Following the bizarre encounter with their evil counterparts, Taman set off to find the company’s missing lizard mounts. The cavern they fought in had seen some transformation since they entered it, with a cave-in blocking one path and the scorch marks covering a wall following a massive fireball blast. The shield guardian – named Nathen by Loic – had fallen into a pit of some kind, and magic hung thickly in the air where, Taman assumed, one or more creatures had traveled briefly between dimensions.
Subconsciously, he ran his thumb along the chess piece he discovered where his second-self had dissolved into a pool of red, as he tried to sort out some giant lizard tracks through the combat-worn dirt and dust covering the hard ground. Taman’s thoughts went back to the encounter in the Abyss weeks ago. He hadn’t thought about the detour much since then, as it had a bit of a dream-like quality to it. Nightmare, really. The cleric hadn’t expected his first audience with a deity to be with the Demon Queen of Spiders. Now it was clear that not only had he and his companions gotten her attention, she was actively working against them in the Material plane. He was both flattered and appalled. Had his party not slain these creatures, who knows the levels of chaos they could have wrought?
Just then he heard something, and following the source of the sound he found the clear signs of the giant lizards’ scurry. He reasoned the sounds of battle had frightened one or more of them, causing them all to flee deeper into the tunnels. The tracks led Taman to his quarry, who had now settled a few hundred feet from the cavern the rest of party was in. After a quick prayer for guidance, he approached the animals peacefully, avoiding any sudden movements that would frighten them further. He gathered their reigns and rigged them to each other’s saddles, creating a train of giant lizards that he led back to his party.
“Found our pack animals,” the human called out as he approached his companions. “I haven’t checked them for supplies yet,” he said as he led them into a larger cavern, “But I imagine they still have something useful on them – or can serve some further use to us,” finishing with a shrug, stifling a yawn that tried to escape.
“How about we make camp here? I traveled a bit around our surroundings, and it seems as good as any place to me,” scanning the faces of the surrounding party members, looking for signs of agreement. He quickly added, “I can take the first watch.”
“You little minx!” exclaimed the wizard, speaking directly to Lolth in the case that she was still watching, even after her toys had been broken. Out of context, it looked like he was talking to his counterpart game piece.
He wasn’t mad, repulsed, or even frightened. No, Loic wanted to praise her for the clever attempt, then gloat to her face about how she failed miserably, how much of a botched job her clones had been. He wanted to play with her? The young half-elf frowned, becoming aware instantly of how dangerous that line of thought was, and even a little scared when it came to just how quickly he reacted in that particular manner… Did he really feel like any of this was fun? No, no disgust was held for the Spider Queen, only for himself, in that moment. It was this damned place. So far was it from the light, so easy it was to become lost, both figuratively and literally.
“I’m tired,” he stated, all enthusiasm suddenly having flown from him. “After you guys are satisfied that the area is secure enough, come stand near me and I’ll raise shelter. We can still get a full night’s sleep if we try.”
As he said this, a tiny eight-legged critter came darting from the cavern to the northwest. Peet scampered up his master’s leg and buried himself into the fluffy fur-covered cloak, having been separated and told to stay put during that most perilous battle.
Taman returned with the lost mounts, thank the gods, then gave as much of a sign-off on the location as Loic needed to hear. His arcane focus-infused dagger shot out from his wrist, and he commenced the casting. The spell would hold up to nine creatures, none of whom could be the size of Nathan or Angaste. The shield guardian did eventually climb back out of his hole, though.
If anyone was outside of a range of ten feet from Loic by the time ten minutes had passed, they would be trapped outside of the shelter for the night. Anyone within would be able to come and go freely.
Hearing Loic’s plan to raise a shelter confirmed to Taman that he wasn’t the only one looking forward to rest. But, having discussed with the wizard previously the limitations of the spell, he knew that not all of the company would be able to fit inside. And certainly not the pack animals. Seeing no argument forthcoming regarding watch duty, the human decided he would sleep outside of the shelter when his time came, leaving his slot open.
“Alvin,” he called out to the only remaining dwarf in their contingent. “Stand yourself next to the wizard,” the cleric said, gesturing to towards Loic, who was a few minutes into his ritual casting. “He’s putting up a shelter that’ll keep all inside safe from whatever occurs out here. Get some rest, you’ve had a long day,” placing his hand on the dwarf’s shoulder as he added, “And I’m sorry for the loss of your kin.”
Taman didn’t wait for a response, and considered that if he had waited for one, he’d be putting the fellow on the spot. So he walked a few feet away, settling on a position that would allow him to both keep an eye on the animals and the most direct approach to this particular cavern. He then extended his thoughts to his owl, instructing the keen sighted bird of prey to begin patrolling the surrounding tunnels.
With his watch without incident, Taman made his way towards the masked figure to wake him and report all had been quiet. The cleric sent a thought to his owl familiar to return, and probed for anything noteworthy. Riker was on his shoulder moments later, also with nothing to report.
“Wake up, friend,” the human said in hushed tones, so as not to alarm his companion. “All is quiet. I’ll stay up with you for a few minutes until you get your bearings.”
