5.2. The Circus Comes to Town

5.2. The Circus Comes to Town

Session Date: February 24th, 2020
Dale Reckoning: 1523 (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), 6 Alturiak (6th of the Claw of Winter)

C. The Greatest Show on Earth

i. Come One, Come All

It was time for the show.

As Asura stood guard over the props and supplies, the others readied their routine that they’d been practicing the past tenday. Alexis, who had prepared to be the ringmaster and announcer, stepped up to address the crowd. His voice caught in his throat at first, but after taking a moment to steady his nerves, his voice boomed out loud and strong.

“Friends and compatriots! We are pleased to bring before you tonight the amazing and astounding acrobatics and athletics of the Illustrious Illusionists of Impiltur! Feast your eyes on spectacles never before witnessed, demonstrated by adventurers from foreign lands!”

The crowd murmured their interest. Behind Alexis, Gorodash kicked off the show with his “strong man” routine, lifting prodigiously-sized barbells. After winking at an elderly elf lady in the crow, he then juggled both Grigori and Rock-in-Water at the same time. (It was, of course, not entirely his strength at play here, but also the acrobatics and showmanship of his co-performers.) As his finale, Gorodash invited three from the audience to come and sit on him, as he sang traditional songs loudly in orcish. His legs nearly buckled under the strain, but he finished his routine with bravado.

The audience applauded their appreciation. There were no orcs living in Songhal, and they enjoyed the cultural demonstration.

Their second act was the “mysterious tabaxi lady.” Playing on her tiger-like appearance, Asura presented himself as “Whisker’s” animal handler, cracking a whip and directing her to balance on over-sized circus balls. Rock’s acrobatics were extraordinary today, and she was able to walk her ball up steep inclines and over difficult obstacles. She also jumped through several hoops, making sure to give enthusiastic snarls at any audience members she strayed close too.

Felkar rounded the evening out with a joint presentation with his “lovely assistant” Shudder, whom he seemed to conjure out of thin air. He pulled animals from hats, handkerchiefs from sleeves, and sparked colorful explosions above the audience’s wondering faces. He further directed his assistant Shudder to go into the crowd, correctly answering questions about those she selected. (None in the audience would suspect a psionic telepathic link, undetectable to those searching for magic.)

Still, the evening was not without its mishaps, even if minor. The actors sometimes stumbled over their words or reacted to things at the wrong times, but these mistakes were easily forgiven by an audience unfamiliar with circus performances.

As the acts progressed, Alexis studied the crowd. A number of armed guards had come to watch the proceedings, ostensibly to maintain order, but more likely to watch for any telltale signs of illegal arcane use. He noted that they carried firearms (generally unheard of outside of the island nation of Lantan), and that even these seemed to be enhanced in some fashion. Again, it did not seem so much that “magic” was outlawed across the board–just outlawed for use by the common man.

The audience seemed to be enjoying themselves well enough, and Alexis had high hopes for their overall reception in Songhal, but a passing detail suddenly claimed his attention. They had set their tents up next to the town market, where stalls sold clothes, bags, knickknacks, and handicrafts. But not a single vendor offered any form of food or drink. Considering how essential these were to any normal market (or life in general), Alexis soon found himself lost in thought. He became so preoccupied with contemplation, in fact, that he missed several cues for announcing the next performances.

Luckily, the others were able to fill in for him, introducing their own shows. Rock filled some of the dead time with impromptu mime acts, making the children laugh as she wiggled into a wooden box clearly too small for her, or engaged in a hissing spat with a local cat (and lost). The performers rounded out their night’s show with an exaggerated bow to the crowd, upon which they vanished in a cloud of smoke (courtesy of a few small stage smoke grenades Rock had purchased in New Sarshel). Only Asura missed his cue, but his startled bumbling into the tent behind him merely seemed like part of the show’s humor, and the Songhal citizens laughed in appreciation.

Overall, the show was a success.

Under the Hood: Circus Performances


For the actual performances, the intent was to give each player two or three opportunities to roll for different skills checks. As no one outside of Felkar had proficiency in Performance (and no one wants to sit by and watch an NPC roll dice), I suggested a number of specific activities the party could do, along with corresponding skills. (Some activities, like escape artistry, might have required multiple checks.)

  • STR checks: Strongman demonstrations, human pyramids.
  • CON checks: Escape artistry (when suspended upside down in water, e.g.), holding a slab of stone while someone sledgehammers it.
  • DEX checks: High-wire acrobat, juggling, throwing knives at an assistant, contortionism, any kind of balancing act.
  • INT checks: Recalling stage lines, remembering important details about members of the crowd, anticipating difficulties.
  • WIS checks: Ringmastering (reading the crowd), catching useful snippets of audience conversation, noticing when another party member needs help in their act.
  • CHA checks: Playing musical instruments, breathing fire, being a clown, “commanding” the tabaxi.

ii. Sights Never Before Seen

“Not bad, not bad at all,” Felkar smiled, as soon as they had all rejoined in the main tent. “Not quite up to Selgaunt standards, perhaps, but certainly passable for a first time. Now we know we at least have a fall-back profession, if we ever leave the Order.”

Felkar then leaned closer, in a more conspiring fashion. “The villagers recognize us now, so we’re more free to walk about their city without being halted by guards. I’m aware there’s a curfew at sunset, where everyone is to be inside, behind closed doors. However, there’s about twenty or thirty minutes left before the sun dips below the horizon. If you want to get some quick reconnaissance in, now would be a good time.”

The agents took Felkar up on the suggestion. Each went their separate way, in order to cover the most ground.

First, Grigori had noted the elderly elven lady that Gorodash had winked at, during his routine. She had left the crowd with a familiar elven male–the one who had pooh-poohed their caravan from a distance. If this elven man was indeed the one mentioned by Gertrude, then this woman could possible be one of the hags in disguise.

Grigori tailed the unsuspecting couple to a well-to-do house near the middle of the city. While there was no space in town for an actual “manor,” this building was the closest there was. Three stories high and carved from marble, it was ringed by a stone and wrought-iron fence. A well-manicured dwarvish butler met them at the gate, closing it behind them. Grigori decided to pursue no further.

