After everyone had rested and healed up, Drake said, “So… We ready to head back to the inn? Also, we leaving the crazy prisoner here?”
Xan shrugged. “Is there anything left of this place? Just behind this door, right? Let’s take a look, and we might find we don’t need to come back.”
“Sadly, no trace of them was ever found,” muttered Liberty.
“Please do not open any other doors,” Mom requested.
Liberty paused. “If Mom needs his spells back, then we should rest.” She nodded thanks to him for the healing.
“If you all want to go, that’s fine,” said Xan. “I’m just worried that it will give the doppelgangers time to clear out any evidence we might find.”
“I’m game for closing this out,” Liberty decided. “Now that I’m mended, anyway.”
Drake shrugged. “I’ve only got one potion left to do any wound patching, but I’ve got plenty of stuff to bolster us.”
“I guess I’m outvoted. Let’s do it,” said Mom.
“I have an idea,” said Xan. “I’ll drink this invisibility potion and then open the door while you all stay here. If it’s safe, I’ll let you know.”
“If we’re going, let’s all go,” said Mom.
With an abundance of caution, the adventurers crossed the planks to the platform with the door. It proved to be locked, but Xan’s tools rendered that a temporary setback. The large chamber beyond was empty aside from two holes in the floor. One was a jagged rip where the floor had fallen away, the other a perfectly square opening with a shaft leading down.
“Looks empty,” said Xan. He moved forward invisibly and peered down the shaft. Thirty-five feet down, a large open-topped wooden barrel bobbed on dark water. A crude rope ladder descended from the top to the surface of the water. “What’s the point of the ladder and the barrel, I wonder,” said Xan.
Mom squinted down into the murk. “Looks like there may be an opening down there, under the water.”
“You can see that?” said Xan, impressed. “Wow.”
“That seems a bit far to go without resting. To me,” said Liberty.
“Fair enough,” said Xan. “Although, why don’t we just rough it and rest right here in this room. It’s fairly secure, and someone could go out for food and drink. We could keep an eye on this…well thing and see if anyone or anything comes out of it.”
“I can’t argue with that,” said Liberty. Mom grunted noncommittally.
“Lib, why do I get the feeling that you would volunteer to be the one to go out and get stuff?” said Xan with a grin.
“Well, I am kinda low on spells. And I wouldn’t want to keep you waiting for me to get back.”
Drake frowned. “I think we should either keep going or head back to the inn for the day and come back later. I’m not for sitting in this muck hole for a whole day. Seems silly.” He paused a beat. “We were willin’ to brave this room further in, but when we’re confronted with a deep hole we aren’t so brave anymore?”
“Well, I for one am going to stick around and snoop for a while, at least,” said Xan. “Not down the hole or anything, but if anything does happen while we are gone, I’d like to know what.”
“All right. Let’s keep going then,” said Liberty, turning to the half-orc. “Mom?”
He grunted again, which everyone took for reluctant agreement.
“I am not what you’d call a great swimmer,” the sorcerer admitted.
“Neither am I, unfortunately,” said Xan.
“Am I volunteering for this?” asked Drake. “‘Cos I’ll volunteer…”
“We have a winner,” said Xan, grinning.
“Oh, good,” said Liberty, relieved.
They tied their ropes together and secured the alchemist to one end, in case the rope ladder proved treacherous. Remarkably, it did not, and Drake climbed down without any issue. He reached the large open-topped barrel at the water’s surface. Liberty flipped a light coin down to him, which he caught dexterously. He held it above the water and sought out the opening Mom had mentioned seeing. He spotted the top of it, some twenty-five feet underwater. The others began clambering down the rope ladder one by one.
“Who’s ready to hold their breath?” Drake called up.
“If I have to,” said Liberty.
“Likely. I’ll test to see if the water wants to kill us.” Without further preamble, he dropped into the cold water. It was salty to the taste, and he spit out the mouthful he’d accidentally taken. “Seems all right,” he said. Then he took a deep breath and slipped underwater, swimming for the opening to the west. The others followed.
The passageway proved to be twenty-feet long, and it emerged in a large square chamber twenty-five feet below the surface of the water. A ten-foot-wide pillar of stone in the center of the room rose up to a point ten feet above the top of the water.
