“It’s a box.” A simple cube, perhaps no more than three feet tall by three feet wide, with a crank lever sticking out of one side.
Freeport let the cloth fall away from his hands, looking at the others about him and taking in the room once more. Doors lined the walls all about the room, placed every whichway climbing even up the sides of each column all the way up to the ceiling, with one lone door floating lazily about the room. No two doors were alike, and each were made of different materials, or made of different designs -- some of stone, some wood, some of metal.
With no surprises appearing beneath the cloth, Pthalo makes his way about the room, trying a door here and there, but all seem sealed shut. After a few moments of investigating, he easily leaps the twenty feet to the floating door, straddling its stone archway as he tries to open the door from either side, but still finds no way to open the door. The monk shrugged his shoulders and slipped back down to the ground, looking to his companions for advice.
“Crank it!” shouted Il’an. Even from his hiding place beside his large boarfriend, the old wizard’s voice was strong and crotchety as ever, seemingly unperturbed by their current predicament.
Freeport nudged the box before him with a foot, but when it seemed apparent nothing would leap out at him from within it, he tried gripping the top of the box, trying to find purchase beneath the lid with his fingernails, but as soon as he began to pull, he found his fingertips slipping out from beneath the thin lip of the lid. “Well,” the bard said, apathetic without a danger immediately before them, “We’ve had a long journey since the Apocalypse Vault, and I’m tired. Perhaps we should rest?”
Bodi'ka took the opportunity to settle to the ground beside Mitsuki, calming her breath and easing into a meditative state. Freeport, too, retired from his place near the strange box, and settled off a few feet away with his new friend, Aerwyn. Bolin tries his hand at the box, inspecting the crank, but rather than giving in to the temptation to turn it, his dwarven eyes catch a glimpse of a stone door nearby. He runs a gloved hand over the smooth stone, but is unable to glean any information from it.
The monks of the Open Hand decided to make their own investigation of the doors, clearly untrusting of Pthalo’s assessment, and Quintis and Jetta made their way around the room together, whispering among themselves. Pthalo fell into step beside Julee, and the pair began circling the room as well, keeping sure to remain exactly opposite Quintis and Jetta.
“Your Master is still alive,” Julee whispers to Pthalo. He turns a neutral but inquisitive gaze back at the apprentice. “Assistant Master Varnhold seemed to think otherwise.” “He was lying,” she said confidently. “Quintis and Jetta have some other plans, but Master Morlinth is trying to keep them in check.”
Pthalo purses his lips in thought, turning his attention to the doors they passed, pushing against one every so often to test them, when suddenly, one of the doors moves at his touch. It’s only an inch, but it’s progress the group had not seen before. He tries to nudge the door open further, but it resists his effort. He tries to peer through the darkness beyond it, but sees only nothingness. He turns to leave the door alone, but as he moves away from it, purple mist begins to pour into the room from the crack. Before he can attempt to pull the door shut once more, another door opens a crack, and another, then another, and soon purple mist is falling into the room from all about the group.
Pthalo passes a hand through the mist and after a moment inspecting his hands, he announces, “It’s cold. But it doesn’t seem dangerous.” Il’an summons a gust of wind about him, attempting to blow the mist back, but the mist seems to almost fight against the force, flowing against the gust and closing in about his feet.
Freeport rises to his feet once more and returns to the box in the center of the room. With no other course of action apparent, he begins to turn the crank lever. Each turn of the crank gives way to a mechanical whirring sound from within the box, and ever so slowly, the supposed-lid to the box begins to rise higher, revealing yet more box beneath it. Freeport continues turning the crank until the small box has grown into a small pillar, and when the pillar stops growing, panels at the top of the box slide down, revealing small shuttered windows that open to velvet curtains and a tiny raised stage.
Like the crank-lever doors that led them to this place, the cranking eventually leads to lights igniting and shining upon the tiny stage, and Kraken Knuckles gathers closer to stare in awe at the little play. A small childlike figure appears on the stage, wearing a red cloak and carrying a basket, and as Freeport continues cranking, appears to walk through a dense wood. Feeling uneasy at the silent play, Freeport begins to whistle and hum a soundtrack as the figure moves. The small child puppet arrives at a small cottage in the forest and knocks, and with a few more revolutions of the lever, the scene on the stage changes, and the red-cloaked child walks through the cottage to the bedroom, apparently to meet her grandmother. After a moment of apparent conversation, the grandmother rises from her bed and throws off her costume, revealing herself to be a great wolf with shaggy fur and blood red eyes. The story seeming familiar now, the group watches on as the wolf pounces on the child and eats her whole. The wolf puppet turns its red eyes out to the audience, staring, and then exits off the stage. Freeport continues cranking the lever, expecting the narrative to continue on, but nothing changes on the stage.
