Aribeth de Tylmarande studied the parchment in front of her, and scowled at the presumption of whoever had sent it. As if it wasn't bad enough that she had to deal with that evil bitch who had maneuvered her way into being known as the Hero of Neverwinter, now some strangers were bothering her with claims of knowing the source of the Wailing Death – something no one in Lord Nasher's employ had been able to discover. Even now, she had been packing for the expedition to Port Llast that Lord Nasher had ordered, based on hints he claimed to have received from Aarin Gend. Given that all such hints went through her before reaching Lord Nasher, she had strong doubts that whatever he was basing his orders on had anything to do with Aarin, but her questions had been swept away like mosquitos in a gale.
She picked up the parchment – made of a material she had never seen before, but which reminded her vaguely of the output of one of the artists who had worked near the river before the Plague had killed so much of the city – and re-read it.
Lady Aribeth, First, we would like to apologize for not arriving in Neverwinter sooner. When we heard about your Plague, we set out immediately, but, I am sorry to say, did not take the most expeditious of routes. Hopefully, the benefits we gained from our encounters along the way make the delay worth it. Regardless of our delay, I do hope that by now, you have unmasked the false Helmites and dealt with them and their leader. If, in the process of eliminating the People of the Eye, Lord Nasher chose to execute Fenthick Moss as well, it will go some way toward confirming some suspicions we have regarding the nature of the Plague and its source. We offer our services in dealing with the source of the Plague, as well as those who serve that source. We are known in lands south and east of here as "The Shadowdale Three", although we now number four, due to a fortuitous encounter along the road. Our group consists of a paladin of Kelemvor, a monk of the Yellow Rose, the eighth daughter of Mystra, and a sorceress who pledges allegiance to Sharess. We are more than an adventuring party: we are a family, and we are willing to place our talents at your disposal, for your sake and for the sake of the people you protect. If you wish our assistance in this matter, you have but to affix your personal seal to this letter, beside our seals, and burn it. If this is your choice, please be certain to do so in a location where there is both privacy and enough room for a dozen horses. I personally recommend the graveyard, as it meets both those requirements and is within the city, as well. If you do not wish our assistance, simply dispose of this letter as you would any other unwanted missives. You should know, however, that we will be pursuing our own investigations regardless of whether you choose to work with us personally. We intend to hunt down the being that created the misery your people recently suffered, and ensure that it is not capable of spreading that misery to any other part of the world. Wouldn't it be better if we join forces in this endeavor?
The bottom of the letter did not bear any names – all it had was a set of four seals: one was a holy symbol of Kelemvor over a crossed pair of what looked like bowless drow dart-throwers; one was a yellow rose over a cane; one was an eight-pointed star made up of smaller stars; and the last was a pair of lips, impressed in silver wax. There was room on the letter for one – and only one – additional seal. Aribeth bit her lip as she considered the offer. Given the claims made in the letter, this group would be infinitely better to work with than the "Hero of Neverwinter", who she hoped to never have dealings with again.
She searched through the papers that had piled up on her desk during the crisis, until she found her personal sealing kit. Whoever these people were, she would meet them. She could always send them away if they were not what they claimed. It took but a moment to melt the necessary wax and affix her seal to the letter.
While the seal hardened, she began donning her armor for a trip to the Great Graveyard. While she was donning her armor, one of her guard knocked on her door.
"Enter!" Aribeth called, while absently tightening the last buckle on her breastplate.
"My lady," the guard started, paused, then asked, "Does my lady need an escort?"
Aribeth turned to look toward the guard, gave him a weak smile, and said, "Not this time, Gaston. I need to clear my head, and that is best done alone." At the look of incipient rebellion in his eyes, Aribeth sighed. "All right, all right, you may come. But if I must have an escort, I need it to be … you, Jean Luc, Louis the Small, and Phillipe. No one else. And there should be no record of this trip in the log."
"I … see," Gaston said. "What should I tell Lady Penelope?"