What they didn’t see was the giant octopus lurking on the bottom. Until one of its tentacles lashed out and grabbed onto Drake, squeezing him hard.
Xan shot forward through the water and stabbed the creature, drawing its attention. Two tentacles reached out for him and two more for Liberty, wrapping them both up. This did not divert it from squeezing Drake and taking a bite out of him. The alchemist felt poison begin to course through his veins from the beast’s venomous bite.
Unable to cast spells because of her predicament, Liberty drew one of her wands and launched a magic missile at the octopus. Drake struggled against it, trying to grapple the creature back, but it proved too strong and unwieldy for him to make any traction. Mom roared, which, underwater, produced a lot of angry bubbles as he swam forward furiously and laid into the monster with his greatsword. Blood flowed as he sliced off parts of tentacles. Xan stabbed it again, then managed to wriggle free while the creature recoils in pain from the bladed assault.
The octopus turned its full attention toward Mom, forgetting momentarily about holding onto the others. The half-orc evaded its grasping tentacles, but juked right into the beast’s mouth. He managed to resist the poison, as well. Liberty wanded it again, then Drake punched it in the face. His attack was blunted somewhat by the water, but he still managed to strike it solidly.
Mom slashed it once more, and that proved enough to deter the creature from continuing to pursue the adventurers as a meal. It released its victims, jetted out a cloud of ink, and vanished down a wide drain at the bottom of the chamber. The adventurers struggled for the surface, their lungs demanding air.
“HA!” crowed Drake. “That was exhilarating!”
“That’s one way to put it,” said Liberty sourly. Mom grunted.
A short metal ladder reached from the surface of the water to the top of the central stone pillar. Drake helped the others climb the ladder before climbing out himself. On top of the pillar was a large metal lever. A stone platform to the south led to a door.
“Did anyone see another way out of here down in the water? Or is it just this door here?” asked the sorcerer.
“I wasn’t really looking, but I didn’t notice any other exit,” said Xan.
“Gotcha. Do you want to look it over, then?”
“As you wish, milady,” said Xan, eliciting a smirk from Liberty. He headed over to the door and gave it a once over. It was locked, but – again – only briefly. Once his work was complete, he looked back at the others. “Shall we?”
“After you, sir,” said Liberty.
The door opened on a short hallway ending in a T-intersection. The rogue moved quietly to the intersection and looked east and west. Iron double doors capped the wider hall at the west end. The far wall had four doors evenly spaced along its length, with only a lone door to the west on the north wall. While Xan moved to inspect the double doors, the others drank various preparatory philters. Drake hulked out.
Two tables, each surrounded by plain wooden chairs, sat in the middle of the chamber to the west. Unorganized heaps of maps, notes, and books covered each table, and a large map of the Free City hung on the opposite wall. The room was unoccupied.
Liberty glanced over the books before taking a look at the map. “This looks like research, notes about their secret plots. I’ll have to research it more thoroughly.”
“Interesting,” said Xan. “Let’s move on.”
The sorcerer began shoving the tables’ contents into her haversack. “Maybe there’s something in here about why they came after us…”
“There’s room in my pack for more,” offered Mom.
“Oh, good! Thank you,” she said. He grunted in amusement.
Back in the hall, Xan unlocked the nearest southern door. The room beyond contained two comfortable-looking beds, a washbasin, two full-length mirrors, and a large wardrobe. It, too, was unoccupied. “How much you wanna bet the rest of these doors open to very similar-looking rooms?” asked the rogue.
“Might as well kick ‘em in as we go,” said Drake.
Liberty nodded assent, ready to fire upon anyone or anything that needed it.
The door on the north wall opened up into a simple bathroom, but otherwise Xan’s assertion proved correct. Searching the rooms turned up many different styles of clothing and various bits of jewelry scattered throughout the wardrobes. None of it was enchanted, but collectively it did appear to be quite valuable. Except for the easternmost room, which didn’t contain any clothing or jewelry at all.
“You sure you checked everywhere?” Drake called to Xan from the pauper bedroom.
“I thought so,” said the rogue, wandering back into the room. He cocked his head to one side as he looked at the eastern wall of the room. “Hang on. Something’s not right over here.”
