opening his fist.
She zips out and leads the party along the corridor, which begins branching and turns into a maze. She navigates it with practiced precision, waiting with ill grace for the party to catch up when she outpaces them.
No pitfalls. She occasionally leads them past a zombie or two, but they remain docile.
Eventually, they come to the center of the maze, which is full of... plant life. Surface plant life, trees and vines, not the fungi that might naturally grow here. A woman who looks like a surface elf with green butterfly wings on her back, tending this strange garden, looks up as the Marquise's bells approach. When she notices the adventurers following her vassal she leaps to her feet and prepares to start casting, but their guide says "Wait! They claim to come in peace."
The apparent Queen stills. "Really?"
"You're very kind to say so," she says in an oddly bitter tone. "Halaster did give me a rod - he told me to keep it safe. I'll give it to you if you can defeat my greatest enemy in this place, the ogre mage Olgin Hasterean."
"That be ogre mage's name?" Deekin asks, making a note. "He already defeated."
"Really? Then... show me the rod you took from him, and I'll give you mine."
Deekin rummages in his pack for a moment and pulls out the blue rod. "Here it be."
"So it is," the faerie queen murmurs. She shakes her head, then goes over and knocks on the trunk of a nearby tree, causing it to split open and reveal a green rod. "Here is your reward, then. I'm glad to be rid of it, truth be told; taking anything from Halaster makes me uncomfortable."
"Okay, who can we make least dangerous. I'll do it if I'm the best choice but I'm full of spells and don't fancy using them all up on purpose mid-dungeon in case that dragon has, I don't know, shapeshifted to make it out the door and is prowling around looking for us - Jojo can't be disarmed - Deekin, do you know Silence, it's dismissable but if you cast it on yourself in advance maybe your duplicate wouldn't be able to dismiss it?"
"I doubt it's worth the risk, but I do wonder what would happen if I were on your belt when you looked in the mirror," Enserric says contemplatively from his place at Deekin's side. "Am I equipment or a separate subject? Would I be exempt as a technical undead? Wheels within wheels."
They trek back to the Hall of Mirrors. (They're getting to know this first floor of Undermountain quite well, by now.)
Inside: a hall, containing mirrors. Two dozen of them, along both of the long walls. "We'll stay by the door," Garrus says, tying a length of silk rope around Belmarniss's wrists in a manner that suggests some amount of practice. "Try to stay a few feet away from the mirrors when you look into them, so we don't get confused about who the reflection is when she does pop out. I'll have arrows nocked, but not pulled, so I can intervene if necessary but won't be too jumpy on the trigger. And again, sorry about all this."
She’s able to get one, then the mirror evaporates.
In this manner she leaves a trail of miscellaneous valuables behind her, including a rod which, while not red, is inscribed with swirling patterns and radiates a magical aura.
Then, at the sixth mirror she looks into, her reflection has nothing by her feet, but she has a strange gleam in her eye. The mirror wobbles alarmingly, and then there’s a second Belmarniss in front of the first.
Belmarniss's party will not be able to understand the ensuing conversation.
"You -" says the mirrored Belmarniss.
"Read the sign."
"- okay, I remember writing it but -"
"- pretty sure if I kill you I get to live and otherwise I die."
"Is that the only difference?"
"...may also have started out in just a generally horrible mood. I think that's all."
"So does it matter, then? If I let you take notes and I keep them -"
"You shouldn't have come in here."
"I don't like lots of what I do during adventures, that's not new."
"You should've made the ogre do it or, better, borrowed a zombie."
"- okay, not thinking of that is on me."
"You didn't try. You're getting lazy."
"Call them in here, untie me, get your damn loot, and give me your notebook."
Belmarniss sighs. And calls, in Common, "I think it's okay."
"Ooh, Doss Lute," Deekin says happily once he's examined the lute. "Good if we encounter poison." The orange potion he identifies as a Potion of Bull's Strength, while the rod from earlier he identifies as a Rod of Lesser Quicken Spell.
He casts a considering look at Reflected Belmarniss, but visibly decides against saying anything to her, instead scribbling in his tome-under-development.
