War of the Burning Sky Session 22

Grandma Baker’s barn was nice and cozy, especially after so many days traveling through the wet swamp, with lanterns providing dim lighting. The loft was filled with hay, and had big doors overlooking her farm.

As we were preparing to bed down, agreeing on our usual guard watches, there was a knock at the door.

I cracked the open door to find Grandma Baker standing outside, her hands full with a towel covered tray and a little wicker basket, her long farm dress covered by an apron.

“Ohh, thank you,” I opened the door wide for her and helped her with the tray.

“I figured you all must all be famished from the road,” Grandma Baker said in a motherly tone, “so I brought a couple of goodies over.”

Ulfgar and Cyrus quickly rolled some barrels to the center of the barn, and I placed the tray on top of one.

She uncovered the tray, revealing some fresh baked bread and a few big hunks of cheese. Then she took a couple bottles of wine out from the wicker basket, adding, “It’s not much. You don't have much around here since you know all this stuff is going on, but it's what I can spare that might help refresh you while you’re staying here. It’ll be nice and comfy.”

“That's great,” Cyrus replied. “Hey, Granny, can I ask you something? Has trade by boat been stopped by the blockade?

“I think so,” she pondered. “I don't participate in that stuff too much, but from what I'm hearing, none of the boats are leaving the place and if you go by the harbor, you'll see that it's pretty full. When I go down to the market, it's pretty packed over there. A lot of activity in the boats and, yeah, I would say that's probably the case. The harbor’s so full, it's overflowing. I’ve never seen it that full before.”

“Interesting,” Cyrus replied.

“We appreciate you letting us sleep here,” Cyrus thanked her. “All the inns are full too.”

“Yes. Yes, of course,” she replied. “No problem. Just just a couple of house rules, if you don't mind. This is a Gods fearing house. There are certain things I don’t appreciate, like gambling, ladies of the night, fighting, or corousing, or in and out all night. I like it kind of peaceful out here, and I’d appreciate it if you could help me keep it that way.”

“It's our aim to please,” I assured her, “and thanks for the rest of your generosity as well.”

“My pleasure,” she smiled, turning to leave. “And if you need anything, I'm in the main house right over there. Goodnight y'all.”

“You have a good night,” I replied. “Let us know if there's anything you need.”

Once she was gone, Cyrus joked, “So should we go find some dice playing prostitutes to bring back here?”

“I thought she was talking about Xireas,” I quipped.

“Why?” Xireas asked sternly. “Why would you think she's talking about me?”

“Don't you prefer the night?” I asked. “You're a lady.”

Xireas looked perplexed.

“I'm teasing,” I chuckled, giving her a soft elbow to the shoulder. “I'm teasing, Xireas. Can’t you take a joke?”

“Yeah, I can,” she replied, her lips curling slightly.

It was toasty and cozy in the barn and the night passed uneventfully until we were woken by roosters in the morning.

The hazy sunlight filtered into the barn through the gaps in the wallboards, reflecting off the pollen floating in the air.

On the way to town, I gathered all the stuff that Grandma Baker had brought us and returned it to her house.

“I thank you for this,” I greeted, once she opened the door. “We're headed into town. Do you need us to bring anything back when we return?”

Pausing thoughtfully in her apron for a second, she replied, “No, thanks. I think I'm good. I appreciate the offer.” Ladle in hand, she accepted the items, adding, “You have a good day y’all.”

Having gathered our things, we closed the barn up and headed into town. On the way, the clouds covered the sun and the sunlight turned to an overcast gloom as it began to drizzle.

We purchased some meals from The Broken Lamb and took them to the statue where we said we agreed to meet Torrent.

From the statue we could see signs of activity down by the refugee camps, as people made their way back and forth from the camps to town.

Ulfgar noted that the refugees in the northern camp appeared to be mostly humans and some dwarves of mainly Dasseni origin, while the southern camp was comprised mainly of humans, half-orcs, and half-elves from other regions, and seemed to be visibly more impoverished.

After finishing our mealing and waiting at the statue until midday, Cyrus grew impatient.

“In my opinion,” I suggested, “this is the most important thing that we have to do. We're trying to get an audience with the leaders of Lyceum and Torrent is trying to arrange that. Who knows when she'll return. If you wanna do something, I will wait here.”

“I wanna see if I can find a magic shop,” Cyrus urged.

“So do I,” I noted. “What do you need?”

“I need components,” Cyrus explained, “and I wanna, maybe browse. A couple scrolls or something.”

“I also need a pearl,” I mentioned, “and it's got to be worth at least 100 golds. If I had a pearl, I could cast Identify.”

