F. Silent Hill
i. Burnt Offerings
The agents crossed the bridge and progressed further into the ruins of the shadow-analogue mansion. In the western-most room, they found a collection of curious items. In the center of the floor was a closed wooden chest. At the two northern corners (and at a few other spots on the nearby hill), some form of shaman totems had been erected. And at the south wall, a desk and chair awaited.
The desk and chair drew the attention of the travelers first, for it was still in fine repair. As they showed no signs of rot or decay, it seemed very likely they’d been brought here from somewhere else, by someone else.
Alston took a few moments to study the setup before him. Built into the table was a small gemstone cutting and faceting rig, powered by a foot-driven treadle beneath. Next to the rig was a curious arrangement of clamps and vices, positioned over atop one another. Near the clamps were a hammer eye punch, such as a smith might use. It was decorated with a system of magical runes.
Alston initially considered if this was where the snow globe had been crafted, but he eventually discarded the notion. A glass ball required glassblowing tools, not jeweler’s. More likely this station had put the finishing touches on the rubies that adorned each of the golden keys.
While Alston examined the jeweler’s table, others turned to the totem altars at the north end of the room. Withered saplings were adorned with raven skulls, beads, and other bits and baubles. Atop one of these totemic altars, a raven sat quietly. It seemed to pay the newcomers no particular interest, but neither did it turn away.
Berkin used his Staff of Birdcalls to imitate a raven’s caw, but the bird seemed nonplussed. The kobold attempted Speak with Animals, and he was met with greater success. When questioned, the raven simply stated it was, “Watching; waiting.”
The agents drew closer. Beneath the raven, attached to the totem pole, was an iron plate. Directly above it, scrawled across a scrap of bark, were the following words:
Thoughts for a penny
And coin for a memory.
“It looks like we’re meant to trade something here with the raven,” Alexis hypothesized.
“Would you like some dice, full of memories of gambling and chance?” Rock asked.
The raven looked at Rock’s outstretched hand with one eye, then the other. Finally, it squawked and tapped the iron bowl beneath it with its beak.
“He says, ‘fair buy,'” Berkin reported.
Rock placed the two dice on the iron plate. The bird gripped both in its beak and took off towards the north. The group watched it as it departed.
Before it was even out of sight, however, a second raven was already winging in to their location. It perched atop the same altar and dropped its trade in the iron bowl.
Rock had received a small rose quartz in exchange. It was not particularly useful in and of itself, but it might fetch a fair price of perhaps 50 gold pieces from a competent jeweler.
Charli placed a single gold on the iron plate and stepped back. The raven snatched it up in its beak and too spirited away towards the distant hills.
Like before, another raven was winging in even before the first had disappeared. This time, however, it brought not a jewel, but a small silver-coated candle holder, as one might use to find their way through a dark mansion in the middle of the night.
Alexis asked Charli if he could borrow the candle holder, and the rogue obliged. The warlock placed his fingers around the rim of the candle holder. Closing his eyes, he opened his mind, trying to catch even the faintest wisp of psychic energy from the item.
There was none. And yet, as his fingertips traveled carefully along its surface, a story was still told.
Scratches and abrasions, gained from years of use.
A chip along one edge, as if dropped in surprise.
A faint spot of blood, perhaps used in a moment of passion.
There was a memory here, to be sure. This was an item rich with history and meaning, with a story to tell to anyone who’d listen.
“We should see if we can find out how this workshop is connected to Dhenna Shavres,” Berkin thought aloud. “And perhaps what happened in this workshop, and why it’s important.”
He described his thoughts to the raven, but the bird only cawed angrily and pecked the iron plate in front of it.
“You trade! You trade!”
“Looks like we need to give something to get something,” Berkin reported. A few test trials revealed the raven would only respond to an object of personal significance, or coin, not both.
While the agents considered their options, Rock-in-Water had been busy. Using torn sheets of leaf paper mixed with some Sovereign Glue she’d brought for the mission, she crafted crude papier-mâché. Then, borrowing the key mold they’d found in the house’s forge room, she pressed the papier-mâché until it was the right shape and size. Finally, she finished it off with the orangish carnelian stone they’d found under the floorboards of the kitchen.
When she’d finished, she’d made a crude but recognizable simulacrum of the golden keys.
When she placed the craft on the iron bowl, the raven stared at it for some time, first with one eye and then with the other. Finally, it took it up in its beak and soared into the sky.
