The aftermath of the battle with Stonehammer provided the group a way to get back to the capitol, after an Imperial patrol boat noticed the sounds of said battle and went to investigate. Their trip back by sea was rather uneventful, but their dreams were rather ominous.
Norn’s dream was from the perspective of Takarung, right after it was seized by Stonehammer in the aftermath of his ambush against the caravan. The dream revealed that the heretical dwarf had received information about the caravan from Billy Blind, the information dealer. Blind also wanted the shield to be handed to Norn, for some unknown reason. Stonehammer himself was evasive as to why he needed to hold on to the shield for no more than a few hours, throwing Blind’s catchphrase back at him. The mystery surrounding Stonehammer only grew deeper.
Wizholm, meanwhile, dreamed he was in a dungeon. In it, Baron Abbao the Vampire and a whispery voice which presumably belonged to the Lich King conversed about the gnome. They mentioned his appearing to be alive specifically, and it was decided that they would move into “phase 2” of their plan; this involved Wizholm getting his free will back. When questioned whether he could reassert control over Wizholm if he needed to, Abbao candidly replied that he had no idea, and mentioned that figuring that out would have to be tested. The dream ended on that ominous note.
Gares dreamed about a cult meeting around a bonfire. The cult leader was announcing to the others that the promised day would soon arrive, and that they would soon bask in the glory of their god while the “nonbelievers” would be reduced to smoke and ash. The things that struck Gares as most important were the rings that the cultists all bore, which had the Diabolist’s hand-in-eye symbol within a stylized flame, and the name Zolumaq, which was the name of the god the cult worshipped.
In Miri’s dream, she relived all of the great battles she had been through. Her triumph at Orc Mountain, her takedown of the soulfire phantoms, and her victory over Stonehammer’s demons were all there. However, the dream also depicted a shadowy beast chained to her soul; every time she persevered, one of the chains broke. The beast taunted her as the dream ended, mentioning that she was denying what she truly was.
The group met in the morning to discuss the dreams. The vision that seemed most relevant was the one experienced by Gares, and putting their heads together, the group realized that Zolumaq was the name of an Archdemon, an unbelievably powerful fiend that had been summoned by the First Diabolist in the 10th Age. Before long, an agent from the Hunter’s Bureau found the group, and asked them to go to the Bureau.
At the Bureau, the group found Banehammer along with Octavia Draco, the Emperor’s heir. The two informed the group that they suspected there was a demonic cult operating among the nobles in Axis. The cultists were very good at abusing the political system to cover their tracks, and the fact that the Bureau had learned of their plans at all had been because of the group’s takedown of Mackenzie Fleetwood a week ago, which had revealed new evidence connected to his deceased older brother Markus. Markus had apparently been a part of the cult, and his involvement in it covered up until now.
The information suggested that the cult would be attacking during the gladiatorial games set to happen at the end of the Founder’s Festival. Octavia asked the group to enter the games as gladiators themselves, so that they could monitor any suspicious activity within the arena. Without hesitation, the group agreed to do so. They investigated the Arena in the days leading up to the area, but other than noting the arena’s perfectly circular structure, they found nothing of note. Gares was approached by one of the reigning champions, Hogan, who made a wager with the bureaucratic barbarian; if Gares lost the fight, he’d forfeit his cloak, but if he won, he’d get Hogan’s shapeshifting magic sword Adaraptus.
Finally, the big day arrived. The group’s first battle of the day was against a pair of owlbears, and it was basically a bloodbath. The only time one of the bears managed to hit the team was a powerful blow against Gares that the barbarian managed to heal off with his heavenly killing talents. Miri was the star of the show though, dismembering one owlbear with her chainsword trick and impaling the other one through its forehead.
The other battles were mostly snoozefests, not worthy of screentime. But the persevered through the boredom, and made it to the final, where they faced off against the Wild World Enforcers (WWE). The WWE was made up of Hogan, who had introduced himself to Gares; a dwarven devotee of the Berserker King named Rock; Ecks, a tiefling swordsman; and Gravedigger, an officially licensed necromancer. The battle began with each member of the group squaring off with their respective foes: Gares vs. Hogan, Norn vs. Rock, Miri vs. Ecks, and Wizholm vs. Gravedigger. Gravedigger also raised one of the owlbear skeletons to fight for his team.
Wizholm’s battle against Gravedigger started off badly, though, when he was cursed by the necromancer. The gnome then thought that he saw Baron Abbao in the stands, which threw off his aim and left him open to a devastating Spectral Shot attack by his adversary. Fortunately, Miri noticed her ally’s plight and broke off her attack on Ecks to strike at Gravedigger. Angry at being ignored, Ecks followed to attack her. He then, due to some truly unfortunate luck, managed to impale Gravedigger instead of his actual enemy. With a shout of “You team killing fucktard!” Gravedigger was out of the battle, the lone skeleton he raised blasted to dust by Wizholm moments later.
Meanwhile, the melee between Gares and Hogan went on to be a crowd favorite. Both of them were familiar with Northern Barbarian fighting styles, and both knew the secret of rage. However, Gares possessed greater ability to shrug hits off than Hogan did, and he ended the battle buy cutting off Hogan’s hand, throwing his foe into a wall, and claiming Adaraptus as his own.
Norn and Rock’s fight mainly consisted of two heavily-armored dwarves trying to smack each other physically and mentally. Norn proved to be better than Rock in both respects. Wizholm then reentered the fight by shrugging off the curse and unleashing a devastating round of lightning which singed both Ecks and Rock. Ecks was then beaten by Miri when she stabbed vertically through his body, while Norn took down Rock by summoning the Spirits of the Righteous which opened up a vent into the lava pool under Axis which cooked Rock into submission.
Though the team should have been celebrating being the Champions of the tournament, their victory was cut short when the cultists made their move. However, they did so in a way that the Hunter’s Bureau had not anticipated; they began a ritual by taking their own lives with firey blades. Ecks also revealed that he was a member of the cult by finishing himself off in the exact center of the arena. An ominous rumbling filled the air, as whatever plan the cultists had began.