It had been the strangest thing, fighting the copies. He never came across himself in the fight and was glad, trying to out think one’s own actions would be quite a challenge. While striking down Lael’s duplicate it had looked so very much like Yylaria it pained him. He looked down at the chess piece in his hand. Was its power spent? Should he destroy it? Or was this just Lolth’s reminder that they are playing her game too.
He heard Loic declare that he was going to make a shelter and decided to investigate. “What is this shelter you speak of? Can I help?” He asked his fellow half-elf. Keen to get the remaining members of their party too rest.
“It’s just a spell,” he muttered to Eran between his incantations. “Just stand beside me until you see it take effect, and try to ensure no more than six other entities enter a ten-foot radius from me. Er, five entities,” he corrected himself as Alvin replaced Taman inside of the spell’s effective region.
A few minutes passed, and anyone who hadn’t followed Loic’s instructions, remaining outside, would witness a swirling serpent of opaque, inky blackness rising from the ground. It slowly rose to encapsulate a hemisphere of space with a diameter of twenty feet. When it was finished, the people inside were capable of seeing everything outside as though the wall didn’t exist. On the outside, however, nothing within could be seen past the churning pitch.
Heaving a sigh of conclusion, Loic unceremoniously plopped down onto the subterranean floor. “The rules are that I can’t leave this space in order to maintain it. Anyone else in here can come and go, though.” He said this to anybody who chose to listen. “If anyone outside needs to speak with me, just let me know and I’ll reach out to them telepathically.”
“There is something else you might be able to help me with.”
Loic had drawn his magical cloak from off his shoulders. Now, he was laying it out on the ground like a make-shift pallet. He rolled atop it, onto his back, and proceeded to talk to Eran while folding his arms behind his head.
“You seem like a handy fellow. You sort of put off a vibe like you’ve had to learn a lot on your own. Have you ever worked with crystal?”
Follow Loic’s queue he began to unfold his bedroll and lay his weapons beside him. “I’ve had some teachings, mostly I pick things up as I travel”
He sat down on his bedroll facing Loic. “I can’t say I’ve had any experience shaping crystal. It’s not a trade I’ve come across”. He watched the wizard, wondering what use he’d have for such skills?
“Well, I was wondering if you’d use your tools to break this apart.” He had pulled his satchel closer, into the crook of his arm. Without his cloak to conceal it, it was obvious only now that there was an enormous shard of red crystal, two feet long, sticking up out of his bag. Loic pulled the thing free and leaned up to pass it to Eran.
“I found it in Blingdenstone. It’s made out of the same stuff that makes the center of Ilia’s compass, and it’s got some potent magic that is linked directly to Gravenhollow. I’m certain we can make it into a few smaller pieces without it losing its magic. Then, if something happens to the compass, I might be able to craft a new one. And then if we have any shards left after the library, we can probably sell them for quite a lot of money.”
Taking the red crystal he ran his finger over the smooth hard edges. Getting a feel for the material he was being asked to work with. Loic’s logic was reasonable. " Having a backup seems sensible, especially considering current events". Giving the crystal one more look over he sets it down and gets out his smiths tools. “If you are sure the magic will remain then leave it with me, it will be done”
Taking his hammer and chisel, Eran patiently marks out fracture lines across the crystal, so deftly that it barely makes and sound, so not to disturb the others. When he makes the strong blow to the core the crystal shatters completely clean with no additional fracture lines.
Pleased with his work he hands three large equal chunks to Loic and two additional smaller pieces. “I hope that’s satisfactory?”.
“Now it’s time for some rest”
In a time when it felt like the trust given to him was dwindling, Loic was glad to have Eran’s confidence. He found himself unable to worry whether or not the other half-elf knew about the Stonespeaker Crystal. Someone else might have insisted it was too powerful of an item for him to carry and attempt to strip him of it. This one, on the other hand, appeared to have learned and had begun to understand the wizard’s talents, what he could do for them all if they would only let him do his thing, unrestrained.
…Was this paranoia a fabrication, that the others would take the crystal if they knew about its abilities? Or was this another conjuration of the Underdark..?
He rolled onto his side and curled up, pulling half of his cloak over himself as he watched the hunter work. He was quite good at this. When Eran was done, he’d produced exactly what had been asked of him, to perfection. Loic returned the broken shards to his satchel with a nod of great approval. “This is wonderful. Thank you.”
They were both exhausted. Eran had even more reason to be, having spent a chunk of the day attempting to hunt down a party that had the advantage of riding mounts. Since no words were necessary after stating his appreciation, the wizard likewise proceeded to slide into a deep, comfortable, dreamless slumber.
