Drake glanced over at his stunned companions as he turned, and seeing them struggle against their mental chains gave him pause. He couldn’t just walk away now! What was he doing? With a growl, the alchemist whirled back around, bomb in hand, and hurled it at the nearest octopin. As it crossed the threshold into the mind flayer’s massive chamber, he noticed a … diminishing of the heat waves emanating from the flying missile. His suspicions were confirmed a moment later when the flames washed harmlessly over the terrestrial arthropod. The alchemist looked over to Liberty and saw that she’d noticed as well the protective spells that must be tied to the chamber itself. “Well. That’s new,” he said as he readied his next extract.
Liberty gave herself over to the fire in her blood, and it burned away the lingering fugue that Zyrxog’s mental assault had laid upon her. Recognizing that fire was all but useless against the creatures so long as they remained within the sanctum, she evoked a foursome of magic missiles that streaked around her companions and slammed into the octopin Drake had tried to bomb. They impacted the beast with a satisfying staccato rhythm, and it squealed in protest. Then the creature and its partner advanced on Drake, tentacles leading.
Xan was sick of becoming enslaved by his enemies’ mind magic. It was just so frustrating! He, a force of personality by any reasonable person’s standards! To have his will to act overridden or subverted to the whims of a bloody spellcaster or worse – the chaos of his own unbound mind was becoming too much to bear. His anger at the injustice of it all coalesced into a ball of focused refusal to continue submitting to the alien’s imposed mandate of inaction. He released this construct of will and in that moment, he was free. He stepped forward grimly and put his blades to work against the nearer octopin, buying Drake the time to down his strength-boosting extract.
Fascinating came the mind flayer’s voice in their heads. Your resilience is … impressive. It refreshed one of its protective spells but lingered near where Mom had fallen and watched the octopins’ assault.
Now that it was in the hallway, Liberty burned the first octopin down with a pair of scorching rays. The scent of poorly seasoned calamari wafted up from the corpse. The remaining beast clambered over its fallen fellow and bashed Drake with a clawed pseudopod. Zyrxog then deigned to rejoin the fight, casually maneuvering across the chamber to line up another lightning bolt. It arced through the octopin – which did not appear to be concerned about it – and straight into Xan. Liberty dove out of the way and managed to avoid being hit directly. Once he’d recovered from the twitching, Xan snarled and drove his sword deep into the bulbous octopin. It took notice, but then it was too late to avoid Drake’s frenzied assault. Claws and teeth tore the creature to ribbons. Covered in blood, the alchemist stepped over the corpses and into the entrance of the mind flayer’s sanctum.
Liberty moved up behind him, readying her healing wand and eyeing Mom’s body near Zyrxog’s deep pool. Almost as an afterthought, she cast haste on her conscious companions, blessing them with arcane celerity. Zyrxog took a step toward the half-orc then brandished his staff and cast another lightning bolt through it at Drake and Liberty! Even though they both avoided being struck directly, the spell hurt!
Xan held back for a moment, so Drake growled and advanced on the aberration, taking a bite out of it. His mutated teeth tore through Zyrxog’s protective spells, and the alchemist tasted the illithid’s bilious black blood. The rogue followed in Drake’s wake and tried a feint against the alien, but it didn’t seem to be taken in. Liberty followed her companions into the chamber and used her wand to revive Mom.
Zyrxog took a cautious step back and renewed its displacement. Then, it ascended on the wings of levitation to a height of twenty feet. “Son of a bitch!” Mom complained as he regained his feet. Seeing the illithid out of reach for the time being, he opted instead to heal himself further. Drake followed the half-orc’s lead and quaffed a healing extract himself.
“C’mon down little birdy,” taunted the alchemist. The mind flayer did not deign to reply, though it looked more confident as Xan’s dagger deflected off its shield spell.
