Homeless

The longshanks of Sandpoint are too busy putting out fires to send out any patrols to look for the goblin murderers and arsonists. For that matter, they know better than to send anyone out into the night looking for goblins. So it is that Reta, Poog, Mogmurch, Drubbus, Chuffy, and Slorb (as well as Mangy and Chuffy’s goblin dog mount) make the long walk back to Brinestump Marsh. However, when they get within sight of Licktoad Village things there do not seem well at all. Down the path they see torchlights in front of the village gate, the silhouettes of armored warriors, and the shouts of goblins. As they watch the gate is broken through and the silent armored warriors pour into the village.

“Perhaps we should wait here,” suggests Slorb fearfully.

Poog let’s out a quiet hiss, “Yesssss.”

“My mate!” shouts Mogmurch as he runs to rescue her.

Chuffy remains silent.

Reta says, “Idiot” and lets Mogmurch run into the village.

Drubbus runs after him. “Fool! Don’t assume she’s dead! Do something rash, and she’ll have to find a new mate.”

Torn between choosing his mate and self-preservation, Mogmurch stops near the gate, trying to see just what’s going on and if Rempty still lives. It seems as if all the warriors have gone inside, so creeping up to the gate he looks within. The goblins inside are firing arrows from behind their huts and from the rooftops at the invaders but it doesn’t seem to be having any effect. The longshank warriors clamber up onto the walkways and route the defenders. Mogmurch sees that goblins are jumping over the walls and fleeing into the marsh. Perhaps Rempty is among them! Then he finally notices that the invaders are not actually carrying torches. The four “torches” are actually balls of softly glowing light floating just above them. As he looks what appear to be laughing goblin skulls appear within the lights. One of the skulls turns towards the gate and a moment later several of the warriors do as well. Then Mogmurch sees that these are no longshank warriors at all – or at least not living ones. They are undead – the animated bones of long dead human warriors in strange armor and bearing slightly curved swords like none usually seen in Varisia. At least half a dozen of the skeletons start back towards the gate, right at Mogmurch!

Mogmurch notes which way the goblins fled into the marsh as he turns and beats a hasty retreat himself away from the gate and the warriors. Drubbus and Mangy follow as they dive back into the underbrush. The skeletons and their eerie floating allies follow only as far as the gate but then turn back to continue their attack on the village itself.

Drubbus attempts to find the others, “Let’s try to gather up anyone that’s escaped from the village.”

Mogmurch was thinking the same thing. Careful not to make any noise that might attract their enemies, he slips into the bush with the rest of the party to find the escapees.

“Yes, lets,” hisses Reta. She then giggles from nervousness and leads the group off to gather what tribes members they can find.

Poog and the others follow.

Creeping through the marsh at night is no problem for the goblins and eventually they come to a clearing amid the moss shrouded cypress trees of the marsh. A dead stump lies in the center of the clearing and it has long been a place for the Licktoad tribe to regroup if by chance they should be forced to flee their village, as has just occurred. Unfortunately, it would seem that one of the great predators of Brinestump Marsh has lain in wait here. As they come to the clearing they can hear goblin screams and muffled cries of help coming from it. From behind the cover of the boles and knees of the cypress trees they see that it is the dreaded Lotslegs Eat Goblin Babies Many, the giant spider that has long stalked the Licktoads. The spider is busily wrapping up at least a dozen goblins.

“We needs ta do summin!” says Drubbus, stating the obvious. “Anyone got anymorez fireworks or anythings?”

Chuffy pulls out his bullhorn and moves off in a perpendicular direction from the others shouting into his bullhorn trying to sound like a much larger and scarier monster. This startles Lotslegs who leaps for the trees, dodging a firebolt from Poog and one of Reta’s arrows.

Drubbus says, “Reta, got a spellie for ya!” and he casts hide from animals on her, so she can assassinate Lotslegs.

“Tanks Drubbs!” says Reta as she circles to the right assuming the spider will drop down in front of them.

Mogmurch lights his last remaining Desnan candle and fires it up into the trees overhead in a vain attempt to hit the spider before it can jump back down on them.

Chuffy continues moving in the same direction yelling into his bullhorn.

Lotslegs spews webbing from its spinnerets at Poog but the sticky mass comes nowhwere near to hitting him.

Poog keeps trying to hit with firebolts but misses again.

Reta climbs the tree to get at the spider.

Drubbus runs into the clearing to start cutting the captive goblins free of the webs.

Mogmurch, abandoning the Desnan candle, throws a bomb at the spider and hits, injuring it. Sparks rain down on Reta to her consternation.

Chuffy, not sure what else he can do, runs into the clearing to help Drubbus and Slorb free the web-wrapped goblins. It turns out that all of them are goblin women, a dozen in all, including Mogmurch’s mate Rempty and Drubbus’ wife Gupy Wartbits.

Lotslegs climbs up higher into the tree to get away from Reta (who apparently it can see just fine), firing its webbing at Mogmurch as it does. This time it hits, and Mogmurch finds himself engulfed in the sticky sheets of spider silk.

Poog’s next firebolt hits the spider square in the belly.

Reta climbs higher to get at the spider, but her swing at it misses.

Mogmurch finds that he is unable to extricate himself from the webbing.

Having had enough of the goblins with their fire and bombs, Lotslegs leaps for the next tree over and heads back to its lair.

Reta screeches, “C’mon lets follow and kill da thing for good!” and starts after the beast.

Drubbus shakes his head and helps another grateful female remove her… webs.

When Mogmurch is freed he follows the others to finish off the spider.

Chuffy follows after Reta. He draws his dogslicer as part of his move action.

“Don’t be stoopid Retazzz, wesah donwanna getz stuck in itz lairz!”

“Ah crapz,” says Poog and trots after the others.  ”Wesa gonna beez in trouble.”

Drubbus realizes he lost something, somehow and trots off after the others. Not knowing what else to do or where else to go, Slorb and the goblin women follow Drubbus.

Lotslegs keeps to the treetops but the goblins are able to follow it back to its lair. On one occasion it does briefly elude them, but Drubbus is able to track it by the ichor dripping from its wounds upon the soggy, mossy tree branches. They finally arrive at its lair, a deadfall of several old trees. Somewhere in the mass of fallen rotted trunks and branches the wounded spider lies in wait.

“Well, I ain’t goin’ first! Maybe we can burn it out.” Mogmurch inventories his bombs, acid, and fireworks, then selects the paper candle and readies it.

Reta does not charge in. She takes time to evaluate the deadfall. Climbing onto the top of some overlapping trunks she gets a line of sight on the spider down below among the fallen limbs and brush.

Chuffy draws his dog slicer while following Reta towards the lair.

Mogmurch follows Reta, looking for a good place to throw things (like acid).

Drubbus readies his biggest firework.

Poog moves up next to Reta to get into position to use his last firebolt

In the end it only takes a single shot from Reta’s bow to finish off the already gravely wounded Lotslegs. The spider folds up its legs, rolls over on its back, and lies quite still. When they are sure it is really dead, the goblins are able to move in and search the lair. Scattered among the trees are dozens of bodies, some of which are goblins, but a few of which are humans. Among the bodies they find 24 gold pieces, a small masterwork light crossbow with 11 bolts, a single pearl, 4 potions, and a wax-paper sealed package containing six pieces of taffy.

Slorb and the goblin women come up and look over the shoulders of Reta, Poog, Drubbus, Chuffy, and Mogmurch, with many oohs and aahs. Slorb declares, “Ha! This will become the beginning of our new Licktoad treasury! Now we only need to find a new place for our village, a more secure and secluded place. Hmm, I think I know of a place. The home of Old Megus the Swamp Witch. No one’s seen her for months. Maybe she’s dead or moved on. If so, we can take over her place.”

Drubbus pokes Slorb with the firework he was preparing for the Lotsalegs, “Pretty quick to write off the old chief, and start barking in his stead, eh? Let me confer with me collegues and see if they approve of your recommendation.”

Reta takes the taffy and a potion. Eating one of the pieces and passing the rest to Chuffy she says, “Agreed. And Reta Slayer of Lotsalegs will be chief!”

Mogmurch lets them argue. He spends his time loading up the loot, starting with the potions and the crossbow.

Poog grabs a goblin maiden and sneaks behind a bush for some gratuitous recompense for saving them. He finishes in less than 30 seconds with a squeak. The goblin maiden gives him a dirty look as he heads back to the group and asks,  ”Reta what should we dooz now?”

Mogmurch suggests, “We need a new village. Old Megus’ place might work. But maybe a farmhouse far from the longlegs’ would be better. And we could eat their food!”

Reta considers and then announces, “Yez, we will go to Old Megus’ place.” With that she leads her village to what may be their new home.

It takes a few hours to slog through the marsh to the Old Megus’ shack. Still, they arrive well before dawn as goblins are well suited to picking their way through the undergrowth in the pitch black of the marsh. What they see is a sagging one-story shack sitting in a clearing, its walls dingy with age and encrusted with delicious lichens and fungus. A partially collapsed shed sits just to the northeast, while small pouches, twisted knots of feathers, and dangling wind chimes made of bones hang from branches and roof edges alike.

Reta screeches, “Slorb you stay and watch the women,” clearly not counting herself among them, “we will check the shack first.”

She then draws her wicked blade and leads the small group towards the shack.

I could stay with the women! Drubbus thinks to himself as a scowl runs across his face. Then he falls in with the others.

Mogmurch gets his bombs ready and follows behind their new fearless leader, muttering “Hehehe. Burn and boom!”

The shack seems to have only two doors: the front door on the east side, and a back door on the southwest side. On the north side is a trail that might lead to the coast. The shed has mostly collapsed but there is still a door standing on the western side facing the house.

Reta says, “Chuffy, sneaks up and check the front door. Druubus, Mangy smell anything?” She then nocks an arrow to cover Chuffy.

Chuffy smiles and nods.  He slowly makes his way to the front door.

“I know he smells, but I have no idea if he smells…” Drubbus grumbles.

Mangy sniffs around and bristles. Something is inside the shack but the goblin dog is unable to pinpoint exactly where or say what it is.

“He’s onta sump’n. Best keep you goggs sharp!” Drubbus warns.

Chuffy hears nothing and finds no traps, but the front door is either locked or jammed.

Reta waves them all back to her then she says with a wicked smile, “Mogmurch burn da frackin house. Smoke whatever it is out to greets us.”

“Let’s just burn it down!” says Mogmurch with no attempt to stay quiet or stealthy.

Mogmurch starts looking around the shack for himself, trying to find the best spot to start a fire. He gets a vial of alchemists fire ready for use.  As he works, he sings his song in happy anticipation of the fire:

“Things go boom when Mogmurch throws

Much more fun than using bows

Sometimes when the boom boom blows

Is not my fault – that’s how it goes.”

Trying to look like a true fire-starting expert, he mutters to himself “Now, where’s the driest stuff to light up?” Once he’s found it, he lights it without the alchemists fire.

“Why don’t weez toss a couple o’ deez firebombs inta a winder?” Drubbus whines “Eazzier dan a fahr, ‘n dere will beez plenny o’ smoke ‘n sparks. Maybe da shack don’t burnz down needer.”

Mogmurch jolts to a stop and looks at him. “You got fire bombs?” he asks eagerly. “Well, throw ‘em, then! I’m keepin’ mine fer later.”

Drubbus takes his largest firework and readies it. “Whooz a gunna open a door or winder?”

“Let me gets outta the way first,” says Chuffy. “Me likes things burning, just not me.”

“I gots dis,” says Reta. She kicks down the door, which was not locked but simply swollen shut with moisture. The door slams into the floor in a cloud of dust and fungal spores. The entire shack shakes and rattles alarmingly. When things settle down, Reta sees that sheets of fungus grow along the walls and floor, and also on the numerous gourds, twigs, and bones hanging from the ceiling on sinew and string. There are doors to the north and south and across from the main door an entranceway into another room to the west.

While Reta kicks in the door, Mog finds a heavy stick and bashes in the shutters of the nearest window. “Whack! Take that, window! Whack!”

Mogmurch stops hitting the shutter and comes around to where the door crashed in. He pokes his head past Reta to see inside. “Okay. Get the fire ready. We’ll pull the door shut again after you throw it in, so all the smoke and fire’ll be inside. Unless you wanna crack that other door first.”

Reta puts up her hand and says, “Wait,” then looks further into the shack. “Nobodyz in der… Let’s checks it out.”

She then switches to her dog slicer and leads the group into the shack. To their alarm, they find that simply moving through the shack causes the walls and floorboards to creak and groan. She says quietly. “Watch those,” pointing to the doors to the north and south then walks to and looks thru the opening to the west. She sees what might have once been a longshank’s living room though now the sagging benches, broken table, and narrow cupboards are overgrown with more fungus and mold. An old brick stove sits against the west wall and there are two doors to the north and one to the south.

Reta points to Mogmurch and motions for him to open the door in front of him (to the south). She then backs out from the west doorway towards the south door. Reta also looks at Mangy to see where the dog is paying its attention.

Chuffy picks his nose, then his butt, and then he draws his dogslicer and heads inside.

Feeling pretty safe, ‘Nothing’s happened yet, right?‘ Mogmurch tries to open the door but finds it is also swollen shut and so has to kick it open. What he finds is the witch’s bedroom complete with a large bed, its sheets thick with mold and puddles of water from the leaky roof. To his horror, he sees that numerous ruined books lie stacked nearby, their contents, thankfully, destroyed by the damp.

Mangy growls and glares at the storage shed.