Liberty saw him place his hand against the wall, but the others all saw it pass right through. An illusion!
“What are we looking at here, exactly?” the sorcerer asked, confused.
“Fake wall,” said Drake.
When Xan walked through the wall, Liberty’s mind worked out the illusion as well. The small hidden chamber on the far side of the illusory wall was featureless save for a simple iron door that let in a pale blue radiance from the room beyond. The door was not locked, and Xan opened it.
The walls of the tall octagonal chamber were mirrored with a dark black glass reflecting the ghostly blue flames from a trio of magic torches suspended above. A tiny key rested on a small metal table near the door. In the center of the room they saw themselves, each manacled and tied to a chair, struggling to escape. The bound adventurers were dressed in tattered clothes, and each of them was gagged with a dirty rag. At the sight of the unbound versions of themselves, the prisoners began struggling at their bonds, fear and anger evident on their faces.
“Oh, now what fresh hell is this?” said Liberty.
“Well… Uh…” Drake replied smartly.
Mom grunted. “Another damned doppelganger trap.” He cast detect magic, but didn’t see any enchantments or spells other than what his companions carried.
“Key provided,” said Drake, indicating the small table. “Little too easy.”
They entered the room cautiously, and Xan moved around, looking at each of the captive adventurers closely. “They are bound, right? What’s it going to hurt to pull off one of their gags?”
“Could be bad if it’s one of the spellcasters,” said Liberty, approaching herself. “At least it looks like they’re really restrained, unlike those ‘prisoners’ upstairs.” Mom grunted.
Xan nodded. “True. Didn’t think of that. Let’s do Drake, then.” The rogue pulled off the captive Drake’s gag.
“Now you come back as us?” he demanded. “What the Hells is that supposed to do after what you showed us already?”
“Uh… We showed you what?” asked Drake Unbound.
His counterpart ignored the question. “Do your worst! Or cut me lose, and let’s see which of us is more of a man!”
“Okay. I’m scared. It’s official,” said Liberty. Mom grunted in agreement.
“Little…me,” said Drake uncertainly. “I’m a little more than you can handle right now, I think.” He flexed his mutagen-enhanced muscles.
“Stole my juice, too?” said Drake.
“My juice. Stop that,” said Drake.
“You stop!” Drake retorted.
“Is it suicide if I kill me?” Drake asked of his companions.
“Bring it,” said Drake.
“They’re making us-es that don’t even know they aren’t us?!” said Liberty, incredulous. Liberty looked up at herself with pleading eyes. “Oh, gods damn it,” swore the ambulatory sorcerer.
“This is so confusing,” said Xan.
Mom grunted angrily through his gag. Mom sighed in response. “Over half of this place has been some sort of trick to mess with our heads. Keep the bound ones gagged while we figure this one out.”
“I don’t think we are going to get anywhere without questioning them,” said Xan. His counterpart stared all around in confusion, emoting anger.
“You, in the chairs. We’ll do what we can for you, but be silent and patient,” said Mom.
“I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this,” said Drake, taking a step back. “Where are you from, Drake Two?”
“Comfortable?” demanded Drake. “I’m the one tied up and tortured for days!”
“That’s nothing if you really earned those scars,” said Drake.
“You assholes showed me Constance,” said Drake, his voice dropping dangerously. “Fuck your scars.”
Liberty began to cry over her gag, and a flush entered her cheeks like she was heating up. Liberty walked over to her counterpart. Liberty shied away from herself, shrinking as much as was possible in her bound state.
“Whoa,” said Xan. Xan began struggling with his bonds more earnestly.
Drake avoided looking at the crying Liberty and raised a meaty clawed finger to his bound self’s throat. “You’re pushing it, doppelganger.”
“Fuck you. You’re the shapeshifter,” said Drake defiantly.
“Xan, please gag him again,” said Mom.
“I want to hear what they have to say,” said the rogue. “It’s not going to hurt us.”
“It’s pissing us all off and Drake in particular. Better to gag them for now,” insisted the half-orc. Mom the prisoner looked up at everyone thoughtfully, apparently trying to work out the truth.
Drake continued glaring up at Drake while the latter brought his arms back and began to pace like an animal, grumbling. “More illusions. And they obviously researched us.”
