By Bryant Alexander
How to Make Friends and Influence People
Aeryn wanted to break into her home. More specifically, she wanted to break into her parents’ house and retrieve some clothes she’d left behind. Technically, it wasn’t breaking and entering, since she still had a key, and it wasn’t stealing, since they were her clothes. But it might get her noticed at a time when she was trying to keep a low profile. At least, that was my opinion.
“Unless someone’s been wearing my clothes, no one should notice,” Aeryn reasoned.
The way I figured it, the worst that could happen was her family catching her in the act. They were going to find out that she was in town sooner or later. Besides, it wasn’t like anything I could say could change Aeryn’s mind. It wasn’t a good idea to get between Aeryn and her clothes.
Aeryn was a lot more concerned with Armand and how to explain him to the Steel Princess.
“I can speak for myself,” Armand said.
“No, you can’t,” Aeryn said.
“I’ll offend less people than you,” Armand said.
“You told my cousin we’re a couple,” Aeryn said.
“I had reason,” Armand said. “You’re lucky I didn’t throw him out the window.”
“You’re lucky you didn’t try,” Aeryn said. “He had troops with him.”
“This was before I knew you,” Armand said. “When I thought I might want you for a girlfriend. Now I’d happily see you married to Prince Picks-His-Nose. I’ll get him a pair of earplugs for a wedding present.”
“He’ll put them in his nose,” Aeryn said. “Which would improve his appearance.”
Aeryn secured us an afternoon appointment to see the regent. Armand wasn’t sure this was such a good thing.
“I’d prefer to go to several other people first,” Armand said. “But that’s not going to happen if we’re going this afternoon. I don’t want her going in by herself.”
“We’re going for a top down approach,” I said. “As opposed to a bottom up approach.”
Getting royal approval first might help us convince the noble houses. Of course, if the Steel Princess disapproved, we were hosed. We were betting on the fact that she was an adventurer and would see us as kindred spirits.
We had other difficulties. We wanted to get to our audience without attracting a lot of attention. Aeryn was going to cover herself with a hooded cloak. This late in the year, she’d blend in fine that way. But how many half-orcs, even well scrubbed half-orcs, entered the palace?
“We could put Grolsch in a dress,” Aeryn suggested.
“With a parasol?” Grolsch added.
“And we’ll get you a rowboat,” Aeryn said.
It sounded to me like this plan was out to sea.
“I don’t care if I attract attention,” Armand said. “I’m not sneaking in.”
Armand by himself would attract attention, no matter how he tried to disguise himself. However… Armand and Aeryn, even with Aeryn trying to be inconspicuous, would gather even more attention, especially given the prevalence of the Armand/Aeryn marriage rumors. So while Armand and Grolsch strode through the front gates with our prisoner, me and Aeryn slipped in the servant’s entrance. There was nothing odd about a visiting priestess coming through that way, and under her cloak people probably mistook Aeryn for some acolyte.
After a nice tour of some of the more scenic corridors of the castle, we met Armand and Grolsch in the waiting room outside the Royal Audience Chamber. We joined them on the benches and waited.
“Wendal, party of two!” a herald announced.
A party of two entered the audience chamber. We waited. Some servants mingled with us, passing out hor d’oeuvres. The servant girls did seem to like serving Armand…
“Not the time,” Armand muttered.
“If it’s for anyone,” I whispered, “save it for the princess.”
After about a half hour or so, we were ushered into a fair sized room to face a rather hefty woman who looked quite bored.
“Well?” Alusair, princess and Steel Regent asked. “Whatta you want?”
“Thank you, your highness, for seeing us,” Armand said. “We have information from the Dalelands that we thought would interest you. We were investigating the recent uprising among the drow and found that members of clan Morcane have become loyal to…”
“Kiaransalee,” Aeryn volunteered.
“I was reluctant to mention the name,” Armand said. “They appear to be building an army of undead. The local lord, while a good ruler…”
Aeryn coughed diplomatically.
“…appears to be overwhelmed,” Armand continued, “and has made some bad decisions.”
We seemed to have gotten the princess’ attention. She called over some advisors and whispered urgently with them for a few minutes.
“We find this rather disturbing,” the princess said. “You may want to contact other noble families. We don’t expect to be able to help much with troops but we will see what we can do in other respects.”
“The local lord has troops,” Armand said. “But he has made a perhaps unwise bargain with the Zhents.”
Armand did have a gift for understatement. And the princess’ lip curled slightly at the mention of Zhents. Not exactly a surprise. Cormyr was constantly fending off those who would annex her lands, and Zhents loved the idea of annexing any land they could grab.
“This is unlike Randal,” the princess said. “Something must be up.”
“We turned over a captured drow to Lord Morn,” Armand said. “She appears to be influencing him to make some questionable decisions, which is why we haven’t turned our second prisoner over to him.”
“What do you intend to do with your prisoner?” the princess asked.
“She’s a gift for your majesty,” Aeryn said.
