Journey to Fate’s doorstep: From the ruins to B’al Crek

The walls and floors of the stairway leading down are out of this world. Mordrock does not recognize the craftsmanship nor the type of strange marbled purple and black rock the corridor is made from. All three rooms down here are constructed with the same materials. In the first room the party encounters a table with a dead Ice Reach resident on it, missing the top of his skull and brain. A few mindflayers and intellect devourers surprise attack but are no match for the party. In the next room, the party finds a githzerai prisoner locked in a cage named Onas, who is drooling and appears to have endured incredible psychic and physical torture. Onas does not speak common so the party uses Nong as the translator.

After several heal spells, Onas coms to his senses, thanks the party and gives them a warning and a request for help; Onas is the last survivor of a raiding party on the ‘Ruins of Angdan’. During his torture he picked up glimpses of the mindflayers purpose here. They established this outpost over a century ago and have extended their reach to a goliath settlement to the northwest and west as far as Silverymoon. He has witnessed dozens of humanoids, some with grey skin, taken into this room and through a secret door which Onas believes is a route to a mindflayer outpost. Onas tells the party the mindflayer’s Elder Brain has located a Tarrasque trapped in a demi-plane and a sleeping Kraken under the sea of the Sword Coast; the Brain plans to unleash thousands of intellect devourers on both creatures to eventually subdue each of them. Once enthralled, the Brain will unleash the Tarrasque onto Faerun and the Kraken onto the Sword Coast. Onas realizes all of the captured humanoids taken through here are being turned into intellect devourers to feed this grand plan.

The party agrees to help Onas attack the mindflayer outpost behind the secret door. Naismith leads them through the secret door into a corridor, and down into a small room. Inside the room there is a strange structure; Onas gasps as he recognizes the structure to be a qualith portal – a gateway to a mindflayer hive colony. He proclaims the party to enter through the portal, seek out and kill the Elder Brain; this buys time for Onas to planeshift to his home, gather the armada and attack the hive colony. He hands Naismith a ring of Mind Shielding which also serves as a homing beacon for the githzerai armada.

Onas psionically shields the rest of the party, which will last for one hour. Both of these are protections from being discovered by the Elder Brain as soon as they exit the portal. Onas starts up the portal, watches the party step through then planeshifts away.

Disoriented and nauseous the party emerges from the portal onto a plateau over looking B’al Crek, a mindFlayer city somewhere deep in the Underdark. The huge cavern where the city is located is familiar to Royce, Nong and Naismith in terms of cavernous lighting by way of illuminating lichen and other bioluminescence. From this height they can make out the city’s buildings and identify the largest building in the center of the city; they set out to head there in hopes of finding the Elder Brain.

The party tries to covertly approach the city, trying to fit in as best as possible. Royce, Nong and Naismith recognize familiar Underdark kin – drow, duergar, grimlock, quaggoth and bugbear. Patrols of grimlocks and mindflayers walk the city perimeter. So far, no one detects their presence. The first building they encounter along the road into the city is where Mordrock catches the attention of an attractive woman carrying two flagons of wine, who opens the door of an octagonal building; she smiles and beckons Mordrock to follow her in. Mordrock pursues her and enters the building; eventually everyone else makes their way in.

Inside is luxuriously furnished in silk beds and chais lounges. Soft lighting floats around above as a half elf bard plays softly on a harp; skimpily clad consorts of various humanoid races lie about the room eating, drinking wine or gambling. Two concentric rings of pink marble raise the floor slightly in the center which is occupied by a large insect creature and a beautiful angel in shining armor; both creatures greet the party warmly as they enter.

The ice devil and erinyes instinctively know why the Drow’s Bane are in B’al Crek and jokingly point in the direction of where the Elder Brain resides. But they also suggest a game of chance as the ice devil pulls out a Deck of Many Things. The wager are the souls of all of the consorts or a magic item against whatever the Drow’s Bane offers up. Mordrock seems interested however the party cannot seem to decide on an offer when eventually Naismith makes his way in. Immediately, the ice devil and erinyes, proclaim the wager is what Naismith has in his bag (i.e. the Wand of Orcus) as both devils stand-up and start moving towards Naismith.

The devils’ action causes a fight to break out. Naismith tries to exit the door and finds a wall of ice blocking his way out. The erinyes takes to flight and fires poison arrows at the party. Consorts begin screaming and running out of the building while others hide in fear. Naismith goes down inviting the erinyes to swoop down and begin searching his bag. In this vulnerable position, she succumbs to party attacks and falls herself. Shortly after, the ice devil falls too. Fifteen minutes later, a mindflayer patrol enters the building from the south side right after the party exits from the north side, having confiscated a magical cloak beforehand.

The party quickly moves toward a main road to fold in with as many people walking to and from the city center. Royce abruptly stops the party as he recognizes up ahead a patrol of mindflayers, grimlocks and intellect devourers standing on opposite sides of the main road; the mindflayers appear to be reading minds as people cross their path. The party is not registered in B’al Crek and will alarm the mindflayers if they cross paths. Quickly, they detour off the main road into an open market; they make their way through drow and duergar vendors towards the large building in the city center. Someone successfully pickpockets Nong along the way.

They avoid another patrol reading minds when they hear loud cheering from a building not far away. They approach what looks like an amphitheater and notice a very unfair match inside – a goristro, whom the crowd is cheering for, against 6 halfing slaves. Minutes later, the party feels an intense vibration wash over their minds and bodies; a female voice telepathically speaks out across the cavern, “We are under attack, we are under attack! To arms! To arms my children!” and repeats the phrase several more times. People look around at each other, then look up and begin pointing at the sky. Six portals above the city open, each sparking lightning and chaotic energy as large adamantine citadels emerge from each of them. Hundreds of individuals begin jumping off the citadels and diving down towards the city, slowing their pace as they approach the ground; these are the Githzerai Armada who have finally arrived, seeking total mindflayer annihilation.

The party runs toward the large building as githzerai rain down around them. There is a moat surrounding the large building that is home to two hydra that emerge and fight the party. The moat spans twenty feet across. On the other side, Naismith sees two invisible mindflayers guarding an invisible doorway. The invisible mindflayers dash into the invisible doorway when the githzerai begin to land and attack. The party fights the hydras but does not spend the time needed to take them down. One-by-one, they jump, run, or swim across the moat and dash through the invisible doorway.

Inside is a large room supported by eight monumental columns resembling tentacles. In the middle of the room is a hole in the floor and ceiling; shambling around the room are several walking brain golems. The party realizes quickly these brain golems are superior meat shields that soak up a ton of damage. Nong kicks a few down the hole in the floor about the time the tentacle columns come to life and smack everyone around; Naismith falls from the damage but magically recovers. Eventually the party jumps down the hole in the floor to avoid further damage after Naismith sees and hears two adamantine citadels crash into the city from the sky. Maybe the tide is turning against the githzerai armada.

The hole leads to another room that contains walls and walls of brains in jars. The party continues to fight the brain golems; they also realize that as a golem goes down it explodes causing damage all around its body. Naismith notices the two invisible mindflayers are in this room watching the party fight; they look ready to attack the party. A lot of time is spent taking down the brain golems and then the mindflayers, which equates to significant damage to the party.

The Drow’s Bane must spend time to recover slowing their progress. During recovery, they hear from the room above a battle breaking out. Four githzerai, one being Onas, peer down into the room from above; they are glad to see the party alive. The four githzerai join the party in pursuit of the Elder Brain.

It takes a moment to realize how to unlock the floor lock but eventually they figure it out; the floor vanishes to reveal another hole. Jumping down they land into a room that contains two large pens with several humanoid slaves staring contently back at the party. A ritual is underway between three mindflayers and a captive half orc; the mindflayers surrounding the half orc, are in deep concentration; the kneeling half orc reacts to the mindflayers – first he begins to tremble, then his body stiffens as its skull falls open to reveal its brain. The brain turned intellect devourer, begins to move and falls out onto the floor.

