11 Wealsun, 595 CY
The final battle was scheduled to take place at noon on the fifth day of the tournament. The adventurers were brought to the field of battle second, and when they arrived they found Auric, Khellek, and the three flesh golems known as the Leatherworks that the band used as thugs waiting for them. The crowd went wild as they took their position; a scan of the surrounding seats revealed that they were packed nearly to capacity. It seemed almost that the entire Free City had turned out to watch.
Drake lifted his arms up and the crowd responded favorably, his fans screaming enthusiastically to his antics. Xan likewise struck a pose, and the “Xanatics” cheered him on. “Try not to kill Auric,” Liberty told di Mezzanotte, but loud enough so Drake could hear. “I made a promise to someone.”
Talabir Welik stood alone on the podium. Loris Raknian was not in his usual seat of honor. The master of ceremonies had clearly pulled out the fanciest of introductions for this final bout. The adventurers were hesitant to begin their preparations after the fiasco with Madtooth, but they saw Auric’s Warband quaffing potions and casting spells, so they took the risk and made ready.
The emcee announced the start and Khellek took to the skies, flying forty feet up – just under the allowed limit – and started things off with a boom. Literally. A crimson bead streaked from his outstretched hand and exploded in the midst of the party!
The crowd cheered as Burning Blood was lit up. Then, with less than a gesture, five bolts of blue-white force screamed toward Liberty and struck her hard. The sorcerer recoiled from the sudden arcane assault, feeling some of her ribs crack from the impact. To her credit, she recovered quickly and responded with passionate violence. Liberty’s empowered fireball encompassed Auric’s Warband, and the living members burned quite well. She planted her feet and gave the wizard a defiant look.
Drake charged Auric with a bestial roar and slammed his claws into the Champion. Then the golems swarmed him, and he bit one as it came. Another took advantage of Drake’s distraction and slammed him in the ribs. Auric shook off the pain of the flames and the claw wound. “Haha! Nice shot, Cornelius! But can you take a hit?” The Champion waded in with his greatsword, cutting an X into Drake’s chest.
“The question is: will they yield before death?” di Mezzanotte said to Liberty.
“He had damn well better.”
“With your permission, signorina?” The priest healed the sorcerer and she nodded her gratitude.
Then the Arena shuddered, as though something had struck it from below. Hard.
“Oh, gods, here it comes,” said Liberty.
“Prepare for it!” said di Mezzanotte.
“We’ve got to get these people out of here!” she insisted.
“And it was just getting good,” complained Drake.
Flying above the fight, Khellek narrowed his eyes in confusion, but he continued the attack. The wizard manipulated a crystal, then smashed it and scattered the pieces in the air before him, sending a coruscating beam of energy that struck Liberty full in the face. He grinned as he saw his enchantment take hold; Liberty stood slack-jawed – feebleminded. “Hodor,” she said inexplicably.
“QUINN!” cried the priest as the sorcerer rushed toward the melee, pulling her morningstar. “Yield the match! The ulgurstasta comes. It is more important!”
Drake’s wounds begin to seal up on their own and he looked to the Champion. “Auric, something bigger comes, you felt the tremor! We can finish this shortly.” He took a step back from the melee, though the golems continued to advance, following their orders and wailing on the alchemist with their meaty fists.
Auric gave Drake’s words some consideration before shaking his head. “No, Mister Drake. More likely, Raknian is spicing up the final encounter. Such a showman! Have at you!” He moved up with the golems and scored another hit.
The priest rushed forward shouting at all gathered. “The ulgurstasta from under the arena is breaking free RIGHT NOW! We have far, far more important things to worry about than this match. The ulgurstasta! I will yield!” Then he channeled positive energy to heal everyone nearby. That gave Auric more serious pause and he frowned, turning to look up at Khellek.
“That’s one yield,” Talabir announced, somewhat mystified. The crowd booed.
Then Xan spoke in a voice loud enough to carry across the Arena. “Men, the thing that’s about to break through the ground will take all of our efforts to destroy. If we fail, most of the city will fall to it at least. Trying to stop it was the reason we joined this show in the first place, but we couldn’t. Please … help us.”
