Chapter 23: Incessant Fog
It didn’t take long for Fillip to be released from prison. The captain of the city watch gave him a copper coin with a strange marking on it and told him that, should they need him in trial, the coin would warm to the touch. Fillip told the captain he was a travelling trader, and may not stay in Waterdeep for long, and the captain thanked him for his cooperation regardless. Fillip wrote and signed a letter testifying what he saw at the warehouse, then began his walk back to the inn feeling surprisingly well rested.
As he walked, he passed a group of passersby gathering around a town crier. The young man, who had a wisp of a beard, held aloft a scroll from which he read loudly, “…furthermore, disaster strikes the north ward! Smuggle operation uncovered along with twelve thousand gold pieces. The city watch warns its citizens to report any strange activity. They are searching for an orange tiefling and a striped tabaxi, believed to be involved in the attack. The reward is fifty gold pieces for their capture—alive. Will this setback be enough to provoke action against Lord Neverember…?” The man continued to spout other news, but Fillip drew away from the crowd and continued to the inn.
“We should have seen this coming,” Oszaren said, looking over at Reverence, who automatically hunched his shoulders to hide his face.
Fillip nodded. “We need to leave Waterdeep. Covering your face won’t be enough, Reverence. An orange tiefling is uncommon enough that they will come here asking questions.”
“I will—be upstairs,” the monk slid from the table. Of the other few patrons in the inn, no one seemed to be looking at him strangely, which was a good sign.
“We can’t linger,” Shale said seriously, and Keelan nodded his agreement.
“I say we disguise Reverence and leave the city. Where’s Whisper?”
“I’d guess the academy,” Shale told him, shrugging. “We should send him a message. Although, Reverence told us that it was him who killed those innocent people…”
The druid nodded. “Yeah, I saw him do it.”
“Maybe it’s better if we leave him behind?” She suggested, unsure. The tabaxi was a hermit after all, raised by wolves, if the story could be believed. If that was the case, then he likely missed out on the moral guidance most children were raised with. Perhaps to him, murder went without consequence.
“I was hoping we could speak with Hama and some of the other cult prisoners,” Oszaren said.
“I don’t think we’ll have time for that now.”
Before they could discuss sending Whisper anything, the tabaxi’s fey owl swooped in through the door and landed on Keelan’s shoulder, dropping a note into his lap and waiting. Keelan snatched it up. “It’s from Whisper. All it says is ‘what’s happening’?”
“Do we tell him to meet us?” Shale asked again.
Oszaren took a long breath and finally said, “I really think we should stay in Waterdeep. If we leave the city, we don’t even know where to go next, other than maybe north to a roadhouse Azbarra mentioned.” They’d heard Azbarra mention a roadhouse while they were sneaking through the warehouse, before Shale attacked. “Besides, Leosin said the Harpers can get us into the prison.”
“I can give Reverence a disguise,” Fillip offered, “but it will be difficult to upkeep.”
Keelan pulled out an ink pen and impatiently scribbled something on the back of Whisper’s note and tied it to the owl, which immediately took flight.
“What did you just write?” Oszaren asked in annoyance, “we haven’t decided anything yet.”
Keelan crossed his arms. “You heard Fillip. We can’t stay here. The entire city is looking for Reverence and Whisper. Even if we’re allowed into the prison to interrogate the cultists, they can’t risk being here. We need to leave.”
“I agree,” Shale said.
Keelan nodded appreciatively. “I told Whisper to look out for guards, and to meet us outside the north gate in a few hours. That will give him time to get through quietly.”
“I’ll go tell Reverence,” Fillip offered. “I can get started on his disguise.”
“What about Arietta and Zelena?” Shale asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Ah,” Fillip scratched his head, “we were supposed to meet tonight, but, uh—we can go. It’s fine.” Then the druid took his pack and ascended the stairs in the corner of the room.
“He got what he wanted,” Oszaren said, shaking his head. “Alright, fine, we leave. Let’s hope we find that roadhouse. Otherwise, we’re directionless.”
As they waited, they eventually received another message from Whisper. “Want to meet Janna’s people.”
Oszaren responded with, “Janna and her people left.”
