"I lost the last page of my notes," Åland confessed. "Did we get as far as the cockfight between the familiars?"
"We got as far as finding out about it," said Sweden, checking his own notepad. "Denmark and Iceland and your guy were about to go interrogate the priestess about it, while the rest of us are staying back in the closet where we found our stuff to get healed from the last fight."
"Okay. Thanks, sweetie. So then, if everyone's ready, we'll start with the first group..."
Amarula was basically where they had left her, though it wasn't for lack of trying. She had evidently been squirming the entire time, succeeding only in shuffling along the floor and giving herself a terrific case of rope burn. When she saw the three adventurers approach, she snarled at them and redoubled her efforts.
"Lose the drama, Goth-Tits," said Kendram. D'lana clapped a hand to his mouth, holding down an explosion of laughter. "This doesn't have to go badly for you."
"What do you want?"
"Answers. Give them to us nice and easy, and...you'll be free to go. To flog another day. But if you don 't cooperate...Cinadel here is going to hug and kiss you."
Cinadel started. "I am?"
"Oh, yes," said Kendram. "Just take a look at him. And a whiff. He's got sludge to spare and he's willing to share!"
"I am?" said Cinadel again.
Amarula's eyes blazed with hatred and not a little fear. "No! You can't! I have taken sacred vows to keep myself clean of body!"
"Then avoid the stick and take the carrot. Tell us what we want to know. What do you owe these assholes anyway? They don't worship your goddess; they worship a lich."
The fire died a little. "I suppose you have a point. Very well—what are your questions?"
Cinadel crouched beside her, close enough that the sewer juice was a noticeable threat. "Somewhere in this place is an animal fighting pit. Where?"
"Sorry, point-ears, I don't have anything to do with that sort of cock."
D'lana narrowed his eyes. "She's bullshitting you."
"Is she now?" Cinadel ran a hand through his mucky hair and slowly reached for Amarula's immaculately made-up face.
"All right!" the priestess said. "I admit I tried to test you a little. I see now there's no point in trying to deceive you. There's a gaming room on the second floor. The fighting pit is in there."
"Where on the second floor?" said Kendram.
"Head left at the top of the stairs and go to the end of the corridor."
"Second floor, left, end of corridor. Got it!" said Cinadel.
"Next question," said D'lana. "Where's the treasury in this place?"
"That, I honestly don't know," said Amarula. "I'm not technically part of the Brotherhood. I have an arrangement with them—they make regular donations to my Lady's temple in return for my services as a healer, precision torturer, and occasional brainwasher. I'm not privy to everything."
"Dammit!" D'lana growled, thumping his forehead against the wall.
"A cleric contracting out to a lich-cult?" said Kendram. "Seems like an inherent religious conflict of interest."
"Maybe for the simple-minded," Amarula sniffed. "You'd be surprised how much business goes on between...sects." The double-entendre hung in the air like smoke from a burnt offering.
"Don't worry, fella," said Cinadel, petting D'lana's shoulder. "We'll find you some loot."
D'lana tensed. "Don't touch me."
At that point, the other three arrived, looking a little scuffed but basically all right: Yarwon had rolled well on his healing spells. "Do we know where we're going yet?" asked the druid.
"Second floor, left, end of corridor," Cinadel said again.
Yarwon turned right around and broke into a jog. "Hang on, Snowpouncer, Daddy's coming!"
"I guess we're going," said Kendram. "As promised..." He stooped and cut Amarula's bonds with a dagger. "Take care of yourself, Goth-Tits. Don't hang out with creepy cultists; it's not that attractive."
"You know, the 'Goth-Tits' thing isn't as funny the second time," said D'lana.
"It wasn't that funny the first time," said Wendes.
The group departed, leaving one rather stunned priestess behind.
"That's it for me," said Sister Sweden, passing her character sheet and notes over to Åland. "Let me know if you ever plan to bring 'Amarula' back; that was fun."
"You're not going to stick around?" said Åland.
"Can't, sorry. I'm seeing a client in an hour and a half." She sashayed out of her chair and into the first-floor bathroom, presumably to get ready.
Finland slouched in his chair, scowling intensely.
"I'm with you there, Finland," said Sweden. "Not the sort of mental image I needed on game night."
"Moving on..." said Åland.
"Shouldn't we check for traps?" said Yarwon as the group barreled up the stairs. "If we blunder into anything, I won't have any more healing spells until tomorrow."
"They wouldn't booby-trap the route to their own gambling arena," said Wendes. "Way too much trouble to disable the traps every time they want to use it."
