The door opened on a short hallway mercifully free of traps. At the end was another door. Abby listened and again heard no sound, so proceeded forward into the room beyond.
Like the other areas they had found on the lowest level the room was carved from the bedrock stone of the island. Shaped like an “L,” the room had a set of double doors at the south end, while the eastern branch of the chamber ended in a curious feature: a heavy, broad pillar set against the far wall. Like the room the pillar was stone, but it had been artfully chiseled to resemble a stack of gigantic coins four feet in diameter. The edges of the stone coins depicted spiky runes they did not recognize. Gloriana whispered a spell to detect magic and saw the whole column light up with significant resonance. Cautious, the adventurers decided not to approach the column for the present, turning to the double doors at the southern wing of the room.
These admitted the party to a long, columned hall more than fifteen feet wide and thirty-five feet long north to south. Four stout pillars supported a vaulted ceiling, and along the walls were several standing sarcophagi in alcoves. At the center of the hall, perched on a granite plinth, stood a marble statue of a figure the group had seen before: a tall man, stern and gloating of aspect, clutching a book and a glaive. Like the previous incarnations, the statue looked very old. As they spread out and made their way into the chamber a darkness drifted from the walls to attack them.
In the flickering illumination of torches and lightstones the party watched four shapes coalesce from the areas around the sarcophagi. Moving soundlessly, vaguely humanoid in shape, it was as if the creatures were . . . not candle smoke, exactly, but rather the shadow that candle smoke makes against a plastered wall. Tendrils of darkness crept forward like talons slowly growing from a cat’s paw.
Gloriana knew what they were. Caravan grandmothers used to tell cautionary stories around the family fire about the excessively greedy, those whose covetousness was so great that even death was no escape. When their bodies failed their souls became creeping darkness, cursed to linger and lay in wait for hapless travelers who stumbled upon them. Their touch drained life to feed their undying greed.
“Shadows!” Gloriana called out to the others as the murky shapes drew closer. “They are incorporeal, yet can cause great harm. Do not let them touch you! You must trust that this fight is mine!”
A starburst of light shone around the oracle in brilliant contrast to the encroaching shadows as Gloriana transformed her body into golden-white energy.1 Standing fore and center she shone in the gloomy hall as a lighthouse pierces fog and night by the vastness of the sea.
“Come!” she challenged the shadows. “Come and shed your darkness, and find peace at last!”
Kuch heeled his wolf and held a magic wand over one upturned palm, slowly turning a circle like stirring tea in a cup. A magical ember appeared in his hand that grew into a ball of flame the size of a small melon.2 He clutched the fire the way Kara held a bomb, and he waited for an opportunity to fling the burning missile into the fight.
Rahab and Kara were just beginning their own battle preparations when Abby did something rash.
What in the Nine Hells is she doing? the wizard wondered in alarm.
The warrior moved up next to Gloriana with sword and shield and attacked one of the shadows, then watched in horror as her sword passed through the shape with little effect, as though she had merely dragged her blade through smoke.
Kara gulped down her shielding extract and looked at Rahab. “You might want to get behind me.”
The wizard saw the alchemist reaching to her belt for another brew, one she had recently developed. The bottle was red glass and as the liquid inside agitated it began to glow with chemiluminescence. He did not yet know what this new formula was, but his mind could imagine the possibilities implied by the glow, and he understood what Kara was suggesting. He stepped dutifully behind the elf, and began casting a spell of summoning.
Then the shadows were upon Abby and the warrior found out how the darkness drinks life. Two shapes encroached soundlessly, reaching out to attack with vaguely humanoid hands that ended in a suggestion of sharp claws. Only one of them made contact, but its touch was horrid. Abby felt a weakness unfold and flutter inside her like a ribbon rippling on a soft, ancient, malign breeze. Suddenly her armor weighed more heavily on her shoulders, her sword dragged her arm down, her shield felt like a millstone anchoring her to the earth.3
The other two shadows attacked Gloriana, seemingly heedless of her energy form, but, like the pair challenging Abby, only one successfully struck the oracle. Gloriana felt a sickening weakness in the center of her being, though the sensation was somewhat different for her in her current state, and she knew she would not understand the extent of the drain until she resumed her normal form. But attacking the elemental woman was a hazard in and of itself for undead such as the shadows. Even as the weakness flooded Gloriana, her own spiritual power counter-surged into the undead thing like an injection of molten gold penetrating a pool of ink.4
Then it was the oracle’s turn. She expanded her energy outward, like exhaling a great breath, and glowing white-gold power surged in a pulse that enveloped the four shadows and peeled shreds away from their smoky forms like tearing rents in cloth.
“Abby!” came Gloriana’s voice, echoing as though reverberating from a metallic chamber. “Get out of here!” Abby, heart pounding, retreated under the weight of her gear.
Kuch began his own summoning while Kara unstoppered her red glass vial and held it close to her lips. Rahab finished his spell and a small fire elemental appeared near the shadows. The campfire-sized blaze surged a fiery pseudopod at a shadow, but did not make contact. The shadows ignored the fire elemental, encircling Gloriana and attacking her again. Her strength failed even more5 under their attacks, but again her glowing essence wreaked havoc on the undead. One of the wispy forms faded, dissipated, and vanished just from touching her, while a second one shuddered under the effects of the oracle’s radiance.
