Sorry for the long delay, a combination of work and some health issues conspired against me. I'll try not to let the next one take this long.
Throne Of Cards 79 – Drider And Dome
Only a fool wishes for a clever opponent worthy to face him in honorable battle. If you are prudent, you wish for a stupid opponent careless about locking his doors or protecting his vitals.
Excerpt from ‘Interview With An Assassin’
Vadrak Dekaras considered himself reasonably well traveled by now, as well as familiar with many strange beasts and creatures (If perhaps not quite to the slightly obsessive degree that Edwin was.) Certainly that recent foray into Watcher’s Keep had meant he could cross a few more eldritch horrors off the list of cosmic abominations not yet encountered. For that matter, he’d even held a conversation with his own God, definitely not something he’d ever expected to happen. Even so, the creature currently barreling towards the party at full speed was enough to give him pause for a second or two.
Its bottom half was that of a monstrously large spider, a spider the size of a young elephant with twitching black spiky and segmented legs and a bulging belly. Out of that belly reared a humanoid torso, with four muscular arms each wielding sharp, curved swords, their edges smeared with some glistening substance that was certainly poison. There were two heads, mostly resembling those of Drow, but twisted and distorted. The eyes were still red, like those of a Drow, but perfectly round and bulging, rows and rows encircling each ridged forehead, four larger and four smaller in each head. There was white hair still, a few strands flopping lifelessly from each head, and there were pointed ears, but no noses. There were fangs though, oh yes, plenty of fangs.
Of course, part of the assassin’s brain thought even as another was calculating the distance and angle towards the monster rapidly sliding down the thick spider threads crossing the chasm. Drow + spider = Drider. I should have expected that. But I didn’t think they got this big, or this…exotic. Sendai. She must have been experimenting. He’d retrieved all of his weapons and gear from the Bag of Holding by now of course, and had opted for his crossbow to start with since at this range it would pack more of a punch than his throwing daggers. The shot was clean and he hit the huge drider square in one of its throats. Unfortunately, that didn’t even seem to slow the monster down, and the same went for the shots Zaerini and Imoen launched at it with their bows. They were also seemingly solid hits, one to the left torso, one to the right, but with no more obvious impact than his own. So, the Drow parts are perhaps more…appendages, distractions? No vital organs there? Unfortunately, the skillset of an assassin being what it was, he had to admit that his knowledge of spider anatomy was perhaps a bit more rudimentary than that of humanoids. Trial and error it is. Hopefully more trial than error.
To make things even more interesting, the drider wasn’t alone. There was a whole swarm of spiders hot on its heels, if a spider could be said to have heels. He estimated well over tw
o dozen, ranging between the size of a large dog and the size of a man’s palm, some green, some black, some a bright red. It would be easy to dismiss the smaller ones as a threat, but potentially fatal, their poison might be just as deadly. The beasts surged forward, moving with deadly speed, but by now Edwin had raised his hand and as he intoned the final word of his spell an incandescent fireball sped through the air, setting glistening strands of web ablaze. The drider veered to the side, but several of the spiders weren’t fast enough. The crackling sound of burning chitin and a horrible acrid stench filled the air and the drider shrieked with anger. By now it was upon the group, and leapt from the web onto the path in front of them, even as spiders approached both flanks. Sarevok and Minsc took it upon themselves to face the drider head on, their large swords providing ample distraction and keeping the beast away from the rest of the group. However, the remaining spiders were still a significant threat. They needed to be kept at bay, and especially to be kept away from Edwin. The assassin placed himself back to back with the wizard, swiping, kicking and for that matter stomping any spider that got too close. As fast as he was, it was no easy task, given the sheer number of foes. As he impaled the fat and twitching green body of a particularly nasty spider with clacking mandibles he felt a burning pain at the side of his neck and reflexively brushed away a plump spider the size of an orange that had managed to slip past his guard. Unfortunate. Let me think, I did include spider venom among the toxins I built up my immunity against, but of course that may not apply to this one. If it did, it was only a partial help, he could feel himself growing more sluggish by the second as the venom pumped through his body, leaving behind an odd feeling of warmth as if he were burning up from inside. He did have several antivenom potions of course, but unfortunately there was no way to get one out right now, not while the relentless onslaught of spiders was still going on.
Imoen darted past him, neatly stabbing a spider that had almost managed to reach Zaerini’s leg, even as the redhead finished casting a spell and arcs of crackling lightning burst from her fingers, making spiders twitch and jerk on the ground before several of them went entirely still. By now Edwin had finished his own spell, and Dekaras felt rather than heard it surge outward. More spiders fell lifeless to the ground, black smoke pouring forth from still bodies. That seemed to have taken care of most of the little ones, at least. He could feel himself weakening, and forced himself to remain upright even as it grew harder and harder to draw breath and flecks of sparkling grey mist floated in front of his eyes. No time. Then Viconia was there and the pain lifted in a sudden rush of cold clarity.
