5.3. Beyond the Veil

5.3. Beyond the Veil

Session Date: March 23rd, 2020
Dale Reckoning:
 1523 (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), 7 Alturiak (7th of the Claw of Winter)

F. Drawn to the Light

It was one in the afternoon; there were still four hours until the evening’s show, and Alexis and Asura both did a little of their own sleuthing in that time.

Alexis walked to the perimeter of the forty-foot-tall unbroken wall that separated the Stormspire and the House of Many Tomes from the rest of the city. He ran his fingers along it and made a complete circuit, finding no hidden passageway beyond the glamour. However, his fingers came back chalky; the glamour hid the true state of Songhal’s buildings, and they had fallen into disrepair behind the mask.

Asura performed his own investigation. He was not skilled enough as a cleric yet to directly commune with his god for guidance, but he could still tease out answers with a well-worded augury. Suspecting that Ilvarthaele might well stand in their way in finding the fates of the two hags, he queried Lathander to the odds of success of combating her directly.

The answer was a very firm, very clear “woe.”

“Well,” breathed Asura, “this may make things a bit more interesting.”

Perhaps twenty minutes before the show was scheduled to start, a hushed commotion began in the citizens of Songhal, beginning near the inner city wall and approaching the circus grounds. Sarnelis the elf was accompanying a human lady the group had not seen before–a lady dressed all in black and shrouded by a veil, as if wearing mourning clothes. She gripped a well-worn book with her in gloved hands.

“It’s the Silver Stag!” the group heard an onlooker breathe. “Why, I don’t remember the last time she emerged from her tower! This is a special day indeed!”

Despite her rare appearance, this Herald did not appear standoffish or aloof. She took time to pause and speak with those who greeted her, commenting on their dress and inquiring after each family member by name. She never appeared surprised by any of the answers she was given, as if all of their details were already recorded in the book she carried.

Alexis, using his natural charm, met Ilvarthaele Everstone at the edge of the market and personally welcomed her to the upcoming show of the “Illustrious Illusionists of Impiltur.”

“I was a little surprised at receiving the personally-addressed invitation,” replied the Herald. A young woman’s face moved behind the veil, suggesting a lady still in her early twenties. Sharp, piercing eyes shone with an unusual icy-blue hue. “I’ve heard your name and deeds on the townsfolks’ lips. I hope your show is as good as they claim.”

“I’m certain it may hold a few surprises and delights for even you,” assured Alexis, as the Herald took to an elevated chair placed just for her, in the center of the market and adjacent to the circus. Around her, perhaps the entire population of Songhal had turned out for the event. There was certainly no shortage of onlookers, and standing room was scarce.

Rock-in-Water, still performing her role as the show’s exotic feline beast, purred and rubbed herself against one of Ilvarthaele’s legs in greeting. In reality, she was using her senses to confirm that the Herald was no longer among the living–and indeed, she smelled only stale dust, as of an heirloom locked in the attic for far too many years.

However, she received more than she bargained for, when her shoulder brushed against an exposed patch of skin. Instantly, her arm lost all feeling and went limp.

“Do be careful!” Sarnelis, still at Ilvarthaele’s shoulder, warned. “It is not wise for outsiders to approach too closely to the Herald. Please, sirs, attend to your beast.”

Asura (ostensibly Rock’s “handler”) drew her away to a pillow to recover, and Alexis turned to his post. The show was about to begin.

In the nearby tent, Shudder snatched her lute and began hastily composing a tune for the show.

“Ilvarthaele Everstone…her beauty could never be mistaken for that of a crone…”

She hummed to herself, plucking a few more strings to find the melody. Her ditty yesterday had been well-received, and she hoped to flush out some more clues with a well-placed word or two.

“Thank you for your attendance today, and thank you for allowing us to stay…”

Unfortunately for her, other events were already in motion that would negate her best efforts, and the efforts of her friends.

As Alexis took his place in center stage, his voice ringing out in welcome, a disturbance began along the edges of the crowd. Startled whispers, then frightened expressions, began spreading among the crowd like an infection.

Taking a quick glance behind him, Alexis (and his compatriots), noticed forms emerging from behind their tents and the trees–forms that shifted and mutated as the sunlight struck them. There was no name that could be given to the apparitions, for the city-wide glamour could not settle on a form to assign them. The agents noted the terror that blossomed in each pair of eyes present, for these creatures had never before emerged during daylight hours.

In the quickly-spreading panic, Ilvarthaele herself rose to her feet to seize control of the situation. “Citizens! Return to your homes at once! The guard and I will handle this encroachment!” In response, the towns guardsmen near her raised their rifles, looked to their captain, and advanced into the fray.

The agents of Torm joined battle as well, but the local ban on magic severely hampered their choices. Already acting as the circus guard, Asura raised his warhammer and brought it against the skull of the nearest monstrosity. He grunted grimly as he felt the impact lessened, absorbed by the unholy mass of assembled bones and sewer filth.

Rock, too, leaped into action. Her arm now restored, she grabbed a nearby wooden tent stake and swung it as a club. Shudder, too, quickly retrieved her crossbow from the nearby tent, but her bolts either did little or flew wildly.

Alexis and Grigori decided on a different, novel approach. First, they noted that the aberrations were bee-lining directly for the agents of Torm, ignoring all other townsfolk and guards in the way. This fact agreed with what they knew of this monstrosities–that they fed off of life itself, and that they had been drawn to the surface by the proximity of so much fresh, pumping blood.

“Keep them away from the villagers!” Grigori shouted, and Alexis nodded. The two of them waved their arms at the nearest beasts, drawing their attentions, and staying light on their feet to dodge any attacks. With luck, they’d keeping the creatures occupied until the city guard could dispatch them.

However, it would soon appear the city guardsmen had a powerful ally of their own. Striding purposefully into combat, Ilvarthaele pointed her finger at the nearest creature (the one harrassing Grigori). It instantly burst into a billowing cloud of dust, evaporating as the afternoon breeze caught it.

Ilvarthaele then moved on to the next greatest perceived threats, slinging a spell in each of their directions. When she waved her hand, seven darts of force raced through the air, striking her targets perfectly. The creatures shuddered under the magical onslaught, though they did not immediately go down.

