“Never forget that the Adar are the largest nation on Grergene. Each settlement is its own city state, but when any one is threatened they act with complete unity. The Adar are not human. They do not quarrel; they do not fight amongst themselves; they do not backstab; you cannot get a better deal by going to a different colony. Offering them status is useless. With the Adar it is best to be forthright, honest, and to never ever break your word. In other words, for political matters, treat the Adar as though they held a knife to your neck and a polite smile on their lips.”
- A Guide to Grergenen Politics
The long trek through the unchanging tunnel gave rise to a paradox well known to adventurers, wary boredom. Each door was checked, all the tunnel carefully inspected, and nothing changed.
The abrupt end to the tunnel came as a welcome relief, even if it represented the possibility of new danger.
The sudden change of view was also breathtaking.
Far above pinpricks of starlight glimmered with twinkling light. The tunnel itself gave way to a patterned road, the entrance bracketed by two [Lion Statues]. Other statues were half visible in the gloom, illuminated by crystal pillars flanking the road at regular intervals. Within the pillars were spiraling flecks of light, like campfire sparks trapped in glass.
A short distance down the road was a building.
After thoroughly clearing it, they deemed it sufficiently safe. Immediately after they engaged in the time honored tradition of adventurers everywhere. They looted it.
It proved to be a fruitless task. No sooner would an item be removed from the building than it would melt away, only to reappear back where it had been originally.
After testing everything, the team reluctantly concluded that the building had been properly setup against rampant pillaging. Tired, they placed down wards and set up a watch schedule. Then, submitting to the demands of their bodies, they slept.
Despite any worries they may have held, Zidaun and the others slept well in the comfortable beds. The beginning of the next day saw each of them fed and ready to continue exploration in bright spirits.
The grotto was no less breathtaking than it had been the day before. Today, they started by retracing their steps to where they had entered. Then they followed the wall, light stones bright in their hands, as they surveyed their surroundings. The vast scaly hide of Jormungandr undulated as they followed the wall. Occasionally, other statues leered horrifically out of the gloom. Manticores, Minotaurs, Cthulhu, mind-flayers, tentacle beasts, Cerberus, and more lurked in stone.
Eventually, however, they saw a more lighted section in the distance. Coming closer they could see a row of trees in an arc that preceded from the wall out into the dark until they faded from sight.
Each tree was identical. A single trunk of dark bark grew from a network of tangled roots planted in a circle of rich damp earth. The branches of the tree curved out, up, and then back in, enclosing a hollow sphere of crystal. Within the crystal sphere danced an ephemeral flame.
The leaves of the tree were broad and shimmered in the ever-changing light like gold and emeralds. Unable to help himself, Zidaun plucked a single green leaf. Brought into the steady light of the stone he clutched in his other hand the leaf became merely ordinary. It was a waxy elongated oval with the point at each end. When he concealed the light and brought it into shadow it once more glimmered with reflected emerald glory.
The rest of the tree was the same. When he brought the tree into full light the leaves became ordinary greens and yellows. The tree identified as an “Iridescent Murkwood.” He noted without any surprise that he had never heard of it. He took the time to write out a small note of its characteristics and name, and they continued on.
Past the trees were a series of varied buildings. There was a larger central building surrounded by an arc of narrow buildings on the side farther into the cavern. All the structures were formed of pure black basalt speckled with glowing motes of color. The basalt was not flat, but was instead formed of hexagonal columns, though their full shape could only be seen on the corners of buildings. From a distance, the building’s rough black stone and tiny lights had been indistinguishable from the distant cavern wall.
The center building, larger though it was, was still not particularly massive. It was a 20 foot cube, while the other buildings, each 5 feet x 10 feet, radiated away from the central building like a particularly blocky sunrise.
They noted the buildings, but again continued on. Past the buildings was the entire purpose of their visit. An enormous door with a flaming bird upon it, a Phoenix, with its wings outspread and its head turned to the side to show one flaming eye. And, standing massive above the door, were two statues locked in eternal battle. Both statues were a juxtaposition of beauty and terror. A human no, an angel, with elegant limbs bore two wings and wore an expression of calm determination mixed with unearthly beauty. The sword in its hands was locked against the weapon of its savage opponent.
It’s opponent, a devil, was a horned vision of brutal intensity. Its face bared its sharp teeth in a fanged grimace and its expression was contorted with rage. Behind it leathery wings with bones outlined by the flesh stretched back. Both statues were painted with a soft and indeterminate light.
“Well, looks like this is where we need to be,” he said.
“Not exactly subtle, is it?” Inda asked.
A few soft chuckles came in response.
They approached the door, sharply aware of their own steps echoing out into the gloom. Upon touching the door, a notice appeared.
Access to dungeon restricted.
Complete tasks to gain access.
