They waited in the corridor for many long, torturous minutes. Megryd the Warrior found the wait unbearably tense, but he gritted his teeth and bore it. TreeHugz the Druid took the time to meditate again and consult the otherworldly oracles, and Bignugly, the orc Shield-Knight, spent the time dancing energetically. MiNtYzGuRl (a Warrior like Megryd) and Charfonn the Shadow-dagger spent the time comparing gear, examining one another's armor in minute detail - the feel of the fabric and leather, the weight of the buttons and buckles, the balance of the straps and chainmail bits. All during that wait, the entire catacomb shook with explosions and rang with battle-calls and the clashing of metal on metal. Small pebbles and clouds of dust fell from the ceiling.
They knew the fight was over when the ceiling in the ritual chamber collapsed, causing bright shafts of sunlight to come streaking in.
"NO!" the ghastly, powerful voice of the Demi-Lich thundered. "THIS CANNOT BE! I AM ETERNAL!"
There was a final loud explosion, then the clear, twinkling sound of magical healing and some muffled human conversation for a while, and then silence. Megryd waited for the shafts of sunlight to fade, and he finally led his party into the ritual chamber.
The room had been magically restored to evil wholeness, perhaps by a side-effect of the Demi-Lich's immense dark power. The chamber itself was an ostuary - the walls lined with thousands of human skulls, with wall sconces made of pelvic girdles and columns of vertebrae. But despite all the bleached-white bone, the room glowed red with necromantic evil. Foul blood magic tainted the flames burning in the hundreds of candles and torches and oil-lamps hidden away in clever places. Four bone-covered columns were arranged around the obsidian altar, and the great black blood-filled cauldron would sit in the large, round depression in the middle of the floor, just as soon as it respawned.
The group took up their positions around the room - Bignugly stood near the depression where the blood-cauldron would sit, Megryd, MiNtYzGuRl and Charfonn stood nearer the columns, and TreeHugz stood well back near the door. Once again, Bignugly began dancing enthusiastically - it seemed to be his response to tension.
Their long wait was interrupted once when another party of bold adventurers came clamoring in from the hallway, clattering to a stop and looking around.
"You guys just finish?" one of the newcomers asked hopefully.
"Waiting for repop, lol" TreeHugz offered cheerfully.
"Ah shit, ok" the newcomer muttered. "I guess we can work on the skellies accomplishment."
They clattered back out of the room without another word - all except for a stout, thickly-bearded dwarf wearing a frilly magenta dress, who paused, danced with Bignugly for a moment, then waved goodbye to everyone and dashed out the door.
It was another dreadfully-long wait, made more tense by the sounds of the other group fighting skeletons in the other chambers of the catacombs. After a long pause, the great black blood-cauldron respawned in the circular depression in front of the altar. Bignugly immediately stopped his frantic dancing and dashed over to the cauldron, rubbing his hands on it to activate the foul magic that powered it. He rubbed it for exactly two seconds, and everyone, already on high alert, got themselves ready for the fight.
The blood in the great cauldron boiled savagely. A great jeweled human skull, grown to massive size through evil magic and decorated with gold filigrees, dragon fangs and other adornments, rose up out of the bubbling fluid - though it should have been dripping with thick red sauce, almost none of the blood from the cauldron stuck to the great skull, though some of the deeper crevices and hollows held black scabs of ancient clotted blood. The Demi-Lich's sunken eyes glowed crimson, and its voice filled the ritual chamber and reverberated throughout the catacombs.
"WHO DARES DISTURB ME?" the Demi-Lich roared. "NONE HAVE DARED TO ENTER MY RITUAL CHAMBER FOR SEVEN HUNDRED YEARS!"
"Lol," TreeHugz observed ironically.
"I AM ETERNAL, AND SOON YOU SHALL BE ALSO!" the Demi-Lich continued, unphased. "I WILL CLAIM YOUR SOULS AND ADD THEM TO MY ARMY OF THE UNDEAD! HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!"
"YOUR MAMA SO FAT, SHE FELL IN LOVE AND BROKE IT!" Bignugly roared back, brandishing his hammer and shield.
