- The Mission
- A. The Old Dark House
- i. Boys of the City
- Player’s notes on writing short stories related to ongoing RPG campaigns:
- ii. We Are Still Here
- iii. Within the Woods
- iv. Silent House
- v. The Shining
- vi. A Stir of Echoes
- B. Ghosts on the Loose
- i. Fragile
- ii. Down a Dark Hall
- iii. Supernatural Activity
- iv. The Unseen
- v. Behind the Wall
- C. Forbidden Floor
- i. This House Possessed
- ii. The Roost
- iii. The House at the End of Time
The memory of Umeren’s ooze-infested temple in the Yuirwood is likely still a fresh wound in your minds, but it provided us with a few tangible leads. One of the documents you recovered from that thrice-cursed dungeon spoke of the “Red Wizards at Rose Keep.” As luck would have it, “Rose Keep” lies in a town you’ve already visited (though only for an overnight stay): Veltalar.
Sometimes “Velprintalar” on older maps, Veltalar was the site of the last Thayan enclave before the lich Szass Tam‘s coup of his home country. You’ll need to retain little of the political situation in East Faerûn; suffice to say, the “Red Wizards of Thay” made a name for themselves as cruel slavers, demonologists, and arcane experimenters. Oh, and there’s that whole part about creating an entire nation of the undead as well; the Silver Stag of Songhal would have been proud.
Fortunately, I can say Thayan politics held less of a sway in Rose Keep; one of the four residents chose to disobey Szass Tam’s order in 1375 DR for all Red Wizards to return home. In doing so, Dhenna Shavres became a renegade purveyor of fine magical items, but a lifetime exile and outcast.
When she died in 1449 DR, she was succeeded by her daughter Tharna Shavres, who also lived to a ripe old age. In fact, it wasn’t until her hundredth birthday in 1474 DR that Tharna finally sought out partners in managing her mercantile compound. Her new additions were Dorim Craigcatcher (a dwarf) and Vanargen (another human).
And that is where our entries mysteriously stop. There are reports of Rose Keep being used some time after Garlyn would have picked up the Key, but our last record of human (or dwarvish) activity is in 1491 DR. All that is said to stand now is a long-neglected husk of a keep outside city limits, gradually falling into ruin.
Yet our Order diviners still finger old Rose Keep as a prime target for investigation. They’ve uncovered more than one reference to “arcane” or “golden” keys making their way in and out of this Red Wizard conclave. We think we know now what they refer to. Even the Zhentarim, with their pervasive black goods network, directed Garlyn here first before his own ill-fated expedition to the Yuirwood.
I’m sure you’re eager to begin; abandoned wizards’ enclaves boast numerous treasures and secrets for those who can evade the magical traps. But be well on your guard. Local legends seem to have sprouted up around this “old wizard’s house” in Veltalar. Stories are shared of haunting cries and echoing screams on moonlit nights. Others speak of lights flickering in vacant rooms – lights shining with hues not of this earth.
Considering the adventures we’ve had together so far, I think it would be ill advised to pass these off as simple widows’ tales. Delve into this “haunted house,” but ensure your own spirit does not join the chorus of souls rumored to be trapped there.
– Chief Inspector Felkar “The Flummoxer”
Character Level: 8
Stated Mission: Investigate the abandoned ruins of Rose Keep in Veltalar. Return with whatever information you can discover about the occult Keys, along with any treasure you “recover.”
Equipment: Standard rules for a Requisition Note: 9,400 gp worth of gear (as per “Sane Magical Prices” list), including up to 1/3 value in consumables (3,200 gp).
A. The Old Dark House
i. Boys of the City
Dale Reckoning: 1523 DR (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), sometime during the month of Eleasis.[Editor’s note: The following section was penned by Alexis’s player, after consulting Charli’s player.]
There is a time for everything. Dawn is a time of renewal and crow. Noon is the hour of chimes and ceremonies. But now this was the moment of smoke and secrets, the domain of neither the sun nor the stars.
Dusk settled on the walls of the Order’s holding in Lyrabar. Alexis closed his window shut. He did start to unlock it by force of habit; he used to need to see his destination when stepping through the ether. He was no longer so limited. Now, he merely had to know where he wanted to arrive. With the months now spent around the complex, he had gotten familiar enough. Of course, this was merely his way back in – and then again, just in case something unexpected were to happen. He required no such feats of sorcery to slink out into the town.
Night eventually fell. A storm would happen soon. The air felt heavy and moist, and somewhat rancid as he hurried over the cobblestones of the marketplace. He would not get in trouble anyway, a perk of now holding rank of “detective” within the Order. He would, however, miss out a valuable opportunity to acquire a rare quarry if he were to miss his appointment.
The young warlock reached the tavern as the mood was settling down. There had been songs and wine and merriment, and now the patrons of the establishment were sinking into a tranquil torpor. In the fireplace, embers were slowly dimming below the large cauldron.
It was a simple place, full of honest folks. The kind who may get rowdy on occasion but would not push a joke too far. The sort that would sell a tale of their travel for a cold pint or a cut of dried meat. You would not call it a place of luxury or abundance, but it was not dirty and could not be labeled seedy either.
Alexis greeted the elf resting by the fire at the central table. He took a seat on the heavy bench and engaged in polite conversation with the wandering trader. It was not the first time the two did business together, and something resembling respect had emerged between them.
There was not much humming from the crowd. Another discussion was unfolding just out of view from them, behind one of the large supports holding the low beams that formed a grid over the ceiling. Charli gently tapped the chamber of his pipe on the side of the table, caked tobacco falling to the floor. Producing a pouch of the thing from his long coat, he methodically refilled the bowl. Once lit and comfortably surrounded by an expanding cloud of smoke, the other detective resumed his own affairs.
His interlocutor was not necessarily out of place in the traveler’s rest. No one “belonged” here. After all, it was only a place to spend the night with a modicum of comfort. The two of them broached many matters. A small raise in the price of hay – the sorry state of the roads south of the sea of falling stars – the upcoming wedding of a lady of noble birth to a local provost. It went on and on. None of these mattered.
Each of the topic was punctuated by a nod, or the rubbing of a finger on one’s temple. The heiress was a codeword for the great aviary; so was suggested by seemingly innocent tic of the old man as he scratched the bridge of his nose. And there had been an incident requiring the involvement of house Extaminos, as was suggested by his contact flashing his last three fingers. Someone was likely regretting a foolish action deep in the city’s dungeons. Perhaps soon, a mangled corpse would be discovered outside the city’s emerald marble walls – that is, if there was anything left to recognize.
Business as usual in the city of Hlondeth, or so it seemed.
Few traders did the long trek to Waterdeep, and fewer still took personal orders. Alexis had first met this merchant months ago, when he had hired him for a few personal affairs. It had taken some convincing, a decent sum in silver and the promise of a cozy windfall, but the young warlock managed to convince him to knock to the door of New Olamn college and request a copy made of Trelaphin’s “Thought and its Processes” – a rare and valuable guide of reasoning and logic, which Alexis was at a loss to locate otherwise. And now, at last, the trader had returned with a grin on his face, and a peculiar package in tow.
Alexis shook the elf’s hand. The deal had been struck and he would get his prize. Alexis got up and made his way to the counter. The least he could do was to sooth his courier’s parched throat with a decent brew. Coin and ale changed hands.
