With one last kick to the sides of old Shane, tied up securely, the party hefted their weapons and wands and started to search the complex below the mask shop. A series of disturbing letters and diaries were unearthed, revealing sordid secrets and explaining the presence of the cult in the observatory. There were other signs of the cult’s nefariousness: a series of tiny cramped cells, accessed by trap doors and reeking of decomposition, and a store-room with a number of unusual magical reagents, hidden amongst large piles of chalk, ink, and paper. Descending further down the maze-like warren of stairs, corridors and rooms, the party encountered a cool draught blowing from a window cut into the thick stone wall ahead of them. Craning their necks, they could see the window looked over a deep cavern or sinkhole; tiny lights flickered far below. To their left, a stairway lead deeper into the gloom, curving away and following the curve of the cavern.
Having just slain four competent wizards, the party was surprisingly blasé about their descent. They had little preparation, just a quick patch-up of their wounds, while the darkness below was expecting them. Yet despite suspecting that more dangerous things lurked below, they had to retrieve the body of their friend Caiora, stolen for unknown reasons, and fully avenge the long-ago murder of the cleric Aidan and his halfling charges. The only real choice was to forge on.
Hundreds of steep, crumbling steps stretched before the party; as they stumbled their way downwards, a strange clacking noise echoed up from below. The child Bessy skipped ahead, ignoring Rye’s warnings, just as a skeletal figure charged upwards and narrowly avoided skewering Bessy through the stomach. Zombified halflings and dire-rats followed, and the party pushed back against the undead forces, rallying around Bessy and dispatching the first wave with slashing swords and concussive blows. A wave of holy energy emanating from Rye destroyed two of the skeletons outright, while Dunlaid and Colobus the Armoured Crab made mincemeat of zombie rats. Pressing onwards, the party tromped on another couple of minutes, before rounding the final curve of stairs and facing a large antechamber. Before them stood a lumbering, towering ogre, blocking almost the entire passage. Its putrefying abdomen was rent open from some previous encounter, an expression of mindless rage on its face consistent with undeath. Tattered, blood-soaked rags adorned it, and its hands held the mutilated corpse of a halfling, so bruised and battered that the heroes could not tell whether it had been man or woman, old or young. Next to the ogre were several more skeletons, and the remains of Caiora, risen again in undeath. Her chest had been rent open, though she still wore the hide armour customary of a druid. An unfeeling, uncaring expression rested on her face; she recognised neither the party, nor anything it seemed. Her mind and soul were elsewhere, and all that was left behind was this mangled puppet, raising a spear and shield and marching forward, oblivious to her desecration.
Arrows and bolts flew over Rye’s head as he readied himself for the charge of the creatures before him. With a gurgling roar the ogre surged forwards, swinging the halfling corpse by a leg. The tremendous blow landed squarely across Rye’s torso, the force of it causing gore and innards of the moldering carcass being used as a weapon to spray onto the stairs and walls around. With a grunt of pain, Rye backed off a little, giving room for skeletons to rush forward while Dunlaid and Canceria held the line. Rye tried channeling, which seemed to work a little, though the beast kept on attacking. Guldir and Queck peppered its torso with projectiles, while Ragthorn blasted a hole in its chest, molten bone cracking under the weight of decaying flesh. A wild swing of the ogre almost shattered the frame of Colobous, though the skeletons were quickly dispatched. Finally, a slew of slashes, spells and holy water brought down the ogre, just before it had time to finish up whomping poor Pinchy with a rapidly disintegrating halfling body, and the entire corridor filled with a squelching mass of sinew and flesh. Though the party held back at first, it was obvious that the Caiora-thing was not who she was once; they were left no choice but to attack and damage her body. Being the hardened adventurers that they were it didn’t take long, and Caiora’s lifeless-ness soon returned though it wasn’t much consolation for the grim task. They affixed most of the corpse to Colobous, though a severed arm they kept separately. Wiping the gore and grime from their blades and faces, the party cast a couple of spells upon themselves, and opened the final stone doors to the chamber beyond.
Before them lay the cavern glimpsed before, candles guttering in dim light; a pillar rose out of the darkness, upon which squatted a shrine to a dark pantheon of gods. Three narrow pathways diverged out of the passage before the party and bridged the chasm below, joining the pillar from the west, north and east. The flayed corpses of halflings cluttered up the paths along with scraps of paper, crumbled stonework and the broken halves of statues. The rough-hewn outer walls of the cavern were decorated with more skeletons and flayed corpses, as well as runic inscriptions, scrawls of arcane diagrams and equations written in crusted blood, and paintings of a dark or grey figure on scraps of paper.
