[Dungeon Master’s note: Thanks to favorable connections with the Red Wizards at Rose Keep, an alternate method of purchasing items has been established. Mechanically, this means that the Discerning Merchant’s Price Guide is ALSO available for player use. However, players must choose between using only one purchasing guide or the other; they cannot mix and match for best results. (In comparison, the Discerning Merchant’s Price Guide often prices magical equipment more cheaply, but consumables more costly.) The Discerning Merchant’s Price Guide is not a free resource under the Open Game License; contact the DM if you wish to use it.]
1. The Money Trail
Korvicros was last reported heading north, towards the northern Eastspur Mountains. He has resisted our efforts to Scry him, and so we must resort to more mundane methods of tracking and sleuthing, if we wish to recover our stolen national repository and keep our economy from further collapse.
The dragon’s last known position was near Laviguer and Vordric Dun, in the Impiltur region of Cirdan. We believe this is not a coincidence. This area has crossed our desk before, when Gertrude the sewer hag spoke to you of other keys. There is a fledgling cult here that has, over the past few months, sunk its roots deeply into the nearby institutions. While ostensibly concerning itself with a path of self-enlightenment, the “Awakening of the Third Eye” group has used strong necromantic energies on numerous occasions, according to our diviners.
Go to Cirdan, and the towns of Laviguer and Vordric Dun. Investigate the “Awakening of the Third Eye” and any connection it may have to Korvicros and this recent surge of necromancy-themed cults we’ve seen in Impiltur.
2. Tick-Tock Tick-Tock
“Randis Gorodzo’s Fine Construct & Automation Emporium” should also be a name familiar to you; this was the artisan guild responsible for the undead-construct waiters that assaulted you at the Terrace restaurant a few months ago. The parallels between what you experienced there and what occurred in the vaults of the Royal Bank cannot be denied – in both cases, undead were encased in metallic constructs of intelligent design. And, in both cases, similar magic devices appeared that could directly control the monstrosities – one using a core of a white human hair, and the other of a mummified human finger.
In response to the fiasco at the Terrace, Randis Gorodzo seems to have gone to ground. Still, there are ways to track even the most reclusive of fugitives. Locate Randis or his associates, and learn what you can about the history of his golden wands, the constructs he created, and how the pieces fit together.
3. Land of the Dead
One final location where the threads of mystery seem to snarl is in the homelands of the Yuan-ti: the Vilhon Reach. Evidence was uncovered linking the awakening of Korvicros to multiple chapters of the Cult of the Dragon – one of which seemed to be based from Hlondeth. This would be an excellent point to begin uncovering the plot against our Royal Bank.
But that is not all. In ancient history, there once stood the ancient nation of Jhaamdath in the Vilhon Reach, the only known “psiocracy” in the history of Faerûn. Eighteen hundred years ago, Jhaamdath was destroyed in an hour in a magical tsunami, following a quickly escalating war with elven nations.
The ghosts of that land do not rest easy; and even today, there are reports of massive floating cities of vengeful psionic ghosts, and of unearthed dungeons replete with their knowledge. For those of you who “survived” Umeren’s tricks and wish to ultimately regain control of your souls, such information would be invaluable.
Explore Vilhon Reach and the ancient ruins of Jhaamdath. Learn what you can about the Hlondeth chapter of the Dragon Cult and seek the council of ghosts.
– Mission Accepted –
A. The Jewel of Vilhon
i. Corvidae et Viperidae
[Editor’s note: The following section was penned by Charli’s player.]
In a shadowy corner, the man with serpents blood knelt, placing a silver bowl before a sort of shrine made up of arranged branches, feathers and the skulls of long deceased birds. In silence, he stared into the darkness. After some time, he began to speak in low hissing tones. “The despot of Songhal and her city of spiritual hostages…innocents detained indefinitely…incapable of moving on to rest.”
He sat silently for ages, mulling over his memories. After some time, a sneering expression of disgust crossed his face and he spoke again, his voice rising gradually with his temper. “The filth ridden Slime-Lord, Umeren, toying with my own soul. Casting me and my friends into the world as imposters of ourselves before fleeing like a coward!” He would never allow his companions to witness such an exhibit of emotional weakness, but here below the city he was safe in his privacy. The man began to sway from side to side, slowly and rhythmically as if in a trance of calm fury.
“And now, the corpse of a dragon, defiled by my own kin, traipses across the landscape with all the realms coin in its belly. Off to meddle with the cosmic order, no doubt.” The man stopped swaying. He let out a sigh, cool and utterly resigned.
He shifted suddenly and fixed his gaze upon the altar. He took off his old stovepipe hat. From the dusty band he removed the jet black pinion of a Raven and turned it slowly round between his fingers.
“I don’t really know how to pray,” he spoke towards the feather, “and I never imagined I would be praying to the Queen of Ravens. I wish to serve you and your realm. Good, evil or otherwise, a creature has a right to face its maker upon death. Those who would meddle with this order should be struck down and cast out. And so I beseech you. Grant me the power to strike down those meddlers. Grant me the grace and wisdom to protect the mortal realm from those who wield necromancy against the sanctity of death. Grant me this and I, Charli Adder, will serve you, the Raven Queen, until my death and thereafter.”
