By Deverian Valandil
Life of the Party
[ 9:00 ]
After listening to several excruciatingly long minutes of banal banter from the paladins below, Derrick carefully twisted his head and glanced around as the unaware knights continued to enjoy the night's breeze. The trellis extended to a closed second floor window, but the thief wouldn't be able to climb the trellis, let alone open the window, without the guards hearing him.
As the thief moved, a bead of sweat rolled off his chin and landed on one of their helmets. His right arm flinched slightly, causing a sprig of ivy to fall from the trellis. The hanging man grit his teeth and waited for the inevitable exclamation.
“By Tyr! Look at that!” cried one of the knights. Derrick tensed himself, ready to leap down on top of them.
“It's a Maid's Blossom!” continued the knight, plucking a colourful flower from a nearby bed, “These things are exceedingly rare, you know? They say they're a sign of luck, too!”
“I don't care,” snapped the other one, stepping back into the building, “Let's go inside already, I'm getting cold.”
His companion shrugged, pocketed the flower, and followed his partner inside. As he closed the door, the paladin heard a slight rustling noise coming from outside, followed by a series of clicks and a short squeak. He stuck his head outside again and looked up, but saw nothing except a worn wooden trellis and a slightly ajar window above. [ 9:06 ]
* * *
“I beg your pardon?!” decried the brightly dressed diplomat.
The knight repeated himself, “I'm afraid you are not allowed to go to your room until midnight , for heightened security reasons. For now, you will have to return to the festhall.” He folded his arms and continued to block the diplomat's access to the stairs.
“Do you know who I am? I am the chief representative of Luskan! Unless you want to risk a diplomatic incident, I would advise you to step aside this instant!” The diplomat looked to his six personal bodyguards standing around him.
“I'm sorry, sir, but I cannot make any exceptions without the express approval of the Chancellor or Sir Treysen.”
“Very well, but you can be sure that I won't forget this indignity.” The Luskan diplomat moved down the corridor and out of sight from the paladin, whispering some quiet instructions to one of his bodyguards.
Dace and Flink were hiding behind two large suits of armour nearby, and overheard the entire affair.
The halfling waved to his companion, “‘Heightened security'? Do they already know we're here?”
Dace drew a finger across his throat, signaling for Flink to be quiet. One of the Luskan diplomat's bodyguards returned and approached the paladin, giving him an evil eye as he passed. As he passed by, the bodyguard reached out and casually knocked over the armour stand near Flink.
The halfling suppressed a shriek as the metal pieces tumbled down, burying him in a steel pile.
“Hey, you there! Come back!” shouted the paladin as the bodyguard broke into a run down the hallway. The knight quickly gave chase, not seeing Flink's arm sticking out from underneath the fallen armour.
With the knight gone, Dace stepped out from his own hiding place and began to shove the pieces of armour out of the way. He suddenly stopped, hearing someone coming from the opposite end of the hall, and rushed back to his hiding place.
The Luskan ambassador soon came back into view with his five remaining protectors and made his way up the unguarded stairs, “Hmph. If they really were concerned about my protection, they wouldn't have brought in such incompetent paladins. Come,” he said to his bodyguards, “if I'd known about these security arrangements, I would never have left the artifacts sitting in plain sight in my room.”
Dace's ears perked up at this. While he was first and foremost an assassin, he was no stranger to thievery either. If he could do something about the bodyguards, then Dace might also be able to use the Luskan ambassador to his advantage.
As soon as they passed, the mercenary rushed over to the pile and pulled the stunned halfling out, “Hurry, we may get what we needed sooner than I thought.” [ 9:13 ]
* * *
Bryn peered through the bars of the cage at the ugly, talking giant spider, as it pulled the children through the dark side streets. The boy figured they were heading south, toward the slum regions of the city. As they moved, the wolf-beast rummaged through the rucksack that Bryn had carried from his aunt Jena 's house.
It sniffed at an apple with its hairless muzzle, and threw it away. “Nothing but human food and a few travelling supplies,” it muttered, giving the pack a shake.
Bryn heard several metallic objects clinked within, and an idea came to him. He patted himself down, looking for a straight metal object that might be used as a lockpick. He had discreetly spent a few training sessions with the Shadow Thieves over the past year, without his father's knowledge, and had some very basic lock knowledge.
While the cage lock didn't look like a complicated brace, Bryn knew it would take him a very long time, as well as much trial and error, before he could pick it. Unfortunately, he didn't have anything metal that would do the job.
