The door opened into a circular room that encompassed the whole of one floor of the keep. A basalt altar stood out from the northern edge of the room directly across from them. Red veins shot through the rock, accentuating the decorated covering of bas relief images of dragons. Behind the altar, between a pair of burning braziers, sat a huge egg, large enough for a man Entreri's size to curl up inside it.
"This looks like a place for fighting," Athrogate muttered, and he didn't seem the least dismayed by that probability.
Given the scene outside with the undead, the dwarf's words rang true, for all around the room, set equidistant to each other, stood sarcophagi of polished stone and decorated gold. The facings of the ornate caskets indicated a standing humanoid creature, arms in tight to its sides, with long feet and a long, canine snout.
"Gnolls?" Jarlaxle asked. Behind him, Entreri secured the door, expertly resetting the lock.
"Let us not tarry to find out," said Mariabronne, indicating the one other exit in the room: another descending stairwell over to their right. It was bordered by a waist-high railing, with the entry all the way on the other side of the room. The ranger, his eyes locked on the nearest sarcophagus, one hand ready on his sheathed sword, stepped out toward the center of the room. He felt a rumble, as if from a movement within that nearest sarcophagus, and he started to call out.
But they didn't need the warning, for they all felt it, and Entreri broke into motion, darting past the others to the railing. He grabbed onto it and rolled right over, dropping nimbly to the stairs below. Hardly slowing, he was at the second door in an instant, working his fingers around its edges, his eyes darting all about.
He took a deep breath. Though he saw no traps, the assassin knew he should inspect the door in greater detail, but he simply didn't have the time. Behind him, he heard his friends scrambling on the stairs, followed by the creaking sounds as the undead monsters within the sarcophagi pushed open their coffins.
He went for the lock.
But before he could begin, the door popped open.
Entreri fell back, drawing his weapons. Nothing came through, though, and the assassin calmed when he noted a smug-looking Canthan on the stairs behind him.
"Magical spell of opening?" Entreri asked.
"We haven't the time for your inspection," replied the mage. "I thought it prudent."
Of course you did, so long as I was close enough to catch the brunt of any traps or monsters lying in wait, Entreri thought but did not say - though his expression certainly told the others the gist of it.
"They're coming out," Commander Ellery warned from up in the room.
"Mummified gnolls," Jarlaxle said. "Interesting."
Entreri was not so interested and had no desire to see the strange creatures. He spun away from Canthan, drawing his weapons as he went, and charged through the door.
He was surprised, as were all the others as they came through, to find that he was not on the keep's lowest level. From the outside, the structure hadn't seemed tall enough to hold three stories, but sure enough, Entreri found himself on a balcony that ran around the circumference of the keep, opening to a sweeping stone stair on the northernmost wall. Moving to the waist-high iron railing, its balusters shaped to resemble twisting dragons with wings spread wide, Entreri figured out the puzzle. For the floor level below him was partially below ground - the circular section of it, at least. On the southernmost side of that bottom floor, a short set of stairs led up to a rectangular alcove that held the tower's main doors, so that the profile of that lowest level reminded the assassin of a keyhole, but one snubbed short.
And there, just at the top of those stairs, set in the rectangular alcove opposite the doors, sat the book of Zhengyi, the tome of creation, suspended on tendrils that looked all too familiar to Artemis Entreri. The assassin eventually pulled his eyes away from the enticing target and completed his scan of the floor below. He heard the door behind him close, followed immediately by some heavy pounding and Jarlaxle saying, with his typical penchant for understatement, "We should move quickly."
But Entreri wasn't in any hurry to go down the stairs or over the railing. He noted a pair of iron statues set east and west in the room below, and vividly recalled his encounter in Herminicle's tower. Even worse than the possibility of a pair of iron golems, the room below was not sealed, for every few feet around the perimeter presented an opening to a tunnel of worked and fitted stones, burrowing down into the ground. Might the horde of undead be approaching through those routes even then?
A sharp ring behind him turned Entreri around. Athrogate stood at the closed iron door, the locking bar and supports already rattling from the pounding of the mummified gnolls.
