Chapter 25: Dicey Onions
The kobolds shook in their stooped, bowing positions. Awkwardly, Shale and the others kneeled. Keelan planted one knee in the mud but kept his chin raised to the ancient black dragon. The dragon grumbled and turned his massive head to Snapjaw, and the lizard man looked up. “Why have you bothered me with these—people?”
Snapjaw stuttered his response, getting to his feet. “Your highnessss, we—we found thesssse people wandering through our ssswamp. They claim to be in the—the cult. I—I thought you would want to meet them.”
“Mmm,” the dragon looked at each of them and growled. “I call you bootlickers, because that is all your kind is good for. Mmm, have you come to bring me more gifts, bootlickers?”
They all nervously glanced at one another, unsure of who should speak. Fillip, looking startled, quickly pulled out a bag of coins and set them on the ground. “We have brought gifts, great dragon. We’ve come to sign up with your organization and gain your favour.”
“My organization?” The dragon’s throat rumbled with discontent. “There is nothing to sign up for, little half-elf. I don’t recruit your kind,” he paused, and Fillip looked confused. “Though, your kind has certainly tried to recruit me. Mmm.”
Shale spoke up quickly. “Great dragon, we had not expected to meet you yet, but we are on our way to the castle in the swamp.”
The dragon stared at her for a long moment, then began to move, pulling the rest of his massive, scaled body out of the river and onto solid ground. Mud and water rolled off his black scales and kobolds immediately ran forward with hard-bristled brushes, scrubbing them clean. The dragon ignored them, moving his face uncomfortably close, his hot breath pervasive. Shale heard Keelan gag from the stench of rotted flesh and Shale held her breath, meeting the dragon’s golden-eyed gaze firmly, though her heart was thumping furiously in her chest and her stomach was twisting in knots.
“I haven’t seen any of you around,” the dragon finally said, inspecting them like ants at his feet. “Tell me truthfully, mm? What is your stance on the—cult?” He said the last word with a hint of impatience.
Whisper stood, drawing his attention, and raised his paws. The tabaxi said something in draconic.
Oszaren translated under his breath, something Shale was continuously grateful for. “He’s apologizing for disturbing the dragon. He said he’s here on behalf of Sammaster offering lichdom to the dragonfolk.”
“Speak for all to understand,” the dragon said, overhearing Oszaren’s translation.
Lichdom? Shale wondered. What was that? She made a mental note to ask Oszaren about it later.
Whisper nodded and continued in his almost fluent common. “We are here to help you.”
The dragon studied him and said, “Mmm, Sammaster. That is a name I haven’t heard in a while. Mmm. I don’t think you have the position to offer me that.”
Whisper slowly reached into his bag and held out Azbarra’s spellbook. “Is this enough to convince you?” He asked. “The spellbook of a Red Wizard of Thay.”
The dragon leaned his giant head nearer to study the book. “Mmm, NO. It’s not. But I see that you are indeed a practitioner of magic.” He thought for a while, a deep thrumming vibrating through his throat. “Perhaps you can be of some use to me,” he paused again. “I’m not convinced of your allegiance with the cult. It seems to me that you are—lying. However,” he said before any of them could object, “that is what I want. I am not fond of them myself.”
Fillip bowed deeply. “Honestly, we came here to gaze upon your splendor. That is our reason for coming through the swamp.”
“Mmm, now that I can believe,” he hummed. “Some of my dragon brethren have fallen for the cult and their lies, but not me. I do not need their lowly offerings—the world is mine already.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Fillip said carefully.
“Mmm,” the dragon seemed to appreciate the flattery. “Now, then, to your deeds ahead. The cult does have something I desire, and I want you to retrieve it.”
“So you do not have the whole world,” Whisper said.
“What can we find for you?” Fillip said loudly over the tabaxi.
“A ring,” he said, shifting back into a somewhat less threatening position, though the beast could still easily bathe them all in blood within seconds. “Yes, a ring rumoured to be carried by one of the cult leaders in the castle. Mmm, and a book. A great and ancient book. Perhaps,” he sighed, his breath unbearably warm, sending the kobolds and lizard people quivering anxiously, “perhaps we can make a deal, little bootlickers.”
“We can retrieve these items for you,” Shale spoke up, “with the help of your followers,” she gestured to Snapjaw and the other lizard folk.
