Worms: Apocalypse

Session 6: Small Town Plots

In Which the Intrigue Begins.

“Oh, wow. That’s a lammasu pelt,” said Liberty, pointing at the large rug as she crossed the room to the nightstand.

“Magic on the desk, the glasses, and…the head,” said Mom after a moment’s concentration.

Xan nodded to the cleric and approached the small mummy cautiously, alert for traps. Satisfied that there were no hidden threats, he produced a copper coin from his pouch and crouched down near the woman’s head until he was eye level with the platinum piece upon the bloated tongue. He deftly scooped the coin up and swiftly replaced it with the copper… at which point the mouth animated and started screaming, “INTRUDER! INTRUDER! INTRUDER!”

“Oh, hellfire,” cursed Liberty.

Panicking, Xan grabbed the head and tossed it onto the rug. He wrapped it up to try to mute the noise, which worked to a limited extent. They heard shouting from above, and Mom leveled his recently acquired crossbow toward the stairs, ready to let fly at the first sign of trouble. Xan scooped up the rug and tossed it down the stairs before taking cover behind the desk and drawing his short sword.

Watching his antics, Liberty muttered, “That’s gonna be worth something to somebody.”

“Arise, my beautiful monstrosities!” cried out a nasal male voice from the uppermost floor of the observatory.

“Oh, shit!” said Mom. “Multiple incoming!”

“What the-” said Liberty.

“Up?”

“Right behind you, Mom,” the sorcerer confirmed. The half-orc barreled up the stairs.

A single chamber dominated the observatory’s entire upper floor. Light filtered through a wide slit in the roof, bathing the center of the room in illumination. Four large mirrors set along the outside wall reflected bright beams into the direct center of the room, a recessed operating theater accessible via two short sets of stairs. The beams specifically targeted a blue-skinned humanoid figure splayed out upon an operating table, its chest completely opened and pinned back against the table with long metal needles.

Two long shelves cluttered with piles of papers, rotting organs, and instruments comprised the east and west extent of the operating theater, and were only a few inches lower than the chambers outer floor. Four metal-and-glass tanks, each easily large enough to hold a human, flanked the short stairs leading down to the operating theater. They had been smashed open from within, presumably by the shambling undead that lurched through the broken glass, spilling a yellow liquid streaked with rust across the floor.

Mom took in the scene in a moment, then leveled his crossbow at the nearest zombie – a former orc – and let fly. The bolt punched a small hole in the undead, but it didn’t slow it down as much as it would have if the orc had been alive. The cleric grunted and dropped the crossbow, glancing down the stairs as his companions ascended. Liberty was close enough to strike with her magic missile.

Then the zombies charged, clogging the landing and pinning the party against the stairs. Mom took the brunt of the undead assault, and he was struck by rotting fists. He called out to Kord and channeled a wave of destructive energy that washed over the zombies, destroying the nearest. The other three zombies pressed forward, and though Liberty’s magic had no trouble finding a target, Xan struggled to fight from the stairs.

And then Mom went berserk. “BLOOD MAKES NOISE!” he bellowed, cutting down a much larger zombie – formerly a bugbear.

The necromancer finally appeared, skulking out from behind the farthest tank with an armed skeleton in tow. “I don’t know who you are, but you will rue the day you entered Filge’s sanctuary!” A spectral hand floated toward Mom and raked into his side. Mom only grunted, resisting the fell magic. Filge cursed up a blue streak.

And then Liberty’s magic missile struck him full force in the head. “My face!” he shrieked. “My beautiful, beautiful face!”

Trapped by the zombies, Mom continued to carve them up in a furious display of butchery. Liberty came under assault by the spectral hand, but whatever necrotic forces Filge had intended to unleash produced only the feeblest of results. The sorcerer had no such trouble, and after another magic missile, she lashed out with her weapon of choice – fire. The necromancer screamed again, apoplectic at his impotence in the face of the adventurers’ attack.

When only one zombie remained, Filge ordered the skeleton forward, but Mom made short work of the last two undead guardians and glared at the skinny wizard. Filge’s eyes widened and he held his hands up in surrender and allowing the spectral hand to fade away. “I give up!” he cried. “You want the place, it’s yours!”

