In various states of inebriation, several of the patrons all started to speak at once, and Fargus continued his panicked accusations. Mallak stood up and said, “Hold on, everyone. Don’t panic.” In the chaos, Liberty turned to Drake. Trying not to betray her shock and horror, she simply said, “Help Tarquin.”
The alchemist nodded and pushed past Marta to circle the bar. He checked the gnome’s vital signs and muttered to Liberty. “He’s alive, just. I can save him, but I don’t have my potions with me. They’re up in my room.”
Liberty briefly offered thanks to the gods then turned back to address the commons in a commanding voice. “Mallak’s right.” Once she had their attention, she addressed Fargus. “And I find it confusing that you accuse us of a crime you didn’t witness.”
“The half-orc brushed past me on the stairs, blood all over his clothing. What else am I to assume?” Fargus blustered. He whirled on the off-duty guardsman. “Mallak! Do your duty, and go up to arrest the half-orc!”
The sergeant began nodding at the suggestion, but stopped short when Liberty said, “Hold on, Mallak. Mom is the most upstanding man I know. He would never do something like this; there must be some other explanation.”
“Not for nothin’,” said Rolf the carpenter, “but lass, we all saw him plunge the blade in. It don’t make sense, no, but…”
“That’s what we saw, yes, but magic might be at play here,” Liberty said, pulling a wand from her sleeve.
Fargus’s eyes widened and he shrieked, “Fell sorcery!” The other patrons began to panic, moving away from the sorcerer and talking over one another loudly.
“Everybody calm yourselves!” Liberty protested, struggling to be heard over the din. “I’m using this wand to heal Tarquin.”
“Lies!” screamed Fargus, ripping a short sword from his belt and rushing Liberty in a frenzy. Rather than join the attack, the other customers continued to back away from the confrontation.
“Oh, shit!” she exclaimed, blinking in surprise at the sudden attack. She narrowly sidestepped the crazed merchant’s wild swing, and took a cautious step back. Hoping to defuse the situation, Liberty reached for the fire in her soul, increasing the temperature of Fargus’s sword. He yelped and tried to drop the suddenly superheated blade, but it fried his hand, sticking to the melted flesh. Liberty wrinkled her nose at the stench.
“See?!” Fargus demanded of the crowd, holding up his burned hand emphatically. “Fell sorcery!”
“They know I’m a sorcerer, Fargus!” retorted Liberty. “I’ve been telling magically enhanced stories all week. What they, and I, don’t know is why you’re trying to stab me instead of calling for the guard!”
The merchant sneered over his shoulder at Mallak. “I called for the guard, but he does nothing!”
Mallak, looking both shamed and angry took a step toward the conflict. “Both of you stand down, or you’ll spend the night in the stocks!”
“If the watch will not protect us, we must do so ourselves!”
“I had nothing to do with this,” Liberty insisted. “I want to resolve this peacefully.”
Fargus ignored both the lawman’s warning and the sorcerer’s entreaty, stabbing Liberty once, then again, shrieking, “Die, witch!”
With her life in imminent peril, Liberty took another step back and tried to set her attacker on fire. He was singed by the magic, but he didn’t catch flame. “Fargus, enough!” she said, her tone a little nervous. “Drake, get over here!”
The alchemist, having stabilized the gnome, came over the bar and tried to wrap the hefty merchant up in a bear hug. Fargus moved with a grace belying his girth and avoided Drake’s tender embrace. “Oh, what in the Hells,” Liberty complained.
Apparently beyond reason, the merchants snarled over his shoulder at the alchemist, then sprung away faster than Drake could react, bringing his short sword down in an overhead chop on Liberty, slicing into her a third time. “Down with the witch and her murderous friends!” he screamed. Fortunately, none of the other patrons seemed inclined to join in the mob. Mallak and Rolf advanced, but their eyes were on Fargus.
“The only person who needs protecting here is me!” said Liberty. Pinned between Fargus and the bar, she sent a pair of scorching rays into the merchant. He stabbed her again as she did so, but she heard him grunt in real, true pain. Unfortunately, he was still standing and the crazed look in his eyes had not diminished any.
