The floor in front of Margone cleared with amazing alacrity as she swept through to Haden, the small red-haired tiefling trailing conscientiously behind her. Margone twitched her fan lazily as she regarded her son over the enameled and lacquered wood with a single eye.
“Invited, you say? Well, Jeremo is insane.”
Haden stood stiffly, his body half-turned away from Lady Margone, and made no reply. A nearby debutante, thinking herself clever, giggled and said in a stage whisper, “Maybe so. He does keep inviting Her Ladyship.”
Margone’s eyes swiveled in their sockets and her lips curved faintly upwards. “MacDaer, isn’t it?”
The debutante hesitated. “Why, yes. I am surprised you recognized . . .”
“I didn’t,” Margone snapped, closing her fan abruptly and pointing at the debutante’s midsection. “But only a MacDaer would so punish the seams of an otherwise innocent dress.” Sycophantic chuckles erupted from the gathering crowd and the debutante shrank away into the crowd. Margone placed a hand on Haden’s shoulder and pulled him around forcefully. “Don’t you have a kiss for your dear mother?”
“No,” Haden said, glaring into space. Margone chuckled. On the other side of the dance floor, Sheen looked at Joris. The young cleric was still scowling slightly and looked a bit white around the lips and eyes, so she shrugged and began apologizing her way in Haden’s direction. Talan and Hexla were also heading that direction.
“Splinter, my dear, you haven’t met my son yet, have you?” Margone said, looking at the red-haired tiefling.
“Not yet, milady,” she replied, eyeing Haden coldly.
“Trust me, it’s not worth the effort,” Haden said, returning Splinter’s cold stare. “We wouldn’t want you to get attached to me, after all. It might be awkward when Mother finally tires of you.”
“No worries there,” Splinter said softly. “Unlike some, I know the meaning of the word ‘loyalty’.”
“Marvelous, I’ve always wanted a walking dictionary,” Haden returned. “Tell me, do you also know the meaning of the word ‘thug’?” Splinter hissed.
Sheen touched Haden’s elbow a bit uncertainly. He flinched but controlled it quickly. “This is your mother, Haden? Why don’t you introduce us?”
“Why, for the same reason that I wouldn’t strip you naked and throw you into a pit of scorpions,” Haden told her.
“Even scorpions don’t deserve that,” Splinter said dryly. Margone held her fan up to her face as though shielding herself from an unpleasant sight.
“Oh, how charming dear, you’ve acquired a . . . pet. Does it have a name?” Haden’s face began to take on a purplish tinge.
“My name is Sheen.”
“Oh, how quaint,” Margone said, waving a limp hand in Sheen’s direction. Confused, Sheen reached out to shake hands but Margone’s lips twitched and she withdrew her hand again. “Don’t dirty my hands, dear, it’s uncouth. Next time you’re scrubbing floors use a little of the soap on yourself.”
Sheen blinked. “I don’t scrub floors. I’m a blacksmith. I’m slumming.”
“Oh, how delightfully plebian. No wonder you’ve attached yourself to my son, it must me nice to feel something soft after a long day straining over hard . . .”
Margone laughed, flashing white teeth that came to frighteningly sharp points. Then her playful manner peeled away for just a moment. “If you must be weak and pathetic, at least you needn’t advertise the fact, Haden,” she sneered. Then it was back. “But really, I’m glad someone finally took you in. Let’s hope she doesn’t throw you back out again when she discovers how useless you are. As delightful as our chat has been, I really must cut it short before anyone thinks we’re associated. Adieu.”
Hexla patted Talan’s arm and stepped forward to the Lady’s side as she drifted away. “I believe I am the one you have come here to see, milady. Hexla, late of Avernus.”
“Avernus? A bit gauche, don’t you think? I don’t doubt that you are here to see me, my dear. Attend me and I may grant you a moment of my valuable time.” She strode towards a table on the edge of the crowd. It was already occupied, but seeing Lady Margone approaching the current tenants evacuated.
