Eligos’s countenance turned dark. “I advise caution; Raknian is a powerful man and remains quite popular with the city government. Any direct confrontation would only reveal him to the extent of your current knowledge, and force him to cash in a few of the numerous favors the city government owes him. A wiser course of action might be to infiltrate the arena itself and find more concrete evidence of Raknian’s malfeasance. If you can find proof that he means ill will to the Free City itself, you will have no problems convincing the government to help. And if you can recover the Apostolic Scrolls and find out what Raknian intends to do with them while you’re at it, so much the better.”
“Raknian’s interest in the Apostolic Scrolls makes him important to our mission,” Liberty said to her fellows. Then she turned to Eligos. “Can you tell us anything more about those?”
Eligos nodded. “The Apostolic Scrolls are reputed to have been penned by Kyuss himself and detail the creation of the ulgurstasta – massive undead creatures capable of consuming the living and regurgitating them as undead. The Apostolic Scrolls are also said to contain rituals that allow an ulgurstasta to create even more powerful undead, spewing them out at a tremendous rate.
“That they are in town and that someone as important as Loris Raknian has purchased them is, to say the least, troubling. That he has also tried to have you killed further damns him – assuming you can produce sufficient proof of his culpability. As to why, perhaps he somehow learned of your actions in Diamond Lake and took matters into his own hands. Unless you have made enemies of more than just the Ebon Triad?”
“That’s better than possible, sir,” said Liberty. “The Triad has other operatives we haven’t encountered… The Faceless One, for example.”
“So we join the contest,” said Drake. “I’m game.”
Liberty looked from Drake to Eligos. "Can we do that? We could do that.”
Eligos looked thoughtful for a moment. “I might have just the opportunity you are looking for. One of my friends came to me just yesterday, seeking a group of heroes to enter the Champion’s Games. What better way to sneak into the arena than under the guise of gladiators?”
“I expect we have enough reputation now to get your friend’s attention,” said Liberty. Mom grunted in amusement.
Xan frowned. “What do we even know about the games? I haven’t even bothered to learn the rules. We could end up looking very poorly if we don’t do well … or even dead? Are the games to the death?"
“They can be,” Eligos admitted. "Any gladiator who yields is supposed to be spared. Any who ignore an offer of surrender and attack are immediately disqualified.”
The rogue was unconvinced. “So you think we should volunteer to join the games, in which death is a definitive possibility and the person calling all the shots wants us dead. Does anyone else think that sounds a little like walking up to his nice shiny guillotine and placing our heads in it for him?”
Eligos conceded the point with a gesture of his hand. “It is not without risk, of course.”
“If that gets us close enough to burn his guillotine down, I’m still for it,” said Liberty.
Drake nodded. “Well, why not? We walked into a cult cavern knowing that death was a definitive possibility and the person calling all the shots wanted us dead. Same with a lizard camp, etc. This just gets us more crowd cheers.”
“In those instances we had the element of surprise and didn’t give them plenty of time to control the situation and come up with the perfect way to deal with us,” insisted Xan.
Drake considered for a moment. "I don’t know, I’d say walking into a den of dopplegangers had us at quite the disadvantage … and that tentacle man sure was expecting us.”
“Maybe you should find out what the prize is, Xan, before walking away,” Liberty added, her tone playful.
The rogue smiled back at Liberty. “You have a point.”
The alchemist grinned. “Just think… ‘Xan, Arena Champion’. That name could be worth enough money in business weight alone.”
“I prefer to be more … influential than overtly famous, but yeah I could make that work in a pinch,” said Xan.
“I hope there’s more than one big-assed belt to go around,” said Liberty. Mom grunted in agreement.
Drake cracked his knuckles. “Yep, I’d love to take that belt.”
“So, it looks like we are to become gladiators. Can’t say I saw that coming,” said Xan. Then he grinned. “I guess I need to go shopping for some new toys.”
“I will put my friend – a lovely woman named Celeste – in contact with you as soon as possible. In the meantime, I suggest you rest and recover from your … ordeals,” said Eligos. A smile cracked the usual severe expression on his face.
Liberty nodded. “Sounds good to me. We’ll be at the Crooked House – at least, you can always leave word for us there.”
“Very good,” said the wizard.
“Thank you for the information, Eligos,” said Xan. “There is much to do, so we will take our leave.”