“I thinks we need ta check out that nasty ole shed. Mangy don’t like it none,” says Drubbus.

Reta says, “Storage Shed… now,” and moves outside. She motions for the rest to cover her and goes to kick in the door of the shed. Before she can reach it, three dire rats, rats the size of small dogs, hurtle at her from the sides of the shed, two to the north and one to the south.

Drubbus comes out of the shack, kicking Poog out of the way. He lights up his skyrocket and aims it at the two rats to the north. The rocket shakes and begins emitting a handful of sparks that causes the rats to stop their charge and draw back.

Reta attacks the dire rat on the south side of the shed. “Kill Dem!” She hits it with the Gorge of Gluttons, opening a wide gash in its side.

Mogmurch stays back, looking for a chance to throw a bomb at the rats.

Poog moves to flank Reta and casts his last firebolt, killing one of the rats to the north.

The wounded rat facing Reta and the remaining rat to the north turn tail, literally, and flee into the underbrush.

A few seconds later Drubbus skyrocket takes off, hitting the shed and exploding into a multi-hued shower of sparks and rotted debris that forces the goblins to duck for cover. “Well, we don’t haffta worry bout dat shack no more.”

Reta looks angrily at Drubbus then leads them all back in to investigate the rest of the shack.

Suddenly, Chuffy, who is still inside the shack, hears a scuffling from the other room, the one on the western side of the shack. From out of that room pours a roiling mass of crazed rats who go for him and also Mogmurch and Mangy who are just outside the door.

Mogmurch runs and hides behind Reta. Once there, he drinks one of his healing potions.

The rats continue swarming over and feasting upon Chuffy and Mangy.

Poog throws his hands in the hair and begins uttering guttural sounds, “uh huh ugh ump urn uh huh ugh urp grrr,” his hands glow with a dull sickly green light and he then throws his arms out in front and screams, “Zarongel!”  A blast of negative energy is cast forth and it kills many of the rats composing the swarm, but not enough to totally disperse it yet. It occurs to Poog that if he keeps using negative energy he can destroy the swarm, kill all the rival goblin heroes and then get all the women and become the new head of the tribe.

Reta moves away out of his range, draws her bow on him and says, “Stops dat! Now!”

Poog shrugs as he follows the others, “It beez okay Retaz. I jest helping az best az I could.”

Chuffy runs out the shack and flees from the ferocious rodents. Drubbus follows him.

Poog is struck by a sudden panic attack. He realizes that the rats are going to engulf him despite his efforts. Poog turns, and shrieking like a little child, flees as fast as he can go!

By the time the goblins are able to regroup, it is clear that they will not be able to find a new home by daybreak. Under the circumstances, they are forced to find meager shelter in the hollowed out trunks of dead trees or fallen trees. Being nocturnal the goblins sleep through most of the day, but when they awaken they are faced with the same dilemma. Where can they go where they will be safe from the other predators of Brinestump Marsh?

“Why is we hangin’ aht inna swamp anyhooz?” Drubbus complains. “I never liked no swamp! Let’s go see sumpin’ new.”

“But the swamp has food. Lots of food,” says Chuffy.

Narcizia

Toshio hears a knock at the door. “May I come in good sir?” asks a girl’s voice that he recognizes as the one that he first overhead squabbling with Madame Anyanka in the room in which he is now waiting.

Toshio opens the door and lets her in. “Come in. What is your name? They’re calling me Captain tonight.”

A young brunette is standing outside the door. Like Iolana, she is young and slim, but there the resemblance ends. She is even more beautiful, and has much more poise and elegance. “I am Narcizia,” she says as she comes in, closing the door gently behind her. She doesn’t seem to care at all about the brawl downstairs. “I am a friend of Twilight Blossom. I thought I’d keep you company until she returns with some wine and perhaps some cheese and grapes. I take it this is your first time here. How do you like it?”

“Pleased to meet you, Narcizia. It’s certainly been an interesting experience. Not what I’d expected. Pleasant, but not what I’d expected. There’s the disturbance downstairs. And while avoiding that when they first came in I overheard Anya, quite upset. Is everything alright?”

Narcizia smiles sweetly. “Everything is perfectly fine, Captain. There are sometimes fights and disagreements, but it is just petty bickering among us girls or the drunks getting too worked up. I am sorry for all that. It is usually more peaceful here. However, if you’d like, we can go someplace quieter. Maybe you have a private room somewhere?” She comes closer and rests her hand on Toshio’s arm and looks deep into his eyes, obviously eager to get him alone.

“If I wouldn’t be offending Twilight Blossom, we could go somewhere else if you would be more comfortable. I would finish my conversation with her, but perhaps that can wait for another time. In truth, I’m not here for the more exotic services – just to spend time in conversation,” he replies, pointedly adding, “…mostly to listen.”

“This is a place for those who prefer discretion. It is best to mind one’s own business here.” She smiles, and then offers her arm to Toshio. “Let us go then.”

Toshio, regretting the possibility of being seen, recognizes that there are more important things than his sense of propriety and steps out with Narcizia.

“Where do you recommend that we go? I’ll have to escort you back of course. And to settle up – I wouldn’t want to upset Madame Anyanka.”

Narcizia opens the door and they walk out arm in arm. “If you don’t have a place, I am sure we can find a quiet inn nearby that can accommodate us.”

Jethrik runs back to the halfling’s boudoir and gathers up his clothes, belongings, and shreds of dignity. The sounds of the struggle in the main room still clear to his sensitive gnomish ears. With a longing glance to an open window, he turns back to check on his friends. Once back in the main room he climbs up on a table and sees Keng beating the stuffing out of two drovers. Best to end this before one of them gets hurt. 

Finding a feather still stuck to his chest, he plucks it off. “Hey Bartimus!” he yells, “Why so serious?” and blows the feather in his direction. It glows and the light streaks to the drover who collapses in laughter.

Zeyala says very loudly, “Oh, I seem to have forgotten my hat.”  She reenters the building, but reaches out to Jharad and casts cure light wounds on him as she passes.

Madame Anyanka looks over her shoulder at Jethrik, a little surprised by his interference in the brawl. Then she turns back, walks towards the brawlers in the vestibule. She holds forth the three-bladed medallion that is the holy symbol of Calistria of the Savored Sting while calling out, “In the name the Lady, you will all calm down and stop fighting this instant.”

All the combatants immediately feel a sense of peace and calm wash over them, with the exception of Jharad who presses his attack and knocks out the drover by the door with his sap, leaving a second imprint of a black hand.

The bouncer starts to go for Jharad, but Anyanka holds him back.

Bartimus continues rolling on the floor, clutching his sides and laughing hysterically. The other drover steps away from Keng and says, “Madame Anyanka, we apologize. We had a bit too much to drink and got a little carried away. We promise it won’t happen again.” In the vestibule, the other two drivers are rubbing their eyes and blinking as their sight begins to return to normal.

Jethrik moons Anyanka and everyone else, as he pulls on his clothes. This greeted by some tittering and giggles from the crowd.

Jharad stifles a laugh at Jethrik’s maneuver. He picks up the everlasting torch the drover took and replaces it in its sconce. To Anyanka he says, “All we wanted was to leave your establishment. It is unfortunate that your haste to entrance us and these drover’s hostility made such a mess of what should have been an simple task.”

Madame Anyanka responds, “I do what I must, good elf, to maintain peace in my house. Go, all of you, and trouble us no more.”

“Yes, Madame,” agrees Zeyala.  ”We were willing to leave when you made it obvious you were not interested in what I had to say.” To the others she says, “Jharad, Keng, Jethrik.  We need to catch up with the priestess.”

“I don’t know what bee got in your bonnet, but I was perfectly happy to stay and… observe all due religious observances.” Jethrik stammers, “None of this was my idea, dammit! Why can’t you big folk keep your tempers in check long enough for a guy to… commune with the higher powers?”

Madame Anyanka turns to the gnome and says, “If you weren’t fighting or causing trouble, then you may stay.” Right then Bartimus stops laughing and begins trying to catch his breath and pick himself up off the floor. “In fact,” she nods towards Bartimus, “I saw that you did your part to end the fighting. Stay then. You need not leave here frustrated and Petunia, I am sure, would be happy to continue entertaining you.” Petunia is in fact standing by her door with a hopeful look on her face.

Jethrik looks pleased with the situation, or perhaps just himself (not an uncommon feeling for him). “You are as wise as you are alluring.” he bows to Madame Anyanka. Turning to his companions he says, “See you in a few… I mean… an hour or so.”

“Jethrik, we have business to attend to. Zeyala needs us. There will be time to play with the halfling after,” says Jharad.

“What? Oh now you’re gettin’ on my nerves.” Jethrik complains. “Fine, Mr. Party-pooper. But you better send flowers to Petunia.”

With a wide smile, Jharad walks calmly over to the halfling girl. With a snap of his finger he produces a pretty bouquet and hands them to her. “I will bring Jethrik back for you to play with soon enough my dear,” he says with a bow and then turns to walk out.

“What the…?” Keng wonders why everyone stopped fighting, especially when it was just getting good. He suddenly has an urge to return upstairs he feels so good! “Well that was sorta fun, elf! Why did you call for me?”

Before Jharad can reply, Zeyala and Keng, who are facing the atrium as Jharad and Jethrik take their leave, see a door open on the eastern side of the second floor behind the balcony. Out of the door steps Toshio, arm-in-arm with an elegant and very beautiful brunette girl. Toshio in turn, sees his companions down in the atrium below.

Toshio gives the slightest shake of his head to indicate, “Don’t.” He sincerely hopes the others see this and understand he doesn’t want them to make contact with him here. Unfortunately discretion is not in their natures.

Jharad stops and looks over at Toshio and the girl. With a wry grin he waits to hear what Toshio and the others have to say.

“Well well well… Pretty boy has a secret side he weren’t lettin’ on to…” Keng let’s out a loud laugh, “this evenin’ ain’t turnin’ out so bad after all!”

“Whooo hooo!” shouts Jethrik, “I mean, ya gotta shell out for an atonement spell anyway. Might as well live a while first, eh?”

“I suppose that is one way to put it, master gnome. However, since this is a place that normally appreciates discretion,” Toshio gives a distasteful look towards Keng, Jharad, and the five drovers (conscious and unconscious), “we can talk again later, in more regular settings. Now, the lady and I are on our way out and not wishing to be detained.” Hoping they get the hint and that they don’t use his real name, Toshio walks to the stairwell with Narcizia.

On the way down the stairs, Toshio reflects on the situation. He isn’t sure how much Iolana will let him help her – at least for right now – or how much she’ll tell him (if anything) or if she can even be trusted. Narcizia, however, may be looking to make some extra coin off Toshio, scamming the client from Twilight Blossom – or she may be looking for a way/place to tell Toshio what’s really going on (this is his hope). Or Narcizia could be totally on the other side and he’s just in a bad spot. Being new to the undercover gig, he’s hoping he’s not totally botching the job.

“Are those people downstairs friends of yours?” Narcizia asks quietly.

“I know them, though I’m not certain I can truly call them friends yet. I hadn’t expected anyone I know to make such a fuss though, or cause such a ruckus.”

When they get back down to the atrium, Twilight Blossom comes out of the kitchen with a tray of cheese, grapes, and a jug of wine. When she sees Toshio with Narcizia she stops in surprise and actually drops her tray. Then she lowers her head and steps back out of the way.

Toshio is surprised to see Twilight Blossom’s reaction. He had expected that a servant would be bringing the food and drink, not her. Fearing he’s erred significantly, he makes a quick plan to return to her, hoping to salvage the conversation.

Back outside and down the street but still within sight of the Blissful Garden, Zeyala says to Keng, Jethrik, and Jharad, “The only reason I interrupted you is that a head priestess of my order in the city has warned me about patrons contracting a disease of sorts after visiting this establishment. We spotted a man departing who looks like he may have been affected. I was hoping to gather you to help find this man. I was also hoping that I could find out whom the man was with, as she may be the one spreading this affliction. The Madame is unwilling to divulge that information, so at this point, I am ready to go after the head priestess and see what she’s found out about the patron.”

Jethrik stands with his arms crossed glaring at Jharad. His mouth is twisted in a sneer and he is tapping one foot impatiently.

Once outside and away from the others, Toshio turns to Narcizia and says in a tone conveying the gravity of the situation and the need for real candor, “Quickly – was there something you wanted to talk to me about? Is there something unusual going on in the Blissful Garden?”

“I really think we should go somewhere more private. Your friends are right over there,” she indicates them down the street, “and we should get away from this place. Let’s go this way and find a private room.” She tugs on Toshio’s arm to lead him away from both his friends and the brothel. “I’ll tell you what you want to know away from prying ears and I will let you experience the skills and talents that have allowed me to be invited into the finest homes of Magnimar.”

“Just a bit out of the way will do. A private room won’t be necessary.”

As they walk away, Toshio attempts to sense if he is in the presence of an evildoer. Narcizia looks over at him, smiling at his scrutiny that she mistakes for a more prurient interest. Then he stumbles away from her, mouth agape, bowels almost emptying. Toshio finds that he is in the presence of the strongest evil he has ever felt, more intense then he could ever have imagined.

Genuinely puzzled, Narcizia reaches out to steady Toshio. “What’s wrong baby?”

Unsure what to do, Toshio thinks he knows why Iolana looked so downcast as he left. It wasn’t that he’d gone with another girl. It was that he’d gone with this girl, and Iolana has at least some idea of what that means. Now he’s sure Narcizia’s “talents” are more along the assassination line than entertainment of any kind.