As the others went about their business, Raddan spent a moment examining the contents of the newfound dimensional hole. The paintings alone had to be worth a small fortune in the right hands, and the other items could prove effective in their own right. Folding it up was the work of moments, the fabric that remained was little bigger than a common handkerchief. He slipped it carefully into the folds of his robes, burying it in a hidden pocket. He’d investigate further another time, perhaps when they were in a safer environment. When Taman returned with the lizards and volunteered first watch, Raddan nodded his assent. “I’ll take the second then, wake me when you need me.” While Loic set work raising a shelter of some kind, Raddan perched himself on a nearby outcropping. The familiar figurine of his doppelgänger was still held in one hand and he rubbed its contours absent-mindedly as he worked to light a torch and wedge it into a rocky crack nearby. He hadn’t expected Lolth’s interference to become such a dire problem and he was irked with himself for not anticipating her manipulations. He did not know much of the drow goddess but the single encounter he had shared with her should have given him enough of a clue as to her mannerisms. He spared a glance at Lael. Perhaps a discussion with the drow paladin was in order. If nothing else, it might give him a better understanding about what they could expect of Lolth in future. Wishful thinking might lead one to believe her interloping would cease now without her ‘agents’, but Raddan hadn’t survived this long on blind hope.
Turning his attention back to the figurine, Raddan eyed his own visage with a dark scowl. He was becoming heartily sick of seeing himself as of late. The thought lingered in the back of his mind, quiet but insistent. What more might she try to do with this trinket? Just how linked was he to the gaming piece? He could forego sleep a few moments more, he decided. At any rate, it was unlikely he could convince himself to drop off with the spectre of Lolth hanging over him like a black shroud. For a moment, he fancied he could feel her dark influence resonating from the figurine itself. Shaking off the sensation, Raddan decided to start small. First he changed the colour of his mask, shifting it from silver to a deep red. His eyes remained locked on the chess piece, watching to see the change reflected. He then reached out a hand, holding the figure close to the lit torch, waiting to see if the sensation of heat would echo in his own body. Finally, and with some reluctance, Raddan took a dagger from his belt and carefully pricked the bottom of his counterpart’s foot with the tip of the blade. He was ready with a small healing spell if necessary and could only hope his efforts would provide clear answers.
Though nothing happened to you physically neither did anything physically affect the piece, it remained as it was, did not get warm, did not leave any mark where your dagger had pricked it
Taman was glad to hear the masked figure would be taking the second watch. The cleric had been looking for an opportunity to learn more about this mysterious character, who had managed to maintain his anonymity far longer than one would think possible given the small number of their company. That achievement implied a deliberate effort on his part, and the motivation behind that effort only raised more questions.
The human watched as the fellow lit and set a torch. Taman decided he would stick around when his watch was over and have a chat with his comrade. The cleric didn’t expect the figure to be overly chatty or forthcoming, but had enough interactions with him to judge him at least open to a fireside chat.
Taman saw Loic’s dome take shape in the light cast from the torch, and noted the blackness of the force-field structure. He knew the wizard could choose the outward appearance of this spell, and shook his head at his friend’s burgeoning gloomy affectations. It seemed to the cleric that Loic had been growing darker over time – in appearance, certainly – and wondered if it hinted at anything beyond the surface of the self-assured half elf. He wondered if the wizard’s habit of creating the illusory sunroof was for his own benefit, rather than for the morale of the majority, as he had insisted.
Of course, a dark color was also the pragmatic choice for the structure. But at that moment, the human couldn’t imagine his friend choosing anything but pitch-black for any reason.
“Cheer up, buddy,” he called silently to the dome, knowing none inside would hear him anyway. “Our work will be done soon.”
Though at first disappointed with his unsuccessful attempts to provoke a response of some kind from Lolth’s handiwork, Raddan took some solace in the fact that, for now at least, it didn’t appear capable of harming him. Sleep came relatively quickly and went by without disturbance. When Taman’s eventual interruption prompted him to wakefulness, Raddan unfurled into a catlike stretch, his mind immediately clear and focused. Though he trusted the other man’s senses well enough, old habits die hard and he could not stop his eyes from scouring the cave for disturbances. “Let’s hope the quiet continues.” he murmured to the man as he hopped down from his rocky perch. He’d already picked out a suitable sentry point before he’d slept, a position that would allow him a good view of all the tunnel approaches to the campsite. He gestured to the torch he’d lit earlier, now only a few hours from being fully expended. “You wanting to keep that lit?” he asked as he took up a sitting position with his back to a boulder, spear cradled in his lap. “Doubt it’ll help you sleep any and a man on watch sees better in the dark without being fire-blind.”
“Nah, go ahead and put it out,” Taman replied, as he dismissed his owl familiar back into its pocket dimension. He followed the figure to his chosen sentry position and took a seat on the ground beside him. “Tell me, friend, about your mask,” the cleric began asking bluntly, seeing no use for small-talk in this situation. “I’ve noticed it’s quite expressive, and emotes reactions that would be expected in the moment. I could see the use of a mask concealing actual feelings, but it appears you choose to display your impressions quite plainly on your false visage.”
Raddan eyed Taman’s approach with a wary expectation. He’d anticipated this kind of conversation taking place sooner or later and thus he was ready when the cleric sat beside him and began his questioning. Ask the other man spoke, Raddan made a quick motion with his fingers and the torch across from them abruptly died, plunging the pair into darkness. His gaze began drifting between the approaches to the cave as he contemplated his answer. At least the human hadn’t wasted time dancing around his issue. Raddan had actually expected the wizard to be the first to start the interrogation and he seriously doubted Loic would have been able to stop his tongue flapping long enough to simply cut to the chase. It was one of the reasons he’d stayed out of the spellcaster’s shelter, along with the sense of disquiet that persisted deep within his gut whenever he thought of the half-elf.