"MY MOTHER WAS A SAINT!" the Demi-Lich raged, all evil mirth gone from his thundering voice. He turned his attention fully towards Bignugly, and unleashed a jet of red flame from his mouth, which completely enveloped the orc. When the flames died down, Megryd could see that there was little left of Bignugly's face but a charred skull with ragged black strips of burnt flesh peeling away from it. He saw the quick flash of green light coming from TreeHugz at the back of the room, and the orc's face was instantly restored, wearing a fierce, determined expression.
Megryd, Charfonn and MiNtYzGuRl quickly moved to the four bone-covered, stone pillars supporting the ceiling. Though the pillars were each thicker than a man's torso and made of solid carved granite, they attacked them with their swords and daggers. Normally, thin steel blades would simply bounce off such pillars, perhaps leaving a scratch and surely damaging the weapons far more than the pillars. Ideally, one would use massive, heavy hammers and picks for this kind of destruction. But these were no ordinary circumstances. This was the work of heroes, and heroes didn't have time to obey every natural law. Their swords and daggers, finding a strange metallic resonance within the stone columns, blasted chunks of granite from the pillars, and, one by one, reduced them to rubble.
TreeHugz, meanwhile, concentrated on keeping Bignugly on his feet. This was very challenging, because Bignugly had to contend with sudden dark pools of incredibly-corrosive acid that would form up around his feet, eating away at them until he moved away. It was occasionally difficult to see when these little pools formed up, because he was being constantly blasted in the face by searing flames, globes of eerie purple and highly-explosive necromantic energy, vivid green twinkles from TreeHugz's healing, and the great ornately-decorated evil skull bashing and biting at him - often obscuring his vision (or destroying his eyeballs outright, which amounted to the same thing). He also had to dodge the sudden columns of wispy green toxic smoke that popped up every seven seconds - the fumes turned his lungs into foamy red liquid inside his chest if he breathed them in, and that required extra healing magic from TreeHugz.
Eventually, Bignugly ran out of space behind the altar, where he had been standing. There was too much toxic smoke and deadly acid coating the floor, and he had no more footing. He had to move to a different quadrant of the room, bashing his shield and hammer at the bejeweled skull every step of the way, and shouting the most horribly-personal insults he could think of to keep the Demi-Lich's attention focused on him alone. He insulted the Demi-Lich's mother, his grandparents, his intelligence, his sexual proclivities, his race, his religion - anything he could think of that would make the great skull hate him.
At least, he was shouting these things when he had a face to shout with. It kept getting burned away in a flash and instantly regrown by TreeHugz's healing magic every few seconds, and that tended to affect his diction.
With a final, deft stab of his fine dagger, Charfonn found the critical sweet spot of the final pillar, and the entire column - which looked whole and solid - blasted into fragments and came crashing down. Suddenly, the entire atmosphere of the room changed. The Demi-Lich cut off an infernal jet of flame mid-blast, only causing petty third-degree burns on Bignugly's face and body, and he rose a little higher. The air around him began to glow crimson.
"Oh, right," TreeHugz said from the back of the room. "I forgot to mention the A.O.E.'s."
The Demi-Lich unleashed a blast of red-hued hate that expanded out from his disembodied head like a great, evil bubble, battering everyone and everything in the room with malevolent force. Megryd was knocked back several paces, and fell flat on his back.
"Try not to die, lol," the druid joked, picking himself up off the floor and preparing a healing spell that would replenish everyone in the room.
"YOUR ETERNAL SOULS WILL BE MIIIIIIINE!" the Demi-Lich roared, rising again and preparing another blast.
Megryd, though somewhat shaken by the blast, was prepared for this moment. He saw the ghouls clawing their way out of the floor, shoving aside the cobblestones and rising with their gnashing fangs and terrible claws ready to rend living flesh. Their pale skin, lank, shaggy hair and gaping, tooth-filled maws would have terrified lesser men, but Megryd knew his task. He pointed his greatsword at the nearest ghoul.
