Imoen ran from behind a building, slowed down, trotted for three yards, and stood, spreading her legs to the width of her shoulders. She took a deep breath and wiped away sweat with her hood. Having asked several citizens, she finally reached the prison.
Its entrance was guarded by one officer and a dryad with no uniform. The freckled blonde with a ponytail and a forelock didn’t even need one: her green skin grew a bark-like layer on her torso, covering her entire back, abdomen, and most of her flat chest. She wore countless necklaces of stems and stalks, as well as a belt of lance-shaped leaves; all those garments were accompanied by yellow, honey-coloured, and orange flowers. The only human clothes on her were brown trousers and leather sandals.
The guard fixed their stance as the human thief in her pink cape came closer.
“I can wait outside, I just need to see Lady Aribeth.”
“The Lady is preoccupied. Talk to the dryad.”
Imoen recalled what she learned the previous day, “Excuse me, do you happen to be Halotin?”
The dryad tilted her head, causing her earpiece to swing sideways. It contained a bent metal stripe, securely attached along the whole length of a helix; a thin chain hanging behind her ear; a small cage, sewed from wires; a bit of soil, surrounded by a metal basket; a stick with two tiny leaves, reaching out for sunlight, of which there was abundance inside the cage.
«Helotan,» the dryad signed in Common. Pink tattoos shone on her hands.
Imoen blinked in surprise, “Oh… Aaah, I can’t sign back, what do I do…”
«It’s alright. I have one more charm on my scalp. You can speak casually.»
“Neat. I’m sorry for remembering your name wrong. You see, my party and I arrived yesterday and met Aribeth. We’re helping her out.”
«She mentioned a mage elf, though.»
“Well, Vissenvaib always stands out, so she gets memorized first. She can’t help it.”
«Where is your party?»
“Waiting at the City Core. The Moonstone Mask won’t grant us entry unless they see the Lady.”
«Uh, why the Mask?»
“The cockatrice was spotted there.”
«Again? Then, maybe we don’t have to interrupt the paladin at all. The Mask should recognize me.»
“You said, «Again.» What was the last time?”
«Two tendays ago.»
At the City Core, in proximity to its inner walls, Vissenvaib was sitting on the pavement, with the foreign cat resting under her chest. Branwen was examining her bags and moving items, switching their places. Ajantia was noting something down, perhaps an entry in their journal. Viconia stole the mage’s previous spot on the crate, still with the purpura cape covering her head. Kagain watched the cat peacefully.
The human cleric spoke, “Do you have space to store this firebreath inducing mixture?”
The half-elf’s ears twitched, “Oh, that one. Yeah, I can attach it to my belt.”
“Then, I can give you one empty bag so you can carry your pet around.”
She gasped quietly, “Yes, please. I wonder if Kitty will accept it, though.”
“Depends on a cat. You won’t know if you don’t try.”
Viconia murmured, “All it takes to distract you is some random midget tiger.”
Kagain smirked, “Jealous?”
“You can’t use on me the same blade I’ve just tried on you. The drow are prepared for such scenario.”
“No, I mean, are you jealous that you don’t own a pet?”
“Pets are worthless. Slaves are worth towns. Some of them might even be irreplaceable.”
“Slavery is stupid,” blurted out Vissenvaib, playing with the cat’s ear.
“Thank you, professor Colnbluth. What’s next, «religions are a manipulative conspiracy,» or…? ”
“You just answered your own question, Vick.”
Viconia opened her mouth in dismay. Even her “hmpf” after the moment of silence couldn’t hide the fact that she was actually hurt.
Kagain’s vicious joy was less subtle than previously, “You just played upon yourself.”
Vissenvaib didn’t realize the weight of her own reply; she just wanted the Ilythiiri to stop complaining. She gave her a close helmet; she gave her dimming glasses, which she haven’t ever worn anyway; she took breaks at noon; she read a book on strategy; she learned new spells; she just summoned a cat when the dark elf dubbed her a weakling; and yet she KEEPS COMPLAINING. And what’s worse, she BROUGHT UP SLAVERY. Is it her self-defense or something?
