The Hall of the Cowled Wizards was a shambles. Scorch marks covered the walls and the air was filled with the stench of ozone. Fa’ss’th looked around, worried.
“I think I have a spell they need,” he said. “Prestidigitation.”
“Anyone here?” Kyrian called. A set of double doors on the left side of the hall opened and someone peeked out. The doors led into a mostly-intact office where a bearded man in wizard’s robes was supervising some students in dismantling delicate magical equipment.
“Yes, can I help you?” the man asked.
“We need a group teleport to Halruaa,” Fa’ss’th explained. “And it appears you need some cash for rebuilding . . . lucky coincidence.”
The man smiled, amused. “Fortunate indeed. Where in Halruaa, exactly?” He gestured to one of the students. “Go and fetch Zuula for me, will you? I am Forlan Kyerki, the leader of this establishment.”
“A village known as I’ss’th’ss’nn’k should do,” Fa’ss’th said. Forlan sat behind his desk, and after a few moments a drow woman appeared.
“You sent for me?” she asked.
“Yes, these adventurers need to go to Halruaa. Have you ever been there?”
Zuula shook her head. “No.”
Forlan grimaced. “We can teleport you there, but I have to warn you that your arrival may be somewhat . . . approximate.”
“That means you might want to hold your breath,” Fa’ss’th said. “It is a swamp, after all.” Zuula took out a box of colored chalks and went into the main hall, where she began drawing a complex diagram on the floor.
“It beats walking,” Kyrian said wearily.
“If you have waders, now’s the time to put them on,” Fa’ss’th said, grinning.
“I’ve never teleported before,” Kyrian said nervously. “Anything I should know?”
Fa’ss’th rolled his eyes. “You just teleported when we traveled through the Astral Plane. Same difference.”
After an hour, Zuula completed the arcane diagram. Forlan picked up a small glass sphere containing some sparkling dust and walked around the diagram, chanting. He hurled the sphere at the ground and the dust exploded into a glittering cloud. Zuula backed away, coughing.
“There you are,” Forlan said, and held a hand out. Fa’ss’th handed him a bag of coins and regarded the diagram for a moment. The lizard took a deep breath and jumped into the diagram. He disappeared with a soft pop. Barak followed him stolidly, then Kyrian and The’ss’it.
They appeared on a small, marshy island in what did, in fact, appear to be a swamp. Dark trees drooped, their roots vanishing into black water that appeared bottomless. It was very warm, and the humidity pressed down with almost physical force. The only sounds were the occasional drip of water and the perpetual whine of insects.
“Does this look like it?” Kyrian asked.
“Um, yep, this is a swamp,” Fa’ss’th said. “By the way, if you see lizards bigger than me, like ten times bigger, be nice. Dinosaurs can be herbivores. The dragons should leave us alone for the most part.” Barak closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Well, there’s no help for it, let’s have a look!” The’ss’it said and jumped off the island into the water. After a moment he popped back up, chewing. “Ooh, leeches, yum!” Kyrian stepped off the island tentatively, wondering how deep the water was. He promptly sank to his chest in disgusting black ooze. Something moved in the water, but by the time he’d turned around it was gone.
“There’s something in here!” he squeaked.
Barak reached out with his spear and began prodding the muck around the island. He produced some horrible squelching noises and released a lot of foul-smelling bubbles, but after a while he located what seemed to be a large stone block under only a few inches of mire. Kyrian grabbed some tree roots and managed to free himself from the sucking mud as Barak stepped cautiously onto the stone block.
“Perhaps we should follow this road,” Barak said, poking around a bit more with his spear.
Fa’ss’th clawed his way up a tree and peeked his head out of the leaves. He looked around, then lowered himself carefully back to the ground. “What road?”
“This road. It looks like someone laid stones here. Let me guess, there are no roads, even old submerged ones, in your swamp?”
“Submerged roads? Maybe, there are a lot of old ruins in the swamp, mostly infested with demons or pissed off elementals. There is something roughly southwest of here, though.”
“Let’s go check it out,” Kyrian said.
The’ss’it clambered up on the road and set off, feeling his way as he went. They walked in a roughly southern direction for a long time, how long, exactly, they weren’t sure. Progress was slow and it was difficult to tell time in any case. In the lead, The’ss’it abruptly stopped and hauled out his pick.
“Did you hear that?”
“Stand still,” Fa’ss’th whispered, pointing out a V cutting through the water. The’ss’it began praying quietly, calling on Ubtao for protection and strength. After a moment, the creature, whatever it was, dove under the water and vanished.