The ground behind the group rose up and formed into a pedestal, causing them to swivel and enter combat ready positions. Upon the pedestal were four crystal discs, each with a necklace of thin steel links fastened to them.
With suitable caution they each tested the items.
After their tests, they were able to determine that they were magical, no surprise there, but none of the various identification skills they used indicated any danger. The small, 2 inch, discs simply showed up as:
Amulet of Recognition
Unique – Cannot be removed from dungeon – Immune to theft – Binding
Since Zidaun was immune to most mental effects, he went first. There was no effect, other than a faint feeling of mana moving for a moment. It stopped just as soon as he had felt it however. He waited… Nothing. He checked his status effects, but there was nothing there either.
“I’m not detecting anything, my status hasn’t changed.”
Firi cast a few healing diagnostic spells.
“I don’t detect anything either.”
The each put on the amulets in turn, repeatedly checking for issues. When the last one was put on the pedestal receded into the floor. A thin line of light appeared on the floor. It extended on the path leading from the door back toward the buildings and then split into smaller lines going to the doors of each of the narrow buildings. A dashed line broke off and circled around along the pathway to the front of the largest central building.
Gurek’s eyebrows were raised as he said. “Does this dungeon feel really… organized to anyone else?”
“More than just organized,” Inda said,” it provided everything we needed with the exception of food. And, while we explored around the edges of the wall, because it’s our job, the path looks like it leads right to the dungeon from where we’re staying. I’m pretty sure we’ll verify that later. And now, it’s rather unmistakable where it wants us to go next.”
“This dungeon is certainly atypical,” Zidaun hedged.
It was unusual, but unlike the rest of them, he was perfectly aware that certain dungeons were more intelligent than people knew or ever guessed. At least he dearly hoped so. And if ever there was a dungeon that was awakened, it was this one. If this one had not reached full awakening he’d chew bark.
“It feels somewhat like one of the Adar dungeons, actually,” Inda said, “I had a chance to go to the one in Mespar.”
“Yes,” Zidaun said with some surprise, “we do help our dungeons organize a bit more. You didn’t tell me that you’d been to one of ours. You’ll have to tell me about that sometime. It is possible we helped design this one long ago.” This, was more than merely unlikely. If they had bonded with this dungeon, the Adar would know by now.
Firi sighed, “Well, what next?”
“Same as always,” Zidaun said, “if we cannot get into the dungeon right away. We’ll scout everything else and do a proper workup. For now that means doing a sweep of the rest of the walls, and then the interior. Then if we can, we’ll do the least dangerous things the dungeon wants done first.”
Gurek looked unhappy with this, but simply sighed. He was always impatient with protocol. Zidaun and Inda rolled their eyes at his obvious restlessness.
They continued their journey along the wall. While even more statues met them, nothing else was different. Eventually they came back to the lighted track and spied a building identical to the one they had stayed in. They might’ve thought it the very same one, except the path led to a blank wall, though Zidaun could feel that aura and empty space were on the other side. The building also contained no sign of their habitation and was on the wrong side of the path.
After did determining that the building was identical to their own, they continued along the wall.
A few minutes later, they finally saw a change in the ever present Jormungandr statue. At the westernmost portion of the cavern was another doorway. Above the door was the massive statue’s head. It was a nightmare of bone and scales. Its eyes were ominous with high arched ridges that protected glowing green irises around inky black slitted pupils. Here, in front of the door, the eyes were staring straight down at them.
Its own tail was clamped between bloodstained razor-sharp foot-long teeth and it disappeared into the darkness of its throat. At the front of its mouth two sets of massive fangs passed each other, protruding beyond its mouth and over its scaly skin.
“If we see any sign of something like that being in the dungeon I am leaving.” Gurek said.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Zidaun said, “if we see something like that we are all leaving. They want reports, not corpses.”
Firi touched his heart and forehead in a brief prayer.
Zidaun did not bother to copy him, though Gurek and Inda did. Zidaun had a very particular prayer of his own he needed to perform later. To be honest, he wasn’t sure how he felt about it. He had been putting it off.
For now he focused on the door. As they grew closer, the door resolved into a picture. It was a tree, with deep green leaves and bright red fruit on a bronze background. It apparently led to “The Garden of Ephemeral Victory,” whatever that meant. For now when they pushed on the door it simply informed them that they did not meet the requirements. It made no mention what the requirements were.
The rest of their trip around the wall proceeded without incident and they arrived back at their original entrance tunnel. From there, after a brief stop to eat at their temporary home, they surveyed the rest of the cavern. As Inda had surmised the path did indeed lead through the arc of trees to the buildings and toward the dungeon’s entrance.
Other than six fountains, each of which had pillars of stone rising upward and out of sight from their center, all they found was more pathway and more statues.