Chapter 78: Emancipation
Within minutes, the men who'd been guarding the cells all lay on the ground, dead or unconscious. A bear and a leopard lay near the entrance to the pit, alongside their keeper; Minsc had apologized to the animals as he had killed them, but had struck down their master with unusual relish, even for him.
"I can pick the locks, but it will take a while," Yoshimo told the slaves. "Do any of these men hold a key to your cells?"
"That one, friend," said a deep voice. A strong arm reached out from between the iron bars of the closest cell and pointed at one of the guards that lay near Ember. She searched the body and found a large, slightly rusted key in a beltpouch.
"That's it!" one of the captives cried. Ember tossed the key to Yoshimo, who caught it with one hand and immediately set about unlocking the cells.
"Hurry!" Anomen urged, peering down the corridor they'd arrived through from behind the half-closed door. "The other guards have noticed that something is amiss."
"Let us handle the guards," the deep-voiced man said, stepping out of his newly opened cell and picking up an abandoned sword. He was fairly short, but muscular, and his bare torso was covered with scars. "I am Hendak, a warrior from the north until my capture by slavers, and I will lead my brothers against them!"
The other gladiators cheered and followed his example, stripping the fallen guards of weapons and pieces of armour. A veritable wall of armed and enraged men awaited the other guards by the time they set foot in the room; they never stood a chance.
"We are free, my brothers!" Hendak cried. "Go, now, and free the women! Hendak will strike his blade into the heart of our so-called owner, so that he shall never trouble you again!"
As the other freed slaves stormed out of the room, Hendak turned to Ember and her companions. "I thank you truly, my friends, for what you have done, but I must ask one more thing of you. The slavers that sold us to Lehtinan have many children, yet, that they retain as slaves in their compound. I would ask you to free those children while we do what must be done in this place."
"More children?! Boo is outraged by the evil that leaps about this city like a hot-footed weasel!" Minsc bellowed. "We must free the little ones!"
"We'll do whatever we can," Ember said.
"Ah, I knew you would not let me down!" Hendak exclaimed. "The slavers reside in a nearby building. There is a secret passage that leads from their base through the sewers and straight to this room, but I do not know how to open it."
"Allow me," Yoshimo said. He walked up to one of the walls and pressed his palm against a slighty chipped brick in it. There was a soft click, and a section of the wall, wide enough for two to walk abreast, fell open like any hinged door.
Hendak laughed. "You start well! Good fortune to you, friends, and may the Gods aid your task," he said. "I must go now. Lehtinan will feel the cold swiftness of my blade!" The former slave hurried down the corridor that led back towards the inn, sword in hand and ready for blood.
The course of the hidden path was found easily enough; myriads of feet had worn a distinct trail through the debris that littered the sewers. At one point, Ember and her companions passed a grisly marker; a skeleton in rags, its hands still bound by rusty shackles, sat propped up against a wall.
The stench was unbelievable.
The path did not follow the main sewer canals, but it was more than close enough to them, and the nearby corridors were patrolled by sewer creatures. A small band of kobolds ran away as the group approached, but there were many slimes, too, and they had no such impulses; the small group was forced to stop and destroy every single slime and jelly that sensed their passing.
At one point, near a massive sewage drain, the group was attacked by a filthy, tentacle-limbed creature, identical to the one Ember and Minsc had seen in their prison. It seemed to charge them with the same ferocious mindlessness as the jellies, but after Minsc hacked off one of its tentacles, it flinched away and withdrew into a side tunnel, dragging its severed tentacle behind it.
"What was that creature?" Ember asked, staring at the tunnel where it'd vanished.
"Otyugh," Anomen replied. "They are vile creatures that feed upon what they find in the sewers, be it alive or dead. It will no doubt devour its own limb." A look of disgust crossed his face as he wiped ichor from his warhammer. "Such vermin is unworthy of our time."
"Yes, the children await!" Minsc added. "Onwards, Boo!"
After several sharp turns, the path crossed a wooden walkway. Unlike the random boards one usually found flung across sewage channels, this one seemed to be designed to fit the gap it bridged, and it didn't rock or budge as the small party crossed it. The path continued onwards into a chamber with a flat floor and several partitioning walls made from rough planks. At the far end of the chamber there was a smooth brick wall with a large wooden door set in it. Muffled voices could be heard beyond it.
"The end of the road, it would appear," Yoshimo murmured. He quietly approached the door and nudged it open, then peered through the narrow gap for a moment before beckoning the others to come closer.
Ember looked through the door jamb. The room on the other side was large and poorly lit, and at least half a dozen men were in it. Some of them were moving crates, while others were relaxing. One of them wore the dark purple robes of a Cyricist priest.
The door flew open. A large, burly man stepped through the opening and grabbed Ember by the front of her tunic. "Who in the Nine Hells are you?!" he shouted; tiny drops of spittle hit her face. "If you want more slaves, you're going about it the wrong way, girlie!"
Ember raised her leg and kicked. With an ear-piercing shriek, the slaver let go of her.
"On them, lads!" someone shouted.
Minsc and Anomen drew their weapons and moved towards the doorway; Minsc tried to continue onward into the slaver room, shouting about the evil that had dared to lay hand on his witch, but Anomen held him back. "Nay, friend. We must defend the doorway," the Helmite said, and swung his warhammer at one of the closest men.
Ember noticed the Cyricist casting a spell and began to cast one of her own, an incantation with short, sharp words and gestures that she'd learned while visiting the dryad queen. The Cyricist finished animating a pair of skeletons; she spoke the last syllable of her spell and pointed at him. A swarm of wasps, gnats, bees and other insects materialised in the air around him. Half of them immediately attacked their target, while the rest of the insects spread out, attacking the other slavers. The Cyricist shrieked and turned to run, but tripped on his own robes.