“Hey, kid.” He said, gently trying to get the attention of the urchin over the crying of the others, “I need your help.” With bloodshot eyes, the urchin peeked up past her hands at Bryn, staring silently.
Bryn continued, “If we want to get out of here, I'll need a skinny little piece of metal. Do you have-”
The urchin made several complicated gestures with her hands, none of which Bryn could understand. Bryn shook his head to show that he couldn't interpret her signs. He now realized that the child was deaf.
Time for a different approach. Bryn started to trace his name out in the dirt on the floor of the cell, hoping that someone had taught this child how to read. Though her eyes were still full of fear and anguish, the child brought herself to follow Bryn's finger as he wrote and pointed to himself.
The child stared at Bryn for a moment and, almost reluctantly, reached out and wrote her own name in the dirt, ‘LINDE'.
“Okay, now we have a start.” Bryn said to himself, “I need a lockpick.” He made a key-turning gesture with his hand and pointed toward the padlock. Linde shook her head in worry and looked away, rubbing her eyes. Bryn sighed and returned to the bars, staring as they continued to move deeper into the slums. [ 9:18 ]
* * *
Selena was dimly aware that she was still alive and outdoors, but her mind wouldn't focus on any of the blurry colours or sounds buzzing around her. A massive, jarring burst of pain in her lower chest suddenly snapped everything back to reality. The sensation was enunciated by a sharp scream that she soon realized was her own.
“Hold her steady!” shouted a close voice. The elven woman realized that she was surrounded by her fellow clerics, several of whom were holding their hands over her lower torso.
They all closed their eyes for a moment, and their hands began to glow a light shade of blue. The pain in her chest subsided quickly, and the clerics withdrew as her breathing returned to normal.
“Careful there,” advised one of the clerics as she helped Selena into a sitting position, “you broke two lower ribs. We healed you, but too much physical stress might renew the damage.”
The elf spoke weakly, “What… happened? Where is the High Priest?”
“I'm sorry,” the cleric lowered her head, “he was killed instantly in the explosion. We also lost at least a dozen acolytes and knights when parts of the temple roof collapsed in the blaze. You were fortunate that your page was nearby at the time, or you would have been more badly burned like the others.”
“Burned?” Selena looked down at herself, and only now realized that her formerly yellow robes were shredded and scorched with black. Though she couldn't see her own face, she guessed that her skin had only been lightly charred, judging by the feel.
“Apparently he had some kind of artifact that created a large explosion. The fire is spreading quickly, but our remaining clerics are organizing a water-bucket chain to combat it.”
Selena took a few moments to clear her head, then her eyes suddenly widened, “What about the corpses I was divining? They may be crucial to finding-”
“That's hardly important right now. We may need more manpower here to assist the wounded,” she gestured across the field at the rows of wounded priests and knights, many harbouring severe burn injuries.
With some help, Selena hobbled to her feet and pointed to a page, “You there, carry a message to one of the paladins at the Ducal Palace . Inform them of the explosion and fire, and request that they send at least eight clerics with healing abilities.” The page nodded and ran off.
“Are you certain we should be pulling security from there?” asked the other cleric.
Selena shook her head, “No, but it is only important for the combat paladins to remain there. They shouldn't lose much by sending over a few healers. I only hope events are going better at the summit than they are here.” [ 9:28 ]
* * *
“…but we should remember, gentlemen and lady, the founding factor of this entire summit: opportunity,” the Chancellor said as he addressed the three diplomats before him, “the proposal I have made presents ample opportunity for all four of us to seize benefits worthy of our standing.”
These particular ambassadors represented the ‘golden trio', three of the wealthiest (and currently non-hostile) powerhouse nations of the Sword Coast ; Waterdeep, Athkatla, and Tethyr. Of course, the problem with holding so much power was that you stood much to lose. Especially if you lacked the ability to protect yourself from those who would seize it for themselves.
“That is by far the most unfeasible and utterly useless proposition I have ever heard,” remarked the Tethyrian representative, “you want us to simply hand over dominion of our sea territory, and in exchange for what? A few lax trade offers?”
“That is hardly an accurate way of putting it,” replied Thinder, “I am suggesting a united naval force, represented by our respective nations. A group of elite warships, christened to save our cities from the hostile threats that would strike from the waters. In the past few years, invasions from the sahuagin fish-creatures have increased exponentially. You've all heard of the destruction they've wrought in Calimport? They are making their way north, and unless we are prepared-”
The Athkatlan envoy interrupted, “We have no need of such a force. My country's navy is still strong enough to defend its waters.”