They turned left at the top of the stairs and sprinted straight down the corridor to the door at the end. Yarwon, the tallest and therefore leggiest, reached it first, pulled up, and slammed his heel against it. The door splintered under the force, allowing him to burst into the room like a big, angry bear with a spear.
"Where's my cat?!" he bellowed.
(It looks silly in print, but the way he said it was actually kind of scary.)
A dozen conversations died at once. Wide-eyed cultists looked up from their dice and card games and—most importantly—from the structure at the far end of the room. A dome-shaped cage had been built over a circular wooden wall and then covered with a wire mesh, making an enclosure that nothing larger than a rat could escape. A small crowd was gathered around it, and before the party's entry had been intent on what was inside.
Faced with angry intruders, of course, they left the spectacle and went for their own weapons. (Except one guy—there's always one—who was absolutely fixated on the fighting pit, at least until a fellow cultist yanked him into action by his greasy ponytail.) The air rang with rasping metal as blades came out of sheaths, and then with a clamor of shouting.
For all their numbers, the cultists were easy marks—mere mooks, capable of menacing just plain folks but nowhere near skilled enough to be much of a challenge to full-fledged adventurers. Plus they had been gambling, hence drinking, thus their blows landed on each other anywhere from one-third to one-half of the time. The fight was over quickly, leaving the party scarcely any the worse for wear.
The party picked their way through scattered bodies, some of which were still groaning weakly, to reach the fighting cage. In classic villainous fashion, the cultists had opted to pit Snowpouncer and Fegurð against each other, and separated from their masters, the beasts hadn't quite known what to make of the situation. They had reverted to instinct, Fegurð tucking herself in coils against the base of the wooden wall and hissing, fangs showing, every time Snowpouncer raised a curious paw to swat.
"Snowpouncer! No!" Yarwon scolded. "We don't bother poisonous snakes! Guys, how do we get them out?"
"Hello? We have a lockpicker now," said Wendes, indicating D'lana, who was rifling through the pockets of the downed cultists.
"That would take too long," said Yarwon. "Every second counts with edgy animals."
"One of these losers must have the key," said Kendram, kicking a defeated foe in the ribs and smirking at the resulting yelp.
Faldinn shook his head. He walked up to the cage, gripped the mesh surrounding it with one hand, and yanked. Wires snapped with a series of plinks and a whole section peeled away.
"Reason #732 to have a barbarian in the party," said Wendes, impressed.
The gaps between the bars were easily large enough for Cinadel to extend an arm inside so his snake could slide up into his sleeve, and just large enough for the lynx to squeeze through, uncomfortably. It growled softly and began grooming its whiskers with affected apathy.
"Can we get out of here now?" said Cinadel. "I need to bathe. Even Fegurð thinks it's gross, and she's a reptile!"
They began heading for the door, but pulled up short when D'lana protested, waving a handful of pilfered pocket change. "Not so fast! We're not going anywhere until I get some gold! Look at this crap! What's the point of gambling with stakes this low? Where's the thrill?"
"Well, hang on," said Wendes. "I have a hunch..." He strode over to the wall and began running his fingers along the stone. "It must be nearby. They may not be playing for much money right now, but they wouldn't have a dedicated facility like this if they didn't sometimes run games with higher stakes. And then..."
"...the house would take a cut!" said Kendram, joining him at the wall. "And they'd want to be able to lock it up right after getting it."
"Exactly," said Wendes. "Cinadel, I think this is your department."
"Are there any secret doors in here?"
"Oh!" The elf made a quick circuit of the room, peering at the walls with half-closed eyes. "There!" he said, pointing to a section of wall that didn't look any different from any other section. "It's...I think..." He raised his left hand, thumb and two fingers bent in a circle, and peered through it. "I thought so! It's disguised with an illusion spell! A pretty shoddy one too."
that they knew what to look for, they were able to see through the magic to the wholly mundane, padlocked door behind it. D'lana darted up to it, producing his lockpicks as he went.
"Hm," he said after a moment of jimmying. "The magic may be cheap, but this lock isn't half-bad. This could take me a while."
One of the defeated cultists started to regain consciousness. Faldinn shuffled up and stomped on his head, knocking him clean out again. Taking the hint, they gathered all the still-living mooks into a circle, facing outward, and tied their hands together in the middle. As they were finishing, the padlock clicked, and D'lana burst into a victory laugh. "Finally!"
He flung the door open and squealed with delight. The room on the other side, past a short corridor, was no larger than the cell he had freed the party from, but it was heaped with treasure—sacks of coins, small piles of gems on shelves, lidded casks...all the sorts of things that make adventurers' eyes glitter and their fingers twitch.
"There you are!" D'lana said lovingly. "Come to Papa D'lana!" He bolted for the treasure room.
