Nathak Banebreath lies on the stone floor, his head bruised and bleeding. His armored chest rises and falls with shallow breaths. The dragonborn soldiers stand, hands up, huffing with the exertion of the battle. Otherwise, they are quiet.
Footsteps come from the staircase and Castellan Silvershod soon arrives with his retinue of soldiers. At his side is the human guard who escorted Kriv and the others to the training story. He stops cold at the sight of the carnage, his gaze falling first on the charred corpse of the dragonborn soldier, then to the unconscious Nathak, and finally resting on Kriv.
The dwarf’s face contorts in anger. “What is the meaning of this?” he barks, moving forward quickly.
“Has the whole world gone mad?” asks Blayth, holding up her longsword in resign. Her eyes are fever-bright, her lips barely making out the more civilized words in the wake of the unearthly howl she let go just moments ago.
She swings around and levels Kriv with a stare. “What manner of people do you put your faith in, dragonborn, that not a day into our safe haven here, they are already at our throats?”
Svierge, his weapon still aglow from Berronar’s Blessing, turns to the dwarf and gives him a steely look. Speaking with an air of almost contempt, Svierge says, “How far has the Order fallen that people seeking their aid are instead attacked in the Order’s own keep. And you call yourslves followers of Bahamut?” Giving Nathak a tap with the butt of his spear, Svierge says, “He is all yours. I would just prefer to never seen his face again.” Turning to the fallen dragonborn, “What is this man’s life worth to the order?”
Maugrim flashes his wry grin, now with more teeth from the dragonborn form.
“Now that was a rather interesting scuffle. I must say that I did not expect an after-dinner workout but the gymnasium here seems rather suited to intense exercise.” He deftly flips the card he pulled from the mechanism end over end from one clawed finger to another.
“Nathak ostensibly called Kriv here for a conversation. A conversation that ended in Nathak saying ‘kill them all’ when we would not produce a certain bauble he had his eye on.” He looks pointedly at the dwarf.
“Oddly enough we failed to slay outright those who brazenly attacked us – the only casualty was brought low by another of Nathak’s minions. I thought the Order more, how shall I put this… orderly? Not that I am complaining about the amusing romp but it did prove to be a bit inconvenient for rest and relaxation.”
Svierge turns his head and glares at the dragonborn Maugrim. After a few seconds, he turns he eyes back on the dwarf.
Oliver’s brow seems to furrow even more when this strange dragonborn Maugrim addresses him. He looks to Kriv. “Is this true?”
Maugrim crooks a talon and makes a small circular motion with it, activating his gloves for Prestidigitation to clean the blood from his robes, making them shimmer. He looks to Kriv and arches the bony ridge where his eyebrow would normally be.
Blayth takes a deep breath and looks down at her sword. Blood from the last time she made contact, still fresh on the blade, drips down the center indentation and pools on the ground. Her hackles have fallen, and she looks all the more human… just enough, anyway. The look in her eyes is almost longing, sorrowful.
When she glances at Kriv, it’s with an expression that borders on a realization of betrayal—or a fear of it. “Yes, tell us,” she says.
“My companion speaks the truth. It seems Nathak has finally shown his mettle. Although to what end I cannot say, I trust you’ll find that out yourself – unless you already know of course.” Kriv turns to the dragonborn corpse, and motions in a quick, yet silent show of respect for his fallen former comrade.
“Death at the hand of a trusted friend, he met his demise at the hand of one of Nathak’s guardsmen. I have no way to prove this other than the fact that all of the others are alive, and that none of us are particularly adept at the ways of the orange flame.” Then turning back to Oliver: “I trust you can shed some light on this situation. I was summoned here to meet with you, only to find a greeting more in keeping with those who follow the enemies of our God. It seems that lately the line between friend and foe has become uncomfortably blurred. The Order has been tainted with the stench of our enemy, and my current mission requires I not keep such company. Where do you stand, teacher?”
Svierge, the glow finally fading from his weapon, says; “Well Master Dwarf, what do you say? I, for one, dislike the idea of being attacked in my sleep. Let us know where you stand or I will take my leave of this accursed place.”