“Get the red ones first, they’re deadly!” The priestess shouted even as she once again focused on Minsc and Sarevok who were hard pressed by the enormous drider. “I have only so many curing spells.”
A spider large enough to reach his thigh dropped down in front of him, mandibles clicking and segmented legs reaching. One of his daggers drove deep into the bloated body, and the spider collapsed, legs now twitching uselessly as it expired in a pool of sticky fluid. Even as it dropped he turned again, and just about had time to squish one of the nasty little red spiders under his boot before it could reach Edwin’s leg. Protective shields up or not, I’m not taking any chances with him. The final shield, as always, must be me.
“There are still more coming!” Zaerini shouted as she nimbly dodged out of the way of two of the big green spiders, causing the creatures to falter in confusion and attempt to entangle each other in sticky webbing. “The drider is summoning more!”
That certainly seemed to be the case. The drider’s mouths were opened in a silent croon, and the huge web crossing the cavern was trembling visibly. More and more spiders came streaming down the thick strands, falling upon the party with too much
single-minded purpose for such simple creatures. It is commanding them somehow. If we don’t take it down soon, we will be overwhelmed.
Sarevok and Minsc were certainly doing their best, but the drider was so tall that they had trouble reaching any of its vital spots, especially since doing so meant putting them at considerable danger from the drider’s own poisoned swords, not to mention its powerful legs and the webbing it was periodically ejecting from – well from its hind parts. The two heads were a more obvious option, but the lack of reaction when he had hit the throat seemed to suggest they didn’t have the equivalent of a human’s blood supply or nervous system, possibly not even actual brains. However… It was worth a shot, to be sure, and the drider was close enough. A throwing dagger slid smoothly into his palm, and then flew straight and true, hitting the left head straight in two of its larger eyes. The drider shrieked and batted at its face, nearly stabbing itself with its own sword, while too thick black blood oozed down its neck. Several of the spiders faltered, milling about in confusion or attacking the nearest obstacle in their way without their former purpose or coordination.
I cannot believe I’m about to say this. Well, it has to be done.
“Go for the eyes!” Dekaras shouted. “It can’t control them properly if it can’t see.”
He didn’t miss the impish grins on both Zaerini and Imoen’s faces as the two girls both peppered the drider’s heads with arrows and spells, though he tried his best to ignore them. Edwin and Viconia were still kept busy keeping the smaller spiders at bay, but the task became much easier as the attacks slowed and lost focus. The drider was reeling in pain, half blinded, and swinging its swords wildly about. That gave Sarevok a much awaited opportunity. The large warrior slipped beneath the drider’s guard and his sword bit deep into three of its legs, taking them clean off. The drider screamed now, a horrible shrill sound, and it sagged to the ground in a lopsided lurch, trying to move away but merely spinning in place, scattering blood everywhere.
“Ho ho!” Minsc boomed. “Evil has fewer legs to stand on, so Minsc and Boo will show it what to do with just two!” The ranger bounded straight up to the crouching drider, and onto its back. Before it had the time to throw him off, his sword was already coming down, with such tremendous force that it went straight through the repulsive body, just where the spider was joined to the drow torso. It was completely impaled, and with a final wheeze of pain and surprise it fell, a motionless cadaver. After that, disposing of the remaining spiders became a relatively simple task.
“So…’Go for the eyes’, is it?” Zaerini said, her eyes glittering with mischief as the party had settled down to let Viconia finish healing whatever injuries had to be dealt with before moving on. “Stealing Minsc’s favourite tactic now, are we? Please tell me you won’t be going berserk any time soon or shave your head.”
“Whatever the circumstances demand,” Dekaras replied in as dignified a voice as he could muster. “And as for your second and third questions the answer is ‘inconceivable’ and ‘not unless I ever have to infiltrate a gathering of eunuchs’.”
“Wonder what the proper term for that would be?” Imoen mused. “I mean, it’s a ‘murder of crows’ and an ‘unkindness of ravens’, right? A ‘sack of eunuchs’ maybe?”
“What’s wrong with shaving your head anyway?” Sarevok complained. “I shave mine.”
“Yes,” Dekaras said, “but that’s you. I’ve tried wearing a skullcap before, for disguise purposes, and it makes me look like the sort of cultist eager to summon tentacle monsters and sacrifice virgins. While intimidation tactics have their uses, there is such a thing as taking it too far.”
“Minsc approves of all he understands, and Boo of the rest!” The large ranger chuckled, giving Dekaras a hearty slap on the back until he had to cough. “We can be the best of berserker buddies!”