"You should tell her to rot in Hell!" Aribeth snapped. Realizing what she had done, she sighed, then said, "Tell her that I will speak with her in Port Llast, all right?"
"Of course," Gaston said, his voice betraying no reaction to either the outburst or the follow-up. "Might I suggest that advising Lady Penelope to rot in Hell would be somewhat pointless? She is too likely to enjoy it."
Aribeth looked at Gaston, stunned by his response, then began to laugh. Her laughter quickly overwhelmed her, and she sat, still laughing, while Gaston slipped out of her office.
The Great Graveyard showed fewer signs of the mass deaths of the Plague than the rest of the city. Other than the remains of undead that had not made their way out into Beggar's Nest before being destroyed, it still appeared restful and untouched. Aribeth remembered how, before the Plague, the graveyard had been a favorite picnic spot for many people, and, looking around, it was easy to see why.
"We're being followed," Louis hissed. "What do you want?"
"Delay them," Aribeth said, "but unless they are hostile, don't harm them."
"'sallright," Louis said, then vanished between the graves.
Aribeth led the rest through a gap between two bluffs, around the one to the left, and then up a flight of stairs to the top, where she found the picnic spot she had most enjoyed when Fenthick was alive. There was still some wood left from the last campfire someone had built. She gathered the wood together and quickly had a small fire going.
"I don't know what is going to happen, gentlemen," Aribeth said, as she took out the letter, "but if this works, we will have new allies to help us defend Neverwinter." She paused, then added, "If it doesn't, we'll have had a pleasant outing, and be refreshed for our duties."
"If I'd known we were going on a picnic," Jean Luc commented, "I'd have brought some wine."
Aribeth laughed. Trust Jean Luc to think of wine before anyone else. Then again, his family's vineyard was noted for some of the best wine in Neverwinter. As if her laughter were a signal, the others joined in, and began talking about their ideas for ideal picnic items.
"All right, gentlemen," Aribeth said, stilling the conversation in an instant. "It's time to find out what, if anything, happens when I follow the directions on this letter."
She fed the letter into the fire. As she watched, the strange parchment caught fire as if it were made of wood splinters. It curled as it burned, leaving behind a black ash that crumbled at a breath of air. The flames reached the seals, and the wax melted and ran together, forming a puddle in the middle of the fire that burned a bright blue around the edges. Suddenly, the entire fire vanished in a brilliant blue flash, and a man and three women appeared around where it had been, positioned as if they had been sitting at a table. As they started to fall, the silver-haired woman snapped her fingers, and they levitated for long enough to get their feet under them.
"Didn't I tell you it would happen just as we were sitting down to dinner?" one of the dark-haired women asked, laughing.
"At least we hadn't ordered yet," the other dark-haired woman said.
"Hi!" the silver-haired woman said, bouncing – Aribeth had to do a double-take on that: yes, she was actually bouncing! – over to Aribeth. "I'm Puff! You must be Aribeth, right?"
"Oy," the man groaned. "Puff, remember your human etiquette lessons?"
"But she's an elf!" Puff protested.
"She's also a paladin of Tyr," the man said. "That means she probably needs a staffectomy."
"You're no fun!" Puff declared, pouting at the man, while Phillipe and Jean Luc looked as if they were about to explode from keeping in their laughter, and Gaston looked even more inscrutable than usual.
"Yes," Aribeth said, "I am the Lady Aribeth de Tylmarande. You are, I take it, the people who sent me the letter?"
"That we are," the man said. "Imoen? Any company we don't want?"
The dark-haired woman who had laughed a few moments before chanted briefly, then shook her head. "The nearest unwanted company is a couple hundred yards away, and it looks like one of her guards is keeping them busy."
"Do we need to squash them?" the man asked.
"So far, no," Imoen replied. "Even if we do, Lada can take them all out with one blast."
The other woman jumped, as if mentioning her name had frightened her. When she jumped, she turned, and Aribeth realized why she had looked slightly odd. She was blind. So blind that she didn't even have the body language of a sighted person.