The dragon turned his head and Snapjaw nodded quickly, nervously, “y-yessss, of courssse.”
The dragon turned back to them. “Good,” he growled, “and if you fail,” he paused, his golden eyes piercing them, “you will be eaten.”
“Fair enough,” Shale managed to say, clearing her throat. “W-what, may I ask, is your name?”
“You,” he breathed again, his massive chest expanding as he said, “can call me The Black Death.” The dragon backed his massive body back into the river. “Goodbye, bootlickers. Find my treasures for me.” Then, he slowly dipped back beneath the surface of the murky water.
The kobolds all stood immediately and began screeching and chattering as they ran, hunched, after the dragon. They saw the water ripple and move downstream, the kobolds close behind and disappearing into the gnarled trees.
Keelan stood slowly, and they all looked at each other in shock. “We’re—alive,” the paladin said in surprise.
“I think I shit myself,” Fillip said, looking down.
Snapjaw and the other lizard folk told them it was another half day’s journey to the castle. Oszaren told Snapjaw they would have appreciated a warning that he had called the dragon, but the leader shrugged his scaly arms and said in draconic, “I knew you were too eccentric to be cultistsss.”
They walked for another hour through the marsh, Snapjaw telling them about the numbers living in and around the castle. There were approximately a hundred and fifty bullywogs, half that many lizard folk, and at least two dozen cultists. When asked, he guessed the ring the dragon wanted was carried by Dromore Borngray, the elf who was second in command to Rezmir. They asked Snapjaw if he knew of any poisonous plants growing in the marsh, and he sent an herbalist out to find some, the lizard man returning a short time later with a bag full of poisonous plants, which Fillip pocketed.
They reached an embankment where a few lizard folk ran ahead and began pulling reeds from a group of five canoes. The fog had cleared somewhat as the day progressed, though there was still a heaviness to the air. Shale could smell the salt of the ocean breeze.
“We will take the river from here,” Snapjaw told them, and they added their boat to the river, throwing the crate into the water and shouting “hokey!” The lizard folk were rather impressed by the boat as half of them boarded, Fillip joining Snapjaw in a separate canoe to convince him further for actions against the bullywogs. Trigger was excited to hop onto the boat and curl up on a wooden bench next to Reverence, the soft breeze pushing through the hair on his muzzle as they began to move.
They paddled up the slow-moving river for several hours, Keelan and Shale pushing the oars through the water in a rhythmic pattern that allowed her thoughts to drift back to what Whisper had said. Lichdom? Why did that seem familiar? And what did it have to do with Azbarra’s book? As she thought about it more, she tried to remember any mention of the name Sammaster and recalled their conversation with Leosin and Omthar just before they gave them the boat and sent them to Baldur’s Gate. The monk sat with his hands folded on the table as he recounted the origins of the cult. “It started with a wizard named Sammaster, who was obsessed with the power of dragons. He wrote an ancient text claiming if the dragons were to be killed and resurrected, they would become immortal.”
Resurrected. Undead dragons. A powerful necromancy. Her hands shook suddenly, and she ground her teeth together, looking across the boat at Whisper, who was lounging with a book open in his paws. Then, she remembered something else. Something Whisper had said after Leosin told them about the necromancer of old. Dracoliches. He’d seemed excited at the prospect. Lichdom. Finally, she was piecing it together. Piecing Whisper’s actions into a coherent story. As they continued to paddle, she planned her next move, her eyes constantly going back to the tabaxi wizard.
They brought their boat and the canoes to shore and greeted a small outpost of more lizard folk. Snapjaw introduced their group as new recruits to the cult, and they were allowed through. They picked their way through the trees and marsh for another few minutes and soon saw the castle looming in the fog. In the fields around it, the trees had been cleared and they walked through a grouping of large huts that had been built up out of the mud and had finely woven reeds as roofs. As they walked further, they saw to their left a jumbled mess of smaller, misshapen huts with crumbling roofs and surrounded by churned mud. In the mud lay the fat bullywogs with greenish, warty skin crusted in mud and thick, bulbous eyes that gazed lazily over the camp. There were at least forty of the bullywogs, and at least a dozen frog people double their size leaping around the huts or burrowing in mud.
