Chapter 15 - Assault On The Ziggurat

“These monsterous, tentacle motifs that decorate the ziggurat are associated with Demogorgon.” Urol noted, almost absently.

Those who examined the stepped pyramid closely quickly noticed that the structure was no mere building, but a shell of masonry over a semi-living aboleth creation. In several areas, the masonry of the ziggurat's exterior was incomplete or had cracked and fallen away. Through the thick layer of stone twitched, live, plum-colored flesh of the true structure beneath. Upon further investigation of these cracks, they found exposed gills, black animalistic eyes, slits like wide, toothless mouths, and stranger features.

The bloodstains that marred the ziggurat's sides bespoke countless slaves the koprus had collected from the troglodytes, sacrificed atop the ziggurat to Demogorgon, their mortal remains … who knew? Perhaps eaten, or worse.

Foul green mold grew over much of the southwestern side of the ziggurat, not seen anywhere else in the city. Urol examined it with no apparent interest beyond caution. This mold had the same properties as green slime, dissolving any organic material it touched, with the exception of the fleshy resin of the aboleth buildings. Even stone slowly succumbs to the ooze, becoming pockmarked and melted as it dissolves at a near geological rate. Urol had no explanation for the presence of this mold, unlike any other known fungus. He cautioned his companions to avoid it.

At the apex of the pyramid was a domelike bulge of constricted, bruise-colored muscle. Slightly tougher than the surrounding flesh, the barrier would be difficult to breach.

“Well, Fingers, do your thing,” Saris said to Roark, who stared examining what they assumed was the entrance.

His search revealed four deep circular fissures that broke the surface of the flesh around the barrier. These sickening, wound-like rents protected muscled pads, the fourth of which was obscured by green mold. He asked for, and received, a torch which he used to burn away the mold. This caused the mound to quiver, as if in pain, and a muffled whine seemed to come from somewhere below them. However, the wound – if that’s what it was – quickly healed before his eyes. After some experimenting, Roark found that by touching the four circular fissures simultaneously, the bulge split and contracted revealing an opening like a door. It was a 15-foot drop to the floor below.

While the others discussed how to proceed, Roark continued to examine his surroundings. The cavern ceiling, some 200 feet above the ziggurat, had a section about 10-foot-square with a strangely smooth surface. While almost impossible to detect if one wasn’t specifically looking around, as Roark was, it was odd enough that he pointed it out to the others. Duxsil realized that this area was likely shaped by a wall of stone spell, inferring that there had to be some sort of passage beyond it leading, at least initially, upward, possibly all the way to the surface. While interesting, this was not something they could currently investigate further.

The room below was alive. The bruised purple walls pulsed and quivered, heaving irregularly like the breath of a dying thing. Growths jutted from the walls—exposed, fleshy things like black lungs, giant many-chambered and inside-out hearts, rolling milky white eyes, and other organs with no humanoid analog. Unfinished stonework covered patches of the floor, as if some optimistic architect hoped to merely brick over the room's obscene nature. An open chute with a strange ladder, its rungs curved and awkwardly placed, opened through part of the masonry floor, descending deeper into the structure's depths.

Suddenly they realized that the room below them was not only dark, but full of water, and that water was rising. Very soon the water would cover the oddly shaped ladder and begin to wet their feet. Considering their options, Ken-ji and Urol could shape-change into aquatic creatures. Viselys could don the Cloak of the Manta Ray. Kenji went first, in the form of a squid, to try to find the source of the rising water.

The ziggurat's organs continued to twitch, roil, and watch. The half-laid stonework glistened under the water. To the east loomed a huge bust of a demonic countenance with twin baboon-like heads set in a fearsome double roar sprouting from its over-muscled chest. Across the ground lay hunks of shattered black resin and, near the statue, a black tumor grew from the fleshy floor, its size and shape reminiscent of some grotesque divan. A stone trapdoor with a broad iron ring was set in the masonry of the floor near the statue of Demogorgon. Also near the statue was a metallic decanter, lying on it’s side.

However, also occupying this demonic shrine was a kopru cleric, swimming near the ceiling so he could not be seen immediately. He dropped down on Ken-ji’s squid form, pummeled him with attacks, and wrapped him in his tail, dragging him down.

Seeing that his friend was unable to wrest himself free, Viselys donned the cloak, and dove in. As soon as Viselys had freed his critically injured friend and they were clear of the kopru priest, Duxsil launched a lightning bolt through the water. Back in the upper room, they prepared to do battle with the aquatic creature in, what they had hoped would be, a better environment, but as he emerged from below, he flew upwards as though swimming through the air. Roark and Saris, however, were able to get a few good attack in on him as they had been waiting for just such an opportunity. Things went much faster as everyone could bring their attentions to bear, and the priest fell.

