The adventurers were escorted back to the Coenoby by the guards, and the dwarves’ bodies – dead and unconscious – were collected and taken to wherever the match losers went.
“Fool,” Drake said of the dead one. “Had his chance to back down.”
“That was an interesting thing,” observed di Mezzanotte.
Honest Minstrel met them back down below in the bunk room with their prize money, as he’d done after the first round. He was practically quivering. Drake gave him a look. “Something wrong?”
“Better this time?” asked Liberty.
“What?” Ekaym asked, responding to both questions. He addressed Liberty’s first. “Oh, your performance. Based on the crowd’s response, they did prefer it, yes. But more importantly, I have confirmed my suspicions.”
Liberty leaned within a more conspiratorial distance. “Do tell.”
The bard held up his hand, which bore a familiar imprint of a stylized serpent. “I gave Raknian a hearty handshake when I collected this round’s winnings.”
Drake’s eyebrows crawled up his forehead. “Ahhh….”
“I thought I had seen its like the other night,” said Ekaym.
The sorcerer gently took Ekaym’s hand and held it to her own throat for a moment before letting go. “The bastard,” she growled. He almost recoiled at the gesture of implied violence, but he managed to control himself. “Oh, I’m sorry – I didn’t…” She looked down at the floor, color rising in her cheeks.
“It’s fine,” he said, looking away.
“It’s about time someone puts that dog down,” said Xan.
“I do hope that at some point, when appropriate, this will be explained to me?” said di Mezzanotte.
Xan obliged. “You didn’t sign on to fight some blowhard gladiators, di Mezzanotte. You signed on to kill Raknian … and at least one very horrible demon.”
“Fighting gladiators is just a bonus,” Liberty added.
“Aye, and maybe stop Kyuss from causing any more drama than he already has,” said Drake.
The priest inclined his head. “I know only the bare outlines, but that is correct. And there is something about Worms.” They all heard the capital.
Ekaym gave Xan a measuring look. “Perhaps … I would mind your words a little more carefully, were I you. Speak in vague terms when possible. Overheard threats, well … that would not help our cause. Still, the body will need to be recovered. It is our only physical evidence.”
“Yeah. I knew that would be the next move. We have to figure out how to kill that thing down there that killed Mom,” said Xan.
“With everyone minding the games all day, we might have an opportunity now,” said Liberty.
“A few hours, anyway,” Ekaym agreed.
Xan looked to the sorcerer. “So you have come up with a plan to deal with that thing? Fill me in.”
She shook her head. “No. Of course not. Avoid it at all costs, really.”
They discussed tactics for a time, before making a determination. “Well at least that’s some kind of plan. Draw it out of the cloud, try to spread out, dismiss what we can. And if I’m not choking, then aligning my weapons could be very useful.”
“Dismissing it requires a battle of wills, and should the demon prove stronger, or more determined, it will stay,” said di Mezzanotte.
Xan looked the priest over carefully. “And is it going to be stronger of will than you?”
Di Mezzanotte raised his hands in a helpless gesture. “Impossible to say for certain, Signore.”
“I can probably grab Lahaka and get her out of there with a dimension door,” said Liberty.
“Dimension door could help us get out if we need to,” said Xan. “But don’t you want to get revenge for Mom?”
“No. No, I don’t. If we can get out of there without facing the alkilith, great. If we have to fight it again, then we try. But if the fight turns against us, we have to get out of there right away.”
Xan frowned. “I don’t like letting people get away with taking things I care about.” Xan stopped for a moment, pensive. “But then again, if Mom wasn’t willing to come back and get revenge, why should we care?”
“I’m all for revenge and treasure and all that … but I’m not for getting myself foolishly killed for either,” said Drake.
Ekaym nodded. “Agreed. More death serves no one. Well … Raknian, perhaps.”
“And we still need to solve the issue with those Scrolls,” said Xan.
“I should have asked Eligos about the field protecting them,” said Liberty.
“I could do that for you,” offered Ekaym. “Oh! Before I forget, Liberty I was given this letter and told to deliver it directly to your hands.” He produced a scroll and gave it to her.
She took it, glanced over it briefly, and tucked it away inside her robe, thanking the bard. “So.”
“Anything else you need me to do before tomorrow?” Ekaym asked.
“Make sure you have your damn ducks in a row so that our target can’t wriggle out of the trap once we bring the evidence. Please,” said Xan. Honest Minstrel nodded.
“And let me give you something to take back to … where this came from.” Liberty retrieved another letter for Constance and handed it to him.
“Good luck.” He nodded again and excused himself.
* * *
They made their way back to the corrupt shrine, holding their breath through the watery tunnel and climbing up the moistened pit. At Xan’s suggestion, Drake led the way, and the others followed from a distance. They advanced through the narrow halls cautiously, finding the destroyed undead where they’d left them. The stench was unreal.
When they returned to the chamber containing the Apostolic Scrolls, they found that though the artifact remained undisturbed, the body of the tiefling priest had been mutilated. The writhing green beam of light connecting the Scrolls to the double doors to the west bathed the corpse in an eerie glow.