The shrine comprised of three elements: a central dais, bloodstained; four crumbling columnar pedestals, over which one was draped a very large cape; and behind the dais, three busts on pedestals, their hideous and unnerving gazes boring across the room towards the party. Even at this distance, the flayed, impaled head of Zon-Kuthon was visible, and from the party’s earlier research, Abraxas and Norgorber were also recognisable. Both the busts and the dais were surrounded by circles drawn on the floor, sparkling in the gloom, made up of tiny particles of silver dust.
Layers upon layers of magical defenses had been laid, and the air shimmered vaguely with enchantments. Markus Yellowteeth stood before the dais, three mirror images copying his every action. Already, he was casting another spell, ‘Fly’. Springing forwards, Dunlaid charged, tousling with Markus and wounding him slightly. The rest of the party fanned out, Guldir (orating furiously) and Queck providing covering fire while Rye protected Bessy, and Canceria and Colobous followed behind Dunlaid. A queer, shrill noise left Markus’ mouth, just before Dunlaid dropped his sword, squeezing him tightly and preventing escape. Markus seemed possessed, an unearthly wriggling and writhing overtook him and in a flash the aristocractic old man with a grey moustache had grown a rat-like snout, sprouted black fur upon him and his wiry frame began to bulge with muscle. Again they wrestled, though the bulk of Dunlaid in full armour held him firm and pinned. A gleam shot through Dunlaid’s eyes as he took out a rope, ready to restrain the freakish wizard. “I’ve got him now! Almost disappointing how eas-” With another ghoulish undulation, the man before him burst, spewing forth hundreds of large black rats that began to fly through the air, biting and swarming around Dunlaid’s head.
To make matters worse, crawling out of the cracks in the walls and from the chasm above and below, thousands more rats crawled to the grotto, getting underfoot and squirming into clothing, gnawing and scratching. Swearing, the party redoubled their efforts. Fiery spheres rocketed through the air. Dunlaid and Canceria jumped back as Queck rolled a large barrel of dwarven whiskey towards them, a fuse stuffed in. A dull thud reverberated through Guldir’s bones, even across the room, as a small fireball of high-proof whiskey vaporised several hundred rats at once. This seemed to stir something else, and an infrasonic moan echoed through the cavern. Dunlaid doubled over, vomiting through his helmet, while fishy chunks cloaded Colobous’s reverse-scuba mask. The cloak wrapped around one of the columns rose to life, an uncanny expression of malice on its face, swooping through the air away from the dais. The party recognised it as a Cloaker, a mysterious and evil aberration from beyond this world. Colobous was utterly unnerved, and scuttled from the room in clanking strides.
Desperately, the party fought on. Queck readied to unleash a mighty hail of bolts, while Rye and Bessy stomped and kicked rats to their death below. The swarm of flying rats had gathered in mid-air behind the shrine and was reforming into a man-rat-thing. Norgorber’s blessing fell upon Yellowteeth, and he began to quickly blink in and out of existence, swooping and falling upon Dunlaid and Canceria once more. Feinting, he managed to land several painful blows with his shining, jewel-encrusted rapier. A flurry of bolts hit him from behind, while an arrow passed cleanly through his neck leaving a large hole from which spewed black ichor. His rancid breath grew more ragged, and dear Colobous charged back into the fray, only to be knocked into the abyss below. Silently, the great crab fell, till with a clanging noise he grabbed hold of a rocky outcropping and held on, trembling.
By this stage, the rat swarms had been destroyed, and Rye was free to join the others, even Bessy throwing her fine dagger into the Cloaker before darting in to retrieve it. With a final spine-tingling moan, the Cloaker’s tail was severed, and the bizarre beast dropped away into darkness, leaving Yellowteeth surrounded and beset on all sides. Magic clubs beat at his flesh, swords and scimitars flashed in the light of fire and shield, and projectiles slammed into his body tearing at his robes and skin. Yellowteeth could take no more; he flew back, away from the interlopers and settled on the dais. Dropping to his knees, he raised his hands, eyes rolling back into his skull. Arcane energies flowed between the dais and the statues of his unholy masters. Then there came a sound, distant at first, that grew into a cacophony as the entire cavern reverberated and shook. Acting quickly, ropes and nets were thrown around and heaved on until the entire hulking mass of Colobous rose back up to the surface and over the lip of the cave floor. Meanwhile Dunlaid ran forward, took careful aim with his sword, and cleaved Yellowteeth’s head clean off, a fountain of oily ichor spraying forth over the dais. Yet the damage was done; if anything the rumbling was growing steadily more intense by the second. Snatching what little he could, Dunlaid joined the rest of the group. As they ran from the cavern, jets of fire shot upwards from the depths, filling the entire grotto with a gigantic fiery explosion that the party jumped away from just as the detonation occurred.