Charli pulled a long mouthful of smoke as Alexis walked past him. He used the bite of his instrument to tap the side of his cheek and rubbed his eye. Face to him, the old man nodded once, and offered a handshake. They would have to meet another time; something had come up. He skillfully palmed the small ruby that Charli had slipped him; honest work, honest pay. A few seconds later, Charli was left alone with his tankard.
No immediate alerts. One less impassible face may have betrayed the beginning of a smirk. Charli doubted that the status quo would hold forever, but it seemed to hold for now at least. Still, prudence was the first concern. With another agent, he could not take the risk of being seen with his contact.
He stirred wistfully the amber liquid resting in his mug. It was foul and bitter, but not altogether unpleasant. A lone quail egg rolled against the side of the recipient. It went down whole with the last sip and the rogue stood to leave.
Alexis turned around, ale running the side of the two mugs filled to the brim, to find himself face to face with Charli. The young man offered a friendly smile. “Out on the town? I just concluded a good bargain; would you like to join me over drinks?”
Charli considered. It was a distraction. But there was no harm, was there? His companion was an odd fellow – if one can be called odd in their field team – but he had been reliable in their travels. “You know what? That sounds like a good plan, actually.”
The pair was stark contrast. Outspoken and laconic. Austere and comely. Both were secretive, to a point – the irony of which was certainly not lost on them, in respect to their current employment. Charli had seen…uncommon and eldritch applications of magic on the part of Alexis, and he had good cause to believe that there was more to his story than outwardly apparent. Still, he would not broach the topic if it were not necessary. For his part, the young warlock had no cause to imagine the past, or the inward nature of his teammate. As a pureblood yuan-ti, Charli could pass a simple human in most circumstances, including for his interactions with the young man.
Alexis excused himself. “Just give me a minute, would you? I’ll finish this quickly.”
Charli nodded. He ordered another pint for himself and pulled a stool at a table in one of the quieter corners of the establishment.
Alexis made a beeline for his previous acquaintance. He traded the drinks for a wax leather wrapped package and ended the transaction with a friendly slap on the shoulder of the traveler. “Lagniappe,” he said with a wink as he handed over the mugs. A purse containing a sizable sum in platinum had been already provided for the elf’s troubles.
The young man returned to the bar. After acquiring a clear glass of chilled mead, he landed on the opposite seat as Charli finished cleaning and refilling his pipe. Ribbons of grey-blue smoke were already lazily escaping from his mouth in slow undulating motions.
“Not a common choice.” Charli acknowledged the brass-colored liquid in Alexis’ glass. “Most younger folks go with ale or stout around here, or so I’ve heard.”
The young man nodded in turn. “I guess. It tastes awful, so there’s that. But it reminds me of Neverwinter’s mead.” His eyes lost focus for a second, and he smiled joylessly. “Puts hair on your chest, and other places too. At least that’s what the older boys tell the youngers.” He gulped a measure of it. “Nonsense of course, but I did drink it, nonetheless. Never thought I’d actually miss it.”
Charli lifted his own mug. He could feel the egg rolling through the bottom from the shifting weight in his hand. The heavy layer of foam, and the murky brown of the liquid made it all but impossible to see. “Can’t say I have ever tried that one. Was it common where you’re from?”
Alexis put down the glass and grabbed his chin. “Well it wasn’t exactly rare…Neverwinter is a few tendays away from Waterdeep, with a good mount. In summertime, they’d bring it by boatloads. I did the trip once, up to Luskan.” He grimaced. “I was sick all the way.”
The yuan-ti nodded in turn. He was not one for seasickness. In his time at Westgate, he had (among other things) spent some time on the floating docks, inspecting cargo of rivals. Of course, his role required this of him, with his daily tampering of records related to the boats chartered by the Extaminos family.
The conversation had continued for a while. Eventually, the topic turned to the leather-bound package that had brought Alexis to the tavern that evening.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, “you of all people could find it interesting.” He started to unwrap the coarse twine holding the parcel together. “Back at the college, they had a single copy of this one. Not the original, of course, but in good enough shape. One of the professors would quote from it often and, and…”
He had freed the content of the pouch at this point and his mouth hung open slightly, as he read the first words placed in front of him. The book was there, of course, behind a seemingly-ordinary letter.
Charli leaned back against his chair and drew long plumes of smokes from his pipe as he watched the other. The sentence was still unfinished, but Alexis’s focus was no longer on the conversation. His eyes darted left to right repeatedly over the parchment. A tender smile blossomed on his face as he read on. Then came the tears. Slowly at first, then a trickle. By the end, the young man was failing to hold sobs, his face torn between pain and happiness.
“Is…anything the matter?” Charli asked cautiously. He tried to think of something appropriate, but this was certainly an unexpected turn of events.
“I…” the voice teared up before he got a hold of himself. “I’m okay, thanks.” He put down the letter and carefully folded it back in the package, putting great care. “It’s from my…from Alexis’s parents.”
A second passed before he went on. “Oh, hum. They are well. They mostly wrote about their daily life, and about friends of the family…”
He paused again. “I just…I had not realized how much I missed them, until now. It’s not like I forgot about them, mind you. But seeing this…it just boiled over.” He wiped the rest of the sorrow from his face. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to drop this onto you. I guess I haven’t spoken to anyone about these things.”
He let out a deep sigh. “It’s fine, I think I should consider going back soon.”
It took another round to lift back their spirits, then they were on their way back to the order’s quarters.
Finric / Fang
Session Date: September 7th, 2020
ii. We Are Still Here
While the agents were grateful to return to the Order’s main compound in Lyrabar, where most of their resources (and personal belongings) were kept, the next few months of downtime were a bittersweet affair. Upon being promoted to the rank of “detective,” the agents learned that they were to lose one of their number: Gorodash “The Forthright” was being reassigned to “Bulette Squad,” whose specific mission was somewhat different than that of their own. While Pigeon Squad was more specialized towards infiltration and social adeptness, Bulette Squad was geared more towards combat. Whereas Pigeon might identify a hidden, growing threat in greater Faerûn, Bulette would be called in to dispatch the threat and ensure it never saw the light of day.
And it was no secret Gorodash shone best in combat.
Assuring themselves that they would certainly bump into Gorodash again in the future, even if just around the Shining Blade’s compound, the agents gave him a proper sending-off party at one of the finer local establishments. He would be neither truly gone nor forgotten.
The team gathered later in the same small room where they had first been introduced to Felkar. “It’s time to meet the newest member of Pigeon Squad!” their team leader declared proudly. He glanced at his notes. “A…goblin? Wait, that can’t be right – “
“A kobold, I’ll have you know,” came a sudden well-spoken voice from the doorway, “and a pox on anyone who says otherwise!”
Their newest compatriot was Berkin, a kobold hailing from the nearby Earthfast Mountains. The erudite reptilian seemed well at ease in social settings, deftly commandeering the conversation to deliver a brief personal résumé. This included both his skills at using the monster skull drum on his back, and his assumed distant lineage from some ancient dragon of lore.
iii. Within the Woods
The team again booked passage to the nation of Aglarond, this time on a vessel of storied history known as the Green Siren II. They had visited their destination, Veltalar, once before; though their overnight stay had not afforded much in the way of exploration. Now, however, they were free to peruse the city at their leisure and prepare for a mission much more at hand.
