City-State of Tyr, 190th King’s Age, Year of Desert’s Slumber, Month of Wind, day 26
Early in the morning, a long line stretches from the public well near the Elven Market of Tyr. Folk have waited for an hour or more past sunrise to claim their one guaranteed single hand-held container of free water from the wells — a gift of the merciful, benevolent, mighty and omnipotent King Kalak, the Tyrant of Tyr. At the well, a pair of watchful templars keep an eye out for trouble, cheats, or thefts, with a half-giant enforcer ready to crush anyone who steps out of line. A mul slave repeatedly draws the well-bucket up, fills the containers handed to him, and repeats the process for each citizen who arrives.
At the head of the line, a sleek woman with short red hair, blue-green cactus juice under her eyes, and a wicker-and-hide basket on her back passes her waterskin to the mul. The mul diligently fills it, then returns it to her. She steps to one side to unlimber the basket and place the waterskin carefully inside, and fragments of bone stitched carefully to a leather backing are visible — a rolled-up piece of armor stowed in the basket. A spear hangs from a loop on the side of the basket, its tip covered with a small piece of cloth tied with a string.
Leros steps to the well and hands over his waterskin. The mul dutifully fills it and hands it back, but as he does so a black-cassocked templar with a retinue of enforcers approaches. His face is crossed by a deep scar that disfigures his mouth and folds one of his ears into an awkward angle — he is known to the people on the streets of Tyr as Rictus because of this deformity, which he is rumored to have earned by killing another templar in order to secure a promotion. He points with a hardwood stick at the woman and at Leros, then sweeps his stick down the line. “You. You. You, you, and you. You’re being conscripted. Come with me.”
Dread runs through the crowd. It is well known that King Kalak’s obsession with the completion of his grand ziggurat has reached manic proportions. Craftsmen of all sorts, laborers, slaves, even random people on the streets who lack the clout or money to pay off the templars are all being dragooned into work on the ziggurat. A quick glance toward the monumental structure shows that it is already swarming with slaves under the lash, so many that managing them and giving them all something productive to do must be an equally monumental task, but the templars have their orders and they will find meat for the grinder.
Rictus’ choice of words, though, is odd. He says nothing about the ziggurat. He does not inform people that they are being enslaved for some falsified crime. Rather, conscripted: trapped in the king’s service, but not necessarily as slaves.
Warily, the people indicated step out of the line. Rictus’ enforcers take up positions and usher them away from the well. As they step away, Alatariel takes the opportunity to swap her empty waterskin with the full one in the basket of the woman who was at the head of the line — a quick swish of her desert robe, a twist of the hand, and the two are exchanged. Nobody notices, too consumed as they are with their new predicament. To the elf dancer, it is merely pragmatism: She was pulled from the line before she received her daily ration of water, after all.
“The sorcerer-king’s levies are taxed with the business of the ziggurat’s construction, and able-bodied citizens must aid in the defense of the city. For this reason I am charging you, in the name of the king, to assist in the capture of a dangerous fugitive, as our own security forces are occupied with more onerous tasks at this time.” Rictus and his entourage set a brisk pace, prodding the selected few to follow, occasionally giving the cripple Leros a small shove to show that they had no intention of leaving him behind simply due to his makeshift crutches and lame legs.
The templar leads his makeshift group to a small neighborhood in the Warrens — a collection of ramshackle huts, adobe buildings, and ruined structures that have been built over and inhabited and abandoned so many times in a never-ending cycle that they form a contiguous maze of narrow alleys, crumbled walls, and creaky rooftops.
“Our fugitive is an elf woman by the name of Namrah,” the templar says, “and she has been traced to this neighborhood of the Warrens. Find her and return her to me alive. She has black hair and desert garb, and is . . . just a bit shorter than you.” He points with his swagger stick to indicate Alatariel. “You have two hours.” His men start handing wooden clubs to the assembled rag-tag group.
“What if we just leave?” Alatariel asks, somewhat brashly.