The princess had some guards carry Dessa out to her new home in the dungeons. Maybe Armand was right and she’d been useful, but I wouldn’t miss her and Aeryn wouldn’t miss her. If we did miss her, we’d have to work on improving our aim.
“Hopefully,” Armand said, “you’ll be more successful at extracting information from her than we have been.”
The Steel Princess didn’t seem overly concerned with the prisoner. A certain member of our party had finally caught her eye.
“Lady Aeryn,” the princess said. “I believe your fiancé is looking for you.”
“I imagine he was,” Aeryn said. “I can tell you all about it over dinner.”
“Dinner,” the princess said. “What a splendid idea.”
She clapped her hands, and just like that, canceled the remaining audiences. Dinner was served in short order and Aeryn and the princess quickly became engrossed in conversation like a pair of schoolgirls. I wasn’t even trying to follow their conversation, but I did catch the phrase “broke the bed”. Given the way Armand was glaring at Aeryn, I wasn’t the only one.
The food was certainly fit for royalty. Although… The silver setting wasn’t really to my taste. They were able to provide me with pewter, although they obviously couldn’t think why I’d want such a substitution. I caught Aeryn saying something about “my friend has allergies”, which was close enough to the truth.
In between Aeryn telling tales, catching up on gossip, and coaxing the occasional story out of the Steel Princess from her own adventuring days, we learned a little about who our next targets should be. House Draken and House Von Denn were apparently allied, and from what I’d gathered, House Von Denn was not well liked. We might do better to ignore those two. The Sturmfords and the Murkens would likely be difficult. The Laralsons, however, might be a good place to start. The Temples of Tyr and Tempus might be able to help.
After dinner, the princess wished us luck.
“If my fiancé asks,” Aeryn said, “tell him I went to Sembia.”
“Too bad he missed the dinner invitation,” Armand muttered.
The princess didn’t look thrilled at the prospect of having to talk to Aeryn’s fiancé at all.
“Think of it this way,” Aeryn said. “If they’re still after this match with me, they’re not looking for a match with you. Unless you wanna solve all my problems for me.”
That didn’t seem likely. We were interrupted then by the arrival of court mage Caladnei, a dark skinned woman that seemed to attract Armand’s attention. The mage whispered something urgently to the princess.
“That bastard!” the princess growled.
“Anything I can help with?” Aeryn asked.
“Not unless you wanna be fish bait,” the princess said. “Excuse me. Affairs of state.”
She and Caladnei exited, muttering together something about Von Denn… and “hired another one.”
We returned to our inn. We hadn’t gotten a commitment from the Steel Princess, but I think we all felt that things had gone well, so far. Tomorrow, Armand would begin visiting noble houses. Aeryn and I would approach the temples. And Grolsch…
“Can’t you find a nice stretch of park land,” Aeryn suggested, fingers crossed, “and play fetch?”
“Yes,” Grolsch said. “But my jaw will get sore.”
The next morning, Armand went to visit House Laralson. Aeryn and I went visit the temple of Tyr. There weren’t a lot of people in the temple. So I was especially surprised when a man in a white tabard rounded a corner and slammed into me. I was startled enough to shift into bat form without meaning to, which probably startled the man even more.
“Who… Who are you?” he stammered.
Aeryn thought quick and shoved her cleavage in his face. It kept his mind off of me while I got myself back into elf form, although it also gave him something else to trip over.
“May I present Moonshine, of the temple of Sehanine Moonbow?” Aeryn said.
“I’m Coraym,” he managed to say.
“I hope this teaches you something about running in the halls,” I said.
He gathered up the scrolls and such that he dropped when he slammed into me, then ushered us into a room where a secretary was busy scribbling things onto more scrolls. The secretary recognized Princess Aeryn and had us shown into the High Priest’s garden.
The High Priest listened to us while he tended his garden. Unfortunately, he couldn’t offer us much in the way of troops. On the other hand, his order might be able to help us with supplies. If we were going to fight undead, we could use all the holy water we could transport, and some nice sharp stakes might come in handy, too.
“Come to me a couple days before you move out,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
That seemed fair enough. And just so we knew, he mentioned that Baron Von Denn had gone into his mansion a couple weeks ago and hadn’t been seen since. While we might not actually want to see the baron, things might be better if he was somewhere where we could see him. Then we could choose not to look.
“And your fiancé is looking for you,” the High Priest concluded.
“Do tell him I’ve gone to Sembia,” Aeryn suggested sweetly.
We proceeded to the temple of Tempus. The War God might like sending troops in to help our cause, but the temple was practically empty. The troops were already out in the field, cleaning up those orc and goblin raiders we’d been warned about. They’d help if they could, but they were pretty much tapped out.
Back at the inn, we found Armand with a glazed look in his eyes, one hand on his forehead as if he had a splitting headache and the other hand clutching his stomach as if it was upset.
“She has worse verbal diarrhea than you,” he told Aeryn.
“You’ve been to see Lady Laralson,” Aeryn guessed cheerfully.