As before, it was quickly replaced by another raven. This new fellow deposited a glinting silver key into the offering plate.
“Well,” said Berkin, picking up the third and final element needed to unlock the snow globe, “it looks like we’re getting somewhere.”
ii. Scared Stiff
But it seemed the adventurers were not the only entities lurking within the shadow ruins. Behind Alexis, and directly next to the chest that still sat unmolested in the center of the room, an unsettling malicious shape slid into visibility.
This Nimble Ghost that had twice plagued the group hissed a verbal challenge – the first any of the spectral fiends had spoken:
“Even death may die!”
And with that declaration, the ghost kicked the lid from the chest. The container was empty, save for a powerful trap that now triggered. The forty-foot room was instantly filled with noxious fumes. Standing near the raven totem, Charli felt the gas tingle as it played over his skin and nasal passages: he could still recognize the presence of a potent poison, despite his immunity.
His friends, on the other hand, had no such defense. Charli turned to see every single one of his compatriots succumbing to the potent chemicals, their muscles turning rigid from the neurotoxins.
Having triggered its ambush, the Nimble Ghost flew sixty feet straight up into the air. The ghosts had felt the brunt of the agents’ full force before; this time, they would use strategy to their advantage.
Nearby, its allies were already shifting from the Ethereal to the Shadowfell, readying spells to down their hapless victims. Though the feminine Slim Ghost still remained discorporated, Charli counted two new figures joining the spectral ranks. This meant he was effectively alone against four very capable foes.
Charli spun and leaped behind an adjacent stone wall, putting something solid between him and his assailants. He was severely outmatched, but he was not without courage, nor without tricks. Seizing his remaining Scroll of Protection From Undead from his pack, he read its contents out loud. A field of abjuration formed around him; he would certainly need such assistance.
As Charli was readying himself for the desperate fight, Alexis turned inwards. His limbs and joints were paralyzed; forming magic through somatic means was currently out of the question. Still, he’d been earlier able to evidence a spell through nothing but sheer force of will; might he not do the same again?
Alexis concentrated. As he did so, a spectral hand slowly appeared beside him. Despite the grimace on his face, he smiled, if only internally. At his command, the mage hand darted to where Rock-in-Water struggled against the poison, uncorked an Elixir of Health hanging visibly from her bandolier, and poured its contents down her nose.
The tabaxi’s muscles loosened in response.
Above, the four figures began raining hate and injury at distance. Making best use of their advantages, the Nimble, Burly, Wily, and Squat Ghosts hovered between sixty and ninety feet above the battlefield, launching Chill Touches at leisure. It was chillingly obvious the four were intelligent, malicious, and coordinated – far more so than expected of wandering wraiths.
Without any means to speak or signal while paralyzed, the stricken agents could only watch as Rock and Charli worked together to free their friends. Making use of her trademark tabaxi burst speed, Rock began skirting the battlefield, dragging the smaller kobold and gnome to where Alexis stood stonily.
As she did so, Charli pivoted and placed himself at the center of his friends. His protective aura was not extensive, but it was just large enough to cover himself and those adjacent.
Receiving the next benefits of an Elixir of Health, Alston chose the ghost nearest to him and spun an orb of dilated time about it; the Momentary Stasis would interrupt its actions, giving his comrades a much-needed edge.
That is, it would have, if the ghost had not simply ignored the effect. As Alston formed his attack, his target effortlessly shrugged it off. These foes were dangerous indeed.
As Charli cocked his crossbow and fired at his targets, he pondered a significant detail. Three of the ghosts had targeted separate, specific members of their troupe. The Nimble Ghost that had plagued him was even now making its third separate attempt on his life. Nearby, the Squat Ghost attacked Asura, while the Wily Ghost sought to end Alexis.
Interestingly, the Burly Ghost they’d met once before appeared confused. Though it assisted its allies in their attacks, its gaze darted among those present, as if searching for someone who was no longer present.
Horrifying pieces of logic began assembling themselves in Alexis’s mind. The Wily Ghost that tore apart at his frozen body did so with Chilling Touches all too eerily similar to his own. The Nimble Ghost feinted back and forth, not unlike the rogue it sought to end. Asura defended himself against a Squat Ghost also short of stature…and the Burly Ghost, too large to have sprung from any human, seemed hauntingly familiar. It was reminiscent of an orc they’d all travelled with, not too long ago.