Trying to steady himself, he abruptly turns back for the brothel. “Oh dear…” he says in a heavy breath. “…I’ve left something in the Garden.” Toshio then calls loudly, “Zeyala! Help me, will you?”

“Oh no baby, you don’t need their help. Only mine!” Narcizia pulls Toshio back and looks him in the eyes and he finds himself drawn into her gaze and realizes that he would do anything for her. Anything!

Jharad says, “He’s in trouble, and that is no girl. Be wary.” He then drinks a healing potion as he runs to help Toshio.

Jethrik says (not loud enough for Toshio or the girl to hear), “Don’t let the girl get away.” He then casts hideous laughter on the girl but it seems to have no effect on her.

Keng, completely lost, just stands there, looking back and forth.

“Toshio, are you injured? I can hear him, but can someone nudge me in the right direction?” quips Zeyala. ”I don’t see all that well, remember?”

The girl whispers something in Toshio’s ear. They are now arm-in-arm again. Toshio says, “I’m fine. I just stumbled a bit and it startled me. The girl and I are going to spend a little private time together. You can go back to whatever you were doing.”

Jharad yells, “Aha, it is you! You owe me money!” and tries to grab Toshio and knock him over and away from the girl. Unfortunately, the girl pulls Toshio out of the way and Jharad not only fails to grab his friend but almost loses his balance and has to spend a moment righting himself.

Jethrik starts a recital in an attempt to fascinate the girl as he walks towards her and Toshio. She pays him no mind.

Keng growls, “I know not what madness this is about but by the God of Iron something is not right!” Keng roars and charges towards Toshio and the ‘woman’ and tackles her to the ground.

Narcizia yells, “Toshio, kill them for me!” At her command, Toshio actually does go for the dagger at his side. Narcizia looks up at Keng and says, “You! Step back!” Keng not only does not step back but he instead punches her in the face. She doesn’t seem to even feel it and leaps to her feet.

Toshio, dagger drawn, breaks free of Narcizia’s mental hold, and instead of striking at Keng he buries the blade in Narcizia’s chest. She shrieks in pain and outrage, though it doesn’t seem to have been a mortal wound.

Jethrik shouts, “The girl is some kind of vampire! Zeyala, blast her like you did the skeletons.” To inspire his friends he quips, “I wonder what she’s been sucking at the brothel! More than necks I’ll bet.”

Busy fighting, Toshio is glad he was able call on the light of Good to smite this thing! He had never imagined he’d be confronted with a vampire – if that’s what it really is.

Zeyala moves up and chants a prayer. “Let Phrasama’s energy cleanse those that should be at rest.”

Keng seeing his instincts were correct and this beast thing was an enemy draws his dagger and stabs her in back.

Narcizia shrieks and yowls as she is burned by the life force radiating from Zeyala and stabbed by Keng, a blow that actually draws blood. Panicked, she backs away from Toshio and tries to dodge around Keng; but Keng, snarling at the mere scratch he made, tackles her to the ground once more to hold her for the others.

This gives Toshio the chance to strike again. No sense regretting swords left at the inn, he thinks. His dagger sinks into her chest again. Once again a well of blood fountains forth but Narcizia continues to shriek and thrash about in an attempt to get away.

Zeyala continues to brandish the spiral of Pharasma and call upon the life force in the name of her goddess. “Pharasma, return this creature to eternal slumber.”

With a final agonized wail, Narcizia evaporates. Jharad and Keng find themselves holding nothing more than a greenish mist that drifts away and sinks down into a nearby storm drain outside the Blissful Garden.

“What the hell was that?” shouts someone from the crowd of people who had stepped out of the tavern to see what the screaming and fighting was all about.

“They came from the Garden! I saw them!” says another bystander.

“Vampire! It was a vampire! These girls are vampires!” says a panic stricken man who steps quickly away from one of the girls who had come into the tavern from the brothel. “Grab them don’t let them get away!”

Other men grab a couple of the girls, though other patrons choose to run in fear and at least one other girl escapes the clutches of the frightened mob.

“I’ll take care of ‘em!” says another man breaking off a chair leg to use as a stake.

Keng turns to Jharad, “Elf, now why did you fracking call me down?”

Quickly smiling at Keng, Jharad then turns to the mob and yells, “Stop! All of you – stop now! I am sure all of these girls are fine. But to be sure there is an easy way to find out which does not include you being executed for killing innocent girls!”

Once he has their attention, Jharad continues calmly walking over and says, “Toshio would you be so kind as to scan these girls for an evil taint.”

Keng grimaces and then shrugs his shoulders and follows Jharad and Toshio.

Toshio turns to address the mob. As he does so, he scans the girls for evil, just in case. “Stop!” he shouts, with all the righteous authority he can muster. “Release those girls immediately!”

There is too much to be done: Stop the mob from hurting any girls; find Iolana and get her out if possible; keep the Hellnights from getting involved; and warn the temple of the vampire before the vampire can strike again. This all flashes through his mind in the briefest of moments, but he puts all but the immediate need (protecting the girls) aside for now.

One girl he picks up nothing from, from the other he senses evil but it is less than faint and there is not even an aura. It is probably some petty mortal evil or even the influence of the more malevolent aspects of Calistria’s teachings – not someone needing to be dealt with by extreme actions, Toshio thinks. Maybe she can be guided back after this, but for now, the mob.

“Where’s the city watch when you need them?” says Zeyala. She then shouts at the top of her lungs, “Ealisaid! Can you hear me? Please return to the brothel!” It does not seem, however, that Ealisaid or the Hellknight she went after are anywhere nearby.

Jethrik jumps up on a barrel. ”I came out of the brothel, am I a vampire?” Jethrik shouts rhetorically. Several in the mob look at each other, considering that they may need to do in the gnome as well. Jethrik quickly points to one of them. “And you sir, you did also. Let’s put a wooden stake in your heart! Run wild! Run through every brothel in the city killing every woman and man within a city block of a cathouse! Believe me, you would drown yourselves in more innocent blood than that creature ever drank. We tested that creature before we drew our daggers. Won’t you do the same?” This seems to give those with the stakes pause, as they consider whether they really want to murder in cold blood the frightened girls they had been lusting after only a few moments previously.

Zeyala reveals her holy symbol as she moves towards the men holding the prostitutes. “If these girls are truly undead, then they will writhe in pain from my holy energy.” A halo of light radiates from her, bathing everyone nearby in its golden radiance. Neither the prostitutes nor anyone else bursts into flames or suffers any other harm. From the murmuring in the crowd, it is evident that Zeyala is recognized as a priestess of Pharasma, whose crusade against the undead is well known among the people of Magnimar. Appeased, the prostitutes are released. They run to Zeyala’s side and fall at her feet, weeping and kissing her hands in gratitude. The mob begins to disperse, as the various men present decide that there are safer taverns and brothels in Lowcleft, and that vampires and other such creatures should be left to Pharasman clergy, gnome bards, and other outlandish types better suited to deal with them.

Keng turns to Jharad and says, “Now will you tell me why you interrupted my fun?”

Jharad bursts out laughing. “Keng my friend, would you have missed this chaotic mess? Even for the pleasure I dragged you away from, which you of course can return to now? I think you would have been more angry to have only heard Jethrik’s telling of the vampiric entanglement and to have missed full participation in all its gory detail.”

Keng grunts, “Humpf, perhaps you are right. This was fun. I guess it is not important for you clearly aren’t going to tell me. So what’s next?”

“Toshio, are you wounded?” asks Zeyala. “Or anyone else for that matter? I still have a bit of healing. But now I fear for Ealisaid. She followed after a Hellknight who left this brothel in a stupor looking quite similar to how you did only moments ago, Toshio. Unfortunately, I have no idea where she went, other than along this street.”

Jethrik says, “Well, I’m going to see what’s going on in there if you guys aren’t. I’d like to know if that madam was controlled by the vampire and where her head is now that it’s dead.”

Toshio replies with a bright smile, his cheerfulness somewhat incongruent with the situation, “It may be the first fight for this to happen, but no – I’m not hurt” He gives a quick look around before adding, “I don’t think we can follow that thing through the sewers, and I need to find someone inside the Garden. Then the temple will want to know about this despite the late hour. Stay close if you can. If not, we can meet back at the inn. We’ve much to share.” He moves quickly back to the brothel, seeking Iolana.

Jharad continues to bleed from his head wound but smiles and follows the paladin. “Let’s go Keng, looks like we are not finished here.”

“Jharad,” says Zeyala, ”before you return to the brothel, let me heal your wounds.” Her hand begins to glow with energy and then she touches his forehead and erases the last trace of the earlier brawl.

Brawl in the Brothel

Upstairs, Toshio hears a knock on the door. Lotus Blossom asks who it is and is answered by one of the young servant girls. She says that she has a message from Madame Anyanka for the Captain if he is not indisposed. He is then informed that Twilight Blossom is free to see him now if he still wishes. The girl departs. Lotus Blossom does not seem put out by this but simply offers to show Captain the way to Twilight Blossom’s room, which is on the other side of the second floor – though of course Toshio already knows exactly where it is.

“Thank you, Lotus Blossom. You’ve been very helpful tonight.” He lets himself be lead to Twilight Blossom’s room.

Lotus Blossom leaves Toshio in front of Twilight Blossom’s door. At his knock a young girl’s voice bids him to enter. It is not the voice of any of the speaker’s he overheard earlier. Inside, the small room is furnished much like one he just left: a fairly comfortable and clean bed, side table with a lamp, a dresser, and a chair. Standing to greet him is a dark haired girl with blue eyes matching the description of Twilight Blossom or Iolana that he was given by her friend Piousa, formerly Bright Flower. Toshio observes that Twilight Blossom is several years younger than himself, probably in her mid to late teens.

“Hello, Captain. It is nice to meet you.” She approaches and kisses Toshio lightly on the cheek as she shrugs off her shift. She smiles and reaches out to help Toshio disrobe. “Don’t be shy,” she says. “I can see in your eyes that this is your first time.”

Hearing the new voice, Toshio suspects that the real Twilight Blossom has been moved away after the confrontation, replaced by the shapeshifter. He holds up his hands to stop her, smiling disarmingly. “Remarkable. How can you tell that, just by looking in my eyes? What gives it away?” Sitting down he continues. “A friend said I should spend some time with you, Twilight Blossom. Is Twilight Blossom who you really are?” Inwardly Toshio hopes that if this is the imposter that the question will bring out the admission, as he was told. He tries not to show his anxiety over the answer to this question.

“Of course it’s really who I am. Who else would I be?”

Toshio relaxes a bit. “Oh good. I’d been told there was a stand-in, but I’m glad to know you’re the real Iolana my friend sent me to see” he says, letting the real name drop as casually as possible.

“Iolana? Yes, that was my name, but who told you? Here I am only Twilight Blossom.”

She seems greatly puzzled, but not puzzled or startled enough. It begins to occur to Toshio that Twilight Blossom, or Iolana, seems a bit detached, as if she were under the influence of a drug, or possibly even an enchantment.

Downstairs, Madame Anyanka seems taken aback by Jharad’s strange request for “gnome and half-orc boys” and then alarmed to see that Jharad is walking towards Petunia’s private room just off the atrium where Jethrik had just gone in. The plaque above Petunia’s door with her name and services has been turned over so that it only reads “Entertaining.”

Madame Anyanka, suddenly understanding that Jharad must be seeking friends, interposes herself between Jharad and the door and with her hand signals for the bouncer, “I am sorry, Bluebird, but it is not permitted to interrupt our guests, even if they are friends of yours. You will have to wait until they are finished. Now please, you and Harbinger come this way and I can find diversions aplenty for you until your friends are done.”

Jharad smiles at her. Pulling out his coin pouch he yells loudly, “Jethrik, Keng… I need you now!” He tries to hand a gold coin to Madame Anyanka who declines to accept it. Still smiling he says calmly, “Sorry for the interruption.”

“Good elf, please cease your shouting! This is a respectable bordello, not a cathouse in the Shadows!”

“Good madam,” says Zeyala, “We mean not to cause a disruption, but it would do you wise to listen. I know that Pharasma’s head priestess Ealisaid has provided assistance to both your ladies and customers alike. It is at her behest that I am here. There was a Hellknight who just left. It is in both our interests to know which girl he was with.”

Madame Anyanka’s eyes widen at this new affront. “We do not divulge the private affairs of our clients. Who do you two think you are? Ean, get them out of here at once.”

The bouncer steps up to Jharad and Zeyala, sap in hand, and says, “You heard Madame, time to leave.”

“Before you remove us, you might want to rethink that. I care not about your clientele, but think of the reputation of your establishment,” suggests Zeyala. ”The priestesses of Pharasma are able to cure many ailments, but I doubt your coffers remain full if it becomes known that a girl in your employment carries and passes on something that cannot be cured.”

Jharad stands his ground next to Zeyala and does not leave her.

Keng deep in his rhythmic thrusts growls and curses when he hears Jharad shouting for him. “Gorum’s balls!” he cries as he rolls off the Ulfen woman. He hastily grabs his clothes, flips a gold piece to her and says, “Keep it warm and free for me, I shall return as long as I have breath.” He races out of the room down the stairs, pulling clothes on as he goes.

Boy is this halfling going to be disappointed, reflects Jethrik when he hears his name called. He hastily drops the feathers and cleans the creams off, then grabs his cloak and wraps it around himself as he strides forth into the atrium. “What do you need Jharad?” he growls. “And you’d better be prepared to apologize…” pointing his thumb over his shoulder at the room behind him, “to her.”