From the outside, the wizard quickly scanned the house’s edifice for anything unusual. There were symbols of the Silver Stag (to be expected); but in addition, there was what appeared to be an unusual religious symbol. A faceless outline of a man’s head, the image was unfamiliar to Grigori. He turned back for the circus to discuss his findings.

Rock-in-Water ran a quick circuit along the inner edge of the city wall, or as much as she could with houses built directly flush to it. Down each alley and byway she raced, the smells of the city did not change. From each house, stall, and resident came the same odd, “artificial” scent she’d tried to pinpoint earlier. She also noticed the distinct lack of any normal city smells–sweat drying on shirts, food cooking within houses, even uncovered sewage. No birds sung in the treetops; no cats lounged in doorways. It was as if she were trapped inside a dollhouse Julia might have played with.

“Hoi! Who let this beast loose?” called a voice. Songhal’s night watch were taking to the streets to prepare for the night, and the captain of the guard had sighted Rock.

Luckily, Asura was not far behind Rock, and he apologized for not keeping better watch on his “wild animal.”

“It’s best if you stay indoors until morning light,” said the captain. “It can be dangerous in Songhal after dark. There are a few disused rooms above the local pub, if you’d prefer not to remain in your tents.”

Asura thanked him for his concern but assured him it would be unnecessary. As they left, Rock studied the man. Much like the other guards, he too carried some enhanced form of firearm and spectacles; but these spectacles only held a single pane of flat green glass. (The goggles of the entry guards at the gate sported multiple lenses of intricate design, and Rock idly pondered the discrepancy.)

Working off a personal hunch, Gorodash went for the city center. He kept a careful lookout for any nearby city guards; they entered onto the street in groups of four, with an estimated ten or twelve groups around the city. Though they wore helmets, they seemed to be on a first-name basis with each of the citizens; and they waved and shouted greetings as they began their patrols.

The orc paladin had followed a few of the audience members to their residence. Then, after withdrawing into an adjacent alley and ensuring he was not in direct line-of-sight of any guards, he cast Detect Evil and Good. The results were simultaneously astonishing and entirely expected.

Within merely the three buildings within thirty feet of him, a total of eleven undead creatures responded to the spell.

Alexis decided to go a little farther afield. Twenty minutes was about enough time for him to walk to the far side of the town and back again.

First, he aimed to find any local cemetery. He was successful; there was a small plot of gravestones at the far side of Songhal, but a high stone wall (along with a locked and rusted gate) prevented him from approaching too closely.

The ailing light was too dim for him to read any of the inscriptions on the far side of the gate. Still, he noted the smooth texture of the headstones, and how not a single one stood up straight in its place. None of these plots were recent; all had spent many years (decades, even) enduring the weathering rain and the shifting earth.

On the way back to the tent, Alexis confirmed there were no bakeries, butchers, grocers, or restaurants. There was what seemed to be a single pub in the entire town, just large enough for a bar and three small tables. The proprietor apologized that he was just closing for the curfew, and suggested that he return on the morrow.

“I’d just like to purchase a bottle or two of your wine, to celebrate our visit to your town, if that’s okay?”

The owner nodded. “All our stuff is grown locally, and we’re very proud of it,” he touted. “Most of our lines, though, would probably taste very strange to your foreigner lips. Might I suggest…?” Here he withdrew a champagne bottle titled “The Lily of the Valley.”

“Excellent,” responded Alexis, expertly avoiding any argument. “I’ll also take one of those as well.” Here he pointed at another random bottle behind the tender.

The man raised an eyebrow, withdrawing the dark green wine bottle. It was titled “Songhal Bitter Root.”

“This is, ah, one of our more unique blends,” warned the barkeep. “I can’t guarantee you’ll like it.” Nevertheless, Alexis paid the fifteen gold required for the two wine selections and returned to the camp grounds.

Finding his paladin friend, Alexis then handed both bottles to him and requested a specific ritual. Retreating to the pocket dimension inside their steamer trunk, Gorodash cast a magic ritual designed to detect any poisons that might be lurking within the two bottles.

Again, the results were intriguing. The “Lily of the Valley” wine, named after an actual poisonous plant, turned out to be safe–nothing more than weakly-sugared colored water. “Songhal’s Bitter Root,” on the other hand, was a potent blend of substances not normally found in wines, including large amounts of formaldehyde and cyanide.

“Makes sense for someone with no taste buds left,” Alexis muttered.

Gorodash called Grigori the dwarf over and explained the situation. The two exchanged looks, shrugged, and passed the green bottle. Between the two of them, they boasted heavy resistance to poison, strong bodily constitutions, and direct access to healing magic. Both vomited at least once during the process, and the healing hands of both the paladin and the cleric were required, but they drained the last drop. They declared afterwards that it had “quite a kick to it.”

Finished with their reconnaissance, the party reconvened and shared their findings. Felkar seemed very confused by what had been discovered so far.

“This doesn’t match anything I know about the undead,” he muttered, scratching his head. “Corporeal undead generally fall into two categories: the intelligent undead, and the mindless. Intelligent undead are a rare breed that need some kind of special ritual to retain their personality. And mindless dead are just the skeletons, zombies, and ghouls that lurch out of accursed graveyards, hating the living.” He gestured with his hand out towards the city around them. “And in either case, you aren’t left with a village full of well-adjusted individuals who just want to raise their ageless families in peace.”

“Normal villages don’t drink wine bottles full of formaldehyde and cyanide either,” muttered Gorodash. “Or pack eleven undead among three houses.”

iii. Spectacles Never Before Witnessed

“Are they ghosts?” Asura wondered aloud.

“No, they have physical bodies,” Gorodash noted. “Maybe they’re ghosts possessing husks?”

“They may not even be aware themselves that they’re dead,” Alexis noted. “There could be a large-scale illusion in play. For example, when I touched the boy’s face, it felt like boiled leather…nothing like what it appeared to the naked eye. The city-wide ban on magic might even be to prevent them from learning the truth, as much as it is for outsiders.”