Turning his attention back to the current conversation Raddan spoke softly, aware of how far a voice could carry in these conditions. “The mask serves a purpose, more than one in the right hands. Why do I allow it to change? I’ve learnt that sometimes the manner in which words are said can be taken differently than intended, if the expression behind them cannot be seen.” Raddan kept to himself the fact that just because the mask portrayed one emotion, it didn’t always match up with the one behind it. Catching people on the wrong foot was all part of the game. He turned to glance at the bearded fellow beside him, the surface of the mask becoming a dull black as if to illustrate his words. Having a shiny surface strapped to one’s face while trying to stay hidden was never a smart idea. “And you?” he asked. “What use do you make of masks? Will you hide your emotions, your misgivings? Or will you confront them?” He turned his gaze back to the camp’s edge, continuing before the cleric could respond. “If you harbour a grudge against me for my words outside Mantol-Derith, I’d rather we deal with it now, before you become beholden to it.”
“Me? I’m a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy,” Taman answered, somewhat taken aback by the reversal of the question, as he wore no mask – rarely even a figurative one. “That’s not to say that every thought that crosses my mind ends up on my face or escapes my lips,” the cleric added, “But I have little talent for subtlety or subterfuge.”
“And I harbor no grudge,” the human responded earnestly, attempting to make eye contact, but unsure if he was being successful. “If we all shared the same opinion on every topic, then some of us would be unnecessary. Diverse viewpoints are invaluable, even if it does mean there will be disagreements along the way.”
“But back to the mask,” the cleric course corrected, hoping we would uncover something about his mysterious companion before the compulsion to sleep overtook him. “I can appreciate using visual cues to aid in communication, but most of us are content to use what we were born with,” he said as made an exaggerated wave across his own face. “I’d have to conclude your aim, therefore, is to conceal your identity. Are you a person of great renown, weary of the adulation that comes with recognition?”
So the cleric was an idealist then, or at least claimed to be. In its own way, that made him as dangerous a man as any other in the group. Raddan let the protests pass without comment. He’d dealt with Taman’s kind before, even shared his views, briefly. Then life had delivered a harsh dose of reality that was impossible to ignore. He eyed the human again and wondered just how long his naiveté would last. Without the metallic sheen of the mask to hide them, Raddan’s eyes stood out more than usual. What appeared to be silver orbs gazed unblinkingly for a moment before his attention returned to his duty.
He held back a snort of amusement at the cleric’s guesswork. If only the man knew how close to the truth he had struck, and yet how far from it he was. Raddan’s mind travelled across the seasons for a moment, and his ears rang with the clamour of battle that quickly faded to the plaintive cries of dying men and the harsh shrieks of the crows. Almost subconsciously, his free hand strayed to a pocket and began fingering the miniature raven pendant that lodged there. “Nothing so exciting,” he replied eventually. Not quite a lie, not quite the truth. “I’m simply a man who values whatever assets he can find; being an unknown quantity constitutes one such advantage.” He shifted his position slightly, seeking a more comfortable position against the stony surface of the boulder. “I’ve little doubt that others amongst this little group would find a similar use for this metal face of mine, should they stumble upon a similar treasure. That wizard of yours certainly seems to be building quite the collection of arcanic artifacts.”
“I doubt I’d glean much more from your face than I could from your mask,” Taman assured the figure. “I mean, if your likeness is no more famous than my own – or any of our companions – the mask would seem to do little to make you any more unknown,” he reasoned. “Even moreso down here, I’d wager,” the cleric glanced about the cave walls. “Surely, what little renown any of us have on the surface is necessarily diminished the further we travel into the Underdark.”
Taman paused, but in such a way that communicated it was only a pause, and not a rest. “Of course, if your face is known to one of our company, and you seek to keep your identity secret from that individual, then that makes all the sense in the world. Beyond that, I just don’t see the value in this particular secret.”
Seeing the figure’s elusiveness on the topic of his mask, Taman expected he’d get nothing on his last speculation either. So he decided on a more general topic of inquiry. “At the end of the day, I guess it doesn’t really matter who you are, but more so what you do,” looking out into the darkness, at nothing in particular. “So why do you do what you do? Why did you answer the call of the dwarf king, and what is it you hope to get out of this venture?” he asked, remembering his conversation with Ilia, and his assertion that all assembled were there for their own gain.
Raddan said nothing as Taman spoke, allowing his words to wash over him like a wave. He’d endured similar ‘discussions’ before, though quite where the cleric was getting his renown slant from was perplexing. He only interjected when Taman interrupted his own reasoning. “It’s not required for you to see the value.” said Raddan pointedly. “And I can assure you, I know no more of this little band than what Bruenor and his messengers cared to impart. Prior to the feast at the king’s table, I had yet to meet with any of you.” This was true and it cost him nothing to admit it. If the cleric suspected his presence was tied to a personal vendetta of some kind, it was best to nip such suspicions in the bud.