“I knew nothing of this, Kriv.” The dwarf’s voice is soft, as if he is attempting to temper his anger or sadness. There is a look to his face hinting at the pain of Kriv’s accusation. “Nathak’s actions were not sanctioned by the order.”
Oliver looks at Nathak’s dragonborn retinue and is silent for a moment. Then he suddenly shouts, “What is the meaning of this?! You bring up arms against a brother of the Order?! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!”
Shaking in his anger, he motions to his own guard. “Take them to the dungeon. Bind Nathak and bring him to the Great Hall. We have much to discuss. I trust that you will all join us?”
“An inquisition – how exciting!” Maugrim exclaims. “Since we have just eaten I guess it will be entertainment only. Maybe room for a little juggling too, just to lighten the mood later on after all the grim accusations and steely glances.” He chuckles.
Blayth shoots a narrow-eyed and rather withering glance at Maugrim.
“I am hesitant to trust anyone at this point,” she said, brushing back the hair at her forehead. “But what other choice do we have?”
“I stand on the side of those who wish to prevent this artifact from falling into the wrong hands, Master Cleric,” says Oliver to Svierge. He watches angrily as the three dragonborn are led away.
Then the dwarf looks to the paladin and exhales sharply. “You are right to doubt, Blayth. It was trust in Nathak that convinced me to speak to him about the artifact. There is surely a reason why he wanted it badly enough to take it by force.” Again, the dwarf shakes his head. “We must convene in the Great Hall. This is far too important for us to delay any further.”
With that, the dwarf turns and heads down the stairs. Half his attendants follow him.
One attendant, a young elf or half-elf, stands over the prone Nathak, muttering an incantation. He produces a small scroll, gestures, and the scroll shrivels away. A glowing purple disk appears. At this point another attendant, this one a burly halfling, moves Nathak’s body onto the floating disk walks him down the stairway.
The young sorcerer turns to the party. “I have not ever seen Castellan Silvershod like this. He is very upset. And this, after General Dugan’s death and … General Nathak’s promotion…” Shaking his head, the boy gestures to the stairway.
“Often one’s demeanor is clue enough that they are not a keeper of secrets but rather a power-mad fool with a penchant for the dramatic,” Maugrim chuckles.
Surprisingly, Blayth comes to the defense of the dwarf, and says to Maugrim, “Well must put trust in people—but so often, people are not what they seem.” She grins, but it looks a little like she’s baring her teeth instead.
“I am reminded of a story I once heard about one of the ‘shifter’ race that wandered by a painting in a gallery,” Maugrim says. “This painting depicted a ‘shifter’ with hackles raised, baring large sharp teeth and threatening a human who was heroically fending it off with a spear. The human’s armor shown brightly and there was a look of steadfast resolve on the human’s face. The ‘shifter’ asked the curator of the gallery ‘who painted the shifter in that painting’ – a rhetorical question indeed as the painter was clearly not a ‘shifter’, yes?” He grins.
“All depends on perspective, to be sure.”
Blayth strides past Maugrim, shaking her head at his rather colorful anecdote. “I can’t say I ever knew a shifter to be particularly deft with the brush,” she says, clearly not taking the meaning.
With a sharp intake of breath she moves to the head of the group.
Kriv, without looking at Maugrim, begins to speak somberly. “This dwarf we can trust more than most – and certainly more than we can trust you.” A cool breeze blows through the room from an open keep window as he strides past the others, following the prisoners, his heart filled with sadness and a touch of silent rage.
“I am pricked, nay, cut to the heart by the fellow feeling in this room! And after all we have been through together!” Maugrim giggles. “Ah well, I suppose I must bear the burden of so often being right.”
Maugrim chuckles and picks up his green robes to move, still not completely trusting his dragonborn feet to not snag them.
The Great Hall is a large chamber off the first story of the tower. When the party finds their way inside, they are met with a large rectangular table. Beneath it, illuminated by a chandelier above, sits Oliver at the head of the table in front of a large fireplace. Above the hearth are two sets of antique armor, one with detailing identifying it as Arkhosian and the other as Nerathi. Steaming mugs sit at the place settings, but the big dwarf doesn’t touch his.
At the other end of the table is Nathak, flanked by armored guards wielding polearms. He is awake now, staring silently down at the table. He does not react when the party arrives.