“She weighs about as much as me,” Armand groaned. “And she won’t shut up. By the way, I keep hearing that Von Denn’s disappeared. I wonder if the princess would like us to check it out.”
Aeryn poured him some wine. Maybe it would settle his stomach.
“I already had some,” Armand demurred. “And I ate.”
“She let you have some food?” Aeryn marveled. “That’s why her husband’s so skinny, you know.”
Lady Laralson was a motor mouth and an overeater at the same time? This was someone that I did not want to meet over a meal. My stomach hurt just thinking about it.
The next day, Armand went out to visit House Wendal. Aeryn and I went to visit House Wyvernspur. As for Grolsch…
“Send Grolsch to rally the beasts of the field,” I suggested. “A dozen squirrels might be able to take out a vampire.”
On the other hand, if they lost… vampiric squirrels. Did we really want to risk that? Again, Grolsch went to the park to play. At least he kept the common folk entertained. Maybe if he put down a hat, he could collect coppers for doing tricks with the doggies.
Aeryn and I spent a few gold greasing the palms of underlings and made our way to Lord Wyvernspur. Unfortunately, what we got for our trouble was a lot of hemming and hawing. The lord was anything but committal on the matter. It took us a while to find out what was weighing on his mind so heavily.
“We’re having a problem with annoying orc band,” he said. “About thirty or forty of them, in the King’s Forest. Only the bravest and boldest adventurers can deal with them. If you can get rid of them, you’ll have our full support.”
We didn’t swear that we’d take care of the orcs, but agreed to do what we could. After our last orc encounter, we were fairly confident of our abilities, but if the orcs had built themselves a stronghold, we might not be able to pry them out. Brave we were and bold we were, but stupid we weren’t. We had a big enough commitment already without making more promises we might not be able to keep.
“And you’re fiancé’s looking for you,” Lord Wyvernspur warned Aeryn.
“Do tell him I’m on the Dragon Coast,” Aeryn suggested.
Armand won the support of House Wendal, and learned some interesting things about the runaway elf princess and her companion. His oblivious source hadn’t connected him with the companion.
“I’m ten feet tall, and a necromancer,” Armand said. “You’re screwing everything from here to Silverymoon.”
“Shows what they know,” Aeryn said. “We haven’t even been to Silverymoon.”
House Sturmford proved to have been really chewed in the recent battles. We couldn’t get blood from a stone. And House Thundersword was friendly, but…
“It’s hard to push the issue,” Armand said, “when the lord is mourning his son.”
“Please tell me you haven’t mentioned your people’s funerary customs,” Aeryn said.
He hadn’t. Armand was prepared to be diplomatic with people outside the party. We disagreed with his feelings, but it was all right for him to share them with us. He didn’t always share them at appropriate times, but he was learning to hold himself to some eye rolling since he wasn’t changing our minds.
The next day, we sent Grolsch off to see if he could find the orcs in the King’s Forest. After all, he might be able to get away with asking them politely to leave. Granted, ‘politely’ among orcs might mean knocking some heads together, but he could still do that. Me and Aeryn went to visit House Skoril. They were old aristocracy, and Aeryn was old aristocracy. We could work with that. Armand would approach House Merkin.
Lord Skoril was a very friendly retired war wizard.
“Princess Aeryn!” he said. “Your fiancé’s looking for you.”
Aeryn gave him suggestions as to where her fiancé should go looking for her, and Lord Skoril launched into a nice long reminiscence about the good old days. He had had some fascinating adventures, but he rambled a lot, and while the chairs were comfy, they weren’t made for endurance sitting. Some six hours later…
“There was something,” he said. “Something in a tower in the swamp. An enchanted dagger. I wasn’t able to retrieve it as a younger man. A brave band of adventurers could retrieve it. You won’t catch any swamp diseases this late in the season, so you’ll be okay if you look out for the hydras and the skrags. The stirges are in hibernation. There hasn’t been a report of a black dragon in the vicinity in twenty years.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “One of our party would seduce it.”
Aeryn discretely toed me under the table. I doubt the lord even noticed. We were here to listen now, not to add commentary. But when we reached Lord Wyvernspur’s age, we might have to think twice before reminiscing about our adventures with a younger generation.
“I’d be very, very appreciative if you could bring it back for me,” he said.
We promised to do our best. The next day was the High Festival of Winter. Running out to the Farsea Marshes and back would take more than one day, but one day was already going to be a waste if we stuck around the city. I’d been kind of looking forward to midwinter festival, but duty before pleasure. We’d celebrate after we defeated the drow.
Meantime, we did some shopping. The scarab turned out to be a golem-bane. It might prove useful the next time a statue attacked us. We knew there would be a next time. We decided to sell the lute.
“Unless one of us wants to learn to play,” I said.
We considered what Armand would look like with a lute. We sold it. The shield turned out to be the most profitable item in the batch. We kept the hourglass and the spyglass. They might come in handy.
