25 Barrakas, 998 YK
Wir, 12:17 PM
Relic removed the key, but the configuration of the room did not change. “I am guessing we will find keycharms to match the other colors. At least, I hope so,” he said.
Arturo harrumphed. “So, we head in the direction presented? Maybe we’ll find something of value. I mean ‘interest.’”
“Same thing, far as I’m concerned,” Bex told him. “Still, the faster we find that schema, the better. Emerald Claw can’t be far behind.”
“Aye, well the Claw will have ta deal with those obnoxious hatches, as well,” the tiefling said.
The changeling held up her everburning torch and headed west to investigate the new exit. A short gray stone hallway laid beyond, unadorned but for a sturdy wooden door at the far end. Bex didn’t see any traps along the path or on the door, so she pulled it open. The room beyond appeared to be a small library or study. Two sturdy oak desks were set against the left wall. The rest of the room was filled with shelves lined with scrolls and leather-bound books. The corpse of a female clerk was slumped over the nearer of the two desks. Bex’s nose wrinkled up as she entered. The others filed in behind her.
“Ach, poor lass,” Arturo said as he saw the corpse. His attention quickly strayed to the walls and he began to look through the shelves for anything of interest. After a few moments, he said, “Nothin’ here but receipts and ledgers on shipping and stock.”
“Could there possibly be a false wall?” Relic asked.
The tiefling had a closer look and surmised, “Place is built solid ‘nuff.”
Meanwhile, Bex had a look at the desks and noticed that the woman wore a House Cannith signet ring and that it had collapsed on top of an especially ornate scroll. She held her breath and gingerly lifted the body to slide the scroll out from underneath it. She glanced at it a moment, then reported, “Hey Art. I think this scroll has an energy protection…thing on it. And Relic, this woman has a House Cannith ring.”
“Really?” The wizard inspected the ring. “Well, this is a Cannith facility, so we shouldn’t be surprised that people wore their rings here.”
Rocky examined the body itself, while the others had searched for useful items, noting that the body had no obvious injuries. “Does the cause of this one’s death seem obvious to anyone?” He asked. “They die with such simplicity around here; lifeless without sign of reason.”
“Hrm,” Arturo said as he looked the body over. The corpse had a faint yellowish cast to its flesh tone, but otherwise the woman appeared to have been outwardly healthy when she had passed. Much like the bodies they’d seen on the battlefields, rigor mortis did not even appear to have set in. “This pall that has fallen o’er the place, killin’ that village with no trace o’ death. Tha Mournin’ done this. Be needin’ to find out how. Poor lass.”
“A clue of useless design,” Rocky said tonelessly. “Pity.”
“Tha more I see lifeless but without cause, death without sign, tha more I’m thinkin’ a study of tha Mournin’ be important,” Arturo said. “Seems like we’re tha only ones in this hellish place. All a’ya please keep a lookout fer anythin’ that may lead to information on this blasted curse.”
“Let’s try another area,” Relic suggested. “The more we find here, the better chance we have of getting some answers to all of this.”
“I agree with an egress to places elsewhere,” said the warden.
“All right, then,” Bex said, giving him an odd look.
They filed back into the junction chamber, and Relic inserted the keycharm into the northwest blue socket. The chamber shook again as it slowly rotated to reveal an upward sloping hallway. The corridor of plain gray stone extended ahead of them. In the flickering light from the dim everbright lanterns embedded in the walls, they could see a few trails of crusted blood running along the floor, as if something were dragged down the corridor. At the far end of the hall, they saw three portals: an open archway to the left, a door propped slightly open straight ahead, and a sealed metal door to the right.
Bex squinted at the passage. “Yea, there we go.”
“Stay wary of more traps, Bex. I’d hate to see you get shocked…or burned…or frozen…well, you get the idea.”
“Makes two of us, Rel. All right.” She paused to listen at a stray sound that caught her ear. “Somethin’s up there, on the left. Can you hear it?”
