The adventurers made their way back through the grimlock caverns and into the Dark Cathedral. To the south, the oily black pool roiled violently. Drake gritted his teeth at the sight. “Well… That’s ominous.”
“It wasn’t doing that before, right?” Liberty asked.
Sam snorted. “No, ma’am.”
Xan began to creep toward the pool, while the others drank potions and cast preparatory spells. Then, the middle of the pool rose up abruptly, looking like nothing so much as a massive black ooze. The mound of sludge began to lurch forward, sending the rogue scurrying back toward the others. Drake, however, rushed toward the ramp leading to the platforms surrounding the pool, growing in size as he downed an enlarge person infusion. As the large form drew near the shore, the sable water began to run off slowly, revealing an unnatural figure beneath.
The creature was a bizarre amalgamation of the three deities it was meant to embody. It was a ten-foot tall, powerfully built monster with six arms, smooth, dull gray skin and bulging muscles that pulsed with arcane power. Three of its arms, two on its left and one on its right, were missing their hands. It had a gaunt, skeletal face and, as the oil finally cleared its horrible mouth, massive fangs. It roared, sending bubbles of pitch spittle splattering across the floor. Mom grunted in alarm.
The Ebon Aspect continued roaring as it charged, taking a bite out of Xan. Liberty unleashed a burning arc, but the beast’s thick hide seemed to absorb the flames. Mom roared out a battlecry of his own, slipping into rage and bringing his greatsword to bear. The creature’s flesh resisted the steel of the non-magical blade, but still it bled. Xan tried to tumble past the godling, but he was not quick enough and was gored for his effort. He aborted his planned attack and instead drew a healing potion. Sam took advantage of the creature’s distraction with the rogue and rushed to its other side. Unfortunately, she could not find an opening in its defenses. Drake cursed, but rushed back down the stairs, drinking one final potion to increase his strength further.
The primordial entity unleashed its fury on the three adventurers surrounding it, biting and lashing out with its three clawed arms. Liberty’s flames managed to burn hot enough to burn the Ebon Aspect, and it growled like a feral beast. Mom continued to lay into the beast with his rage-fueled strength, and Xan took advantage of the flank to slide is short sword between two of the monster’s ribs. While the creature’s attention was split between the barbarian and the rogue, Sam buried her greatsword deep into its back. It fell to one knee, roaring in pain, and for a moment, they hoped that the fight was over.
Then an aura of dark energy washed over the Ebon Aspect and its eyes turned white. A spiritual flail manifested above it and Sam’s greatsword was shunted from its body as the beast’s skin took on a steely appearance.
“Uhh…” said Sam.
“Oh, what the shit,” Liberty cursed.
“Fuck,” said Mom, in lieu of a grunt.
Drake’s reaction was a bit more proactive. He charged the beast, planting one oversized fist along its jaw, rocking its head to the side, despite how little damage it seemed to cause. The flail flew at Liberty, striking the sorcerer, and everyone else got some of the Ebon Aspect’s melee attention. Xan succumbed to his wounds and fell to the floor, senseless.
Mom gritted his teeth and continued his assault, and though he felt like he was hitting just as hard as he had been, the godling’s steel skin seemed to absorb even more of the blow. Liberty moved away from the flail to hammer the Ebon Aspect with magic missiles. Sam sliced it deeply once again, but it was Drake’s right cross that finally laid the monster low for good. The alchemist roared triumphantly, then moved to pour a healing draught down Xan’s throat.
“All right, Drake!” cried Liberty rushing over to celebrate.
Mom sagged and took note of his many wounds. “Did we just kill a godling?” he asked.
Sam clapped Drake on the arm companionably, and snorted. “Puny god.”
Xan coughed blood and sat up. “Yea, he was obviously a pussy.” Liberty snerked.
Drake laughed at the remark and bellowed, “Took the words from my mouth.” He slapped Xan on the back and looked happy for the first time in a long while. He took a huge swig from his enlarged whiskey flask. Then Drake removed the Ebon Aspect’s head and put it in a sack. Mom began healing their wounds.
“Thanks for the save,” said Xan. “I should really figure out how to dodge better.”
Sam grinned. “Protip: Don’t fight gods.”
“Not like we had much choice there,” said Liberty.
“So, I guess we’re done here,” said Xan.
“I think so,” said the sorcerer.
“Well then. Beers?” asked Sam.
