The zombie did not react to their intrusion into the room.
“Oh. Oh, no,” said Liberty.
“Oh… This…. I think this is sad,” agreed Drake.
“What do we know about zombies in general? Is it possible that there is anything left of her mind?” Xan wanted to know.
Mom grunted neutrally as he entered the room and approached the zombie to inspect it. After a moment, he gave his professional opinion. “She’s pretty dead, as far as I can tell. It would take some very serious clout with the gods to bring her back from this … even more than just a regular corpse.”
“So what do we do with her?” Liberty asked quietly.
“Hrm… Well, I don’t think it right to leave her here…” said Drake.
The sorcerer shook her head. “No, but it’s even less right for Ekaym to see her like this.”
“So … we put her out of her misery and spare Honest Minstrel the pain of knowing any more than we confirmed her death. It’s kinder for both of them,” said Xan.
It was clear that Liberty was struggling to hold back emotion. “I think that would be best.” Mom’s expression was a mix of incredulity and “I kind of expected that.”
“You sure he wouldn’t be willing to try anything to fix her?” said Drake. “I remember a broken and maddened old man now resting in the hands of healers to attempt to fix him at all costs.”
“Even so, a corpse is easier to work with than … this,” said Liberty.
“Drake, I’m just making a judgment call here…” said Xan. “One based on what you have told me about her chances. There is a big difference between a living man with a broken mind, and a mindless zombie.”
“Dead doesn’t always mean gone…” Drake said, sounding crestfallen.
Mom addressed the zombie. “Lahaka? Can you hear me?” The animate corpse looked up at Mom’s raised voice, and they could all see some really old bruising around the neck.
“Oh, gods,” said Liberty, turning away from the dead girl.
Somewhat encouraged, the cleric continued. “Lahaka. Raise your right arm.” The zombie did not comply with the command, and after a moment, its gaze returned to the table. “It’s never easy,” he said. “Filge may know more about what we can do…”
“Lib, I know we all met him at the same time, but I think you know him best,” Xan said of Ekaym. “Do you think he would want to see her like this and try to save her? Or would it just break his heart as he had to permanently put her down himself?”
She opened her eyes and looked at the rogue. “Seeing this would kill him. If we put her down, sanctify the remains, maybe he can arrange for a miracle.”
“Look, if we can, why don’t we at least try to get her out?” said Mom.
“Out where? Into the Coenoby?” asked Liberty.
“Either way, we gotta’ figure out what else we’re up against before we leave. We should leave her for the moment until we need to head back to the bunks.”
Xan nodded. “Fair enough, Drake. Let’s look around. Maybe we can get more information.”
The cupboard contained the personal effects and clothing of a traveling cleric, including an ebony walking stick, a dark traveling outfit, and a rucksack. On the bedside table were a hooded lantern, a jug of red wine, a clay cup, and a pair of round goggles with smoky quartz for lenses. The trunk was locked, and Xan looked it over carefully.
Made of darkwood and bound with steel, the trunk measured thirty-six by eighteen by eighteen inches. A steel plaque representing a screaming skull infested by worms was nailed to the lid. The side panels were painted in tones of black and green with a cycle of apocalyptic images that ran around the trunk like a frieze. The images were divided into two horizontal strips, underground and aboveground, by a cutaway of the earth’s crust. Underground, the horrible figure of a man made of worms lay imprisoned in a huge stone monolith. The figure had been represented in perspective on all the trunk’s four sides. Huge green worms writhed in the surrounding caverns and broke through the cavern’s crust to invade the aboveground part of the paintings, where a sickly green light illuminated a blasted landscape. There, the writhing worms towered over a population of monstrous undead and naked, terrified victims.
Mom had remained by Lahaka while the others spread out to search the room thoroughly. The cleric murmured a short prayer, but couldn’t detect any magic other than the general necromancy associated with raising the dead into unliving horrors. He then considered the bruising on her neck a second time, and noticed something strange. “Liberty, what do you make of this?” he asked, pointing. “There’s some kind of serpent mark on her neck.”
That was enough to get her to look at the zombie. She saw what he was talking about almost immediately, now that it had been pointed out. It was an angry red mark among the bruising like a stylized serpent. She didn’t recognize the symbol as having any arcane significance and said as much, but she took her journal from her haversack and sketched it, just in case.
“Looks like she was strangled to death,” said Mom thoughtfully.
Xan tore his gaze away from the horrific trunk. “Aha! That’s what we needed to make a decision… That mark may tie her murder to Raknian if he wears a ring like that. This poor creature has become evidence. She has to come with us. Although… What the hells are we going to do with her, trapped down in this place ourselves?”
“I thought you had worked that out already.” Liberty gave him a weak smile.
“Destroying her may wreck the evidence. We could carry her out in the trunk…?” Mom said dubiously.
“I’m for keeping the … ‘evidence’ intact,” said Drake.
Liberty nodded. “It would be more effective as evidence that way, regardless of how Ekaym might feel.”