Before they left, the wizard pulled Liberty aside. “As for the sigil you provided, Miss Grace, assuming you have reproduced it accurately, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, the explosive rune that claimed your sister’s life is a variation on the standard spell of that type. This symbol utilizes structures, dimensions, and formulae that I can confidently attribute to the Far Realm. I have no doubt that an aberrant spellcaster crafted this murderous spell.” He paused a moment, his expression softening somewhat. “I wish I had more for you.”
She frowned. “We did just defeat a tentacle-faced sorcerer…”
“It could have been the illithid, I suppose.” He shrugged. “Conjecture, I’m afraid.”
She thanked him, her expression troubled as she joined the others outside Eligos’s manor.
* * *
The next few days involved selling off loot taken from the denizens beneath the Free City that had tried to kill them over the past week, purchasing new enchanted gear, closing on a residence or two, setting up shop, and doing a bit of research. Liberty purchased a few scrolls of detect thoughts and used one to discover that the two “spare” mind clones contained the memories of two people the adventurers had never really heard of. One contained the mind of a foppish nobleman called Syra Viniira, who was an expert on wine and etiquette. The other held the memories of a militia captain named Durgan Shatterhelm, who was well versed about the routines and patterns of the Free City watch. In addition to their gift of Telakin’s magical mirror, they shared these two names with Mallak, the one guardsman they felt they could trust, considering he’d helped them slay the first doppelganger they’d encountered at the Crooked House. He thanked them for their assistance and promised to carefully use this information to root out the shapeshifters.
* * *
2 Wealsun, 595 CY
The Free City had no shortage of homeless roaming the streets and panhandling for coppers, particularly with the Champion’s Games so imminent. The influx of visitors with money to burn had made the vagrants bolder, and one such man drew the adventurers’ attention as they walked along the streets of the Foreign Quarter.
“Spare some coin, sir? Madam?” said a hoarse, hacking voice. Looking up, they saw a familiar sallow-skinned face. His beard and hair had grown wild since last they saw him, but he was still recognizable as the necromancer Filge.
He blinked as he caught their gaze, and it was clear that he recognized them, as well. “You!” he hissed frightfully, leaping backward and nearly knocking over another passerby. Filge’s eyes never strayed from the adventurers – and their apparent wealth – as he disentangled himself. “Come to gloat, have ye?” he rasped bitterly. “It’s not enough to ruin me, but you have to flaunt your success, as well?”
“Filge! You look well!” Xan declared sarcastically. “I guess Smenk took care of you in his usual fashion, then?"
The erstwhile graverobber narrowed his eyes. “Cast me off, he did. A liability!” he scoffed. “I wish I’d never laid eyes on that pox-marked village of yours!”
Drake cocked an eyebrow. “I’m sorry, I don’t quite recall you… Filge was it?” The necromancer spared a brief glare for Drake, but there was no recognition in his expression, and he didn’t respond.
“Digging up our dead for your tea parties was your real mistake,” said Liberty. “It’s only right that you pay for it."
Filge sneered. “The dead don’t care what becomes of their remains," he trailed off grumbling about ‘backwater know-nothings’.
“Alastor Land didn’t agree with you, and neither do I,” she said.
He gave her a blank look at the name before his shoulders slumped sulkily. "Much difference it makes. Here we are.”
“Well, yes, here we are. You appear to have seen better days,” said Drake, still trying to engage the beggar.
“Piss off, hillbilly,” said Filge acidly.
Xan frowned as he sniffed the air. “Filge… I’m sorry but you stink. You really need to clean yourself up if you are ever to be considered useful … to anyone. Here’s an orb. Tell me where you can be found, and I might have some work for you very soon.” He tossed a gold coin at Filge, soliciting a flash of surprise from Liberty. The necromancer failed to catch the coin then pounced on it where it landed in the dusty street. He looked up at Xan suspiciously.
Xan slowed his speech condescendingly. “Where. Are. You. Staying? Unless you enjoy living like this.”
“It ain’t exactly like I got an address, is it?” Filge snapped. “Have to move around to avoid bein’ hassled by the watch. I keep to the Foreign District, mostly, though. But unless ye plan to return my spellbook, I don’t see what use I can be to ye."
Xan shrugged. “Okay, Filge. If an opportunity comes up, I will find you. It will be very worthwhile to you. And we can talk about the spellbook.”