Xan shrugged. “Anyone plan how to get out of here now? We’re still trespassing, technically.”
Liberty started to answer, but stopped. “Yeah, we didn’t get that far with planning, did we?”
“Didn’t expect to live,” said Mom. “Rest first?”
Sam shrugged. “We’re well armed and covered in the blood of a god. Do you really think some miners are gonna stop us?”
“Good point,” said Liberty.
Xan nodded. “And we can put all of the extra loot in the magic bag, so at least that will be easier.”
“It might still be best to catch our breath before we go see Smenk,” said the sorcerer. “No telling how he plans to receive us.”
“Why do we need to see Smenk?” Xan asked. “We did his dirty work. We’ve already gotten our pay.” He held up the magical loot bag.
“Oh. Right.” She shook her head. “Don’t know where my head is.”
“As far as I can see, the only question left is who we tell about this,” said Xan. “I’m sure the authorities – the Lord Mayor or the Garrison Commander – would like to know about Dourstone playing host to an apocalyptic cult.”
Xan looked pensive for a moment. “What would the rest of you say to walking out of the mine, demanding to see Dourstone, and then extorting him for money to keep the knowledge of this area of his mine from getting to the authorities?”
“No,” said Mom without hesitation.
“Sounds like painting a target on ourselves,” said Drake.
“I already feel like I have more money than I know what to do with,” said Liberty. “And I agree with Drake. It sounds pretty dangerous.”
Xan looked over to the Ebon Aspect. “More dangerous than that?”
Drake shrugged. “Always something deadlier. In this case – us.”
“Maybe if he could give us something on Smenk,” said Liberty thoughtfully.
Mom’s angry voice cut through the discussion. “This isn’t about making some extra coin. This is about someone being party to the slaughter of innocents.”
“Mom’s right,” said the sorcerer, somewhat chagrined. “Dourstone was part of what happened down here. He needs to swing for it.”
“I see it like this,” said Xan. “If we go to the authorities, one of two things will happen. Either Dourstone will go down – and I guarantee Smenk is already prepared to take over the mine and make all the profit – or Dourstone pays of the government, and Cubbin and the Mayor get the profit. I just think that we are more deserving of the profit. Wouldn’t you say?”
Mom wouldn’t budge. “Still no, Xan. This cannot be kept quiet.”
“If that happens, then we could dispense the justice,” said Liberty. “Does Dourstone have any friends – well, allies – among the bosses? I really have no idea.”
Drake rumbled, “Like money. Don’t like painting a target for some other bounty adventurer to come claim. I’m good either way.”
“We could take his money and report him anyway,” said Sam. “What’s he gonna do about it?”
“Sam, we should do the right thing here,” said Mom.
“Where is the wrong in punishing a bad man twice?” Sam asked. “I’m with Xan on the extortion. We are more deserving.”
“Smenk planned all of this in order to take over Dourstone’s operations,” said Xan. “He is banking on us to do ‘the right thing.’ Then he wins. So how exactly is that the right thing after all?”
“Because we would be doing what is right,” insisted Mom.
“We would be played and manipulated to the advantage of the most evil man in town,” argued Xan.
“Eh. I’m not so sure Smenk’ll be able to just swoop in,” said Sam. “We do have evidence that he was involved, remember? It’s shaky, but I don’t think the Lord Mayor, and especially the garrison commander, would be too keen on just handing him the keys and saying ‘Don’t help cultists anymore’, ya know?”
Liberty pointed at Sam. “This.”
“I don’t think we can splash enough of this on Smenk,” said Xan. “And the way I see it, preventing Smenk from gaining another mine is doing pretty good damage to him, seeing as he is fully expecting to gain from this right now.”
“We should at least tell Trask,” said Mom.
“And Valkus,” added Liberty.
Sam shrugged. “Whoever we tell, we should decide soon, ‘cos I’ve been in this armor for three days, and I’m getting a little ripe, if ya know what I mean.”
“‘Getting’ ripe?” said Liberty, waving a hand in front of her nose.
Sam stuck her tongue out at the sorcerer. “You aren’t exactly a rose yourself.”
“You both look beautiful to me,” said Xan, grinning. Sam rolled her eyes; Liberty shook her head. “But for that matter, Drake looked pretty damn beautiful, too, a few minutes ago when he revived me.”
“Yea, I have that effect on some people,” rumbled the alchemist.