Hearing the shouting, Toshio hopes that his comrades didn’t come looking for him. He can only imaging what might cause that if such is the case. Right now he feels his mission with Iolana clearly takes precedence, and he leaves Jharad and the others to handle themselves. Besides, whatever trouble they’re in, they’ve most likely brought it along with them. Still, curiosity bites at him (or perhaps just nibbles) and he turns half an ear to listen for his name, just in case he’s the client whose private affairs Anya won’t divulge.

“Is this a normal evening here?” he asks Iolana, trying to restart the conversation, and hoping for a good chance to turn it to Iomedae.

Iolana shrugs. “It happens sometimes. Men come in drunk or fall in love with one of us and start acting crazy, usually both. Madame Anyanka will simply have the bouncers throw them out.”

Toshio chuckles at the thought. “I bet that would be amusing to watch, if it didn’t happen too often and as long as nobody inside got hurt. Still, I don’t feel a need to go watch the proceedings. I’ve seen enough drunken brawls to know I don’t like them.”

The girl laughs, “I agree, let them look after themselves, we will look to each other. I still want to know who told you my former name, but we can talk later. For now, I am only Twilight Blossom.” She gets down on her knees in front of Toshio, who is sitting on the bed, and begins undoing his belt buckle. “And I have ways of helping you forget everything else…”

Madame Anyanka steps back, with the bouncer in front of her and on her right. She seems calmer now and smiles sweetly at Zeyala. With expressive gestures she begins to explain in a soft entrancing voice that the Blissful Garden is a place of pleasure and respite from one’s problems and that through the grace of Calistria she protects her girls from infection to ensure that neither they or anyone else ever comes to harm in her place. She will happily discuss Zeyala’s concerns though, but outside.

Jethrik bumps Madam Anyanka across the back of the knees as he passes her, interrupting whatever attempts she may be making to entrance his friends. ”Don’t poop in the punch bowl,” he scolds.

Jharad ignores Anyanka and says to Jethrik and Keng, the latter of whom he sees jumping up and down on the second floor balcony trying to get his pants on and make his way to the stairs, “Outside, now.”

Then he gently places a hand on Zeyala’s shoulder to guide her and says, “After you Harbinger,” flipping the gold coin in his other hand to the bouncer who catches it in his left hand with a smug grin.

“Madame Anyanka,” says Zeyala. “It was never my intention to start a row in your establishment, only to talk, but it seems you have made your decision.”

“We need to leave!” Zeyala calls to Jethrik and Keng.

“Perhaps the Hellknight will provide answers,” Zeyala whispers to Jharad.

As Jharad and Zeyala head for the vestibule, with Jethrik right behind and Keng coming up to them on the south side of the atrium’s pool, a group of inebriated drovers pours in from the street. The first of them nudges the second in the ribs and says, “Well, well, Pherick. Look who’s here! If it isn’t our old pals from the Slippery Plow.”

Hmm, Jethrik ponders, This must be that karma thing my friend was trying to tell me about.

Jharad extends his hand as he continues to walk forward saying, “Cor de Pulveriz,” filling the entrance hallway with a cone of clashing colors.

Again taking Iolana’s hands to stop her, Toshio says, “Actually, I really did come here just to talk to you. Think: who do you know who would share your real name with me, and why?”

Iolana seems perplexed by this, as if she is having trouble thinking things through. Then she looks down and sees the cross hilt of Toshio’s dagger. A sudden light comes into her eyes and she mumbles, “Iomedae? Bright Flower? No… Piousa? Piousa sent you?”

“Yes, my dear” he replies with a warm smile. “Piousa ‘recommended’ you. She cares about you a great deal. Though you would not be wrong to say Iomedae sent me.”

Now Iolana seems a bit more focused. She scoots back a bit from Toshio and looks him in the eye. “Piousa recommended me? Why?”

“I was asked to find out how you are doing and to help you.”

“Help me?” She laughs, but Toshio hears a hollow ring to it. “I don’t need any help. Piousa has gone her way, and I will go mine. You may go back and tell her I am fine and I wish her well. She need no longer concern herself about me.”

“Are you really Iolana, known as Twilight Blossom?” asks Toshio, pressing the point.

“You think I’m Moon Flower don’t you? Well, I’m not. I’m me. If you would like to see Moon Flower instead, that can be arranged.”

“No, no, no. I came to see you. I was told that Moon Flower sometimes fills in for you, so I needed to ask. But tell me, why would Piousa be so concerned about you if you are so happy here?”

The girl sighs. “She thinks I should have saved my money, paid off my debt and joined her on some kind of silly crusade for Iomedae. But why should I do that? Why should I become monster bait when I can enjoy myself here with my friends and handsome gentlemen like yourself?” She moves forward again, obviously intending to renew her attempts at seduction and end the conversation.

“Leaving here wouldn’t necessarily mean crusading for Iomedae.” Trying to give her some time to let other possibilities occur to her, Toshio asks, “Is there any more tea? Or perhaps some ale? I could use a drink. How about you? Maybe a snack?”

“Sure, let me go out and get something for you. Besides, I want to see what all the shouting is about. Please wait here.” Twilight Blossom gets up and exits, closing the door behind her.

He waits nervously. Not because of the disturbance, but he’s not sure of Twilight Blossom’s intentions. If she’s chosen to be in league with this place instead of leaving it or remaining a victim, she might make trouble for his mission (which he recalls includes more than just Iolana). He has no interest in showing his face to Keng, or the others, and is fairly certain the trouble is their own fault.

Pherick and one of the other drovers in the vestibule is drawn into the spray of colored lights cast forth by Jharad, but Bartimus and the other two force their eyes away to focus on the elf again.

Considering that he is, for all intents and purposes… naked… Jethrik goes back to Petunia’s room to grab his stuff. I’ll probably have to jump through a window again. God I hate when that happens!

Not wanting the elf to get a chance to cast another spell, two of the drovers leap on Jharad and try to wrestle him to the ground.

Keng rushes over to Jharad to pull the two drunken louts off.

“Pals from the Slippery Plow, indeed,” mutters Zeyala. “May Pharasma grant her blessing despite our follies,” she chants and makes her way towards the door. She passes the two drovers who are still stumbling about the vestibule blinded by Jharad’s spell. The last drover by the exit moves aside for her to pass with a polite nod.

With the help of Keng and Zeyala’s invocation of Pharasma’s blessing, Jharad extracts himself from Bartimus and his friend. Drawing his sap he rushes the drover by the exit. “Move!” he says to the drover in a calm but firm tone.

The drover, seeing that Jharad is armed with a sap, pulls an everburning torch from its bracket by the door and growls, “I’ll move your head off your shoulders, you dirty stinking fairy!” as he belabors Jharad on the head with it.

Bartimus and the other drover direct their fury against Keng, but the half-orc barely seems to feel the blows.

“Come get some!” Keng bellows as he throws a sweeping roundhouse punch at Bartimus that sends the drover bouncing back into the wall, though it is not the knock out blow Keng had expected. These drovers are a bit tougher than I thought.

Zeyala calls upon her goddess and radiates positive healing energy upon the brawlers, then gives a slight curtsey to the drover who let her pass, chuckling, “Boys will be boys,” as she exits completely out of the tavern.

Jharad’s sap glows briefly. “Escudo,” he utters, causing a fine transparent bubble to envelop him as he strikes the drover with the sap. His blow bruises the bruiser but fails to take him out.

The drover’s counterblow with the torch manages to punch through Jharad’s shield spell and again Jharad sees stars as he is struck on the head.

Bartimus, the other drover and Keng continue to punch, kick, elbow, and knee at each other, but for the moment no telling blows are landed by any of them.

Jharad recovers quickly and strikes back. He hits the drover twice with his sap, the first time leaving the arcane mark of a black hand print on his chest.

This time the drover is unable to penetrate Jharad’s shield.

Bartimus lands a haymaker on Keng but the half-orc doesn’t even seem to feel it.

Keng’s response is to knee Bartimus in the groin. The drover gasps and backs off but quickly recovers and returns to the fight. Keng grins, gleeful that he has finally gotten a serious brawl!

The Enchanted Hellknight

Toshio means to enjoy some time and conversation with Lotus Blossom while waiting for Twilight Blossom. He wonders how much she may know of the homeland. In any case, it’s a topic for conversation that will let them while away the time. Once introduced, he finds that she is quite sweet and demure. He sees that her complexion is paler and hair curlier than the Tian-Min (those from Minkai) or the Tian-Shu (those from the Successor States of the fallen Lung Wa Empire). Though Lotus Blossom is dressed in the silken robes or kimono of Minkai, she tells Toshio that she is actually a Tian-La from Hongal, a land of wind swept steppes and nomadic tribes that lies to the north of Minkai. It is the first kingdom one reaches on the other side of the Crown of the World if one follows the trade route known as the Path of Aganhei.

“My grandfather told wonderful stories of Minkai. I spent many hours listening to tales of the old world.”

“Well that is a world away from here,” Lotus Blossom says. A young boy comes and sets down a tea service on the table before them and then withdraws. “Here, let me pour you some of this Black Dragon tea.” After handing him a cup and giving him a moment to savor it she asks him if it meets his approval.

“Yes, the tea is quite nice. You can never tell if an establishment really knows their tea until you’ve tried it. And even then, serving it really, really hot can go a long way to hide lower quality.”

She laughs. “Well, the tea is actually imported from the Successor States. I am glad you like it. How do you like Magnimar so far?”

Seeing that the girl prefers to talk about more light hearted and immediate things, Toshio tries to help her guide the conversation along the lines she’s comfortable with. Things like good places to eat, performers currently in the city, and other popular entertainment. It’s more work than he’d anticipated, keeping tedious conversation going, but he recalls to himself that it’s his duty. Also, he doesn’t want Lotus Blossom to feel badly about her performance, so he really tries to relax into it and enjoy it for what it is. However, he keeps his ears perked for anything that may be mentioned pertaining to his mission, however obscurely related.

That’s when he sees a tall dark haired man coming down the stairwell into the atrium. He is dressed from head to toe in black leather garments. His boots are so shiny they actually reflect like mirrors. A small insignia of thick nails forming a sunburst can be seen on his black felt cap. Beneath his black cloak a wickedly long dagger can be glimpsed. His steely gray eyes seemed a bit glazed however, and he twirls his black handlebar moustache absentmindedly. Anyanka hurries to greet him and ask him if all went well. He mumbles something politely, bows slightly, and walks past her towards the vestibule. Anyanka is a bit put out by this and then hurries up the stairs to the second floor.

At the same time, from the vestibule, Toshio, hears the baritone laughter of an all-too familiar half-orc accompanied by the giggles of at least two girls. With horror, he realizes that Keng and perhaps the others have come to the Blissful Garden. He suppresses a cringe as he gets up to head for the stairs, but spares a moment to scrutinize the man in black while most nearby are also looking at him. He picks up a faint aura of evil emanating from him. “I’ll just take a peek without disturbing anyone, while I wait,” he says to Lotus Blossom, feigning curiosity about the rest of the establishment and hoping to learn a bit more of what the man in black was about.

“No wait,” says Lotus Blossom. “You can’t go up there.” But it is too late, as Toshio has already left her side and gone up the stairs, though giving Anyanka enough of a lead that she does not see him follow after her.

In the vestibule leading to the atrium, Keng is laughing and joking with the two girls when a figure in black rudely bumps past the redhead on Keng’s left arm on his way out of the brothel. Startled, Keng sees that it is Caelinus who has just passed them without a word.

Keng snarls slightly at Caelinus’ back, but then quickly softens his features. He hesitates a bit and then pushes off from the wall and says to the two girls as he hands them each a silver piece, “No he’s a right piece of trouble. He hang around here much?”

The blond shudders a bit and whispers, “That’s Sir Caelinus. He’s one of the Hellknights. I’ve never seen him here before.”

Caelinus passes Jharad and Jethrik on his way out of the brothel. He says nothing to either of them and doesn’t seem to recognize them from earlier. In fact, he seems lost in thought as he heads down the street.

“Well, I’m sure he’s not here for the reason we’d expect.” Jethrik muses, “Or he wouldn’t have come openly. Besides, what’s the fun in that? No, there must be another story going on here. I’ll bet my brass buttons we’ll find out what it is before our hangovers wear off. For now though…” he gives Petunia’s hand a kiss, “there are damsels to woo.”

Jharad thinks of following the Hellknight but then simultaneously remembers where he is and how dangerous the man in black is. “My thoughts exactly my diminutive friend.”

Zeyala observes Caelinus departure (though unaware of who he is) and Jethrik and Jharad’s seeming interest in him. Ealisaid leans over and whispers, “I should have told you before when he entered, but that man in black is one of the Hellknights of the Order of the Nail. His name is Sir Caelinus.” She shrugs. “I guess even the Hellknights have their needs, and will fulfill them if it is lawful to do so.”

“Ealisaid,” says Zeyala. “There’s something not right about that Hellnight? Look at his eyes. Perhaps I should get my companions.”

“By the Lady! I think you’re right. Sir Caelinus seems to have been enchanted!” I’ll go try to find him. He went down that way.” She points towards the direction of the Arvensoar, Magnimar’s garrison. “You go see if you can find your friends.”

“I’ll gather them and then follow after you! I will also inquire who the Hellknight spent time with,” says Zeyala.  She makes her way out of the teahouse and then darts across the street and into the brothel.

Upstairs, Toshio finds a hallway that must follow the perimeter of the atrium. Above each door in the hall is a placard with the name of one of the girls and a listing of the services she can provide and their prices. This causes Toshio to blush a bit, as his upbringing was sheltered and genteel enough that such things were not discussed let alone given a price. Toshio doesn’t even know what some of the things listed might be. What is M.S.O.G. or Around the World? Anyway, he sees Anyanka enter a room up ahead and on the right. The name above the door is Twilight Blossom.