“Aye, splashin’ and yappin’ innit?” Arturo said. The changeling nodded.
Relic turned to the warden. “Rocky, I might suggest you lead us down the hall.”
“Let’s to it, then,” he replied somewhat gruffly. “Something beckons our attention.”
“Right behind you, big man,” Bex said, putting away her light.
Rocky took a few steps down the corridor, and a moment later, the wooden door opened fully to reveal a hulking, shaggy dire wolf. It glanced at the group for a moment before speaking in a decidedly feminine voice. “Greetings.”
Bex stared at it like it was a talking wolf. The others were equally nonplussed. Except for Rocky.
“Good morrow,” he answered. “This chamber is yours, then, we are to understand?”
The creature’s golden-eyed gaze came to rest upon the warden. “Yes,” she said. “I have claimed this den for my pack.” They thought that the dire wolf’s eyes seemed to turn a little sad. With a splash and another yip, a pair of regular-sized gray wolves peeked around the corner of the open chamber. Their fur dripped water onto the floor. One began to growl, but the dire wolf barked once sharply and it quieted. “I am called…Rorsa,” she continued, sounding almost defiant.
“Rorsa, I am Rocky.”
“Rocky,” she said, trying the name out.
The tiefling chimed in gently. “Aye, Arturo… Huntress, we don’t mean to intrude on your claim.”
“Intrude?” Rorsa said, tilting her head, looking curious.
“We come from outside the mists and would speak with you rather than fight, if that is okay,” Rocky explained.
“Oh, yes. Well…then I welcome you as…guests?” Rorsa said. “Then, you are not intruders.”
“May we approach?”
“Yes. I would…appreciate if you keep your fangs and claws-” she shook her head, “your weapons…sheathed?”
When they had complied she said, “Please, come in. I have…many questions.” She sounded earnest.
“Let’s see how this plays out,” Rocky said softly to the others.
“She’s not used to speaking,” Bex muttered to the group. “That’s where the hesitation comes from, I think.”
Slowly, with open hands, the warden approached Rorsa, and the others followed. “You’re like no other wolf I’ve ever seen,” Rocky admitted. “A conversation I have never had with one such as yourself.”
The dire wolf backed into the room, and the gray wolves slunk in after her, leaving soggy pawprints on the stone. As they passed by the open archway, they saw that the room to the left contained a pool of fresh water and a row of latrines. When they entered Rorsa’s chamber they saw that the room must have previously served as a barracks for the servants of Whitehearth. Fourteen bunks were spread across the chamber, each with a wooden chest set at its foot. A round table was set to either side of the door. Seven corpses lay on the floor, some with chunks of flesh missing in distinct bite patterns.
Rocky took up a position in the middle of the room, making a place for the other Cyrans to stay behind him in relative safety. When Rorsa saw the adventurers looking at the bodies, she lowered her head as if embarrassed. “It is not…how it appears.”
“Please, tell us about yourself and your pack,” Relic said.
Rorsa explained that she remembered very little prior to the moment four years previous when she awoke to full consciousness. All of the humans who had cared for her and her kind were dead. She managed to figure out how to open the doors and operate the rotator rooms, and then she led the lesser wolves to this wing of the Whitehearth complex. “We hungered, and the bodies of our caretakers were just lying around. We ate of their flesh, but by morning the bodies were restored. It seemed a miracle, and it has saved us from starvation.”
“They grow back?” Arturo asked, just as Bex mouthed the same question.
“They regenerate? Inconceivable!” Relic exclaimed. “And arguably a great source of sustenance for you. It’s a shame they had to die, but they provide for you still even after death.”
“Yes,” Rorsa looked sad. “They treated me kindly before they died. I think I remember that much.”
“You were always a wolf such as you are now?” Rocky asked. “Only with less…awareness?”
The dire wolf tilted her head at the question, screwing her face up as though trying to think it through. “Yes?”
“We still find this place entirely mysterious,” Rocky said. “Our questions, excuse them if they are strange. My maker created those like myself with the spirits of great creatures like yourself. I wonder if similar experiments gave you this existence.”
