Stone arches, broken and incomplete in places, form a circle around the hub of seven roads, each of which is paved in broken red rock and stretches outward through a misty gray landscape, each impossibly leading straight out to the same cluster of seven mountains in each direction. Where the stonework is incomplete, blocks and broken pieces of ornamentation hover in place, supported by nothing but the air, but in other portions, the architecture is sturdy, well-made, and carved with elaborate patterns. Seven statues of varying size are limned in starlight, though the sky is free from any sign of the Procession. Six of the statues are of idealized Eeee women, the smallest being no taller than one's ankle, the largest being life size. A seventh statue, however, resembles a winged ki'rin, painted ivory and gold and adorned in amber jewelry, leaning against one column and bracing an arm against the other in a sultry pose, blocking passage beyond.
With a stirring of gray mists, a mixed-race Temple Ranger appears part Vartan, part Hekoye and has a moment to take in his surroundings. They are familiar yet alien, as vague memories drift back of adventures long ago in this realm, but it has most certainly changed. The roads are now paved in broken red stone, providing a sharp contrast to the gray landscape … and some of the mountains seem to be more colorful, more alive than before. Past the ki'rin statue's interposed body, Lochinvar can see and recognize the mountain that he once visited Inala's realm and the path headed that way is framed by flowering green grass and vine-colored trellises, while faint sounds of music drift from the carnival on the mountainside.
Counter-clockwise from the statue of Inala is a statue of Barada, which is now about life-size, clutching a cowled cloak about her shoulders, and mischievously holding a finger to her mouth as if to shush the winged Hekoye, while just a glimpse can be seen of a golden key held in her other hand under a fold of the cloak. Beyond her and her statue blocks most of the archway is a mist-shrouded mountain, but the mountain underneath has silhouetted hints of a city nestled within the crags, and a village at its base.
The rest of the statues hardly compare to those two in size. The statues of Rephath (holding a set of scales) and Zakaro (posed as if casting a spell) are just figurines, looking as if they could be easily toppled over by a strong gust of wind, and Gorphat is hardly more than that. The remaining two statues of Sunala (black-furred, white-haired, with white, pupil-less eyes and tattered wings) and Blakat (splashed with red paint, bearing a wickedly-curved blade and eyes wild with fury) are slightly larger, though not to compare with those of Barada or the impossibly beautiful winged ki'rin that has taken the place of Inala.
Faint sounds reach the winged Hekoye's ears … a squeal of laughter from the direction of Inala's carnival … an indistinct whisper from Barada's mist-shrouded city … a choked whimper and a discordant sprang of an out-of-tune instrument from the path of Gorphat … maniacal laughter and the clash of blades from Blakat's realm … a ring of chimes from Zakaro's domain … a spine-tingling wet crack from Rephath's mountain.
Lochinvar walks a partial circle past each of the statues, keeping a slightly further distance between him and the figure of Zakaro the pose does worry him somewhat then looks back at them all in confusion. "How did I… ?" he starts to ask, of no-one in particular.
No-one, particular or not, offers the Hekoye/Vartan a word of explanation. In fact, the momentarily silence seems especially empty. It's as if, in the back of Lochinvar's mind, he might remember some sort of play or story, and at this point, it's the cue for someone to pop up and impishly offer him a clue or some advice. If that's the case, however, the actor has missed his cue, for nothing happens.
Sighing at the lack of response a little, the winged coyote glances at the statues again. "Which way to go though?" he muses, and wonders if he could manage to squeeze past the larger statues at all.
It looks like getting past the statue of … Envoy? … would be a vain effort, even if he didn't have wings. It is conceivable that he might squeeze past the statue of Barada, but it would be just that a squeeze. Of course, one might consider that one could simply walk through one of the open archways and then over to the desired path … but this is a dream realm, and it might well be that there are less-than-obvious means to thwart clever adventurers from trying such a stunt.
The Hekoye/Vartan hrms, and looks around one more time. "This one looks the least … scary of them all," he mutters to himself, looking at Rephath, then begins walking towards her arch.
The figurine seems to smirk at the Ranger as he approaches. Passing certainly seems easy enough, and a path of broken red stone lies beyond, leading to the vaguely defined range of mountains in the distance … but particularly leading up to one of those seven, one shrouded in mists, and devoid of detail. Once he passes through the archway, he momentarily notices that he doesn't see any of the other pathways radiating out at all, although they should be there. Broken rock crunches under his footfalls, and the mists swirl about him, drawing closer.
As he walks along, Lochinvar looks around, trying to pick out any detail surrounding him through the mist.
At first, it seems that he cannot pick out any detail because … in a manner of speaking … there isn't any. But then, the mist clears, and he finds himself at the foot of a mountain of broken rock and torn earth, looking as if some giant had smashed and beaten the mountain with great fury, and left it with wounds open to the chill air. The path of broken red stone winds its way up through the mists, disappearing again, and on each side there are poles thrust into the ground, leaning this way or that, with cords running between them, forming a fence of sorts on each side of the path.