"D'lana, no!" Cinadel gasped. "There's—!" But before he could say more, the rogue, running full-tilt, had slammed into an invisible wall between the corridor and the room proper. He screamed as the magical barrier sent electricity coursing through his body and then dropped to the floor, stunned. A second barrier shimmered into existence at the near end of the corridor, trapping him. "...more magic," Cinadel finished feebly.
"Poor schmuck," Yarwon remarked. "He went through all that and then forgot to check for magical traps. Rookie mistake!"
"We'd better figure out how to get him out of there," said Kendram.
"Not so fast," said a new voice, or rather, an old voice. Evil Chancellor Voice, in fact. The leader of the lich-cult stepped calmly into the gaming room. He was unaccompanied—not counting the cultists already present, thoroughly beaten, and tied in a circle to boot—but carried a malevolent looking staff constructed from long bones, lashed together with sinews, and topped with the skull of a halfling child with polished red gems set in the eye sockets.
"So this is where you wound up," he said. "I suppose you're to blame for Amarula canceling our contract and running off. I was going to save you for sacrifices to the Undying One, but it's clear now that you'll cause far too much trouble if I don't do away with you right now."
"Fat chance," said Kendram. "We thrashed your mooks over there. One of you against five of us? Unless that's a staff of power, I don't think so." There was a pause. "It's not, is it?"
"Hardly. But it will suffice. The Undying One rewards me well for my service." He raised the staff— "Animate dead!" —and brought it down sharply on the floor. A shockwave spread out from the point of impact. When it passed over the party members, they felt a sensation of nauseating, greasy, cold energy. The captured cultists felt the same, judging by their reactions. But the handful of cultists that had been killed in the fight and still lay about the room where they had fallen...
Their flesh melted from their bones, boiling away into vapor that smelled powerfully of rot and acid. Almost at once, the naked bones began to move, rising to stand.
"Welcome to the first day of the rest of your unlife!" said the cult leader. "Now kill them all!"
The skeletons turned to the adventurers, let out screeching roars, and began to advance.
"Tell me you're joking," said Wendes. "Skeletons? That's newbie stuff! They don't even outnumber us!"
"Just you wait," the cult leader muttered.
One skeleton got within swinging range of Faldinn, who promptly shattered it with a single hit from his sword. Two more turned on the defeated and bound cultists. Helpless, the men could do nothing but wail in pain and terror as the bones of their former comrades ripped into them. Gouts of blood flew...
Sweden, who had just been taking a sip of his cola, choked slightly.
"Problem, sweetie?" Åland said with a sly grin.
"This turned dark fast…" Sweden croaked.
Åland's smirk grew wider. "Wait."
...and no sooner did the poor fellows fall dead than their mangled carcasses underwent the same process as those that killed them. The cult leader's spell had not been an instantaneous thing, but an ongoing effect, transforming not only those who were already dead when it was cast, but anyone who died while it lingered.
The party had been facing a mere handful of skeletons. Now they faced a few dozen, while already weakened from the day's previous encounters. The bony horde began to advance.
"Thus perish all who dare defy the Undying One!" the leader sneered. "I'll come back for your remains...or better yet, your remains can come and find me!" He spun on his heel and stalked off.
"There's someone who needs to review the Evil Overlord List," said Kendram. "Well, guys? Can we take these things?"
"In our current condition...I think...just barely," said Wendes. "We'll need some luck."
"I'm a spoony bard. I make my own luck." Kendram unshouldered his lute and started to play a rousing tune.
"Right!" said Wendes. "Objective Number One: Survive this. Number Two: Thrash the skeletons. Number Three...how's D'lana?"
Yarwon glanced into the corridor, still blocked off by a shimmering magical barrier. D'lana still sprawled bonelessly on the floor, but he was breathing. "Just knocked out, I think. He should be safe in there."
"Objective Number Three: Deactivate the barriers and bring D'lana around. Four: convince him not to take all the treasure, because at this point I think we've earned a good share."
"Sounds like a plan!" said Kendram. He burst into song.
Faldinn and Yarwon charged, the latter flowing into wild shape as a black bear. They each struck once, with sword and paws respectively, and two more skeletons flew to bits. Then they were swarmed.
"Is it even worth casting spells at these things?" said Cinadel.
"Of course it is; why wouldn't it be?" said Wendes. "Magic missile!" Three darts of light flashed from his fingers to strike three advancing skeletons. One crumbled, but the other two, made of sterner stuff, only staggered back a moment before continuing.
"I was only asking," said the elf. He followed up with a magic missile of his own, taking down the other two skeletons and seriously inconveniencing a third.
