The shadow-lich of Kalarel had been despatched, but with due caution the adventurers had just one person — Cram — step forward into the entrance chamber, sword bared.
When no dark reflection was forthcoming, the others joined him. Wjizzo went straight to the doors, the Gates of Orcus, and established that the oozing of blood and shadow was no power of the Gates themselves. Varris identified the eyes of the horrible inscribed death’s head as being valuable bloodstones, and pried them from their settings. The door itself appeared to have a magic of alarming upon it, but Wjizzo, Surina and Elana bent their magic to the task and rendered it impotent.
The Hall of Shadow
The black Gates swung open at a push and revealed a large hall beyond, its vaulted ceiling supported by many towering pillars seemingly constructed of skulls and bleached bones, between which the centre of the hall was obscured by a wall-like mass of shadow. This had, drifting within it, the inchoate forms and faces of spirits enduring endless horror, but as these showed no sign of being aware of the intruders, or even of of one another, Varris gingerly led the group forwards. He picked a way behind the outermost pillars close to the left-hand wall, pointedly not looking too closely at the carved frieze of corpses and tormented souls. As he reached the corner and began to lead the way towards a gap in the mass of shadow, Denoa hissed out that a skull in the pillar she was passing had been angled away but was now looking right at her!
A hasty glimpse through the gap revealed two monstrous little servitors, guarding the way down the length of hall between the two central rows of pillars. Varris announced that these were norkers, ferocious goblin-cousins that use their fangs as much as their regular weapons, and with a darker power staining their souls and giving them an uncanny power to fight on unheeding of wounds. Undaunted by norkers but concerned by the attention of the unliving pillars, Surina directed the others into position to attack and levelled her rod.
Cram broke forward and was upon the nearer norker and hewing at it with his fullblade faster than you can say M— f—. Varris shot two arrows and strode forward, switching weapons and proclaiming the enmity of the Raven Queen if they stood in his way. Surina laid her curse upon the norker and hammered it with eldritch force, and Wjizzo with a ray of frost that numbed it on the spot. Cram hacked down the first norker and laid straight into the other. This had still barely had time to raise its axe to defend itself, but even as he chopped down and into its thigh, it craned forward and gnawed through his hide armour to sink its fangs into his forearm.
A skeletal arm articulated out of a pillar, fingerbones raking at Elana as she paused to take stock. And before she could even warn the others, a side door was thrust open and a squad of norkers began bustling out of a guard room. Surina cried out as she was struck in the side by a ray of blackness and felt a deep chill drain the vigour from her limbs. Looking up she saw the source was a skull on a pillar that had swivelled around to fix on her.
“Get on!” she yelled. “Get through this!”
The rest dashed onward through the hall, skirting outside the swing of the norker guard’s axe and Cram’s massive sword, and darting to spaces far enough from the pillars to be safe from the grasping hands. Down the centre of the hall, between the masses of shadow-stuff, Elana and Wjizzo saw they had to run the gauntlet of three pairs of pillars set before they could gain the doors at the far end. The pillars stood close enough for their bony members to strike out at anyone between them, but these seemed sightless and only reached out if someone hesitated too close to them.
The fight with the axe-wielding norker was now a rearguard. Varris slashed at the norker as he danced by, evaded the counterattack of its gnashing teeth and gained a flanking position, then found his eyes drawn against his will towards a skull in a nearby pillar. He sensed a warped intelligence that was both there and not there, and was struck by a wave of horror that assailed his very wit. Surina shot down the first of the norkers from the guardroom and backed up the few paces her unsteady legs would carry her.
The noise of the fight was sure to have alerted anyone nearby, so on reaching the far doors Elana lost no time in throwing them wide and turning to beckon everyone to follow.
Cram cut down the norker axeman, which expired in a heap with a last futile clack of its fangs, and — all but launching his nervous cousin Borran on ahead of him — sprinted down between the pillars.
Surina shot down another norker and drew her mace to face down the two flail-wielders that bore in upon on her. Then another guard room door opened opposite the first, and another squad of guards dashed out, swinging their flails around their heads. A total of six of them suddenly made for poor odds.
And then another door opened to one side of the exit, two unarmed crimson-robed cultists striding forth. The first stepped in front of Varris, pulled the hood halfway back from its head to reveal an unnaturally emaciated face, and the elf was stricken by its gaze exactly as he had been by the skull on the pillar a few moments earlier. All greater moves suddenly lost from his mind he responded with a quick left-right of sword and scimitar. The second eerie cultist stepped past and struck out with a bolt of shadow at Wjizzo. Cram skidded to a halt and squared up to join Varris in the fight, when yet another door opened on the other side and three more axe-wielding norkers joined the fray.