“Hello! The name’s Xan Quinn, and these are my companions Drake, Liberty, and Charles.” The rogue flashed a smile at Mom upon using the half-orc’s real name. “We are making another journey from Diamond Lake to do some commerce and maybe take in the Champion’s Games. If there is anything that could be done to help make your job easier today, please let us know. We are eager to see the city again.”
The guard grunted, casting a sidelong glance at his partner before turning back to you. “Great! Let’s have a looksee at whatcher bringin’ in to our fair city.” The other guard moved to investigate their possessions.
As he frisked Drake, the alchemist muttered, “Usually have to pay for this kind of attention.”
The guardsman scowled at Drake and retorted, “Of course you do.”
Drake shrugged. “Yea. Pretty much.”
The guard looked very suspiciously at all weapons and unusual gear, especially odd talismans, jars containing green worms, and obviously magical items. After his inspection, which was conducted with a healthy dose of concerned looks and disapproving sighs, the guard said, “I’m afraid some of your possessions are questionable and may need to be confiscated.”
His tone was solicitous, and Liberty picked up on it. “Are you sure?” she asked. “Some of these things are meant for folks inside the city walls.” She fished a platinum piece out of her belt pouch. “Couldn’t you make an exception, just this once? For me?” She did not quite bat her eyelashes. Drake cocked an eyebrow, and Mom grunted noncommittally, but neither said anything.
“Well…” The guard took her hand (and the bribe), making a show of considering her words. “You have an honest face, lass. I guess you and yer fellows are okay to pass.”
“You are very kind, sir. I – we – thank you.” Liberty gave the man a shy little smile. She threw a wink back at Xan once they were past the guards and he nodded back, impressed.
The streets of the Free City were cobbled with well-worn stones and scored by deep wagon ruts. Throngs of people of all races, some bearing exotic raiment, crowded the streets. The creak of wagons and neighing of horses was interrupted by the call of merchants hawking their wares and the shouts of customers haggling over prices. The air hung heavy with the smell of civilization, the stench of sweat and refuse mixed with the aroma of fresh baked bread and fire-roasted meats.
“All the gods, but it’s good to be back,” said Liberty. “Have we got any business before we find Eligos?”
“Might find an inn and get settled first,” suggested Xan.
“Do you think we’ll find an inn with a room?” asked Mom, indicating the crowds.
“Good question,” said Liberty. “With this tournament in town, it might be tricky.”
Xan nodded. “Well, let’s get to it then. If we get near Eligos’s place in our search, then we can stop by.”
Drake grimaced. “Ugh. So many people. Still, I’d like to find something more permanent. I need access to a lab, and here’s as good a place as any to settle since Diamond Lake don’t want me back.”
Liberty looked at him wonderingly. “You know, I was thinking about finding my own place here. But we’ll probably need a place to stay while we look…”
“Really?” Xan said to Liberty, surprised. “Making the move, are we? Can’t say I blame you. Diamond Lake is getting a bit small for me, as well.”
Liberty nodded absently, pulling a flyer for the upcoming Champion’s Games from a nearby wall. Dozens of them were posted around the entrance to the city, announcing all manner of festivities and attractions that were scheduled to take place in the days leading up to the main event. “This sounds fun. Pity we have all this work to do.” Mom grunted speculatively.
“Oh, I don’t know about you, but I fully intend to enjoy myself over the next few days,” said Xan earnestly. “Who knows? I might even find a pretty little thing to keep me company.”
The adventurers began to make their way toward the Foreign Quarter and the Silver Dragon Inn, where Xan had stayed on his previous trips to Greyhawk. After a few blocks, they found their progress impaired by a parade of street performers and small menagerie making its way down the street. The intersection ahead was packed with a throng of people, straining their necks and cheering as a pair of jugglers, preceded by a large metal cage, makes its way down the cross street. The parade continued to roll past, displaying the talents of numerous street performers and various caged beasts.
One large and extravagant cage on a horse-drawn wagon actually consisted of two cages. The inner cage was made of iron bars, with panes of glass mounted outside the bars on all four sides. Within was a three-headed monstrosity with the heads of a goat, a lion, and a brilliant blue dragon. As the parade trundled along, the beast roared over and over as its dragon head blasted the iron cage with bolts of electricity that played along the metal bars.
“Oh, how pretty!” said Liberty. A curse from behind drew the sorcerer’s attention to Mom, who was reaching for the greatsword on his back and glaring down at something in the crowd. She heard Xan’s shout complaining about a pickpocket, and saw him struggling with a hooded figure.