With a roar, Yarwon burst from under the skeletons dogpiling him, smashing them against the walls and floor. He turned to the ones attacking Faldinn and began flinging them away. As soon as the barbarian regained his bearings, he obligingly entered his rage state.
Kendram climbed onto one of the gaming tables, the better to kick skeletons away from himself without interrupting his playing, and in order to survey the scene easily. That was how he noticed one skeleton bypassing the fights and lurching toward the corridor where D'lana still lay unconscious. He would have thought little of it due to the magical barrier...but then the undead monster thrust a fleshless arm right through the barrier, seemingly unaffected by the electricity. With effort, it began to force its way into the space.
"Whoa—whoa!" Kendram shouted, breaking off his song. He leapt from the table, seized the skeleton, and yanked it back.
"What's going on?" Wendes cried.
"The barrier doesn't stop them! D'lana isn't safe!"
"You've got to be kidding me!"
The skeleton Kendram was wrestling got its hands on his throat and began to squeeze—not hard enough to threaten his life in the immediate term, but enough to prevent him from making any more noise. Another got behind Cinadel, seized his hair, and dragged him to the floor, where it and another began clawing at him. Yarwon and Faldinn were still bashing away and holding their own, but they were getting tired.
"So much for making our own luck," Wendes muttered, swinging desperately with his staff. "Little help over here!"
And help arrived…but it wasn't the sort any of them would have expected.
"STOP!" rang an imperious voice. The skeletons, one and all, left off their attacks and turned their attention to the doorway.
Amarula stood there, drawn up to her full, considerable height. She had unpinned her brooch and was holding it aloft, where it shone with a nimbus of power. Her hair stood out from her head like a halo, her eyes seemed almost to glow with inner fire, and her voice literally reverberated with authority as she spoke. "How dare you?! These are not yours to slaughter!"
As the undead cowered, thoroughly chastened by the power of the dark priestess, the adventurers seized the chance it afforded them. Kendram and Cinadel freed themselves from their attackers, and Faldinn and Yarwon plowed through the suddenly unresisting skeletons. It was the edge they needed to finish the fight quickly—in under a minute, the monsters had been reduced to mixed piles of dry bones. Faldinn and Yarwon returned to their normal states.
"You came back to help us?" Kendram croaked, rubbing his throat gingerly. "That guy said you left."
"I did," Amarula replied. "But then I realized that without the force of our contract preventing him, that bastard would use undead against you. I couldn't permit such a thing."
"Aw…you do care," said Kendram. He coughed, and Yarwon tsked a gentle warning.
"It's nothing personal," said Amarula. "Here in Pearl City, use of the undead
is a privilege accorded to clerics of recognized deities, not lich-worshipers. The terms of our contract included a lock on the power of that necromantic staff of his. When I canceled the contract…well. But with the skeletons destroyed and him nowhere to be found, I have no more purpose here." She turned to leave.
"Wait!" said Wendes.
"Can you...is there somewhere we can contact you later if we need to?"
The cleric put her head to one side with a sly smile. "And why ever would you need to do that?"
Kendram snickered. So did Wendes. The other three joined in.
"What?" said Åland.
"Oh, nothing," Denmark flagrantly lied.
"Is that really what you think I sound like?" Sister Sweden smirked from right behind the Dungeon Master. He jumped and spun around.
She was just on her way out, her stylish "visiting bag" slung over her shoulder. She was wearing the leather overcoat...the one that was basically an engraved invitation for people to imagine, in detail, what she was wearing underneath.
"Sorry," Åland said sheepishly. "I wasn't going to bring her back after you left, but they were really getting creamed by the skeletons, and—"
"I don't have time for a blow-by-blow recap," said Sister Sweden. "You can tell me about it tomorrow if you like. Gotta go!" She swaggered out of the house.
"Heh-heh. 'Blow by blow...' Is anyone else totally turned on right now?" said Denmark. Finland glared at him and, when that received no acknowledgement, stabbed the back of Denmark's hand with his pencil.
While Denmark ran around the room, howling and clutching his hand, Norway sighed. "I guess that means we're done for tonight."
"We were anyway, I'm afraid," said Åland, blushing intensely while he scribbled his end-of-session notes. "The atmosphere is kaput."
"That's what you get for doing a bad impression of my sister where she could hear you!" Sweden said, rapping Åland's arm with the back of his knuckles.
"Shall we just say Amarula left after that point and pick up with the aftermath next time?"
"Up to you, sweetie. You're the DM."
Åland stole a look at his boyfriend. "And don't you forget it."
Norway, still watching The Denmark Show, sighed again. "I'll get the disinfectant."
To Be Continued...