Alexis ran his fingers thoughtfully over the tome that never left his side. “So we have a city full of undead…and a coven, somehow connected to it. Let’s think about what we know. Hags enjoy striking deals. Perhaps something horrible happened to this city? And perhaps a deal was struck with the coven to return loved ones to life…or, at least, some semblance of it?”

A sudden bestial roar echoed from nearby streets, following by the shouts of guards. Rock-in-Water, the resident druid, had trouble recognizing the sound. At one point it resembled the howl of a wolf; at others, the shriek of an eagle.

“I’ll go check it out,” she said, suddenly shifting and collapsing into a small, eight-legged form. Alexis’s mystical book had not been the only recipient of a spell of Nondetection from Grigori; the dwarf had cast one on the tabaxi before the city gate, and she still had another five hours of undetectable wild shaping left.

All eight legs flailing, Rock scurried out to the nearest building and ascended to the roof. There she could traverse the city without accidentally encountering the night watch.

She followed the commotion to an alley near the city wall. Because her small form only granted her vision out to thirty feet, she was not able to see past the guards to what they battled. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, firing volley after volley on the captain’s orders. Their target screeched in pain or fury.

For a moment, their foe passed in front of a lantern. The shadow thrown upon the alley wall betrayed a hideous form with far, far too many legs and limbs. Rock shivered involuntarily, as the clamor eventually lessened. Whatever that thing had been, the night watch had seemed only able to drive it off, not kill it outright.

Taking advantage of her new size, Rock decided to infiltrate one of the nearby houses for some more intimate information. Crawling in easily between the spaces of a poorly-closed wooden window, she studied the family within.

In keeping with what they’d deduced of the populace so far, not a single family member was asleep. The single bed of the house was unruffled, and a layer of dust suggested it’d not been used in years. Instead, the family used lantern lights to catch up on their reading, play board games on a nearby table, or simply talk.

Rock also noticed that all windows and doors had been barred. The family seemed on edge from the nighttime noises, but they carried on just the same.

Rock made one more stop: the marble home of the elderly elf couple. This house, however, was in much better condition; and the glass panes fit snugly with the marble frames, preventing access to even tiny arachnids. Before returning to the tent, she noticed one last important detail about the elven residence: unlike the cold, unkindled fireplaces of the rest of the village, a lone column of smoke arose from the chimney here.

Rock arrived as the others discussed the strange faceless symbol Grigori had seen at the elven home. Despite their training in the Order, which included a religious primer on all the major gods and religions in Faerûn, nothing they could remember matched the image.

The tabaxi unshifted and explained what she’d found. As she did, however, a new shadow showed itself against the back corner of the tent–a distressingly-familiar shape that matched an impossible number of legs and arms. The tent shifted as it leaned against it. The party rushed outside, weapons drawn.

Greeting them was a nine-legged wolf, pulling itself from the flagstones as if from an invisible hole. Rock was suggesting grabbing some meat to entice it when it was no longer an aberrant wolf, but a shark flopping upon the tiles. Then it was a shifting outline, flickering back and forth among a lion, an owlbear, and a manticore.

It was as if an glamour had been cast on the creature, but a glamour that couldn’t quite decide what it was meant to resemble.

There was a nearby shout of guards, and the creature immediately withdrew in response. It seemed to sink into the ground, leaving no trace of its passing. Alexis studied the stone surface of the plaza grounds. He might have at first guessed the monster to be an ethereal beast, able to pass easily through material objects, had not their tent itself responded to its weight. This left one other theory, and Alexis put his hand on the ground where the monster had disappeared.

His fingers passed easily through the stone into a space of cold air. There was a passage here, hidden by illusion.

“The guards might already know about this entrance,” Rock pointed out. “We need some way to disguise what we’re doing here.” At her suggestion, a changing tent was quickly erected over the hidden hole; this would help them explore the space a little more stealthily.

Alexis was the first to dive into the unknown. Grigori, on the other hand, was last…but only because he stopped to push the hesitant Asura in first.

As soon as they’d passed below the level of the street, the town-wide glamour fell away, and the true age of the city could be seen. Above the ground, bright colors adorned each perfectly-maintained building. Here, however, pale bricks crumbled, forgotten in the dark. The illusion of perfection did not reach this space.

The sewer was caked and dry, as one would expect if unused for over a century. Once out of sight of the sewer entrance, Alexis turned on his eldritch ability to Detect Magic; it would help balance his lack of darkvision.

The group discussed which direction to explore. So far, their best lead seemed to be the elven house, where a hag potentially awaited. Gorodash made sure to grab a few items he could offer the fey in offering: a Philter of Love, a Potion of Fire Breath, and the empty bottle of cyanide wine. They pointed their feet in the direction of the center of town.

But their travels would not be easy nor uninterrupted. No longer disguised by Songhal’s illusions, the true forms of the nighttime beasts could be now ascertained. Monstrous forms of bones and skulls cobbled in haphazard fashion, they shambled towards the party with ill intent. The agents of the Order drew their weapons and braced to defend themselves against these aberrant horrors.

Session Date: March 2nd, 2020
Dale Reckoning: 1523 (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), 6 Alturiak (6th of the Claw of Winter)

D. The Circle of Un-Life

i. Hounded in the Sewers

At the forefront, Rock-in-Water was the first to receive the ire of the misshapen monsters. As the teeth of the undead sank into her arm, the flesh about the bite withered and blackened, as if the life were being sapped from it. Simultaneously, the creature swelled in response to this new infusion of energy.

In response, Rock fast-shifted into her giant spider form. She was unhappy, however, to realize her poison bite did nothing against a creature with no circulation.

Luckily, Asura was ready with a few relevant skills. After summoning a spiritual warhammer, he held his religious symbol of Lathander aloft. The sun-like brilliance that emanated from it was enough to send two of the four monsters fleeing in terror.

As Grigori aided with magic missiles, and Shudder hampered the actions of the monsters, Alexis readied a spell, but held it in his palm. Recalling their encounter with Gertrude’s monsters, he wondered if one of Songhal’s hags were nearby, and he called out into the darkness.

“To the fair Miss Muckbabbler, we come as friends, carrying a message from your estranged sister Gertrude. We’d like to avoid destruction as much as possible. Please let us in your abode, so that we may cause no further damage.”

