“Lib! MOVE!” Drake shouted, rolling off his bunk onto his feet. If the alchemist’s shout did not wake her, Pharbol’s blade slamming into her side certainly did. Xan popped out of bed quickly and grabbed the weapons resting against his bunk. He spun around to face Pharbol ready to strike.
“Hold!” di Mezzanotte demanded his voice laced with power. Unfortunately, the raging dwarf did not heed the command.
“You BASTARD!” Drake roared, grabbing the dwarf and putting him in a full body lock. The dwarf was pissed, and he gnashed his teeth, futilely struggling to break the pin. Seeing Xan’s face, the alchemist rumbled, “Don’t kill him, Xan. We don’t need that on our hands.”
The rogue was disinclined to acquiesce to his request. He struck quickly, putting three deep holes in as many body parts. Di Mezzanotte prayed Liberty’s wounds closed from across the room. The sorcerer nodded her thanks to the priest as she gained her feet. “Mercy is for those who deserve it,” she growled, accentuating her point with a pair of scorching rays.
Drake tried his level best to choke the dwarf out while still maintaining the pin. Pharbol continued to struggle fruitlessly, frothing at the mouth in his impotent rage. “He’s like a rabid dog,” Liberty observed.
“Go to sleep,” Drake said to the dwarf, looking anxiously around at his vengeful companions.
“Yes, Pharbol … go … to sleep,” said Xan, stabbing the dwarf through the liver, the lungs, and finally the heart. The berserker went limp in Drake’s arms again, dead. The adamantine blade clanked heavily to the floor.
“Gods … DAAAMMIT!” Drake swore.
“Which gods in particular, Signore Drake?” di Mezzanotte asked casually.
“ALL OF ‘EM!” He dropped the corpse and kicked it for good measure. The priest flipped his hair back from his eyes, his expression thoughtful.
“He deserved it,” said Xan. “Are you okay, Lib?”
“I’m fine, yes.” The sorcerer took a moment to collect herself before her adventurer’s instincts took over and she began examining the dwarf’s possessions with her arcane senses.
Drake picked the body back up by the neck so Xan could strip it of the magical chain shirt. “Guess he had nothing else to live for. Brother’s dead. Lost the tournament. Damn,” the alchemist said angrily.
Liberty shook her head. “Idiot.”
“Drake, if you are carrying him and drink a potion of invisibility, does he go invisible too? It was Raknian’s lackey that set this up, so I have no doubt they are watching. I’d like to dump him in the water in the south chamber and be done with it.”
The alchemist shook his head. “Nope, magics don’t work that way. Too damn big.”
“I could dimension door him over there and back. As long as I get some sleep tonight, I can have all my spells back by the morning.”
“Right … should have thought of that,” said Xan.
They looted the body then Liberty stashed it where the rogue had suggested. There was blood on the floor, but it wasn’t that hard to clean up and/or hide. Liberty looked over the adamantine blade of the bastard sword the would-be assassin had brought with him. “Where was this sword when M … when we needed it.” No one answered. None was expected. “All right. I’m going to try to get back to sleep. Somebody wake me when the next murderers arrive?”
“Awww … we know how much you like surprises, Lib,” said Xan.
“Always an ambush somewhere,” rumbled Drake.
After everyone had laid back down for a couple minutes, the rogue tried to lighten the mood. “Damn … now I better not sneak into your room any more. After that you’ll be fireballing first and getting embarrassed later.”
Liberty had her back to Xan, but he was very sure that she smiled at his remark.
* * *
10 Wealsun, 595 CY
The next day at eleven in the morning, the adventurers were brought once again up to the battle arena. As before, Talabir announced the team, but they saw no obvious foe to fight. The wizard said that the beast-wranglers were having a tough time with Madtooth, but that the monster was on its way. “Feel free to begin your preparations,” he said, sounding bored and a little annoyed. “I’m sure it won’t be long now.”