"Well then," the man said, extending his right hand toward Aribeth. "Since you have called us, I supposed introductions are in order. I am Fred MacManus, paladin of Kelemvor. Puff is Puff I' Liyalai MacManus, sorceress and follower of Sharess." He gestured with his left hand as he continued. "This lovely lady is Lada MacManus, monk of the Yellow Rose. And this lovely lady is Imoen MacManus, daughter of Mystra."
Aribeth's eyes narrowed as she listened to the introductions. The letter had said they were a family. The introductions seemed to confirm that claim. The potential power they provided made it very tempting to overlook the apparent arrangement of their family, but it was still cause for concern.
Fred looked at Aribeth for a moment, apparently studying her, then laughed. "Yes, I am indeed their token husband. I hope that little detail isn't going to bother you, especially with the larger fish we have to fry."
"Make mine shark!" Puff put in, laughing.
"Brat," Fred fired back at Puff, then re-focused his attention on Aribeth. "Regardless of our apparent youth, we have some experience in dealing with problems. Each of us has our personal specialties, and we know where your trouble comes from, and how to deal with it. The problem is, the most obvious solution is one that Tyr is not likely to approve of, as it involves you going undercover. Therefore, we need to find a different solution."
"Me going undercover?" Aribeth blurted out. "You're right, we need to find a different solution. You say you know where our trouble comes from? What is it?"
"Under Neverwinter is an artifact that dates back to the time of the sarrukh," Fred said. "Within that artifact, the last queen of the sarrukh, a particularly vicious reptile named Morag, is imprisoned with her most loyal servants. No one knows quite how she was awakened, but she has been – and the results have already been devastating. She created the Wailing Death, in order to devour the souls of those who died, and use them to fuel her own power so that when she escapes from the artifact, she can immediately conquer the North, with Neverwinter as her capital."
"Wait, wait," Aribeth said. "You expect me to believe this story? Where is your proof?"
"Lord Nasher is my proof," Fred said. "If what I believe happened has actually happened, then his reaction to our arrival in this city will reveal it."
"Oh?" Aribeth asked. "And why would that be?"
"Puff?" Fred asked. "Would you?"
"Of course, my love," Puff said. She stepped away from the others, and transformed. Aribeth stared in shock as the bouncy, perky girl revealed herself to be a young silver dragon.
"Uh …," Aribeth said, then blurted the first thought that came to her mind. "Are you old enough to be away from the nest?"
"Comparatively speaking," Fred said, "She's as old as we are. Well, as old as Imoen, anyway. Lada and I are a bit older than we appear to be."
"If you go by experience, I'm older than anyone here," Imoen snorted. Fred extended a hand to her, and she accepted his embrace – with quite a bit of gratitude, it appeared to Aribeth.
Puff returned to her human guise and spoke again. "Fred thinks we can prove whether your Lord Nasher has been changed by what happened here, if we go to an audience with him."
"Since the sarrukh and the dragons were mortal enemies," Fred said, "we'll be able to tell if Lord Nasher is possessed, simply by having Puff walk into whatever room he holds court in. Of course, before we do that, you'll need to ensure that only guards who you trust implicitly, like the ones you have with you here, are on duty."
"You think Lord Nasher is possessed?" Aribeth asked, studying Fred intently. "Why?"
"He and the Oleff, both," Fred said. "I think they have been possessed ever since they let Desther give them his special blessing. Remember what those blessings did to ordinary people?"
"I do," Aribeth admitted.
"Yet they're both still alive," Fred said. "I suspect that, rather than killing them, Morag used Desther's blessings to put the spirits of loyal servants into their bodies, so that Neverwinter would be weakened against her, so that its own leaders would be tools to help her overcome its defenses and bring to her the power she needs to escape her prison."
Aribeth thought about what Fred was saying. It was true, most of those who had received the blessings of the false Helmites had weakened and died more quickly than those who had not. At the same time, it was also true that Lord Nasher and Judge Oleff had both received those blessings and yet had not died. Instead, they had changed, become more harsh and unyielding, had become more willing to use methods and tactics that they would have rejected before the Plague.