No reply was forthcoming, and Alexis cast his Chill Touch on the nearest foe as it attacked again. The spectral hand would prevent it regaining any health via its bite. A skilled combination of attacks were able to down it–in particular, a Sacred Flame from Asura that the monster was would otherwise have dodged, if it were not for Shudder’s slowing spell.

With their rhythm established, the group dealt with the last creature easily, with a combination of Mind Slivers, Fire Bolts, Chill Touches, and a particularly-empowered Sacred Flame. Shudder was particularly pleased, as it had been her attack that had downed the beast.

ii. Secrets and Wonders

Alexis’s Eldritch Sight noticed a peculiar fact about the semi-solid sludge drying in the canal. A stream of magical energy flowed through it, as if someone had dumped magical run-off further up in the sewers. Concentrating, he was able to discern the school of necromancy at work.

Shudder pulled out an empty bottle to collect some of the magical sewage. “Why would there be necromantic sludge here? Who put it here?”

Asura rubbed his chin. “Is it a waste run-off? Or is it being used to power something? Perhaps this sludge turns living villagers into the undead?”

Shudder froze at the suggestion. “Well,” she said finally, “I just touched it, and nothing happened. So I guess that’s a good sign?” She also noted that since none of the party cast spells powerful enough to leave magical “residue,” that this suggested the presence of a very strong spellcaster.

The magical pollutant was easy enough to track, and the party followed Alexis’s guidance as he led them further beneath the city. At one particular junction, elven voices were just audible in a side alcove. They followed the noise to a sewer pipe in the ceiling, where Shudder and Alexis (who both spoke Elven) recognized the word “dinner” among other distant conversation.

Thanks to Shudder’s long time spent underground, she had gotten very good at counting her paces. She estimated they were directly beneath the elven home that Grigori had scouted earlier. This made sense.

Asura studied the thin trail of fresh sewage that dripped from the pipe overhead. “Well, we can confirm there is at least one inhabitant still alive in this city.”

The idea of paying a visit to the house which quickly floated, and then squashed. Even apart from the fact that the elven male seemed unfriendly, crawling up from one’s toilet was never the best way to make a lasting impression.

The party continued on towards the source of the magical pollutants. As they did, Alexis spoke aloud in thought.

“So, I’ve been thinking. Let’s say you are a powerful cleric of a god of death. The Spellplague is hitting your city, everyone is dead or dying, and you yourself are alive by luck or power. Struck with grief and loneliness, you raise your loved ones, and their loved ones as well.

“At least, you attempt to, but circumstances are…different than what you expect. The spell corrupts the very ground of the city, imprinting the place with necrotic energies leaking through its sewers. Be it a miracle, or the magic still reeling from the catastrophe, instead of animating brainless zombies or ghost, you manage to actually restore those people almost to what they used to be. Close, but not quite alive.

“Well, you happen to know a powerful fey, a hag who would be naturally gifted for illusion magic. You convince her to cast a glamour on the whole city, to conceal what happened to its inhabitants.

“This leaves you with a problem on your hands. A certain scholarly institution dedicated to the cataloging of people and bloodlines will inevitably notice that no one seem to be born or die in your city anymore. What is there to do, if not installing one of your own as the Herald of the city – perhaps the sister of the hag that has dedicated herself to help you – to control the information reported to the main order, and to close the gates to any outsider that may breach the enchantment by bringing in magical items?

“A fanciful story to be sure, but for now only a story. I hope we will uncover more when we find the source of this fetid sludge. I certainly hope that we may find the fair lady Muckbabbler, lest Miss Gertrude’s message be lost to her.”

Alexis had made sure his last words had been spoken loudly enough to be heard by anyone hiding nearby.

Shudder voiced her thoughts as well. “What would be the result if people outside Songhal knew about this town of the undead?”

Asura grimaced. “I may not be the greatest student of the divine, but Lathander‘s hatred of the undead is nearly unmatched. He, among others, sees undeath as an abomination to the natural order, and he will not stop until it’s been purged.”

“How would they react to a village of peaceful undead villagers that keep to themselves?” Alexis mused.

“I’m…really not sure. There’s really no precedent in history that I’m aware of. In all the stories and legends I’ve heard, the undead hate the living and seek to destroy them.”

Asura scratched his chin and continued. “I mean…if they really are all dead, then wouldn’t it be better to simply let them pass on anyway? Such would be the thinking of Lathander, and of most benevolent clerics in the world.”

“Are we required to tell anyone outside our Order?” Shudder posited. “Is it permissible if we keep this one to ourselves?”

A snippet of conversation here, a note on a piece of paper there, and a few archaic references in the college library suddenly all fell into order for Alexis. “The Order has their own secret archives for information such as this,” Alexis declared, “right under Lyrabar itself, unless I miss my guess. Remember our tenets?”

“Find the truth, expose the lies, etc.?”

“Yes, but even more importantly, the ‘fifth tenet’ as our instructors kept mentioning. ‘Be Merciful. Omit the truth only when its presence would cause greater harm. Even light may blind.’ And what do you do with information that must be preserved but also hidden? You put it in a vault, until the world is ready for it.”

“Let’s hope we can recommend this mission for the archives then,” Shudder said. “I do not want the fates of several hundred peaceful villagers on my hands.”

The agents recalled what they’d been taught in the College for the Order. Yes, the Order tried to do good things in the world, but they were not a “Good” aligned order (with a capital “G,” as they’d heard professors explain). The Order honored Torm as an exemplar of the fight for knowledge, but they did not require their agents to follow his specific doctrine, or any particular god’s. Individuals of every persuasion and every walk of life could join their ranks, if their hearts were curious and their minds were open.

In the end, they were a force for Truth…nothing more and nothing less.

iii. Feces Species

The conversation was abruptly cut short by a sudden movement from the sludge near their feet. In an area where the arcane run-off naturally pooled, years of collecting necromantic energy had slowly lent their power to the sludge they infused. Now, hungry for new life to add to its own, the shapeless beast rose from the channel and lunged towards its prey.