The agents learned “Rose Keep” had been situated three miles outside of town, in one of the forested hills just visible from the port. Mages often enjoyed privacy, particularly if they were trading in lesser-known wares, and these Red Wizards had been no exception.
The agents crafted a simple plan at their inn. They would approach the site at dawn, when any resident undead would likely be least active. They rose early on the morning of 7 Eleint and made their way out of town.
To get to the site, the agents first embarked on a long level road leading out of town along the coast. They then spent some time locating the dirt path that connected this road to the Keep, as it was now overgrown and nearly invisible from disuse.
Their efforts were rewarded, and they arrived at the site as the sun’s rays broke over the walls of the keep. A ringed courtyard outlined where the wizards would set and trade their wares, but the agents’ target was the house itself. It looked much as they had anticipated: a two-story structure squatted on the earth, its wooden walls and roof falling slowly but inexorably into disrepair.
What captured their attention, however, was a peculiar tower addition to the rear of the house: instead of being capped with a bell-tower or a loft, as one might expect, it terminated in a strange metal dome.
Alexis held out his arm to stop his friends’ progress. His eldritch sight had picked out a wide, weak enchantment circle ringing the house itself. He recognized it as from the school of Illusion. As he stepped across its border, he felt the hairs on his neck suddenly stand up in warning. The dark house seemed to loom before him, larger and more threatening than before. A fear tickled the back of his mind: whatever awaited within its depths was beyond the preparation of he and his friends.
Then he stepped back out. The feeling passed. “It’s a trick to keep away unwanted visitors,” Alexis deduced. He cast a more powerful version of Dispel Magic and watched as the rebuffing ring slowly melted and dissipated before him. “It seems whoever lives (or lived) in this house valued their privacy.”
Berkin used a Magic Hand to jiggle the front door to the house, from range. It was just as well he did; as soon as the unlocked handle turned, a sigil of ice sprung up over the wooden panels, instantly freezing the air within twenty feet of it. Leaves on nearby bushes turned white in its effect.
“It would appear you are correct,” agreed Berkin, referring to Alexis’s earlier observation. “We best be on our guard.”
Finding no other danger from the door itself, the party pushed it aside and went within. Outside, shattered grass blades slowly melted in the gathering sunlight.
The corridors inside were dimly-lit, thanks to shafts of light piercing through faltering wooden panels. Likely bolstered by residual arcane magic, the structure of the house could not ultimately avoid the ravages of time, and it had slowly settled into decay.
Alexis and Finric both lit torches to better see through the gloom. The spaces were dusty, and there were a few cobwebs along the corners, but there were no signs of violence or tragedy. It seemed as if whoever once inhabited this house had simply closed the door one morning on their way out, thirty-some odd years ago, and had never returned.
But that impression would not last for long. Hearing a slow, steady dripping noise in one of the adjacent coat rooms, Alexis entered to find a woman’s riding coat hanging in the corner. It was soaked with fresh water, as if worn outside on a rainy day; the morning, however, had been clear.
The shoulders of the coat were dry; the coat had already been hanging for an hour or so. Other than a mundane coral comb lying on a nearby cabinet, Alexis and the other found nothing else out of the ordinary.
Still, as they went to explore the rest of the house, the presence of the sopping garment gnawed at Alexis’s mind.
iv. Silent House
Charli discovered the dining room. An array of fine porcelain plates, silverware, and goblets had been set out, perfectly aligned with each other. The table seemingly anticipated arriving guests; only a thin film of dust caking the glassware indicated just how long they’d been waiting.
As he scrutinized the arrangement, however, Charli noticed a faint screeching noise. It sounded much like the sound a fork might make if it was dragged heavily across the face a plate. Or, he realized, not unlike the sound of a rising and hellish scream.
As the reverberation crescendoed, Charli dove under the table. Above him, class and plates shattered like tiny grenades, their pieces bouncing off the walls of the room. Had he not quickly sought shelter, the shrapnel might have been embedding itself in his skin.
The others hurried to the dining room as soon as they’d heard the commotion. They came upon what seemed the spent remains of a battlefield. Fortunately, their comrade was uninjured. Still, there was neither sign nor indication of what might have caused the deafening din, or the accompanying blasts of glass.
Rock’s quick eyes noticed one item left unscathed by the aftermath. On a corner end table stood a small, eight-inch-tall statuette of a satyr. Carved expertly from cherry wood, the figure had three lines engraved on the base, in Common:
The serpent’s bitter hate grows against Rivalyn,
As his blank face moves to sound the hunting horn.
Thus, the way to the wild is opened.
While the agents were mystified to the purpose of this inscription, Alston at least recognized the name mentioned. “Rivalyn” was a warrior of historical note, famed for his part in defeating the Mulhorandi invasion of Thay, three and a half millennia ago. While the reference to a Thayan legend was expected, considering the ownership of this house, it gave no clue to the verse that contained it.
Passing near the fireplace, Rock spied what she swore were human-shaped bones among the ashes on the stone. However, the forms quickly melted as soon as she touched them, leaving nothing but the rain-packed residue of a long-dead hearth.
Behind her, Alexis spied a brief spark of Illusion magic. However, its source remained hidden to him.
South of the dining room lay a parlor, where the previous owners might have occupied distinguished guests. There was a space for cards, a billiards table, and even a dry bar with a decent selection of imported liquors.
Noticing a box glowing with a magical aura in a far corner, Alexis stepped further in and beckoned Alston to join him. As another student of the arcane, the gnome chronurgist would be well-equipped to help him handle any dangers here.
However, as Alexis passed a wall-mounted mirror, he noticed his reflection’s movements lagging a moment behind, as if his double were reluctant to keep pace. He returned to the mirror and attempted to duplicate the phenomenon, but without success. Like the other non-magical phantasms of this house, it had passed without explanation.
Alston used his own Mage Hand to lift the small breadbox-sized metal container and carry it to the top of the billiards table. Charli, the most adept at opening locked or trapped containers, deftly undid the latch and popped the lid.
A nightmare rose to greet him. Instead of treasure, an inky black mass erupted from the container, oozing across his hands and traveling up his arms. Just like the monsters they had faced in the accursed temple to Juiblex, this foul abomination was here to finish the work Umeren had started!
Standing next to him, Alexis had seen none of this. Instead, when the top of the metal box had opened, he saw Charli freeze suddenly, his breath quicken, and his eyes go wide in terror. Simultaneously, a flash of Illusion magic had signaled the activation of a devious arcane trap.
The room swam around Charli, and he shook his dizzied senses. When he regained his focus, the ooze had disappeared, and the box was safe. Alexis’s calming hand was on his shoulder, having guided him back to the world of reality.
“Thanks,” nodded Charli in gratitude. He was resistant to many magical effects…but this did not make him entirely immune. It was always good to have a friend when in need.
The contents of the box were curious:
• 180 gold pieces, 110 electrum pieces
• 1 Enchanted blowgun needle
• 1 Chrysoprase stone
• 1 Jasper stone
• 2 Potions of Healing
• 1 Potion, unidentified
• 1 Scented knife that made cut food smell like oranges
• 1 Stone that exactly resembled an edible pastry, until someone looked closely
Some of these curios seemed like clever party tricks, which might have explained their residence in the parlor. Alston promised to identify the potion later, once they had a collection of items he could process with a single ritual.
v. The Shining
Finric peered through the keyhole of the door leading north from the dining room; it seemed this room was a study. Charli unlocked it; unusual, as this was the only locked door they’d encountered so far.