Toshio continues down the hall past Twilight Blossom’s room, but tries to get a look as he goes by. The door is closed however, though he can hear a heated conversation inside as he passes. He slows as he passes, and then stops to listen. He tells himself he’ll be ready to go as soon as he hears any hint that they’re finished inside or if anyone else shows up. He turns so he’ll look as if he’s returning to the atrium (and will do so if any of those things happens).

Inside he hears Anyanka almost, but not quite, shouting, “What did you do! What did you do! Do you know who he is?”

A young girl’s voice says, “Anya, you worry too much. I will take care of him. You won’t see him around here again.”

Anyanka retorts, “I shouldn’t have seen him here the first time! And how will you ‘take care’ of him? Like you took care of the others? He certainly told others where he was going and who he was going to see. If anything happens to him they will certainly come here in force and will certainly blame Twilight Blossom! Or me! You will ruin us all!”

The girl laughs harshly. “Have a care Anya, you are beginning to annoy me with your nagging.”

“By the Savored Sting I’ll bring you in line!” rejoins Anyanka.

“How dare you call upon your whore goddess against me!” says the other.

Right then, Toshio hears people coming up the stairwell, and Lotus Blossom saying to someone, “He went up here, I tried to stop him!”

Not inclined to make trouble, Toshio moves toward Lotus Blossom and the voices and away from Twilight Blossom’s door to give the appearance that he was on his way back to Lotus Blossom.

Lotus Blossom comes up the stairs and down the hall with a surly brute in studded leather who is slapping a sap against his open left palm. Lotus Blossom says sternly, “I am sorry Captain, but you are not allowed up here unless you are with one of us.”

Toshio responds, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause trouble but I didn’t care to be seen by one of the patrons entering the Blissful Garden. I wasn’t sure where to go.”

The bouncer looks to Lotus Blossom. She smiles at Toshio in understanding and says in a more gentle tone, “You should have said something down below. We know how to handle such things. Come with me.” She holds out her hand to Toshio. “I’ll take you to a private room where you can wait until they are gone. If you tell me who they are, I will have one of the servants come to tell us when they have either left or gone to a room of their own.”

Ignoring the bouncer, Toshio smiles at her as he takes her hand. “I should have known you could handle that. I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me at the time. The brute who came in, the half-orc, is the one I’d prefer to avoid. I didn’t see if he had friends, but it would be better to avoid them, too, if possible.”

Jharad follows his companions into the atrium. He makes a nonchalant bow to the statue of Calistria and has a good look around. With a wave of his hand his clothing turns into colorful silk garments of blues and greens showing off his muscular physique. He then moves over towards the stairwell on the right to get a better view. Before he can get up the stairs a surly brute in studded leather with a sap in hand heading down the stairs shouts at him a warning that no one goes upstairs without an escort.

Jharad smiles at the bouncer, “Relax my friend, this is the house of Calistria. I did not know the rules.” With that he returns downstairs and approaches the unattended at the pool.

Jharad notes that Petunia has led Jethrik through a door into a private room off of the atrium, one with her name written on a plaque above the door along with a list of numbers and acronyms as well as prices. He idly wonders why a 71 would add to the regular rate and what “Around the World” (also an extra charge) might mean in this human (and at least one halfling) den of iniquity.

Keng approaches the shapely veiled woman and says, “I am in need of company tonight.”

The veiled woman turns to him and Keng feels a strange tingling in his head that swiftly fades away. She says to him, “I am Moon Flower, pleased to meet you. Walk with me to my room and tell me about your ideal woman.”

Keng shakes his head at the strange tingling and thinks, ‘I didn’t drink that much, must be the strong ale.’  He grabs her around her waist and half carries her up the stairs, “Ideal woman… (low growl)… Well first it must be a she!” Then he continues, “I have heard tales of these battle maidens here at the temple. I like a woman who is strong and courageous in battle as well as den.”

She laughs and points the way to her room, passing Jharad and a bouncer on the way up. “Battle maiden huh? Then you are in luck, for I am an Ulfen battle maiden from the Lands of the Linnorn Kings!” Inside her room, she takes off her veil and slips off her robes and Keng sees that she is indeed a fair skinned and well toned Ulfen woman with sky blue eyes and long platinum braids. “I have been looking for a man strong enough to handle me,” she says with a sly grin.

On the second floor in a private room on the west side belonging to Lotus Blossom, Toshio tries to turn the conversation to how things work in the Garden. “You must need to be quite a quick thinker to work here” he comments, seeking to give genuine praise where able. “Keeping us fussy visitors from making mistakes must keep you on your toes.” He tries to keep his mind from wondering about the curious numbers and acronyms adorning the plaque above her door.

Lotus Blossom laughs, “Yes, we do have to keep our wits about us. I understand that you were here to see someone else.” She moves closer to him on the bed where they are sitting together. “I am sure she will be free soon; but if you’d like to warm up a little with me…” She strokes him softly on his upper thigh and waits for his response with a coy smile.

Toshio stops her hand by taking it in his own, holding it kindly. “Your suggestion is appreciated, truly. But I am here tonight for a different kind of companionship. Let me pour more tea for us, and I’ll enjoy your company no less ‘though we only talk.”

Downstairs in the atrium, Zeyala rushes in and makes her way over to the pool to intercept Jharad. ”I hate to interrupt you, but I need to pull you away from the entertainment for a moment,” she says to him.

Jharad smiles as she approaches, answering, “Of course. Is there a problem?”

“As you were entering this establishment, you passed a dark haired man exiting. He was dressed from head to toe in shiny black leather. He wore a black cap and his mustache long. Do you recall him?” asks Zeyala.

Jharad nods and responds quietly, “Yes, the Hellknight. We encountered him before at our first pub.”

Zeyala leans in close to Jharad and whispers, “I have been observing this brothel at the behest of a head priestess of Pharasma. Her name is Ealisaid. Something is happening to the patrons, and that man appeared to have been infected. Can you gather Jethrik and Keng? While you do, I will speak with the proprietress of this establishment to see who that man was with.”

Fortuitously, the madam of the Blissful Garden comes down the southern stairwell into the atrium. A bouncer has a few brief words with her, then she dismisses him and claps for one of the young girl servants to attend her. They exchange a few words and she sends the girl upstairs. Then she notices the newcomers and approaches Jharad and Zeyala.

“Welcome to the Blissful Garden. I am Madame Anyanka, but please just call me Anya. It is nice to see a couple coming to visit us. It is our custom here to give names to newcomers. So if you do not object, I will call you,” she notes Zeyala’s silver trimmed black robes and her ceremonial dagger, “Harbinger,” She turns to Jharad, “and you shall be Bluebird. Now, how would you like to be entertained this evening? Are you looking for a third or…?”

Jharad smiles sweetly, “My lovely Harbinger here loves to do things solo. I on the other hand have a distinct taste for gnome and half-orc boys… at the same time. I think I saw some wander off this way…”

Jharad heads off to fetch Jethrik and then Keng.

Into the Blissful Garden

As Toshio approaches the facade of the Blissful Garden he notes that there is a central door that must open into the vestibule. A painted sign of a garden in twilight hangs over the door. On either side of that are open doorways leading into taverns, though red lanterns hang over them. They are no doubt owned and operated by the brothel and a place where clients can either meet the prostitutes who work within or wait and relax until their favorite is free to see them. The sounds of classical Chelaxian music, conversation, and laughter drift out from the establishment and its subordinate taverns.

A young boy, dressed plainly but not poorly, comes up to Toshio and tugs at his sleeve. “Good sir, if you’re looking for a pleasant company and entertainment, follow me!” He points to the Blissful Garden. “All you could wish to find is within there, good sir.”

“As it happens, I was on my way there” says Toshio, minding his purse. As he walks into the Blissful Garden he hopes he is presenting the very image of calmness, in contrast to his rapidly beating heart. Oh, I’ll hold my tongue in the future! he promises himself.  He looks for a greeter – not the boy he saw outside – to help him.

In the vestibule, a marble hall with an inlaid mosaic floor depicting the blissful garden that is the brothel’s namesake, a beautiful red haired woman with dark eyes and a charming smile approaches Toshio and holds out her hand in greeting. She is dressed in tasteful but form fitting embroidered silk, green with yellow highlights. Yellow being the color often used by courtesans and priestesses of Calistria. “Welcome to the Blissful Garden. I am Madame Anyanka, but you can just call me Anya. Please follow me to the waiting room where we can talk about what you seek. And what will your name be good sir? Or shall I give you one?”

Toshio smiles in return. “Thank you, Anya” he says as she leads to the waiting room. “Please, pick a name for me. That would be fine.”

“Hmm, let me think that over…”

Anya leads Toshio into the atrium, complete with a pool, a rather large shrine to Calistria, wall murals depicting Calistria enjoying herself in a sylvan setting surrounded by nymphs and satyrs, and stairs leading to the upper floor. Reclining around the pool are several young girls in red and yellow silken dresses that are surprisingly modest. He notes that there are a couple of young men as well. The girls, and young men too, smile and wink at Toshio flirtatiously as Anya leads him through the atrium, and then return to giggling and quietly whispering among themselves. A couple of them are engaged in quiet conversations with well-dressed men, probably merchants or lesser nobles. Of the seven girls who are in the atrium, including the two already engaged with clients or potential clients, two are blond, one has auburn hair, two are Tian, one is a brunette but at least as tall as Toshio if not taller and Iolana is supposed to be shorter, and the last is shapely and about the right size but covered in a veil like a Keleshite woman so that he cannot see her features or even the color of her hair.

As they walk back, Toshio looks at the various characters in the establishment. He tries to see them more forgivingly than he is initially inclined -as people on different walks of life than his own, rather than vile sinners. As he does this, he tries to note the various exits from the place. Catching himself tensing up, he tries to relax, consciously trying to get ready to enjoy an evening in the (innocent) company of a lovely lady – and that this attitude will be necessary for his mission.

Anya pulls back a beaded curtain and ushers Toshio into a small room on the far side of the atrium. In the room is a couch upon which Toshio and Anya can sit and look out through the curtain at those in the atrium. Behind the cushion is a desk and chair and behind that a series of shelves full of books.

“How about we call you Captain? You seem quite fit and with that haircut and the way you walk around you make me think of a militia captain.” She holds up her hand and looks away, “And no, I don’t need to know if you are really a soldier or not.” She turns to face him again and lowers her hand to gently touch his knee. Leaning in she whispers, “Of course, you are welcome to tell me if you wish.”

“You’re very kind” he replies. He accepts the compliment for what it’s worth and lets himself look pleased, recognizing that it’s her job to flatter her customers. “Captain will be fine for tonight.” He recalls the girls he saw on the way in and hides his disappointment that none matched Iolana’s description. He reminds himself to think of her as Twilight Blossom, at least until they are properly alone.

She leans back again and smiles, gesturing to the girls in the atrium, “But what I really want to know is if any of my girls has caught your eye? Or one of the boys? We can accommodate just about any of your needs here?”

“Several of your girls are quite attractive. A friend recommended one in particular as good company. ‘Twilight Blossom’ is the name given. Is she here tonight?” He is ready to respond with a different choice, just in case, but allows for hope that things will go more smoothly than that.

“Oh, she is a popular one. Let me check.” Anya reaches behind her and picks up a book of the desk. She pages through it and checks a list and then looks back up at Toshio. “I’m sorry Captain, but she is preparing to see someone who has booked her for early this evening. If you wish, you can go out and return in a couple of hours when she’ll be free to see you. I’d be happy to put you down as her next appointment. There is a tavern right outside where you can have a drink until then. You can even have one of the other girls join you if you wish, but you must be a gentleman and buy them some refreshment as well. Or if you would prefer a quieter atmosphere, you may linger here in the atrium and mingle a bit. I can have one of the servants bring you some tea or wine.”

“Yes, please do put me down for her next appointment. If I were to spend some time with another girl while waiting, would it upset her if I left when Twilight Blossom becomes available? If not, the taller Tian girl would make the waiting more pleasant. I’d be happy to buy her a drink while we visit. The atrium will be fine, and some nice hot tea would be very nice.”

Anya laughs and brushes Captain’s knee again. “Oh of course not. The girls here all know that you may return another time and see them again. Besides, what handsome young man wouldn’t like to have such beautiful girls fighting over him?” Anya flashes a mischievous (or is it malevolent) grin at him. “The Tian girl you speak of is named Lotus Blossom. Come, I will introduce you.”

Lowcleft or “The Rubble” is just as Zeyala remembers from her previous excursions there. It is a vibrant district at the bottom of the Seacleft full of small playhouses, pubs, brothels, hookah bars, and a wide variety of other entertainments. The Golden Pot proves to be a pleasant little Tian-Shu tearoom complete with Lung Wa era landscaped chairs (probably copies) imported from the Successor States. After finding a table and checking the menu board Ealisaid orders a variety of dumplings. She tells Zeyala that the Tien word for them translates into Common as “heart refreshers.” The Tien-Shu serving girl asks what kind of tea they would like. She recommends the Dragon Well green tea, which is a pan-fried green tea, or the Lapu Mountain Tea, which is a smoked black tea. They also have jasmine tea and many herbals as well. Zeyala notices that other customers are also smoking pipes or hookahs as well.

“The Dragon Well sounds refreshing,” says Zeyala. As she begins retrieving her own pipe, she asks Ealisaid, “Do you mind?”

