Ekaym drew the adventurers into their assigned chamber, and sat down on one of the bunks, facing them with an earnest expression upon his face. “My sister Lahaka disappeared here last year, not long after the previous Champion’s Games. I’ve been looking for her for months now, but I’ve hit a dead end. She was a traveling entertainer, a bright joy that brought happiness to cities throughout the world. It seems that her travels eventually brought her here, to the Free City, and more to the point, she caught Loris Raknian’s eye. I believe that they became lovers. What I do know is that she vanished the day after the Champion’s Games ended.
“I’ve paid for divination spells to learn more, but alas have learned little. And so I decided to come to the games themselves. I hoped that by entering some gladiators in the competition, I’d have a chance to explore the area, talk with Raknian, and maybe find out what happened to Lahaka. But so far, I’ve found nothing. Raknian’s nearly impossible to get to, and I’ve uncovered no clues in the outlying buildings. There are two places I’ve not been able to reach – his palace and the arena understructure.
“This is where you come in, my friends. If you can slip away from the Coenoby between battles and search the surrounding rooms for clues as to what happened to my sister, I’ll turn over all of the winnings from the games to you. What do you say?”
“I’d be happy to help, Ekaym,” Liberty said without hesitation. She looked to the others.
“I see no reason not to,” said Drake.
Xan nodded. “It’s a fair enough offer.” Mom grunted in agreement.
Ekaym looked relieved. “Thank you, my friends.”
“Is this what you couldn’t tell us before?” asked Liberty.
He nodded to her. “It is.” He then provided a description of his sister, although it was clear from his tone that he feared she was dead. Rather than offer him false hope, Liberty promised to see if they could find any evidence that could be used against Raknian. Ekaym accepted that with pragmatic stoicism. Further, he offered to acquire magical healing for them should they need it and to act as courier and go-between for any other equipment or supplies they might want to purchase, since they would be disqualified from the tournament if they left the arena.
“I might ask you to take a letter to someone…” said Liberty. “But not today.”
He quirked an eyebrow. “Very well.”
“You are our eyes outside this golden cage down here. I’d appreciate you keeping an eye on Raknian’s movements or plans if you can,” said Xan.
Ekaym nodded. “Of course.” Their business concluded, he excused himself and departed the Coenoby.
Once he was gone, the rogue turned toward Liberty. “A letter, eh? To Constance or Ilya, I wonder…”
“Ilya.” The sorcerer half-sighed. “I doubt he knows who or where Constance is. I can’t imagine what she feels after watching me blast a bunch of elves to ash. But I need to… settle down before writing her.”
“Sending one suitor with a letter to another.” Xan grinned. “You’re going to drive that man crazy before you are done with him. I have a feeling.”
She aimed a crooked smirk at him. “I just might.”
“And as for the ash-burning part… That was the next topic of conversation anyway.” His face wore a serious expression, and color arose in Liberty’s cheeks. Drake and Mom exchanged a glance and looked at Xan curiously. “Have you ever heard the expression that a person is judged by their actions and not by their words?” the rogue continued.
“Of course. Father was very fond of that one.”
“I don’t believe in it. Never have. I don’t judge people by their actions. I judge them by their reasons. A person can kill a person in cold blood for a damn good reason.” Xan took a breath and paused for a moment. “You incinerated those people up there. They were our opponents, but they weren’t the monsters we have been dealing with elsewhere. Mostly they were adventurers like us. Your handling of them was harsh. And I think you need to think long and hard about the reason you resorted to that level of lethality.”
“I know.” Her voice was small. “I just… I just wanted to win. This rod,” she held up the one she got from Zyrxog, “scares the Hells out of me. I scare the Hells out of me.”
“I can buy that, Lib. The power got away from you. But are you sure that’s it? That’s all there is, I mean? I don’t want you to explain it to me… I have no room to judge your actions. I know how I live my life. I am many things, but I am not a hypocrite. So… the point is that I need you to make sure you know why you did that… Not for me but for you. Understand?”
She nodded, holding his gaze for a bit before looking away. Drake turned away, clearing his throat.