In return, his message said, “So, find them?”
Keelan sighed impatiently, saying Whisper needed to head to the gates, not worry about Janna. Oszaren wrote back, “If you want to find Janna, you can do that, but we’re leaving the city and I suggest you do the same before you’re imprisoned.”
After that, they didn’t receive another message, and soon left the inn with all their belongings and Fillip’s empty cart and horse. They stopped at a few shops along the way and Shale was able to purchase a lockpick, which she showed to Oszaren and said, “I have a feeling this might be useful.”
The beautiful purple tiefling with flowing black hair and a thick cloak that hid her curves strolled arm-in-arm with Fillip as Oszaren led the horse and cart. Shale had to admit in his disguise, Reverence looked fabulous.
The guards posted at the gate were looking carefully through all those who entered and exited. They took a long look at Reverence, then let him pass. They all collectively breathed a sigh of relief, and Reverence jingled his horns, where Fillip had hanged jewels. “Glad that’s—over.”
“You know, Reverence,” Fillip said thoughtfully, “you make a very attractive woman.”
“I’m inclined to agree,” Shale said smugly.
Keelan walked behind them leading his warhorse Ember through the gates and caught up with them shortly. Trigger ran ahead and Shale had to call him back as they walked slowly, wondering if Whisper would try to catch them, or if he’d chosen to stay behind. He had the academy, though she doubted they would harbour a fugitive once they found out what he’d done.
It seemed they were all on edge having the tabaxi continue the journey with them, Reverence especially so, though Fillip told them if they were going to fight the cult, it would help to have a wizard on their side. Shale’s worry, though, was still wondering where the tabaxi’s allegiances lay. It seemed to her that the wizard cared only for his own pursuits. He may have saved them—more than once—but when it came down to him finding more spells or savings their lives, she was realizing he would choose the former. After her own selfish pursuit of revenge had nearly killed Oszaren, Shale vowed she would not put her companions at risk the way she had in that warehouse. She only wished the tabaxi also saw it this way.
It didn’t take long for Whisper to catch up to them, slightly out of breath but looking unharmed.
“How did you get out?” Shale asked.
“Invisible,” the wizard told her.
There was an awkward silence where Reverence, still in his disguise, glared at Whisper. Whisper ignored him.
“I can’t find any specific tracks,” Shale told the rest of them, eyeing the busy roadway, “so we’ll all have to look for any tracks veering off. Those could lead us to the roadhouse.”
“Roadhouse?” Whisper asked, and Oszaren explained to him where they were headed, to try and find another group of cultists and follow them to the recipient of all their stolen treasure.
A while later, as they travelled through the damp day passing various other groups on the road, Keelan dismounted Ember and led the horse to Shale’s side. “I think,” he said thoughtfully, gazing out into the foggy day, “that you owe us an explanation for your actions in the warehouse.”
Shale had expected this question, but she still felt the bumps rise on her arms as everyone went quiet to listen. Shale dropped her gaze and told them the story of the necromancer who attacked Triel and killed her family, raising them as undead for her to kill again. She held back the tears, but couldn’t meet their eyes. When she finished, Reverence said slowly, “our interests align, Shale.”
“Yes,” Oszaren agreed, “and we will help you find justice. It’s a horrible thing, what happened to you.”
“But,” Reverence added, “you must—not do what you did—again.”
“And I promise I won’t,” Shale said assuredly. “I can’t apologize enough for what I’ve done. I—I don’t know what came over me.”
Keelan dipped his head. “I appreciate you telling us.” The paladin then slowed his gate until he walked next to Whisper and said, “I think it’s time you and I had a talk about morals.”
Whisper looked at him but didn’t respond.
“Fire is good, and it can be used for great purposes, but you must exercise focus and control. You killed innocent people, and that’s not okay,” Keelan looked at the tabaxi, who continued to walk and say nothing.
Eventually, everyone returned to their own contemplative silence and Keelan shrugged and mounted Ember. Shale glanced back at Whisper and wondered what the wizard was thinking.
