5.1. Of Flesh and Favors

5.1. Of Flesh and Favors

Session Date: February 10th, 2020
Dale Reckoning: 1523 (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), 22 Hammer (22nd of Deepwinter)

A. Signs and Portents

i. Further Introductions: Grigori, Felkar, Shudder

The next day, as the party prepared their carriage, they received some news about potential tutors for Julia. With Gorodash’s encouragement, the group decided to hire the most expensive one available (at 120 gp a month), one usually employed by aristocrats. Though they would need to set aside a certain amount each month, Julia will gain an education on many classical subjects, including careful penmanship, oration, art and poetry, multi-special histories, and multiple languages.

The group then made east for New Sarshel at a leisurely pace, arriving on the morning of the sixth day. They rested in established inns along the way, including those at Hlammach, Red Bluffs, and Dilpur (and two other, smaller way stations). As they traveled, they continued to introduce themselves.

The way is lit. The path is clear. We require only the strength to follow it.

Grigori addressed the others while they viewed the countryside from their carriage. “I’m a dwarf. So as you would rightly suspect, I was born in and raised in a mountain.”

“Which mountain?” wondered Felkar.

“A mountain,” Grigori repeated, implying its name was an inconsequential detail. “But that’s only where I came from. I didn’t stay; I felt the urge to stretch my legs, and I left for the road at the tender age of fifty. I joined a small traveling caravan of many misfit sorts, of many different species, and we toured the world. The other wagon-goers were happy enough to have me, since I contributed as a chef.

“I visited many interesting sites and cities, and I learned how to use many different and unique spices in our travels. I also had a budding enthusiasm in the arcane, and these two interests dovetailed nicely. After all, when one is crafting a soup, the more experience one has, the more ingredients that are available, and the more nuanced the flavors, the better the end result will be. It is the same with magic.

“Sadly, in the end I outgrew my place in the caravan. I wanted to advance my understanding of the arcane, and there was only so much that can be done while stuck on the road, pegged a foreigner and a vagabond. So I bid my friends a fond farewell at eighty years of age, during my prime years. Eventually I applied here, to the Order. I feel I’ll be able to grow and better myself here the most.”

Felkar nodded when Grigori had finished. “Thank you for sharing. I suppose now would be as good of a time, as any, to speak of my own past. After all, I’ll be your team leader for the foreseeable future, and it’s only fair you know a little about me.

“I come from the city of Selgaunt, a self-professed center of culture in the nation of Sembia (along the northwestern shores of the Sea of Fallen Stars). Selgaunt is an excellent city for the arts: there are operas, stage plays, museums, and art shows in abundance there. I earned my living there as a stage magician, entertaining and delighting crowds of all ages (but generally those of affluence). It was most rewarding work, though I made sure my audiences were always aware that all my stage tricks were just that–pure performance, and nothing more.

“The same could not be said of all my peers, sadly. There were those who would arrange more private showings for rich clientele–seances, divinations, and the like. Now far be it from me to suggest such things are not possible; clerics can converse face-to-face with deities, and Oghma is one such who can contact departed family directly. But these magicians?” Here Felkar curled his lip in undisguised distaste. “Pure charlatans. I knew my own craft, and I could see right through theirs. They were tapping into their clientele’s deepest unspoken hopes, to promise things they couldn’t deliver, to ultimately gain access to their cheque-books.

“In the end, I could not stand idly by, a silent accomplice to their actions. (There was, too, a lady involved–but then again, isn’t there always?) In the end, I packed my bags and left, a few bridges burned in my wake. My road, luckily, led straight here, where I could do the most good with the skills I have.

“I still enjoy illusion. I still ply my craft when convenient, and I enjoy entertaining those around me. But at the end of my show, I want there to be both a little more wonder in the world, and a little more cleverness, in actors and audience alike. The only thing more awe-inspiring than mystery, to me, is the truth itself.

“And I refuse to suffer those who use ignorance to further their own gains.”

Shudder rounded out the introductions for that day. She had always been a bit soft-spoken and withdrawn, and this was the most the others had heard from her in one sitting.

