“What…?” Liberty paused and looked back over her shoulder at Drake’s pronouncement.
“Stupid damned orc,” Xan cursed, obviously upset. “He did that on purpose, keeping that thing away from us.”
“Keep moving, Mom’s gone,” said Drake.
The sorcerer was at a loss for words as Drake passed her by. A moment later she snapped out of it enough to start trying to keep up. “We’ll get him raised,” she said as she walked. “Eligos will know somebody. Constance will know somebody. We’ll get him raised.”
“Yeah… We’ll see. After all this he may just prefer the rest in Kord’s court,” said Drake.
“No. He wouldn’t do that … not while we still need him.” She sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than anyone else.
“We have the resources, I’m sure,” said Xan. “But it was still stupid. There were other options. Mom never wanted to think things through past his gut instincts. When we wake his ass back up I’m going to slap the shit out of him.”
Drake grumbled as they kept moving. “The gas didn’t bother me. Bastard should have gotten out. Can’t bother with it now. Beyond our reach for the moment.” His voice trailed off into something unintelligible.
Liberty nodded. “Either way, we’ve got to get back and get a little sleep. I’m all but out of spells now.”
“Didn’t we just find some oil or something that can preserve a body?” Xan asked. “We can keep him in good shape.”
“The gentle repose oil. Yes,” she confirmed.
“Let’s clean him up and get him in a state that can be at least … taken care of, and get some rest,” suggested Drake.
“Okay … we’ll get cleaned up in the room. Does anyone have a problem sleeping with Mom there?”
Liberty paused before replying. “I guess we’ll find out.”
They made their way back to the Coenoby, dragging Mom’s body through the watery passageway. Xan kept an eye out for any witnesses as they made their way back into the bunkroom. Once they’d smuggled the half-orc’s body into their assigned chamber, the rogue went through Mom’s things to find the oil and some cure wands. They applied the oil, then tended to their own wounds with the wands. Drake did what he could to make the bludgeoned, frozen, and acid-scarred body look presentable.
Xan grumbled and complained at Mom’s body the entire time, his sadness clearly exhibited with anger at his friend for causing said sadness. Liberty seemed numb, and didn’t say much, clearly hoping that everything would be better in the morning.
“You know, not sure I was ready for this. Ain’t really gonna’ sleep tonight… Not like this,” said Drake.
That drew Liberty out of her silence. “We have to try, Drake.”
Drake searched around and produced a flask, took a long pull from it, and handed it to the sorcerer – it was mostly empty. She sighed, took a swig, and passed it back. Then she lay down, watching the alchemist roll over to face the wall. She heard Xan tossing and turning on his bunk for a long time before finally falling asleep.
* * *
9 Wealsun, 595 CY
At daybreak of the third day, the remaining gladiator teams awakened to discover that the fight schedules for the second round had been posted. Burning Blood was scheduled to fight at two o’clock against Pitch Blade.
“Do we know them?” asked Liberty, clearly running on fumes.
Drake shook his head. “Nope, but we can deal with that later, let’s try to reach Honest Minstrel.”
Xan nodded. “I think we should look into what to do about Mom. I don’t know what the rules say about this contingency. Can we get a replacement, or is it just the three of us until we can get him back?”
Liberty shrugged. “The only people I see right now that we know at all are Auric and Khellek.”
“I think we need to ask Ekaym,” said Drake. “I don’t want to deal with Auric with this whole mess.”
“Fuck Auric,” said Xan. Then he strode over to the nearest guard to get information.
“I would rather not,” Liberty joked wearily. Then she followed Xan, but stayed a few paces back. Drake caught up to her, frowning.
They watched the rogue struggling to make any headway with the obstinate guard for a moment. Then the alchemist whispered to the sorcerer. “Why are we dealing with a guard and going the long way when we have someone who knows more about this whole mess than us?” She looked up at Drake, waiting for an explanation.
“We got sponsors, folk on the outside, er … Tirra … ahem … an’ Honest Minstrel. I thought we were gonna try to raise Mom? Why are we bothering if we’re gonna’ try that?”
“Because they aren’t here yet, Drake,” said Liberty.
“So why not have the guard send for ‘em instead of dealin’ with his smart-mouth.”
“It sounds like Xan’s trying that, and it isn’t working.”
The rogue’s frustration finally peaked. “Look, I know you are just poking a little fun, but it’s really not the best time. If you could actually help I’d be grateful.”
“How grateful?” asked the guard. “What is it you want, anyway?”