Alexis managed to dodge quickly out of the way; and Rock (still in her giant spider form) was well out of reach on the ceiling. Grigori, however, was not so lucky, and his form was quickly pulled into the muck. Unable to speak, move, or cast spells, the unfortunate dwarf quickly began to be consumed by the corrosive acids of the creature.

The others quickly sprang into action, but their adversary was not a typical foe. Shudder planted a mental suggestion that Asura was, in fact, a burning ember the creature had swallowed. However, the beast was not very intelligent and chose to hold onto its newfound meal, despite the pain it experienced.

On the ceiling, Rock attempted to spit a web at the foe, but the strands sailed harmlessly into the dark. Asura’s easily landed a Sacred Flame on the misbegotten horror, but they were racing against the clock. The dwarf-sized form inside the muck struggled but once more, then lay still.

Dancing away from an attempt to engulf him as well, Asura plunged both of his arms into the muck, up to the elbow. He knew that, with Grigori unconscious, they had but seconds before they lost his soul to the gods. He felt the skin and muscles on his arms dissolve in the acidic juices of the monster, but his fingers found their purchase. Grigori shuddered in response to the healing word.

Doing some quick mental calculations, Alexis realized that the creature had been spawned and animated through the ambient necromantic energies in the sewer run-off. Logically, that meant that dispelling those energies might also unravel the creature. A first attempt to dissipate the arcane strands holding the monster together failed; but after a moment spent to focus, Alexis’s second spell hit home. Half of the sludge sloughed off, falling into the channel with a disgusting slop.

The cleric’s mending magic had only been a temporary measure, and Grigori’s struggles again lessened. This time, however, as the cleric prepared to sidestep the sludge’s slow assault, the fiend instead lashed out a pseudopod, slapping him across the chest. Asura felt magic flee from his body; the sludge, hungry for life or magic, had consumed one of his highest-level spell slots.

With Shudder again landing her increasingly-signature spell, Rock took the opportunity to drop revert and revert to her tabaxi form. Holy water would damage skeletons, zombies, and other beings fueled by necromantic magic; it was not a stretch to assume the same could happen here. She reached into her pack and withdrew a bottle of Holy Water she’d saved from her time in Coventry.

It hit the creature with a sizzling splash. Plumes of white smoke erupted from the hideous mass, and where it dissolved, Grigori’s body became gradually visible.

Asura’s healing magics took only a moment of his time, and he had been steadily whittling down the monster with Sacred Flames. Outraged by the sudden thievery of a high-level spell, he now poured his full concentration into retribution. The remainder of the toxic ooze erupted into flames when hit by a righteously-endowed Guiding Bolt.

The party quickly pulled their wizard friend from the now-lifeless mass and nursed him back to health.

iv. The Most Tenebrous Corners

“I could press on, I suppose,” Grigori coughed, once the majority of his blood had been returned to his body, “but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want a breather.”

Asura and Alexis were also feeling a bit spent (in spells, health, or both), and so they decided to take an hour’s rest in a nearby alcove. Grigori cast a quick Leomund’s Tiny Hut to protect them in the meanwhile.

Once they had finished, Rock again morphed into her giant spider shape. Creeping quietly, she scouted for any dangers that lurked ahead.

Instead of simple death and decay, she stumbled upon what seemed to be a vibrant underground ecosystem–yet an ecosystem utterly alien to any she’d encountered before.

Dried sprouts unfurled their withered stems from between cracked tiles. Slimy pustules hung from the ceiling, erupting in bursts of necrotic pus if disturbed. Blackened flowers blossomed just long enough for their brittle petals to crack and disintegrate.

Skeletal snakes ambushed skeletal mice, wrapping them in up in masses of twitching bones. Once the prey had ceased moving, its bits and pieces were added as well to the growing shape of the predator. Larger undead rats, in turn, pulled the snakes apart and used their pieces to shore up limbs lost to altercations.

Drawing on her druidic knowledge of typical ecology, she considered what she saw here in Songhal. New energy was entering the “system” from the magical offal in the sewer channel, which served like a river to water these ghoulish lands. The undead plants were the next step of the cycle, applying the necromantic energies to new materials, like vines, twigs, or mold.

Undead animals were the third tier, infusing themselves with both new magical energy and patchwork scraps to replace failing or breaking parts. These animals might then prey on each other, for the exact same reasons. In many ways, it was an ecosystem running in perfect parallel to that of her home forest in Cormanthor; but with its own unique cycle of undeath, growth, and eventual return to decay.

As could be expected, a food chain pyramid was in place, and there were very few top-tier predators in the sewers. But this made Rock wonder…what was feeding the massive hounds they’d seen near the entrance?

There were massive tree roots that took hold between the edges of the sewer tiles, and they grew in size and frequency as Rock went farther. Eventually, she found herself outside a small stone opening, from which the source of both the necromantic river and the roots emanated. Deciding it was unwise to continue further alone, she returned to the group with what she’d discovered.

The group discussed possible options for dealing with the source of the magical contagion, from entering directly, to placing an Alarm or another Leomund’s Tiny Hut in the doorway. Rock also described her route to Shudder, and the two estimated that the foreboding chamber was likely directly underneath the giant tower in the center of town.

While they spoke, Alexis thumbed through the book he always carried at his side. He conversed not only with his compatriots, but with the living, breathing pages of his tome. As their conversation progressed, however, a singular phrase began repeating itself through the text of the book:

There is danger.

Alexis closed the book. “For whatever awaits us in that room,” he declared, “I think we’d be better prepared after a full night’s rest and some special thought given to the spells we prepare for the day.”

The group agreed and turned for home. They opted not to go out of their way to clear the area of remaining monsters, as the residual magical energy would likely just reanimate anything they felled before the morrow.

Session Date: March 9th, 2020
Dale Reckoning: 1523 (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), 7 Alturiak (7th of the Claw of Winter)

E. An Invitation to Dine

i. A Ticking Time Bomb

The agents poked their heads out of the canvas around eight the next morning, shortly after the nightly curfew had been lifted. Already planning a day’s itinerary in his head, Alexis noticed a group of night watchmen sitting in the market nearby. They seemed to be tending to a guard that was now missing his left arm.

