Having burned down the Church of Prospero, the party is visited in a hazy dream world by the massive, smoky, enigmatic form of Entropus, a rival god pleased with their handiwork. He offers them a task: track down the traitorous priests Kolls and Vladdis, whose pyramidal tomb had recently been uncovered. The mad wraiths lurked inside, deserving execution for their betrayal.
The party agrees. At midnight they’re whisked away by magic to a sea of dunes under a vibrant blue sky. Exposed, eroded onyx stone, and an entrance below the sand. They’re not there a moment before a horrified scream precedes a horrified adventurer fleeing the hole empty-handed. The party inquires why. “Ghouls,” he yells, bolting into the desert. The party hears disembodied screams of terror emanate from the tomb.
Entering, the gang finds a spiked piton with a rope affixed. They climb down into a tetrahedric chamber of worked black stone, to find a massive tourmaline sphere, atop a floor of almandine tiles, and several sandy ghouls, silent as the grave. Having equipped themselves with silvered weapons, the ghouls are easily dispatched, but not before Viktor and Luwang take several festering founds that threaten paralyzation: grains of sand form under their nails, overflowing their fingers as the paralytic calcified their bloodstreams.
When but one quiet creature of the grave remains, it scrabbles at a particular tile in the corner. Gardot slays it with a single blow, and the party finds a nook below the tile, containing a dozen viles of an ichorous substance, three dozen vials of human incisors, and a peculiar case. Within, an anachronistically advanced tattoo kit with a half dozen vials of pigment. Luwang inscribes a poem, “Inviolate,” in violet, and feels an arcance sensation he cannot define.
Following a set of stairs deeper into the crypt, the party enters a torture chamber, furnished with onyx and bloodstone slabs and rusty chains alongside a vertical stretching rack on a winch. Strewn about the room, a clutch of dead adventurers, feasted upon by silent ghouls, who turn their attention to the party. Another grisly combat erupts. Viktor and Luwang suffer close calls with paralyzation, relying on a bitter smelling clutch of flowers to help shrug off the effects. The party falls back to the room above, and Ferris freezes the stairs behind them, leaving the oafish ghouls struggling in their pursuit. During the battle, Luwang conjures the energies of his tattoo, and finds his voice amplified, and projecting a force pulse that disorients his opponents — but he cannot control it perfectly, and finds his eyelids resisting opening, getting gummy, as his eyes mutate and shift from binocular to uniocular. Gardot, shooting true with a bow and silvered arrows, finds it soon imbued with potent magics, and with it he lays waste to many ghouls.
The party presses on. Another set of stairs, another horror. A rectangular chamber built not of onyx stone but humanoid skulls; floor, walls, ceiling. In the eyes of one, a gentle, glowing ember, and from its lipless jaws, a mewling, manic mantra: “the bottomless hunger beyond the unseen halls.” It finally shuts up when the party pours water on it. And of course, yet another ghoul, this one alone — easily dispatched.
After taking a break, and encountering a tall, demonic-looking creature with curled horns emerging from its temples, cheekbones, and chin, and a gaunt body hunched like a question mark, which riddles cryptically and disappears when struck, and burning the ghoul corpses in the top-most chamber, and the gang thus defaces the abyssal sphere, learning its purpose for foul scrying magic, the party presses on.
Ignoring the stairs further down from the skull room, the party follows a corridor west, to find an embellished stone door with a groove cut in the shape of a scarab beetle. The door doesn’t budge. East, a square chamber with humanoid gargoyles cut into the upper corners. They encounter another ghoul, of course, this one alone and easily dispatched — and a clutch of fennec fox pups tearing into a chuckwalla. The foxes dart into a sandy den, fearful of the gang. To make friends, Ferris throws them a ration, which they cautiously accept.
The gang descends a set of stairs to find a burnt and ruined library with a fanciful rug at the centre, a pedestal with a singed but readable tome, small piles of gold and jewels, a silver greatsword hanging upon the wall, and in a corner, a blue-scaled creature the size of a pony, with a long, snake-like neck and reptilian face. She greets them in broken Common, introducing herself as Nethrez, and asking if they’ve come to slay Ujharu. In return, she promises safe passage and treasure — beyond that which the party has already helped themselves to in this burnt library. Viktor, meanwhile, reads tome, which is clearly a necromantic spellbook. The book immediately insists he work together with it to kill the dragon and raise her as a boneslave, as that’ll be a good, fun time. The gang asks why Nethrez wants Ujharu dead, and she tells them that Ujharu is keeping Brielle prisoner, locked in a chamber in the western part of the pyramid. The party tentatively agrees, but departing, Luwang unwittingly steps onto the fancy rug. Its threads burst apart to reveal stringly teeth and an impossibly deep maw, with far more depth than the stone floor around it. Both the party and Nethrez are shocked by the giant mimic, but Viktor is able to help Luwang up with a rope while Gardot and Ferris slay the rug. Shaken, the party elects to rest and prepare for whatever might come next…
“Seems like he knows who she is,” Shyan says, standing. Abia remains squatting next to him, gently holding his hand, while the rest observe him like doctors. He continues muttering, “Ulxurix, Ulxurix, Ulxurix,” but the time between words slows, stretches gently, and soon his rail-thin arms and legs are twitching with drowsiness and his eyes flutter shut.
