Spoiler: Chapter 30: Dead Ends
The party shepherds the victims it rescued from the Webs of Death back toward the village where Keegan, Allison and the horses are waiting. No one bothers attacking them in the woods; the group of people is just too big and too well armed, and the spiders, no longer controlled by attercops, have scattered and appear content to remain well clear. Mostly it's just a long walk through dense forests, helping nine very tired, very hungry, very confused people stumble past thorny shrubs, over narrow gullies and around steep hills. Gavin leads the column, talking constantly in a reassuring baritone, giving the refugees a voice to latch onto and move toward. Nüwa and Meng walk beside him, Nüwa holding the map and choosing paths. Miaoyu and Flynn are on rearguard, making sure none of the stragglers straggle so far as to lose sight of the column. Seeker moves from person to person through the column, helping a man here, a woman there, healing scratches if people fall, and just generally being the sweetest puppy over seven feet tall you might hope to meet. Aelron and Tsarae patrol up and down the party's flanks, ensuring no one strays off the chosen path and watching for intruders.
Of course, it wouldn't be any fun if it was just an uneventful trip back, now would it? At about midday, the party arrives at a clearing, and there's someone waiting there for them.
The clearing is set at the top of a small hill. Trees give way to a thin screen of bushes, which opens upon a flowering, grassy meadow soaked in vibrant sunshine. The view of the surrounding valley is stupendous: sky-scraping mountains rising in the distance to either side, streams and waterfalls glittering blue and white, and beautiful forests as far as the eye can see.
Standing in the center of the clearing is a humanoid figure with a Mediterranean complexion, bold blue hair, and opal eyes. All around the figure, dozens of blankets cover the grasses of the field, and are covered in turn by plates piled high with delicious fresh-smelling food. A songbird twitters from a nearby tree, voicing a melody to which butterflies and hummingbirds waltz through the air above the picnic.
Everything is highly saturated colors, delicious smells and delightful sounds, and it all reeks of Seelie fey.
"Hail!" the figure in the center of it all calls out, raising an arm to wave in greeting. "Please, sit." The figure—androgynous to the point of genderlessness—lowers its waving hand in a sweeping gesture that takes in all the meadow and the mountain valley, offering both the hospitality and the beauty of the scene as its gifts.
The party clusters at the edge of the trees, but no one moves forward. Gavin, having just gotten out from under the Ocean Witch's thumb, has exactly zero desire to get tangled up with yet more fey creatures. Miaoyu and Tsarae don't trust this chance meeting one bit, and Flynn just knows there have to be strings attached to all that delicious-looking food. Seeker doesn't want to let his patients get exposed to that much food; the temptation to overeat will be very strong, and he's having enough trouble keeping them from overeating on iron rations, which are only food in the loosest sense of the word. Aelron is curious but cautious. Nüwa alone seems unconcerned with safety, and starts into the clearing. She doesn't even make it out of the trees before Meng steps directly into her path and stays there.
Flynn, Miaoyu and Gavin exchange skeptical glances. "And who is this banquet for?" Flynn asks.
“Why, for all of you, of course!” the figure in the clearing says, as though that should be obvious. “The great heroes!”
Nothing like flattery to win over PCs. Aelron, Gavin, and Flynn, though still clearly skeptical, take a few steps forward, stopping at the edge of the blanekts. Nüwa beams and flounces around Meng, finds a blanket laden with delicious Qennish cooking, and plops down, smiling up at the figure before her, raptly attentive.
Miaoyu shakes her head, glances over at Tsarae. “Heroes?” she murmurs doubtfully. “I’m kind of a scumbag.” Tsarae rolls her eyes. The two of them don't budge from the shade under the trees' edge, and Seeker stays put with the wounded.
The fey welcomes those who join the banquet and beckons to those who remained behind. “Come, come. The food, I assure you, is most delicious.” Miaoyu just raises an eyebrow; Tsarae scoffs and looks away. The survivors are leaning toward the food, but Seeker continues to hold them back.
The figure in the center of the clearing sighs and raises his right hand, placing his left over his heart. “Perhaps this will assuage your fears: as long as you remain in this clearing, you are protected as guests of my house. No harm shall come to you.”
Fey beings are notorious tricksters, but they take guest rights deadly seriously. If you are accepted as a fey being's guest, you will be kept as safe as the fey can keep you, unless you do something truly stupid and violate the guest-host protocol. Invoking guest rights means that this creature is truly serious about not meaning us harm. He's pledged all of his resources to keep the party safe while it remains in the clearing, and given his attitude, appearance and apparent knowledge, it's not unreasonable to assume he's a fey lord. Being under a fey lord's protection, while it can get complicated quickly, is usually a pretty safe place to be in the short term.
Seeker goes forward immediately, his patients in tow, murmuring to them about portion sizes and restraint. Gavin stiffly takes a seat but does not touch the food. Aelron and Flynn gravitate toward different blankets; Aelron's is piled high with Illian delicacies, while Flynn's appears to be a smorgasboard of foods you might find in a Connish pub.