“As much as the thought is appreciated Minsc, let’s just both stick with what we do best, shall we?”
“Most certainly,” Edwin agreed. “And preferably that would also include us moving on shortly, before a gaggle of angry Drow descend upon us from behind. (A darkness of Drow?)”
“Agreed,” Viconia said as she finished casting a final healing spell on a deep and bleeding gash in Minsc’s thigh. “What scrapes and minor wounds you have left will have to wait until we find a more secure spot to stop. The good news is, I can now see far enough ahead to be able to tell that this path ends after another couple of loops around the cavern wall. I can see bridges below us, and at least two different buildings.”
“Any Drow in sight?” Zaerini asked. “Or, and I’m afraid to ask this, any more drider?”
“None visible. Of course that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.”
“Point taken. Well, let’s go, I suppose. I’d like to say I hope Sendai won’t be much further, but something tells me we won’t be that lucky.”
The group made their way onwards down the ramp as quickly as they dared, and eventually reached a lower level. There were indeed more bridges here, one leading to a round dome, perhaps two floors high, with no windows and no obvious entrance, and the other to what at first appeared to be a bare cave wall. As the adventurers slowly edged around the odd dome, they spotted the guards posted on either side of a very closed door. There were perhaps ten or so Drow, one of them most likely a priestess and one a wizard judging from their garb. There were also four large umberhulks, standing passively off to one side, eyes glowing dully. Finally there were two drider, not as large or as mutated as the one they had just fought, but still an unpleasant surprise.
“That’s not too good,” Zaerini muttered. “I mean, we could probably take them, but…”
“But there is a very serious risk of injury,” Viconia filled in. “Also, ideally we should try to conserve our strength and spells for when we find Sendai.”
“Yep, that too. Now, I wonder what this thing is?” She gently tapped her knuckles against the side of the dome. “It’s really smooth, isn’t it? Vic, have you seen anything like it before?”
“I cannot say that I have, no. If it were a treasury I would expect guards closer by, and if it were meant to contain slaves I fail to see why they would not be kept in the pens on the upper levels.”
“There are definitely wards surrounding it though,” Edwin said as his carefully manicured fingers slid across the smooth black surface. “A containment field of some sort…and a form of trigger or alarm, but intended to activate upon exit rather than entry.”
“So…think there’s some sort of horrible monster inside then?” Imoen said. “Something Sendai cooked up maybe? Something even worse than that drider?”
“It is possible, to be certain,” Edwin said with an indulgent smile and what Dekaras thought was a worryingly familiar gleam in his eyes. “It should be worth investigating, if we can. (A pet dragon of my own, perhaps? I can think of no person more worthy or conscientious.)”
I can think of oh so many potential disasters involving firestorms.
“Do take the feelings of your pet monkey into consideration,” Dekaras said with what he hoped was a level voice with no hint of strain. “You wouldn’t wish to make him feel inadequate, I trust? Not to mention have him become a miniature snack.” From his spot on Edwin’s shoulder, Insufferable gave a loud chirp which sounded very much like agreement.
Edwin frowned briefly, but then nodded. “A fair point. However, we should still have a look inside, I feel.”
“I agree,” Zaerini said. “Carefully, mind you. We don’t want you eaten either. And first we need to find a way inside in the first place.”
Edwin leaned closer to the dome again, walking along it as he focused intently on the intricacies of the magical field. "I do believe…aha, yes. Just as I thought. The field is tapering off in this direction.”
“Tapering off?” Sarevok said. “You mean it ends?”
“Why would I mean something entirely different from what I just said, you inattentive sword-swinger? I said it tapers off, and that’s exactly what it does. (Sometimes I think I ought to carry around a chalkboard for the purpose of expressly spelling out basic facts for the dimwitted dullards who constantly plague me.)”
“Eddie,” Zaerini interjected in a tone of voice which Dekaras decided he quite improved of as having just the right mixture of affection and admonition. “Maybe the depths of a Drow city isn’t the ideal place to pick fights within the party, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Ah,” The wizard said, clearing his throat briefly. “Well. As I said the field tapers off, just in this spot here where the surface takes on a slightly reddish sheen. Now, there are various types of spells I could attempt in order to…”
“Ooooh, let me see!” Imoen said, nimbly slipping under the wizards elbow and edging him out of the way. “Hey, it’s kind of shaped like a handprint, isn’t it? I bet that does something.” She touched her hand to the shimmering surface, there was a faint hissing sound, and part of the dome, about the size of a small mirror, shifted colours. Where it had previously been a uniform black, it was now black with glowing green letters, writing in what Dekaras recognized as the Drow language. Below that, a sort of tray had slid out of the wall, covered with lettered buttons. At least it didn’t seem as if any alarm had been sounded so far.