The party remains quiet as they insert the appropriate rods into the levers, pull them, and create a path through the center column of the bridge. On the other side, there's a stairwell descending deeper into the earth.
When they cross the bridge, there's a little magical fireworks show as the rest of the pillars dissolve. Garrus snorts. "I'm sorry, that was just- so completely inappropriate. Halaster is such an asshole."
They descend the stairs in a less awkward silence.
The stairs terminate in a small chamber which has a very different aesthetic from the previous floor: less "ancient temple," more "ancient crypt". (Alright, it's not that different, but after a while spent in the same architectural style it feels like a significant change.) There's one door out; when Garrus opens it, they behold a much larger central chamber than the one on the previous floor, centered on what looks like a bunker, with a pool of water out front surrounded by four glowing pedestals.
There are some drow standing watch around the pool. "Should I shoot them?" Garrus whispers. "I'm shooting them, right?"
Jojo considers this. "Yes, I think we should," he says after a moment. "Perhaps they were conscripted by this Valsharess. Or perhaps they're... drow rebels, nobly opposing their kin?" He shakes his head. "Probably not. Still, we shouldn't kill them without giving them a chance to explain themselves."
"Could also be more than one drow country in here. Or religious divisions. Or they think we're above their pay grade. All kinds of reasons to avoid a fight." She casts Message and aims at whoever appears to be in charge. "Hey, what are you up to, why is that pool worth guarding?"
The apparent leader is, oddly, male; he's dressed in wizard's robes, and the women around him are holding identical crossbows.
He twitches slightly when the message goes through, and signs something to his subordinates, who perk up. One of them casts Darkness on their position. "Leads to the next level," he says in response. "Who is this? Come out so I can see you."
Jojo speeds towards the pool. The guards try to shoot him, but he's juking in such a way that they can't get a proper bead on him.
He reaches the pool of darkness and somehow causes his body to start glowing, lighting up his surroundings like a torch. He starts beating up the wizard, who doesn't seem to have prepared for someone to be up in his business six seconds after having been a hundred feet away.
"Where be Halaster? And why drow be attacking Waterdeep? And who be Valsharess?"
"I have no idea where Halaster is besides 'deeper in Undermountain,' I was assigned to guard a door. The Valsharess intends to conquer your pathetic city, and from there the entire surface world. She was Matron Mother of House Kilath, and she is now Empress of all drow."
"While I recognize that it is pointless to complain of not having been defeated legitimately," the man sniffs, "a party without your particular advantages would likely have been stymied by my arcane powers. Your mouse engaged me in melee combat before I could cast even a single spell, and as I'm sure you know a single spell can be the difference between life and death."
And Deekin goes through his stuff. "Hmm, ring... Commander's Ring, good if locked chests in future. Headband... ooh, Vast Intelligence, Belmarniss want? And..."
He extracts three lengths of chain from the wizard's pocket. One is green, one is yellow, one is blue. "Collected puzzle pieces for door! Very polite."
There's a moment of silence. Then, Jojo's voice whispers "It's a nest of rakshasa - five in total, tiger-headed. I didn't see a chain. They were feasting on some drow, so I don't think they noticed me. There was a door past them, but I don't think I can sneak past something that can hear my thoughts. Sorry."
And Jojo runs in.
The rakshasa are, as he mentioned, feasting on some drow, and they don't notice him until he starts laying into the one closest to the door and becomes visible again. His fists leave burns instead of bruises, but it looks like the outsider doesn't like them any better for it. It yowls and slashes at him with its kukri, but misses as Jojo dodges and weaves.
Her diamonds shred through most of the rakshasa, but only tatter the robes of the most important-looking one.
Her Steal Breath sucks a vortex of air from the most important-looking one's lungs, causing him to look highly affronted.
Deekin runs in, humming his fight song, and positions himself between Jojo and Belmarniss so as to cover both of them with the song's effect. He casts Glitterdust over the rakshasa's position, but the flakes dissipate as they touch their skin.