Then a voice spoke from within his mind. Not a voice but countless hundreds of voices and images. A myriad of memories replete with visions of past worlds and scenes. Conversations, songs and battle cries, all coalesced into a din so immense that Charli thought his head might burst. The dark room that he occupied disappeared to his senses as he seemed to be whirling through a vortex of memory. The din achieved such a vivid frequency that it then became homogeneous like a whisper and he heard words formed from it. “The power is granted.”
As swiftly as it came, the mental cacophony subsided and Charli was back in the shadowy room. Only now, a fat raven was perched upon the altar. It bellowed a guttural *CAW* and dropped down to the silver bowl placed before the altar which it tapped with its beak expectantly.
Somehow, Charli knew exactly what was expected. He reached into his overcoat and pulled out a soft leather purse. From it he extracted a fine red garnet gem easily worth several hundred gold pieces and placed it in the bowl.
The bird appraised the offering for a moment, scooped up the gem in its beak and hobbled silently into the darkness of the chamber. After several moments it returned and deposited into the bowl a small handbook, bound in worn black leather and the pages gilded with fading golden ink.
Charli opened the book but the stylized characters were unrecognizable to him. However, as he touched the pages his mind was filled with visions of someone else’s memories. A dusky looking elf wearing the vestments of a priest performed strange rites in a land saturated with darkness. The Shadowfell. Though he didn’t know the language, the meaning arrived in his mind regardless. One by one he committed each rite to his own memory, miming the movements and words of the unknown Saint.
Several days later, from that shadowy chamber hidden somewhere beneath the city, Charli Adder emerged reborn.
ii. Black Friday
The effects of Korvicros’s public departure were immediate and devastating. Already in a precarious state from poor harvests and impending foreign loans, Impiltur’s economy quickly entered a freefall. Royal bonds were now worthless, bank accounts meaningless, and the money invested in either of them lost forever. Furthermore, any debt-based values used among institutions ultimately relied on loans set against the security at the Royal Bank and Trust – security that no longer existed.
Many institutions immediately entered bankruptcy, and their employees discharged. Gold and silver coins, now worth only their weight, vanished from circulation as organizations tried to recoup their losses, or civilians panic-bought staples for the winter ahead. Foreign bodies curtailed their imports into Impiltur, realizing there was no one who could pay appropriate prices. Those domestic merchants who still held stockpiles of household goods realized their momentary fortunes; they immediately raised prices or forced buyers into exploitive loans. What had been a growing recession became a full-fledged depression, likely to last for years to come.
There too existed dire political implications. With no centralized bank to hold them together, the strong alliances between the provinces of Impiltur fragmented. None of the twelve rulers could rely on another for financial support, and so each was forced to deal with their own populations’ troubles in turn. Meetings among the Council of Lords invariably devolved into shouting and accusations, with little accomplished.
Compounding this situation was the sudden and shocking death of Filur’s Lord Ganlin “Hightower” Relindar, who had succumbed to a series of small but steady doses of poison. This sudden absence of leadership threatened to upend the already-precarious political situation of Filur; there were more than a few rumors that the White Stag of Songhal would use this opportunity to seize the seat of power in the province.
It was possible – even anticipated – that foreign agents would take advantage of Impiltur’s vulnerable position. Though there might be no outright military invasions, organizations from without could leverage their economy weight, snatching up companies, politicians, or even fiefdoms.
As they watched the coast of Lyrabar gradually diminish behind their transport vessel, the agents reflected solemnly on these turns of events. At the very least, they had come away from the vaults of the Royal Bank with valuable information they’d not have had otherwise, plus an enigmatic Staff that could turn up further answers. Still, they couldn’t help but feel their current mission was taking them away from Impiltur when it needed them the most. They reminded themselves that they were not gods nor goddesses, and they could only do what they could, where they could, with what little they had.
Their destination, the city of Hlondeth in the Vilhon Reach, would require a significantly greater voyage than their previous trips to Aglarond. It would take them nearly a full tenday to arrive, stopping at the ports of Alaghôn and Sapra en route. Along the way, Charli Adder explained that the “City of Serpents” (as it was called), was governed by House Extaminos – Sseth sympathizers and halfbloods. (He’d originally hailed from this city himself, more than thirty years prior, but he’d departed at the tender age of sixteen.)
What’s more, the influence of the Order did not reach to Hlondeth, which had declared itself a free city. Here, the only voices heard were those of political machinations, backroom deals, secretive assassinations, and outright profit. Felkar had warned them that they would no longer be presenting themselves as “agents”; now, they would be “adventurers.”
And yet, this was a fact that could work to their favor. For the first time, their team leader Felkar was unable to accompany them on the mission – Impiltur’s dire situation had required extra help (and extra hands) from the Order. For the first time, those of Pigeon Squad were unchaperoned and representing only themselves. It did not matter, perhaps, how far they stretched the truth on the mission…or whom they needed to kill.
As they traversed the Sea of Fallen Stars, the agents introduced themselves in turn to their newest compatriot and member of their squad – one Jasper Sootmane.
An eight-foot-tall goliath, Jasper boasted an impressive stature. His skin, where visible, was pale with black splotches. The rest was covered in full plate adorned by purple outlines and images of eyes. He sported a small armory on his back – a serrated black greatsword, three hand axes, a battleaxe, a halberd, and a shield. The agents gathered that he had himself forged everything he carried.
