"She said there's a contract on us. We can pay them 100 000 gold. She cut off my finger. She had a really nice voice, though." – Arentian
When we last left the party…
The companions had left from Amphail, headed north toward Lockridge Monastery. There they were due to deliver Nincy Nesper, the only remaining of three orphaned children from the attack on Ravenstone a dozen days prior by Cloud Giants and the wizard Leduc's Kenku. Departing Amphail, they had found a new ally, but unfortunately, also new enemies. In the town, they convinced a Dwarf Battlerager / Cleric named Alamathar to accompany them Northward. They also had made some new Calimshani enemies, as Arentian's attempt to garner a quick buck – by scaring off some of the foreign fellows for Colt, the owner of Amphail's biggest inn - quickly spiraled into a racially charged situation a hair's breadth from disaster. By the end of the night the Calimshanis swore they'd tell all of Faerûn of the party's "prejudice", and their departure from the town was accompanied by the judging, stony stares of nearly four-dozen of the merchants. Two day's travel North, though, the party had seen signs of trouble. A dead blue goblin, with signs it's lower half had been eaten, and it's right eye singed away with acid. Then arrows – shitty arrows. By nightfall of the second day, it wasn't too surprising when a small band of goblins beset upon the party. What they didn't expect, however, were the three trolls that followed.
The trolls landed along the Southern bit of road with a triple-BOOMPH, behind the wagons and makeshift camp beneath a jutting dirty cliff-face of about 25'. The biggest and burliest of the trolls held a large, door-sized piece of dry wood, splintered and cracked, that he used as a shield. Bits of shingle-sized bark covered his body, and he roared out in the Giant tongue – his command a gurgled, throaty voice to the goblins on the other side of the surrounded party, "Kill the fire-shooter! The others must be kept alive! For the sacrifice!" In response, the goblins just fearfully stared at Thaldrak, barely having time to reach for the rusty butterknives tucked into their belts before Thaldrak and Kay set upon them.
Thaldrak was first, slashing the arm off of one, before Kay eviscerated a second – and third – with two spinning daggers flying from the bushes to the West. Thaldrak finished the job – chopping the remaining arm off of the still-stunned goblin, as the limbs fell to the ground, still clutching the rusty pot and pan he had been banging together mere minutes before. His eyes moved between the kitchenware before he looked up at Thaldrak, his brown skin paling as the black blood pumped from his wounds, and he crumpled to a heap between his two dead companions. Seeing this, the remaining goblin only shrieked a plea of mercy, fleeing Northward along the road.
Meanwhile, the second-largest troll, a female with cracked and dry skin wearing a wreath of grass, leaves and packed mud, raised a crippled, cortorted twig in the air – a staff in the hands of any normal-sized being – and cried out a gurgle of words in simplistic devotion. Immediately, vines and branches grew forth from the dry, gravel road and reached about T'avin, Arentian and Alamathar, restraining them. The natural bindings came up just short of Enthoril, who sprinted forth and met the biggest troll head-on. Crying out a prayer to Torm, the paladin gritted his teeth and clutched his weapon with both hands, savagely slashing across the creature's side as greenish goop – troll blood – spattered the earth. The beast cried out in rage as it brought it's claws to bare, lashing out with it's free hand, but Enthoril parried the blow. As he did so, the jaw of the beast came down as stinky, sticky troll spittle spattered about Enthoril's armor, mixing with his blood as the creature bit down hard into his arm.
The paladin's cry of pain echoed through the night, as the smallest of the trolls – an emaciated, juvenile thing – crawled among the boulders and shrubs to get at Thaldrak. He never saw Kay coming, though, as the Halfling sent daggers sailing into the surprised monstrosity's chest. Thaldrak, too, met the Troll with a head-on charge, his blade already wet with black goblin blood. It spilled a minced mix of troll guts not long after, as his muscles rippled and bits of the troll fell underneath his connected blows. Fear was stretched clearly across the beasts face – it seemed to realize, only too late, that it may have overstepped it's bounds. It looked down to the savage grimace of Thaldrak, his stubbled face coated in it's blood, and turned to flee.
