Chapter 85: The Temple of Amaunator
The interior of the temple was dark and musty, and showed signs of having been neglected for years, decades, maybe even centuries. The hole that Ember and her companions had used to enter the temple led to a smallish chamber that was half full of fallen rocks. There was an opening on one of the walls that looked as if it had once held a door, and beyond it lay a long, dark corridor, lined with several other doorways.
"Storage rooms, or quarters, perhaps," Yoshimo said, and carefully led the others down the corridor. The chambers they passed were mostly empty; two shadows emerged from one of the doorways near the end of the corridor, but they were quickly dealt with.
The next chamber was significantly larger, and far more populated. A dozen or so shade wolves were silently padding around between the sooted pillars that held up the ceiling, and the moment the group entered the room, several large shadow creatures and a pair of skeletons, holding massive broadswords in their bony hands, rushed in from an adjoining chamber.
"Foolish mortals!" one of the largest shadows hissed. "You shall not free the master's consort!"
The undead creatures were far stronger than the ones in the forest had been; Anomen was able to destroy the shade wolves and repel the smallest of the shadows, but the larger shadows and the skeletons only flinched slightly, then kept coming. With a loud, disgusted grumble, the Helmite hefted his war hammer and started attacking the skeletons.
Fighting that many undead was like nothing Ember had ever experienced before. The skeletons did not stop unless they they were broken to pieces, and the shadows were only dispersed by what would have been killing blows on humans; darkness could not be bruised, and the shadows' skin, if they could be said to have that, resealed around any lesser cuts within moments. The ghostly claws and fangs of the shadows were everywhere, biting and tearing and pulling, and the only sound the skeletons made was the dry creaking of bone against bone as they swung their swords. The battlefield felt a lot like a nightmare, and that feeling was only compounded when Edwin lost his magelight; after that, the room was only lit by the red glow of the wizard's fire spells and the occasional glimmer of bluish white whenever she or Anomen had to pause to heal someone.
It was a long, hard fight, but eventually, the throng of undead thinned out. Once the two skeletons were brought down, the battle became far easier, and Minsc beheaded the last of the shadows just as Edwin rekindled his magelight.
"Well done, all," Ember panted, and stopped herself from looking for something to wipe her staff clean with. No need for that. There wasn't the slightest trace of gore on any of their weapons, and other than two piles of crumbled bones, the skeletons' swords, and the occasional fresh bloodstain - from herself and her friends, but not a drop from their foes - the chamber they had fought in was just as pristine.
"Ho, noble friends!" someone called out from the far end of the room.
"Who goes there?" Valygar asked, and carefully moved towards the voice. A doorway in the corner had been boarded up with roughly hewn planks, and a small, gauntleted hand waved at them from a gap near the bottom.
"Your grace," the voice replied, "I am Mazzy Fentan, Truesword of Arvoreen and a valiant servant of justice and righteousness. As you can see, I could use your assistance."
"And you shall have it," Valygar said. He and Minsc immediately set to work at removing the planks, and before long, a dishevelled-looking halfling woman emerged from the cell. She was dressed in a stained suit of chainmail, and her dirt-smudged face was surrounded by a mass of short, reddish brown curls. If Ember were to guess, Mazzy was five to ten years older than herself.
The group introduced themselves, and Mazzy shook each one's hand in turn with a surprisingly firm grip.
"You were with Merella's party, were you not?" Valygar asked.
"I was. She led us here to discover the source of the evil that has befallen the area." Mazzy sighed. "A source which became abundantly clear when it slaughtered my companions."
"Valygar lowered his head. "Merella is dead, then."
"No. Not yet."
"What do you mean?" Ember asked.
"As I said, Merella brought us here. Local legends spoke of this old temple and of a darkness that was struck down here, ages long past. It seemed a reasonable place to begin our quest. We entered the temple ruins and found it infested with shadow-magic. This place was once one of the sun god Amaunator's temples; look at it now!" Mazzy gestured at the dark walls and dusty corners. "A Shade Lord has made the temple his abode, and twisted it to his purposes. The shadows you just fought are what is left of his victims, perverted and corrupted by his power, and they were only the lesser of his servants."
"What other servants does he have?" Ember asked.