Tsarae and Miaoyu still haven't moved, though Miaoyu is confused; she's read enough to know what guest rights are, and how seriously the fey take them, and the fey lord's promise has cut a lot of the rug out from under her tingling danger sense.
Nüwa turns her big, brown eyes on Miaoyu. “Come on,” she says, popping a grape in her mouth. Behind her, Flynn is munching on golden bread. Aelron has picked up a small stuffed mushroom and is pondering the fey lord as he nibbles at its edge. Meng is standing beside Nüwa, glaring down at her. Nüwa ignores him, firing up the charm on Tsarae and Mioayu. “It’s perfectly safe. Just sit down and have a drink, take a load off….”
Miaoyu finally sighs and joins the banquet as well. Tsarae follows with extreme reluctance. Everyone takes a seat, though Tsarae pointedly sits at the edge of the banquet, shoving aside one of Seeker's patients to find the seat she wants.
Once everyone settles in, the fey smiles broadly. It has brown skin and hair of bright, vibrant blue. One of its arms appears to have been either armored with or outright replaced by an appendage of living wood, and its cheeks have two triangles of blue painted upon them. Or... is that actually a tattoo? Is its skin just that color?
"Welcome," the fey says, smiling broadly. Blue lips and teeth of brilliant white mesmerize as they move. "I am an emissary of the Seelie Court. We have heard of your recent heroics at the Webs of Death and we’re hoping to form a mutually beneficial relationship." The figure reaches into its robes—Gavin, Flynn, Tsarae and Miaoyu tense, hands going for weapons—and produces a thick envelope. The fey ignores the unintended slight to his guest pledge and displays the envelope for all to see. It's a bulky vellum skin sealed with red wax; the elaborate seal in the wax is not familiar to any members of the party.
"This letter," the fey says, "will bestow a title and an escort on whoever chooses to take it.” A title is fairly obvious; the party is being offered a minor fey lordship. The escort it refers to is a bit more complicated. When fey creatures and servitors get together, everyone knows everyone else's rank, and rank determines how many servants and bodyguards one can bring to any given event. This title apparently comes with the privileges of an escort, permission to bring bodyguards to any fey meeting without slighting the host. “Only one may take it, unfortunately, but the benefits are intended for you all to enjoy. This title will be free of most responsibility, akin to your knight errants; the land granted by the title is uninhabited and requires no supervision. If growing your power within the court intrigues you, however, it does offer plenty of room for growth.”
Nüwa’s eyes light up. “A title, you say?”
Gavin shakes his head. “Believe me when I tell you that you do not want to do this. It starts off sounding like a good deal, but they will drag you further and further in and by the time you realize you’ve made a mistake you won’t be able to get away. I only just managed—”
"And for that, we forgive you," the fey interrupts coolly. Nüwa looks between Gavin and the fey, eyes measuring, and finally settles back on the fey, apparently dismissing Gavin's concerns.
"So what about other benefits?" she asks, hoping for a promise of some form of protection. "We did piss off the Princess of Spiders."
"Well, if it sweetens the pot for you, I’m sure we could cure you of your regrettable fear." The fey smiles brightly. Apparently it is within its power to 'cure' arachnophobia.
Aelron blinks. Flynn glances at Miaoyu, who is staring at the fey in something like horrified fascination.
"I doubly advise you against letting a fey into your head," Gavin cuts in again. "You can’t listen to anything a fey says."
The fey glances briefly at Gavin, then returns its gaze to Nüwa. "I agree,” it says with a silky smile. “Don’t listen to him—he’s a fey."
Gavin flushes in anger. “I am not a fey! I am not a member of either court, and I have severed my ties to the Ocean Witch!”
The fey gives him a cool, scornful look. “There is more to being a fey than which court you belong to. Perhaps if you removed your cloak and burned it, forever sundered from your heritage, you could do more than merely pretend at being human.”
Gavin shakes with rage, grinding his teeth audibly, forcing himself to remember guest rights. Nüwa tilts her head, waiting to see if the exchange is finished. “Well, if no one else is interested….” She reaches for the scroll, looking at each party member expectantly.
"I’ll support you if this is what you want to do," Miaoyu says. Behind her, Tsarae has fostered a beautiful, bored expression.
Aelron is clearly conflicted. On one hand, the fey have obscure and powerful magic, and that's got to be tempting, but this is a clear attempt to sink hooks into the party, and Aelron is a free spirit at heart.
Gavin gives Nüwa a pleading look. “I’ll advise you one last time: don’t do this. It can’t end well.”
"I agree," Seeker says. "This is a bad idea."
Flynn, like Tsarae, looks bored out of his mind, but a light in his eyes betrays his interest in what will happen next. He offers no advice.
Nüwa quirks a brow. “So no one else wants it then? Being a bit dramatic, all of you….”
She takes the envelope, and the fey lord smiles broadly, obviously delighted. “I am pleased to name you the Lady of the Garden of Razors.”
