15/5/51 – 22:40 – 23:00: Tssel's body lies horribly still in the middle of the shadow haunted vault, her eyes empty, her skin not only ashen, but filled with writhing layers of ambulant darkness. The air in this place, despite the destruction of the potent undead guarding the chamber, is still thick with toxic whorls and strands of shadowstuff, both the artificer and rogue wheezing, their own skin carrying a hint of its taint. The Veteran strides over to the mage's body, and attempts to lift it, ready to carry it away from here so she can be brought back or at least given a decent burial. However, as his metal fingers close on her, she splinters like balsa wood, her form rapidly disintegrating into a mass of dust, shards and sighing shadows. As this happens, so the air grows colder still, and the tiny particles are swept towards a darkened area of the chamber, where they gather, forming, briefly, the indistinct outline of the slain mage – or at least, a shifting, shadowy facsimile of her. A breath of a voice briefly whispers through the chamber, its words too soft to be heard, but they are accompanied by a palpable pressure of hatred, directed towards those still living.
And so Tssel Agthyr leaves the mortal realm, and becomes a shade.
Shaken, and sick from the touch of the toxic shadows that thicken the air of this foul place, Ormid tries to focus, and calls the rest of the group to attention. They are currently sealed into a tiny stone chamber by fields of shifting, purplish energy, which block the only tunnel out. Three ancient stone levers, dusky in the smoky, tenebrous gloom of this place, stand ready to be manipulated behind other screens of force; a legacy of the parties earlier attempts to get out of here – abruptly interrupted by the arrival of the undead that slew Tssel, and almost killed them too.
He considers their situation and his first thoughts are to try and open a gate back to the House of Granite, so they can rest and come up with the plan for progressing. However, to his horror, as soon as he tries to enact the ritual, he realises that the tenebrous energies that suffuse this place, as well as some other power, are blocking such magics, and that he, and the rest of the party, must find another way out.
Realising that any hope of using his own magic or the mechanisms within the chamber to leave have been squashed, Ormid turns his attention to the field of force blocking their escape; as thin as paper and as resilient as durium. Closing his eyes, he allows the arcane spectrum to fill his minds eye, and soon can see the delicate threads of magic and energy that form the wall, and hold it in existence. With careful skill, he begins to channel his own power into the matrix, weakening it, or more specifically, the magics that keep it stable.
To his colleagues, Ormid is simply standing before the dully glinting sheet of energy, mumbling and frowning, his hands moving in front of him as if he is playing an invisible harp. However, they can feel the unseen energies he is manipulating roiling around him, as if the air is growing continually more and then less dense. Ormid gives a little smile, and with a sound like shattering ice, the field of force collapses, the air in the chamber rushing out to meet the lowering darkness of the corridor beyond.
Any hopes that the breathless, suffocating darkness that thickens the air of this room like poisoned incense would fade with its opening are immediately crushed however, as the corridor beyond is found to be equally choked by the tainted dimensional energies.
“Some kind of breach from a deep shadow plane or doldrum dimension?” Muses the artificer out loud.
The others shrug, grimly limping into the gloom ahead.
23:01 – 23:12: Ancient stonework, corroded by age and exposure to the shadow energies form the corridor, though all can see that it is close to collapse. Drifts of fine sand continually weep from the bowing ceiling, and form a whispering layer of smoky dusts on the floor. Up ahead, the stone has given way, and most of the corridor is blocked by a collapse, a great space, filled with even deeper darkness, looming beyond it, visible through a small gap in the fallen rocks.
Ever curious, the vyrleen volunteers to squeeze through the space that remains, and to scout ahead. The group agree to this, though in truth, all sense that this may be a bad idea. Ormid spends a moment trying to sense whether there are magics ahead, and at once, is filled with fear...
There is indeed a great space beyond, clouded by strands of coiling shadow energy. However, ahead, lower than their current level, are two sources of potent magic. One is an area of concentrated shadow magic; malevolent and he fears, sentient. The other is hard to discern, as it is massively unstable; flashing briefly into existence with a burst of eldritch static, before vanishing as suddenly. With each burst however, the substance of the aether shudders as if being struck, and Ormid fears that they may be tied to whatever has allowed such concentrated shadow energy to remain bottled up in this plane for so long.
Llewellyn, never one to wait, has already squeezed through, and is standing just beyond the collapse, looking down into the terrible dark.
“I'm on a stone step or something. Like, in a, oh you know, an arena. There are more, all heading down ahead of me. I really don't like it in here, it feels even worse than in there. The air is...alive with darkness...I. ERGH!”