Liberty was able to give the aberration pause as she took a page from its book and flung a lightning bolt of her own. The spell struck Zyrxog full center, and it shook viciously from the impact. Its milky eyes glared hatefully down at the sorcerer then widened as it scrambled to avoid a second bolt of arcane lightning. Liberty’s hair stood on end as she curled her glowing hands into fists.
In response to the assault, Zyrxog plucked a red bead off of a necklace hidden beneath its face tentacles and casually tossed it to the floor in the middle of the adventurers. Catch, they heard a moment before the bead exploded, blooming into a fireball that they all dove to evade – mostly successfully. The tail of Liberty’s coat was singed, but she was otherwise not much harmed, and Xan had somehow completely avoided harm. The other two got away with only minor burns.
Mom cast protection from energy on Liberty to keep her safe from any further lightning bolts before he moved to the far side of the large chamber in anticipation of a healing burst from Kord. Drake flung another bomb, which flew truly and exploded as expected, but the flames did not touch the mind flayer.
Then Xan did something unpredictable – he scrambled up the wall near the pillar and then leapt across the space to stab the startled mind flayer with his dagger. He took some satisfaction in the look of shock on the aberration’s face as he fell back to the floor. The others stood slack-jawed for a moment at the amazing feat of derring-do before snapping back to the fight. Liberty produced a different dragonscale and breathed electricity at the illithid. The spell overcame the mind flayer, and it slumped over, floating down slowly to the floor.
“Ohohohoh!” crowed Drake. “What do we do with it now?”
“Finish it off!” Mom insisted.
“I don’t want it in my head anymore,” declared Liberty.
Xan obliged, reaching down to the dagger he’d planted in the creature’s chest, and twisting the blade as he shoved it deeper until it finally stopped drawing breath. The adventurers moved to stand around the body. Liberty leaned down and gingerly picked up the red glowing rod, discovering that despite appearances, it was not actually warm to the touch.
“I would gladly study this thing,” said Drake.
“Knock yourself out,” said the sorcerer. “It can’t fight back anymore.”
“You’re gonna need a bigger jar,” Mom commented as Drake proceeded to examine the corpse.
Liberty nudged Mom’s shoulder. “Good to see you upright again.” He grunted.
“I just want to know if this thing was the instigator of all of this,” said Xan. “Or if there is anyone else higher up the chain.”
They initiated the HeaLoot Protocol, collecting and identifying several magic items from Zyrxog’s body. Xan spotted a large number of strange tadpoles in the water that he surmised might be worth a pretty penny to the right shady dealer. He borrowed a few beakers from Drake to begin collecting the wriggling creatures. The other magic items were divided, while the alchemist began his dissection/collection of illithid pieces.
“This elven cloak would look very fetching on you, Xan,” said Liberty.
“Everything looks good on me, my dear,” he grinned. “What does it do?”
“It helps you blend into your surroundings when you wear it with the hood up.”
“That would definitely be helpful. Anyone want my cloak of resistance?” he asked, sliding into his new cloak.
“I wouldn’t trade my cloak for anything,” said Liberty. “And gods know I have enough necklaces,” she added, holding up the necklace of fireballs. “And plenty of fire, as far as that goes.”
“My next priority is finding a way to protect myself from all the damn mind magic we keep running into.”
“I’ll see what I can come up with, Xan,” said the sorcerer.
* * *
A small door near the runic pillar opened to a room behind the grand chamber. The room contained a desk, two shelves full of books pertaining to the Free City and the areas beneath it, and a locked chest (though a key found on Zyrxog’s corpse unlocked it). The chest contained four large bags filled with coins, and a fifth bag containing an assortment of loose gemstones.
Lying open on the desk was a ledger written in Undercommon. It detailed the mind flayer’s recent business transactions in rare and dangerous items with patrons throughout the Free City. The most recent listed a payment for the sale of an ancient relic listed as the Apostolic Scrolls. This transaction was between Zyrxog and someone called Loris Raknian. Of more import was a note that Raknian also paid Zyrxog to assassinate the adventurers – listing them each by name.
