The adventurers proceeded to the north, until they came back to the northern hall with many exits, including the stairway they’d used while being escorted to and from the Coenoby. Xan crept over to the hallway to the south to take a peek. Six identical cells opened along this corridor, each one closed by a metal gate. The growl of a large feline broke the silence, followed by several porcine grunts.
“Let’s not stir up the animals,” Xan said quietly. He continued circling the hall, and the others followed.
Cautiously, they proceeded west and south, until they make their way back to the western hall containing the lift. Xan scoped out the eastern passage, discovering a large room housing a workshop. Tools and simple machines mixed with scraps of raw materials, rags, and litter left by busy workers during the previous day. The odor of sawdust, leather, wax, and glue lingered in the air.
“Which way?” Liberty whispered. Xan answered, by walking softly into the workshop room, noting exits to the north, east, and south. To the north, a lift with two small capstans occupied almost all the space of this room. The machine appeared to be locked in the raised position with chains and nails. To the east was a smaller round hallway that encircled the bubble of a dome in the center. To the south, two wooden racks lined the west and east walls of this room, holding dozens of the odd and picturesque weapons traditionally used by gladiators.
He returned to the group to report. “There is another lift, but it is chained in place. And there is a room of weapons to the south. Come take a look but be careful … The guards are not too far on the other side of the room.”
Liberty followed, peering at the dome as she crossed the workshop, then followed Xan to the secondary lift. He seemed to be inspecting it for a way to get it working again. The sorcerer frowned and asked, “Wouldn’t that just go up to the arena floor anyway?”
“Hmm … Yeah, I guess so. I’m just used to suspecting things are more than they seem when they are locked.” He grinned at her.
“Fair enough. Let’s move on.”
They continued along to the southeast, until they’d come to a four-way intersection with narrow halls to the north and south. To the south, a large angular fireplace dominated a well-equipped, clean kitchen, where several metal grills and spits were neatly arranged. A circular well sat in the southeast corner, and a short passage to the east led to a small door, where a few, half-empty sacks of flour were stacked on the floor. It proved to be a pantry.
The north hall came to a T almost immediately, heading east and west. The western hall turned north again and contained three more prison cells. Two of these cells were empty, but the one on the east well held a prisoner – a human man dressed in filthy rags.
“Anyone we recognize?” Xan asked quietly. No one remembered having seen him before.
“Probably been here awhile,” Liberty muttered. “He might know something about Lahaka … But he might also let everyone know we’re here.”
Xan nodded. “You read my mind. Worth the risk I think.” Mom grunted noncommittally.
“All right, then,” said Liberty. “I expect he’ll forgive us if we let him out.”
She kept an eye on the hall to the north while Xan worked on the lock; she could hear the guards nearby continuing their game. It was a trivial matter for the rogue to open the cell door and do so quietly. The prisoner did not stir, so Xan crept closer to try and ease him awake, sap at the ready, just in case.
The man flinched at the contact then opened his eyes, which rolled wildly. His gaze fell on Xan making a shushing gesture, and his mouth opened in a soft cry. It was like he was trying to scream, but wasn’t actually capable of it. Xan quickly determined that the man was deaf, mute, and most likely insane. He had the look.
The prisoner crab-crawled back into the corner of the cell, as far from Xan as he could get, eyes still wide. The rogue waved Mom over, while trying to quiet the man, making soothing gestures to calm him. The half-orc grunted inquisitively and entered the cell.
“Can you determine if this man was born like this, or made so with magic?” asked Xan.
Mom looked at the man for a moment, not seeing any apparent damage to the man’s ears or mouth. His diagnosis was a casual shrug.
“Lib, detect thoughts maybe?” Xan suggested.
“Good call,” she said, readying a scroll. Then she took a deep breath and peeked into madness.
She caught fleeting glimpses of horrible images that sunk into the darkness of the man’s shattered mind like a thought slipping below an oily ocean. Floating across the putrid sea came a figure that she interpreted to be a tormentor: a horned human with a forked tongue, goat hooves, and pitch-black eyes.
Worms – green worms, she thought – wriggled and writhed across the prisoner’s psyche, threatening to latch onto his face and render him an empty shell. His fear of the worms was greater than that even of the demon-tormentor. She watched as the man bore witness to the slithering things devouring another man in another cell.
Once the other was emptied by the worms, the demon-tormentor led it out of the cage, like a pet. Together they walked away from the prisonscape of the man’s shattered thoughts, and disappeared into a barrel. Or a bottle. It was unclear which, but she got the scent impression of soured grapes. Variations on these scenes played over and over while she remained in contact with the prisoner’s mind. Two things were clear: His terror was absolute. His madness complete.