“What was that?” Kyrian whispered. Fa’ss’th dug up some mud and tossed it over the side of the road. It hit the water with a “bloop” noise. There was a faint rumble, barely audible, and an enormous slimy form erupted from the water, baring yellow teeth beneath a long, pointed green nose. It reached clawed arms towards Kyrian and tried to pull him into the water, but he fended it off with his swords. Fa’ss’th fired a crystal shard at the troll while The’ss’it yowled and whacked at it with his pick, tearing a hole in the rubbery green flesh. The hole immediately began to close of its own accord.
Barak cursed under his breath and shot a fiery bolt as several more trolls climbed out of the water and attacked, one catching the human across the arm with a claw and sending him reeling.
Fa’ss’th threw fiery bursts, pushing the trolls back, while Barak held his arms and directed more flaming bolts at whichever monster seemed most injured. The trolls closed in around The’ss’it, who scrambled backwards, trying to heal the great rents left by their claws. Kyrian tried to help The’ss’it, distracting the trolls momentarily. Barak and Fa’ss’th dispatched two of the trolls and Barak ran through the mud, slipping and sliding, to heal The’ss’it as best he could. One of the trolls knocked Fa’ss’th to the ground, and Barak struggled over to heal him as well. The human winced in pain as he absorbed the lizard’s injuries and slumped to the ground. Fa’ss’th squawked in horror and sent more fire at the trolls, finally dispatching the monsters.
“That was a good fight!” The’ss’it announced. He began praying loudly to Ubtao and cast healing magic over Barak, who groaned and rolled over. Several spells later, The’ss’it announced, “Tha’ts all I got. Might be a good idea to find a safe place to camp for a while.”
“I’m all up for that,” Fa’ss’th said. “I’ve seen enough mud for one day.”
“Maybe the trolls have a lair nearby,” Kyrian mused.
“Yeah,” The’ss’it said, “Underwater, most likely. We could climb a tree, I suppose . . .”
“Actually . . .” Fa’ss’th said and pulled a rope out of his pack. He said arcane words and the rope shot into the air, held up by nothing. Fa’ss’th pulled a crystalline snake out of his pocket and set it in the water, then began climbing the rope. At the top, he disappeared. Barak, The’ss’it, and Kyrian followed to find themselves in a small pocket of magical space. They cleaned themselves up as best they could and rested through the night.
In the morning, they climbed back down to the road. Fa’ss’th pointed across the water. “The pit of bones is over there, if we want to search it.”
“Pit of bones?” Barak asked.
“The troll lair.”
“I’ll do it,” The’ss’it said and dove into the water. After several long minutes he returned carrying a waterproof scroll case, a potion bottle, and a large metal shield. “There’s a bunch of weapons and armor down there, too, but I don’t think it’s worth bringing up. I doubt I can swim carrying the heavy plate, and it’s pretty yukky anyway.”
“I suppose,” Kyrian said. “Let’s see what else is down there.” The only other useful items turned out to be a small box full of gems and coins and two flasks of what appeared to be water. Fa’ss’th unrolled the scrolls, examined them, and handed one to The’ss’it.
“Divine,” he said. “I can’t use it. This shield and potion are magic, too. Can anyone use the shield?”
“I can use it for a canoe,” The’ss’it said.
“We may as well drag it along until we can sell it or something,” Fa’ss’th commented. The path continued winding through the swamp, and several times they were forced to climb on or around trees that had sprouted between the stones. The road appeared to predate the swamp itself. Finally, they reached the remains of a massive stone tower. Vegetation, age, and neglect had sundered the stones, but a square hole led down into the stone foundation. The’ss’it prayed to Ubtao and his pick began to glow, revealing that the hole led to an underground passage, mysteriously free of water.
“Shall we go in?” The’ss’it didn’t wait for an answer, he just jumped down into the passage. “It’s like a spiral staircase, I guess,” he said. Kyrian followed him below.
Barak looked at Fa’ss’th. “I assume you know nothing about a stone tower in your home swamp?”
“Not really,” Fa’ss’th said. “Stone buildings in a swamp usually doesn’t work out too well. The only story I know would be the freaky wizard Akhlaur. He made the swamp, somehow, by messing around with conjuration magic hereabouts. His towers are supposed to still be around here somewhere.”
“Well, maybe he left something behind here that we can use,” Barak said.