“Damn… Just another rung on the ladder,” lamented Xan. “Any of you know who Loris Raknian is? The name sounds familiar … It’s local, but I don’t know from where.” The others just shook their heads, at a loss.
“We’ll ask around on the surface. Somebody’s sure to know,” said Liberty.
“Maybe that elf girlie o’ yours,” suggested Drake. “She may know up-n-comers.”
“Could ask Eligos, also,” said Xan.
Once they’d collected what they wanted from the mind flayer’s private room, they made their way up the sloping hallway on the far side of the large chamber. The walls of the hall were painted with a long frieze, depicting mind flayers marching across the surface of the world, with no sun overhead and all the races of the surface bowing before the tentacled horrors. It ascended thirty feet before reaching a pair of wooden doors. Xan cleared the doors and pushed them open cautiously.
In the center of the large circular chamber beyond was a grotesque ebony statue of a vulture-headed humanoid with large feathery wings and razor-sharp talons at the end of avian digits. The rest of the room was taken up by large glass cases, each full of dark twisted artifacts, from a shrunken head to a tome chained shut, and a number of jars containing the severed parts of numerous creatures.
“Oh, gods,” breathed Liberty.
“Well … ahhh…” said Drake.
Xan crept in slowly, seeking traps. Before too long, he noticed a pattern of magical energy tied to the statue in the center of the room and each of the display cases. He held up a hand and addressed the others. “The items in the cases are trapped – try to remove them and it goes off. I’d like to try and disable it.” His companions nodded and held their positions while he slid on his enchanted goggles and got to work.
A few moments of concentration later and whatever trap the creator had envisioned was rendered inert. “I believe it’s safe now. Not sure you would want any of this garbage anyhow, but it might be magical I guess.”
Liberty nodded. “We’ll find out.”
Sitting on the top shelf of the first case was the preserved head of a juvenile black dragon with eyes that glowed a faint green. The case also contained an odd black metal cage, covered in thorns, with nothing inside. Resting on a large velvet pillow was an enchanted dagger with a dark aura. On the bottom shelf, were a set of chains that twitched and wiggled of their own volition.
Another case contained four blank books labeled “unspeakable tome.” A fifth, enchanted book was hidden behind them. Beneath these was a weathered and tarnished bronze griffon figurine that also glowed with magic. The bottom shelves of the case also contained four jars, each containing a preserved eyestalk. There were six other empty jars behind those.
A stone pseudodragon sat atop the final glass case. The top shelf contained a stuffed doll that bore an uncanny similarity to Mom – this enchanted doll was pierced with twenty spikes that Liberty recognized as belonging to a spiked devil. A four-inch-thick tome wrapped in chains sat next to the doll, and when they removed the chains, the tiny animated object flew around the room attacking until they could put it down. Once it was “dead,” they found that the book listed the names of a hundred demons, including their homes and details of their conquests. On the bottom shelf was a battered magical greatsword and an enchanted golden periapt.
“Okay, this is a very odd collection,” said Liberty.
“Valuable, though, I think,” said Xan.
“So much to catalog,” said Drake, holding up one of the jars containing an eyestalk.
“I think those eyestalks were once attached to a beholder,” the rogue told him. “Very interesting.”
“Yikes,” said Liberty.
“I’ll need to pick your brain on this ‘beholder’ thing later, Xan,” said Drake.
“I know a little about them, sure. You don’t ever want to run into one. Trust me.”
The alchemist cocked an eyebrow at him. “Well, I think I didn’t ever want to run into one of the octo-pid things and the squid face … but I did.”
“No kidding. I look forward to dealing with normal city crooks instead of these damned, messed up mages.”
“Sure, but every face we see is gonna be a doppelganger until we can prove it isn’t…” said Liberty wearily. No one argued the point.
The sorcerer flitted from case to case like a kid in a macabre candy store. “Oh, Mother…” she called to the half-orc, “You should try this sword out.” Mom ignored her comment and came to check out the large blade.
“Ooh, and this seems to be an unholy dagger,” said Liberty.
