They decided to try one of the other exits from the chamber where they’d faced the werejaguar. Sylus disabled the electric polearm trap so that the adventurers could pass through the hall without further risk. Back in the cat-themed trophy room, they took the double doors on the northeast wall, which opened into another corridor that wound around and eventually ended in a door to the east. A strange sight awaited them in the chamber beyond.
In the center of the room was a withered tree that looked like a leafless willow, apparently rooted in a terraced depression. The bottom of the hollow was filled with oily water, a few inches deep. Across the room, beyond the dead tree, was another door. Around the sides of the room, a five-foot-wide ledge encircled the tree. The walls of the room were beaded with condensation.
Seebo suggested they try to light the water on fire, just in case. The swashbuckler nodded and cautiously approached the water. When he struck flint to steel to light a torch, the limbs of the “tree” came alive and whipped out, wrapping around all four of the adventurers! Just as swiftly, it “reeled” them in, until they all stood adjacent to the strange plant-creature.
Restrained as they were, it was difficult to fight the murderous tree. They managed to defeat it, but not before it had taken a couple of vicious bites out of Seebo and Sylus. While they rested to recover from the encounter, Nin commented about how much easier it would have been with the enchanted macahuitl they’d given to the slumbering monks. No one disputed it. They found a number of gemstones in the water near the corpse.
A door east of the fallen tree monster opened into another hall that turned south and terminated in another door. Beyond they found an enormous chamber, thirty feet tall with mighty buttressing and a vaulted ceiling. Parts of the ceiling and walls had collapsed, and raw earth spilled down from a gaping hole in the east wall. Crushed beneath a fallen bock in the center of the room were humanoid remains. Elsewhere around the floor were the chewed and decayed corpses of baboons. Through a hole in the eastern ceiling, daylight and fresh air filtered in. Above, through this gap, Neurion noted four living baboons staring down into the chamber. The creatures jumped around the hole and screamed in agitation, and as they did, dirt began to slide down the banks, and rocks in the walls shifted slightly.
Seebo approached the corpses, intent on recovering any valuables the unfortunate dead might have died with. He realized he was going to have to move a heavy block to get to most of it, and waved his companions over. Sylus made his way across the debris-strewn floor, and as he drew near rubble to the southwest shifted as a massive serpent stirred. The monstrous snake had a head on either end of its scaly length, and it hissed in challenge.
It slithered swiftly across the rubble, biting Sylus with one of its heads and coiling around the smaller Seebo, crushing him. Nin and Neurion attacked the snake with music and mind powers from a distance while Sylus struggled to find a vulnerable point to strike. Seebo lost consciousness in the serpent’s tight embrace, and a moment later the two-headed snake’s corpse stopped twitching. The baboon’s above shrieked excitedly and leaped down into the chamber. Neurion picked one off before it even hit the floor, and the rest were only a minor nuisance, easily picked off.
Nin’s healing word revived Seebo, and as the adventurers rested they realized that the air in this chamber was not tinted by the amber gas. They theorized that the opening in the ceiling allowed it to vent outside instead of accumulating. It was possible that they could vent the entire lower dungeon if they left the doors open. For the moment they decided it best to take advantage of the clear air to get some much-needed rest.
* * *
Behind a door to the southeast the adventurers found a staircase leading upward into the gloom. It seemed as though they had found the entrance to another layer within the complex. When they reached the top the wall ten feet in front of them opened to reveal a large statue resembling a dragon. A moment later boiling steam billowed forth from the stony mouth, burning the party and dampening the slick stairs. The adventurers managed to swiftly ascend and move to the south of the blast area, noting a corridor that headed back to the west. They followed this hall as it turned north and terminated in a T-intersection.
To the east they saw double bronze doors. At the western end of the corridor was a pile of golden coins heaped on the floor. On top of the gold rested a skull missing its lower jaw. In the right eye socket, a black spider had made a home. Several bones were piled with the coins, and the hilt of a broken sword thrust up from the mass. Sylus moved to investigate, casually noting a smooth section of floor just west of the T.
