Liberty removed her spectacles, frowning down at them. “I can barely see in here as it is. Why did I do that?”
Drake lowered a rope and helped Mom climb back up out of the unreasonably deep spiked pit trap. Once he was back among them, he healed his leg.
“So,” said the sorcerer, trying to hide her smile.
“You may laugh, Liberty,” said Mom. She decided not to, edging around the pit to see if the north wall concealed any more secret doors. If so, they were very well hidden, and she turned back to shrug at the others.
“Um… How about we go through the passageway up here?” suggested Xan.
“Perhaps we should,” said Mom, somewhat acidly.
One by one they joined the rogue on the catwalk, which creaked a little with everyone’s weight, but seemed like it was going to hold. The secret door Xan had found led to the top of a staircase that descended into an oblong chamber with only one visible exit. A number of chests lined the north wall. Searching these, the adventurers found a blue gemstone fastened to a silver chain, a pair of signet rings, an expensive-looking embroidered sky blue cloak, and a heavy cloth sack. Liberty declared the periapt and sack to be enchanted and spent a few moments studying them to discern their magical properties.
“This is a bag of holding,” she said. “And this gemstone protects the wearer from diseases. That might be good for you, Xan.” She winked at him.
“If you ever need any unguents or ointments for that…” said Drake.
Xan laughed. “How clever you all are today. But neither of you need to worry. I do just fine on my own.”
“Oh, I’ve noticed,” said Liberty.
The rogue leered. “I do believe you called dibs on Lia the day after I spent time with her. So you obviously don’t consider me to be that dirty.”
She smirked. “Yes. Obviously.” Mom sighed.
Drake shuddered and changed the subject, gesturing at the door. “So, shall we?”
“I see no traps on the door,” said Xan after a few moments inspection.
“I’ll do the honors,” said the alchemist.
The tall chamber beyond contained five cells, each with a wall of iron bars facing the corridor that ran between them. Each of the cells was secured with an average quality lock. The cell opposite was occupied by what appeared to be a dead man.
Mom immediately moved toward the bars, then turned to Xan. “Can you get this cell open so I can check on this guy?” The rogue acquiesced, and the cleric grunted appreciatively, entering the cell and kneeling down to examine the prisoner. The man still clung to life, although it was a near thing.
The adventurers filed into the central hall, noting two other cells with prisoners. A pair of young human men lay huddled in one, and the last contained a young elven woman.
“Oh. Oh, my,” said Liberty. “Dibs.”
Xan raised an eyebrow then approached the cell where Liberty stood. “Oh, I see.”
Drake engaged the two young men. “You guys all right?”
They stirred at his words, and one said, “Woo. Stand too close to the cookfire did ya, boyo?”
“Whelp, guess you feel like stayin’ in there!” said Drake, turning to walk away from the cell.
“No, no!” cried the other. “Please come back, sir. Martal didn’t mean nothin’ by it, honest!”
The alchemist turned back to stand in front of the cell. “S’okay. Ain’t gonna leave you in here.” He paused for a beat then added, “And it wasn’t a cook fire. Was my house fire. Who are you boys?”
Martal said, “Pardon, guv’nor. Captivity ain’t been too good on me manners. This here’s Regim. We were city guards. Before.”
“Guards? Well, I’m sure that means someone’s stole your face and infiltrated the city watch now.”
“Infiltrated?” said Regim. “Hadn’t thought of that. Bloody hell.”
He grinned his creepy grin then turned to address Xan. “Should we check the next room before setting folk free?” The rogue nodded and moved to check it out. He cleared the northern door and moved to unlock the cells of the prisoners before looking into the empty cells.
Once the elf’s cell was open, Liberty addressed the woman. “Um, hello there. I’m Liberty. We’ll get you out of here, all right?”
The prisoner turned a tear-stained face toward the bars. “Go away, vile creatures and torment me no more. You think this game of playing the savior will fool me again?”