“I think we’re more likely to find a magic shop closer to the tower,” Ulfgar suggested.

“Maybe you could find a pearl at a jewelry shop,” Xireas suggested, “if there's such a place here.”

“We could try that,” I agreed. “Well, I think one of us should stay here. If somebody else, like Xireas, wants to stay, I'll go check out the jewelry shops and then return.”

“I can stay,” Ulfgar offered, “if you wanna go look for magic, since I don't really have much use for magic.”

“Let's do that then,” I agreed, and we left Ulfgar by the statue and headed toward the marketplace, which was by the docks.

Beyond the warehouses, the marketplace was packed with people hustling and bustling through the different stands selling fruits and fish and many other goods.

We soon came across Shining Star Jewelry, a small, nondescript, two story building, with some gold and silver displays in the windows.

A bell by the door rang as we entered. Inside, a monocled man behind a U-shaped counter was showing a female customer some bracelets.

“Hand on a minute,” the man said, looking up at us. I’ll be right with you.”

After a few minutes of hemming and hawing, he made the deal. Collecting her coin, the man wrapped up her package. She shoved it in her cloak and quickly walked out of the door.

“Howdy, folks,” he circled around the counter toward us. “How can I help you?”

“I'm in the market for a pearl,” I announced.

“Hmm. What kind of pearl?” he asked.

“A pearl I can use to cast the Identify spell,” I shared.

“Hmm. Let me see,” he considered thoughtfully. “Do I have one of those? Hang on. Hang on just a minute.”

“Pascual, mind the front,” He called, heading toward the back. “I'll be right back.” He disappeared beyond a back door.

Pascual, a handsome fellow with an olive complexion and hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, wearing studded leather armor and a small blade on his side, walked to the front, smiling pleasantly.

“Gracias, Pascual,” the jeweler said, returning from the back holding a box in both hands.

As Pascual nodded and departed through the back door, the jeweler placed the box on the counter and opened it, revealing a nice selection of pearls.

“These are the pearls I have,” the jeweler explained. “I don't know much about magic to determine which one might suit you or not, but I can let you look through some of these, and if you tell me which ones you like, I can show them to you and you can make a decision on if it fits you or not.”

“How much is that one?” I asked, pointing to the cheapest looking pearl.

Putting the box to the side, he produced a small velvety fabric, put on some white gloves, and, using a small tweezer, placed the pearl on the fabric.

“This is one of our less expensive ones,” he explained, “at 150 golds.”

Glancing at it, I realized that it would be insufficient for my needs, and pointed to a more suitable pearl.

Using his tweezers, he returned the first pearl to the box and removed a larger one, placing it on the fabric. “Would you like to see it?” he asked, handing me a set of white cotton gloves.

“Yes, please,” I agreed, putting on the gloves.

Examining the pearl, it appeared to be sufficient. “Do you mind if I test this?” I asked. “It will take me ten minutes.”

“I don't,” he replied, “but let me ask you, will it consume this item?”

“Ohh no,” I assured him, “of course not.”

“Because if it does,” he warned, “then you must pay for it.”

“Obviously,” I acknowledged. “No, it will not.”

“Then please do,” he agreed. “All my things are 100 percent.”

Closing the box, he waved to Pascual, who took the box and returned with it to the back.

I asked Cyrus for the glass globes we found in the witches’ shack, and prepared a ritual to identify them.

While Cyrus waited, Xireas entertained herself trying on various jewels.

Ten minutes later, the ritual was complete. “It works,” I announced, placing the pearl on the counter.

“Okay, great,” replied the jeweler. “This one is 250 golds.”

“It's 250 gold?” I replied. “Sorry, I wish I would have known I don't actually think I want to pay 250 golds for this.”

“It’s a very high quality pearl,” the jeweler assured me. “Better than my wares, you won't find anywhere here. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

“It's just more gold than I have,” I claimed. “I’m sorry. I didn't realize that it would be that expensive. Back in my day, you could get two and a half of these for that price.”

“Well, the market has been driven wildly up by the current circumstances,” he claimed. “The boats aren't out collecting sponges and sea life like they were before. So the market has driven the price quite high, unfortunately.”

“Well, maybe we'll find a pearl in our adventures,” Cyrus suggested, “or maybe if we go to a place that's not so war torn, we can find a better price.”

“Well, it seems like this whole continent is pretty much wartorn,” Xireas whispered, leaning over discreetly. “Don't you think? Where's it gonna be less?”

“Perhaps if there were some way that I could trade,” I offered the jeweler. “If you need the skills of a smith for anything here. Perhaps in the forging of some sort of a chain or something to hang some of these beautiful jewels that you have on…”

I removed the platinum chain and the steel chain and anvil from beneath my armor.