The necromancer glared at him with unmitigated hatred for a moment longer, then he shuffled off and back to his begging. Once he’d gone, Xan smiled broadly. “Ah … that was worth the orb.”
“For all that he did, and as much as he deserves this … I still feel sorry for him,” said Liberty. Mom grunted noncommittally.
“He’s a jerk,” said Xan. “No different than Smenk, just not as clever. And even though he hates my guts, he’s going to have to take any crap work I throw his way because he has no choice. I love it when I get to use my influence to screw over the bad guys.”
Drake frowned. “If I thought he could be moderately trustworthy, I would consider employing him for some things… Now if I could also remember who in the nine hells he is?!”
Mom supplied an answer. “He’s a necromancer that Smenk hired to figure out the Worms.”
“Figure out the Worms? So he was technically on the same path as us?” asked Drake.
“Very technically,” said Liberty.
“I think he was more interested in using them for his own benefit,” said Mom.
Xan nodded. “He was looking for a way to control the situation. Whether or not he would have stopped it or took charge of it is unknown. But who knows? He might actually be useful for something, someday. It’s never a good idea to pass up a possible angle.”
“Hrmmm…” Drake looked in Filge’s direction thoughtfully.
“And, just like that, I could use a drink,” said Liberty.
* * *
Celeste had agreed to meet with the adventurers at the Crooked House later that night. They’d been sitting at a table, enjoying Tarquin’s homebrew for about an hour when a sharp-featured woman with short blond hair, blue eyes, and a piercing in the middle of her bottom lip entered the tavern. She scanned the commons briefly before gesturing to someone outside. A handsome but rather short fellow in his late thirties who wears a fine blue robe, polished knee-high boots, and with a lute slung on his shoulder entered the room behind her. The pair approached the adventurers’ table.
“Liberty Grace?” the woman asked of the sorcerer, her voice rich and sweet.
“Good day. Have we met before?” said Liberty, looking a little confused.
“I am Celeste, and this is my close friend Ekaym Smallcask.” The man bowed with a little flourish, gracing each of them with a genuine smile, though it seemed warmest for Liberty. “May we sit?” asked Celeste.
“Please,” said Xan.
“Yes, please,” said Liberty, returning the man’s smile and signaling for Tarquin to bring drinks for the newcomers. The gnome obliged with a grin, and it was clear that he and Celeste were acquainted. Mom grunted neutrally, and Drake quietly observed the pair. “Allow me to introduce you both to my friends: Xan, Mom, and Drake.” She indicated each in turn, and pleasantries were exchanged.
“Eligos tells me that you might be seeking a sponsor for the Champion’s Games,” said the woman. It was half a question.
“We are, indeed,” replied the sorcerer.
“Excellent. Well, he may not have mentioned that all participants in the Champion’s Games must fight for a licensed manager. These licenses are difficult to come by, but as a visiting merchant from the distant south in the Free City for an extended period, Ekaym has acquired one. Sadly, he has not yet found any gladiators to fight for him. Ekaym?”
“Too true, my dear. Too true!” the man said loudly – and a bit flamboyantly. “Indeed, I had begun to despair of ever finding such a team until Celeste received word from the wizard. Managing a successful group of gladiators is a great way to make a lot of money during the Games – and to meet many lovely women, as well.” He winked at Liberty.
She blushed a bit but didn’t look away. “Yes, I believe it’d be an excellent opportunity for us. And for you.” Drake smirked.
“Wonderful!” Ekaym offered his hand to the adventurers in turn, shaking each of theirs vigorously. He then offered to buy them all dinner while they discussed the details of the contract. Seeing her part concluded, Celeste took her leave but paused before walking away. “If you do well in the games, I may have need of your services again in the future.”
Xan stopped her with an upraised hand. “I didn’t get your last name, Celeste. Would you do me the pleasure before you go?”
“No,” she said coyly. She smiled warmly and turned to go. Liberty grinned into her drink and Mom grunted in amusement.
“I like her,” Xan declared after Celeste had gone.
“Yeah, me too,” the alchemist agreed, chuckling.
“Goodness, yes,” said Ekaym. “Celeste is a delight.”
“Seems like more of a handful than you might be used to, Xan,” said Liberty.
“I’m totally okay with having more than a handful to play with, Lib,” he retorted with a grin. She laughed out loud at his phrasing.