Auric and Khellek both appeared poleaxed by the pronouncement. The crowd began to murmur about all the talking going on in the middle of the fight they’d paid heavily to see.
And then the middle of the Arena exploded upward as the ulgurstasta crashed through the floor. The spectators – ignorant of their peril – stopped murmuring and cried in delight at the dramatic turn of events!
“Oh shit,” said di Mezzanotte, all urbanity fled.
Khellek’s eyes were wide at the great worm’s sudden appearance. He produced a wand and fire streaked from it at the behemoth. Unfortunately, the flames were snuffed out when they made contact with the abomination’s flesh. Liberty tried to rush forward with her morningstar, but Xan grabbed a hold of her and held her tight. She moaned disapproval and struggled against him, waving the morningstar in what she must have thought was a menacing way for a moment. And then she started humping his leg.
“Gonna’ try to keep it busy,” said Drake. “Been nice knowing you guys…” The hulking alchemist advanced on the worm and took a bite out of it. He nearly chipped a tooth. “Tough hide on this one!” he complained.
“Dear gods, what is that thing?!” cried Auric once he’d recovered from his shock. He glanced back up at Khellek who shook his head vigorously no, but only for a moment. Then the Champion of the Free City Arena charged the beast, joining Drake in the melee against the gargantuan undead worm. Laughing the whole way. His blade carved a deep hunk out of the side of the monster, which howlulated in pain and anger.
Xan dragged Liberty away from the fighting and sternly said, “Liberty Grace… stay right here!” She grunted moronically, and he took that for assent. Then he rushed toward the worm’s tail. It was good he did.
The behemoth reared back, then projectile vomited necromantic sludge all over most of the combatants, coating everyone but Khellek and Xan. The horrific fluid drained the gladiators’ life essence, severely weakening them all. After that, the worm bit Auric and lifted him off the ground into its mouth. He bled heavily.
“Feelin’ a little woozy here,” he quipped, coughing blood.
“Fool,” Khellek cursed, trying the wand again to no avail.
“Turn it away from the mages!” Xan insisted frantically when he saw that Liberty had survived the worm’s breath but not made any move to … well, move.
Drake climbed up into the worm’s mouth alongside the Champion and jerked him free of the jagged teeth. “You aren’t allowed to go out yet Auric, I haven’t had a chance to finish with you yet!” Then he took another bite out of the worm.
Auric smirked. “What? I figured the love tap earlier was us getting ‘even’ for the whole Constance thing. Sorry about that, by the way. I didn’t know you guys had a thing.”
“We’ll deal with it after this thing is back in the ground,” Drake rumbled.
“While we’re on the subject, mind if I cut in?” He brought the greatsword to bear yet again, cutting the beast and cutting it deep.
“Feel free, but don’t take all the glory!”
The priest kept the healing energy flowing, and Xan flipped into a flank furiously stabbing the great worm with both blades. Gross ichor spilled out of the wounds he inflicted, and that managed to draw its attention. It bit Auric again – who managed to stay out of its mouth – before spinning on the rogue and trying to bite him in half. Xan had never moved so fast in his life as he did in getting out of the way.
Liberty tried humming a lullaby but could only put two notes together before she got frustrated and bonked herself on the head.
Drake had had enough of the taste of worm, and brought his spiked fists up to strike. His first blow spun the beast away from Xan, his second caught it in the bank of eyes above its mouth, and the final blow was a haymaker that shattered the flesh of its head and found the small rotted brain within. It writhed spasmodically and thrashed several times before it finally lay still on the floor of the Arena. The crowd fell quiet, no one really knowing what to expect next.
Di Mezzanotte channeled curative energy into everyone in range again, and Auric put a hand on his newly healed wounds with a nod of gratitude to the priest. “Talabir!” he called out. “Tell Raknian he has a new Champion. He reached out and took hold of one of Drake’s massive arms, lifting it up by main force. The alchemist stood stunned for a second and then roared in triumph, turning to Auric and extending his hand in a friendly handshake gesture. The former Champion gripped the new one’s arm in a warrior’s grasp. The crowd lost their minds with the cheering.