She shuddered as she broke contact, and shakily related what she’d seen and what she guessed. Once she’d finished the litany of horrors, she backed away from the man and leaned against a wall, covering her mouth with the back of her hand. “This man has seen the cult of Kyuss,” she said after a moment.
“Here in the arena?” Xan wanted to know.
“He saw worms devour a man in a cell…” she said.
“More evidence of what we already suspect… But not really a lead. Was there anything that could point us in a direction?”
She gave him an “Are You An Idiot?” look. “It’s chaos in there. I was lucky to come away with that, even.”
“Okay, Lib. Sorry. Let me try and calm him down and we keep looking I guess. I wish there were a way to cure him though. I’ll ask the Minstrel about it next time we see him.”
The rogue managed to soothe the prisoner with body language and calm words, though he realized partway through that they went unheard. The man’s demeanor became less rigid, and he traced squiggles in the dust on the floor of his cell.
“There’s a prayer to heal deafness,” said Mom. “But I didn’t ask for it this morning.”
“We should leave him here for now,” said Liberty.
“Tomorrow night then, I guess,” said Xan, slowly backing out of the cell and locking it behind him.
Two doors sat on the walls near where the hall opened up into the dome ring corridor. The one on the east opened into a storage room containing a half-dozen stirrup vases and scores of stoppered clay flasks. The distinct odor of tar hung heavily in the air. Drake’s eyes lit up at the sight of so much alchemists’ fire in one place. He helped himself to some of the vials.
The door to the west opened into a small cellar containing several barrels and hundreds of glass bottles on shelving on the south wall. The air was thick with the smell of vinegar.
“Sour grapes,” Liberty said meaningfully. Mom grunted affirmatively.
Xan frowned and searched the room for any evidence, but then he heard the guards stirring, and so they fled the cellar, and returned to the outer hallway. They confirmed that the eastern path from the T intersection opened into the mess hall near the guards’ room, then returned to search the nooks and crannies branching off from the outer ring. These proved to be nothing more than extra storage.
They returned to the west hall and explored the wider hallway there, finding a locked iron-bound door at the top of some steps that halted progress. “Think this leads out of the arena? Let’s find out,” said Xan, masterfully unlocking the door. He carefully pushed it open, until he could see down the short hallway beyond. It opened into what appeared to be a bunkroom, and he spotted a lone sentry seated in a chair in the room right beside the hall. The guard did not see him, and so Xan quietly pulled the door closed again.
“Another guard,” he explained softly at his companions’ confused expressions. “Do we want to actually take any people out tonight? Even if we do it stealthy it will alert people that someone was infiltrating tonight. Might be more guards tomorrow.”
Liberty shook her head. “No. Getting the lay of the land was the real objective tonight. Besides, we should try to get some sleep.”
“Okay. Let’s head back then.”
They walked back to the main Coenoby stairs to the north but stopped when they heard booted footsteps approaching from the east. Drake pulled Liberty behind him when it became clear that she hadn’t noticed the sound and made a shushing gesture with his finger. Xan hurried everyone to the Coenoby stairs, and there they stood quietly out of sight, waiting for whoever it was to pass. The rogue pressed up against the wall near the north hall as the steps drew nearer. It appeared to be the four guards from the card game, and his eyes alit at the opportunity.
“The guards are away from their post,” he said softly to the others. “If we hurry, we can explore the area. Follow me… Quiet but fast.” Without waiting, Xan then moved eastward along the outer circle to enter the guard room from the mess hall.
The adventurers made their way in the opposite direction of the patrolling guards and to the room where they’d found them playing cards. Mom had to move more slowly to compensate for his armor, so they had precious little time to investigate the chamber once they arrived. This elongated, irregular room featured a central square pillar, a living area with two round tables and a narrow passage in the northwest corner. Three copper braziers in the corners lit the room. The passage in the northwest corner was barely four feet wide and led to a small door painted in blue.
That was all they had time to note before they heard the guards returning from the east corridor. They slipped out the west, around the dome hallway, and out the far side before circling back to the main stairs. They decided to call it a night and return to their bunkroom. Such was Xan’s caution that he waited until an opportunity to enter their assigned chamber without being seen presented itself, then ushered his companions across the Coenoby.
They fell asleep gradually, and each was haunted by troubling dreams.
* * *
8 Wealsun, 595 CY
Breakfast was served, and the gladiators were told that they could go to the arena to watch the other events of the Champion’s Games if they so chose. It was also an opportunity to cozy up with potential fans. They ate swiftly then traveled with several other gladiators to the surface. Drake grumbled a bit, but he was not overtly hostile. Still, he had the creepy “burned man” grin going on.
