The Chapel of the Demon Prince
From the laboratory of the Machine, Varris stepped stealthily into a small hallway with additional doors on all three other sides, each adorned with a ram’s skull design. No sound could be heard, and Varris tentatively tried the left-hand door, first finding it locked and then after a few moments with a set of tools declaring that there was a problem. Wjizzo frowned and whispered that it was likely to be an Arcane Lock ritual, probably the work of the wizard Paldemar himself.
Pressing his keen ear to the door ahead, Varris faintly made out a guttural chanting.
“This is it,” he whispered. Everyone poised themselves, and he opened the door.
The Chapel was a large, pillared chamber with an inlaid mosaic of Orcus on the floor before a 20’ black stone idol of the the demon prince. The two outermost pillars were unlike the others, being of some crystalline rock that pulsed with inner energy. But the immediate concern were the chanters: a congregation of three norkers being led in an unconvincing monotonous droning by a figure in crimson-robes.
The heroes’ assault began, arrows, arrows magically aflame, and bolts of force, of eldritch power and of shadow sprayed upon the unsuspecting worshippers from the doorway. Cram hurtled forward with the Thumpers’ battlecry. Before their victims could react, the attackers poured in. Remembering the Court of Bones, they split left and right to head around and not across the mosaic on the floor, shooting on the move. They found each of the nearer walls to contain a double-door, matching up with the side-doors in the entrance hall, but they had live prey in their sights.
Two of the norkers produced slings and backed away before the onslaught. A shot struck Borran a glancing blow on the shoulder before he ducked back and began to call upon Brother Rabbit. The other had no such chance, as it had scarcely clawed a stone from its pouch before Denoa called wisps of shadow from the air to wrap themselves about its face, denying it sight of any target.
The third norker was a foot taller than any they had seen before, and lost no time in pulling out a cruel ball-and-chain, shrieking a battlecry of its own, and striding forward. But Cram was faster, closed down and delivered a fearsome leg wound to the robed cultist before it could react. As the norker came in and Cram was forced to sway aside from its attack, the cultist backed away and then fixed him with a hideous gaze that physically staggered him, assailing his very sanity.
Varris retaliated against the monster with a blistering rate of arrow-shots.
Then one of the sets of double-doors were wrenched open and with clanging steps a Bronze Warder surged forward, bringing its massive axe crashing into the stone floor as Cram hurled himself out of its path.
Surina, issuing a curse of diabolical power on the half-blind norker slinger, swept left around the other side of the room. Elana shot at the ball-and-chain wielder and drew another arrow as she advanced. Wjizzo moved the same way to gain a clear shot and sent an orb of force to rock both the cultist and the norker berserker on their feet.
And then one door of the other set opened. The nearer adventurers had a brief glimpse of the slight figure of a wizard with blond hair and beard before a sweeping gesture of his quarterstaff sent an arc of lightnings lashing into Elana, Wjizzo and Surina.
“Paldemar!” Elana managed to cry, but before anyone else could look round, the evil architect of Orcus’ plots within the labyrinth had closed the door again.
“Oh dear,” said Wjizzo softly to himself, having an inkling as to the other wizard’s tactic.
But before Wjizzo could explain, Cram the barbarian turned on his heels, swerved around the descending sweep of the Bronze Warder’s axe and hurtled right across the room to throw himself against the door. His shoulder impacted it with an echoing boom but the doors did not so much as quiver.
“It’s another Arcane Lock!” Wjizzo announced. “Paldemar’s door will only open to his own hand. He has a bolthole from which he can do whatever he likes!”
Paldemar’s five followers continued to give battle out in the chapel — though the slinger blinded by Denoa’s shadow-power only cowered behind a pillar vainly trying to shake the magic. Its companion took its revenge for it, sending a stone whistling into Denoa’s belly. The norker berserker and the Bronze Warder advanced, and the indefatigable Cram threw himself back onto them as the magic-wielders concentrated their efforts against the norker. Insanely undeterred the norker berserker came after Cram, swinging his ball-and-chain but never finding his target to stop still long enough for it to use its weapon to best effect. But between evading both it and the Bronze Warder, Cram’s strength began to fail him. He went down on one knee, his weakness unfeigned, then chopped up at the norker as it was distracted by a bolt of darkness from Denoa. It bared its fangs, reaching out for the barbarian, only to slump dead on his blade. Its jaws closed on air as it fell to the ground and Cram rallied, jumping back to his feet with a yell of victory.
Wjizzo meanwhile shouted for Surina and Denoa to join him in using their powers to pass through into Paldemar’s chamber-haven if he so much as opened the door a crack.
But the door opened again before they could ready themselves properly. In a split second Wjizzo recognized the ball of power forming at the end of Paldemar’s staff to be a shock sphere like his own, but then it was launched. Right in front of Paldemar’s doors an area the size of a normal room was filled with coursing veins of storm-power which wracked through Wjizzo and Elana, sparks dancing on the bard’s mailshirt.
Surina bore purposefully down upon the norker slinger, and fulfilled her curse by dropping him with a third blast of power. But she was answered by a ray of withering black-purple light from the carved ‘wand’ in the hand of the Orcus statue.