But Charli’s protective aura held. Each of the ghosts exerted their will against the bastion and failed, like ocean waves against a cliff. It did not matter whether they tried to touch their targets directly or sling spells from a distance; the Scroll of Protection proved to be a significant challenge. They were at an impasse. And as Rock applied her last Elixir of Health to Berkin, the agents were quickly regaining lost ground.
Abandoning its futile attacks, the Nimble Ghost hissed again in Charli’s direction. “Give back what you stole,” it breathed, echoing words they’d seen scrawled across a foggy mirror.
The Wily Ghost pointed a claw at Alexis’s frozen chest. “Thief,” it accused. “Squatter. Bandit.”
The Burly Ghost gestured towards the agents as a whole. “Release what you took from us.”
Completing the chorus, the Squat Ghost voiced a threat and a warning to Asura. “You may run, but we will find you. We will take back what is rightfully ours.”
Then, as a group, the ghosts began fading away.
Still helpless from the toxin, Alexis refused to allow the ghosts to depart unanswered. A burning question had made its home in his mind, and he would have his answer – paralyzed or not. He hurriedly used his Mage Hand to down a Potion of Mind Reading and prepared for a Hail Mary gambit.
His powers of concentration becoming more adept with practice, Alexis silently willed a Dimension Door. He reappeared one hundred and fifty feet up in the air, directly over the Wily Ghost. As he fell towards it, he used what precious seconds he had to dip into the mind of his stalker.
The specter was taken by surprise by his sudden and unorthodox maneuver. As Alexis sailed past, he dipped into the mind of his assailant, searching for answers.
The two shared a brief yet interminable moment, face-to-face, eye-to-eye.
And then he was past.
iii. The Spirit is Willing
Fortunately, Berkin was a kobold of many talents, and he was able to heal Alexis back to the world of the living. But something in the warlock’s spirit still seemed broken, despite the Lesser Restoration Rock gave him.
“It’s us,” Alexis declared, standing to his feet. He was clearly favoring one leg. “They want our bodies. Because our bodies used to be theirs.”
The agents shared a deep and meaningful moment of realization.
Charli spoke. “The ‘real’ us perished in that temple below the Yuirwood – that is, you, me, Rock, Asura, and Gorodash. Us who stand here today are mere copies of those forms, created by Umeren’s evil acts.” He shook his head to himself. “I suppose if I died in a dungeon, and then saw an ooze wear my skin, and take my place in society…I suppose I’d be pretty mad about it too. Mad enough to haunt whatever stole my face.”
“Unfinished business,” Berkin nodded. Many of his abilities dealt directly with spirits who had good reason not to pass on to the next world; he understood the call, even if he had not experienced it himself. “But why are they here, right now? Why didn’t they assault you before…say, in the Underdark?”
“I think we’ve seen the answer ourselves,” Alexis pointed out. “I think Rose Keep was built on a weakened point in the structure of the universe. The house itself exists on multiple planes at once; it was probably much simpler for our…souls to cross over to the Material Plane here.”
“But they seemed to serve the lady of the house,” Rock interjected. “Remember when her ghost came out of her portrait, and attacked me?”
Alexis sighed, wondering how best to put his next few words. “That likely wasn’t Dhenna or Tharna Shavres,” he explained. “That likely was your soul. Just because it came out from the portrait doesn’t mean it was the soul of the person in the picture. And it did seem very intent on killing you, specifically.”
“That’s horrible!” Rock breathed. “I killed my own soul!”
“If it makes you feel any better,” Berkin encouraged, “a ghost with unfinished business can’t be truly killed. So cheer up! Your soul will be back around, sooner or later, to try to kill you once again!”
“I definitely want my own soul back,” Charli declared, with emphasis. “Umeren took it from me. Or took my body from me. In either case, I want to put both halves together again.”
Of course, the issue remained exactly how this might be accomplished. As the group considered together, their gazes returned the nearest totem and the raven waiting patiently atop.
“I wish for knowledge.” Alexis limped to the offering plate. “And there are still answers I seek.”
Having Berkin translate his request into raven speech for him, he wished for a ruby such as the one on his golden key. Then, knowing that in this place coin purchased mementos, and that mementos purchased coin (or items of value), he gave up his fish-shaped amulet.
“For what it’s worth,” said Alexis to the others, referring to the “magical” amulet, “I am sorry for the deceptions.”
Then he spoke to the raven. “This item tells a story of darkness, and water. Of lies and truth, of slavery and freedom, and of impossible evils sealed away forever.”