"You!" he shouted. "It is my understanding that all of your mothers are so stupid, they would need to be twice as smart as they currently are to be considered half-wits!"
"WHAT!?" the ghoul exclaimed, incredulous. He pointed one bony claw at Megryd and shouted, "GET HIM!"
The ghouls charged at Megryd in a full-on sprint, and Megryd took flight. He ran around the perimeter of the room, and the ghouls chased him angrily, foaming and spitting their fury and waving their bony claws about. Such was the depth of the insult Megryd had paid the ghouls that MiNtYzGuRl and Charfonn were able to hack and slash at their backs and put an end to their miserable un-lives without them even noticing. Their claws tore at the flesh of Megryd's exposed back, and he was battered by the pulses of crimson malevolence that burst forth from the Demi-Lich every 4.3 seconds, but TreeHugz - through great effort - was able to keep him and everyone else mobile.
Unfortunately, TreeHugz's use of nature-magic to heal his allies was nearly as infuriating to the ghouls as Megryd's vicious insults. After a few more seconds of non-stop healing (Bignugly was taking an even more-severe beating now), the ghouls began to take notice.
"Hey, he's healing the guys we're trying to kill!" one of the ghouls shouted. "GET HIM!"
The pack of ghouls began to peel away and shambled towards TreeHugz, but Megryd was prepared.
I will not fail them, he thought again. I cannot! They are counting on me now!
"Oi, you ghouls," he panted, still running around the edges of the room. "I am... further led to believe... that your mothers are... so very poor... they cannot even afford... to pay attention!"
The ghouls that had been going after TreeHugz stopped dead in their tracks and slowly turned to fix him with a black glare of pure, unadulterated hatred.
"How DARE you speak of my mother like that!" one of them shouted. "GET HIM!"
With a cry of fury, the entire pack of ghouls resumed chasing Megryd around the perimeter of the room while MiNtYzGuRl and Charfonn stabbed and hacked them in their backs. They repeated this procedure until every last ghoul was dead.
Bignugly, meanwhile, was having a hard time of it. TreeHugz had had to alternate between healing him and keeping Megryd, MiNtYzGuRl and Charfonn alive, and the Demi-Lich was exacting a heavy toll. Bits of Bignugly littered the ground and splattered the walls behind him, and the still-cohesive parts that were not burnt to a crisp were bloody and gruesome. Jagged shards of bone protruded from the black and bloody flesh - he was now more or less a man-shaped collection of burnt and broken meat, encased in rapidly-disintegrating armor and hiding behind a shield and barely able to swing his hammer. An ordinary man would have been long-since dead, but he was no ordinary man - he was a Shield-knight.
"Gonna have a beast repair bill, lol" he joked when TreeHugz restored enough of his face and throat to enable him to talk.
The party closed in on the Demi-Lich, hitting him from all sides now. Swords, daggers and a blackened, pitted hammer jabbed, slashed and smashed against bone, while pulses of evil magic burst outward in a hateful bubble, ravaging the bodies of everyone in the party. Megryd felt his innards burst open inside his body, felt the trickle of blood, sweat and other fluids seeping down his cheeks as his eyeballs ruptured, felt his bones cracking with every red blast. He was unsure he would survive this encounter, and he didn't want to have to walk all the way back from the temple back in town if the group died.
At last, he felt his sword connect at a critical spot - the exact right blind swing, meeting the exact right junction of bone and metal, causing the exact right split that cascaded up through the Demi-Lich's skull. It was a killing blow, and the bits of metal and gems and other adornments began quaking off the great disembodied cranium.
"NO!" the ghastly, powerful voice of the Demi-Lich thundered. "THIS CANNOT BE! I AM ETERNAL!"
With his last unearthly breath, the Demi-Lich uttered a final blast of malevolence that shook the room, causing the ceiling to cave in all around them. The great chunks of falling rock probably should have crushed them, but they were blown clear of the collapse. Bright beams of sunlight shot in from the heavens, illuminating the clouds of dust and smoke like the fingers of some benevolent god, and where they struck the Demi-Lich, he burst into black flame, eventually dissolving entirely.