Flynn's sudden smile is a bit disconcerting; everyone suddenly gets the impression that he’s quite pleased to have another edge against the Huroc, one that has no immediate cost to him.
Gavin is less pleased. He stands, sending a platter of stuffed and grilled fish flying into the grass, and takes a step toward the fey lord. Aelron slides over and interposes himself between the two, holding a up a hand and staring straight into Gavin's eyes. “No,” is all he says. Gavin fumes for a moment, then storms out of the glade. Aelron gives the fey lord an apologetic glance, then hurries after Gavin.
Seeker makes to follow as well, but Aelron stops him at the edge of the glade. “Stay with your patients. I can handle this.” Plus, Aelron doesn't say, getting a lecture from a Larlonite wolfman is probably the last thing Gavin wants at that particular moment.
The fey shakes its head, hair rippling in the sunlight, before turning back to Nüwa. “Now then, shall we discuss the finer points?”
They spend the next half-hour going over Nüwa’s new privileges. She has the authority to recruit a dozen hobgoblins as an escort, to use as she wishes. If she should require further assistance or otherwise would like to contact someone of higher standing in the court, all she needs to do is speak with someone else of the Seelie Court, and they will deliver the message. Furthermore, she will be serving under a fey lord known as the Blue Lion of Varaz.
"I believe that concludes my duties at the moment, unless the lady has any further questions?"
"Well…," She drawls, shooting a glance at Seeker. "I have a friend here who was separated from his wife and now she’s banging a dragon." Seeker facepalms—facepaws?—at this, but Nüwa keeps going. "I was wondering if you could help us piece together what happened. It’s a matter of the heart, after all, and that is the domain of the Bright Queen."
"Of course," says the fey, ever cordial. "What was her name again?" The fey glances at Seeker. Just before Seeker can respond, it snaps its fingers. "Ah, yes. Alfirin. We would certainly love to help. But it seems you’re quite capable of finding this information with the magic already available to you, my lady. It is simply a matter of focus. Now then, I bid you all farewell."
The fey seems to vanish between blinks of the eye, and the party groups up, collecting Gavin and Aelron and helping their patients along. When they glance over their shoulder at the glade, they find it empty of the banquet, with not so much as a blade of grass crushed from the heavy picnic blankets.
The party continues for some time, Nüwa nearly glowing. “You know,” she says to Seeker, “once we get back to Brand or another city, I think I might actually have an idea of what he meant. I just need a bit of time to mull things over.” In order to cast a spell that will peer into the past to find out why Seeker's wife has turned against him, Nüwa would need to be a master of divination, Diamond tower magic. At the moment she's one point short of mastery, but she's a human, which means that once per session she can move a skill point around. She’s planning to shift one more of her skill points to diamond magic so she can perform the ritual necessary to look into the past. Seeker expresses gratitude and cautious hope.
Nüwa glances at Aelron, waving her new letter. “I don’t know if you heard the discussion after you followed Gavin off, but I’m serving under the Blue Lion of Varaz. He’d know all about obscure magic and I’d be happy to share it with you.” She flutters her eyelashes at him.
Aelron gives her a look that combines disgust, hurt pride and astonishment. “Did you just try to bribe me to sleep with you by offering me magical knowledge you don't actually have?”
She blinks at him. “Of course. Is that... a problem?” She seems genuinely confused.
Aelron stutters. “You’re married!”
Nüwa scoffs. “So? It’s not like I took any vows of fidelity—or any vows at all.”
"You married an Aurbeski woman," Seeker offers. "Perhaps you should follow Aurbeski customs."
Miaoyu rolls her eyes. “You can’t ask Nüwa to care about Aurbeski culture when she didn’t even know she was getting married and her wife hasn’t so much as tried to establish a relationship. It was a political marriage. It happens.”
Nüwa nods. “It’s not like she’s trying to understand my culture. All she did was write a crappy poem.”
Miaoyu nearly stumbles. “A poem?”
Nüwa rolls her eyes. “Don’t even get me started. All it did was talk about birds and the stars and flowers. So boring.”
"Flowers?" Gavin says. "You do know of the language of flowers, do you not? It’s used to convey complex emotions and ideas through the simple imagery of flowers." There’s a faint light in his eye as he thinks proudly of one of his country’s cultural hallmarks.
Nüwa sighs, all drama. “Of course I know the language of flowers. But the ones she used were all foreign flowers. All meaningless! Not a single Qennish flower among them.”
Apparently it never once occurred to Nüwa that her wife might have been using a different culture's language of flowers. Or that a different culture might have a launguage of flowers.
"A poem?" Miaoyu repeats.
"A bad poem!"
"But a poem!"
The conversation doesn't get any less frustrating than that as the day wears on, and by the time they reach the village where they left the horses and noncombatants, Seeker's patients are clapping their hands over their ears and singing to drown out the arguing. Fortunately, the barn the party is assigned to serve as temporary living quarters is large enough to comfortably fit their group of survivors too. Keegan, despite the late hour, is nearly bouncing with energy when his friends return.