Oliver looks to the party, his old face lined with sadness and exhaustion. “My aids have reported unfortunate news,” he says, turning his gaze to Nathak. “It appears that someone broke into the shadar-kai’s cell while he slept and murdered him. The entire room was ransacked.”
Nathak looks up slowly. “Unfortunate indeed.”
Clearly tired and quite annoyed, Svierge sits down heavily in one of the chairs and says, “Now someone please tell me what the hell is going on…”
“Were there signs that he was made to suffer before this, Castellan Silvershod? He knows as much as we do of… recent events though in all truth he would not have given up information easily if all the tales of the Shadar-Kai are true. Just an observation, my lord.” Maugrim takes on a countenance somewhat more serious and somber, mimicking others in the room.
“There were signs of a struggle. It doesn’t look like he engaged in much conversation,” says Oliver. “I presume that somehow Nathak and his soldiers overheard our conversation, Kriv, and wanted to ensure that the options available for you taking this artifact to the Shadowfell were limited. Thus the silencing of Albrek.
“Nathak, what say you to these charges?”
The dragonborn stares languidly ahead. “I did not murder the shadar-kai in cold blood,” he says in a slow and deliberate voice. “I went to question him, and he drew one of his knives on me. It was self defense.”
“Lies upon lies,” growls Blayth, taking a step toward Nathak, but restraining herself. She clutches her fists, but her voice is smooth when she speaks. “The dishonor you have brought to your order already this night is more than I could bare in a lifetime, and yet here you heap more deceit!”
“Limited indeed, my lord. But not eliminated. However what would be more interesting would be the ‘why’ of things. Did the potential for power tempt Nathak or did a fell entity work its wiles on him? One may be forgivable. The other, well, that may be worthy of a different fate.”
Nathak sneers. “You would believe these outsiders rather than a man of the Order?” “Silence!” Oliver turns to Nathak. “Whatever you’ve done here, Nathak, you’ve bungled it. Killing an envoy of the Raven Queen? Are you mad?! You have been taught better. Any two-week initiate knows to use non-lethal force when attacked like that.”
The dwarf shakes his head, trembling with his anger. “Or were you afraid of his powers? The great Nathak Banebreath too frightened to follow the training that he has lived by for nearly a decade?”
The red-skinned dragonborn again stares down at the table, silent.
“I think not. Whether his actions were his own or were brought upon by another matters little. He would not tell us either way. I know him well enough to not waste time.”
Oliver licks his lips and looks down at his hand, which moves idly across the wood of the table. “That is why we are interrogating his retinue.”
Nathak narrows his eyes but says nothing.
Maugrim says, “I must say that I agree with the sentiments of our intrepid and earnest Blayth. I would think that if you, my lord, made the demand instead of Nathak, Kriv would have handed items over to you gladly. However, since violent overtures were made by Nathak that puts us in the position of calling his activities dishonorable, regardless of their aim. There are myriad different approaches that would have achieved the same end. Again, regardless of his personal or, ahem, professional reasons for seeking to obtain what we carry, his marked lack of imagination does not speak well of his capability, especially for one in his lofty position. At best he should be relieved of his current responsibilities, and… well, we know at worst what should happen.”
“Your tongue is honeyed, worm,” says Nathak, chuckling. “I can see why Kriv keeps you around. He would have simply cowered at my command and given the box over, I think, if not surrounded by peers such as you.” The dragonborn shakes his head in disgust. “It does not matter. The box should not go to the Shadowfell. It belongs… elsewhere. I was hoping to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands and I failed. May the gods forgive me.”
Oliver is silent, listening to the general speak. He quickly glances to Kriv to gauge the other’s reaction, then says, “There are more ways into the Shadowfell than by following the footsteps of a shadar-kai, Nathak. Surely you knew that.”
“None that lead directly to the Queen of Death herself.” Nathak’s cold gaze meets Oliver’s first, and then Kriv’s. His jaw is clenched.
“Sounds like I struck a nerve! It is as if your prisoner is claiming that your own hands were not the right ones for the box, my lord. Not that you need any further proof of his intent or his opinion of your lordship’s hospitality and forbearance.”