And sure enough, DeVir came back with a defensive question, “So that’s how you stop distrusting your gods, Vissen?”
“Sod off. Azuth didn’t answer because I lacked an ingredient for the spell. I summoned Kitty myself. No one helped me. In fact, it turns out I might not need help at all. I need trust, sure, but for myself, for my skills. And you’re worsening your own situation, surnar d'Shar.”
“Speaking of worsening one’s situations… Kagain.”
“My ability to interpret facial expressions is impaired, true, but I could tell you were pretending back at the Veteran’s store.”
“Can we discuss that somewhere… far away from the drow, basically?”
“Then, my explanation shall be only partial.”
Vissenvaib sighed, “Listen. I’m certain you can show me support without acting as someone you’re not. I don’t know how ‘cause I’m not you, but that «even better» back there was definitely not you. Just figure it out. Also, all of you, if you guard me but not others, you’re going to break the party’s offense and defense.”
“And what’s that one about?”
“Branwen. All five of us fought in disperse while she was recovering from her headache, vulnerable. She hasn’t cast Sanctuary for months, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t cast it yesterday. Like, sure, krasnyĭ had been trained to fight giants, fine. But what is your excuse, Ajax? And Vicky?”
Viconia started, “And what is Imoen’s e…?”
“I’ll ask her when she’s present, smartass.”
The dark elf lowered her head.
Ajantia nodded, “You are right, I neglected the possibility of danger for our companion, blinded by the heat of the battle. ‘Tis a lesson for me to remember when another threat comes.”
“That’s what my ears like to hear. Viconia?”
“There’s no obligation if there’s no order.”
Vissenvaib gestured vividly, waking the cat, “Tchart. You need an order? And what will that do? How many times have I given you an order just to have you ignore it like the proud, stubborn queen you are?”
She didn’t answer.
“You know what? Find an inn and stay there for a couple of days. I’ll even pay for your room. Just sit there and meditate or something.”
“As you wish,” Viconia stood up, gave the mage her cape back, and walked away very slowly.
Branwen glanced at the cleric, “You know where the paladin’s house is?”
She signed in Undercommon, even though no one in the team knew the meaning of the sign.
Helotan and Imoen walked through a gate leading to the City Core. The thief maintained an eye contact with the dryad, even though that wasn’t required for the translating charms to work on her.
«You see, what happened yesterday was that an intellect devourer took over prison guards and their head jailer. Under the beast’s influence, the jailer unlocked almost all cells. It wasn’t easy to stop him.»
«Lady Aribeth told me to infiltrate the prison while she would be chasing the fugitives. Quite intriguing, how she behaved… She disarmed one guard, stared into his eyes, then shuddered, stepped back, and climbed onto her mare. Her face seemed to say, ‘I am not going there.’»
She emphasized the sign standing for “no” and grammatical negation by sliding her hand from right to left in a horizontal line, as opposed to signing “no” with her fingers only. Imoen associated that move with shoving something unwanted away from an individual.
«It took me a whole evening to reach the lowest level of the facility. Exhausting task.»
“I understand that you killed the devourer.”
«It had no intention of surrendering.»
“Were you protected with anything? A talisman, perhaps?”
«A mere potion, and I had to buy it myself.»
“Mm,” Imoen expressed concern, “I’m not looking forward to facing the cockatrice.”
«That’s usually good news. Those who do want to fight it are looking for a temporary death, a short release from diseases of their minds. It’s the same with basilisks.»
The duo turned left.
“Here they are. Vissie and the rest. Although… our drow seems to have walked away,” said Imoen, as she approached the adventurers, “Visska?”
“She’s meditating,” answered the mage, then glanced at the dryad “Ah, Helotan, right? Just a moment, I’ll stand up and greet you properly. A’ight, Kitty, we’re going up, ready?”