She turned to the Bronze Warder that was manoeuvring as it fought to line itself up on the throng at its master’s doors. One bronze hoof clanged as it struck the ground, preparing the Warder for a charge. To Surina’s horror, she saw Cram’s balance desert him, leaving him open to a cleaving blow of that massive axe. But at the last instant Varris was there. Replaced by the injured Denoa at Paldemar’s other door, there he was with his magical longsword stabbing up at the descending arm of the automaton and deflecting the fell stroke from its target, saving Cram from certain death.
The shadar-kai witch, meanwhile, began a concentrated effort to disrupt the structure of the door that held the matrix for the energies of the Arcane Lock.
Cram lived to fight on, and looked down to see Brother Rabbit at his knee. Before his eyes the glowing form of the spirit-creature danced and blurred and split into a veritable drove of rabbits which leapt upon the minotaur. They passed through it in an uncanny silence, but in its confusion the metal warrior batted vainly at the vanishing spirits. Its guard forgotten, Cram punished it by hammering a volley of blows into it, dinting and scarring its bronze shell.
Wjizzo was poised for the moment Paldemar opened the door. Elana stood ready with the Staff Resounding in her hands, chanting an elven war song. But when the moment came, their nerves were screwed to too high a pitch. The Staff struck the frame of the door, and only a timorous wave of thunder washed over Paldemar, failing to dislodge his grip on the door let alone blast him back into the room. Paldemar arrogantly stood and braved their attacks to unleash his own magical assault, and not even a clubbing swipe of Wjizzo’s orb-implement could distract him. A ray of frost shot point blank from the end of his staff into Elana.
Surina ran back away from the statue, shouting out a warning to everyone else not to go too near it. But already the Bronze Warder clanged its hoof again in readiness to charge. By dint of extreme will, even at a flat run, she unleashed a tyranny of flame at the automaton. Sulphurous fires tinged with the necrotic power of the Shadowfell streamed from her blasting-rod to strike with a hellish fury that would have smitten a lesser victim to the ground, but though the Warder’s features distorted in the heat it was undeterred.
The Bronze Warder charged!
Cram beat his fullblade resoundingly upon its back as it moved by, but it barrelled heedless straight forwards with its axe-haft held before it in both bronze fists, knocking Wjizzo and Elana flying from its path. Then with blinding speed it switched its grip and swept its axe around in a low scything arc that carved Wjizzo’s left arm to the bone and knocked Elana senseless against the wall behind her.
The great bronze bull’s head came up and around as Surina shot a bolt of force at it, and in a last-ditch effort Wjizzo put his hand to the control amulet around his neck and uttered the hard-won word of command. Instantly he could feel the arcane strangeness that was the minotaur-like ‘mind’ of the metal guardian, and he could feel the elusive sense of the power of Paldemar that had given it its commands, and knew that Paldemar in turn could feel him through this connection. Wjizzo’s poured forth his will and overwhelmed the echo of Paldemar’s thought with a wave of force that cancelled all commands. The lethal assault ceased as the Bronze Warder froze in place. Paldemar’s attention would be too divided to be able to both grapple with Wjizzo for control of the Warder, and coordinate his magical attacks with opening and closing the door. Wjizzo braced for retaliation, but felt nothing forthcoming; the sense of Paldemar fled.
“He’s letting it go,” Wjizzo declared in a cracked voice.
And then a yell of triumph from Denoa came round the corner. Fingers of both hands interlaced, she’d concentrated her black fire to a perfect pitch, and a combination of scorching and accelerated woodrot had sundered a timber of Paldemar’s other Arcane Locked door.
Cram, invigorated with a gift of the Great Rabbit’s vigour for which he barely had time to nod his relieved thanks to Borran, dashed off in a looping sprint that ended with a shoulder-charge that burst several more timbers. Perfunctorily hacking some of the wreckage away he forced himself bodily into the breach. And found no sign of Paldemar in the chamber beyond.
“C’m ’ere, you invisible bastard!” he yelled, swinging his fullblade about him at full reach and using one swing to shear down the curtains on the truly massive four-poster bed against the wall. But his sword met no resistance and he found no sign of Paldemar.
Barring Wjizzo — who barely felt capable of standing and wanted to secure his hold on the control of the Bronze Warder — the others joined Cram in Paldemar’s chamber, a ragged and battered crew. Paldemar wasn’t under the bed, and in truth seemed not to be invisible anywhere in the room, although Cram rued the absence of practical little Percival and his pouch of “you never know when you’ll need them” flour bombs.
Everyone looked at Varris and reminded him of his elven heritage, and as they regained their breath Varris manfully turned his attention to the masonry of the walls, to no avail.
“I don’t know what this was,” came the apologetic voice of Borran. “Nothing herbal that I’ve ever come across. But it’s fresh.”
Everyone, Varris included, stopped to look in surprise at the barbarian cunning-man, who had just found a small crystal vial discarded in the corner, under the heap of the wall-hanging that Varris had torn aside in his search.
“A potion bottle! Told you he was invisible,” said Cram. But Varris leapt over to the wall where Borran had found the vial. Borran started to explain, but stopped mid-sentence to paw at a loose tile on the wall, and a stone door scraped open.
Papers from the desk fluttered around the room in the wake of Cram’s dash for the secret passage his cousin had found.