Jasper gave a brief recount of his induction to the Order. Originally, his clan had lived in the Giantspire Mountains, northeast of Impiltur, until Jasper accidently led a storm giant back to his clan. After the ensuing chaos, in which some of his friends and family were lost, the Sootmane clan were forced into exile. They eventually moved to Impiltur, using their secret forging techniques to earn their room and board, and to secure a promising future for Jasper as a member of the Order.
When introduced to his new squadmates, Jasper had come bearing gifts. Thanks to a letter he had penned, he’d assembled a list of equipment that he could craft with his special skills. To Asura he gave a magically-endowed warhammer that would significantly increase his ability to strike and deal damage. To Alexis and Charli both, sets of fine boots that would help them evade detection and capture. To Rock, a longsword whose mirrored blade reflected the sunlight even on cloudy days. While Jasper downplayed his own talents, it was clear he was a smithy and a cobbler of experience.
Charli had some stern words of warning as they traveled aboard their vessel, and a revelation about his character. Hlondeth had originally been more than simply his hometown; he’d in fact worked as an informant for the ruling family of House Extaminos. When he’d turned sixteen, he’d been sent – assigned, if you will – to the city of Westgate, north of Hlondeth and west of Impiltur. There, for thirty years, he’d climbed through the ranks of the local law enforcement as an inspector. While helping to keep a loose lid on the rampant crime that Westgate was known for, Charli also periodically relayed information to the Extaminos in Hlondeth, helping them keep their metaphorical foot in the door of the city.
Everything changed when Charli’s accomplice of ten years was murdered by agents of Extaminos. This, coupled with the revelation that his own family had fallen to the same blade, prompted an emotional introspection unusual for a Yuan-ti. He left both Westgate and his role as spy, traveling north and east. He chanced upon and aided members of the Order in need, and the rest was history.
“This is, to say, something of a weird homecoming,” Charli finished. His face peeked out from under the brim of a newly-acquired Hat of Disguise, which had modified his major features. Fortunately for his friends, his voice was the same. “There is the very real likelihood that, should my identify be discovered, I would be put to death for my defection.”
“I know something of the loss of one’s family,” Jasper empathized, referring to when his own actions had caused the death of his clanmates.
“Yes, though things are altogether different in that respect for the Yuan-ti,” Charli returned. He went on to explain that, being modelled after the serpentine, Yuan-ti did not make use of a mammalian brain in the same way as most other humanoids. They did not have complex emotions surrounding family, kinship, empathy, affection, or sentiment. The sentiments that had assaulted Charli at the loss of his associate, and the plot behind his parents’ death, were born less from a sense of loss than that of spite. He felt resentment over what had been taken from him; and, like a viper that had been wronged, he had wanted to strike back.
Of course, that had been a practical impossibility. But his decision had led him to the Order, and his newfound compatriots.
Alexis was leaning over the nearest railing, his stomach still churning from the movement of the ship on the sea, when he noticed the waves around turn white with foam. The effect reminded him of hungry catfish churning the surface of a pond. As the sailors screamed out warnings, long eel-like creature burst from the water onto the ship, their vicious toothed maws propelled by flying fins.
These “flying lampreys” were vicious fiends. Six crewmen fell in quick succession to their vampiric jaws, as the creatures latched themselves onto their throats and drank their veins dry.
Alexis made quick use of his Shield spell, ricocheting two away from him in quick succession. Charli was not as lucky, and his face turned an earthly shade of pale white as one attached to him. Alexis helped pry one, then a second, from his friend’s form.
Fortunately for the agents, the creatures were not as nimble out of the water. Though their powerful tails would launch them into the air for a flying attack, they flopped helplessly until they’d repositioned. Many lampreys leaped back into the water after finishing a meal, but those that remained were quickly clubbed to death by the agents. Additionally, once a lamprey had attached, it was much easier to connect a blow; and Asura began beating at one lamprey that’d sunk its teeth into his chest.
Nearby, Alston weaved his hands through the air, forming a point of magnified gravity, expertly placed just off the starboard board. The field sucked several lampreys from the ship and deposited them back into the sea – including the one attached to Asura’s chest. Unfortunately for the cleric, the lamprey took a bite of skin with it as it was yanked away.
In the crow’s nest, Berkin did battle with the last remaining lamprey still on board. Finding his dagger ineffective, he instead reshaped the offending beast into a sloth, then tossed it overboard.
“What?” he shrugged at the agents watching from below. “They can hold their breath for forty minutes, and it’ll sink right to the bottom. He’ll be fine.”
The captain of their vessel expressed relief that the ordeal was over. “Those things are vicious,” she agreed. “As you can see, they can kill a man in seconds. Generally, we run below decks and batten down the hatches until they give up and leave.”
iii. A Ssetup.
Midwinter was celebrated on board the ship, one day out from Hlondeth. The next morning they’d docked, and the agents were free to go ashore. Casting one last ritual in their chambers, Alston connected the minds of the party through a new spell he’d learned: Rary’s Telepathic Bond. For the next hour, he and his friends could exchange thoughts and words silently and instantly, without fear of being overheard.
As their feet touched the docks, Alexis breathed a sigh of relief, but Charli visibly tensed. He would be in mortal danger as long as they were in the city.
