22 Flocktime, 595 CY (A few days before…)
Xan collected the items for sale in the group’s bag of holding and headed out to the market to make some money. He knew several people in town already that would give him good prices on what they found in the swamp, so he wasted no time. Within a couple short hours, his coin purse was full, and he was heading back to the inn.
Unfortunately he would never make it. Halfway down one of the quieter alleys something felt very wrong, and Xan stopped in his tracks. He carefully scanned the alley, looking for anything out of place. But he saw and heard nothing. Shrugging, he relaxed and started down the alley again. And then there was only blackness.
Two men quickly scooped Xan’s limp body up and threw it into a crate waiting on a nearby wagon. Within seconds they had disappeared into the crowd.
* * *
Xan was awoken by a bucket of very cold water. He found himself bound to a chair in a nondescript room. The man holding the bucket was behind him, and laughed as Xan struggled to turn to see him.
“Those bindings are magical, Xan. You will not be able to free yourself. You might as well accept that you are going to be our ‘guest’ for as long as we find it amusing.” Xan was less shocked to learn his situation than he was to realize that he was hearing his own voice.
The speaker then walked around and into view, and Xan was looking straight into his own eyes. The man was his perfect twin, even down to the clothing he wore. However, a moment later the man’s form shifted into Drake, and then to Liberty, and then to Mom, and finally it changed into a very thin, featureless grey form. Xan could only assume it was this thing’s natural form.
“We know much about you and your friends, Xan. You have all become guests of me and my associates. Others of my kind will be assuming your persona and taking actions to advance our agenda. Meanwhile, you and your friends are here for my amusement … at least until we kill you.” A sickly grin formed on the doppelganger’s face, then it moved over to a box sitting on a table on the other side of the room. Opening the box, Xan could see him pull out a sapphire the size of a small fist.
“The others have no idea we are changelings. That would spoil the fun. But we did need to reveal ourselves to one of you to perform the ritual. You were the lucky one that we picked. Don’t worry, though. The ritual itself doesn’t hurt. We’ll save that for later.”
With that the man brought the sapphire in front of Xan and began to chant. The rogue had never taken the time to learn much about magic, so it all seemed pretty silly to him. However, after a few minutes Xan noticed something that seemed like glowing blue smoke being drawn into the sapphire. It was coming from his head, but Xan felt nothing. After another moment, it was done.
The man peered into the gem. “Now we know everything you do. This little gem will give us the knowledge we need to make our ruse completely believable. It’s too bad you won’t ever leave this place to see the mischief that you and your friends are going to cause.”
Then the man pulled out a syringe and plunged it into Xan’s neck. He felt his veins burning for several painful seconds and then everything went black once again.
* * *
When he next awoke, Xan found himself behind bars. The jail cell was small, consisting only of a straw mat and a chamber pot on a dirt floor. The sides and back walls were stone, and the front was made of thick iron bars set directly into the masonry. Upon the mat was a man sleeping face down; his breathing was labored. His clothes were basically in rags, and he looked like he hadn’t seen a barber or a bath in years. Xan ignored him for a moment and moved to the bars, trying to get a better idea of his surroundings. The jail had four cells on his side, and three on the other. There was a door straight across from him and another at the end of the hall.
Xan had been in jail before, but then it was with humans. He needed to learn as much as he could about his new captors so he could find out how to work them to his advantage. It seemed like his cellmate had been there a long time. “Who better to ask?” he thought as he shook the man to rouse him from his slumber.
The man slowly turned over and sat upright to see who was bothering him. Xan could see immense pain and weariness in the man’s face. His eyes looked straight through Xan, like he was oblivious to his surroundings. Xan tried to snap him out of it, “Hello? Are you with me, old man?”
The man’s eyes focused for the first time, and a look of wonder appeared on the man’s face. “Xan? Is it really you?”
Xan’s heart stopped. It had been years, but the voice was unmistakable. Looking closer into the man’s eyes, Xan realized that we was looking into the eyes of Charles Quinn.
“Dad?” Xan said incredulously.
The man then looked down at himself, realizing how he looked, and his face wrenched with anguish. “Xan, I’m so sorry! I should have told you. Yes, yes, I should have told you everything. I mean, at least I think so. You forgive me don’t you? You have to!”
The elation of seeing his father faded quickly, as he realized his father wasn’t all there any more. It was a broken man before him, physically and mentally. Xan had always kept up the hope that his family was well and they had found happiness. A tear formed in his eye at that moment when he realized how wrong he was. Xan swallowed hard and steeled himself as he asked the next question.
“Dad. Where is mom? Where is Liza?”
Another wave of sadness overcame Charles as he thought about his family. “It’s my fault, Xan. It’s all my fault. You … Clara … Liza … I failed you… I failed everyone.”
Xan grabbed his father’s hand to try and soothe him. His father at first pulled back at being touched, but then settled down a bit and some clarity returned. “Dad, are they still alive?”
“Yes, Xan. At least that’s what they tell me. The monsters that keep me here like to talk about them from time to time in order to taunt me. One of them is living in my place, and Clara and Liza have no idea.” His eyes teared up again. “Clara has been sharing a bed with him all this time having no idea. It’s all my fault and they suffer for it!”
“Where, Dad? Here in the Free City?”
“Yes … here … this is where we came to run away from my shame, but it didn’t work. I took a job as a tax collector and we tried to forget. But I couldn’t! It haunted me! Yes, yes! I deserve this!” WIth that Charles once again became incoherent. Xan just let him rant until he tired himself out and settled into a low simpering.
In as calming a tone as possible Xan tried again, “How long have you been here, Dad?”
“Long time. Long time. Brought here two years after coming to the city.”
Xan quickly did the math in his head and realized that it had been over a year. His father had been subjected to their torture and misery for over a year. His mother and sister had lived with an impostor for over a year. Xan broke down crying.
Some time passed, and no words were spoken. Charles mumbled incoherently, and Xan just tried to make sense of everything. His kidnapping, his friends taken too, finding his father like this… It was all so much. Xan wasn’t used to feeling like he had lost control, and he desperately tried to think of a way to make everything okay. But he couldn’t.
“It’s all my fault, Xan. I deserve this. I’m sorry.”
“Dad you keep saying that. Are you talking about the night you left Diamond Lake? It wasn’t your fault. It was me that left the house. You had no choice but to leave me behind. I don’t blame you for that.”
“No no no no no no … no no. My shame is not the night we left. It’s WHY we left.” Charles once again became agitated.
Xan realized that he hadn’t thought to ask his father about that. It was the burning question in his mind ever since that night several years ago, but Xan had been so shocked that he had forgotten all about it.
“Dad, who were you really working for? Tell me everything.”
“Yes, yes … I have to confess my sins. I have to tell you. It was Tilgast. I worked for Tilgast as a spy in Smenk’s operations. Smenk was an evil man and was becoming too powerful too quickly. Tilgast knew I did not think much of my employer so he paid me to hinder Smenk’s rise to power. At first it was just stealing information for Tilgast, but then he said it wasn’t enough. I had to do more. Smenk was hurting so many people, and I had to do more! But I didn’t mean it to happen like that! It happened at the wrong time! No one was supposed to be there! You have to believe me Xan I didn’t mean that to happen!”
“What, Dad? You didn’t mean what to happen? What did you do?”
Charles Quinn quivered, forcing himself to say the word. “Deepspike”