Then the chimera’s cage broke, loosing the beast on the unsuspecting crowd.
The people who had gathered to watch the parade instantly panicked and tried to flee. Xan lunged at the thief with his enchanted blade, causing the man to whirl around an issue a high-pitched whistle. Liberty made a snap decision and sent fire arcing to both the chimera and the pickpocket. The monster was badly burned, but the thief dodged her flames. The panicked crowd gasped at the sudden and dramatic display of sorcery.
“GIVE IT BACK!” Mom roared at the pickpocket he faced. The man had spun around when his fellow whistled only to see the half-orc’s blade come down in a cruel arc that opened a large gash in the man’s armor and tore into the flesh beneath.
“Sald!” cried the first man, abandoning the fight with Xan and coming to his companion’s aid. He slipped behind the half-orc and drove his own blade into Mom’s side.
Sald pulled his own weapon and stabbed the Kordite in the leg. “Shoulda let it go, mate,” he taunted.
The chimera shook off the pain of its burns and scanned the crowd for Liberty. Once it spotted her, its draconic mouth opened and it exhaled lightning. The wild bolts burned through several people before arcing to the sorcerer. She evaded the primary bolt, but was licked by several of those that had splintered off from it.
“Whoops,” she said in pain. Her eyes widened in alarm when she saw the beast barreling down on her, running right over the charred dead. She tried to back away from the chimera, casting a spell and then breathing fire into its faces.
Xan pursued his quarry, striking at the pickpocket, and Mom whirled around to hack the man down. When he did, the other thief paled visibly. “Argen… No…”
Liberty fell beneath fang, claw, and ram’s horns as the chimera tore into her. Drake, who’d been swept away by the crowd, finally managed to resist the surge. Seeing Liberty fall, he rushed the beast and dove on it, wrapping his alchemy-enhanced arms around the beast. Xan finally took notice and left Mom to deal with the remaining pickpocket while he, too, went to the sorcerer’s aid.
A wild look entered Sald’s eyes and he continued his assault on the half-orc. But Mom knew chaos better, and knocked the thief’s blade aside time and again. “You killed him!” shrieked Sald. “You son of a bitch, you killed him!”
“You should have dropped it,” Mom retorted.
While the chimera tried to eat Drake, and the alchemist tried to reciprocate, the menagerie handlers came running forward. “Don’t kill it!” cried one. “It’s too valuable!”
Xan gave them an incredulous look, then pierced the chimera’s chest, aiming for the heart. The beast fell and two of the handlers rushed up to the burned and stabbed creature, throwing their arms around it pitifully.
Mom struck Sald with the flat of his blade. In his rage, the half-orc thumped the would-be pickpocket harder than he’d intended. The man would live – probably. Mom looked back and noticed that behind him Argen still drew ragged breath. He glanced toward his companions and saw Drake tending to Liberty, who spluttered back to life, arms flailing wildly before they clutched onto the alchemist. “Did… did we win?” he heard her say.
Overcome with guilt over having not even noticed that Liberty had fallen, the half-orc knelt down, and with an orison stabilized Argen, recovering his pouch and Xan’s in the process. Then he came over to Drake and offered up healing prayers for the alchemist. “Need to visit the temple,” he muttered.
“Get the collar,” said a more reserved handler to an aide, who brought a large steel ring on a chain. “Cleric! Can you stabilize the beast?” the handler demanded. Mom grunted assent and did so.
The city watch came along and demanded an explanation for the scene. The head handler admitted to the escape of their property, lamenting the loss of life. He promised to make recompense to the families of the victims. That settled, the watch turned their attention to the adventurers and the fallen thieves.
“Explain to me why these men are damn near dead,” said the sergeant pointing at the senseless forms of Argen and Sald.
“Thieves,” rumbled Drake.
Xan elaborated. “We’ve been in town for barely an hour and already our group was targeted by thieves! These two stole our pouches and tried to run during the chaos of the chimera’s escape. I wouldn’t be surprised if they rigged the cage themselves to create such a good picking ground for coin purposes.”
“Aye, perhaps they did at that,” said the head handler, giving Xan an appraising look.
The watchman looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, “Well enough. Know that we do not tolerate vigilantism. We’ll call this your one warning. Knock it off unless you want to wind up in the stocks, or worse.”
“I appreciate your understanding here, sir,” said Xan. “But so we might learn from this, what does the city watch prefer we do when we catch someone lifting our purse?”