A few inquiries pointed them in the direction of their informant: a lizardfolk by the name of “Raashrugoth,” who owned a potions shop. This merchant was their first step into the seedy underbelly of Hlondeth, and they’d been told he could connect them with either the cultists directly, or others who knew of them.
The streets of Hlondeth were a busy network of passages that intertwined like snakes. Much of the city was laid out in a honeycomb fashion, the byways intersecting in Y-shapes between the domes that the Yuan-ti preferred. Charli recognized many of the edifices from his childhood, including the Solarium and the Nesting Tower, but others were obscured by newer buildings erected in the past thirty years.
The agents turned a few heads for their motley appearance (and Jasper’s height); still, Hlondeth was a giant center of commerce. There would be no shortage of diversity here. Nor was there a shortage of slavery. Tattooed “S” shapes across the cheeks of numerous citizens indicated their ownership by another. The slaves did not seem malnourished nor beaten; a slave’s state reflected on their master, and it was safe to say that they were treated no worse (nor better) than a prized horse.
But, just like a horse, there always came a point when a slave’s usefulness was at an end. Jasper and Alexis both viewed the rampant use of slaves with disgust, but they held their tongues. They were here on a specific mission, not to foment a revolution.
The specific street that held Raashrugoth’s shop seemed oddly quiet. There were no merchants outdoors on their carpets, nor children playing beneath the eaves. Instead, dozens of snakes, each as thick as the agents’ arms, lay across rooftops and over flat flagstones, each basking sleepily in the sunlight. The snakes turned their lidless eyes in the agents’ direction, tasting the air with lazy tongues.
The front door to the lizardfolk’s shop was ajar. There was no light nor sound from the interior, and no one answered the agents’ hails. They ventured cautiously inside.
They found the body of Raashrugoth inside, his throat slit. He was quite dead, and had been so for at least a few hours.
As the agents hurried to begin their investigation, the shadows outside the shop shifted. Serpents that had before lain quietly stood upright on two legs, arms sprouting from new shoulders. Jasper, standing guard at the doorway, called out a warning as these malisons (once known as halfbloods) took up stations outside each window and exit from the shop. It was a clear ambush.
Gliding suddenly in through the front door towered a lady head and shoulders above even Jasper. She wore a robe to conceal her armored form, and a helmet obscured all but her mouth and chin.
“Sstop, in the name of the law!” she hissed. “Well, what have we here? Vissitorss to Hlondeth, already engaged in murder of itss citizenss!”
Charli turned a discerning eye to this “captain” of the guard. Trailing from her cloak was a large serpentine tail. This was no regular Yuan-ti pureblood, but instead what humans termed an “abomination.” It was said that, long ago, the first Yuan-ti were born of humans who used perverse rituals to more closely resemble the serpents they worshipped. Consequently, those possessing more snake-like features invariably held higher positions of authority in Yuan-ti culture.
This woman, a full-fledged abomination, was certainly no rank-and-file captain of the guard. The concealing helmet was also suggestive; and if Charli were to place bets, he would guess this instead to be Medusanna Mhairdaul, high priestess of the Cathedral of Emerald Scales and overseer of the church of Varae (Sseth) in Hlondeth.
But, then, for a lady holding as much authority as this, why this subterfuge? What profit was there in such deception? Charli quickly passed his findings to the group telepathically.
But Charli was not the only individual quietly sizing up their opponents. At Medusanna’s side stood a man of more normal height, though his scaly skin announced him to be another Yuan-ti pureblood. Through Alexis’s magical sight, the individual glowed with several different forms of abjuration magic…but with a strong aura of divination magic flowing from his eyes. The individual looked each of the agents over in turn. When his gaze came to Charli, however, he leaned in and whispered something to Medusanna. The high priestess nodded her understanding.
Alexis feared a spell that allowed the man to see directly through any disguise they might use.
“Lady, you saw us enter the shop,” Jasper protested. “You know we couldn’t have committed a crime in that short amount of time.”
“A man iss dead and here you are,” Medusanna replied. “If you believe yoursselvess sso innocent, then you may plead your casse in the Plaza of Jusstice.”
Charli shivered in response. “She means to throw us into one of two pits with a large serpent inside,” he telepathically signaled to the others. “It’s not a judicial court.”
“Do you think we should take the giant snake on together, or fight it out here?” Jasper thought back. He was aware his Shining Blade badge held no weight here, this far from Impiltur. Jasper eyed the guards stationed in front of each shop exit. “I can hold the madam back long enough for you to try one of the windows, if you think you can take the halfbloods outside.” He was well aware it would be a last stand for him, but he was determined to see his friends to safety.
“And go where?” Charli returned. “This was carefully planned. Even if they don’t have guards stationed all around this block, which I’m certain they do, we would be on the run in a city controlled by the Yuan-ti.” He considered the Sacred Way of Sseth, which instructed its adherents to know their foes, think ahead, and plan forward. Certainly the high priestess of the religion would have considered alternatives. “We have, I believe, a better chance going along willingly with this charade and seeking escape at a more opportune time. The only thing going in our favor at this moment is that she thinks we believe her lie, and perhaps we can use this to our advantage.”
“Of coursse,” Medusanna continued, her tongue flicking hungrily for a moment, “if you continue to protesst your innocence, you are free to sstep into a Zone of Truth and sstate sso for the record.”
