Before action report
It turned out that someone with at the resistance didn’t have all the facts, and it nearly cost Sophia her life.
The infiltrators ascended the stairs with utmost stealth, and emerged through a shadowed doorway. In her haste to find new cover, Sophia darted from the opening…and tumbled over a nearby ledge into the inky blackness of a yawning, tremendous shaft.
The weaponmaster gave a shout of surprise and whipped her greatsword from its clasp on her back. With a desperate lunge, she embedded the point deep in the sheer rock face.
For a moment, Sophia hung by one hand from the hilt of her trusted blade. Then, struggling against the weight of her scale armor, she reached up to grasp the sword securely and began to swing back and forth, back and forth, until the momentum was great enough. With an acrobatic twist, the adventurer vaulted upward and got one hand on the edge from which she had fallen. Fae, who had seen Sophia cross the brink, rushed over to pull her comrade up.
“The ledge is dangerously narrow here,” said Ilyich.
The infiltrators had a hard time seeing anything in the darkness of the cavern—except for Faerynrae.
“It goes up for a bit, and down for quite a ways. I’d say humanoid-made, if these beams weren’t a clue,” she said, knocking on a huge iron I-beam that seemed to extend the length of the shaft, “and the whole thing’s recently carved, too.” Fae’s impacts sent sonorous vibrations echoing through the air.
“That’s the first metal I’ve seen that I don’t own,” said Titus softly.
“Corellon’s chords, you’re right! But what is it for?” Ilyich reached deep within the bell of his tuba and withdrew a hooded lantern. In its light, the iron of the beam seemed slick with a thin layer of condensation.
Elka reached forward and ran her finger along the inside of the I-beam. She traced a path downward, across the rough edges of a series of teardrop-shaped grooves pressed into the thick metal. “Look at this wear. It’s regular to an extent—the shape and depth is almost identical for each cut—but there’s minute variations in frequency and amplitude.”
“Oop, that means a construct,” said Sophia.
The others stared at her quizzically.
Suddenly, the beam shook with a low clang, and then another, and then more. Elka and Ilyich leaped backward, and the infiltrators retreated into the relative safety of the pipe-framed doorway.
Fae’s eyes darted back and forth. “The other beams are going too, all six of them. I hear something else, too.” The drow craned her neck high upward and chanced a glance outside the threshold. “There’s a big disk descending in the middle of the shaft—an elevator or such—but I can’t see to what it’s secured.”
The adventurers could only watch as the elevator slowed and stuttered to a halt against the ledge just outside their entrance.
Above the platform, tethered to the disk by six sturdy cords, was a massive mechanical crab of wood and stone. Its joints creaked, and it gripped the I-beam with a wicked-looking claw.
With a clockwork clicking, a diamond-shaped hatch on the area of the construct nearest to the group’s hiding place inverted, and a much smaller construct climbed on a dozen tiny claws down the nearest cord. It wheezed and came to rest on the disk near the I-beam.
The construct’s mechanical face spoke without moving.
Three more times the wizard replaced one rune with another, fast enough to finish the process before the cycle whisked it away.
“I understand now,” said Ilyich. “You’re telling the construct to allow all cargo to travel to the bottom.” He glanced down at the morphing runes. “I’ll re-energize the thing when you’ve finished changing the final sign.”
“It’s a complicated character. Even if I catch the right symbol in time, it will be tricky to replace.” Elka had not taken her eyes off of the core. There was a sharp intake of breath—"There!"—and she set upon the runes a final time. The window of opportunity narrowed; the deva pulled back. “Good enough.”
“Are you sure?” The bard cast her a sidelong glance, but his companion did not answer. “Alright, then…”
“What is this place?” Fae seemed hesitant to go any further. “It’s almost cutting into the Shallows of the Underdark.”