“Hmm… we’ll have a chance to see her brother tomorrow after the fight. Have you seen any of the guards searching the bunks at all?” asked Xan. None of them had. “Then our bunk may be the best place to hide her. Unfortunately.” He looked a bit disgusted by the idea.
As if on cue, a clump of the zombie’s hair fell to the table. They were all suddenly very aware of the pungent aroma of the undead, barely suppressed by the incense that the tiefling must have kept burning constantly. Liberty reached for the chamber pot and puked into it. Then, finding it wasn’t empty to begin with, retched again.
Drake cocked an eyebrow at the hair. “Well, it won’t be an issue once it’s all gone.”
“Okay, maybe the smell would give her away,” said Xan. “Any magic that can prevent that from any of you?”
“No,” Liberty said weakly, wiping her mouth on her sleeve.
“Gentle repose might work….” suggested Mom.
“Let me think, I may be able to fix up something to dim the smell,” said Drake. “If I can get the reagents I can make a deodorant, but it would have to be reapplied a few times probably.”
Xan nodded, turning back to the demonic chest. “I’m really wanting to know what’s in here, but it doesn’t seem very inviting. What do you all think? I don’t see any traps, but it could be cursed or something I guess.”
Liberty frowned at the trunk, simultaneously disgusted and fascinated as she considered it with her sorcerer’s senses. “There’s magic coming off of it, Xan: abjuration and necromancy.”
“So … definitely bad stuff,” he summarized.
“I can try to dispel it.”
“Can you do that without knowing what it is, exactly?”
“Give it a shot, then.”
“All right.” She cast her spell, but the chest did not react, nor did it look any different. “I don’t think that helped,” she admitted. “It’s probably a magic item.”
Xan frowned. “Too bad. I still think we need to open it though. We still need more information about what’s going on.”
“Could always be another cursed sword…” Drake suggested. Mom grunted in amusement.
“Well we are about to find out,” said Xan. He counted to five to let anyone that wanted to clear out of the room then opened the trunk.
The lock snapped shut and Xan’s body winked out of existence, leaving all his clothing and equipment behind. Immediately after, a tiny representation of the rogue, naked and helpless, appeared on one of the trunk’s side panels as one of the victims of the undead horde.
“What the shit!” Liberty cried. She ran over to the chest and almost touched it, her hand hovering over the lid.
“Oh … Gods … dammit,” said Drake.
“Crap. Crap. What do I do? What do I do?” the sorcerer said, near panic. Then she took a deep breath to collect herself and focused her will. “Try again. I’m gonna try again.”
“I’ll help,” said Mom.
The spellcasters cast their spells to peel the magic away from the trunk … and Xan’s image disappeared from the side of the chest as he reappeared next to it, naked and unconscious. Liberty leaped in place, laughing with relief. Mom wasted no time checking the rogue’s condition, and after a moment he was able to wake him.
When she calmed down and realized Xan’s nudity, Liberty said, “I guess that makes us even.”
Drake’s expression was a little shocked. “Well, damn, Xan. Guess you don’t need one of these enlarge person draughts…”
“Huh?” Xan said, clearly very disoriented. “What happened?”
“You vanished, and reappeared in this art,” said Liberty.
“Huh. I ‘felt’ Kyuss… He had complete control over my mind. Seemed like days.” The rogue’s flesh had broken out in goosebumps at the mention.
Drake grimaced. “Well that’s lovely… I would hate to think of those on the side that have been in there for days … or longer.”
“Oh, gods. Are you all right now? Or… will you be?” asked Liberty.
“I’m weary,” Xan said. “It’s been a rough couple of rooms… I need to re…” He stopped short as he noticed something on the trunk … now that he had a different angle to see it from the floor.
“Xan? What is it?” Liberty picked up his shirt and draped it across his … midsection.
Drake scoffed. “Act like you’ve never seen one before, Lib.” She looked daggers at him. It caused the corner of his mouth to quirk into a grin. He put his hands up in a defensive manner. “Kiddin’, kiddin’,” he said, winking.
“Wha?” Xan looked between the two and finally clued in … then grinned. “Oh… Sorry ‘bout that Lib. Was a bit preoccupied.”
“HA!” Drake laughed loudly.
“Uh, yeah. Me too,” said the sorcerer.
“There is an inscription on the trunk … seems like an elaborate prayer to Kyuss,” said Xan.
“Could be, like, a password to get around the trap?” suggested Liberty.
The rogue started re-dressing. “Good thinking. Let’s try it.” He read the prayer aloud in the Abyssal it was written in. There was no apparent change. Xan frowned. “Any change to its magical aura?”
Liberty checked. “You seem to be attuned to it now, Xan. I think you’re okay to open it.”
He stared at her. “You know … I trust you and all … but if you are wrong you are just going to have to save me again. And I’ll have to be naked again. Still want me to open it?” He grinned.
After a moment of shock, she returned his smile. “At least I know I can get you back now.”
“Oh the things I do for my friends … and profit.” He opened the trunk again.
This time, nothing horrible happened to him.
Liberty walked over. “What’s in there?”