Imoen’s confusion led her eyes to Vissenvaib’s left side, where she saw an orange cat chilling inside an open bag. And indeed, the half-elf rose her bottom and straightened her legs as gently as she could. The feline companion noticed a change of sensation under their paws, but they didn’t panic at all; they looked to their left to make sure they were being lifted, and continued lying inside their small hammock.
The thief chuckled, “Its name is… Kitty. Of course it is.”
“That’s just temporary,” she walked closer to Helotan, “Do dryads shake their hands?”
«Bowing is preferred.»
It took her a moment to process the charm, but once she did, she bowed with her right leg resting behind the left one, toes touching the cobblestone, then simultaneously spoke and signed back, “Poz dravĭam tébé. Sem Vissenvaib.”
Helotan smiled, «It’s always a pleasure to meet someone who can sign a little bit,» her smile weakened, «Wait… You’re Rashemi. With a Thayan Dwarvish name.»
She hid her neck by rising her shoulders, “Uh, yeah, you’re correct, but jumping straight into politics might not be a great idea…”
«Because of the dwarf over here?»
Kagain interrupted them, “I ain’t Thayan, never was.”
“Hush. No, just… Just no.”
«Alright, then. I apologize for bringing that up.»
“Good. Can we go to the Mask now?”
«Certainly,» Helotan marched towards the building’s door and knocked.
“We’re c… Wait, is it you folks again? Oh. Welcome,” the wooden barrier opened and a lady stepped forward, “Have you been sent by Aribeth?”
She lied, «Yes. I was told you saw the cockatrice again.»
“Sadly, yes. Come inside, all of you.”
The lady guided the wayfarers and the dryad through the hall, the main room, and another hall to an incredibly small bedroom, where bed was the only furniture present. With no warning, the party was flashed by a victim: a male halfling, turned to stone during sex. Vissenvaib thought of a joke but restrained herself from sharing it.
“Any witnesses?,” asked Ajantia.
“Our janitor and an employee. The janitor chased after the thing, and the worker… he’s still in shock, so you should interrogate only her.”
“Can we talk to her now?”
The lady turned her head and yelled, “Amne! Quor!;” next, she waved her fingers from Vissenvaib towards herself, “She’s not skilled in languages.”
“Oh,” the mage focused, heard footsteps, and faced the skinny janitor, who was missing a couple of eyebrows on her right side, “Well met. How brave of you, chasing after such a dangerous animal.”
Amne’s voice was hoarse, “No need to be all posh, girl. ‘Specially since I can tell your language is performative rather than natural. Ya say I’m brave? For spanking a rooster with my broom? I had fought drows and ogres, not to mention the Illuskan, so shut it.”
Vissenvaib clenched her jaws and hid behind Imoen. She was too ashamed to apologize.
Kagain understood the third sentence and bits of the fifth one; it was enough for him to grasp the general meaning behind Amne’s speech. “We are sorry. She fights well but speaks badly. Where is the beast?”
The janitor glared at the dwarf, glanced at Branwen, and spoke to Helotan, “Are they all like her?”
“That blonde looks like a priestess. Can she cast the language spell?”
The dryad repeated Amne’s question.
The cleric walked closer to the janitor, then started looking for soot and salt, “It may take a moment but I should be able to cast it.”
Ajantia clicked with their tongue, “We could have started with that.”
Vissenvaib replied with a whine. Imoen patted on the mage’s shoulder.
Kagain trampled away from the crowd and complained to no one in particular, “Is this necessary, though? She can tell the dryad or point with her finger.”
“Could be a punishment,” whispered Vissenvaib.
“For everyone? Humpf! Public shaming should be sufficient for all those who didn’t commit the deed. A mass punishment, even an indirect one, does the opposite of teaching.”
She turned to Kagain, keeping her voice low, “And I’m telling you from my experience that public shaming is stupid.”
The fighter’s upper lip twitched. “Elaborate.”
“What’s to elaborate? It didn’t work on me, and I felt terrible. Gorion switched teachers, and I learned better with the new one,” she exhaled, “Please, today’s not the best day for explaining things. It’s just easier to say that something is stupid.”