"He commands a dragon," Mazzy said bitterly.
"A... a dragon?!" Edwin sputtered.
"Yes. A shadow dragon. It struck us down as he watched and laughed. Then... then he took the life force of my friends and turned them to members of his cursed army." The halfling's voice wavered. "Merella and I were the only ones left standing. I would gladly have sold my life with my friends, but the Shade Lord would not let his dragon kill us. His new consorts, he called us."
"Consorts?" Yoshimo asked. "What manner of undead spirit could require consorts?"
"He did not mean it in the conventional sense. He is not a creature of this plane and must possess a body, feeding on its life, in order to remain here. He inhabits Merella, now... and planned to use my own body once Merella grows weak, I suspect."
"I have... encountered such beings before," Valygar said grimly. "We must destroy this monster."
"Did you completely forget about his dragon?!" Edwin asked. "We are nowhere near being able to handle something like that! (Much as I hate to admit it.)"
"You surprise me, mage," Valygar said. "I would not have expected you to admit to a limit in your skills."
"One day, I will destroy dragons on my whim," the Thayvian snapped, "but for now... (What is the saying? Ah, yes.) Discretion is the better part of valour!"
"And what would you know of valour?" Anomen scoffed. "Your pale and thin skin is all that is important to you, and we are all more than aware of that fact."
"Do not address me in such a manner, fool! I am only concerned with our lives in the presence of an ancient force that you could NEVER understand!"
Valygar raised his hands. "Quiet. You are correct, mage. We cannot deal with a dragon. We will seek another path, if we can."
"(Hmpf!)" Edwin crossed his arms and glared triumphantly at the cleric.
"Minsc is not afraid of dragons, but Boo thinks this is a good idea, and Minsc listens to Boo," Minsc said, nodding sagely.
"The temple has many paths, and we only followed a few of them," Mazzy said. "I can guide you, and I am ready to fight with you, if you will have me," Mazzy said.
Ember smiled at the halfling. "Of course! We'd be happy to have you with us."
"Then we shall travel together as companions. With Arvoreen's blessing, our partnership shall be a fruitful one!"
The shadows had taken Mazzy's weapons - a short sword and a short bow, both blessed by her god Arvoreen - and placed them on a very high ledge just outside her cell. It was far too high for the halfling to reach, but for Minsc, it was no problem at all, and he retrieved the weapons while Anomen showed her the ring he'd taken from the dead man in the forest.
"I'm sorry," Mazzy said, shaking her head. "I don't recognize the ring, and he was not of our group. We thought we were alone in the forest."
Once Mazzy was reequipped, they went in search of the chamber that held the lightsource the group had seen outside. With Yoshimo in the lead, searching dilligently for tricks and traps, they moved slowly through dusty corridors and past empty rooms, abandoned several lifetimes ago. Ember was astounded by the size of the place, especially because the rooms and corridors they passed through were merely the remains of the basement level of the temple. Its main hall must have been larger than any temple in Athkatla, she mused. She remembered learning about the old sun god Amaunator back in Candlekeep. He had been one of the most important gods in this region and in Netheril, but when the Netherese empire was destroyed, a lot of his followers had died. His power had waned, his remaining followers had left him, and eventually, the god himself had died, all but forgotten. She glanced at a mural of Amaunator's holy symbol, a round disk that must have once been golden, and a sadness came over her. He used to be so important. Now, nobody remembers him, and his temple is being desecrated by darkness.
Ember turned towards Valygar. "You've encountered something like this shade lord before, you said?"
"Yes. I told you of Lavok; he owed his long life to a demon, which was bound to his blood and demanded the flesh of his relatives... much like how this shade lord requires new bodies. The lives of dozens of my relatives was stolen by that foul magical symbiote," Valygar said. "Eventually, Lavok came to regret his actions, and built the sphere to remove the demon from his family. When he set out to explore the planes, he 'accidentally' erased the settings that would return the sphere to its home. It took the demon five hundred years to locate Faerun again."
"How do you know all this?"
"When we defeated Lavok, the demon died a few moments before he himself did. With his last breath, he told me the truth." Valygar sighed. "I have destroyed the blight of my ancestor, but now I find myself facing the same problem once again. Sometimes... sometimes I believe that my life is so caught up with magic that there will never be an escape from its foul presence."