Il’an, opening his mouth to complain about the production, turns to blame Freeport, but out of the corner of his eye notices something moving through the purple mist. “Avast!” he yells. “There be mist sharks here!”
The majority of Kraken Knuckles is nonplussed by the old man’s ramblings, but turn away from the stage to watch the mist. Sure enough, several somethings appear to be moving beneath the purple cloud, leaving a trail of black smoke in their wake. Quintis and Jetta stalk off to give chase to a pair of trails, while Il’an conjures a spectral hand to attempt to grab at the mist, but as the spell raises its quarry into the air, it reveals only black smoke that rises to the ceiling.
Startled by the apparent veracity of Il’ans claim, Bodi’ka waves a hand, sending globes of light to the air, floating about the room. Pthalo pulls out his lantern and lights it quickly, aiming the beam of light towards the walls after one trail of movement. As the beam of light follows a trail of smoke up the wall, it becomes apparent that the light in the room has faded as black smoke has begun to flow out of the doors above, concealing the ceiling in smoke that is black as pitch.
The tiefling turns his attention back to the stage, expecting to find a new development in the story that led to the change in the room, but instead sees only the wolf puppet standing alone on the stage once more, staring back at him. Freeport mouths a curse and reaches a hand into the window, clutching at the puppet and pulling it out through the window. The puppet seems to catch on some invisible barrier at the window, but after a moment, Freeport pulls his hand back out only to open his hand and reveal black smoke curling up to the ceiling. Freeport stares for a moment, disbelieving, when suddenly the crank lever begins turning all on its own, slowly at first, then quickly turning revolution after revolution.
Bolin leaps forward and tries to grab the crank to stop it, but while he manages to slow it as he pushes back against it, it continues slowly on until the dwarf gives up and the lever continues on its own once more. Pthalo throws a gold piece onto the stage, trying to gauge what effect it may have, but when nothing happens, Freeport glares at the monk for throwing money away and reaches in, retrieving the gold and pocketing it.
Mitsuki jumps at a noise behind her and turns. “This door opened!” she calls, pointing at the door she had stood before. Pthalo quickly speed over to investigate, reaching a hand into the opening, but finding an invisible barrier blocks his hand from going through.
“I hear birds inside this one. And a breeze through trees.” Pthalo places a hand firmly on the barrier. “It feels like warm air is blowing through….”
Il’an yelps and turns behind him, facing a closed door. “Campre is gone!” he wails. “He was right here!”
Bolin walks over to calm the old wizard. “He must be around some…” Bolin turns to gaze around the room. “Weren’t there more people here with us?”
Pthalo quickly speeds about the room as the rest of the party draws closer to the stage. “Quintis and Jetta are gone,” he reports. “Julee, too.”
A door on one of the columns audibly slams shut. “Aerwyn,” Freeport breathes. “She was just here.” Freeport circles the column in question, but shakes his head as he returns to the pillar, finding no one. Bolin mutters something in religious tones and begins making a circle around the small pillar, striking protective runes into the ground beneath the mist. “We should stay close together,” he says.
As Kraken Knuckles creeps closer together, a breathy rattle shakes the doors around the room, and all of the doors slam open at once.
Near enough to the stage, Freeport spots the wolf puppet staring out at the group with its beady red eyes once more. Freeport yells something at the puppet in a throaty, harsh language, then spins around as a deep voice answers in the same tongue.
A huge bipedal wolf looms out of the mist, just beyond the protective circle. Its fur is black and matted, caked in what could only be old blood, and its red eyes bore into each member of Kraken Knuckles. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he announces gruffly. “You fleshlings take so long to be worthy of a challenge.”
“Who are you?” Pthalo calls, seeming almost to bounce on his heels as he prepares to spring forward at the first sign of threat.
“I am the denizen of this realm.” The wolf waves a clawed paw lazily. “My master sends me mortals he collects on his adventures, and I feast on their will and memories.”