Sheen looked up at Haden, who was still staring wooden-faced into the distance. “So . . . that was your mother?” she said carefully. Haden closed his eyes and the muscles in his neck clenched. Sheen felt herself torn. What was the right thing to say? “I can’t say that I care for the woman. So, Talan, what next?” She turned away from Haden to address the half-elf, who was hovering nearby with a tired expression on his face. Sheen heard Haden slowly exhale behind her.
“I don’t know,” Talan said. “What did I miss?”
“Nothing much,” Sheen said.
Talan shrugged. “Do you have any ideas?”
Sheen shook her head. “I don’t even know what we should be looking for.”
“Dealing with crowds is definitely not my strong suit,” Talan agreed. “You’re the expert, Haden, what do we do?” Sheen turned her head to raise a questioning eyebrow. Haden frowned.
“The problem is that no one knows what Baltazo actually looks like, yes?” Haden said after a moment.
“Well, if you wanted to change your appearance, how would you go about it?”
“I think a better question would be, how would YOU go about it?” Talan replied.
“Magic. Thus,” Haden murmured arcane words and gestured, then began scanning the crowd. Talan grinned.
“Is that really going to help?” Sheen asked skeptically.
“Who knows?” Talan said, and began following Haden as the planar moved through the crowd. Sheen took up position along the wall, fidgeting nervously with a leaf she pulled from a potted plant. An elf in an unremarkable brown tunic slipped through the doors and eyed the party warily. He edged along the wall until he bumped into Sheen, then apologized.
“Excuse me.” Sheen waved her hand dismissively.
“Is there a problem?” Sheen asked when the elf continued to stare at her.
“You . . . pardon me for saying this, but you don’t look like you belong here.”
Sheen scowled. “Really? And what business is that of yours, if I may ask?”
“I’m looking for someone,” the elf said. “I thought you might be the one.”
Sheen turned to examine the elf. She wondered what she ought to do. Anyone else would be better at handling this situation. Haden would be his usual charming self, Talan would look blank until the man explained his errand completely, and Joris would come over as convincingly harmless. “What a surprise,” she said finally. “I’m also looking for someone.”
“Really?” the elf asked, moving closer and lowering his voice. Sheen groaned internally, hoping he hadn’t taken her statement for an innuendo. She took a step back and crossed her arms, establishing a barrier between them.
“What can I do for you?” she demanded in her coldest voice.
The elf tensed a bit. “I’ll just ask, then. Are you Baltazo?”
Sheen’s hands twitched. “No, I was looking for him myself. Are you another new recruit?” The elf eyed her warily. “I was supposed to meet Imogen here, but she didn’t show,” Sheen continued hopefully. She hated lying, not least because she was horrible at it, but also because you could very quickly dig yourself into a pit with things you didn’t know.
“No, it’s Baltazo’s recruit I’m looking for. Name’s Pwyll,” he said, extending a hand. Sheen gripped his hand and shook it firmly, eliciting a startled look.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Sheen.”
“Ever hear of a sod named Nihmron?” Pywll asked.
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“How about the Vile Hunt?”
“Why are you asking me all these questions? If you don’t trust me, go find Baltazo yourself, see if I care.”
“I was HOPING you knew what Baltazo looks like. My people have no idea.”
“Don’t be a fool. No one knows what Baltazo looks like,” Sheen snapped.
“Oh,” Pwyll said. “That explains a lot. We don’t know what Nihmron looks like either, only that he speaks with a lisp.”
“So, who are you exactly, Mr. Pwyll?”
“I’m with the Verdant Guild, but I’m guessing you haven’t heard of us, either.”
“Not in the least, and I’m starting to get the idea that I shouldn’t be talking to you.”
Pwyll shrugged. “If you really are one of Baltazo’s people, then maybe not. If you’re with the Vile Hunt, then DEFINITELY not. Otherwise . . .”
“I have nothing to do with any Vile Hunt. What is it you want, Mr. Pwyll?”
“All right, then. Sorry, I’m having a hard time with all this . . . civilization.”