"Another point that comes to mind," Fred said, "is the question of whether you have been able to get answers from Tyr when you pray to him. Your Yuan-Ti worshiped her, and claimed that Morag was more powerful than Merrshaulk. That means she believed Morag was more powerful than Helm, to put it in local terms. If that's the case, I suspect she's using her power to hinder those who pray to any gods in this city, and especially those who pray to Tyr, since he is the God who is most closely associated with the city's defense." He looked directly at Aribeth and added, his voice firm and certain, "In fact, I would suspect that anyone in this city who is truly faithful to Tyr is, right now, suffering from dreams and visions that make it appear that Tyr is turning his back on them, and that he is rejecting them as unworthy of him."
Aribeth gasped. How did he know what was contained in her dreams? It was as if he had been right there with her, witnessing Tyr reject her.
"The only reason someone would have visions like that," Fred continued, as if he didn't notice Aribeth's reaction, "would be if he – or she – were absolutely faithful to Tyr, with unswerving loyalty and devotion. Exactly the kind of servant that Tyr would never turn away from. Exactly the kind of servant who is most dangerous to Morag, if that servant maintains her loyalty despite the false visions being imposed on her by Morag."
"How?" Aribeth asked, at a loss for words.
"I know the story," Fred said. "It's an old story, one that repeats itself in one form or another in every world, every time, every place. Morag's prison, in fact, is a crossroads of dimensions, opening on many worlds besides this one, which makes her a menace not only to this world but to every other world she touches, as well." He looked into Aribeth's eyes, and she noticed that his gaze was filled with compassion, warmth, and – no, she didn't want to recognize that – he was completely focused on her, in a way not even Fenthick had ever been. "You, Aribeth, have the power to destroy her, if you are willing to use it. If you are willing, we will stand beside you."
"You …," Aribeth whispered, then realized what she was doing and steeled herself to speak aloud. "You offer yourselves …," what he was offering penetrated her thoughts and her next words came out as a squeak, "… tome?"
"To you, Aribeth," Fred said, reaching out to take her sword hand in his own. "We are yours. Not Nasher's, not Neverwinter's. We came here to join you."
"What of the rest of you?" Aribeth asked, trying to pull her thoughts together. Why did this stranger, who was clearly already involved with three other women, one of whom was a dragon, affect her this way? And what of his women?
"Where Fred goes, I go," Lada said. "He has absolute faith in you, and I trust him, so I trust you."
"He has …," Aribeth looked from Lada to Fred. "Why?"
"It's a long story," Fred said, "but the fact that you're not already Fallen and serving Morag confirms that you are everything I believe you to be."
"He's right," Imoen said. "The amount of magical power that's going into perverting this place means that anyone who can resist it, for the sake of her faith, is someone who deserves our trust and devotion."
"But …," Aribeth started, then realized she didn't know what to say.
"Trust us?" Puff said, stepping forward and embracing Aribeth. Aribeth stiffened, then let out a soft sob as Puff whispered into her ear, "We will love you enough to make up for those who hurt you. I promise. Fred says you deserve to be loved and trusted, and I believe he is right."
Puff gently nipped Aribeth's earlobe, sending a shiver down her spine. Aribeth tried to maintain her composure, but there was something about Puff's touch that made it impossible. She found herself sobbing as all the pain of Fenthick's loss came back to her: the love she had carried for him, the hopes and dreams she had had for their future together, everything that had been taken away when he was executed. As she sank to her knees, Puff sank with her, holding Aribeth to her breast and gently stroking her hair, soothing her as she sobbed out all the bitterness and sorrow she had been carrying in her heart.
While Aribeth sobbed in Puff's arms, she noted somewhere in the back of her thoughts that Fred was talking quietly with Gaston, and Imoen and Lada were talking with Jean Luc and Philippe