“And yes, Mom. You’re pretty, too,” added Xan.
Sam scoffed at him. “Okay, now your lies are just offensive.” Mom grunted derisively.
“So, anyway… We tell Trask and Valkus for sure,” said Liberty.
“All right,” said Xan. “If we are telling them, then we have decided to make it public. The question remaining is: Do we extort Dourstone before doing so?”
“If you think we’ll have anything to show for it, we might’s well,” said Liberty. Sam nodded.
“Okay, so that’s three votes for. Who else?”
“Still no, Xan,” said Mom.
Drake shrugged. “Fuck it. Extort the prick. Profit. Sell him out. I could use some new ingredients.” The half-orc sighed heavily.
“Looks like you’re outvoted,” said Xan. Mom only grunted.
Liberty touched his shoulder. “We’re still doing the right thing, Mom. Just… Not right away.”
“This isn’t some ancient tomb we’re raiding. It is a real threat, not just to Diamond Lake, but to the whole world…and we’re gonna profit from it?”
“Well, yea,” said Drake. “Only way to get ahead in this town.”
“How best to continue to be well-equipped-enough to continue fighting the good fight, green man?” asked Sam.
“Why not profit from it?” asked Xan. “We deserve it, because we ended the threat, right? It’s okay to do good things for others and line your own pockets at the same time.”
“Mine Manager Sam has kind of a ring to it,” said the warrior.
“Boss Claiborne,” said Liberty.
Sam made a face. “Oh, gross. Nevermind.” She grinned.
Xan nodded. “Now you’re thinking. It’s about time the people trying to help the town were in charge.”
“Psh. I’m on my way out of this backwater. And after this haul, I can probably afford it.”
“Huzzah!” said Liberty. Mom grunted.
“Let’s go talk to Dourstone. I’m sure he’d also be interested in knowing who pointed us in his direction. I wouldn’t mind him reaping a little retribution on Smenk.” He led the group to the elevator. “A word of advice: When this goes down, if you aren’t good at lying, then I recommend you remain silent.”
“Stand around. Look scary. Can do,” said Sam. Once everyone was aboard, she began to work the mechanism and the elevator ascended.
* * *
The adventurers reached the mines in short order, and the tunnels near the secret elevator were quiet. They made their way toward the exit, and did not find any workers plying their menial trade. Xan began walking boldly and with purpose, acting as though he belonged there. “We tell whoever we meet first to take us to Dourstone.”
The dwarf guards looked a little surprised when the adventurers walked out of the mine into the early evening air. “Huh. We figured you was dead,” said one.
Xan answered for the group. “Just the opposite, my good dwarf. But we do have need to speak with Boss Dourstone. Where might we find him?”
The dwarf glanced at the setting sun. “Home?” he guessed. “Maybe on the Vein?”
“Thanks, again. I owe you a round next time we find ourselves in the same establishment.” He continued walking past the guards and toward the gates of the compound.
“Hear hear,” agreed the dwarf, alerting the tower and waving to them to let the group pass.
“Well, crap,” muttered Liberty as the group passed through the gates. “I wanted to look in on Constance, but her workday should be starting about now.” Drake’s shoulders straighten a little at hearing the name. “Unless you had business with her,” she said to him.
“Could just pay her a visit,” said Sam with a wink. The big alchemist’s shoulders slumped again at the comment. “Ohh?” said the warrior, noticing the change in Drake’s demeanor. “You a regular with Liberty’s sister, Drake? You dog!”
“Stop that,” said Mom.
Drake sighed and grumbled at his empty flask. He lit a cigar and said, “Need a drink.”
“I have the highest respect for Constance Grace, but in all honesty, I’m not sure there is a man in town that hasn’t paid a visit to her.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Sam. “She’s too costly for the average miner.”
“Sam…” said Mom warningly.
“Shut yer mouths,” grumbled Drake threateningly.
“If you had any respect for her,” said Liberty with ice in her tone, “you wouldn’t talk like that about my sister.”
“Relax, Liberty,” said Xan. “I’m sorry if you take offense. Constance holds power over some of the most powerful men in Diamond Lake. She knows what she is and isn’t ashamed of it. That I respect immensely. You may not agree with her lifestyle, but please believe me when I say that I don’t look down on her like you seem to.”