“Then you’ll be fugitives, just like her. We’ll find you, like we did her, and we’ll clap the thong on you and send you to work on the ziggurat. Don’t think you can escape so easily. The mindbenders associated with the templarate can find you wherever you go.” Rictus makes something resembling a smile. Perhaps the templar’s lying; perhaps he doesn’t have the authority in his Bureau to conduct such a manhunt, or the mindbenders might not waste their time with petty cases — but the risk is too great. The five take the clubs somberly.
“I’m expected at the Academy of the Unseen Way,” says Jorne. “I’m a student there. I have studies with the masters.” The young man perhaps hopes that the implication — that he knows powerful psions at the city’s most prestigious academy for psychic study — will free him from Rictus’ conscription. The templars are, after all, often hesitant to move against people with political protection.
Rictus, though, is not impressed. “I’ll send a messenger. You’re going to be late. Perhaps it’s time to test your skills in the real world.” The templar is obviously not in the mood to brook any disputes.
“My men and I will wait here, in case anyone else tries to escape the area. Don’t keep me waiting,” Rictus says. “Get in there.” He gestures to a crumbled archway next to a rickety exterior staircase; the archway surmounts a narrow adobe alley, while the staircase (little more than wooden pegs set into an adobe wall) leads up onto a rooftop of uncertain provenance.
Into the Maze
The group ducks under the remnants of the partially-collapsed archway and into the narrow alley. A dozen feet away, far enough to keep out of eavesdropping by Rictus, they pause to take stock of their sorry situation. Of the five, only Alatariel and Leros even know one another. They are all simply unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The woman with the basket sets it down. “I have armor. Someone should help me into it.” Leros volunteers. She explains, “I was in the army for two years. Leader of a stand. Saw some action against raiders, gith, the occasional monster. I was pushed out recently — looking to make a new start.” Leros helps her to belt on her leather-backed bone scale armor. She withdraws a worn wooden shield from the basket and unhooks the short spear from its side. With a deft motion she unwraps the string and reveals the iron-tipped head on the spear. “Every experienced soldier in Tyr’s army uses one of these,” she explains. “The amount of iron is actually quite small, so it’s not very valuable, but it’s still superior to the weapons and armor of any of the other city-states.” She hefts her wicker basket back on with a sigh. “We don’t know each other, but we’re all in this together, and we’ll only get out of it by working together.”
Introductions are made. Leros reveals that he’s not actually a cripple, but implies that he is a novice mindbender — though Jorne seems unconvinced. Alatariel says little about her talents, revealing only that she is a dancer and a runner, like all elves. Joani, the teenage human girl, simply says that she is the daughter of a merchant and has never fallen into this sort of danger before.
The group forms back into a narrow line and squeezes down the alley. To the left, they spot a hole, perhaps three feet in diameter, which leads to a crumbled tiny room. Huddled in the corner of the room is a young human child (younger even than Joani) atop a small pile of rags.
Leros clambers through the hole into the small room. The child shrinks away from him, but he takes a small piece of flatbread and dips it in water and tosses it toward the child. “We’re not going to hurt you. We just want to talk,” he says.
“Why are you wasting food and water?” Alatariel asks crossly.
“We need to know this maze, and this boy might know something useful,” Leros replies. “Can you tell us about this place? Have you seen an elven woman with dark hair here?” he asks after turning to face the boy again.
The boy looks dubiously at the piece of moist flatbread on the ground, then pats around it with his hand, as if checking for wires or tricks. He snatches up the morsel and consumes it. “The elf woman? She’s running from everyone. Headed toward the middle.”
Leros asks, “Who’s following her? Other templars?”
The boy shakes his head. “No,” he says, “Toothcutters.”
Alatariel knows of the Toothcutters by name — an elven tribe that has taken up residence in the Warrens. They claim most of the ramshackle abandoned hovels and streets as their territory, and are more than happy to extort lone travelers. A group of armed and armored trespassers in their territory, including an elf not of their tribe, would be seen as a threat and likely attacked.
“Where is the middle? Why is she going there?” Leros asks.
“The Toothcutters have her boxed in. Nowhere else to go. But you shouldn’t go there. It’s haunted,” says the boy.
“Haunted? How?” asks Leros.