The party and githzerai launch into attack and wipe out the mindflayers and intellect devourer. Onas can tell the slaves are under the Elder Brain’s control leaving them practically enthralled waiting for their turn at the horrid transformation ritual. Naismith notices on the wall two invisible windows; when he peers in, he notices each window reveals a demi-plane containing thousands of intellect devourers. The windows also have latches to allow for opening and closing. Onas says these intellect devourers are part of the master plan but there’s no time to deal with them so long as the Elder Brain lives. Another floor lock is opened and the party descends down into darkness.

They land in the back of a large room lit by torch light along the walls. A human and a huge serpentine beast stand in the middle of the room waiting for the party. The githzerai and party attack only to watch the monk take down a githzerai with the snap of his fingers. The serpentine beast lets out a string of lightning that hits several in the party and githzerai. The pair appear to be the Brain’s bodyguards and it is a tough fight. Eventually the party is successful taking them down only to find two intellect devourers spring out from the corpses. The toll after this battle are two dead githzerai, one being Onas.

There is a wall of force surrounding the Elder Brain’s room next door and the party is unclear on how to break it; dispel magic does not work. Naismith sees the wall of force extends into the ethereal plane so the party cannot use that plane to transport into the room. Given the walls are aberrant in nature, spells to move through rock are impossible either. Mordrock calls to Kelemvor for help and an angelic figure with ghostly wings and a dark visage appears. “What do you seek child of Kelemvor?” Mordrock explains to the angel about the wall of force. The angel replies, “You have what you need to remove the wall, just look around,” as it disappears after speaking. Someone figures out the wand has the potential to disintegrate the wall.

Nong takes the wand from Naismith and feels the power course through his body one more time. The familiar eye opens up in Nong’s mind as the eye closes in the mind of Naismith. “Join with me and we will destroy it and make it our undead servant!!” the Wand of Orcus says. This time Nong accepts the invitation to attune with the wand. Immediately the power fills Nong’s body but this time more happens. Nong opens his eyes and they are pitch black; his skin is changing color and he looks thinner. The familiar dark aura emanates around him and the wand but now with extreme intensity. The two githzerai take a step back in fear of what is happening to their comrade.

Nong walks up to the Wall of Force and touches it with the wand; the wand unleashes a disintegration spell and instantly destroys the wall. Inside the room is a huge tank with glowing pink water. The party rushes in and is hit with a psychic scream leaving some stunned. The party feels their minds being probed and a female voice telepathically taunts them. A tentacle emerges from the water, grabs Royce and stuns him while grappled; it then drags him underneath the water; more tentacles lash out and attempt to strike the party. One githzerai is grabbed but withstands the stunning effect of the grapple, and is also dragged underneath the water. Nong uses the wand to call forth an army of undead that rise up and surround the whole room; he commands them to attack the creature submerged twenty feet under the water. The skeletons and zombies obey, dive into the water and attack; some manage to hurt the creature just before the Elder Brain lets out another psychic scream and turns the undead into dust and bones. Everyone in the room feels the damage of the psychic scream t00.

Mordrock is now down, Nong and Naismith now watch what the Elder Brain does to Royce. A grappled stunned Royce moves toward the Brain where it reaches out and sucks Royce’s brain out of his head; Royce dies as the Elder Brain consumes the brain making it feel stronger. Naismith dives into the water to attack and Nong goes unconscious while being grappled. Naismith gets grappled by a tentacle and falls unconscious underwater; Nong miraculously wakes up from the brink of death.

The wand chastises Nong as he comes to consciousness. Nong stands up, dives into the pool and uses the wand to strike the death blow to the Elder Brain. The female voice telepathically screams as a psychic eruption explodes from the Elder Brain killing everyone in the room as it dies. Royce is dead underwater, Mordrock is unconscious on the floor, Naismith is unconscious underwater and Nong is unconscious on the water’s surface floating on his back.

After an hour Nong regains consciousness; after two Naismith stops choking to death and awakens and after three hours Mordrock opens his eyes. Both githzerai are dead and the Elder Brain is too. The party is victorious but at a tremendous cost. They hoist Royce’s dead body out of the briny water and attempt to rest. Several githzerai discover them and the party informs the githzerai of the death of Onas and the others. After the rest, the githzerai escort the party back out to meet Sithka, their commander.

Outside, B’al Crek is raised to the ground; there are fires burning, dead are littered everywhere and the stench of death is strong. Through the smoke, they come upon Sithka, the githzerai commander. She knows who the party is from Onas and salutes them. Naismith, using Comprehend Languages, can understand Sithka, but is hesitant to use Nong as the translator given Nong’s new appearance. Sithka looks over the party and their dead comrade and invites the Drow’s Bane back to her adamantine citadel to recover.

The party gladly accepts and begins to follow her, with Royce in tow.

Journey to Fate’s doorstep: Beyond Ice Reach to the mountain top

The rare sightings of a purple worm and remorhazes within a few days time leads Xzin and the party northward, to seek council at the Goliath Embassy. The goliaths are looked upon by Ice Reach residents as caretakers for some creature and some ceremony; these things are not discussed with outsiders but the party finds bits and pieces of information during their stay in Ice Reach.

After trekking two days north, the party arrives and Xzin presents the Drow’s Bane to the two goliath ambassadors. Xzin is humble and is looking for answers to the strange events occurring since the arrival of the Drow’s Bane to Ice Reach; like the other Ice Reach residents, Xzin holds the goliaths in high esteem for their wisdom and advice. But the goliaths responses are spiteful and chastising; they believe the Drow’s Bane are imposters and need to be punished.

A battle begins in spite of Xzin trying to mediate the situation. The goliaths rage and viciously fight the party but are eventually overtaken and fall. Xzin, shocked in horror by the turn of events, comes clean with the truth. There is a silver dragon named Angdan who lives on the top of the mountain. Angdan routinely conducts a ‘Ceremony of the Silver Heart’ that Xzin believes is honorable. Worthy Ice Reach residents, visitors and all Ice Reach children partake in the ceremony by way of the Goliath Embassy; these selected individuals journey up the Silver Path, meet Angdan and under his guidance become protectors of the realm, never to be seen again.

The wand of Orcus is destabilizing the bag of holding and Royce removes it seconds before the bag implodes. The Wand reacts to Royce’s handling of it, by instantly killing Royce and turning him into a zombie. The party deals with the situation and resurrects Royce; Xzin, in shock and horror, witnesses these unholy events and mocks the party for mocking him about the goliaths, Angdan and the Ceremony of the Silver Heart.

The party settles down once Royce awakens and takes a long rest; unaware the wand’s aura is causing the goliath corpses to rot and spoiling all food in the area; ice cockroaches responding to the wand’s aura, have assembled in the corners of the room by the time the party wakes up.

The trek up the Silver Path is nearly vertical, hiking 500 feet up the mountain to a path made of clouds, that ascends another 500 feet up to the mountain top. Besides extreme cold weather, the Drow’s Bane are attacked by two rocs on the cloud path. A roc grabs hold of Royce and drops him 500 feet below; Royce survives and calls forth Daern’s Instant Fortress for protection. Nong, Naismith and Mordrock perform acts of ‘Cirque du Soleil’ on the rocs as a way to counter the roc’s grab and drop tactic. During this encounter, Xzin is never attacked by the rocs even though he attacks the creatures in self defense.

The party continues up the cloud path after disposing the rocs; one nearly crashes into Daern’s Instance Fortress 500 feet below. The mountain top consists of a large space centered around ancient ruins; 50 feet above the ruins a heart shaped cloud hovers revealing just a face of a silver dragon. For a few hours, Naismith, Nong, Mordrock and Xzin hang out at the mountain top edge, recovering from the roc attack while Royce recovers in the Instant Fortress.