As Taman continued his line of questioning, Raddan’s fingers began rhythmically flexing on the haft of his spear. When the other man had finished, the masked figure emitted a low chuckle. “If you’re expecting a complicated answer to that, I’m going to have to disappoint. Simple fact is, I’m rather fond of going to sleep at night and not having to worry if the sun will rise again the next morning. If Bruenor is right, then the success of the Abyssal Lords might mean an end to that little pastime of mine.” His eyes scanned the darkness and his voice, though still slightly metallic, was tinged with good humour. “Most men will fight for what is theirs if it they’re put under suitable duress and I’m no exception. I’m not fool enough to think that we can expect every peasant we see to fully comprehend the threat they now face, but my own foresight extends further.” He turned to fix his gaze upon the human again. “Your chances of success, and the odds of my world continually existing, increase significantly with my presence here. And so, our goals are aligned.”
“And glad we are to have you on our side,” Taman nodded in agreement. The cleric was glad to hear that his companion’s motives weren’t that different than his own. And while the mask would have to remain a mystery, the human found it mattered little to him whether the fellow wore it or not. Even if it didn’t grant him any extra anonymity where none would know him anyway, perhaps his belief that it did granted him an extra measure of security, and such comforts were hard to come by in the Underdark.
But Taman’s mind remained restless, and latched onto other mysteries left unsolved. After a few moments of comfortable silence, he spoke up again. “Say, do you remember investigating our ruined campsite outside of Mantol-Derith? Did you find it odd we found no remains for the Order of the Gauntlet? Do you think they fled, or were in league with our enemies? And what do you think became of our mad captive?”
Glad to have me on your side are you? Raddan suppressed a harrumph. Flattery will get you nowhere cleric As the discussion lapsed into silence, the sorcerer maintained his duty, breaking from it only to spare a glance at the wizard’s shelter as a quiet chipping sound arose. To his ears, it almost sounded like someone hacking away at rock. He narrowed his eyes in concentration as the gentle tapping continued, but ultimately returned his attention to his watch when no cry of alarm from the occupants was forthcoming. He’d almost begun to believe the human had succumbed to the lure of sleep when the man spoke again to quickly prove him wrong.
“Odd is one word. Suspicious is another.” Raddan scratched idly at his knee as he spoke. “I confess to being somewhat distracted at the time, my thoughts were pulling me in a number of directions. Perhaps the more perceptive members of our troupe can shed some light on the matter of the missing members of the Order.” He drew in a breath and continued in something that was almost a sigh. “As for Sladis… that’s a question I can’t answer. Perhaps he found an opportunity and took it. Perhaps his madness overwhelmed his rational mind again.” Raddan shrugged dismissively. “Odds are, he’s lying at the bottom of that lake somewhere.” He chuckled darkly to himself as a thought struck him. “Wouldn’t be surprised to learn he managed to take that damned bag with him. Hell, he’s probably made sure to take my rope too.”
His gaze flitted over the recovered lizards for a moment before he abruptly changed the subject. “You know what worries me?” he asked without waiting for an answer, and without being sure quite why he was bringing it up. “If it were up to me… well, the real me, I wouldn’t have stopped here. If you know you’re being chased, you don’t stop to let those following you catch up. I can’t even rationalise our doppelganger’s ignorance; we all know Lael’s recovery of her mount was enough to tip them the wink.” As he spoke, Raddan’s muscles began to coil warily beneath the folds of his clothes. “They could have forced a march, kept their edge on us, even rode two to a lizard if they’d a mind. It all adds up to an unpleasant feeling deep within my gut, a feeling that they almost wanted to be caught.”
“It’s possible they thought they’d have the advantage on us, lying in wait for our arrival,” the cleric offered, but only half-heartedly. If it had been an ambush his party stumbled into, it was a poorly organized one. “Lolth may have managed to imbue our counterparts with our physical traits and gifts, but perhaps they were mindless automatons, and bereft of our own cunning and intellect. Surely, they lacked our own morality, so exact duplicates they were not,” Taman finished, satisfied with his reasoning that they had gotten the better of the Spider Queen – this time, anyway.
He remembered then an item sitting unused in his bag. “Your rope,” he started again, digging through backpack. “Did it have any magical properties?” Finding what he was looking for, he began drawing out a bundle of chain, offering it to the masked one. “Maybe you can make use of this,” stopping suddenly as he remembered the other components of the contraption, and heading back into his pack to seek them out. “The chain itself has some magic upon it, although I don’t know exactly how it works.” The cleric then drew forth a fishing rod and a bear trap. “A companion of mine once wielded these three items in concert.” Shaking his head as he spoke, as if he couldn’t even believe what he was saying, “A half orc once snagged a beholder with this contraption, and reeled it in to remove its advantage of flight. He saved our lives. You’re welcome to all these, if you think you can make use of them. But I though the chain might at least replace your rope.”