Drake advanced and tried to grapple Fargus once more, but again he was rebuffed. Mallak and Rolf joined the melee striking to subdue with their ale steins. The merchant ducked the carpenter’s clumsy swing, but it at least provided enough of a distraction for the watchman to land a telling blow.
Fargus circled Liberty, taking a final swing, then tried bolting for the front doors of the Crooked House. “Stop him!” Liberty shouted, and her companions did not disappoint. The merchant was not agile enough to avoid the rain of blows that fell upon him from Drake and Mallak, and those that came down on his head and shoulders staggered him.
Having had well enough, Liberty lashed out with flame a final time, and Fargus’s smoldering corpse fell to the floor. “What are they feeding Free City merchants?” she asked, exasperated.
“You … you killed him,” said Mallak, eyes wide. Liberty had stepped up to put out the embers, but paused as the body on the floor started changing, the heft melting away. What remained was a grayish humanoid creature that seemed almost unfinished, with a narrow head, gaunt limbs, and a sinister, noseless face. The turban fell off of the creature’s head and its clothing vanished, revealing studded leather armor. The turban itself changed as well, becoming a simple feathered cap.
“What the..?” Rolf breathed incredulously.
“Huh. Doppelganger,” said Drake offhandedly.
Liberty looked up at him. “Double-whater?”
“Face-changer,” he said simply. “Anyway. Gonna go get my kit and check on Mom.”
“Get Xan, too,” said Liberty. He nodded and turned to head up the stairs. No one stopped him.
The sorcerer looted the body of its weapons, a couple of potions, and a strangely crooked key attached to a small keychain. The key’s head bore the design of a ship being pulled underwater by a huge octopus. Pocketing it for later consideration, she removed her hat, then shook ashes from the cap on the floor, and put it on. A few moments later, her outfit changed to her plain baker’s clothes, and the cap became a jaunty baker’s hat. “Well, this explains a thing or two,” she said. She changed her clothing back, but left the cap as a duplicate of her normal one.
Mallak nodded. “Indeed it does. I mean … you shouldn’t have just scorched a man in that condition, but … circumstances being what they are…”
She nodded. “I know. I’m sorry. It’s the only thing I’m good at with magic.”
“I’d say you were at that,” the lawman agreed.
A minute or so later, Drake came back downstairs and revived Tarquin with a potion. “Who? Wha’?" the gnome said blearily.
“Gonna be all right, Tarquin,” said Drake. “Not allowed to die yet.”
“Did Mom stab me?” he finally managed, making a weird face.
“No, this doubleganger did,” said Liberty. She held up a trio of knives that matched the one that “Mom” had buried in Tarquin.
Mom and Xan reentered the commons a moment later, the former in a shirt and linen pants, barefoot and carrying his sheathed greatsword. “Drake… You can’t just say something like that and leave,” groused the half-orc. Taking in the condition of the room and its occupants, he grunted in confusion. “Kord’s Grace!” he exclaimed, reflexively channeling healing energy into all nearby. A few prayers later and everyone was right as rain again.
“Looks like I missed a good afterparty,” said Xan. “What happened?”
“Well, we had a shapeshifter pretend to be Mom, then stab Tarquin, then accuse us of the crime, then try to kill me. If you look by the door, there’s still some of it to sweep up.” The comment sent Marta into tears, and Liberty offered what comfort she could. “It’s my mess. I’ll clean it up,” she said soothingly.
Xan approached the body to inspect it. “Never seen anything like it.”
“Doppelganger,” Drake provided usefully. “Damn thing took on the likeness of three folks in a matter of minutes.”
“I’ll take your word for that,” said the rogue. “That’s a pretty cool trick. To think of the things I could do if I had that ability.”
The city watch arrived a few minutes later, and after Mallak smoothed things over, the tale was recounted again. Tarquin eyed Mom and the doppelganger’s body with equal uncertainty during the explanation of events.
“I have no idea why this would impersonate one of us, though,” the sorcerer concluded.