“I need to speak to an official. There has to be someone in charge of making decisions when something out of sorts occurs during the tournament.”
“Rules o’ combat are cut an’ dry. Any violations means disqualification.”
“And outside of combat?” Liberty interjected.
“Violation. Means. Disqualification,” he repeated slowly. Condescendingly. “Might be that I could pass word to the referee that you’d like a refresher course. If…”
“Ah … now we actually get somewhere,” said Xan. “We have referees. Great. Please pass word that there has been a death overnight and we need to discuss it.”
“What?! Who, then?!” Murmurs started up around the Coenoby. Everyone seemed suddenly attentive, either listening closely to the conversation between Xan and the guard and/or looking around to try to figure out who was missing. The dwarf brothers of Pitch Blade watched with particular interest.
“Mom, our half-orc companion is dead,” said Xan. Liberty hung her head, partly out of sorrow, partly to sell the drama.
The guard was unmoved. “Guess ‘e ain’t gonna make roll call then. That’s a disqualification.”
“You mean all I had to do was kill a member of all the other teams and we would have won because everyone else was disqualified? Why didn’t I think of that?” Xan cried angrily.
The guard blinked at the rogue. “Another gladiator killed ‘im, then? Got proof?”
“We just found him dead in our room not long ago. Give me time and I will find the proof you want.”
The guard glanced over to the board. “Ye got ‘til two o’ the afternoon, looks. Either way. We got a death. Must be reported. Show me the body.”
“We’ve already tended to the body,” said Xan. “We have the means to raise him as soon as we can meet our manager.”
“I don’t care what you intend. You can see him once you’ve forfeited your match. If there’s a corpse in my Coenoby, I deal with that.” He gestured and another of the guards began marching toward Burning Blood’s bunkroom.
Xan held up a hand to forestall the other guard. “He won’t be moved. If you want to look at him, then that’s fine. But we’ve already had one of our own murdered in the night and I have no reason to rule out a bought guard as the murderer. The hell with the tournament … my friend will be kept safe.” His voice grew louder toward the end.
The guard was nonplussed. “The corpse … will be moved. This ain’t no mortuary.”
“Only if we are allowed to carry him out ourselves,” said Xan.
“So long as ‘e gets gone. You leave the Coenoby and yer out of the tournament. But as you say, you don’t care about that.”
Liberty came up to support Xan and the guard gave her an uncomfortable look. “Really,” she said as she approached, “the Temple of Kord should be the ones to come and collect him.”
A tense moment passed before the guard finally said, “Get word to ‘em, then.”
“Thank you,” she said, sickly-sweetly.
Xan moved back to the room to secure Mom… not to stop guards from looking. Once the presence of a corpse had been verified, one of the guards went to inform the powers-that-be. Talabir, the emcee who’d announced the tourney rules at the dinner and talked up each team in the first match, showed up within the hour.
He offered bland condolences for Burning Blood’s loss and confirmed the guard’s assertion that without the team meeting for role call at the allotted time, they would be disqualified. “Your manager will be notified. It’s his loss, too,” added the wizard.
“We hope to have him raised before then,” said Liberty. “Is there no way we can make a … a substitution if we need to? Surely, after my prior, unsportsmanlike performance, the crowd would love to see me get my comeuppance.”
Talabir inclined his head. “A bold plan. Yes, yes. I’ll inform … what was his name? Smallcask? of the situation after the first bout and he can try to get it sorted out.”
“Ekaym Smallcask, yes. The Honest Minstrel. I … we all would be most grateful, Talabir.”
“Sure, hey.” The wizard offered a small half-hearted smile. Helpful he might be, but that did not make him enthusiastic.
* * *
Perhaps an hour after the first bout, Honest Minstrel showed up in the Coenoby.
“Ekaym! Thank all the gods,” said Liberty.
“What happened?” he asked fretfully.
“We’ll tell you, but somewhere with more privacy than here.”
Drake coughed. “Yeah, it’s a bit much to take in…”
They retreated to the bunkroom that still held Mom’s body – a courtesy Talabir had extended.
“We were searching the complex for Lahaka, and we ran afoul of a demon,” Liberty explained. “Mom gave his life so that we could escape…”
The bard’s eyes widened. “Gods…. Talabir said you mean to have him raised. I don’t have that kind of cash on hand, but I assume you had some means, so I sent word to the temple of Kord.”
“We do, yes. Between us, anyway,” said the sorcerer.
He nodded. “Let’s just hope it’s enough for a miracle.”