We left a note for Grolsch, should he return to the inn ahead of us, and considered how we were gonna get to the swamp. If we took the horses, it would take us three days to ride there. Flying would be a lot faster, especially if, as Aeryn suggested, we don’t stop for bathroom breaks and simply decorated the landscape far below.
“Moonshine can do that,” Aeryn said.
“It may look natural,” I said, “but I’m still me. Would you?”
“Over a bird’s nest, maybe,” Aeryn said.
“Only if I was really drunk,” Armand said.
Also, while I could cast Fly on Armand, it wouldn’t last all day. Aeryn would have to lend him her flying cloak and ride on his back.
“I guess we’re leaving Cinnabar,” Armand said.
We flew in and camped at the edge of the frozen marsh. Much to our amazement, we had a quiet night.
“I go first,” Aeryn said. “You go last, and you go in the middle so we can catch you when you go through the thin ice.”
“We can’t pull him out by brute strength,” I pointed out.
We’d worry about it if he actually fell through. Until then, Aeryn would bounce along in the hopes of cracking anything crackable so Armand would see that he needed to step elsewhere. When we spotted a dozen dire rats, we all went around them.
“It’s bigger than you!” Aeryn told Silvorglim. “And you already ate.”
We did have to wonder whether or not we’d be better off flying. A tower would, presumably, be visible from the air. It was rather misty, though, and the tower might have sunk into the swamp. We didn’t want to fly right over it.
“First my butt got numb from that chair,” Aeryn said. “Now it’s numb from your shoulders. I’m walking.”
“I feel like a pack animal,” Armand said. “You’re the third woman I’ve carried.”
“At least we’re not loading you down with carpets like Grolsch,” Aeryn pointed out.
Aeryn took first watch that evening. I agreed to take second. Given that we only needed four hours sleep apiece, we could easily cover the entire night between us.
“Let him sleep,” Aeryn said.
“There’s no point,” I agreed.
In his own way, Armand did contribute to our watch efforts. His snoring had to be scaring anything out there away. A little careful prodding got him to roll onto his side and seemed to solve that problem, however.
In the wee hours of the morning, I heard an odd bubbling sound. My first thought was that the swamp was just venting some gas. Swamps do things like that. But the bubbling sound was coming our way, accompanied by a sort of dragging noise. I tapped my companions.
“Something bubbling this way comes,” I said.
“Bubbling?” Aeryn murmured as she woke up. “Bubbling? Now might be time to take to the friendly skies.”
“…my armor…,” Armand said.
I imagined he did feel a bit naked without all that metal between him and whatever was coming to meet us. Two heads popped out of the swamp. They looked strangely like trolls. Armand drew his sword. Something a lot like a troll lumbered out of the water. It had webbed hands and feet, but otherwise, it appeared to be a troll.
Aeryn flew into the air and sprayed down lightning on it. I cast Fly on Armand. He might want to get out of arms’ reach of these things. He hit it with his flaming sword. If the thing didn’t just look trollish, flames would be a good thing. I shot it with Searing Light. That got its attention. It charged at me. Those claws hurt.
I changed to bat-form. My wand was probably more effective than my teeth, but the troll was a lot less likely to hurt me now. Armand kept swinging at the second troll, and I did my best to bit pieces off the first one. Armand got the second one down and Aeryn landed and lightninged it.
My troll was trying to bite me back, but my fangs were more effective on it than its fangs were on me. It swiped at Armand when he swung at it, but Armand hit and the troll didn’t. But then the first one stood up again. These were definitely trolls. Aeryn knocked it back down with her own flaming weapon, and then poured Alchemist’s Fire over its head. That, hopefully, would be the end of it.
Between me and Armand, we knocked the first one down finally. Once back in elf-form, I tapped myself and Armand with Moonshaft’s Daughter. We’d both taken some clawing. Armand even took a healing potion after my staff cast healing on him.
We decided to do some flying, since Armand already had my Fly spell on him. We would just have to land when it wore off. And we’d have to keep our eyes peeled, since it was quite misty out. After a while, Aeryn had to give Armand her cloak again and let him carry her. Technically, the Fly spell that’d just worn off of him was yesterday’s spell, and I could cast it on him again, but I’d hold it in reserve for now. We might want to make a speedy retreat later.
“Is that a glint?” Aeryn pointed. “No, that glint.”
The glint soon resolved itself into something, which as we got closer turned out to be a ‘tower’ of green glass. It was only fifteen feet tall, which in my opinion, wasn’t much of a tower. Armand was even less impressed.
We landed on top of the tower, such as it was. There wasn’t a lot of top left to it. Bits and pieces of green glass were scattered about. Looking down, we could see the remains of floors. There probably used to be stairs in there, too.
“I will test the floor,” Aeryn said.
“If there’s a weak spot,” Armand said, “I’ll find it.”
Aeryn’s Detect Magic detected that the tower was indeed made of magical green glass. I couldn’t imagine anyone constructing something this size out of non-magical glass of any color. It looked like we’d have to search the interior for the dagger. And from somewhere in the swamp we heard something that sounded like things… breathing.