The watchmen took the body away, divested of its belongings, for inspection by the watch-wizards. Things began to settle down in the commons, and most people made their way home after some unsettled goodbyes and well-wishes. Even Tarquin went to bed, leaving Marta in charge.
Once everyone had gone, Liberty limped behind the bar, poured herself a cider, and slapped the key she’d taken from the doppelganger’s body down on the counter. “Hey boys? Have a look at this. He had this on him.” While they examined it, she downed her drink.
“If I recall, this is linked to some warehouses in the River Quarter,” rumbled Drake. “Merchant who owned ‘em is dead, but there should be one of ‘em still standin’. Think it’s called ‘Sodden Hold’.”
“Nice catch, Drake,” said Xan.
“So, he might have been squatting there,” suggested Liberty.
“Put good money he’s not the only one,” said Drake. “Bastard also knew us enough to want to frame us. Sounds personal … or he was put up to the task.” Mom grunted in agreement.
Liberty nodded and poured herself a third cider. “The real Faceless One is still out there, somewhere.”
Drake eyed Liberty’s drink. “You know you’ll regret that in a few hours, light-weight.”
“In a few hours, I’ll have slept for a few hours,” she shot right back.
“Yeah, sleep don’t cure nothin’,” said the alchemist.
“I think I’ll head back to bed,” said Xan. “Lib handled the killing, Drake handled the investigating, and Mom handled the patsy-ing.” He grinned. “Looks like even the gods know I’m on vacation.” The half-orc snorted in amusement.
“I’m not far behind you,” Liberty said.
Drake shook his head in mild amusement. “Aye, we should get some sleep. I’d keep a wary ear open, though.”
“Will do. See you in the morning,” said Xan.
* * *
24 Flocktime, 595 CY
Everyone slept in, and when they finally stumbled downstairs into the commons, Tarquin seemed in better spirits. He greeted them all warmly, and if his tone toward Mom was strained, it was a subtle thing. Breakfast was served, and many of the regulars came in as well. The story about the previous night’s events quickly circulated, and they were all asked for a rendition of the tale. Liberty obliged, though her version wasn’t as theatrical as her recollection of the chimera story had been. Still, it was met with amazed approval by the audience members. Eyes were wide and many glances flicked between the primaries, particularly Mom and Tarquin.
Once everyone had cleared out and the adventurers once more had a moment to themselves, Drake asked the question: “How do we want to handle this warehouse mess?”
“Fire’s always worked for me,” said Liberty.
“I’d prefer not to get kicked out of the Free City for burning down another building … yet.”
“Hold on there, Lib,” said Xan. “We don’t know what’s going on with all this. It’s been my experience not to make a play until you know where all the pieces are.”
“I know, I know,” she said. “But we should still go by there and have a look.”
“You think there will be something to find?”
“I think we have to try.”
“I definitely don’t like the idea of someone wanting to frame one of us for murder.”
“Me neither. Not having any idea why is even worse,” said Liberty.
“Seriously, we just got here,” said Xan. “Everyone that might want me dead or in prison is back in Diamond Lake.”
Mom grunted. “Unless someone knows we’re asking questions…”
“Or unless Diamond Lake never lets go,” said Drake.
Xan frowned. “I hate not knowing things.” Mom grunted again, somewhat more ambiguously.
“Well,” said Drake, holding up the key. “Least we don’t have to kick down any doors.” The comment put a crooked smile on Liberty’s face.
“Well, then,” said Xan. “Are we ready?”
“We go now,” said Mom.
The adventurers confirmed directions with locals then made their way across the city. Down on the banks of the Selintan River, outside the city walls, a large district had been built to service the docks and waterways around the Free City. In among the warehouses, taverns, and shops catering to mariners, lurking at the water’s edge like a rotten log washed ashore, was a relatively unremarkable warehouse marked “Sodden Hold” in faded green paint. It was built mostly of stone with a wood shingle roof thick with long, ropy moss. The entire building had a green hue, owing to the large patches of moss and mold that grew on its walls.
Drake examined the ground as they neared the heavy, iron-bound doors on the west side of the building. “Looks like it’s been used recently.”
