Ch. 5: The Hanging City (Shell and Stone)

Chapter 5: The Hanging City (Shell and Stone)

Narrowly avoiding death, and still reeling from their last encounter, the party seeks out magical assistance inside the abandoned home of the Yanethlien mages–the City of Spires.

 Session Record (November 25, 2012) 

DAY 7:

Tialka opened her eyes slowly and with great effort.  She ached in every joint and muscle of her body.  The last thing she could remember was diving in front of Damash, who had been cradling Surrn’s limp form.  She had had just enough time to cast Resist Energy before the spinning bottle had burst into a geyser of light and pain.  After that, endless fevered dreams, until she had awoken today.

The party of four were all collected back in the shelter of the kobolds–the small maze of trapped buildings and corridors they had spent a night at before.  Damash, Vhankor, and Surrn were there as well, and like her were covered in ugly third-degree burn scars.  The kobolds had found their broken bodies in the wreckage and had nursed them back to health over the course of two days.  The Story-Teller, whom they had met before, sat nearby, personally watching over their recoveries.  But physical healing was the limit of their knowledge; there was other damage done that would need a whole different type of treatment.  [DM’s note: Surrn had taken 2 points of Intelligence Drain from his brain being eaten.  Although the party will eventually be able to restore this, it will not be for a few levels yet.]

The kobolds do their best…

The Surrn that returned was not the Surrn they had remembered.  He was much quieter now–a dark and distant pain lingered behind his eyes, and the words he used were of a different tone.  When asked about his most recent memories before being captured, he brooded quietly before answering.  “That was from an old dream.  A very old dream.  Then there was no dream, and then I dreamed again.  And you are with me now in the Dream. The story has a beginning, but it has no end.”

Tialka conferred with the others quietly.  “He has been through a horribly traumatic experience,” she pointed out.  “He may need to believe he is still in a dream in order to simply deal with it.”  The group decided not to press Surrn too hard about his affected mannerisms.

There were two new messages on the Sending Stone that Professor Oort-Ba had given them–one for each day they had been unconscious:

Closest is "Shifters" of legend
from war with Father, also called
Face-Stealers or Changelings.  Infamous
for infiltration, guerrilla warfare, and
destruction of morale from inside.
Disappeared after defeat of Father,
but their fate never explained.
Best defense against was something
called the "Three-God's Weapon."
Been two days; still okay?

Vhankor sent back the following short reply:

Am okay. Fought face-eater,
large explosion, Surrn crazy, visiting
Hanging City next.

The rest of the day started out innocently enough…if self immolation and mutilation was standard, that is.

Almost immediately, the conversation among the four turned to the problem of the Face-Stealers, and how to tell if one of them had been compromised.  Not only had the fake “Surrn” looked, talked, and acted exactly as the real one, but he had possessed all his memories and even his special abilities–Vhankor remembered seeing the imposter cast some psionic form of web during the battle with the devilfish.  Perhaps this was made possible because of how intimate the thing had been with Surrn’s face and brain.  But if the Face-Wearers could indeed pose as one of them perfectly, to every nuance and detail, how were they prevent infiltration?

“Steam seems to affect them differently,” Vhankor noted.  “When Tialka and I cast steam magic on the thing in the building, its skin blistered and bubbled in reaction.”

“But that would mean we’d all have to burn ourselves, willingly, each day,” Tialka noted.  “Who would be willing to do that?”

Seemingly without flinching or fear, Surrn waved his hand and caused a ball of steam to form in his palm.

With expert control, Surrn cradled the energy as it ate his hand alive.  The others in the party watched in silent shock as the heat burnt through his tissues, turning much of them to ash.  Then he waved his hand again, and the bubbles vanished.  What was left was a horribly mangled, but a very obviously Hu-nan, hand.

“It would seem I am not one of them,” he declared quietly.

The rest of the party’s shock was only matched by the speed at which they followed Surrn’s example.  Vhankor and Tialka used their least-powerful steam spells on themselves and Damash (who had also volunteered) and were pleased to discover their flesh blistering and burning in a normal reaction.  For now, they were safe. 