“My earliest memories are of being a slave to the drow, in the Underdark. Cleaning out chamberpots, running errands to the market–the things you’d expect a small slave child to do. I was always a little unusual–I mean, you’ve seen my skin–but I didn’t realize how unusual until I began my adolescence. I was able to use my budding mental abilities to escape the drow, when I was perhaps fifteen. Following the tunnels blindly, I eventually made my way to the surface. I came out in the Gray Forest, just west of Lyrabar. There I spent the next fifteen or so years there, living on my own, hunting and trapping, and generally staying away from civilization.

Eventually, loneliness and curiosity got the better of me, and I met Gorodash, Rock-in-Water, Asura, and Grigori near Bayn o’Boon, during the harvest festival. After we’d felled the ghostly witch, we each received an invitation to apply to the Order, and, well…it really hit home for me. Maybe, finally, I could start to discover a bit about myself–who I am, where I really came from, and what makes me different.”

ii. Enter the Lair

Dale Reckoning: 28 Hammer (28th of Deepwinter)

It was around ten in the morning on the sixth day that the party reached their destination of New Sarshel. While Felkar busied himself with the task of finding an inn and stabling their carriage, the others meandered down to the bay. They had a vague map from the Order explaining how to find the hag; but if they were reading it correctly, the path would take them through an area of the wharf best described as flotsam.

When the Spellplague arrived in 1385 DR (over one hundred years prior), the Sea of Fallen Stars had retracted, drawing away the water that had kept Impiltur’s port cities prosperous and vibrant. Only Sarshel, the entrance port for Impiltur’s Uplands, had sidestepped the brunt of the calamity–its steep underwater cliffs meant the water only receded downwards, not away. It was a comparatively simple thing to extend the city’s docks vertically, and traffic had resumed unabated. This fortune cemented “New Sarshel” as the de facto commerical capital of all of Impiltur, even after the Sea’s waters had returned in 1486.

There were still, of course, plenty of submerged and abandoned wharf structures, left over from the time of the Spellplague, for thrill-seeking divers. But, then again, so too were there dangerous sea creatures that had claimed them for their new homes.

It was easy enough for Grigori to find a dockhand, waiting on the wharf for the next ship to dock. Having no reason to distrust the dwarf, the dockhand told him what he knew of the area.

“Aye, there be plenty of dangerous beasts beneath these waters, you can be sure. Luckily, they keep to themselves, and we to ourselves. If you don’t go looking for trouble, you won’t find none.

“But that flotsam over there, where the city sewers empty out? That’s dangerous territory. Even if you don’t break your leg clambering in and out of that mess, those sewers are a ripe kind of place for a monster or two to make their berth. Now, I don’t know anything about this ‘hag’ you folks mention, but it wouldn’t exactly be out of place. You’d best keep your wits about you, if you’re going in that mess.”

The group carefully edged along the edge of the wharf towards the flotsam. There was more than simply excrement and dish water here–nearly all of the city sewers appeared to merge into this exit. The party picked their way around piles of bottles, sullied rags, and garbage.

It was difficult to match their directions to the sullied terrain of the sewers, but they were able to narrow their destination down to a vague area. Here, the waters split around an island of slimy stones and refuse.

As they explored the area, Grigori noticed a large pile of bones on the platform in the middle of the waters–a prone skeleton that was too undisturbed by rats to be mere happenstance. He explained his misgivings to the group, and they readied a plan to engage it.

With Grigori and Shudder supporting from range, Gorodash charged across the wet bridge to the large skeleton. Just as Grigori had suspected, it was a minotaur skeleton, still clad in tattered armor, its hand limply resting on a greataxe. Before the undead creature could react, however, Gorodash flexed his large orcish muscles and pushed his foe into the sewer water.

Two additional surprises were readily apparently. First, a long tentacle burst from the brown sewer water near the paladin’s feet, narrowly missing him as he ran by. Second, a curious “buck-ah?” rang through the sewers; a chicken-like head poked around the corner nearest Gorodash, alerted by the sudden noise.

“A…cockatrice?” Grigori wondered aloud. “That seems…out of place.”

The cockatrice was not interested in debating its existence, and Shudder sent forth a massive wave of lethargy. While it only successfully settled on the cockatrice, it would still be instrumental in protecting Gorodash’s exposed flank. The orc easily sidestepped each of the creature’s slow pecks at his shins.

The skeletal minotaur, on the other hand, was a different matter. Rising from the putrid sewer water, the minotaur skeleton pulled itself onto the same bridge Gorodash had just traversed. It brought its greataxe down with its two skeletal limbs, knocking the paladin’s shield aside through sheer force. Gorodash grunted loudly in pain as the weapon lodged itself in his chest.