The boy shifts uncomfortably and says, “People who go there hear voices. The voices make you do things. Sometimes right then, sometimes later. Sometimes people hear the voices, go home, act all normal for days, then suddenly wake up later, leave the city, kill themselves.”
Leros nods and glances back at Jorne. “Mindbender, possibly?”
Jorne frowns as he thinks. “It’s possible for a telepath to do that . . . but why? Why would a powerful telepath closet himself in the Warrens and drive people crazy? Doesn’t make sense.”
Leros thanks the boy and crawls back out of the hole.
Continuing past the bolthole, the group comes to a crumbled down building that has collapsed and filled the area with rubble. While they could climb over it, a spur of the alley runs off to their right, and it isn’t so choked with difficult chunks of masonry. The group turns to head in that direction, and they just barely spot a face peering at them from a rooftop nearby.
Jorne, having seen the elf for only a moment, closes his eyes and replays the moment over and over again in his mind. His eyes seem to flicker behind closed lids and his voice becomes slightly monotone. “Narrow face, long nose. Elvish. Dark hair, chopped. A necklace of teeth.” The necklace is the give-away — a Toothcutter.
The group confers briefly about what to do. The Toothcutter lookout, having already spotted them, is likely on his way back to his associates. Jorne removes a small crystal from a pocket and tosses it into the air. The crystal, formed like a strange symmetrical design of great complexity and delicacy, floats upward briefly, and Jorne recites what he sees: The elf is crawling across the rooftop toward the other side, where three more elves loiter. The elves are carrying clubs and bone daggers, and all of them wear necklaces of teeth.
The group hasn’t much time. Alatariel pulls herself silently onto the rooftop and fires her blowgun at the Toothcutter elf, and her dart sinks into his neck. As a scout, Alatariel gains bonus skirmish damage. She inflicts 5 points of damage; the Toothcutter is a levelless commoner with 2 hit points, so the attack strikes the carotid artery and leaves him unconscious and bleeding.
The rest of the group clambers up onto the rooftop, and remains flat on the surface. Glancing about the ruined neighborhood, they spot three more elves some distance to the west of them, investigating another building. Alatariel decides to make a distraction while the group circles to the west.
Alatariel stands and starts to run. Her swift-footed speed carries her to the edge of the roof in three steps, then she bounces to a wooden post, then leaps 15’ from that post to the roof of a building on the far side. As a dark-haired elf woman in desert garb, moving at speed away from the Toothcutters, she’s easily mistaken for their quarry, and sure enough, the three Toothcutters nearest the group shout and start chasing after her as she vanishes off to the north.
The team slips down to the other side of the building and makes their way somewhat west. Leros spots a window into what looks like some kind of small storeroom, which has a small pile of dry, rotting firewood in the bottom. The group curves around the storeroom to the west, and they press flat against the wall as they see the other three Toothcutters examining a large ramshackle structure near some kind of ruined tower.
Deciding to get the drop on the Toothcutters, the group prepares for a scuffle. Malek couches her shortspear and charges with a battle cry. Her blow drives the spear under the ribs of the first elf to turn around, pushes up under his rib cage and lifts him off of his feat. Malek hits with the shortspear, and with the Powerful Charge feat, her Strength bonus, and her marshal aura giving her a bonus to charging damage, she inflicts 21 points of damage – enough to take the elf out of the fight immediately.
Leros raises one of his shabby crutches and reveals that it is actually a crossbow cleverly disguised by the application of various bits of random trash. He advances to get a closer shot, just a few steps behind Malek. His shot goes wide, though, and fails to strike any of the elves.
The Toothcutters descend upon Malek with their clubs. One of them gets past her defenses for a moment. One Toothcutter’s attack misses, but the second one hits and inflicts 4 points of damage — barely anything to a veteran like Malek.
Jorne concentrates for a moment and the blue tattoos on his body take on a shifting hue. Blasts of unstable ectoplasm erupt from his fingers and coalesce into chilling swirls of frost that scream toward the elves and slam into them. Jorne manifests Energy Missile and hits two of the Toothcutters; one fails his saving throw and takes 14 points of damage, which drops him as he’s just a commoner. The other, a rogue, saves and takes 7 points of damage. Normally the Toothcutter rogue’s Evasion ability would negate the damage, but cold manifestations use a Fortitude save instead, so the Evasion ability is not allowed!