The castle itself was large and looming in the marsh, the ancient stone structure built well enough to withstand the wet ground and salty sea air. It was three stories in height with four large round turrets outlining the rough rectangular shape of the entire structure. They came upon the castle from the south where they could see a stretch of muddy ground creating a small land bridge and fortified with a stonework bridge placed atop and leading to the front gates. A guard tower stood two stories tall by the outer wall and a bullywog stuck his head out of the top window and watched them approach. Shale saw also the dull glint of metal in the afternoon light, and noticed a dome created with interlocking mechanisms in a portion of the top story. She nudged Oszaren and asked him what he thought it was.
“An observatory, maybe?” He said, eyeing the impressive structure from afar.
“Reverence?” They heard Keelan say, and they all turned to see the tiefling had stopped walking and was clutching his chest, staring off at nothing. “He’s having another vision,” the paladin said.
The lizard people gave them their space as they stepped toward the monk and watched him. His expressionless face quickly turned pained and his orange skin went pale. His body seemed to go rigid.
“This isn’t like the other ones,” Shale said nervously, watching him. “Keelan, can you see if he’s okay?” Trigger yipped and ran to the tiefling looking concerned.
Keelan nodded and started toward Reverence. The tiefling started to groan in agony. Oszaren threw up his hands and shouted, “dispel!” then grabbed Reverence’s shoulders and shook him, forcing his hand from his chest.
“It’s—calling,” Reverence said, teeth grinding and eyes still blank as Oszaren clutched his wrist.
The smell of burning flesh filled the air and they saw the front of the tiefling’s robes were burning away, revealing a small amulet. It was a tiny skull statue with glowing ruby eyes. Fillip tried to grab the amulet, but it had buried itself in Reverence’s flesh. The monk began to gasp, his breaths laboured and his eyes still lost. Whisper conjured a floating spectral mage hand and tried to wrench the amulet from his chest to no avail. Then, the tabaxi stood to his full height and raised two paws, glowing with purplish energy and bathing Reverence in their light. The tiefling shuddered, and the amulet was expelled from his skin and fell into the dirt, the ruby eyes going dark. Reverence teetered and collapsed, but Fillip and Keelan caught him.
Whisper immediately bent to swipe the amulet from the ground but Fillip kicked it and sent it into the long grass. Whisper stood and flicked his ears, then ran after it and pocketed the tiny skull and chain. Fillip shook his head and looked back at Reverence, who was unconscious where they’d lowered him to the ground. Then, he gasped and awoke suddenly, grabbing at his chest for the amulet and looking confused. “Reverence,” Oszaren said as they helped him to his feet, “are you alright?”
Reverence inspected his burned robe and flesh underneath and saw the amulet was missing, turning his glare to Whisper without hesitation.
“Did you have another vision?” Keelan asked.
Finally, he nodded, tearing his gaze momentarily from the tabaxi. “Saw—the fortress—but newer. There were—dragons flying around it—and a voice saying, ‘now your—first installment will be collected’.”
“Where did you get the amulet, Reverence?” Shale asked.
He shook his head. “I can’t—say.”
Snapjaw walked closer to them and spoke in draconic, and Oszaren nodded. “We shouldn’t delay here. Come on.”
“I’m—alright,” Reverence was assuring Keelan, who patted his arm. The tiefling was still pale, recovering from a great shock. Shale knew that when the monk was strong enough to get his amulet back, he wouldn’t hesitate.
Snapjaw introduced them to the front guards as initiates of the cult and they were led through the front gates along the stone bridge, which continued into a covered hallway lit by dirty oil lamps. They eventually entered the open area of the castle. In front of them was a forge being worked by several lizardfolk crafting amateur weaponry who looked to enjoy the labour. The bullywogs seemed to be the castle guards, but they were lazy and always had a trail of flies buzzing around them, which they would occasionally catch with the quick snap of a long pink tongue in the air. The main area was an open courtyard where they could look up and see the three-story turrets and open sky, allowing the growth of vegetation and an unkempt garden inside. To their left stood two average-sized guards in black robes wearing bone masks to cover their faces. Their first proof that the cult was there. They saw more lizard folk passing by with straw mattresses and bedding. The castle was massive, and hid its numbers well.
When the two robed guards noticed them with Snapjaw’s men, one of them said, “hey, who are you?” It seemed their kind were not common visitors of the castle in the marsh.
Whisper turned to them and said, “shut up.”
The guard who’d spoken looked at his friend, then tightened the grip on the pommel of his sword. “What’d you say to me?”