Things were about to get heated, though, as T'avin reached down to his natural bindings and flames erupted from his fingertips, reducing the plant matter to charcoal and ash. To his left, Alamathar and Arentian twisted about the bindings, both in the midst of spellcasting. The dwarf Battlerager-Cleric cried out a prayer to Clangeddin Silverbeard – Dwarvish patron of war and battle honor – while Arentian finished the incantations of a Slow spell, crippling the green, worty monstrosities. Their bodies seemed to creak and slow, their movements became sluggish and weary. Each roar resounded as a loud yawn.
Capitalizing on the sudden turn of events, Enthoril lashed out at the biggest troll, again, calling yet louder to Torm, just as T'avin sent several Scorching Rays blasting into the beasts. Sword bit through flesh as fire singed skin and organs, T'avins spell blasting clear through the board of the biggest beast. With arcane reflexes monks would be jealous of, T'avin sent a second spell of firebolt careening against the side of the smallest troll's head and it stumbled forward. Thaldrak siezed the moment, and slashed away a substantial chunk of the beast's leg. It hopped forward, a third dagger from Kay finding it's way deep into it's back. It turned, leaning and bleeding all over a massive boulder to it's left, desperately trying to slash at Thaldrak. Whatever pain he might have felt, though, the Dwarf ignored, as he roared a triumphant battlecry of finality, dragging his blade across the stones before cutting a sudden vertical slash through the legs – and the entire torso, neck and head – of the troll. The beast shuddered before it peeled away, it's body crumbling under the blow to little more than a pile of guts and burning skin.
The female troll moved in on the combat, then, as the biggest one turned to face the spellcasters, trembling with rage. It slashed deep lines of blood across Arentian's face, rending flesh and spattering blood onto the dirty earth of the cliff-face behind him. Max desperately tried to bite away at the vines restraining the wizard, as he retaliated with a firebolt, striking the beast square in the chest. It recoiled only to be impaled by the blade of Enthoril, who bore down upon it. Even Alamathar burst into the fray, then, lowering his head to slash at the beast's groin with the half-metre long spike protruding from his helmet. All the troll could do was turn to offer a grimace of pure, utter hatred and malice, before T'avin's second set of Scorching Rays blew the jaw clear from it's skull.
Simultaneously, the final troll cried a trembling shiver of denial, raising her claws above Enthoril, who seemed helpless as his blade remained in the body of the toppling – now dead – male Troll. As her claws began to fall, however, the space between her and Enthoril seemed to shiver and ripple like the air above a raging bonfire, and in that split second, something happened. Her arms suddenly crunched and retracted, her body shrinking and spouting hair. She fell to all fours as her hands changed – in a matter of seconds – from great taloned fists to the hooves of a pig, her skin grew hair as tusks sprouted from her mouth. She shrank to the size of Max as the Polymorph completed… the troll was now a pig. She oinked and squealed, spinning about and trotting south at full-speed. Not before the party could catch up to her, though. Eventually, T'avin caught up – the animal still slowed by Arentian's spell – and captured it. He held out the Cubic Prison and tried to imprison the thing, but nothing happened. Cursing, he set it aflame as the others caught up to him.
By now the beast had started to shift back to a troll, the pig-like features growing uglier and coated in warts. As soon as the squeels became words, the thing cried out in giant, "Bugbreath! Where bugbreath? Let me go! Let me live! Me go now! Me go see Bugbreath!" Calmly and menacingly, T'avin told the thing, "Bugbreath is over there, with his jaw torn from his head. You can go join him, soon enough."
The troll wailed as it lay there, helplessly, sprawled out wide and vulnerable before the party. T'avin continued, asking it, "Why did you want to sacrifice us? Who is the sacrifice for? What is it for?"
Between sobs, the creature answered, "For Vaprak…" and the word seemed to give her strength "Vaprak crush you. For Vaprak to crush all! For Vaprak to give us power to crush!"
"Who is Vaprak?" T'avin asked, flames lighting about his hands.
"Vaprak destroy you!" The flames spread from his hands to the feet of the beast, as she howled in agony.
"Who is Vaprak?" T'avin repeated, again, slowly.
"Vaprak the Destroyer. Varpak is god. Best god. Better god than you god. Vaprak will destroy you!" And with that, T'avin let the pyre continue along the beast, igniting it fully as it flailed about for a moment before falling, dead.