Up ahead, through the mists, there can faintly be seen a large silhouette. It looks like a massive tree … but from its top grows a tower that rises even higher.
Lochinvar continues onwards, closing a hand around the "cord" fencing next to him, letting his hand run over it before releasing it at the next pole, then continuing to do the same with the next length of cord. "I'd guess that is my destination," he comments to himself, looking up at the tower ahead.
The mists fade away at Lochinvar's approach, and the tower looks considerably more familiar as he approaches. It is the Tower of Barabbas, also known as the Earth Tower … though there's no telling just why it should be on a mountainside of a Babelite goddess, rather than in the middle of the Himaat Desert. However, the dream reality seems to be set on correcting this error, as he loses grasp of the cord fencing, rock turns to sand under Lochinvar's feet, and the mists are burned away by a blazing sun that he had not noticed before. In an instant, the path gives way, and Lochinvar is at the Earth Tower once more.
The Ranger, obviously confused, looks behind for any trace of the path that he walked here on, but behind him is nothing but sand. He carefully continues onwards to the tower, mindful of the traps he remembers from his previous visits to the tower if it is the same tower.
As he starts to walk, his feet begin to sink into the sand, and a wind picks up, battering him with gusts of dust and sand. There's a rustling in the sand … and … movement?
Lochinvar watches the sand carefully, glancing briefly to see his distance from the base of the tree. "The golem?" he asks himself, pausing in his movement.
It looks like Lochinvar is in the area that's still in the effect of the "Sea of Sand". That is, he's sinking. However, he also appears to be within the range of effect of the golem. There's a mocking chitter from somewhere up in the Tower. "Betray us, will yi?"
Realizing now that he is sinking into the sand, and being without sandshoes, the Hekoye/Vartan unfurls and beats his wings to try and lift himself out of the sand.
The sand is especially stubborn, certainly more so than this silty expanse should be. It's as if the sand were alive … and grabbing him. In fact, the sand about his feet piles up, suggesting the forms of a pair of large fists closed around his feet.
"What the… ?" he asks, and tries flapping his wings harder in an attempt to lift him up.
The Skreek's mocking laughter can be heard, as Lochinvar struggles against the grip of the sand golem … but Lochinvar is still fairly strong, and determination helps a great deal, too. His muscles ache from the exertion, but with a mighty final thrust of his wings, he manages to wrench himself free of the grip of the sand-monster, and into the air, buffeted as he is by blinding blasts of wind-blown grit.
Straining against a dull ache beginning to start around the bases of his wings, Lochinvar tries to make his way to the base of the tree. He casts a quick look up at the tower, and shakes his head a little. "No, couldn't be," he tells himself.
Despite the buffeting of the wind, Lochinvar is familiar enough with this territory to get himself to the base of the tree. There, he finds crates and other ruins of the base camp that was set up here, and the familiar amber door, with the shadows of trapped bodies inside. "Mmmm," comes a hiss from somewhere unclear. "Now, why couldn't it be? Or are you so certain that you finished us off by leaving us in the desert to die?"
Lochinvar walks around to the back of the tree, away from the Amber door to where he remembers the "plant elevator" at the back. He glances up at the tower above him, trying to determine the source of the voice. The voices are just in my head, he thinks, trying to reassure himself.
As Lochinvar walks, there is a mound that traces its way through the sand, searching, probing, working its way toward the winged Hekoye. However, he manages to make his way around avoiding the carnivorous plants along the way and finds the large flower, its face flush to the sandy ground.
Noticing the mound heading quickly to him, the coyote quickly steps onto the face of the flower, then looks down at the sound to watch the approaching golem beneath the sand.
The flower rustles, and then rises upward. The golem forms in the sand below, but too late to grab Lochinvar and it appears that it is quite unable to part itself from the sand to pursue him. He rises upward, to find the familiar door with the one-eyed lion doorknocker, a ring hanging in its mouth. The single eye glares balefully at the winged Hekoye, and it makes muffled noises around the ring shoved in its mouth.
"Once again, I find your face here to greet me," the Hekoye tells the doorknocker, before lifting the ring with one hand, and using it to rap onto the door.
The lion head gives him a sour glare, and murphles something unintelligible. Then, the door swings open. Beyond, it takes a moment for his eyes to adjust, but could it be a trick of the light? There is a large serpent in the corridor, giving him a Naga grin … and then she reaches out with a hand to caress a ruby, spiked not-quite-grok that stands to one side of the passage. Her finger pricks on a spike, and blood spills onto the ruby. "That is not all that is here to greet you," the Naga hisses, flicking her tongue in amusement.