“And therein lies the keyword: ‘defend'. This navy would not be a reserve patrol group, it would be an active assault armada tasked with hunting down the rampant ocean-beasts and their war parties.”
“That sounds rather aggressive, Chancellor,” observed the Waterdeep ambassador, an elderly refined woman of noble heritage, “I agree with my counterparts; we cannot accept such an outlandish offer. Now if you would forgive me, I believe there are more pertinent trade negotiations to be found elsewhere.” The other diplomats also excused themselves with similarly vague reasons.
The Chancellor smiled darkly to himself. His whole proposal wasn't actually meant to succeed, it was only a launching point for the rest of his plans. Soon enough, he would have all three of them wrapped around his finger. [ 9:33 ]
* * *
From the shadows of a nearby alcove, Dace watched as three of the bodyguards stood side by side before the door to the Luskan ambassador's room. He raised his hood to hide his face, then turned to Flink, “Stay here.”
Dace left his hiding place and walked with a drunken swagger across the crimson carpeted hall toward the three guards. “You!” he said in a slurred voice, pointing at the shoulder of the guard on the left, “You're a Lussskan! I really like you,” he began chuckling incoherently and quickly pointed at the guard on his right, “You're a Lussskan too! I really hate you…”
The guards sighed or rolled their eyes and two of them stepped forward to remove this drunken nuisance. Dace leaned forward and appeared to place a hand atop each man's shoulder for support. Then, with a flick from each wrist, the killer pulled a pair of daggers from within his sleeves and brought his arms together with two symmetric inward slashes. This rapid motion brought the blades raking side-to-side across each guard's neck.
The third guard gazed in shock as the ‘drunk' now stood in a ready position, pointing twin daggers at him. Dace sneered in contempt as he struck forward, wondering how these guards could possibly be the best manpower that Luskan had to offer. [ 9:35 ]
* * *
The Luskan diplomat looked up from his desk as he heard several muffled thuds from outside the door. He motioned to the two bodyguards with him in the room, “Go see what they're doing out there.”
Before his guards took a single step, the door opened and Dace walked in, dragging two dead bodies behind him. Each had a thick red line over their throat that dripped with blood. Every drop vanished into the red carpet as it fell.
The halfling followed directly behind with the third guard, this one bearing numerous stab wounds around his torso.
“By Bane's black blood!” screamed the diplomat. The two remaining bodyguards came to bear on either side of their employer, arming themselves as Dace calmly turned and closed the door behind him.
Flink stood off to the side while Dace began to cross the room at a leisurely pace. Shouting battlecries to the god of strife, the guards charged forward in unison, one directing his sword high while his partner aimed low.
Dace brought his daggers up as an ‘x' in salute and quickened his step to meet their attack. The assassin ducked and dodged the first blade, then whirled and blocked the low-aimed blade with his crossed daggers. The guards shifted to opposite sides, trying to divide Dace's attention.
The Luskan ambassador, meanwhile, considered making a break for the exit, but changed his mind when he saw the halfling draw a short sword and block the door.
Dace spread his arms, pointed a dagger at each opponent as they circled him. They attacked simultaneously, both seeking to cleave the killer's head. Dace somersaulted forward and rolled across to the other side of the velvet bed. The guards continued to advance, one going around while the other jumped atop the bed.
Dace grabbed the edge of the top sheet and whisked it off, causing the guard to tip over backward. In the same motion, Dace threw the cover out over the second guard, who raised his arms to try and pull it off. Dace tackled the man to the ground, grabbed at the outline of his sword-arm, and stabbed one of his blades through the sheet, pinning the guard's wrist into the ground. Hearing a sound from behind, Dace immediately pivoted and thrust his other blade upward, impaling the final guard in mid-step.
The Luskan ambassador cowered in the corner as he watched Dace retrieve his weapons and walk over to the desk at the side of the room. The assassin glanced over the many baubles and trinkets that were laid out, then reached for a small, ornately designed jewelry box.
Dace found that the container wouldn't open. Stranger still was that it had no keyhole or visible means of opening… only a drawing of a keyhole on the side.
“Please,” cried the diplomat, “take whatever you want, just leave me unharmed!”
“How do you open this?” demanded Dace, suspecting that the box's contents would likely be of far greater value than the items in plain view.
“I don't know, there's nothing inside it anyway!”