The raven accepted the trade, and its brother returning with just such a ruby. Small and flawed, it bared a striking resemblance to those set in each of the arcane keys. There was no eye, for it had not yet been “awakened”; but another piece of the puzzle settled satisfyingly into place.
Next, Alexis named a halfling he had last seen beneath ground of the Yuirwood – an unfortunate adventurer who had never made it back to the surface. Taking the gold piece offered, the raven departed for a memory of “Syldrey.”
Its sibling returned with a small brass globe in its talons, not even large enough to fill the palm of one’s hand. Designed for use without a base, it seemed meant for a child, to impart a first view of Toril.
Alexis couldn’t help but notice two facts. First, the globe was well-worn from extensive use. Second, all place names were written in the Halfling language.
With this gift, Alexis retired from the altar, and from his friends. He had much thinking to do, and much to process emotionally.
Rock was next to barter with the Shadowfell ravens. (Berkin again translated.) “Dear raven, I wish for but one of your feathers. In exchange, I give you this Insignia of Claws that has aided me, beneath and above the earth. It has kept me alive in situations that might have otherwise felled me.”
The raven seemed to nod in some form of understanding. It plucked one of the longer flight feathers from its wing and placed it in the bowl, before departing with the amulet. Rock retrieved it reverantly.
Charli was the final individual to bargain with the raven entity. Repressing a quiet, trembling fury, he spoke aloud in what was arguably a prayer – his first prayer ever, to be precise.
He prayed to whatever entity abided in this realm, whose responsibility it was to shepherd souls to their final destinations. He prayed for power to stop those who would trifle with people’s bodies and souls as if they were playthings. He prayed for supernatural aid in his mission to stop Umeren, along with anyone who took up the same mantle. And he promised to devote each and every one of his future memories to this new cause, a cause in the name of the Raven Queen.
With his invocation, he piled the iron bowl full of items with personal significance. Each was one he’d collected while he a member of the Shining Blade – memories formed with new friends in a new land. The raven peered back and forth among all that had been offered it, eventually settling on a brass mug with a jade inlay. This treasure had been collected from the Xorn’s hoard in the Underdark.
Charli thought he knew why the raven had chosen this particular memory. While it spoke of dangers faced and overcome with his new friends, it too spoke of new, heart-felt comradery in the taverns of Lyrabar, where he’d shared drinks with Alexis. It spoke of a turning point within Charli, when he’d learned to…what was that phrase the old hag had used again?
“Trust friends when the hunter the hunted becomes.“
Those words seemed as applicable now as ever. And as Charli stood quietly, caressing the flight feather that he too had been given, he pondered the path of the Raven Queen’s newest acolyte.
G. The Uninvited
The agents made sure to sweep the ruins for useful clues and items before they left the Shadowfell. They noted that the chest that spawned the poison trap was empty, save for the device itself. The ghosts had organized a deadly ambush together, apparently constructing and activating the device entirely on their own initiative.
As Charli took special note of the raven totems, in order to better reproduce one for his own purposes, Alexis studied diagrams spread across the jeweler’s desk. They seemed to illustrate a process for producing the gem fitted into the golden keys, before they were ultimately awoken via the Living Gate. Following the images drawn on them, he placed the flawed ruby he’d gained from the raven in the bottom vice, along with a gold monocle memento he procured via trade with the raven totems.
After a few moments of wrestling with the vices and the hammer eye punch, Alexis was able to make the gold monocle “disappear” in some fashion into the ruby gem. Faint shapes and colors moved within its depths, much like ripples of reflection seen at the bottom of a deep pool.
Alexis and Rock worked together. Combining a lantern, the “memory stone,” a magnifying glass, and a stone wall, they constructed a “projector” of sorts to bring the shapes within the stone into better focus. The result was similar to silent images captured on film: though it was blurred, the two discerned human-like forms moving in front of the field of view, periodically passing in front of what were perhaps sunlit windows. They felt they viewed the faded memories of an ancient individual, washed away by the passage of time.
Secretly, Alexis wondered if producing these “memory stones” somehow detracted from the soul they represented, or in some way prevented them from entering the afterlife. He was not well-versed in religion, and an Augury with his patron revealed nothing. He returned Syldrey’s brass globe to his pocket; he would not chance her eternal destination.