Drake quaffed his usual suite of enhancement draughts while Liberty and di Mezzanotte cast a few protective spells. Xan struck a pose. He eventually grew tired of holding it, and some of the magical effects wore off while the adventurers waited.
Ten long minutes dragged on as the crowd grew increasingly impatient. Talabir did what he could to keep them from becoming too angry. Just as the crowd seemed to be preparing for a riot, the eastern gates to the arena opened and a team of a dozen soldiers dragging a massive iron cube on an oversized chariot entered the arena. The sides of the cage bore the word “Madtooth” in bright red letters clenched in the massive jaws of some huge monster. Brackish water sloshed and leaked from under the cage.
“Oh, what is that…?” said Liberty.
The wagon’s progress was slow as the guards dragged the massive iron cage into the center of the arena. As they did, the cage shook and trembled as some enormous monster within roared incessantly. The spectacle drove the crowd wild, and in moments they were chanting “MADTOOTH! MADTOOTH! MADTOOTH!”
As the guards moved the cage into place in the center of the Arena, perhaps fifty feet from where the gladiators stood, they each took hold of different ropes attached to strategic pins and clasps in the cage’s sides. Each guard retreated out a hundred feet, holding a rope in his hands.
The crowd grew momentarily silent again as Talabir spoke. “And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for! Watch in fear as these brave gladiators pit their skills against the eternal hunger of the worst the Barrier Peaks have to offer! I give you … MADTOOTH THE HUNGRY!”
With this final cry, the guards each tugged on their ropes. The walls of the cage unfolded and fell away, revealing the beast in all its glory. This monster was huge and weird. Vaguely froglike in shape, it had four writhing tentacles in place of front legs. Its head was mostly mouth, and its mouth was mostly teeth. A retractable stalk protruded from the front of its head, at the end of which stared three bulbous eyes. The massive thing was a dark green save for its belly, which was pale. A powerful tongue tipped with barbs lolled wetly from its mouth.
“Fellows, it’s been nice knowing you,” said the sorcerer. “Signore di Mezzanotte, it’s a pity we met under these circumstances.”
“It is not as bad as that, Signorina,” said the priest.
“What … the fuck…?” said Drake. “What is that?”
Xan provided the answer. “I give you all … the froghemoth.”
“Come again?” said di Mezzanotte.
Liberty snerked. “The what now?”
“Froghe_mouth_ is more like it,” said Drake. “Is it related to the elusive Gorilla-taur?”
The rogue drew his blades and began to circle to the south. “I’ve only heard about it in stupid drunk stories. This thing has hide thicker than you have ever seen. It can swallow you whole. If you hit it with electricity it won’t hurt it, but it will briefly slow it down. It’s also a little resistant to fire.”
“We shall see, then, how resistant to fire it is…” said di Mezzanotte, evoking a flame strike. The answer, as it happened, was quite. The flames appeared to faze the beast not at all, and the holy energy only seemed to make it itch. “So there it is, Signorina!” the priest declared.
Liberty advanced a step and blasted the froghemoth with a cone of cold. The monster was chilled, but not deeply. “That did not go as well as I’d hoped,” she said. The aberration shook its head back and forth, which made its eyestalks wobble. Then it fixated on the source of the cold, waddled forward a step and flicked its vicious tongue out across the intervening space to slam into Liberty. “Oh SHIT!” she cried in alarm as it tried to drag her toward its mouth. She lost some skin in the struggle, but managed to escape the rough tongue.
The froghemoth chuffed in anger and lunged forward with the rest of its appendages toward Drake. Its maw stretched forward and bit the alchemist deeply before it flailed at him with all four of its ropey tentacles. A little punch drunk from the rapid assault, Drake found himself dragged forward, held by one of the tentacles. “Oh, you want to wrastle,” he said, shaking the tentacle off forcefully. Then he pulled an infusion and squared off with the beast.