Dace shook the box and heard nothing. All the same, he slipped the container away into a pocket. The assassin shuffled through some of the Luskan's travel papers on the desk, then noticed a glaring peculiarity about the documents.
He marched over to the Luskan and with a few slashes of his dagger, cut off the man's sleeve at the shoulder. Flink saw a grimace appear on Dace's face as he stared something on the man's arm.
“On your feet,” Dace ordered, “Flink, help me drag the guards into the closet. Someone will find them eventually, but we'll be gone before then.” Reversing his dagger, the assassin walked over to the closet and began to scratch a symbol in the wooden frame. [ 9:40 ]
* * *
Selena shook her head in regret as she watched the fire continue to consume what parts of the temple still stood, despite their best attempts to douse the flame. Why, oh why, did the Church hire an architect to build the walls from wood rather than stone? While the temple itself could be rebuilt, the innocent lives devoured by the wanton flame would not be as easily replaced.
She turned back to the rows of wounded. Selena had expended most of her healing spells to undo some of the damage, so now there was little she could do without access to more curative supplies. After taking a moment to remove her charred outer robes, she donned a white cloak that had been given to her by a fellow cleric for warmth.
The elf called to one of the clerics overseeing the recovery, “I've done all I can here. As much as I wish otherwise, I must return to my investigation of the threats against the summit.”
“But the bodies you were divining are still in the building, and most likely too badly burned to be of any use, magical or otherwise. What will you do?”
Selena set off in the direction of the stables, which were housed separately from the main temple. “Investigate the source of all this. I'm heading out to the Silver Spike.” [ 9:45 ]
* * *
“Hsssst! Be quiet!” barked the wolf-creature, signaling for a stop, “I smell someone nearby. Sit here ‘til I'm back.” The wolf tossed Bryn's backpack atop the spider's back and wandered ahead of his arachnid comrade.
Bryn sat up and narrowed his eyes. He could see various objects sticking out of the open bag. Apparently the wolf-beast had already tossed away the food, electing to keep the more useful items. Or maybe he just preferred live meat.
Aunt Jena had packed a few colourful potions and some survival tools; a tinderbox, a file, some eating utensils– wait… a file? Bryn leaned against the bars and squinted some more. At least, it looked like a file.
He reached through the bars, but his arm was just a few centimetres too short. The boy took a deep breath and pressed himself against the side of the cage, squashing the rest of his body in the slim hope of gaining that small extra distance. He could just touch the bag, but couldn't grab anything.
Linde suddenly appeared at Bryn's side, and also tried reaching through the bars, but her reach was also short by the same distance. Without warning, Bryn heard a revolting ‘popping' sound from the girl's shoulder, and he realized with utter disgust that she had disjointed her arm.
The girl's fingers barely managed to grasp the file tip, but she gripped it well enough to draw it out of the bag and into the cage without the spider-beast realizing. She adjusted her arm to normal with an equally disgusting ‘pop' and held the tool out to Bryn, avoiding looking at his face. He had an uneasy facial expression from Linde's unusual ability, but took the file and nodded his thanks.
At that moment, the wolf-beast prowled back into view, licking blood off his clawed hand, “Another beggar. Come on, legs, we still don't have enough brats.” Bryn quickly tucked the file into his pocket as the wolf cast a leery glare into the cage, “Not to worry, brats, even if we don't find any more, you'll all have plenty of fun stalking the frigid night.” [ 9:51 ]
* * *
Striding through the second-floor halls of the Ducal Palace was a little easier than Derrick expected, forcing him to wonder why there was such a light guard presence. So far, he'd only seen – and evaded – a handful of patrolmen… hardly an appropriate number for such an important assembly.
He peeked around a corner to see a suspicious cloaked man and a halfling leaving one of the quest quarters. He couldn't make out the human's face, but there was a certain… fluidity in his step that led Derrick to believe he was accustomed to moving stealthily. A Shadow Thief perhaps?
The cloaked man gestured to the halfling, “Hurry, Flink. We are not yet finished here.”
Flink! Derrick recalled the name and wondered if he was too late to stop the assassination. He waited until they were gone, then entered the room from which they emerged, hoping to figure out what the mercenaries were up to. As soon as he stepped inside, he heard an angry muffled voice from a closet.
“I am the official representative of Luskan, and you will suffer greatly if I am not released posthaste!” shouted the voice from within.