However, the water was still rising, so Viselys went back down and brought up the decanter. Just as he’d guessed, it was a magical decanter of endless water. Tipped back up, it stopped pouring, but there seemed no way to empty the water that already filled the shrine.

Roark asked if he could use the cloak to investigate and, perhaps, find something that Viselys had missed. In a secret compartment in the throne or alter or whatever it was, he found a strangely shaped gold and ivory tiara of coiling snakes and shrieking monkeys (worth 2.400 gp), a ruby ring (which proved to be a ring of wizardry II), and a necklace (of adaptation). In addition, the four eyes in the bust of Demogorgon were black pearls worth 500 gp each.

Meanwhile, Duxil examined the priest's possessions which included a +4 chain shirt, +2 anarchic spear, periapt of Wisdom +4, ring of protection +3, bracers of health +2, a portable hole filled with cold, brackish water, and a gold unholy symbol of Demogorgon worth 500 gp.

“So, what do we do, now?” Saris asked his recovering companions? “The only way onward seems to be a trapdoor in the floor covered by 20 feet or so of water … and no apparent way to drain it.”

Several of the party members glanced towards Duxsil in the hopes that he had some magical remedy, but he shook his head, “The decanter is a one-way prospect. Once the water’s out, it won’t go back.”

Viselys donned the Cloak of the Manta Ray again. “I can open the trap door, but once I do, that water is going to just pour down, so if anything is waiting for us below, we will have no chance of surprise.” Unfortunately, there seemed no other options, so he dove in.

As it turned out, the stone was not really water-tight. While the water pressure made the trapdoor too heavy to open outright, the lack of seal allowed him to pry it open. Once the door was fully opened, however, the current’s of out-rushing water almost swept Viselys down. He was able to get to the far end of the chamber, however, where he was able to wait out the drainage and then investigate what lay beneath.

The sticky heat and pulsing walls of this cloying room augmented perfectly the revolting stink of bile mixed with crude oil. Four pools of putrid black muck bubbled and spurt in the floor, their edges determined by either rigid stone blocks or dimples in the fleshy ground. Four pillars separated the pools and held the sagging flesh of the ceiling aloft. Within the basins of roiling foulness floated pristine black orbs, each the size of a man's head and shimmering with an unsettling inner light.

Rising from the inky blackness of the Black Bile of the World was a thing with many-jointed legs, squirming in a horror of repulsive motion. A thing like a hybrid of a giant spider and an octopus turned many alien, black eyes to stare stare fathomlessly at Viselys. It glistened like a scarab's shell even as it bathed itself in an endless flow of oily black drool.

Bilewretch.jpg

Viselys returned to the group to tell what he had seen. Urol was the first to speak, "A Bilewretch of Holuhner."

"A who of what?" Saris asked.

"A monstrous aberration sculpted from unknowable samples harvested eons ago from Holashner itself," Urol spoke as though reciting something from wrote - it was somewhat creepy, "It exist to perpetuate the transformation of black bile of the world into bilestone and then back again."

"And you know this how?" Roark asked skeptically.

The gnome seemed to snap out of his reverie to respond, "The book we got from the Illithid," and then he returned to his far-away droning, "Like an intelligent fountain, these monsters live only to endlessly break down bilestone and excrete it as liquid madness, protecting that which they have reformed. Often ordered by their masters to guard sites honoring the Elder Evils, these aberrations' limited intellects myopically focus on their instructions, devising and honing the most effective methods of protecting that which they were created to honor."

"So, that means we have to destroy this thing to stop the production of pearls," Viselys attempted to bottom-line it.

"Well, not exactly," Urol again seemed to come back to himself, "The Bilewretch is merely making the bilestones within which the pearls are steeped and transported." Urol realized that his companions were not understanding the distinctions. "Um, this isn't the vineyard. This is the cooper making barrels within which the wine is fermented. Metaphorically speaking, of course."

"Then these kopru 'Lords of Chaos' or whatever are the vintners, and the Crimson Fleet is their distribution network." Saris deciphered, to which Urol merely noded, gravely.

"Whatever the production chain, I mean to see every link broken, so let's end this bilewretch," Viselys declared.

They formed their plan and headed down to attack. The pools of black bile of the world were caustic and poisonous, so they had to avoid them at any cost, but as the battle proceeded, it became clear that the creature was well aware of that. Apparently the pools were connected somewhere below because after submerging below one, it would rise up from another, keeping the party always guessing. Coupled with it's very thick hide and apparent resistance to magic, it was very difficult to hit and damage. However, it suffered from no such difficulty being able to spray a caustic, super-heated jet of bile.

And none would be better acquainted with the bilewretch's bile attacks than Ken-ji. Caught in a spray of the deadly vile, and taking sever damage from the creature's physical attacks, Ken-ji was the first to fall, never to rise again. Urol and Liamae took heavy damage, too, before the bilewretch was destroyed.

Continue to Chapter 16...

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