Xan whipped the ichor off his blades with a fancy flourish, and called out to Talabir himself. “Yes, please inform Mister Raknian that the Champions await him on the Arena floor.” Then he went to check on Liberty. She was applauding, able to bring her palms together one in every five or six attempts.
The priest offered Auric a gallant bow, then flipped his hair back out of his eyes. He spotted several clerics of Pelor circulating through the crowd, and he could swear they looked relieved – likely that their aid had not been required. “Thank the Sun-Father,” he murmured.
Khellek floated slowly to the ground, glowering but impotent. The Fleshworks dutifully walked back toward him and stood at parade rest. Everyone watched as Ekaym – flanked by city guards – walked toward the podium to claim Burning Blood’s prize money. Talabir delivered the prize then spoke with the watchmen in low tones. Honest Minstrel wore an expression like the cat that ate the canary.
Several of the bolder members of the crowd jumped into the arena and rushed forward to get close to the action. Some of the spectators attempted to collect souvenirs of the big worm, but di Mezzanotte’s warning shout was enough to deter them. Several others avoided the monster altogether and came to offer congratulations to the heroes. Liberty smiled and waved at everyone, a goofy grin on her face. Drake came over to the sorcerer, lifting her up in a beefy arm. She hugged him and hung on like a koala.
By and by, the crowd thinned out, and once city guards and clerics of Pelor were set to guard the corpse of the giant worm, the gladiators retired to one of the many large buildings on the Arena estate for the afterparty. Ekaym accompanied Talabir and the city guards when they left, but promised to return and explain himself.
Khellek accepted di Mezzanotte’s healing then excused himself curtly. Auric, however, was keen to hang out and enjoy the party. Xan was more than happy to have him – for the Public Relations bump alone. The former Champion nodded in approval. “I see you have learned about Celebrity, my friend. Well done.”
As they got to chatting, Drake was surprised to be glad that Auric had chosen to stick around. “You had me, Cornelius. We both know it. You were holding back because of the beast. And well you did!”
“Thanks, Auric. Glad you were there to help end it.”
The priest took Liberty aside and whispered an earnest prayer over her. She found her senses restored, though the details of the fight somewhat eluded her. He smiled and flipped his hair back, and they rejoined the festivities.
“Feeling back to your normal self are we, Miss Grace?” asked Xan.
“I … yes. What happened, exactly? Last thing I remember was Khellek throwing a spell at me. And why do I feel like I died?”
“Well, let’s just say that for a short time, you became a lot more my type, Lib. Too bad di Mezz had to go and ruin it.” The rogue grinned to show he was kidding.
Di Mezzanotte smiled. “That was … less worrisome than I feared. Though your aid, Signore Auric, was much appreciated.” The warrior waved off the praise graciously.
“As for the Constance bit…” Drake said, “I’m prone to over-think certain things. And by over-think, I mean my brain gets a little out of hand.”
Auric nodded. “Not something I’ve ever been accused of. Overthinking, that is.” His was a belly laugh.
“We’ve traded blows, I’m over it … mostly … although I’d like to get in touch with her now.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Cornelius.” He looked over the alchemist’s shoulder at a couple of women walking in. One was Tirra. The other was Constance Grace.
“Hi Libby,” she said shyly.
Liberty lost her mind again, though in a different manner than before. “CONNIE!” she cried with joy, crossing the room in a flash for a hug. Drake turned and felt his jaw go slack. He saw Constance’s radiant smile as she embraced her sister. They stayed that way, not saying anything for a long moment.
Tirra strolled casually over to Xan, and money changed hands. “The guildmaster invites you to join our organization. But should you choose to remain independent, you are welcome to do business in the city without our interference.”
Xan smiled. “Why thank you, dear. I’ve never been one to answer to others for very long. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find endeavors that we both can’t profit over from time to time. I’d like to get to know all of you in time.”
The elf smirked. “Oh, this is going to be good. And profitable.”
Liberty stepped aside when she saw Drake stand slowly and walk over. “Urm…. Hey Constance.”