When the party crosses into the area with the ruins, the dragon speaks and welcomes the party to approach as five chairs made of clouds form in front of a table made of clouds. The chair backs resemble elongated dragon necks that extend into dragon heads over the top of the chairs. A woman greets the party and apologizes for Angdan being unable to assist the party on the cloud path due to the extreme weather. Xzin immediately recognizes the woman to be his wife, Shevin, and runs to her; the couple embraces and just goes after each other as if they have not seen each other for days. Xzin pulls back from their kiss and tells Shevin about the Goliath Embassy.

Angdan laughs, flys out of the heart shaped cloud and lands his huge body next to the cloud table and chairs. He beckons the party to approach, sit and converse. Nong, Naismith and Mordrock approach and begin talking with Angdan. Eventually one of them sits down on a dragon chair. What happens next is a surprise for the group: something hiding in the head of the chair attempts to attack and fails, revealing itself to be an intellect devourer! Four other intellect devourers climb out of the other chairs and attack. Angdan takes off circling around the area, taunting the Drow’s Bane.

Shevin pushes Xzin onto the ground and taunts her husband as she unsheathes her long sword and moves to attack the party. Xzin is besides himself, confused with what he’s witnessing between his wife’s and Angdan’s behavior.

Naismith, Nong and Mordrock engage, taking down the intellect devourers in between Angdan’s breadth weapon, claws and tail swings. Nong takes down Shevin as Angdan takes down Mordock; when Shevin falls, an intellect devourer emerges from her head and attacks Nong. Naismith moves around the battlefield, ducking and covering and unleashing damage to the dragon. The battle is difficult without Royce’s support and eventually Nong is barely up, when a mindflayer exits out of the ruins and attacks. Xzin comes out of shock and attacks the mindflayer only to be stunned by the mindflayer’s mind blast.

Naismith, who is hiding but cornered, reaches into his bag and takes hold of the wand as Angdan searches for the rogue, flying above. The wand responds to Naismith’s command and an arc of necrotic energy releases from it into the dragon! Angdan lets out a great roar as the necrotic energy tears into his flesh. The sound is so loud, even Royce hears it causing Royce to check in with the party. Minutes later, Royce shifts into the Ethereal plane and travels up the mountain.

Naismith delivers the killing blow to Angdan using the wand one more time. The wand reaches out to Naismith with excitement and a thirst for destruction; it tries to join with Naismith but fails. The familiar eye in Nong’s mind closes as an eye in Naismith’s mind opens. An intellect devourer emerges from Angdan’s head and attacks. Naismith quickly puts it down.

Royce recovers the party and as Mordrock’s eyes awaken he watches as Xzin, speaking to himself walks past; Xzin looks in shock, with unfocused eyes and babbling to himself, “…my life is a lie…I’m a joke…what was my wife…what did I do to my children!?!…” Mordrock stands up and calls out to Xzin as he watches Xzin walk off the side of the mountain, falling to his death.

After the party recovers they make their way down the stairs that leads deeper into the ruins.

Journey to Fate’s doorstep: Ice Reach

Mordrock now carries the bag of holding that contains the wand of Orcus. When Mordrock opens the bag to peer inside for the first time, his mysterious necklace flashes intense burning heat. The flash of heat pricks his skin as he recognizes, what is inside the bag reeks of tremendous necrotic power. Nong is also interested in the bag of holding and draws closer to Mordrock.

Ice Reach is a human settlement founded 50 years ago by an expedition led from Silverymoon to Highmelt Lake region. In Highmelt Lake, the expedition stumbles upon the rare Greyboon fungus and discovers Bluefin Tinker fish spawning grounds. The Bluefin Tinker fish brain is an alchemical ingredient to make potions of water-breathing and also induces a temporary fugue state when ground up and snorted; the latter property is a component much sought after in the pleasure houses of the realm. Between Greyboon sustenance and Bluefin Tinker to trade, the expedition setup a fragile settlement called Ice Reach. The offspring of the expedition leaders, a man known as Xzin, is the current jarl of Ice Reach.

The inhabitants of Ice Reach have grey mottled skin; a result of consuming Greyboon fungus. Once a person consumes 3 servings of Greyboon fungus his/her system can no longer sustain itself on any other food source.

Xzin appreciates the party’s assistance with the remorhaz attack on the quarry. Ice Reach has not experienced a remorhaz attack since the extreme blizzard two years ago that caused much of the remorhaz natural prey to parish. Plus, the party receives bonus points for Mordrock helping prepare the dead for the evening funeral. Unfortunately, these bonus points are quickly cancelled when Royce threatens to level Ice Reach with an earthquake in front of Xzin and several guards the next morning.

The party meets the enthusiastic Wrennick, foreman of the Greyboon harvesting operations. Wrennick is delighted to have guests interested in a tour of the Greyboon cave. The large cavernous Greyboon cave brings to mind memories of the Underdark to Royce, Naismith and Nong. Unfortunately, Wrennick stumbles down a wrong path and right into the open mouth of a purple worm. This causes the mouth to close and swallow at the same time the party stops dead in their tracks in shock of what just happened.

Journey to Fate’s doorstep: Skyreach Castle

The party prepares for a long night’s rest on top of the huge bed that serves as Blagothkus’s ‘guest bedroom’. Royce lays down, closes his eyes, and offers a prayer to Tempus. He allows his mind to reflect on the day, “flying on pegasi, a Cloud Giant and his humongous castle and a battle with huge monsters – haven’t seen that in awhile.” The remorhaz battle was dangerous and it reminded Royce how out of shape he feels. “The rush of adrenaline and fear, thinking on your feet and keeping focused on spells in the heat of battle – man I am out of shape but happy we did our job, praise Tempus!”

His mind shifts to reflect on this new cleric of Kelemvor accompanying the Drow’s Bane, the hill dwarf Mordrock, “I like the guy so far, seems to have an interesting history. Boy does Lady Silverhand like him, haha. I wonder if Kelemvor and Tempus are good buddies?” He smiles to himself, “I loved when Mordrock casted that banishment spell just at the right time. He definitely feels to me like he can stand on his own which is great… I get this odd feeling, Skyreach and Blagothkus is all he knows. The description Blagothkus told us about the human settlement, Ice Reach, didn’t appear to resonate any familiarity with Mordrock.”

Royce’s mind settles on Nong for a moment, “Nong is back which is good, but so is his uncomfortable stares and such. Every time I sense something, I turn and there he is, staring at me or sitting right beside me. As if that isn’t enough oddity, now my sword is complaining about being too close to the wand. We have to do something about this soon. That evil artifact has a mind of its own and will not just behave. Tempus what is this trial you have given me?”

Naismith turns over and tries to calm his mind from a day full of adventure, “I did not expect such a day. Today put my Skullport shenanigans to shame. Even though we managed to take those humongous things down, our synergy was off; it wasn’t the same without Kendall and Illian. Nong was fearless in battle of course, even more so than before. If there was an ounce of fear in him like I felt, he never showed it. Kendall and Illian would have been proud to be at his side today.”

Naismith thinks for a moment, “Unfortunately, we must take the good with the bad in this life. Nong outside of battle is back to his peculiarities again with Royce. I feel we’ve only just begun to tread down this road.”