The trunk contained a bag of three hundred gold, several gems, a blue potion, three spell scrolls, three doses of magic dust, seven blocks of exotic incense, two more blocks of magic incense, a wand, a magic spoon, and three vials of magic oil.
“Wow,” she said after several moments of concentration to identify what she could of the enchanted loot. “Mom, you should take this wand … and this oil might help with our zombie.”
Once the goods were distributed she said, “So. Shall we press on?”
“As well as we can,” said Drake.
“Unfortunately, yes. I can’t wait to see what we find in the next room,” said Xan. He opened the door.
A brazier in the northwest corner lit the rectangular room beyond. A green and black checkered curtain hanging from a steel bar fixed near the ceiling concealed the south wall. They walked into the room, and when they reached the center, the curtain was torn aside to reveal a couple of new nightmares.
A shivering mess of phosphorescent green corruption surrounded by cracked, leathery coatings, always oozing, secreting, thickening, and breaking open, with dark eye-globes covering the body of the man-sized demon that had moved the curtain aside. A six-foot-tall black earthenware urn stood near the middle of the south wall, which was completely filled with a mosaic of tiny green tiles depicting the horrible skull of Kyuss. Waves of fear emanated from the image and Xan’s mind was momentarily overcome with terror.
The freakish melting demon conjured a stinking cloud that filled the room with noxious fumes, causing the adventurers to lose sight of it. Mom’s remarkable constitution kept him from retching as Liberty had only a few minutes earlier, and he cast a spell to remove the supernatural fear Xan was suffering. Then he advanced in the direction the demon had been. The rogue nodded thankfully, and then he and Drake moved up beside the half-orc trying to catch a glimpse of the fiend through the cloud. Liberty tried to hold her breath after casting haste on herself and the fellows.
A wall of ice manifested as the creature reappeared, separating it and Xan from the others.
“BLOOD MAKES NOISE!” Mom bellowed, smashing his mace into the frozen wall thrice and nearly breaking through. Xan treated the demon like he would any other superior combatant, and tried to fake it out. It seemed to work about as well, and he drove his enchanted blade deep into the fiend’s center … but not as deeply as he’d hoped. Drake started tearing at the ice wall, as well, bringing tooth and claw to bear. Liberty lost the battle against the poison fumes and, having puked twice already, started dry heaving as she staggered toward the wall of ice.
The demon whirled on Xan and started wailing on him with fist-like appendages. Acid splashed the rogue with each impact, and started eating through his belt and into his flesh. “EVERYONE OUT!” Mom bellowed as he smashed a hole in the wall of ice and stepped into the frigid space where it had been. Xan wasted no time following that order, and stumbled back down the hallway toward the tiefling’s bedroom.
Instead of fleeing, Drake smashed through his section of the ice wall and then attacked the demon. Unfortunately, his claws raked against its thick “hide” fruitlessly. Liberty stumbled past Mom, and squeezed through the narrow exit, trying to follow the sound of Xan’s voice. The demon struck her as she passed, the acid dissolving her robe.
Mom began chanting in rhythm with his swings: “OUT! OUT! OUT! OUT! OUT!” The demon gave better than it got from the raging half-orc, smashing Mom with its acidic fists time and again. Then everyone “heard” the fiend’s “voice” in their heads. Hahahahahah! Flee, mortals! It matters not! I will strip the flesh from your bodies and dine on your very souls! Drake was undeterred, trying his claws again, and managing to make a few superficial scratches. He saw the writing on the wall and took a step back in anticipation of retreat.
Back in the bedroom, between dry heaves, Liberty asked Xan, “We stoppin’ here? Or keep going?” The rogue shrugged hopelessly, still ill himself.
The demon evoked a cone of cold to chase Drake, and he found it to be more than a bit brisk for his liking. Mom continued his chant of retreat as he pulled his cleaver and tried that against the demon instead. It didn’t work any better than his mace had. He gave a passing thought to the cursed greatsword, but shook his head. The alchemist retreated to the center of the room, with a piece of the ice wall between himself and the demon. In a position of relative safety for the moment, he downed a powerful healing draught, which swiftly knitted the majority of his injuries.
Mom caught the next cone of cold in the face, and the hallway behind the half-orc iced up as well, narrowly missing those in the tiefling’s bedchamber. Drake maneuvered and lobbed a bomb at the demon, giving it a courtesy flame wash. “Get the hell out then, Mom!” he forcefully advised. The half-orc stubbornly refused for another moment … and then it was too late. The demon’s fists struck powerfully, clubbing past Mom’s defenses to crush his ribs and smash him in the head with a solid CRACK!
Charles Fisher fell.
The demon laughed maniacally in the surviving adventurers’ heads.
“What’s going on in there?!” Liberty shrieked.
Drake grabbed the downed half-orc by the arm and began hauling him out by main force. When he made it to the bedroom where the others waited, he shouted for them to run without slowing down himself.
And so they ran, keeping a wild eye over their shoulders for the monster. They were back in one of the tunnels leading to the Coenoby before the demon gave up the pursuit and they had time to check on Mom.
“He’s dead,” said Drake, his voice leaden.