Joani springs toward Malek and stays back just far enough to make a quick plea to the spirits of the rain and the storm. She raises her hand, showing a bracelet of hollow glass filled with sparkling water. A low rumble sounds. Joani casts Bull’s Strength on herself.
“Take one of them alive!” shouts Leros. Malek hears his call and she bashes the quick rogue with her shield. Her swing catches him in the jaw and leaves a bruise. Malek attacks for nonlethal damage and hits for 4 points with her shield bash — not much, but enough to make sure that he’s more likely to fall unconscious than to die with the next few hits.
Leros reloads his crossbow and raises it to the elf again. “Your friends are dead. Surrender now and I won’t shoot you.” The elf pauses, then grins and slides his bone dagger back into his belt and raises his empty hands.
We Want Information
With the skirmish concluded, the group circles around the Toothcutter. Leros pauses, and there’s a sudden pressure in the air. The Toothcutter smiles. “Listen, my friends, this is an obvious misunderstanding. How can we work this out?” Leros manifests his innate half-elf power of Psionic Charm, and the elf fails his Will save. The Toothcutter decides that he is willing to work with Leros – for now.
“We’re looking for the dark-haired elven woman that came in here,” Leros says to his new “friend.”
The Toothcutter nods. “Yeah. She’s in that large building there, headed to the center. We didn’t want to follow, because of the haunting. She had to come out sooner or later — if she did die from whatever’s in there.”
Leros asks, “What were you going to do with her?”
The Toothcutter shrugs. “Turn her over to the templars for a reward, maybe. But they’re stingy. Maybe ransom her back to her family. She’s from a small tribe that comes to Tyr twice a year, the Skypledge tribe. Itinerant traders and smugglers. Not exactly rich, but they could cough up some ceramic for her safety.”
Leros rubs his chin. This seems like a reasonably sound strategy for the Toothcutters.
Alatariel appears from the north, having led her pursuers on a merry chase. Her excellent knowledge of the city streets, her elvish speed, and her acrobatic skills have allowed her to evade them.
With the group re-assembled, Malek brings up an uncomfortable point. “Look. I’ve worked for templars before, while in the army. Rictus is using us, and the trick is going to be getting out of this alive.”
“What do you mean?” asks Leros. “We recover the woman, hand her over, and we’re done.”
Malek shakes her head. “No. Think about it. If Rictus wanted her so badly, why didn’t he just come in here with his troops and get her?”
Leros interrupts her. “Ah, of course — he knew about the haunting, and he didn’t want to risk it. So he sent us, because we’re expendable.”
“Maybe,” says Malek. “But consider: why does he want her so bad? And why does he insist on getting her alive? She has something that she wants — an item, or a piece of information. If it’s information that he wants, then we’re just a means to that end. If we fail and we die, it’s no loss to him. If we succeed and we bring her back, he gets what he wants, but he can’t risk us knowing about it. We become a loose end. So he has to have us killed, to keep us from talking.”
Alatariel looks suspicious, and she says nothing but she is nodding slowly. This paranoid turn of thought makes sense to her.
“Let’s say we do find her,” Malek says, “then we have to figure out how we escape. If we turn her over to Rictus, maybe he’ll just let us go on our way — but maybe he’ll have a secret that he can’t let out. He might kill us.”
“He might not,” Leros says dubiously. “It could just be that she’s just a fugitive and we’re easy muscle, that wasting us costs him nothing.”
“Are you willing to take that risk?” Malek asks.
There is silence for a moment.
Leros turns to face the charmed Toothcutter. “What can you tell us about the haunting?”
“Not too much,” the elf says with a shrug. “This place has been haunted for years. Something makes people go mad. Voices in their heads. Mindbending, maybe, or a spirit. We don’t know. My tribe stays away from here.”
Leros nods and says, “I guess we don’t have much choice. We have to go in and see for ourselves.”