“If … if he doesn’t come back, though, we need to make a – a substitution.”
Ekaym looked thoughtful. “I wonder if such a thing is possible. I haven’t read the rules in their entirety. It was a long and ponderous text. Perhaps the wizard would know. Eligos, I mean.”
“Maybe. Talabir seemed unopposed to the notion.”
“I could care less at this point,” Xan said hotly. “Mom is so much more important. Besides, we’ve learned all we need to know about this place already… that was the purpose of pretending to be gladiators, right?”
Honest Minstrel turned toward the rogue. “You have? You found Lahaka? Where is she?”
“Ehh…” said Drake, holding up a finger and looking at Xan. “I’m not good at these things.”
“We found out what happened to her, Ekaym. I’m sorry, but she is gone. The necromancers and demons down here saw to that.”
“I am sorry for your loss, but at least you know the truth, now,” Liberty added.
He slumped on the bunk where he sat. “I….” He took a steadying breath. “I imagined her murdered, but not….”
“We believe she was murdered. Then… animated,” said Liberty.
Ekaym paused a moment to digest that, then frowned in determination. “Tell me everything.”
Liberty obliged. When she was finished, he looked a shade paler than before. “Strangled… And, a serpent insignia, you say?” Anger entered his frown.
“Yes. About here,” said Liberty, pointing to her own neck. She pulled out her journal and showed him the sketch she’d drawn of the snake. “Does it mean anything to you?”
He studied it carefully for a long moment. “Yes… Yes, I believe it does. And Laha- the zombie was left behind when you had to flee?”
“I’m afraid so,” said Liberty. “Believe me, to see it would have broken your heart. It nearly broke mine.”
He nodded, his expression softening for a moment. “I appreciate your kindness, Miss Grace.” Then his features hardened again. “If it can be retrieved, I believe that will be the evidence I need.” He stood. “I thank you. Now, let us see to poor Mom.”
Xan spoke up again. “Ekaym, we earned the right to know what you know about it. Please tell us.”
“You shall have it,” said the bard. “Not here, though. Too many ears for the accusations to be leveled.”
* * *
The Kordites showed up half an hour later, and cast a preliminary speak with dead spell. The priest asked the first question: “Are you willing to return to the mortal realm to live again among friends?”
Mom’s face took on the semblance of life as the spell took hold, and his familiar voice rose from it. “The ale is sweet, and I can see Mother. The games are good and there’s no pain.” Then they heard a grunt of contentment.
Liberty squeezed her eyes shut at the sound. “Sounds nice,” Drake muttered, hanging his head. Xan shook his head in frustration, tears forming in his eyes. He left the room, and the priest watched him go, sympathy in his eyes.
The aged Kordite inclined his head and addressed the living. “That’s a no, then. You get three more questions. Ask what you will.”
Drake let out a deep sigh. “I’ll leave the questions to you, Lib. I just want Mom to know that he’s missed and we’ll see him soon.” He thought he heard the half-orc grunt appreciatively.
Liberty looked up at the alchemist, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Are you sure? We won’t get this chance again.” Drake nodded wordlessly, and she turned back toward the body. “Mom? Did you – do you have any messages for … for anyone you left behind?”
“I knew that it could come to this. I was prepared.”
“Speak for yourself,” she said, choking on the words.
“Yeah, that’s a good one…” Drake grumbled.
“I don’t know what else to ask him,” said Liberty. “Mom? Did you leave anything unfinished?”
The body grunted affirmatively.
She laughed nervously. “Crap, I should have been more specific. What did you leave unfinished? Anything we can help you with?”
“Nothing to do about it now. Life is over and there’s no second chance at a lost love.” A final affectionate grunt preceded the semblance of life slowly fading from Mom’s features. All that remained was a look of contentment.
Liberty’s tears began to flow freely and without regard. Drake dropped a heavy hand on her shoulder; she leaned her head against his arm, and he wrapped her up in a sympathetic hug. She puddled into the embrace. “G’bye Mom,” he rumbled. “Been an honor. We’ll miss you.”
The priest waited for a respectful moment before speaking again. “We’ll take him to the temple. You can see to his affairs whenever you are able.”
“Yeah, that’d be nice. Thanks,” said Drake. The old man nodded and his acolytes began collecting the body.
Mom’s journal sat heavily on his bunk as his brethren carried him out of the Coenoby. Once she finally got her tears back under control, Liberty extricated herself from Drake’s kindly grapple and reached out to pick it up.