Gloriana produced a second surge of power and killed another shadow in a wave of pulsing light. “Energy!” the oracle shouted back at the others. “Force!”
Kuch finished his own spell and a second small fire elemental appeared and attacked the shadows, and like Rahab’s it had no effect. Then the half-orc threw the gathered flame from his hand, but he, too, missed. The flame rekindled instantly in the druid’s hand.
Kara quickly drank her red-glass elixir, stepped close to the last two shadows, leaned forward, and opened her mouth as if to scream. Instead, she exhaled forcefully and a gout of great flame suddenly poured forth from her maw in a blasting cone that swept over the undead.6 In the sudden blazing confusion, both shadows attacked the nearby fire elementals, leaving Gloriana momentarily untouched.
Rahab cast his missile spell and the spiked purple lozenge punched a hole in one of the shadows, killing it. There was one left, and when the oracle channeled her power a third time, it was brushed away into nothing like ash in a breeze.
The fire elementals winked back to their plane of origin as the druid’s and conjurer’s summonings ended.
Gloriana’s body resumed form and she sagged under the weight she carried as her physical strength manifested, significantly drained from her usual condition. Abby, too, was leaning against a wall, breathing hard against the steel armor dragging against her normally burly frame. Gloriana approached the warrior and struggled to lift her hand, resting her palm on Abby’s shoulder and invoking a spell of restoration.7 When it was complete, Abby felt a surge of power course through her, chasing away the weakness. Her strength returned; she felt renewed. Gloriana then used the same magic on herself several times, gradually restoring her own physical prowess almost back to its normal level.8
“Thank you,” Abby said.
“You’re welcome,” the oracle replied. “How do you feel?”
“Better. Back to normal. Thank you again.” Abby nodded earnestly.
“Good. Now, shut up and listen to me very carefully.” Abby’s eyes grew wide and Gloriana leaned in close, staring the warrior dead in the eye, as serious as the grave. For all her physical presence and prowess, Abby seemed somehow reduced in stature next to the golden-haired woman.
“When I said not to let the shadows touch you, I meant it, and now you know why. It can be tempting sometimes to just go straight into a fight when a situation is new and unknown, and up to now, part of our success has been because you hold the center of the fight. But in this case survival means listening to what I tell you. Physical weapons are not going to be very effective against the incorporeal; if you have to use them, you should try to use them at a distance. The spirits have blessed me with a power anathema to undead such as those, and that’s why that fight should have centered around me, not you. As long as I hold their attention, and harm them with the light, then I am the greatest threat, and that means the rest of you can finish off those that don’t fall to my channeled power. Then I’m restoring one person at the end of the fight, not two.”
There was a pause. Rahab raised an appreciative eyebrow: Gloriana’s logic was watertight, right on the mark, and a clear demonstration of the power of knowledge.
“Do you understand?” Gloriana asked. Chastened, Abby nodded again. Gloriana stepped back, and her expression softened. “Come.” The oracle took the warrior by the arm in friendly support. The two women approached the others.
They searched the room. In the western wall they found a secret door that opened onto a hallway that turned north after a short distance and echoed with the sound of crashing surf. At the end of the hall a space opened up: it had been a room once, but a substantial portion of wall had collapsed some time in the past, opening onto the ocean and creating a tidal pool in the chamber. The east wall was carved with ancient artwork that was showing signs of extended exposure to the maritime climate. The carvings were images of stylized riches: jewels and coins, scepters and ermines, and the like. Rising out of the riches was a mountain peak that bore some kind of stern visage. In the midst of the tide pool was a massive, bell-shaped object some five feet in diameter. It appeared to be an artistic helmet made of gold, but showing signs of coral encrustation. Whatever immense statue the helmet had once adorned was lost to history. The salt air was strong in the room, and it was a welcome relief from the dank underground environment they had been exploring. Autumn sun sparkled off the water, and the air temperature was cool.
“Xin-Shalast,” Rahab remarked, gazing at the wall carving. “Interesting.” The others turned to regard the artwork.
“What is ‘Zin Shall Last?’” Gloriana asked.
“Xin. Shalast,” Rahab enunciated slowly and explicitly. “An ancient, fabled city in the Kodar Mountains far to the northeast. Supposedly its streets were paved in gold, and its most important buildings were made from gemstones. It has never been located, and most scholars agree it is almost certainly fictitious: the kind of story invented by treasure hunters as consolation for not finding anything of value in their explorations.”
“And what do you think, Rahab?” Kara queried.
The wizard shrugged. “I am inclined to agree with the available scholarship. It seems a fantastically unlikely place. Ironically, if it did exist, it would probably be less valuable than people think. Any location with so much riches that the city can be assembled from gold and gemstones automatically devalues such materials by definition. Rarity is what makes such things valuable. An amphitheater fashioned from sapphires is probably gorgeous . . . and possibly worthless.”