Liberty glanced around to see if there was a side entrance, but she saw only solid wall. “No luck,” she reported. “Unless you want to go ‘round back.”
“We have a key,” said Xan. “Might as well use it.”
“Yep,” said Drake. “Unless anyone objects, I’ll do the honors.” Liberty nodded and backed away from the doors, glancing around to make sure no one was paying too much attention to them. No one she could see appeared to give them a second glance. The key fit perfectly, and the alchemist turned it with a satisfying click. Bracing himself, he opened the doors.
The doors opened into a large space dominated by dozens of crates and barrels of various sizes. Lit by a number of faintly flickering torches above, a thick layer of dust covered much of the cargo stored there. There was a catwalk on the east side of the room about fifteen feet above the floor and a door on the south side of the catwalk.
In a hushed tone, Drake looked back at his companions and said, “Looks clear.” He started creeping in, and the others followed. Liberty put her back to the wall just inside the door, taking cover behind a large crate and next to a barrel. The alchemist crossed to the center of the room, sticking close to the same large crate. As he came to the far corner of it, a smaller crate beside him grinned.
“WHAT THE-?!” Drake exclaimed as it reached out with a woody appendage and slammed into him. The barrel beside Liberty did the same, and a crate in the northwest corner of the large storage room hop-charged Mom! When each adventurer was struck by the animate containers, they found themselves stuck fast, trapped against their attackers by a powerful adhesive!
Mom raged and pulled his cleaver, hacking into the top of the living crate-monster. His blade nearly stuck in the sticky mess coating its surface, but he managed to yank it free. Xan tumbled around the crate and tried to stab it, but his balance was off after the acrobatics.
“Gods damn it! Not like this!” Liberty cried, struggling against the barrel’s embrace as she laid about with burning arcs. She scorched the creature that held her fast and even spared a bit of flame for the one threatening Mom. In response, the barrel squeezed, and she felt her ribs creak in her chest.
“So much for not burning this place down,” rumbled Drake. He fished a bomb out and smashed it into the mimic. Expertly placed, the flames from the explosion washed all around the alchemist without touching him. Mom sensed Liberty’s peril, and in a moment of clarity released the rage long enough to reach out and soothe her pain with a powerful healing prayer. Xan jabbed his blade into the crate stuck to Mom, then Liberty’s flames flashed again, slaying the barrel attempting to crush her and badly scorching the rogue’s target as well.
Undeterred, the crates continued to squeeze, and this time Mom and Drake each felt their organs bruising. Mom drove his cleaver deep into his crate’s wooden top, and it finally stopped moving. The alchemist smashed another bomb into his, and Xan moved to support him. Liberty heroically dragged the dead barrel with her to get a clear shot on the last crate and put it down with a foursome of magic missiles.
“Well, that escalated quickly,” she said.
They wondered how they might extricate themselves from the dead container-beasts, but thirty seconds later the adhesive simply evaporated, freeing the adventurers. Drake tried to salvage some for study, but he was unsuccessful in obtaining a sample.
“Lib-er-ty,” Mom growled, enunciating each syllable.
“What? What did I do?” she asked.
“Will you please stay behind me from now on?”
“I was trying to! I was just standing there so you could pass me! How was I supposed to know that barrels eat people?!” Mom glowered, but he had no response to that.
“She’s a big girl, Mom,” said Xan. “And I believe she destroyed hers before you and I could finish off ours together.” Drake nodded in agreement.
Mom grumbled a bit more then channeled healing energy into himself and his companions. Everyone relaxed a bit as their aches and pains were washed away. Then they began casing the joint.
Xan moved toward the southern doors. “I’ll check these for traps. You guys check the rest of the room.” He didn’t find any traps on the first door, but it was locked. A temporary setback as he set his tools to work. Moments later there was another satisfying click, and the rogue opened the door for a look inside.
The dark chamber beyond was absolutely packed with boxes and bookcases overflowing with ledgers and papers in no apparent order. “Dead end, as I suspected,” said Xan.
Liberty brought a light over and began to glance over the room’s contents. None of the papers she could see had a date more recent than 585 CY. “I can go through this stuff later, if we need to. Once we’ve secured the rest of the building,” she said.