“I…” Liberty floundered for a moment. “I don’t look down on her. Not anymore, anyway. Just… Have a care,” she finished lamely. “I’ll just go by there later.” Mom grunted noncommittally.
Xan nodded. “Okay, Lib. How about we go make some more money?”
“I’m for it,” she said, temper fading.
* * *
A few questions around the Vein located Dourstone at Lazare’s. Still looking pretty ragged from their venture into the cultists’ lair beneath the mines, they approached the bouncer standing outside the door, who stopped them with a glance.
“Jason!” exclaimed Xan. “Good to see you. It’s been a few weeks. How’s life?”
“Uh… Good,” he replied. “I’m afraid you can’t come in looking like that sirs… Madames. You look and smell like you just cut your way out of a troll’s backside, if you’ll pardon my language.” A guard came over to support the bouncer.
“Godling’s backside,” muttered Liberty, smirking.
Xan looked down at himself and acted a surprised by what he saw. “Oh! Yes, of course, Jason. In my haste, I didn’t think about that. I’m sorry for the faux pas. The truth is that we have urgent business with Boss Dourstone, and we heard that he was here. It really is important. Do you think you can let it slide just this once?”
“We’d be ever so grateful,” Liberty said obsequiously.
“No sir. I would lose my job. I can pass along a message to let the mine manager know that you would speak with him. If you like.”
“Of course, Jason. I wouldn’t want you to get fired over this. Will you please let Ragnolin know that there is news from the mine. There might be trouble in one of his less-used tunnels. We would like him to come out and talk it over.”
“Very well, sir. I will pass along your message.” Jason nodded to the guard, who entered Lazare’s. Then the bouncer said, “Now, If you please wait…farther away, I would take it as a kindness. I would hate for your unseemly appearance to deter paying customers. You understand.”
No one moved, and Liberty cast a spell that began peeling away some of the filth on her clothes. Jason eyed her magical display somewhat askance. “Hold off on that, Lib,” said Xan. “I want Dourstone to see firsthand that we can handle ourselves in a fight.” She stopped her efforts, grumbling.
“Sir?” said Jason, nonplussed. “I am standing right here, you realize. If you present a threat to any of our customers, I am obligated to intervene.”
Drake cocked an eyebrow at the beefy young man in a way that implied “well shit, that would suck all around.” Jason’s return glance suggested that he agreed. The alchemist nodded once.
Xan grinned. “You misunderstand. We aren’t meaning to threaten him, but to impress him. There might be a job that needs doing.”
“Indeed,” said Jason, his tone unreadable. “Now, if you would please do as I have asked and give this establishment some distance. Perhaps you could wait over by the Feral Dog?”
“Oh, that place,” said Liberty.
“As you wish, my good sir,” said Xan, leading the others away.
A few minutes later, the doors to Lazare’s opened and there stood Ragnolin Dourstone, flanked by a pair of dwarven guardsmen. He spoke with Jason briefly, who pointed to the adventurers across the square. Then, the mine manager strode over to the group with his guards in tow.
“Shoulda known somethin’ was up when me head cleared up of a sudden yesterday,” he said without preamble. “You lot sneaked yer way into me mines and done fer them cultists then, aye?”
“We did at that, Ragnolin,” said Xan. “It’s good that there isn’t much explaining needed.” The rest of the adventurers maintained their silence, watching Xan.
Dourstone nodded curtly. “Then I’ve a mind ta thank ye, dependin’ on the current landscape o’ yer intentions, lad.” The guards looked wary and ready to draw weapons should the need arise.
“Well… We did it for the good of the people of Diamond Lake,” said Xan. “Once we heard about what was going on, it was important. Our current intentions are simple. We came to hold you accountable for your part in this. Now, how you are held accountable is entirely negotiable.” The rogue grinned.
“From what I heared about ya, I s’pose I shouldn’t be entirely surprised. Still an’ all, I were bewitched. An’ anyway, they ain’t hurt no one I knows of while under my roof.” Dourstone looked over the bloodstained group. “Even them what come askin’ fer it, seems.” Liberty aimed a skeptical glance at Mom. The others likewise exchanged looks at the development.
“Bewitched?” said Xan. “That does change things – if it’s true. Tell me how that came to happen. I love a good story.”