Xan tried to twist and flip toward the froghemoth, but he couldn’t evade the tentacle that lashed out and snatched him up on his approach. His thoughts turned from attack to escape as he tried to wriggle free, but the beast’s grip was tight. Seeing the rogue’s peril, di Mezzanotte chose his prayer. “Signore Quinn, BE FREE!” cried the priest. Empowered by the spell, Xan was able to slip free from the grasping froghemoth. Flipping his hair back in satisfaction, di Mezzanotte waved Liberty over. “Come to me, signorina!”
Liberty did so, then flung an empowered fireball through Zyrxog’s metamagic rod to explode above everyone’s heads. The froghemoth burned well enough for her tastes, and though it clearly wanted to come after her, the beast was beset by two of her companions. As such, it unleashed its froggy fury on Xan and Drake! The tongue flashed a second time depositing the rogue in its wide mouth, where its teeth found purchase in the tender human flesh. The tentacles pummeled the alchemist anew, but failed to get a grip on this hulking brute.
Drake weathered the beating long enough to drink his infusion. His skin turned to hardened stone as he moved to grapple the thing. He roared at it loud enough for the crowd to hear. “A’ight, let’s WRESTLE, you SLIMY BAAASTARD!” The crowd went absolutely mad cheering.
Even from his precarious position in the froghemoth’s mouth, Xan managed to perform a bold flourish with his short sword, which caused the tongue to roll just so in its mouth. Seeing his opportunity, he drove his blade up into the mouth, aiming for the soft palate he hoped the alien possessed. He struck deep, and a satisfying amount of thick blood started to pour out of the wound – and all over the rogue. Still, he counted it as a point.
“Follow me, signorina!” said di Mezzanotte, advancing toward the melee. He channeled healing energy in a burst around him. Due to his training, he was able to exclude the froghemoth from receiving the benefit of Pelor’s restorative energy. Liberty came after, hitting the monster with dragon’s breath a line of acid that she spat viciously in its direction. “Well, then,” said the priest.
The froghemoth, reeling in pain, swallowed Xan whole, then flicked its tongue at Liberty. The long tongue got a firm grip on the sorcerer and dragged her inevitably toward its mouth. Drake occupied the rest of its attention, but before it could bludgeon him again, the alchemist released his grip on the beast to claw and bite.
“Stop eating EVERYTHING!” the alchemist roared, raking a claw at its tongue to sever the hold on Liberty before ironically biting the beast in the face. His teeth dug in hard and when Drake jerked his head back, he tore a bit of flesh from the aberration. Madtooth the Hungry was dead before it was even aware of it, thick blood oozing from its savaged face. Its legs wobbled beneath it, and it staggered drunkenly for a long moment before falling hard to the arena floor. Its tongue lolled out, releasing Liberty.
Drake spat the bit of flesh he’d torn from the monster’s face on the ground and leaned down to help Xan out. The rogue casually crawled out of the great mouth, picked himself up, dusted himself off, and shot both arms in the air for the crowd. The cheered him appreciatively. The others joined in the pageantry. The spectacle of the battle left the crowd in a frenzy. Raknian’s shock and discomfort was plainly visible for several seconds to anyone watching. Xan cast his smuggest smile in the arena owner’s direction.
Eventually, Talabir got the crowd under control and Raknian, his composure regained, gave Ekaym the trophy and prize money and congratulated Burning Blood on their tremendous skill. The heroes of the minute were eventually led back down to the Coenoby to meet with their manager and await the outcome of the other gladiator teams’ bout.
“Most impressive,” said Ekaym, and it was clear that he meant it.
di Mezzanotte offered a flowery bow. “Thank you,” said Liberty.
Drake let some of the rush wash off for a moment. “That thing was unpleasant…”
“You should have seen it from my viewpoint,” said Xan.
“Hahahah! Indeed!” the bard cried in glee. Liberty cleaned the rogue up with some prestidigitation.
“Geeze, didn’t think about that,” said Drake. Being … eaten has to be on the bottom of my list of vices.”
Xan smirked at Ekaym. “I do think you’ll agree however, sir bard, that stories that start with ‘Let me tell you about the time I got swallowed whole’ always make for great entertainment.”