Xan advanced, attempting to club the man unconscious with the pommel of his sword. “I give up!” Filge repeated shrilly. “You don’t have to bludgeon meee!” He retreated farther into the room, his expression terrified.

“How do you want to handle this?” Liberty asked of her companions, loud enough for Filge to hear. “Because I’m fine either way.”

“I’d like to question him, preferably. I want to know his relation to Smenk,” said Xan.

“Smenk? I’ll tell you all about him! Just let me gooo!” pleaded the necromancer.

“BLOOD MAKES NOISE!” Mom roared as he leapt across the operating theater.

“Mom, wait!” cried Liberty, but the half-orc did not heed her. His greatsword came down hard, and Filge’s wail of terror was cut short as the blade opened up his chest. He collapsed the stone floor with a wet thump.

In the silence that followed, the sorcerer gasped. “Mom, what are you doing?” said Xan. “You almost killed him! Help me stop the bleeding now!” The half-orc grunted, but started fishing in his pack for bandages.

“Is there…anything I can do?” asked Liberty. The men waved her back and set to work to stop the bleeding. Mom seemed weaker after his rage had played itself out, and his hands were clumsy as he tried to apply pressure to Filge’s extensive wounds.

A few harrowing moments later, the blood flow stopped, and the cleric breathed out long and hard. “That was…odd,” he said.

Liberty was leaning against one of the shelves to catch her breath. “What the Hells was that?!”

“Yes, Mom… What was that?” asked Xan.

“Apparently, I inherited my mother’s berserking,” said the half-orc.

“Apparently!” said Liberty, wide-eyed.

“Funny you are just mentioning that now,” said Xan. “How long have we known one another?”

The cleric gave him a level look. “Do you tell me everything you know?”

“Of course not. But I’m me, and you are you.” The rogue smiled.

Mom grunted. “True enough. But we don’t know everything about each other. Besides, this is a recent thing, and I think you triggered this…rage thing.”

“Me? I’m flattered.”

“Remember arguing about the bones? You got my blood boiling and that – among other things – gave me my first…fit.”

“Oh, that?” Xan scoffed. “Come now, Mom. We used to argue about a lot more back in the day. You’ve gone soft!” The half-orc grunted.

“Boys,” Liberty interrupted. “You’re both pretty.”

“Thank you, Liberty,” said Xan with a smirk. “It’s nice to be appreciated.”

She ignored him. “Are you gonna be okay, Mom?”

“I think I’ll be fine. I’m just gonna sit here for a moment longer. It takes it out of you, rage does. I’ll pick up the last of the Lands in just a minute.” He indicated the fallen skeleton. None of the other undead had been human, so the four skeletons had to have been Alastor’s family.

“Okay. Good. I’m gonna have a look around, then.”

Liberty searched Filge, depriving him of a dagger, an enchanted bird skull on a leather thong that he wore around his neck, a key, and two syringes filled with blue fluid. She paused at the sight of them, then noticed track marks on the necromancer’s arms. Then she moved to the operating theater, where she found a fine set of silver operating instruments. She spotted an emerald lodged in the corpse’s throat, and fished it out as well. Something on one of the shelves flanking the operating table drew her eye. Walking closer, she saw that it was a glass tube about a foot long and half as wide. A slim green worm bobbed in the murky chemical solution within the jar. “Eww,” she said.

“I have a great idea on what to do with Filge,” said Xan. “Might turn a profit and piss Smenk off in the process.”

“Yea?” said Liberty from beside the jar. Mom only grunted again.

“Filge, obviously, will do anything to survive. It’s pretty straightforward, actually. We tie him up, loot the place, and then I sell information to Gelch Tilgast about this place, Filge, and what he has been doing on Smenk’s property. We let Tilgast act on that information, thus avoiding direct conflict with Smenk, and we make some coin in the process. How does that sound?”

“Are you thinking that Smenk will deny partnering with Filge?” asked Liberty. Mom grunted speculatively.