Llewellyn's voice suddenly goes quiet, as something barely visible, but definitely tangible, passes by those gathered in the corridor, on through the collapse as if it were not there, and then past the rogue and down into the gloom. As it goes, so a feeling of despair and hopelessness briefly fills each adventurer, and all know that Tssel has just passed them by on her way towards...what?
“Llewellyn, stay where you are.” Growls the Veteran, as he awakens the power within his belt, his hands shifting into potent digging tools, “I'm making a way through for us”.
Everyone gives him some room, and soon the warforged is cutting through the collapse like butter. Alas, in his haste, he does not give much thought to the risks, and within moments, he is fighting to breathe beneath the pile of rubble that smashes down from above, pinning him. Coughing in the billowing clouds of dust that belch forth from the collapse, the others help him free, each more than aware that any element of stealth they (almost certainly didn't) have is now lost.
23:13 – 23:23: The shadows hang like a physical fog here, swallowing the cold alchemical glow of the group's lightrods, and they can all feel a powerful presence at its centre; pulsing with malevolence like some diseased, unnatural heart. Cautiously, they pick their way down the crumbled stepped seats that form the outside of this chamber – clearly some kind of auditorium – down towards the central area where Ormid sensed the powerful energies. As they go, they call out into the thickening darkness, their voices muffled, their heads filling with whispers and gasps that are nothing to do with their own thoughts.
And then they are there, their eyes beholding a terrible sight.
Firstly they see Tssel's shade, wreathed in small flickers of elemental energy, standing to the side, her eyes dimly luminous in the billowing shadows. She stands next to what was clearly once a portal; a hoop of rune carved stone set upon a raised dais of black marble. However, the hoop is now smashed and scattered, the remaining chunks of it floating in their former positions, held aloft by arcing “sparks” of magical energy. As each spark leaps across between the levitating chunks, so there is a brief shimmering, like static, within the portal's hoop – the source of the dimensional pulses sensed by the artificer.
However, even this spectacular portal, a device of clearly advanced magic, is not the most prominent things before the group, for another stands before it. They are humanoid, but their features are hard to discern, for they are shrouded in a mantle of ever-shifting darkness, which hugs and billows around them like ink in water. Power emanates from them, both the power of shadow, and the power of magic, and Ormid knows instinctively that they are connected to everything in this place.
“You shall die here.”
It is not the figure that says this, but Tssel; her voice a soft hiss like a blade sinking into flesh.
“Tssel, please! We are not responsible for your death! We'll...”
The shade suddenly speaks, its own voice like ice cracking under water, its sheer presence causing the others to fall silent. It speaks in a language none of the party understand – almost certainly an ancient form of the local language, and this is confirmed when Tssel's shade bows and speaks back, gaining at least some apparent understanding from it.
“Tssel, please. If you help us to communicate with this being, and to get out of here, we can try to return you to life. Please, you have to believe that we want you back as much as you hate us.”
Ormid laces his words with magic, giving them a weight beyond purely their meaning, and the shade of their former ally seems to take note, though hatred still clearly burns in her empty, black eyes.
Tssel agrees to act as translator, and it is learned that the being is named Maelphazan, and that he was once a “Gate Master”; a mage who specialised in the crafting and maintenance of interdimensional portals. He served a great school of magic that flourished here in Tammatuli long ago, until a dark day when what should have been his crowning achievement became both his own, and the rest of his peer's doom.
They learn that the portal before them was to be the hub of a great network of gates, that would allow instantaneous travel for everyone across the world (this was before the dawn of the 3rd Age, the reunification of Arbel and Verdaniss, and, or course, the chaos of both the Belief Wars and the Age of Loss), and even between worlds. It was a keystone of sorts, which would thread strands of a deep shadow dimension into the weave of this plan's harmonics. These could then be bound to columns of Harmonite, and used to craft artifice gates that could be activated and used with the touch of a glyph. Mass transport for everyone...that was the dream.
The opening of the hub gate was to be a grand affair. All the mages of the school, from the lowest initiate to the greatest Magi were invited to watch its opening, and gathered here in the auditorium to witness its magics being awoken.
Maelphazan seems to shrink a little, and the darkness that infuses the air thickens, making the mortals shiver in its icy heart.