“Yeah,” the victim laughed, apparently in good spirits, “one of those wolves got me good last night. Not to worry. A trip to the healer’s and I’ll be as right as rain.”

“Man, Boris, you always get the short end of the stick, don’t ya,” joked his comrades. Alexis noted that the city-wide glamour had trouble deciding exactly what the wound would look like, shifting back and forth between similar depictions.

The guard captain noted Alexis nearby. “Are all of you well? The hounds were much more of an issue last evening than on most nights.” Once assured that the circus performers had not been injured, he continued his thoughts. “We’ve never been able to figure out how these wolves get in past the city walls at night, but they do. And, truth be told, they always seem more active when there are visitors about.” He leaned closer. “If I were you, I’d consider cutting my visit short and leaving at the next opportunity. My men are brave, but they can’t be everywhere.”

Alexis studied the guard captain hard. There seemed to be no implicit threat here; if anything, the captain was genuinely concerned for the welfare of both his citizens and the newcomers, and he was aware of his own limitations. Alexis thanked him for his advice.

While Alexis and Rock went off on their own errands, Gorodash followed the wounded city guardsman and the captain. As expected, they first visited a familiar manor near the city center, where they left a message with the butler. Twenty minutes later, a groggy elf in clerical robes joined them, and they proceeded to the forty-foot unbroken wall encircling the central tower.

As Gorodash watched, the elf touched a combination of bricks that made up the wall. Then the group disappeared into the wall itself, as if passing behind a curtain. Gorodash guessed the elf had opened a secret door in the wall that was still covered by the glamour.

Here Gorodash decided to take a bit of a chance. As soon as all the guards had disappeared from sight (but were likely still within thirty feet on the other side of the wall), he quickly cast Detect Thoughts. Snatches and snippets of each individual’s thoughts came to him before they passed out of range:

“I am a guardsman, fighting in the forces which guard my city and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense. I will never surrender of my own free will.”
“I am the guard captain. I am responsible for the welfare of my men, and I will always place their needs above my own. I am loyal to those with whom I serve; seniors, peers, and subordinates alike.”
“Good grief, what time is it? Eight in the morning and there’s already been a cock-up. Is it too much to ask, for the guards to do their job, without losing a limb in the process? This got old long before I did…”

It was as Gorodash had expected. There was but one individual who was still a living, breathing being. The rest were mere imitations, albeit convincing ones, from the outside. But their simple, child-like thoughts betrayed them.

Alexis and Rock-in-Water set about for a closer inspection of the town cemetery. The door to the graveyard was not locked, but it had been rusted shut by years of disuse. The pair simply jumped the shoulder-high wall.

He had a few theories floating about in his mind, but he needed to gather evidence to either confirm or deny them. One such hypothesis of his involved some form of latent effect, centered on the cemetery, that caused the dead to come back to life when interred.

However, none of the ground looked disturbed, and there were no signs of passage in the tall grass. Rock’s keen nose also detected nothing unusual. Alexis did note that the most recent date on the gravestone was 1386 DR, one year after the start of the Spellplague.

On his way back to the circus grounds, Gorodash decided to interact some more one-on-one with the townsfolk. Encountering a dwarf lady alone, he intercepted her.

“So, how long have you been undead?”

The dwarf lady (named Bretva) returned his gaze with something bordering amusement. “Young man, I should think I’d remember if I was dead, much less undead.”

“Nothing in this city seems strange to you?” Gorodash pressed. “No one getting older…no one dying?”

Bretva nodded to the imposing tower claiming the center of the city. “We are guarded by the good lady Ilvarthaele Everstone, the Silver Stag. Thanks to her watch over this city, we no longer need to worry about death or decay.”

“Oh, you know about the Silver Stag?”

“Of course, lad,” the dwarf lady laughed. “I remember the first day she set foot in our city, when King Imbrar II still sat upon the throne, twelve years before the Spellplague–“

Gorodash laughed in disbelief. “You yourself remember this? That was one hundred and fifty years ago!”

“Why, of course, we all do.” Bretva shook her head, as a grandmother might to a grandson. “Well, I’m not surprised you don’t. You don’t look a day over thirty–“

“Yep, you’re undead. You’re undead, and you’re crazy,” Gorodash muttered, walking away.

Gathered again within the circus tent, the agents exchanged their views.

“It’s obvious these are simply foul undead,” Gorodash voiced. “I spent some time listening in to their thoughts, and they were little more than children…puppets, really. Hardly real people. They might be useful to a spellcaster, for a time, but left alone they will always revert to evil.”

“We haven’t seen them do anything evil,” Rock countered. “If anything, they seem like very normal citizens.”

“They are under control, for now,” agreed Gorodash. “But make no mistake; we are sitting on top of a ticking time bomb of a village. Sooner or later, the command will slip, or the spellcaster will die, and we’ll be left with an entire army of rampaging undead.”

“I’m not convinced,” mused Alexis. “If these are as soulless as you assert, would you have detected any thoughts at all about them? Would they not have been simple automatons, like those created by an artificer?”

“What they are…what they do, what they say, what they think (if you will)…is being filtered through a pre-made world view. I tried confronting one of the town’s ladies about it a few minutes ago, and while she wasn’t aggressive, it was as if couldn’t ‘get it.’ They do not know they are undead because they’re not allowed to see.”

Gorodash crossed his arms. “As a paladin of Torm, I am certain of one thing. Undead things are, by nature, evil things. We can be certain of this fact, and that is enough for me. Now I’m not suggesting that we take action against Songhal…but just know that we are walking in a powder keg that will, one day, go off.”

Alexis still had his doubts. “If they are indeed simply mindless tools, created for some master, as you say, why would anyone have bothered with a city-wide glamour? They seldom accept visitors; we only got in ourselves because of a few strings that were pulled, so the glamour wasn’t aimed at us. Is it a trap? If so, for whom? Why have they waited one hundred and fifty years (and counting) to spring it?

“All things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the best. I think someone is caring for these citizens, even after death.”

“Even if so,” returned Gorodash, “it’s misguided at best. The ‘real’ citizens of Songhal died years ago. The undead here are not real people, and no one needs to consider their feelings.”

