Once they were back in their assigned chamber in the Coenoby, Xan turned to the others. “Mom, did you plan on us doing any swimming today?” The half-orc grunted affirmatively. “Good. As soon as things quiet down I’d like to do some exploring. See if we can gain access to any other parts of this place … or find an exit altogether.”
Time passed, and the Coenoby settled in to sleep for the night in anticipation of the second day of gladiatorial combats. The others waited for Xan to announce that the coast was clear. “It looks like it’s now or never. Let’s head down to the tunnels,” said the rogue.
“All right,” said Liberty.
Xan kept a sharp eye out for anyone that might be paying attention as they slipped into the corridor leading to the Titan’s House. He felt confident that their passage had gone unnoticed. No sounds of carnal pursuits came from the various alcoves in the ruins, and the adventurers made their way back to the dark waters of the pool. They donned the rings that Mom had enchanted to glow with magical light.
“Right or left, Drake?” asked Xan.
“I’ma say right this time.”
“Right, then. Mom? Little help?” The cleric offered up a short prayer to Kord, and they felt the transmutation take effect. The rogue glanced over at the plug to the east before submerging himself, pensive.
“Xan? What is it?” asked Liberty.
“I don’t know. The other night the idea of heading through that door was the last thing on my mind. But tonight I’m thinking maybe we should… if we don’t find anything down the tunnels.”
“Okay. Sounds good to me.”
“Anywhere new is good,” said Drake. Mom grunted noncommittally.
The adventurers entered the cold waters and began to swim down the southern passageway. Each of them instinctively held their breath until the very last second they could stand it before the reflexive need for air caused them to draw “breath” through the water. It was an altogether alien experience, feeling the fluid flow into their lungs, chilling them slightly, but still providing the life-giving oxygen required. After a few uncomfortable breaths, they grew accustomed to the strangeness, and proceeded down the winding underground river.
In surprisingly little time, they were able to resurface in another chamber. A shallow pool of water occupied the southern part of the fifteen-foot-high cave. Several geometric graffiti were etched here and there on the walls. A narrow river led to the west down another tunnel, and as it was only three feet deep and flowed at a languid pace, it could be easily navigated. It was another strange transition as the water in their lungs was ejected over the course of several breaths.
“This is so weird,” Liberty managed between gulps.
Xan grinned. “I have to admit … I don’t like magic, but it’s pretty useful.”
Drake took a moment to study the graffiti, and Liberty looked to him for an explanation. The alchemist grumbled about the scratchings after a moment. “Just shenanigans; something about square pi and lie cakes.”
“Huh,” said Liberty, disappointed. “So which way now?”
Xan inspected a dry tunnel to the south and saw that it wound its way back to the east and beyond the light of his magic ring. “Let’s get moving. I don’t want us to miss too much sleep for tomorrow.” He started down the hallway, and the others followed.
A few moments later, they discovered another fifteen-foot-high cave with a floor cluttered with rubble and old bones of humans and. A terrible stench of decay hung there. Drake noticed something moving in the darkness and said, “Guys, we got company.” His warning came a moment too late.
A pack of humanoid creatures rushed the party, with long, sharp teeth, and pallid flesh stretched tightly over their starved frames. Three each surrounded Xan, Drake, and Liberty, gnashing their teeth and taking a bite out of the men. They resisted the paralytic effect of the ghasts’ filthy fangs.
In response, Drake swung his arm forward in a haymaker at the undead that had bitten him, landing a solid blow! The others shook off their surprise to the sudden assault and joined the fray. Xan maneuvered behind one of the ghasts and drove his rapier through its brain, killing it instantly. Mom channeled Kord’s holy strength in a destructive pulse that washed over the creatures, ending another two and burning the rest severely. Then he pulled his greatsword and held it protectively near Liberty.
The surviving ghasts split up to attack all of the adventurers, scoring minor cuts or bites against the party. Liberty defensively cast burning arc on the one attacking her and another beside it, burning them both to ash. Drake lobbed a bomb at one of the ghasts, and when it exploded, the flames washed over the other undead, but mystically avoided his companions. The direct hit ended the ghast, but the other three weathered the blast. They did not survive Xan’s next furious barrage. The stinking corpses quit twitching, lying in a big, burned pile on the floor of the cave.
