The group was rushing through the streets with Fauna in the lead. They wound south taking alleys and turning whenever there was a corner trying to keep from making too straight a line through the city. They soon passed beneath the shadow of the great southwestern guard tower, a castle in and of itself, as they ran deeper into the Southwest District. Fauna came to a halt before a tall three-story apartment building with three small shuttered slit windows per floor. The street was narrow, and the only traffic was street beggars and a leper ringing a bell as they limped past. Fauna walked up to the mildewed wooden double doors and fitted a key, given to her by one of Vor Jetl’s servants before she met up with her fellows at the White Prong. Excor observed the terra cotta tile roof, it appeared in ill repair. She opened the doors, and they went inside.
They found themselves in a small rundown foyer with an open roof and a shallow rain-catching pool of murky green water in the center of the floor. Everything was water damaged and the plaster was falling off in great patches on the walls exposing bricks. Fauna walked to the bronze double door. They could see patches of corrosion all over it. She reached up to the bell pull and rang the bell.
Excor: “Yup, just like I thought it would be.”
A small square hatch in the upper portion of the right-side door opened and they could see a rheumy eye look them over and without a word the doors swung open on unexpectedly oiled hinges. An old man welcomed them in. He was completely bald with a brass hoop earring in one drooping earlobe, a pair of brass bracelets on his wrists, leather sandals on his feet, and wrapped in an off-white toga fastened with a dull bronze brooch at the shoulder bearing the insignia of a dragonfly.
The Servant: “Ah! My mistress I’ve prepared for your return. There is food and drink on the table, I will return shortly with the meats.”
Excor & Szoo (together): “Whoa! What. The. Hell!”
They had wandered into a large room of white marble pillars and floors and smooth, white-washed walls. Censors hung from the ceiling of the square mezzanine that bounded the room opening into both floors above allowing the light from the skylight in the roof to bathe the room in bright warm light. Other censors stood around the perimeter by the walls, all smoking with a sweet mild scent. The center of the room was depressed and lined with embroidered silk pillows and three couches bounded the dropped floor. At the center of the dropped floor and mess of pillows was a glass top table set with trays of fresh fruit, three loaves of bread, a pot of butter, and two clay decanters of strong brown ale. They could see the top of a fully loaded hookah next to the table and the grand staircase beyond. Fauna’s three companions stood agape while she rushed over to the table and plopped down.
Excor: “Hey! Wait a minute! You need to answer some questions!”
Szoo: “Yeah, I think you need to explain some stuff.”
Fauna: “Like what?”
Szoo & Excor (together, both motioning to their surroundings): “Well. All of THIS!”
Fauna remained cheeky, so Excor and Szoo began to grill her about how she had these kinds of resources. Eventually, the druidess came clean as she realized trust was wearing thin within the group. She confessed to them that she was the head priestess of a secretive druidic cult that meets within the subterranean labyrinths under the city. They’re called the Brotherhood of the Rope. The groundskeeper of the Grove, Anishi (see The Cabal of Eight Pt.2: Wagon Ho!), was a high-ranking member and had brought her in, Virtra Wefa, the woman who had hired them in a failed scheme was at the time, the high priestess of the cult (see The Cabal of Eight Pt.24: Plate of Scorpions). This “safehouse” was owned by the merchant, Vor Jetl, “The Dragonfly”, another high-ranking cult member. Excor asked how long this had been going on.
Fauna: “I dunno, I became high priestess a few days ago…”
Both Szoo and Excor nodded in acceptance.
Fauna: “…but I guess I’ve been a member for like, uh, a month I think.”
Excor: “WHAT!? We could’ve used your cult to our advantage this whole TIME!
Cris, went ballistic going on a diatribe at the table that lasted for about 10 minutes. When he finished Fauna replied with a snide, “Well, we’ve got this place for now. Vor Jetl said we got it for as long as we need it. Wow, I’m really stressed.”
Fauna rolled out a line of yellow lotus on the glass table.
Szoo & Excor (together): “NO.”
Fauna: “Aww.” She put it away, pouted for a bit, then poured herself an ale in one of the gold-leafed red-clay wine cups as a salve.
After eating and drinking the group was settled in and Szoo and Fauna took turns pulling on the hookah. Excor kept the wrapped wand next to him, Jirek stayed close by babysitting a cup of dark wine that the old servant had brought out after supper. Excor reached into a pocket and pulled out the letter and sheet of aged sheepskin that had accompanied the wand’s case (see The Cabal of Eight II – Pt.20: Hideaway). He took it upon himself to cast clairvoyance on the letter, twice, to try to glean some answers.
Excor sat on a pillow in a meditative pose aside from the lounging group save for Jirek who remained his constant companion. After a few minutes…
Szoo: “Wha? What’d you, see?”
Excor: “The ‘distinguished blue steward’ from the note.”
Excor: “He was the arbiter at our trial.” (see The Cabal of Eight Pt.23: Trial of the Cabal).
Fauna just shrugged. She got up from the pillows and dropped herself onto a couch. Then as she stretched herself out, she realized something. She had spilled the beans about her cult to not only her dear companions Szoo and Excor but also to Jirek.
Jenn: “Guys, Jirek knows about the cult, I think I’m going to have to kill him.”
Isis: “What!? Nooo, why are you obsessed with killing Jirek!?”
For the past several sessions Jenn had been suggesting that they needed to kill Jirek for some reason.
