“I… Uh…” Liberty tried.
Unfortunately, the guards came around to escort all the non-gladiators from the Arena. “We’ll speak more after the tournament,” promised Tirra. “Let your manager know about our arrangement, and I’ll collect your part from him.” She departed without another word, just as Ekaym returned to the table, with a curious glance for the departing elf.
“Well, then. I shall see you on the morrow after the first round when we collect our winnings, yes?” He smiled.
“Sure,” the sorcerer managed to say to Ekaym.
“That sounds about right. It seems there is one other appointment we have made for you as well,” said Xan taking Ekaym aside to let the others to their thoughts.
Drake grumbled, and Liberty gave him a puzzled look. He raised his eyebrows, some, then lifted his head to look back. They were unable to form any words for an uncomfortably long moment. Finally, she said, “And now I have to try to sleep.”
“Just think about torching our opponents tomorrow,” said Drake. “Have a warm drink to put you out. We’ve got a busy day.” He took a long swig off of his flask, then offered it to her. She absently took a pull and almost choked. But it seemed to snap her out of her fugue.
While they discussed business, Xan noticed Ekaym’s continued distraction. His expression grew serious as he said, “Look, if there is something going on that we need to know about before putting ourselves in harm’s way tomorrow, I really think you need to talk to us about it, Honest Minstrel.”
The merchant returned Xan’s gaze thoughtfully for a moment, before nodding. “Perhaps after.”
“Is it something that could affect our actions here in the arena?” The manager shook his head. “Okay, then. But I expect some answers once this is over.”
Ekaym quirked an eyebrow at that. “Heh.”
* * *
All of the gladiators were led to a lift near the northwestern gate, and over the course of the next hour each group was lowered down to the western hall of the understructure. It showed signs of intense recent traffic. The ceiling was supported by a rectangular pillar and by the shell of a circular stairwell. A wooden, life-sized statue of a muscular, half-naked man holding a spear and a horn lay in the southwest corner, where an arcade led to the space of a large hoist. A heap of metal bars, hinges, and locks sat along the north wall, near a ten-foot-wide, three-foot-tall segment of a wooden frieze. The frieze was decorated with the realistic carvings of fruits and a bull’s skull.
“Impressive,” Liberty mused. “Auric makes a little more sense to me now.”
Drake frowned. “How so?”
She waved a hand around. “This place made him what he is, I mean.” Drake grumbled, a begrudging sound.
“The man sure takes himself seriously enough,” said Xan. “Raknian I mean.”
“He does, at that,” agreed Liberty. Mom grunted neutrally.
“It’s always tough dealing with perfectionists,” the rogue continued. “They rarely leave anything to chance.”
With over a hundred fellow gladiators of the most widely varying races and callings any of the adventurers had ever seen, they were led along a curved corridor to a large, irregular hall that seemed to be a major junction – many stairways and passages led in and out. They were all directed down one of these wide stairs to a location even deeper underground to a large partly natural, partly artificial cave. Then one of the guards spoke. “Welcome to the Coenoby, your home until the end of your participation in the games.”
The space was unusually comfortable, smoothly floored, well-lit and warm, and outfitted with an underground stream of fresh water. Here each team was given one of the twenty-four underground lodges available to the gladiators. The place was very crowded, but everyone knew that the number of gladiators would drop to one sixth by the end of the following day, so nobody seemed too worried about it. All gladiators were expected to remain in this chamber until the games began the next day, and the guards did not seem to pay the adventurers any special attention.
Burning Blood was assigned a lodge along the eastern wall, on the north side of a natural tunnel that led out of the Coenoby. “Well, this is better than I expected,” said Liberty. Mom grunted in disbelief.
Drake headed into the quarters and plopped down on the nearest bed, taking another pull off his flask before offering it up. Liberty took another swig and made a face before passing it back. Then the alchemist lay down and shut his eyes.
“Hey Mom, let’s go see what we can see and talk for a bit. I’m not too tired,” said Xan.
“Talk?” the half-orc replied.
“Yes. We have a lot to talk about for tomorrow,” said the rogue. “Talking things out always helps, in my experience.” He took Mom’s arm and started pulling him toward the door, and the cleric allowed himself to be herded.
Once they were well out of the room, Xan said, “Thanks for tagging along. After what Tirra said about Constance, I think Drake and Liberty needed some time to talk.”
Mom grunted in agreement. “We can wander about a bit; I’ll play dumb and ask questions.”