“Vile creatures..? Perhaps you mistake us for your captor. Or captors.”
The elf remained unfriendly. “Fah! You’ve come with kind faces before. Have you so little imagination that you are recycling your tortures?”
“So, the doppelganger from the Crooked House was not alone,” said Liberty thoughtfully, tapping her chin. “I promise you, we’re not with them. They attacked us. And we will get you out of here … shortly.”
Hope threatened to enter the elf’s expression. “Truly? Oh, thank the gods. Ilya is my name. Ilya Starmane.”
“Beautiful,” Liberty said before should could stop herself.
The elf blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Your name,” explained the sorcerer. “I’ve never heard it before.”
“Ah. Oh. Well. Thank you, I suppose.”
“How long have you been down here?”
“I’ve lost track of time down here, but I think at least a month must have passed.”
“Ms. Starmane, I don’t think it will be safe for you to return to your life right away. One of these creatures could be impersonating you.”
“But my family … the Starmanes are influential merchants. What damage might these facedancers have done to our business … and to my reputation?”
“I believe it’ll be safer for you to find out with our help. Once my friends and I are finished here, I mean.”
“You’re not going to leave me in here, are you?” said Ilya, sounding panicked.
“No, of course not,” said Liberty, her tone soothing. “I just think you should hide out somewhere safe and wait for us. That’s all.”
The sorcerer frowned pensively. “Of course, the doppelgangers know about the Crooked House…” She turned and called down the hall, “Mom? Do you think the temple of Kord would hide Ms. Starmane for us?”
“Likely,” said Mom.
Liberty turned back to the elf. “Do you know where that is, Ilya – Ms. Starmane?” Then she thunked her forehead. “You’re in the River Quarter right now.”
“I’ve never had a need to visit Kord’s temple, no.”
“We’ll give you directions. It shouldn’t be hard to find, and once we’re done here, I’ll come and help you with your family. We will, I mean.”
Drake rolled his eyes. “Doppelgangers trying to frame us for killin’ the barkeep, infiltratin’ the guards, joinin’ a trade family… These guys are rootin’ in like ticks.”
“My, but yer just full o’ exposition there, ain’t ye, boyo?” Martal said.
“Just puttin’ the pieces together,” Drake said sourly.
“Quiet, Marty,” scolded Regim. “These are our rescuers. Be more grateful.”
“Pardon, sir. Again,” said Martal, sounding somewhat chastened.
Drake shook his head. “Wonder who the other fella is…”
“Bring everyone closer for healing and we’ll find out,” said Mom.
“If you please, sir?” said Regim, gesturing for Drake to stand aside.
Drake nodded and obliged. “Careful out there, boys. Likely whoever stole your faces will play your friends against you if you go to them.”
“Aye, that’s likely, true,” said Regim, crouching down and reaching for something beneath the filthy pallet on the floor. With a quick move, he flipped a sword to Martal, who stepped forward and swung it at Drake with a snarl!
The blade sliced a line across the alchemist’s chest, and he looked down in shock and anger. “Oh, you done fucked up, boys…”
Whirling at the sudden sound of combat, Liberty cast a transmutation that hastened her allies. “Ilya, stay back!” Regim took up another hidden sword and also exited the cell, charging at Mom. The half-orc sidestepped the man’s chop. Drake roared and grabbed hold of Martal. Mom let the rage take him and cut loose with his greatsword. Regim’s face twitched and faded to a pasty gray as the doppelganger abandoned its human guise. Martal shook off the grapple then sliced Drake across the belly. Xan tried to maneuver into the cell to flank the false prisoner, but he was deterred by the point of Martal’s sword.
Liberty cast burning arc at the doppelgangers, burning each of them severely. Regim squared off with Mom and landed one solid hit. Drake abandoned attempts to grapple and instead socked Martal in the jaw, stepping back into the cell. The half-orc’s rage continued to flow, brutalizing his opponent, and Drake eluded the doppelganger’s swinging blade. Xan stepped into the flank Drake had set up, but still couldn’t seem to penetrate Martal’s defenses.