Snapjaw raised a placating hand and said, “sssorry sssir. New recruitsss going to be outfitted.”
The guard stared for a moment through his mask, then his hand relaxed and he nodded, still watching them pass.
Snapjaw quickly ushered them into another door next to the forge and showed them to a flight of twisting stairs. “Bed chambersss are upssstairsss. We can plan there.” They all nodded and ascended the stairs, no one noticing for the moment that Whisper had not followed.
Whisper started toward the guards, ears twitching, until he was ten feet from them. They were both a foot shorter than him, and he stared at them with contempt. The one who’d spoken before said, “recruit, I thought you were going to get outfitted.” His friend tensed, looking prepared for a fight.
“I am here to see Rezmir,” Whisper said in a level voice.
“I thought,” the guard repeated, “you were going to get outfitted.” Evidently, the man had not taken well to being told to shut up.
Whisper reached into his bag and pulled out his spellbook, showing the leather front to the guards. “Take me to Rezmir.”
They both looked at it and the talkative one said, “that’s a book. What am I supposed to do with that?”
Whisper glared. “Is Rezmir here?”
“She could be, could be working.”
He tucked the spellbook away. “She is always working.”
“I mean she’s out,” the guard said flatly, then added, “recruit.”
“Do you want to die?” Whisper asked, tilting his head threateningly.
The guard scoffed and looked at his friend, who was still tense. “Go get outfitted,” he told the tabaxi, stepping back to the wall, where they were flanking a doorway.
Whisper turned to leave, then flicked a paw and summoned his mage hand. The large hand flew at the guard’s face and ripped the bone mask free. The man cursed in surprise as his pale freckled face was revealed, and he went for his sword. Before he could charge the tabaxi, Whisper summoned a flaming sphere which rolled into the man and caught his robes on fire. The man shouted and started to pat out the fire and as Whisper moved the sphere at him a second time, he and his companion ran at the tabaxi with their swords. Whisper threw up his shield spell instead and the blades glanced off the magical force field. As they tried to pierce the shield, he brought the sphere rolling behind them and it slammed into the first guard. The man screamed in agony as was quickly engulfed in flames and collapsed, skin blackened and smelling.
“Do you want to die next?” The tabaxi asked the other guard, who had paused to see his companion burn up in a matter of seconds.
Whisper could see his wide eyes through the eyeholes in the mask as he raised his sword again, taking a fighting stance, and said, “you’re going to die for that!” Then, he swung ferociously and, instead of using his shield, Whisper’s paws started burning with white fire and he shot the flames into the man’s face. He screamed and grabbed at his mask, throwing it off. He dove under the flames and sliced into Whisper’s ribs with his sword, then jumped back. “Help!” The guard shouted as he stumbled back, his face badly burned. “Someone help! We’re being attacked!”
Whisper could hear some muddled bullywog croaking, but the lizard folk seemed to have steered clear of the fight as soon as it’d started.
Fillip rushed to the arrow slits in the lizard men’s bedchamber and looked down into the courtyard where they’d heard the shouting. “Damnit,” the druid said as everyone else ran forward to check, “Did anyone notice Whisper is missing? He’s killing cultists guards.”
“Why?” Shale demanded, peering out. “Oh, damnit,” she repeated. “Our cover’s blown.”
“Surrender now,” Whisper hissed, but the guard ignored him, so he twisted his paws and shot the white flames at the man again, knocking him off his feet. The flames licked at flesh and the man did not stir, though Whisper could see the faintest of movement in his chest. Satisfied, the tabaxi dispelled the fiery spells and shouted to the bullywogs who had moved in but were not interfering. “Take them to the infirmary!” Whisper yelled, then walked away to where his companions had gone minutes before.
The bullywogs looked around in confusion, then some began to stir and went for the burned bodies, dragging them away. As Whisper started for the stairs, his mage hand floated back to him and handed him the stolen bone mask, which he pocketed with a smirk.
“Well, that’sss not how I would have done it. We will have to act quickly,” Snapjaw said as they stood in silence in the open room filled with dozens of straw mattresses. “The cassstle is large, but it won’t take long for word to travel.”
Fillip rubbed his forehead and said, “Where’s the nearest bar? I can’t deal with another Whisper-related thing today.” As he said this, Whisper came up the landing and walked directly to Keelan.