“Nah… Doesn’t seem worth the time tonight seeing as most of these people won’t be here tomorrow. But we can keep our eyes open.” The rogue paused, looking at his companion intently. “What about you, Mom? You are always so quiet. Is Kord still guiding you these days? ‘Cause honestly I can’t see why any God in his/her right mind would have any of their people hang out with me.” Xan grinned.
“Kord’s a little more…relaxed than most other deities,” said Mom. “He’s more about the competitions and the fights than what you do in between them.”
“So you’ve decided to hang out with me on your own, eh? I guess I don’t blame you. I am pretty awesome.” The rogue laughed.
The half-orc sighed and muttered under his breath. “Modest, too…”
“I’m just messin’ with you, Mom. You are a good friend, and I am glad you are here…for whatever reason.”
Mom grunted in agreement.
* * *
“Drake? Did you want to talk about it?” Liberty asked in a tone that suggested she knew the answer.
“Think she’s one of those dopplegangers?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, very matter-of-fact. “But I don’t know why a ‘ganger would be impersonating her here, especially if she didn’t come looking for us.”
“Well, then she left us on purpose without tellin’ us. I don’t like it, I don’t blame her fer’ leavin’, but she obviously didn’t want to stick around for us.”
“You don’t know that,” Liberty said harshly, sitting up. “She was mixed up in all kinds of trouble.”
“Well, she never told me ‘bout any trouble other than working for Purple.”
“She was leaving the Midnight Salute to go work for Boss Smenk.” Liberty looked down at her hands. “Unless that wasn’t true, either.”
“Well, she coulda at least said somethin’ to you. Woman kept things tight an’ to herself. I’m thinkin’ more an’ more I was just the sitter.”
“You don’t know that, either,” she said, a bit of warmth returning to her tone.
Drake sulked for a moment longer then sighed heavily. “Nah… She did what she needed to do.”
“We’ll find her. Or whoever’s wearing her face. I’ll use detect thoughts if I have to. And we’ll get some answers this time.”
Another pregnant silence passed. Finally, Drake broke it. “All I know is she died, part of me died, then I killed off the rest for a while. Findin’ her alive is great, confronting her is terrifyin’, and it’s gonna’ have all kind of hurt.”
“For both of us, Drake. For both of us. But I’ll help you through it.”
He grumbled at that. “I’m just glad we got this tournament to get out some of these feelin’s before we run into her. Maybe punchin’ some of these fools, Auric especially, will put me in a better mood.”
After another pause he said, “Lib… What about Auric? What do ya know ‘bout him…an’ her? You think she came here with him?”
“She didn’t talk about it much, no. I know there was something between them, but I think she broke it off, knowing it couldn’t go anywhere.”
Drake grumbled some more. “A’ight. Probably better I don’t know when we face ‘im.”
“Probably.” It was quiet for another minute. “Try to get some sleep, Drake.”
“Yeah, you too, Lib. Gotta’ big day…”
Liberty stared at the ceiling for a while, pretending not to notice Mom and Xan returning. She eventually fell into a troubled sleep.
* * *
7 Wealsun, 595 CY
When they awoke, they found a crowd had gathered near the meal tables at the north end of the Coenoby – the day’s battles had been posted to the wall near the door to the kitchens, and the gladiators were eager to see who they’d be fighting. All of the gladiators were chattering away, trying to get a read on one another. Some of the teams appeared to be horribly mismatched. Burning Blood was scheduled to fight in the second round, starting at ten AM. Their opponents were the following teams: Arcane Auriga, Badlands Revenge, and Sapphire Squad. The first battle is scheduled for 8:00 am, so they had some time to interact with and appraise their opponents.
“Let’s meet the opposition,” said Drake. “Be fair ‘n’ all, and at least see who we’ll be lookin’ at.”
“I have got your back, Team Leader,” Liberty half-seriously told him as he approached the first of their opponents.
Arcane Auriga consisted of four elven women, lightly armored with bows slung across their backs. They were rumored to have been exiled from the court of Celene for scandalous behavior unbefitting the nobility. The elves weren’t talking about their checkered past, and they appeared to be keeping mostly to themselves. When Drake approached, they started calling out insults and threats that suggested they assumed any man who attempted conversation was a boor seeking companionship.
Drake laughed good-naturedly at the verbal assault, and addressed them in Elvish. “Well, good match to you ladies, then. One blew a raspberry at him, and the others laughed.
Liberty tried next. “He’s dreadful, I know. This is his first time in the tournament, after all.”
The apparent leader quirked an eyebrow. “Your Elvish is merely bad, rather than terrible. I am Rennida Auriga. What is your name, human girl?”