Rock also did some experimenting of her own, purchasing four tiny silver horseshoes from the ravens, trading the cat collar she used in Songhal’s circus for a flawed ruby, and then building a memory stone of her own. The images contained within showed a peaceful domicile, where the horseshoes had been hung over each doorway as a kind of luck charm. The memories seemed happy ones.
Having extracted from the shadow house as much information as they could, the agents retrieved the notes from the jeweler’s table and sought the observatory. Returning to the house on the Material Plane proved simple enough, as simply removing one of the brass astrology rings was enough to “reset” the entire device.
It was about three in the morning, and the agents located Felkar a little distance away from the house, sleeping near a tended fire in a sheltered alcove. He had held his Sending Stone close in case of emergencies, but luckily his team had never required it.
The adventurers filled him in on every astonishing detail that had happened after activating the observatory, including their jaunts to Stardeep, Sildëyuir, and Shadowfell. They reviewed what they’d learned of the entire process by which Living Keys were made:
- Trading fallen effects to the Star Elves for fey gold.
- Melting the fey gold into the proper shape via the mold.
- Purchasing flawed rubies and memories via the ravens in the Shadowfell.
- Combining the two to make a “memory stone” for the eye of the key.
- Inserting the memory stone into the golden key.
- Passing the finished product through the Living Gate to complete the Living Key.
They also wondered aloud what the ultimate purpose of the Living Keys might be. Was it simply a trade commodity? There was no doubt interested parties would pay good money for a key that could open any lock, even many magical ones. The agents themselves had even used one in a time of need, sealing away an eldritch abomination before it could be birthed into the world. The value of the Keys could not be understated.
Felkar was certainly surprised to hear the ghosts they’d encountered were their own detached souls, doomed to walk the planes until Umeren’s villainy could be right. They also discussed how crafty their counter-selves could be; most of the creepy effects in the house (such as the moving bathtub, the words on the mirror, the grasping plant vines, the scratches on the door, the dripping coat, among many others) were probably performed by the ghosts to unnerve the agents. And, in a way, the tactic had worked; the agents had been more paranoid, and had spent more resources and spells in response, weakening them before the final encounter.
There seemed to be only one loose thread left to tie up: the mysterious snow globe they’d found in the study, and the three silver keys gathered to unlock it. Worn out after their visits to three different planes, the agents rested together with Felkar, deciding to tackle the snow globe in the morning.
As they rested under magical protection, Rock cradled the gift that the raven had granted her. She sensed a silent yet strong connection with the feather, much like (she suspected) the connection a cleric might feel with their divine focus. She felt that if she spoke while the feather was in her possession, the Raven Queen would listen.
ii. Satan War
The agents decided to open the snow globe in the entryway of the house. Once they were situated, Charli inserted the three recovered silver keys into their receptacles in the base. As the third and last was turned, a crack exploded along the perfect surface of the glass. The sphere dropped from the base and shattered on the floor, the miniature house spilling onto the dusty tiles.
But a fundamental transmutation had already begun within its contents. The tiny humanoid figures hidden within the toy structure were rapidly enlarging. The agents stepped back as three Red Wizards took their place beside them in the room, apparently frozen in the middle of completing three different actions.
But theirs was not the only beings that had been preserved within the snow globe. A fourth and much larger shape soon rose into being – a fiend of prodigious size, wielding club and claw. The wizards seemed fixed within combat against it, defending themselves against a fearsome foe.
The muscles on the four newcomers twitched; an eye blinked. A battle that had been frozen in time for thirty years was about to be rejoined. With the agents as new participants!
The lady wizard yelled out the name “Kalarel!” in anger and disbelief as her wizard friends moved to act. The dwarf (likely Dorim) finished a serious of hand motions he’d begun decades before. He halted in astonishment when nothing happened. “My spells!” he growled. “They’re gone! They’re all gone!”
In his surprise, he didn’t see the incoming club until it was too late. The impact threw him against the wall behind him, where he slumped to a dazed and bleeding wreck. He would not survive another such blow. The human wizard (also likely Vanargen) put himself bravely between his friend and the monster, but he too seemed shaken.
Charli thanked his newfound deity as he retrieved his last two Scrolls of Protection. Knowing the Red Wizards had a reputation for the use of devils and demons, he’d prepared two scrolls against Undead and two against Fiends. It seemed they would be indispensable after all, though perhaps not in the manner he anticipated.
Using one to create a ward of protection about himself, he turned to the adjacent lady Red Wizard, who had just now noticed his presence with surprise. “Take this,” he said, offering her his other scroll of protection. “We are friends, here to aid you.”