“And your master is…?”
“The piper, of course.”
Remembering the tale the voice told them as they descended into the prism, Freeport says helpfully, “Does the little pupper need help getting his story back?”
The wolf grins, baring long, wicked teeth. “My master said I could kill you first.” The wolf casts his hands about him, gathering the purple mist in his arms and raising it high in the air before sending a wave of the cloud rushing through the protective circle and washing over the group. Shades of Freeport and Bolin seem to be pulled away from their bodies as the wave crashes over them, and they seem awash with dizziness for a moment.
Pthalo, unaffected by the mist for the moment, leaps forward out of the circle as his fists alight in flames. He pummels blow after blow into the wolf’s coat, but the flame seems to have little effect on the beast. Mitsuki raises her bow in a flash, shooting arrows off as she lays down a supporting fire for the monk. As Bolin recovers, he draws his jagged-edge sword and moves to engage, followed quickly by Bodi’ka as she draws both of her own blades. The wolf moves behind one of the columns, seeming to draw them farther from the pillar. With their attention drawn away, they don’t notice black tentacles reach out of two doors and wrap around Freeport and Il’an, then whip back and drag them both through the waiting portals.
Il’an trudges blindly down an alleyway, feeling his way along as passersby move to keep their distance from the dirty and haggard old man. One kind soul tosses a gold piece to Il’an, and he turns his sightless eyes towards the sound. He reaches his hands out to the cold ground, feeling for the metal, and he cackles gratefully as his fingers curl around the coin. He raises the coin to his mouth, curling his lips around it to bite into it and confirm its authenticity, but frowns as he realizes he has no teeth.
The wolf raises the mist up above his head once more and sends another wave cascading through the room, this time causing a shade to be pulled away from Mitsuki. Pthalo harries the beast, gaining ground on it and pushing it towards Bodi’ka and Bolin’s waiting swords. Bolin raises his freehand in to the air and a beam of light shines through the smoky ceiling, sending cold moonlight to chill the wolf’s spine.
Freeport stumbles down a dark cobblestone path, hiding in the shadows between buildings. Men and women turn into the alley, a quick shortcut on their journey, but turn away in disgust as their eyes alight on the tiefling. One shrieks in fear at the sight of him, and a mob quickly arrives and surrounds him, pushing Freeport against the wall and harassing him.
First Il’an, then Freeport, stumble out of doors at the opposite end of the room, each clearly shaken by their experience.
Bodi’ka strikes with both blades, leaving bloody gashes along the beast’s abdomen. The wolf turns away from her, finding a dazed Mitsuki shaking the cloud from her mind. The wolf bends low, raking both claws along Mitsuki’s arms and snapping its jaws on her shoulder, ripping muscle and sinew from her as she cries out. The archer pulls a dagger from her belt and retaliates quickly, stabbing first into the creature’s chest and then its face. As she tries to pull the dagger free, though, the wolf lets out a howl as its mouth stretches impossibly wide, and the daggers tears free, pulling with it bits of the wolf’s flesh. The wolf rends the remains of its skin, and from within it a writhing mass of tentacles and agonized humanoid faces and arms shake free of the wolf form, swinging its tentacles wildly as it renews its attack.
Freeport runs back towards the center of the room, and catching sight of Mitsuki, wounded and in the tentacle creature’s shadow, he sings an enchantment that causes Mitsuki’s own skin to stretch and grow leathery until she once more takes the form of a tyrannosaurus.
Two tendrils whip out from doors to wrap around Bolin and Bodi’ka during the distraction, but both manage to break free of the tendrils’ grips. The tentacle creature whips towards Bodi’ka, and as one tentacle slashes across her, it leaves behind a wound that bleeds dark purple ichor. Il’an moves to stand beside Freeport and casts a spell of his own, transforming Pthalo into a giant ape. The tentacle creature writhes in place and black smoke blooms out from its center, sending waves of fear and anxiety into the room.
Freeport cocks his head, a message reaching his ears mid-battle. “Kingmaker’s domain?” he mutters, confused. Before he can think to respond to the message, tendrils whip out of two more doors, once more dragging both Freeport and Il’an away.
A mouth with wickedly long fangs rolls out of the tentacled mass and chomps down on Mitsuki-Rex’ leathery hide, and suddenly the dinosaur crashes to the ground, its eyes rolling back in its head and saliva dripping uncontrollably from its massive jaw.