The others checked about the bodies for any valuables or sign of their further intent before gathering the corpses and setting them aflame. T'avin took the staff of the Female troll – and from the moment his hands clasped upon the thing, droll began to flow from his mouth, dribbling down his chin and over the front of his robes. "Dammit!" He bubbled through spitty gurgles, as Thaldrak and Arentian stared at him, their faces screwed up with grotesque disgust. T'avin hobbled over to the Caravan – Arentian at his side, meaning to speak to the girl – and fumbled about the bags for a scroll of Identify. Using it to identify the staff, he determined that it was a Staff of Vaprak and could be used to cast the spells 'druidcraft and entangle', though it was cursed with a Curse of Troll Tongue. Making the best of his situation, he smiled a drooly grin and prodded Thaldrak with the stick, thinking to spread his spittle situation along.
"What do you think you're doing?!" Thaldrak cried out after the stick connected, and T'avin was disappointed to see the Dwarf's face covered only in the blood of his enemies.
Not long after collecting themselves after the battle, the party agreed to depart the combat scene to a safer – less smelly – campsite 30 minutes down the road. They left behind them the burning cinders of the slain Goblins and Trolls, the embers glowing like little torchbugs in the night. As they settled in for another attempt at rest, Kay and Arentian decided they would take the first watch. Kay took to the closest, highest tree – a leafless, dead thing that stretched beside a boulder toward the night sky – while Arentian mounted his horse and headed 500' from the camp, aiming to eye the entire circumference of the place.
The sorcerer's mind was beset with guilt for his actions three days prior, and the events the party had set into motion in Waterdeep. Many had died because of them, he thought, and that thought bore a screwed hole through his heart. Shoulders slumped and stomach icy with sullen regret, Arentian never noticed the assassins coming. The next thing he knew, a frigid blade was pressed against his throat, and his horse stopped, suddenly. Good thing, too, because the blade was so sharp, Arentian figured, that had the horse kept trotting, the momentum would have done the blade's work.
A paradoxically soft, yet razor sharp female voice penetrated the darkness, then, and while on edge, Arentian couldn't help but admire the beauty of it. "You know," The woman's voice began, "It was incredibly impressive seeing your party dispatch those trolls in less than a minute. A group of skill, competence, and, we thought… smarts?" The last word raised as if it were a question, and several seconds of pause connected it with her continued statement "I'd have not thought you so stupid as to wander off so far on your own." Arentian began to turn then, starting to speak, but the blade quickly – so quickly – moved from his throat to his cheek, and pushed his face forward, leaving a superficial scrape across his cheekbone.
Arentian tried to learn of his would-be assailants, but they never introduced themselves. "There's quite the contract on your head, you know. One hundred thousand gold pieces? Someone must really want you dead. No one goes to The Garrote for anything but. Though I tell you what, you're a group with no small means, I'm sure. Buy out the contract, why don't you? I'm sure you've got… magic items, treasure… who knows what?"
Arentian shook his head slowly and insisted that this kind of wealth was elusive to him – and the party. "What's in the bag?" The woman asked. Arentian dug through it and gathered up some items of high value. Among them were his silver ring, and the golden locket in which a drawing of Bree Hodge was depicted. He also unclipped his Robe of Many Things, and held it all out to the woman. She paused as she seemed to inspect it, then Arentian heard her toss it back to someone else.
"Worthless," She said. Don't you have anything else?
"No," Arentian began, sensing that he might be in trouble, "No, but maybe the others do in camp, that's where most of our stuff is. Maybe I can go back there and get some stuff then meet you back here?"
"Haha, hardly," The woman said, as she suddenly grabbed at Arentian's hand. Arentian felt her feeling about his ring – the Ring of Sending – as she went on, a dramatic tone of interest in her voice, "You have beautiful hands… and such a beautiful ring!" She finished with, "Do it." and Arentian felt searing pain shoot up his arm as they cut off his finger – his pinky finger. "You have ten minutes." The voice was icy and instructive, "Ten minutes to get your would-be wealth to try to buy out this contract. After that, your own blood is on your own hands… literally" She laughed as she slapped at Arentian's horse, and it began to gallop toward camp.