Xan spotted Tirra in the crowd and approached the elf. “Hello, Tirra. Mixing business and pleasure today are we?”
“No sir,” she said sweetly. “All business.”
“Doesn’t seem to be much business here. Sure it’s a nice crowd, but the other night I got the distinct impression that your hands are in much higher stakes endeavors.”
She gave him a pointed look. “After the stunt you pulled in the first round, it’s all damage control to preserve our odds should you end up in the final round.” Her glance strayed over Xan’s shoulder to Liberty, who was approaching.
“I see. Should have put that together sooner. Unfortunately, other priorities required that a statement be made. I’ll do my best to help your profits when I can… but there are larger angles at play. I, also, am all business lately. Well… mostly business anyway.”
“Are you,” she said. “Screwing a business partner’s profits is not good business. In case that had escaped you.”
“I am doing no such thing. We will absolutely meet our end of the arrangement. I just don’t usually work one angle at a time is all. They’ll all work out in the end. Trust me.” He grinned.
“No.” She grinned back. Like a shark. “Liberty!” she called out, inviting the sorcerer into the conversation and all but dismissing Xan in the same three syllables.
“Tirra! Good to see you,” said Liberty, oblivious to whatever was going on a minute ago.
The elf put an arm around Liberty’s shoulder and leaned nearer conspiratorially. “I’m glad you made it through the first round. Nothing less than I expected, really. Although perhaps a bit more. In ways.”
Liberty fought down a sudden quiver. “I managed to surprise myself, to be honest.”
“Mm, I’m sure. Your companion mentioned business,” she said grudgingly reincluding Xan.
The sorcerer gave Xan a questioning look. “I had some personal business, but I doubt that’s what he means.” Elf fingers lightly stroked Liberty’s shoulder reassuringly, and the sorcerer leaned her head on Tirra’s shoulder, just for a moment.
“Yes, I did,” said Xan. “Although I don’t believe I’ll say more… just now.” He gave Liberty a reassuring look. “So what’s the word on the street, Tirra? Being locked down in that dungeon keeps me from listening in.”
“There are many words on many streets. Is there a particular avenue you fancy?”
‘Well… There’s the activity of the games and the activity that swirls around the games. The former I have a good view of, the latter not so much.”
She laughed. “There’s a fine line between subtle and vague.”
“You were here last year. How do these games compare to the last?”
“More casualties so far this year, but let’s not beat that dead horse anymore today, eh?”
“Please don’t,” said Liberty.
“Auric has done well to market the event over the last year. He is the most popular champion in years,” said Tirra.
Xan laughed. “Fair enough, milady. You two catch up and I’ll go find some other mischief to get into.” The rogue strolled off, taking in the sights.
Tirra cocked her head to one side and watched him walk away. Liberty picked her own head up to study the elf’s expression, which was curious and thoughtful. Tirra shrugged and looked down at Liberty. “Personal business?” she prompted.
“If you know where Constance is, will you take her a message for me?”
The elf frowned. “I erred, there. I shouldn’t have said anything. Can’t put the genie back in the bottle, though.” She sighed. “Yes, I will deliver your message.”
“It does change things for me. But I can keep a secret.”
Tirra gave Liberty a look. “You are many things, sweetling, but discreet is not one of them.”
The sorcerer laughed, ruefully. “So it seems. How much longer are you here today?”
She shrugged, casually extricating herself from Liberty. “A few more hours, I should think.”
“Okay. I’ll find you when I’ve got it finished.”
She nodded. “So be it.”
Liberty left Tirra and went looking for Drake. “Do we know who we’re fighting next yet?” she asked when she’d found him.
“Not as such, no. Prolly ought to look into that,” he said. “Course it doesn’t matter too much, I imagine. What y’all up to?”
“Nothing at the moment. Going to sit and get my mind together… I’ll find you after.” She left for the Coenoby, with Mom trailing after.
She sat down in their room, and pulled out her quill, ink, and paper. “Everything all right, Mom?” she asked, while she worked. He grunted affirmatively.
* * *
When Liberty had finished writing, she rolled up all of her Constance letters in a scroll tube and handed that off to Tirra. Her serious expression made it clear that it was kind of a big deal for her to trust Tirra with this, though she didn’t say so aloud. The elf nodded in acknowledgement of this bond of trust. Then she strolled away into the crowd.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully, until night descended upon the arena and more fireworks displays were in evidence. Pop flowers and spark dragons and all manner of whiz-bangs lit up the night and filled it with merry noise.
“Pft, amateurs…” muttered Drake. “I could show you some real fireworks…”
By and by, the gladiators were directed – and then escorted – back to the Coenoby for the evening.