“He might wiggle out of any real damage like he usually does,” Xan admitted. “But it will still piss him off, and we make money.”

“If you can pull that off, it may work,” said Mom.

Liberty nodded. “And if it keeps this man from doing this,” she gestured at the blue-skinned figure on the operating table, “again, then I’m for it.”

Xan grinned. “I’ll set the plan in motion when we get out of here.”

“You guys ever see a worm like this before?” asked Liberty.

“A what?” said Xan, looking in her direction.

“It’s in a jar over here. I’d move it, but I don’t want to break the damn thing,” she said.

“Is it magical?”

“Oh! That would be good to know, wouldn’t it?” Liberty cast her spell and concentrated for a few moments.

When she shook her head, Xan picked up the jar and brought it over for Mom to inspect. “Any ideas about this thing, big guy? Liberty says it’s not magic.”

The cleric took a look at the worm and after a second or so, his eyes widened in disgust. “Gah! It’s undead.”

Xan raised an eyebrow. “An undead…worm.”

“Or, rather, part of one. Spawn of Kyuss,” Mom clarified.

“Ky- who?” asked Liberty.

“Don’t know much about him,” said the cleric. “Just remember reading about these things.” They gave him a look. “What? The book had pictures,” he said sulkily.

“Oookay,” said Xan. “You can carry that one with you, Mom.”

“Uh… No.”

Liberty shrugged and gestured at the operating table. “The operating instruments are probably valuable. Not sure what the blue man is…was. I found this in his throat, though?” She held up the emerald, and then paused a moment to stare at it. “Huh. This was in a dead man’s mouth, and I just took it without a second thought.”

“Ain’t it great?” said Xan, nudging her in the ribs.

“It’s new, for sure. Exciting and weird, but…yea.”

“I know what you mean. This is so much better than conning dumb mercs at the bar. How about we check out the lower floor again?”

Liberty nodded. “Sure. I think we’re done up here. After we tie him up.” She pointed at Filge.

“And gag him so he can’t cast spells,” added Xan.

Once Filge was bound and gagged, and Mom had bagged the skeleton, the adventurers made their way back to the second floor of the observatory.

* * *

Liberty collected the glasses from the small mummy before Mom cut it down. It proved to be nothing more than a stuffed and chemically preserved goblin. “Cool,” she said, putting the glasses on. Then she held up Filge’s amulet. “This makes your skin a bit thicker,” she said. “Should help protect from weapons.”

“Nice find,” said Xan.

“What do those do?” asked Mom, pointing at the glasses on her face.

“They block the glare from bright lights, and they should keep me from getting dazed,” she said. “And these syringes contain curing potions. Weird way to administer them.”

“Not sure I could stick myself like that,” said Xan. Mom grunted.

Liberty collected Filge’s spellbook from the nightstand, while the others gathered the rest of the valuables in the room, and then they all three moved toward the desk. Most of the papers there concerned surgical procedures meant to enhance the potency of undead, while others contained only the meandering scribbles of a mind descending into madness. Buried in the junk, they found a spell scroll and a beaker-holder containing four six-inch-long tubes filled with differently-colored liquids. These were identified by a hand-written label as “Necroturgons.”

While Liberty focused on identifying the magic, Xan lifted up a simple piece of parchment which appeared to be a letter.

Filge,

I need you in Diamond Lake, my boy. The cult situation has grown worse. In one of my competitor’s mines, they’re studying things brought in from the southern hills – green worms. One of my agents managed to nick one of the worms for you to study. I’ll put you up in the old observatory.

Show this letter to the big white half-orc at the Feral Dog. He’ll help get you settled. I trust you’ll find these coins sufficient to cover your travel from the Free City.

-S.

Xan passed the letter to the others to read once he’d finished.

“Wow,” said Liberty. Mom’s grunt expressed a similar amount of dismay.

“That does change things,” said the rogue.

“What cult is he talking about?” asked Liberty. No one had an answer.

“Now I don’t know which mine manager to trust,” said Xan. “One of the others is obviously into some nasty stuff too, if they are messing with these worms. At least this is solid proof of Smenk’s direct involvement with a necromancer.”