Dancing away from the sewer tentacle’s floundering grasp, Grigori expertly positioned himself on the far side of the conflict–and at the end point of a line bisecting all three monsters. “Perfect!” he breathed to himself, thrusting his palms forward. Blinding light seared shadows into the walls as a lighting bolt erupted from his hands–intersecting all targets in front of him. The cockatrice took the worst of the damage, frying in an instant and falling limply to the stones.

But the other monsters were not yet cowed. Maneuvering itself into a better position, the undead minotaur attempted to return the favor by bull-rushing Gorodash off the ledge. Gorodash leaned into the charge, barely managing to halt the giant beast in its tracks…but his legs wavered. Blood splattered on the tiles beneath him. The wound opened by the axe was beginning to bleed freely, and the others could tell from the orc’s rolling eyes that he would not survive another strike.

Calling upon her own eldritch powers, Shudder caused the air near the enemies to apparently collapse into itself–revealing a maddening and hungry abyss. Hoping this would be enough to suppress the remaining threats, she avoided the open bridge and stepped off into the filthy brown water itself. Thick, sticky, and veiling hidden obstacles, the sewer muck greatly hampered her movements.

Unfortunately, it was at this point that luck turned against Shudder. Confused and blinded, the sewer octopus began groping randomly…and randomly ending up both outside of the blinding effect of her spell and directly adjacent to her. Sensing easy prey, it lashed a pseudopod around her leg, yanking her beneath the fetid water! Though a recently-purchased necklace of adaptation kept Shudder from drowning, the suddenness of the attack still caused her to lose concentration on her spell. The void of darkness winked out.

This time, it was Gorodash’s turn to come to the rescue. Empowering his blows with thunderous force, he finished Grigori’s work on the minotaur skeleton, scattering its bones across the floor. Then, taking a initial step back, he launched himself across the breadth of the sewer water, landing next to the wizard. (Here the orc paused only for only a moment, as the dwarf expertly converted some of his abjuration magic into healing power. The shield protecting Grigori shattered, but Gorodash’s wounds closed as a result.)

Then, sparing no further time, dove head-first into the slimy depths. The large body of the octopus was not hard to find, and the paladin brought his full force against it. Two intense blows later, and Gorodash was pulling Shudder free from the flailing corpse.

Abruptly, a previously-unseen door opened in one of the muck-filled walls, directly across from where the agents now stood. “Nobody move! Nobody move!” a shrill voice demanded. “It’s very important!” A wizened figure picked her way through the muck towards them, raising her garments as her toes sank into the slop. “I see you’ve slaughtered the augury beasts. Excellent! Now I will see what fate has brought to my door today.”

The hag bent thoughtfully over the corpse of the minotaur skeleton. “Ah yes, bones, symbols of death and the past, scattered by chance, yet arranged in meaning.” She spent a few moments in contemplation, using osteomancy to interpret the bones’ positions on top of each other. “Fire and ice both have you braved, no weapon as keen as your wit. Interesting, interesting.”

She moved to the cockatrice, its innards splayed along the floor. Drawing out its liver, she studied it with the aid of hepatomancy–normally reserved for chickens and similar poultry, but a hag was not picky. “A dead end leads to a new odd friend, if the price you be willing to pay.” She pointed a gnarled finger at her own chest. “That would be referring to me, of course. It always is.”

Lastly, she pushed the adventurers aside to study the death throes of the dying sewer octopus. Skilled in heiromancy, she was able to interpret the messages hidden in its final twitches. “Darkness hides the brightest light, and pursed lips speak the greatest truth.” She scowled in annoyance. “Well what was that supposed to mean? Complete nonsense!”

Remind yourself that overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer.

Finished with her soothsaying, Gertrude the hag headed back towards her hovel. “Come in, why don’t you. All of you.”

The agents followed her into a recess, cleverly hidden in the sewers. Stacked to the ceiling along every wall, and arranged in piles across the floor, were every manner of trinket, bauble, and doodad. However, from the grimy state of the items, Gertrude had likely fished them out of the sewer waters as they’d drifted by. Though her hovel seemed (and smelled) like little more than a pungent landfill, the careful eye would notice a delicate precision in the manner each item had been placed. In fact, the hag strode through the clutter without so much as jostling a single stack of bottles or upsetting a single balanced teaspoon. This was a purposeful collection, and she knew the exact location of each item in it.