Il’an finds himself mid-speech and addressing a vast and crowded audience. As he speaks on, the audience begins to hiss and heckle him. From somewhere in the crowd, a head of lettuce, followed by a show, crash onto the stage, and before long the entire crowd has found items to begin throwing at Il’an.
As Apehalo cowers near a column, throwing rocks at the tentacle creature, Bodi’ka steps in to take the brunt of its blows while Bolin takes a step back, focusing on a spell as once more a circle of protective magic lights up on the ground, this time encircling the tentacle creature and bounding it from exiting the ring.
Freeport stumbles, bloody and hurt, down the cobblestone alley. The mob has dwindled away, but the few people passing by shove him bodily out of their way. He reaches the end of the alley and reaches up to a shop window to catch his breath when he catches sight of his hand -- no longer is it a beautiful pale lavender, but his skin is now black like ebony, and his fingertips long with clawed nails at the ends of them, flecked with bits of fresh blood. Freeport looks up at his reflection in the store window and finds looking back at him a demon with a towering crown of curved bone horns bursting from his head, and dark blood seeping from the corners of his red eyes. The shopkeeper inside the window screams at the sight of him and hurriedly shuts the curtain.
Freeport stumbles out of a door and hurriedly sends three bolts of eldritch magic hurtling at the tentacle creature, then begins playing a lilting melody on his lute as he attempts to break the mind-altering effect on Apehalo. Apehalo rears his arms back with a roar, chucking another stone at the beast as Bolin retreats back out of reach of the tentacles, attempting to nurse his wounds.
Tendrils whip out of doors once more, ensnaring Bolin and pulling him into one door, and as one tendril reaches for Freeport, the tiefling screams and reflexively pushes Il’an towards it, causing Il’an to be pulled into a door once more.
Bolin finds himself a squire once more at the side of his mentor, Porfirio. The aged paladin reads through a missive, and before either he or Bolin can react, a half elven woman dashes into the room and slips behind Porfirio, producing a wicked-looking dagger and dragging the blade across Porfirio’s throat. She wraps her fingers in Porfirio’s hair and pulls, ripping his head from his body as Bolin stands paralyzed in shock.
A rumbling chortle escapes from some unknown mouth within the mass of tentacles as the protective circle fades away, and the creature launches itself across the room, roiling through the mist to attack Freeport. A tentacle with a myriad of jagged-toothed maws slashes at Freeport, the mouths biting into him and draining his will.
Bolin reappears to find Bodi’ka catatonic and laying in the mist, oozing gashes and bite marks left all over her body.
Il’an looks down and finds a dagger hilt-deep in his chest, gripped by a withered old hand. He looks up into the face of his attacker, and sees his own face, pulling the dagger free and fleeing. As Il’an drops to the ground, bleeding out from his chest, he looks around him and finds himself in the middle of a battlefield littered with corpses of himself. Beyond, as far as his eyes can see, copies of himself are fighting each other, each at varying ages, burning each other to cinders with magic or cutting each other down with staves or daggers.
Il’an's body rolls out of a door, unconscious and limp, sprawling at Freeport’s feet. The bard quickly whispers a healing word to Il’an, and attempts to send another series of eldritch bolts at the tentacled mass, but to no avail. With Il’an unconscious, Pthalo reverts to his own form and shakes himself free of the black smoke’s enchantment. He launches himself at the beast, flanking it across from Freeport as the wizard returns to consciousness. Il’an lashes out with his strongest magic, sending bolts of lightning through the creature and incidentally shocking the nearby tiefling, but the sparks seem to sizzle away against both the creature’s amorphous hide and the silver chainmail Freeport wears.
Pthalo leaps into the air and crashes down into the center of the creature’s mass. He reaches for a pair of boar-like tusks bound to the mass and roars as he rips them away, tearing at the creature until his hands reach deep into the creature’s core. As he pulls a cylinder from the tentacled mass, the creature shudders, and falls limp. The cylinder opens in his hands, revealing a small fox wearing a green collar.
With the creature melting away into the mist, Bodi’ka and Mitsuki woozily climb to their feet, seeming weak and unsure of their surroundings as they try to shake off the creature’s effect. The floating door revolving around the room slowly creaks open, and Kraken Knuckles finds themselves pulled through, only to find themselves once more in the Apocalypse Vault.