The sorcerer burned Regim out with a pair of scorching rays, freeing Mom up to help out Drake with the remaining doppelganger. Between the two of them, Martal did not last another six seconds. His human form melted away to reveal the gray-skinned shapechanger that lay beneath. Drake cracked his knuckles. “Well, didn’t see that comin’.”
“Me either,” said Xan. Mom sighed as the rage bled out of him.
Liberty took a minute to catch her breath, then turned and saw that Ilya was curled up in the back corner of her cell. “I hope that proves we’re not with them,” she said.
Ilya got up and moved to peek outside of her cell to see the charred and slashed corpses of the doppelgangers. “Compelling evidence, to be sure,” she admitted.
“Lady, I sure hope you don’t plan on changing faces like that, too,” said Drake, clutching his bleeding stomach and reaching for a healing draught.
The elf blinked. “Heavens, no. I had thought us unguarded. Never did I imagine they would pose as prisoners. Though, in retrospect it seems perfectly logical. Almost obvious, really.”
“Come down here, and I will heal you all,” said Mom. “Please.” Everyone gathered around the cleric, and once they were close enough, he channeled Kord’s strength. They felt their wounds begin to knit and their weariness wash away, but the relief was brought up short by a loud scream from the heretofore senseless prisoner as he jolted back to consciousness.
The screaming did not seem to be ending any time soon, so Mom solicited Xan’s silver tongue to try soothing the man. “Are you in pain, sir?” the rogue asked calmly but firmly, trying to get the man’s attention. The prisoner’s eyes rolled wildly until they slowly came to focus on Xan, and the screaming shut off like someone had flipped a switch.
“Ah, that’s better,” said Xan. “We are here to free you. Do you know where you are?”
“Oh! You’re safe!” said the man, sounding confused. “I’m so, so sorry! So much … blood. So much … pain. So much. So much. So, so sorry…” he trailed off, and it was clear that the question had not registered.
“Oohhh … that’s not disturbing at all,” muttered Drake.
“Well, yes … I am okay," said Xan. "Those two were rough, but we handled them.”
The prisoner’s head jerked up as he looked Xan full in the face. “But you must away! They will return! They always return! The mines … the death … my son. My precious son.” The man stared off into the middle distance.
“Sir, we need to get you out of here,” said Xan. When he didn’t get a response, he turned to the others and shrugged. “This guy is obviously broken.”
“Broken can sometimes be fixed,” said Drake. “Ilya, do you recognize him?”
The elf looked up from the snacks Liberty had provided, glancing nervously around the corner at the dirty man. “I’ve never seen him before, no.”
“Maybe the Kordite’s can help him, too?” suggested Liberty.
Mom shrugged. “Pelor would be a better choice, really.”
“Also, he said ‘mines.’” She frowned, and Mom squinted at the prisoner again as something tugged at the edge of recollection. Whatever it was did not come into focus, and the half-orc grunted.
“Based on the size of the building, I don’t imagine there is much more to this place,” said Xan. “Let’s leave him here for his safety and pick him up on the way out. Maybe someone can ease his mind, and we can have a normal conversation.”
“That sounds like a plan,” said Liberty.
“Yeah, I’m for checking it all out,” said Drake. “Ilya, you may want to take cover when we open the door. No use gettin’ hurt.”
“Must I stay here as well?” she said, turning a dismayed look upon Liberty. “You mentioned safe haven?”
“I can’t imagine we will be more than a couple more minutes, Ilya,” said Xan.
“Why don’t I show her the way out?” said Liberty.
“Oh, would you?” said the elf, sounding hopeful.
Drake rolled his eyes again. “Yeah, take ‘er out front if you like, but be careful.”