Mordrock lay on his back staring at the ceiling 100 feet above. He exhales and watches his breath condense into a misty cloud that slowly dissipates, “Skyreach is just as awesome as I remember it, except for the 3 huge burrow holes and dead remorhazes in the courtyard. Blagothkus looks a bit older and a tad less agile, but aren’t we all? His story about freeing his wife’s spirit is bittersweet; may Kelemvor show her the way to eternal rest. One day you free your wife’s spirit, say goodbye and the next day random pegasi show up and never leave your side…pretty awesome.” Mordrock shifts over to his side, before closing his eyes he scans the top of the bed, taking in the guys who call themselves the Drow’s Bane, “These three seem cool although I think the cleric and monk are embarrassed to talk to me about their past relationship that might have gone sour. I get it, we have only known each other for 2 days. The way I see the monk stare at the cleric tells me the attraction is not over. The last thing we need on this trip is for romantic drama to get in the way.”

Nong settles into a deep meditative state; he returns his breadth to its familiar steady rhythm of inhales and exhales. He allows his mind to awaken and focus deeply inward, “I acknowledge the the feeling of satisfaction for my battle discipline today. I acknowledge a moment of regret that Kendall and Illian were not on the battlefield with us. I allow myself to feel content for the camaraderie with Royce and Naismith again.” Nong’s breadth pauses as his mind moves deeper into reflection. He allows his mind to uncover something that has returned, something that is open again. Nong’s mind sees an eye staring back at him from the far corner of his mind…somewhere on the distant horizon. He moves toward the eye, reaches out and touches it. The contact generates an emotion – a feeling of being in the heat of battle…adrenaline…strength…control…focus. There is also a subtler feeling underneath that Nong uncovers.

He allows his mind to experience this deeper feeling; it is one of chaos, submission to a greater power and of dominance over all. This feeling is so intense and intoxicating; it seems to nourish itself on the feelings of battle. Nong’s breadth is unsteady now as he moves his mind away from the eye. He tries to regain the steady breathing rhythm but it is difficult. He awakens and his eyes lock on Royce’s; immediately Royce looks away. Nong turns over and begins to calm his mind again; hopefully this time he can just fall asleep.

Journey to Fate’s doorstep: 24th of Marpenoth (month 10), Catchbreeze

With a popping sound, Kendel appears in the center of an elaborate gemstone mosaic full of magic sigils. He is swathed in a number of extra robes, a hooded, fur-lined cape and a scarf the size of a small country. When he turns to move towards Catchbreeze’s central staircase, he looks like a ship under full sail. One of his wraps unfurls as he walks, revealing a large stack of scrolls, documents and parcels that he cradles close to his chest. 

As Kendel ascends to the library, Petha, in her usual livery but with an added shawl, comes through the decorative panel that serves as hidden doorway for serving staff. She carries a small bundle of scrolls and smiles warmly as she sees Kendel approach. “Ser Kendel! A moment of your time, if you please.” He smiles back at the liveried half-elf. “How do you always happen to know precisely when I arrive, Petha?” She lowers her eyes a tad. “We have our ways, ser. Because you are so close to completing the circle, we have set it to activate  a small bell downstairs when it is used.” She waits a moment, then continues. “Could I have your attention for a bit of correspondence, or is this not a good time?” She offers him some scrolls from her stack. Kendel eyes them distractedly. “I should have time to attend to these before supper. Thank you. Could you perhaps ask Tarrus to mull some wine? It does go so well with the weather, this time of year.” Petha nods. “I will also instruct Joscellan to light the fires in your apartment. Will you require his assistance with evening dress as well, ser? We’re not expecting guests tonight.” Kendel looks relieved at this news and shakes his head. “I’ll likely be overdressed as it is.” 

He winks at Petha, then disappears into the library and unceremoniously dumps his armload of goods onto his favorite desk, which already overflows with piles of books and papers. He rummages for a while, then picks up one of the scrolls the majordomo gave him. It is a small scroll, sealed with a familiar crest. Doubtlessly this was his mothers’ monthly missive, informing him of this ball or that fête, and notifying him of the presence of certain ah.. available and suitable young elvish women from good families. He tosses the scroll, unread, into the fire that burns in a hearth a few feet from his workplace. Next, he picks up an even smaller scroll bearing the same crest. Aleda, his younger sister, liked to write to him whenever his mother did, for reasons he could not discern. Her notes, full of small, homely stories and summaries of her recent lessons always cheered him up. The last note had mentioned an infatuation of some sort. She’d asked him for secrecy, implying that the object of her affections was not a maternally pre-approved candidate. He really should remember to invite her to spend a few days here. She would love the library, and would likely spend hours giggling with Yonica, the stable girl, and she could get a break from their mother’s meddling which would undoubtedly do her good. Maybe he could even persuade her to introduce this interest of hers. Get a feeling for whoever it was. Amused by this sudden surge of fraternal protectiveness he puts the small scroll aside. He’d read that one later and compose a reply.

A third scroll carries the official seal of the royal court of Gauntlgrym. He opens it. He frowns at the note. Just to make sure, he makes a few quick gestures over it. The note remains unchanged. No magic. No illusions. Unusual. Why only him? He’d have to take it up with the others. Well, the few who remained, at least. 

The fourth scroll looks even more impressive than the third. This one has two seals: one of Lady Laeral Silverhand, Open Lord of Waterdeep and another, showing it to have been sent via the hand-to-hand rider service organized by the Caravaneersguild. The news was likely urgent then. He scans the contents of the scroll, his frown deepening. He purses his lips in annoyance, makes a decision and snaps his fingers. In response the old brass bell that hangs in the estate’s foyer as a reminder of its past, emits a sound as if it was rung in a belfry. Before the ringing echoes have faded away, Kendel has swung open the tall, carved doors that lead to Catchbreeze’s magnificent dining room. He seats himself at the head of the table.

A multitude of footsteps approach. Naismith enters at a rushed pace, followed on his heels by a pony-sized, eight-legged lizard with luminescent eyes. Kendel twiddles his fingers at the beast, and she gives him an obliging blink. “What news, Kendel. Are we under attack?” The wizard looks at his roguish friend with alarm. “I’d like to think not. Should we be?” Naismith frowns for a split second, but then denies cheerfully. “Then what? News from Ilian? Nong?” Kendel shakes his head. “Nothing quite so… concrete, I am afraid. But let us wait until Royce is also here.” Naismith gives his elvish friend an exasperated look. “He’s at the temple. He wouldn’t hear that.” Kendel looks smug. “Of course he does.” “Oh.” 

The silence at the table is only interrupted by the sandpapery sound of the large lizard stretching herself on the flagstones in front of the impressive fireplace. Hearing her sigh contentedly, Kendel nods at her. “She seems to do well under your keeping.” Understanding the intent behind the compliment Naismith drops the scowl. “Yeah. Petri’s not bad. Jero asked us the other day to help him deal with a nest of dire hares that was too much for Yonica’s little dogs. She had so much fun.”

They chat about matters of the house for a while, until they hear the estate’s large front doors slam open. A commotion enters the house along with an icy eastern wind. Naismith’s daggers flash in his hands, Petri jumps up, her eyes glowing brighter. Kendel makes the first gestures of a spell. Not until they recognize the voices do they begin to breathe again. 

Yonica’s high-pitched voice sounds panicky “Ser, it’s no way to leave the horse like that! It’s soaking wet. It’ll catch a cold!” Nong responds impatiently: “Then you’ll do me the favor of drying him off, girl. Ride him back to Silvanus’ temple here in Waterdeep. That’s where he goes.” Royce interrupts, trying to smooth matters over. “Best leave it for now, Yonica. Can you handle taking the horse to the temple? Otherwise, Sur will be glad to help you, I’m sure.” 

A pair of light footsteps disappears from earshot. Catchbreeze’s heavy front doors fall shut. Royce speaks up again. “Nong! Not that I’m not glad to see you, man, but you left your manners wherever you’ve been hiding. She’s just a child.” Nong growls: “Who has time to be polite when our arcane taskmaster rings a bell in your head. What am I? Some dog? To be called at will?” Royce laughs at this. “Still, it’s good that you’ve come back. All hale and whole, I hope?” A brief silence falls. “Good, good. Then maybe we should go see what our wizard has to say.” 