“I wouldn’t trust any of those bastards, but I see what you mean,” said Liberty.

Xan chuckled at that. “I find myself – for the first time – annoyed that the sheriff in this town is worthless.”

“You said it. I mean, who could we even take this to?” asked Liberty. Mom grunted agreement.

“Well, let’s see what Filge has to say before we decide anything,” said Xan. They returned upstairs.

* * *

Mom channeled healing energy and Filge came awake with a start. He coughed and his eyes darted back and forth in a fear as he surveyed his situation. “Welcome back, Filge,” said Xan. Mom grunted menacingly.

“Who… Who are you people?” whined the necromancer.

“We’re the butcher and the baker,” said Liberty. “Xan isn’t fond of candlesticks, though.”

The rogue flinched, but resisted the urge to glare at her. “Who we are isn’t important, Filge. Our large friend here almost cut you in half. I’ve talked him into letting you live. The price for that mercy is information.”

“What do you want?”

“Answers,” said Liberty. “You were about to tell us all about Smenk.”

“Yes. You let me go, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know. Smenk? Sure. What about him?”

“You tell us,” said Xan. “How long have you known him? What do you do for him specifically? And I want to know all about these worms and who is studying them.”

“I tell you, and you’ll let me go?” Filge reiterated.

“We have already paid for this information by bringing you back from death, my friend,” said Xan. “We don’t intend to kill you, if that’s what you want to know.”

The necromancer sighed. “Fine. Smenk and I were mates twenty years ago, in the Free City. I laugh now to think of how far he’s come in so little time. How respectful people around here are toward him. Ha! If they only knew.”

“Keep talkin’, Filge. Your future is looking brighter with every word.”

“Anyway, me mate Balabar called upon me for a bit of study about some weirdness here in town. He got himself brought down to a hidden part of one of his competitor’s mines a month ago, to set up some provisioning deal with the fella what runs the place. But the mine was crawlin’ with awful beasts in hooded robes. He said their wild cries made his stomach heave. The cultists – they called themselves the Ebon Triad – said somethin’ about the Age of Worms and about strange undead in the southern hills and the swamp. Smenk, he knew he had to prepare a defense, so he called in his undead expert. Me.

“As for the worm, Balabar nicked that jar from a laboratory in the mine. It’s very rare. Dead now, of course, but once it and hundreds like it must have wriggled within the abscesses and orifices of a powerful undead creature called a spawn of Kyuss. That’s probably the ‘unkillable’ zombies the cultists mentioned to Smenk. If true, that could be a real problem. Those worms can get inside you and turn you undead in about a day. A walking plague.”

“Do you know which mine that was?” asked Liberty.

Filge shook his head. “Didn’t ask. Didn’t need to know. Wasn’t relevant to my research.”

“You know, there might be another way we can come at this,” said the sorcerer.

“How is that?” asked Xan.

“Later. I’ll tell you later. So, Ebon Triad… Mom? Does that sound familiar?” The cleric grunted in the negative.

Filge had an answer. “Smenk said the cult follows Hextor, Erythnul, and Vecna, the Lich-Lord of old. If that’s true, the place must be crawling with delicious secrets.” He paused a beat. “In fact, I’d love to accompany you if you intend to seek it out.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said.

“I’m sure you’ll have plenty to keep you busy, Filge,” said Xan. “But do you believe that they will be successful?”

“Oh, who can say? Apocalyptic cults are filled with crazies,” the necromancer said without a trace of irony.

“Indeed,” Liberty said flatly. “What about this ‘Age of Worms’?”

“It is called the Waiting Age, an era of catastrophe that lurks in the shadows of every tomorrow. Scholars obsessed with apocalyptic visions claim that its advent signals an interminable period of suffering in which the cosmic scales shift disastrously toward evil and light fades from the land,” said Filge, sounding wistful.

“What about Kyuss?” asked Mom, startling everyone.