The guardsman frowned. “Just… try not to drub them quite so thoroughly,” he said.
“Ah. That’s fair. We’ll try and be more careful if it happens again.”
“See that you do.”
“Is self-defense vigilantism?” rumbled Drake. “Sir,” he added after a beat.
“That would be for the courts to decide…sir.”
“I can heal them…” said Mom. “If you like.”
“Much obliged, Kordite. Would rather not have to carry their sorry carcasses.”
Mom nodded, then turned to the handlers. “Is the beast restrained?” he asked.
They nodded, indicating the large steel collar that had been placed around the chimera’s neck. “Enchanted to keep it docile while not in its cage,” explained the head handler. He looked back toward the broken enclosure. “Will have to repair and reinforce that, apparently.” He gave Xan a small smile. “Make it tamper resistant,” he concluded.
Mom nodded and then began to channel Kord’s healing might, knitting the wounds of everyone within range with so much as a scrape. His efforts restored Drake and Liberty to full health. The sorcerer tucked her belt pouch into her pack and tipped her hat in thanks as she regained her feet. The chimera stirred, as well, and the menagerie workers guided the beast back toward one of the parade wagons. The watch took the pickpockets into custody. Sald could only moan and hold his aching head, but Argen glared daggers at both Mom and Xan.
The rogue ignored him. “You okay, Lib?” he asked.
“I am, yes. I was sure they’d nicked my coins, but I seem to be all together. So far.” She paused and offered up a smile. “And I’d still rather be dead here than alive and well in Diamond Lake.”
“I’m starting to think I should have hired those trolls to travel with us in town. So far, it’s more dangerous here than the roads.” Drake gave him a look that suggested he didn’t agree.
“I need to visit my order,” said Mom abruptly. “Will you take care of a room?”
“Sure thing, Mom,” said Xan. “First night’s on me.” He winked. The half-orc grunted and shook his head as he walked away from the group and – presumably – toward the local temple of Kord.
Drake cracked his knuckles, then looked down at his still-clawed hands. “Well… I was going to go shopping, but it’s gonna be a bit before I should wander about a market.”
“The Silver Dragon awaits,” said Liberty. They began moving toward the Foreign Quarter once more.
* * *
Most major communities have their fair share of prognosticators, some crazed and raving about the future, others quiet and lurking, waiting for the signs they know are coming. The Free City was no exception. Up ahead, standing atop a covered rain barrel, a man screamed at a public that seemed keen to ignore his ravings. Dressed only in a ratty robe and waving a long, charred staff, the balding human man seemed to be shouting himself hoarse, yet the crowd still passed him by without paying much attention at all. Liberty paused for a moment to attend his words.
“Listen to me, you children of the Free City, and hear the doom that builds before your blind eyes. You in your house of gold and you in your hovel of mud and even you in your mail of metal, none of you are safe from the doom, from the Age of Worms. Oh yes, it is coming. Have you not heard the dead dragons roar? Have you not smelled the rot festering under your very nose? Have you not dreamt of the worm that walks, bringing decay to all he touches? Fools, you are all fools! Your doom is upon you! The end is in sight and none of you shall be spared. Decay is the future and the future is here!”
The sorcerer tugged on Drake’s sleeve and pointed at the man, and noticed that both of her companions had been listening as well. “Yea, he’s just about spot on… I wonder what he would do if I handed him some of the paste to ward off the creatures.”
“Maybe he knows something,” she said to Xan.
“Too bad he’s completely out of his mind,” said the rogue.
“I don’t remember hearing anything about dead dragons before,” said Liberty. “There was something about a rift, though.”
“Well, damn dragon had a dead egg…” rumbled Drake.
“Might be worth questioning him,” said Xan. “Why not?”
The rogue approached the rain barrel man and the others followed. “You have such a deep insight into things, sir. How do you know all these amazing things?”
He stared at Xan blankly. “The prophet of the golden eye sees and reports.”
“Sees how, exactly?” the rogue pressed. “Is it in your dreams, or maybe visions of the future?”
“The prophet of the golden eye sees and reports.” A moment later he began his rant anew. Drake pulled out a vial of Kyuss worm paste and dangled it in front of the man, but he didn’t seem to notice.
Xan shrugged and led his companions away from the man. “I don’t think he’s going to be able to help us. Maybe if we follow him, but I’m really not sure it would be useful.”
“Hardly seems worth it,” agreed Liberty. “At least for now. If he’s here every day, we know where to find him.”
“Good point,” said Xan. “Let’s move on.”