While they ate, Ekaym broached the subject of the gladiatorial contract. “Now, as manager, I’ll agree to part with fifty percent of the tournament winnings, of course.”
Drake nearly choked on his food. “Wait, wait, wait…” he said once he had it under control.
“Hmm?” said Ekaym, taking a sip of wine.
“Half of the take, eh?” said Xan. “Seems a bit high, seeing as we are the ones putting our lives on the line.”
“True, but without my license, you could not even enter the competition,” the merchant said without malice. “Still, for certain … considerations,” he flashed a smile at Liberty, “I could see going as low as thirty percent for my part.”
Liberty raised an eyebrow at that, and the rogue gave Ekaym a wry look. “You already said you were in it more for than notoriety and any other lucrative deals involved. I’d be more inclined to part with an even share of the prize money.”
“Twenty percent?” He feigned a wounded expression. “Well, I have heard a bit about your…prowess over the past week, and if the wizard vouches for you…” He swirled his wine in the glass, apparently considering. “Very well. I agree to an equal share of the prize.”
He grinned and produced a scroll of parchment that appeared to be the gladiator license. “You’ll need to sign your names here and spend some time coming up with a name for your group – the crowds love that – as well as an appointed ‘leader’ for the tournament. A little silly, I know, but it’s Raknian’s show, and he knows the business of the arena better than anyone else around.”
“Is Auric the leader of his team?” asked Liberty.
“Auric?” said Ekaym, momentarily puzzled. “Oh! The current champion! Yes, I believe he is.”
“So, it doesn’t have to be the brains of the outfit,” she mused. The merchant tittered at her half-a-joke.
“Well, I think Drake would make the biggest statement as the ‘Face’ of the team,” said Xan. “As for a name, I might recommend something fire-related.”
“I’m not opposed to either notion,” said Liberty.
“I would surely be the most memorable looking,” Drake conceded. “I’ll take the stance as the frontman…"
Ekaym looked over Drake appraisingly. “If I might make a suggestion for the name? How about ‘In The Rough?’”
Liberty grinned. “I like it better than ‘The Burn Unit,’ which was what I thought of.” Drake laughed boisterously.
“Burning Blood?” suggested Mom.
“I was thinking something understated,” said Xan. “Maybe ‘Meltdown’?”
“Oh … I’ve been there…” said Drake somberly.
“The Diamond Lake Inferno,” said Liberty to change the subject. They all signed the contract while continuing to bandy about potential team names, finally deciding upon Burning Blood.
Once they had all signed, Ekaym took the contract in hand. “Now that we’ve attended to business, let us celebrate!” He poured more wine for Liberty, then absently handed the bottle off to Xan, who laughed and poured himself a drink. Mom and Drake likewise fended for themselves, though the half-orc was sure to charge his drinks to the merchant.
“Tell me more about yourself, my sweet,” Ekaym said to Liberty.
“Where do I begin?” she said. “I’m from Diamond Lake, same as these fellows. I’m a fireborn sorcerer, still getting used to the big city." She rambled on for a while, and Ekaym proved very, very attentive, but then she turned the tables to find out more about their manager.
Once he had a few drinks in him, Ekaym confessed to being a member of a clandestine organization of merchants in the south known as The Chisel. They protected artisans’ rights with a vengeance. Liberty set an elbow on the table with her chin on her palm, playing up her interest. The talk of merchants piqued Drake’s interest, and he piped in about his shop. Ekaym warmed to the subject and happily talked shop with Drake for a few minutes. After that subject had dried up, the others wandered to other parts of the commons to drink and converse with the other patrons. Liberty found herself sitting alone with Ekaym and asked him about his lute.
“Down Amedio Jungle way, I am known as Honest Minstrel,” he preened.
“The Amedio Jungle? You don’t say! I’ve never been there; what’s it like?” she prompted.
“Humid,” he joked. “Still and all, we were all very nearly destroyed when the ‘dormant’ volcano beneath nearby Cauldron erupted. Last year was taxing.”
Liberty nodded. “A tournament sounds like a welcome distraction, then, even if it is like work for you.”
Ekaym’s expression became surprisingly somber for a moment. “Yes. A welcome distraction indeed.” His smile seemed a bit tighter.
“Unless it is work,” she prompted him.
