Liberty’s voice was quiet, but rising with anger. “Sabotaged it how?”
“And why?” added Mom softly.
“He didn’t exactly say,” said Xan. “All I know is that he caused the collapse intentionally, but it happened at the wrong time. No one was supposed to be in the mine.”
“Oh, Xan…” said Liberty sadly.
The planks beneath Drake splintered and cracked in his hands. “He…what?” he growled as he turned, murder in his eyes. All eyes turned toward him as he rose to a crouch with one hand still on the ground, his mutagen-created claws gouging the wood on the floor. “He caused this mess?” He shook with barely contained fury.
“Drake!” Mom shouted.
“Easy, Drake,” said Liberty.
The alchemist pointed at the cleric and shouted right back. “Shut it!” He entered the cell with Xan and Charles Quinn. The rogue looked up at him with sadness in his eyes, but he was obviously too weary to do anything more. Drake stopped a step away from them, looking between the two, fists clenched.
“We all lost someone in that place,” Mom said, as he and Liberty moved to stand behind Drake. “We need to know why before you murder him!”
“You don’t know what was lost in that mine,” said Drake.
“Please, Drake. I know you’re hurting and angry. But we still need to find out why!” insisted Mom.
Blood started dripping from the palms of Drake’s clenched fists. “Because someone set him up…” he rumbled.
“I’ll tell you everything he said,” said Xan wearily, looking up at Drake. “And then you can do whatever you wish. I don’t think I could stop you if I wanted to.”
“I’ll listen,” said Drake through clenched teeth. He backed out of the cell and slumped against the far wall. Mom gestured for Xan to speak, and Liberty nodded, knuckles white on her quarterstaff.
“I’ve never told anyone about the last time I saw my family in Diamond Lake,” the rogue began. “It was several years ago. One night I came home to find them packing up everything. They were running…from Smenk.
“I found out that night that my father had been working in his operation as a double agent. I was furious with him for being so stupid…and to be honest, I was furious that he kept something so serious from me. So I yelled at him and I left without finding out why he was doing it or who he was working for. When I went back later that night they were gone. I never knew if they got away or if Smenk got to them.”
Xan looked up at his companions. “That’s why I have such a…distaste for Smenk. Part of me thought he murdered my family.” Mom grunted.
“And you didn’t know that he hadn’t until you found him again down here, did you?” asked Liberty.
“Exactly. Since being imprisoned here with my father, some of the blanks have been filled in. My father was employed by Gelch Tilgast. He was hired to do whatever he could to slow Smenk’s rise to power.”
“Tilgast,” said Liberty, frowning.
Xan nodded. “He mainly stole information and kept Tilgast informed of Smenk’s plans. But it wasn’t enough, so Tilgast got more desperate. The Deepspike collapse wasn’t supposed to hurt anyone. It was just supposed to cost Smenk a fortune.”
“He succeeded at that, anyway,” said Liberty.
“Cost much more than that. Tamlin…” whispered Drake, head drooping and hands unclenching. Liberty tentatively put a hand on his shoulder.
“I know, Drake,” said Xan. “All of you lost so much because of my father. I…didn’t take it too well, either. He deserves any fate. Sure, he didn’t mean for it to go down like that… But that just makes him a piss poor criminal.” Liberty laughed at that, ruefully.
After a brief silence, Drake said, “He lived with what he did. We all did…do. But he knew what he’d done. His mind is his prison now. I know that well enough. I guess… I guess he can heal or rot for all I care.” He looked around at each of his companions, looking as sad as they’d ever seen him. His gaze held Liberty’s longest. “I ain’t gonna interfere.” Mom grunted in agreement.
“You’re right, Drake,” said Liberty. “Whatever his crimes, he’s paid for them and then some.”
“He hasn’t paid near enough. But…” Drake looked to Xan and his tone was a trifle softer. “The rest of your family shouldn’t have to pay for that.”
The sorcerer closed her eyes, squeezing out tears. “I still want to help him.”
Drake’s tone was irritated. “Help him all you want. He’ll see no kindness from me aside from not gutting him where he lies.”
“Thank you anyway,” she said, “for that kindness.” Mom bowed toward the alchemist.
He turned toward the exit and muttered, “I need a drink.”
“After being the guest of these things for a few days, I know for certain that death would have been kinder than this. Nothing could be worse than this.” Xan’s change in expression suggested he’d just thought of something, and he heaved a huge sigh of relief. “Oh gods, you have no idea how glad I am that the rest of you weren’t really here.”
“After what I’ve seen, so am I,” said Liberty.