“He’d probably like you to have that, Lib,” said Drake.
“He said he was prepared.” Her voice cracked like ice on every word. “Maybe this is what he meant.”
“Well, read it with caution…. Don’t let the loss consume you later. We got to fight still, and we’ve got to maintain control. We can mourn all we want afterward, and I plan to make sure he’s honored somehow.”
“All right.” She held it, still closed, to her chest. “I should wait to read it.” Wiping tears from her eyes, she concluded, “Not sure I could stand to cry any more today.”
* * *
Ekyam hadn’t gone far, and he found Xan out in the Coenoby. He glanced over toward the bunkroom, as if expecting Mom to walk out. “Well?”
“The selfish git bailed on us,” said the rogue. “He’s having too good a time with Kord to care about us anymore.”
Ekaym took an involuntary step back. “I … I see. Do … do you wish to continue with the investigation? All we have is your testimony about what you’ve seen, and I do not know that it will be enough to condemn a man of Raknian’s means. I … I would hate for Mom to have died for nothing.”
“Me … I never wanted to be here in the first place,” said Xan. “Raknian had already put a hit out on us. That was enough for me. If it was my choice I’d deal with Raknian behind closed doors and the law be damned. But Liberty will want to go on … and so will Drake.” The rogue sighed deeply. “And for some reason I give in to them over and over despite my instincts. So, I’ll do it for them.”
Honest Minstrel nodded. “For what it’s worth, I thank you, Alexander. You … You’re willing to make sacrifices for the sake of your friends’ consciences, if not your own. In my book, that makes you a good man.” He placed a comradely hand upon Xan’s shoulder.
Xan huffed. “Yeah … Keep that to yourself, eh? I can’t be a real player in this city if people think I’m soft.”
The bard placed a hand over his heart. “You have my word on that. And be assured, Raknian will pay. In the meantime, I will speak with Talabir, and see what we can figure out regarding this disqualification.”
* * *
It was a tense few hours waiting for word from Ekaym about a replacement. It came almost down to the wire before he returned, leading a flamboyantly dressed young man.
Liberty, having changed into the black mourning outfit she’d worn at Constance’s funeral, raised an eyebrow beneath the veil as the men approached.
“Errr… Who’s the fop?” said Drake.
“It took quite a bit of arguing, but we have persevered,” said Ekaym. “This, my fine gladiators, is Zanipolo Uberto Lucentio di Mezzanotte, Radiant Servant of Pelor the Sun Father.” The bard’s usual sense of flair seemed to have returned.
“Signora Grace, Signore Quinn, Signore Drake,” said di Mezzanotte, performing a formal bow.
Drake cocked a questioning eyebrow and extended a hand of welcome. “Signore. Call me Drake.”
“Signorina,” said Liberty, smiling for the first time in hours.
“I crave your pardon, Signorina Grace.”
Xan spoke up. “We’ve had a rough day, my friend, so I apologize for the muted greeting. That’s quite a name. Do we call you … Zan?”
“We had better not,” said Liberty.
“For now, di Mezzanotte will do,” said the priest with a slight, but friendly, smile. “We have just only met, after all.”
“All right. I take it Ekaym here has told you our situation?” she asked.
The man nodded. “But of course. Even so, I would have sought you out after the Games, for my order has sent me to inquire about your learnings and offer what aid I may.”
“Oh! Good. Very good.”
Ekaym nodded in approval. “All acquainted now? Then I shall leave you to your work. Good luck!” The bard exited the Coenoby.
“I hope you prayed for battle today, di Mezzanotte,” said Xan. “Because you are about to find it.”
As if on cue, the guards collected Burning Blood and the dwarves of Pitch Blade – Drusfan and Pharbol – and escorted the gladiators back to the arena.
“Finally a distraction,” said Drake.
As before, Talabir went through the lengthy introduction of each team, during which time, the dwarves began quaffing potions. The adventurers made their own preparations as well, while their opponents began to shout, curse, and do their utmost to intimidate them. Di Mezzanotte made a rude gesture back at them, and Drake roared once he had finished juicing. Xan looked over to the dwarves and somehow managed to appear to be lounging on his feet, not even bothering to draw his weapons. Liberty gave them her best understated creepy smile.
After the fanfare, Talabir instructed the gladiators to begin!
Liberty sprinted forward before anyone else could react and cast lightning bolt on Drusfan. The doughty dwarf grunted as the electricity arced through his body. Drake chased after Liberty, palming a fly infusion and handing it off to the sorcerer. “Drink it and get airborne,” he instructed in a low voice.