“Good. Glad we cleared that up,” said Xan, resuming his usual demeanor. “Now let’s go make some mischief.”
“All right,” she said. “Should we have a look around now? Do you think we could get away with it?”
“I think we should put ourselves in a place to take advantage of an opportunity if one is provided. If one never does, then we’ll think about making one.”
“Another thing though…” said Drake. “Should we do as Ekaym said earlier and draw the fight out more for the spectators? We just blew the last fight out, showing our hands pretty early.”
“Yes, well,” Liberty groaned.
“I think Lib has set the tone,” said Xan. “At this point our best play is to go with shock and awe. Intimidate the hell out of our opponents, and give Raknian something to think about.”
”Or we can do it that way,” said Liberty.
The rogue turned to Drake. “After that show today, people are scared of your menacing face…and terrified of Lib’s innocent one. We use that.”
“We may need to guard Liberty more in the next rounds,” said Mom.
“You and Drake have always looked out for Liberty. I don’t see that as a problem,” said Xan. The half-orc grunted affirmatively.
Drake nodded. “She will be the prime target. Lib, probably best you stick with Mom and I will try to draw most of the aggression.”
“Sounds good to me, boss,” she said.
“I’ll make as big a target as I can.” Drake chuckled. Mom grunted in amusement.
“So, what should we do in the meantime?” said Liberty.
“Look around, rest, see how the other combatants fare,” suggested Drake.
Xan nodded. “Good plan. We can fan the flames of our new infamy a bit while we are at it.” He paused a moment. “Oh! I almost forgot something.”
“Oh?” said Liberty.
“I’d heard about Lahaka when I was researching Raknian before the tournament.”
“Really? What did you find?”
“He fell for her hard. They were together for a year, and then…she disappeared about a year ago. We know Raknian is bad news, so that doesn’t seem contrary to what we know about him… but something else does: he hasn’t been seen with another woman since.”
“That does seem a little odd. Maybe she saw too much and he’s got her stashed in a cell somewhere.”
“I don’t know… The first part tracks, but if that were the case, I don’t see him staying loyal to her intimately. He is big on image, and not flaunting women around for this long means something.”
“Asking the other entertainers about her might be safer than asking the guards or other gladiators.”
“Good idea. Also, there is no proof of this or anything, but I think we should consider the possibility that Raknian is being coerced into doing what he is doing.”
“I won’t rule it out, no.”
“More faces behind faces, puppets all over. With these doppelgangers everywhere, you never know,” said Drake.
Xan shrugged. “Something to keep an eye out for anyhow. Shall we go mingle?”
“Sure, sure. We should probably stay within sight of each other, though,” said Liberty.
A quick look around the Coenoby told them that the surveillance was much less intense than it had been the first night. The majority of the guards were posted up topside to provide security for other fights and events taking place in the arena. Additionally, even considering the teams that had been defeated, not all of the gladiators were in the main chamber. They had little trouble evading the pair of guards stationed in the Coenoby and took the winding tunnel near their bunkroom.
It opened up into a huge cave that resembled the Coenoby, but it was in a state of century-old abandonment. It looked like a surface structure had once stood there, a cluster of stone houses that were buried under a million tons of rubble a long time ago. In the labyrinth of ceiling-high sections of ruined walls, the only remarkable feature was the idol that gave this cave its name, the ten-foot-high, alabaster statue of a powerful giant armed with a mattock. Now the silent guardian of the Titan’s House, the statue stood in an almost completely enclosed space in the northeast part of the cave. They could hear the sound of amorous grunting from more than one of the smaller partitioned areas. Though the chamber was dark, Liberty covered her embarrassed reaction with one hand.
The way was lit by their magic rings, and after a muffled curse, they heard an irritated voice shout, “Turn out that cursed light!” Liberty clapped her free hand over the ring to give just enough light to see by. Another, more feminine voice called out thanks before squealing in carnal delight.
Drake whispered to his companions. “Wonder which gladiators are forming an alliance this time…?”
Xan spoke quietly. “Not sure this place is going to be of much help right now, but I’ll definitely have to remember it for later.”