Sarnelis too threw himself into the fray, though his spell set was a bit more constricted. First, he ran to where Grigori had placed himself between the city and a second attacker. “Blessings of the Nameless be upon you,” he said, punctuating his message with a handful of diamond dust. Grigori felt a sheen of armor envelope him, adding to what protection his full plate already offered.

Sarnelis then sprinted to Rock, the only combatant not in any armor. “Blessings of the Nameless be upon you,” he chanted again, and a mystic shield of force enveloped the tabaxi.

Rock noted the magic being flung about by the Herald and her cleric during the commotion. Considering it worth the risk, she broke character and spoke aloud (her first time in the city of Songhal). “Lady Everstone! Permission to use magic to combat these beasts!”

The Herald seemed doubly taken aback. “Your beast can speak?” she questioned, in surprise. Then, “What manner of irreverent question is this? Of course you may not! Songhal is a bastion against the corruption of outsider magic!”

Next to her, Sarnelis noticed Rock’s confused expression. He leaned in close. “What I and the Lady perform are granted as direct gifts from the Nameless. It is not simply ‘magic’ to be done on a whim.” Rock nodded quietly to herself, but she wasn’t convinced.

Fortunately for the agents, the panicking crowd of onlookers quickly exited the market. Glancing behind her to make sure all others were soon out of sight or out of hearing, the Lady amended her previous instructions. “Fine!” he hissed loudly, “You may use what arcane knowledge you know to help dispatch this threat…but only here, and only now!”

“Finally,” muttered Rock. First, she pulled the pin on one of the show-stopping smoke bombs she had purchased in New Sarshel. Then, shrouded in the clouds, she morphed quickly into the form of a large Dire Wolf. (The monster she battled, though blinded, still followed her living “scent” through the miasma…but its groping attacks were far less effective now.)

The other agents stretched their fingers and let loose (though conservatively) with their own spells–Mind Slivers from Shudder, Chill Touches from Alexis, and Magic Missiles from Grigori. (Asura continued with his warhammer; it seemed effective enough for the situation.)

The town guards assisted as well with their specially-designed rifles. The bolts of force that issued from their muzzles directly struck at the core of each monster, bypassing the spongy exterior that dampened the agents’s blows.

Sarnelis himself had one more trick up his sleeve. Seeing that his allies were all adequately inured against danger, he pointed at the nearest foe. “The Nameless smite thee!” he commanded, and an eldritch blast of energy lanced from his outstretched hand into its side.

Alexis raised his eyebrows in surprise. While not a spell he typically employed, he was very familiar with its design…and what its usage implied.

The battle ended shortly thereafter. With the combined firepower of the town guards’ weak but inerrant weapons, the agents’ spells, and Sarnelis’ boons, the five monsters that had threatened the grounds were quickly dispatched. The last, in fact, was downed by the guard captain himself, who severed its grisly “head” with a quick strike from his blade.

“Well fought, gentlemen!” he commanded, gesturing with his still-stained shortsword. “Quickly! Secure the area!” His men moved to do just this. The Lady Ilvarthaele Everstone had already exited the circus grounds–in fact, she had withdrawn the moment the battle seemed settled in their favor. Sarnelis quickly followed her.

Alexis massaged a painful wound in his arm. One of the creatures had managed to sink its teeth into his flesh, and his skin and muscles had withered as a result. It was a penalty that he could address with a good night’s sleep, but there seemed to be little of that planned for the near future.

As Rock-and-Water began whipping up a few Goodberries, Alexis conferred quickly with Shudder. The two hatched a swift plan: while out-of-sight of Songhal leadership or the town guards, they cast a combination of Sense Emotion and Detect Thoughts, then moved towards the center of town. Now was perhaps the perfect time to see past the disguise of the city to its true heart.

Lady Ilvarthaele was actively consoling the frightened villagers she encountered, coaxing them out of alleyways, ensuring them that all was well, and that they should return to their homes immediately while the guard secured the town. The voices that Shudder heard in their heads were simple and repetitive–childish, really–and all reflected the same key elements:

“I am very scared whenever monsters attack, but I trust the Herald to protect us. She has always been there for us.”
“My husband fights in the city guard. He’s very brave, and Sarnelis is there to help him if he is injured.”

“I am glad that we live here, together, in the city of Songhal. It is safe here.”

Alexis’s results matched Shudder’s. The villagers, no matter their age, were whirling tops of simple emotions–fear, anxiety, and panic, until the presence of Ilvarthaele soothed them. He was reminded of a mother rocking her child to sleep at night. But a mother’s watchful eye could bring a mother’s fury as well, and he received this full-face as he approached the Herald.

“You!” Ilvarthaele breathed, as he drew close. There was a fierce fire in her eyes that did not match the sense of “calm” his spell was reporting. “You and your band of lying impostors have brought these monsters down upon this town! Pack your things and leave Songhal at once…before you feel the weight of my full fury, and I cast you lot out myself!”

Under the Hood: Combat as Narrative

CLICK TO EXPAND

For an encounter-heavy RPG system like Dungeons and Dragons, it’s very easy to string combat encounters together that do little for the overall story. Being more of a fan of D&D as a vehicle for narrative than simple game mechanics, I aim to make each battle tell its own story, or to lead directly to valuable insights into the plot.

The prior combats in the sewers each gave hints to the inner workings of Songhal. First, the shamblers gained hit points by draining life, suggesting a necromantic source that powered them. Second, the animated sludge confirmed the presence of necromantic magic, and that it was creating aberrant emergent beasts within the town.

The battle with the Songhal Sewer Monsters on the circus grounds was no exception. Simply by participating in the fight, the players learned:

  • The monsters were there for them, not the villagers. Sarnelis’s earlier comments on the death of his wife hinted at this, but the battle confirmed it: the monsters ignored all other targets and went straight for those still living.
  • The stakes are higher now. This is the first time the players had seen the monsters out during the day…and from the reactions of the villagers, their first time too. The plot has altered dramatically, and the players will need to deal with this until the completion of their mission.
  • Lady Ilvarthaele is not to be trifled with. Asura’s Augury spell hinted at this, but watching the Silver Stag reduce enemies to dust with a single spell was a very real and present way to get that point across.
  • Lady Ilvarthaele feels a personal responsibility for the townsfolk. First, she was willing to grant an exception to the anti-magic law of the city, if it helped the guards clear the monsters more quickly. Second, rather than destroy monsters on her own and stay till the last enemy had dropped, she instead oversaw the battle just long enough to make sure it was under control. Then she withdrew immediately to tend to the panicked villagers.
  • Despite his robes, Sarnelis is not a cleric, but something else entirely. First, he never healed once, and his spells concentrated on abjuration and protection. (But then again, this is to be expected, in a town where dead people can simply be stitched back together.) Second, he cast a signature spell of the Warlock class–the Eldritch Blast.
  • The “Nameless” is something other than a deity. If the Nameless is granting Eldritch Blasts (and likely pact boons), then whatever it is, it is not a true deity. Not yet.