“Well, now that I’ve found a team, the hard work for me is mostly complete,” he said, all warm smiles again. “The rest is just promotion, and that’s scarcely like work at all!”
Xan came back over to the table. “Did I hear right? ‘Honest Minstrel’, was it? Care to demonstrate? It’d be nice to see some professional talent here at the Crooked House stage.”
“Oh, I couldn’t- All right, I’ll do it!” said Ekaym, vaulting to the stage, tuning up swiftly, and beginning to play. Well. The commons erupted in cheers and clapping (mostly) in time to the music.
Xan leaned over to Liberty during the show and shrugged. “Seems like a good guy. You could do worse.”
She nodded, her expression suggesting that she was, perhaps, considering it. “Now I see why he didn’t need much prompting,” she said of his skilled performance.
“He definitely likes to be the center of attention. And he’s great at it. I’ve always preferred being able to work with fewer eyes on me, but it works for him.” The rogue smiled at his companion then returned to the bar, leaving her sitting alone again.
Honest Minstrel played and sang several songs to a pleased crowd, but after a half-hour set, he begged off and returned to Liberty’s table, sitting very close indeed. She found her wine glass refilled as if by magic. “That was fun,” he said. “Tell me, my dear … is there a Mister Grace?”
“No, Ekaym. I’m not married,” said Liberty. “Though I am in a courtship at present.” She made a human attempt at Elven Mystery.
“Ah. Well, of course you are,” he said. “Lovely young woman like you, bound to have at least one suitor.” He smiled pleasantly and leaned back ever so slightly.
She smiled less ambiguously at the praise. “And you? Are you otherwise attached?”
“Me, I can work with … strings,” he punned, idly fondling his instrument.
Liberty took another sip of wine then held out her glass for a topping off. “Still, now that we’re working together, it would be unprofessional of us to ‘fraternize.’”
In one smooth motion, he’d refilled her drink and moved his chair back to a less intimate distance. “Fair enough, my dear.” He smiled at her.
“But we can always revisit the issue when our business is concluded,” she said.
His smile broadened. “Oh, you’re fun!” He stood and addressed the adventurers as a group. “Now, I take my leave, dear friends. You may spend the time until the tournament as you like, but please be at the Free Dinner no later than six in the evening before the games begin or we shall be disqualified before we even start!” With that proclamation, Honest Minstrel departed. Liberty drained her cup and slumped back in her chair, and the others rejoined her at the table.
Xan grinned at Drake. “So … team leader, eh? You are definitely the right man for the job. I guess, as leader, you’ll be finding out everything you can about how it works and who our competition is?”
Drake took a long drink. “Already looking into it,” he said. “S’long as I can leave the negotiations up to you.”
“You can count on me for that, sir. No worries.”
Unsolicited, Liberty sighed and said to Xan, “All right, fine. He’s pretty hot.”
The rogue smiled at her. “Hahaha … you’re coming along nicely, Miss Liberty Grace.”
“I’m meeting Ilya for dinner tomorrow night. This kind of complicates things.” She paused a beat before adding, “I’ve got to find out if she knows how to play any instruments, at least.”
“When this is all played out, you and I are going to have a talk about how fun these ‘complications’ ended up being.” She nodded.
* * *
Over the next couple of days, the adventurers looked into the details of the tournament in which they’d agreed to participate. The Champion’s Games was a five-daylong gladiatorial event that took place annually in the Free City Arena. The games themselves consisted of the main event, interspersed with spectacle fights that pitted gladiators against exotic monsters and other unique foes. A single team could consist of no more than eight members. Familiars did not count as members, but larger animal companions, mounts, and cohorts would.
The tournament would be fought in four successive rounds of elimination. The first round consisted of six battles of free-for-all combat between groups of four teams. The second day was for resting and recuperating. The six winners of the first round of battles would be paired off into three team-versus-team battles on the third day. On the fourth day, two of the three remaining teams would fight each other, while the third team fought a special exhibition match against an exotic monster. The fourth and final round was a face-to-face battle between the two remaining teams on the fifth day. The winner of each round would be awarded a generous prize to be shared among the team members and their manager.