“Wizard come an’ asked ta set up shop b’neath me mines. I weren’t inclined ta let ‘im, but he come with payment, an’ I give ‘im more attention than I should’ve, suren. But when he brung all them others about, I tol’ him no. I guess then he made with the magic, an’ I ain’t been sure what I been doin’ since. ‘Til ya came and made an end of ‘im.”
He paused for a moment, regarding Xan. “A dwarf pays his debts, lad. Harder ta pay when he’s got legal bills, if ye catch me meanin’.”
Liberty leaned over and whispered to Mom. “Valkus Dun can probably prove that he was charmed – if he was. We should see what Xan’s got in mind here.” The half-orc grunted uncertainly.
“I believe you, Ragnolin,” said the rogue. “Mainly because I was surprised to hear you were letting it happen in the first place. You never seemed to be that sort of man. So, if you were a victim in this along with everyone else, then I guess we have no reason to bring more trouble your way. And if you want to offer us a reward for coming to the rescue of your mine, then it would be very kind of you.”
The ghost of a smile played across the dwarf’s lips. “Oh, I’m a rotter, don’t you worry, but if they was up ta half o’ what I think they was, well… Me fortunes are tied ta Diamond Lake, so what’s bad fer the town ain’t good fer me, neither. I reckon ye cleaned ‘em out good, but suren I can arrange a reward fer ye all the same. Anythin’ else, lad?”
“Just one thing. Like I said before, our motivation was to preserve the welfare of the town.” Xan glanced around at the others, pausing a beat longer on Mom. “In all fairness, some of us more than others.” He turned back to the dwarf. “However, we were really just the blunt instrument in the matter. It was Boss Smenk that pointed us in your direction, and I have a feeling his intentions were not so honest. I imagine he plans to see you fall for it.”
Dourstone regarded Xan coolly. “Is that a fact. Well, it tracks, I s’pose, since in me stupor I bringed young Smenk inta this business.” He shook his head. “Give me regards ta the bastard, aye? Reckon I actually owe the bastard one.”
“We don’t plan on seeing him again anytime soon,” said Xan frowning. “We didn’t do it for Smenk. Think of me what you will, but we are not so low as to be on his payroll.”
“Whatever ye say, lad,” said Dourstone. He and his guards walked off, shaking his head and muttering.
After he was gone, Xan turned to the others. “Those talks are always so tense. Who wants a beer?”
Sam snorted. “Drake does.” The big man grumbled, but nodded agreement.
“Oh, I do, too,” said Liberty. “Not here, though,” she added, jerking a thumb at the Feral Dog.
“Something stronger than beer,” said Mom.
“Midnight Salute has a bar, don’t they?” Sam asked innocently. Too innocently.
Liberty’s tone was resigned. “They do.”
“I like where your head’s at, Sam. Ha!” he laughed. “And you can see your sister. With what you have in your magical bag there, I imagine you can go ahead and book Constance for the rest of the night if you want.”
Liberty glared at him for just a second, but kept her mouth shut and started walking. The others followed her west up the Vein toward the Midnight Salute. Their mood was relaxed as they approached the brothel.
Then one of the windows exploded in a fiery blast.
A body was flung from the building, landing in a charred ruin on the street. It twitched once, gripping something that glinted in the firelight in a claw-like hand. Liberty broke into a run heading for the body, and the others sprang into action as well.
Drake rushed for the brothel’s front door, and Mom shouted at Sam, “Follow him!” She followed the order without question. The cleric then followed Liberty.
Other onlookers from around the Vein came out to gawk at the flames. Xan scanned the crowd, looking for anyone suspicious. The only faces he saw wore horrified expressions.
Liberty threw her cloak over the body, dousing the few lingering flames. Mom knelt down and attempted a healing spell that would stop a dying person from crossing the threshold of death. It had no effect.
People – workers and customers – were spilling out of the Salute, all looking shocked. Someone yelled about fetching water. A few others rushed off. No one stopped Drake and Sam from entering.
Drake ignored the heat in the hallway, and rushed the smoking door to Constance Grace’s room. It smashed to fiery splinters under his sudden assault. The room was unoccupied, and he could see out the blasted window into the street where the others gathered around the body there. He did not resist as Sam entered and dragged him out of the burning room.
As Liberty knelt beside the body, she thought she recognized the pattern on one small unburned portion of the dress it wore. She clutched the raised hand, and half-said, “I’m here now. I’m here Connie.” She felt a small metallic object clutched there. It was a necklace.
The necklace she had given her sister.