At her signal, the unnamed lieutenant at her elbow flexed his fingers, and a glowing circle emerged on the shop floor. While standing within the influence of this circle, no one could willingly tell a lie…and the caster would know if those in the circle had someone resisted the magical compulsion.
The agents initially balked. “This is a farce,” Rock silently complained.
“She isn’t even a captain of the guard,” Jasper agreed. “The whole thing is a charade.”
“This isn’t an investigation,” Alexis added. “This is leverage, pure and simple.”
Charli pursed his lips. “This is, I’m afraid to say, pretty standard procedure for how Yuan-ti operate. They will find some way to manipulate you for their interests…seize something you care about and hold it hostage. Just be glad we didn’t bring family with us, or they’d have been the first targets.”
In the end, each of the agents stepped into the arcane circle created by Medusanna’s lieutenant, willingly allowing its magic to work its way into their minds. They each also stated unequivocally stated that they had no involvement or knowledge of Raashrugoth’s murder.
Medusanna nodded her acknowledgement. She didn’t appear the least bit surprised. Instead, she reached over and selected an opaque canister on the nearest shelf. Popping the lid, she poured a handful of tiny red granules onto the wooden surface.
“Ssadly, it iss not sso ssimple a thing to ssimply…releasse you. Even were you to be innocent of this man’ss death, you can ssee he wass a dealer of illicit ssubsstancess…drugss sso ssordid they are outlawed even in thiss free city. Guilt by asssociation. No judge would look kindly upon you.”
The agents side-eyed each other. Medusanna had known what was in the tin even before she’d opened it. She’d been in this shop before – possibly to plant the evidence – even possibly to kill Raashrugoth herself.
“Yet let it not be ssaid that I am without mercy. A lessser captain of the guard would have thrown you to the pitss without sso much as a ssecond thought. But I have an…isssue that perhapss you might attend to. Do sso, and I am willing to overlook thiss…unpleassantnesss.”
Alexis and Charli shared knowing glances. “Here it comes,” they thought together.
“There hass been a network of thievess, ssmuggling ancient Jhaamdath relicss from out of our city. No items have entered, and sso we are reassonably certain they were purloined from forgotten ruinss beneath our city. In addition to being pricelesss artifactss of our heritage…many of them have been curssed.”
Alexis noticed what seemed to be a thread of frustration in Medusanna’s voice as she spoke of the thefts. There appeared to be some personal interest in the issue. Did this ultimately have something to do with the church in Hlondeth?
“In order to do thiss for me,” finished Medusanna, “and to free yoursself of future blame or obligation, you would each need to accept a Geas.”
This time, the agents’ reaction was much starker and more immediate. A Geas was not something given or taken lightly. It bound its subject to the caster’s will, directing them to carry out a specific task, or to face psychic injury if disregarded.
When questioned about the specific wording of the Geas, Medusanna’s lieutenant spoke openly for the first time.
“Commit yourself to locating the source of the stolen Jhaamdath artifacts, along with the identities and motives of those who stole them, and report your findings to me or my associate.”
Rock invited the two to join them in the Zone of Truth to verify their part of the bargain, but the Yuan-ti high priest scoffed in something approaching a laugh. “You are in no possition to negotiate here.”
When Alexis tried to suggest the Geas to be placed on only one representative team member, such as he, Medusanna again shook her head. “It is not your honesty I’m concerned with…but the manner in which other partiess might attempt to use you, or your friendss, as well.” In other words, a magical contract like a Geas would prevent the agents from being recruited by her adversaries, whoever they might be. And it would have to be on all of them; one weak link could break the chain.
The group conferred in lightning-fast flashes of synapses, weighing the pros and cons of such a gambit, and discussing what loopholes there might be on their behavior. Jasper noted that a Geas would not automatically kill the recipient, and someone of sufficient mental or physical stature could suffer its effects without dying. Should events require it, he believed himself capable of breaching a Geas and living to tell the tale.
The majority of the agents agreed to Medusanna’s terms. While standing in the Zone of Truth, they agreed that they would willingly accept the Geas placed on them, as per the phrasing already given. Then Medusanna’s lieutenant wove his careful magic.
Alexis, attempting to judge the strength of the spell cast (and, consequently, its expected duration), immediately realized a very troubling fact. It was not a Geas that had been cast on them.
Instead, it had been a Mass Suggestion, empowered to ninth level. Even Rock, who had tried resisting the effects of the spell, found her mind broken by a scale of magic well beyond her.
Unlike Geas, which merely threatened a recipient with punishment, Mass Suggestion altered the target’s most fundamental motives. Now the agents would earnestly wish to help Medusanna.
Instantly, the agents were of two minds on the whole endeavor. On one hand, they felt mistreated, deceived, and used. On the other hand, Medusanna’s requests seemed very sensible. After all, they had come to Hlondeth to (among other things) research the Jhaamdath and their artifacts. Would it not make sense, then, to follow useful leads gathered by a capable, local authority?
Of course, it was impossible to tell which of their thoughts were their own, which had been magically introduced, and which were internal rationalizations for their newfound sense of allegiance.
“You may firsst begin your invesstigation at the dockss,” Medusanna commanded. “We are aware that artifactss have moved through there…but their handlerss know ssomething of our usual methodss, and sso have avoided detection.”
“Are we allowed to question other Yuan-ti in our investigations?” Rock asked.