The swashbuckler was somewhat concerned by a bloodstain in the northwest corner of the small room in which the western hall ended – just beside the pile of gold. Reaching down, he picked the skull up to look at it more closely. Yellow spores exploded outward from the pile, choking Sylus and sending him stumbling back toward his companions. Once clear of the yellow cloud, the pain subsided and he managed to catch his breath. Seebo walked up beside his companion and said, “Yellow mold.” He eyed the pile more closely and after a moment added, “And an illusion. Rude.”
The adventurers made for the eastern double doors and opened them to find another large chamber. This room was decorated with a bizarre diorama depicting the land of the dead. Small, brightly painted clay statues had been placed about the room to represent the inhabitants of this realm and the unfortunate people they have taken into their care.
In the center of the room, the floor rose to form a small hill. A group of small figures seemed to be struggling to roll a boulder up the hill, while a devil drove them on. Above the hill in the ceiling was a glowing spot that illuminated the entire chamber with an eerie silver light. Nin noticed a chimney above the light and pointed it out to his companions.
A cobblestone path led from the western door where they stood to the foot of the hill. A similar path ran eastward and then veered south. It ended in a barred door in the south corner of the room on the eastern wall. Sections of the diorama around the perimeter of the room depicted different environments in the land of the dead.
The nearest was a region of burning sands, occupying the western end of the room. There devils tortured those who had been unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. Along the southern side was a grassy plain where people frolicked and hunted antelope and deer.
North of the grassy plain and south of the hill, the floor opened into a model of a canyon. A river of lava flowed down it while flames lick the walls. East of the hill, in a side area of the room, was a counterpart to this fiery canyon – an icy waste. To the north of the hill was a putrid, bubbling marsh where figures strive to keep their heads above the surface.
From out of the marsh a black, torpid river wended its way past the northern edge of the hill and flowed west to pour over the lip of a steam-filled chasm in the northwest corner of the room. Within this dark chasm, worms pursued the fleeing forms of naked people.
“Mictlan (Meek-TLAN),” said Seebo. “Land of the Dead.” Curious, he advanced into the burning sands but stopped when he felt pain in his head and blood flowing from his nose to stain his mustache red. He quickly retreated back to the path near the door where his companions stood.
“Perhaps we should stick to the path,” suggested Neurion. The others agreed and made their way toward the hill.
When they reached the base Seebo said, “I want to climb it.” The others shrugged and waited patiently while he did. At the top he felt a force trying to push him back down, but he managed to resist it. Not seeing anything else of interest – other than the glowing tunnel above – he made his way back to the path.
They continued along the eastern path toward the door at the end of it, but before they arrived Seebo pointed at the plains to the south, and the others nodded with a sigh. Once there, he said, “Okay, this place is nice. I’m staying here.”
“What?” said Nin, walking toward Seebo. “No, come on. We have things to do.” He took the dwarf’s arm but Seebo shook him off. The bard looked at his other companions with a questioning expression then returned to the path.
“I’ll get him,” said Sylus, entering the plains. Then he sat down beside Seebo and said, “Oh, yeah. I see what you mean. I’m staying, too.”
Neurion glanced over at Nin. “Something isn’t right here. Gentlemen, we have a task. We agreed to investigate these ruins to determine if it is the source of danger to the village. We cannot simply stay in this chamber, no matter how appealing it may seem.”
Seebo nodded as he considered this, gaining his feet and rejoining the others on the path. Sylus stayed put. “I’m a mercenary. I don’t remember them offering to pay us for this job. I’m staying.”
“I’ve got this,” said Seebo before uttering a short prayer of suggestion. “Sylus, follow me and I’ll make sure you get paid for your trouble.” The enchantment settled over the swashbuckler’s mind and overcame whatever force had caused him to want to stay in the plains area of the underworld. Seebo dropped his spell and led the way to the eastern exit.