The ethical discussions continued for some time. Asura wondered why the towns guard seemed to be in a war against another faction of undead at night. Rock recognized the human name of the Silver Stag, implying she was as deathless as her citizens. She also recalled stories of liches who commanded mindless thralls, but those tales didn’t seem to match the story here. The tower in the center of town (the “Stormspire” as they had learned it was called) certainly seemed to be the city’s seat of power; and they knew it was possible to empower spells when specially prepared and cast in a arcane stronghold.

Or a “lair,” if one were a hag.

The paladin and the human scribe continued in their heated discussion.

“Evil is not something you are,” Alexis posited. “It is something you do.”

“I have never heard of a friendly undead,” Gorodash countered.

“And I thought all sheep were white, until I saw a black one.”

“I don’t know that I agree. I think we need to be extremely careful while we’re here, in Songhal.”

“I’m not convinced either. I’m simply stating that I don’t know enough to make a broad, sweeping generalization yet.”

They were finally interrupted by Felkar, who poked his head into the tent while holding a page of flowery handwriting. “Sorry to interrupt your leisure time, but the lot of you have been invited to a luncheon by a–” Here he squinted at the name on his letter. “Sarnelis?”

“Oh, is that the elf in the manor on the corner, next to the city center?”

“Ah, you’ve met!” Felkar seemed pleased. “Well, he’s invited you to dine at his manor at noon. Might be a good way to learn a few more things about this city that you wouldn’t be able to elsewhere.”

ii. Ship of Theseus

The troupe had not packed any formal attire, so they attended in whatever clean, bright clothes they’d arranged for their performance. They also hid small weapons about their persons, on the distinct possibility it was a staged trap. However, they couldn’t pack anything magical, as the town guards would notice it before they’d arrived.

A well-dressed dwarf butler named Raggrim met the party at the gate to Sarnelis’s manor, at noon. He declared they’d been expected and then led them to the main dining chamber. There, an elderly elf couple awaited–one at each end of the dining table.

Rock’s nose suggested that there was only one entity still living on the premise–the elf cleric himself. Both the butler and the lady were reanimated deceased.

“I hadn’t considered this possibility,” Alexis muttered. “This still leaves the question of where both hags are hiding.”

“It’s good of you to join us,” Sarnelis welcomed them. “It was my guess that a traveling troupe as yourself does not often have the opportunity to partake in the finer things of life.”

“Have you lived here long?” Gorodash asked, as they were seated.

“I’ve lived in Songhal some two hundred years now, so yes,” Sarnelis returned. “Unlike other elves in this area of the world, my wife and I ignored the elven Retreat of 1344 to Evermeet; we had found a place where our talents were of use, and where we felt at home.”

Wine was available, and unlike that proffered at the local tavern, the elf kept a line of actual bottled spirits. The conversation soured somewhat when Gorodash, attempting to “break the ice,” began a round of “Never Have I Ever.” Instead of forcing Sarnelis’s hand, however, he showed his own with the challenge “Never have I ever kissed an undead.”

The elf patron’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t respond.

Dinner was served shortly thereafter, by the butler Raggrim (who seemed to double as the chef). It consisted of a vegetarian-themed and very bland soup of roots and tubers.

“I apologize in advance for the state of the menu,” Sarnelis confided, once the butler had withdrawn. “The culinary arts have been somewhat forgotten over the years, here in Songhal.”

Grigori nodded in reluctant agreement. It would not have been hard for him to throw something together much more palatable, even while he had been on the road with his early-life caravan.

The meal prepared for the elf’s wife was significantly more bizarre and grotesque. The butler brought in a live and trussed chicken, served on a plate. Removing her silk white gloves, the woman then placed her hands on both sides of the chicken.

There were a few moments of frantic squawking and thrashing before the chicken collapsed in withered death. The city glamour hesitated for a moment before settling on the image of a roasted chicken corpse, its bones freshly picked clean.

“You’ll forgive my wife Olanala,” stated Sarnelis, as his guests sat in grim silence. “She has…special dietary needs.”

“So,” said Grigori, attempting to change the subject to something more pleasant, “tell us the history of your city. Little has been heard out of Songhal since the appointment of the Silver Stag and the Spellplague that followed shortly thereafter.”

“Ah, now that is a tale worth telling,” Sarnelis declared, “one of both our damnation and our salvation. I doubt any of you were alive to remember the Year of Blue Fire and the horror it brought to this land. In the very next season, our town was beset by plaguechanged monsters. With the recent death of Impiltur’s last monarch, Imbrar II, and with each feudal state worried most about its own defense, there was no help forthcoming. We managed to hold off the beasts and save the city, but every second man, woman, and child had fallen to their claws. Half of this town lay dead.

“Ilvarthaele Everstone, the Silver Stag, was as much of a central leader as the town still had. Weeping for the fate of the city, she withdrew into the House of Many Tomes, with only one other to aid her. She spent six days and six night sleeplessly researching a way to return the fallen to their families’ arms, and she called out to any god who would dare to answer.

“I suppose I needn’t tell you that the gods had their own troubles during the Wailing Years, and it’s little surprise none came to her aid. However, just when all hope seemed lost, a new and unfamiliar voice answered.”

Here the elf gestured to an unfinished marble bust on a nearby mantle. There were others like it about the manor, but each was unique in its approach. It was as if the artist couldn’t settle on precisely what they wished to depict–or, perhaps, that the subject itself kept shifting.

“This new god never offered a name, nor showed its likeness. Because of this, the only name we have to give him is…The Nameless.

“The Nameless revealed unto Ilvarthaele special secrets, and with His help, she was finally able to return the slain of Songhal to their home and families. From that moment on, the Silver Stag spent much of her time in communion with our new divine figure. Following His mandates, we created (over time) the Songhal that greets you today. We owe our survival both to divine intervention and Ilvarthaele’s leadership.”

“And you’ve never spoken with this god directly?” Alexis considered hard, but the phrase “Nameless” was too vague to spark any recognition.

“I am granted a portion of the Nameless’s power every morning when I pray for spells,” Sarnelis explained, “but only Ilvarthaele has communed with Him directly. And she has never spoken of a face or a name we could share.”