“This may be paranoia,” Armand said, “but I’m putting up shields.”
He even cast Mage Armor on me. Aeryn flew down into the tower to check around. Something was definitely coming our way, though. I didn’t want to shout, on the off chance that the whatever-it-was didn’t already know we were here. I suppose I could’ve written her a note and dropped it on her head, but if she didn’t hear a whisper, her owl would.
“Psst!” I called down.
Aeryn came back up. She didn’t have to ask what the problem was. We could all see the ten-headed hydra heading our way. With ten heads, it could really head our way. Worse, it was taller than the tower. A Fly spell let Armand get out of reach. He rained lightning down on the hydra. A chorus of ten hisses told us that he’d annoyed it.
I batted out and flew out of reach. Aeryn flew up and zorched it. It started climbing up the tower after us.
“Can I say altitude?” Aeryn asked.
That sounded like a good idea. I flew higher. Armand kept zapping it with lightning bolts, but the burns were healing. At least the hydra realized that it wasn’t getting to us by climbing and headed back into the water. I felt rather useless flapping around while Armand and Aeryn used their wands. Maybe I should start praying for two Fly spells instead of one Fly and one Dimension Door. Then I could fly in elf-form and cast Fly on Armand at the same time.
On the other hand, I had Locate Object. I flew into the tower, changed back to elf-form, and cast it. I couldn’t specify which dagger to look for, since I’d never seen this one, but how many daggers could there be around here? The spell led me to a near-invisible green glass dagger planted up to the hilt in a wall.
Aeryn landed beside me. She yanked on the dagger, but it didn’t budge. I changed to bat-form again. I was a bit stronger as a bat than as an elf. It didn’t help. The dagger was stuck fast. Aeryn tried again, to no avail.
Armand came down to join us. Aeryn went back up, incase the hydra followed. We really didn’t want a bunch of hydra heads clogging the only exit. Armand tried yanking on the dagger. It still didn’t want to come loose.
“It’s probably waiting for some prophesied prince to pull it out,” I muttered.
“I’m not marrying him!” Aeryn shouted from above.
Armand pointed his ring at the wall.
“Stand back,” he said.
I stood back. I hoped the dagger wasn’t made of exactly the same glass as the wall. We didn’t want to shatter our prize. I couldn’t think of a better idea, though. Armand fired the ring at the wall. The wall rang with a bell-like tone and the dagger jerked.
“We might need a tuning fork,” I said.
This time, when Armand tugged on the dagger it pulled free of the wall. It looked like… a dagger carved out of green glass. We knew it was magical, but it could be almost anything.
We joined Aeryn on the remains of the roof.
“Let’s get out of here,” Armand said.
“I suggest altitude,” Aeryn said.
That sounded good to the rest of us. We flew up. Armand looked back at the tower.
“I just had a strong urge to use the dagger on the hydra,” he said.
“Hand it over,” Aeryn said.
The hydra crawled out of the water again. Some critters really don’t know when to quit. Maybe we had a Dagger of Hydra Slaying. Aeryn kept the hydra busy with lightning blasts while Armand flew in at it. The heads dove at him, and amazingly all managed to miss. Armand rejoined us out of the hydra’s reach.
“It does a lot of damage for a dagger,” he said. “But it damages me, too. I think it’s a Dagger of Attack Anything I See.”
Wonderful. Maybe we needed to blindfold him while he was carrying it. We flew to the edge of the swamp and camped on a handy patch of solid ground. Armand wobbled.
“I think I may be poisoned,” he said.
“Oh, man, you’re sick!” Aeryn said.
I tried Cure Disease on him. It didn’t seem to make a difference. We needed Grolsch for Neutralize Poison. Restoration made Armand feel better. Maybe using the dagger just took that much out of him.
“I doubt the geezer’s actually gonna use it,” I said.
“I wonder if I can use it as a gift for someone,” Aeryn said. “I wonder if I can use it as a gift for Von Denn. I wonder if I can buy it. Here. A wedding present.”
We had another quiet night. At least, for most of us it was quiet.
“I had a really weird dream,” Armand said over breakfast.
“What was her name?” Aeryn asked.
“I don’t know if it was female,” Armand said.
Aeryn and I exchanged looks.
“Is there something about you we don’t know?” Aeryn asked.
“It was a demonic thing with small horns and red eyes,” Armand said. “Some sort of temple of evil, with a statue of a demonic figure. I think I need a Remove Curse, or something else might be watching us.”
Then Armand pulled the dagger out.
“Altitude!” Aeryn squeaked.
She jumped up and stayed there. Armand stalked and killed a chipmunk.
“I think it’s an ego-weapon,” Armand decided. “Its will is bigger than mine.”
Armand put the dagger down and began to pack up. Aeryn came back down, now that it looked like Armand wouldn’t be trying to gut us, too. She managed not to make the obvious comment about Armand and his will. We decided to fly back to Suzail at top speed. Even if this was just a Dagger of Kill Something Daily, we didn’t want to have it around any longer than necessary.