Session Date: April 13th, 2020
Dale Reckoning:
 1523 (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), 7 Alturiak (7th of the Claw of Winter)

G. The Root of the Problem

i. A Desperate Trail

Caught off-guard by the Herald’s fury, Alexis attempted to quickly defuse the situation.

“I apologize if we have ever acted out of turn,” he began. “We have never spoken a word of untruth while in this city, to either you or any of the townsfolk. We also did not immediately resort to magic when attacked, instead waited for express permission before using it.” (Of course, he made sure to leave out the facts that he and his comrades had used it in other occasions.)

Alexis massaged his injured arm, making sure his wounds were very visible during the exchange. “We care for these townsfolk as much as you, and we have always put their welfare before our own.”

Ilvarthaele’s eyes remained cold, yet her frigid stance seemed to loosen perceptibly. “I did note your courage, placing yourself directly in harm’s way to protect my people, even when you had little means to defend yourself. I will accept your story, and your apology. But make no mistake. These creatures are drawn to warmth, and to life. Your simple presence here has already put the lives of our townsfolk in harm’s way, whether you intended that or not.

“Now it’s best if you return to your tents for the remainder of the evening. There will be no second showing this night. Come the morrow, you will pack your things and leave this town.”

Alexis was bowing a farewell to the Herald when the two people were joined by several more: the other agents from the circus, and one very worried-looking Sarnelis.

“Your Lady,” hissed Sarnelis in a voice only loud enough for those present to hear, “it’s my wife. She’s missing! She departed during the commotion at the circus and lost herself in the crowd. I had assumed she retreated to our manor; it’s the place she feels most safe. But Raggrim confirmed she never returned home. I fear something terrible has happened.” Here he locked eyes with the agents. “I fear she may no longer be in the city.”

Alexis addressed Sarnelis directly. “You used the words ‘no longer in the city.’ Were you implying that she might have been taken…?” Here he gestured subtly beneath their feet.

Sarnelis gulped and nodded. “I fear that the beasts, unable to seize the prized meal they’d come to collect, instead settled for the next most opportune target.” He kept his eyes averted from the Lady’s, for she was now facing him directly, a look of stern disapproval upon her face.

“With the Lady’s permission,” Alexis quickly interjected, “I’d like to offer my services and those of my friends to help track down Olanala. The town guards have their hands full presently in securing the streets of the city; we could aid them by investigating the sewers on our own, while time is still of the essence.”

Ilvarthaele remained silent for several very long moments. “Very well,” she said finally, “you have my leave. And when you return, Sarnelis, you and I will have a very serious discussion on what details of Songhal you feel free to entrust to outsiders.”

The Silver Stag returned to her task of calming the panicked residents of Songhal, and Sarnelis left for his home. He had been informed of Rock-in-Water’s excellent druid nose, and he went to retrieve an article of Olanala’s clothing for this purpose. When the agents returned to the tent, they reconnected with their team leader Felkar, in turn also meeting a late assignment to Pigeon Squad.

“I apologize for not being present for the, uh, excitement,” Felkar explained, “but I was in the process of bringing our newest member up to speed. This is Charli Adder, most recently an inspector in the city watch of Westgate.”

The new agent regarded each of them in turn and simply nodded a greeting.

“Remember,” Felkar warned, “he gained entrance to the city on separate business. So as far as the city watch is concerned, we’ve never met before today. Which, I suppose, is true anyway, but you know what I mean.”

Charli seemed a man of few words. Perhaps he preferred to keep to himself; perhaps he was simply assessing the team before venturing personal information. Whatever the case, the light and hand-sized crossbows carried on his person suggested he could well take care of himself, if required.

While they awaited Sarnelis’s return, Alexis broached the topic of the arcane powers he’d witnessed the elven “cleric” use. Each of the agents had undergone basic arcane training during their studies at the Order’s university, and they could identify the lowest-level spells easily (though Alexis had his own personal reasons for recognizing the magic Sarnelis used). Alexis noted that (traditionally) only warlocks could use Eldritch Blast, and he wondered aloud who Sarnelis’s patron might be.

Asura ruffled a few feathers when declaring that while clerics served their gods, warlocks only made bargains for personal gain. Alexis countered that the two were far more similar than Asura was giving credit; in a very real sense, both received their powers from powerful entities in return for something–the difference being that clerics’ patrons were full-fledged deities.

Understanding that that the agents would need to stock up on magical items to deal with the sewer monsters, and that they would need to cross town in full view of the guards, Felkar revealed a new batch of items he’d been saving for just such an emergency.

“Lead hip flasks!” he boasted, handing one to each of those present. “You’ll be able to take one potion with you, apiece, that the guards won’t be able to detect. And, hey, if you get lead poisoning, we’ll just have someone cast Protection from Poison on you when we get back to Order.”

Asura, Alexis, Charli, and Rock readied themselves for action. Among them, they prepared three Greater Potions of Healing and one Potion of Heroism.

Once Sarnelis had returned, holding one of the white silk gloves they’d seen his wife use at dinner, trailing Olanala became a straight-forward task. Rock wild-shaped into a Dire Wolf, her favored shape for tracking. She then used her excellent scenting ability to follow the trail, with the other agents close behind her.

Beginning from the circus grounds, Olanala’s path did indeed aim straight towards her manor…until it took an abrupt turn down a side street. The smell of sewer monsters was stronger, and Rock guessed it was here that Sarnelis’s wife had been snatched.

The trail took them near one of the city gates before disappearing into a side alley. In the open, in front of the guards, Rock had the sudden, panicked realization that Grigori had not cast a spell of Nondetection on her recently. Her wild-shape form was itself magical and would show to the guard’s special goggles.