Relic turned toward the warden. “Interesting, Rocky. So unlike how I was made and yet both of us warforged.”
“Where were ya ‘fore this tragedy struck?” Arturo asked their host. “Where in the buildin’, I mean.”
“South…west,” Rorsa said, sounding uncertain, “of the round room. Other wolves there, still.” She looked frightened. “Stone Wolf lair.”
“Enemies?” Bex asked gently.
Turning toward the changeling, Rorsa said, “Wolves may be. Stone Wolf is friend to none.”
“Perhaps you can help us navigate?” Rocky said to her. “Do you want to be free of these walls?”
“Free o’ these walls be a double-edged sword,” Arturo warned. “The things out there… Ye may be safer in here.”
Rorsa turned to regard the tiefling. “Safer? Maybe. But trapped…all the same.”
Arturo conceded the point. Bex said, “Maybe we can persuade Failin to take a few more passengers back to living lands.” She didn’t sound optimistic.
“I hope so,” Relic said. “These wolves are special – a true link to the past. I would like to help them…and also learn from them.”
The changeling nodded and patted Relic on the shoulder. “Then we help ‘em.”
“We ask that you help us navigate these halls, find what we came for, then come with us and escape,” Rocky summarized.
Arturo nodded. “We’s lookin’ fer some things left behind by yer caretakers. How well do ya know tha other chambers?”
“Only know two round rooms, and chambers that can be reached by these keys.” She tossed her head and the Cyrans could see that she wore two necklaces, one each with a keycharm of blue and green. “Great burning horror to the north…east? But if you can kill Stone Wolf, I will give you green keycharm. Maybe you can find others to open locked doors I have not been in.” She paused as if considering. “You kill Stone Wolf…and I will also give you my treasure.”
“I think we can help one another, Rorsa,” Relic said.
“Take out this Stone Wolf?” Arturo said with a chuckle. “We got this.”
Rocky nods. “It is agreed. It is agreed?”
“Agreed,” Bex said, and Relic nodded.
“Aye, friend,” Arturo patted Rocky’s shoulder. “It’s agreed, we help them, they help us.”
A grin that was more doggy than wolfy spread across Rorsa’s face. “I will open the way, then.”
“Anythin’ we should know ‘bout Stone Wolf ‘fore we meet ‘im?”
“It is a monstrous unnatural creature,” the dire wolf said with a low growl. “A wolf made partway of stone. Tricks the senses. Goes for the throat. Often.”
“Is it alone?” Rocky asked.
“Other wolves there. May help, may not. May be dead.” She seemed saddened at the prospect.
“Come with us,” the warden suggested. “Convince these other wolves to back down. We will destroy Stone Wolf, and you will all be freed.”
Rorsa shook her head slowly, sadly. “I dare not face Stone Wolf, even with such as you.”
“Very well. Open the way and let our agreement be fulfilled.”
“Rorsa, it may not come up, but… If other people show up while we are not around, do not trust them. They are not as friendly as we are,” Relic warned.
Rorsa nodded, barking a quick command at the other wolves that sat and stared mistrustfully at the adventurers. She led the group back down the hall to the control panel room and manipulated the green key into the bottom left keyhole with her teeth. The room rotated to reveal another hallway, this one sloping downward. Another spherical chamber awaited them at the far end.
“Come on. Stone Wolf must be farther in,” Rocky said.
“Yes,” Rorsa said, continuing down the hall with the Cyrans. “Another path must be opened first. Here I must leave you. Take the green keycharm now and use it in the panel there. Your blue keycharm will allow you to return here.”
“Await our return in safety, friend,” Rocky said.
“Well, always cake in the afterlife,” Arturo said. “Or something like that.” He smiled to Rorsa and followed the others down the hall.
