Things look bleak for our dear heroes. Their numbers quickly drop as Smugs, Ryndir, and Azaghal succumb to their curse and turn completely to stone. His nearby friends now statues, Darksex fries the remaining cockatrice with a quick blast. Darksex, Ulfgar, and Pineroot turn warily to the center of the quarry where Kelburn and the fire elemental remain locked in combat. Pineroot hurls the carcass of a cockatrice into the elemental and oddly pleasant sizzling sounds are heard. The gnome then calls out to Kelburn drawing his attention, and the stone dwarf begins to lumber in his direction angrily. Darksex hits the elemental with an eldritch blast, but quickly discovers that the fiery being is much, much faster than Kelburn. The fire peering at him from the tier below, Darksex casts a phantasmal force that takes the form of himself furiously firing spells. The elemental’s focus now on the illusory Darksex, the real dwarven spellcaster runs to the wall surrounding the quarry. He then casts a spell of spider-climbing on himself and begins to scurry up the stone barrier.
Pineroot, meanwhile, tries to reason with Kelburn. Perhaps the Unflankables could team up with the indignant boulder-man. Pineroot’s words seem to have penetrated Kelburn’s hard exterior as the stone dwarf tells him that he will destroy the elemental. However he vows to destroy the Unflankables as well once he is finished. Pineroot shrugs and shouts uplifting and inspiring statements after the departing dwarf. Ulfgar positions himself tactically behind a large boulder and fires bolt after bolt from his crossbow at the elemental. Many miss their mark, one even knocking over the teetering statue of Smugs. Not one to be shut out, however, Ulfgar manages to land a few hits on the burning figure. The elemental, in fact, is deep in combat with the false Darksex, a battle that threatens to last an eternity. Luckily, Darksex has magically climbed to the top of the wall. He fires several volleys of his eldritch blast that knock the elemental to the tier below. The elemental continues to reform itself, and set on its target, returns to attack faux-Darksex.
If it were possible for a being of pure flame to become confused, the next events surely would do the deed. Kelburn finally stops, positioned on the tier below the elemental. He concentrates deeply and a pair of heavy boulders burst from the ground and move to either side of the elemental. One of the boulders has taken the same position as the fake Darksex, but the illusion continues to pretend to shoot spells. The two boulders begin to smash the elemental between each other again and again, both irritating the elemental and continuously interrupting the holo-Darksex. The real Darksex falters in his concentration and his imaginary clone vanishes. Pineroot has his back though, and conjures exactly the same illusion in exactly the same spot.
The ridiculous battle lasts only a few more minutes as Darksex blasts the elemental off the tier and directly onto Kelburn. Kelburn now looks like a hot coal, an oddly beautiful sight despite the perilous situation. The stone dwarf has lost his mind link with the boulders and is back to fist-fighting the elemental. Home-field advantage turns out not to be enough, though, as bright cracks begin to form all over Kelburn’s body. With a final guttural yell, the solidified spirit of the dwarf swears to bury them all, as he was buried in life. Then, true to his word, Kelburn explodes and sends tremors throughout the quarry. Moments later, the very ground beneath the heroes’ feet collapses and they find themselves plummeting into the darkness below.
Hours later, the heroes awaken, partially buried in dirt and rock. There is no sight of the elemental, or of the night sky for that matter. Despite the turn of events, Ulfgar seems far happier underground, and the petrification plaguing his companions has begun to wear off. Smugs and Ryndir find that they’re still alive, but that not all of their limbs have reverted to their fleshy forms. The adventurers unbury themselves and Ulfgar lashes Azaghal to his back, the poor tiefling still completely made of stone. They grab two cockatrice corpses and turn to the tunnel before them.
The heroes are met with a bizarre scene. Throughout the tunnel are statues of adventurers: men, elves, dwarves, it seems no race has been left unsculpted. The heroes are unsurprised to see that most of the faces of the statues are horrified, expressions of impending doom forever etched on their features. Being turned to stone is not a pleasant experience, after all. They get a chuckle from a statue whose final moments seem to have been spent deep in a drug-induced haze. Further down the tunnel, around a bend, they see a blue glow and hear heavy footfalls. They creep towards the glow and stop before rounding the bend. They use the stone form of Azaghal and poke his head around the bend, in an arguably clever, but definitely comical maneuver. Nothing happens, and in quick succession, the heroes poke their heads around the bend, Scooby-Doo style.
What they see is a man standing with his back turned, hands clasped nonchalantly behind him. His hair is long and silvery, tied near his shoulders and he is dressed very well. He is watching a pair of towering shield guardians move about the tunnel. The two armored constructs are gathering the statues of former adventurers and carrying them into a glowing blue portal on the far wall, returning moments later. Perplexed, the heroes are hesitant to approach. Darksex opens his mind and speaks to the mysterious man via psychic link. The man senses the source of the internal words and turns to see the adventurers. He calmly bids them greeting and inquires what brings them to this place. The heroes talk over each other, mentioning landslides and statues and burning men.
The man assures them he means them no harm and introduces himself as Archibald Mandalus. Pineroot shakes his hand, expecting a much more firm grip than the one he received. The heroes question Mandalus on his current activity and he explains that he’s a bit of a collector, acquiring strange and apparently twisted prizes. The heroes gaze hungrily at the portal, sensing an easy exit. Mandalus asks if the heroes would like some assistance in getting out of the cave, but are taken aback when he requests something valuable in return. He seems interested in the stone tiefling on Ulfgar’s back, but the staunch cleric declines to trade away his compatriot. A quick hero huddle later, the adventurers tempt Mandalus with the prospect of a potion used to turn people to stone. They happen to know a gifted potionsmaster who could easily craft such a thing.
Mandalus accepts and begins to talk of the cavern ahead. This catches the heroes a bit off guard, but they allow the mysterious fellow to describe the myconid colony that resides in the cavern and the stone staircase that leads to the surface. As a gesture of his good will, he hands the Unflankables’ resident magic-man one of his cuff-links. The cuff-link is apparently the heart of one of the shield guardians, now bound to follow the commands of the holder. Mandalus tells Darksex that the guardian is imbued with a sunlight spell that may be handy in maneuvering the fungus-covered cavern. He tells the heroes to watch out for the spores and that he’ll see them at the top. He bids them a friendly adieu and walks through the portal with his remaining shield guardian.
The heroes are equal parts apprehension, adrenaline, and confusion as they turn from the vanishing portal to face the long tunnel ahead of them.