“You can certainly try,” scoffed the giant lady, implying that Yuan-ti were under no obligation to cooperate with “lesser” races. “Additionally, there is a private auction of fine artss scheduled not far away. Our sspiess have ssenssed some connection…but nothing more ssubsstantial. Thiss might be another avenue to explore.
“Now go…and ply your trade as Insspectorss. Do not worry about contacting uss…when the time iss right, we will find you.” With that, she and her retinue withdrew.
The agents were left to their own thoughts in the darkened shop.
“That wasn’t on accident,” said Jasper, noting Medusanna’s very deliberate use of the word “Inspectors” in her parting words. “She knew exactly who we were and why we were coming. She probably decided to use our unique talents to investigate something she wasn’t able to uncover herself.”
Alexis agreed. “This whole mission of hers was tailor-made to our specific set of skills.” He glanced sadly over at the body of their previous informant. “In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Medusanna was aware of our lizardfolk’s connection with the Order for quite some time…only recently deciding to cash in on his life as leverage.”
“Yuan-ti, enlisting outsiders to spy on each other,” Rock considered. “This implies some kinds of strong division within Yuan-ti culture.”
“There always has been,” Charli asserted. “Yuan-ti are nothing if not politically motivated, always seeking to gain a better foothold in the pecking order. Though they always strike from the shadows, and they send others to do their dirty work for them.”
“They are coldblooded bastards,” Alexis grumbled. Then, recalling present company, he added, “no offense intended, of course.”
“None taken. But I hope you can see why I would want to seek a better life.”
Despite their newfound willingness to work with the Yuan-ti abomination, other facts also presented themselves. Such as the fact that when their investigation was finally concluded, all loose ends would be tied up…and they’d join the lizardfolk in some dark back alley of Hlondeth.
B. Serpent Sleuthing
i. Home Work
[Editor’s note: The following section was penned by Rock’s player.]
After the excursion to the bank’s deep secrets and the escaped lich dragon (and the ensuing economic fallout), Rock took it up herself to help the town of Impiltur’s more susceptible and poor. In a darker, more forgotten part of town, where shadows merged with abandoned stone buildings given to moss, she created a shelter. She used her Stone Shape and fortified the walls; she used her nature and survival skills to blend it into the wildness to all but the keenest eyes; she toiled beneath in the pipes below the ground to give it escape routes, or connect to the city sewers and paths well known to the cunning street rats.
She shaped a fountain, carefully diverting a small underground river in a small trickle. She built a filter before it crossed into the small pool in the sanctuary – passing through layers of coal, ashes, and purifiers to ensure clean water. Among the rocks and stones around the edge of the fountain’s pool, she cleverly implanted a Sending Stone; only a few would know of it. The water itself was clear, and good for scrying. She planted berries, and theki root, and healing herbs, and other simple roots and greens that would last, hardy and tenacious. It would not be luxurious, but they would not starve. And she gave an Alchemy Jug to the leaders, so that they had water in emergencies, wine to clean wounds, beer for trading, oil for lamps or heat, and the means to live.
First she gathered a young druid to watch them; then she recruited. She found the starving and took them in. The injured, and healed them. The outcasts, the mute, the unskilled, the abandoned, the fleet of foot. She vetted them them carefully before bringing them into the shelter she created. No bullies were allowed. They would survive, if they worked together. And if they worked together, she would help them.
She taught some the very beginning druid skills: to cleanse water, to make light and goodberries.
She taught them all stealth, stalking, the art of innocence, the gait of a aristocrat and the stumble of a old man. She taught them code-speak and to use cyphers and tap-code, and the value of secrets and how – and where – to listen.
She taught skills: how to roast roots for sustenance; how to grind a root for dye, how to dry and then crush different herbs to create other colors, and to dye wood and fabrics and make trinkets look better.
Silence was key, and words were currency. In a corner of the sanctuary, she built a small altar, a Raven’s alter. None of her proteges were forced to offer anything (being that metals, gems, and all were so rare) but they were encouraged to give baubles of meaning in the case of emergency. And perhaps, if the gift was truly given, a raven might respond with a token of monetary value that might feed those in the sanctuary.
Rock called the followers of the sanctuary to gather nightly, and one to lead it, and two to lead from the shadows – unknown leaders. The Face leader would have those come speak to him with secrets learned during the day, and collect them – perhaps direct them where it might be helpful, or dissuade if it might lead to danger or harm. Anything essential to the town of Impiltur’s safety was recorded by the two shadow leaders – those who helped heal, pass messages to the Raven Queen, teach survival skills and secrecy, and most of all, be in charge of the nightly Sending Stone. In the guise of cleaning the fountain and praying, the two would send carefully coded tap messages thru the sending stone to alert Rock to the news of the city. And vice versa.
Rock also ensured that one of the shadow leaders were in contact with the struggling leaders of Impiltur, with Torm’s Order – and even, via runners, the hag witch herself – should news of import be delivered. And she herself devoted the sanctuary to the Raven Queen, and took the care of her fledgling ‘wings’ very seriously.
ii. Greased Palms
The party discussed Medusanna’s likely intentions for their upcoming investigations. While not explicitly stated, it seemed highly encouraged that they be discrete in their goings. (After all, she had recruited them specifically for their skills as Agents of the Order; if she had wanted someone to flash badges and ring steel, she likely could have done that herself.)