He hummed in agreement, “Alright, then.”
A blue light distracted them, as Branwen laid her right palm on Amne’s shoulder and put her left hand on her own chest. The light turned white and sank into the women.
Branwen spoke, “The spell is active. Where have you seen the cockatrice?”
“In the very room where it bit the customer. Bitro was smacking it with a pillow. Poor lad, never seen him so frightened. I tried to grab its neck, but Bitro hit us once more and the beast fled. I forced it to the right, that is, further into this hall. Follow me.”
The hall ended with two doors, both of which separated the wayfarers from an intense stench.
“The left latrine was open because our worker was leaving it. She ran to the right. The beast jumped into the cesspit. It’s connected to the sewers. That’s it. The cockatrice is gone, again.”
Helotan summarized by gesturing what Amne spoke. Branwen squinted repeatedly, her mind littered with redundant information.
Imoen raised her hand, “And where does the waste go inside the sewers?”
Amne replied, “The sanitary alchemist’s. The Docks. That’s where waste becomes water and returns to the sea. But it doesn’t mean the monster chose that path. The Core, Blacklake, the prison, and a part of Beggar’s Nest are all connected to that facility.”
Branwen locked her fingers on her shoulders, “So, it can basically pop up at anyone’s chamber of ease. Fantastic. Ajantia?”
They readied their box with paper sheets, noted the districts mentioned, and nodded.
“We need a map of the city’s sewage system. Or whatever they have, a plan, a list of families that are connected to sewers, anything like that.”
They wrote it down and said, “I doubt we will be allowed to see such documents.”
“Aah, right, the map ban. Still, we should try. Maybe Nasher will offer a compromise.”
Branwen thanked the janitor, Vissenvaib finally apologized (while stroking the cat’s head), and the party left the Moonstone Mask. Back at the spot where they waited for Imoen, they discussed if they could approach Lord Nasher and how they should convince him to reveal the information so significant to them.
In the end, they returned to the prison. Helotan went inside to talk to Aribeth.
The bell struck three as the sun stopped climbing the sky. Tall, curly clouds appeared on the horizon. Viconia could see them from a window leading to her room.
The inn where she decided to stay was almost empty. Its owners, two elven brothers and a halfling woman, have been painting walls of the main room, starting with the place above a coal black fireplace. The Ilythiiri noticed where the fresh paint ended and ash stained layer began, and imagined how dirty the wall used to be.
“Ennadun, we have a customer,” spoke the lady, adding detailed leaves to the fireplace with a thin brush.
One of the elves jumped, his thick glasses mimicking the jump with a delay, “A customer! Greetings! I’m coming!,” he hopped all the way to a desk and grabbed a quill. An open book was covered in childlike scribbles. “Let’s see, it’s…,” there was a timepiece right next to the desk, “Eleven-two, er, eleven-ten. Your name?”
“None,” she lied.
“How many rooms and beds?”
“One, it’s just for me.”
“One-one,” Ennadun spoke aloud while writing, “How many nights?”
“Two, for the time being.”
He turned all the pages in the book to uncover a table, neatly drawn on the very first page, “Sixteen Pieces. We charge extra for dinners when requested.”
She counted coins and put them on the desk.
Ennadun bent to unhook a key, checked its wooden tag, wrote down its number, and handed Viconia the item. “Thank you, thank you! Talk to my brother or his wife whenever you need dinner or have a complaint. Talk to me if you would like to extend your stay.”
“Oh, your room. Take the stairs to my left.”
“Gladly,” she walked away from the desk.
Of course, she had a complaint: Ennadun himself. However, she already knew it was unwise to let the owners know. Vissenvaib had told her months ago.
That other Rashemi mage also lectured her about this.
So did Imoen.
All her life she was convinced surface civilizations suffered no imbeciles, just like the Underdark. But there they were, taking care of sheep, assisting merchants, crafting pottery, Shar knows what else. And then, there were people like Vissenvaib: neither children nor adults, definitely not teenagers; self-reliant to some extent, but not completely.