Xan advanced, keeping his distance from the others. His mithral rapier and enchanted short sword gleamed in the light as he drew the blades on the move. Di Mezzanotte sauntered forward and prayed to the Shining One for a blazing flame strike centered between the dwarves. Pelor obliged the priest and sent a stream of holy fire down upon the pair. With a flip of his hair, the newest addition to Burning Blood waved to the screaming crowd.
Once the column of flame had burned out, the dwarves shouted: ”YOUR BLOOD MAKES NOISE!” and took to the air in a charge. Directly at Liberty.
“So much for that airborne plan…” groused Drake.
The sorcerer managed to evade one of the raging dwarves entirely, but the second brought a burning bastard sword across in a vicious arc, slicing through her spell protections and into her side. Her retort to the sudden assault was to escape. She stepped through a conjured dimension door then drank the potion Drake had given her.
For his part, the ‘roided out alchemist reached out and grabbed Pharbol and pulled him out of the sky and into a pin. “I gotcha, little guy,” he crowed.
“That is quite the hug, Signore Drake,” commented di Mezzanotte.
“Yeah, should be good,” he replied offhandedly. To the other dwarf he taunted, “Come get yer brother!”
“Fook you, Not-a-Threat!” shot back Drusfan, eyeing Liberty solicitously.
Xan moved up to the pinned dwarf and slid his rapier between Pharbol’s ribs. Somehow, the blade didn’t come back nearly as bloody as he would have expected. The sun priest prayed for an admonishing ray to dissuade the unpinned dwarf from pursuing the sorcerer, but Drusfan was unmoved. While his fellow struggled against Drake, the free barbarian rushed Liberty again. Xan’s rapier flashed quickly, scoring a shallow cut, but it proved sufficient to distract the dwarf sufficiently for Liberty to get out of the path of his sword at the end of the charge.
“You are truly lacking in manners, Signore,” di Mezzanotte observed.
Liberty took one dainty step back and blasted outward with a cone of
cold heat that managed to burn both dwarves. Drake then reestablished his pin on Pharbol then took a bite out of him. Xan unloaded a flurry of attacks on the pinned target, bleeding him a bit more. The priest sauntered up to Liberty and said, “With your permission, Signorina?” She nodded and he prayed for healing energy that washed over the sorcerer and left her fully restored and refreshed. Di Mezzanotte flipped his hair again.
Pharbol continued struggling against Drake, but he’d lost a lot of blood and with it some portion of his strength. Drusfan growled and stepped up to Liberty, laying into her with his sword. The first swing struck true, but it caused him to lose his balance and she danced back from the second. ”That is no way to treat a lady!” the priest scolded.
Loud enough for the crowd to hear, Liberty shouted at the dwarf. “Yield while you still can!” Her threat seemed to have penetrated Drusfan’s rage, but he still looked intent on pursuing the fight. “Well, I tried this time,” she said to di Mezzanotte.
Across the arena, Drake put Pharbol in a sleeper hold. “Just pass out, buddy…” he rumbled. The dwarf did just that, slipping peacefully into unconsciousness. Xan sprinted across the distance to join the fight against the remaining dwarf. Di Mezzanotte addressed his opponent. “I find this distasteful, Signore, but if you will not yield…?” The dwarf snarled at him, and received a heavy mace to the face for his trouble. “You were offered a chance, Signore…” said the priest, sounding almost apologetic.
Drusfan continued to ignore the others and bear down on Liberty, slicing through her defenses again. “Can’t say I didn’t try,” she said, taking a deep breath and expelling an empowered fiery dragon’s breath upward into the flying barbarian. All that remained was a smoking dwarf-shaped cinder that slowly floated to the ground.
The crowd cheered loudly when the adventurers defeated Pitch Blade, and in several sections the enthusiastic spectators begin chanting. “Burning Blood! Burning Blood!” Still others were chanting “Drake! Drake! Drake!” who dropped the dwarf and beat his chest in response with a roar. A few cries even went up for: “Li-ber-ty! Li-ber-ty!” who flew up into the air, waving and encouraging those in the crowd who weren’t booing. Di Mezzanotte took several hammy bows himself, and Xan smiled as he watched the others step into the spotlight.
The sorcerer took a circuit, then touched down next to the priest. “That was good work. Thanks.”
Raknian declared Burning Blood the winners, and Ekaym once more collected the prize money from the Free City Arena owner. If their exchange was tense, it was well hidden.