“Now,” declared the hag, after they’d all entered her lair, “why don’t you explain, in your own words, what brings you to my door today?”

Session Date: February 17th, 2020
Dale Reckoning: 1523 (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), 28 Hammer (28th of Deepwinter)

B. Haggling with a Hag

i. Never Fool with a Fey

Gorodash waited outside, massaging his still-sore chest, as he ensured that no new threats would disturb the meeting within.

After confirming that, yes, this was indeed “Granny Gertrude Gunksbottom,” the information broker they’d been sent to meet, Grigori began the negotiations by approaching the hag. As he weaved among the encroaching stacks of sullied sundries, he saw the hag’s eyes widen with anticipation. However, he was more agile than he looked, and he closed the distance without dislodging a single item. The hag seemed disappointed.

“We were told you would be able to help us identify or learn more about a key we’ve come into possession of, acquired from the depths of hell itself actually.”

“Oh?” The hag’s voice piqued at this bit of information. “May I see the key?”

Asura was in current possession of the key. However, he was not as nimble as the dwarf, and his waist caught a column of books and bottles. They came to the floor with a crash and a shatter.

“Don’t move!” the hag commanded, and approached the mess. “Hmm. Hmm. ‘A coin, a squabble, a fight to the death…yet both boys still draw their breath.’ I wonder if that means anything to you.”

Asura visibly blanched at this new information, but said nothing more. Rather than attempt to move any further through the hoarder’s minefield, he instead held out the key in his hand. “Here, take the key.”

“Of course,” grinned the hag. She received it with spindly fingers and deposited it in one of her many pockets, tapping it for emphasis.

“Can you tell us anything about our key?” Asura pressed.

“Ho ho ho!” the hag giggled, “what a weird way for you to address me about my key, particularly for one already thrice in my debt.”

“…I’m sorry?” Asura blinked.

“You have been very careless,” noted the hag. “First, you accepted an invitation into my home as my guest, without a gift or favor in return. Incredibly poor show. Second, you’ve vandalized my home and belongings. Third, you killed my pretty beasts just outside my door.”

The group pursed their lips. They weren’t sure just how much the hag could lay claim to the monsters living in the sewers outside, but they judged it best not to split hairs while in her lair.

“And as for the key,” she laughed, “recall your exact words as you handed it over to me. Devils may hold you to the spirit of the law, but a fey will hold you to the letter!”

Gertrude’s gloats were cut short by another crash. This time, a ship in a bottle had broken apart on the floor, but a mischievous tabaxi had been the culprit. The glint of the light off its glass edges had been too much for her feline instincts.

Gertrude begrudgingly hobbled over to the mess. “Hmm, yes,” she noted. “‘Curiosity killed the cat,’” she declared, giving a hard, meaningful stare at the tabaxi.

Rock-in-Water’s ears flattened in embarrassment and shame. Searching quickly for something to offer in recompense, she pulled out a ball of yellow yarn, one she’d purchased while at the market with Julia. Surprising her, the hag actually accepted the gift.

“Hmm, yes.” She sniffed the wool. “Memories of fireplace warmth and happy dreams. A token of personal sentiment, offered reluctantly. This will do nicely.”

Gertrude returned to her other stacks of rubbish. “You’d be surprised what sorts of things you can learn from a people, by watching what they throw away.” She picked up a sewage-soaked wooden horse and contemplated it. “A children’s toy, once a sense of independence and comfort, cast into the river by the father. After all, it is his firstborn that will need to take over the family jewelry business, and the sooner he puts away childish things, the better. His shop and his family both are a sense of worry and potential shame for the father; it would be all too simple for one to stoke his fears with certain words or implications. Simple for…a competitor, perhaps?

“Even the water itself holds many secrets.” Gertrude dipped her finger into a long-necked bottle and sampled the putrescence within, while the others suppressed a gag. “Hmm. Interesting. Three quarters of a mile upstream, there is a man with kidney stones and an ailing liver. More importantly, he is an important member of the city council. A useful medical fact for him to know, certainly…but even more so, perhaps, for his rivals.”