Tialka offered Surrn some healing as she and the others patched their wounds.  “Pain is always,” he declared, “but it is only in the Dream.  So what matters it?”  The rest decided to leave him to his introspections.

Before Vhankor could receive any of healing of his own, however, he quickly pulled a metallic spike from his bag, braced himself, and plunged it as far as he could into his left shoulder.  The others’ eyes bugged, but his torn flesh slowly closed itself around the wound, sealing the nail in place.  His burn marks slowly faded in turn.  Vhankor had put a personal theory to the test and augmented himself with the “Fast Healing” spike picked up from the tortured soul in Olden Fair.  (He would further augment himself with the Bear’s Endurance spike, later removing that one when it impeded his movement.)

*          *          *

Once the party had finished mutilating themselves, they turned to their next course of action.  Although the Royal Quarter was still at the top of their list for getting questions answered, there were a few worthwhile side trips.  First was a quest for another jar of potassium like the one the kobold had given Vhankor; it seemed the only thing capable of downing one of the things.  Second was a search for a “heat-stone,” or a stone permanently enchanted to create heat.  Sign language with the kobolds was getting nowhere, so Surrn’s empathic links were enlisted.  According to the kobolds, there were three solid possibilities where such items could be found–near the Royal Quarter, in either Arcanum or The Reliquary; south in Alchemist’s Gamble; or directly overhead in the City of Spires–commonly known as the Hanging City.

It hadn’t taken long to realize the orthocone tower in Olden Fair had broken off and fallen from the Hanging City decades before.  As they already had a passing interest in the mages’ towers and how they related to the invasion by the Shifters, they decided to visit them next.

(Surrn cast an interested eye over the map from Professor Oort-Ba.  “Ah, I remember these people, in the Dream,” he remarked.  “They forgot me, and thus I forgot them. Maybe that is why they are no longer in the Dream…”)

Their first hurdle turned out to be the open water between them and the isolated quarter. As they swam upwards, a string of blue lights broke off from a nearby kelp bed and aimed straight for them.  Another school of hungry flashlight fish was on its way.

Vhankor, Surrn, and Damash all made epic time dashing for the structures above, but Tialka lagged behind.  Knowing the fish would intercept her well before she could get to safety, she decided to distract the flashlight fish, summoning a small group of isopods in their midst.  The trick worked, and the adventurers escaped while the fish filled their bellies on crustacean meat.  (The fish would later discover that summoned meals are surprisingly unfilling.)

The architecture of the Hanging City can be a bit…disorientating

The Hanging City was surrounded on all sides by vast beds of kelp and other sea plants. When the city had been still alive, the ceiling of their massive cavern had been their bread-basket, which they had farmed for food.  Now, it lay unkempt and overgrown.  In the center, towers hung like an array of stalactites.  Some had actually been carved from calcium deposits, while others were made from fitted stone, jade, or even bone.  Shorter towers on the outskirts seemed to be for habitation, while the long, central spires appeared to be the most important.

The upside-down towers were no less disorientating up close than from a distance. Doors sat at the tops, windows were grouped towards the bottoms, and open spaces stretched down and away, rather than upwards.  The near-weightless world of Yaneth’lei allowed for some imaginative architecture, and mages always did like to show off.

Tialka cast Detect Magic.  She realized her mistake just as she was instantly blinded by her surroundings.

Surrn randomly chose one of the tall, central towers to attempt entrance.  The doors and windows seemed firmly locked and barricaded, so he chose a sonic spell that he knew the seawater would help amplify.

His first attack against the tower door caused a sudden feeling of unease in the party. From seemingly nowhere, each had their own secret suspicion that this was the last place in the city to be–that they would find nothing here but danger and death, and that their quest would be better served elsewhere.

Surrn’s second attack against the door caused an eruption of misty bubbles. Each member caught in it felt his mind suddenly fog, as if by a strong drug. Each found it near impossible to concentrate on hissurroundings, or even to think clearly. Each, that is, save Surrn, who had some inclination of what was coming and miraculously avoided the effects.

This was little consolation, however, as Surrn watched the other three travelers curse this endeavor, throw their hands up in exasperation, and leave for open waters.  He would need to wait until the effects of the suggestion had worn off for his friends to have clearer minds.