The lady nodded and used the scroll to fabricate her own ward, before running to encompass her injured friends in its field. Something was preventing the Red Wizards from casting their own spells, but the scroll might give them just the edge they needed.
The massive fiend loomed above the agents; Alexis and Alston gulped in unease. Sensing their distress, the monster pointed its giant talon at Alston and began muttering arcane syllables. Alston felt his mind twist in madness, and an inexplicable fury began descending on his brain. Acting quickly, the gnome countered the attempt with his own permutations of the Weave.
The fiend was still physically powerful, and Alexis interposed himself between the monster and the helpless wizards. He dodged both club and claw attacks, while his friends used their ranged attacks and spells to assault the monster from range.
The fiend was not without its own tricks, however. As Alston expertly positioned a Sickening Radiance to encompass the beast, it used its fifteen-foot-tall mass to climb up the outside of the grand staircase and position itself on the second floor. However, each of its spell attempts failed to land, as Alston continued to counter Confusions and other Crown of Madness attempts.
Eventually, its back was against to the wall. Rather than approach the stairwell, where the foe could potentially counterattack, Alexis held out his arm. As soon as Charli grasped it, he read from a scroll of Dimension Door, vaulting he and his friend to the balcony directly overhead. From there, Charli was able to expertly place the final shot – an explosive arrow that detonated directly in the beast’s throat.
The creature collapsed, its form bubbling, melting, and smoking. Not a resident of the Prime Material Plane, its essence was returning to whatever foul dimension had birthed it. Still, it was gone, and it would not return without help.
iii. A Place of One’s Own
Now that the battle was over, the lady wizard stepped to the center of the hall and surveyed her newfound allies. Her eyes turned to the state of the house she once lived in, along with the thin piles of dust and slowly-degrading furniture.
“How long has it been?” she asked finally, in a soft voice.
“The year is currently 1523 DR,” Alexis answered. He chose his words carefully, so as not to say too much too early. “We were sent here to investigate the strange abandonment of Rose Keep to learn the possible fate of its residents. Our travels eventually led us to the snow globe, and the keys to unlock it.”
“1523,” growled the dwarf beside the lady. “That bastard left us to rot in there for over thirty years!”
“That might also explain why our spells are no longer prepared,” the lady commented.
“We are agents of Torm’s Order of the Shining Blade,” Alexis finished, introducing each of his friends in turn. “And you are, I gather, Lady Tharna Shavres?”
“Lady Shavres I am,” replied the other, “but Tharna was my mother. I am Salma Shavres. Come; we should find a place more suitable for conversation. I’m sure there is much you would ask of us, and just as much we would ask of you.”
Following the lady’s suggestion, the troupe retired to the dining room for conversation. Over the course of the next hour, Salma Shavres laid out the history of Rose Keep, beginning with her grandmother Dhenna Shavres, and explained to the agents the connections among her family, the family business, the Living Keys, and the cause of their recent imprisonment:
The Events of the Previous 149 Years, as Retold by Salma Shavres:
In 1374 DR, Rose Keep is established by the Red Wizards of Thay in Veltalar, Aglarond. One of its ruling wizards, Dhenna, gives birth to a daughter, Tharna. However, the very next year Szass Tam recalls all Red Wizards to Thay for aid in the War of the Zulkirs, the lich’s bid for power. An outstanding warrant is placed on all those who did not comply, including all their descendants. One of the four wizards of Rose Keep leaves to pledge himself to Szass Tam; two others depart to pursue their own interests. Rose Keep teeters on the brink of failure, as Dhenna struggles to manage both the compound and a newborn daughter.
In 1420 DR, Dhenna Shavres is approached by a mysterious stranger. He walks with an odd gait, leaving puddles of fresh seawater in every step. He seeks the creation of a set of “keys” – artifacts crafted to specific designs. The stranger believes Dhenna capable of such a feat, due to her skill and fortuitous placement in the Yuirwood. He is willing to pay richly in gold, magical artifacts, or underworld contacts. Having long struggled to support herself, her daughter, and the Keep on her own, Dhenna finds it difficult to refuse.
Dhenna uses the following year to decipher the mysteries of the menhir stones left by the Star Elves, eventually utilizing them to travel to Sildëyuir, Stardeep, and Shadowfell. Perhaps ashamed by her decision, Dhenna hides the questionable details of her arrangement with the mysterious stranger from anyone else, including her own daughter.