Xan moved to the other southern door and found it also trap-free but locked. He solved the latter issue with panache, and opened the way to a chamber littered with loose stones and dust. It contained a decrepit ladder leading up to a platform level with the catwalk in the entry chamber. “Found a way up,” he reported. “I’ll check out the catwalk.” Xan moved into the room to make the climb, and Drake came with him to try to steady the ladder. Mom and Liberty waited outside by the door.
About halfway up, the ladder collapsed under Xan’s weight, bringing down a portion of the catwalk above as well. Debris rained down on top of the rogue and Drake. “Gah! Watch it, Xan!” complained the alchemist.
“Hmm … didn’t see that coming,” said the rogue.
“Are you guys all right?” Liberty called from the door.
“Just a scratch or two,” said Drake, turning to her with a bleeding head. Xan had miraculously avoided being struck by any of the falling debris.
“No worries, Lib,” said Xan with a grin. “Drake’s just reenacting the last night in his parents’ house again.”
“Less fire here, though.”
“This is true.”
Mom shook his head at their banter then poked Drake with a wand. “So, I guess we climb up the adventuresome way,” said Liberty. “We could try stacking up crates…”
Xan nodded. “Besides the catwalk, I think we only have that door to the north.”
“I could try to give you a boost,” offered Drake.
The rogue agreed, and a moment later he was on the catwalk. He looked around for several moments before he found something of interest. “Aha … very nice.” He hit a hidden catch high on the north wall, and a secret door opened beside him.
“Can you get me up there, Drake?” asked Liberty.
“Yep,” he said.
“Please wait a moment, Liberty,” said Mom.
“But I can’t see…” She blew her bangs out of her eyes, then said – somewhat petulantly – “Fine.” She found a small crate near the north door and sat down to wait.
Xan called over the edge. “It’s just a stairway down to the left. Looks like it comes out on the other side of that door down there. Well … there’s a small room at the base of the stairs and then another door, I guess.”
Seeing Liberty sitting there with her arms crossed, he grinned. “I could teach you to be the one climbing and crawling all over the place looking for traps if you want.”
“No,” said Mom.
Ignoring the half-orc, Xan continued. “I never was very good at that anyhow.” He grinned widely. “I think we all remember the fiery sarcophagus … and the screaming hall … and- well, you get the idea.”
“I remember screaming, all right…” said Drake.
“So, Drake. Are you and Mom going to draw straws to see who gets to coddle me?”
“Ooh … I didn’t know you were into that sort of thing with guys, Lib,” teased Xan.
“Only if you don’t start acting sensible,” said Mom. “When possible,” he amended grudgingly.
“I’m here to see to it you don’t get dead,” said Drake. “You want to go up there, you got it.”
“Well anything’s better than sitting here doing nothing,” she said.
“Well, I ain’t seen that room. Time to open it up,” said Drake.
“The secret door opens into the same room as this door, right?” Mom asked Xan.
“Looks like it, yeah,” said Xan.
Liberty remained seated while Mom and Drake approached the door, and the half-orc inspected it. It didn’t seem to be locked, so he pulled it open, sword drawn.
Naturally, the floor dropped out from underneath him and Drake, and Liberty turned stark white. The alchemist managed to leap to safety on the floor beneath the catwalk, but the half-orc fell out of sight and came to a crunching stop at the bottom of a spiked pit some forty feet deep.
“Mom!” Liberty and Xan cried at once. The rogue looked guilty about having not cleared the door himself.
“I told you,” Mom complained from the bottom of the wide shaft. They breathed a sigh of relief.
“Hey, Lib. Don’t do what Mom does,” advised Drake. Looking down into the pit, they could see that his leg was impaled on one of the spikes. “What was that about being careful?” the alchemist called down.
“Don’t worry, Mom. I got the … point,” said Liberty, casually donning her ash-tinted spectacles.
“If you really wanted to be helpful, you could lower a rope or a tree branch or find something useful to do,” said Mom. He saw that his companions had stopped listening as they caught sight of what lay beyond the door he had opened.
It was a blank wall.