Beyond the door was a modest-sized room with a lumpy pile of earthy material in the middle of the floor. Across from the door in the southeast corner, a glazed flask rested on a small shelf. In the northwest and northeast corners were two more shelves on which rested a small urn and a thin stone cylinder.
As Sylus took a step inside, the “pile” opened one eye, then another and another, until many eyes of different shapes and sizes stared at the party. All about the eyes opened fanged, drooling mouths that began a cacophony of babbling. The earth-toned gibbering mouther didn’t last long against the adventurers. They collected the flask, which contained another dried potion, as well as the stone cylinder. The urn held the dried heart, which Seebo said had belonged to a yuan-ti. He put it in a bag and the party returned to Mictlan.
They decided to try climbing the tunnel at the top of the hill. Sylus would go first and then drop a rope down to the others. He and Seebo made the climb and then the dwarf gave him a boost up. The swashbuckler had no trouble making the climb. At the top, he lifted a pewter cap and found himself in a shallow well. The room above didn’t seem to be occupied so he wasted no time lowering the rope to his companions.
Nin was the first to struggle with the hill, which pushed him down into the icy waste a couple of times before dumping him into the burning canyon. Each time he fell into one of those areas of Mictlan, the metal he was carrying became either painfully cold or painfully hot. He was burned so badly in the canyon that he lost consciousness, and Seebo had to revive him with his healer’s kit. The dragonborn patched himself up with a healing spell, then succeeded in staying on top of the hill long enough to climb the rope.
Seebo had his own problems with the hill, falling several times into the icy waste, the burning canyon, and once into the marsh, which threatened to suffocate him. He finally made it to the rope and climbed up into the tunnel. Having seen his companions troubles with the hill, Neurion decided it would be more prudent to fly. He sprouted wings and soared up the hill and to the rope.
Once they were all in the chamber above, they took a closer look at it. The room was small and plainly decorated. On the north and south sides were fountains made of bronze-inlaid marble. The southern one was cracked, and only dry limy deposits remained in it. The northern one contained about two feet of dark water, fed by a trickle that fell from the top of the fountain. In the water, the white, gauzy form of a crayfish lay on a bed of lime encrustations. To the west, steps led up out of the room, and to either side of the stairs along the west wall were narrow, dust-covered ledges.
They inspected the fountains, finding nothing of interest in the dry one. Nin reached into the water of the northern fountain and a large serpent apparently made of water rose up from the wet! It constricted the bard briefly before it was taken down by the adventurers’ combined efforts. With the guardian slain, Nin reached into the water and picked up the white crustacean. It was just a shell, but beneath it he spotted a platinum key on a chain. He pulled this out of the water and pocketed it.
In the middle of the chamber up the steps was what appeared to be the withered, preserved form of a centaur mounted on a slab of marble. Tinted green and decked out in lacquered leather, feathers, and copper wire jewelry, he faced the western entrance to this chamber. The centaur held a bronze-hafted pike tipped with a broad, blue-gray, flame-shaped spearhead.
Scattered around the room were jewelry and knickknacks made of beaten copper, cut and polished obsidian, shells, quartz, and coral. Much of this treasure was at the feet of the centaur, symbolically being trod underfoot. Two tall urns shaped like wicker baskets stood along the north wall, each one filled with river stones.
Nin showed an interest in the cheap trinkets, collecting a few and slipping them into his bag. Seebo and Sylus inspected the urns more closely noticing something beneath the river stones. They found two crushed silver masks, an electrum serpent bracelet, a broken marble statue of a monkey, and four silver hairpins set with jade. These too were collected and bagged. Finding nothing else of note or interest, the adventurers approached the western exit.
When Sylus opened to door, the centaur mummy came to life. Nin reflexively lashed out with vicious mockery, drawing the attention of the undead monstrosity. It stabbed the bard with its pike then spun around and kicked him solidly with its hooves. These hurt badly as the mummy’s curse took hold. Seebo turned the undead creature then said, “Let’s get out of here!”
