About an hour later Maropona, Naivara, Sha-karn, Maarkus and Gwen stood irresolutely in Slaughterstone Alley. Their exit from the tunnels had been enlivened somewhat by the appearance of a filthy tentacled creature which had pushed its way out of a refuse pile and attacked the party as they prepared to leave the sewers. They had not bothered to stand and fight the otyugh, and fortunately all of them escaped up the rickety bone ladder to the street above.
“So, what now?” asked Maropona. “We’ve found a few odd shrines, a die, and this dagger.” He held up a kris with an “L” finely etched on the base of the blade, recovered from one of the enraged cave diggers they had fought, and a silver die from the same source. “I’ve seen knives like this before,” Maarkus had said, “this is Lerryn’s work – you know him? Bladesmith in the Devil’s Thumb district.”
“I’ve just remembered something else,” said Maarkus. “The Palace of Fortunity – that casino near here – is owned by House Remari – they’re rivals of my house – Malhaven. Now I’ve heard tell that Remari are linked to the cult of the ‘Secluded One’. “Like those little shrines we found?” asked Naivara. “Just so,” said Maarkus.
“Can we find somewhere to stay?” asked Naivara. “I’m not feeling at all well.” Looking around, she noticed that all her companions would shiver periodically, something which the cold of the night did not adequately explain. “Curse those stinking tunnels!” Sha-karn snapped. “We’ve all caught something from the vapours, no doubt.” “We’ll try the Golden Hearth,” said Maropona. “My old mate Haken lives there – he always said it was a decent place. Should be this way.” So saying, he set off, with the others following in a sad coughing and trembling procession.
After some discussion with the guard outside the door (it was, after all, the small hours of the morning) they were admitted to the Golden Hearth. They were received by a middle-aged woman. “I’m Mhili Horcrest and this is my tavern. You’re welcome here so long as you pay in good coin and don’t cause trouble.”, she said, doing her best to mask any suspicion beneath a polite but firm veneer. The young man by her side gave them a hard stare and muttered a few words to her, but she waved him away and called, “Jon, show them to the washrooms then see what they want to drink.” A vacant-eyed lad appeared and said, “Pleasetocomethiswaygoodladiesandsirs” in a well-rehearsed monotone, then wandered off towards the back of the pub, without looking behind.
They were able to remove the worst of the sewer filth with sand and a little water, and a little later they were in the common room sipping watered berry wine. Maropona stood at the bar chatting with a scarred older man named Haken, who seemed to be a fellow ex-gladiator. Sha-karn, Maarkus and Naivara, sitting nearby, overheard Haken mention he had heard of people disappearing from the streets and fights breaking out between different houses. On one of the posts supporting the ceiling someone had carved the words, “It lurks below the streets”. Apart from Mistress Horcrest and the young man, the only other unfamiliar faces in the room were an elven woman in black robes and a scruffy bearded man in what might have been priests’ robes, were there still gods to worship. Maropona watched the elf with interest. His instincts told him that she was not actually evil but hiding something. He left Haken and walked over to her.
“What’s he saying?” Naivara asked Sha-karn. “He seems to be flirting with her,” the genasi replied, with a rare smile. “Wait – what did he just say? ‘When was the last time you did some defiling?’” “Ooh, she didn’t like that. Look, she’s walked off upstairs. Now Maro’s talking to that odd man.” “And now they’re going upstairs together. What is he up to?”
“Close the door behind you.” Maropona did as he was bid and sat down on the floor. The bearded man, Kelek, had set up a little pot with a fire under it. He reached into a pouch and scooped out a handful of some dark, crumbly substance into the vessel. “The visions are not granted to all. Some simply find their minds are dulled. The fortunate ones find their mind actually clears, and then… then…” Kelek’s face filled with awe. Maropona smelled the fumes from the little censer. “Breathe deeply, and try and clear your mind of other thoughts,” commanded Kelek. Maropona leaned closer and inhaled. The smoke was sweet and did not sting his throat as he had expected. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. Instead of the shabby tavern room he was surrounded by clouds of swirling white vapour. In the distance he could see a figure, drifting closer. Its figure was clearly human, but a multitude of tentacles sprouted grotesquely from its body and for some reason he could not make out its face. In the moment before the incense-dream ended he saw a symbol of eight criss-crossed lines.
“Well? Did you see anything?” Kelek’s hand dug uncomfortably into his shoulder and his eyes were alight with the madness of zealotry. Maropona pushed him off and stood up, swaying. “I saw.. I do not know. Something.. a man.. tentacles.. clouds.. no face.” Kelek stared at him. “Then the gods have blessed you. The Secluded One has granted you a vision of his glory. Go, now, but remember what you have seen, and tell others.”
Later, lying awake in their shared room, Maropona pondered recent events. The Secluded One… he remembered the carven images on the altars of the shrines they had found. Was there some misshapen creature hidden somewhere they had missed, revered as a god? Though the gods had seemingly left Athas, its people still craved the comfort of the divine. Every now and then some cult would spring up in the city and attract a small band of followers; if it attracted enough attention the templars would stamp it out and kill or imprison the blasphemers. Now Kalak was gone, the templars, now the Tythian Guard, had their hands full keeping the city in order, so this new religion might have had time to gain strength. And what of the elf-woman in black, Sheranna? He had noticed an odd green gleam in her eye and had instantly suspected defiling, but her manner had turned to ice at the suggestion. Could she be an assassin? he wondered.
The warden sighed and stared over towards the slit of light coming from beneath the dormitory door. As he watched, it went dark and Maropona realised that something was squeezing its way under the door. In the dim light he saw an insectoid body and emerald multifaceted eyes. He shouted a warning to the others and advanced on the creature, which had pushed its way into the chamber completely now. Another one was following it. The creature reared up like a snake, flapping gauzy wings to support it, and lunged forward, pincer-like jaws closing on Maropona’s leg. He wrenched free and glanced back at his companions. Naivara, Maarkus and Sha-karn were standing, but seemingly rooted to the spot and clutching at their throats, mouths working noiselessly, eyes bulging. Maropona concentrated, shifting himself slightly out of the physical plane, then calling forth a swirling cloud of blood and grit to lacerate his enemies. The insects recoiled as the cloud tore at their carapaces and snapped wildly, unable to see the warden properly. The door flew open and a man entered. He lunged at Maropona with a long dagger.
Naivara had awoken into a nightmare where she was held immobile and unable to breathe, but she held to her mental discipline and forced one creature to attack the man. This seemed to disrupt the effect and she, Sha-karn and Maarkus gratefully sucked in lungfuls of air. A moment later Sha-karn’s bear spirit was in front of the insects, smashing one to the floor with a sweep of its claws, as Maropona killed the other, then hurling itself on the man and tearing out his throat.
Maarkus pushed past Maropona and the fallen corpses into the corridor. An empty box lay on its side, big enough to have held the two insect-things. Maropona bent to search the dead man. He was dressed in tattered rags, but carried a kris similar to the ones they had encountered in the sewers. He held it up but at that moment Maarkus shouted, “Follow me! Trouble downstairs!” and they all piled down the staircase into the common room.
Another one of the insect-monsters was attacking Haken, who was bleeding from at least one wound. With all four of them attacking, they made short work of it, then Sha-karn tended to Haken’s injury. “Look what they did,” the ex-gladiator said, pointing to the wall. A symbol had been drawn there in his blood, of three eyes.