Strangely, however, the guards’ eyes passed over her without lingering. Seeing no immediate reaction to her form, Rock hurried out of their view just the same.

The trail for Sarnelis’s wife ended where an alleyway met the outer wall. Feeling the cobblestones carefully with their shoes, it was not hard to discover the entrance to the sewer that hid just beneath the city glamour. The party carefully helped each other down into the damp and waiting darkness.

ii. A Rattling of Bones

Olanala’s scent now led them towards the center of town. As they went, Sarnelis explained a little more about the ecology of undead creatures, and why his wife might have been taken.

“A being brought to life through necromancy prefers to sustain itself with the vibrant life force of living creatures. Vampires, wights, ghouls–you’ve know the stories, I’m sure. Living creatures contain a unique form of energy–soul energy–that is often used to fuel the undead, or to empower dark rituals by those with fewer scruples.

“However, in the absence of living things, such a being might also resort to consuming straight necromantic magic to bolster its own–a form of cannibalism, distasteful even to sentient undead. But not to the mindless.”

Before long, the group realized that their trail led directly to the same root-covered stone doorway that Rock had scouted the previous night (but had not entered). As they neared, one sewer monster ambushed them…perhaps a straggler left over from the circus attack.

Though the group was at first planning to simply bypass the monster, they kept volunteering to be “the one” that distracted it while the others ran past. In the end, the group instead brought it down with a few well-placed strikes, including viciously-accurate crossbow bolts from their newest member Charli.

Alexis focused his Eldritch Sight, but he was unable to detect anything in the next room besides the ambient necromancy of the surrounding undead ecology. Rock however, heard faint noises…a rattling and a scattering, like a curtain of beads being dragged along the floor.

The group readied themselves for action; Rock downed her Potion of Heroism (her go-to buff before a battle). The agents then carefully entered the final chamber.

The stone room was evidently the source of the entire necromantic underworld biome. The trunk of a large undead tree stood at the far end, its blackened roots wedging their way between stone and tile and snaking out into the sewers beyond. So long had the tree festered here, it seemed, that its form had pushed up through (or, perhaps, broken down from above) the ceiling. Through the years, its girth had gradually wedged aside the stone blocks that made up the chamber.

A slow trickle of blackened ichor dripped about the gnarled trunk–the source of the necromantic magic, trickling from somewhere high above. From this fount, it flowed out into the sewers and gave birth to every manner of undead beast. The undead tree, too, produced its own form of rotten fruit, which in turn nourished the smallest of its fauna brethren. These, in turn, fed larger and larger predators.

The agents could only surmise that the large wolf-like sewer monsters they’d battled were at the top of the food chain.

And in this, they were sadly mistaken. Upon their entrance, the thin layer of animal bones covering the stone rooms floor acted in concert, drawing together into a single monstrosity that dwarfed even Rock’s large form. It was knit together from animal corpses of all sizes, and chattering rat skulls moved in concert beside grasping cat claws.

The thing lunged first at Rock, who shrugged off the multitude of tiny talons with her thick hide. However, her empty and unstoppered flask was knocked to the tiles. The monstrosity seemed interested in this, and it bit at the lead bottle, to no effect.

Seeing this, Alexis hastily put two-and-two together. Other than Rock’s own wild-shaped form, her unstoppered hip flask was the only item that might be seen as magical. None of the others had used their own flasks, and (for now) their contents were still safe.

Quickly concentrating, Alexis formed an illusory image of a ringing bell via Prestidigitation, then threw the mirage on the opposite side of the monstrosity. His efforts were not in vain; the creature spun, temporarily distracted by the new source of magical energy.

Having quickly found a vantage point from which to use his light crossbow, Charli too noted an important detail. The abomination’s form was not as well-knit as the sewer monsters they’d battled (perhaps due to a lack of adhesive sewer sludge). As the beast moved, smaller bones either sloughed off against the floor or were shaken off in the movements. Charli could literally see the creature deteriorating as the fight went on.

“Keep the thing moving!” he shouted to the others. “It’s weakening it!”

The beastly amalgamation was not without its own tricks. Upon nearing one of Alexis’s magical baits, it first raised itself up and then spontaneously collapsed. Bones and bits were blown in all directions like grapeshot. Rock, Alexis, and Asura were caught full in the face, and Alexis was forced to a knee from grave injuries.

Sarnelis quickly hurried over and sprinkled diamond dust on Alexis’s bleeding form. “I’m sorry that I can’t do more for your wounds,” he apologized quickly. “It’s been some time since anyone in Songhal needed actual…healing.”

Alexis thanked him for the aid just the same. Both he and Asura also downed their Greater Potions of Healing and returned to battle.

The agents never wavered, and among Asura’s Guiding Bolts, Alexis’s Chill Touches, Rock’s trip attempts, Charli’s hard-hitting crossbow bolts, and some assisting eldritch energy from Sarnelis, the group was able to bring the monstrosity down. Bones scattered as its form finally collapsed under their combined assault.

With battle concluded, Sarnelis slowly approached the pile of disassociated remains. He reached down and carefully retrieved a humanoid skull that lay chipped from the fight. His shoulders slumped; he seemed a man whose strength had been completely leeched out of him.

Alexis spoke gently. “Is that…?”

Sarnelis nodded weakly. “It would appear the beasts brought Olanala down here, where they could feast on her at their leisure. When they were done consuming her energy, her…remains became part of this accursed abomination.”

With somber care, Sarnelis began sifting through the debris for the rest of his wife. His task was made easier by the fact that each of the elven bones were inscribed with runes.

Unshifting back from her wild-shaped form, Rock raised her voice. “Will you be able to bring her back, like before?”

Sarnelis nodded slowly but grimly. “Yes, but it will be as if a great fog has taken her mind. She will need to be retaught many things–who I am, important events in her life, even her own name. The Rites of Awakening leave the newly-undead as a tabular rasa, upon which one must write the shape of memory and personality.”

Sarnelis shook his head sadly. “Yes, the Olanala of tomorrow will be fundamentally the same as the Olanala of yesterday. Yet I will know better. How should I compare it, for you? It would be as if, I suppose, you had a favored hound that you had spent the years with. It accompanied you on your travels, shared your meals, rested in front of your fireplace. Tragically, you lose this friend, whether through accident or illness.