Neurion didn’t have to be told twice, making for the door. However, just on the other side he found a wall of green, polished stone blocks barring the way. He stepped aside as Sylus approached and kicked the wall. It toppled surprisingly easy, and the swashbuckler led the retreat into a small antechamber. The others followed, with Seebo bringing up the rear. Then they lifted the wall back up and leaned it against the doorway to impede the mummy if it decided to give chase after shaking off the turning effect.
Deciding to put some distance between themselves and the undead guardian, they followed the hall to the west then north. The five-foot-diameter passage was dry and dusty, and it showed no sign of having been used for ages. Near the top of the corridor walls, about three feet from the ceiling, stone lintels ran the length of the passage. The hall abruptly widened to a cube fifteen feet on a side with a corrugated floor. In the ceiling of this area, a bronze, circular trapdoor was set. The cover was latched shut.
In the four corners of the foyer were sets of metal rungs forming a ladder that led up and across the arched ceiling to the trapdoor. The rungs were broken in several places, leaving rusty spikes. On the other side of the area, the corridor continued.
Seebo used mending to repair one of the nearby rungs but decided that fixing them all would probably take too much time. Sylus volunteered to open the trapdoor and climbed the rungs toward it. The latch opened easily, but when he pulled the trapdoor down he realized his mistake. A whirlwind came swirling down hurling him to the floor and settling into a miniature cyclone within the chamber. The adventurers exchanged concerned glances, then cautiously made their way across the whirlwind chamber to the calm of the hallway past it.
The corridor continued north for a short while, then turned east and back north again before ending in a foyer, ten feet wide and twenty feet long. On the north end a five-foot-wide staircase led up. A wheel was set horizontally half into the wall in the southwest corner. This wheel appeared to be a crank. Above the wheel, a bronze lever was set in the wall, angled downward.
Sylus pitoned the lever so that it would not – hopefully – be usable against them. Then the adventurers ascended the winding stairs until they came to a blank wall. Nin stayed there as the others returned to the foyer and Sylus began to experiment with the crank and lever. It turned out that the crank would not move until the lever was in the up position. When he turned the crank, several things happened at once: the western half of the foyer floor fell out from beneath Neurion and Seebo, dropping them into a thirty-foot deep pit, a portcullis fell, blocking the foyer off from the stairs, and a secret door opened in the blank wall at the top of the steps.
Nin reported the opening, which seemed to lead to a stone ruin outside. Sylus dropped his rope to help his companions out of the pit, then crossed the six-inch footbridge that spanned the gap. They managed to lift the portcullis by main force, then joined the dragonborn at the top of the stairs.
The secret door came out of the northern wall of the structure, which was apparently a large temple of some sort. Once a major building, all that remained were the back wall and enough of the roof to shelter the altar nearby. All else seemed closed off by fallen debris. Several pillars had fallen and they littered the floor. Sunlight filtered through holes in the roof, thirty-five feet overhead, which was a maze of chips and cracks. Holes in the walls led out to the grass outside of the hilltop temple.
The back wall was covered by a bas-relief of a giant bat-thing, nine feet tall, with a wingspan of twenty feet. In front of this wall was an altar stone, carved to represent a mass of squirming rats, weasels, and worms. On the front of the altar was the head of a screaming bat. Jutting above the altar on either side were a pair of sharp-edged, metal bat-wings, eight feet long. The floor in front of the altar was worn smooth.
“Representations of Zotzilaha, this culture’s vampire god,” said Seebo. “Let me take a closer look at the altar.” Close inspection of the altar revealed handholds along the front side and hinges at the back, indicating that the altar could be lifted from the front and tipped on its side. He reported this to his companions, and solicited Sylus and Nin to help him move the heavy stone.
Wary of the sharp-edged bat wings, the bard and the swashbuckler ducked in time to avoid them as they snapped closed when the altar was moved. Seebo was not quite swift enough and the wings sliced into his arms from either side. His companions helped him escape from this vicious pincer, and then the party stared down at the riches contained in the eight-foot-deep pit below the altar.
“Well, we’ve found a way out,” said Neurion. “I suppose now all we need to do is clear out the rest of the dungeon.”