“All right, that was scary,” said Liberty.
Xan nodded. “I guess the rumors about Raknian were true. Didn’t we hear that he pushed back an undead invasion or something like that?”
“Something like that,” agreed the sorcerer. She looked back down the tunnel from which they’d come. “I guess they don’t know what they’re missing in the Titan’s House.”
Drake inspected the corpses for a bit, taking blood and tissue samples. Mom followed a narrow winding tunnel and confirmed his suspicion of their location – finding the back side of the stone plug from the pool. He returned to the others and reported his findings tersely.
“I wonder how many more are down here…” said Xan. “There has to be a source. Let’s find it.” He sounded determined, and headed into the tunnel exiting the ghast cavern to the east.
* * *
An hour later, the party staggered back into the cave, having bested countless hordes of additional ghouls, ghasts, and other indescribable undead. They vowed never to speak of the horrors they’ve borne witness to and cast their gaze back toward the western passage.
It took Liberty a while to finally stop shaking. “Interedasting,” Drake said. No one quite understood what he meant.
“Well… at least we did a good thing in ending all these horrible creatures?” Xan said dubiously. The alchemist jangled a few sample vials filled with ectoplasm and undead tissue. The rogue quirked an eyebrow at him, then shrugged. “So, down the lazy river now?”
Liberty nodded, and Mom grunted his agreement.
They traversed the narrow, watery, but not-completely-submerged passageway for quite a distance before finally arriving in another cavern. The low-ceilinged grotto was completely flooded by murky, foul-smelling water. Piles of drenched rubbish, debris, and rotting flotsam bobbed everywhere. The dirty water flowed out constantly from a sloping sewer conduit on the north wall. Thick sheets of rancid-looking slime clung to the ceiling in pale yellow gobs.
The water was fairly shallow at only one or two feet deep, and the ceiling was only ten feet high. Liberty paused to stare at the yellow gunk staining the ceiling. “Drake, is that one of the… harmful slimes? I’m guessing we don’t want to walk under them.”
Drake cocked his head for a second, thoughtful. “They are ochre jellies, a gelatinous creature with acidic qualities and the ability to split themselves into multiples when threatened. Very resilient as well it would seem; no real vital organs, no real weaknesses and incredibly resistant to electrical surges…” He looked down at his shock-fists. “Sorry, ‘Game-Changers’...”
Xan frowned at the muck on his clothes. “I’m not sure we need to deal with it. We have other – less disgusting – options for exploration.”
“However…” Drake continued. “…there is something in the pool. Looks like a gauntlet on a severed arm with some kind of arcane etching on it…”
“Is it magical?” the rogue wanted to know.
Drake shrugged and nodded. “Probably. And hey… Not like we haven’t waded into vile places for treasure. There are only four jellies.”
“I could try blasting them all to hell right now,” suggested Liberty.
Xan grinned at her and Drake. “You didn’t say they were immune to fire, did ya?”
“No, not as such. If you cut them or stab them, they will split over and over. Fire should work though.”
Liberty looked down at Zyrxog’s metamagic rod, and Xan smiled at her. “If only we had a good way to create conflagrations.”
Without further ado, the sorcerer hurled an empowered fireball into the chamber, incinerating all of the slimes, which curled up like little smoking curds. Mom grunted appreciatively. Liberty covered her mouth as the stench reached her. “Fire and flames, I thought they smelled bad before.”
“Well done!” said Xan. “You, Miss Grace, have a true talent. That was magni-“ He stopped speaking mid-word and paused for a few moments. “Um… Thanks, Liberty,” he finally said.
Liberty smiled for what seems like the first time in days. Drake sniffed. “All burned out, reminds me of home.” He chuckled as he walked blithely into the chamber and picked up the arm and gauntlet.
“What did you find?” asked Xan. Drake held it up for inspection. After a moment or two of concentration, Liberty identified the grisly trophy around the severed arm – a gauntlet of rust.
“Nice find,” said Xan. “Not really my style, but nice.”
“Shall we press on?” asked Liberty.
“Yeah. Yeah, let’s go,” said Drake absently, as he gathered a few burned jelly samples.