“Surely your sales gotta be suffering with the times the way they are,” Cyrus urged. “You can't be selling pearls like hotcakes? Maybe you could come down on the price a little bit to get the sale.”

“Perhaps,” the jeweler replied. “What do you suggest?”

“How about 200?” Cyrus suggested. “Are you willing to pay 200 Agradin? Double the price, like we've been encountering everywhere…”

“Hmm,” I considered. “I'm wondering if there's any way that I could make up for the difference in some sort of a trade. Is there anything that you need? I am handy with a hammer.”

“I don't know, master dwarf,” the jeweler replied. “These don't look to me… Let's just say that’s not something I'm interested in.”

Removing the jewelry she had tried on, Xireas gave it back to him with a wink, and said, “Thanks for being a sport.”

Leaning over the counter, she whispered to the jeweler, “Can't you help us out a little bit?”

“If you have something,” I insisted, “I could perhaps provide an example of my skills, and if you're not happy with the results, then no costs involved.”

“No, no,” the jeweler rejected my offer. “No thank you. That’s quite alright.”

“For you, my dear,” the jeweler looked up into Xireas’ face, “I will do it. 200 golds it is. I’m Philippe Patron. Perhaps you can come back for a coffee sometime and we can chat. Ah, but you are so, so beautiful. You must come and share your company with me.”

Tearing himself away from Xireas, the jeweler turned to me, “So what will it be master dwarf? There you have it. Your wonderful companion here has negotiated quite a favorable price for you. I do not do this for everybody.”

“I think I'm gonna wait,” I insisted.

“Quite unfortunate,” the jeweler replied.

“Never mind him,” Xireas striked the jeweler’s cheek. “I'll take it.”

“Ah, very good choice, madam,” the jeweler replied. “Very good choice.”

“Wrap it up, would you?” Xireas asked.

“Of course. Right away.” The jeweler took the pearl, polished it up, put it in a little leather pouch, wrapped it in paper, and handed it to her in exchange for her 20 platinums.

“Do you know where there's a magic shop around here?” Cyrus asked, as we prepared to leave.

“Ah yes, that's further down the docks,” the jeweler replied. “Closer to the school. That's Tenga’s shop. You'll know it when you come up to it.”

“Thank you,” Cyrus replied.

“That was a good idea, Angradin,” Xireas smiled as we departed back onto the marketplace.

“Good job,” I agreed.

“This might come in handy,” Xireas agreed.

“I hope so,” I nodded.

I shared that the globes were known as Tidereaver’s Tears, and improved your swimming while holding them, without being consumed.

“You know,” Xireas surmised, “I suspect they were boiling those people in those big cauldrons to make these crazy things. They had those blowing instruments and like the big vats and they were witchy people. I'm guessing these were made out of the people they boiled in that big vat.”

“That's a grim thought I'd prefer not to think of, Xireas,” I replied.

“Human sacrifice creates potent magic,” Cyrus added.

“It does,” Xireas agreed. “Depending on who you are and whether or not you wanna go down that road. Ultimately, the path leads to the ultimate corruption of your soul.”

“I don’t know…” Cyrus appeared skeptical.

“Did you see those three witches?” Xireas insisted. “That's what happened to them. They seemed pretty corrupt.”

“But is that what made them corrupt?” I argued. “It’s sort of a dragon or the egg thing.”

“They could have started out regular, but dabbling in that hideous magic channels all kinds of nastiness, and is just bound to corrupt your soul and twist you into that sort of person.”

“But these could come in handy,” Xireas added as we both placed one in our packs, Cyrus agreeing to give one to Ulfgar when we next meet.

We headed further down the docks, closer to the Lyceum Academy.

Eventually we came to The Yawning Griffin, a curious little shop down by the water, dimly lit by many candles in the windows and on the shelves inside where different manners of curiosities were placed.

As Cyrus approached the door, it slowly opened on its own, and we followed him in.

Hovering magical flames illuminated the inside, which was very neat and tidy. Big cupboards with small drawers were built into one wall. The little labels on each of the drawers looked somewhat reminiscent of Common, but a bit different. A piece of scroll parchment stuck out of one of the drawers. Fluid filled bottles lined the shelves, many containing eyes and other harvested parts of various creatures. Various curios hovered in the air to soft music that seemed to emanate from nowhere in particular

A dark-skinned elf with short, jagged black hair appeared, delicate hands parting her cloak, which shed an aura of shadows.

“Good morning,” she said. “Good morning to you all. Thanks for visiting our shop.”