Tower 1: Shell

When Surrn’s friends finally returned a half hour later, sheepish and a little confused, they agreed that a frontal approach was probably not in their best interests.  The doors had been warded by high-level mages against intrusion, and they were probably lucky they hadn’t been hit with anything more insidious.  Luckily, a quick search by Damash turned up a back door the mages probably hadn’t had time to think of–the base of the broken-off orthocone tower.

Shell, 7th Floor:

There were only two floors of the orthocone tower left attached to the Hanging City, and the lower was nearly completely destroyed, blown out in the same explosion that cleaved the structure in half.  However, although there was nothing left of the floors and very little of the walls, the group found a very interesting item attached to the ceiling overhead: some form of ornamental glass bowl.

Thanks to his ability to Read Magic, Vhankor immediately read the writing around the edge of the bowl as “Clairvoyance.”  The bowl was a scrying bowl, allowing him to view places and objects far away, as long as he had a strong idea of where they were.  But everything he knew about scrying pools indicated they needed a liquid surface to scry upon, usually from a heavy substance like mercury.  How he was going to find mercury, much less use it on an upside-down scrying bowl…

With a sudden flash of insight, Vhankor cast Burning Hands and filled the bowl with a shaft of steam.  It was not what was in the bowl that mattered so much, but the undulating liquid/gas surface itself. The steam from his spell did indeed fill the bowl with a usable surface, but the turbulence, combined with the fact that the bowl had not been designed for using steam, meant that the party would have to concentrate very hard to see anything at all. And they only had a few moments; the steam was rapidly cooling and condensing back into seawater.

The party stared intensely into the swirling mists.

  • Vhankor attempted to scry for the nearest heat-stone.  Since he could not describe exactly where this was, the pool simply blinked a few times but returned nothing.
  • Tialka wanted to see what was on the other side of the tower front door they had originally attacked.  She felt herself pushing mentally against a strong ward, but caught a quick glimpse of darkness and something very much like a squid, albiet fatter and with shorter tentacles.
  • Damash asked to see if he could view the Great and Mighty Tabor.  Unlike other successful concentrations, which would simply blink if an image could not be returned, here the pool didn’t even response to his request.
  • Surrn wished to view the dark void he now called his spiritual home.  The response was quick, overwhelming, and unexpected.
    In an endless void, two tall, conical towers stretched up into the darkness.  Their dark points were lost overhead in a swirling red storm of chaos.  The landscape was drenched in a crimson hue by this age-old maelstrom.  And wrapping around the base of each tower were hundreds–perhaps even thousands–of inky black tentacles.

As the rest blinked at this unexpected image, Surrn smiled in quiet solace.  What was jarring and even disconcerting for some could be completely calming for others. Madness was in the eye of the beholder.

And with that, the last eddies of steam in the bowl disappeared.  Rather than use his one other Burning Hands prepared for the day, Vhankor suggested they begin searching the rest of the complex.  One never knew what else needed a good scalding.

Shell, 8th Floor:

The floor above was the last of the tower, for a total of eight levels.  There was a door leading into the rest of the complex, but it had been barricaded on both sides, sealed, and then ripped open again by brute force.  (Interestingly, it had been ripped open from their side, indicating the battle had begun in this tower.)  There were two humanoid skeletons also in the room.  Although both still had their faces, their skeletons were scattered in pieces around the room, much like the bodies found in the lower half of the tower.

A collection of kelp growths covered the walls and ceiling in this last floor, along with minuscule krill and a…weird new form of fish.

The “Barreleye” fish didn’t have a face so much as a clear cockpit, full of jelly, in which two eyes swiveled freely.  It seemed placid enough, neither approaching nor retreating from the adventurers.  However, as Vhankor edged closer to one of the oddities, its eyes rotated inside its head.  In rapid succession it had glanced from his weapon to his rings to his pack to his left shoulder.

“This thing can see magic!” Vhankor exclaimed.  The party then convinced Tialka to use her animal charms and befriend one of the little critters, as such abilities could come in very handy.  Soon Tialka had Vhankor’s fish trailing happily behind, hopeful for more treats and chin tickles.