They were in their third day of travel when Oszaren received a verbal message in his mind from Elia, handmaiden to Remalia, leader of the Harpers. He relayed to the rest of them that a red half-dragon had been spotted in Waterdeep. When he told her they’d already headed north, she promised they would investigate, and also warned the treasure may travel by sea. After some discussion between them, they still decided their best lead would be to follow the road, and Elia said they would try to send someone by ship to search for cult activity.
During that time on the road, Whisper worked on a gift for Keelan, presenting to him the necklace he’d used to house his eternal ember once, which now glowed with a smooth rock inside. “What is it?” Keelan asked.
“Use so no need to make armour glow,” Whisper said.
Keelan placed the chain over his neck and tucked the glowing part into his cloak.
It was in their fifth day that the road turned away from the coast and brought them alongside swampland. Oszaren pointed it out to them on the map, claiming it was called the Mere of Dead Men.
“Promising name,” Fillip said.
As they travelled on, a dull, dark fog hung thickly over the waters of the marsh, and Shale sent her consciousness out across the waters as far as she could reach in search of undead sparks. She felt a few blips of light far across the water, but nothing near. When they came across the next caravan heading south, Shale stopped a haggard looking old woman in the group and asked her about the area. The woman had a dark look in her eyes as she met Shale’s gaze, and she looked as though she hadn’t slept in weeks. “The marshland is haunted by the Black Death,” she said in a wheezing voice. “Nobody who travels around the marsh sleeps until they’ve passed it, for fear of being murdered. There’s a dark ghost that can appear anywhere in the waters. Every time they try to build the road further from the marsh, the waters rise up and meet the edge of it.”
When they let the caravan pass, Oszaren looked thoughtful. “I think I’ve heard the legend before,” he said, and Reverence snorted. “Do you sense anything, Shale?”
She shook her head. “Nothing really near to us, but I’ll keep checking.”
With this warning in mind, the party decided to travel on through the night. Two would lead the cart and keep an eye out in the darkness while the rest slept inside. They were restless sleeps, but they passed the majority of the Mere within a couple days without any trouble.
“Everyone, wake up!” Fillip hissed. “There’s some fat person on the road.”
Shale shot up from her sleeping furs, surrounded by her companions in the tiny, somewhat drafty, wagon interior.
“What is it?” She heard Keelan ask, pulling out the glowing necklace Whisper had given him and illuminating their faces.
“Ogre,” Oszaren spat and the wagon halted as Shale heard a loud groan, turning to see in the middle of the road a hulking overweight figure with strips of flesh dangling from its arms and torso. The ogre’s body was littered with arrows and the skin was decaying.
Shale swore and they all jumped quickly from the wagon, grabbing their weapons. If she hadn’t been sleeping, she would have sensed the undead coming near. She cursed herself for that.
When she was on the ground, she saw a half dozen humanoid bodies with decaying flesh and white eyes stumbling toward them on the road. She drew her swords and Reverence ran past her with his spear, dispatching quickly of the first creature. She was right behind him as she leapt into the incoming tide of undead with the rest of her companions. She heard a horrible scream as the ogre grabbed their horse and ripped it free of their wagon, tearing into its flesh with long fingernails and biting into it with rotted teeth.
Mist clawed at their surroundings, making it difficult to see the enemies as they moved in around them. Shale turned and saw a second ogre appear on the other side of the cart as she slashed and dodged an undead human in tattered clothing. The second ogre wrapped its thick arms around the wagon and tipped it over, roaring as the wood cracked on impact, one of the wheels breaking off completely. Whisper shot a fireball, which exploded amid a group of undead, instantly incinerating them. But more were coming. It could be a never-ending army. Shale couldn’t tell in the darkness.
Keelan’s horse, Ember, shied back from the wagon and Keelan quickly cut his ropes and swung onto his back, charging at a new creature emerging from the mist. Shale saw as she cut a head from a body that there were three of these creatures with bluish skin and long-clawed hands and feet, heads bald but for a string of black hair knotted at the top. They walked hunched over and long red tongues flicked from between their jagged teeth. Ghouls. She’d heard of them, though this was her first time seeing one in person.
Keelan’s sword crackled with white energy as he slammed his blade into the chest of an undead human as he charged past. The light burst and the body fell.