After the Free Dinner, the gladiators would be escorted to a huge underground cave below the arena called the Coenoby (pronounced see-no-bee). It would be home for the gladiators until their elimination from the competition or the end of the Games. During the time the gladiators were confined to the Coenoby, they would be allowed meetings with their managers every other day. Any team not responding to a fight’s roll call or found guilty of violating any rules of the tournament would be immediately disqualified and expelled from the Coenoby by Raknian’s elite guards.
The tournament always began on 7 Wealsun, the seventh day of the seventh month of the year. The Free Dinner was held the night before.
* * *
6 Wealsun, 595 CY
The Free Dinner that preceded the Champion’s Games was a spectacular event, with more than two hundred guests and half again as many servants, cooks, musicians, and other entertainers. The event itself took place under the open sky on the arena battleground. Numerous long banquet tables were arrayed in a circle around a central wooden stage that gave entertainers a place to perform. The entire area was festooned with flowers, ribbons, and multicolored pennants. The arena gates opened for the event at 5:00 PM, and a patrol of Raknian’s wardens took positions before each one, checking invitations and keeping an eye on the situation. Two great bonfires burned north of the seating area, and scores of cooks, scullions, and waiters were busy there with spits, grills, and platters.
When the adventurers arrived, Ekaym presented his license and a clerk recorded their names, the name of the group – Burning Blood – and took a note on the group’s leader – Drake. After being admitted, they were shown to their table and servants soon provided plenty of delicious food and drink. The arena filled quickly with guests and attendants, and shortly before 6:00, Raknian entered the arena with his retinue to be met by the crowd with thunderous applause. Raknian was quick on the pleasantries and sat at a prominent table between the central bonfire and the stage. The current holder of the Champion’s Belt, the gladiator Auric, and his teammate Khellek also sat at Raknian’s table. When Raknian presented Auric to the crowd, he was greeted with even more applause.
While Drake glared daggers at Auric, Liberty scanned the crowd for Tirra. She actually spotted the elf at a table removed from the center of the arena and Tirra noticed her as well, smiling and waving. The sorcerer returned the wave, nodding.
“I wonder why she isn’t seated with the others,” muttered Liberty.
“Maybe there’s been a falling out,” suggested Xan. Mom grunted.
“Is it wrong that I hope you’re right? Because I hope you’re right,” she said.
“Wouldn’t it be great?” said Xan. “More complications.”
“She’s just a friend,” said Liberty, defensively. “But I don’t like her friends.”
“You ain’t the only one, Lib,” said Drake. Mom grunted in agreement.
“I never really got to know any of them, myself,” said Xan. “But if you all don’t like them, then I guess I don’t either.” He laughed.
A tall, robed man in Raknian’s retinue took the stage and ran down the specific rules for the arena combat. After he had finished his oration, Loris Raknian took the stage again and declared all gladiators “Champions of the Free City” for the duration of the Games (to more applause) then signaled for the Free Dinner to begin. Several bards took the stage and began to perform as servants carried huge platters of the main course out to the various tables.
Liberty tried not to stare at Raknian. He was a tall, heavily muscled man in his early fifties. Famous for his great strength, the Free City Arena director remained an exceptionally hardy man with short grizzled hair, a strong jaw, and small gray eyes. Instead, she cast her glance to the current Champion who ate, drank, and laughed with equal amounts of gusto.
“I still want to find out if Auric knows anything about what happened to Connie,” she said. “But it doesn’t seem too likely that he does.”
“Why did you suspect his involvement in the first place, Lib?” asked Xan. “I’ve never pushed you for information on that subject.”
“Because they were in love,” she said quietly. “Connie knew it wouldn’t work, so nothing really came of it, but…”
“Really… I didn’t know Constance had it in her. Good for her. I guess no one is completely immune.”
“I guess not,” she said, avoiding eye contact with Drake, whose face was stony with anger.
Xan glanced over at him. “She picked the wrong man if you ask me. But you were right to suspect Auric then … at least a little.”
Drake was spared from having to respond as a number of bookkeepers, merchants, and noblemen, all seeking the best odds on wagers, took advantage of their invitation to the Free Dinner to interview the gladiators. Several certainly wanted to have a word with Burning Blood about their strengths and weaknesses, giving the adventurers a chance to brag about their past exploits. As untested newcomers, the group had fairly high odds.