“No, not at all. I’ll just be keeping watch on the Blissful Garden across the way. It looks like the first customers of the night are arriving.”

Through some quirk of the curse that impaired her vision, Zeyala is able to see just as well in the night as in the day though only for a limited distance. She finds that she is able to observe the facade of the Blissful Garden. Various well-dressed men, and occasionally couples, fill up the taverns. A few clients go directly into the Blissful Garden through the vestibule, but a few of those quickly come out and enter one of the taverns. Beautiful or at least pretty young women, and a few young men, come out of the main entrance and enter the taverns, some to return soon after leading a man by the hand. Younger boys and girls also seem to be running errands, or going up and down the street inviting people to come in. Piousa explains that these are the children of the women who work in the Blissful Garden and that they are employed there to bring in customers, and do simple chores until they are either apprenticed elsewhere in more respectable jobs or become prostitutes themselves.

Zeyala lights her pipe and focuses on passers-by and patrons, along with the prostitutes gathered out front. She is paying particularly close attention to the children.

“I think it’s a bit sordid to employ the children,” says Zeyala. “I have no problems with the trade, when a person has made the decision to enter it, but I do have misgivings raising a child into the business, so to speak.”

Ealisaid replies, “As you know, the Midwife,” by whom she can only mean Pharasma, “does not approve of abortion.” Ealisaid does not need to tell Zeyala that the Church of Pharasma considers it an abomination to kill a child in the womb, sending it prematurely to the afterlife and robbing it of its destiny. “Though there are devices and magic to prevent conception, not all the women use them or can afford the more effective ones. Occasional pregnancies are inevitable, sometimes even encouraged.” Ealisaid nods to the building across the street. “Like other professions, whether knights, priests, farmer, craftsmen, or traders, the youth follow in the footsteps of their elders. It is all the same to the Lady of Graves however. People live, and then die. Some must live in squalor while others enjoy rank, wealth, and privilege. All must go to the Boneyard where they are judged equally and dispatched to those realms where they have pledged their service or where their hearts incline them. We may have compassion for those we serve, but our duty to observe and help maintain the cycle of birth and death and the fulfillment of allotted fate takes precedence over mere sentiment.” She looks again at the prostitutes, their clients, and the children leading new customers into the taverns and brothel. “This is their fate. They must make the best of it.” Ealisaid ends her inadvertent sermonizing by tracing the spiral of Pharasma over her heart.

As the gnome, elf, and half-orc approach the facade of the Blissful Garden a young pre-pubescent girl, dressed plainly but not poorly, comes up to them and says, “Good even’ gentlemen, if you’re looking for a pleasant company and entertainment, follow me!” She points to the Blissful Garden. “All you could wish to find is within there, good sir.”

Stature’s good, but I like them to ripen first. Jethrik thinks. Jethrik replies in Tien, “Lead on, but don’t get to close to the elf. I don’t trust his hands.”

As Jethrik talks with the girl Jharad translates to Keng in Orcish, “Jethrik is asking the girl if there are small boys within which look like her for his pleasure.”

Keng laughs with a loud guffaw, feeling his dark mood lift.  He picks up Jethrik under his arm like a bail of hay and walks towards the entrance of one of the taverns flanking the main entrance of the Blissful Garden. Jharad, laughing, follows them inside.

As he is hauled inside the tavern, Jethrik sees that sitting by the window of the Golden Pot across the street are two Pharasman priestesses, and the one smoking a pipe is Zeyala who has clearly noticed them.

Zeyala lets out a muffled laugh. “Fancy that. I’m watching the brothel from the outside, and my friends will be seeing it from the inside.” Holding her pipe by the bowl, she points the stem in the direction of the tavern.

Jethrik thrashes around under Keng’s arm until he is in a position to wave “Helloooooo!”

Jharad and Keng both look over and see Zeyala and Ealisaid.

Zeyala’s only response is a raised eyebrow. Then turning her gaze back to Ealisaid, Zeyala says with a grin, “Perhaps I should cast virtue on them.”

Ealisaid shakes her head with a wry smile and replies, “Boys will be boys I suppose. At least I don’t see the other one, the Iomedaean with them. So there is that.”

Keng nods to Zeyala across the street as he sets Jethrik down on a stool at the brothel’s tavern. Then he shouts out, “Anyone hear the one about a half-orc, an elf and a gnome who walk into a whore house?”

Jethrik announces, “The half-orc needed to wash his pits!” He then enthusiastically waves fresh air to his face, spins, falls off the stool, and mimics passing out on the floor with a dramatic flourish.

Jharad laughs, “That is about the worst joke I have ever heard. I thought you were a comedian Jethrik?”

Jethrik opens one eye and looks up at the elf from the floor, “I am a comedian with a gnome’s nose.” he replies in a hurt voice.

After Jharad and Keng have had a couple of mugs of ale and some food is brought Jethrik pushes back his own mug (half-pint) and empty plates. “I want to toss some coppers to some dancing girls. Maybe give some silver to the cute ones, or some gold to the accommodating ones! What do you say boys? Shall we behave badly?”

A beautiful Varisian with dark red hair and “large tracts of land” approaches and asks if they would like to buy her and her friends some drinks. She looks over her shoulder to indicate a blond and a pretty halfling girl sitting nearby. The two wave cheerfully at them.

Keng tosses one more back and then grabs the two human girls for a quick tour of the back!

“I like that kid.” Jethrik laughs. “Not much for building up the story, but he does know how to bring the action. Myself, I prefer to have a few more chapters in my tales.”

Jethrik waves over the halfling lass. “Hey there sweet lady, tell me your name and your fondest daydreams.”

The halfling girl comes up and takes Jethrik by the arm saying, “I am called Petunia. And my fondest dream is that you’ll take me in back and show me the famous ingenuity of the gnomes.”

“Flattery will get you whatever you wish.” Which is my coin, I’m guessing, Jethrik thinks to himself as he follows the little flower away.

Smiling widely Jharad extends his arm with a flourish. “After you.”

Jharad laughs at Keng and Jethrik with their new ‘friends’ and casually looks about the room for some girl that may interest him. Seeing none he picks up his mug and moves into the brothel proper, hoping to find some dancers and maybe a cute companion to flirt with.

Observing that Zeyala’s three companions have entered the brothel, Ealisaid says, “In case you are concerned, none of those girls are Twilight Blossom.”

“Lucky for them,” says Zeyala.  ”I’ll still keep close watch over them to see if any symptoms arise.” That’s odd, thinks Zeyala. Jharad is going alone. I wonder if he likes to watch.

Looking for a Fight

When Jharad, Jethrik, and Keng arrive at Ye Olde Slippery Plow, they find that a band of Varisian performers are on stage performing an old and popular Varisian song, “Paint it Black.” The tavern is already filling up with patrons, but the three are able to grab a corner table.

Keng covers his ears and grimaces at the lousy music coming from the band, “What is this shit? Jethrik why did you bring us here?”

Jharad laughs at Keng’s pain, clearly enjoying the music himself. His hands tap on the table and head nods to the beat. “Don’t you speak Varisian?” Jethrik asks. “I think you’d like the lyrics. It’s all about a man who’s lover has died and he is deeply morning. Very dark and moody.”

Jharad begins surreptitiously looking around the room at the various groups of patrons, trying to gauge their possible skill at brawling.

Leaning close to Keng under audible cover of the music he says so only the half-orc and maybe Jethrik can hear, “Take a look around at those we may want to entice into joining us in some physical banter.” Remembering whom he is talking to, he repeats his idea with a mischievous grin, “Look around at whom you want to fight later on.”

Keng nods his head and is able to distract himself from the terrible shrieking and caterwauling of the band by sizing up the room.

Looking around they see that there are six tables spread around stage. At the moment there are only eight other patrons, yet the night is still early. Those eight are sitting in three different groups at three different tables. Three are burly men with daggers at their sides. They look like they might be off-duty members of the watch or perhaps caravan guards. At another table sits a well-dressed couple, perhaps a merchant’s son and his girl. Around the last of the occupied tables sit three middle-aged merchants enjoying a round of ale and playing dice.

Jharad really likes ales. He asks for the tavern specialty first.

The tavern wench says, “Our house brew is Irespan Ale, but we also have Dwarven Stout, and I believe a barrel of Shoanti Beer and some Two Knights Ale from Sandpoint. Will that be a mug for each of you, then?”

Jethrik orders a half mug of Irespan and offers to pay for everyone’s first round, planning to “pace” himself and not get trashed until later.

“I will start with the same,” Jharad answers.

Once their first round is brought around, the three see that the tavern is beginning to fill up with boisterous drovers and teamsters. All six tables and the seats at the bar are now full, and there are at least a couple dozen of them. The three tavern wenches and the barkeep are quite pressed to keep up with them, and several groups order not just mugs of ale, but have a whole barrel brought over and set at their table so they can fill their mugs themselves. Bottles of wine and stronger liquors are also brought out. The Varisian musicians finally take a break. Several of the newcomers cast curious glances at the three demi-humans sitting at the corner table.

At one point, the following is heard. “Hey Bartimus, did you hear this one? An elf, a gnome, and a half-orc walk into a tavern… Heard that one yet?” This is greeted by loud guffaws and even more snide glances at the side table. “No, Pherick. I don’t believe I’ve heard that one yet,” responds Bartimus, one of the other five drovers at the table. “Well,” begins Bartimus, “An elf, a gnome, and a half-orc walk into a tavern, the barkeep comes over and asks, ‘What’ll you all be having?’ The elf, pretty as you please, says, ‘I’ll have Kyonin Faery Wine for it tastes like all the things that elves love: moonlight, forest berries, and pixie dust.’ The gnome says, ‘I’ll have Gnomish Golden Light, for it tastes like all the things that gnome’s like: rich earthy flavors, sparkling gems, and wildflowers.’ The half-orc, however, says, ‘What I want isn’t ready yet. Ask me later.’ So the barkeep brings the others their drinks and still the half-orc orders nothing. The other two get another round and are feeling pretty good, but still the half-orc orders nothing. The barkeep asks, ‘What is it you are waiting for?’ The half-orc says, ‘Bring another round for the others, I promised to tell them what it is that half-orc’s like to drink but only when it’s ready.’ The barkeep shrugs and brings a third round and then a fourth round for the elf and the gnome. At this point they are quite drunk. That’s when the half-orc says, ‘Now I’m ready for my drink.’ He takes out his axe, lops off the heads of the elf and gnome and fills his mug from their gushing stumps. To the astounded barkeep he cries, ‘Nothing quenches a half-orc’s thirst like the blood of his enemies! They should have known that. I was just waiting for it to get strong enough to make it worth drinking.’” This is greeted with laughter, some groans, and of course more glances and smirks at the side-table.

Jethrik asks Jharad, “Did ya hear the one about the Varisian who walked into a bar. He starts complaining to the bartender about how bad his wife is in bed.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the bartender says. “Everybody in here is always talking about how great she is.”

The drovers hear this, but only some of them are Varisian or part-Varisian. The others are Chelaxian. Consequently, the Chelaxians laugh, but the Varisians scowl at Jethrik and at their fellows who laughed.

Jethrik directs a pleasant smile at one of the scowlers.

Keng stands up and walks over to Pherick and says, “Did you hear the one about the Varisian who forgot his rain coat? He got wet!” Keng proceeds to dump his mug of ale over Pherick’s head. Then he kicks him in the chest pushing him off his seat. Keng throws back his head and roars with laughter.

“Uh, not really in the spirit of things big guy,” comments Jethrik.

Jharad, who was planning a not so obvious assault, roars with laughter.

As Pherick scrambles up, sputtering and fuming and shaking ale from his bear, all five of the others jump up so suddenly that there chairs fall over behind them. Everyone else in the tavern stops talking to stare.

“What in the Nine Hells!” shouts Bartimus.

“You pick on one of us you pick on all of us, orc swine!” says another rolling up his sleeve. The others nod and snarl in agreement.

Then the double doors of the tavern swing open and a tall dark haired man walks in. He is dressed from head to toe in black leather garments. His boots are so shiny they actually reflect the tavern’s torchlights like small mirrors. A small insignia of thick nails forming a sunburst can be seen on his black felt cap. He shrugs his black cloak back over his shoulders to reveal a wickedly long dagger at his side. With steely gray eyes he surveys the scene as he twirls his black handlebar moustache. “Is there a problem here?” he asks quietly.

“Ha, ha! No! No! Not at all.” says Pherick nervously. “We were just sharing some jokes and I laughed so hard I fell over. My uh, friend here,” he nods to Keng, “was just about to help me up. Right, friend?” He asks this as if all their lives depend upon Keng’s going along with this sudden camaraderie. All eyes in the tavern are on Keng waiting with baited breath and fearful eyes for his response.

Keng laughs loudly and slaps Pherick’s shoulder so hard he causes him to stagger a bit. “Of course! We were just telling jokes!” Keng motions for the hostess, “Ale for my friends here!” He then slips the hostess a gold piece and whispers sotto voce, “Keep them coming.”

Jethrik is visibly relieved by Keng’s response. He casts prestidigitation to clean up Pherick and his friends.

Jethrik’s trick does not escape the notice of the dark stranger. He curls his lip slightly and says, “How considerate of you, Sir Gnome.” He turns his attention to the barkeep and points to an expensive bottle of wine on the top shelf behind the bar. The barkeep hurries to bring it down and uncork it. “Yes indeed, Sir Caelinus. One bottle of Kyonin’s finest coming right up.” Caelinus walks slowly to the bar without sparing the would-be-brawlers a second glance. Several men vacate the bar, leaving Caelinus plenty of stools to choose from. He sits and takes the goblet proffered by the barkeep. After a couple of sips he wheels around to watch the band as they come back on stage and begin tuning their instruments. This of course means that he is able to watch the rest of the tavern as well.