Shale and Reverence quickly cut down the rest of the undead moving forward at their slow pace and Shale ran after Keelan and saw Oszaren had come around to face one of the ghouls. She faced another, and Reverence come to face the third. They heard a deafening boom behind them and the ground shook. Shale spun, having forgotten momentarily about the two massive, undead ogres, and seeing Fillip standing behind the wagon with his hands raised. She turned back just as the druid transformed into a direwolf and leapt at an ogre’s meaty arm.
Trigger bounded after Shale, snarling at the ghouls, and she worried their claws would easily kill him. She threw herself in front of her fox as the ghoul snarled back and charged at her, dagger claws flashing as Whisper formed a sphere of hot flames behind it.
The undead continued to stumble through the mist toward their cart and the ogres endured, swiping through the air and grabbing whatever they could get their hands on. Fillip had done a number on the one, which he’d nearly torn the arm off of with his wolf teeth.
Somehow, another ghoul had broken from Reverence, whom Shale noticed was surrounded by more undead, and its claw scraped the back of her shoulder. She continued to batter the two creatures away, Trigger pulling at their ankles, but her swings started to slow, and her limbs felt heavy. She staggered, and another swiped, leaving a thick gash along her jawbone. Suddenly she felt her legs buckle and she collapsed. She tried to get up or move, but her entire body was paralysed.
Oszaren shouted and Shale saw one of them stumble back as a green blast hit it in the chest. The other hunched over, saliva dripping from its overlarge mouth as it wrapped its claws around her arm, ready to take a bite. Her eyes widened as she watched in frozen horror.
Then, she saw Trigger leap at it. The ghoul hissed and tried to swipe the fox, and then Shale heard a heavy thump in the dirt and the snort of a horse and Keelan came into her view. He whispered something and the feeling returned to her limbs. She quickly turned and saw the paladin mounting Ember. She looked around for Trigger.
The fox had moved back as Whisper’s sphere of fire slammed into the ghoul and sent it shrieking to its death. The ghouls were no more, and it seemed her companions had done a good job of cleaning up the rest of the undead in her moment of uselessness.
As she tried to get to her feet, she felt something heavy slam into her from behind and send her sprawling. She turned over in the dirt just in time to see one of the ogres standing over her with a raised club. She rolled out of the way as the club landed right where she had just been. Oszaren appeared behind the ogre and was cutting at its legs with his sword, trying to draw it away.
When she got to her feet, she could tell at least one rib was cracked. Her side burned, but she quickly retrieved her dropped blades and went to help Oszaren. It was then that she noticed Fillip lying on the ground, back in his half-elf form and not moving. He too was paralysed and was in danger of being trampled by one of the ogres.
The party all moved together, shooting their various spells and cutting with their weapons at the two ogres, who were unintelligent but strong. Keelan healed Fillip and helped him to his feet, then turned his hands and emitted a funnel of flames at an ogre. The flames struck its thick belly and consumed the undead creature, and they made quick work of the last one, Trigger taking a final bite into its throat. The white eyes faded as the unnatural creature expired for the second time.
In the aftermath they walked through the scattered bodies of the undead, ensuring all of them had been properly ended. Fillip began to work on mending the wagon and Whisper used magic to push it upright onto the road. Their horse, unfortunately, was well past bringing back. Its innards were spread out in a horrifying display, so Keelan reluctantly hitched Ember to the wagon instead, assuring the noble warhorse that it was only temporary. The paladin healed their party and Shale felt instant relief in her side and could breathe more deeply. Finally, they left the gore behind and continued northwards on the road as the dim light of morning appeared through the mist on the horizon.
It took less than an hour in the morning light for them to reach the roadhouse they had been praying for the past several days would be somewhere along their path. There was a tall wooden fence bordering the perimeter of the roadhouse, with stilts built into the mud in areas where the marshland had expanded. The doors of the wooden gate were stamped with the Highroad Charter Company brand. As they approached, they could see inside was a two-story wooden structure, partially collapsed and rebuilt. Fillip turned to the rest and jumped from the wagon, saying, “I’ve got this.” He strode confidently to the front gate and knocked.