Alexis’s arcane vision uncovered a circular ring of Enchantment magic beneath the rug in the center of the floor. It was difficult to ascertain its purpose without activating it. It might have been a trap, or it might have been something as innocuous as a Zone of Truth to help during trade negotiations. After discussion, the agents decided simply to mark its position and bypass it.
Shadows sprung up around their feet, silhouettes created by an invisible light source. As they passed around the room, the dark spaces cast on the floor rotated with them, indicating a point on top of the nearest desk. Something there was emitting a brilliance they could not directly see.
Still at the far side of the room from his friends, Charli was able to appreciate the scene in full. This allowed him to note one extra shadow than the number of people in the room, between the desk and the northern window. Someone – or something – secretly shared the space with them.
As soon as they moved to interact with the ghost-like presence, however, it shifted and vanished. The party could not tell if it had left the room or simply found a new place to hide.
The source of the invisible light seemed to be a well-crafted snow globe set upon the desk; to Alexis’s eyes, it had been imbued with strong Abjuration magic. Inside rested a recreation of the very same house they explored now, though appearing much more pristine and well-kept in model form.
Around the thick base of the snow globe were words written in Common:
Under Selûne’s gaze and twinkling lights
The gates will yawn when the stars are right.
Below the sentence, set equidistant around the perimeter of the base, were three tiny keyholes. These locks required a key much smaller than a typical house key; for Charli, it brought to mind the keyholes one might find to wind a music box.
One of the desk drawers also glowed with magic. However, when Alexis went to pull it, a spark of dark necrotic energy leaped at his fingers. He managed to yank his hand backwards in just the nick of time, but his fingertips were left charred and singed.
Within the desk compartment were the following items:
• 34 platinum pieces, 120 gold pieces
• 1 Mummified goblin hand
• 1 Onyx stone
• 1 Potion, unidentified
• 1 Silver ewer
Along with these treasures, the agents found a ledger on the desk detailing recent transactions performed in the courtyard of the keep. Every other day or so, one of the Red Wizards would set up shop and trade, buy, or sell magical items to travelers who visited. Most of the items recorded were fairly mundane magical items – potions, rings, an enchanted cloak here and there.
Two details stuck out after a quick perusal. First, the wizards took special care to traffic only in fully-identified, “safe” items; one transaction listed a “Belt of Fiends,” along with a note questioning whether it was cursed, and that it had been removed from circulation.
Second, the agents saw that no entry existed after the date of 21 Ches, 1491 DR – a day thirty-two years in the past.
Following east from the study was a conservatory, again separated by a locked door. (In retrospect, it made sense for the wizards to protect a room central to their business.) Charli had a little more trouble undoing this particular lock, and Alston aided him with a Knock spell.
There was only the one entrance to the windowed area, but the plants within continued to thrive, despite the long absence of human attention.
Her interest in nature bubbling to the fore, Rock explored the abandoned habit. Some of the plants in a shallow pool were unlike any she’d seen before…they had large blood-red veins running through unfamiliar leaves, and they seemed to move on their own even in the still air.
As soon as she approached, a mottled green hand burst from the water. It latched onto her arm, threatening to drag her back under the water with it. Quickly springing to action, Finric and Fang rushed to her side, where the wolf tore away the clutching grasp of the other.
But all Fang spit back out were water lily stems, from plants that now seemed quite normal. It appeared Rock had somehow entangled herself in the roots that grew beneath the water…even though she had been a full five feet away.
vi. A Stir of Echoes
The agents would fully explore the first level before ascending the stairwell. On the far eastern side of the house, a library sat in silence under a vaulted ceiling. The morning sunlight filtered through the grimy windows of the second floor of the space, illuminating the tomes below.
The keep’s library housed a varied collection of books on both fictional and nonfictional subjects, such that might be found in an established library in a smaller city. While it was more diverse than a typical private collection, there was little out of the ordinary.
Little, that is, until the sound of impact drew their attention to a darker corner. A book had, seemingly on its own, fallen from tabletop. Across its cover were the words Constellations of the Faerûn Heavens.
Wedged within the pages of the book was a flat brass ring, the width of a large dinner plate. Eight symbols had been carved along its rim. Understanding that they represented constellations, Alston immediately went to work and matched each of the symbols with an entry in the book.
Studied as he was, the gnome chronurgist didn’t recognize any of the constellations listed on the ring. He also noted that the eight entries he’d used of the book had all been crossed through with a pencil. Why did this book reference heavenly arrangements that didn’t exist? And what was the purpose of this ring?
The library had a few more secrets to share. Alexis located a comprehensive encyclopedia on Thayan history and culture, something unlikely to be found elsewhere outside of Candlekeep (or Thay itself). Considering the heavy authoritarian nature of the Thayan government, Alexis wondered how many of its stories had been adjusted to suit state agendas.
Upon finding a magical scroll wedged in-between two books on the highest shelves, Alston took ten minutes to cast a ritual. He affirmed that the unidentified items the agents carried were:
The gnome rubbed his hands with glee. He was always on the search for new spells to add to his book, and Polymorph was a particularly-useful tool.
B. Ghosts on the Loose
Dale Reckoning: 1523 DR (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), sometime during the month of Eleasis.[Editor’s note: The following section was penned by Rock-in-Water’s player.]
Rock in Water spent a good amount of time thinking on the way back from the last mission. She mulled over the fights, her role in them, and how they may have gone differently. Part of it was her nature: she was a bit, well…not exactly flighty, but always changing. Adapting, perhaps, was a better way of putting it. Things around them were always changing, and decisions were based on the information one had at the time. Her work with the order was exposing her to new things, new ideas, new…everything. Change was inevitable. She rolled with it, like she always did.
When Rock got back to the order, she hastened to the library, pestered the scribes, and scavenged for supplies. Together with her teammates, she brewed healing potions, anti toxins, and potions of resistance.
And in a carefully shielded room, she began to experiment with a bit of alchemy. Exploding powder was the first thing. Vials to hold it. Different methods of dispersing it. Glass that shattered too easily, or bounced instead of breaking. Glass within glass, to mix reagents. Bags of thin skin to burst on impact. Capsules to dissolve, or bite, or melt.
Her appearance became a bit disheveled. Showing up to meals, she often sported a singed whisker or dust in her fur; and one day she sneezed for an entire hour, until she gave in and took one of her own decoctions for relief.
“I was curious what would happen if i made a dust of sneezing bomb,” she admitted, sheepishly. “It didn’t go off right away…or so I thought. I just didn’t see it until I breathed it. Kinda stealthy. I’ll either have to add…smoke or something. Or just make sure to throw it really far.”
She trailed off into her musing, stared at the particularly foul smelling brew in front of her (a failed decoction) and then scribbled some more notes, muttering to herself. “Initial attempt at luck potion failed, however stench could be useful for stink bomb if no further side effects noted…”
It left one to wonder who, exactly, was testing the side effects of said experiments. Those closest to her surreptitiously slipped away, leaving the tabaxi to her work.