“Heal,” he said to the paladin, pointing at the cut on his ribs. Keelan complied, his glowing hands stitching together fur and flesh where the guard’s blade had cut.
Snapjaw gave Fillip directions to the kitchens where he could find a drink, and the druid quickly left. Everyone else chose to ignore Whisper’s actions for the moment, but Shale’s hands trembled as she clenched them into fists, watching the tabaxi sit on a mattress and start flipping through the pages of Azbarra’s spellbook. It seemed the bodies were being cleared out, but the cultists would come asking questions soon, and she wanted to know the layout of the castle before that happened. “Oszaren,” Shale said to the warlock, “I think we need to sneak around the castle and see who’s in it, and where the ring and book are.”
“I say we rally the lizard folk,” Keelan said, looking over to Snapjaw, who seemed nervous. “Snapjaw has agreed to take down the bullywogs, and now,” he glanced over at Whisper, “our timeline’s been set in motion.”
Oszaren nodded thoughtfully. “Shale and I will explore the castle under invisibility. Keelan and Reverence, can you rally the lizard folk and see how many you can bring to Snapjaw’s side?”
Snapjaw nodded gratefully, and Keelan and Reverence agreed.
“We attack tonight. Spread the word.” He placed a hand on Shale’s shoulder, and she told Trigger to stay in the room as they turned invisible and snuck back down the stairs.
Shale felt an instant weight fall from her shoulders as the tabaxi left her sight.
Fillip strolled casually across the courtyard to the door where the two guards had been standing before Whisper burned their faces off. The door was now open, so he stepped through and peeked inside to see a large stretch of a room with high ceilings and rows of benches and tables. A great hall. At the end of the hall sat a large mound of gold and jewels, and a dozen men were sifting through the coins, counting and recording them on rolls of parchment. There was a small trail of blood smeared across the floor, presumably where the two bodies had been dragged to the infirmary. The trail led to a closed door. As Fillip stepped inside the great hall, a man shouted, “you! Stop there!” Two robed guards with swords jogged to the druid, unmasked and looking wary. “What do you know? Did you see who attacked the guards?”
“Gentlemen,” Fillip said calmly, “I just came through here looking for a drink when I heard the commotion, but I’m afraid I didn’t see the attack.”
“Who are you?” The man demanded. He had dark, curly hair and a thick, tangled beard with streaks of gray at the chin.
“My name is Flop,” Fillip said.
“That’s an odd name,” the other guard said. This man was much younger, barely twenty if Fillip had to guess, with brown hair and a plain face.
“It’s a very common name where I’m from,” the half-elf said with eyebrows raised and hands casually hanging from the pockets of his trousers.
The older guard studied Fillip, but seemed to find he wasn’t a threat, and motioned for him to continue. “Go on then,” he said, relaxing, “you can find a drink in the kitchens. If you hear anything, let us know.”
Fillip thanked him and made for the kitchens. That had been an easy one to talk himself out of, which told him there was a very good chance they were looking specifically for a seven-foot tall cat person. He pushed through the doors and was greeted by a larger human man in a dirty smock that pressed against his wide belly. “Greetings,” Fillip smiled, “am I to presume you’re the cook?”
“Aye,” the big man nodded, looking curious, “did you hear what happened outside?”
“I did,” Fillip frowned. “What did you hear?”
“Only that some big cat killed a man and burned that poor boy badly. I could hear his screams when they woke him up a minute ago. They must’ve put him to sleep, now.”
“It doesn’t bode well. Say, do you have anything to drink in here?”
“How much for one?”
“New recruit?” The cook asked, walking back to fill a mug with ale from a tapped keg in the corner of the kitchen.
“That’s right,” Fillip said.
“Figured. We share everything here.” The cook handed him the mug and he took a sip gratefully. The ale was rich and dark, if a bit flat, but still much finer than anything they’d had at the roadhouse. He was curious about how they managed to get their supplies through the marsh. The ocean must be close.
“Say,” Fillip said, setting down the mug and eyeing the bags of vegetables the cook had started to clean, “you wouldn’t happen to need any help in the kitchens? I used to be a spice merchant, so I know a lot about flavours.”
The cook brightened. It seemed the man was used to working alone and was grateful for the company. “Certainly. Here,” he slammed an onion down on a table next to a knife, “dice these onions.”