“What exactly does that mean?” asked Xan.
“It would be very harmful to good creatures,” she said. “They couldn’t even wield it without harming themselves.”
“So, it hurts good creatures? How often do we meet anyone ‘good’ in this line of work that we want to hurt?”
“City watch?” Drake suggested over his shoulder. He continued his examination of the … specimens.
Liberty shrugged. “We might be able to get it … redeemed at a temple.”
“Whoah … let’s put a pin in that thought. It would still be worth a whole lot of money,” said Xan.
“I’m not sure I’d want to do business with the sort of people who’d find such a thing valuable … but I could probably look the other way,” she said.
Drake shrugged. “Heh, the money is better, I’m sure.”
Mom sighed heavily at his companions’ continued avarice.
Xan looked over at the half-orc. “It’s no different than when I did side jobs for Cubbin and Smenk. The bad guys are going to be doing bad things either way. My goal was to fleece them for as much as possible so at least it cost them. So in a way, it would be weakening a bad person by taking away more of his money than he would have lost buying it from someone else. So I’m actually doing something good by selling the dagger."
Mom gave him a damning look, but Xan ignored him and pressed on. “Plus, we can put the profits to good use.”
“By giving him a weapon he can slay his enemies with,” Liberty deadpanned. She shook her head and continued cataloging the magic items. After they’d taken what they wanted, the sorcerer said, “We should probably pack this stuff up and get out of here.”
“Anyone else feel like taking a vacation for a while?” asked Xan. “The Free City has not been nearly as restful as I had hoped.”
“That’s the best idea I’ve ever heard,” said Liberty.
“Agreed. I’ll drink to that … tonight,” said Drake as he carefully placed each specimen jar in his pack, surrounding them with cloth to lessen their impact with one another. Mom grunted his assent, as well.
“Let’s sell off this stuff in the next day or two and then disappear for a few days.”
* * *
The adventurers made their way safely out of the depths of the city sewers. By the time they’d returned to the Crooked House evening had set in. A note from Eligos awaited them, stating that he had answers for their prior questions.
“Would it be rude of us to call at this hour?” Liberty wondered aloud.
“I’m sure it would,” said Xan with a grin, “but I don’t think that would stop me.” He paused a beat as his smile faded. “On second thought … it’s been another rough day. How about we just relax?”
“Beer is good,” said Mom.
“Way ahead of you,” said Drake, reaching for his coin pouch.
“Celebration now. Business in the morning,” agreed Liberty. “Tarquin, my good man! Booze us, if you please!”
* * *
27 Flocktime, 595 CY
Once they’d all gathered in the commons in the morning, Xan said what they were all thinking. “So, I guess the vacation idea is out due to the wizard’s message, eh?”
“That depends on what he has to tell us, I suppose,” said Liberty.
“Wizards,” said Drake between bites. “Always interrupting the fun stuff.”
“Too true, Drake,” she agreed. “All that drama and no sense of timing.”
Xan nodded. “Ah, well. No rest for the wicked. Shall we?”
“Ready when you are,” said Liberty. Mom grunted.
The adventurers made their way back to the Garden District of the Free City. When they arrived at the manor, Pollard showed them into the parlor, and after another couple of minutes, escorted them to the dining room. Eligos was already waiting for them, seated in a tall, velvet-upholstered chair. Four other chairs sat in the room, arrayed around a low table set with several tantalizing dishes. Eligos rose as they entered the room and said, “Good morning, my friends. I trust you brought your appetites? I tend to eat as I get the chance, and I hope this somewhat informal repast doesn’t offend you. Good, I thought not. In any event, let’s eat – after breakfast, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned of your little green worms.”
“Excellent,” said Liberty, still somewhat hungry. The wizard’s table was laid with food that was a few steps above standard pub fare. The others sat and ate according to their appetites. Pollard kept plates and mugs appropriately refilled, taking note of those who were scarcely eating and not forcing more upon them.