She mentioned lightning bolt but would have been casting it out of her ring, so she doesn't have a counter even if she'd been specifically expecting that. It crackles around her spell resistance. She pulls another diamond spray out of a pearl of power and follows up with a quickened magic missile aimed at the important one.
This time the diamonds splash uselessly against all the targets, but the missiles go through. The caster growls, and casts Ball Lightning. One sphere wobbles towards Deekin, the other towards Belmarniss.
Jojo defeats his opponent, who collapses to the floor with a yowl. He turns to another of the rakshasa, who apparently thinks he might have better luck with an Acid Arrow. Jojo punches him in the throat while he casts it, though, and he loses the spell.
Deekin gets shocked pretty badly by the Ball Lightning, but rather than heal he elects to cast "Shadowbard!" His shadow rises out of the floor and begins humming a different song, one that doesn't seem to have any effect on Belmarniss but makes Deekin look a bit less bedraggled.
Garrus gets off another handful of shots on the caster, who is starting to look distinctly pincushiony by this point.
The rakshasa Jojo isn't fighting leap past him, one going for Garrus and one going for Belmarniss. Jojo strikes both as they pass, but they don't stop moving.
Garrus looses three arrows at the caster, who finally falls, then turns his attention to the rakshasa charging Belmarniss. He fires off another three shots, one of which explodes with electricity in the creature's breast.
It doesn't stop. It swipes twice at Belmarniss with a wickedly curved kukri, following up with a swipe of its claws.
Its compatriot savages Garrus. He ignores the bleeding cuts it leaves, still focusing on the one attacking his friend.
Deekin cooperatively Mage Hands the eyes into a jar he had in his backpack for "not just such an occasion, Deekin not predict this eventuality, but similar occasion".
The rakshasa are, other than their valuable eyes, remarkably ill-equipped. Soon there's nothing left to do but open the door, behind which is a chamber containing an altar and three shabbily dressed humans. One of them, their apparent leader, moves forward, then stops himself.
"Are you... are you here to save us?"
"My name is Shareesh. I suppose you could call me the leader of our little band, or at least, as much a leader as any. You see, we three are slaves, bound and forced to serve the mad wizard Halaster."
"What need could one as powerful as Halaster possibly have for common human slaves?" Jojo asks disgustedly. "This is nothing but an abuse of power; he keeps slaves simply because he can."
"Yes, we are," Shareesh says. "Perhaps he only knows of the monsters, but it applies to any who dwell permanently within these halls - including myself and my brethren, though only three of us remain. Halaster used us for sacrifices and experiments, and occasionally threw us to his monsters for entertainment."
Garrus shakes his head wonderingly. "Guy's a real piece of work, huh."
"I have a suggestion, actually," Shareesh says cautiously. "This altar which you see beside me is in fact an inactive portal to Waterdeep above us. I believe it amused the mad mage to lock us in with the means of our salvation and no way to use it. But if you can retrieve the portal keystone from the southern section of this level, you can activate the portal and send us back to civilization."
"I worry about the potential effects of leaving a portal to the surface open in the midst of Undermountain," Jojo says cautiously.
"The portal can be closed," Shareesh reassures him. "Simply remove the keystone from the altar when you are finished with it."
"Then I have no objections," Jojo says. "We cannot leave these poor souls to be devoured by the next monster to pass by."
"Halaster himself told me the operation of the portal when he brought me to Undermountain," Shareesh says after just a second. "I am sorry, it has been so long, and I told it to the others so many times, trying to keep our hopes up, that I nearly forgot where I had learned it myself. Memory is a curious thing."
After killing Nora Blake, Alan returns to Drogan's home, infant in hand, and talks to his fellow apprentice Mischa Waymeet. She's another paladin, but she's about fourteen years old, and she looks up to him. He explains, numbly, that something terrible happened: that Nora Blake is dead, but he managed to rescue her son. He gives the boy to Mischa to care for until the mess is over. She protests that she's hardly fit to care for a child; he agrees, but asks if she would have him carry an infant in his pack while slaying monsters. She reluctantly takes charge of the infant, and Alan sets out again.