“Well, I’ve never seen it done,” said Ilyich, “but judging by the traces of arcane activity lingering down here I’d guess that whoever worked on all this landscaping used a team of magicians and the Raise Land ritual. Проклятие expensive, though.” The bard whistled a few experimental notes up at the shaft, and listened to them echo back down. “I think we’re almost half a mile down…”
Ardan’s gaze wandered from their elevator, to the tracks along the smooth stone floor, to the source of the light at the bottom of the shaft. An immense, smooth-edged opening in the side of the cavern led to a lazily-curving path through which a galley could sail comfortably, with a flat bottom to accommodate the cart tracks. Its ceiling shimmered with reflective light in a pattern that seemed almost familiar…
More distressing than the mysterious lights, however, was the elaborate high relief archway that nearly encircled the opening. Two stone-cold dragons curved their long, graceful necks upward to cross at the very apex of the aperture, high above the astounded adventurers. Engraved on the neck scales of the left dragon, in the bizarre circuitous characters of Deep Speech, were two words: “Nimithe borgaryat.”
“Here [there be] dragons.”
When Titus told his fellow travelers that the constructs were all building some sort of hulk submerged deep in the waters of the lake, they believed him, but they still wanted a look for themselves.
The six didn’t count on being intercepted by a colossus of a different kind. Whether Fae or Ardan noticed it first was unclear; a miniscule rattling noise, measured and steady like a Dr. Beat set to a high tempo, barely audible over the sound of the constructs’ incessant clanging and smelting. Nevertheless, halfway down the tunnel Fae decided to look up—and found herself nose to nose with a creature from drow flayer-tales.
This time, even the normally calm cleric couldn’t suppress a shriek, and she fell back on her fundament with a rather notable clank. The rest of the party gave a jump and turned to see what had startled their associate.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” said the purple dragon.
It seemed that the wyrm had been expecting people just like the six adventurers for some time—and that they had arrived in her new lair on the eve of a great opportunity.
“That pesky resistance has been closing in on this location for months, totally unaware of the secrets it holds.” The dragon beckoned the travelers to follow, and curled her long, slender tail around them to guarantee their compliance. “Even for one of as great patience as I, the slothfulness of you humanoids can be exasperating.”
For a powerful creature that seemed at first to be in charge of guarding the Craterians’ underground repository, the dragon was surprisingly willing to welcome intruders. It turned out she didn’t think much of the Craterians at all.
“A dreadful inconvenience, worse than hitting a sheet of quartz where your tunnel’s supposed to go. I’d like to quit playing guard dog for those insects and have this lair all to myself, but…they do have something I want.”
After digging for a moment in a nearby pile of gold, the dragon produced a bag the size of a grapefruit—and from the bag, a book the size of a desk. Ancient and moldy, dust sprung from its bindings as she set it before the adventurers. An detailed metal purple dragon’s head, which looked remarkably like that of the living dragon towering above them, served as a kind of lock clamping the cover shut.
“Not this, of course—this is a fake. But the High Minister’s got his hands on a real tome that looks just like this. You’re going to go to his masquerade ball, which just happens to be tonight, and steal it for me.”
Sliding the book back into the bag, the creature uncoiled herself and strode over to a magnificent armoire. The inside proved larger than the outside, and it seemed positively stuffed with fine garments in styles to fit any occasion. “Well, come on then! Throw something on. Surely you can find something that fits.”
“Why don’t you just go steal it yourself?”
All eyes were suddenly on Sophia.
“You don’t know much of my kind, do you?” The dragon’s neck stretched around so that she was face to face with the fighter. “I’ll indulge your curiosity. First: there’s that business with the sun. Second: they’re expecting me to do just that—steal it myself.”
“Third: even if I somehow caught them by surprise in the middle of the night with all my minions, to face them in their domain would be more trouble than even such a valuable tome is worth.”
“No, you’ll have to do. But don’t worry; I assure you, this is quite an opportunity for you as well. I don’t know precisely what they’re building out there in the middle of the lake, but I’m fairly certain you’d rather the High Minister never see it completed.”
As the six noblewomen and men strode onto the grounds of the Minister’s surprisingly modest estate, none of the menservants, butlers or waiters looked twice at the invitations the dragon had forged. The sharp-eyed majordomo didn’t even cock a bushy eyebrow.