Before the travelers entered the rest of the complex through the ruined doorway, they made one last, careful inspection of their surroundings.  Although they found nothing unusual underneath the kelp growth, Damash did notice a number of the Barreleyes hovering nearby, staring for a longer than normal at a blank section of the wall.  There seemed to be a loose panel underneath the growth, and after a failed attempt to slide the panel aside, Vhankor used his standard strategy of brute force.  Within, there was a message carefully rolled and wedged between blocks:

Messaged of the Doomed (click to enlarge)

Vhankor was reluctant to show the message to the others–it was likely he wanted to keep this “Multifold Key” for himself, should it ever be found.  Still, he valued the aid of his friends, and the group discussed the message and the warning of traps.  Then they continued on to the rest of the wizards’ towers.

The party made their way to the rest of the complex through tall, vaulted corridors.  In keeping with the general design, the walls stretched down, rather than up.  As the doors were still at the “top” of the open spaces, the overall effect was disorientating.

The hallway made a long, curving arc, with a total of three doorways along its distance (including the one they came from).  Above each of the doors, there was a unique phrase and symbol.

From the tower they had just exited:

The graduates thought back to their introductory studies and remembered this symbol was often called the “Eye of God.”  It was commonly associated with the School of Divination, both in arcane and divine magic.

For the other two doorways up ahead:

Humming and hawing over which door to step into first, the four finally decided to pick the first, mostly because it was closer.

Tower 2: Stone

Stone, 8th Floor:

Whereas the last tower had been constructed directly out of a giant orthocone shell, this tower appeared to use fitted masonry as its theme.  The walls, floors, and even bookshelves were either made entirely out of slabs of stone, or used them predominantly in construction.

This top floor appeared to have been some form of library or records-keeping room.  True to the note they had just discovered, destroyed documents littered the room.  Some appeared burnt, others flechetted, probably by whatever spells the mages had on them at the time.  A search of the area turned up nothing larger than a pinky nail, and the group moved down to the next floor.

Stone, 7th Floor:

Here, there were entire cabinets filled with rows of stoppered potions.  Each held some kind of blue liquid.

A cursory inspection of the premises revealed nothing.  Against his better judgment, Vhankor uncorked one of the vials and attempted to swallow what was inside.  There was no way to suck the liquid out of the vial without letting seawater in, but Vhankor managed to get a small taste.  It was harmless, and even seemed familiar, as if he’d tasted it somewhere before.

In case the vials came in handy later, the group grabbed four apiece and put them in their satchels.  The rest of the floor involved only work stations and laboratory equipment, and the party moved on.

Stone, 6th Floor:

This floor housed a vast collection of preserved specimens, all housed in glass cases and suspended in a gas or clear liquid.  Not one of the party recognized even a single creature.

There were similarities between some of the specimens and animals they were familiar with–for example, the jar of snakes looked very convincing, but the texture of the scales was all wrong, and some of them had extra openings on their snouts.

Other animals were covered completely in short bristles.  Vhankor opened one of the cases marked with a cryptic “Tree Shrew” and attempted to use his Raise Dead spike on the creature.  Either the creature was a fake, there was not enough left in it to sufficiently raise, or the spike worked differently than Vhankor suspected; in any case, the action did nothing but cloud the water with decayed particles.

What the mysterious creatures all held in common was a distinctly-different biology.  They didn’t seem to have fins or large sweeping tails, and some even sported limbs of unfathomable intent.

Wedged beneath one of the cases, the group found a page of a journal that had somehow escaped destruction:

Subject Journal (click to enlarge)

Remembering that some of the cases had tags on them, Surrn attempted matching the subject numbers to the specimens, but without success.

The group finally chalked up the room as another in a series of oddities.  They continued on.

Stone, 5th Floor:

The stairway ended on the fifth floor.  This level was empty, save for a large circular opening in the floor, over which swirled an upside-down vortex.

A bright light shone from the opening beyond the vortex, making it very difficult to see the other side.  Surrn cautiously put his into the vortex itself and felt a strange emptiness.  He had never felt “air” before, but he recognized that his hand moved far more easily past the barrier, as if there was nothing there to hinder it.