Docks Ward

Mordrock sits at the bar at Kissfettle’s and stares down at the small scroll that was pressed into his hand by a hurried messenger an eighth bell ago. Why would they summon him? Why now? Did this have something to do with what happened three days ago? How would she have known? He shakes his head. No other way to find out but to obey the summons. Besides, only a fool ignores a request made by Lady Silverhand.

Journey to Fate’s doorstep: 21st of Marpenoth (month 10), Trades Ward

It had been a long day among the graves of the city, and it had been full dark before Mordrock- sore and nigh-frozen – had made his way back to his rooms. Once there, he’d poked the fire and suspended a large copper plate above the flames. After Dewen had brought his supper upstairs, he’d moved the plate to between the blankets and the straw pallet in his sleeping alcove. He decided he was too tired for dinner, choosing to portion out some of the fish to Skeet and go to bed. The other cats would simply have to wait until morning.

He’d dropped his outer clothes where he stood, but kept on shirt and leggings. Even with the bedwarmer it would be a cold night. Frost blooms would creep up his window by midnight, and by morning the water in the ewer would be be covered with ice.

About an hour later, Mordrock tosses and turns in his sleep. He seems to awaken, takes a deep breath and turns onto his side, before he falls back into a slumber. 

A dream gradually takes over his senses and transitions him into a ghastly abyssal scene where he floats over a horrid wasteland. The scent of rot and decay fills his nostrils. Above him, a sickly shade of green illuminates the sky. 

A fierce wind from the South propels Mordrock forward, pushing him at an unbearable pace. He glances South to witness a great host of angels, flying at break-neck speed. They fly past him, sweeping him up as they move northward. Their destination: a castle on the horizon. 

The angels fly over a river red as blood, which leads them to the castle’s doorstep. Mordrock watches as the castle comes into view. It is enormous and appears to be made of bone and sinew. The area surrounding the castle is filled with throngs of undead; loud, ghastly cries rise from their decaying forms as they shamble and stumble in maddened patterns. 

The angels pierce through windows into the castle’s interior carrying Mordrock with them. Crossing the windowed threshold he begins to convulse at first site of the interior walls made of putrid flesh oozing pus and floors of humanoid hair matted with blood, crushed bone and ichor. 

The dream pivots and Mordrock is no longer flying but stands on solid ground. All around him, battle rages. Vast angelic hosts engage hordes of undead demons in a fray that stretches as far as he can see. A squad of angels with golden tridents darts past him, he catches a glimpse of Kelemvor’s symbol tattooed across their backs. 

The angels with golden tridents close in on an undead titan thundering through the battlefield and hastily fell the creature. As it falls, screeching, it reaches out with broken claws and snags several of the angels, pulling them to their doom alongside its dying body. The fighting tangle crashes onto sharp rocks with a horrible, earth-shattering sound. A dozen rivulets of demonic and angelic ichor mingle and run down the rock face.

The dream pivots again. Mordrock is back in the castle, somewhere in the shadows of a huge chamber that smells rancid with undeath. In the center of this chamber sits a large throne made of bone; dark gems outline the arms, back and legs. 

Seven angels fly into the chamber and surround the throne, searching frantically. In seconds, they locate a pulsating gem and force it out of its socket. A black cloud erupts from the empty socket engulfing five of the angels; seconds later, they turn to dust as the gem tumbles toward the floor. 

The sixth angel snatches the gem before it hits the floor; in the angel’s grasp, the gem unleashes a curse that washes over the angel. Gripped by panic, it throws the gem to its last remaining ally before it screams and tears at its skin. From inside the angel’s body a violent figure erupts– an undead balor, roaring in mad rage as it crawls out of the angelic husk and lunges toward the remaining angel. A wave of hopelessness washes over Mordrock as he realizes the angel is no match against the balor. The angel knows it too. Still clutching desperately to the gem it frantically looks around the chamber. When it locks eyes with Mordrock, it sends a jolt of radiant energy down Mordrock’s spine. 

With an inarticulate roar, Mordrock jumps up. Tangled in his sheets and hampered by the low ceiling of his sleeping alcove, he stumbles, half catches himself and smashes into a shelf on the wall. Several glass specimen jars shatter on the floor. He swears, then stands bent over, panting. He’s had nightmares before, but not like this. Nothing remotely like this.

Thunder cracks in the small room and Mordrock flings himself around. A portal opens, obscuring his bed. From inside, a grievously injured angel lunges forward. With a final burst of strength, it fixates on Mordrock. Inside his head, he hears an angelic voice, short and breathy with exhaustion. “Guard this with your life…Until the time is right… To free it…We all…Have sacrificed our lives for this… Keep it safe…Mordrock of Kelemvor.” 

With those words, the gem disappears from the dying angel’s hand.  A weight pulls on Mordrock’s neck as the gem appears there, suspended from a thin chain. Mordrock begins to form a thought, tries to speak. Then, a huge, clawed hand reaches through the portal and crushes the angel’s head. Angelic ichor sprays out from between the monstrous claws across the room as the portal closes. 

Clutching at the gem around his neck, Mordrock stares wild-eyed at the messy pile of blankets where the portal was. Only after several seconds does he blink and realize he’s standing in a puddle of embalming fluid and ichor, surrounded by chunks of flesh, pieces of skin and the well-preserved body of a large, two-headed kitten.

Journey to Fate’s doorstep: 5th of Marpenoth (month 10), Grasperspire

The last leaves still cling to their branches at lower altitudes, but a frigid wind whirls around the peaks of the northern Sword Mountains. On one inhospitable plateau on an eastern flank stands a small lean-to. In front of it, a large area is cleared of snow. In the middle of that clearing, with a single bare foot on the frost-covered granite, stands a half-orc. His stance appears relaxed and effortless. 

On the edge of the clearing, a handful of men and women have gathered. Most of them are human, but two young half-orcs are present as well. Some sit huddled around a tiny, smokeless fire. A few others stand, appearing to imitate the man in the center with limited success. They windmill their arms. They sway sideways. One eventually falls, but gets back up to try again. The man in the middle pays them no mind. They might as well not be there at all. This scene continues without change from morning until well past midday. The students break for a meal and hot tea, but the man in the center continues his meditations, as interminable as the wind.

Just as the students begin preparations to descend from the plateau, the unending rush of wind is interrupted by a sound. All but the monk in the center look around in bewilderment. What causes this eerie noise? Where is it coming from? Why is it getting louder? Just as some are starting to look up, seeking a bird, a wild pig of enormous size comes tearing up the narrow goat path that is the only access to this remote location. In its haste, it bowls over three students, and scatters the rest with a long, ear-splitting squeal. Seemingly ignoring the fleshy obstacles in its way, the pig runs straight for the half-orc, who remains unmoving. 

Just as the pig lowers its head in preparation for a charge, the meditating man responds. With a nigh imperceptible movement, he is suddenly airborne, landing again just behind the pig, still on one leg. The pig attempts to stop and turn but slips on the smooth rock and collides violently with the little lean-to. Its dried-out branches break apart into a cloud of splinters that shower the pig. Once the boar emerges from the wreckage, the monk puts down his other leg, opens his arms and grins widely. The pig trots up to his friend and nuzzles him, then presses close and squeezes its little eyes shut in deep contentment. Nong puts his arms around the pig’s neck and smilingly intones: “As Elder Brother Talik says: ‘An unexpected visit from a friend is a string for any harp’.” Hearing him speak, the students suddenly approached their chosen master. A young human woman speaks up: “Elder Brother Nong, please tell us. What is the lesson of the pig?”