“Oh, Corny,” she said, her tone betraying her broken heart at his appearance. “What have you done to your face?”
“Corny?” Liberty mouthed silently.
Drake coughed uncomfortably. “Err…. Went a little mad for a bit….”
She reached up and touched his burned face gingerly, her eyes wet with unshed tears. “I hope it was not on my account.”
He scratched the back of his head uncertainly. “You look … erm … alive? Which, I’m glad for! I mean … I thought … and the fire … and fire … urmmmm.” He started to choke up a little, too.
“I wrote a letter,” she said, realizing how lame it sounded. She exchanged a glance with Tirra, who nodded. Then she looked at Liberty curiously. “Did you get it?”
“I did, yes. Thank you, Tirra,” she said to the elf, still overexcited. “I … didn’t get around to sharing it, though.”
“I see. Well. I’m sorry to have worried you. Both of you,” she amended, including Drake in her glance.
“It’s all right. I know you had your reasons.” Constance gave her sister a grateful smile.
“Urm…. Yeah, I’m still lost on a lot of things,” said Drake. “But I’d rather be troubled and have you living, than not….”
Auric walked up and Constance put an arm around him. “I am so glad you were there to help one another in the Arena against that horrid monster,” she said.
Xan leaned over to Tirra. “I’m glad to see everyone coming together and happy. I’m happy too, though my reason for being here eluded us.”
“Not so,” said Ekaym from the door. He entered the room grinning. “We have him.”
Xan smiled. “Oh?”
“We do?” said di Mezzanotte. “If you would be so good as to tell us the details, Signore Smallcask?”
“I wasn’t able to get in touch with the wizard, but I managed to convince some friends of yours in the guard to put a watch on Raknian’s house. When things went sideways in the Arena, they moved in and caught him packing up, as though for a long journey. There were injuries – Raknian is still a formidable warrior – but he was taken into custody all the same. He won’t see the outside of a dungeon cell for many a year once all of what you have found comes to light.”
“Oh, Ekaym, that’s excellent news!” Liberty gushed. She moved to stand closer to Ekaym.
“Well done, Honest Minstrel,” said Xan. “I wasn’t sure you’d be able to come through. I owe you … and I can count on one hand the times I’ve openly admitted that to someone.”
“Raknian was behind the worm?” said Auric, surprised. “I knew he was dirty. I mean, he never liked me. What does that say about his character?” He grinned self-depracatingly.
Constance swatted his arm playfully. “You can be a bit of a brute, love.”
“Some people have no taste, Auric,” said Liberty.
He winced. “As I recall, I owe you an apology. For my behavior in Diamond Lake. I … I was not polite. I’m sorry.” He looks chagrined, and Constance smiled in approval.
“I accept your apology,” she said, though her tone suggested the apology wasn’t necessary. He smiled, relieved all the same.
“Yeah, I wasn’t my best anywhere in Diamond Lake,” said Drake, looking a little sad.
“You guys are so down on poor Diamond Lake,” Xan scolded. “You should give it a break. Some of my most prized possessions came from there.”
The alchemist looked at him. “Well, I burned all my prized possessions from there….”
“He meant you, you dolt,” said Tirra. “All of you.”
“She said it … not me,” said Xan, grinning.
Drake laughed genuinely at Tirra’s comment. “Wow, he must not have as good taste as he likes to let on!”
He turned back to Auric and said, “Anyway. Apology accepted…” Then he looked back at Constance. “…if you’ll accept mine…. I’m sorry for a lot of things.” He sighed.
“Oh, Corny. There’s nothing to apologize to me for. Just … take better care of yourself.” She looked meaningfully at his scarred face again.
* * *
The party proceeded, with Tirra taking notice of di Mezzanotte and introducing herself to the young lord. She bounced between the priest and Drake, chatting up each. Ekaym walked over to Xan, and money changed hands. After, the rogue came over to visit with Constance for a time.
Drake said to Tirra, “Hey, you know about guilds and permits and stuff…. I think I’d like to employ your help if you don’t mind…. After all, I didn’t kill Auric in the Arena.” He grinned.