They made their way finally to the Silver Dragon Inn, which was packed with barely a broom closet to rent. Liberty sighed. “Shall we try elsewhere after we see Eligos?”
Xan got one of those looks in his eye. “Well… Wasn’t Auric the champion of this tournament? I’m sure Tirra is with him and that they have a great place to stay. Maybe you can find your cute elf friend and see if we can shack up with them…so to speak.”
“I think we did become friends, but that was before we sent them off on a wild goose chase.” Liberty’s response didn’t play to her obvious attraction to the elven woman.
“I wasn’t aware that ‘they’ know that. But I was just teasing anyhow. I’ll find someplace for us before long.”
“Oh. Sure,” she said, sounding a little disappointed.
True to his word, the rogue found a place with actual rooms to rent. It was not as nice as the Silver Dragon, but still livable. Then they realized that they hadn’t made any arrangements about when or where to meet up with Mom again.
“We’ll have to wait for him when we meet with Eligos,” said Liberty.
“Well, is the temple on the way to Eligos’s place?” asked Xan.
“I have no idea where the temple is,” she admitted. “But I can go find him.”
“We’ll find it in the morning and then go see the wizard. When Mom doesn’t find us at the Silver Dragon, he’ll probably go back to the temple and crash on a cot or something. That’s a thing, right? Anyway, for now I feel like a drink and some entertainment. Anyone feel like joining me?”
“Sure,” said Liberty without a moment’s hesitation. “I nearly got killed today; I should live it up some.”
“That’s the spirit!” said Xan. “Cornelius? How about you?”
“I can forgo my abstinence from the drink for tonight,” the big man rumbled.
“It’s a festival, Drake. You can sober up when it ends,” said Liberty brightly.
“Excellent!” said Xan. “Dibs on the first lovely wench that comes along!” He smiled and led the way.
“Curses, foiled again,” said Liberty for the rogue’s amusement.
“Maybe I will need a drink to get through this,” rumbled Drake.
Liberty would come to rue Xan’s dibs, as the first wench to come along was Elvish and rather comely. Still and all, the three had a diverting evening of wine, women, and song.
* * *
Mom’s evening proved less entertaining if no less alcoholic.
When he arrived at the temple and said that he wanted to offer confession, he was received with raised eyebrows. Once his credentials as a Kordite were confirmed, he was ushered in to see the confession priest on duty. By and by, he explained how he had ignored the danger to his friends and the population to recover his coin purse.
“That was stupid and selfish,” said the priest, not unkindly. “Did anyone die that you could have saved?”
“I do not think so,” admitted Mom. “Those folks would likely have died even if I had been attacking the chimera.”
“Will you do it again?” asked the priest.
“I don’t think I would. Coin is not enough to worry about when lives are on the line.”
“Very well. Go drink with brother Manning. Your hangover will be your penance. Now get out of here, young’n.”
Brother Manning, as it happened, liked to drink rotgut by the gallon. It was a rough night for the half-orc.
* * *
20 Flocktime, 595 CY
Xan woke up early and with a little spring in his step. He roused the others, who were decidedly less enthusiastic about crawling out of bed. Still and all, the smell of bacon drew them from their rooms and into the commons where the boon companions they’d made the night before were nursing aching heads of their own. Breakfast was a greasy delight and served with more of the ale that had been enjoyed the night before. Only this time, it was medicinal.
“Never again,” Liberty groaned from beneath her tinted spectacles.
“Lightweight,” said Drake, taking another pull from the stale jug of whatever sour mash he’d been drinking the night before.
“I’ve never done that before,” she growled at the alchemist.
“First time for everything.” He handed her the jug almost playfully.
“No, no,” said Xan. “Now it’s time for business. We can get back to pleasure tonight.”
“No, no, Xan,” countered Drake. “Now it’s time for breakfast and hair of the dog.”
The rogue frowned. “C’mon, Drake… Don’t go all the way back where you came from. It’s all about moderation, my friend.”
“I haven’t had to drink away the nightmares since the fire,” said Drake softly. “No, this isn’t to forget. This…” he picked up a mug of ale, “is for recovery.”
“Fair enough, big guy. Let’s just start getting you some memories that you won’t want to forget.” Drake raised his mug in salute.
“Fair warning, Xan,” said Liberty suddenly. “If she comes back tonight, she’s all mine.”
The rogue smiled. “Oh, my. She’s all yours. There are plenty other lovelies to find.”
“If’n she doesn’t choose me first,” joked Drake.