Cris: “Naw, don’t kill a member of the cabal. We’ll figure it out later.”
They went back and forth between the three of them about what to do about the wand. Excor was vague but everyone figured out he wanted to keep it which caused Szoo to give him the side eye. Fauna talked about possibly destroying it, Excor agreed, but only if the Ocean of the Desert was about to get it. Szoo seconded that motion. Otherwise, they could not really figure out what to do with it as everyone after it wanted to cash-it-in to the dragon and they were loath to deal with a higher-up in the Sapphire guild. So, delivering the wand to him was out. Essentially, they did not reach a solid decision other than the Ocean of the Desert could not get her blue claws on it.
As night approached and the old servant went around lighting candles as well as the chandelier which hung from the ceiling two floors up from the center of the skylight as well as those in sconces in each of the bed chambers. They decided they needed to have two watches. Jirek and Fauna would be on the first watch, Szoo and Excor would be on the second. The reason was that they could not trust Jirek and though they didn’t say it out loud, they didn’t really trust each other at this point either.
The first watch commenced as the other two lay down amongst the pillows in the main room rather than the bedrooms prepared for them on the upper floors. An hour or so passed as the vast place became dead quiet then the servant passed the pair of watchers apparently on his way outside. He explained to Fauna that he had to run some errands for his master and would be right back. He asked her if there was anything he could get her, and when she said no, he left.
Fauna: “Sooo, Jirek… What’s up?”
Jirek: “Um, not, nothing really. Hey, you got some lotus on you?”
Fauna: “Hell yea…wait. So, you wanna do some?”
Jirek: “Well, ladies first…”
Fauna (suspicious but successfully playing it off): “You go ahead we’re on watch, it’s alright, I got this.”
She passed a small leather pouch to him. He denied it with an upturned hand, “That’s okay, it’s no fun alone.”
Jenn: “Yup, I really don’t trust this guy!”
Isis: “Oh, Jirek, man…”
Cris (mockingly): “Pfft! Oh yeah, I don’t trust him – No sh*t! He wants the wand, we all want the wand, it’s bad*ss!”
The first watch passed quietly, “too quietly” for Fauna, and the second began as Jirek and Fauna took their places amongst the silk pillows. After about an hour, Fauna was snoring, but Jirek was laying as if waiting for something pretending to be asleep as noted by Excor. He managed to whisper this info to Szoo without Jirek catching it. Another hour passed and the black night as observed through the skylight above had lightened to a deep star-specked purple.
Both Szoo and Excor were drowsing their heavy-lidded eyes rhythmically shutting and then opening when suddenly the lights dimmed throughout the room. Both mages shot to their feet.
Szoo: “Oh boy, here we go!”
Excor: “EVERYBODY UP! WAKE UP!”
A mass of black shadows coalesced into a large black cloud opposite the two watchers and on the other side of the sleepers. The cloud hardened into a blob that split into three human-like silhouettes with long wormy tentacles in place of arms.
Jirek leaped up and jumped behind Excor. Szoo charged forward and struck with his naginata, a rubbery whip-like tentacle parried the blade. Excor cast a shield spell on himself in time for a tentacle to stretch from the second shadow as it moved forward trying to entangle him. Fauna was still snoring as the third shadow’s tentacles oozed toward her sleeping form. Szoo’s shriek finally caused her to shoot up from a dead sleep. Jirek appeared to ready himself but did nothing. Szoo struck again but again was parried. The first shadow struck at Szoo, he dodged, and the tentacle cracked like a bullwhip. Excor backed away but tried to keep within reach of the wrapped wand. The second shadow advanced on him. Fauna dodged a tentacle and ran up the grand staircase. Jirek again readied himself, however, he did nothing save stepping closer to the wand. Excor cast a stun bolt at the creature on him, but it had no effect. Jirek looked around and seemed to root himself to the spot.
Excor: “Wait a minute. I think my spell hit a higher level of magic. Hm.”
Excor turned and cast paralyze II on Jirek who froze in place next to the wand. Szoo, in turn, struck home with his polearm, but it passed harmlessly through the monster.
Excor: “They’re shadow creatures! Watch out!”
Szoo: “I think these guys are illusions!”
Szoo reached out with confidence and his hand passed right through it as the illusion faded. Excor kicked Jirek and told him to dispel them. They disappeared.
Szoo: “Is Jirek even that powerful?”
Jirek (after the paralysis was lifted): “It was a scroll.”
Fauna: “WHO’RE WORKING FOR!?”
Jirek: “Myself! Myself! I just wanted the wand.”
Fauna: “Oh yeah! WHY!?”
Jirek & Excor (both at once): “Because it’s awesome!”
They decided not to kill Jirek after a two-to-one vote, but he was now on outs with the trio although they made it clear that he was now to consider himself a prisoner, at least until this wand debacle was over. If he gained the wand, he would then easily lose it to the Ocean of the Desert or the pirates and thus the dragon would get it anyway. That was not even taking Xanto the Wasp into account.
Excor (under his breath): “Gawd-dammit.”
Excor: “We need to finish this! We need a plan.”
The three adventurer-mages were just about to huddle when the bronze double door burst open. Several armed guards poured into the room. Behind them followed the corpulent Vor Jetl, the old servant who stood just behind him.
Vor Jetl: “Ah, my dear priestess,” he bowed, “I see you found a great prize for the brotherhood. Our coffers will be overflowing!”
To Be Continued…