Below, The’ss’it came to an abrupt halt. He winked at Kyrian and held a claw to his lips. Then he screamed, loudly and horribly.
Barak blinked. “Maybe we should hurry.” Fa’ss’th jumped down into the hole and the two of them trotted down the stairs, to find Kyrian and The’ss’it waiting in the hallway. The’ss’it promptly flung himself on the ground and began rolling back and forth, kicking his little feet.
“I don’t know what happened!” Kyrian gasped. “He just stopped and held a claw to his lips, then he screamed, and now this!”
“A HA HA HA HA HA!” The’ss’it bellowed. Fa’ss’th glared and showed him the pointy end of his spear.
“Are you quite finished?” the wizard demanded. The’ss’it waggled a claw at him.
“Don’t be like that, sister’s husband’s cousin. You just don’t want to admit that I GOT you.” The’ss’it heaved himself to his feet and began walking again, still chuckling. Kyrian grimaced.
“Family,” he said, knowing who The’ss’it really got.
The stone corridor passed many rooms full of nothing but slime and decay. Finally, the passage came to an end at another set of stairs leading downwards. They looked odd: smooth, transparent, slightly squishy. Like gelatin. In fact, the entire hallway leading down looked to have been carved from gelatin. Fa’ss’th stared.
“Some spell is holding the water there, in a semi-immobile state.”
“The stairs are just force holding out the water?” Barak asked. Kyrian tested the first step. It gave slightly, like walking on a mattress, but held his weight.
“Maybe,” Fa’ss’th said. “I don’t recognize the spell itself.” The’ss’it clambered awkwardly down the stairs, his claws making little ripples in the water.
Barak sighed. “Let’s just get this over with.”
The watery corridor led to a large, circular room carved out of the water. In the center of the room a globe of water floated in midair, enclosing a human skeleton in rotten wizard’s robes. Silver glinted at the skeleton’s waist.
“Any idea what happens if we pierce that bubble?” Barak asked. Kyrian concentrated, manifesting a power.
“I’m looking into the past,” he said. “I see a much larger chamber, a stone vault open to the sky. There’s a wizard here. He puts on a silver and turquoise belt. He’s casting a spell . . . it’s very complicated. Water rushes in from all directions . . .he stands on it, it lifts him up. He’s laughing . . .
“I see strange creatures surrounding him now. Blue skin, pointy skulls. They also stand on the water. One of them gestures, and the water erupts. The wizard begins to drown. It gestures again, and the water settles into a room-shaped bubble. Then the creatures leave along the corridor.” Kyrian sagged. “So, what does that mean? Don’t wear the belt? Or don’t cast the spell?”
“Those creatures sounded like Chacs, they’re Maztican water spirits,” Fa’ss’th said. “I would say the spell is what caused the issue, based on the way you described it. The belt was probably a power booster or a protective item.”
“Then we should take it,” Kyrian said.
“No. I’m still hurt, there could be a trap here of some kind. It’s not like water elementals are easy to fight.”
The’ss’it snorted. “I can heal you, if that’s all that’s worrying you.”
Barak waved a hand abruptly. “Tie some rope around me, I’ll go in and grab the wizard and you can pull me out if there’s problems.” Fa’ss’th dug out his rope again and Barak tied it around his waist. The’ss’it prayed to Ubtao and grabbed the rope, bracing as well as he could. Kyrian and Fa’ss’th followed suit. Barak pushed his hands against the globe of water. It resisted for a moment, then parted, allowing him to step into the water. He took a deep breath and pushed forward. His hand touched the skeleton and the bubble burst, the water falling to the floor and draining away. Barak found himself standing in the center of the room holding slimy bones, which promptly fell apart.
“Ick,” he announced, taking the belt and shaking the bones off. “Any magic?” Fa’ss’th shook his head.
“Screw it,” Barak announced, and put the belt on.
“Looks good on you,” Kyrian remarked. The watery surface of the room began to ripple like a lake in a high wind. The top of the room opened up and they could see a ceiling far above, a mass of bluish crystal glowing in sunlight. The sides of the room peeled away until they were left standing on a tall column of water. It gradually descended, leaving them on the floor of a high stone vault littered with magical paraphenalia.
“Huh,” The’ss’it said. Fa’ss’th picked up a scroll case and leafed through it. His eyes bugged out.
“Powerful wizard. VERY powerful wizard.”
“That looks like the problem right there,” Barak said, pointing to the underside of the massive crystal above.
“Yeah,” Fa’ss’th said. “But what do we do with it?”