“Hello,” Cyrus greeted her. “My name's Cyrus. Who might you be?”

“Pleasure to meet you, Cyrus,” she replied. “I am Tenga Litaranesh. To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

“I was wondering if you had potions and or scrolls to sell,” Cyrus indicated.

“Well, perhaps,” Tenga replied. “Is there anything in particular you're looking for?”

“Yeah,” Cyrus clarified, “healing potions, and any arcane scrolls.”

“Healing potions and arcane scrolls…” Tenga replied. “Let me see what I have. Hang on one second…

“Let me check,” Tenga continued, pulling out a small book, and flipping through it with nimble fingers. “Potions of healing you say, eh? I have a couple of those hanging around here. How many? They’re 75 golds apiece.”

“Alright,” Cyrus agreed. “I'll take two and I'd like to look at your scrolls, if you have any.”

“Scrolls…” Tenga began looking in her drawers.

“How hard is it to get into the Lyceum?” Cyrus asked.

“In what regard do you mean?” Tenga asked. “You mean becoming a student, for example?”

“Sure,” Cyrus replied.

“They have a screening process,” Tenga explained. “To take only who they deem the best and the brightest to go through their training program. You have to go there and apply and go through a battery of tests, I presume.”

“How about if you just want to use the library,” Cyrus asked.

“You know, look, I'm not too involved with them,” Tenga hesitated. “I kind of do my own thing out here, but my understanding is—don't take this as gospel, mind you—that you probably need to know somebody to get in there. That's my guess, because they have very tight security and it's very difficult to get in there for any reason.”

“Okay, good to know,” Cyrus replied. “Do you have Comprehend Languages?”

“Yes,” Tenga smiled, “as a matter of fact, I do.”

“Nice,” Cyrus continued. “And do you have Protection From Evil and Good?”

“Yes,” Tenga replied. “They're all 75 golds apiece, as are the potions.”

Tallying it all up in a book. Tenga continued, “That'll be 300 golds please.”

Cyrus gave her 30 platinums, which she placed into a pouch.

“Very good,” she said, and with a wave of her hand, the pouch floated into the back.

Cyrus turned to us, “What do you say we go to the Lyceum and see if we can get in?”

“You know,” Tenga interrupted, her expression taking on an absent smile, “you look familiar to me. Matter of fact, a few weeks ago, a woman came in here and they gave a very detailed description of you folks here and asked me to keep an eye out for you.”

“Oh yeah,” Cyrus raised an eyebrow. "Did she say why?”

“She didn't say exactly why, but just that she was just looking for you,” Tenga revealed. “She was a short blonde woman with an accent that I simply couldn't place.”

“Short and blonde…” Cyrus considered. “Was she wearing armor or carrying weapons, or was she just wearing common clothes?”

“No, she was dressed in common clothes,” Tenga answered, “and her name was Jess.”

“Interesting,” Cyrus replied. “Well, thank you for telling us. Are you gonna get in trouble with her? Did she specifically tell you not to let us know she was asking for us?”

“No, she didn't say that,” Tenga shared, “but she asked me to leave a note at a particular home if you came around.”

“We could go see her,” I suggested.

“Yeah, maybe we can just go pay her visit and everybody's happy,” Cyrus concurred.

“Sure,” Tenga agreed, pulling out a little scrap of paper and quill and jotting down an address for us.

“Thank you,” Cyrus replied, and led the way out, the doors opening and closing for us on their own.

“Let's go get Ulfgar and pay a visit to this woman, huh?” Cyrus eagerly suggested.

“Don't you think it's a trap?” I hinted. “Did you notice how her whole demeanor changed, almost like she was under some sort of influence when she brought up Jess?”

“Really?” Cyrus replied. “No, no, I didn't notice that.”

“Like she was under some sort of enchantment to lead us to this place,” I elaborated.

“Yeah…” Cyrus considered. “So I guess you don't wanna spring the trap then.”

“Ohh I didn't say that.” I smirked. “Let's get Ulfgar!”

When we returned to the statue, we found hundreds of little origami figures surrounding the fountain. Swans, bugbears, and a myriad of creatures made of little scraps of paper.

Ulfgar was busy folding them up and giving them to the kids as they went by, and placing little boats in the fountain.

“This ones for you,” Ulfgar handed Cyrus a tiny paper dragon.

“Any word from Torrent?” I asked.

“No, I haven't seen or heard from anybody,” Ulgar replied. “Not torrent. Not Katrina. What did you find?”