By the time they were ready to set out for the haunted place, Rock-in-Water wasn’t sure how much she’d actually accomplished, overall, but she’d learned some new spells, prepared her team with as many protective potions and salves as they could carry (holy water, dust of sneezing, and, of course, a restorative, just in case), crafted various sundries and hopefully, learned the skills to use them. Across her chest she wore a specialized bandoleer, with vials, potions, and small bags carefully strapped to it. If she shifted, she’d able to drop the bandoleer and then step back into it (or let another don it, for the access to the potions). This meant, in a worst-case scenario, if she needed to fast-shift and get across a battle scene to help heal, restore, or protect a team mate, she’d be better equipped.
As they headed to Rose Keep in Veltalar, they could hear the tabaxi still rambling to her self, scribbling her ideas in a ratty, somewhat begrimed and singed notebook. “Smoke bomb? Fairy dust smoke bomb? Bomb of deafening? OOOH a glue bomb? Hmm will have to consider the dispersal method of that…ink bomb? False alarm bomb! Wait what good would that be? Fear response?”
She bit the quill, getting a bit of ink on the side of her muzzle as she trailed into silence.
Finric / Fang
ii. Down a Dark Hall
Content that they’d uncovered everything of interest in the library, the agents flung open the doors on the far side to reveal a hallway running along the east side of the building.
As Berkin moved down the hallway, the shadows grew long around him, and the light seemed to dim. The voices of his friends behind him grew dull and indistinct, and the far end of the hallway appeared to stretch away from him, instead of growing closer.
Alston’s now-magical vision confirmed that an illusory effect was masking the nature of the hallway ahead. Discerning that it was a spell not dissimilar to Hallucinatory Terrain, they asked Felkar for help in Dispelling it. It would do no good to walk blindly into an area with unseen dangers.
Once the hallway had returned to normal, and both its illumination and length were of satisfactory levels, Alston commanded his Unseen Servant to pace the length of the hall. Its safe return indicated there were no other obvious traps, and they proceeded.
At the end of the hallway sat an end table. On the end table rested a granite statuette of a raven, the same size as the satyr statuette discovered earlier. And along its base was engraved a new cryptic phrase:
Tears and whispers are offered up by the jester,
But red and green are the eyes of the watching woman.
Thus, the way to shadow is opened.
Sensing another key to the mystery, the agents pocketed it.
The final, unexplored room of the ground floor was the house kitchen. Across the various tables and surfaces were arranged an array of butcher’s knives. They seemed in need of cleaning, as they were unusually stained with blood for a house decades vacant.
Rock-in-Water was the first into the kitchen. As soon as she reached the center of the room, five such kitchen knives rose simultaneously into the air and struck at her. Though she was surprised by the sudden assault, she escaped major injury.
In response, Rock called forth the Arms of Hadar to protect herself, assailing everything that surrounded her. Unfortunately, the eldritch forms battered friend and foe alike; and Charli, Finric, and Fang found themselves deflecting the errant tentacles. (Luckily, only the Unseen Servant was unlucky enough to be destroyed by her spell.)
Berkin sprung into action, climbing onto the nearest kitchen table. First he winked at Rock, filling her with a sudden sense of confidence. Then, in an unexpected twist, he fell to his knees, wailing loudly and shivering in mock terror.
Two oddities immediately presented themselves. First, for being mindless, flying cutlery, the knives seemed remarkably distracted by Berkin’s fake groveling. They hung for a moment in confusion as the kobold pretended to cower.
Second, with his arcane vision still active, Alston could detect no trace of magic about the knives, or any existing effect animating them. Whatever caused them to fly about the room with deadly intent was something more complicated than a mere Animate Object spell.
Alston knocked one of the knives out of the air with a Fire Bolt, Charli sent another one clattering with a crossbow bolt, and Fang grabbed a third with its teeth and pulled it to the ground. Together the agents sent the knives crashing to the floor, whether they remained motionless.
When the party was certain that they were no longer in danger, they inspected the area. (As they did so, Rock grabbed the five knives and threw them into Felkar’s Bag of Holding for future study.) The party eventually found a loose floorboard, with a few stashed treasures – possibly from a resident chef or servant:
• 1 “Kourous-Min” – a statuette that had been enchanted to strike dramatic poses
• 1 Battleaxe
• 1 Carnelian stone
• 1 Carved bone statuette
• 1 Pair of knuckle-bone dice
• 1 Bag of Holding
• 120 gold pieces
The agents were delighted to find a second Bag of Holding, as they’d managed adventuring to this mission using only their backpacks. Recalling the warnings received back in university to never put one bag inside another, they let Berkin carry the second.
iii. Supernatural Activity
The search of the ground floor was complete; the next step was the second floor. A grand staircase connected the level; and, on the landing of this avenue, they enounctered three portraits. The images resembled a dwarf, an elderly human lady, and a human male, all dressed in Red Wizard’s robes. These were likely images of Dorim, Tharna, and Vanargen, the masters of the house, whose present fate was still unknown.
Alston’s fading magical vision noted an Illusion spell over the mouth of Tharna’s portrait, possibly a Magic Mouth. Indeed, as Rock approached, the portrait seemed to address her directly:
The house must be secured.
It was a message merely keyed to play on approach. Try as they might, the agents could only trigger it to replay its message, but not give up any new information.
That is, until an ethereal form burst from the portrait at Rock, its face contorted in hatred. As it plunged its arm into the tabaxi’s chest, Rock could feel her breath and energy pulled from her chest. She managed to pull away from the ghost’s withering touch, but its attack still left her in pain.
Behind her, Alston, Finric, and Fang again moved to help. The agents had known, preparing for this mission, that ghostly beings were difficult to injure without the use of magic, and they’d prepared special weapons for just this emergency. Alston blasted the specter with arcane spells and Finric’s beast tore at it with magically-imbued fangs.
Still, for the injury caused to it, the apparition seemed to take little notice. Sensing it was heavily outnumbered, the wispy form withdrew into the same portrait it had leaped from. The agents were unable to follow.
Berkin took this moment to showcase some of the skills for which the Order had hired him. First, he cast Cure Wounds on Rock, restoring much of her lost health. Then he explained his own direct connection to the dearly departed spirits around them.
As a bard who studied legends and myths of lore, particularly those not told in this lifetime, he had forged a more direct connection between those that had passed on, and those yet to. Calling out to those restless spirits who still roamed beyond the grave, he summoned any who would stand before him and assist him in his travels.
One such figure did appear – a ghostly undead apparition, a young woman (it seemed) who had not died peaceably. She seemed pleased to be able to influence the material world again, if only for a short time.
Though the spirit did not retain many of her mental faculties (having been separated for so long from a physical body and mind), she could follow simple instructions. Making good use of her ethereal form, Berkin directed her to scout ahead through the walls of the mansion and report back what she found in each upcoming room.
The party decided to explore the upper floor in counterclockwise fashion, beginning with the northwest corner. The spirit dipped through the nearest wall and returned, describing a large, empty bedroom. Finric peered into the space and noted possessions implying the residence of a dwarf; likely this had been Dorim Craigcatcher’s private quarters.