The dwarf methodically went to work, dropping his backpack to the ground and fishing out one piton after another. He set them strategically around the door and drove them deep into the stone with a single crack of his morning star - the one enchanted with oil of impact.
A moment later, he hopped back and dropped his hands on his hips, surveying his work. "Yeah, it'll hold them back for a bit."
"They're the least of our worries," Entreri said.
By that point, several of the others were at the rail, looking over the room and coming up with the same grim assessment as had Entreri. Not so for Arrayan and Olgerkhan, though. The woman slumped against the back wall, as if merely being there, in such close proximity to the magical book, was rendering her helpless. Her larger partner didn't seem much better off.
"There are our answers," Canthan said, nodding toward the book. "Get me to it."
"Those statues will likely animate," Jarlaxle said. "Iron golems are no easy foe."
Athrogate roared with laughter as he walked up beside the drow. "Ain't ye seen nothing yet from Cracker and Whacker?" As he named the weapons, he presented them before the dark elf.
"Cracker and Whacker?" the drow replied.
Athrogate guffawed again as he glanced over the railing, looking down directly atop one of the iron statues. "Meet ye below!" he called and with that he whispered to each of his weapons, bidding them to pour forth their enchanted fluids. With another wild laugh, he hopped up atop the railing and dropped.
"Cracker and Whacker?" Jarlaxle asked again.
"He used to call them Rotter and Slaughter," Ellery replied, and Entreri noted that for the first time since he had met Jarlaxle, the drow seemed to have no answer whatsoever.
But as there was no denying Athrogate's inanity, nor was there any way to deny his effectiveness. He landed in a sitting position on the statue's iron shoulders, his legs wrapping around its head. The golem began to animate, as predicted, but before it could even reach up at the dwarf, Cracker slapped down atop its head. The black iron of the construct's skull turned reddish-brown, its integrity stolen by the secretions of a rust monster. When Whacker, gleaming with oil of impact, hit the same spot iron dust flew and the top of the golem's head caved in.
Still the creature flailed, but Athrogate had too great an advantage, whipping his weapons with precision, defeating the integrity of his opponent's natural armor with one morning star, then blasting away with the other. An iron limb went flying, and though the other hand managed to grab the dwarf and throw him hard to the floor, the tough and strong Athrogate bounced up and hit the golem with a one-two, one-two combination that had one leg flying free. Then he caved in the side of its chest for good measure.
But the other golem charged in, and other noises echoed from the tunnels.
Mariabronne and Ellery, Pratcus in tow, charged around to the stairwell while Entreri slipped over the railing and dropped the fifteen feet to the floor, absorbing his landing with a sidelong roll.
Canthan, too, went over the railing, dropping the end of a rope while its other end magically anchored in mid-air. He slid down off to the side of the fray with no intention of joining in. For the wizard, the goal was in sight, sitting there for the taking.
He wasn't pleased when Jarlaxle floated down beside him and paced him toward the front alcove.
"Just keep them off of me," Canthan ordered the drow.
"Them?" Jarlaxle asked.
Canthan wasn't listening. He paused with every step and began casting a series of spells, weaving wards around himself to fend off the defensive magic that no doubt protected the tome.
"Jarlaxle!" called Ellery. "To me!"
The drow turned and glanced at the woman. The situation in the room was under control for the time being, he could see, mostly owing to Athrogate's abilities and effectiveness against iron golems. One was down, thrashing helplessly, and the second was already lilting and wavering as blast after blast wracked it, with the dwarf rushing all around it and pounding away with abandon.
"Jarlaxle!" Ellery cried again.
The drow regarded her and shrugged.
"To me!" she insisted.
Jarlaxle glanced back at Canthan, who stood before the book, then turned his gaze back at Ellery. She meant to keep him away from it and for no other reason than to allow Canthan to examine it first. Ellery stared at him, her look showing him in no uncertain terms that if he disobeyed her, the fight would be on.
He glanced back at Canthan again and grew confident that he still had time to play things through, for the wizard was moving with great caution and seemed thoroughly perplexed.