Lochinvar's eyes widen in disbelief. "No!" he calls out, and runs into the corridor to try and both see if what he's seeing is an apparition, and also to get ahead of the statue while it is still a statue, and try and gain an advantage over it.
As Lochinvar dashes forward, he finds that, indeed, this is no apparition, but rather a very solid and muscular serpent that blocks his way. She hisses at him, baring sharp and possibly venomous fangs, and her coils move to wrap around him, while the ruby statue begins to crack, and its eyes begin to glow.
The winged coyote struggles against the coils, trying to wriggle free. "Let me go!" he orders the Naga. "We have to get away from that statue!"
The Naga laughs bitterly. "Why, or this time you'll die? Wretched half-breed! I knew you were a spy for the Temple! I knew you were a traitor in our midst! Now, at long last, you'll finally pay!" The Naga's voice becomes nearly a shriek, as the ruby statue crackles more, and begins to move, stirring itself from a magical slumber.
"Traitor?" he asks, still struggling to get free. "For leaving when asked to, to prevent tensions in this region? No you decided to remain here of your own free will."
This time, Lochinvar manages to wrench himself free, though he still doesn't manage to take care of the problem of the Naga blocking the amber corridor. The ruby guardian turns his way, sizing him up with hungry eyes. The Naga balks, "We had every right to remain here! I am the worthy inheritor of Barabbas' legacy! You tried to steal that from me!"
Lochinvar turns to face the creature, flexing his claws at it, then glancing quickly back at the Naga, whom he still doesn't quite believe is Lakshmi; he already came back here once before and no one was here. "I cannot steal something from you that is not yours already," he says, then launches himself at the creature before it can make the first move.
The creature, just about to launch its own attack, is taken off guard by the Vartan/Hekoye and loses ground immediately, being forced back along the chamber floor to the open door at the end.
Lochinvar continues to hack, slash, and lay blows to the creature before finally forcing it out of the door. The flower-elevator has since descended, and the ruby-creature hits the sand below. As Lochinvar looks out of the doorway, the mound of the sand-golem moves quickly over towards the creature and within a moment, it's pulled below the sand.
Back in the Tower, it appears that the amber passage is clear, for the serpent has retreated while Lochinvar was distracted.
Lochinvar walks back carefully along the corridor towards the staircase, watching close to find any hint of where the Naga went, his ears pricked for the sound of any betraying noise.
The Ranger has the advantage, even if the Naga is free of scents that might give away her position. Just around the side, the Naga is waiting, and Lochinvar's instincts suggest that she might be holding some sort of weapon at the ready.
Pausing before he crosses the threshold, the Ranger looks around to see if there's anything near him that he could use as a possible distraction before he enters.
At present, all within reach would be the stone pedestal he's standing on, and an amber floor, ceiling and walls. Anything in contact with the amber has long since been absorbed into its mass.
Lochinvar sighs to himself, and takes a run at the opening, hoping that whatever weapon he feels that the Naga has beyond there won't connect in time if he moves quickly through.
The Hekoye-Vartan darts through the opening, and the Naga swings down with a club fashioned from the bone of some deceased monster. If Lochinvar had been obliged to stand there, he most probably would have been hit with considerable force, but he has an advantage over the Naga: wings. And the space within the central chamber is amply wide enough for him to soar clear of the Naga's attack.
The winged coyote hovers there momentarily, keeping out of reach from the Naga. "Who are you?" he demands of it.
"Who do you think I am, Templar?" the Naga hisses, flailing out with the club. She tracks the winged coyote with her eyes and flicks of her tongue, but momentarily glances up the stairs before locking back onto him again.
"I don't know," Lochinvar calls back down. "But I was here recently, and you were not. So who are you?" Noticing the Naga's glance up, he looks up the stairs also.
Lochinvar catches a glimpse of a shadow lurking at the top of the stairs … and then there's a shrill whistle as a projectile hurtles toward him!
The Hekoye/Vartan quickly beats his wings, trying to move out of the way of the projectile by moving towards the walls of the tower, since moving down could put him in range of the club-wielding Naga.
A good move it is, since the Naga takes an anticipatory swing at the space the winged Hekoye would have occupied if he had done otherwise. He slams against the wood lining the interior of the chamber, but not enough to deal himself any injury. Meanwhile, the Skreek loads his crossbow again, chittering, "Yi wanted t'e tower for yi'self, eh? Yi even wanted ti come between me an' Laks'mi! Well, yi'll pay for it now!"
The Ranger's eyes widen as he spies the crossbow in the Skreek's hands. He does his best to shake off the pain of the bruise he just got from hitting the wall, keeping moving so as not to make an easy target of himself. "No, you're wrong," he tells the figure up high.