Raddan found himself nodding in agreement. “It’s possible,” he conceded, “though we may never know for sure. It’s a shame we can’t provoke a response from our miniature selves, I would have liked to have questioned… me.” In private at least, though he left that part unsaid. His brow furrowed in perplexity at Taman’s following query. “A magical rope? Nothing so grandiose, no. Just a useful item was all.” He watched with some bemusement as the cleric produced first a golden chain, and then a short wooden stick. One eyebrow of the mask raised and the other soon joined it when the third item, a monstrous bear trap, appeared. “What in the planes is that contraption?” When he received his answer, he struggled to hold be a sputter of laughter at what the cleric seemed to be suggesting. “Well,” he remarked eventually, a smile clearly evident in his tone, “I’ve heard tales of half-orc stupidity, but half-orc ingenuity? That’s a new one. You should tell that story the next time you’re in a pub, ought to win you a few free drinks.” Taking the proffered items, Raddan nodded his thanks. “I appreciate the donation, though I’ll have to be more careful with this one I think.” He eyed the odd jumble of items with a clear sense of disbelief. “It seems almost a shame to separate them.” he muttered with a shake of his head. Stowing them amongst his equipment, Raddan drew a handful of gold coins from a hidden pocket. Casting an eye over them and separating a rough hundred or so, he pressed them towards the cleric. “For your trouble.” he said simply. “And before you argue, I’d save that energy and get some kip, sunshine. Been a long day for all of us.”
Taman accepted the gold with a smile – at the sorcerer’s insistence. And he agreed that the day had been long, and rest was a good idea. The cleric stood up and moved to take his place near Loic’s dome. He called back, “May your watch be uneventful,” and laid himself down to sleep.
The darkness takes him. All he can feel is his heart thumping in his chest. The cold air burning his lungs as he sucks it in to feed his beating heart. The pain in his ankles and knees as he’s been running for hours. Scratches sting all over his body from the thorns and branches. With that the forest takes form, dark, oppressive, endless!
The voices that were always there but somehow he can only hear them now. The torturous cries, calling out to him, telling him to run faster. The other voices, the hunters, laughing, enjoying their spoils! He runs but they are catching him, getting closer, but he fears them no more, he’s dealt with them, and as he feels them about to grab him from behind and take his life. He finds them dead at his feet. She screams for him to run again and as he turns his eyes hurts in pain as darkness is consumed by the light of flame. There she stands, naked and burning, her flesh charred and sizzling. The smell sickens him and the flame burns his face, as she leans forward screaming “RUN!”.
Eran wakes soaked in sweat.
He looked around and found most everyone asleep. He noted Taman was also asleep outside the dome, it must be the masked one on watch. The masked one, he was getting annoyed at simply knowing nothing, not even a name, about this mystery man. No not a man, men didn’t have tails, a Tiefling most likely, thinking of Leucius’s dexterous appendage. There was an outside chance he was a Cambion, but rare for them to be working against the princes. He wasn’t likely to be a spy either, the mystery man in the mask would be the first they’d suspect. Time to get a name he decided.
Leaving the dome the chill in the air washed over his skin. Cooling the sweat still wet between his joints. He walked quietly a little further down the passage, finding the masked one standing guard. He settled beside him looking ahead. He thought of the Simon and Theodora, of Sladis. The only signs of which he’d found in the lake. They’re trusted him to lead them yet they’d been slaughtered so simply. Yet he never thought of them as his men to lead, simply those that had joined him. “They liked you, the men I mean” he wasn’t sure why he was saying this, but he just wanted to speak about them. “They say you liked games of chance, and were terrible at them”. He continued with a little chuckle as he thought back. “Simon wasn’t so sure tho, he thought you were up to something? He thought everyone was.” He stowed his feelings, this was not the time. “They did not deserve that fate, even Sladis.” Eran decided to confer something that was bothering him. " I found signs of him in the lake but cannot fathom why? What did they gain by dumping the bodies in the lake, why take the time?"
Hours passed without event. Raddan kept his post as Taman slept nearby, his body motionless now that conversation had ceased. With his outline hidden by the boulder behind him and no movement to speak of, he knew he’d be almost impossible to detect. He’d stood enough watches in his time to have developed the mental discipline that prevented his mind from wandering in the silence. That silence was not to last however. A shuffling of boot leather on stone made his ears prick up and he tilted his head slightly, listening hard. A moment later, the answer came. Satisfied it was one of the occupants of the magical shelter, Raddan slipped back into his previously relaxed posture. He was unprepared therefore when Eran arrived at his side and he had to swallow his irritation when the other man began to speak. Apparently distracting a sentry was the norm with these folk. While he welcomed a discussion with the only other man who seemed to have had misgivings about shattering the demonic gem, he certainly had a knack for picking his time.
He spared a glance for the occupants of the shelter as Eran talked, even though he couldn’t see within. He suspected they’d enjoyed the games of die as much as he had, and they’d won fairly. That wasn’t to say he’d been playing to his full potential, but he wouldn’t begrudge them their victories. It’d be a small comfort to them now as they turned cold and began to bloat with the rot of death. At least, according to Eran, his efforts to gain a small measure of their trust hadn’t been wasted at the time, little good it would do him now. He pondered the question put to him for a moment before answering. “Beyond me,” he admitted bluntly, “though who’s to say it was intentional? They caught them in the act of setting up camp and if no one else, the wizard likely possesses the kind of abilities to cast things and people about like dolls. Hit them hard enough and some might have been stunned before they landed in the lake. You don’t survive long trying to breath water, as Lolth was so kind as to remind us.” He sniffed. “Could have been even simpler. Lot of lizards were caught up in that fight, a few of them charging about in a panic could have easily sent a few of our lads flying. Even if they’d been conscious, the fact is,” he reasoned with grim humour, “not everyone can swim.”