He leaves Hilltop without incident, this time, and encounters a helpful arcane archer, who informs him that a group of the kobolds fled into the nearby Crypt of Ascalhorn after being assaulted by gnolls. He goes in, destroys some undead, and reaches the kobold encampment. The kobolds request that he help them escape the crypt, and in exchange they will give him the artifact they stole, a mummified hand once belonging to the lich Balpheron. Instead he slaughters them. He is furious with the kobolds for hurting his master, furious with his master for being hurt, furious with himself for being hurt in turn. He takes the mummified hand from the kobold leader's claw, and it whispers to him of a hidden power he could learn to wield: one that is less fickle than the holy wrath of a paladin, one that is more useful to his ends. He listens, and he thinks: can I afford to refuse? He takes his first step down the path of the blackguard.
"I stab things and channel their life force into my wielder in the form of healing energy, that's more or less my raison d'être. Regrettably, unless someone has the ability to sanctify my blade, I can't penetrate the hide of a rakshasa. They're tricky, those outsiders."
"Sanctify Weapons," he incants, before yanking open the door. "We're here to destroy you, minions of evil!"
Shareesh sighs heavily, shimmering into the form of a rakshasa. "I suppose I owe you their hearts, Ranveer, Amol," he says, looking bored. The two men behind him, now tiger-headed fiends themselves, perform a strange gesture, striking the backs of their hands together. "Let's collect, shall we? Haste."
Shareesh looks very indignant to be counterspelled! The Steal Breath slides off his spell resistance.
Jojo lunges for Shareesh, who twirls a double-bladed sword coruscating with electricity. However, with a swift kick to the crotch, Jojo lowers the rakshasa's guard and gets in three swift strikes, which seem to really hurt.
The second minion looks absolutely enraged, and turns a Cone of Cold on the party.
Deekin is struck full-force; Garrus is clipped. Belmarniss takes a pretty significant hit.
Deekin continues humming, running in to stab the second minion with Enserric. He only manages to pink him, but it's a victory for the kobold regardless.
Garrus, investigating the rakshasa themselves, comes up with a Ring of Spell Storing, a Ring of Wizardry, and an Amulet of Proof against Detection. He hefts the double-bladed sword for a moment, then hisses and drops it. "That's either Unholy or Axiomatic," he says, shaking his hand out, "and I think either means it might be worth it to carry around long enough to get it to a dealer. Thoughts?"
Jojo takes the ring of spell storing, while Deekin takes the ring of protection.
Garrus is squinting at a spot on the wall; he pushes on it and it pops out, revealing a secret compartment containing a silver coffer. “Garrus wins again!”
He opens the coffer and beholds the contents. “Wow. That is a lot of diamonds.”
They head back to the pool and the pedestals. Deekin winches the four chains into place, and the pool suddenly swirls with colors.
The colors keep coming in the same pattern: red, green, yellow, green, blue, yellow, repeat.
"Halaster really good at wasting people's time, maybe not so good at making hard puzzles," Deekin mutters, pulling on the chains in sequence.
She smiles slightly. "Perhaps your reputation precedes you. How many visitors does Toril get from other planets, after all? But my purpose in visiting you was not to tease you with information I can't share, but to share the information I can. Do you have any specific questions for me, or should I start with what I think you'll want to know?"
"I don't fully trust you yet," Nathyrra says frankly. "My sources say you're important, but I don't know you, and while you've demonstrated ample competence, that's not a guarantee you won't turn on us, and if I shared everything I knew it could be disastrous for my people."
Nathyrra laughs, and looks surprised by the sound. "Um. Yes, I would say that's accurate, but he's also a known quantity. In the centuries Halaster has existed, his influence has remained almost entirely contained within Undermountain. The Valsharess, on the other hand, seeks world conquest, which is in our opinion a larger problem than the occasional kidnapping perpetrated by the mad mage."
She shrugs. "That's something we don't know. It might have been some kind of trap that preyed upon his madness. Or maybe she used his notorious arrogance to ensnare him. She's keeping him alive, that much we know. She's probably afraid of what will happen to Undermountain if he dies. But she's been very careful to make sure he can't get out, as well. If the wizard breaks free, there's no way the Valsharess will be able to maintain control over Undermountain; in his own realm, Halaster is a match for anyone, and he won't let himself get tricked again."