In 1422 DR, the first “Living Key” is awakened. (It eventually ends up in the hands of a devilish cultist at Coventry, in the Earthfast Mountains, where it is not seen again for one hundred years.)
Kalarel Shavres, son to Tharna and grandson to Dhenna, is born in 1429 DR. During his time at Rose Keep, Kalarel makes a name for himself as a layabout and a ne’er-do-well, contributing little to the business besides dealing in cursed items, and requesting multiple personal loans.
The last iteration of the 27 “Living Keys,” commissioned intermittently over 27 years, is completed in 1448 DR. The next year, Tharna Shavres becomes head of Rose Keep upon the death of her mother. Now 75 years old, Tharna finally has full access to all of her mother’s diaries, journals, and records involving the commissioned artifacts. What she learns frightens her, but Dhenna had wisely taken the secret of using the menhir portals themselves to her grave.
Not long after this, Tharna becomes completely fed up with her only son’s prodigal ways. While her mother Dhenna, the anchor of their family for decades, had constantly implored mercy, her opinion was no longer a factor. Tharna expels Kalarel from Rose Keep until such time his personal life is in order.[2,3]
In 1474 DR, Tharna Shavres adds two companions to help her govern Rose Keep: Dorim Craigcatcher (a dwarf) and Vanargen the astronomer (a human male). She is now 100 years of age and knows she does not have much time remaining. She seeks out an heir, and she secretly chooses an eight-year-old girl in the nearby city of Veltalar named Salma.
Upon Tharna’s insistence, her new compatriot Vanargen immediately sets to work constructing an arcane observatory as an addition to the house. Thanks to his mystic connection with the wandering stars, Vanargen’s completed device can bridge the gap between contiguous planes.
Between 1475 and 1476 DR, Tharna uses this device to visit the three planes of Sildëyuir, Stardeep, and Shadowfell. Realizing the implicit dangers of extraplanar excursions by ghosts, nilshai, or perhaps even monstrosities from the Far Realm, she and her coworkers install a “Safe Room Protocol.” That is, if the Keep were ever threatened by a sufficiently-powerful extraplanar entity, a contingent Imprisonment spell would activate, shunting all creatures within the Keep into a sort of panic room. There they would be indefinitely suspended, until one of their own on the outside could re-secure the area.
In 1477 DR, an adventurer by the name of “Garlyn” stops by the Keep, with a referral from the Zhentarim. He and his band plan to investigate a new temple structure deep in the Yuirwood. Tharna is happy to gift him the last of the Living Keys still on her property, wishing to never handle one again.
In 1484 DR, Salma succeeds her mother as the main shareholder of Rose Keep, on her eighteenth birthday. Tharna lives until the next year, when she dies at the ripe old age of 111.
Kalarel Shavres, Salma’s adoptive brother, does not immediately learn of the fate of his mother. When he returns to Rose Keep to claim his inheritance, he is outraged to learn that it was given away to an adopted woman, little older than a girl. He swears vengeance.
These threats come true on the night of 21 Ches, 1491 DR. Having begged, borrowed, or stolen a dangerous artifact, Kalarel uses his knowledge of the Keep to ascertain when all three Red Wizards would be together on the same night. Then he loosens a powerful demonic entity inside the house, a Sire of Insanity. The contingent Imprisonment spell triggers as planned, and all three wizards (and the demon) are pulled into the timeless safe room. Kalarel is left with free reign of the grounds, to pilfer and plunder as he pleases.
“And this Kalarel just…left you there?” Charli finished, aghast. “For over thirty years?”
“It would seem so,” Salma replied grimly, her hand gesturing to the state of the house about them. “I’m sure that before he left, he made off with every magical item of significant value he could get his hands on. He also knew of our storerooms beneath the house, accessible only by magic, and he probably looted those empty and then pulled down the rafters when he left. He’s had a good thirty years to find his fortune – or his fate – in the world beyond, and it seems he hasn’t missed us in all that time.”
Vanargen, the thoughtful architect of the observatory, spoke his first words. “Of course, it’s possible he expected us to find our way out eventually…or that one of our contacts would eventually happen by to free us.”
The human male sat, lost in thought – so long, in fact, that the others were about to move on. “But I suspect that as years dragged on without any new word of our escape, he became even less and less inclined to right the wrong himself. Better to let bygones be bygones; after all, were we not still ‘safe’ in our prison?”