She turned to the group. “Do you know what it is I truly deal in? It’s not information; it’s leverage. Every hag does, in her own way. And the lot of you strike me as being woefully unprepared for this negotiation.”

The five agents exchanged glances, unsure of their bargaining stance. This certainly seemed like a problem one couldn’t solve with just gold.

“Let’s see what you might have to offer.” Gertrude took a deep breath. “You have…the scent of a child upon you. One that is not your own. Do you have…plans for this child?”

Grigori bristled visibly. “The child is…not negotiable.”

“A pity,” the hag replied, “though I suspected as much. You mortals have such odd ways, sometimes.”

Fortunately for the group, there was a new member, who had not yet spoken. Alexis Farskies, also from the same graduating class of Amber House and assigned to their team as they left Lyrabar, cleared his voice.

“Indeed,” he commented, “but even we mortals recognize when we must consult one possessing far greater intelligence (and loveliness) than ourselves.”

The hag tittered in response. “Finally, someone who speaks my language! The rest of you could learn a thing or two from this man, and the cat.

“Well, you come to me not out of desperation, and offering nothing of value. Yet, still, perhaps I might find use of your skills…very well. There is a matter of some personal significance to me that you may be able to help with.”

Gertrude then went on to explain that, some time ago, she had been part of a coven of three hags elsewhere in the Uplands. Unfortunately the youngest, “Miss Maureen Mudpoggle,” had fallen in love with an aging elf in the nearby city of Songhal. Gertrude would have none of this foolishness, and told her so. The coven split after a heated argument; and the third, “Mamma Marian Muckbabbler,” had followed the youngest out of some misbegotten sense of motherly duty.

Gertrude had made her new home in the sewers of New Sarshel, and the others…well, they had left for Songhal, and she never heard from them again.

“I would have known if either of them had died,” Gertrude declared, “but I have not felt their presence in this world for decades now. I wonder if some misfortune has come to them. If you wish to clear your thrice-over debt with me, then bring me whatever information you can about where they are now, or what might have happened to them. As a boon, I’ll even tell you what I discover about this interesting new key of mine.”

“And…will we get the key back?” Asura asked.

Gertrude patted her pocket. “Let’s just say…I might be open for renegotiation, depending on how well you do in your quest.”

It was as much as they could hope for, giving the situation.

ii. Send in the Clowns

Felkar’s reactions were mixed when the agents met up with him again at the inn. On one hand, he was delighted to hear that the party had successfully negotiated an arrangement with the hag, without losing any of their body parts. (“Often a hag will require security in the manner of finger, or something akin. And I really didn’t feel like filing out the paperwork for a Greater Restoration today.”)

On the other hand, he was less pleased to hear about a potential trip to Songhal. “Songhal…that city has been under a sort of quarantine since the Spellplague. There’s no magic at all allowed inside the walls. That’s going to leave our hands tied just a little.”

From the Files: Songhal

Songhal (or “Songhall” in earlier texts) was considered for centuries something of a center of learning, for it housed one of the largest and most prominent churches of Oghma in Faerûn: the House of Many Tomes.

In 1386 DR, however, the year after the start of the Spellplague, Songhal was heavily beset by plaguechanged monsters. With the recent loss of Impiltur’s monarch, and with outside help not forthcoming, those in charge of Songhal took drastic measures. City walls were raised, gates in and out of the city were barricaded, and only the most vital shipments could enter. Even more importantly, magic in general was forbidden, due to its unpredictable nature following the death of Mystra. These draconian measures were touted as saving the city.

However, even after Mystra’s return in 1480 DR, the isolationism and the ban on magic continued. Those seeking the treasures of the House of Many Tomes would be halted at the gate, where they could request volumes only from a heavily-redacted list. Fewer enter the city of Songhal, and fewer still leave again, but those inside seem to be perfectly at peace with their unique way of life.

“Still, I have an idea or two kicking around in my head. Let me go check in with the local Shining Blade office, and I’ll get back to you after lunch.”

The party broke for lunch and discussed options while at the food stalls of the local market. A point in their favor was that there were no reports of Songhal using an antimagic field to enforce its magical ban, or even arcane wards or alarms. Instead, reports from those visiting the city (or from those few allowed within) described a rank of town guards who watched for magical items and effects, thanks to special goggles they wore.