"He's erratic in his behavior from one moment to the next; sometimes he rewards bravery, for instance, and other times he punishes it, and no one can predict what kind of mood he'll be in. He's also, well, the kind of person who would create Undermountain: he's delighted by suffering, and he doesn't mind spending his resources to cause it. And, though this is probably more of a symptom than a madness in itself, he speaks exclusively in rhyme."
Nathyrra grins. "By all accounts he doesn't scan. But as I said, while he might not reward you appropriately for rescuing him, I doubt very much that he'll attack you. And I'm staking my life on that too - I plan to join you for that particular assault. The guards were the Valsharess's servants."
"I mean, my question is 'how do we know you won't stab us in the back', but I'm aware that's kind of hard to answer. So I guess, 'do you have any proof whatsoever that you're not leading us into a trap'?"
Nathyrra nods. "Good question. As I’m sure you know, anything I tell you could be leading you into peril. But I think you might appreciate the knowledge that there is a secret passage past the upcoming camp of the Valsharess’s drow.”
She details the secret passage and how to go through it. “You could just fight your way through, of course,” she says, “but I’ve always preferred to avoid any fight I didn’t have to take.”
Nathyrra sighs. "Well, I'd hoped to save this for a later date, but..." She slowly, obviously removes a scroll from her belt pouch and underhand-tosses it to Jojo. "Tyr's Truthtelling," she says. "You can cast it on me, I won't resist, and you can ask me to verify that everything I've said to you has been truthful and I don't intend to lie to you. And any other questions you care to verify, though I reserve the right to hold my answer."
"Where did you get a copy of this spell?" Jojo asks. "Drow aren't known for their Tyr-worship, even drow rebels."
"It's a first-level cleric spell," Nathyrra says. "Even on the blackest of black markets, a first-level spell scroll can't command that high a price."
Jojo uses the scroll. For a moment, Nathyrra has marble-black skin and wings, but the illusion fades, leaving only the scales of Tyr floating above her head.
"Have you lied to us?" Jojo asks.
"No," Nathyrra says immediately.
"Do you intend to lie to us at any point?
"Not only do I not intend to, I do not know of any circumstances under which I would lie to you."
"Do you intend to cause us harm?"
"I have no intention of harming you unless you harm me first, in which case I will do everything in my power to get away."
Jojo considers. "Do we have other questions?"
"Scout out the Valsharess's minions and see if there's something we can do about the small army of drow surrounding Halaster. I wanted to reveal myself as soon as you got here, so that we could be on the same page, but I only arrived relatively recently myself, and my scouting is not yet complete."
"I was going to save this for after we liberated Halaster, but actually I suspect you'd appreciate knowing it now - I have a second mission, which is to attempt to convince you to come back with me to the Underdark and help defeat the Valsharess."
"All of us, or just Belmarniss?" Garrus asks.
"All of you but Belmarniss especially."
"I feel so special," Garrus says drily.
"Except for the rare occasions when the Valsharess takes to the field herself, she spends her time in a more or less impregnable fortress in her capital city of Menzoberranzan. Our plan is to weaken her forces in the Underdark and taunt her until she's forced to attack us in person, making her vulnerable. Having Undermountain open while we do this would give her the option to ignore us and focus on Waterdeep, giving her a foothold in the surface world. Which would be bad."
"We don't intend to give her the option," Nathyrra says. "We've identified several key supports for her army, and even as we speak our agents are sabotaging them. If she ignores us, her forces will crumble out from under her. Add to that the fact that her army will devour its own tail if she sits on it too long, and the fact that the Valsharess is actually a very spiteful and impulsive person, and it's practically guaranteed that if we're the only target around she'll come for us."
"As recently as a few months ago, no moreso than any other Matron Mother. Which is to say, ruthless and powerful, but kept in check by her peers. But then Lolth, Queen of Spiders and goddess of the drow, disappeared... and drow society was thrown into utter chaos. The Valsharess seized on this opportunity. She summoned a powerful Duke of the Nine Hells, an archdevil she bound to her service. Drawing on this enslaved devil's power, she became a conqueror of the Underdark."