The healing light of the sun, Megryd thought, amazed by the spectacle. That was all it really took. Had we known it, we could have simply dug straight down from the top, and ended it all without such violence.
He quickly dismissed these thoughts, though - that kind of thinking led to no end of trouble, and only left him more confused than he had been going in. Besides, that had not been the quest.
TreeHugz spent his last energy getting everyone up and on their feet again. No one had died, fortunately, but he had had to use every other power at his disposal - including the "emergency" ones he could only cast once every half hour, the ones he only ever cast during times of the greatest need.
"Rug of Welcome +2," Charfonn said unexpectedly, his voice coming from near the altar. No one had noticed him move over there, but he had done so and was rummaging through the secret compartment inside. "Need, greed, pass."
"Sheesh, still counting my limbs," Bignugly grumbled. He reached a blood-caked hand into his belt pouch and withdrew his set of dice. "Greed."
"Greed," Megryd and MiNtYzGuRl said almost simultaneously, also hastily producing their set of dice.
"Need," TreeHugz chimed in, pulling out his own dice. "I just bought a new house, lol."
Charfonn sighed softly and said, "Need," also pulling out his dice. He and TreeHugz tossed their dice on the floor, squatting low, and counted all the pips.
"27," Charfonn muttered.
"54," TreeHugz answered. Charfonn tossed him the Rug of Welcome +2, and he stuffed it in his pack.
"Five Runes of Improvement," Charfonn said. "I guess that's one each. I'm just gonna roll Need on everything else here, lol."
As he said this, he pulled out the coveted Jeweled Belt, the legendary artifact that had brought Megryd here in the first place. He had been seeking that belt for weeks, and here it was now within his grasp... yet so far away.
"Aw, dude," said TreeHugz, sounding annoyed. He rubbed the palm of his hand over his face.
"Pass on everything but the belt," Megryd said sternly. "Need on the belt."
Charfonn shrugged. He arranged the other items - potions, a shield, a scroll and a gem - on the floor. Everyone else passed on them, glaring at the shifty little Shadow-dagger, and he grinned and shoved them all in his bag. He met Megryd's glare with a smirk and tossed his dice, and Megryd blew on his hands and rolled his as well.
Megryd was well-pleased when he saw all those pips.
"98," he said happily, reaching to take the belt.
"Ha, 100," Charfonn said mockingly. "Read 'em and weep, sucka."
Megryd was shocked and dismayed when he saw all Charfonn's dice - a perfect roll.
"Dude," MiNtYzGuRl said testily. "Why would you roll Need on a belt you can't use or even sell on the Auction Market? That's a Warrior item."
"Meh, who cares," Charfonn said dismissively. "It's a lame belt anyway."
"I care," Megryd said angrily. "That belt is the reason I came here."
"And it's a rare drop," said MiNtYzGuRl. "The best one a Warrior can get outside of raiding."
"Just run it again later if you want it, lol," Charfonn said with a sarcastic laugh.
With that, he abruptly broke the psychic bond that joined him with the other four in the group, pulled out an enchanted map and scanned it.
"Freakin' douche," Bignugly muttered angrily.
"Lol," Charfonn snickered. "Later, losers." He finished scanning the map, and promptly vanished.
Megryd stood in stunned silence for a minute.
All for nothing, he thought bitterly. The Jeweled Belt was finally within my grasp, and now... nothing.
"Sorry Meg," TreeHugz offered quietly. "That dude is a dick, I added him to my Black List."
"Same here," growled Bignugly.
"Screw him," MiNtYzGuRl said gruffly, her tone decidedly un-ladylike. "I'll help you if you want to run this place again."
"Thank you, Minty," Megryd said gratefully. "For now, I just want to turn in the quest."
The party agreed that this was for the best. They pulled out their enchanted maps, scanned them briefly, and vanished from the ritual chamber, just as the ceiling and pillars reset to their normal form and function, once again shrouding the chamber in its accustomed sinister-red darkness.
The story concludes next time...