“A friend then gifts you with a second hound that looks, acts, and is in all outwards manners the same as the one before. Would that make a difference to you?”

The elf retrieved the last of his wife’s remains and cradled them carefully in the robe he’d unslung from his shoulders. “If you’ll excuse me now…I have a rather sad task ahead of me this night.” He then withdrew cheerlessly from the sewers, leaving the agents alone in the chamber.

Now alone, the group contemplated the undead tree together. They were aware that it was integral to the unique ecology of the city’s sewers; but how much was it interwoven with Songhal’s in general? Would destroying it also destroy the city? Unfortunately, none of them knew enough to make an educated guess.

One exciting realization did occur to them. Haggard vegetation, along with magical ichor, were often both associated with hags in tales. The agents couldn’t help but feel a small measure of excitement at this thought; for all their actions in Songhal thus far, this was the first real clue they’d encountered toward their ultimate goal: the location of Gertrude’s two coven sisters.

There were several spaces where one could climb up the tree to the next level, between the trunk the stones pushed aside. And if their estimates were correct, they were standing directly underneath the Stormspire itself–where the Herald, Ilvarthaele Everstone herself, made her abode. They would need to steel themselves, in both mind and body.

It was about five o’clock. The group returned to their circus tents for a quick rest, before restocking and returning to the sewers. The end of their mission seemed in sight.

Session Date: April 20th, 2020
Dale Reckoning:
 1523 (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), 7 Alturiak (7th of the Claw of Winter)

H. Actionable Intelligence

i. Silence in the Library

It was earlier that same afternoon. Having made his own entrance to the city of Songhal, upon separate pretenses, Charli Adder made his way towards the city center. As far as the guards here (and his city pass) were concerned, he had no connection to the traveling circus that had set up their tents just the day prior. Rather, he was a courier for an anonymous benefactor, seeking to contribute to the famed House of Many Tomes–still one of the most famous libraries in all of Faerûn, even if heavily restricted these days. Fortunately, Charli’s contribution also came with a letter of introduction that necessitated his delivery in person; and hence the overnight pass.

The guards directed him through the secret passage that led through glamour into the heart of the city–the same Gorodash had watched Sarnelis use that morning. Always one to take note of entrances and exits (a precaution of his trade), Charli noticed a similar passageway on the east side of the inner city wall. From the arrangement, he guessed there were four total–one for each of the cardinal directions.

He took in the scale of the nearby “House of Many Tomes,” the library of Oghma. It boasted the scale of a cathedral in an established city like Waterdeep or Neverwinter. This made sense; it had been perhaps the most central religious site to the bardic god Oghma, before the wrath of the Spellplague.

His sharp eyes also noted recent work that additional work had been done on the library in recent years. Most notably, it had been extended to join with the Stormspire itself, likely to allow the Herald to confer with the tomes easily.

Finally, Charli studied the figure that had emerged from the structure to meet him; the “Librarian” was the only name the agent had been given. Teetering towards him on unsteady legs, the figure reminded Charli of a heavily-bandaged inmate at a hospital, held together only through its wrappings. The word “mummy” rose, unbidden, into his mind.

Upon closer inspection, these wrappings revealed themselves to be thin plaster-of-paris crafted from discarded books and scrolls beyond repair. There were layers upon layers of sheets, the earliest faded beyond recognition. If Charli’s guess was accurate, this “Librarian” was likely very old…far older than anyone he’d ever met, save perhaps for elves and the like.

“What? Who is it?” a weak voice wheezed. “I’m very busy, you know, always busy, sorting and filing and arranging and categorizing and–oh, the book.”

The mummified figure carefully received the copy of Khongkhortai’s Field Guide to the Magical Beasts of War and Burden Reared by the Tribesmen of the Endless Wastes (Also Known as Taar to Those Who Live There) from Charli, cradling it in reverant hands.

“I received your missive earlier. Tell your mysterious benefactor that the House of Many Tomes is most grateful for his or her valuable donation.”

“I will indeed,” returned the agent. Do you mind if rest for a moment, Mr…?”

The Librarian shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t invite you in to the library itself…strictly off-limits, one of the city rules, and all. Plus (and I hate to admit this), it’s a complete mess in there. I’ve been doing my best to reorganize the contents under my own categorical devices, but it’s always one step forward and two steps back, mm?”

Charli nodded in understanding. “Well, it seems I’m bound to spend the night before returning,” he returned. “I hear there is a travelling circus in town. Do you know where I might find them? Perhaps you might also have an interest in seeing the show. (If you don’t mind my saying so, you look like some fresh air would do you well.)”

“I’m certain I wouldn’t know. My memory for daily trivialities isn’t what it used to be. Truth be told, I couldn’t even tell you the day, nor the year! It is far too easy to lose yourself in a library, you know…and certainly far too easy in one as expansive as the House of Tomes! Each day feels like forever, and yet like a single instant.

“I remember being told once by the Silver Stag that the first time I entered the Library, I was so enraptured with what I found, that I didn’t come out again until the world had changed and I had forgotten my own name. I trust her word on it; there is very little left in this head of mine beyond the books. (And so many books!) Yet, each time I come out, everything and everyone is just as I left it; so perhaps I am not missing so much.

“Except, I suppose, the occasional visitor. But I suspect I shall forget you long before you leave this town. And a good day to you then?” The Librarian had already turned to go, enamored with his newest addition to his collection.

Charli nodded a farewell to the Librarian’s back. “Good day then.”

ii. Branching Out

Now having officially connected with his team, Charli studied the undead tree claiming the center of the disused sewer room. The group had prepared for the excursion, bringing rope, pitons, a grappling hook, and new potions in their hip flasks.

Around them, clusters of animal bones had gathered in small piles, as if a maid had swept the floor since their last visit and stepped outside for a dustbin. The agents knew that this was actually the work of the necromantic energies present in the chamber–slowly recollecting the pieces for another monstrosity. They intended to be finished with their foray long before that event occurred.

“The tree’s dead–or undead, rather–but not rotten,” Alexis noted. “We should be able to climb it easily.” He then used a Mage Hand to secure a grappling hook near where the tree trunk punctured the broken floor. Ascending to the next level would now be a straightforward task.