Sheen smiled slightly. “You should talk with my friend Talan, he’s not too happy being stuck in Civilization either.”
“I’m just looking for Nihmron. He’s got a lot to answer for in the Beastlands.”
“So your interest in him isn’t exactly friendly?”
“No,” Pwyll said, his expression darkening. “The Vile Hunt is my guild’s greatest enemy. I’ve been sent to Sigil to catch Nihmron and stop him.”
“You may want to speak with a friend of mine, then. Maybe we can make common cause.”
Pwyll looked startled. “You think so?”
Sheen smiled. “Let’s just say that we’re not exactly looking for Baltazo for friendly reasons, ourselves. I think I see my friends over by the bar, let’s go.”
“Um, all right,” Pwyll said and followed her.
Haden gradually worked his way through the party looking for the tell-tale emanations of magic on the guests. He passed the bar with Talan and heard the half-elf stop behind him. “What is it?” he asked, maintaining concentration on his spell.
“I thought I heard the word ‘illuminated’ coming from those two cloaked fellows.”
Haden turned to look at the bar, and sure enough one of the men was radiating faint magic, and illusion magic at that. “Nice,” Haden whispered and let his spell expire, clearing the magical haze from his vision. “Who wears a cloak to a party, anyway?”
“What should we do?” Talan whispered.
“I have an idea, you just be ready to back me up.” Haden staggered towards the bar, insinuating himself next to one of the cloaked men and waving exaggeratedly at the barkeep. He heard the men discussing some recent scandal involving Erin Montgomery, but from the way they stumbled over the words he could tell they’d been talking about something else a few seconds before. Talan took a few cautious steps forward, not sure exactly what kind of backup he could offer.
Haden accepted a drink from the barkeep and leaned backwards to tip it into his mouth, then stumbled sideways, grabbing the cloak of the man beside him and leaning his entire weight on it. The man choked, but the cloak was secure enough not to come off, somewhat to Haden’s dismay. The other man stood.
“Oh, oh, I’m so terribly sorry . . .” Haden said, still pulling on the cloak to keep his balance. The other man was wearing a skull mask polished to a mirror shine.
“No harm done,” gasped the man whose cloak Haden was still holding. Haden switched his grip to the front of the man’s tunic and pulled himself upright.
“Hey, you look sort of familiar . . .” Haden said as the skull man tried to dislodge him. “Imogen and Trent send their respects . . .”
“Who are they, friends of yours?”
“Oh, something like that,” Haden said.
“All right, friend, just let go,” skull-face said. Haden allowed himself to be detached.
“That’th better,” said the first man, rubbing his throat. “You thouldn’t drink tho much.” Sheen, now only a few feet away, stared in horror as Pwyll started forward with clenched fists.
Haden straightened and sniffed, offended. “Dost though call me a drunk, sirrah?”
Haden whipped off one of his gloves and slapped the man in the face with it. “Fie upon the! Get thee hence, beggar!”
“Blasphemer!” Pwyll yelled and catapulted into the lisping man, nearly knocking Haden over.
“What the . . .who is this berk?” Haden gasped, looking at Talan who shrugged helplessly. The skull-faced man began to chant and gesture, so Haden threw up a globe of darkness around the five of them, yelling, “HELP! HELP! MURDER!”
Talan fumbled in the darkness for something to grab and staggered back as a flailing fist hit him on the chin. Not knowing what else to do, Sheen manifested a power, psionic energy bolstering her muscles and increasing her strength. A large spotted cat shot out of the darkness and ran straight at her, she attempted to tackle it but her hands slipped off its fur. Seconds later, Talan and Pwyll came flying after it, cutting through the crowd and running towards the exit.
The guests screamed and began to panic as the cat dodged around them. Within moments, the chaos had spread across the dance floor as people began running for exits or otherwise behaving unhelpfully.
Sheen took a few steps after Talan and Pwyll, then stumbled, turning her ankle in the accursed heels. She turned around in time to see Haden dismiss the darkness.