A quick search of the store produced a number of potions. Later that afternoon, Alston would use some rest time to identify the following:
- Elixir of Health
- Oil of Slipperiness
- Potion of Fire Resistance
- 2x Potion of Lightning Resistance
- Potion of Poison Resistance
Charli considered taking the illicit drugs with them as well but eventually decided against it. They needed to stay on the proper side of the law, if they wanted their investigations to remain unimpeded.
The art auction Medusanna had indicated would begin at 18:00, or in four hours. The agents traveled to the docks. The items were exiting the city somewhere here, and the party wished to use their free time wisely.
A few plans were quickly hatched and enacted. While Alexis flashed a fat purse and made a show of shopping for rare magical artifacts, Charli hung perhaps sixty feet aback, his clever eyes scanning for cutpurses, spies, or generally suspicious persons.
It took some time and the expenditure of one hundred gold at various shops, but Alexis found his first solid lead at a merchant not too far from where their own ship had docked. An older man wove interesting tales about his wares. This oil lantern, for example, had been the last of the so-called “genie lamps” smuggled out from far-flung eastern lands. Though its resident had long departed, it was said that simply its possession would grant the owner increased wealth and success in business dealings. This scrap of silk, on the other hand, was said to have been worn by a pristine maiden on the night before her wedding, when she was murdered brutally. Slipping it into the purse of your arch rival would bring them accursed luck, particularly in their romantic interests.
Alexis listened with apparent rapt attention, but he had not been fooled. None of the “artifacts” this man had for sale glowed with a shred of magical power.
Alexis had purchased one of the merchant’s more pricey items on his benches before “letting slip” that he represented a rather wealthy noble from other lands, who was in the business of collecting rare and valuable artifacts. The warlock, not presently constrained by the Oath of Truth he had taken as an Agent, spun his own story of deep pockets and occultist tastes.
The merchant nodded his understanding and surreptitiously motioned to a dockmaster nearby. A few whispers later and this new figure waved Alexis over to talk in private. Certainly there were rarer and more valuable items for procurement in Hlondeth, for those of proper connection and sufficient wealth. Such items were perfect for those of eclectic tastes, particularly if one had an interest in cursed objects. Warning Alexis that a rather sizeable down payment was required, as well as utmost discretion, the dockmaster gave him directions to a nearby library where a sale of such items would occur later.
It occurred to Alexis that this was the identical time and location that Medusanna had given for the art auction that evening.
Berkin also intended to gather his own information, but he faced his own unique challenge. For one, there were no other free kobolds in the city of Hlondeth. While fifteen percent of the population were comprised of the scaly folk, they were all slaves, and any foreign merchants had been run out of town. This state of affairs dated as far back as 527 DR, in which Hlondeth had been besieged by an army of kobolds under control of a drow queen. In fact, it was because of this event that House Extaminos first forged their pact with Sseth, summoning legions of snakes to push back the invasion, and first claiming political control of Hlondeth. And even though these events had occurred nearly a thousand years ago precisely, cultural views towards kobolds had changed as little as the ruling party in that time.
Keeping Alston near enough to act as a chaperone, Berkin approached a few slave kobolds acting as dockhands. Keeping a Detect Thoughts active, he inquired about any active smuggling the kobolds may have witnessed, particularly in magical or cursed artifacts.
What the kobolds said in reply didn’t matter as much as the surface thoughts scampering across their minds. Berkin caught glimpses of drugs hidden in crates, plants and insects that hadn’t been declared, gold hidden under ship floorboards, and even a stowaway that had purchased their passage out of the city.
However, the image that stood most starkly in the kobold slaves’ mind was that of a warehouse a few blocks to the south. Only humans, orcs, and other such races were shown in its vicinity; no kobolds were allowed near it. This seemed a solid lead.
With his spell fading, Berkin then ran to where Alexis was finishing his conversation with the dockmaster as he explained the art auction. The other’s surface thoughts were not of the outside of a warehouse, but of its interior, where empty boxes awaited. A bright stamp adorned the sides of the crates: that of a merchant ship and a chisel, separated by a red wavy line.
Alston had refreshed the Telepathic Bond that allowed the party to directly share their thoughts and experiences. Charli immediately recognized the seal that Berkin had dredged from the mind of the dockmaster: it was the official seal of the House of Extaminos.
This implied one of two things: either that the smugglers were using the official seal to bypass inspections on their cargo, or that the ruling party of Hlondeth was itself involved in the illicit trade.
The warehouse seen in Berkin’s visions was simple enough to locate; the prominent lack of kobolds set it apart. Additionally, while there were no ships docked (or even pulling in to that section of the wharf), there were perhaps a dozen humans, dwarves, and half-orcs lounging around the warehouse. Though they talked and smoked, they had chosen positions that allowed them to watch the entire perimeter. Charli was familiar with port cities and could pinpoint the oddity: someone was paying these dockhands to do nothing. Unless, of course, that “nothing” was standing guard around a warehouse.
This time, Alston and Rock took initiative on the investigation. While Alston sent ahead an invisible quasit (re-summoned during their downtime in Impiltur), Rock wildshaped into a snake similar to those seen in the city. As Charli explained, serpents essentially amounted to holy animals in this city. For one, they were the form and likeness of the god Varae/Sseth, who had answered the historical prayers of House Extaminos and routed the kobold army.