Jarlaxle started across the room toward Ellery. He paused and nodded to the stairs, where Olgerkhan and Arrayan were making their way down, the large half-orc practically carrying the bone-weary woman.
"Secure the perimeter," Ellery instructed them all, and she waved for the half-orcs to return to the balcony. "We must give Canthan time to unravel the mystery of this place." To Mariabronne and Entreri, she added, "Scout the tunnels to first door or thirty feet."
Entreri was only peripherally listening, for he was already scanning the tunnels. All of them seemed to take the same course: a downward-sloping, eight-foot wide corridor bending to the left after about a dozen feet. Torches were set on the walls, left and right, but they were unlit. Even in the darkness, though, the skilled Entreri understood that the floors were not as solid as they appeared.
"Not yet," the assassin said as Mariabronne started down one tunnel.
The ranger stopped and waited as Entreri moved back from the tunnel entrance and retrieved the head of a destroyed iron golem. He moved in front of one tunnel and bade the others to back up.
He rolled the head down, jumping aside as if expecting an explosion, and as he suspected, the item bounced across a pressure plate set in the floor. Fires blossomed, but not the killing flames of a fireball trap. Rather, the torches flared to life, and as the head rolled along to the bend, it hit a second pressure plate, lighting the opposing torches set there as well.
"How convenient," Ellery remarked.
"Are they all like that?" asked Mariabronne.
"Pressure plates in all," Entreri replied. "What they do, I cannot tell."
"Ye just showed us, ye dolt," said Athrogate.
Entreri didn't answer, other than with a wry grin. The first rule of creating effective traps was to present a situation that put intruders at ease. He looked Athrogate over and decided he didn't need to tell the dwarf that bit of common sense.
Strange that she should choose this moment to think herself a leader, the wizard mused when he heard Ellery barking commands in the distance. To Canthan, after all, Ellery would never be more than a pawn. He could not deny her effectiveness in her present role, though. The others didn't dare go against her, particularly with the fool Mariabronne nodding and flapping his lips at her every word.
A cursory glance told Canthan that Ellery was performing her responsibilities well. She had them all busy, moving tentatively down the different tunnels, with Olgerkhan and Arrayan back upstairs guarding the door. Pratcus anchored the arms of Ellery's scouting mission, the dwarf staying in the circular room and hopping about to regard each dark opening as Ellery, Entreri, Jarlaxle, Mariabronne, and Athrogate explored the passages.
Canthan caught a glimpse of Ellery as she came out one tunnel and turned into another, her shield on one arm, axe ready in the other.
"I have taught you well," Canthan whispered under his breath. He caught himself as he finished and silently scolded himself for allowing the distraction - any distraction - at that all-important moment. He took a deep breath and turned back to the book.
His confidence grew as he read on, for he felt the empathetic intrusions of the living tome and came to believe that his wards would suffice in fending them off.
Quickly did the learned mage begin to decipher the ways of the book. The runes appearing in the air above it and falling into it were translations of life energy, drawn from an outside source. That energy had fueled the construction, served as the living source of power animating the undead, caused the gargoyles to regenerate on their perches, and brought life to the golems.
Canthan could hardly draw a breath. The sheer power of the translation overwhelmed him. For some two decades, the wizards of the Bloodstone Lands considered Zhengyi's lichdom, his cheating of death itself, to be his greatest accomplishment, but the book...
The book rivaled even that.
The wizard devoured another page and eagerly turned to the next. In no time, he had come to the point where the lettering ended and watched in amazement as runes appeared in the air and drifted to the pages, writing as they went. The process had been vampiric at first, Canthan recognized, with the tome taking from the living force, but it had become more symbiotic, a joining of purpose and will.
The source of energy? Canthan mused. He considered Arrayan, her weakness and that of her partner. She had found the missing book, Mariabronne and Wingham had told them.
No, the wizard decided. That wasn't the whole of it. Arrayan was far more entwined in all of it than just having been drained of her life energies.
Canthan smiled when he finally understood the power of the tome and knew how to defeat it.