“You killed him,” Fassn says.
The pallid torchlight certainly helps the illusion. His skin looks sallow, translucent. The wrinkles in his skin are deep and black.
“I would imagine that everyone in town knows the name of Ulxurix,” says Cang. “She’s a tattooed witch who lives in a lighthouse.”
“Tough to miss,” Fassn adds.
“Could be,” Shyan says. “How long have you been here, grandfather?” she asks. She nudges him.
He snores, and snorts, and rolls slightly. The parched lips of his mouth fall open to reveal a gentle purple glow.
“Well, what of it, old man?” Cang asks, the steel in his voice palpable. He tries not to let on the tinge of fear he’s feeling, but in the close confines of the cell, all truths are laid bare.
The old man shrugs, as though it makes no difference whatsoever. Maybe it doesn’t. But Cang feels a wave of shame, feels anew the violation of the lich, feels almost as though his teeth are growing long, turning purple…
“Who’s he in now?” the old man asks. His eyes are unfocused, staring straight ahead, as though through the stone and earth to free, open pastures beyond. “Who,” he says again, as his eyelids flutter closed. His chin nods toward his chest.
“Hey,” Shyan says.
Fassn jabs him with his boot, startling the old man awake.
“You know that lighthouse,” Shyan begins, but it’s all she need say. The man’s eyes fill with fear. Shyan catches a faint, purple-y glint in them that quickly fades behind his cataracts.
“Ulxurix,” he says, breathless. “Ulxurix, Ulxurix.”
“That’s right,” Shyan says, concerned by his sudden animation. “You know her?”
He tightens his posture, curling up in himself. “Ulxurix,” he says. “Ulxurix, Ulxurix, Ulxurix…”
Abia sits, legs crossed, next to the old man. He trembles, gently. Has been trembling since the evil word passed his lips: “lich.” Now his red eyes brim with tears.
“What is a lich, grandfather?” Shyan asks.
Another shudder goes through the man’s frail body. “Its name is poison,” he says, his eyes wandering the room slowly, landing on no one. “Name is poison.”
Shyan catches Abia’s eye. Abia says, “Lich dead, not dead. Magic, not magic.” The torch casts crazy light in the cramped cell.
“Who’s crazier, you or the geezer?” Fassn says. He runs his hand through his long, greying hair, and feels a tinge of regret.
“Why does the lich keep you here?” Shyan asks.
“She’s right,” the old man rasps. “Dead, not dead. The lich is all.”
Cang stares impassively but inside, his mind churns. He’s suddenly at the old man’s side, and he lays a hand on the man’s shoulder. He flinches and yelps as though burned. He scrambles uselessly, trying to get away from Cang, knowing there’s nowhere to go. “The lich,” he rasps. “The lich has been in you!”
“Grandfather, are you hurt?” Shyan asks. The man grumbles and shifts so ineffectually that all her stirs are some pebbles around him.
His cell is quite bare, save for a reeking old bucket and a rotten straw mattress that might once have been fit for a groom’s apprentice, but now befits no one.
“Maybe he doesn’t speak the trade tongue?” Fassn says, poking at the man with his booted foot. Without waiting for an answer, Fassn delivers Ajralani funereal rites in the sacred tongue, which comes out as a jarring babble of syllables bouncing around the tiny cell. Cang mimes covering his ears and waves to Fassn to cut it out.
Meanwhile, Abia stares intently at the old man. His milky eyes blink open and he meets her gaze. “Not hurt,” she says. “Not on outside.”
Tears well in the old man’s rheumy eyes, and he scrabbles at the worn stone beneath him, trying to pull himself up to a more dignified, sitting position. When he speaks, his voice is like snake skin. “So,” he says. The torchlight dances across his face, giving the pitted, slack skin a menacing appearance. “The lich got you, too.”