Vhankor, his mind always working, swam back up the stairs to the room above and grabbed one of the jars of snakes, emptying its contents.  Jury-rigging it to the end of his ranseur with a length of rope, he swam back and carefully thrust it into the center of the vortex.  He was pleased to see the water spill out of the overturned jar, falling away into the emptiness below.  He then carefully drew the jar back out of the vortex, making sure to keep it upside-down.  Vhankor was now the proud owner of a jar of air.

It was but a quick trip back to the previous tower, where Vhankor upended his bottle of air into the waiting scrying bowl.  Although his jury rigging sometimes failed, losing him a bottle each time, he was able to move four jars of air to the bowl before he ran out of appropriate-sized jars.  This gave him a surface roughly a foot in diameter inside the bowl, more than enough to scry on whatever lay beyond the vortex.

What he saw amazed him.

Captivated by the images, and letting his curiosity overtake his caution (yet again), Vhankor raced back to the vortex, leaping into it with rash abandonment.  Not wishing him to race ahead alone, Surrn quickly followed suit.  Tialka and Damash, however, wisely held back, waiting until they received word of what lay ahead.

In the next few moments, Vhankor and Surrn came face-to-face with two concepts they’d never experienced in their lives: open air, and free fall.

Moments after that, solid earth.

Stone, 1st-2nd Floor:

Now three floors further below, the two adventurers came back into consciousness with pained chokes and gasps. Sounds around them came thinly and indistinctly, with a tinny ringing in the ears.  The light was bright and dazzling.  But, most importantly, it was impossible to breathe.  They had never had to hold their breath before, and it was about to cost them their lives.

A glimmer of orange flashed nearby–the fish that Vhankor had seen in the scrying pool. Wherever those fish were, there was also water.  The two flailed their arms about them in futile attempts to swim towards the pool.  Harsh gravity pinned them to the earth, and they had no experience with walking, or even crawling.  It was really more by luck that they managed to thrash their way towards the water nearby, painfully pulling themselves across the dirt inch-by-inch.

Their trials were not over once they were beneath the surface of the pond, however.  The water that gathered here was no familiar salty brine; instead, it was fresh water, a concept only encountered in classrooms and laboratories.  Now they were engulfed in it, and the thin mucus layer that protected their skin and gills was slowly being washed away.  Each breath burned in their lungs and gills.  It might not cause their death this day, nor even the next, but it would be a slow, agonizing descent.

In frustration, Vhankor slammed his fist down upon the pointy rock he had happened to land on, beneath the water surface.

It turned out the rock was not all that happy about that.

Neither Vhankor nor Surrn had ever seen a turtle, much less an alligator snapping turtle. Luckily for Vhankor, he was just out of reach of the creature’s powerful jaws and only got a nasty nip; things might have been different if it had gotten a good grasp on his leg. Instead, Vhankor was able to jet back quickly and bring his ranseur to bear, bringing the ill-tempered creature down in one solid thrust.

Now in only moderate danger, the two set about how to get back.  Simply lifting one’s head from the water was often enough to cause a dizzy spell, as Surrn quickly discovered.  Fortunately, Surrn also discovered that the liquid in the blue vials from the seventh floor could not only be breathed like water, but it would restore a small amount of health at the same time.  (Apparently, mages had been experimenting with enchanting Cure Minor Wounds onto water, instead of the customary berries.)  However, this still left the two with no way to return to the vortex nor to contact the others, as they could not scream in air, and sitting below the water left two air/water barriers and three floors between them.

Gradually growing impatient with the silence, Tialka and Damash had the presence of mind to return to the scrying pool.  The air filling the bowl was gradually being absorbed by the seawater around it, but there was still roughly a squid-eye’s surface left.  This was enough to reveal the predicament, and both teams set about reuniting.