“Gladly,” the druid said, setting down his pack and slipping a pouch of swamp plants into his trouser pockets. He walked around the table and tied an apron around his front and wrapped a hand around the red onion. “Tell me, how many people do we need to cook for today…?” as he began to chop.
Oszaren and Shale snuck past the gathered bullywogs in the courtyard and entered a door at the end of where, three stories above, sat the mechanical dome they suspected was an observatory. The door was open and they entered a small sitting room where sat a hulking half-dragon figure with deep red scales and part of his muzzle torn out so the flesh was pulled back and gave him a wicked half-grin. He wore heavy, polished armour and was draped in black robes with the hood pulled partially up. He was lounging back in a chair flipping through the pages of a book, looking surprisingly comfortable despite the plate mail. Shale stared at the figure and felt Oszaren pull on her elbow, bringing her to the stairs and up the second level.
Inside the second level was an office bisected with another room. The door to the room was closed and Shale pressed her ear to it and heard the squawk of a bird. Then, a voice sounded from downstairs.
“M’lord Borngray,” the voice called up, “there’s an issue downstairs. We could use your help.” The voice was nervous, and they heard a book snap shut followed by a sigh, and the door to the bedroom opened.
A tall, elven male figure stepped out with shoulder length pale hair. He had angular, handsome features and as he stepped out, he straightened his finely cut robes, which were intricately designed in gray and black spun patterns. He took the stairs down, and Shale went into the room to inspect it.
It was a bedroom, and in the corner on a desk sat a cage with a raven inside. It cawed again and fluffed its wings, seeming to sense their invisible presences. From downstairs they could hear an angry voice. Shale crept back out of the room to listen. “…Valaxarim, didn’t you hear? We have a problem.”
“We will have to take care of it, for Rezmir,” a deep, growling voice that Shale guessed belonged to the half-dragon, responded.
A door slammed, and the voices were too muffled to hear. “Come on,” she heard Oszaren whisper, and they began to search the room for information.
Keelan and Reverence helped Snapjaw speak with the lizard folk, convincing them in covert conversation to rise and fight their enemies, and take the castle and land for their people. As they followed the leader, Whisper watched them until they were gone, then descended the stairs past the forgery and back into the courtyard, where he confidently strode through the centre of it and pointed to a group of bullywogs standing lazily in a corner. “You!” Whisper shouted in common. “Who is in charge?”
One of the bullywogs ribbited and hop-stepped forward. “Borngray,” it said in strangled common. “Elf sir.” It pointed across the courtyard.
Whisper nodded and spun on his heel and saw the elf emerging from a circular stone chamber beside a black-robed human in another bone mask. A moment later two other cultist guards appeared from the door of the great hall, helping a very burned young man with half his face red and blistered. Borngray stopped in his tracks and looked at the burned man. The man looked at his leader, then saw Whisper and pointed at him, shouting, “That’s him! That’s the tabaxi that killed Fendir and burned me!”
“Stop him!” Borngray shouted at once, and the guards released the burned man and ran for the tabaxi, though Whisper hadn’t moved. Borngray strode forward and said, “you come in here and kill one of my men and injure another, then boldly stand out here like you’ve done nothing wrong. Why?”
Whisper raised his chin to meet the elf’s gaze. “You should hire fewer stupid guards. These ones attacked one of Rezmir’s own,” he gestured to himself. “They attacked first and I defended myself,” he shrugged, “and I spared this one.”
The burned man sputtered but Borngray held up a hand to quiet him. He scrutinized Whisper, standing only a few feet from him, his guards now surrounding the tabaxi, their weapons drawn. “And what makes you think my guards would allow you in to see Rezmir without qualifications? Who are you to the cult?”
Whisper sighed in annoyance. “I spoke with the Black Death in the swamp,” he articulated the words carefully. “The dragon does not want treasure. He wants a book beneath this structure, and a ring held by a leader of the cult.”
Borngray’s middle finger on his right hand twitched subtly, and Whisper caught a flash of gold before the elf folded his other hand over it. “We should not speak of this so openly. Come with me.” He turned and the guards sheathed their weapons, though still watched the tabaxi carefully as Borngray led him to a room. The burned guard started to protest, but the elf shot him a warning look and the boy quieted, physically drooping under the elf’s gaze.
Finally, someone who would listen to Whisper.
Shale and Oszaren froze, still under the warlock’s invisibility spell, as Whisper and the elf came up the stairs together and sat on chairs. The elf leaned toward him. “You said the Black Death told you he wasn’t interested in treasure?”