“Of course you do.” Liberty’s whisper was more good-natured than it sounded.
The cave floor sloped down to the south where a ten-foot-deep pool of water was located. The adventurers made their way down to it. The others pointed out a man-made plug blocking the way to the southeast. They were reminded of the rumor they’d heard about Raknian sealing the way after defeating some kind of undead in the catacombs. Ghouls, maybe? They could also see a couple of other underwater tunnels branching off from the floor of the pool, as well.
“I guess we’re getting wet,” said Xan.
Drake shook his head. “It would seem this is the area to get wet. I’m game.” Mom facepalmed.
“As long as there isn’t another octopus,” said Liberty. “Or the same octopus.”
They each took a deep breath and followed Xan as he swam down the narrow watery tunnel. After perhaps a hundred feet, it branched in two directions with no obvious signs of emerging into open air again. The rogue waved them back the way they’d come and they all returned to the pool in the Titan’s House.
“Mental note: send Ekaym for water breathing scrolls next time we see him,” said Xan.
“I can pray for the spell tomorrow,” said Mom.
“Enough for us all? Does it work like that?” The cleric grunted affirmatively.
“If I’ve got a scroll of it I can make some calculations and make some infusions of it if need be I’m sure…” added Drake.
“Did we want to look that way too?” asked Liberty, pointing at the other drowned tunnel.
“Why not. We can go a little down the tunnel at least,” said Xan.
They turned back after a couple of winding curves failed to reveal any open-air passages. “Water breathing will last us a while and I can get all of us for about 4 hours apiece,” said Mom as they dried themselves.
“Shall we go back to the Coenoby and try that other corridor?” asked Liberty.
Xan shrugged. “I have a feeling there is more traffic in that area. Refresh my memory on the rules. Does getting caught outside of the Coenoby disqualify us?”
“Since Raknian probably wants to get rid of us, I bet it would.”
“How many of those invisibility infusions did you say you can put together, Drake?”
“Least three or four without really making things hard on me,” said the alchemist.
“Let’s just mingle for the time being, then,” said Liberty.
Xan nodded. “Let’s give it an hour or two for word of our exploits to mingle down to the Coenoby. Then we can have more fun mingling.”
“All right, then.”
* * *
As the hours passed the other victors returned to the Coenoby after their battles. The winning teams, in addition to The Skull of Murq and Burning Blood were Pitch Blade, Draconic Brood, The Fisthammers, and of course Auric’s Warband. Mom noted that a group called Teeth of Kord was defeated, but not outright killed. In fact, most of the beaten teams had not been killed.
Xan found a nice spot in the center area and tried to talk some of the other gladiators into a bit of gambling, but he found his efforts stymied. Word got around that Auric’s Warband had contributed the entirety of their first round’s winnings to the Widows and Orphans of Burning Blood’s first round. Everyone in the Coenoby agreed that was damned decent of the champion, and the adventurers, Liberty in particular, started to feel the cold shoulder. Drake walked politely among them anyway, congratulating the winners, and trying to be a good sport. Of small comfort, the guards still weren’t paying the adventurers any “special” attention.
The sorcerer moved among the other gladiators, saying nothing. She caught Auric looking at her thoughtfully, but he didn’t engage, so she circled back around to approach him, with Mom looming beside her. “Congratulations on your victory,” she said, her tone carefully neutral.
The champion nodded in acknowledgement. “I’m told you don’t really get the ‘Games’ part of this event,” he said levelly.
“A miscalculation. I thought they’d be stronger.” She waved a hand dismissively. “I’ll try to be more… theatrical next time.”
Auric quirked an eyebrow. “Uh huh.”
Drake approached the conversation. “Things all right here? Auric, grats.”
“Thanks, kid,” Auric said, his gaze lingering on the alchemist’s burned face. “Guess you oughtta be more careful around this one.” He gestured at Liberty.
“I’ve warned him before,” she said.
“Oh this? Nah, this wasn’t her. That was just a sunburn,” said Drake.
“Uh huh,” Auric said again.