Arriving back in camp, Kay immediately noticed something was wrong. Arentian no longer wore his cape, and his hand clutched the bloody mess that was his severed pinky finger. "Arentian…" Kay began.
"Yeah, they cut off my finger." Arentian said, his brevity and calmness only alerting the rogue more. "They have a contract on us, they said it's a hundred thousand gold pieces."
"Wait, what? What?"
"Yeah, we have to wake up the others."
"Wait, what?" Kay repeated, "You're not joking? What? It's too early!"
Immediately, Arentian began stirring the others, shaking them from their slumber.
"Ohh…" Thaldrak moaned, "Will I be getting any sleep tonight?"
"Assassins cut off Arentian's finger." Kay said, matter-of-factly.
Arentian filled in the others, telling them what had transpired. Immediately, Thaldrak flew into a blustering rage, shouting at the sorcerer for wandering off in the night so far from camp. Arentian apologized a few times, then cursed, loudly. "We have to deal with this!" He said, "They want a hundred thousand gold pieces!"
T'avin looked directly at Thaldrak, drool still rolling down his chin, "We are not giving them the sword."
"I think we should fight them. Take the fight to them! It's inevitable, anyway." Arentian proposed. While they debated the possibilities for a few minutes, they eventually decided it was best, and the whole group set out in the direction of Arentian's encounter. Along the way, Kay noticed footprints among the dirt and pebbles… two pairs of footprints, that seemed to belong to human-sized individuals… that followed Arentian back to camp…
"Shit," Kay whispered, "I think they heard us talking."
"OK we are definitely speaking with my Message cantrip from now on." T'avin said between spittled slobbers – being still cursed.
When they eventually got to the scene of the incident, Kay noticed a flurry of activity, then footprints leading – running – to the South, away from their location. A dirty parchment was left coiled in a roll, tied with a garrote wire and placed under a fist-sized stone. A few tense moments passed as the group considered it. Having little time for patience, Arentian grabbed the thing and threw off the garrote wire binding, unrolling it.
"No, wait!" T'avin slobbered, "It could be…"
Arentian turned around the scroll to show the others – a heart had been drawn in the parchment, in blood.
Immediately, T'avins look of concern shifted to laughter as he said, aloud, "They wrote it with your finger!"
That night, the group got little sleep. This was made worse with the fact that Alamathar, who took the second-last watch, fell asleep, failing to awaken Enthoril for the final watch. As the morning sun crested over the hills of the eastern horizon, shining on the mountains, Thaldrak shouted,
"How could you do that, you stupid dwarf! There are assassins after us!! We could all be dead thanks to you!!!" Alamathar apologized profusely, and reluctantly, Thaldrak eventually accepted.
They had decided to double-back the next day, and check out the lair of the trolls. Though after a few hours' trek, Arentian spotted the two assassins tailing them, and the group decided it best to continue Northward. T'avin made a map depicting the location so they could return, and they headed back to the road, then onward North.
The next two days passed with tension so thick it was as though they were swimming. Each twitch, each movement, each gust of the wind was a possible Click of an assassin's crossbow or twang of a bowstring. Though two days passed without event, and Thaldrak noted at least three other traveling bands along the road, two Southward of them, heading North, and one Northward, heading South.
On the second day when the sun was highest in the sky, the party noted a mage approaching them on the road, headed South. They stopped as they took in the peculiar appearance of this individual, but more notably, the peculiar nature of his companion. The man stood alongside a wind elemental, and seemed to be arguing with the thing. He made little progress in the steps he took between sentences, gesturing dramatically as he spoke. His voice didn't seem too audible, but his attire was most odd. He wore red studded leather armor, and a read cloak and hood. Covering his face was an iron mask, darkened rectangular slits leaving room for sight, words and breath. When they approached, T'avin recognized the language he was speaking as Auran, a dialect of the Primordial tongue spoken by creatures of the Elemental Planes of Existence. The others noticed something, too – the symbol of a rising – or setting – sun behind several hills was depicted on the mask in red paint or pigments. Immediately, they recognized this as the sign of Lathandar, one of the Goodly Gods and patron to the temple in Ravenstone razed by T'avin.
Once within hearing range, Thaldrak called out a greeting to the man.
He raised his hands skyward and responded in a strange, foreign accent "I mean no trouble and I am no threat! I mean only to pass."