Nathyrra winces. "Still a lot of chaos, to be perfectly honest, but inwardly rather than outwardly focused. The other major matron mothers were exterminated by the Valsharess, and the minor ones aren't powerful enough to take control of a significant chunk of the drow population like she did, so there won't be a conquering army rolling across the Underdark, which is preferable to there being one, we think. I'm expecting to be very busy in the aftermath, propping up the least loathsome candidates."
"I'm glad. Do you have any other questions, or shall I return to scouting?"
"Who are you really?" Enserric asks. "Because you're not a scout, you know too much."
Nathyrra blinks. "Oh - that wasn't an intentional omission, actually, I just didn't happen to mention it. I'm the rebel spymaster. Not the only one, of course, but I'm probably the most important."
"It's unlikely... but not impossible. Oh, I know, you can ask them 'Who does your house serve?' They might say 'the Seer' or 'Eilistraee' if they're faking, but if they're an actual follower of Eilistraee - or they've been around them long enough - they'll know the answer is 'My house serves all who have need'. You'd think it'd be obvious, but most drow find such an answer surprisingly unintuitive."
Alan feels conflicted about being a blackguard. On the one hand, it's against everything Drogan taught him, and he feels bad for betraying his teacher (in a way; it's all in the service of stopping the bastards who almost killed him, right?). On the other hand, it feels right. He's powerful, as powerful as he ever was when he was a paladin, and there's no stupid unintuitive rules getting in his way. He can crush his enemies just as efficiently as before (the kobolds aren't subject to Smite Good, but they mostly weren't subject to Smite Evil either). He feels right, for the first time in his life, and it's all because he did the wrong thing.
He encounters a lone kobold on the road. The kobold is frightened of him, but forces itself to speak to him anyway. Introduces itself as Deekin, says it took one of the artifacts from Drogan's home. He asks why he shouldn't kill it now. Deekin says, reasonably, that if he kills it he'll never find the artifact, because it hid the artifact in a place no one else knows about. In exchange for the artifact, Deekin says he must talk to its master, the great white dragon Tymofarrar, and convince him to free the kobold from his service, and forgive it for breaking the artifact. Alan accepts this offer with bad grace, and heads off to visit the dragon's lair.
In the upper reaches of the dragon's lair, he finds a tribe of kobolds. They attack him, fearing the strange human, and he slaughters them to the last hatchling and continues deeper into the mountain, where he finds the dragon Tymofarrar. Tymofarrar, feeling generous, explains that the attack wasn't originally his idea, and that in fact it was orchestrated by the Fey'ri sorceress J'Nah. Alan requests that Tymofarrar release Deekin from his service, and Tymofarrar makes a request of him in turn: kill J'Nah, and the dragon will grant Alan a boon.
"You remember the army of drow guarding Halaster? Apparently they brought artillery emplacements."
"This doesn't sound like good news yet," Garrus says.
"The artillery emplacements have three hundred and sixty degrees of rotation, and could be pointed at their war camp."
"There we go," Garrus says happily.
"There are two, placed atop a ledge to the north of the camp with a bottleneck ramp up to it. The bottleneck is guarded, but I found yet another of those secret passages that leads right onto the plateau; its entrance is also guarded but less heavily, and if we can take those guards down fast enough they won't know we're coming. There are about fifty drow in the camp, most of them low-level crossbow- or swordswomen but with more than a few mid-level wizards and clerics, and about a dozen duergar mercenaries. You can probably see why I don't relish the thought of a head-on fight."
"Conveniently, though, the artillery emplacements are very effective. They accept an offensive spell of up to sixth level from a caster and Maximize it. They can only be used once per minute each, but a maximized Chain Lightning, applied appropriately, could take out about a third of the enemy forces. Combine the artillery with the bottleneck up to the ledge and the ample cover up there, and the enemy’s advantage starts to look slim.”