She bowed hick-politely. “I had a good teacher. Liberty Grace, at your service.”
“At my service?” mused the woman. “Then you consent to surrender when our match begins? Wonderful.” Her tone was lightly sarcastic.
“We’ll see where the day takes us, Ms. Auriga,” said the sorcerer.
“Be seeing you,” said Liberty, rejoining the fellows. She pulled a flame-red folding fan from a pocket and began fanning herself vigorously. Mom grunted in amusement.
“I think you know who I’d rather team up with,” she said to Xan.
“They’d put arrows in our backs as soon as they think the other groups are finished,” he replied. “Also, I would rather not end up dealing with spellcasters when it comes down to the finale.”
“Fine,” she sighed.
He pointed her toward another team and said, “This group however, could be a nice hammer to weaken the others.”
Badlands Revenge was a particularly savage group of gladiators led by a human wildman named Joren. A dire badger near his feet snarled at anyone who drew too close, and he was surrounded by three gnoll warriors he’d hired specifically for their skill with halberds.
“I like yer friend,” Drake said, indicating the beast. “Reminds me of my owlbear Devil.”
Joren cast a baleful glare at the alchemist, who grinned back at the man through his burned lips. The gnolls loomed gruffly while Joren examined the adventurers wordlessly. After the silence had stretched to the awkward point, Drake spoke up again.
“Just comin’ to meet. Tell ya’ good fight.”
In a low, feral tone, Joren replied. “Not here to make nice. I’m here to avenge the hundreds of animals killed every year in this gods-cursed Arena by Raknian’s gladiators…”
Drake’s eyes widened. “Can’t argue with you there. See ya on the field, then.”
Xan smiled at Liberty, speaking in a low tone. “A noble soul. My favorite. They are so predictable.” The sorcerer shook her head, clearly in disagreement with the rogue. Mom grunted noncommittally.
Finally, they approached Sapphire Squad. The swashbuckling janni Korush and his pair of blue-cloaked human mercenaries were the most pleasant of the three groups. Korush was more than happy to spend some time before the fight trading stories with the adventurers. He’d entered the Champion’s Games as much as to show off his combat skills as to have a chance at the prize money. Egotistical and proud, Korush levied his doubtful charms (consisting primarily of his battle prowess and improbable stories about his virility) on any female adventurers present.
“Hello, hello, hello,” he said to Liberty solicitously. “What bit of lovely have we here?”
“Liberty Grace, good sir. You are quite an impressive specimen, to stand out in a crowd like this.”
“Aren’t I just?” he grinned, flashing his perfect teeth. “But you, my dove, are as radiant as a bonfire. Burning Blood, was it? You certainly set my heart aflame.”
She found her hand in his and left it there for a time. “And you have yet to see my fire in full flower.”
He smirked lazily. “For you, I would risk the fires of the hells themselves. We are of a kind, I think.”
“Fire in the blood, Korush?”
“By birth, certainly,” he admitted with a flourish. “But mayhap you do not know of my people, the janni. It would be my great pleasure to teach you everything there is to know. Intimately. Thoroughly.”
“This is a tempting offer,” she said. “If you will pardon me, a moment, I must discuss…arrangements with my comrades in arms.”
Korush quirked an eyebrow. “I am not so much into the menfolk, but if I must share, then I can adapt.”
She laughed at that, but not spitefully. “It could be a glorious day for both of us.” She reclaimed her hand and slunk off to find the boys. The janni waved goodbye, and a moment later he was chatting up another lady.
The others could see Mom restraining himself from stepping up. “Guess I’m not the only pretty face around here,” Drake joked to diffuse the half-orc’s ire. Even so, the alchemist was not able to keep a frown from his own face, as though he’d just bitten into something bitter.
“Oh, don’t fret, Drake. I might be able to get you a chance to bed him, too.” Liberty winked, drawing an appalled expression from the alchemist. “So: strategy?”
“Well played, Lib,” said Xan. “You’ve already got hooks into one of the groups. Unless, of course…he got his hooks into you too? Do you trust him?”
“Oh, sure,” she said. “I think Korush will fight with us, at least until it’s just us and the Sapphires. He doesn’t seem like he even knows how to lie.”
“Whup them all and let Kord sort them out?” grumbled Mom.
“In the end, yes. We have to do that to move forward. But it will be easier if we create a temporary alliance to put the odds in our favor. If I read Liberty right, she had the same idea. Or…maybe she just woke up in a really good mood this morning.” The rogue grinned.