Not in their favor was the fact that there were few options for disguising their magical items. Grigori had already been researching the spell of Nondetection on his own time, but he admitted it was rather expensive to cast, and only lasted eight hours. The others also considered either sneaking into the city unseen, or simply camping outside and following the hags’ trail as far as possible there.

Fortunately, Felkar arrived after lunch with some good (if unexpected) news.

“A traveling circus!” he declared breathlessly. Then, noting the confused expressions, he backed up.

“I suppose it would be the first thing I’d think of, given my background: a stage magician’s most useful trick is misdirection. For example, the audience will be so intent on the coin that I’m flipping about in one hand to see what my other hand is pulling from my pocket. Or, they’ll be so certain that the penultimate rabbit is already hidden inside my hat, that they won’t notice that the table itself the hat is resting on is two inches too thick.

“So we’ll do the same! All we’ll need to do is put on a very convincing, non-magical show for them when we first arrive in Songhal. ‘Conjure animals’ with boxes with false bottoms! ‘Breath fire’ with a sip of vodka! Once we’ve demonstrated that all our fantastic abilities are nothing more than showmanship, we’ll be less actively watched, and we’ll have a little more free reign.”

Luckily for Felkar, the agents took to the idea, and the next six days were spent painting and outfitting three wagons to serve as the caravan for their “traveling troupe” (with one extra day for celebrating the festivities of Midwinter). Each agent decided how they could best contribute to the show, and they exchanged equipment with the local Shining Blade office to better fit their new roles:

Felkar would, as anticipated, perform stage tricks of “conjuration,” along with card tricks and audience “mind-reading.”
• Outside of the show, Shudder would use her lute to help promote the show and drum up interest. During the show itself, she would play the assistant to Felkar’s show, using her Invasive Thoughts to send him secret messages. (Luckily, her power was psionic in nature, and it wouldn’t be picked up by Detect Magic.)
Gorodash would present a “strongman” performance, raising barbells into the air (and perhaps human pyramids).
Rock-in-Water would play the exotic mute feline lady, hailing from the distant lands of Chult. (Tabaxi were already rare in Impiltur, and were likely non-existent in the isolationist city of Songhal.) She painted on some extra stripes with simple ink and set up a caged wagon from which to snarl at onlookers.
Asura would play the part of the quartermaster outside of the show; during, he would be the feline trainer whose commands Rock would follow.
Grigori would be the troupe guard and stable-hand, making most use of his half-plate and warhammer.
• Finally, Alexis would be the ringmaster, announcing the various events and directing the audience’s attention at every turn.

Aside from their painted wagons, Felkar had one more item specially made-to-order.

“Lead-lined steamer trunk!” he announced cheerfully, as he dragged in into the barn they used for their preparations. “Detect Magic won’t get through this! If you have any magical items you’d like to get into Songhal, give them to me and I’ll stick them in here until we’re on the other side.”

Each of the agents donated typical items, such as potions, wands, or necklaces enchanted with Continual Flame. Other items, like staves, were traded-out at the local Order office for more mundane versions.

However, a point of contention arose when it came to Alexis. He brought out the book he kept with him at all times and offered it to Felkar, but his fingers seemed reluctant to release their purchase.

“Are you okay with giving this up?” Felkar asked. “I’ve seen your file. I know this means a lot to you.”

“Yes, it’s just…”

“It’s okay; you don’t have to put it in the trunk,” assuaged Grigori, stepping up. “I’ve allocated some of my funds for four Nondetections. One of those will get you past the gate just fine. But might I ask what exactly makes your book so magical? My own wizard spellbook isn’t magical at all, and even Asura’s divine focus is mundane until the moment he’s channeling a spell through it.”

“I’m very appreciative of your help,” Alexis affirmed, “but…I’m not ready to talk about my book just yet.”

Felkar and Grigori shrugged. They were sure their new friend would open up more about himself, when the time was right.

Dale Reckoning: 6 Alturiak (6th of the Claw of Winter)

The actual journey to Songhal was not difficult; and they stopped for a night in Outentown, reaching the gates of their destination mid-afternoon on the second day.

Along the way, conversation turned to matters of the culinary arts. As a life-long chef, Grigori was delighted to discover that Asura had also dabbled in the profession. In Outentown, he sampled a stew that Asura whipped up on the fly, declaring it “surprisingly all right.” From there, they spoke long into the night about beer, hops, and what it might take to open up their own restaurant/pub.