Malek pushes open the rickety door, and the group enters the decrepit structure.
The building is some kind of workshop, perhaps, which has fallen into great disrepair. A few bits of broken pottery and shards of brick are scattered on the dusty floor, and hot orange sunlight streams through cracks and holes in the walls and ceiling.
In one corner, a rickety staircase descends to a landing, then to a cellar. The staircase is dark, so Leros heads back to the small windowed nook with the dry firewood and picks up some rotting sticks for a makeshift flame. Amid the sticks, a poisonous, ridge-backed snake has taken up residence, and he barely manages to draw his hand back in time to avoid being bitten. He kills the snake with his crossbow and returns to the team, carcass in hand. “Got some firewood, and tonight’s dinner,” he explains. By the time he has returned, though, Joani has whispered to her bottled lightning and coaxed forth a small nimbus of light. Joani casts a Light spell on her hollow glass bracelet.
The team proceeds down to the landing, then to the cellar below. The cellar is a circular room, cool and dry, with the creaky remnants of heavy shelves. Across from the staircase are three large cocoons, all leaning against the wall.
As the group reaches the bottom of the stairs, Malek steps into the cellar and a faint wave of force seems to stretch across the air for a moment. Jorne purses his lips. “You’ve tripped a psychic alarm,” he explains. “Someone has been alerted to our presence.”
In front of the cocoons, a tiny crystal lodged in the floor begins to glow. Jorne wastes no time; he coalesces unstable ectoplasm that turns into a vibrating, screaming bolt that leaves distorted air in its wake as it lances out toward the crystal. The crystal explodes in a shower of dust. Jorne manifests Energy Missile as a sonic attack and destroys the psicrystal.
It seems too late, though: Malek kneels down suddenly and drops her shield and her spear. After a moment she stands again and says, “This body will do nicely.”
The ad hoc team is not made up entirely of fools: Jorne immediately suspects telepathic control. Leros brings his crossbow to bear and unleashes a bolt at one of the strange cocoons; the bolt sticks in the gray webbing but does not have any visible effect.
As Malek shifts and flexes her hands, Jorne recognizes the signature of telepathy from the central cocoon, and the team focuses their meager powers on destroying whatever inhabits that wrapping. Jorne blasts waves of flame repeatedly into the cocoon. Malek turns and attempts to bring the other members of the party to the ground with her physical strength, but whoever is in her body is obviously not yet used to it and lacks some competence as a warrior. Telepathic energies surge through the chamber, and Leros finds himself gasping for breath; Joani does her best to keep him from dying as his body refuses to breathe without a conscious effort. At length, Jorne’s ectoplasmic fire burns away the cocoon and reveals a dessicated humanoid figure. Alatariel cuts away one of the other cocoons and finds the drained but still living body of Namrah, the elven fugitive, and drags the woman up the stairs and out of the chamber while the party recovers after annihilating the immobile but still mentally powerful psion that lurked in the husk of the cocoon. As the ancient body thief’s head collapses into ashes, Malek shakes herself as if awakening from a dream.
With Namrah secured, the group learns that she was trying to escape Rictus and fled to this dim and unused cellar in the Warrens, where she fell prey to a body leech, who drained her essence to fuel his psionic power.
With Namrah freed, the group engages in heated discussion of their next move. Should they simply kill Namrah and tell the templar that she was dead when they found her? Abandon her limp and drained body in the Warrens? Try to flee? At length, they grudgingly decide to try to escape with her. Leros reasons that her tribe, however small, must have some money and may well ransom her back to them. This will, however, make them fugitives.
During questioning, Namrah reveals that the real reason that Rictus pursued her was to kidnap her and force her family to reveal their connections among the Veiled Alliance. As far as she can tell — or so she claims — Rictus means to blackmail the Alliance into working for him. By gaining the power of a secretive cabal of wizards at his command, Rictus hopes to gain greater station in the city, with the wizards as his coerced pawns.