"Essentially: we assault the tunnel entrance, allowing no one to escape. We take the plateau from the two gunners on duty - they're high-level, but they are wizards without significant support and we will have the element of surprise, so the party should be able to take them. You and I use the artillery to take out as many of the clustered drow as possible, ideally centering the effect on their captains. From there, we defend the plateau, and when the artillery recharges, we use it again to take out the remaining soldiers."
"A situation I certainly hope won't come up again, yes. At least not under this kind of time pressure."
Nathyrra leads them to the entrance to the tunnel. As she said, it's guarded; two swordswomen appear to be playing a sign-language-based word association game. Nathyrra twists a ring on her finger to turn invisible; after about twenty seconds one of the guards collapses like a ragdoll, and Nathyrra reappears only to immediately cut the other's throat. Then she bends down and cuts the first one's throat too.
She beckons the party onward.
"Ideally we'll be able to take the artillery emplacements before anyone notices we're here - except the wizards, of course, but they shouldn't live long enough to raise the alarm. Then we can cast our short-term beneficial spells before the first strike, and defend the plateau until the emplacements recharge. Any questions?"
The other wizard turns to see what's going on, only to be filled with arrows. He, too, falls.
Garrus crawls out of the crawlspace, followed by the rest of the party. They stay low; the plateau has some artificial cover, probably from Stone Shape, which they're staying behind.
Which shreds some more drow (and duergar) at the bottom of the cliff.
After that, things descend into chaos a bit. There are drow waking up, picking up weapons, and rushing towards the ramp. There are also a handful of drow and duergar who were already up, cleaning weapons or praying or on guard duty, and they're also rushing towards the cliff. Garrus picks some of them off, but there's too many of them for that to keep them away for long.
It's at this point, once a decent chunk of the army has advanced on their position, that Nathyrra casts her second spell: "Transmute Rock to Mud."
Suddenly, two dozen drow sink up to their waists in an enormous pool of mud. The chaos intensifies in their favor; some of the drow are still advancing, but it's slow, since they're having to swim through thick muck. Some of the others, outside the mud, try to take potshots at the party, but with the party taking cover behind the chest-high wall around the plateau, they're not having much luck.
This combination of effects makes the wait until the artillery recharges almost leisurely. Garrus continues poking over the wall to shoot promising-looking targets, and crossbow bolts plink off his armor, but his timing is unpredictable and he's heavily armored enough that none of them do significant damage.
Once the artillery has recharged, Nathyrra pops off a Delayed Blast Fireball. She doesn't bother delaying the explosion, just blasts the army into ash and the mud into baked clay.
"I think that might have taken out everyone," she says. She casts Clairvoyance to check. "I'm not seeing anyone left alive, and I'm seeing a lot of bodies."
"It's not evangelism time just yet. Halaster's being held by a powerful cleric, one of the Valsharess's personal handmaidens. She's got two high-level wizards with her, and eight crossbowers. I think we should-"
Her eyes flick to the empty air on the ramp and widen. "Wait- someone's-"
A voice says "Finger of Death." There's a moment of agony, and Belmarniss...
"This is the Gatehouse, an offshoot of the Fugue Plane, the realm of the dead." He gestures to the many doors lining the walls of the chamber in which they stand. "You are welcome here, Sojourner, as you bear my Relic. And you have not truly perished; I pulled you to this realm at the very moment before your death, and as soon as you are ready I can send you back."
"Not quite. I retrieved you from the moment before you died, yes, but I can return you to the moment after you died - his attack will seemingly have had no effect. Had you been injured before you came here, you would have noticed that your wounds would heal over. In addition, should you come to me low on your arcane reserves, you may rest in my realm and prepare your spells anew. The only limit on this power is that it can happen at maximum once per celestial day - suffer a fatal injury twice in the same twenty-four hours, and you will be as dead as anyone else. Which is, of course, not insurmountable, but it is certainly less convenient than my ministrations."
"A worshipper matching the alignment of their god is sent to that god's domain. A worshipper with an alignment mismatch is sent to a more appropriate realm for their leaning. A nonbeliever... is sent to the Wall of the Faithless."
There's an old, dull resentment in his voice as he says this.