And not just defeat it, he hoped, but possess it.
He tore his gaze away from the page and glanced up the staircase to see Arrayan leaning back against a wall, watching Olgerkhan. She looked his way desperately, plaintively. Too much so, Canthan knew. There was more at stake for the young woman than merely whether or not they could find their way out of the castle. For her, it was much more personal than the safety of Palishchuk.
Entreri had shown them how to test each pressure plate safely, but Mariabronne needed no such instructions. The ranger had played through similar scenarios many times, and had the know-how and the equipment to work his way quickly down the tunnel he had chosen.
It had continued to bend around to the left for many feet, with pressure plates set between wall-set torches every dozen feet or so. Mariabronne lit the first by tapping the plate with a long telescoping pole, but he did not trigger the next, or the next after that, preferring to walk in near darkness.
Then, convinced all was clear, the ranger rushed back to the second set of torches and triggered the plate. He repeated the process, always lighting the torches two sets back.
After about fifty feet, the tunnel became a staircase, moving straight down for many, many steps.
Mariabronne glanced back the way he had come. Ellery had told them to inspect the tunnels just to thirty feet or so. The ranger had always been that advanced and independent scout, though, and he trusted his instincts. Down he went, testing the stairs and the walls. Slowly and steadily, he put three dozen steps behind him before it simply became too dark for him to continue. Not willing to mark his position clearly by lighting a candle or torch of his own, Mariabronne sighed and turned back.
But then a light appeared below him, behind the slightly ajar door of a chamber at the bottom of the stairs. Mariabronne eyed it for a long while, the hairs on the back of his neck tingling and standing on end. Such were the moments he lived for, the precipice of disaster, the taunt of the unknown.
Smiling despite himself, Mariabronne crept down to the door. He listened for a short while and dared to peek in. Every castle must have a treasure room was his first thought, and he figured he was looking in on one of the antechambers to just that. Two decorated sarcophagi were set against the opposite wall, framing a closed iron door. Before them, in the center of the room, a brazier burned brightly, a thin line of black smoke snaking up to the high ceiling above. Centering that ceiling was a circular depression set with some sort of bas relief that Mariabronne could not make out - though it looked to him as if there were egglike stones set into it.
Stone tables covered in decorated silver candelabra and assorted trinkets lined the side walls, and the ranger made out some silver bells, a gem-topped scepter, and a golden censer. Religious items, mostly, it seemed to him. A single cloth hung from one table, stitched with a scene of gnolls dancing around a rearing black dragon.
"Lovely combination," he whispered.
Mariabronne glanced back up the ascending corridor behind him. Perhaps he shouldn't press on. He could guess easily enough what those sarcophagi might hold.
The ranger grinned. Such had been the story of his life: always pushing ahead farther than he should. He recalled the scolding King Gareth had given to him upon his first official scouting expedition in eastern Vaasa. Gareth had bade him to map the region along the Galenas for five miles.
Mariabronne had gone all the way to Palishchuk.
That was who he was and how he played: always on the edge and always just skilled enough or lucky enough to sneak out of whatever trouble his adventurous character had found.
So it was still, and he couldn't resist. The Honorable General Dannaway of the Vaasan Gate had been wise indeed not to entrust Ellery to Mariabronne's care alone.
The ranger pushed open the door and slipped into the room. Gold and silver reflected in his brown eyes, gleaming in the light of the brazier. Mariabronne tried hard not to become distracted, though, and set himself in line with the coffins.
As he had expected, their dog-faced, decorated lids swung open.
As one gnoll mummy strode forth from its coffin, Mariabronne was there, a smile on his face, his sword deftly slashing and stabbing. He hit the creature several times before it had even cleared the coffin, and when it reached for him with one arm, lumbering forward, Mariabronne gladly took that arm off at the elbow.
The second was on him by then, and the ranger hopped back. He went into a quick spin, coming around fast, blade level, and the enchanted sword creased the gnoll's abdominal area, tearing filthy gray bandages aside and opening up a gash across the belly of the dried-out husk of the undead creature. The gnoll mummy groaned and slowed its pursuit. Mariabronne smiled all the wider, knowing that his weapon could indeed hurt the thing.