The process by which Vhankor and Surrn returned to the floor above was an overly-long and painful process.  Events included:

  • Tialka scratches a short message into a piece of wood, but it lands in a bush not near the water.
  • Surrn attaches a rope to one of his crossbows and attempts to jam it into the drain at the center of the vortex above.  However, the drain is far too small and distant a target.
  • Tialka ties her own rope to an outcropping at the vortex and lowers it into the opening.  She, Damash, and an enlarged squid brace themselves to help pull people up.
  • Surrn’s first trip up the rope is a failure, and he is narrowly saved by downing one of his last blue vials.  Vhankor helps in an unexpected manner by plunging the Bear’s Endurance spike into him, granting him extra constitution.
  • A long struggle involving simultaneous climbing by Surrn and hauling by the others finally succeeds, and Surrn is reunited.
  • Vhankor, a much heavier body, is too heavy to be pulled up three levels, and he eventually loses consciousness.  He consumes he last vial simply making it back into the pond.
  • Never willing to leave a friend behind, Surrn stuffs his bags with as many of the blue vials as will fit and leaps back into the vortex.  At this point, the party has made no net progress whatsoever.
  • Finally, the four discover the best solution: Tialka places knots every five feet in her silk rope, which Vhankor is able to climb more easily.  Once he has returned to the vortex room above, Vhankor uses his raw strength to help pull Surrn’s light form back up.
Exhausted from the ordeal, the four rested at the edge of the vortex.  Vhankor and Surrn talked about the things they had seen below.  While hanging from the rope, they had noticed a raised stone platform with a large circle engraved on it, on the other side from the pool of water.

Next to the platform had been a pedestal, with some form of dial on its face.

Loathe to leave the lower levels even partly unexplored, the party discussed how they might more safely descend.  Vhankor wondered if there was some way they could breach the air/water barrier of the vortex and flood the rest of the tower, allowing them to simply swim down.  However, although they were not familiar with the idea of a “terrarium,” the group knew what a closed ecosystem was, and they did not wish death on the creatures below just yet.

Talk then turned to more fanciful pursuits, thanks to Tialka’s skill for Shaping Wood.  (The “wood” of Yaneth’lei was a hard, porous substance grown from a modified sponge that could be pre-formed or cut and shaped as needed.)  There was a small amount of Yanethlien wood in the room with the glass cases, and designs ranged from a “Diving Cauldron” to an entire chamber fashioned from a display and reinforced with stone slabs and shaped wood.  In the end, however, the most practical solution seemed to be shaping a wooden tank to carry water, strapping it on one’s back, and breathing water from it with the help of a long, flexible hose.

This left only the problem of finding a length of flexible hose, and the party decided to search the other towers.

Tower 3: Bone

Bone, 6th Floor:

First was the tower of shell, then the tower of stone.  Next was the tower of bone, where the “Cycle” was apparently studied.  In fact, the tower was shaped like a large ivory tusk.

Again, a destroyed library awaited them on the top floor, this time the sixth.  However, here the defenders may have been more pressed for time; amidst the piles, Damash managed to find one intact sheet…a letter of some kind to an apprentice:

The Letter to the Apprentice (click to enlarge)

This letter did not fill the four with confidence.  They proceeded warily to the next level.

Bone, 5th Floor:

The first thing that caught the eye on the fifth floor was a door to yet another tower, connecting directly to the tower of bone.  Above this door, the following phrase and symbol could be seen:

Curious as to what this could mean, the four attempted to see the other side.  It was at this point that a wave of terror washed over them; and a wide-eyed Vhankor, Damash, and Surrn bolted for the exit as quickly as their fins would take them. Only Tialka remained, having successfully resisted the effects of the glowing Symbol of Fear over the doorway.

But now very much alone.

Appendix: The Craft (Jury Rig) Skill

Craft (Jury Rig) is a new skill created specifically for this campaign.  Whenever a character wishes to create a new device out of a few items he has lying around, he must make a Craft (Jury Rig) check (no retry).  The result is then used to determine the chance of the device coming apart each time it is used:

DC 30: Jury-rigged object will hold indefinitely.
DC 27: Each time you use the jury-rigged object, also roll a d20. On a result of 1, the apparatus comes apart, and whatever action was attempted fails.
DC 25: Same as above, but with a d12.
DC 22: Same, but with a d10.
DC 20: Same, but with a d8.
DC 15: Same, but with a d6.
DC 10: Same, but with a d4.
<DC 10: The jury-rig attempt fails.

The DM has the right to increase or decrease the DC, based on the complexity of the resulting device.

As with other skills, taking ranks in it will improve the results of jury-rigging a device. (Nothing protects against a natural 1, however.)

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