“I’d like to summon a demon of my own,” grumbled Dorim the dwarf. “Right up his ass!”
“Do you have any idea who this mysterious stranger might have been that called on your grandmother?” Alexis asked.
“My grandmother never came out and said it in her journals, but she had her suspicions. As did her daughter, and me. After all, there is one creature in particular known for making their home at the bottom of the sea, and for using thralls (commandeered or beguiled) to carry out their business on the surface world.”
Alexis waited for her to complete her thought. He felt he already knew what she would say.
“Aboleths,” Salma finished.
The agents did not know much of the aboleths, their existence and origins clouded in mystery, but they knew this ancient species was rumored to predate most – if not all – other races currently living in their world. Though they were silent and slumbering for centuries, the Spellplague had seemed to have an enlivening effect on the surreptitious race, awakening at least one of their long-buried cities.
“Twenty-seven keys,” Alexis noted. “That’s an…oddly specific number.”
“From what we know of abolethic culture, the number three appears to hold a deep cultural or religious import to them. Perhaps it’s derived from their number of eyes. But it might explain why they ordered keys numbering three-times-three-times-three-again. It implies whatever they plan to do with these keys, it must hold a deep significance.
“Now we certainly owe the lot of you a debt of gratitude,” continued Salma. “Without you, the three of us might have been sealed away for generations. I apologize that we are not able to offer better hospitality or reward; we will need to take inventory of what little is left in our stores, make connections again with merchants and traders, restock on magical artifacts and wares…” She grew silent as she tallied the growing list of tasks in her mind.
Charli leaned in towards his friends to whisper. “Do you think we should, perhaps, return the items we appropriated from the house? It might help them get back on their feet.” The others nodded in agreement.
“There is one more matter we should discuss,” Charli said more openly. “While you set your Keep back to rights, you may come across some…ghosts. From what we’ve seen, they don’t seem hostile to anyone but us agents, specifically. We would greatly appreciate it if you were not to destroy them.”
“Ghosts?” Salma repeated incredulously. “The border here with the Shadowfell is thinner, true, but ghosts have no reason to cross over. The only way there’d be ghosts in this house is if…you brought them here somehow.”
Charli explained that several of their own had become “dispossessed” of a part of their beings, due to recent events. He made sure not to go into too much detail of precisely why they’d lost their souls; he knew from his time spent in Westgate that information was a valuable commodity, and a wise person never gave it away for free.
“Your situation certainly sounds unique,” Salma noted. “I don’t believe there’s any precedent recorded for what you’re describing now. Now I might at first suggest you seek out a cleric – particularly one of a god that works with matters of the grave, a psychopomp such as Kelemvor. They would certainly understand more than I, as I am a wizard that studies the Weave, not the passage of souls.
“However, upon reflection, I’d probably advise against. Gods are ultimately concerned with the uninterrupted passage of souls into their domains, from which they ultimately derive their power. If you really want someone versed in the connection between soul and body, and the different means by which someone can slow or even prevent a soul’s passage to the afterlife-“
“Necromancer!” Rock-in-Water interjected.
Salma nodded in response. “Exactly. Necromancers have a poor public image, due to the many cults that have sprung up around them over the years; but even the most powerful Resurrection spells are necromantic in nature. If you want someone intimately versed in the connection between soul and body, along with how to work that to your advantage and not that of a distant and indifferent deity, a necromancer is the one for you.”
Rock gave a small smile. The agents had already made the acquaintance of one powerful necromancer, back at Songhal. Perhaps they could call on the city once again.
“I can look more into spells and devices that can help you, from our end,” Salma continued. “Soul cages and magic jars come to mind, although again they are from the school of necromancy, a field none of us here are proficient in. Repurposing them to suit your specific needs would take a talented hand.”
The agents spent the remainder of the day with the rescued Red Wizards, assisting in them in their inventory of the house and restoring the Keep to living conditions.
Charli additionally offered his services in helping Rose Keep recover its economic footing. He still maintained contacts with the Zhentarim and the seedier underbelly of Westgate, not too far way across the Sea of Fallen Stars; and he was certain he could pull some strings to get these Red Wizards back up on their feet.
When the agents departed Veltalar the next morning, bound for more familiar Impiltur lands, they promised Salma, Dorim, and Vanargen that they would soon return. They had learned much (and accomplished much) in their short stay, but there were still many things to be accomplished here, at the border between the planes.