Her norm was not theirs. She could assassinate Ennadun, but that would end her own life as well. If not the militia, it would be a vengeful mob.
This society valued what she had been taught to despise.
Viconia kneeled, rested hands on her thighs and lowered her head.
“Shar. Nightsinger. Lady of Loss, who gives purpose. Once again, I need Your guidance.”
But why should She guide you? If She did, you would stop praying to Her.
“Nightsinger, give me strength, for I am doubting yet again.”
A chill sneaked into the room. A distant creaking suggested that a wind vane started spinning.
“I forgot why I fled.”
“I don’t know anymore… I hate this place, I hate the people, I hate its virtues…”
Except for safety.
“Now I can’t go back… But I can’t stand the surface world either… My mask was too fragile, it shattered… I can’t pretend…”
“So can’t she.”
It wasn’t Shar’s voice.
And it wasn’t Lloth.
“You’re unable to pretend because the foul teachings have corrupted you. She’s unable to pretend by birth. Yet, you expect her to easily adjust to your will.”
Viconia stood up and unpacked Shar’s holy symbol from her bag, “Who are you?”
“At the moment, I’m nobody. She resonated in me by accident. Her power was meant for someone. Someone else, but it leaped into me instead. Now I’m connected to her mind and by extension, to this unfamiliar place.”
She almost dropped the symbol, “She’s outdone herself, fucking faern. Leave me, now.”
“As you wish.”
Silence. Except for the wind vane.
Viconia fell on her knees, this time out of vigour-draining fear. Shar’s symbol slipped away onto the floor. Her shallow breath wheezed and whistled.
“Fuck. I called her a weakling, and now there’s some long lost soul which has regained sentience. How do I deal with this? How the fuck!?…,” she gasped, “She shouldn’t have found me. She shouldn’t have helped me. I should have died. Because now, even when she’s just told me to go somewhere else, somewhere where she’s not… There’s something! The innkeeper! The stalking ghost! Fuck!”
She grabbed her head, painfully pulling a couple of hairs off.
“Yes, I wanted safety. I wanted to sleep knowing that no one will prank me, scar me, kill me. But I didn’t want to challenge myself. I didn’t want to reject my teachings. Because that was all I knew. Never question the drow. Never question the Spider Queen. I didn’t know anything else.”
She was rocking back and forth at that point; she didn’t notice.
“Then, I was told about You. I realized there is something else. There is a lack of danger. I just had to find it. I found it… But I fucking hate it! It’s her and that pile of scum she calls her party! I’m too weak to defend myself! So weak that this! Damn! Fool! Protects me! In the woods! And when I actually defend myself, this once, it’s wrong! Because the fucking blonde was exposed to the fugitives! Like I fucking care! I hate her! I hate this place! Shar! Take me to Your realm! I can’t take it…”
She collapsed on the floor, weeping, unable to take another breath.
It started raining. A heavy curtain was banging on the roofs of Neverwinter.
Branwen, Ajantia, and Kagain shielded themselves. Imoen joined the paladin under their shield. Vissenvaib stood close to the cleric and covered Kitty with her cape.
The cat just gazed into the distance and allowed the sounds of rain to sing their lullaby.
Meanwhile, Helotan exited the prison, «You will ruin your gear.»
“Nay,” answered Kagain, “It’s enchanted against corrosion.”
«Ah. Still, the rain is warm. Why won’t you enjoy it?»
“We are. The way we’re standing. Anyway, what did Aribeth say?”
«We’re supposed to go to the Castle and ask for the linking assistant. He will take our suggestion to Lord Nasher and return with his decision.»
«No. Orally. The assistant will give us five minutes to explain the situation.»
“Great,” the mage mumbled to herself.
«Thus, I immediately suggest that Vissen shouldn’t do the speaking.»
Ajantia nodded, “I believe I know what to tell him. I won’t even need five minutes.”