“But what can we do?” asked Liberty. “If they really think they are us…” She seemed on the verge of tears herself.
“What do you know about her?” Drake rumbled at his other self, referring to Constance.
“I suggest you start making sense, or things might not go well for you,” said Xan to the bound Drake.
Drake glared up at Xan. “After the shit you all have pulled, you want me to make sense?”
“Enough!” said Mom, eying the mirrored west wall and pulling out his mace. “Prepare yourselves for shattering glass.”
Mom struck the mirrored wall with a resounding crack, but the dark glass held. At the same moment, Drake, Liberty, and Mom all rose from their chairs, shaking off the false shackles and striking at the surprised adventurers. “Drake” and “Liberty” went after themselves, while “Mom” went after Drake. So did “Xan” who until that moment had been Xan. Liberty was struck hard by her counterpart, but some instinct saved Drake from everyone except for “Drake”.
Liberty took a step back from herself. “Gods, but I hate you bastards.” She cast a burning arc on “Liberty” and “Drake”. Even though she knew it wasn’t real, she was shaken by the sight of herself burning. “Mom” charged Mom, but failed to connect. “Drake” flanked Drake, but failed to connect a second time.
Driven by desperation Xan struggled against his actual manacles. Amazingly, heroically even, he managed to slip out of his bonds and tore the gag from his mouth. “You were all fakes! I’ll KILL YOU!!!”
Drake uttered a blood-chilling roar, and leaped upon his false self, claws tearing and teeth gnashing in pent up fury. It was over in a bloody moment, and the doppelganger that had stolen the alchemist’s face fell dead to the floor in a pool of its own gore. In death it reverted to its pasty gray form. Drake then wheeled on the false Xan, but the creature was already moving away from him and toward Xan Actual.
“Xan” tsked at the original and said, “I did so enjoy being you. Pity.” Then he impaled the rogue with his own sword.
“Mom, I need a weapon!” Xan cried.
For his part, the half-orc spun around with a cry of rage and cut “Liberty” in half. Liberty had to turn away from that haunting image, and then sent a foursome of magic missiles streaking into “Xan”. “Mom” swung at Mom twice, but only one of the blows managed to land.
Furious and desperate, Xan swung his fist at the doppelganger that had assumed his life for the last several days. It was ill-advised and he bled a little more as a result, but in his anger he did not care. Drake came after “Xan” and grabbed onto him.
“Your breath is terrible,” said the false Xan, struggling against the alchemical brute. Mom finally dropped a light mace in Xan’s square before making an end of “himself” with extreme prejudice. More magic missiles struck the only remaining doppelganger – “Xan.” The real one swung wildly with the borrowed mace, but he was unused to the weight and still a little lethargic from his time in captivity.
Drake lost his grip on the shapeshifter, and “Xan” put his back to a wall. “Look, I know how formidable you all are. I can’t beat you, but I could be an asset. What do you say?” He gave them Xan’s best grin.
Mom’s response was succinct. He charged. “Xan” stabbed Drake once more as his gambit failed, but it proved to be his penultimate act. The doppelganger fell, coughing up blood all over his borrowed armor. “You… Will still… Fall…” His head fell limply to the side and Xan’s features bled right off of it.
Liberty put on the spectacles. “We’re not hiring right now,” she told the dead doppelganger.
“WHAT THE FLYING FUCK, XAN?” demanded Mom, dropping to the floor to sit as his rage fled him.
Drake turned on the rogue, as well. “Talk,” he growled.
Xan looked at the others, his face more weary than they had ever seen it. He was completely drained. “It will have to be later, Drake. I’m sorry… And… Thank all of you. I still can’t believe it was all a lie.”
“So far, I’m not convinced that the lie is over,” rumbled Drake.
Mom grunted inquisitively as Xan started for the door. “We have to go… Now. My mother and sister are in terrible danger.”
“Your – wait, really?” said Liberty.
“Get your gear,” advised Mom.
“I guess I do need to do that,” said the rogue. He moved over to retrieve his belongings from the dead doppelganger.
“Are they here, in Greyhawk?” asked Liberty while he put his armor on.
“Yes… Living with a doppelganger that they think is my father. I have to get to them before it finds out what’s happened here.”