Charli couldn’t help but think back to the rendezvous he had had with the Librarian, only a few hours previous. Their ascent would take them directly up through the center of the Stormspire; it was not far-fetched to think he and the mummified caretaker would meet again.

His suspicions proved correct. Alexis (quickly followed by Charli) emerged through the floor in one of the many chambers of the Library of Oghma. Here the Stormspire and the House of Many Tomes intersected.

True to the Librarian’s earlier word, the House of Many Tomes was a veritable mess. There were more books in piles and stacks on the floor than there were on the shelves. Nearby, tomes carefully placed themselves in cases or returned themselves to the mess from which they’d been retrieved–likely the work of an Unseen Servant, any librarian’s best friend.

Behind them, the library stretched for what seemed like miles, both a cathedral and a repository of the world’s greatest works. It was no secret why the House of Many Tomes had been renowned the world over.

Nearby, a familiar mummified form muttered in irritation to himself. “But where to shelve it?” he murmured aloud. “Magical beasts? Yes, that is the core material. But no…the setting is the Endless Wastes. Perhaps the Geography section is better…but wait! The subject matter is only made possible by the culture and manners of the Taar Tribesmen! Perhaps Foreign Cultures and Affairs is more suited…”

Unfortunately for our agents, even as distracted as he was, the Librarian noticed the new figures clambering noisily up the undead tree in the center of the room.

“You there!” he said in a sudden rage, “you are not allowed here! Entrance is forbidden to this library! Leave at once before I physically compel you!” The scrolls tightly bound about his form suddenly shifted and looped outwards like angry tentacles; he seemed quite capable of making good on his threats.

“Please, sir,” began Alexis, always quick with a calming word, “we heard of that a lady was assaulted by the nightly monsters, and we tracked her to this area. We were only looking to help.” Technically, this was all true, even if all in the past.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t know anything about that,” the Librarian returned, placated somewhat. “I know everything that goes on in my library. There have been no monsters here, and no lady in need of rescuing, as I’m sure you can see. Now kindly show yourself out of my domain.”

“What about hags?” suddenly said an orc voice. Gorodash, third ascending the rope, poked his head into the library space and gave his own indiscreet input. “Have you heard anything about hags in this town?”

The Librarian bristled immediately. Much like Sarnelis’s face when the “two sisters” had been mentioned in his presence, it was clear that the Librarian knew more than he was willing to divulge.

Fortunately, there was more than one quick-witted mind present. Charli threw himself into the conversation. “I see you’re still holding the Field Guide to the Magical Beasts of War and Burden that my benefactor gave you. I couldn’t help but overhear that you were having trouble shelving the item. I took some time to review the material itself as I journeyed here; might I offer a word of suggestion?”

“Ah, I thought your face looked familiar!” breathed the Librarian. “I must admit, I do not recall your name or even where we’ve met. My memory for daily trivialities isn’t what it used to be. Still, if you’re familiar with the contents of this book–?”

The Librarian was temporarily distracted; Alexis sprang into action. Casting Invisibility and making sure to keep the bulk of the tree between him and the caretaker, he made a beeline for the closest stacks of books. His Eldritch Sight showed that about one in every ten books was magical, but his quarry was likely a little more obscure.

The first he found, A Gardener’s Guide to Using Druidcraft in the Care of Orchids for Pleasure and Profit, held nothing of interest. But the other, however…the other was simply titled Your Name is Sabel.

As Alexis worked on his own, Charli and the Librarian soon became embroiled in a heated discussion about the merits of cross-referencing. Also taking matters into his own hands, Gorodash retrieved his symbol of the Order, upon which shewed the gauntlet of Torm and a raised a sword reflecting the star of truth. Praying quickly, he called upon divine power to Compel Honesty from the Librarian.

“I apologize if I seemed blunt crude earlier,” Gorodash said. “You can understand why the existence of two hags might be important to the people of Songhal. I’m interested in any information you can give me about their presence in this town, and why they’ve been kept so secret.”

Surprisingly, his tactic succeeded. Despite his distrust of the newcomers, the Librarian no longer felt any reason to deflect, and he told them exactly why he wasn’t interested in speaking more of the hags.

“It’s because the lady Ilvarthaele Everstone, the Silver Stag herself, keeps them under lock and key on the highest floor of this very tower. She has enslaved them to assist her in the governance of this city; and, thanks to the power of the Nameless, she keeps them in her thrall. I’m sure you understand why word of a sorceress that can command not one, but two hags is something we don’t wish outsiders to learn of.”

As Gorodash was processing this unexpected information, Alexis returned the library books to a nearby pile without being noticed. He quickly rejoined his friends. “Gentlemen, a word with you, please. In private.”

The four agents returned to the sewer room below, where they could talk more openly. Alexis explained what he had discovered in the books.

“That’s exactly like what I heard when I listened in to the ‘thoughts’ of the Songhal residents,” Gorodash confirmed. “Just simple instructions. They’re not ‘real’ people. This was probably one of many codebooks to tell them how to live their ‘lives.'”

“At the same time,” Alexis countered, “we’ve seen more from these undead villagers than mindless hunger. They experience happiness, fear, excitement, pain, and even loss. Yet even Sarnelis described his wife as nothing more than a ‘memory’ to soothe the hearts of the living.” He held out his open palms. “I’m honestly at a bit of a loss of what to do here.”

“The Silver Stag controlling the hags does explain a lot of what’s happening in this town,” Gorodash noted. “It would take a powerful entity, skilled at illusions, to cast the sort of glamour that shrouds this town. But hags are known for being very good at that sort of thing…and Ilvarthaele has command of two of them.”

Gorodash rested his chin on his hand in thought. “So what is our next move? Are we going to assault the tower? Free the hags? If we do, what would that do to the village? Would that ultimately destroy them? If so, I will let you know, I would be perfectly okay with that.”

“I’m sad about Olanala dying,” Rock-in-Water, the resident druid, spoke up, “but she already had a full life. This existence in Songhal is…what? Their second? Third? Tenth? How many times have these people passed and then been brought back? When does their death stop being natural?”

“Despite Sarnelis’s attachments,” Gorodash affirmed, “Olanala is, right now, nothing more than a body pillow in the shape of his wife. It’s perverse. When we make our decision, let us do so without the fate of these ‘villagers’ in mind.”