“I just hope he doesn’t expect anything for helping us,” said Liberty. “At least I stocked up on night-tea.” Mom grunted noncommittally.
“S’ a shame we have to beat Joren,” said Drake. “Seems a good sort. Likes animals.” Mom gave him a sidelong look, but the alchemist ignored it. “It’ll be fun to watch Korush face off with the elven witches.”
“Keep your eye on the prize, Drake,” said Xan. “We are not here to win a tournament…but to take down Raknian. Hey… I guess that would actually be helping Jorun in the long run, wouldn’t it?”
Xan’s comment drew a couple of curious glances, and he realized he must have spoken louder than he’d intended.
Drake tried to cover. “Uhhrm… What? I thought we were in it to bet on ourselves and make some serious dough.”
Wincing, Xan changed the subject and lowered his voice. “Want to close the deal on the Sapphire Squad, Lib?”
”’Want’ is a strong word. I ‘will’ take that one for the team.” As she walked back over toward the janni, they could hear her muttering about how far she’ll end up having to take it.
“Korush! Tell me, great inferno, would you consider an alliance on the field?”
“I could never refuse you, glorious sun-woman,” he replied gamely. “Tell me which team you wish vanquished first, and I will see to it.”
“Arcane Auriga, o great blaze. Pray show them mercy if they ask for it, though.”
“Your fire has the warmth of compassion as well as beauty and light. It will be as you say.”
Liberty came back to her companions. “It’s settled. We’ll face Joren, while Korush keeps the elves busy,” she said.
“Nothing left to do but get ready to fight I guess,” said Xan.
Drake cracked his knuckles. “Yep, time to shine.”
While they’d been talking to the competition, the first four teams had departed, leaving the rest of the gladiators to wait and wonder for a good fifteen minutes. Even this far down, the roar of the crowds was thunderous. The Skull of Murq was the team that returned victorious from the first round. Some of the other teams’ members returned to the Coenoby to recover any belongings they’d left there. But not all.
* * *
Shortly before ten AM, a group of guards gathered Burning Blood and their opponents and escorted them all back up to the entrance hall beneath the arena. The groups were raised up to the battlefield above, one at a time, as Talabir Welik (using a magically amplified voice so all could hear) announced each of the teams, along with the name of the team’s leader and a short description of the team’s specialty. For Arcane Auriga, he commented on the elves’ deadly precision with their arrows. For Badlands Revenge, it was the team’s frothing savagery. For Sapphire Squad, it was the team’s skill at mounted combat – and indeed, Korush’s men-at-arms had horses waiting for them in the arena. For Burning Blood, he touted the team’s penchant for fire and fury.
During the recitation, the other teams began casting spells and quaffing potions. The adventurers decided it was prudent to follow suit, and started their own preparations. Liberty and Drake concentrated on buffs and protective spells, and Xan quaffed his potion of invisibility. “You’ll find me at Joren’s back,” he murmured.
Talabir’s patter came to a crescendo. “Gladiators! Begin!”
The elves opened fire upon Korush and his mercenaries, and Rennida cast mirror image. In response, the horsemen charged the archers, and Korush, who’d grown to large size during the preparation, disappeared. Joren remained behind his gnolls, called fired to his hand and lobbed a bit of it at one of the archers, scorching the woman and eliciting a yelp of pain. Drake and Mom advanced toward Badlands Revenge, closing most of the distance. Then Liberty drew power through the mind flayer’s magic rod and most of the alchemist’s targets exploded violently. Two of the gnolls and the dire badger collapsed in flames. Joren and the third gnoll survived the empowered fireball, and the wildman wore an expression of fury.
The flames in her blood sang to see her foes burn so brightly, and she flashed a smile in Korush’s imagined direction. “Here is the full flower of my fire!” she cried rapturously.
The remaining gnoll rushed Drake and brought its halberd down in a vicious chop, and the alchemist bled. The archers unloaded again, dropping one of the horsemen, and Joren stepped up to Mom, the rage in his heart flowing out of his eyes and lending him greater strength. He impaled the half-orc with his spear, and nearly knocked him down with the fury of his assault. Drake smashed his electrified spiked gauntlet into the gnoll, doubling it over with the first swing, and putting it down with the second. He let out a bellowing laugh as the carnage continued. Liberty sprinted across the arena to catch up with her teammates. Mom kept his own rage in check and swung his new greatsword with careful control, opening two new gashes in his barbaric opponent. The remaining horseman fell riddled with arrows after taking out one of Rennida’s images.