What particularly concerned the halfling was a visible brownish patch in the center of the room’s large blue rug, a stain resembling old blood. More worrying was the fact it seemed to gradually expand whenever Finric was not directly looking at it.
While he did not boast an ability as innate as Alexis’s or as easily conjured as Alston’s, Finric too had a limited skill to see magical auras. He noted that this growing dark patch also shone with Illusion magic, and he volunteered to stand guard while the others continued their sweep of the floor. Once they had a vague idea of the layout, then they could decide which space to explore more fully.
(Despite a unanimous vote for not doing so, Rock ignored her companions’ advice and tossed one of her new Blasting Powder grenades into the center of the illusion. The explosion disturbed the dust of the room, but little else.)
iv. The Unseen
The door directly south of them led into a slightly more lavishly decorated red bedroom. The agents gathered from the accoutrements that it likely belonged to the lady of the house, Tharna Shavres herself.
The agents immediately noticed that the sheets of the bed were lumped and wrinkled, as if an unmoving figure lay beneath them. However, no part of the creature was directly visible, being entirely covered by the rotted, moldy sheets.
However, when Berkin directed his friendly spirit to approach the bedside, the figure sagged, the sheets gradually flattening to the bed with a whispering sound. Nothing lay beneath them. Indeed, even the mattress was solid, and only empty space was visible beneath the bed.
Whatever had hidden within the bed had moved on.
While the party proceeded through the master bedroom, Charli moved along the outside of the space via the balcony. As he approached the wall of the southern hallway, he was surprised by a second apparition that burst from its surface.
Even as his breath was pulled from his body by the touch of the ghost, Charli noticed a deeply-unsettling fact: it was not the same specter that had assaulted Rock. Meaning there were at least two separate ghosts haunting this mansion, if not more.
Charli dodged backwards, firing a magical crossbow bolt through the ghost. Still, despite his dealing full damage to the specter, it continued to advance without flinching. Charli, on the other hand, gripped his chest in pain; he hadn’t evaded the withering touch as well as Rock had, and it hurt to breathe.
Overhearing the commotion, Finric directed his beast Fang to assist; Berkin the kobold followed.
Though Fang’s vicious bite was unable to pull the ghost prone, it still served to distract it. Sensing it was being quickly outnumbered, the ghost locked its gaze locked on Charli and floated towards him. As it did so, it sank slowly into the floor until it was no longer visible, like a swimmer disappearing beneath the ocean waves.
Berkin muttered angrily to himself, as his earlier Polymorph spell had failed to take hold. Then he remembered he’d brought a ghost of his own to the haunted mansion. Berkin directed his assistant to follow the assailant through the floor and report back on its actions.
However, the spirit quickly returned to state the ghost was jaunting back and forth between the Material Plane and the Ethereal Plane…that is, the world of ghosts that sat directly adjacent to the Material Plane. Transitioning between one plane and the other at will was, indeed, the most well-known ability of ghosts and apparitions. And, as luck would have it, the manner in which Berkin anchored the spirit as his aide left her unable to do the same.
As things stood, the ghosts could outmaneuver the agents on their home turf, striking and receding as was most advantageous.
Back within the red bedroom, Alston approaching the glowing nightstand near Tharna’s bed. His discerning eyes caught the telltale edges of a Glyph of Warding. Standing back, he used a Mage Hand to yank open the drawer, harmless dispelling the trap. Inside, they discovered:
• 1 Chalcedony
• 1 Cloth-of-gold vestments
• 1 Dagger
• 1 Unidentified Potion
• 1 Sea Conch
• 50 electrum pieces, 1300 copper pieces
Alston had made sure to refresh his Detect Magic via ritual every time it faded; this required a slower, more rigorous approach to room exploration, but the other agents were fine with it. As events had proven, it was a safer recourse than the alternative.
v. Behind the Wall
They were now at the southwestern corner of the house. As Berkin stood reflecting on what his spirit had reported, the door directly adjacent shuttered from an enormous impact. It sounded as if something heavy had thrown itself against the bottom of the door, shaking the frame itself with the violence.
At his direction, Berkin’s spirit scouted and returned, reporting no dangers inside. Indeed, when opened, the room was empty. Still, the bottom two feet of the door bore deep gouges on them, as if made by the claws of a large beast trapped within. But no such beast was visible.
While the room itself might have been a bedroom at one time, it had been repurposed into a small casting forge of sorts. There was a crucible instead of a fireplace, boxes with traces of ore dust, and a table holding tools and book-sized blocks. Specks of yellow metal along the insides of certain receptacles indicated the forger worked with some form of gold alloy. (As none of them were smiths or jewelers by trade, they could discern little beyond this.)
The blocks on the desk proved to be cast iron key molds. While the agents wondered if they were intended to directly forge the keys for the snow globe, a quick glance at the molds’ shapes proved otherwise. In fact, the outline they discovered was already one very familiar to them.
Before setting out on this mission, the agents had submitted an unusual request, one that was fortunately filled. They were permitted to retain the Key they’d found in the psychic landscape, where they’d battled their inner demons. The Order still possessed the Key from Umeren’s temple; and as long as they did, Pigeon Squad was allowed to hold onto its twin for field studies.
Withdrawing the golden occult Key from the pack in which Alexis kept it, they compared it to the shape in the iron. The two were a perfect match. Though the ruby “eye” of the Key would have to be added after the casting, it seemed the agents had uncovered the original birthplace of the cryptic Keys that had hounded them.
Along with the casts, which the agents pocketed, they also uncovered a parchment detailing the process of the occult Key’s creation. Though the notes were written in a cipher known only to the original smith, they could make out three distinct steps to its creation, of which the casting was only the first.
The room immediately adjacent seemed to have been once a servant’s quarters, or perhaps even a guest bedroom. However, it had fallen into a state of disrepair even before the general abandonment of the house.
Atop one of the rotten tables, a tiny iron birdcage sat. There was no door; and even if there had been, it was far too small to house any real bird.
The agents were somehow not surprised when a third cryptic engraving was discovered at its base:
The altar of sacrifice consumes the charred maiden;
Her soul’s path unknown, fleeing through the hole that leads to darkness.
Thus, the way to star’s deep is opened.
“Cheery,” Rock noted.
Finric / Fang
C. Forbidden Floor
i. This House Possessed
A quick reconnaissance by Berkin’s aiding spirit revealed the next room to be a bathroom, complete with a porcelain tub. Opening the door with Mage Hand, Berkin found the area to be unnaturally chilly. A cool mist hung in the air, and fog had shrouded the mirror.
Additionally, there was a bright stain around the inside of the porcelain tub, like the one left by soap. However, it was the wrong color; the ring had a noticeable reddish tinge to it – less like soap and more like dried blood.
As Berkin’s friendly spirit peered into the foggy mirror, she reported an unseen hand slowly drawing letters upon its surface:
GIVE BACK WHAT YOU STOLE
“Oh dear,” Berkin pondered out loud, “What exactly have we all grabbed?” He began a list to himself of things they’d pilfered from the house, beginning with the obvious snow globe and engraved statuettes, and running down the items they’d recovered from various end-tables and chests.
He ceased his contemplations when the bathtub began shifting towards him.
In the doorway, Finric could tell immediately that something was amiss. This was no ordinary trap or magical illusion; his senses confirmed that the animated porcelain was free of any arcane influence. The bathtub also did not seem alive or animated; its jerky movements suggested that it was being jostled by some outside force. A force that might attack them from any avenue.