“Then we move,” said Mom decisively.
“Gods below,” Liberty swore. “How long have you been down here?”
“I’m not sure. Days,” guessed Xan.
The adventurers made their way through the watery passage and returned to the street level of the Sodden Hold. Xan stumbled through the door of the jail, suddenly recognizing his surroundings. He rushed to the cell with the crazy man, but it seemed that he had passed out again. He turned to the others. “I want to introduce you all to my father, Charles Quinn,” he said, serious sadness in his voice.
“Oh, Xan… Oh, gods,” said Liberty. Mom grunted in surprise.
Xan sat down next to his unconscious father, looking extremely haggard. He signed heavily and began to speak.
“If you met him before then you know he is…broken. Mentally. He has been a prisoner of these things for over a year. I’ve been here only a few days and look at me. I can’t imagine the torture he’s been put through for so long.” He got choked up and paused for a moment. He looked beaten, and for the first time that any of them could remember, he didn’t seem to be carefully choosing his words. His next words came from the heart.
“The truth is that I need your help with a very hard decision. It’s not one that I think I can make on my own. Several times in our travels we have come upon a situation where we have had to make a decision between doing what is right, and doing what is best. I have tried in the past to show all of you that blindly doing the right thing is not always the best option… and most every time you have disagreed with me. Well I have to make a decision right now… a very personal one. And I truly wish to hear what you all have to say about it.
“I love my father very much. It tears me up to see what he has become. At first thought I want to carry him out of here, rescue my mother and sister, and reunite my family once again. There is a chance that we can heal his mind and body and that we can get past all of this… and the Quinns would be happy again.” Xan actually smiled at this idea, but it was a fleeting smile.
“However, the odds are against the happy ending. Very against it. I spent enough time with my father in here to know that he has lost all sense. He will spend the rest of his life terrified, and confused, and horribly unhappy. Also, most likely we will reunite my family, and in addition to my mother and sister having to deal with the knowledge that they had been living with an imposter for all this time, they will then forced to deal with my father as he is. They will take him back with open arms, of course. But things will never be right again. He will become a burden to them, and their lives will be forever focused on taking care of him… and watching him be so unhappy despite all their efforts. What kind of a life is that?”
Xan swallowed deeply and proceeded. “The other option is that I end my father’s misery here and now. The idea is unthinkable, I know. How could I even think that? But the truth is, I might be sparing him and my family years of misery. He would be at peace… at rest. And we would tell my mother and sister a much different story of his end. He was strong, and a fighter til the end. He gave his life to help me escape, and his last words was that he loved all of us very much. They would be heartbroken, but it would be quick. And it would heal over time, and we could move on.
“So I ask you… what is the right choice? Doing the good deed in the short term but likely causing much more misery down the road? Or doing the unthinkable…killing my own father…so that in the long run it will be better.
“Please… You are my friends. Help me make the best decision.”
Mom collapsed to the floor in shock, staring at his knees for a long moment. The others found themselves sitting, as well. The tears that Liberty had fought to hold back below started flowing. Drake softly grumbled, “Don’t do what I’ve done, Xan… You won’t want to live with yourself.”
“I agree with Drake,” said Liberty. “If there’s any chance that he can be saved – any chance that something of your father can be brought back into the light – then you have to take it. I know that killing my father would have been like killing myself.” Drake cringed and hunched further into himself.
“In the end, it will be your choice,” said Mom. “But if your father is dead, there is no – no – hope for his recovery. If we take him from here, he may be healed. But that is your choice: to deny hope or accept it and the risks that it brings.” Liberty nodded in agreement.
“So, you all agree then,” said Xan, sounding relieved. “You still believe that doing an evil deed for the greater good is not acceptable. I have to admit, in this case, I was truly hoping that would be your decision. Thank you for that. I needed it.” Then he frowned deeply, and sat quietly for a moment, like he resisted saying more.
“We would never just tell you what you wanted to hear, and you know it,” said Liberty. “What else are friends for?”
“There is one other thing…” said Xan hesitantly. “Something that you must know.”
He paused another moment before saying, “Would your decision change if you knew what Dad told me when we were in the cell together? That my father… is the man that sabotaged Deepspike…”