Drake cocked an eyebrow. “Story for another day…friend.”
The rogue shuddered. “I’m not sure you’d want to hear it, but someday I’ll tell you. Now, if the decision is made to help my father, what do we do with him? I have to admit that I’m afraid of what strangers might hear if he starts ranting again.”
Liberty wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. “Fair point.”
“The only healers that I know of that are talented enough would be the Pelorians,” said Mom.
Xan shook his head. “We don’t need to get him to a healer right now, just to safety. I’m more concerned about getting to my mother and Liza.”
“Yeah, let’s go there,” said Drake. “I need to let off some steam on a doppelganger.”
Liberty nodded. “We’ll get it, Drake. We’ll get them all. However long it takes.” Then she turned back to Xan and said, “We can try to find a place for him on our way, then. It can’t be safe to leave him here anymore.”
“It will have to do,” said Xan.
“So, where are they?” asked Liberty, helping Xan get his father ambulatory.
* * *
After some searching, they found an inn with space to let and put Xan’s father to bed in the room. Then they crossed town to get to the house, an impressive home in a nice neighborhood for a tax collector’s salary. The city continued to bustle around them, blithely unaware and/or uncaring of the adventurers’ collective emotional state.
“So, how do we handle this, Xan?” asked Liberty as they considered the front door from across the street.
“I don’t want them to see us kill him,” said the rogue. “That would be unnecessarily cruel. I plan to walk in the front door. If the creature is there, I can talk it into coming out. If not, then it will be a nice reunion.”
The door was locked, but Xan didn’t think twice about breaking out his tools and opening it up in broad daylight. Several passersby noticed, but Liberty diverted them with a clever lie. A moment later Xan stepped inside the door and called out. “Hello? Mom? Dad?” There was no reply, so he walked further into the house, with the others trailing along behind him.
They searched the entire house, but no one seemed to be home. They stood in the kitchen at the end of the front hallway considering what to do next. “Does your mother work, too?” asked Liberty.
“She did, yeah,” said Xan. “As a clerk for Smenk. That’s how I learned to handle finances.”
About that time, they heard something from the front door. An alarmed young female voice said, “Mama? I think someone is inside the house.”
“Liza? Is that you?” said Xan, heading for the front door. Liberty gave him a three-step head start before following.
“Who… Who’s there?” replied the girl.
“Has it been so long that you have forgotten my voice, lil sis?” he said, smiling.
Her expression was surprised, scared, and angry. “You! What are you doing in our house?!”
Clara Quinn came up behind her daughter carrying a bag of foodstuffs for the house. When she caught sight of Xan in the hallway, she didn’t look any happier than Liza. “What is this?” she demanded.
“Mama?” said Liza, sounding scared. She hid behind her mother.
“Mom! It’s so good to see you,” said Xan. He started to approach, but pulled up short when he saw her suspicious glare.
“Only for you,” she said coldly.
Xan blinked. “Mom? What’s the matter?’
“After what you put this family through? What are you doing here?” Noticing Liberty and the others loitering behind her son, she crossed her arms beneath her breasts and added, “And who have you brought into my house?”
“Wait, what?” said Xan. “Mom, I finally found you after years of thinking you were dead! What have I done that you want nothing to do with me?”
“How dare you?” she demanded. “Get out of here before I call the watch!”
“Mom, I’m telling you. I have no idea what is going on here! At least tell me why you are so upset.”
“Get out. Of my house.”
“Fine. Maybe it would have been better for everyone if we’d never found each other. I love you both very much,” he said, very frustrated, as he walked out the door.
The others followed him outside, and Liberty noted a bit of uncertainty entered Clara’s expression – briefly – at Xan’s parting words. “You have a lovely home,” Liberty offered as she passed by Xan’s mother. The woman’s only reply was an angry stare. The sorcerer stepped quickly back into the street, and they all heard the lock and bar falling into place behind the female Quinns.
“All right,” said Liberty. “So now what?’
“This ain’t right, Xan…” said Drake.
“I can’t deal with this right now,” he said. “I have no idea what just happened. I need to think.”
“Yeah, well think fast, ‘cos while you do that, your dad-double gets closer to figuring things out.”
“I can’t kill that thing without being able to explain why to my family afterwards! They won’t understand, and I’ll lose them, too.”
“I understand,” said Liberty. “You still might have a chance with them as things stand now. She had a moment, right as you were leaving. It’s something.”
“They wouldn’t even talk to me,” said Xan sadly.
“So put them in a position where they have to,” said Drake. “You’re good at that kinda thing.”
“Not today I’m not.”