He was not mistaken. The group was simultaneously assaulted from three directions. Rock was assailed from behind by the same ghost that had ambushed her from the mirror; though it missed, it quickly shifted to the ethereal before she could respond.
Charli felt a Chill Touch strike his back from behind him. The apparition he’d faced previously ducked back behind a far corner.
As the others reacted, a third ghost revealed itself in the bathroom. Gliding away from the distracting bathtub it had shaken, this new specter sank its spectral claws into Finric’s chest. It too withdrew before it could be attacked, plummeting directly through the floor to the first level.
The house was quiet…but the ghosts were certainly readying another attack. Charli quickly withdrew and read a Scroll of Protection from Undead (the only class of scroll that could be read by a non-magic user). The other agents gripped their weapons and readied their spells.
They did not have to wait long. The Slim Ghost that had first assaulted Rock suddenly unveiled itself beside Alexis, hanging in empty space on the other side of the balcony railing. Its touch reached deep into his chest, sucking out his breath and causing him to stumble. He responded with a Chill Touch of his own, only remembering after the fact that his spell dealt necrotic damage. This would do nothing against a foe already dead.
Nearby, the foe’s allies tried to take advantage of the disorder. Alexis’s stumble pulled him out of the way of the more Nimble Ghost’s reach, and the Burly Ghost who’d previously struck Finric found itself slowed by Charli’s protective aura.
Alexis’s friends reacted in unison, and there was a flurry of action. Charli and Finric fired off multiple bolts with their magical crossbows, and Rock and Alexis were luckier with twinned Eldritch Blasts. Though Berkin cast another Polymorph spell that failed to take hold, Alston could see the ghost had been rocked mightily by the onslaught. Ensuring his next attack would hit, he summoned forth Magic Missiles of pure force.
The gnome’s strikes were the last required, and the Slim Ghost dissipated in front of their eyes. As it faded, it turned and stared a penetrating stare directly at the short wizard. Alston couldn’t help but notice that its countenance was neither a gaze of terror or wrath, but one of supreme annoyance.
Alston recalled from his studies at the Order’s academy that ghosts were souls that could not pass on to be judged by Kelemvor. Some unfinished business on the Material Plane kept them anchored here. And until that business was concluded, their essences would be recalled, again and again, to the location of offense.
The only question would be how long it took the ghost to reconstitute itself…one day, one week, or even just an hour.
The party stood fast against a third attack that never came. The dissolution of one of their number seemed to give the remaining ghosts pause. Still, it was only a matter of time before they gathered again for a renewed assault.
Berkin’s hold on his aiding ghost was at its end; the girl faded back into obscurity, to seek her own justice. Perhaps she would discover it before Berkin called into the void again. Or perhaps she would find him once again.
It was certain the ghosts of the house would.
ii. The Roost
There were three rooms left on the level to explore…well, two, after a washroom they only glanced inside. The faucet was dripping a suspiciously-red liquid, and they decided to bypass it. As they progressed, Alexis maintained his concentration on his eldritch sight to detect arcane auras. He contemplated grimly that much of the more-dangerous phenomena in this house were not magical in origin.
The first room at the northeast end of the house had been dedicated to the study of astrology and, to a lesser extent, divination. A crystal ball and a mundane tarot card deck were arranged on a cloth-draped table. At the window, a telescope pointed out into the sky. Alexis peered into the eyepiece, but all that was visible now were clouds.
Hanging from a thread against the window was another brass ring, almost identical to the one they’d found in the library. Instead of constellations, this one was fitted with translucent gems of various colors. There was an amethyst, pearl, and obsidian pebble, among others. However, one of the sections seemed to be missing a stone entirely, while another held a ruby inside a ring of emerald.
Charli’s thoughts immediately returned to a phrase carved on one of the items they had: “Red and green are the eyes of the watching woman.”
A packrat as much as a cat, Rock began scooping any items of note into her bag. Along with the tarot card deck, she discovered a magical welding fork in one of the drawers. With a command word, it could heat itself hot enough to work softer metals. It was not a stretch to guess it had been used in the creation of the brass rings.
The final space on this floor was a third bedroom, and likely that of the final wizard, Vanargen. As Alexis entered, a shadow briefly moved against the window, like that made by a person walking swiftly past. Recalling that they were on the second level, he strode to the window and peered out, but there was nothing nearby that could have made the shadow.
A Mage Hand opened a nearby end table with an arcane glow; a magical trap triggered harmlessly. Inside, the group found a well-worn classical textbook of visible planets in the Faerûn sky. The binding of the book was broken, and many pages had been expanded upon by the wizard’s own handwriting:
Also in the room they discovered:
• 2 Banded agates
• 1 Bucket
• 1 Candle jar (with an ever-burning candle)
• 1 Unidentified Potion
• 1 Small mirror set in a painted wooden frame
• 15 electrum pieces
“Ah, a Potion of Climbing,” declared Charli, taking a closer look at the bottle’s three-tiered liquids. He had personally used these before, and he could recognize one without the need for an Identify spell.
There was only one section of the property left unexplored: the ladder to the mysterious metal dome structure that made up a third floor, at the rear of the house.
The agents did not anticipate what they discovered. The agents ascended into a celestial observatory, complete with a large optical telescope and an elaborate system of wheels and ball bearings by which to swivel the entire dome.
Three celestial orreries were also arranged through the space. Alston the gnome wizard, like Alexis, had spent much of his life in some form of tutelage or another. However, his particular fields of study had been somewhat different.
In his pursuit of chonurgy, he had delved more than once into the passage of the celestial spheres, as their movements were used to mark the passage of time. He passed among the mechanisms, comparing their construction to what he already knew.
The orrery representing the sky around Faerûn (or more accurately, about their world of “Toril“) was easy enough to recognize. He could quickly identify the moon Selûne that orbited their world, along with the planets known as the “Five Wanderers” and other visible bodies of note.
The remaining two orreries, however, were unknown to him. While one of the two held a sun at its center (exactly as Faerûn’s own orrery), the other placed the sun as its own satellite. Terms gathered from obscure tomes bubbled into his memory…”crystal spheres,” “phlogiston,” and even the names “Realmspace,” “Greyspace,” and “Krynnspace.” Without context, they had meant little at the time. They didn’t signify much more here, but at least the phrases were given context and arrangement.
Rather than transmitting the sky’s image into the eye of an observer, the telescope instead focused it onto a marble platform in the center of the room. Two circular grooves across the top of the table immediately captured the agents’ notice. They were the same width and dimensions as the two astrology plates they’ve found in the mansion.
The adventurers placed the brass rings into their waiting receptacles, where they highlighted a specific area of the sky above them. For the moment, all that were visible were sun and clouds.
The words from the snow globe echoed again in their minds: “The gates will yawn when the stars are right.” It seemed a gate was meant to open, and that it would only be possible at night.
After a quick vote, the agents decided to make camp directly in the observatory and wait for nightfall. As in the Underdark, they layered Leomund’s Tiny Hut underneath Mordenkainen’s Private Sanctum to prevent all intrusion both from the Material Plane and the Ethereal Plane, ensuring they were undisturbed.