Liberty started with a retelling of the chimera story, using her illusions to add special effects. Then Xan leaned over and whispered something into her ear, and she suddenly couldn’t come up with any other impressive tales. The awkwardness that followed, along with a couple of embarrassing stories “accidentally” mentioned by the others, made their ranking dip even further as the odds increased. Ekaym followed the adventurers’ lead in reducing their ranking, playing up his inexperience as a manager. Once they were at ten-to-one, Liberty managed to find a high roller who would accept their wager of five hundred orbs on themselves to win. Having heard the tales circulating about Burning Blood, the man could only shake his head and walk away.
Once the wagers were placed, Xan kept a close eye on Raknian and noticed Ekaym also watching the Arena Director. The rogue leaned closer to the group and spoke quietly. “Two things: One, Raknian has taken notice of us. Two, Ekaym is keeping most of his attention on Raknian.”
“Hmm?” said Ekaym, who had apparently overheard.
“You seem to be staring at Raknian, Ekaym. Should I be jealous?” Liberty said playfully.
He smirked. “No special attention, my dear. I’ve an interest in all things political, and Raknian’s star is ascendant in the Free City. That makes him … interesting.”
“He definitely seems to have his hand in all sorts of endeavors,” said Xan. “What do you know of him?”
“Not as much as I’d like,” Ekaym said softly, his gaze oddly intense. He shook it off quickly, then excused himself to go do some more networking.
At that point, Tirra approached the table, smiling down at Liberty’s shimmering new outfit. Dressed in stunning soirée attire herself, the beautiful rogue took a seat beside the sorcerer and said, “Hello, luv. Fancy seeing you here.”
“Tirra! So good to see you. You remember my friends?” Mom grunted in greeting.
The elf glanced around at the others, taking note of Drake’s intent attention with a smile. “Know of is more precisely accurate.”
“Yes, we’ve come a long way from Diamond Lake,” said Liberty.
“That is actually why I came over, not that your outfit wasn’t a draw. It was, hon. Hubba hubba.”
Liberty laughed and touched Tirra on the shoulder for a moment. “I was wondering why you weren’t sitting with Auric and Khellek.”
The elf made a wry face. “Brawling with gladiators is … not for me. The lads do love their little dust-ups, though.” She gazed across the way at her companions fondly. After a moment, her attention returned to the adventurers and her voice dropped to a conspiratorial level. “I actually have something of a proposal for you.”
Liberty switched to Elven, matching Tirra’s tone, “Oh, truly?”
The elf continued in Common for the benefit of the others. “My … employer,” the word sounded slightly ironic out of her mouth, “is impressed by the accounts of your … exploits in the city thus far. He believes that you have a good chance of thriving in the tournament and even dethroning Auric’s Warband in the final match.” She rolled her eyes. “Such a terrible name.”
“We were underplaying our hand to reduce our rank,” said Liberty.
“That was not lost on me, sweetness,” Tirra said cheerfully. “Anyway, he wants to place a large wager on you with the bookmakers, many of whom are under Raknian’s control. For the final round, the bookies have offered our organization special odds for any wagers against Auric. If you can defeat the Warband – Auric, Khellek, and their leatherworks – I am authorized to split a portion of the winnings to you, if you’re willing to cover part of the bet up front.”
“That seems agreeable,” said Liberty, looking to the fellas.
“You aren’t here as part of a team, and you don’t work for Raknian. Who did you say your employers were, sweetness?" said Xan, mimicking the elf’s tone with Liberty. Drake nodded in agreement, still watching Tirra.
The elf turned toward Xan, speaking to Liberty. “Oh, isn’t he a charmer,” she said brightly. “I did not, of course, say. Though I imagine you have rightly inferred our extralegal nature.” Liberty feigned a gasp at the very notion.
“Fair enough. And what guarantee would we have that you would not simply disappear with our stake in the bet? We will be on lockdown for plenty of time for you to disappear. You are very extraordinary, Tirra, but that doesn’t mean I trust you.” Xan grinned.
She looked at him appraisingly then smiled sincerely. “Direct. You are wise to be cautious, of course. Let us say that my employer has taken an interest in your budding mercantile empire, and that we consider this both a gesture of good faith and an investment in your future.” Her eyes exuded Elven Mystery.
“Flattery doesn’t usually work on me, dear. But I might make an exception for you.”
“I could resort to threats if you’d prefer,” said Tirra, batting her eyelashes.
“Depends on the threats,” said Xan without missing a beat. “How much coin are we talking about?"