And the two undead creatures simply weren't fast enough to present a serious threat to the skilled warrior. Mariabronne's blade worked brilliantly and with lightning speed and pinpoint accuracy, finding every opening in the mummies' defenses, taking what was offered and never asking for more. He fought with no sense of urgency, as was his trademark, and it was rooted in the confidence that whatever came along, he would have the skills to defeat it.
A rattle from above tested that confidence. Both mummies were ragged things by then, much more so than they had been when first they had emerged from their coffins, with rag wrappings hanging free and deep gashes oozing foul odors and the occasional drip of ichor all around them both. One had only half an arm, a gray-black bony spur protruding from the stump. The other barely moved, its gut hanging open, its legs torn. The ranger led them to the near side of the room, back to the door through which he'd entered, then he disengaged and dashed back to find the time to glance up at the rattle.
He noted one of the egg shapes rocking back and forth above the brazier. It broke free of the ceiling and dropped to the flaming bowl. Mariabronne's eyes widened with curiosity as he watched it fall. He came to realize that it was not an egg-shaped stone but an actual egg of some sort. It hit the flaming stones in the bowl and cracked open, and a line of blacker smoke rushed out of it, widening as it rose.
Hoping it was no poison, Mariabronne darted back at the mummies, thinking to slash through them and get in position for a fast exit. He hit the nearest again in the gut, extending the already deep wound so thoroughly that the creature buckled over, folded in half, and fell into a heap. The other swung at Mariabronne, but the ranger was too fast. He ducked the lumbering blow and quick-stepped past, nearly to the door.
"You shall not run!" came a booming voice in his ears, and the ranger felt a shiver course his spine. Accompanying that voice was a sudden, sharp gust of wind that whipped the ranger's cloak up over his back.
Worse for Mariabronne, though, the wind slammed the door.
He rolled and turned as he came around, so that he faced the room with his back to the door. His jaw dropped as he followed the billowing column of black smoke up and up to where it had formed into the torso and horned head of a gigantic, powerful demonic creature that radiated an aura of pure evil. Its head and facial features resembled that of a snub-nosed bulldog, with huge canines and a pair of inward-hooking horns at the sides of its wide head. Its arms and hands seemed formed of smoke, great grasping black hands with fingers narrowing to sharp points.
"Well met, human," the demon creature said. "You came here seeking adventure and a test of your skills, no doubt. Would you leave when you have at last found it?"
"I will send you back to the Abyss, demon!" Mariabronne promised.
He started forward but realized his error immediately, for in his fascination with the more formidable beast, he had taken his eye off the mummy. It came forward with a lumbering swing. The ranger twisted and ducked the blow. But that second, cropped arm stabbed in, the sheared, sharpened bone gashing Mariabronne's neck. Again Mariabronne's speed extracted him before the mummy could follow through, but he felt the warmth of his own blood dribbling down his neck.
Before he could even consider that, however, he was leaping aside once more.
The smoky creature blew forth a cone of fiery breath.
"Daemon," the beast corrected. "And my home is the plane of Gehenna, where I will gladly return. But not until I feast upon your bones."
Flames danced up from Mariabronne's cloak and he spun, pulling it free as he turned. He noted then that the pursuing mummy had not been so fortunate, catching the daemon fire full force. It thrashed about, flames dancing all over it, one arm waving frantically, futilely.
Mariabronne threw his cloak upon it for good measure.
Then he leaped forward and the daemon came forth, smoke forming into powerful legs as it stepped free of the brazier. It raked with its shadowy hands and its head snapped forward to bite at Mariabronne, but again the ranger realized at once that he was the superior fighter and that his sword could indeed inflict damage upon the otherworldly creature.
"Gehenna, then," he cried. "But you will go there hungry!"
"Fool, I am always hungry!"
Its last word sounded more as a gurgle, as the ranger's fine sword creased its face. In his howl of triumph, though, Mariabronne didn't hear the second egg drop.
Or the third.