He then continues with his tale, his voice even softer than before, resonating with sorrow and horror. He explains that the portal ruptured, and a burst of concentrated shadow energy was unleashed. It slew everyone within it, either obliterating them, or turning the more powerful of them into the shades the group had battled. Maelphazan for some reason was changed, not into an undead, but into something both alive and made of shadow; a Shadai, a Shade.
The shadow breach would have spread beyond the school were it not for the potent epic wards worked into its boundaries, which raised powerful planar barriers, sealing this place from the physical plane, and keeping the poisonous energies contained within its bounds. This then was why Ormid could no longer open a portal to the House of Granite (the portal to the hold from the House of Granite was channeled through their powerful rune circle, which allowed it to pierce the dimensional veil around the school, and let the group in).
It is fortunate in a way that the portal ruptured, for had it remained active, even the school's wards would have failed, and the region might now be a place of shadows and death.
Silence fills the heavy air of the chamber, the choking shadows closing in around the group. After a moment however, his own voice hushed, Ormid speaks to Tssel.
“Please explain to him that we need to fix the portal so we can leave. We will die if we stay here much longer, and we simply cannot allow that.”
Tssel translates, though her tone is somewhat sarcastic, and the reply is immediate and clear.
“No. If you open that portal the energies within this place will rush out. Not only will that slay anything nearby, but my own lifeforce will be cut off, and I will perish. I will not allow you to do this.”
Magic prickles the air as twin spheres of purplish flame suddenly manifest around the shadai's slender fingers.
Ormid shakes his head sadly, and it seems is about to say something more. However, quicker than even Maelphazan expects, he makes a signal to his allies “Attack”, and suddenly the shadai is being rushed.
“Veteran and Ferrous, keep him off our backs whilst we stabilise, re-forge and then open this portal. Llewellyn, give me a hand. Tssel. Tssel?”
The slain mage has gone.
In retrospect, the group realise that had they solely tried to kill Maelphazan, they would have been slain to a man. Potent in life, his power is magnified tenfold as a shadai, and his deadly magics are complimented and supplemented by the shadow powers his strange state has gifted him. It is a close thing as well, with the Veteran and Ferrous struggling to lock him down, as he teleports freely around the vast chamber, launching bolts of deadly shadow, summoning black tentacles of necrotic power, and wreathing folks in corrosive mantles of living darkness, which blind, weaken and feed on their souls. The portal is wrecked, and it takes a near deific effort from the artificer, aided by the vyrleen, to stabilise its arcing magics, and to reprogramme it, on the fly, to point towards a rune circle of their choice.
At one point, the rogue tries to manage part of the process himself, and misaligns the physical attributes of the glyphs Ormid is trying to re-code. This leads to a partial link to the deep shadow plane that originally slew all those gathered here to be forged, the portal radiating waves of rotting energy, which corrode the flesh and sanity of all the adventurer's, making the near impossible task harder still.
And yet, despite numerous periods of momentary unconsciousness, and the relentless barrage of deadly magics being unleashed by Maelphazan, the portal is repaired. In truth, by the time the final rune is reforged and energised, the group have nothing left. Another second or two, and it would be over, for everyone is spent utterly; physically, mentally and magically. However, with a scream of insane triumph, Ormid manages, somehow, to focus the magics of the plane into the newly aligned glyphs of the portal hoop, pulling it together, and forging a link with a rune circle far from habitation, and in a safe place for them to rest.
As the gate opens, so a powerful scream, raw and filled with fear, issues from Maelphazan. During the battle, the shadows that whirled protectively around him have been hacked and blasted away, and he is revealed now to be a slender being with long arms and sharp, annoyed features. As he dies, the energies keeping him alive screaming through the opened gate, stealing his life with them, he fills the air with a terrible keening wail, and everyone finds not joy but sorrow filling their hearts. Tragic, they realise that he was not evil, just lost and afraid, and none feel happiness at having slain him.
Maelphazan explodes into inky smoke, which rushes with a shriek towards the portal. The air shimmers as the shadow energy is drawn out, and suddenly, there is only natural darkness and dust, as several areas of the complex, held aloft by shadowstuff collapse without their support. Rigid with the energies racing through him, Ormid lets them go, and the portal goes dark, his ear popping as the dimensional tensions immediately release.
Gasping, he crawls over to the panting, prone form of Llewellyn, without a word passing him a steaming cup of hot chocolate, whilst around them the rumbling of settling rocks and collapsing corridors continues. The Veteran stumbles over, his armour plating rusted and bubbling with taints' touch, whilst Ferrous gives a whirring whine, and flops, exhausted to the ground where he stands.