“Xireas did manage to get a pearl to cast Identify,” I retold. “That's good news. Then we went to a magic shop, and Cyrus bought some Potions of Healing. And then, all of the sudden, the proprietor seemed to come under some kind of influence. Xireas, did you notice anything?”

Xireas shook her head.

“Why did you think she was under an influence?” Ulfgar asked. “What happened?”

“Just the expression on her face,” I explained. “She told us that a short blonde woman with an accent that she couldn't place named Jess was looking for us.”

“An old girlfriend of yours, Ulfgar?” Cyrus teased.

“Jess?” Ulfgar considered. “I don't remember a “Jess.” It's kind of an uncommon name for these parts.”

“Well, we have an address,” Cyrus shared. “Angradin thinks it’s a trap, so maybe we should go spring it.”

“Well, I could use a good stretch of the legs,” Ulfgar eagerly replied.

As we looked for the address Tengae gave us, I warned, “One thing to keep in mind is that Tenga didn't seem like a chump herself, and she seemed to fall prey to some kind of charm. So we just have to be careful of that.”

“Good point,” Cyrus agreed, leading the way toward the address.

“So what's the plan with this Jess character?” Xireas asked, “What do you guys want to do?”

“I say we go there and scope out the place first,” Cyrus suggested, “and then we'll come up with a plan.”

“But what are we doing about Jess is my question,” Xireas clarified. “Are we charging in, guns blazing?”

“Nowe're gonna go talk to her,” Cyrus suggested. “She might be friendly. We don't know.”

“I think we should see if anyone comes and goes,” Ulfgar suggested. “It's almost around lunchtime.”

“We can scope out the spot,” I agreed. “My only worry is that now we're not waiting for Torrent. I hope she's not in trouble.”

“She went to go see her mentor,” Cyrus dismissed. “We arrived last night and she left to go see her mentor. It’s the next day. I don't think it's weird yet.”

“But we have but we have the case,” I maintained, “and that's fairly important.”

“I find it weird that, if we have the case and the message that were so important,” Ulfgar expressed, “ that she would basically leave us alone just to go to The Lyceum first. I would have thought she would have brought us with her.”

“Agreed,” I nodded.

“Well, if the goal was to get her mentor to establish a meeting,” Cyrus offered, “it's possible that last night they reunited, she crashed at his place, and this morning they left to go to The Lyceum to try and create this meeting. So it’s afternoon now, so.”

“Yeah, good point,” I reconsidered. “I think you're right, Cyrus. I'm just being overly anxious.”

“I mean, she might be in serious trouble,” Cyrus added, “but we'll deal with that when we get to it. “

“In the meantime,” I continued, “I think we're agreed to at least scout out this address. I like Ulfgar’s suggestion of seeing if anybody comes and goes.”

“Yeah,” Cyrus agreed, “that's a great idea.”

Following the directions, we came upon a small, two floor residential building, with only one entrance, and a few windows with drawn curtains.

Cyrus, Xireas, and I agreed to hang back and watch for a little while while Ulfgar circled around.

“Moradin’s blessing be with you,” I placed a hand on Ulfgar’s shoulder, casting guidance.

Ulfgar silently disappeared into the shadows.

When he returned, Ulfgar shared, “I heard two—what sounded like females—speaking. There might be more, but I only heard two. It sounds like they're ready to sit down for dinner.”

“Can't be much of a trap if they're cooking dinner,” Cyrus suggested.

“Were there any other entrances?” I asked.

“Just the one window on the right hand side,” Cyrus answered, “it's the shutters are closed, but that's where I listened in.”

“No back door?” Cyrus asked.

“I didn't see any backdoor,” Ulfgar replied. “Nothing visible.”

“Should we just watch this for a while?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Cyrus suggested. “I guess the chattering women getting ready for dinner could be an elaborate illusion to create the sense of normalcy.”

“I'm happy to just scope this place out for a while,” I proposed, checking to make sure we weren’t being watched from any of the surrounding houses. “Maybe they’re expecting company.”

Cyrus offered to knock on the door, but we agreed to wait long enough for them to eat dinner.

After about fifteen minutes, a man gave us a casual nod as he walked past us, and appeared to head toward the house we were watching. In his arm was a paper bag with what looked to be loaves of bread sticking out of the top.

“Excuse me, sir,” Ulfgar quickly approached him. “We're looking for someone named Jess. Do you know where she might live? Which house?”

Turning, the man said, “Jess? Who might you be, friend?”

“Well, actually we were told that she was looking for us.” Ulfgar explained, sensing recognition.

“Hmm. Really? Okay,” the man replied with some apprehension, “may I ask what your inquiry is about beyond? Is there anything…?”