"So how did it go?" he asks.
"Well, have you ever seen a god swat at a bunch of bugs?" Flynn asks as he shrugs his pack off and makes himself comfortable on a pile of hay. "Because that happened pretty literally."
The party describes the divine wrath that Miaoyu called down to Keegan and his eyes light up. He wraps Miaoyu in a hug, practically bursting with admiration. Miaoyu glows.
Allison, on the other hand, looks like she almost died of boredom. Nüwa bounces up to her with a grin. “I became a fey lord,” she says. “Lady of the Garden of Razors. Impressive, isn’t it?”
"Quite, my lady," Allison says. Her tone is, as always, flat, but her eyes become a little less lifeless and she alters Nuwa’s stationary to include the new title. Then she corners Nüwa in the barn and won't let her leave without a complete recounting of the events since the party's departure, especially anything relating to the new title.
Tsarae crouches down next to Miaoyu as the latter is spreading out her bedroll. “So,” Tsarae says, almost delicately, “I’ve been thinking it’s time for me to head out.”
Miaoyu looks up. “Oh. Okay. Well, you can stop by the clubhouse any time you want, and you can use my bed.”
Tsarae rolls her eyes. “Yes, mother.”
"And I want you to take this, too." Miaoyu rummages through her pockets until she finds the silver sword amulet she picked up in Old Drougant City. "It’s pretty, and you can sell it too."
Tsarae scoops it up and pockets it, then grabs Miaoyu by the hand and drags her off to the forest.
Miaoyu returns after the sun has set and attempts to sneak quietly back into the barn. Her attempts at discretion are foiled when she finds the party still wide-awake, apparently up late telling more stories to Keegan. They take in her rumpled appearance for a moment.
"Where’s Tsarae?" Gavin asks.
Miaoyu flushes a bit and points vaguely in the direction of the forest. “That way?”
Gavin sighs. “She’s gone, isn’t she?” Miaoyu nods.
"If I had the chance, I’d tell her to take care of herself," Seeker says, "though, come to think of it, that's what she does best anyway, so..."
Nüwa leans towards Miaoyu and whispers, “You still have leaves in your hair.”
Miaoyu makes an undignified squeak and combs through her hair to dislodge the last of the foliage. Aelron smirks.
The next morning, the survivors who are strong enough to do so move through the town. For many, there are happy reunions with families who had presumed them dead. A handful of others make arrangements for transportation to nearby home villages. Flynn keeps watch over the entire group as they move about town, ensuring that nothing untoward befalls them.
Only two of the rescued are from far enough away from home that they can't make easy arrangements to get back.
The first is a Kadashari woman, who approaches Seeker. The Kadashari are descendants of a slave trade that spanned the entire continent, and she is of clear mixed descent and has an unusual combination of features. “My name is Ildiko,” she says. “You have saved my life, and for this I owe you a debt. I am too weak to offer my services now, but when I am recovered, I would seek you out.”
Seeker inclines his head. “I have made a home in the town of Hangtree. Wait for me there when you are able.”
"Do you need any money?" Miaoyu asks.
"I have some," Nüwa adds, and begins to reach into her bulging coinpurse.
"I will make do," Ildiko says stiffly.
"May I offer you a blessing of Larlon?" Seeker offers, and her discomfort only grows.
"I will make do," she repeats, more loudly this time. Kadashari are known for having turned away from the gods and worshiping beast totems instead, believing them uncaring of the pain their ancestors suffered. Seeker does not press the issue, and instead bids Ildiko farewell.
Not long after she has departed, a dwarf approaches Seeker as well. He struggles to communicate clearly, often stumbling and backtracking. “Forgive me,” he manages eventually. “It has been… many, many months since I spoke with another.” He has a listless look in his eye for a moment before turning his attention back to Seeker. “I would like to offer you my aid. I must first visit my hold, but then I could… serve you, if you would but give me a place to rendezvous.”
"I have a home in Hangtree," Seeker says. "But if I may ask, what is it that you do?"
The dwarf gives him an odd look, gesturing at his tattered robes and holding out a walking stick which, on closer examination, is carved with tiny lines of dwarven runes. "Why,” he says with a smile, “I am a wizard, of course."
Seeker perks up. “Actually, I know someone who’d love to meet you.” He waves Aelron over.
“'Sup, Seeker?” Aelron asks as he ambles over. “Need a hand with something?” His glance flits to the dwarf and the staff in the dwarf's hand, lingering there.
Seeker smiles. “This is Aelron Firemind, our resident mage. Student of the Gemstone Towers and—get this—an elf.” The dwarf raises an eyebrow.
Aelron shrugs. “Long story.” He turns to Seeker. “And since when are we advertising that?”