Whisper nodded, “Only the book and the ring.”
Shale felt an angry heat in her chest.
Borngray cleared his throat. “So, that’s what’s holding him back from joining us…” He paused and looked at Whisper carefully. “He didn’t tell you what the book contained?”
The tabaxi shook his head. “I am a messenger,” he said. “I have bad news for Rezmir that will put her in a…” he trailed off, looking for the right word in common, “foul mood.”
“What’s this message?”
Whisper quickly told him of the caravan and Hama, and that it was taken by the authorities in Waterdeep. Borngray nodded, looking troubled.
“Very well,” the elf finally said. “I suppose I’ll have to cast blame elsewhere for your attack against the burned guards. But, yes,” he seemed to be having an internal struggle, “yes, it should be you who tells Rezmir.” Shale wondered if the elf had other plans, or if he really did trust Whisper this easily.
“I have someone who will heal the burned guard,” Whisper told him, volunteering Keelan’s healing.
Shale’s outrage grew. Of course, Keelan would heal the man, but that wasn’t the point. In her invisible state, she dug her nails into her palms and thought, with complete certainty, I am done being Whisper’s pawn.
Oszaren bumped into her and, finding her shoulder, whispered under his breath, “Let’s go.”
The two of them took the stairs up to the third level as Borngray led Whisper back down the stairs, saying, “You needn’t stay with the lizards. I’ll have a private room set up for you…”
The observatory room was dusty and crowded with stacks of papers on wooden desks. In the centre of the room stood a long, metallic tube with various pieces jutting from it. The tube pointed up at the mechanical dome, which was closed but had gears on it and a wheel beneath it with chains. Shale could see a few papers moving subtly as the invisible Oszaren went through them, and a piece of parchment notes appeared. Shale placed a hand curiously on the instrument and ran her fingers along it. She grabbed onto a small piece with a gear and pulled, snapping it off and holding it up in her hand to inspect it. With a shrug, she dropped it in her pocket and continued to look around the room. “What did you just do?” She heard Oszaren say, and she jumped.
“You startled me,” she hissed.
“Did you just break something?” He demanded.
“That instrument is a very delicate—” but, before he could finish lecturing her, they heard a scraping thump and a growl from somewhere in the back of the room. Shale saw the shifting of books as something large moved.
“Out, now!” She said, and she saw Oszaren swipe up his parchment and pen and the two of them ran down the stairs before they could find out what sort of creature lived in there.
They dashed down the stairs and back through the courtyard, Oszaren directing her to another unexplored room near the great hall. They passed Whisper and Borngray standing together speaking to other cultists, and they heard dishes being set out in the hall and could smell the stew and fresh bread. The bullywogs were already moving to the hall for their meal.
They waited until no one was looking in their direction, then opened the door and slipped through, leaving it ajar behind them. They entered a small stone temple room with a wooden statue of a five headed dragon on a pedestal. Shale walked up to it and whispered to her invisible companion, “Tiamat.”
“I found something in the observatory,” Oszaren said quietly. “It looks like they were tracking the dragon with that instrument, but based on their recordings, it seems like there were time dilations.”
“I have no idea what that means,” Shale said.
She heard him move around the room looking for papers, but it was mostly empty. She brushed her fingers along the base of the statue, looking for any sign of secret messages or trap doors that might lead them to a hidden room beneath the castle, where a certain book for a dragon could be held. She still couldn’t understand everyone’s obsession with books. She paused, noticing something in the carving itself. One of the dragon jaws looked to have a crack in the wood, and upon further inspection she saw that there was a spot on the back of its head that could be pushed. She pressed her fingernail into it, and the mouth opened with a pop and a dagger fell out. She caught it by the hilt before it could clatter to the floor and inspected the jeweled piece. The blade was sharp. She was just pocketing it next to the piece of instrument when she heard Oszaren’s voice. “We need to get back. The invisibility will wear off soon.”
She waited until they’d gotten back to the lizard folk’s bedchambers and Oszaren had dropped his spell before she handed him the dagger. “Here, it may be useful to you.”
He inspected it appraisingly. “It looks like it has magical properties, though I’ll need to study it further.”
“Hey,” Keelan said, jogging out of another room with Reverence trailing behind him, “we’ve recruited a lot of them.”