“Then try again another day,” suggested Liberty. “Blood will tell, Dad used to say. It always does.”
“I can’t con my family, Lib. I care too much about them.” He scoffed at himself. “Now you see why I avoid emotional attachments. It’s bad for business.”
“I didn’t say anything about conning them,” she said patiently.
“They are going to tell the imposter that I came to visit as soon as they seem him. He’ll know he’s been exposed. We have to find out where he is.” He turned and looked toward the government district.
“We’re gonna waste time searching the city when he’ll be coming here tonight?” asked Drake.
Xan didn’t respond. He walked away swiftly and turned into the first public business he found to try to gather some information on Charles Quinn, Tax Collector. He wasn’t able to find out much specific, but he was directed to the government office where his father worked. Security was tighter than usual because of all the extra people in town for the Champion’s Games festivities. Liberty chatted up a couple of the guards who mentioned that Charles was doing his rounds in the garden district that day.
Before Xan led the party off to search that neighborhood, Drake pulled them into a quiet booth at a restaurant to get a bite to eat and try to talk what he saw as sense into them. He got right to his point. “So, we kill this thing, where they don’t have to see, and they already don’t trust you, and you bring what news to them?”
“I don’t know, Drake. You seem to have all the answers. You come up with the plan this time!”
“You know what? Fine. We go to follow his tax trail. We find him in public where he’ll be, and what? Follow him home? Kill him outright? Chase him? Or do we miss him because we search for him only to have him head home and find out we’ve been there?”
When he was done ranting, Drake continued in a calmer tone. “No. We wait for your fake dad, approach him when we see him, and deal with it from there. Straightforward. Xan, you’re calculating and cunning, but you’re too close to this to think straight. He’s going to come to us. You’re makin’ stuff harder than it needs to be.”
“Wait for him where?” said Xan, still not following.
“His damn house! Where he sleeps every night. We keep watch from a reasonable distance. I said it earlier, ain’t no sense in runnin’ all over creation lookin’ for a meal that’s comin’ to us.”
Liberty rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I don’t know, Drake… Maybe we can subdue and interrogate him. It. I still have no idea why they came after us.”
“Well, safe bet they know who we are – maybe linked to our past exploits – and apparently don’t like us. He’ll recognize us on sight and we either pretend to be his partners…or ourselves.”
“I was the only one kidnapped for real, Drake. They might think I am the imposter, but not the rest of you,” said Xan with a sigh. “At this point, part of me just wants to drop off my real father at the house and stay out of their lives like they asked for. I did fine without them for the last several years.”
“You can’t run away this time, and you know it,” Liberty scolded him. “If you leave him on the doorstep and walk away, the doppelganger will just kill him. And then the rest of your family, maybe.”
“Your loved ones are in danger, and we have an opportunity to save them,” reasoned Mom. “We should take it.”
“Fine,” said Xan. “We kill him outside the house when he comes home.”
“That’ll prove he’s a doppelganger,” said Liberty and Drake at once. They exchanged a look. Everyone agreed and the adventurers made their way back to the Quinns’ house.
* * *
They waited a couple of uneventful hours, but as dusk approached, “Charles Quinn” approached the the house, looking as though he didn’t have a care in the world. The adventurers fell upon him before he reached the front door. The man’s surprise was complete, and he was subdued without much trouble. Their victim did manage to cry out for help and a few passersby witnessed the assault and some started to rush off to alert the city watch. Xan looked up and saw his mother and sister watching from the window, eyes wide. He gritted his teeth and ran “his father” through.
He watched them cry out and vanish from the window, running to the door. Moments later they were out in the street and Clara threw herself on her son, beating at him with her hands and wailing. He didn’t resist; he just stood there, taking it. Liza rushed to the body, and stared down at it uncomprehending. “Mama!” she shrieked, pointing down. Xan’s mother left off hitting him to look at her daughter and saw the gray-skinned body of the doppelganger that she’d believed to be her husband.
Her legs gave out and Xan caught her, easing her down to the road. “What is this? I don’t even…” she murmured.
“You’ve been living with an imposter. For over a year, Mom. It wasn’t Dad.”
The onlookers rubbernecked, and word spread about the slaying of the false-man.
“Sorry, kid,” Liberty said to Liza. “But your father wasn’t your father.”
The female Quinns’ eyes grew wider, though it hadn’t seemed possible.
“How did you? Why? Wha-?” Clara asked her son.
“I came here earlier to try to save you from him. You wouldn’t listen, so we had to do it this way. I’m sorry.”
She broke down crying in his arms. “Oh, Xan!” she wailed. “What is real?!”