“No one knows much,” said Filge. “He appeared more than a thousand years ago in the Rift Canyon to the north. In a short time, he created dozens of new undead breeds and amassed a legion of creatures bound to his will. They say an undead dragon stood at his side as the general of his forces. Now, only the green worms remain of his legacy. Well… That and his title: Harbinger of the Age of Worms.”

“And this Ebon Triad wants to bring this about?” the sorcerer asked. “Among others.” The necromancer nodded.

“Enough apocalypse,” said Xan. “When is your next shipment from Kullen expected?”

“What? Shipment? Who’s Kullen?” Filge’s confusion was apparent.

“The half-orc from the Feral Dog,” said Liberty.

“Oh, that lout. I needed helpers, so I got Smenk’s albino to fetch me some raw materials. I have no idea where he got them.” Smenk frowned. “Wait. Are you telling me that you came here because of the skeletons? Curse that pink-eyed fiend!”

“Did you ask him to bring you more, or is your business concluded?” asked Xan.

“I didn’t need anything else from him,” Filge said petulantly.

Under her breath, Liberty said, “Raw materials.”

“What about the zombie dinner party?” asked Mom.

“What about them?” asked Filge. “Wait… You didn’t destroy them, did you?” His expression turned sad.

“I’ve got one last question, and it’s very important,” said Xan. “Did Smenk implicate anyone else in this…endeavor with you and the worms? Mayor Neff? Sheriff Cubbin? Anyone?”

“No one else that he mentioned to me,” said the necromancer.

The rogue looked to his companions. “Any other questions for dear Filge?”

“That’s everything I’ve got, thanks,” said Liberty, her expression disgusted. Mom grunted his agreement.

Xan turned back to the prisoner. “Any parting thoughts?”

Filge seemed to consider for a moment. “I will say this. If you find the place… If you’re going, you’d best be careful. Smenk said the place scared him. I wouldn’t have thought it possible before, but I heard him with my own two ears.”

“Thanks for the warning,” said Xan. “I don’t imagine we have any reason to go there, however.”

The necromancer shrugged. “High risk, high reward, they say.”

“Well, Filge, thanks for making this easy on us all,” said Xan. “I think we are done with you. Once you find your way free of those bonds, I recommend that you get as far away from Diamond Lake as possible. I’d hate for Smenk to find out how you sold him out and all.” He replaced the gag, and Filge did not fight him. The adventurers headed for the exit.

* * *

“So,” said Liberty. “Do we want to take the Lands home next?”

“I think it’s more important that we get Filge into good hands,” said Xan. “Did you think we were actually going to let that evil scum go? Tsk, tsk, Lib.” He grinned.

“Um, yes. That’s exactly what I thought.”

“Oh… I didn’t realize you were okay with that. Do you want to let him go?”

“No, not at all.”

“Glad to hear it. I may be greedy and deal with some pretty big scumbags, but I do have a line that I won’t cross. Some things are more important than money, after all.”

Mom grunted. “We got what we were after and maybe put an end to his evil actions in Diamond Lake. That’s enough for me. For now.”

“That man would kill again without hesitation,” said Xan. “He needs to be dealt with.”

Mom frowned. “Who would we turn him in to?”

Xan shrugged. “Unfortunately, I don’t know who to trust. No way Neff can be trusted, and Smenk would just buy the law. The Cult of the Green Lady, maybe?”

“That could work,” said Liberty. “I know someone among them.” She paused a moment before adding, “Allustan would frown on necromancy in his town, too.” Mom grunted.

“Allustan… is Neff’s brother,” said Xan. “Can we trust him? And would he be able to do anything about Filge anyhow?”

“He is a good man, Xan. As good as any you’ll find in Diamond Lake, anyway. He did ask me to let him know if I found anything out about necromancy.”

“But can he help clean up this mess?” asked Xan. “Or would he just hand the man over to his brother… So that he can be freed with Smenk’s money? And then Filge will tell Smenk about us, and we will be marked for death.”

Liberty shook her head. “They aren’t close, Allustan and the mayor. I spent a lot of days and nights studying in his house. I should know.”

“If you say so.” The rogue frowned. “But while we’re on the subject, in the future, when dealing with bad people, don’t tell them who we are, okay? I’d appreciate it.”