“And how would you know who the right people were?” says Svierge. “Or is this some lame attempt to bring yourself some vain honor?”
“I know because the gods have told me. What have your gods told you of the box?” spits Nathak.
“What our gods say to us is of no consequence to you,” says Blayth, glaring at Nathak. “But they do not inspire us to acts of malice, murder, and thievery.”
“Very true, Blayth. It does seem like Nathak’s actions are more in line with Tiamat’s teachings than Bahamut. Which deity is it that has supposedly spoken to you, Nathak?”
“I think Nathak’s loyalties are especially clear now, Maugrim. If you have something important to say, then I suggest you say it now,” says Kriv, now oddly calm as he faces Nathak. “We have no time for traitors, and we have less time for you. So make it brief or be silent, else I will retire from what is fast becoming a practice in wasted time. I am anxious to rest and be on my way from this place – and we’ll get all the information we need from the others.”
At the changeling’s mention of Tiamat, Nathak’s lip curls. “For too long we have sat idle, following this foolish dwarf and his timid god while our kin is trod upon. Look around you, Maugrim! Once we were rulers of all lands, and now we are but second-class citizens in a world that barely understands who or what we are.”
“Oh, Nathak,” Oliver says, his lament a croak in the back of his throat.
“My journeys in Arkhosia showed me power the likes I had never seen. You would cower in fear and abandon the trappings of your crippled god at the mere glance of my Dark Queen. She will bring about change where your Tiamat could not and again we dragonborn will be as kings!” He closes his eyes and looks to the ceiling, as if in silent prayer.
Oliver puts his head into his hands. “No…”
Blayth stiffens at the gesture by Nathak, and instinctively her hand goes to her longsword, poised and ready. She looks at Oliver, concerned. “At your command,” she said. “We will protect you.”
Svierge slams his fist on the table. “Seriously, why is it everywhere we go, people want to kill us?” Reaching for his spear, Svierge takes up a defensive stance close to Oliver. Giving the Dwarf a sideways glance, Svierge says, “If that raving lunatic has more of the Order on his side, you will need all the help you can get.”
“Ah yes – the truth at last,” Maugrim says, “It must be freeing to release such a secret kept for so long. Or is it? Oh but how it seems to bind even closer, its claws bright, now that you have declared yourself. The noose is tightening and you do not even see it! Your ‘Dark Queen’ stalks your vanity as a ravenous wolf scents fresh young blood. It must be intoxicating to her, irresistible. The chance to whisper cascading fountains of false hope to one so high in the Order – why it would be too sweet a victory to see that hope dashed to pieces and a life that could have been so much more ended in misery.”
The changeling flashes a wry half-smile. “Oh foolish Nathak, you will not be a king save in your own mind! When death claims you, and claim you it will, your grand schemes and pompous demeanor will give way to the endless despair that is the not- life with your ‘Dark Queen.’ You will beg on your knees for release from the bonds you have laid on yourself, but help will not come. You have laden yourself only too well.”
Then, to Oliver, Maugrim says, “I assume you will pass final judgment on this wretch and be done with his prattling?”
The dwarf shakes his head and waves his hand at the traitor. “Take him to the dungeons. He will be dealt with later.”
Guards walk forward and pull Nathak to his feet. Oliver stands and walks forward, looking up into the dragonborn’s eyes. Quickly, he reaches out and snatches the insignia off the former general’s tabard. For a moment, Oliver continues to maintain eye contact with Nathak, and then he turns abruptly to face the remainder of his retinue.
“The rest of you may leave. I would like to have a word with our guests. Privately.”
When the guards and servants have exited, Oliver returns to his chair. “Clearly this box is not only of use to the Lord of Undeath, but the Many-Colored Bitch as well.” He lets out a sigh. “I offered a prayer to Bahamut in my quarters before I slept. The Platinum Dragon had no direct command for myself or the Order, but whether through his hand or some other, I did see something that has further convinced me.”
Oliver scans the four others in the room and licks his dried lips. “It was a keep with a moat, dark and abandoned, on the verge of a forest. A hangman’s gibbet creaked in the wind. I saw a face, but just for an instant… a woman’s face, scabbed and dirty, staring out at me.” He pauses and regains his composure. “Then, the shadows lengthened and pulled aside like curtains. And beyond the curtains, I saw an endless army of the dead under a sunless plain.