“If I may borrow a bit of the vulgar vernacular I’ve picked up on the streets of the Free City … ‘You ain’t nevah lied.’” Honest Minstrel grinned.
“If you please, Signore Smallcask, this letter needs to be delivered to Pelor’s temple as soon as possible,” said di Mezzanotte politely.
The bard took the missive. “Of course, of course.”
“There’s something else as well,” said Xan. “We saw Raknian’s chief of security slumming it in the Coenobly last evening. He was plotting with the guards. Then a few hours later in the middle of the night there was a pitiful attempt on our lives. The dwarf we let live in the arena yesterday was in our room and tried to kill Liberty.”
Ekaym’s eyebrows rose a little. “I suppose we should not be surprised. Did you see his face when you slew his pet? Priceless.” Then his expression shifted slightly. “Did you … were you able to recover the … remains?”
“Yes. We have them nearby,” said Liberty.
He nodded grimly. “I’ve passed everything you’ve told me about the shrine to Eligos. He has already been making inquiries of his own. Which is what drew me to young Lord di Mezzanotte, actually.”
“Getting the zombie out of here may be tricky,” said the sorcerer. “I can do it with a dimension door spell, but I need a place to take it. It may also take some explaining if I get stopped. I can put an illusion on it, but it’ll be crude.”
“I can manage an invisibility infusion,” said Drake. “But I think it’s limited to the imbiber…”
“I happen to possess a potion that is the same,” offered di Mezzanotte.
“I’m not sure zombies can benefit from imbibed potions,” said the bard. “However, what I can acquire is a large hooded cloak and access to one of the guard shacks outside of the Arena. That should suffice.”
Liberty’s eyes sparkled. “Excellent.”
Ekaym described the one he meant. Liberty knew it well enough to target her teleportation. The trumpeter sounded noon in the Coenoby. “Give me two hours,” said the bard. “I’ll be there to meet you, and I can take care of the … the evidence from there. Thank you all, again. I cannot ever repay this debt. You’ve risked so much….”
“I am happy to help, Ekaym. And I’ll see you in two hours.”
Xan raised a hand to stop him. “Hold on there, chief … there’s something else. We know what Raknian’s true plot is now.” The rogue gestured for di Mezzanotte to explain.
Ekaym listened raptly as the priest described the Apostolic Scrolls, the ritual, the worm, the dead ritualist, and the decaying barrier. Once di Mezzanotte had completed his oration, the bard looked pale. “Can you defeat such a horror? Can you even get to it before it is … ready?”
“I am unsure, but I think we must try,” said the priest decisively. Drake nodded in agreement.
“We’re telling you this because this is the kind of thing the rulers of the city should be addressing directly, and we can’t leave this place,” said Xan. “Sure, we can try to help take it out, but it’s more than just us at risk here.”
“I’m not sure they would heed me, a foreigner in their midst, but perhaps the wizard….”
“I was hoping that Eligos might have some ideas about what to do,” said Liberty.
“Yes, I will update my report to Eligos with this. He must be able to make them listen.”
“Understood,” said Xan.
“Please do not forget that missive, signore,” said di Mezzanotte. “It is so very important that it be delivered!”
“I will make sure to do so, my lord. Be well, my friends. Until later. May the gods watch over and keep us safe.”
* * *
Liberty kept her appointment with Ekaym. The exchange was smooth, if a little heart-wrenching. Some time after returning, she opined, “I should have gone with him. Just to get Lahaka someplace safe.”
“It will be good for him, carrying this burden to the end on his own,” said Xan. “Really it’s the only thing he can do to try and help her in some fashion.”
Liberty kept her difference of opinion to herself.
It was disappointing – if not surprising – that Auric’s Warband proved victorious in their bout against the Draconic Brood. Fortunately, the half-dragons survived the fight, and they bid Burning Blood luck in the final round. That night, with only two teams remaining in the Coenoby, things were quiet.