She smirked. “Yeah, word about your struggles reached us. I took the initiative there.” She handed him permits and licenses. “You’re all set.” Drake looked as happy as when he has a drink in hand. “Constance is crazy. Men with scars are sexy.”
“Maybe I’ll have to keep ‘em around then….”
Then, to di Mezzanotte the elf said, “And so are men with accents. Rowr.”
There was much rejoicing. Liberty told Constance the story of her adventures so far, and her sister shared the story of her “death” in Diamond Lake, and her life so far with the Free City Thieves’ Guild. “Which, of course, doesn’t exist,” joked Auric. Everyone laughed.
Later on, Ekaym took Liberty aside. “Once the trial is over, I shall have my sister’s remains returned to Cauldron. There I have the means to perhaps see her brought back to life. And if that fails, she will be laid to rest alongside our family in Redgorge.”
“I hope the gods smile upon your plan. And I’m glad I was able to help you find some justice, and some closure.”
“If you ever make it that far south, please visit.” He smiled.
“I will. Are you leaving soon?” she asked, her tone suggesting disappointment.
“I am afraid so, my dear. My business here is concluded, and I admit it has been exhausting, physically and emotionally.” He paused thoughtfully. “One thing puzzles me, though. About the wizard. There was no answer at his manor when I went to report yesterday.” He shook his head. “I’m sure he simply had business to attend. No matter.”
Honest Minstrel said his goodbyes and left the party. Liberty wandered back to Constance, perturbed. “I suppose we can collect the Apostolic Scrolls, now that the force field is gone…”
Xan shook his head. “Not tonight, Lib. We’ve earned at least one evening without worry … and then some. Just enjoy the moment.”
“On that note, before this party winds down I should probably find someone to enjoy more private moments with,” said Xan. “I’ll find you all tomorrow … or maybe a week from now. Who knows?”
“That’s the Xan I know and love,” said Liberty.
After the rogue departed, Drake said, “I’m for keeping this party going, let’s get some drinks!”
Drinks were acquired. The night was a blur of merriment.
* * *
12 Wealsun, 595 CY (Noonish)
They recovered the Apostolic Scrolls without trouble. They were no longer magical, but the lore within remained, containing a great deal of information about the cult of Kyuss. Formerly evil artifact in hand, they went to see Eligos.
The outside of the wizard’s manor looked much as before, but there is no answer when they knocked on the door.
“Not even a servant to answer the door?” said Xan with a frown.
“That does seem odd,” said Liberty.
The rogue reached for his picks, but found the door already unlocked. That gave everyone pause.
“Quietly?” suggested Liberty.
Xan shook his head. “Something is wrong. I think quickly would be more like it.” She nodded in agreement and they moved into the house.
Inside the foyer, the kindly aged elven manservant lay in a pool of his own blood, clearly quite dead from a number of stab wounds to the chest.
“Oh … oh no…” said Drake. Liberty covered her mouth with a sudden intake of breath.
Di Mezzanotte knelt beside the body and examined it with a healer’s eye. “He’s been dead since night before last,” he said.
“Another victim…” said Xan. “It doesn’t seem to end. Let’s see if Eligos fairs any better.”
Drake asked, “Can we… take him to the priests to speak with his spirit?”
“Let’s tend to those that might still be alive, Drake.”
They found the wizard’s remains in his bedchamber, soaked in blood and tangled in the sheets. From his chest emerged the hilt of a very familiar looking dagger – the one they’d taken from Zyrxog’s hoard and later sold.
“Oh. Oh, gods,” breathed Liberty.
A search of the estate turned up one other item of interest. They discovered a bundle of notes and observations that cataloged what Eligos had learned of the Age of Worms. This bundle was kept in a small coffer on the shelf of the wizard’s study. A note on the top of this bundle was addressed to Allustan.
My dear friend Allustan,
What your adventurers have stumbled into sickens me to my soul. Every new leaf I turn reveals an even darker secret. Here are my notes. You must take them to our one-time master – although I fear that even he may be ill-equipped for what writhes in all of our futures. Until then
The note was unfinished.