Nong stares at her and scowls for several seconds. She blushes and moves to the back of the little group. From behind them all, a voice says “The lesson of the pig is that a visit from a friend is only unexpected if you don’t tell them where you are.” The students turn en-masse to gawk at the windblown, mousy half-elf who seems to have appeared out of thin air “The lesson of the ranger, if you care to hear it, is that you should go down from the mountain for the day. The wind is picking up and night will fall soon. Shoo! Off you go.” Leaving Nong and Tusker to their re-acquainting, she begins to herd the students down the path.

Some time later, when the students’ puzzled, excited voices have stopped echoing off of the mountainside, Ilian, Nong and Tusker huddle together in the ranger’s small tent. Its sides bend and billow under the freezing mountain gale. 

“A few days to yourself, Nong, of course. No one would begrudge you that. But leaving for weeks? No one has heard from you for months! You could at least have sent word.” It’s rare for Ilian to take such a reproachful tone, but Nong is not impressed. He snorts. “Time is like scales on a snake: many, but slithering by without notice. One day of meditation here outweighs a full month of vapid courtesy and listening to the trite little woes of over-fed lords and satin-wrapped ladies. Besides…” Nong lifts a finger at Ilian and gives her a hard stare “you coming here and lecturing me is rich. You’re the one who left. It’s different for you, even. You don’t have Royce watching your every step, eying you like a dog that might be rabid, jealously guarding your own hard-won treasure from you.” 

Ilian sighs and scratches Tusker behind a plate-sized ear. “I’ve told you as much as I can about why I left. The Emerald Enclave needs my help. I’d invite you along if I could,  but it’s really a one-person job and they’ve asked for me to be discrete. Otherwise, you’re right. I don’t have Royce watching me. I didn’t pick up the Wand of Orcus. You did. And I think half of what you’re feeling now, is the price you pay for it.

Nong glowers. “That’s a cheap bit of spirit-reading you’re trying there. Leave it. I need to make something clear to you. We’re a team, sure. I’d put my life on the line for you. Often have, in fact. But that doesn’t mean I have to like you. Tusker, sure, he’s easy to get along with. I like him well enough. Food is really all he wants. But with you, there’s all these added expectations. Play nice. Say pleasant things. Don’t leave without saying so. Be a team. Same with the others. I thought Royce and I could be friends once. Now, he looks at me like he can’t decide whether I am a dangerous madman or a disobedient pupil. Like his motives are pure, hoarding the Wand the way he has been doing.” The monk snorts in anger.

In the silence after that harsh exchange, Nong busies himself by feeding Tusker some scraps of groundhog stew and crusts of rye bread. Ilian pulls her bow on her lap and starts waxing the string. Eventually, she says: “Don’t mistake concern for condescension, Nong, or worry for pity. Maybe you’re right and Royce has his own battle with the Wand of Orcus. And sure, he’s not the man he once was. His return from death took a toll on him. I think it changed how all of us feel about him. But like you, he’d put his life on the line for yours. Often has, in fact. As would I. Any of us would – I’m sure of it. But you’re making it hard on all of us when you disappear like you did. It’s even worse because I had to go away, and then you were nowhere to be found. Drow’s Bane can’t be effective with two of its members missing. We… I mean. They. They need you to come back.” 

Nong looks at the ranger for a while as she straightens the fletchings on the arrow that killed their dinner. “So you’ve come to fetch me back? Is that why they sent you?”

Ilian shakes her head. “No one’s sent me. I’m on my way already for the work that takes me away from you. And I’m not fetching you. But your absence has all the others worried, and they don’t know what to do. I thought I might take time to find you while I’m on the road. Reason with you. See if I could persuade you to come back. Beg, if I have to. Leave your little flock to their own devices and spend time with those who you don’t need to answer questions for.”

The monk pulls his cloak tighter across his shoulders, and rolls to face the tent wall with a grunt, using Tusker’s meaty shoulder as a pillow. After a minute or two he grumbles: “I’ll sleep on it.” 

The tent gets dark as Ilian blows out their candle. “You do that. I’ll take watch.”

The next morning Nong wakes up in an empty tent. In a single, fluid movement, he rolls out through the tent flap, onto his barren mountain refuge. There, he sees some splintered wood from his lean-to set ablaze . A small metal kettle stands beside it in the hot ashes, steam billowing out of its spout. Next to the fire lies the one unbroken piece of wood that formed the backbone of his lean-to: his magic quarterstaff. 

Ilian soon appears with a cloak pocket bulging with tubers and roots and thin, green stalks. She  carries a few pale eggs in her hands. “I was hoping we could have breakfast before I go.” she says. “And you figured you could use my house to cook it?” Ilian’s shoulders drop a little. “There was no way you could have repaired it after Tusker collided with it. I might as well use it for kindling.” After having set down the eggs, she pulls a small pouch out of yet another cloak pocket and tosses it at Nong. “Make tea, will you? I’ll cook all of this.” 

They eat in a silence that’s almost companionable. “Where’s the pig?” Nong asks, as he mops up some yolk with his finger. “Foraging, I guess.” Before the half-orc has finished his food, however, the pig appears with an excited trot and something dangling from his mouth. Before Nong can even ask, Tusker drops his catch at the monk’s bare feet. The dropped items are wet with drool and have a couple of porcine teethmarks, but are nevertheless recognizable as a very nice pair of very magical boots. Nong stares at the pig in astonishment. “I buried those. Where did you find them?” Ignoring the question, the humongous boar sniffs enquiringly at Nong’s bowl. The monk pushes the remains of his breakfast over to the pig, then uses a corner of his cloak to dry the boots. He stares at them for a long while, face unreadable. Eventually, he puts them on.

Across the fire, the ranger begins to smile. 

Through the steam of her mug of tea she says: “Once you get down to Mountainside, go to the inn of the one-horned ram. The innkeeper knows my name, and she’s got a lovely sorrel gelding in her stables. His name is Acorn. Do me a favor and ride him to Silvanus’s Shrine in Waterdeep for me. I can’t take him any further, and you might as well make good time on your way home.”

Journey to Fate’s doorstep: 12th of Eleasis (month 8), Docks Ward, Pier 16

No bed compares to a hammock on a ship in calm waters. Despite the conversation that ran late into the night, Royce wakes up feeling more rested than he’s done since before he took custody of the Wand and ended up in the resulting series of arguments with Nong. He stretches slowly, touching the thick beams that support the deck above, then heads towards the ladder to get up above.

The quay is milling with people. Large kegs of clean water are being carried into the belly of the Flaming Sword, and empty barrels are unloaded. As he makes his way towards the gang plank, thinking he might brave the retrieval of his cloak himself, a lithe figure catches his eye. He’s off he ship in no time and steps between the ware houses into a narrow alley that smells strongly of piss and fish guts. 

“Tempus has guided your steps.” Ilian says, beaming. “I knew I’d find you here. Did your old captain tell you he’d brought me into port yesterday?” “It came up, yeah. He didn’t know who you were, though. Not precisely. Said he thought you were some sort of Emerald Enclave agent. Seems to have no idea you know me.” “He’s a good man, Royce. You’re his spitting image, sometimes. Even if he hadn’t talked about you the way he does, I would have guessed you two were close. I didn’t tell him I knew you. I didn’t think he needed the questions.” Royce frowns. “But I have many questions. I thought you were long gone. Why are you back here? Where did you run off to? Whereto now? And White Hair said you’d paid an inordinate price for your passage. Do you need more gold?” Ilian, laughing, holds up her hands in defense to the onslaught. “You’re asking directions to a known destination, Royce. You know I came from down south for me to be able to sail in on this ship. You know that my decision to disembark here means I must continue inland, otherwise I would have told captain Mollor to head further north. Your dear captain surely also told you that the gold he received came in a bag marked by the Emerald Enclave. They are not stingy and I will be well-equipped for what is to come.”