Once we were back in the city, we went straight to Skoril Mansion.
“Much quicker than I expected,” Lord Skoril said.
“Given the problems in the Dalelands,” Armand said, “we felt the need to expedite matters.”
“Did you find the item?” Lord Skoril asked.
“Yes,” Armand said. “And it wants to kill things.”
“Really?” Lord Skoril said. “I gotta compare this to the manuscript.”
“Can you find someone to remove this compulsion permanently?” Armand asked.
“It only affects the first person who handled it,” Lord Skoril said.
Armand put the dagger down, carefully, on a table. Lord Skoril shuffled out to peruse his library. We were served some dinner. It was a good meal, but we were a bit too anxious to really enjoy it. Finally, the old lord came back with an even older book and reading glasses perched on his nose.
“It was made by a mage named Norgill,” he said. “They’re not sure if he was from this world. They’re not even sure he was human.”
Norgill wouldn’t be the first one.
Armand related his dream to the old man.
“That’s not good,” Lord Skoril said. “It might be demonic. It says here the person who first lays hand on the blade is the one to be blessed.”
“That’s a blessing?” Armand asked.
Aeryn was looking a bit wide-eyed. Unfortunately, I knew from personal experience that different people had different ideas of what was a blessing and what was a curse.
“It’s not much of a blessing,” Armand muttered.
“It can be removed by the death of the wielder,” Lord Skoril said. “Or by being given willingly to a willing recipient.”
“How about the mother of all Remove Curses?” Armand suggested.
“I tell you what,” Lord Skoril said. “I’ll give you half its value in gold and you go get a major Remove Curse done. How would you like to be paid?”
We weren’t picky. We accepted platinum or gems readily enough. Lord Skoril wrote us a letter of credit… for thirty six thousand gold. That could buy one hell of a Remove Curse.
“And troops?” Aeryn suggested.
The lord promised us one Mireille Skoril to aid our cause. We headed off to the temple of Tyr.
“I think this thing would’ve been better where it was,” Aeryn said.
“Can’t see any use for the damned thing,” Armand agreed.
“‘Damned thing’ is accurate,” I said. “I can’t believe I missed Midwinter doing this…”
I should’ve expected it, actually. I always missed the holidays. Sehanine Moonbow’s holy days were mostly held on nights of the full moon. While I did feel especially close to my Goddess on those nights, I couldn’t really participate in anyone else’s celebrations.
The High Priest of Tyr was able to remove the compulsion from Armand for a mere four hundred and twenty gold. That left us with a tidy sum to invest in saving the Dales. We were also offered the services of a paladin of Tyr, Coraym the Slow. Coraym, of course, was the man who’d slammed into me. He didn’t seem any less nervous today than he had been then. But he did have his own horse, Maggie, and even had a lance.
On the other hand, Maggie wouldn’t be much use where we were going.
“Uh… Underground?” Coraym gulped.
“You’re not claustrophobic, are you?” Aeryn asked.
“Not as long as it’s not enclosed,” Coraym said.
Wonderful. We returned, at long last, to our inn. Not only had Grolsch returned, but in our absence, he was being hailed as a hero. According to song and story, Grolsch had single handedly taken on an orcish army led by a demonic hill giant. And here we’d thought we were simply getting him out of the way.
House Thundersword sent us their best warrior: a very familiar troll. He was humming and he was eating a blueberry pie.
“Oh,” the troll said. “You guys.”
“Pleased to meetcha,” Aeryn said.
“We’ve got to find Nanoc and introduce them,” I murmured.
Armand looked up. The troll was a good nine feet two inches tall and weighed in at four hundred and twelve pounds. Now Armand could understand what my neck felt like. The Troll was named Grundle the Strange, because he was different from other trolls. We’d already noticed that. He didn’t seem to mind being called strange, either, so long as he had a song in his heart and a pie in his hand.
“He can be the carpet carrier!” Aeryn said.
House Wyvern sent us Neville the Nimble, a monk. We were assembling a very interesting team, and we’d acquired about thirty thousand gold worth goods and wealth. We went to pay the princess another visit. She was impressed with our progress, and especially impressed with the tales of Grolsch.
“We plan to leave for the Dalelands in three days,” Armand said. “We heard you have a problem with Baron Von Denn.”
“We wouldn’t be adverse if you paid him a visit,” the Steel Princess admitted. “Try not to simply kill him. He isn’t well liked, but he is powerful. He has friends in low places.”
“He’s probably still missing his little soul stealing sword,” Armand said.
Ah hah. A lot of previous comments that I’d caught clicked together.
“Be on the lookout for an assassin,” the regent added.
We headed out to the Von Denn estate. The fenced off yard was being visibly patrolled by a pair of guard dogs.
“Shall we kill the puppies?” Armand asked.
“We have sleep poison,” Aeryn reminded him.
“The dogs didn’t ask to be hired by the Von Denns,” I said.