"Where are you headed?" Thaldrak asked.
"To Waterdeep. House of Wonders. Supposed to be meeting someone there who knows somethin about me mum."
The party looked to one another, uneasily. "Who's your mum?" Thaldrak asked.
"Well, actually, I should ask ye. She's been missin' for ten years, and I'm looking for her. Her name is Virro, have you seen or heard anything about her?"
The party had to try hard to not show the shock or surprise on their face. They discussed among each other, and eventually decided to spend more time speaking with Zephyr Zanzibar. The man sat with perfect posture and his unrecognizable facial features – because of the mask – while the party spoke with him.
T'avin took the lead in talking to the man, as they figured the information they could get from him would be quite sensitive. T'avin appealed to the man's familial troubles – Zephyr Zanzibar said that his father abused him and only his mother – Virro – was there to support him. They learned from Zephyr Zanzibar:
- Virro disappeared from the High Forest, where he lived with her, ten years ago.
- Virro saved him from the abuse of his father and took him to the wood elves in the High Forest. Zephyr Zanzibar refused to speak about the nature of the abuse, but spoke darkly of the event, depicting it as 'something unimaginable'.
- Zephyr Zanzibar is a Half Elf Bladesinger.
- Zephyr Zanzibar has been traveling the last two years looking for Virro. He learned from someone named Balthazaar Viscari in Mirabar that a dwarf woman named Talia could provide him information on his mother's whereabouts, and that she could meet him at the House of Wonders in Waterdeep.
- Virro was a part of the guild, named Alkahest, but the guild disbanded years before they moved to the High Forest. Virro's activity in the guild preceded her relationship with Zephyr Zanzibar, according to him.
- Virro is approximately 140 years old.
- Alkahest had a vested interest in the acquisition of artifacts from ancient, fallen civilizations. Their primary affixed interest, he learned from his mother, was of the Netheril. They were searching for "their magnum opus", but his mother refused to talk of it.
- Virro had told her son that Alkahest had found some miraculous artifacts in the Anauroch desert, but had been disbanded "long ago" because of "lack of funding and resources to be cohesive".
- Zephyr Zanzibar was unsure of the overall motive of Alkahest.
- At their home in the High Forest, Virro had three maps similar to Kay's, in that they were similarly encrypted and vague, written in multiple languages and with the tactile language of the Illithid – Qualith – providing further information if the map is wrapped around a spherical object.
The party told Zephyr Zanzibar about Virro's connection to the guild, and of their investigation (though did not mention the giants or the Vonindöd). Zephyr Zanzibar asked the party if he could accompany them, and they agreed. Once they said this, Zephyr Zanzibar disclosed a secret of his own, to facilitate and reciprocate the trust to the group. Once T'avin had garnered from everyone a promise to keep this information between them, Zephyr Zanzibar told them – via T'avin's message cantrip – that his father is Szass Tam, Lich-King of Thay.
- The party easily defeated the trolls and goblins, though one got away. T'avin burned the creatures to a crisp, assuring against their regeneration powers. He learned the creatures were seeking "worth sacrifices" to a god named Vaprak the Destroyer.
- Thaldrak found the tracks of the beasts, and they later spotted a hut likely belonging to the band.
- Arentian ventured too far from camp, and was beset upon by a pair of assassins. They told him there was a contract for [your] head, but that he had 10 minutes to buy it out – for 100 000 GP. When he offered them his most valuable items, they declined, but kept them, anyway. They cut off the Ring of Sending from his finger – taking the digit with them. The party decided not to offer them anything, but the assassins seemed to have heard their discussion, and left.
- Kay figured that the assassins were likely from The Garrote – a very serious band of assassins known for playing both sides of the fence.
- As the party ventured Northward along the road, they had seen signs of the assassins tracking them – at least that first day. They ran into a mage – Zephyr Zanzibar – who kept his skin and face covered with an iron mask and red, studded leather armor, and who travelled with an air elemental he could summon 4h/day named Toot. He was looking for his mother, who went missing 10 years prior. They befriended the man and learned that he was the son of Virro, that the name of the guild was Alkahest and that Alkahest was known for collecting magic items – particularly, artifacts from the Netheril. He asked to come with the party, and they agreed.