“As to why…” she continues, “You know I can’t share that. But I’ll tell you that I plan to visit an abandoned town called Conyberry, in the hopes of getting some answers from an ancient source of knowledge that is said to reside there. I’m hoping she can lead me closer to my eventual goal, but also give me a hint about Nong’s location. I heard he’s left without a word and it worries me that he has not returned. If I can, I’ll seek him out.”

Royce nods “Can’t say I’m satisfied with your answers, Ilian. Don’t blame me if I try to keep an eye on you.” She laughs again. “I wouldn’t expect anything else. Besides, after letting me convince you to spare Menzoberranzan, I feel like there isn’t anything I could refuse you.” Royce pauses for a moment. “It made strategic sense. That’s why I agreed. But now that I’ve had time to think, I believe it would have been unjust to slay those who are trapped in a system with no real choice between good and evil. And most of that city… They had no choice. They see themselves as slavers, but I couldn’t tell many of them apart from the slaves they kept.” Ilian eyes her friend for a few seconds “That sounds… unusually nuanced, for someone of your faith.” “Tell me about it. Those acolytes I’m training… I’ve tried to talk to them. But they dismiss it as me getting soft in my old age. They only want the stories. None of the lessons. I just wish they’d stop treating me like I was their father. They’re barely younger than me!” Ilian smiles “Going down below ages anyone before their time, I think. Even if they don’t run into evil ghosts. I must be off, in any case. Can’t stay long.” Royce raises an eyebrow. “You said you couldn’t refuse me anything. So I say we’re having breakfast before you go. Call out Tusker from wherever you hid him. There’s a tavern in Shinbone Alley that I’ve been meaning to go to and you’re coming too.” 

Ilian places her hand in the crook of Royce’s elbow. “Tusker is with Yonica, so his breakfast is arranged. Let’s go eat. You can tell me how you’ve been doing keeping that big evil wand from corrupting anyone.”

Journey to Fate’s doorstep: 12th of Eleasis (month 8), Skullport, Hope Street

Naismith, in a muted disguise and without his shiny rapier, has claimed a stool in the Pick and Lantern, one of the more human-friendly taverns down here. It’s just past midnight and it’s a good night – busy, with a mixed crowd of regulars and newcomers. He’s finished his fourth drink and wonders if he wants another one when a young serving lad approaches him. He gestures to order another drink. Much to his surprise, however, the boy slides a piece of paper towards him. “Your reck’ning, sir”. Much faster than any human child has a right to, he is gone. The hair on the back of his neck prickles, but he forces himself to sit quietly. Behind his cup he carefully unfolds the slip of paper that he palmed. It is blank, but smells vaguely of lemon.

Of course he could go back to Catchbreeze to read the message, but the two-mile climb would take hours and the small candle on the table tempts him. Doing his best to look utterly careless, he holds the note a small distance from the flame. One minute and one blister later he glances surreptitiously at the text

You lying charlatan, 

You are not the first to approach me about the craven thief I am ashamed to have once called my brother. While you were perhaps cleverer than most in claiming to be him, rather than to have caught him, you should know that Alasdair is dead. 

Years ago I myself spilled his life blood on the streets of Waterdeep for all to see. His right hand, with the scar of the wound I gave him the night he betrayed us, was on display for months beside the Skullport gates, and his severed head is still held in the archives of the Xanathar Thieves’ Guild as a reminder for other bleeding hearts and guilty consciences.

Let it be known that I do not take kindly to anyone who rings the bell of memory that is his name within earshot or eyesight of myself or the omniscient power that employs me.  

Lulach Northbron

Naismith feels dizzy. He’s never claimed… He’s never even asked directly. And when Lulach – if it really is him – mentions an omniscient power, does he mean… And why the mention of the scar, if Lulach knew bloody well he’d gotten that scar on one of their first jobs together. None of this makes any sense.

Another young server, this one a deep gnome, approaches him, eyebrows raised in inquiry. He nods. She fills his cup. He picks up his drink and inhales deeply. The raw alcohol sears the inside of his nose. One slow sip, and then another. An idea begins to form inside his head. Staring back down at the note, he checks the corners. A small ink spatter draws his attention. He counts. Counts again. Mouthing the numbers quietly to himself, he tries their old boyhood code. He finds an I. Then a D. In less than a minute, he’s deciphered the message. ‘Idiot. Run.’ The same words he heard from Lulach on the night they’d parted ways. He can only hope the order is not as urgent as it was then.

He sips again, appearing relaxed while scanning the crowd. Nothing seems amiss for now. He pretends to search for his purse and roots around for coin. Just for show, he gives a few good yawns. It was a brilliant move, because – as if on cue – half a dozen drow in various corners of the taproom yawn as well. The hair on the back of his neck stands up. Six ordinary Skullport ruffians are just a bit of sport. Half a dozen of whatever these are… probably not so much.

He calmly stacks the coins, rises from his chair and adjusts his cloak. It takes a fair amount of willpower not to bolt, but he slowly weaves his way through the crowd. The first of his shadows only rises as he reaches the door. Knowing full well what will happen, he slips through and turns into the alley that runs alongside the building. It leads to a small yard, from which a number of quiet streets fan out. If luck is on his side, they may split the group.

Unlike all the other times he’s done this, he’s not taking any chances. He darts through the quiet street and into a busier one, slides underneath a fishmonger’s cart that pulled into the street and dashes into a washerwoman’s shed where he’s stashed a piwafwi. He slings it around his shoulders, then climbs up onto the roof of the laundress’ house.

This move has been anticipated. He’s barely pulled himself up before he sees a number of shadowy figures – at least four – approach his location. He moves faster, making a few daring leaps to higher, harder to reach areas. Soon, he’s moving as fast as he can, ducking behind chimneys and weaving though forests of drying laundry, but wherever he glances, someone is trailing him. He counts at least a dozen. Who could rally this kind of manpower? Slavers? Unlikely. The Zhentarim? Maybe. Thieves’ guild bounty hunters? More likely. Lulach himself? Even more likely, but then, why send a note? That seems so unlike his brother. Purely on instinct, he leads his pursuers north to the Threads – hoping he can shake them off in the warrens and use the tunnels to make it to the surface.

Just as he wonders which tunnel gives him the best chance of running into a huge crowd of people, he hears a familiar sound below. Without thinking, he jumps, landing with a single roll in front of an enormous boar. Behind Tusker, he sees Ilian’s startled face. He hisses “Trouble. We’ve got to go.” At that point, the first of Naismith’s pursuers lands beside the trio. Naismith’s dagger flashes, and the shadowy figure dodges, thereby stepping right into the scimitar that Ilian just drew. The shadow collapses. “There’s too many of them.” Naismith snaps. Ilian nods and stows her sword before making a few swift hand gestures and a hissing sound. “Lead the way.” In a very different tone of voice, she says “Tusker, leave that corpse. You don’t know where it’s been.” Then, they run.

Once their pursuers are far enough behind them, Naimith turns: “You shouldn’t have been down there. You have no idea.” Ilian fixes him with a stare. He pushes on. “It’s different for me. I… well…” She cuts him off. “You get to come here. Play mouse in some cat’s game. You can try to tell me I don’t get to be here. But with you down here, do you expect me to listen?” Naismith shakes his head. “It’s not like that. Not anymore. This was something else.” He pauses. “Glad you’re back, though.” Ilian smiles wryly. “I’m only passing through – came off a ship at evening tide. Finally learned that I’d have the best chance of finding you down there.” “I don’t go as often as I used to. Probably won’t go back for a long time after tonight.” Naismith grimaces in frustration. Ilian gives him a curious glance. “Care to tell me what’s changed?” He gestures dismissively. “I’d been looking for someone. He’s not wanting to be found. The news could really be worse.”