“Signore di Mezzanotte, do you have any idea what this could be?” asked Liberty.
The priest stared at the artifact, a five-foot-long sheet of vellum sewn to a pair of darkwood rollers, for a long moment. “Have you encountered an invisible wall of some sort nearby?” He sounded very disturbed.
She pointed to the doors to the west. “Xan touched it and … well, it was bad for him.”
“That happens alot these days,” said the rogue.
“Sun Father preserve us,” intoned the priest.
“Yeah … after all this is over I think I’ll take some time to get my life back under control.”
“I think we all will, Xan,” said Liberty. She turned back to the priest. “So. Do you know what it is?”
“Yes. As bad as the thing that killed Signore Mom is, this is worse. Much worse.”
“It’s behind the barrier, I guess?”
“For the moment. The barrier can be broken by the caster or by certain other means, one of which may cause great harm to the breaker. Once it is broken, it will loose a Horror that makes the demon look like a house cat.”
“I suppose the tiefling here is the caster,” said Liberty.
Xan frowned. “So he had already used the scroll … and the monster he summoned is behind the barrier?”
“Yeah but he’s dead now….” said Drake.
“That is another thing,” said the priest. “If the caster dies, the barrier will unravel on its own after … some time. Abyssal creatures have only a passing notion of time as it concerns mortals, so the text is vague. I do believe that time is of the essence.”
“Time for what, exactly?” asked Xan. “Can it be un-created before the barrier drops?”
“If that tiefling was the caster, we may have almost no time left. The containing magic is weakening as we speak. It may take days or even weeks, but it is going to break free.”
“Well at least I know where we should tie Raknian down when we capture him. Right over there in the hallway. He wanted this thing … let’s give it to him,” said Xan darkly. “And then kill it, of course.”
Di Mezzanotte looked pale as he elaborated. “The ulgurstasta is an undead worm with tentacles and necromantic acid. It is immune to acid, non-magical ranged attacks, is resistant to magic, and has a breath weapon.”
“Yikes,” said Liberty.
“Worm-dragon-monster-thing … Uvulasta … Ulgurgurgly … Ulgurstate … Wait, I need this for my notes…” Drake jotted things down in his journal as swiftly as he could. “Imagine what it’ll do to the city if … when it does break free … City of corpses is more like it.”
“Then let’s grab Lahaka and get out of here,” suggested Liberty.
Xan leaned close to the sorcerer and whispered to her. “Do you still keep that little item we found way back in the Whispering Cairn? I think it may be time to figure that out.”
She whispered back. “The talisman? I do have it, sure. But it needs a sphere to control.”
“Hmm … something to think about at least.” They turned back toward the priest.
“I do suggest that we be about our business here so that I may report this to the Church,” said di Mezzanotte.
Liberty nodded. “Good idea. We may need all the help we can get.” She turned to Drake and gestured for him to lead on to the north. “We are right behind you.”
“Yep … Ulgurstasta.” He finished his notes. “Let’s handle what we can for now.”
The cleric enchanted Drake’s gauntlets, and the alchemist downed a couple of preparatory infusions. Then the alchemist stalked down the hall and into the tiefling’s bedroom. Everything was largely unchanged from the night before. The zombie still sat in the chair. There were a few more clumps of hair on the table. The incense had burned out, and the stench was awful.
Liberty watched Drake, shifting from foot to foot, ready to run. Without pausing long in the bed chamber, the alchemist rushed past Lahaka and into the small curtained room where Mom had lost his life. Di Mezzanotte followed, sparing the not-a-corpse a passing glance. Xan moved for the zombie, lifting it up and over his shoulder. Drake threw the curtain open.
The six-foot-tall black earthenware urn stood near the middle of the south wall as before. The horrible mosaic of tiny green tiles depicting the disturbing skull of Kyuss lashed out at his mind. Drake felt panic try to crush his will, but he clenched his teeth and shook it off.
“Wanna look at this urn before I break it?” he asked over his shoulder. To his credit, he waited five full seconds before kicking it over with a vicious laugh. The urn toppled and smashed to pieces on the floor. There didn’t seem to be anything inside. His laughter was cut short. “DAMMIT! WHAT? WHERE ARE YOU?!” he bellowed. There was no reply.
Drake stalked around, using his mutagen claws to rake the tiles of the mosaic. Liberty heard the noise he was making and shouted, “Oh, gods damn it, Drake.”
“It’s not here,” he complained. “AUGH!” More stomping could be heard.
“Good! It isn’t here!” Liberty countered. “Are we looking for more trouble, or are we getting out of here?!”
“We have all we need to stop this stupid charade…. Why go further?”
“Oh, here we go,” said Liberty as Drake stomped to the only other visible door on the west wall. He huffed and puffed and pulled his arm back to blow the door down. “I guess somebody’s blood has to make noise….”
”Sangue fa rumore?” asked di Mezzanotte, soliciting a double-take from the sorcerer.
The small room contained only a latrine and a porcelain washbasin. A silver pitcher lay on the floor nearby. Drake raged further and started smashing up the bathroom. “Drake, calm down and let’s get out of here!” She was shouting, but not any louder than the racket that was already being made.