“How has your week been?” Eligos asked. “Enjoying the festive atmosphere that precedes the Champion’s Games?”
“Work has kept us pretty busy, I hate to say,” admitted Liberty.
“Yes, it’s been quite a week,” said Xan. “Kidnappings, mad parents, dark elves, a whole slew of doppelgangers, and even a crazy wizard with a face like an octopus.”
Eligos’s eyebrows crawled toward his hairline at Xan’s summary. “I’d heard some rumblings about you all and the city watch, but … I never imagined.”
The rogue nodded in agreement. “Neither did I, sir. Neither did I. But hopefully, it is mostly behind us.”
The wizard’s expression returned to its usual neutrality. “Well, that depends on what you would like to do with the answers I have found for you.” Once he had their full attention, Eligos told them what he’d discovered.
“Kyuss is a demigod of sorts known primarily for the creation and mastery of undead. The worm-infested undead are the most notorious – and the least dangerous – of his creations. Their presence in the region, combined with the discovery of the various worms, indicates that the cult of Kyuss is certainly becoming more active in the area. Spawn of Kyuss are especially dangerous in that they are horrifically fecund. The cult of Kyuss has traditionally been small, often consisting of single priests who live double lives as upstanding citizens.
“The evidence regarding the relationship between the cultists of Kyuss and those of the Ebon Triad is somewhat conflicting. Most of what I’ve found suggests that the Ebon Triad may have involved the smaller – but older cult of Kyuss in its schemes, likely due to his perceived role as the harbinger of the Age of Worms. But the notes of this Faceless One suggest that the opposite is true – that the cult of Kyuss is actually using the Ebon Triad for its own ends. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between.
“Whatever the case, the Ebon Triad has cells throughout Oerth, each working to raise funds to finance their ambitious project. Outlaws even within their own blasphemous religions, these cultists travel the world in search of fellow wanderers, often banding together to influence important events and edge the world of Oerth closer to catastrophe.
“Just last year, agents of the Ebon Triad conspired with another dangerous cult, the Cagewrights, to trigger a volcanic eruption that nearly consumed the city of Cauldron, in the distant southern jungles. To the Ebon Triad, this event was merely one of a handful of prophesized events presaging the advent of the Age of Worms, an era of darkness and writhing death that would provide the required backdrop for the ascension of their tripartite deity.
“Tales of the Age of Worms itself are as old as anything. Often known by other names – the End Times, the Dark Age, and the Eternal Ruin among others – the Age of Worms is an ancient set of prophecies that speak of a transformation of the world, of a time when life gives way to … something else. These prophecies are recorded in certain rare texts like the Book of Vile Darkness, Libris Mortis, the Necronomicon, and the Apostolic Scrolls, and are inscribed on the walls of ancient ruins across the world. Many cults and soothsayers have developed theories about the Age of Worms, but I have never seen so many references to it from so many different sources as these that you have provided. Something is certainly building.”
As he came to the end of his lecture, Liberty looked at her friends. “Apostolic Scrolls,” she said.
“Indeed?” said Eligos, looking curious.
“Someone who wants us dead recently purchased those scrolls from someone he then hired to kill us.”
The wizard’s eyebrows rose again. “Ohhh? And who might that be?”
“I hope you’ll forgive our paranoia, but after weeks of dealing with doppelgangers, trust hasn’t been easy for us,” she said.
“Gods, I can only imagine,” said Eligos sincerely.
The sorcerer paused thoughtfully for a pregnant moment before making a decision. “Tell me, have you heard of Loris Raknian?”
Eligos sat back in his chair, a contemplative expression on his face. “I have, as it happens. And I’m rather surprised that you have not.” Drake stopped eating to look up at this statement. Then Eligos produced a handbill similar to the flyers that they had seen posted around town since they’d arrived in Greyhawk.
The notice read: “The Free City Champion’s Games are coming!” Just below was an illustration of the Free City Arena and at the bottom, “Loris Raknian, Director”