Laughing at the outcome Jharad helps join their two tables. “This is Keng and Jethrik. I am Jharad. And who the hells is the big ugly guy in black?”

As their newfound “friends” quickly try to shush Jharad, the elf inexplicably finds himself spitting a cork out of his mouth, though Jethrik’s desperate arcane muttering and finger wriggling probably explains it as an attempt to shut him up.

Bartimus hisses at them, “Keep it down!” In a whisper and with a glance at Caelinus he says, “That’s Sir Caelinus. He’s one of the Hellknights. There are only two or three of them in Magnimar but that’s more than enough. They’ve been deputized to maintain law and order here – by any means necessary. If you three want trouble, me and my boys’d be more than happy to give it to you – but not here. Not now. Not with Caelinus around. None of us want that kind of trouble.”

Jharad glares at the gnome and then barks out a laugh, “Well here is to new found enemies when father is away,” and raises his glass to the others.

Keng is intrigued with this ‘hell’s knight’ and the intense dread of him felt by the locals. Disappointed his ‘fun’ has been temporarily ruined he has another idea. He pushes back from the table and walks over the knight and stands looking at him until the knight looks up, he then says, “I am Keng. I would like to buy you an ale.”

As soon as it became clear that Keng was walking over to the Hellknight, Bartimus and his friends quickly cleared out of the tavern, leaving only Jharad and Jethrik to witness Caelinus response to Keng.

Caelinus looks Keng over from braids to boots and then looks him in the eye and with a curl in his lip says, “I am Caelinus of the Order of the Nail. I don’t drink with bringers of Chaos.” Keng can practically hear the capitalization. “You had best watch yourself. You’re in civilized lands now. Drink with your friends, don’t cause trouble, and you’ll have no reason to have any dealings with me.” He turns his attention back to the Varisian musicians who have begun playing once more.

Deflated, Keng returns to the table, sits down and silently drinks his ale. Perhaps the liquid courage will rebuild his sense of bravado but for now the evening seems ruined.

Visibly relived, Jethrik gives a courteous bow to the Hellknight and scurries over to Keng. “Don’t worry, there’s plenty of other faces to smash in. The story of this night is just beginning!” he says in a stage whisper.

“Well, I love this band and all, but the party’s over here…” Jethrik shrugs. “If you know what I mean. Let’s hit the streets and meander a bit until we find something worthwhile.”

Keng sullenly nods his head.

“You know what we should do!” Jethrik says perkily. “Get a really good dinner… Something exotic! A good dinner is what you need to keep up your strength for a night of drinking and brawling. Let me think, Chelaxian? Tien! That’s what we should look for!” Jethrik starts to describe his favorite Tien dishes in the native language…

Keng perks up at the thought of food.

Jethrik ends his unintelligible rhapsody with “The Blissful Garden! That’s where we should go. Unless you guys are boy scouts.” He looks them over, and then chuckles, “Hardly! Let’s go!”

“Agreed, I’m starved,” says Jharad as he downs the rest of his ale. He stands and slaps Keng on the back, “Let’s go”

Keng grunts, but gets up and follows Jharad.

Zeyala is Invited to Tea

The Midwives’ Shrine is located across from the Seerspring Garden. It is a relatively small temple of Pharasma, but even so it’s spires rise high over the surrounding buildings. In stained glass over the arched entrance the spiral of Phrasma reflects the light of the setting sun. It is a comfort to Zeyala to enter the dark cathedral and participate in the evening chanting of hymns to Pharasma and passage of the The Bones Land in a Spiral. Several dozen devotees are gathered within, all dressed in formal robes of black with silver trim. The service is a solemn commemoration of the cycle of birth and death, which is to say a typical service of the Lady of Graves.

When the service is over, Zeyala approaches the priestess of Pharasma, who is an older (but not old) woman. “You’re Grace, my name is Zeyala. I am an oracle of Pharasma. I am visiting from Sandpoint… well… actually, I’m originally from here, but my family moved to Sandpoint many years ago. I am here in the company of friends, but wanted to pray and pay my respects to the goddess. I don’t remember this temple from my childhood and was curious to visit once I learned of it.”

“Thank you for visiting. You say you are an oracle and that you came from here. I take it that you must have received some instruction at the Cenotaph. Well you are always welcome here as well. I am Ealisaid Margaid. I am actually the only head priest here, as leader of the worship of Pharsma Midwife. This is a small shrine and so does not need a priest or priestess for the Lady’s aspects as Prophet and Reaper. Which aspect of the Lady are you devoted to?”

“I am devoted to prophesy,” replies Zeyala. “But I acknowledge a being’s passing without judgment.”

Ealisaid raises her eyebrow, just a bit. “A priestess of fate? I am actually glad to hear it. Since the death of Aroden and the beginning of this Age of Lost Omens, not as many have dared to take up the primary worship of the Mad Prophet. I commend you, for the Church of Pharasma needs priests for all three aspects: the Midwife, the Mad Prophet, and the Reaper of the Dead. Tell me, who are these friends you travel with? Did they not come with you to pay respects to the Lady of Graves? For all seek her favor, or should; for all fall under her jurisdiction.”

“Their destinies fall along another path,” explains Zeyala. “One man serves Iomedae, two are fey and one is a half-orc, whom I must admit I know not where their faiths lie.”

Ealisaid raises her eyebrow again. “You certainly are traveling in mixed company my dear. I have not had many dealings with demi-humans. Their ways are odd yet even they are subject to fate and must come to the Boneyard to be judged. How do you get on with the follower of Iomedae? We deal with the followers of all the gods, and they generally know they must be on good terms with Pharasma for it is she who assigns souls to their respective afterlives, including those pledged to all the various gods. Yet Iomedae and her followers are especially resentful that Phrasma, in her aspect as the Mad Prophet, gave them no warning that Aroden would fall.”

“Good men fall, while tyrants live. Knowing Aroden’s fate would not have changed anything,” says Zeyala. ”Toshio is a good man. We have mutual respect through deed. We do not dwell on ancient history.”

“Well, enough of that,” says Ealisaid. “Are you rejoining your friends now? Or do you have time to accompany me on an errand? There is something I would like to check on and we can have tea and talk more while I do it.”

“I will see my friends later,” says Zeyala.  ”We are sharing rooms at an inn, but I’d be honored to join you on your errand.”

“Excellent. We will be heading to Lowcleft. There is a brothel there named the Blissful Garden. I have from time to time checked on some of the girls as midwife and to give various cures and blessings from time to time, though usually the madam there, whose name is Anyanka, takes care of detecting and removing the diseases that one would usually expect to find cropping up from time to time. Madam Anyanka is a priestess of Calistria, the goddess of lust and revenge. She appreciates my assistance, but to be honest she is a vicious woman. Ah well, as we who worship the Lady of Graves know: ‘All who live must face her judgment.’ Anyway, my concern is that over the last three weeks three merchants, two older and one a young man, have died of sudden illnesses. So sudden were they stricken that there was no time to even call a cleric to heal or cure them. With the older man it might have just been their time. With the death of the younger man, people began to talk. It is known that all three frequented the Blissful Garden, and furthermore that all three had a particular favorite, a girl known as Twilight Blossom. This may all be a coincidence, but I suspect something deeper may be going on. There is a teashop across from the brothel named the Golden Pot. I’d like you to join me there for some tea. We can talk and keep watch. Maybe, probably, we will see nothing unusual. Still, one never knows. At the very least, we will have some time to talk and I will treat you to some of the best tea to be had in Magnimar, and we get tea from all over the Inner Sea and beyond, even from the Dragon Empires.”

“Intriguing,” says Zeyala. “As you said, even if it comes to nothing, the company is welcomed and tea sounds wonderful.”

Toshio Sent on a Mission of Mercy

Toshio arrives at the Temple of Iomedae in time to put up his horse and attend the evening prayers. After that he is ushered into the austere office of Chaplain Tira Ronnova. Chaplain Tira is a gracefully aging Chelaxian aristocrat whose entire life has been lived in service to Iomedae. She had already been the senior most priest of Iomedae in Magnimar when Toshio entered the temple-fortress as a page at the age of 7. In some ways, Chaplain Tira was the one who had really raised him, as he had only seen his actual mother and father during brief vacations in the summer time until his training was finished a year ago.

Chaplain Tira greets him with a warm smile and a comradely embrace, and then takes her seat behind her large mahogany desk. She gestures to one of several chairs in front the desk. “Please, take a seat Toshio. I am glad that you were able to return in time for the Day of Inheritance. I see, however, that you are troubled. Please, tell me what is the problem and by the grace of Iomedae I will do what I can to help you and ease your heart.”

Toshio smiles in return, happy to see her despite the reason for his visit.  “Chaplain, thank you for seeing me. It’s good to be here, but I wish I were here only for the celebrations.” His smile fades as he describes the situation. “I am indeed troubled. Not long ago, I used abusive words when one of my companions acted foolishly. Injured and angry, my tongue lashed out, speaking a slur against his race. I knew my error immediately, and a black cloud has come between Iomedae and myself. I have come to ask for your guidance in atoning for my mistake. I have apologized to Keng – he’s the one I insulted – but the cloud remains. What can I do?”

Chaplain Tira nods in understanding. “The sins of bodily action are obvious and fairly easy to curb. The sins of the mouth are much harder to catch. Sins of the mind and heart are the most subtle and insidious. Any of them, however, will block the light that we are given to share with the world. Toshio, have you ever wondered why paladins are held to a stricter standard than clerics? Have you ever wondered about the source of our power? If our goddess Iomedae set the standard, then whose standard did she follow before she ascended?”

“I hadn’t realized paladins are held to a higher standard than clerics. It doesn’t make sense to me. Clerics wield such power through their divine spells. Paladins have so little power by comparison. Just strength of arms.” Toshio finds he isn’t able to puzzle out an answer to this question.

Tira then asks, “Consider this as well: from whom did Iomedae get her power? It could not have been Aroden, for he was not an especially benevolent or kindly god. What do you think of this?”

Toshio ponders this for a moment. “If Iomedae didn’t get her power from Aroden, then she didn’t get it from any god. Could her power be from Good itself? Or Law? If that is the case, should those be our focus, rather than Iomedae herself? That would make sense, at least to my mind. But it also means our example is greater even than Iomedae – and our required path even narrower and harder to follow.” He looks to the Chaplain, hoping for confirmation of these concepts, or at least some additional guidance if his ideas are going in the wrong direction.

Chaplain Tira nods, “Yes, you are on the right track I think. Many philosophers and theologians have debated these ideas for centuries. It is still unknown who among the gods or beings that inhabit the great beyond are actually the eldest. Some of them may have even come from a universe beyond ours. Many claim there is a multiverse. Was Chaos the origin of all things? Or is there something, or someone who existed before or who even made the Maelstrom in order to house all the many worlds that this unknown god intended to make. No one knows for sure, and neither Aroden nor Iomedae have seen fit to tell us, if even they know – for they were both mortals who ascended to what we call godhood. The older gods like Pharasma are of course silent – as they are about so many things. They may not know either. I agree, however, with those who say that there is a Divine Law or an Unknown Lord who takes precedence over all else both in terms of time and power, and that within the created order only Heaven, the realm of law and good presided over by the good deities and the archons, truly reflects this principle that is beyond and yet behind all things. Heaven is the ideal that all are bid to follow and emulate.

“Now when it comes to paladins and clerics, I am both so I know within myself the difference. Clerics are agents of the gods. As long as they do the will of the god to whom they worship and as long as they bring others to that god to direct worship to them, which may in fact empower them, then all is well. The gods will tolerate a bit of straying, and do not demand perfect conformity to their own principles as long as their will generally is done. One may say they are forgiving, others may say they are negligent. I suppose it depends upon the god in question. Paladins, however, are not simply agents of the gods they serve and in some cases hold values that are superior to the gods they serve, such as the paladins of Abadar the god of merchants. It is rumored that even some of the Hellknights are paladins, but I think that is an old wive’s tale. It is always a friend of a friend of a second cousin who knew of one. Anyway, paladins certainly serve in the priesthood’s of those gods who have them, but the principle they serve are those of Heaven alone, and this principle may be the Divine Law of the philosophers or the will of the Unknown Lord. We know not. What we do know is that as paladins advance in skill and determination they, or we I should say, become greater and greater vessels of grace. However, we must maintain a perfect conformity with that principle that transcends even the gods. It is almost inevitable that we misstep from time to time, but the gods have provided us with means of atonement. I imagine it is atonement that you seek, to bring your heart back into alignment with the principle that grants us our power.”

Toshio is comforted that the Chaplain added “we” and “us” to her statements. He immediately feels less an outsider, and that he can return to the company of paladins. “That is a large order, aspiring beyond the gods. But it’s encouraging to me that we can at least recognize that goal and strive for it.” He pauses a bit, listening, then responds, “Yes. I do seek that realignment. Atonement.”

Chaplain Tira leads him back into the main temple hall. “I will perform the rite of atonement, so that you may be fully restored as a paladin in the service of Iomedae. May you cleave ever closer to her example even as the goddess embodies the light of Law and Good. Before I begin, it is usual for the penitent to present a gift to the goddess, as this rite is not casually given. The worth of the gift corresponds to the severity of the sin. In your case, in anger you used hurtful words directed at a companion. So, I think it is not a monetary gift that will be asked but a task I would like to set you that can restore the balance by perhaps helping or even saving another. Would that be acceptable to you?”