Mom had some difficulty climbing up the watery slope of the conduit, but the others managed it and lowered a rope for the half-orc to cling to as he made the ascent. They crawled out of a five-foot-wide pit in the middle of the floor of a circular stone room. An oil lamp hanging from the center of the ceiling illuminated the pit and a narrow hallway to the east.
“I’m guessing the spectators never see this part of the Arena,” Liberty whispered.
“No, I would guess not … at least none that come back out,” Xan replied softly.
He crept down the short hall to a square room containing three plain wooden coffins. Two of them lay in the corners of the south wall, and the third was placed in the nearer of the northern corners. Several empty sacks were piled near the third coffin.
“Oh, this looks fun…” Drake whispered sourly. Mom drew his sword and stood protectively near Liberty in the hall.
“Let’s see what’s in the coffins,” said Xan. He entered the room with Drake on his heels and carefully examined the wooden body-boxes. After his inspection, he said softly, “These don’t seem empty. Let’s hope they are just dead, and not undead.”
Liberty nodded, but Drake muttered quietly. “Doubtful.” He downed a shield extract in preparation.
The rogue drew both of his weapons and used one to open the northern coffin. Within was a creature of a type they’d seen only once before, in the bowels of Blackwall Keep. It resembled a nearly skeletal zombie, save that it was infested with writhing green worms that bulged and dripped from its eyes and mouth. It hissed and the other two coffins flew open, revealing similar creatures within!
Xan’s blades flashed, impaling the first spawn of Kyuss before it could get up. Drake stepped up to the one in the southwest corner and swung his electrified fists at the creature, striking it solidly. Liberty moved into the corner, burning out the one Drake had pummeled and scorching the third spawn with a burning arc.
The rogue looked uncomfortable as the creature he was facing reached up and deposited a green worm on him. The burned one failed to do the same for Drake, and the alchemist voiced a mental note to collect the vermin. Mom channeled energy again, blasting the undead with holy might. Xan skewered the worm on him and threw it against the back wall. “How do we put them down for good?” he asked.
Drake used his fists to pulp the one that tried to worm him, crushing its skull. “And stay down,” he said. Glancing over his shoulder at Xan he said, “Just keep swingin’.” It proved unnecessary advice as Liberty’s five magic missiles crushed the last spawn’s head in.
“Well, there go the last of my lingering doubts about whether the cult of Kyuss is involved here,” she said. Mom grunted affirmatively.
“Unfortunately,” said Xan. “Those were actual spawn, right? The ones from the old stories.”
“Just like under Blackwell Keep,” said Liberty.
Drake began taking worm samples. “We should probably burn these corpses to avoid infestation,” he said.
“I can do that,” said the sorcerer. “Once we’re done in here, though. I’ve already had enough monster stink-burn for one night.”
“Don’t overdo it, and if you want to conserve your energy I can douse them,” said Drake. “Got enough fire these days.”
“Okay, Drake.” She watched as he burned the bodies using three vials of alchemists’ fire.
“There must be a ringleader around here somewhere,” said Xan. “Let’s introduce ourselves.”
The hall continued east, though a branch opens to the north. Xan followed the northern hall, which cut back to the west and ended in a sturdy wooden door. He approached and listened at the door, but it seemed clear, so he pushed it open. The north part of the room beyond was occupied by a piece of ancient machinery built of stone and metal, but seemed not to have been in use for centuries. The machinery was connected to the northeast wall by a very large pipe.
“What can you all make of this?” asked Xan, as the others followed him into the room.
“A whole lot of … nothin’. Or something I can’t quite tell…” said Drake.
It appeared that an adventurous soul might be able to squeeze into the pipe and wriggle down it to see what lay on the other end, and Liberty pointed this out to Xan. “Might be something to try. Let’s take a look at the other door first,” he said.
Said door rested at the end of the eastern hallway. The rogue heard the irregular clunk of machinery on the far side of the door. It didn’t seem to be trapped (or locked). Once the others were ready, he pushed the door open. The air in this large hall was particularly noisome. The northern wall was almost completely covered by the remains of a wooden bookshelf, whose contents have long ago crumbled to dust. The southern part of the aisle was occupied by dusty pieces of ancient, ruined machinery that may have once comprised sets of semi-automated combat dummies.