Seeker gestures at the dwarf. “Since he's a wizard. I thought you two might have a lot to talk about, and 'you're an elf' is about as good an icebreaker as it gets.” With that, Seeker stands, bids them both farewell, and strides away. Aelron and the dwarf fall into conversation, comparing notes on their magical educations and generally geeking out over inscrutable runes. By the time the dwarf departs to return to his hold, Aelron is practically glowing: he's made a new friend, and perhaps apprentice!
Once the last of the survivors gets squared away, the party agrees to head for Brandt. There, Gavin can take his oaths to Turmlar, Seeker and Aelron can craft magical items, and Nüwa can dump ridiculous amounts of money on various people to procure food and other mundane supplies.
It's a long march back to Brandt, fairly uneventful but for one night about three days into the journey. At dusk, as they're looking for a place to camp, the party comes upon the ruins of a small stone structure. At first, it looks like a good place to set down a camp, so Keegan leads the horses aside and starts setting up a small paddock while the rest of the group sets about clearing space for tents. Only when Miaoyu ventures too close to the building does it become apparently that something isn't right: there's music emanating from a trapdoor in the floor. Eerie, haunting string music that just makes you want to yell, “Put. The candle. BACK!”
"I’m going to stay up here," Miaoyu says. "That looks way too creepy."
"Me too," says Flynn. "I want to make sure Keegan and the horses stay safe." The two of them retreat to just outside the crumbling stone walls.
Everyone else heads through the trapdoor to find the source of the music. The ladder under the trapdoor groans ominously, almost harmonizing with the echoing music as it deposits the party one by one into a dark, narrow hallway. Aelron increases the light output of his staff, and Nuwa activates her shining amulet. They come to a right turn and see a dim, green glow around the next corner.
The glow comes from a floating green ball of light, and when Gavin draws near, it floats toward him, hovering just above his head and moving with him, as if intended to light the way through the dark corridors. It appears to be an enchanted werelight, a small light spell programmed to hover around this vicinity and approach any people that enter the room. Aelron examines it thoroughly, and can't find anything malicious about it, so Gavin shrugs and turns toward the next door.
Just then, Miaoyu comes crashing around the corner and into Nüwa, half blind in the dark. “I couldn't stand the suspense,” she says by way of explanation. “Flynn has it handled.” And indeed he does, whistling a jaunty tune as the rest of the party stumbles through the dark. A jaunty tune that sounds remarkably like the melody line of “Never Split the Party”.
Further down the hall, Gavin come to a door that’s stuck to its frame and gives it a mighty kick. The poor, innocent door gives under Gavin’s assault, opening to a room with four doors, each with another green light next to it. Meng touches one, and it floats above his head as the other did with Gavin. Curious, Miaoyu does the same with another light. After a moment of satisfaction, Miaoyu suddenly scowls and swats at the light. “Go away,” she grouses. “You’re cramping my style.”
The light rudely stays where it is. Miaoyu pouts. “Be that way,” she says, and douses it with Tykanria’s orison. Miaoyu sighs at the blissful darkness.
The light comes back. Miaoyu curses, but decides to let the light live. For now.
Back to the task at hand, the party tries to decide which door to go through. One ridiculously high skill check later, Miaoyu is able to just barely discern which direction the music is coming from: the door opposite the one they came in from. It opens with a creak, revealing another long hallway.
Gavin takes the lead, and as they travel down the hallway, each corner is dotted with another green light. Each time that Gavin passes by one, it begins to float above his head. Fortunately, the lights aren’t additive, so they don’t obscure his vision, but the party begins to worry that they may be dangerous, and Gavin has collected ten of them. Miaoyu, in protest of her little glowing friend, color shifts to blend into the shadows regardless of its presence. She’s more or less decided that he new color-changing powers are “eh, probably just an extension of the shadow walking or something”. She’s now a little green at the crown of her head and hard to focus on.
When they finally reach a door many corners and werelights and arguments later, Gavin rattles the handle and turns to the rest of the party. “It's locked.” Miaoyu practically jumps up.
"I can take care of that! I’m so bored." She squeezes down the hall and cheerfully picks the lock before shuffling back. Gavin pushes the door open.
The floor of the room is covered in humanoid bones, most in relatively recognizable, whole skeletons. Gavin takes a slow, careful step through the door. The skeletons remain rather dead. He lifts his warbar and crushes the nearest skull. They continue to lie inanimate. Seeker steps in and casts Phoraduk’s orison on one to determine if it is alive, dead or undead. The spell returns a result of “Duuuuuuuuh” as the skeleton's hand snaps up and grabs for Seeker's wrist. At Seeker's startled yelp, skeletons all about the room begin to rise.
Gavin lunges forward and kills the skeleton grabbing Seeker, then swings his warbar through a wide arc and pulverizes several more. Miaoyu and Nüwa let fly arrows and daggers, dropping skeletons with puffs of bone dust. Aelron blasts the nearest skeleton with arcane energy, vaporizing half its ribcage and sending the remnants clattering back to the floor.