A few minutes later, the druid was greeted at the gates by a tall half-orc flanked by two humans in ordinary dress. The half-orc yawned, and they exchanged words, and soon enough he returned to the rest and helped them lead Ember and the wagon inside. The half-orc’s name was Balgluk, and Fillip told him he was traveling north to Neverwinter for his grandmother’s funeral, and the others were his guard. He told Balgluk about their run-in with the ghouls and undead creatures on the road, and the half-orc nodded and warned the road was always a danger, especially at night.
As they entered the gate, they saw a large, muddy courtyard. The larger puddles had been filled in with dry straw, which had quickly soaked and turned limp and brown underfoot. A set of stairs led up to an upper floor of numbered rooms. Beneath was a large storage room, which Balgluk pointed to and said, “when travellers come through, we put all your goods in storage and take an inventory of everything for you. Any valuables are put in a separate, interior area, which is always locked. The rooms, unfortunately, are not locked. We have rules at the roadhouse. Rule one is that I take care of all valuables and record them in the ledgers. Second is that we respect each other’s privacy.” Balgluk pointed up at the row of rooms. “We’ve got workers in rooms one and two. You all can have rooms three and four, and I’m over in six.”
Fillip was nodding along appreciatively. When Balgluk was finished his speech, the druid passed him a gold coin and said, “never have I had better service at a roadhouse. Thank you, Balgluk. Your professionalism is very much appreciated.”
The half-orc bowed and tucked the gold piece away. “You can find your breakfast from Gristle Pete—that’s what we call the cook.” He pointed them past the stable to another portion of the building built up on stilts. It had a small door, and the thought of breakfast made everyone’s stomachs rumble.
There were very few people up, though they saw a couple of workers poking their heads out and heading down for breakfast. They looked worn, and their clothing had seen better days. Shale and the others briefly went into their rooms but seeing as the half-orc had told it true and there were no locks, they took their packs with them.
“Shale,” Oszaren grabbed her arm and said, “if I make you invisible, do you think you could sneak inside the wagon and wait until they’re finished inventory, then use that new lockpick for the place with the valuables and see if you can find anything from the cult?”
She nodded quickly, glad to have an assignment. “Definitely. Watch Trigger for me.” She returned to the courtyard and found Reverence talking with Balgluk. Oszaren took Reverence aside for a moment while Balgluk went to retrieve his papers, then touched Shale’s shoulder and when she looked down, she was invisible. She nodded to him, though quickly realized the warlock couldn’t see her, then tiptoed through the mud and jumped into the back of the wagon just as Balgluk returned and he, Reverence and Oszaren led Ember and the wagon across the courtyard and into the storage room. Balgluk began noting inventory and Reverence and Oszaren helped unload the few items they had and stacked them on a shelf. Shale waited quietly until he finished, and Ember was unhitched and taken out. Once the door was closed behind her and the three were gone, she slipped out of the wagon and crept to the other side of the room where a secondary door was locked.
Deftly, she pulled out the new set of lockpicks she’d purchased in Waterdeep and set to work. The man she’d purchased them from had explained to her the movements and feel of picking a lock, and she was surprised to note how easy it was. In less than a minute, she heard a click, and the door swung open. She closed it behind her and went to a lantern in the corner, only dimly lighting it so it couldn’t be noticed through the cracks in the door.
The room had a dozen stacked crates, and Shale set to work looking through each of them and grew more and more surprised to find that all of them were empty. She removed the top ones and checked the middle crates, and found one was incredibly heavy when she tried to lift it. “What the…” She tried to drag it off the others, but it wouldn’t budge, and finally she noticed it was bolted to the one beneath it, which was bolted to the floor.
Shale bent and began inspecting the ground, noticing a slight divot in a line beneath the dirt. She blew on it and saw a crack for an opening. It’s a trap door, she realized, then stood and pulled the crates to the side. After a moment of effort, the door gave way and she heard dirt fall through as she raised it. She quietly tilted it until the crates rested against the ground, then peered down. She’d found a dark hole. She raised the lantern to shed some light and saw it was a tunnel, and the walls were slimy.