Half a dozen spawn of Kyuss stood ready to receive them. At the far end was a somehow more horrifying creature. A thick tangle of discolored entrails clung to this lurching skeleton’s torso and wound upward to loll from its jaw like a clawed tongue.
Liberty wasted no time wasting most of the spawn of Kyuss with another empowered fireball. Five of the six were burned to a wormy crisp, and even the skeletal horror was singed. She grinned like a maniac. In response the mohrg vaulted the altar it had been standing behind and charged Xan. Its clawed hand struck hard and pulled the rogue into a grapple. The rogue attempted to wriggle out of the monster’s grasp, but he couldn’t seem to get away. The surviving spawn of Kyuss exited the chamber through double doors in the north wall.
Stuck in the back, Mom cast a blessing of fervor. Drake pushed past Xan and the undead to enter the training room. Liberty then cast battering blast, shoving it forcefully off of Xan. The mohrg then turned on Drake with its claws, but his shield held, protecting him. It could not prevent the filthy creature’s questing tongue from slapping wetly into his arm, and he felt it go momentarily numb. Fortunately years of hard drinking and experimenting with harder chemical substances had rendered him resistant to the worst of the effects.
Mom cast another spell, but the bolt of white light he evoked flew past the mohrg to strike a pillar harmlessly. Xan stepped up and flurried with his blades, landing a couple of hits in the squishy parts of the undead. Then Drake decided to test the creature’s mettle, going in for the grapple himself. His maneuver was a success, and he even managed to pin it, holding it in place to suffer his companions’ tender mercy. Liberty blasted it with a pair of scorching rays, and though the mohrg once again licked the alchemist with its unhindered tongue-like appendage, Drake did not succumb to the paralytic substance. “Interesting,” he said. “I don’t like it.”
Mom heard his complaint and advanced with the greatsword, crushing in the creature’s ribs and slicing through its purple guts. The tongue stopped wriggling, and the mohrg stopped struggling against Drake’s hold. “Aaauuugh… Vile stuff…” said the alchemist as he produced a handful of vials and began taking tissue and saliva samples and jotting some notes.
“Raknian keeps some disgusting company.”
“Not for long he doesn’t.” Liberty dropped her flame-wreathed hands, looking a little disappointed. She noted that the doors through which the surviving spawn fled had slowly swung closed of their own accord.
“I’ll say,” said Drake. “Disgusting but interesting… Undead are rather fascinating.”
“Remember that conversation I had with Filge?” Xan asked rhetorically. “Never cut ties because everyone has a use in certain situations. If we don’t settle this tonight, I’ll have Honest Minstrel track him down and get him to tell us all about what we are dealing with.”
“Not a bad idea. I’d like to talk to him as well,” said Drake. Liberty bit her tongue.
They didn’t find anything else of any particular note in the former training room, so Xan led them through the doors to the north, which open on a short hallway that ended in another set of doors. The rogue approached this second set and placed his ear against them. He heard the sound of someone chanting in a harsh voice. Wincing a little, he waved them over with a gesture to indicate they should approach quietly.
“Chanting in the next room,” he said softly. “Ready for round two?”
“Very,” said Liberty.
“Let’s prepare first,” said Drake, before following his own advice and quaffing several potions. Mom cast a bit of healing while Liberty girded herself with an electric shield spell. When all was said and done, the alchemist hulked at the head of the party and kicked open the doors.
Two braziers in the northeast and southeast corners lit the rectangular room beyond. A simple altar of stone sat in the middle of the east wall, facing a large set of stone double doors to the west. On the altar was a scroll, which glowed with an unnatural green light. A writhing green beam of light emanated out of these scrolls to strike the doors to the west, bathing them in the same green glow. The room had two inhabitants: a single spawn of Kyuss and a middle-aged tiefling with a flaccid and misshapen figure. His fiendish ancestry was evident in the unnaturally green, almost fluorescent color of his eyes, his twitching tail, the vestigial horns on his brow, and his hoofed feet.
He finished another spell as Drake kicked in the door and looked up unhurriedly. “Well now. Who have we here?”