“The Lady of Death does not send her quarry into our realm often. It is said that the unliving who haunt us are stolen by the Blood Lord Orcus himself, which vexes her greatly. I believe-
I -must believe—that returning these dreams to the Raven Queen is the only way to avoid the vision from my dream.”
At the mention of the undead, Blayth stiffens, baring her teeth. Her hand no longer hovers over the pommel of her sword, but she is clearly not at ease.
“It is an uneasy decision that lays before us,” she says. “I am no follower of the Dark Lady, and I do not wish to ally myself with such… unsavory individuals as would pledge her allegiance. They make my skin crawl.” She takes a deep breath, hanging her head a bit. “But, if it is the only way, then so be it.”
“We must find a way into the deep shadows then,” says Maugrim. “We have a guide of sorts but a fickle one from what I can tell. The planewalker’s stone will not give us the keys to what we seek but may be useful by and by. However we will need some preparation and perhaps even research at a library.”
Svierge relaxes and sits back down in the chair. He mutters under his breath, “Great. First we escape from a town of the dead to now have to travel to the land of the dead to prevent an invasion of an army of the dead. Just great.” Shaking his head, Svierge take a long draught from the glass in front of him.
“It has been long since any of our Order sought a way into the Shadow Realm, but you have our library at your disposal,” Oliver says. “If Nathak has been turned, then there is no knowing who else has been tainted by the dark whispers of Tiamat. If this is a quest you can take, then I recommend that you take it soon. Kriv, you may speak with Jerran in the armory if you’d like any new equipment. Any potions or other supplies that you need are yours as well.”
You find a dusty tome in the keep’s library, from which you are able to copy the three lesser-level rituals. The aged eladrin librarian mentions that the potions master might have some of the components, and also that a nearby curiosity shop was said to have received a new lot of books from a recently deceased sage. He sends a novice to the store with your list, and the young tiefling returns with a small sheaf of parchment containing the Linked Portal ritual.
“Ahh, yes,” says the librarian, scribbling alongside you, copying the spell into his own book. “We have an old portal on the fifth floor, but have not used it in ages. This is a rare sight to behold! We can explore the circle afterward and you may copy down its sigils.”
Later, having finally found the necessary incantations and ingredients to enchant magical items of your own, you retrieve the lithe sapling of fey-grown yew from your pack. You’ve waited long for this moment…
Taking the lithe sapling of fey-grown yew from his pack in hand, Maugrim sets it down carefully on a workbench in the laboratory. “Now we will see if what My Lady told me is true about the hearts of plants.”
Starting softly, Maugrim sings to the sapling in Elven: “Cormamin lindua ele lle, lle an lema tela sinome.” (My heart sings to see you, your long journey ends here)
Then Maugrim begins to sing louder, making the sounds of rushing winds, babbling brooks and leaves tossing together. The sapling begins to sway of its own, the heart wood peeling back and growing together again, changing shape to form a round tube with one end closed and the other open. Small holes form in seemingly random places in the tube then gather into a line, though a line not exactly straight or completely orderly.
Maugrim then cries out in Elven: “Amin naa tualle, Shirlindra! Lle merna aut farien, corm en’ cormamin?” (I am your servant, Shirlindra! Shall we go hunting, heart of my heart?)
With that the sapling stiffens and is still. Maugrim takes in hand some berries he has picked from the forest and carefully preserved. He squeezes them between his fingers to release their juice then carefully rubs the wood in random places, allowing it to soak up the color and take on a darker shade of blue-red-purple.
Singing again, he turns what now looks like a flute over and over in his hands, smoothing over the thin sap that rises to the sound of his voice until the outside of the wood is sealed.
Maugrim whispers over his creation: “Amin essuva lle Laurinathansa, haba taure simpina.” (I shall name you Laurinathansa, my forest flute)
While in the armory, you discover a pair of supple leather gloves. Something moves you to touch them, and when you do, sigils upon their soft surface begin to glow a light blue. You can feel the powerful healing magics that reside within…