As they rested, Charli and Alexis both felt the lasting pain from the ghosts’ attacks gradually diminish. Their magic was not yet powerful enough to cure the withering touches, but it was still nothing a good night’s rest couldn’t fix.
By eight o’clock, the sky was fully dark; and the stars were shining brightly on the surface of the marble table at the center of the observatory. Before they began applying themselves to the books and clues, Charli drew Alexis aside.
“Do you believe this course is wise? At this point, we’re dabbling in things we don’t fully understand. It’s a possibility whatever portal we’re trying to open here led to the deaths of the previous residents.”
“We’ve come as far as we can with what we know,” Alexis explained. “If we mean to tease the rest of the secrets from this house – including why the golden Keys were made – we’ll need to follow the path we were given.”
“I’m concerned that if we open a portal, and that if we pass through, we might not be able to return. I’d rather not become the next ghosts haunting this house.”
The team decided to leave one of their number outside the house proper, in case the gates could only be opened from one end. Felkar volunteered to do so.
Charli took a closer look at the words scrawled across the bottom of the birdcage. His knowledge of Thieves’ Cant, indispensable in his previous line of work, helped him notice patterns in the sentences. The text seemed to be emphasizing five distinct keywords:
The altar of sacrifice consumes the charred maiden;
Her soul’s path unknown, fleeing through the hole that leads to darkness.
Thus, the way to star’s deep is opened.
“‘Unknown’ is definitely refering to the star ‘Gibbeth,'” he pointed out, referencing the handwritten notes made in the star journal. From there, the code slowly began falling into place.
Alexis and Charli compared the key words with those appearing in Constellations of the Faerûn Heavens and Heavenly Bodies of Significant Note. It took a few minutes of work, as the ideas referenced were hidden in the text descriptions of each constellation and star, rather than in simply their titles.
Working together, the agents deduced the implied pattern. Read top-to-bottom, the five-part code could now be written as:
Jansreene’s Throne – Hadar – Cassima – Gibbeth – Mystra’s Star Circle
The constellations of the outer ring were already established, and the inner ring was easy enough to decipher: the sequence of scrawled “new heavenly bodies” began at the obsidian gem and ran counterclockwise. Additionally, since the symbols on the rings could not be rearranged, as soon as the agents had decoded the proper symbol on one side, they’d automatically deduced the correct symbol on the other side.
The only thing left to do was discover which constellation was “The Phoenix.” Upon a suggestion from Rock, the agents locked the two rings in place and then rotated the giant telescope on its foundation by hand. They lingered over each constellation in turn, until something happened.
And something did happen. The image focused on a set of stars that, if one squinted, was not unlike a bird launching itself into the air. As it did, the night sky shifted in color. Though the star map of Faerûn was still clearly displayed on the observatory table, the sky visible outside the cracked dome was a vista of swirling pinks and purples.
Along with the sudden change in atmosphere was a distinct feeling that each of the agents had abruptly moved from one place to another…despite never having taken a step.
iii. The House at the End of Time
While the interior of the observatory remained the same, the trapdoor on the floor led to the ruined remains of a forgotten stone tower. Around them hung fragments of rock – some as small as boulders, some as large as mountains. Across their surfaces were littered tiled pathways and broken brick walls; a structure once stood here, long long ago.
Alston stroked his chin in thought. He had heard of places such as this…small bubbles of reality closed off from the rest of the universe. Scholars called them “demiplanes.” Sometimes they sprang into existence spontaneously; other times they were sculpted by very powerful entities or groups.
Demiplanes also had a tendency to slowly break apart over time if untended, much like a sand castle against the waves of an eternal astral sea. And it seemed like this particular demiplane, wherever in creation it was, had not welcomed visitors in quite some time.
Making their way carefully along the crumbling tiled road, the agents paused in unison. There were voices arguing, very near by.
Deep voice: “Eat it!”
Earnest voice: “No!”
Deep voice: “Eat it!”
Earnest voice: “No! I don’t want to! Now shh!”
Not wishing to be ambushed, Rock-in-Water cast Pass Without Trace, a spell that would make them much harder to detect. With only a little bit of luck, they’d see whatever was on this plane before being seen.
Rounding a corner formed by a half-fallen brick wall, the party sighted a conspicuous wooden table and a book in suspiciously-good repair on its surface. As they eyed the pair, the table seemed to shift on its own, and the book’s paged ruffled in the still air.
Alexis used a Mage Hand to grasp the book and carry it towards him. As soon as his magical appendage lifted the tome from its resting place, the book began screaming in earnest terror. “It’s got me, it’s got me! Remember meee!”
As luck (or misfortune) would have it, both the table and the book were self-aware mimics, capable of thought and speech. They were amicable enough, though apparently famished; when Charli withdrew a rat from his Hat of Vermin and tossed it towards them, the two mimics halted mid-sentence and raced each other to gobble it first. (The table also asked if he was allowed to nibble on the agents’ legs, but he was informed the agents were still quite attached to them.)
They did not have any names for themselves. In fact, it seemed their entire creation had been happenstance: the book, the table, a blotter, and ink bottle with quill had all fallen into the “Well” together, coming back changed and sentient.
The ink bottle with quill and the blotter were not present. The book mimic warned that the blotter had “come back wrong” and that he was a “big jerk” now. The ink bottle, on the other hand, was obviously a friend he still pined for; the book described the ink bottle in glowing terms that were normally reserved for the shape of a woman’s body. But, alas, the ink bottle and quill were trapped on the far side of the monstrous blotter, much like a princess imprisoned by a dragon in a tower.
How long had the mimics been there? They had no idea; none of them were timepieces, and there was no way to count the passage of seasons. However, it had been quite some time since their home had seen a visitor, and that visitor had been a woman in red robes and white hair. She had brought an “offering” for the Well, which was spit back changed. The lady always left with the altered trinket. The book described a small golden trinket, and the agents immediately thought of the Keys.
The adventurers offered to retrieve the ink bottle and quill from the clutches of the blotter, to which the book responded favorably.
Before they went on, Rock asked to look inside the book mimic to see if anything was written there. The book mimic responded with shy embarrassment, as if it were a personal matter. Fortunately, the group had befriended the mimics, and they were allowed to review what appeared to be entries in a guestbook.
A lady by the name of “Dhenna Shavres” (in fact the mother of Rose Keep’s current occupant Tharna Shavres) had visited this demiplane on multiple occasions between 1422 and 1448 DR. She had dated each entry, adding a whimsical or flirtatious note with each that was directed at the book mimic itself. Many of the letter i’s were dotted with hearts.
(Interestingly, there were a few later entries, in a different hand. Tharna Shavres herself had also visited, between 1475 and 1476. Rock also noticed that both women had listed the present location as “Stardeep.” This called to mind the coded words that had led them there, which included a similar turn of phrase.)
The path to the Well was comprised of stepping stones of floating fragments of land. Fortunately, these stones were close that one could simply hop between them. At their journey’s terminus awaited a fractured citadel, where Alexis pointed out a strange entity at its center.
Too focused were Alexis and Charli on their destination that they did not play close attention to their footing. As soon as they were on the middle of a large boulder, the ground itself shifted and writhed, unhinging massive jaws.
The “blotter” was no longer an easily-handle desk instrument. It was a giant mammoth of a monster that moved to swallow them whole!