“That’s good news,” Shale breathed, choosing to keep her thoughts about Whisper to herself, for now.
“Also,” Reverence said casually, “Fillip just came by—and said he’s poisoned the meal. We told the lizard people—not to eat any of it.”
Oszaren grinned. “Genius.”
“We may have a chance after all,” Shale smiled as well, feeling that finally, something was going right for them.
Keelan beamed and crossed his arms proudly, then said, “We attack as planned, in one hour. Prepare for a lot of puking.”
Over the next hour, many of the lower ranked bullywogs and cult members dished up their stew and hot bread and ate, while other plates were carried off by lizard folk to those high-ranking enough to need not retrieve their own meals. The groaning and vomiting came not long after, and in that chaos, the lizard folk arose and took up their spears.
Snapjaw made his speech in a hissing language Shale couldn’t hope to guess, and it seemed to rouse his listeners, who shook their spears and glanced at one another excitedly. Finally, Snapjaw raised a fist and pointed to the stairs, and the lizard folk rushed down three at a time. The standoff would happen in the courtyard, as planned.
Reverence dashed past them all in a blur of orange speed, some of his old energy coming back to him despite the lost amulet. He was going to close the portcullis, to keep any of the bullywogs outside from entering the castle.
Drums began to echo from the towers, Snapjaw’s signal to the rest of the lizard men to take up arms. Shale drew her blades and Trigger yipped next to her, his bushy tail wagging in anticipation. Once the last of the lizard men had cleared the stairs, she and her companions ran down, crying for blood.
The wave of lizard folk crashed into a disarray of vomiting and sickly bullywogs, who tried to defend the sudden attacks and were quickly pushed back. Cultists appeared from the great hall and Shale saw Fillip was among them, spotting his companions and pushing past to get to them. The cultists had paused, clearly thinking that the attack was just another scuffle between two rival races, but quickly realized it was more than that and drew their weapons. Noticing Shale’s companions, one of the cultists screamed at them to attack. They all clattered together with swords and spells, and Shale was soon flanked by two men with greatswords, one of them catching her under the arm and drawing blood, Trigger responding by leaping at the man’s calf. Keelan’s hands were on fire and burning any guards who moved too close, and the paladin blew his warhorn, the sound echoing across the courtyard. Shale saw a flash of blinding light from the corner of her eyes and the men fighting her also paused to look as Fillip summoned a storm of lightning. The strike incinerated two men in an instant. Trigger bit into one of the men’s ankles and was kicked off as Shale struck him, his shield coming up just in time with a surprised grunt. There were shouts from around the courtyard: more people coming to join the fight.
Whisper ran past the man who’d fallen down the stairs into his private room and began heaving on the floor, the gooey remnants of stew and bread exploding in chunks over the stonework. Outside, he saw the red half-dragon looking confused as he stepped out of a door. He ran to the half-dragon and said, “The lizard folk are revolting.”
“Help me deal with it, then!” He grumbled angrily, having crossed paths with the tabaxi for a brief second while he was with Borngray. He drew his greatsword and clanked forward in heavy armour, Whisper trotting behind him with tail swishing and cloak billowing.
The large red half-dragon they’d called Valaxarim appeared around the corner with several pale and sickly-looking cultist guards trying to clutch their weapons and hold back the vomit. Shale turned just as a massive sphere of fire slammed into the group from behind, incinerating the guards and sending the half-dragon stumbling forward in surprise. He twisted as the flames drifted harmlessly over his scales but was obviously unaware of who had attacked. Shale knew only one person who conjured a sphere like that. Valaxarim roared, choosing to flee the fiery sphere and instead evaluate the battle in the courtyard.
The lizard folk had pushed the few remaining bullywogs, who’d once doubled their numbers, back into a smaller room and up the stairs. Fillip’s lightning continued to strike down on cultist enemies, and Keelan’s blade was crackling with divine energy that burst apart anyone he hit. Shale’s moonblade scimitar, given to her by the Emerald Enclave, went from a faint glow to a bright light as hope filled her. They were going to win this. She revelled in their victory, slashing down another cultist, when the half-dragon shouted above the fighting in a booming voice.
“Margus, get your men out! The castle’s taken!” He was moving back. “Get to the portal!”
Shale felt her heart hammering in her chest as the cultists began to retreat.
“TO THE PORTAL!”