Eran considered the words, intentional or not Eran couldn’t shake the feeling he was missing something about the happenings in the lake. They’d been dragged, he’d seen signs of that, but why not just kill them where they lay. He supposed he would find no more answers to that question. “I suppose we’ll never know. Dead men tell no Tails”. He emphasised the last word subtly. Watching for some reaction in the masked humanoid. He was playing games, but he was clumsy with games of words. He knew this was a blunt stroke. He may do better being upfront with him. He wanted to see his reaction though, get some sense of the creature behind the mask.
Raddan chuckled at that, a low throaty sound. “You think not? I’d wager you’ve no experience with the undead then, or at least, I might if I were a better gambler.” He added that last gentle ribbing in a humoured tone, one carefully designed to hide the familiar bitterness he felt at Eran’s unintentionally ironic statement. “I’ve known dead than can talk rings around the living. Hell, for half of ‘em it’s been so long since they had anyone to talk to that the trick is actually getting them to shut up.” And some of the dead are better off buried and forgotten he added silently. Once more, his free hand strayed to his pocket and fingers began to trace the outline of the silver bird that lived there. “Speaking of the dead,” he continued, “you lot ought to have been sleeping like them. Now snoring I’m used to hearing, even encountered a sleepwalker or two, but I’ve never heard of anyone that starts chipping at rock as they slept.”
It was a saying, one to stir a reaction. A reaction he didn’t get, not the one he was expecting anyway. Something had bothered him about the statement.
He was attempting to change the subject. Although he had to admit his hearing was sharp. The blows had been quiet enough for the others to sleep. He didn’t want to talk about his minor craft work.
Enough with this, he was better at being direct. " I wonder if these chatty dead are more enlightened than the living?" He said quizzically. " Would they know your name for instance?" He said half heartedly and with slight mockery. He didn’t expect an answer honestly.
Raddan wasn’t surprised to find his comments about the chipping noises going unheeded. He’d half-expected as much, though the lack of a response had at least given him an insight into the other man. As Eran’s final words hung in the air, Raddan found himself abruptly faced with the past once again. He allowed the seconds to tick by before he spoke with a pleasantness he didn’t quite feel. “They might,” he began simply, “and if they did, it’d probably be because they bothered to ask.” He turned his gaze on Eran then, allowing just the slightest hint of his annoyance to show. “If you have an answer to demand of me then in future I suggest you ask your question, rather than edging around the issue.” He turned his attention back to the shadows before continuing. “I’ll spare you the trouble this time. I am called Raddan. Nothing more, nothing less. Does this satisfy you?”
Eran heard Raddan’s irritation, it was not the first time. Fine he hated dancing with words anyway. " Well Raddan I thank you for your name but I did not demand it, but let’s speak plain as you suggest." Feeling his own irritation start to rise. " You watch us at the feast and care not to interact. You join the company by attempting to slyly slip into the ranks and gain favour with the men. Yet your only interaction with us is when important dealings are being decided. Even then you care not to introduce yourself but remark upon these things with condescension as if we’re failing in a dire way" He kept his voice low but his frustration felt. " This group is new and we’re all finding our way to achieving this great task, and we’re all finding it tough. The only way it will work is if we trust each other. Which is something I find hard to give to someone who cares not to introduce himself and hides his true form…" Screw it Eran thought. Let’s put all the cards on the table. " …pretending to be a man or Elf by hiding his face and wrapping his tail around his waist." There he said it, and there was relief in confronting Raddan. " Yet… You’ve proven yourself an ally, or at least an enemy to Lolth, but without trust, both ways, this cannot work" His tension eased. " You care not to trust in our abilities, or allow us to trust in yours." He said sadly. “Yet we’ve trusted you enough to remain and be part of this, knowing little more than King Bruenor invited you.” He spoke with sincerity. “You scold me for not asking your name sooner. Yet you entire demure screams leave me be.”
He let the other man rant, listening and absorbing without interruption as he laid his concerns and indeed his revelations bare. He found himself smiling a little by the end of it, though the mask showed no change to its blank expression. Though he was disappointed to learn that Eran had apparently taken offence to him, it did at least point to the fact that the half-elf seemed easy to goad into venting his frustrations.
Discovering that Eran knew at least something of his physical attributes did not worry him, he’d known the subject would come up sooner or later. He was however intrigued as to how exactly his extra appendage had been discovered. Raddan pondered it for a moment but decided it didn’t make much difference really; perhaps he was simply perceptive enough to see the slight bulge around his midriff and began guessing from there. When he did finally speak, he was careful to keep his tone amiable. “For the sake of clarification, I had not intended to sneak amongst your number when you first departed Gauntlgrym. I’m simply not given to announcing myself if the situation does not require it. If you take offence to my practices then I apologise, though the fact that I was not challenged seemed to indicate that my presence did not trouble you, or indeed anyone else.”