“I agree,” Rock returned, “it’s ridiculous that the entire town has been reanimated to serve as a puppet show for the only two people still left alive.”

“There is one more matter to consider before we assault the tower directly,” Charli noted. “Ilvarthaele Everstone is a human of well over 170 years of age, yet she looks barely over twenty. As de facto ruler of Songhal, she commands legions of the undead. And from what I’ve been told, Rock felt the strength sapped from her from a simple brush. Now I may not be the most astute student of the arcane, but I think we all know what the Silver Stag truly is.”

Here he leaned closer and breathed a single word. “Lich.”

The agents took a moment to contemplate this in silence.

“Well, I don’t think we’re in any state to take on a lich on our own, even before we consider the hags she controls,” Gorodash admitted.

“Why is she doing any of this?” Rock wondered. “Reanimating the corpses of villagers…making them believe they’re still alive…hiding them and the entire city behind a glamour. What does she have to profit from this?”

“Perhaps it is her ‘solitude,'” Gorodash offered. “Liches are notoriously reclusive.”

“Perhaps it’s even a reaction to trauma,” Charli thought aloud.

The question still hung before them, like a pregnant spider dangling from an invisible thread: what to do with what they knew?

“Technically,” Gorodash noted, “Gertrude didn’t ask us to save her sisters. She only sent us to learn what had happened to them…”

“And we’ve done just that,” Charli finished. “Let’s touch base with Felkar first, and have him confer with the Order before our next move. But our mission here may already be complete.”

As their squad leader, Felkar submitted a report to the Order’s headquarters every night, via coded messages delivered through Sending Stones. Once the agents had explained everything in detail to him, Felkar helped them draft a quick message (of no more than twenty-five words) that detailed their situation:

“Both hags held captive by Songhal’s White Stag, likely lich. Freeing hags would destroy town of undead people constructs. Lone elven survivor assists lich. Advise.”

The message was sent a little after seven in the evening. It was not, however, until well past eleven that a reply was forthcoming. (Felkar suspected numerous officers had to be contacted after-hours for an official ruling, something that always took extra time.)

“Do not engage. Consider mission concluded. Return to Lyrabar at earliest convenience for debriefing; confer with hag en route. We will monitor Songhal from distance.”

“And there you have it!” declared Gorodash, eager to wash his hands of the whole affair. “Our job here is done. We can pack up and leave first thing in the morning.”

Dale Reckoning: 1523 (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), 8 Alturiak (8th of the Claw of Winter)

Before they finally quit the town, the agents had one last errand to run. They’d learned from their last visit that showing up empty-handed to a hag’s lair was unwise, at best. Come morning light (and the end of the nightly curfew), the agents crept forth to complete a gift list.

Alexis already had a hip flask full of the ichor that spilled down the undead tree. It likely had a strong connection to the hags in the tower, and he felt it a suitable gift.

Recalling that Gertrude had said “you can learn a lot about people by what they throw away,” Gorodash began searching for refuse piles he could scavenge. Of course, a glamoured necropolis did not offer much in the way of visible trash; children did not out-grow their clothes, and little was eaten (apart from the infrequent live chicken). Eventually, however, the paladin was able to find a dusty hoop from a child’s game, where it had fallen through the glamour into the sewers and been forgotten.

Charli opted for another bottle of Songhal’s Bitter Herb from the tavern, and the owner seemed surprised at his entrance. “You’re the second outsider in two days that has asked for this stuff,” he commented.

Rock-in-Water’s plan was perhaps the most bold: she wanted to give the hag a personal item of Sarnelis’s, to help with any Scrying the hag might want to do. Once the sun was up, she hatched her plan.

First, she wild-shaped into a spider small enough to go unnoticed; then she made her way to Sarnelis’s manor. The nighttime fires in the hearths had been put out, and she was able to enter through one of the chimneys. Evading the undead butler easily, she located the master bedroom.

Her search was handsomely rewarded. There, on a nightstand next to the bed, was a palm-sized hinged portrait case, with a painting of both Sarnelis and his wife inside. Rock quickly un-wild-shaped, pocketed the item, and then re-wild-shaped (choosing to have her equipment meld into her new form, so it was easily carried).

On the way out, she discovered that Sarnelis had already returned from the Stormspire with his reconstituted wife. The two were on a back porch, regarding the few trees in their small plot. Sarnelis spoke quietly and gently.

Inching closer, Rock overheard snippets of memories the two had shared together. Sarnelis spoke of the first time he had met Olanala, and how she had seemed different to him than all the other elven ladies. He spoke of the time the two had spent in Cormanthor, long ago, before they’d moved to Songhal together.

The wife, sitting rigidly in a wheelchair, stared blankly and without response. Could she hear him? Was she listening? Would she remember how to be his wife, given enough time?

These questions would only be the least of the Songhal mysteries the agents left behind. Not wishing to provoke Ilvarthaele or the townsfolk any further (and hoping to make good their escape before the Librarian conferred with the Silver Stag), the agents hastily packed their wagons. They’d departed by ten in the morning.

On the two-day journey back to New Sarshel, the agents discussed what they’d left uncovered. Who was the Nameless, really? Was it simply the Herald, secretly siphoning the hags’ power to turn herself into a warlock patron (as Alexis suspected)? Or was there another entity involved? Were the hags willing accomplices of the city’s present state? Or were they also unwilling slaves to Ilvarthaele Everstone? And why hadn’t the guards’ visors alerted them to Rock’s magical wild-shaped form?

Any unsolved mysteries of the town would have to remain just that, until those with more experience and stronger abilities addressed the matter.

iii. Come Full Circle

Dale Reckoning: 1523 (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), 9 Alturiak (9th of the Claw of Winter)

Retracing their route to New Sarshel was a simple enough task, and the four agents Alexis, Charli, Gorodash, and Rock returned to the sewers where they had met Gertrude more than a tenday before. This time, no creatures awaited to ambush them. However, when they attempted to knock on (or move or strong-arm) the secret door to the hag’s lair, nothing happened. The filthy stones were no more than that.

Across the sewer space from them, on the far side of the open area, a new hidden entrance widened between the fitted blocks. “Wouldn’t be much of a hideaway, if it was always in the same place!” a familiar voice cackled. “Come in, come in! I gather you’ve news to tell me.”