Korush finally reappeared in midair and stabbed the elf leader deeply with his scimitar. In response, she took a cautious step back and launched a fireball of her own, on the tip of an arrow. The janni juked out of the way, and the missile flew past him to explode harmlessly above the crowd – though they certainly felt the heat of the explosion. Joren’s spear was a blur as he stabbed Mom yet again. Drake rushed toward the archers, but once again, Liberty dropped an empowered fireball on his would-be targets. He flinched as the flames washed over him, but the heat was all absorbed in the protective spell Liberty had cast on him previously. He blinked in momentary confusion as all of the elves burned to death in an instant. Korush was also caught in the blast and cursed in the sorcerer’s head. What the fuck, you treacherous bitch?!
Across the arena, Xan reappeared behind Joren and brought his sap down hard on the back of his head. The wildman reached a hand back to feel the lump forming there, and staggered woozily. “Do you yield, Joren?” Mom asked, readying his blade.
After only a moment’s consideration, the wildman’s spear hit the ground and he dropped to his knees, hands raised. “Aye, I yield.”
“Thank you,” said the half-orc, moving between Liberty and Korush since the latter was looking at the former murderously.
Then Korush disappeared again. You’ll come to regret that, Liberty heard in her head.
“You would have done the same to me, you pig!” she yelled aloud.
Believe what you will. It was not I who broke our pact.
“Korush!” Drake bellowed, casting about for the invisible janni. “Better say uncle! ‘Cuz I’m gonna find you!” He pulled a potion and moved toward his companions. “Regroup!” he commanded, before drinking the healing infusion.
“Liberty moved between Drake and Mom, casting mirror image, and her expression was a little troubled. “Um… Did I fuck up here, guys?” she asked, doubt in her tone. “Nobody’s gonna ally with us gain, I know it.” Mom grunted noncommittally and moved to stand beside her, greatsword ready to strike.
Xan thought to appeal to the enraged janni’s sense of self-preservation. “Korush, I have no doubt you can hurt one of us badly, but you know as well as I do that you will fall to the rest of us seconds later. Surrender now and we can talk later about what happened.”
His entreaty fell upon deaf or uncaring ears. Korush reappeared flying above the arena, and loosed an arrow at Liberty, astoundingly picking out the sorcerer from her five illusory duplicates! The missile impaled her, and she cried out in pain. The janni floated ten feet up, sneering down at Burning Blood.
He should have flown a bit higher.
“Say uncle,” Drake repeated as he stepped up and grabbed hold of Korush’s leg, pulling him out of the air and into a grapple. Liberty’s magic missiles pounded the janni senseless, and he stopped moving. With the last of the opponents dead or defeated, the victorious gladiators expected a bit more of a reaction from the crowd. Stunned silence and murmurs as the audience stared and pointed out the two huge scorch marks and the blackened bodies therein.
Drake dropped his lifeless corpse. “I said to say uncle…”
“He got what he deserved,” Liberty snapped, holding her hands at her sides to keep them from shaking.
The alchemist cocked an eyebrow at her. “Urm Lib… I ain’t got lots of room to talk… But you toasted him… Ah forget it, we won.”
“Not the way I would have played it, but what’s done is done,” said Xan. “Being public enemy number one has its own kind of advantages. We’ll just have to handle it differently.”
Raknian’s voice projected across the arena, proclaiming Burning Blood the victors, though there was only scattered applause, quickly silenced. Ekaym took the trophy and the bag of prize money, and the gladiators were escorted back down to the Coenoby.
Joren came up to them after gathering his few belongings. He carried the dire badger, which was singed but not dead. He stared moodily for a long moment before speaking. “I’m not the man to bring this Arena down. But you might be.” He nodded, apparently having said his piece, and walked toward the waiting guards to be escorted back to the surface.
“We’ve surely tipped our hand,” said Drake. “Expect anyone packing magic who watched to be ready for fire next time.”
“It’s not my only trick,” Liberty said.
Half an hour later, Ekaym paid them a visit in the Coenoby. “You certainly made a splash on your first time out,” he said. “I think the audience didn’t know what to make of you.” His gaze lingered on Liberty a moment longer than any of the others. “At any rate, congratulations!”
Then his manner grew more serious, and he took them aside to their chambers, where he began to speak in a low tone. “I have a confession to make. While it’s nice that you turned out to be pretty good gladiators (though the crowd would appreciate a somewhat longer spectacle), I must admit that I had a hidden motive for entering you in the games. Let me tell you about my sister…”