In companionable silence, they hike through the last, steep stretch of tunnel. The sky has lightened in the east by the time they make it outside through the abandoned, half-finished shafts of the Hoist. “Let’s go home.” Ilian says. “Show me how fat Petri’s gotten before I look in on Royce and Nong.” Naismith makes a face. “Better turn around then. Nong’s been gone for over a month – no one knows where – and Royce went to the docks tonight. I’ll go home though.” He yawns, this time for real. “I think I might actually get some sleep.” 

Journey to Fate’s doorstep: 11th of Eleasis (month 8), Sea Ward

Before the last stroke of the gong in the House of Heroes, Tempus’ temple, had echoed away, Royce stood on the border of Waterdeep’s Sea Ward, looking west and squinting into the setting sun. There used to be a street here that gave a view of the harbor, a perfect vantage point to see if any new ships had come in that day. However, some new construction around the Hall of Shipwrights now blocked the view. 

The cleric begins the walk down to Dock Ward. Soon, it would be prime dinner time in the taverns on Fish Street, and if he wanted to find who he was looking for, he should expect to hit at least a half-dozen of them before the sailors got too drunk to respond to a description. Should he start at the Cat O’ Wine Tales? The Mainstay Inn? The X Marks the Spot? No, not that one. He’d just run into all the acolytes he’d dismissed from weapons training at last bell. They’d just ask him to tell them more stories. He could hear their voices even now. Olaf: “Can you tell us more about the man who rode a dracolich?” Seriah: “No, no, about when your friend sacrificed his own pet basilisk to save a Drow maiden!” Jessup: “I want to hear about how you revived your friends when they had been petrified!” Dytre: “I think you should tell us about when your boat was sunk in the Dark Lake and the undead tried to pull you under the wa…” Royce cuts off the thought with a quick hand gesture. He’d only tried to reach Jimjar a fortnight ago, and while the deep gnome turned Deva did not seem to mind his attempts at conversation, it was poor form to dwell on him so much. Unbecoming to someone meant to show Tempus’ less experienced champions what it means to fight and worship as one, decisive action.

His musing is interrupted by the smell of tar, old sweat and cheap beer and the sound of someone scratching out a tune on a poorly-tuned fiddle. Royce looks up to read the weathered sign. Safe Harbor. Picklock Alley is probably as good a place as any to start the search. If Tempus has faith in him, he might get a dinner here that wouldn’t leave him puking later, and maybe the apprentice tariff clerks would be in there sharing gossip. 

More than an hour after his planned time for ‘just dinner’ had passed, he steps out of the door of the bar. His pace is hasty. Behind him, a slurred voice calls “Hey man, just let me buy you a drink. You’re a real hero, man. Come oooonnn…” After a minute’s brisk walk past the now-lit lanterns of the bars, he swears. He’s left his cloak behind. Luckily, the night is windy but not cold – a good night for a place at this latitude. Tomorrow, he’d send one of his charges to fetch the cloak for him. They’d probably think it was an honor anyway. He shakes his head. 

Just as he suppresses a smile at the thought of one of the acolytes bragging to the others about the silly errand, a suspicious noise gets his attention. He tries to whip around, but is stopped when a pair of arms grabs him from behind. “Ho, mate. You’re late for deck swabbing duty.” says one familiar voice. The other, also familiar, responds “Nah, he’s too good for that now. Little Roycey the cabin boy is faaaamous.” A calloused hand swats the back of his bald head, he is released and hysterical laughter erupts behind him. Royce himself begins to laugh as he turns around. 

“I’ll swab the deck with you Erich. And when I’m done, I’ll make you famous, Terka. But not in a way you’d like” He exchanges hugs, first with a rawboned man whose heavy tattoos obscure his pale skin, and then with an exceptionally tall, dark-skinned woman with a cutlass at her side. He continues. “Has either of you made captain yet? Or is old White Hair so desperate at your stupidity he still hasn’t let go of the big wheel?” Terka responds with a raised eyebrow. “You know as well as we do that no one’s taking Captain Mollor off of The Flaming Sword with anything other than a piece of sailcloth and a prayer. And you’ll be pleased to know that hasn’t happened yet.” Royce nods. “I’d heard a rumor you might have come into port. Thought I’d see how you fared.” “We’re on pier sixteen.” Terka says. “Had to offload a passenger, so it was civvie docks for us this time.” Royce snorts, but looks pleased. “I’ll go pay a visit, then. Enjoy the night’s leave, you two.”

Some time later, a curly-haired boy hails Royce with rapid-fire speech. “Welcome to the finest vessel on the Waterdeep docks – a beauty called The Flaming Sword, good sir! What is your name and purpose good sir?” The cabin boy doesn’t stop when Royce has proved his credentials and is admitted aboard. “Please follow me to the quarterdeck sir, no sir, please let me be your guide sir, I shall inform the captain of your visit, sir, yes sir, I will ask if he will see you sir, please wait here sir!” With that, the cabin boy slips behind a massive wooden door and closes it in Royce’s face.

The cleric smiles, and when the door swings open and the boy gestures to welcome him in (please come in sir, the captain will see you now, sir), he grabs the boy’s hand and presses a silver piece into it, giving him an exaggerated wink. 

From behind a desk laden with papers, a man gets up. He isn’t as old as the wild shock of snow-white hair seems to imply, but there is a touch stiffness in how he rises, and when he smiles at the sight of his visitor, his face wrinkles and folds with age as well as joy. “I rejoice to see that Tempus has kept you safe.” he says, before enveloping the cleric in a rib-cracking hug. “It does me good that you come see me, when – if the rumors are anything to go by – you could be in the company of fine lords and rich ladies.” Letting go of Royce, the captain pulls on a thin rope on the cabin wall and asks “Drink?” Royce smiles, but shakes his head. “I’ve done enough of that, cap. Thank you. Care to tell me how you and the old tub are doing, these days?” The captain makes a sound in the back of his throat. “Sit down. I’ll tell ya. We’re the same, mostly. Got my letters of marque to patrol the waters south from here. The pickings aren’t quite as fat as they were when the conflict was at its peak, but merchant shipping is picking up and most know me as a man worth his salt. Sometimes we serve as armed convoy to a trade fleet. Other times, I pick up a little business myself. That’s how I took on a passenger this time. Came with little requirements, destination Waterdeep and a big, big sack of gold. I had said yes before she’d even finished telling me about this beast that she also wanted me to take aboard.” 

At that point, the boy stumbles back into the cabin, still chewing. “Waffan I do fow youw, siw?” “A pot of tea, please, Rodi. And a bottle of the Calimshan brandy. Tell Gerey to bring it, so you can finish your supper and get to bed.” With a nod, the cabin boy is out the door again. “Good kid,” the captain says. “Reminds me a little of you at that age.” He pauses briefly “What did you do with your curls anyway?”

Royce stares down at the polished wood of the cabin floor. “It’s a long story. How much of it have you heard?” “Songs and whispers, really. The songs are all heroics and battle and sacrifice. The whispers are of madness and great evil come to corrupt those very same heroes.” The cleric grimaces “Half of one, and most of the other. But mostly there was exhaustion, endless darkness and the deep hopelessness of almost everyone you meet being divorced from reason and sense. Suffice to say that…” 

Conversation halts as a portly female dwarf with an apron and a kerch steps through the cabin door, carrying a bright blue teapot and a fat glass bottle on a small tray. She places the tray on a corner of the desk, and disappears, but not before giving Royce’s shoulder a very firm squeeze. 

“Well.” Royce continues. “… I caught a glimpse of what awaited me… them… all of us at a very crucial moment. I knew then that I needed to understand Tempus’ teachings differently in order for us to complete our task. My hair, the drinking. Those are details.” The captain eyes his former crew member with worry, but continues pouring tea.