The agents nearly tripped over a small procession of crabs, carrying bottles, books, and other assorted knickknacks into Gertrude’s hovel via a nearby sewer pipe.

“Oh, pay them no mind,” the hag said. “They help me move, whenever I feel restless. A hag always needs her tiny creatures! Not much for conversation, though.”

Gertrude then listened in uncharacteristic silence as Gorodash (perhaps the least eloquent of the agents, but certainly the most eager) described their time in Songhal, to include the suspected fates of the hag’s sister, and why they did not feel capable of freeing them. When he was done, she let out a long, gravelly sigh.

“I told them when they left…’You mark my words, this will only end in tears.’ And it did. For them, of course, not for me. Though it gives me no pleasure to say I was right.

“As you have completed the task I set before you, consider your previous debts to me paid in full.”

The agents then approached to present the hag with their offerings.

“Ah, you brought gifts!” the hag chuckled. “You are much better guests this visit than you were the last. Just for that gesture, I shall tell you each of your fortunes.”

For Gorodash, who gave her the forgotten children’s toy: “You see with both your eyes; you do as you may do. But you’ve left behind a past that has not yet forgotten you. Perhaps this means something to you?”

“It does indeed,” nodded Gorodash.

For Charli, who presented the bottle of wine found only in Songhal: “You move quite alone, you speak with forked tongues. Trust friends when the hunter the hunted becomes.

For Rock-in-Water, who gave a keepsake linking the hag to the only living survivor of the necropolis: “I gave you your fortune, tabaxi, last you were here…but it was only in part. Here is the full. Curiosity killed the cat, but danger lurked at home. Slavers strike from beneath the dark, and then you are alone.

Gertrude took this moment to lock eyes with the tabaxi. “Fate is a fickle thing. At times, it will come to your door in a whirlwind of purpose and ill intent. Others, it will not move until you go seeking it yourself. And which of these might your fortune be? I’m afraid I could not say. You will find that out for yourself.”

Gertrude halted in astonishment when Alexis presented the flask full of ichor. She unstopped it and inhaled a deep whiff. “You have given me a rare treasure indeed, boy: proof of my sisters, whom I have not sensed for so long in this world. Perhaps if you had known its true worth, you would not have given this up so easily.

“And for you, your well-deserved fortune: A book that decides where its letters may lie. Yet with strange eons, even death may die.

“And now…a little soothsaying for those not present. Yes, yes, I had a look into all your fortunes as I waited…little else to do in these sewers.”

For Asura: “A coin, a squabble, a fight to the death–yet both boys still draw their breath. I gave him this fortune last he visited.”

For Shudder: “Both parents are dead, yet the mother still lives. What was taken from you ne’er freely was given.

“And one more fortune still, for a friend you’ve yet to make. A friend to dragons, yet legend untold. Your past does not decide what your future may hold. You will know when you make his acquaintance.”

“So now that we’ve found the information you desire, uh, our most gracious and charming host,” said Rock, making sure to pepper each sentence with effusive compliments, “what can you tell us about the key we showed you?”

Gertrude chuckled. “I am not a foolish hag…more than I can say for my sisters. I did not cast any magic on this key. I did not know who might have felt my actions and moved in response.

“So, instead, I felt it. Tasted it. Smelled it. Listened to what it said. And it spoke, like a wine glass that hums when its brother is struck from across the room.

“I learned valuable things. There are at least a dozen of these in the world, perhaps two. I’m not entirely convinced they’re keys. Perhaps they are arcane focuses. Perhaps they are passkeys for secret societies. Maybe they’re simply art pieces. But, just the same, I’ve located three of this key’s siblings, not too far away from here.

“And here is what I sensed:

The taste of salt. Very near, in the depths of the Sea of Fallen Stars, a cult of barely-humanoid creatures seeks to unlock the power behind the key.

The sound of gold. North in the Uplands, in a pair of mining villages oft beset by orcs, a human uses the key for his own purposes…and to keep his coin-purse filled.

The scent of blood. On the eastern shores of the Sea, beneath a forest that breathes magic as much as life, a key still lies with the remains of an unfortunate adventurer…awaiting the next to find it.

“Will you…be giving the original key back to us?” Alexis questioned.

Gertrude laughed so hard that spittle flew.

“Ah, such naive mortals! Once the key was mine, did you ever really think I would give it up willingly? A hag’s currency is leverage, and you must never forget that!”

“What would we need to offer in order to gain back the key?” Rock asked.

“Why, something of greater value, of course, sweetie,” the hag grinned. “Say…a child, perhaps.”

The agents regarded each other uneasily. “Well, thank you for your help all the same,” Alexis concluded. “Your flawless manners and vast expertise are unparalleled.”

The hag tittered in appreciation as the group departed her abode.

The agents had soon left for Lyrabar, where they’d have several months to reequip, retrain, and prepare for their next mission. They’d been informed that a promotion to the next rank (Field Agent) was also awaiting their arrival.

During their down time, the Order’s diviners would first gather what information they could about each of Gertrude’s vague visions. From there, command would assemble mission dossiers for perusal and acceptance.

The agents eagerly looked forward to the future.

Mission Dossiers


1. Truth is What You Make of It

The taste of salt. Very near, in the depths of the Sea of Fallen Stars, a cult of barely-humanoid creatures seeks to unlock the power behind the key.”

Kuo-Toas are strange, enigmatic, and deeply superstitious creatures. Their interest in the Key could lead as much to their downfall as to their benefit.

Needed skill sets: Social, Combat, some Investigation


2. Awakening of the Third Eye

The sound of gold. North in the Uplands, in a pair of mining villages oft beset by orcs, a human uses the key for his own purposes…and to keep his coin-purse filled.

A “spiritual leader” has recently been amassing followers in the mining town of Laviguer. Find out why, and what his connection is to the Key.

Needed skill sets: Investigation, Social, some Combat


3. The Skin of Another

The scent of blood. On the eastern shores of the Sea, beneath a forest that breathes magic as much as life, a key still lies with the remains of an unfortunate adventurer…awaiting the next to find it.”

Somewhere in the dangers of the Yuirwood, a mysterious dungeon awaits your tread. Expect environmental hazards and ill-tempered monsters.

Needed skill sets: Combat, Investigation, no Social

~ MISSION ACCEPTED ~