“I just hope for an introduction,” Ulfgar continued. “We were given a message by Tenga at the magic shop to keep an eye out for our party. So we have come to introduce ourselves.”

“I see,” the man replied. “Well, just give me one moment. Let me go put the bread down. I'll be right back.”

“Well, actually, sir, can you tell us which house? Where is she located? Before you go,” Ulfgar pressed. “I don't wanna bother you. I don't wanna put you out. We’re just seeking directions.”

“No, right, I understand,” the man maintained. “My family's waiting, so if you just give me a moment to put these things down, I'm sure we can help you out.”

“Alright. Thank you, sir,” Ulfgar replied, watching the man closely as he reached into his pocket, pulled out a little key ring, fumbled with it until he dropped it, picked it up, nervously unlocked the door and went inside and closed the door behind him.

Suddenly I noticed that Cyrus was gone.

Ten minutes later, the door opened and the same gentleman appeared, Ohh, you're still there. Thank the gods.”

“Anything wrong, friend?” Ulfgar asked.

“No. No,” the man insisted. “Sorry for the wait. I apologize. I was just kind of trying to get things together inside dinner and such. Would you like to come and join us?”

“Oh, I thought you were gonna direct us to Jess's house,” Ulfgar questioned.

“Ohh, pardon me, of course,” the man apologized. “She's inside.”

“Ohh, this is Jess's house?” Ulfgar asked. “Why didn't you just say that?”

“Well,” the man nodded, “you know, a handful of strange men standing on a corner, asking weird questions and everything. Would you like to come in and meet her?”

Approaching the door anxiously, Ulfgar suggested, “perhaps she could come and greet us.”

“But we're just sitting down for dinner,” the man insisted. “Come sit, have dinner with us. No trouble at all. We already set an extra plate for you.”

“Ohh, I have many companions about that I have to meet,” Ulfgar protested, “so I don't know that I'm fit for dinner. Thank you though.”

“Ohh, just a bite,” The man insisted. “Come on in. We just opened a very nice bottle of wine we'd like to share.”

“My religion doesn't—” Ulfgar objected.

“Really it's no trouble at all,” the man continued, trying to lead Ulfgar in. “We’d love to make your quaintance.”

Approaching the door, Ulfgar looked in, but did not enter.

Beyond the bearded gentleman, Ulfgar saw a lady with a little bonnet over her head walking with a tray of food. Another lady standing behind a counter, a shock of blond hair sticking out from her bonnet. Behind her was a door.

“Come in, friend,” the man continued.

Ulfgar cautiously stepped inside the doorway, blocking the door from being closed.

“Please, the table’s right this way,” the man indicated, trying to close the door.

“Thank you, friend,” Ulfgar asserted, “but I wasn't expecting so many guests in here.”

“I told you,” the man maintained, “my family is in here.”

“This is your family?” Ulfgar asked.

The two of them continued to talk quietly until Ulfgar stepped backward out of the doorway.

“Are you sure you won't join us?” the man pressed. “My wife made a wonderful mofongo that you would absolutely love and is to die for.”

“No, I thank you,” Ulfgar insisted. “I must get back to my friends. But again, I do wish to offer my introduction and I appreciate your invitation. But like I said, if you need to get a hold of us, meet us at the fountain tomorrow morning. We would be glad to share a coffee with you to discuss whatever it is you may need.”

“Okay,” the man yielded. “Thank you. Good night, sir.”

The man closed the door and Ulfgar turned and walked down the street, subtly waving for us to follow as he passed us by.

“Did you see where Cyrus went?” I asked Xireas. “Do you have any means of messaging him? I assume he went sneaking off and didn't get disappeared.”

“Yes,” Xireas confirmed. “He fell back that way sometime ago. Probably trying to get the drop on them is my guess.”

“I didn’t notice that,” I admitted, “but that was my thought as well.”

“We should just not worry about Cyrus and just leave,” Xireas suggested. “My guess is he will catch up to us.”

“Okay, come on,” I bid Xireas as soon as Ulfgar was out of sight of the house, “let's go.”

Cyrus caught up with us as we were catching up with Ulfgar.

“Everything looked fine,” Ulfgar explained. “There was more people in there than I thought there would be. There was, in total, of five people. Hector, Helena—what they said was their two daughters—and Jess was in there. But something just felt off.”

“Was Jess one of the daughters?” Cyrus and I asked.

“No, Jess was on her own,” Ulfgar clarified. “I think perhaps that there is a family and Jess was just visiting, but just something fell off about the whole situation. So what I suggested was that they meet us by the fountain tomorrow morning, if they wanna talk and we'll share a drink or a breakfast? I figure we're gonna be there waiting for Torrent anyway, and if the worst comes to worst—maybe if we're lucky—if something does go down, Torrent will be there and be able to assist.”