“But look at you, the hero of the day with your good deeds.” The alchemist gave Auric a wide, toothy, scarred grin.
“I understand celebrity,” the champion said simply and without pretense. His expression as he looked Drake up and down suggested strongly that the alchemist never would.
Drake shrugged. “Yeah, guess we’ll have to slow the little fire-bug down some. I mean, if they want a show, we can do a show.” Liberty glared at him, but Auric had already turned away to talk to someone else. The adventurers had been – unmistakably – dismissed.
“See you in the arena Auric,” said Drake, though he could see that his parting shot hadn’t landed.
As they walked away and regrouped, Liberty mumbled into her hand, “I don’t think I can do this.”
“None of us are immune to mistakes, or poor judgment. Learn and move on,” said Mom.
Xan shrugged. “You played this hand, Lib. It wasn’t what you thought you would do or what we planned…but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it and take advantage.”
Drake put a hand on her shoulder. “We got this, Lib. Just keep your wits about you. Auric’s got his own problems, he just doesn’t see them. We got a lot going on, and Auric’s here for the crowd. Not for a better reason, just for fame. Said it himself, celebrity.”
She tried to pull away from Drake but didn’t. “All right,” she said after a moment. “Well, nobody here is talking to us. Now what?”
“Let’s go back to the room. I don’t think there is anything more we can get out of being here,” said Xan.
Liberty looked at him, surprised. “Really? All right, then.”
The day wound down, and the evening meal was served. A couple of half-dragon gladiators from Draconic Brood broke the ice with Burning Blood. Their motivations were unclear, but they proved to be less unfriendly than the other remaining gladiators in the Coenoby. Drake responded in friendly kind, greeting and chatting. Liberty said little but didn’t throw the stink-eye around.
While they ate and conversed, Xan leaned over and said quietly to her. “I’m not sure Drake has clued in to the whole ‘play up the intimidation’ angle.” She just shook her head, and the rogue grinned.
His expression grew more solemn after a moment. “That thing going through your head… That’s why I asked you to really figure out your reason for today. You won’t be right until you do. And we need you at the top of your game right now.” He paused. “And…none of us like seeing you down on yourself.”
“I know. I know,” she muttered.
* * *
They’d grown accustomed to the hourly horn blown by a servant. After the tenth tone indicating the late hour, most of the gladiators turn in. The majority of the guards were so exhausted after their duties during the first day of the Champion’s Games that they’d gone to their bunks. It was clear after a few minutes that, as a result, there were no regular patrols in the understructure.
“This would be a good time to poke around,” observed Liberty.
“Agreed,” said Xan.
“Yeah. Better time than any,” said Drake.
They crossed to the western corridor and entered the fifteen-foot-high circular hallway, which seemed to correspond to the one on the service level above.
“We only saw a small part of the service level, right?” asked Liberty.
“Correct.. let’s go up and see the rest,” said Xan.
They ascended one of a series of identical stairwells, accessible through archways closed by steel gates – which Xan opened with little trouble – spaced evenly along the inner wall of this hallway. Other, lesser archways led out from the central ring to narrow, dusty and neglected tunnels apparently used for storage. Ceiling height averaged at ten feet and walls were of reinforced masonry. Illumination was provided by iron lanterns hanging from short chains.
The adventurers moved to check out the first inner hallway they saw, just north of the stair from which they’d entered the service level. Mom held up a hand to stop his companions. “I hear voices,” he said.
Draked nodded and whispered. “Yep. Up ahead around the corner,” he said, indicating an opening on the north wall of the hall ahead.
“Crap. What do we do?” said Liberty.
“Hide,” suggested Drake.
“Xan can go ahead,” said Mom.
The rogue nodded and crept ahead. Before he reached the opening, he heard the bark of a short laugh, the slap of cards on a table, and the clink of coins being dragged across wood. Familiar sounds, all. A quick glance confirmed his suspicions, and he headed back to the others to report. “Just guards settled in for the night. There is a hall past them but we might be able to check it out from the other side.”
“Sounds good,” said Liberty. Mom grunted softly in agreement.
Having located the guards, the adventurers began to explore the rest of the service level.