“Exactly,” Aeryn said. “One arrow won’t kill them.”
“They’re Von Denn’s pets,” Armand said.
Aeryn fired off an arrow. She hit the target, all right. It went right through the dog’s nose and out its tail.
“Was that necessary?” Grolsch asked.
That was one very dead dog.
“Aeryn,” I said. “I just want you to know, I’m praying for you.”
Armand shot the other dog. It fell over, wounded but clearly alive and dreaming little doggy dreams.
“You can heal it if you want,” Armand said. “Do you want to pick the lock or jump over the fence?”
Aeryn picked the lock. We snuck through the gate and hurried across to the front door. A simple Detect Magic showed runes waiting for anyone trying to break in. I looked back at the dead dog. Maybe Grolsch could reincarnate it. On the way out, that is. Whatever it was reborn as, it would want to chase us off the estate. That wouldn’t be a problem if it came back as a slug, but what if it came back as a rhinoceros?
“I wanted to nick it,” Aeryn said.
“Maybe,” Armand said, “you should have used less than a three foot bolt.”
“I didn’t think to get blow darts,” Aeryn said.
I cast Dispel Magic on the front door. We opened it and hurried inside before the runes could recover. A very surprised maid was staring at us. Armand thought quick and grabbed her. Kissing her kept her from screaming. Aeryn ran behind her and gave her a good jab in the butt with a poisoned arrow. She went limp in Armand’s arms. Armand probably could’ve achieved the same effect without the poison, but it would’ve taken longer.
We put her away in a closet and crept about the house, looking for anything that might be a clue. We found the stairs leading up just in time to hear the footsteps coming down. Time to hide.
Some of us hide better than others. Luckily, every mansion simply has to have a suit of armor standing around. An old man carrying a silver service on tray ambled down the stairs, muttering to himself. He absently pulled out a cloth, polished Armand, and gave Cinnabar a few brush strokes before wandering off towards the kitchens.
“Everyone up the stairs,” Armand whispered. “Before they hear us laughing.”
We made our way up to the second floor.
“Hide for a sec,” Aeryn said.
She scouted out the floor and found five uninteresting rooms. There were fewer candles around than I would’ve expected. Maybe the Von Dens liked it dark. Aeryn gestured us over to the stairs to the third floor. The third floor was a bit smaller, with only three doors visible.
“There’s breathing behind the second door,” Aeryn reported.
“Do we want to check one and three first?” Armand asked.
We decided to be thorough. Aeryn unlocked the first door. The ornate bedroom behind the door seemed to have been partly stripped. Indentations in the carpeting showed where a chest had once been, and another chest had all its drawers open. Pale spots on the walls showed where paintings had once hung. The most interesting thing in the room was the trap door we found under the rug by the dresser. Armand lifted it and found a narrow passage leading straight down.
Aeryn climbed down first. We found ourselves in a small concrete room. There was a wooden table and a wooden door. Aeryn unlocked the door.
“Heads up,” Armand said. “The cat smells dead things.”
We walked in. I clutched my holy symbol tightly, ready for whatever undead horrors might pop out. What we found was a small room liberally coated with blood. There were racks of knives on the wall and buckets of animal bones on the floor. A leopard’s head was sitting on the table, next to a tray of glass eyes.
Armand concentrated on the scarab. No golems here. We’d found the taxidermy room. There were two doors out of here. We could hear water dripping behind one of them.
“Probably leads into a natural cavern,” I guessed.
Aeryn opened the other door and discovered a store room full of barrels of chemicals. Given that this was the taxidermy room, that wasn’t a major surprise. The first door opened on a corridor of dressed stone that ended in another door. Something beyond that door was dripping.
“I hope that’s water, not blood,” Aeryn said.
It sounded like water to me. Blood dripping sounds very different from water dripping. In any case, the door opened onto a side corridor that looped around to a landing. It might be a sewer, although it didn’t smell. Maybe it was a boat landing.
“Do we want to do a quick scan up, scan down?” Aeryn suggested.
After about three hundred yards, the corridor opened up into a natural cavern with a wooden pier where a rowboat was docked. Going back the other way about two hundred yards, we came to a grating that was half submerged under the water. It appeared to be looking out onto the side of a street, or maybe a hill, somewhere on the outskirts of the city.
It didn’t look like anyone went in and out the grating. But the rowboat had to be rowable to someplace.
“Let’s check that out,” Armand said.
Of course, Armand and rowboats wouldn’t mix well.
“Either you cast Fly,” Aeryn told me, “or Grolsch has to carry Armand and Cinnabar.”
“It’s easiest to cast Fly,” I reasoned.
“Grolsch can walk on the ceiling,” Aeryn said.
The cave opened up on the bay. The Baron obviously brought his hunting trophies in this back way, rather than parading them through the streets and rather than risking getting blood all over the house. Having solved that mystery, we headed back up to the bedroom.
“Hide,” Aeryn whispered.
We closed the bedroom door and hid. Footsteps went past the room. Someone knocked on another door.