As anticipated, Songhal itself was ringed by an unbroken, fifty-foot stone wall. Felkar approached the gate and introduced his party as the “Illustrious Illusionists of Impiltur,” a traveling group of performers. (This was not technically a lie, as his agents intended to do just that: perform). Speaking to the captain of the guard, he was able to point out the unique opportunity their caravan offered: visiting entertainers would be just the thing to pick the spirits up of a population that never went outside their walls and rarely saw those outside of it.

Felkar was able to negotiate a brief two-day visa for his agents in the city, as long as they parked their wagons near the city wall. Additionally, they would need to succumb to an entry search for magical items or effects. This was the easiest part of their plan, since they had prepared so heavily for it. (Alexis and Grigori did note that when the guards opened and searched the steamer trunk specially-built for their magical items, they found nothing unusual inside.)

With that, the gates were opened, and the members of Pigeon Squad filed within.

iii. Something is Rotten in the City of Songhal

Once within, the party quickly set to arranging their tents, in front of an increasingly-intrigued populace. Fanciful foreigners that they were, it was not long before a small crowd had gathered to watch the goings-on.

As they worked, the agents often looked from face-to-face, alert for anything out of the ordinary. From her “tiger cage,” Rock-in-Water had the best view of the onlookers; and she quickly noticed an elderly male elf, standing at the rear of the gaggle. His body posture was anything but welcoming. His arms were folded across his chest, and he leaned a little to the rear, as if defensively.

Noticing he’d caught the eye of one of the performers, the elf muttered a few harsh words. “Outsiders, hmm? Best you not linger in Songhal…for your sakes.” Then, he turned and withdrew down one of the streets.

The group discussed the significance of the elf as they erected a carnival tent. First, elves were now somewhat rare in Impiltur, the majority of them having traveled west across the sea to Evermeet. Second, the elf seemed the appropriate age for the one Gertrude had described–the one that had originally enticed Marian away, splitting the coven. (And age was all they had to go on at present; Gertrude had admitted she cared little for the elf courter, never desiring to learn his name.)

Third–and most interestingly–the elf had been dressed in the white robes of a clerical healer, with the emblem of a silver stag over his heart. This implied that magic had not been entirely outlawed in Songhal…but whatever magic was permitted was rigidly controlled, and only for those of great import.

Alexis recognized the emblem of the Silver Stag. He had spent many nights reading tomes of forgotten lore in both the libraries at Waterdeep and Candlekeep. He told them what he recalled of the Silver Stag, and of the Heralds the emblem represented.

From the Files: The Heralds and the Silver Stag

Alexis had come across a number of historical books and atlases granting a decent comprehension of Faerûn. One organization he remembered learning of were the Heralds, a quasi-independent group of historians that served as an independent, official registry for coats of arms, sigils, inheritance, genealogy, and general history of the nobility of Faerûn. Their aims were similar to the Shining Blade’s, though their specific focus was a bit more narrow.

Alexis was also aware that, at some point shortly before the start of the Spellplague, a new high-level position in the Heralds had been created to deal specifically with the matters of registry in the lands of Impiltur and to the east. The position had been called the “Silver Stag“; and while he didn’t recall the individual’s name, he did remember that it had been a human woman appointed to the position.

Alexis couldn’t help but note to himself that the establishment of the Silver Stag position, the Spellplague, Songhal’s isolation, and the split of Gertrude’s coven all happened within about a dozen years of each other.

As they pitched the tents and arranged the displays, Shudder danced around the market with her lute, singing a ditty she’s composed herself. To most listeners, it would sound like a simple nursery rhyme, lifting spirits and encouraging them to attend the show. To a very select set of listeners, however, the song would carry deeper meaning…a message that might flush out an important contact.

“We are in search of Maureen, Marian, and the mysterious elf.
There’s no need to hide; get off your shelf.

We run errands for one who left your coven
In search of trails lost that were once woven.
She needs to know if you all are well;
Elf please tell us where Maureen and Marian dwell!”

Her antics proved successful. Attracted by the new sights and sounds, a curious halfling boy raced into the space set aside for the circus, though quickly finding himself underfoot. An elderly halfling woman with graying hair quickly followed him, admonishing him for his brashness.