Drake stopped raging and stomped away. “Yep.”
“Good. Great. Thank you.”
They started to make their way back to the Coenoby, managing to get the zombie back down the pit to the cavern level. They ultimately decided to leave it bound in the caverns, where it was unlikely to be discovered.
“I have a question,” said Drake. “Why haven’t we put her out of her misery? So we can prove that she’s been re-animated?”
“Right,” said Liberty. “It may serve to damn Raknian that much more.” Drake nodded and then Liberty saved the adventurers another swim by use of the aforementioned dimension door.
Di Mezzanotte wasted no time drafting a letter to his order describing the situation beneath the Free City Arena. While he did that, Liberty pulled the other two aside.
“I was just thinking, maybe we should give Signore di Mezzanotte that diadem we found in the Whispering Cairn.” They didn’t offer any argument, so she moved on to the next subject. She took out the scroll that Ekaym had given her and lay it next to Mom’s journal. They read the kind words he’d left for each of them on the last page.
Xan shook his head and said half-jokingly, “So not only does he leave us here to figure all this out without him, he also took the last word. What a jerk.” They laughed and shared a few good memories of their fallen companion.
Then Liberty opened the [[Interlude: A Letter|letter from her sister]], and Xan headed out to see what there was to see in the cage that served as their current home.
* * *
Late that evening, the fight schedule for the next day was posted. Auric’s Warband and Draconic Brood would be fighting to determine who went on to the final match on the fifth day. Burning Blood had been scheduled to do battle with a mysterious monster referred to as Madtooth the Hungry. Drake wished the half-dragons luck against the champion, and they raised a glass to the alchemist in appreciation.
“Madtooth,” Liberty says. “Does that sound familiar to anyone else?” It did not.
Many in the Coenoby were somewhat shocked to discover that Auric’s Warband would not be fighting Madtooth – traditionally, the previous year’s winner took part in the beast battle as a point of honor.
“I wonder why they gave him to us, then?” the sorcerer wondered aloud.
“Maybe Madtooth wanted something larger to eat this time?” said Drake.
“Or else Raknian thinks the monster has a better chance of killing us.”
“I’d say it could be one of two things,” said Xan. “First, Liberty’s right and Raknian is hoping it will kill us. Second, they think that they will make more money with us.”
A little later, they overheard some guards talking about Madtooth. During this conversation, one of the guards complained about how difficult it was to keep Madtooth’s cage so cold, and how he’ll be glad once the games are over and they’ll be rid of the beast – especially considering Burning Blood’s penchant for fire. “Not much of a match, even,” the other guard scoffed.
Everyone but Xan returned to the bunk room. Liberty said, “So what should we do until then?”
“Prepare to try our best to freeze old Madtooth apparently,” said Drake. Di Mezzanotte’s expression was obviously worried.
“Burn him, Drake. He likes his cage cold.” She shrugged. “Or she, I suppose.”
Drake frowned. “I think you missed their point. You keep a caged thing cold to keep it docile. They are sending something at us that shrugs off fire I think.”
“I guess we’ll know when we see what it is. Lucky for me, I can hit it with either. I’m just better with fire, is all.”
About that time, Xan walked into the room casually. “Pieces are moving. We need to talk about it.”
“Okay,” said Liberty.
Xan laid it out. “Okoral just paid a visit to the Coenoby. He’s Raknian’s Chief of Security. Way too high up the chain to be down here without someone else to look out for. He was talking with our jailers, and took notice that I noticed. He seemed cool as ice … totally confident. There is a play in motion and we’d be safe to assume it’s directed at us. Was only a matter of time, really. It might be time to ask ourselves if continuing the charade is worth it.”
“I reckon it isn’t, but all the fortune and glory is kind of intoxicating,” said Liberty. Drake sighed.
“Haha … fair enough,” the rogue replied. “Just remember that what we are making is nothing. It’s Raknian that it making the real fortune off of us. Let’s look at this logically. Okaral needs those guards to do something. What is in their power to do?”
“Search the Coenoby, for one thing,” said Liberty.
“Right, they can search us, but I think we’ve stashed our ‘contraband’ pretty well. They can tamper with our food and water. They can set up some kind of frame up to look like we broke the rules. Anything else?”
Drake chuckled. “They can tamper with my food and water all they like.”
“I will ask for a spell to make our food and drink safe, but it must wait until sunrise,” said di Mezzanotte.
“They wouldn’t just try to whomp us,” said Liberty.
“Doubtful,” agreed Xan.
“I’m sure we’re bringing in too much money to kill us off-stage,” said Drake.
“So, if no one else has any other ideas, let’s deal with those options. First, we don’t eat or drink anything that we don’t know it trustworthy. Second, we keep our heads down and don’t give anyone a way to make us look guilty of anything.”
They agreed and settled in to sleep. The Coenoby was extra quiet compared to the first night.
* * *
In the middle of the night, everyone but Liberty awoke to the sound of chainmail clinking inside the room. Pharbol, the surviving member of Pitch Blade, stood over the sorcerer with sword in hand and murder in his eyes. “Ye’re gonna pay for me brother, bitch.”