"No, yi're t'e one t'at's wrong. Dead wrong!" the Skreek chitters, then unleashes another bolt. For all the space within the chamber, it's still not the open sky, and there's only so much freedom the winged Hekoye has to dart this way or that without risking a deadly crash into the walls or floor. It's during one of these necessary turns that the bolt finds its mark, ramming itself heavily into the coyote's thigh. The sharp pain throws his timing off, and the half-Vartan careens against an out-hanging branch, sending jolts of pain through his abused limb.
Lochinvar cries out in alarm, momentarily bouncing off the branch. Struggling against the pain in his thigh, he feels that he must use the time that the Skreek has to reload his bow to get up there in time and get it off him, and he attempts to beat his wings to get up there.
Fortunately, the pain in his leg has nothing to do with the strength in his wings, and Lochinvar manages to shoot upward. The Skreek fumbles with the crossbow, glancing at the winged Hekoye in a mixture of anger and fear, but the winged coyote is too fast for him to ready his weapon before he closes on him. He spits out a curse, and drops the crossbow, reaching for a dagger.
The Hekoye/Vartan, trying to use his good leg for putting his weight on, rushes towards the Skreek, trying to stop his hand, and pull out the dagger first.
It's definitely something the Skreek was not expecting, and in a flash, the dagger is ripped free from the sheath. The action, however, throws the rat off balance from his precarious perch. With a rodent shriek, he plummets off the side!
Lochinvar has but a split second to make a decision. He dives off the staircase in an attempt to catch the falling Skreek.
With the strength of his wings behind him, he is able to catch the rat in time to buffer his descent, so that the Skreek does not meet a messy fate on the floor of the chamber. The rat shrieks nonetheless, wrestling around in the half-Vartan's grasp, letting lose a string of profanities that would make Inala blush. … Well, maybe not.
Struggling to hold on to the rat, Lochinvar finally reaches the floor, and sets him down onto it, while keeping an eye on the Naga in case she decides to take the opportunity to swing at him.
The rat spills onto the ground, while Lochinvar catches sight of the Naga slithering up the stairs, a look of determination on her reptilian features.
"You have got to be kidding me," the coyote says under his breath, taking the moment to try and extract the bolt from his thigh.
The bolt predictably hurts a great deal as it's pulled out, and it's bleeding badly, but the half-Vartan still has a bit of spit and fire in his belly. If he takes too long to rest and think, however, that might soon change. Meanwhile, the Naga continues to slither upward at a respectable pace, going toward the chamber of the stone gargoyles.
Lochinvar grabs hold of the Skreek by his tunic, and rips off a band of fabric from it, quickly wrapping it around his thigh and tying it off - prompting a shriek and another stream of curses from the rat.
"So kind of you," Lochinvar tells the rat, then glances to see where the Naga is, also quickly taking to what air is available here easier for him to fly up to the next level in the tower than walk on this thigh.
The Naga sees him flying up, and quickens her pace, darting into the stone gargoyle chamber. "We've learned a few more things about the Tower since you were here, Templar!" she hisses at him, adopting a triumphant cant to her head as she reaches the far door.
The winged coyote curses under his breath at the Naga reaching the chamber before he could get there, feeling he's just lost an advantage. "Do tell," he replies, opting to hover just outside the entrance to the chamber wary that the Naga could try to take a swing at him as he enters again.
"Well," the Naga says, looking quite smug, "it's possible to teach the guardians of this tower the difference between friend … " She reaches for the door to push at it. "… and foe!"
Lochinvar, seeing that the Naga is well inside, lands just at the threshold to the chamber, wincing as he puts weight on his leg. He can just make out the stones in the dish across the room, waiting to be placed into the mouths of the gargoyles. "Wait the stones… !" he calls out.
The Naga is still grinning triumphantly, as she pushes on the door. At once, the eyes of the gargoyles begin to glow, and their stone surfaces begin to crack. "I know about the stones, Templar! But I've done a great deal of study in the Tower in your absence. I know how to use these traps in my favor! And you … well, say your prayers to whatever entity you say such things to, for I don't think you'll fare very well against living stone!"
Thinking that the Naga is probably correct, Lochinvar dives forward towards the door at the far end, flapping his wings once down to try and get more momentum to move across the chamber before the gargoyles come completely to life.
Alas, Lochinvar's aim is a bit off. A sharp stabbing pain from his thigh as he tries to launch forward causes him to stumble and fall at the first wing-beat. He ends up scraping his belly against the upper landing of the stairs and battering himself against the outer doorframe, as the gargoyles crackle to life, and stir from their magical slumber. "Kill him!" the Naga commands, thrusting one hand toward the prone half-Vartan.
Lochinvar tries to pick himself up off the floor as quick as he can. He glances at the dish containing the stones, then at the gargoyles. "Maybe I can't defeat them by fighting; maybe they'll still work," he muses to himself, and tries to get across to the dish.