“Wart! Come back here! Don’t go chasing off where I can’t see you! You’re just getting in the way of these very nice people here. Now, come with me and be patient; they’ll be ready soon enough, and then we can watch the show.”

Shudder noted this, and she decided to approach the elderly woman more directly. After all, a hag could easily disguise herself. Shudder sang her little ditty in front of the pair.

“Oh, yes, hello!” the lady responded. “I heard you earlier, down one of the streets. That’s a very nice song, I do say so, though it sounds a little foreign to my ears. My name is Sabel, and this is my son Wart.” She clutched the boy closer to her. “He’s my everything, you know. I don’t know what I’d do if something ever happened to him.”

“Oh, your son?” Shudder affirmed. “That’s lovely. I mean…you must have waited for just the right…halfling man…to come along? Before you started a family?” Shudder was interested in Sabel’s unusual family history, but she wasn’t sure how to phrase it tactfully.

“Oh yes, bless his heart. Sadly, my husband died by accident a few decades ago, on work traveling outside the city. I’m sure that if he had been here when the accident occurred, the healers would have set him right as rain again.” She gripped Wart closer with needy fingers; the boy seemed rather accustomed to it. “But, at least, I can still see my husband’s face again, every morning, in my boy’s.”

The other agents, taking a short break from their work, joined Shudder in the conversation. Overhearing the latest words, Alexis turned to Wart.

“And what a fine boy he is, too.” Alexis touched the child’s cheek with his bare fingers. “How old are you, Wart?”

“Well…I’m five.”

“Five, you say? And how long have you been five?”

“Well…ever since I was four, I guess.”

Alexis nodded slowly in response, his brow furrowing. “I guess I might have anticipated that answer. Well…you stay safe, and we’ll see you both for the show this evening, correct?”

Back at the circus grounds, however, Alexis’s frown only increased. He turned his gaze upon the ivory-white tower that stood in the exact center of the town, where the House of Many Tomes should have sat, welcoming his entry. Its towering form cast a foreboding shadow across the city beneath it. “There is something not quite right about this town.”

“Yes,” agreed Rock from her cage. “I’ve smelled it ever since we entered the city. I can’t put my finger on what it is, but…it’s like trying to smell an artificial flower. It doesn’t smell bad, but it also doesn’t smell right.

“It also doesn’t feel right,” added Alexis. He rubbed his fingers together; the youthful face that he had touched had been neither warm or soft, and it left him unsettled.

“What is going on here?” Asura demanded. “An elderly lady, with a child of five, who says his dad died decades ago? Are we in hell again? Are they ghosts? Has time been stopped?”

“Nothing so simple, I wager,” Alexis replied. “The halfling lady definitely had a sense of the passage of time; she was able to describe how long ago her husband had died. But there was a definite…disconnect in her logic.

Alexis turned towards the main tent. “Asura, come with me. I require your help.”

As luck would have it, Felkar had just then finished clearing space inside that tent. “Quickly, come see!” he chortled. “I have a surprise to show you!”

After leading them within the canvas walls, Felkar pulled their red steamer trunk to the center of the floor and bid them to help empty it. Its contents were nothing like the items they’d given him–instead there were simple circus props, such as bowling pins, umbrellas, and knives.

However, once the trunk was cleared, Felkar stood it up on end, so that its lid now served more like a door. The sound of hidden pins could be heard falling into place. With a flourish, Felkar pressed on the false bottom of the trunk (or back wall, as it now seemed); it popped open to reveal a hidden space ten feet deep.

“What.” Asura considered what was the more unusual thing he’d witnessed today: the conversation with Sabel, or the box that was bigger on the inside.

Portable hole!” Felkar beamed. “All your equipment is here, hidden in an extra-dimensional space, only accessible through a hidden panel in a lead-lined steamer trunk!” He seemed positively ecstatic about his own brilliance. “So, any time you need a potion, or any time you need to cast a spell, you just need to step inside and close both doors. Nothing outside is going to detect you!”

Alexis nodded. “As luck would have it, I could use this space right now.” Taking a soft leather pouch that Asura had located for him, the student of the arcane shut himself inside the extra-dimensional space. In the light of an ever-burning magical torch, he held his precious book tightly, calling on it to grant him a momentary boon to his intelligence. Then, he felt the soft leather bag and compared it to the memory of the boy’s skin.

The two were maddeningly and unsettlingly similar.