During this conversation, Rock-in-Water (who had been introduced as their tamed beast) was also served a live chicken on a plate in the corner of the room. Cutting the threads binding the chicken, she pushed it out onto the floor and chased it towards the next room. Olanala, not wishing the cat woman to knock over any of their prized possessions, followed Rock out to mind her.

Once both his wife and butler were safely out of earshot, Sarnelis turned again to the party with a changed countenance. “Now that we are alone, perhaps we can talk more candidly, without fear of distressing others. My wife, bless her heart, can be easily upset at times, and I wish to spare her any undue torment.”

“She doesn’t know…does she? Nobody here in Songhal knows.”

“They are blessedly spared the full knowledge of their situation,” Sarnelis replied. “Some venture close, but they quickly turn away again…a mental defense-mechanism, I am sure. Most would break, mentally or emotionally, under the full crushing weight of truth.”

“Now I might have a question or two to pose the lot of you as well. You don’t strike me as being just simple circus performers. Perhaps it’s your ability to ‘pull back the curtain’ so to speak, but you already know too much and see far too much for simple travelers. So what is it, really, that brings you here to Songhal?”

“We have come…” Alexis chose his words carefully. “We are here at the behest of a friend of ours, to inquire as to the current health of two sisters who came to your town some time ago.”

“That seems unlikely,” Sarnelis returned. “There have been no new residents since we closed our gates in 1386 DR.”

“This would have been about that time, actually.”

The elf’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t answer. Alexis felt he might have triggered some form of memory, but one to which the cleric was unwilling to admit. “Might I know their names?”

Alexis hesitated to reveal this valuable piece of information, with little idea of how much the elf knew, or how he would react.

Gorodash decided on a different line of inquiry. “Your city guards fight beasts every night, beasts they are led to believe are from outside the wall. We both know that’s impossible. Where are the monsters from, really?” Chanting quickly to himself, he then pushed his own mind into that of the elf’s, hoping that the other’s mental guards would be down.

He was fortunate. His use of magic was unexpected, and he caught two simultaneous images in the elf’s mind: a tall tower, and a blighted tree within it. The top of the tree seemed healthy; but as one neared the base, disease became more apparent, until the roots were covered with maggots and filth.

His grip on the elf’s thoughts slipped. Sarnelis now regarded him with a very cold and firm stare.

“An orc that can cast magic,” the elf said finally. “That’s unusual.”

“Well,” returned Gorodash, raising his palms, “we all have our secrets now, don’t we.”

“Indeed. I, for example, am still in love with a woman who died decades ago.” Sarnelis took a thoughtful sip of wine to collect his thoughts. “I don’t suppose you would have any idea what it’s like to be the last living person in a town of shadows. To see the town in which you’d made your life slowly replaced, piece-by-piece across the years, like the siding on an old barn, until nothing remains of the original. I don’t suppose you’d know what it’s like to have performed the Rites of Awakening on your own wife, after she’d been ambushed by the same monsters you so flippantly mention.”

He affixed each of the agents with his vision, in turn. “Make no mistake. My work here–what I do here–is a mercy, but it is a mercy directed toward the living. Fathers and mothers who have lost their child to a winter flu, suddenly reunited. Children who thought they’d given their parents their last farewells, suddenly learning they’d never have to say goodbye again. It is a thing of wonder, is it not? A life only heard of in storybooks and fairytales.

“And yet…” Here the elf’s eyes glazed over, staring into the future to a point perhaps far too near. “And yet, the day will come when I too shall pass from this world. And the only thing left of me in Songhal will be a memory. A memory that behaves as I once did, remembers what I once did, and loves those whom I once did.”

He locked eyes with Gorodash. “But, then again, would that make the man who answers to my name any less of a person?”

“What of Ilvarthaele?” asked Grigori. “Is she dead as well?”

“I am aware that she has a…special arrangement with the Nameless. But she is a human. She could not have lasted this long without one.”

“Your intents are good, perhaps,” Gorodash admitted, “but it matters little when the methods used are evil. Necromancy is an evil magic, and nothing that comes from it can be pure, no matter the reason.”

“An interesting stance to take, orc,” returned Sarnelis, “considering some of the most revered spells of returning the dead draw upon the very depths of necromancy itself. Are you also positing that it is impossible to do evil deeds with good magic, since the magic is good?”

Gorodash’s brow furrowed. “Well…let’s just say that I don’t think what was done here was a good thing. But you need not worry about me taking action. I would feel very uncomfortable killing these…dolls.” He lowered his head a bit. “No offense, of course.”

“To answer your earlier question, orc, the Songhal monsters are an unfortunate but unavoidable byproduct of Songhal’s current state. Every ecosystem has its bottom-feeders, after all. Maggots squirm beneath piles of decaying forest growth, and fish nibble at the detritus that lines the ocean floor. Our city is no different, and the creatures that appear at night are little more than vermin we must periodically cull. This is the job of the night watchmen, and they are devoted to their task.

“Now, our luncheon is nearly at its end. I wish you the best during your stay here in Songhal. I’ve heard you will have one more showing of your circus performance late this afternoon, before curfew? I suspect you will have a much larger audience than last night.

“I apologize that I cannot answer your inquiry about the two sisters in greater depth, but perhaps if you were to tell me their names, I could be more helpful.

“Also. One last word of advice, before you depart.” Here Sarnelis leaned closer, in almost a conspiratory fashion. “Don’t make yourself too valuable to the citizens of Songhal. Those who intertwine themselves too closely with this city eventually find themselves a permanent part of it.”

“Do not worry,” Gorodash encouraged, “we plan to leave, and to leave this city a little happier than we found it.”

The group reviewed what they’d learned as they returned to the circus grounds. It was currently one in the afternoon, and they had another four hours before their show (and over five before the sunset).

“It certainly seems as if all roads lead to one place,” Gorodash summed. “The tower at the center of town.”

“And a tree, it would seem,” added Alexis, “though I’m uncertain if that is more physical or allegory.” Many of his thoughts were already elsewhere, as he began work on a formal letter to the Silver Stag to invite her to the evening’s show.