“Are you suggesting we stop searching or that you want us to go on without you?” asked Xan.
“Just give me a minute, please,” said Liberty.
“I’m coming with you,” said Mom.
“Fine,” said the sorcerer.
She led Ilya back to the entrance, explaining how to reach the temple of Kord along the way.
“Why Kord?” the elf wanted to know. “Sweaty brutes, aren’t they?”
“More or less,” said Mom.
Liberty smirked. “Mom – well, Charles is his name; we call him Mom – belongs to that faith. You’ll be safe with them until we get done here. If there’s some other place that isn’t part of your old life that you’d rather wait for us…?”
Ilya stopped to consider. “I don’t know how I’ll be received. Who knows what the beast impersonating me has done in my name. My family has contacts in Celene. Perhaps…”
“That’s why I think you should wait for us,” said Liberty hastily. “We’re good at situations like that.”
“Daring rescues, I’ll grant you. But negotiating the moneyed elite? Quite a different challenge, my dear.” Mom hid his grin.
“We do love a challenge,” said Liberty, not hiding hers.
“I’ve no money to secure lodgings,” fretted Ilya. “And no offense, sir, but I’ve not desire to submit myself to the leers of the overgrown man-boy athletes in Kord’s halls.”
“No worries, ma’am,” said Mom. “Quite understandable.”
They arrived at the exit and Ilya eyed the oozing containers. “Oh, my. Is that barrel…bleeding?”
“Don’t look at what we did to that crate, either,” suggested Liberty, counting out some coins. “All right. This should keep you comfortable … someplace. Where shall we find you?”
Ilya looked down at her ragged clothing unhappily. “Wherever paupers lodge, I suppose.”
Liberty impulsively removed her hat of disguise and placed it on the elf’s head. “Think about something nicer to wear,” she suggested.
“Um … no, Liberty,” said Mom. “Do not do that.”
“Hey, I killed him. It’s mine to do with as I please. And I please to give it to Ilya, here.”
Mom shook his head. “Your stuff…”
“Who? What? I…” stammered Ilya looking down in startlement as her outfit changed. “Oh, my. Now that is marvelous.” Her eyes brightened.
“Perfect,” said Liberty. “Now. Where shall I find you? With my hat? I will want it back, you know.”
“Oh! Oh … of course. Now, let me see.” She counted the coins Liberty gave her. “Oh! Have the Champion’s Games passed?”
“Not yet, no.”
Ilya winced. “Finding a room might prove more troublesome, then. In any case, I can leave word at any inn you desire. Or have word sent to your Crooked House. Assuming you do not think it overly compromised by these … devils.”
“Threatened, yes, but not compromised,” said Liberty. “I will look for news of you there.”
“Very well, then. Thank you, Miss Liberty.”
Ilya offered a curt nod to the half-orc. “Charles.”
Mom half-nodded. “Ma’am.”
After the elf had gone he turned to the sorcerer. “Liberty?”
“You don’t have a penis or testicles, do you?”
She smiled. “Nope.”
“I just … like elves.” One of Mom’s eyebrows raised, but he offered no comment as they returned to their companions.
Drake looked up as they came in and said, “Lib, if you’re done moistening your undergarments, can we get back to work?”
“I can keep doing that while we work, thank you, Cornelius.” Drake’s expression grew incredibly uncomfortable.
“And she teases that I am the slut,” laughed Xan.
“Takes one to know one, I suppose,” said Liberty.
The prisoner whimpered as Xan relocked the cell door. “I understand…. I understand. No less than I deserve.”
The rogue eyed him wearily. “We’ll be back soon. Don’t worry.” He then led the others to the next door.
Much of the floor of the ruined chamber beyond had given way, revealing a large stagnant pool of water ten feet below. Rusted spears and broken swords broke the surface of the pool throughout the room. A framework of soggy timbers that might have once supported the floor still stood, stretching out across the void. The wooden planks appeared slippery from mildew, and it appeared that even moving slowly would require balance.