“What the heck just happened?” she demanded.
“I think that was Baltazo and friend. Where did that elf come from?”
“His name’s Pwyll. He’s looking for some guy named Nihmron who lisps,” Sheen said.
“Ah, a light dawns.” Haden eyed the exits, which were already jammed with struggling people, and sat on the floor beside the bar. “We may as well wait, we’re not going anywhere for a while.” He patted the floor next to him.
Sheen stumbled over and sat down beside him, arranging her dress. “I hope Talan doesn’t get himself killed.”
“He’ll be all right,” Haden said confidently. “And there’s another ray of sunshine here to consider.”
“Mother will be upset.”
Talan sprinted down the hall after the cat, dodging a pile of rubble and colliding painfully with a Harmonium patrol. He was only inches away from the beast when it ran through an archway and vanished in a flash of light. Cursing, he struggled to get his breath back and looked around.
“Did that bastard get away?” an elf asked, running up.
“He just disappeared into light. Who are you?”
“I’m Pwyll, I’m from the Verdant Guild. The cat you were just chasing is Nihmron, he’s been causing all kinds of destruction in the Beastlands. Did he just go through a portal?”
“I’m thinking so,” Talan said, “Although we could verify that with Lissandra. Hang on.” Talan peeked through the corridors until he found the tall blond woman still examining some of the stonework. “I think we found your portal, Lissandra.”
“Really?” she asked. She pulled out a heavy book. “Where is it?”
“Over here,” Talan said, leading her to the arch. She cast a spell and began a careful analysis. The halls began to echo with the tromp of heavy feet; Talan and Pwyll exchanged a worried look. The Harmonium patrol stormed into the corridor.
“What was that all about?” the patrol leader demanded.
Talan shrugged. “This guy turned into a cat at the party, so we chased him. He just ran through a portal and disappeared.”
“Is that so? Maybe you’ll be a little more talkative if I take you in . . .”
“Sod off,” Lissandra said without turning around. “They’re with me.”
“Aye? Keep yer noses clean and mebbe they won’t get broken,” the patrol leader growled and stomped away, his patrol following.
“Officer Ringhammer,” Lissandra spat. “I hate that bloody pikin’ sod. This portal goes to the Beastlands.”
“Figures,” Pwyll said grimly.
“The key seems to be an animal bone. It’s a two-way portal, it looks like the same key works both ways.”
Talan frowned. “I guess I could go try to get a chicken leg off the buffet.”
Lissandra smiled. “That might actually work.”
“We should really get our equipment before we try going through that portal, though.”
Pwyll looked surprised. “You’re going to help me?”
“Of course,” Talan said. “I’m a ranger, that’s what I do.”
Pwyll grinned. “Wonderful. I’ve got my sword, I’ll go ahead and leave a trail for you, make things easier.”
Some time later, Sheen, Joris, Haden and Talan gathered around the portal. They’d changed into their ordinary clothing, buckled on armor and weapons, and loaded their packs with food and other equipment.
“Ah, the countryside,” Haden remarked. “It will be like a vacation.”
“I wouldn’t count on a pastoral venue if I were you,” Talan said. “This is going to be more of a primeval wilderness.”
“Well, a man can dream. Shall we?” Talan waved a bone at the archway and the four of them stepped through into a steaming jungle. Some light penetrated the dense canopy of leaves above, lending a greenish cast to the surroundings.
“Primeval wilderness indeed,” Sheen said. “Guess what, Talan?”
“You’re hereby elected leader of this little expedition. So what do we do next?”
“Pwyll said he would try to leave a trail, let’s follow that.” Talan looked around the clearing for a while, then set off. They walked for some time before Talan came to a stop in another clearing.
“This isn’t good,” the half-elf said. “Pwyll’s tracks just . . . stop.”
“Look at this,” Sheen said, climbing out of a bush. She held up a narrow sword that seemed to be made out of wood.
“That’s Pwyll’s,” Talan said. “It looks like the belt was cut away.”
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