“What does it say?” Zaerini asked Viconia.
The priestess stepped closer and looked at the glowing screen. “Not much,” She said. “It just says ‘Enter password for entry verification’.”
Now, this was something pleasantly familiar. “I understand,” Dekaras said. “This field was set up by a mage, but the point of entry is intended to be accessible to the common soldiers as well, given the appropriate security clearance. I commissioned various security systems for the mansion back home of a similar nature.”
“Oh, right!” Zaerini said with a quick smile. “We ran into that talking doorknocker for one. Bet he was a pain to get hold of, was he an imprisoned demon or something?”
“Not exactly, although we did have to take several precautions and it took me the best part of three days to get all the programming and safeguards into place. At any rate, this is something similar, though without the intelligence. As long as we can determine the password, it is unlikely to question or hinder us.”
“But the password could be anything,” Imoen said. “I mean, anybody remotely smart wouldn’t make it something a stranger could guess.”
“Ah, Imoen,” Dekaras replied with a faint smile of his own. “You have come a long way, and yet there are apparently still things I can teach you about being a rogue. For one thing, that when it comes to security measures, a surprising number of people are remarkably lax and also not nearly as original as they believe themselves to be. Now, I make no promises, but there is a fair chance I can get this thing open. Viconia, are there any numbers listed? If so, you want to try ‘123456’ for a start. That is always a popular option.”
Viconia did so, then shook her head as the screen gave a short beep and blinked red. “No luck,” She said. “It says we have two more tries.”
“Hm. Well, among humans ‘swordfish’ is another great favourite, don’t ask me why. I doubt it would be equally popular among Drow though.”
“I see what you mean. No less than three secret sects or societies I ran into during my years in the Underdark used ‘aboleth’. I will try that.” Once again however, there was the beep and the blink.
“A final attempt then,” Dekaras said. “If I am wrong, we may have a fight on our hands. Do we proceed?”
“Well…” Zaerini said. “If we don’t, we still have to get past those Drow in the other direction, so it’d be a fight regardless. I say go for it.”
“Very well. Viconia, try this one if you please.” He stepped closer to the priestess and whispered a single word into her pointed ear. Viconia’s elegant white eyebrows nearly shot into her hairline.
“Truly?” She said, sounding a little skeptical. “Well, if you say so. The word for that is ‘iseitin’.” She typed for the third time, and this time there was a difference. The beep sounded more welcoming, and the screen flashed green, as a door noiselessly slid open next to the screen.
“It worked!” Minsc said, clapping his hands. “No need for Minsc to apply the Boot of Justice then?”
“Of course it worked,” Edwin said, puffing his chest out. “He can get any door open, you know. He could steal your breath and you wouldn’t know until you dropped dead, and besides…”
“Thank you Edwin,” Dekaras interrupted. “I appreciate it, but this truly wasn’t something that required any particular skill, merely a bit of knowledge about the workings of the human…or in this case Drow mind.”
“Well, what did that word mean then? Was it some word of great and mystical magical power? A secret name for a summoned demon? The name of the author of an eldritch grimoire?”
“It means ‘password’,” Viconia said, her voice filled with disgust. “Sometimes I think I have plumbed the depths of the sea of humanoid stupidity and then somehow I am proven wrong once again.”
“But Viconia, it offers us so many enticing opportunities,” Dekaras said with a brief wink. “For one, the opportunity to explore this place which may contain boundless treasure or terrible monsters. Possibly both.”
“Oh joy. Well, let’s go then.”
The group carefully entered the now open door, weapons at the ready. It didn’t take Dekaras very long to determine that he’d been wrong at least in part about what awaited them inside. There was no sign of treasure. The inside of the dome was set up as a fairly cozy dwelling. There were a couple of comfortable looking green armchairs, a small table covered with doilies, several bookcases, an alchemical table and a large bathtub on clawed feet. There was no sign of a bed, but then again the lone inhabitant probably didn’t need one. He was wearing an ornate if tattered mage robe and was sitting in one of the armchairs, reading a spellbook. This by itself wouldn’t have been so surprising if not for the fact that he was reading it to a bright yellow toy duck sitting on his lap.
“Eh?” The lich said as he raised his head and scrutinized the adventurers over the rim of a pair of half-moon spectacles resting precariously on what little remained of his nose. “Tell Sendai I’m not…wait. I…I know you. Yes, we have met. In the whispering mountains, was it? No, wait, Athkatla. Yes, Ducky? I am right, it was Athkatla!”
“Er…hi Nevaziah,” Zaerini said with a smile on her face that Dekaras personally thought looked as if it was about to crack and fall off her face any second. “Long time no see.”
“Fabulous,” Edwin sighed. “Once again, the birds of fate aim their explosive vomit directly onto my undeserving head.”