"I think I know what you mean," Ember said.
The group continued onwards, passing several more chambers, ranging in size from storage cupboards and water closets to halls large enough to comfortably house twenty men. All of them were empty, containing neither furniture nor enemies. "Too easy," Yoshimo muttered as he peered through a half collapsed doorway. "We should have seen more signs of our shadowy friends. I do not like it."
"I, for one, relish their absence," Mazzy said. "I doubt it will last long."
Beyond a certain point, the corridor took several sharp turns. It was no longer lined by a myriad of rooms, and the corridor walls were far more elaborately decorated than before. Ember felt her heart beat just a little bit faster as they followed the corridor through its twists and turns, Yoshimo scouting ahead around each bend before the rest followed. Whatever it was that lay ahead, it had to be something more important than the rooms they'd passed so far!
A clattering sound, like a collapsing pile of firewood, came from the next room, accompanied by a shout in Kara-Turan that sounded like it had to be a curse. The clattering continued even as Yoshimo rushed back to the rest of the group, his face white as a sheet. "We have company," he gasped.
Crashing and clanking, a massive figure lurched around the corner behind Yoshimo. It was a skeleton, so tall that it had to stoop to avoid hitting its massive head on the ceiling, and it looked like nothing Ember had ever seen before, with an ogre-like head, long, massive legs, a small yet sturdy ribcage and extremely long arms that ended in bony scythes rather than hands.
"A bone golem!" Valygar cried.
"Minsc needs a bigger sword," Minsc said meekly.
The golem fell upon them with ferocious strength, knocking Yoshimo off his feet with a well-placed kick, then lashing out with one of its cruel scythes at Edwin. The wizard crumpled to the ground, his belly cut open.
Ember kneeled beside Edwin as the others charged the golem. He was trying to say something, but nothing came out of his mouth except a bloody foam. She quickly used her Bhaalspawn gift to heal the worst of the cut, then chanted several healing prayers over him, gradually closing the gaping wound.
"My blade is no use against it," Yoshimo said, leaning over her shoulder. "Let me help him! Maybe the quick blow of a staff will be more useful against that bag of bones. Here, Edwin, take some healing potion."
The wizard grumbled something in Thayvian, but gladly accepted the flask of healing potion from Yoshimo. Ember got to her feet and grabbed her staff. It was as Yoshimo'd said: Valygar and Mazzy were barely scratching the golem with their blades, and had to settle for distracting it while Minsc and Anomen tried to break it. She raised her staff and swung at one of the oddly assembled elbows. There were several cuts in the bone already - Minsc's work - and the bone creaked under the force of her blow. Mazzy moved under it, aiming cuts at its legs that would have cut tendons if it'd had it, and earned herself a kick that sent her rolling several feet down the corridor.
"For glory!" Anomen shouted, and struck at the injured elbow with his war hammer. The bone splintered, and the scythe broke off.
"Well done!" Valygar shouted, earning himself a blow from the remaining scythe that would have killed him if he hadn't been able to twist out of the way of the edge. Instead, it only gave him a deep cut in the shoulder.
A fire spell hurtled over their heads and splashed against the golem's skull without even singeing it. In the corner, Edwin cursed.
"Come to Minsc! He is not afraid of your bony evil!" Minsc shouted at the golem. The creature lunged at him, but he smoothly ducked the remaining scythe and hacked at its shoulder. Ember followed his example, striking only at the places where Minsc had done some damage to the bones. It landed a kick on her, then bore down on her with its scythe; as she rolled away, she noticed a crooked spot in the middle of its spine where two different skeletons had been fused together.
"Attack the spine!" she shouted. Minsc obeyed, earning himself several cuts and kicks, but he relentlessly hacked at the bone junction. Ember struck at the limbs, trying to distract it from the giant ranger...
With a happy roar, Minsc rammed his blade in between the bones of the spine, and jiggled it. The golem's spine ripped apart like a string of pearls, and the golem collapsed in a pile of disassembled bones.
Minsc beamed, seemingly not even noticing his injuries. "Did you see that, Boo?" he said. "Minsc didn't need a bigger sword after all!"
Then, he passed out.