"Even the creepy-crawlies won't stand for your evil ways!" Minsc cried, and gleefully cut down one of the distracted slavers. The Helmite turned and gave Ember an impressed glance before stepping out of the doorway and raising a hand in front of the animated skeletons. White light seemed to pool in his raised hand, and the skeletons exploded in clouds of bone dust.
By the time the swarm dissipated, only three slavers were still standing; one was fighting with Anomen, while the other two were trying to fend off Minsc. Gripping her staff firmly with both hands, Ember ran up behind one of Minsc's foes and struck the back of his head. The slaver collapsed, much like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and was followed moments later by his partner.
"How dare you! Why are you out to ruin me?" the one remaining slaver - Ember recognized him as the one she'd kicked - shouted at Anomen. The cleric had disarmed the slaver and forced him to his knees.
"Quiet, you fiend! You have brought ruin upon yourself," Anomen replied. "You are to be handed over to the authorities."
The slaver laughed. "I'm not going to rot in prison over some worthless dregs, and you won't be the one to take me in if I do!" He pulled a dagger from somewhere within his sleeve, plunged it into Anomen's arm, and ran towards the exit to the sewer tunnel. As the slaver reached the doorway, there was a brief glint of light upon metal; he fell dead to the floor, skewered by Yoshimo's katana.
"Where next?" Ember asked, looking around. The room had only two other exits; there was a winding staircase in the corner, and a sturdy oak door, barred with iron, was set in the far wall.
"Boo says that this is just the kind of door that would hide little children from the sunshine!" Minsc announced, and yanked the door open.
A chorus of terrified whimpers came from the other side.
"I think Boo might be right," Ember murmured to Minsc. She grabbed a torch from the wall and carefully entered the dark room. The torchlight fell upon over a dozen small children; the oldest looked to be about ten years old. Boys and girls, all with matted hair, grimy faces, and eyes wide with terror. All dressed in rags. All shackled by their necks to a length of chain that spanned the entire wall.
"You're new," one of the youngest children said. "Who are you? Are you here to hurt me, too?"
A large, hard lump formed in Ember's throat, and her fingers tightened around the torch handle. The slavers were lucky to be dead already. "No, we're not going to hurt you," she said as gently as she could. "We're here to set you free."
A joyous mood reigned in the Copper Coronet that evening. The foul Lehtinan was dead, along with most of his lackeys, and the gladiator Hendak had claimed the inn as his own. The transfer of ownership had gone very smoothly; few of the remaining staff members had any objections to the change, especially since the new owner offered to actually pay them their full wages, and many of the former slaves, both gladiators and courtesans, were hired to fill the numerous vacant positions in the inn.
The formerly enslaved children had been attended to; bathed, fed, and clothed in new tunics, they slept three to a bed in the quarters formerly utilized by the companions while the adults celebrated. The swill Lehtinan had served his common guests was replaced with choice cuts of meat, and the watered down ale was replaced by quality beverages.
Anomen sipped his cider and glanced across the table at Ember and Minsc, who were deep in conversation. The young lady had recounted the tale of her being in Athkatla to Hendak as they ate, and the former gladiator had immediately offered to equip them from Lehtinan's considerable armoury. Anomen himself had gained a lightly enchanted warhammer of far better construction than his old one, while Ember had been presented with a fine set of leather armour and an enchanted staff. Minsc had been awarded an enchanted greatsword and a fairly well-fitting suit of chainmail, and Yoshimo, who was currently talking with two of the former courtesans, had received a tuigan bow.
Fate had brought him some strange companions indeed, Anomen mused as he gazed upon Boo the hamster - a hamster! - who was sitting on the table and eating grain kernels. The reports about the disturbance in the Promenade a scant tenday ago had only spoken of one spellcaster; the girl Imoen had not been mentioned. And yet, here they were: a young lady, her addled yet loyal guardian, and their Kara-turan companion, all intent upon retrieving this Imoen from the Cowled Wizards. Their story was far from implausible; as corrupt as the Cowled ones were, Anomen could easily imagine them imprisoning a girl when they should have merely issued a warning, if it suited their purposes. The Order would never had stood for such an atrocity, had it been made public knowledge!
Imoen's incarceration was clearly unjust, and her rescue would be a worthy cause, but... Anomen hesitated. No matter how flawed their conduct was, the Cowled Wizards did act on authority given them by the Council of Six, and it was clear to him that Imoen's rescue would not be effected through any official channel. Could he condone such an action against the Cowled ones? They consider themselves bound by no laws but their own, he reminded himself. And if they do not uphold even those laws, should not their behaviour be corrected, by whatever means necessary?
"My lady," he said, addressing Ember, "would you accept another companion on your quest?"
She gave him a contemplative look. "You understand that I'll do whatever it takes to get Imoen back, right?"
With my assistance, she may yet be retrieved as legally as possible. "Aye, my lady," Anomen said. "It is also my understanding that your friend's imprisonment is most unjust, and against even the regulations of the Cowled Wizards themselves. Extracting her from such a situation cannot be considered anything but a honourable task!"
She smiled, then. "In that case, I'd be happy to have you with us."
"Did you hear that, Boo?" Minsc exclaimed. "Our friend Anomen is going to continue heroing with us!"
Anomen bowed his head towards Ember, a smile blossoming on his face. The companions might be strange, but he knew in his heart that this task would be grand indeed.
Moira would be proud of him.