The control panel in the second rotator room only had four keyholes in a square. Clockwise from the upper right corner, the colors were blue, orange, green, and yellow. Relic used Rorsa’s green keycharm, and the chamber rotated, closing off the path to the entry chamber and opening another downward sloping hallway, dimly lit by muted everbright torches. They could all hear the growls and snarls of wolves coming from farther down the hallway, though the sounds echoed weirdly.
The Cyrans continued down the path cautiously, coming to a corner. Just around it they found a door on the east wall, but the sounds of the wolves seemed to be coming from the open chamber farther south. They pressed forward, Rocky’s attempts at stealth making the rest of the party cringe. When the warden entered the room, it was no surprise to the occupants.
Eleven steel cages lined the walls of this kennel, and gray wolves occupied seven of the locked cages. Only one creature was not in a cage, and though it was shaped like a wolf, plates of black marble had been fused to its flesh. In addition to the stone armor that shielded its flanks, its muzzle had been replaced by an elongated maw filled with row upon row of obsidian teeth.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Bex flung her dagger at the snarling Stone Wolf. The dagger was slowed slightly by the stony armored portions of the beast, but it still punched a deep hole. She then rolled acrobatically into the kennel and struck a defiant pose as the knife reappeared in her hand.
“I believe this is a half-golem,” Relic cried upon seeing the beast. “Resistant to magic and physical harm.”
“Um, what does that leave us with?” Bex called.
“Right,” said Rocky. “What are the beast’s weaknesses?”
“None that I know of,” Relic replied.
Stone Wolf stalked forward, its heavy footfalls cracking loudly against the hard floor as it bore down on Bex. It lunged with its jagged maw, but she managed a cunning escape at the last moment. She watched the creature closely, trying to predict its next strike, and suddenly felt her mind under assault from Stone Wolf’s hellish gaze. She shook it off, and shouted a warning to the others, but the distraction cost her as it once more leapt on her and knocked her down with its jaws locked around her throat.
“Rocky, I will try and corner him for you,” Relic said, reacting swiftly to Bex’s predicament by sending his beguiling strands into the room. The enchantment landed and Stone Wolf let the changeling go before staggering away several paces. Rocky advanced on the beast, and demanded its focus as his blade flashed with radiant electricity. Arturo’s flaming bolt took the construct in the flank, though it did not acknowledge the burns. Bex regained her feet and struggled to catch her breath.
Stone Wolf considered the metal man before it and opened its jagged maw wide, knocking Rocky down and latching onto his throat. With a curse, Relic moved forward and sent a sheet of flame at the monster, scorching it…and the wolves caged behind it. A yelp of pain and terror prefaced a soft thump and then silence from one of the cages. “Rel!” Arturo cried with widened eyes, his next attack flying wide. Rocky struck the beast from the ground, struggling and failing to escape the wicked jaws.
Bex leapt forward and flung her knife at Stone Wolf hoping to capitalize on its focus on Rocky, but she was dismayed when it jerked the warforged into the path of her flying blade. The carver’s claw gouged a deep wound in the warden’s side. “Oh, you miserable bastard,” she cursed the beast. Another of Relic’s enchantments freed Rocky from Stone Wolf’s grip, and the Cyrans continued their assault on the harried half-golem.
One of Bex’s dagger throws shattered a pair of marble plates, sending cracks throughout those remaining. Stone Wolf’s face split in a lunatic grin and its teeth seemed to grow larger!” So, this is why Rorsa didn’t want to face him,” the changeling growled, as Rocky continued to take injuries from the beast.
“Still ain’t dead, eh?” Arturo taunted, flinging a flask which shattered against Stone Wolf and sprayed acid all over its body. It sizzled, and the pain showed in the construct’s all-too-mortal eyes.
A few moments later Bex shouted, “Goodness, Stone Wolf. What big wounds you have!” and made one final, desperate throw. The blade sank into the half-golem’s skull and it slumped heavily to the floor, dead. “Oh, thank the Traveler,” she breathed. “I wasn’t sure where to go with that next.”
The scent of burned wolf hung heavy in the air, and Relic hurried to the cage to see if his accidental victim yet lived.