“Yes, that is very acceptable.” Toshio is intrigued by the possibilities. How will he be of aid to another, and what circumstances might lead to saving another? Although simply paying for the spell would certainly have been easier, Toshio feels that this task – whatever it may be – will be more worthwhile. “What is the task?”

“There is a young girl whose welfare is of concern to us and of concern to one who has taken refuge with us. I want you to check on her. I will tell you more after you have been restored.” Chaplain Tira then begins lighting candles and incense. She bids Toshio to kneel and clasp his hands in prayer. Chaplain Tira brings forth her prayer beads and kneels at Toshio’s side though slightly in front of him. Both face the image of the sword and sunburst enshrined in the main hall. It is a large silver sword, easily a dozen feet tall, standing on its tip and centered on the cross guard is a halo of golden rays. After an hour of prayer and meditation, Toshio feels a lightness of body, soul, and spirit, as though a burden he did not even fully realize he had been carrying has been lifted. He even feels a deepening of the grace he had known before – a sense of being further protected and of being imbued with healing power. Is this from Iomedae? The Divine Law or Unknown Lord? He does not know, but the grace, protection, and healing power are there and will remain for as long as he resist the temptations of craving, ill-will, or cowardice in the face of evil.

Chaplain Tira rises and smiles at the newly restored paladin of Iomedae. “Welcome back, fully restored to our ranks, Toshio. Now I would like you to walk with me to the Haven. I want you to meet a young woman named Piousa. She is a devotee of Iomedae and in time may become a priestess herself.”

Toshio smiles in relief as the spell is completed. “Thank you, Chaplain. I hadn’t realized how much I had been affected.” He follows as bidden to the Haven.

Haven is a dormitory within the grounds of the Temple of Iomedae where women, young or old, and children may seek refuge from those who have or who would hurt and abuse them, whether slavers, pimps, or cruel husbands. The Temple of Iomedae has an agreement with the Office of the Lord-Mayor and the Council of Ushers that those who are accepted within the walls of the temple will be granted asylum there until the priests of Iomedae may negotiate a more permanent and just life for those under their protection.

Haven is well guarded by fully armed and armored paladins who are alert to any who might try to sneak into the grounds of the temple and harass those they are warding. They of course recognize Chaplain Tira and allow her and Toshio to pass with very little comment. Chaplain Tira takes Toshio to the second floor and knocks at the third door down. A young girl within asks who it is, and upon hearing that it is Chaplain Tira she quickly opens the door and bows low. She is young blond girl, maybe 16 in the bloom of youth. She is dressed in the white gold trimmed cassock and chasuble of the devotees of Iomedae. Her quarters are austere but clean and comfortable. Chaplain Tira introduces the girl, Piousa, to Toshio and asks if they may come in and talk. The girl eagerly complies, though she seems a little in awe of them both.

Toshio bows in return to Piousa. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, miss.”

Chaplain Tira says to Toshio, “Piousa came to us just a few months ago. Her name then was Bright Flower. She was an inmate at the Blissful Garden in Lowcleft.”

The girl blushes a bit and looks down, “Well, I wasn’t exactly an inmate. I mean to say I wasn’t a prisoner or slave. I was more like an indentured servant. I was able to come here in the mornings and early afternoons if an escort could be found willing to take me.”

Chaplain Tira responds, “That may be, but if your family had not been forced into debt by greedy landowners and merchants you would not have had to sell yourself to a brothel to keep your family from starving. You may not feel you were forced, but I don’t believe you or your family were given much choice.”

Turning back to Toshio, Chaplain Tira continues, “If we could, we would lift all the peasants out of poverty and redeem all their daughters and sons from the wretched lives they are forced into by the greedy and ruthless. Alas, we do not have those kinds of resources, and it is perfectly legal for families to sell their children to the stews and bawdy houses. Unfortunately, it is not Iomedae who rules the hearts of the leaders of this city, but Abadar the Master of the First Vault, whose concern is commerce and moneymaking and not the fate of families or children. Anyway, Piousa visited us as often as she could and when she saved enough to buy her freedom she came here. She is now a postulant in our order. I have asked you to come here, Toshio, because I believe you can help a friend of hers. Piousa, why don’t you tell us about your friend?”

Piousa begins her story. “It is hard to make any real friends at the Blissful Garden. There were too many rivalries and too much jealousy. Some of the girls were just resentful and bitter. They hated themselves for being there and everyone else. I think Madame Anyanka even enjoyed these conflicts and stirred them up on occasion. I think she thought that our competitions with each other for the handsomest and richest clients would make the whole place more popular as we would all be more willing to do things we otherwise would not.”

Toshio wonders what these ‘things’ could be, but doesn’t engage his imagination too deeply – he realizes he probably doesn’t really want to know.

“Also, if we were too busy fighting with each other we wouldn’t have any time or energy to give her any problems, at least not directly. On the other hand, she is a priestess of Calistria, the goddess of lust and revenge, so of course degradation and petty vengeance was a form of worship to her.”

What a horrible goddess to follow! How can people do that and live with their consciences? wonders Toshio silently.

“Still, I did make one friend. Her name, her real name, is Iolana. At the Garden she is called Twilight Blossom. She was from my village, having gone to the city a year before me. She was one of the few who dreamed of better things and we often came here during our free time, to worship Iomedae. Of course, we could only come in the early morning when there was no work or chores, and Madame Anyanka would not let us go if there was not a guard to accompany us – as much to keep us from running away as to protect us from stalkers or slavers. Still, I had hoped that Iolana would save her coin and be able to buy her freedom too and that together we could join the priesthood of Iomedae.” Piousa shakes her head sadly. “She was never able to do it. She always spent her silver and gold on frivolous things, makeup, new dresses, and even drugs like flayleaf. Madame Anyanka made such things easily available of course, and even encouraged their use as long as it didn’t affect one’s appearance or performance. In this way, many of the girls not only couldn’t save enough to buy their freedom, but they even became further indebted to her. After I left, Iolana still visited me here on occasion but she seemed less and less interested in our friendship or in Iomedae. She seemed to have given up. Then, a month ago, she told me she had discovered a secret and that in a few days time she would be free to join me. She refused to tell me anymore, because she was afraid her guard would overhear. After that, I didn’t see her for a week. That was unusual. I actually went back to the Garden to see her. She came to the door and told me she was safe and that she was sorry but she would not be visiting me anymore. Our lives were too different she said. She bade me have a good life and closed the door. She seemed really different. It might have been the flayleaf, but she just didn’t seem to be all there. Chaplain Tira told me that these kinds of things happen. People grow apart, and some choose a path of destruction.”

“That is what I thought,” says Chaplain Tira. “If that were all there is to the story, then I would not have brought you to hear it Toshio. Go ahead, Piousa.”

The girl continues, “Since that day, three prominent men of Magnimar have died of some mysterious illness. All of them were wealthy merchants that I know were regular clients of Twilight Blossom, my friend Iolana. They were older men, so the first couple of deaths were just attributed to fate and the infirmities of old age and overindulgence in food, drink, and other such things. The third death was a younger man, and now rumors are spreading throughout the city of a curse or of malevolent witchcraft. The rumors even included talk of the Blissful Garden and Twilight Blossom. Please, Sir Toshio, please go and see if my friend is okay. She may be in some trouble that she can’t get out of!”

Chaplain Tira lays a restraining hand upon Piousa and says to Toshio, “I have been told that Sir Caelinus, a Hellknight, may be assigned by the Council of Ushers to investigate. If that happens, I fear for all the girls at the Blissful Garden, not just Iolana. If he finds anything to arouse his suspicions he may arrest them all and send them to the Hells, the dungeons beneath the Pediment Building, to be put to the question. Toshio, I bid you, as part of your atonement, to help this girl’s friend, to help and perhaps save all the inmates of the Blissful Garden. Find out what is going on there and put an end to it before any more innocents, or even the not so innocent, are harmed. If it is something you cannot handle on your own, report back to me. I wish to send you this very night. I would have sent another but all of our priests and paladins who reside here are known. They would find out nothing and their visit to such a place would cause a scandal. You, however, because you live in Sandpoint, are not so well known. Be circumspect. Go there and say you wish to see Twilight Blossom. See if you can win her confidence and find out what you can. I caution you, however, while you may spend time with her do not take advantage of her services. It is lawful to do so, but Iomedae would not approve of such a liaison, especially when it cannot be said that the girl in question is really in a position to choose according to her own will and dignity. Will you take this mission, Sir Toshio?”

“I have no experience in these things. But I will take the mission anyway. But how should I dress? I don’t imagine white and gold would be very good cover there. Can you tell me what I should expect? How much money should I bring? What hazards in behavior I may face? Of course, you needn’t worry about me taking advantage of Iolana’s services. I hope to buy her time, and then spend it in innocent conversation, learning what I can. Piousa, you said that Iolana once dreamed of better things. Can you tell me what those dreams were without betraying a confidence?” He pauses. “So many questions. I’m sorry. I just wish to be as prepared as possible.”

Chaplain Tira says, “It would be best if you did not openly wear anything to connect you to Iomedae. Just wear what you would normally wear when you are not on duty or on pilgrimage. You may even wear your sword or at least a dagger, that would not be unusual for a merchant or nobleman in Lowcleft.”

Toshio nods. “I’ll just bring the dagger. My sword is not a common type.”

Piousa adds, “You would not even be expected to give your true name. Madam Anyanka will assign you a name when you arrive. If you are nervous and do not know what to do in such a place that will be all the more convincing. You will be given a choice of the girls who are available. Normally you could ask if Twilight Blossom were available. Men often come in asking for a favorite or one whom a friend had recommended. In this case, however, that might arouse suspicion. If Twilight Blossom is not immediately available you could spend time with another and then ask again later for who is available. It is rare, but some very wealthy clients do see more than one girl a night, sometimes more than one at a time. And it isn’t always sex they want. Sometimes they just want a companion to while away the hours, to talk and drink with. They may even invite a girl out with them, but usually Madam Anyanka will not allow new clients to do that. It is too risky for the girls. Madam Anyanka doesn’t want to lose her investments so easily. Now Iolana’s dreams were like mine: to leave the Garden and become a priestess of Iomedae, or at the very least to marry one perhaps. I think if you are able to see her and speak with her privately, if you mentioned that you were a devotee or even a priest of Iomedae yourself, then she might open up to you. Of course, if that is no longer her dream she might not. You will have to see how she is.”

“Shall I create a false name before going? Would such a lie draw shadows over me again?”

Piousa responds, “That won’t be necessary. Just ask Madame Anyanka to give you a name or give her one you wish to be called by if you prefer. It won’t be a lie. It’s more of a courtesy for the sake of discretion.”

“How will I recognize Twilight Blossom? I would like to be able to pick her out if she is available. I certainly hope I won’t have to choose another, wait with her, and then put her off when Twighlight Blossom arrives. Would it be odd if I said ‘A friend recommended Twilight Blossom. Is she here? I certainly hope so.”

Piousa laughs. “Don’t worry, that would not be odd at all. They will not even ask who might have recommended her, or if anyone does just say you’d prefer not to say. She is about a head shorter than you, slim, with blue eyes, and brunette. Her hair is long, falling down to about the middle of her back. Don’t worry about trying to find her. Madame Anyanka will tell you the names of whoever is available. Oh, well, except… that is… unless Moon Flower is available. If Moon Flower is available and Twilight Blossom or even some other girl who is asked for is not available, Madame Anyanka sometimes tries to have Moon Flower stand in for them.” Piousa shudders a bit. “I don’t know how she does it, but she is able to take the form and even pretend to be one of the other girls or any girl really. I understand though that, if asked directly, Moon Flower will tell you her name. Not everyone knows that, but regulars at the Garden and their friends know about it. So be sure to ask Twilight Blossom if she really is who she says she is. It won’t arouse suspicions if you know to ask.”

“Well, this will be a new experience. Is there anything else I should know? If not, I’ll get changed and be off. I’ll report tomorrow, unless you have other instructions.”

Chaplain Tira shakes her head, “No, I don’t think there is anything else you need to know, except be careful. If there is indeed a murderer involved and it isn’t just an unfortunate coincidence that these three men died, then it is a very subtle one.”

Chaplain Tira ushers Toshio out of the room and follows. She turns to Piousa once more before leaving. “Thank you Piousa. Toshio will do all he can to help your friend if she is in need of help.”

“Thank you, milady.”

Chaplain Tira takes her leave of Toshio with a salute, uttering the frequently heard prayer and battle cry of Iomedae, “For victory, for the heart!”

Toshio echoes the salute as they part. “For victory, for the heart!” He returns to his room and readies himself. He selects nice clothes and makes sure he has nothing to connect him with the temple of Iomedae. Toshio checks his belt pouch, ensuring he has enough for the evening. Erring a bit on the side of caution, he brings only 4 gold, 10 silver, and 20 coppers with him. Before leaving his room he reviews the names he’ll need to remember, so he won’t need to do so on the way there and become an easy mark. Madame Anyanka; Twighlight Blossom, whose actual name is Iolana – a head shorter than me, slim, blue eyes, brunette hair down her back; and Moon Flower, who can take on the appearances of others (he shudders a bit at this thought). Remember to verify whom you’re talking to. Just before going, he makes sure he has his dagger ready. He doesn’t wear any armor, as he doesn’t want to draw attention. Having finished his preparations, he makes his way to the Blissful Garden by foot.