It's over just as quickly as it began; between Gavin's wildly flailing warbar and the fullisade of ranged attacks, no skeleton survives long enough to hurt the party. Once everyone has been checked over for scratches and Gavin has double-tapped all the skeletons, they continue exploring, searching for the source of the music.
Unfortunately, there's a lot of corridor down here and not much in it. Nüwa communes up a map eventually, and the place is huge, an enormous dungeon with no easily-discernable logic to its layout. Finally, the party decides it has had enough and turns around to head back to Flynn.
Flynn is, at that moment, being attacked. The DM asks for Flynn's Armor Class, then rolls and reveals the die: a nat 20 attack. “Fort save, please.”
Cade rolls, grins, and reveals his die as well: yet another nat 20. It's good-news-bad-news time for Flynn. The bad news is that a hand went through his chest. The good news is that he’s actually pretty used to seeing through his own chest. The bad(der) news is that he’s feeling… older. About four years older.
Flynn whirls around, scrambling away from the next attack. His attacker is a human male of apparent Drouganti descent... or used to be, back before he died and became a ghost.
The horses flee in horror, Allison not far behind. Keegan stands his ground, reaching for his staff and drawing up his courage. Flynn holds out a hand to stop him. “No. Get the horses. I’ll be fine.”
Keegan only hesitates a moment, then races after the horses. The ghost lunges at Flynn again, and he loses another four years. He’s not about to sit here and just take the abuse, though. He raises his hands, smiles at the ghost, and says, “Get lost.” Critical hit. Maximum damage. The ghost opens its mouth to scream, but what comes out is simply a violently screechy remix of the same ominous music the party has been hearing for the past half-hour.
Another attack, another critical, another nat 20 on a fort save. Flynn loses a year. He growls something ungrateful and fires again, but the ghost has backed him up against someone's bedroll, and he stumbles and sends his shot wide. The ghost lunges, seeing its opportunity, and Flynn loses another two years. When Flynn gets his feet under him again, he stands his ground and lets the ghost have it point-blank as it approaches for another swipe. This time his eldritch bolt tears through what should be the ghost's heart, and the figure appears to collapse in on the bolt, vanishing like a puff of steam. The music fades away, leaving Flynn panting in silence and dusky dimness.
A few minutes later, the party comes back to find Flynn thirty-five years old. Miaoyu frowns, glances at Aelron and Seeker. “How long were we down there?”
Flynn looks evenly at his friends, only a hint of displeasure in his face. “So, ghosts suck. Also, I can see them.”
Flynn fills everyone in on what happened, and Seeker eagerly reaches forward to de-age him. “Wait,” Flynn says. “We’ll get the others and the horses and once we know everyone’s okay, then you can worry about me.”
It takes a couple of hours and a couple of quick calls to Gilgadar, but the horses are rounded up and Allison and Keegan are found safe and sound. Flynn is returned to his previous age and Gavin sings some health back into him.
Now the party is faced with a new dilemma. None are particularly enthusiastic about returning to the depths of the dungeon, but they can’t in good conscience just leave it; it's dangerous, and should be cleared, and this is exactly what adventurers are supposed to do. Ultimately, a compromise is made. Aelron magics up a warning on the side of the house, a list of dangers the party encountered while down there, and a reproduction of Nüwa's map.
With their quest marker firmly in place, they return to the road. Eventually they come to a river village, and Nüwa kindly buys passage for everyone to Brandt. While most of the party is perfectly content to accept, Gavin stiffly turns to the ferry man.
"How much to purchase passage for one?"
Let’s just say that Gavin doesn’t have anywhere near the money. He swallows his pride—and dislike of the Bene and the fey—and accepts Nüwa’s offer. They arrive in Brandt that evening and the next morning begin on their errands.
Nüwa goes to the wealthy side of town and peruses fine silk dresses until she finds one that will work for her scrying ritual. Once she has a few alterations done, she returns to the inn the party rented out and begins an eight hour ritual to see into Seeker’s past.
Gavin and Miaoyu go to Danica’s Fine Gems, and after a pleasantries are exchanged, she shows them to the backroom, where she keeps her tools.
"We found this gem while battling spider cultists," Gavin says, pulling out the huge diamond. "The frame may be valuable as well."
Danica takes the gem begins to examine it, inspecting the cut, clarity, and sparkle. “It’s lost its sith,” she says, referring to the gemstone faeries that give gems their inner sparkle, “so that will bring the worth down significantly. It would be of interest to collectors, however.”
She offers them a considerable sum that the party is happy to accept. After the exchange is made and Danica stores her new diamond away, Miaoyu reaches into her pockets and produces the black gem. “We’re not necessarily looking to sell this one, but I was hoping you might be able to tell me a bit about it. We found it in the same place as the other one, but we’ve never seen anything like it before, and when one of our companions tried to Identify it, she was overcome with nausea. It appears to respond... poorly to divination magic.”