“Master?” the old man’s voice asked. “Will there be anything else tonight? Yes, sir.”
The footsteps passed by again, going the other way.
“Got anymore Silent Portal spells?” Aeryn asked. “That door.”
We crept silently down the hall. This door opened onto a large room. A man who had to be Baron Von Denn was wearing a smoking jacket and sitting in a chair, staring intently at a chest sitting on the floor in front of him. The rest of the room looked like a band of orcs had wandered through it. Smashed magical apparatuses and scattered books littered the floor. The tray of food was untouched, though. There was also a circle of protection drawn out on the floor… a broken circle of protection.
Aeryn diplomatically stabbed the baron with her rapier. Couldn’t we have tried talking first?
“Baron Von Denn,” Armand said. “The princess would like to speak to you. By the way, what broke through the Circle of Protection Versus Chaos?”
The Baron wasn’t in the mood to talk. He screeched. Judging by the look on his face, he might not’ve been in the mood even if Aeryn hadn’t stabbed him. He threw a wave of chaos over us. I could stand chaos energy, but it wasn’t very nice. I smacked him with Moonshaft’s Daughter. Maybe we could knock him out instead of just killing him.
“Grab him!” Armand shouted. “See if we can manacle him.”
Grolsch grabbed the baron, knocking his chair over in the process. Aeryn ran behind him and stabbed him in the back. Armand tried to work his way into this melee with a set of manacles. The baron actually shrugged Armand off… and changed into a nine foot tall thing that looked like a cross between an ogre and a frog. No wonder the baron had locked himself in his room. I’d stay inside, too, if my face looked like that.
The floor creaked. Between Armand and the baron, it was carrying a lot of weight…
The room exploded into flames. Aeryn rolled out the door. Grolsch changed to bear form. Armand pulled his sword. I grabbed the chest. It was heavy, but I could get it out of here before I burned to death. Maybe. Armand knocked the green thing down. He wanted to carry the chest, so I let him. Getting toasted was low on my list of things to do.
“Put that in the magic bag!” Aeryn shouted over the roaring flames. “Go down the trap door!”
That wasn’t just the chest. Armand was bringing the thing that was once the baron with us. I suppose we did have to present it to the princess if we wanted her to believe us.
“Let’s use the taxidermy kit on it!” I suggested.
As wonderfully ironic as it would’ve been to do that, it wasn’t practical, especially with the mansion burning over our heads. Luckily, I was still praying for a Dimension Door spell every day. We needed it to get the body down to the docks. From there, we were able to sneak back to the palace.
“We need to speak to Lady Caladnei immediately,” Armand told a guard.
“What the hell is that?” the guard asked.
“They’re expecting us,” Aeryn added.
Caladnei came out, dressed in a bathrobe. She obviously wasn’t expecting us at this hour.
“What is that?” the mage asked.
“It used to be Baron Von Denn,” I said.
“He’s possessed by a Slaad,” Armand explained.
“Is Alusair awake?” Aeryn asked. “She should hear this.”
“Mansion Von Denn is burning,” Armand added.
We started explaining about the bizarre state of the Baron’s bedroom and about the broken circle…
“I’ll have to examine this room,” Caladnei said.
“That would be difficult,” Armand said. “The Slaad cast a fireball with himself as the center.”
The princess arrived, looked at us, and got some liquor. Caladnei took a look at exhibit A, the chest that the baron had been so intent on.
“There’s at least two spells on it,” she said.
“Is the fire brigade up to snuff?” Aeryn asked.
Caladnei did something to the chest. Lightning lashed out of the lock and started her bathrobe smoldering. Aeryn knelt down and picked the lock for her. Armand gallantly draped his cloak over the smoking court mage. The chest contained six sacks, and a spell book covered in runes. One of the pouches was clearly magical. Aeryn emptied the chest, and then found a false bottom concealing two more spell books.
One sack contained platinum, another contained gold, and one contained spell components. Two were tanglefoot bags, and another contained a ring and two potions, one of Blur and one of Levitate. Aeryn sat back with one of the books, which promptly exploded.
“God damn it!” Aeryn complained as bits of pages swirled in the air around her.
“Ow,” I muttered.
The guards came rushing in. Something about explosions seemed to get to them. Armand had enough. He smashed the chest into kindling.
“Everyone out!” Caladnei ordered.
Some of us had taken a few bruises from the exploding book. Caladnei had been blown right out of what was left of her bathrobe. Armand might’ve wanted to linger to enjoy the view, but lingering in the presence of a pissed off royal mage is a bad idea. We got out.
“Yes,” I told the princess. “They’re always like this.”
“It’s under control!” Aeryn cheerfully assured the guards. “It’s under control.”
We still had one more family to visit before we left Suzail: Aeryn’s.
“Of all the people in the city,” Aeryn said, “they’re most likely to want to kill drow.”
Nevertheless, she wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of returning to the familial bosom. Maybe she could pass Armand off as her husband. Then again, it seemed like the more she denied it, the more people believed it.
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