“I’m used to working alone,” he continued, being careful with his choice of words, “and discussions are not something I enjoy enduring. I find they too often waste valuable time. I’m a man of action, and my words often echo that.” Explaining exactly why that was was a conversation Raddan had no intention of inviting just yet. And if what I have to say also irks you, you’ll find no repentance for that. “On the matter of trust… in my experience, trust freely given is no trust at all.” he turned his head slightly, one eye socket of the mask looking to make eye contact. “Trust is a steel best forged when it has first been earned. Perhaps in time, you’ll find that I have earned yours.” He did not bother to add that the challenge existed for both of them. “As to my appearance… surely how I look matters little to you in the grand scheme of things? Unless of course, there’s something you have a problem with?” Though clearly loaded, the question was spoken without malice; if anything, there might have been a slight notion of tiredness that accompanied it. Raddan glanced down to lure Eran’s gaze and as if to illustrate his query, there was an almost slithering motion from the folds of his clothes around the waist, the movements of something clearly not quite human.
Eran listened to the tiredness in his tone. It seemed like Raddan had been relieved in someway to finally have this conversation himself. He followed his gaze and watch the slight movement of the tail. " I did not challenge you as you and I were one of many unknown faces that day. I saw you at the feast, that was enough." he thought back “I did ask Ilia to watch you, just in case.” he smiled sardonically.
He was disappointed in himself for venting like he had. The day had been long, losing the men, fighting his duplicate and the dream again, his patients was thin. He had meant to have this conversation but not this way. Regardless it was done now. " I have no qualm about you’re input, we seem to be of like mind, in Lolths liar for instance. You’re actions saved us." He said with sincerity. " What race you are matters not to me. What your appearance is matters not. Why you choose to hide them does. For it leaves an unknown quantity, if it is for personally reasons I can except that. If it’s something more nefarious, that could affect this mission, then its better shared."
As he took in Raddan’s words he was reminded of himself, how he’d been not a year ago. Not until Phandalin had he seriously made connections with people again. Not until after Loudwater had be begun to face the reasons why. “But trust… a year ago I would have said that same as you. Now I’ve realised, to continue your metaphor, trust is steel forged while white hot. You maybe burned in the beginning, the metal maybe impure and need to be folded many more time, or thrown away altogether. However tempered together, with effort and sweat, it can become something that can never be broken.” Eran continued. " I want to trust you Raddan, I want you to trust me, actions strengthen it, but a leap of faith is also required." He holds out his hand as a gesture.
Raddan’s apparent fatigue was in no way related to any sense of relief and it evaporated almost as quickly as it had arrived. When Eran spoke of Ilia’s watchful presence, he even chuckled. “Of course you did, I’d have done the same. As for what lies beneath this mask,” and he reached up to tap the blackened metal gently with an outstretched finger, “you need not fear. There is nothing particularly heinous under here, certainly nothing that might cause our great endeavour any harm.” As it was, there was only one person who would suffer if he were to remove it. Raddan had no intentions of exposing his weakness if he could help it and promises of trust amounted to little more than words. While Eran appeared to disagree, the sorcerer was a firm believer than actions spoke far louder and carried much further. Still, it cost him nothing to give the man what he wanted. Eyeing the outstretched hand, Raddan reached out to clasp it firmly. In truth, he’d been close to offering the same gesture himself. The fact that Eran had been the one to instigate it was encouraging. “To the future then, and the success of this mad quest of ours.” Before letting the hand drop, Raddan held it a moment longer, just enough to draw Eran’s eye. “Though if you would have me trust you, I would ask that you keep your knowledge of my… physiology to yourself for the time being. As you yourself have said, it matters little to you, and yet it means something to me.” He smiled, Eran’s last words hanging between them. “Consider it a jump.”
Grateful to receive Raddan’s hand, Eran then bulked at the words that followed. He had already told Loic, but they were forming trust and he would not lie to the man now. “I would have but I’m afraid a discussion has already been had between me and Loic.” He was not ashamed to have done this, he wanted some council at the time, but it was an unfortunate circumstance. “I will inform him to be discrete in the matter.” That’s all he could offer at this time.
“Anyway…”. Changing the subject. “You spoke of sleep and its time for your share, I’ll take the remaining watch, go get some rest.”
Thin lips curled into an unseen grin. So, he’d already been the topic of discussion between at least two members of the party. He’d expected as much, but having it confirmed was gratifying. He wasn’t even greatly concerned that news of his tail had leaked out. Raddan was nothing if not practical, he’d known it wouldn’t remain hidden forever and the small loss of secrecy was something he had long made peace with. Eran and the others did not have to know that, however. Using his spear as leverage to hoist himself up, Raddan nodded to Eran, allowing a gentle disquiet to leak into his tone. “I would appreciate it if you would.” he replied and began to move off into the darkness. “Lie still and listen well, until the hunt begins anew.” Where had that come from? He hadn’t used that old watch mantra for years. Mentally shrugging to himself, the sorcerer retreated to bury himself in the shadows of the cavern walls. While he hadn’t quite expected this much discussion, he had to admit, if only to himself, that it had been beneficial. Both Taman and Eran had revealed much, and he now had plenty to think about…