“Oh. Right. Sorry. That just kind of slipped out.”

“Okay… Let’s go talk to Allustan. But if he has no way of cleaning this up, then we need to find someone else to do it.”

Liberty looked relieved. “Okay. He may have some ideas about that, too.”

“Gimme the loot, and I’ll take it to the mine office,” said Mom. “Except for that worm.”

“Good thinking,” said Xan. “That way, we’re not advertising our ill-gotten gains in the town.”

“Yea.” Liberty made a face. “I’ll take that with me. Maybe Allustan will know more about it than we’ve already learned.”

“So… With Mom to the office, or with Liberty to the mage’s house,” said Xan. “Decisions, decisions.”

“Well, you’ve got ‘til about… now to make up your mind,” said Liberty.

“Would Allustan react better to my presence… or my absence?”

“Either. It might be good for me to introduce you.”

“You’ll be okay, Mom?” asked Xan. “And our money will be okay?” His tone suggested that he was only half-joking. Mom grunted and started heading north. “All right, then. Lead the way, my dear.”

“We’ll find you at the office when we’re done!” Liberty called after the half-orc.

“Nah. I’ll be at home,” he said.

* * *

Allustan was watering his garden when Liberty and Xan arrived with their package. “Good afternoon, Master,” said the sorcerer.

“Oh! Miss Grace! Twice in one day? This is a treat.” He smiled warmly, then glanced over at the rogue. “But who is your friend?”

“This is Xan; he’s helping with that…thing I told you about earlier. Xan, this is Allustan.”

The wizard nodded politely. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Xan.”

“It is nice to finally meet you as well, Allustan. I regret not having a reason to get to know you before now.”

“We have an update on our…prior situation,” said Liberty. “It’s definitely not a conversation for the stump, though.” She nodded toward the house.

Allustan frowned, looking at Xan uncertainly. “Well… I suppose I could make an exception.” He brightened suddenly as a thought occurred to him. “I don’t suppose you play Dragonchess, young man?” He sounded hopeful.

“I do enjoy a good game now and then,” said Xan. “It is quite an interesting way to pass the time.”

“Oh, marvelous! I can never get Miss Grace to play,” said the wizard, feigning disappointment.

“I can only take so much losing,” she replied playfully.

Allustan tsked. “The way out is through, young lady.”

He led them inside, and once they were all seated in his cozy study he asked, “Now, what have you got?”

“I’m afraid I was right; there is necromancy going on. Or, at least, there was. We defeated a necromancer – remember I mentioned Filge? – up at the old observatory; we’ve got him trussed up there now.” Xan studied the wizard appraisingly, hoping to get a read on his reaction.

“Gracious me!” said Allustan, clearly surprised.

“There’s more – there’s a lot more – but I wanted to know what you thought we should do about him. With him.”

“Was anyone injured? Or… killed?”

“No, not that I know of. There were skeletons, and zombies, and some blue-skinned humanoid he’d been experimenting on. At least some of those corpses were dug up from surrounding farms, like I told you before.”

“Nasty business, necromancy,” said Allustan. “The law might could do something about the grave robbing, if you have evidence of the deed. Are there any surviving family members to press the issue?”

“Not that I know of,” Liberty said again.

“Unfortunate. That is unlikely to produce any results, then. “Practicing the…art,” he said the word distastefully, “is not technically a crime. However, I could certainly pay a visit to this Filge fellow. Put the fear of the gods into him. Get him to leave town. Although, speaking of gods, it might be better to go to the source. Perhaps one of the clerics in the garrison would be inclined to decisive action. I could let them know about it, as well.”

“I think we’ve put plenty of fear in him already,” said Liberty. “But the garrison may be worth looking into. I could talk to Valkus…”

Allustan nodded. “He is a good man. Zealous, but a little zeal might be just the thing.”

Xan interjected, “Filge is a long-time friend of Smenk’s… and he knows who we are now. I worry that our lives will be forfeit if the necromancer tells Smenk about us.” The wizard frowned thoughtfully.