Danica quirks a fine brow and delicately places the gem on a small dish to catch the flowing black liquid. She spends some time studying the gem, then the liquid, before finally leaning back in her chair. “It’s strange, but I can’t seem to place the gem itself. As for the liquid—well, it’s not a liquid at all. It’s actually some sort of dust that flows like a liquid. I don’t know what it is, but I believe it has some sort of connection to siths. I’m sorry, I can’t tell you much more than that. I would suggest speaking with the Ylsilarites.”
Miaoyu and Gavin thank Danica for her time. Outside her shop, Gavin says, “I’m going to head off to the Temple of Turmlar.”
Miaoyu nods. “I’m going to the Ylsilarite Complex. But have fun, I guess.”
They part ways. At Turmlar’s temple, he finds Flynn and Aelron waiting for him. “We wanted to be with you for this,” Aelron says, smiling warmly. “It's a big step to take, and I've always rather admired Turmlarites.” Gavin nods stiffly and they all enter the temple. They enter in the midst of a sparring match. Gavin waits for them to finish and address him, standing tall and straight.
After a few minutes, the match winds down and the Turmlarites replace their weapons in their respective racks, chatting amiably. One of the older priests notices Gavin and approaches.
"Good day. Is there something we can do for you?"
Gavin takes in a deep breath. “I would like to pledge myself in service to Turmlar.”
The priest brows raise in surprise. “Why have you chosen to do so?”
Gavin swallows and takes a moment to collect himself before speaking. “By birth, I am a coward. My instinct is to run away and hide under the waves. But that’s wrong. I should be protecting the weak, not abandoning them. When I was young, I made a mistake. I acted recklessly, and without thought of the consequences. I am free now, and I wish to do what is right.”
The priest gives him an approving smile and beckons him further into the temple. “Your cause is noble. Come, let us make your oaths.”
Gavin takes his oaths with pride. Normally a new initiate would begin as a novice, but Gavin has already proven his mettle and has experience as a priest, so an exception is made. Flynn and Aelron both congratulate him.
At the Ylsilarite Complex, Miaoyu is finally being waved in to visit with one of the librarians after a long stretch of waiting. A middle aged man greets her and sits with her at a table. “What knowledge do you seek?” he asks. She pulls out the gem.
"My companions and I found this. We attempted to Identify it, but that just made our diviner ill. We thought it might be an artifact of Tykanria, given its color and aversion to diamond magic."
The librarian hums thoughtfully. “I believe a novice is required for this.” He reaches behind him and rings a bell. A few minutes later, a teenaged girl enters. “Cast Identify on this gem,” he instructs.
The girl does so, and one failed fort save later, she's puking violently and the librarian is ringing for a healer. As the librarian ushers Miaoyu to a room that doesn't reek of vomit, she catches sight of a long line of Purifiers outside the complex.
"It seems that we’ve verified the truth of your previous claims," he says as they enter a new room and settle into their seats. "Have you other suggestions?"
"Well, maybe we should see if the gem reacts that way to all diamond spells, not just Identify."
The librarian nods, and Miaoyu watches in horror as he rings another bell to summon another novice, this time a boy. “Cast Detect Artifact of Tykanria.”
Another fort save is demanded, but the boy manages to make it, though the paleness in his face suggests his discomfort. The librarian glances at Miaoyu to see if she has anything to say.
"Maybe we should see if it reacts the same way to all magic, or if it’s just diamond," she says, torn between curiosity and concern for the novice.
"Move the gem about with a cantrip," the librarian says to the the novice. The boy takes in a deep breath and summons up a small gale. The gem tilts slightly and the dust around it stirs. The novice waits a moment, but when no feeling of sickness overcomes him, he lets out a sigh of relief.
"Any other theories?" the librarian asks. Miaoyu shakes her head. "Then I would be happy to take the gem off your hands."
"No, I think I’ll hold onto it and see if I can figure out what it is. Do you happen to know where I can find a Tykanrian?"
The librarian stares, offended.
Miaoyu grins at him. "So… not that you’re willing to admit?"
The librarian’s jaw clenches and he blinks at Miaoyu rapidly.
"Frequent blinking is a sign of lying,” Miaoyu informs him offhandedly as she stands. “Just thought you should know."
"Then what does that say about snakes?" he asks coolly. Miaoyu suddenly becomes aware of the many holes about the room, perfect for snakes to travel through. He turns to his novice. "I believe it is time to escort the lady out."
The boy meekly opens the door of the room, beckoning to Miaoyu. She breezes through the door, pausing only to get in the last word: “I’ll let you know how the thing with Tykanria turns out. And I’ll tell them you say hello.”
The entire journey out, she’s caught between giggling and anxiously eying passing snakes.
Once everyone has finished their respective oaths and research, they all group up at the inn to await the results of Nüwa’s scrying.