“So their story was: Jess was visiting?” Cyrus asked.

“Well, we didn't really have that much time for the discussion,” Ulfgar shared. “They were inviting us to dinner, and I just said I had friends that I had to meet and I didn't feel like going into a room with five to one. Like I said, something felt off. I just can't put my finger on it, but something felt off.”

“Did you get to talk to Jess at all?” I asked.

“Only briefly,” Ulfgar answered. “We only just did introductions. I gave her my name and asked for all of theirs.”

“Okay,” Cyrus nodded. “That's good info. Alright, let's see if they let us vacate the area and, if they do, then we can plan for tomorrow's meeting.”

“Like I said,” Ulfgar continued, “I was a little leery to get too far into the room, so I didn't go past the door.”

“What was it that made you suspicious in some way?” Xireas asked. “I’m just curious.”

“I'm suspicious of strangers on the best of times,” Ulfgar justified, “and I was only expecting two people, and seeing five in there set my hairs on end. You know when get the nervousness that something isn’t—”

“Were they armed?” Xireas asked. “Were they—”

“They looked like a normal family, but…” Ulfgar reasoned.

“Looks can be deceiving,” Cyrus offered.

“Did Jess say anything?” I asked.

“Just her name,” Ulfgar answered. “Just the introduction.” Then reconsidering, continued, “Oh, actually, I don't even think she introduced herself. I think it was Hector that introduced her.”

“So you never heard her speak?” I asked.

“I don't believe so,” Ulfgar admitted.

“So she's leaving messages around town that she wants to see us,” Cyrus reiterated, “and then she just kind of lets you leave, huh? That's fishy.”

“She didn't try to stop me, no,” Ulfgar confirmed. “I just said thank you and…”

“It's probably not an ally here,” Cyrus conjectured, “because she probably was waiting to get all of us, and when it was just you, she didn't want to show her hand.”

“Well, I don't know if they were waiting for all of us,” Xireas considered. “They invited him in. It seemed like they were trying to coax you to go in, right? Why would they do that if they wanted all of us?”

“He seemed very nervous, though,” Ulfgar mentioned.

“Cyrus said something else before,” I recalled, “about—I think before you snuck off, Cyrus, didn't you say something about them being aligned with the Inquisitors?”

“Yeah, I thought it might be a possibility,” Cyrus affirmed.

“I think it's as good as anything else,” I suggested. “Who else do you know?”

“Do you mean the family?” Xireas asked.

“I'm thinking more ‘Jess’ than the family,” I clarified.

“Ah, I see,” Xireas nodded.

“And if it's Jess that's going around leaving—” I speculated, “because I can't imagine that Tenga is the only person who had this message, because what are the odds that we're gonna run into Tenga?”

“Right?” Cyrus agreed. “She might have feelers all over the place. Yup! It's possible she came into this family, charmed them all, and she's like—”

“Oh, that's true!” Ulfgar realized. “The family could be totally unaware. Yeah, that would make sense.”

“Right,” I agreed. “That’s what I was thinking. And you mentioned, Cyrus, that if they were aligned with the Inquisitors, that they wouldn't be welcome in Sequen. So if they wish us any harm, they might need to ensure that they do it in private, so they're not seen.”

“Right,” Cyrus nodded. “Yeah. I just think this isn't a friendly chat we're gonna have. I think this is gonna be a problem.”

“I am nervous about them possibly being lured back to Granny's farm,” I shared.

“Well, that's why I didn't wanna tell them to meet us at Granny's Farm,” Ulfgar explained. I told them to meet us at the fountain.”

“Ohh, I mean inadvertently luring them back,” I clarified.

“Ohh, you mean if they follow us back?” Ulfgar asked and I nodded. “Ohh, good point.”

“Yeah, let's all try and keep an eye out for a tail and head back.” Cyrus led the way.

As we're walking back towards the marketplace, we were all on alert. As we walked, we shifted around, looking back over our shoulders. I periodically cast guidance on myself as I peered behind us, and Ulfgar peeled away and circled behind us.

We were headed to the fountain to see if there was any sign of Torrent, but we never made it that far.

By the marketplace, we heard a thaumaturgy enhanced crier’s call: “Ladies and gentlemen! The grand Cirque is pleased to announce open auditions for that magnum opus, the grandest of all myths, the time-honored story of our very lives, The Spectacular Trial of Toteth Topec! The grand Cirque is seeking exceptional singers, acrobats, athletes, and dramatists to participate in this momentous performance. Come! Will you be famous?”