Rahab stepped closer to the carving for a better view. Gloriana turned and detected for magic in the tide pool room.
Then the giant golden helmet moved, and Abby was drawing her sword. “It’s not supposed to do that!” she shouted as the helmet sprouted scuttling legs, jointed and rough in pink-white carapace.
Gloriana seized the initiative. “Golden guardian, we mean you no harm!” Kara decided there had already been enough shouting and declined to add her voice to the cacophony, especially since making noise might be exactly the kind of thing that attracted the wrath of golden guardians.
The gleaming helmet shifted back as the eight jointed legs rotated around, and two pinching claws emerged in front of a pair of black, shell-bound eyes on stalks.
“Crab!” Kuch shouted. His wolf backpedaled to the wall, growling and whining in alarm.
Abby was incredulous. “Crab? A crab is small and harmless and tastes good in garlic butter! That’s not a fucking crab!”
A giant claw snapped forward at Abby.
Amahalu do derdereen,9 Kara thought wryly.
The warrior was able to land a sword strike on the outstretched claw before the giant crustacean completed its maneuver. The strike was solid, but the animal’s shell was sturdy. Gloriana invoked blessing on her companions and herself, and Kuch leveled his longspear at the beast, managing to find a soft spot at one of the leg joints. Abby ducked another claw the length of a beer tun, and scored her own backhand blow. The crab scuttled laterally on eight agile legs. Kara hesitated, trying to ascertain the best way to attack in the space.
The next twenty seconds proved challenging, as none of the adventurers found success attacking the crab. Rahab’s spell of strength-sapping missed, Kuch could not land a spear strike, Abby’s sword and shield did not connect, and Gloriana’s somewhat reduced strength saw her morningstar rebound harmlessly off of the giant shell.
The crab managed to catch Abby and began to squeeze, trying to pin the warrior, but she struggled free just as Rahab scored a hit with a dart of acid, Kara shot an arrow on target, and Kuch’s wolf bit the arthropod’s leg in a crushing grip. A moment later the wizard followed up with another missile of magic, and Gloriana finally landed a hearty blow with her weapon. The giant crustacean succumbed to its wounds with a heavy splash.10
After resting a short while, the party set about searching the tide pool chamber and discovered nearly 900 gold coins. They dug a small wooden box out of a coral outcropping; inside were 40 tiny morganites, plus a magical amulet of defense11 that went to Abby. The adventurers debated the plausibility of somehow transporting the giant golden crab shelter to melt down, but in the end decided it was simply too heavy to feasibly move. They did agree, however, to attempt Rahab’s suggestion of harvesting the crab’s meat for a truly momentous feast in Sandpoint, should time and travel allow.
Gloriana used her wand of healing magic to erase the minor injuries Abby sustained in the fight with the crustacean. As they prepared to return to the L-shaped room with the strangely carved column, Kuch and his wolf took leave; the half-orc explained that work in the wilderness required his return. Thanks were exchanged, and then Kuch departed, wolf in tow.
1 Energy Body oracle class feature.
2 Produce Flame from a wand.
3 There’s never a good level at which to encounter draining undead. Abby only got hit once this round, but she took 3 points of strength damage.
4 Gloriana suffered 4 points of strength damage, but the shadow took 5 hit points of damage just for coming into contact with the oracle’s divine power.
5 Another 6 points of strength damage.
6 This is one of Kara’s new elixirs. It bestows the power of a fire breath weapon to 15 foot range. She did 6 points of damage to both shadows.
7 Lesser Restoration.
8 Gloriana restored 9 out of 10 strength points to herself.
9 Interpreted: “The wages of shouting.”
10 Interested in some isolated statistics about game mechanics? This fight was seven rounds. Abby attacked a total of seven times and hit twice. Gloriana attacked five times and hit twice. Kara attacked twice and hit once. Kuch attacked six times and hit once. One of his attacks was a 1 on the d20. Kuch’s wolf attacked four times and hit once. One of the wolf’s attacks was a 1 on the d20, in exactly the same round that Kuch rolled a 1. Rahab attacked three times and hit once (I’m discarding Magic Missile as a data point for this analysis since that spell automatically hits). That’s a party-wide total of 27 attacks with only 10 hits, for a 37% success rate. The crab was on the board at 33.3% (non-terminating) accuracy, attacking six times and hitting twice. In a recent conversation, Dingleberry (who plays Gloriana) mentioned the chagrin of remembering how poorly Glo did in the fight with Nualia; I think this fight is a good reminder of the function that dice play in role-playing games. Sometimes, it’s just miss after miss, and besides, I’m not sure that a success rate of just-over-one-third would be far off the average, controlling for things like level, etc. As a point of interest, we use an online dice-roller/random number generator built into the MapTool (version 1.3.b87) software, although our GM rolls his dice off screen using colorful pieces of polyhedral-shaped synthetic organic polymer so we players can’t see what his results are. It’s possible he’s a dirty cheater, but we love him anyway, especially because sometimes I suspect he cheats in our favor. Thank goodness.
11 Amulet of Natural Armor +1.