“I tire of all this deception,” said Xan. “I’m going to look around as quickly as possible.”
“Good luck,” said Liberty.
The rogue slowly and skillfully made his way across a plank to the first pylon then on to another section of floor to peer around the corner. “There’s more planks and then a door on the wall,” he reported.
“I doubt any of those planks would support more than one of us at a time,” said Liberty. Then she noticed the rogue looking down at the water. “Xan? What is it?”
“There’s something here under the water. Corpses, mainly, but I see something that looks worth trying to get.”
“Oh, please be careful,” she said.
“Well … I could use some help, Lib. This place seems dangerous. Can you make it across?”
Unfortunately, as she took her first step onto the treacherously slick planks, her foot slipped out from beneath her and she fell, landing with a splash in the water below. Miraculously, she managed to avoid all of the jagged weapons poking up from the surface. She flailed around, trying to find something to grab onto, while Mom moved to fish her out.
“Eesh,” said Xan apologetically. “Okay, maybe not. Sorry about that, Lib.”
The sorcerer hurt herself on a couple of bladed implements swimming to the nearest pylon. “I see the corpses you mentioned, Xan,” she said, trying to sound helpful.
Drake squinted at something unseen that seemed to be disturbing the surface of the water. “Look … somethin’ comin’ this way. Lib, get OUT OF THERE!” he shouted, pointing.
“What? I don’t see anything!” she said, alarmed.
An invisible presence suddenly struck Mom hard, and Drake cursed, lobbing a bomb at the phantom he’d noticed bearing down on Liberty. “Fire in the hole!” he cried as the bomb exploded and the flames wafted harmlessly around the sorcerer. She found the impact of the invisible creature slamming her shoulder less harmless.
Mom was struck again before he could react. Drake was able to throw another bomb at whatever threatened Liberty, then he jumped out into the water, slicing open his arm on a sword. He was further slashed up as he moved to interpose himself between the invisible stalker and the sorcerer. Xan carefully moved back toward the others along the planks, pulling a rope out of his pack. Liberty was struck by the phantom as she climbed the pylon to get back to the floor level. She found her footing and hit her attacker with a cone of fire. Mom roared in rage and lashed out with his greatsword, striking something unseen.
The stalker assaulting Liberty floated up and lashed out at her. She fell senseless, but landed prone on the slippery plank rather than slipping over the side and into the water again. Drake cursed and hurled another bomb before scrambling up the pylon himself. He was struck by the invisible creature during his climb, but he managed to find some footing on the slippery plank. Xan dragged Liberty away from the combat, while Mom continued to battle his opponent.
Drake came under attack next from Liberty’s stalker, but he ignored the creature pulling out one of Filge’s syringes – filled with a healing potion – and threw it like a dart to stick expertly into Liberty’s thigh. Xan leaned down and pushed the plunger, sending healing fluid into the sorcerer and bringing her back to consciousness. “YES!” Mom cried from the landing, grinning despite his wounds.
Satisfied with himself, the alchemist spun around to face the invisible threat and taunted, “Come get me, you bastard.”
“Gah! OW!” complained Liberty gratefully.
“I’ll want that syringe back!” Drake cried over his shoulder.
The sorcerer stood and threw a pair of scorching rays at Mom’s stalker. One struck and the invisible beast burned. The fight went poorly for several tense seconds, and even though one of the phantoms stopped attacking, the other put Drake down. He too, luckily managed to stay on the planks.
In dire straits, Liberty lit up the room with a massive fireball, managing to catch the stalker, but miss all of her companions. She offered silent thanks to the gods for the high-ceilinged warehouse. “WHOOO!” Mom crowed, and even Xan’s eyes brightened. The unseen threat offered up a few more injuries before being burned down. Silence fell, but for the creaking of the planks. Then the sorcerer realized the syringe was still sticking out of her.