“I really don’t know anymore.”
By and by, the watch arrived, but Liberty explained the situation to them and kept them from interrupting the Quinns’ traumatized reunion.
“Another shapeshifter?” demanded the sergeant, taking in the adventurers with an appraising glance. “Oh. It’s you people again.”
“I’m afraid so, officer,” she said.
The body was removed, and Xan said, “Mom, can we take Liza inside? We need to make sense of everything. Whatever you think I did to make you hate me… I didn’t do it. Let’s talk.” She nodded wordlessly, took her daughter by the hand, and let her son lead them into the house. The others stayed outside for a while.
* * *
An hour or so later, Xan came back out and invited his companions inside. His family were in bed, but he’d gotten her to agree to let them all stay the night, at least. The adventurers exchanged information about the last few days, bringing Xan up to speed about Ilya and the Starmanes. He could sense the wistfulness in Liberty’s description of the elven lass, and he seemed a bit more like his usual self as he suggested ways to handle the situation…and her conquest. Mom grunted in amusement.
“I don’t know if it’s like that,” said the sorcerer. “But it’s something. We could go after it tomorrow, but I can’t shake the feeling that we missed something in the Sodden Hold.”
“It’s possible,” said Xan. “All I was concerned about was this sapphire.” He pulled the fist-sized blue gem out of his pocket.
“What is it, anyway?”
The rogue paused for a moment, considering. “You know, a few days ago, I never would have told a soul about this. But things are…different now. The boss doppelganger used it in a ritual to steal every one of my thoughts and memories. This… mindclone holds many, many secrets. It’s how the imposter knew so much about everything.”
“Everything..?” Liberty asked, peering at the gem as if there were something to see inside of it.
“Scary thought, isn’t it?”
“I suppose that’s how they knew so much about the rest of us…”
“I’m hoping to find a way to disenchant it before someone gets too curious.”
“We could ask Eligos about it when we see him next. I’d definitely keep it close in the meanwhile.
“I’d rather not tell anyone else. Just you three. For all we know, Eligos is a damned doppelganger.”
“I don’t really trust him,” said Mom. “And not with that gem.”
“Destroy it, then,” suggested Drake.
Xan turned toward him. “Do you see how big this thing is? It’ll be worth a couple thousand gold once we disenchant it. Things might be different, but I am still ‘me’.”
“Well. That does sound like something you would say. Damn glad to have you back.” Mom grunted agreement, muttering something about “making a profit.”
Xan’s grin appeared for the first time since his rescue. The welcome sight made Liberty smile, too. “Yes. I’m glad, too,” said Liberty. “I felt bad for not catching the imposter. But now that I know they had that gem, I feel a little better. It’s like cheating, really. I’ll research this “mindclone” myself, at the Great Library.”
“Thanks, Lib. I’m just glad you all came when you did. I appreciate any help any of you are willing to give on this. If there is a way using the arcane, the divine, or the alchemical, then one of you will find it. Now, we can get back to being ‘us’ again.”
“Hear! Hear!” Liberty agreed. Mom sighed.
* * *
25 Flocktime, 595 CY
In the morning, the adventurers broke their fast at the Quinns’, though Xan’s family was sequestered in the master bedroom with the girls tending to Charles. “Told you ‘blood will tell’,” Liberty mentioned between bites of crispy bacon. Mom raised his mug in silent toast.
“It feels weird,” said Xan, “having a family again. “It’s good… Just unfamiliar. Something I’ll have to get used to.”
“Enjoy it while you can,” muttered Liberty.
Xan frowned at the comment. “I wasn’t just talking about my parents and my sister, Liberty Grace.”
“Oh? Oh!” She blushed. “I guess I missed that.” Mom grunted in amusement.
“Full name, eh?” said Drake with a grin. “Ballsy. Have I mentioned that I’m glad you’re back?”
“I don’t mind that,” said the sorcerer. “It’s ‘Libby’ that rubs me the wrong way.”
Drake’s expression turned somber as he turned back to Xan. “Sorry for kicking you while you were down yesterday. Just didn’t want you to regret anything…”
“It’s okay, Drake. Everything was upside down yesterday. I’m just glad we made it through.” He turned to Liberty. “So, where is this elf you told me about?” Drake rolled his eyes, looking a little jealous.
“She’s hiding out,” said the sorcerer. “She’s supposed to leave word for me – for us at the Crooked House.” Mom grunted in amusement at her “slip”, and she blushed a little harder.
“Well, I guess that’s our first stop. Besides, I’d like to ask Tarquin about anything else ‘I’ did while I was a guest there.”