Good, thought Derrick, the mercenaries hadn't killed the diplomat after all… but why? [ 9:53 ]
* * *
“Why did you leave the Luskan alive?” asked Flink as they made their way up a suspiciously unguarded flight of stairs to the third floor of the palace.
“Because he is an imposter,” stated Dace, “His identification papers are forgeries. I have traveled under enough false identities to recognize counterfeit documents when I see them.” He paused to wipe some blood from his cuff, “And besides, I already told you that I am not going to kill anyone important until I have something we can hold against our Shield employers.” [ 9:54 ]
* * *
Hand on sword, the thief threw open the closet, causing the envoy, a bodyguard with a wounded wrist, and four tightly packed corpses to come tumbling out onto the floor. Derrick was moving to help the diplomat up when his eyes fell on the envoy's sleeveless arm.
Near the shoulder was a black tattoo of a large ‘Z'… marking the man as a citizen of Zhentil Keep, not Luskan as he claimed.
“You! How dare you assault a dignitary and murder his guard!” accused the false envoy, mistaking Derrick's black cloak for the one Dace was wearing.
Derrick stepped back, measuring his distance to the exit, “Wait, I think-”
The door to the hall suddenly swung open and a paladin entered, pulling with him the bodyguard who had toppled the suit of armour, “Sir, I have placed your emplo– what in Tyr's blinded eyes is going on here?!”
“Murderer!” cried the imposter, pointing at Derrick, “Arrest this man!”
Before the thief could reach for a sword, the paladin came forth and grabbed one of Derrick's arms while the previously arrested bodyguard seized the other. Fighting likely wouldn't be a wise choice, especially against a paladin.
“Wait, you don't understand!” Derrick stammered, trying to get out of his second false murder charge of the day, “He's a Zhent! A Zhentish spy, look at-” The thief's words were cut short as the bodyguard grabbed the torn sleeve from the ground and forcibly tied it around Derrick's mouth in a gag.
The false envoy pulled on a robe from the closet to conceal his arm tattoo, “Take this monster from my sight, good sir. And summon the knight in charge of security, he must know of this attempt on my life.” [ 9:56 ]
* * *
Vellin patrolled the main festhall, scanning the gathered dignitaries with a hawk-like gaze. The Chancellor was busy pretending to laugh in response to some noble's poorly told joke. Besides the obvious, there was something… false about Chancellor Thinder that Vellin couldn't quite put his finger on.
“Inquisitor!” called Treysen as he crossed the foyer to join his colleague, “I've received some alarming news from the Temple of Tyr ! Apparently there was some kind of explosion in the priests' quarters, and a massive fire ensued, destroying much of the complex. Most of their paladins were either killed or severely injured in the inferno, and they've sent a request for a dozen knights as reinforcements.”
“Out of the question. We're pressed for security ourselves. They were supposed to be reinforcing us .”
An embarrassed look appeared on Treysen's face, “Er… I've already dispatched them. As head of security, I didn't think I needed your approval.”
The Inquisitor frowned deeply, “You don't, but I cannot imagine why you would be so negligent.”
“We still have more than enough knights to go around, I'm sure,” the Tormite gave a confident smile, “Do you really think anyone would be fool enough to risk the wrath of the finest paladin order on the continent?”
A messenger appeared from the crowd and addressed Treysen in a hushed voice, “Sir Treysen! A few minutes ago, one of the diplomats was attacked and four of his bodyguards were murdered! We have an assassin in the building!”
Vellin raised a harsh eyebrow at Treysen, “I'm sorry, were you asking me a question just now?” [ 9:58 ]
* * *
“This job is the snare,” muttered the thief, “why the bloody ‘ell are we guarding some pit in the ground?” He stared at the wooden trapdoor in the ground.
“It's not a ‘pit', it's the guild's escape route into the sewers,” replied his fellow guild guard, “One of Orwin's lieutenants is down there right now, clearing out some nasties. We're here to ensure none slip by into the building.”
“Eh, I'd still rather be drinking.”
A loud knocking sound from below the trapdoor startled both thieves. They heard Rassa's voice calling from below, “Open up, you fools! We have a threat approaching!”
They quickly pulled open the door and they saw Rassa climb out, then rush away down the corridor without saying another word to them. The thieves glanced at each other in confusion, and then a small metallic ball flew up out of the hole and bounced on the ground before them.
It suddenly exploded in a brilliant burst of light, and the last thing the thieves heard was some loud scampering and snarling coming up from the sewers below.
The invasion of the Shadow Thieves had begun.
[ 10:00 ]
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