She raised her chin. “Numbers, of course. Perhaps you cannot even afford this venture. Twenty-five hundred down, for a seventy-five hundred payout.”
“We can manage that,” said Liberty. Mom grunted in agreement.
“I trust Liberty. If she’s in, I’m in,” said Xan.
Tirra cast a sidelong smile at the sorcerer. “Dear Liberty.” Mom rolled his eyes.
“Dearest Tirra,” said Liberty. “I can’t tell you how it pleases me to find a friend in this city.”
She nodded agreeably. “My employer will also be pleased. Succeed, and I’ve no doubt a meeting with him could be arranged, should you desire further dealings.” The elf then paused a beat, a frown marring her face momentarily. “But … as a personal favor, if you do go against Auric, I pray you fight mercifully. The lads are my friends, and I’d like to see them live through the Games.”
Drake’s eyes held only malice. “We’ll fight as the tournament declares we fight … to win.”
Her frown turned to a pout that she leveled at Drake full force. It was … enticing. He shifted uncomfortably.
“_I’ll_ offer mercy if it’s called for,” said Liberty, returning her hand to Tirra’s arm. The sorcerer received a grateful glance, but then the elf’s gaze returned to Drake, silently pleading.
“I see no reason to take it any further than it must go,” said Xan. “This is a business venture, after all."
“We won’t break the rules,” Drake finally said, begrudgingly. “If they surrender, I’ll stop.” Liberty relaxed a little.
Tirra shook her head helplessly. “I suppose I’ll have to take that, won’t I?" She patted Drake on the knee. He twitched at her touch, clenching his fists, but keeping his hands on the table.
The elf sat with them for a while, swapping adventuring stories for the rest of the dinner, chatting amiably, and subtly trying to win Drake over a bit more. As the drinks flowed and the conversation was wisely steered away from Auric, the burly alchemist began to loosen up. In little enough time, Tirra was seated in Drake’s lap and laughing gaily. Holding onto his anger under those circumstances was a doomed venture.
Liberty asked about the trolls that the Free City Adventurers had encountered off the road between Greyhawk and Diamond Lake, and Tirra happily recounted the beatdown. “Auric insisted that we get some kind of financial gain from the trip. It was otherwise a bust. Well … monetarily.” She smiled mysteriously.
“Well, please thank him for me,” said Xan. “Your actions that day put a couple of valuable assets in my employ.”
She smirked up at him with a curious expression. “I’ll do that.”
“This … employer of yours,” he ventured. “Is this a contractual thing you have, or a more permanent position?”
“You think you’re in a position to, ah … ‘employ’ me? Is that it?” she asked flirtingly.
“Might be that I am, yeah,” he grinned back.
“Survive the tournament, and we can discuss some sort of … arrangement.” She winked.
The Free Dinner ended with an impressive show of fireworks. A group of dancers surrounded the central bonfire and began whirling around it, their lean bodies outlined by the roaring flames. As the dance built, an impressive display of explosions and arcs of fire and lightning burst upward into the air from the bonfire. In the sudden silence that followed, the dancers fell to the ground, and Loris Raknian announced in a deep baritone voice: “The Champion’s Games have begun!”
Tirra stood and stretched. “That’s my cue. Oh! Before I forget. Liberty, shall I give your regards to your sister?”
There was a crunch of metal as Drake crushed his mug, his cheeks reddening in anger. The sorcerer’s face was suddenly very pale. “Is. .. are you telling me she’s here in the Free City?”
The elf tilted her head to one side. “Of course. What did you think?”
“No. Don’t tell her I’m here. Please,” said Liberty, starting quietly but rising at the end. “Better that I surprise her after the tournament’s over.”
“Okay… As you wish,” said Tirra, clearly confused.
“I’ll explain … later … but best not to tell you now.” Drake’s tension began to drain as he took Liberty’s meaning.
Tirra leaned in, her voice low again. “I’m sorry, Liberty. Is this about Diamond Lake?” Her eyes widened suddenly, and she pinched the bridge of her nose. “Of course! I’m such a fool. You didn’t know she wasn’t killed.” Drake slumped, seeming suddenly sad and resigned.
“She … what?!” said Liberty, a tear rolling down her cheek. “She died in my arms, Tirra.” Her hand clutched the gold necklace.
“No, silanna,” the elf said. “Constance Grace lives.”