Another crier called, “The Magistrate Lorb Votberd seeks assistance in solving the mystery of the arsons. There are arsonists setting fires to some homes. Lorb Votberd seeks able bodies to come and investigate. Lorb Votberd seeks assistance in locating the arsonist. Any interested should report to the magistrate’s office.”

“Let's do it,” I suggested.

Everyone agreed.

“Yep,” Cyrus smiled. Stopping arsonists. That sounds like fun.”

“If we can establish ourselves as heroes with the magistrate,” I suggested, “that's a good thing.”

“I wanna see we could get into the Lyceum ourselves,” Cyrus mentioned, “without having to wait for Torrent’s guy though.”

“Cyrus, maybe the magistrate can coordinate a meeting with the people of Lyceum,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” Cyrus agreed, “if we get in good with them.”

Asking around, we found our way to the magistrate’s office, a large building overseeing the harbor.

We found ourselves in a short line outside of Magistrate Lorb Vortberd’s office. Water dripped from the unguttered roof near where we stood, and everyone waiting seemed to grumble about the weather. The line moved quickly though, as nearly everyone ahead of us left within a minute or so after entering.

Finally, we found ourselves before a well-dressed dwarf with a split beard and bright eyes that sat deep beneath a furrowed brow. He sat forward with hands placed firmly on his cleared desk, examining us carefully. He finally spoke, his voice was low and strained, as if he was holding back a deep anger.

“Well, at least you are trying to do something right about things around here; never had this trouble before you all came in. By Thraxton’s beard, you should all have been rounded up and questioned before ever getting off the ship, or leaving the swamp, or wherever the hell you came from. But the council won’t let me and now I have to clean up the mess they’re making. Those idiots should be the first one’s locked away—especially that eagle-rider, Laurabec. Thinks she can make all the problems go away with a big temple. Hah! Religion has caused all this. . . idiot!” He slid back in his chair with a sigh.

While he was talking, Cyrus took out a bottle of wine and began drinking from it.

“Here’s the problem,” the magistrate continued, “several houses on the east side of the north shore have been damaged by fire. No one got hurt in these fires, but the buildings were fully destroyed. It might be some refugees doing it, or someone else, but we have to find out who the hell it is and to put an end to it cause it's causing a lot of trouble. So Are you all up for the job?”

Hesitantly, we nodded.

The magistrate took out a strip of paper and scribbled down the locations of the fires.

“You can go check out the fires and the houses here,” the magistrate instructed us, “and try and figure out what the hell happened. And if you find out who did it, bring them here so we can give them some swift justice, gods dammit!”

“How much are you paying for this work?” I asked.

“I’ll pay you all ten golds apiece to settle this ugly business,” the magistrate declared.

“Ten golds won't even buy a meal,” Ulfgar noted. “Not with today's prices.”

“This guy is not gonna help us get into the Lyceum no matter what we do for him,” Cyrus muttered.

“Yeah,” I nodded slightly, “I agree.”

“Are you going to take the job,” the magistrate asked. “What do you wanna do?”

“Yeah,” Cyrus spoke up, “we’re gonna take the job for fifty golds each. We're professionals.”

“Bear in mind,” I added, “we are The Ambassadors of the Blue Sky, Exfiltrators of Gate Pass, Destroyers of the Inquisitors, Extinguishers of the Innenotdar Forest, and Liberators of Cornerwood!”

“Good,” the magistrate suggested, “maybe you can extinguish these fires too.”

“I'm sure we can,” I promised.

“Fine,” the magistrate compromised. “Here's thirty golds. My final offer. Now go find those damn arsonists.”

“We'll take thirty golds each,” I negotiated, “but we have two more companions that are not here right now. Thirty golds for each of us and you’ve got a deal.”

“What? No, you all sign the register for the job,” the magistrate held firm, “and you all get paid when you finish the job. I'm not paying ghost companions that aren't here. How will I know that they're actually existing?”

“How about you give us the thirty golds each when we bring them back here after we're done?” I haggled.

“No,” the magistrate refused, opening a drawer and pulling out a contract and a quill.

After crossing off the 10 and writing in 30, he slid the contract across his desk and handed us a quill.

“Here you go,” the magistrate instructed. “Sign here.”

We hesitated.

“This is how we do things around here,” the magistrate stated. “I don't know where you come from, but we need a proper contract if we're gonna make a deal.”

After looking over the contract, we signed it.

“Great,” the magistrate responded. “Thanks a lot. I appreciate it. I look forward to you bringing in this arsonist.”

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