“Stranger things have happened,” said Liberty, smirking at the alchemist.
“Shall we go find Mom? And more importantly, do we tell him about last night? I vote no.”
“Suits me fine,” said Liberty.
Drake scoffed. “What’s he gonna do if we tell him? Admonish us?”
“I’m not worried about that,” said Xan. “It’s just more fun that way.”
“All I have to show for it is the Hells’ own headache,” the sorcerer complained.
“That’s the booze’s way of saying ‘I love you’,” said Drake sagely.
* * *
Mom wasn’t in great shape when they found him. They could tell because he grunted…in pain. “So very bright…”
“You hungover too, Mom?” said Drake, somewhat incredulous.
“Oh, not you, too,” said Liberty sympathetically. “I guess we should get on with this, so we can get back to dying.”
* * *
Eligos lived in one of the more affluent parts of the Free City, known as the Garden District. Although the guards at the gates to this district looked at the adventurers – particularly Drake – with suspicion, they did not bar their entry. When they arrived at the address Allustan provided, they saw a white stone wall surrounded a manicured yard of trimmed hedges and exotic fauna. A cobbled path, flanked by a pair of pools and rearing dragon statues, led to a white marble manor house with gilded double doors and flickering golden lanterns.
“Wow,” said Liberty.
“Now this is more like it,” agreed Xan.
As the adventurers approached the front door to the opulent manor, it opened as if they were expected. An aged elven manservant asked them their business at the estate. He arched an eyebrow at their apparent…state. Xan gave Liberty a look, and she nodded back briefly.
“Allustan sent us from Diamond Lake, with questions for Eligos.”
“Indeed. I shall see if the master is available to entertain…inquiries.” The manservant invited the adventurers inside to wait for the sage.
Once inside the manor, the adventurers were escorted through the grand foyer, dominated by a marble staircase lined with suits of ancient armor, and topped by an ancient battle banner used as a curtain. Off to one side, a short hallway led to a parlor, where they were asked to wait by the austere manservant. After serving the party a fine wine (or water) along with fresh fruit, the old elf left them to await the sage.
“We are in your debt,” Liberty said to his back.
The parlor was lined with packed bookcases, framed by various oil paintings of faraway places and fantastic locales – a great road of bones, a bustling city set inside a dormant volcano, and an abstract painting of a vast featureless ashen plain. All of the furniture was gilt with fine gold tracery and padded with plush red velvet cushions. The floor was polished wood, but covered by a well-worn carpet depicting some forgotten battle between the forces of good and evil.
Drake took his water and began to peruse the books on the shelf. The sorcerer sat, gratefully. “I like this place, because it makes Balabar Smenk’s house look like a shithole.”
Xan laughed out loud. “Well said.”
“Shh…” Mom said, wincing. Drake selected a tome from the shelf, then sat down to read.
“Don’t be too harsh on Smenk’s manor, Lib,” said the rogue. “I plan to buy it one day.”
“If you make it look like this, then I’m all for it,” she said.
“Oh, no… I plan to watch happily as I burn it down.” Xan’s face lit up with a thought. “Hey! Can I hire you to help with that, maybe? And Drake, you too. You have experience with that sort of thing, after all.”
“I would do that for free,” said Liberty. “Now I’m picturing Boss Smenk rifling through other people’s garbage just to have something to eat.” She smiled like a cat enjoying a secret.
Drake looked up from the book. “I’m quite adept at that kind of task. You know… I’m sure I could make quite a big bang given enough preparation time…” He looks thoughtful.
“Oh, we know, big guy. We know.” Xan laughed again. “I look forward to it.”
After a few minutes of waiting, a middle-aged man wearing an open red robe with a silver breastplate underneath entered the room. His eyes were sharp wells of deep gray accented by specks of red. His hair, red like the setting sun, showed the first signs of receding. “My manservant, Pollard, tells me that you wish to speak to me,” he said in a calm, even voice. “My name is Eligos. How can I be of assistance?”
“Greetings. I’m Liberty Grace, Allustan’s most recent apprentice. These are my companions, Xan, Mom and Drake,” she pointed to each in turn. They each offered greetings of their own, though the rogue’s was by far the most formal.
Eligos raised an eyebrow and said, “Hmm… I never thought I would hear from him again. But nonetheless, please continue.”
“Oh? Oh. Yes. We’ve had many strange encounters regarding something called the ‘Age of Worms’. Allustan thought you might be able to help us with our research on the topic.”
“Did he.” It was not really a question. “Tell me everything you can.”