It takes a long time and a lot of dancing, but eventually Nüwa finishes her ritual and begins to see glimpses of Seeker’s life. It starts at the beginning of Seeker’s life, and Nüwa just huffs. She has no particular interest in seeing him learn to walk, so she fast-forwards. She sees Seeker’s first meeting with Alfirin in a blur, his awkward attempts at courtship, and eventually their marriage. Finally, Nüwa reaches the point she was looking for: the night of the attack. The attackers are composed entirely of elves, who strike Seeker unarmed with elbows and knees until he loses consciousness. They don’t strike Alfirin, however. In fact, she leaves the scene so peacefully that Nüwa is forced to suspect that she had been enchanted; her initial reaction to the attack had been one of surprise and distress. The only other explanation would be that she faked those emotions, but there’s no clear reason why she would.
The vision jumps forward. Alfirin is with an old, withered pureblood elf. Elves only begin aging in their last few years of life, so for her to show her age she would be around four hundred years old. Alfirin and the other elf exchange spells in what seems to be a call and response.
Another montage begins, this time of its own accord. Nüwa sees Alfirin leave the forest. She spends some time traveling around Drougant, visiting many keeps and counties. Then she’s in Splitshade, asking around for what Nüwa assumes to be the dragon baron. She goes into a cave—likely the lair of the dragon—and time skips forward again, Nüwa’s scrying unable to penetrate the wards around it.
The last bit is brief. Alfirin mingles around the village, accepted as one of them and admired. In a keep not far from Splitshade, she meets with a familiar Dhar man. Next, she is writing out angry letters to an unknown recipient.
Nüwa’s spell ends: there is nothing left for her to see. She recounts it to the best of her ability.
There’s a long stretch of silence. Finally, Seeker manages to speak. “I knew there had to be an enchantment involved. That old elf, she might have been a Tykanrian, though I don’t know if they can be scryed on.”
“She must have been a mind mage or enchanter,” Aelron agrees.
“We might be able to look into that old elf,” Miaoyu says. “Given how old she was, she’s likely died of old age, but if she’s as powerful as we think she is others might know of her.”
The discussion continues for some time, but even with the new influx of information, they still only have bits and piece of the puzzle.
With that done, the party has a few days left in Brand. Aelron takes to creating a charm protection bracelet and Seeker begins working on his own spell. The priests of the group—everyone but Flynn, really—also have to worry about the newly implemented tithing that their priesthood demands to maintain favor with their respective gods.
For Seeker, Nüwa, and now Gavin, this is a simple task. The church of Laeros is a mainstream and organized religion, and as such their tithing comes in the traditional form of passing a percentage of their income to the church.
Miaoyu and Aelron, as members of small cults, have different demands. Aelron is required to spend a portion of his income on arts or other pursuits that would please the Mother of All Dragons, and as such he purchases some nice art supplies to begin a painting.
Gilgadar is a bit unusual in his tithing demands. Like many dwarven gods, he is also a hearth god, and asks that his priests help their respective communities gratis. Unlike other hearth gods, he is also a god of outcasts, thieves, and the homeless; his definitions of “helping” and “community” are a bit fluid. Basically, Miaoyu ends up stealing a lot of freshly-baked pies from windows and giving them to orphans.
Once half the children in Brand are well on their way to a sugar high, Miaoyu returns to the inn and stumbles across Seeker taking a break from his spell research. “Oh! Good, you’re not busy. Come here, I need your help with something.”
Miaoyu leads a curious Seeker to her room, sits him down on the bed and pulls out a bucket. “If I start vomiting, please do something.” Then she sits on the ground, pulls out the black gem, and begins communing with Gilgadar.
Hey Gilgadar, she asks sweetly, can you help me with something? I’m looking for a black gem.
Gilgadar is silent for a moment with utter incredulity. You mean one that’s about the size of your fist, has no shine, and leaks black... is that dust?
That’s the one! Miaoyu chirps.
Gilgadar sighs. Seriously?
Just humor me. It’s important, okay?
Miaoyu can almost hear Gilgadar roll his eyes. The gem you are looking for—the one that you’re looking at as you pray to me—is right there, in your hands.
Miaoyu beams. Okay, thanks! You’re the best!
Gilgadar grumbles something about someday having enough followers to demand a little respect and cuts the line between them. Miaoyu gives Seeker a thumbs up.
"No imminent vomiting! Looks like this is safe on the divine end."
Seeker seems pleased and together they return to the common room for Seeker to enjoy the rest of his break before resuming his research.
Later that evening, Miaoyu sneaks out to find a nice, boarded up house to duck into. She finds a windowless room and seals up the cracks in the doorway and anywhere else that lets light through. She counts down the minutes until the sun sets, then closes her eyes and begins to commune with Tykanria. She keeps it simple and reverent: she has something that may belong to Tykanria, and she would be happy to return it, if so desired. In the back of her mind, she can hear Gilgadar complaining that she’s never this respectful to him.
The prayer ends, and the gem still resides in Miaoyu’s pocket. She’s not concerned; if it does belong to Tykanria, she now knows that Miaoyu has no intention of withholding it should she want it.
Satisfied, Miaoyu breaks the seals on the door and leaves for the inn, casually dodging two men who attempt to mug her.