Leros re-assembles his disguise and exits the Warrens to talk to Rictus. The templar is impatient and unsympathetic. Leros, lying through his teeth with all the skill that he’s learned, convinces Rictus that they have Namrah cornered, but they must marshal their power to face down the evil spirit that inhabits the cellar. (The best lies, of course, have a bit of truth to them.)
Rictus is impatient, but he needs Namrah. He tells Leros that failure will result in a short tenure as a slave on the ziggurat, followed by an even shorter stint as a gladiator, for those who survive the construction project. He orders one of his soldiers to go fetch reinforcements so that his prize quarry can’t slip away in the night or be stolen away by Toothcutters — thus giving the lie to his initial claims that the templarate was too understaffed to complete this task — then leaves with a scowl.
Leros returns to the group and they hunker down in the ruined neighborhood for the night. Joani calls upon the blessings of rain to create water to sustain everyone, and Leros skins and cooks up the snake that he previously killed. The next day, Joani uses her magic to restore Namrah enough so that the elf woman can walk. To cover their escape, the group sets the remains of the central building and its cellar on fire, and they leave some of the corpses of the Toothcutters there to provide a convincing illusion of their death. They quietly flee to the northwest side of the Warrens, then arc around toward the caravan gate until they can slip across the city without passing too close to Rictus’ cordon of enforcers.
Having escaped from the templar’s grasp for the moment, the team heads to the elven market to find the Skypledged. An hour’s search finally brings them in touch with Namrah’s relatives, who quickly bundle her out of sight in a tent behind their market stall. One of the elven men mutters curses, and explains that with Namrah retrieved — or presumed dead — Rictus will simply return later to lean on them again and seek another means of finding the elves’ presumed contacts among the Veiled Alliance. Leros asks a bit about the elves’ business selling components to wizards, but the elf man simply gives a hissing sound of disgust. Namrah, lying on a rug and still weak, explains that she and her family don’t practice wizardry, they simply sell materials to the despicable mages.
Alatariel pushes for compensation, and the elf gives them a small amount of money and instructs them to meet him under the Elven Bridge an hour after sunset.
The team decides to hunker down out of sight for a few days and they spend some of their precious coins to secure a room where they can stay. When evening comes, they head back out to the Elven Bridge, and wait there; sure enough, three elves from the Skypledge tribe arrive, hissing at the party and gesturing for them to get down — as the foolish troupe had loitered about atop the ancient bridge, drawing attention needlessly to themselves. The elves explain that they will be leaving the city that night, and they pass a large sack to Leros. One of the elves tells Leros that if he’s that desperate to find a supplier for wizardly things, he should ask at the Drunken Giant.
Satisfied for the moment, the team returns to bed. Alatariel earns a few extra bits by spending the early evening hours dancing while the rest of the party sleeps.
The next day, Leros pushes for the group to follow his lead. His examination of the bag reveals several enchanted potion-fruits, a crystal wand (a dorje) with unknown psychic properties, and three small sacks of odds and ends that he declares confidently must be materials used by wizards for their spells. The group goes to the Drunken Giant to try to pawn the materials.
At the Drunken Giant, Leros encounters a half-elf bartender who shows little sign of knowing anything about the Veiled Alliance and makes it clear that he has no desire to become involved in anything having to do with wizards. He directs Leros to the Rats’ Nest, a bar just across the Shadow Square, where the proprietor will happily fence goods with no questions asked.
At the Rats’ Nest, Leros manages to have the dorje appraised, but he suspects that the offer he’s given is too low and he chooses not to sell it. He offers to sell the material components to the proprietor, but the barkeep refuses them, stating that he has no connections with wizards.
Leros returns to the party and tells them what transpired. After conferring for a bit, they are uncertain of their next move, but Leros remembers that his “uncle” Skaren is supposedly in contact with the Alliance. He returns to the Drunken Giant and tells them that Skaren sent him, while using an Alliance contact sign that he saw his “uncle” use once. The half-elf tells him that he’s being too blatant and quickly bustles the party through a stone trapdoor and into a secluded room beneath the inn, where he tells them that they can lie low for a day or two while they avoid the templarate.
Safely hidden away (they hope), the party wonders how they will survive being fugitives — assuming that Rictus saw through their faked deaths.