“Filge failed Smenk, though,” said Liberty. “If I failed him, I’d never want to see him again. I guess things’d be simpler if we’d just killed him.”

The rogue raised an eyebrow. “Technically, that’s true… I guess. But surely there is another way.”

“Oh, I know. I’m just saying.”

“Now, Miss Grace…” said Allustan. “One should never take a life lightly. As for this Smenk business, it seems to me that Balabar Smenk has not gotten where he is today by acting rashly. Friendship with the necromancer is hardly culpability. What proof have you found that you think is worth your lives?”

In response, Liberty set the covered jar on the table. “Filge was creating an undead line of defense for Smenk, against a cult called the Ebon Triad.” She whisked the cloak off of the jar.

Allustan leaned forward, his expression intrigued. “What is this?”

“It’s from something called a spawn of Kyuss. The cult’s in one of the mines, with hundreds of these. They burrow into living things and turn them into undead. They’re trying to bring about an ‘Age of Worms’.”

“Hmm…” said the wizard, stroking his beard. “This requires further research.”

“He also mentioned strange undead in the southern hills and the swamp,” Liberty added.

“Now that is something I had heard,” said Allustan.

“Oh?”

“Just rumors, really. But hearing them from another source lends them a bit more credibility.” He gestured at the worm. “Plus, this. A companion of mine went to Blackwall Keep to investigate the rumors.”

“Anyone I’ve met?” asked Liberty.

“Oh, no. A friend from…before.” Allustan smiled.

“Ahh. Right,” Liberty said knowingly. “Our biggest problem is that we don’t know which of Smenk’s rivals is behind this cult. And I’m sure that just confronting him about it is not the best plan of attack.”

“You could be right about Smenk…depending on how you approached him. I certainly wouldn’t come in slinging accusations, but if he was girding himself against this cult… Well, the enemy of my enemy…”

“Oh yeah! That’s what I was going to tell you earlier, Xan. Maybe we can get in with Smenk.”

“Hmm… I don’t doubt we could try,” said Xan. “But Smenk doesn’t have allies, even against a common enemy. He only has tools to be used. The best we can hope from him would that he puts us directly in the line of fire to protect himself. Sure, we may get the information we need, but maybe we’d also get our asses blown off in the process.”

“Too right,” Liberty agreed.

Allustan inclined his head. “A likely outcome.”

“An alliance with Smenk is an option, but I would prefer to come up with a safer plan. I prefer to move the Dragonchess pieces… not actually be one.”

“Even the king’s on the board,” said Liberty.

“Well said.” Allustan smiled at her, then turned to Xan. “We really should play Dragonchess sometime. You’ve the mind for it.”

Xan acknowledged the compliment. “Of course. Any time. Although, with your reputation, I hope that I could challenge you enough to enjoy it.” He smiled.

The wizard chuckled delightedly. “Just so, young man. I am simply astounded that such a bright young mind has eluded me for this long.” He tilted his head to one side. “What is your surname? Have I met any of your family, perhaps?”

“It’s Quinn, sir.”

“Quinn…” Allustan ruminated for a moment. “That does sound familiar, but… Ah, it’ll come to me, I’m sure. Now, was there anything else? I shall add these questions to my research and get to work post-haste.”

“My first concern is Filge,” said Xan. “I would greatly appreciate you paying him a visit, as you mentioned earlier. He needs a hard push out of town.”

“Or, if you’d rather tell Valkus, that also works for us,” said Liberty. “We’ve got to get back to the Cairn in the meantime.”

“I think I will do the former before the latter. I would rather be able to give Valkus a first-hand account of this Filge fellow.”

“Sounds good. That’s all that comes to mind for now. I’m sure we’ll have more questions when next we meet. We’ve got to get back to the cairn in the meantime.”

“Yes… I would like to finally see what we’ve had to work so hard for,” said Xan.

Allustan smiled at them. “The adventuring life is never dull, eh?”

Liberty grinned. “Not so far, no.”

“It beats local work,” said Xan, also smiling.

They made their farewells, and went to find Mom.


Chapter 1 – The Whispering Cairn

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