Second, it was nearly impossible to tell when a snake was just a snake, or when it was a malison in disguise. Unlike Rock’s magical wildshape, the Yuan-ti’s snake-form ability was natural and gave off no arcane glow. To anyone not benefiting from Truesight, the two were identical. Therefore, it was wise not to upset any snake one happened across while in Hlondeth.
This could work to Rock’s benefit. Anyone who could not see her magical aura would stay out of her way…which was most of the population of Hlondeth.
Entering the warehouse was simple enough for the invisible quasit and the wildshaped Rock. Once inside, Rock’s serpent eyes slowly adjusted to the inside of the two-story structure, where columns of grain, leather, and fruits awaited transport. A stack of empty crates near the center captured her interest; they held the emblem of the House of Extaminos on their sides, and they were still empty.
It was at this point that the mischievous invisible quasit pushed a box on top of Rock. Though she avoided injury, the noise alerted the foreman, who emerged from his office to investigate. Seeing the snake entering his warehouse, the foreman automatically genuflected towards it, but he did not retreat. Instead, he crossed his arms and kept a stern eye on Rock’s movements, seeing where she might go and what she might do.
This distraction was enough for Alston’s invisible quasit, who in turn ducked into the foreman’s vacated office and studied the papers on the desk. There was an open ledger that tracked all current shipments in and out of the warehouse and its docks for the day. The goods listed were mundane and mirrored what they’d already seen in the structure. However, no shipment was scheduled for today, despite the dockworkers’ presence.
The Quasit dug deeper. Beneath the large ledger book was a smaller, leather-bound book. This too was a ledger, it seemed, but chronicled shipments far fewer and infrequent. Every tenday or so, three or four crates would be loaded onto ships exiting Hlondeth. None of the ship names were the same, though they most often aimed for Chondath or Turmish. Each of the single crates that was given to each vessel held a short itinerary of flour, rice, or other soft packaging…and a single piece of art, on the last line. Some were pots, some were statues, and some were identified as simply “nondescript.”
There were three new entries for today, for three new boxes. However, the names of the ships – and the artwork described on the last line – were still blank.
“I think we’ve found the point of exit,” Alexis broadcasted to the group, as Alston withdrew his familiar into its pocket dimension. (The naughty fiend had been about to knock a bottle of ink over the papers on the desk – pretty par the course for a quasit.) “I venture that the artwork is sold at the auction we’ll be attending shortly, and from there moved onto its buyer’s vessels in short order. Packing it within other goods staves off unwanted questions – as well as stamping the emblem of House Extaminos on the sides.”
There were about two hours before the art auction would begin, in the city nearby. They relaxed until six in the evening, when the event would begin.
Apart from Medusanna and her entourage, the agents had encountered no other Yuan-ti. While those of the free-city bowed their heads to their serpentine, they often could make it through an entire day without encountering one of their overlords. The Yuan-ti kept to their own buildings, and they preferred the aqueducts high above street level when moving between them. And when they did use the streets, the Yuan-ti stuck to long, sloping ramps that did not hinder their slithering motions. Consequently, it was easy to deduce which sections of Hlondeth to avoid, if you wanted to stay out of harm’s way.
With the sun down, a faint effervescent green glow bathed a good portion of the city’s byways. The phosphorescence came from the stone blocks of the buildings themselves – an artifact of the magical process that had been used to mine them.
The agents soon found the structure indicated by the man at the docks. The figure managing the front desk was flanked by two constructs Alexis recognized as Shield Guardians – powerful constructs normally created by wizards that could cast spells stored within them. This was certainly high security for what appeared outwardly to be a combination library and art gallery.
“Ah, I presume you are here to take part in our auction,” the man surmised. “Each piece has been created by a mysterious artist who wishes to keep his identity secret, but who goes by the moniker of Taipan.”
Charli shook his head to himself. Finding a snake reference in Hlondeth took no more effort than in throwing a shoe down an alleyway.
“His artwork is…unique,” the man continued, “but those possessing a proper artistic sense will certainly see their value. But, of course, I’m preaching to the choir here, since you’ve shown up to bid for it.
“I will have to ask, of course, for a sizable deposit before you’ll be allowed inside to the auction itself. Strictly procedural, you understand…it separates those who are truly serious about the worth of the art they’ll be bidding on, from those who are simply window shopping.”
“Certainly,” Alexis returned agreeably. “How much?”
“One thousand gold pieces.” The accountant squinted expectantly.
Alexis plunked down a bag that Rock had lent him before she’d wildshaped. (Rock and Alexis both had brought large sums of physical money with them to purchase favors and loosen lips.) There were one thousand gold Impiltur pieces inside the bag…now worth far more in their homelands than they were here. It was a quantity of currency most in history could only dream of*, and Alexis made sure to toss it across the desk as if it were only pocket change.
“Very good, sirs,” the man said, recording the exchange. “Should you win any bids in the auction tonight, the money will go towards that purchase. Otherwise, it shall be returned to you on your departure. Now feel free to enter the inner chamber…the auction will begin shortly.”
*Editor’s Note: Using an agreed-upon equivalency with real-world currency,
1,000 gold pieces in Faerun is roughly equal to $100,000 USD.