Haden eyed the stranger for a moment, but he didn’t seem inclined to do anything or volunteer any more strange pronouncements. Ari poked her nose out from under the bed with a worried-sounding “whuff!”, then flung herself on Talan in a storm of licking and tail-wagging. Haden heard a muffled, “Ouch, silly dog!” from under the bed and bent down to investigate. A young girl stared at him with a worried expression.
“Hullo,” the bard announced, offering her a hand.
“Um, hello,” she said meekly. She took Haden’s hand and he pulled her out onto the rug.
“Do you have a name?” Haden asked while she got unsteadily to her feet, blinking in the brighter light of the room.
“Yolette, sir,” she said. She was small and thin and somewhat attractive in a sort of healthy young girl fashion. Haden estimated her age at around twelve. She peeked up at him from under dark eyelashes, obviously as intrigued as she was frightened.
“That’s a pleasant name,” Haden offered, trying to tone down his habitual flirt to something within shouting distance of appropriate. “It suits you.” Ari bounced off Talan to weave around the girl’s legs briefly.
“Ari likes you,” Talan said, standing up with Joris’ ready assistance.
“She’s beautiful, sir,” Yolette said diffidently, not taking her eyes off Haden.
“Another conquest for you,” Talan remarked while Joris banished his injuries with magic. “And what about you?” he asked the elf. “What is your story? And why are you looking for Haden?”
"I am Maloranserani Valtheris'Heranusee, and yes,” he rolled his eyes with a long-suffering sigh, “you may call me Mal for short.”
“I wasn’t aware I required your permission,” Haden announced nastily.
“You do not require my permission to speak, but etiquette does implore one to request permission before using a diminutive. Shall I infer from your tone that you intend using my full name to address me in the future?”
“You’re assuming I intend to address you in the future. As it stands, it would be improper to kill you—you did help us, after all—but as for anything else . . .”
“Believe me, I know far less than you do. I wish I could answer your questions, but all I know is that I have been tasked to aid Haden in whatever ordeal he is currently undertaking.”
“Meaning you’re going to aid me whether I want you to or not?” Haden asked. “Interesting.”
“This is unfortunately the case,” Mall intoned.
“Do you know anything about me other than my name?”
“You may have heard of his father,” Kalisa offered suddenly. Everyone jumped and blinked, remembering her presence. “Lord Cerellis,” she prompted. Mal shrugged, the name evidently meaning nothing to him.
Haden pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. He wavered a bit on his feet, his balance disrupted by the act of closing his eyes, and sat heavily on the bed. “You know what? Never mind. Yolette, can you tell us what you’re doing here, at least?”
“I’m taking care of Master’s house,” the young girl said promptly. “Though I ain’t looking forward to cleaning up this mess.”
“Who is your master, child?” Mal asked ponderously.
“Master don’t want me saying his name,” she said.
“Baltazo?” Sheen asked.
“Is there anyone else down here, Yolette?” Joris asked.
“No, I never see anyone but Master and that other fellow, Gyderic. Master sent him off somewhere, though. Just him, me, and the lions now.”
There was a long moment of frozen silence while Yolette looked from one face to another, shrinking in fear. Then Sheen said, slowly and carefully, “What did you say?”
“Ah, now I recall,” Haden said, desperately trying to head Sheen off. “He’s the one who tortured me.” He was just a moment too late, as Yolette was already answering.
“Just me, Master, and Gyderic was what I said, ma’am.”
“Oh,” Sheen said, turning to stare at a blank wall. “I thought he was dead.” She paused, blinking slowly, then her voice rose, becoming nearly a shriek. “THEY SAID HE WAS DEAD!!”
“Sheen, remember what’s been going on around here . . .” Talan cut in desperately. She rounded on him, her eyes blank and wild, then her knees buckled and she fell. Yolette shrank away, horrified, as Joris and Talan grabbed Sheen and levered her up on the bed.
“It’s all right,” Haden told the young girl gently. “She’s upset, but she won’t hurt you. None of us will.”
Sheen looked around blurrily. “Okay,” she murmured. “What’s behind those doors?” she asked, trying to regain some sense of reality again. She looked up to see Haden watching her, his expression strangely cold. Nearly suspicious.
“That’s Master’s laboratory. I’m only allowed in there when he’s with me,” Yolette explained.
“Is there another way out?” Sheen asked.
“N-no. But Master teleports sometimes.”
“He can’t right now,” Kalisa said in a satisfied tone.
“What?” Sheen asked. “Why not?”
“With Plague-Mort in danger of sliding into the Abyss, there’s no way out of here until it either regains its balance or finishes falling over.”
Joris examined the doors curiously. They were heavy iron-banded wood and quite obviously locked. “I don’t think we’re getting this open without a battering ram,” he said.
Mal waved his arm nonchalantly, murmuring an arcane phrase. Everyone turned to look at him, waiting patiently for something to happen. He returned their gazes blandly. Then one of the doors eased open an inch, caught in a barely perceptible draft. Sheen jumped forward and shoved the doors wide, revealing only darkness. “Dammit!” someone shouted from within the shadows.
Haden glanced at Mal. “Not bad,” he remarked, fingering a necklace of large red beads contemplatively. Then he raised his voice slightly. “I’m going to give you until the count of three to come out, Baltazo! Should you fail to do so, I promise you that you will NOT enjoy the result.” The occupant of the darkened room made no reply. “One . . .”
Yolette swallowed nervously, looking from one person to the next in search of support.
“Two . . .”
“Very well!” came the voice in the darkness.
“Too bad,” Haden said, releasing his grip on the necklace. A humanoid creature in a simple brown robe stepped out of the darkness. His face, all his visible skin in, fact, was chalk-white. His features had a melted, unfinished quality. Yolette immediately cast her eyes on the floor.
Baltazo spread his arms slowly, looking directly at Haden. “What now? Will you murder an unarmed man? That seems to be precisely the sort of thing that would push this city over the edge.”
Talan sputtered, furious. “Unarmed? You . . . how . . .hypocrite . . .”
“It’s no better than what you’ve done to the barmies . . . to Haden!” Joris declared hotly.
“Easy, friends. Don’t let him turn you into something you’re not. And the ‘man’ part is up for debate,” Haden said to Talan.
Baltazo smiled, displaying sharp yellow teeth. “Semantics.”
“Who do you work for?” Kalisa asked, while Sheen demanded, “Where is Gyderic?”
Baltazo ignored Kalisa completely. “Ah, you must be that mistress he was talking about. I can see how you might be . . . cross with him, but aren’t you overreacting a bit here, don’t you think?”
“Did I imply that I required your opinion?” Sheen snapped. “Tell. Me. Where. He. Is.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Baltazo said pleasantly.
“You can get more with a kind word and a heavy mace than you can with just a kind word,” Mal remarked, seemingly to a credenza. He gestured and light erupted from his fingertips, then wandered into the darkened room. The glow revealed lab equipment and shelves of heavy books, along with a complex diagram incised on the floor. Baltazo grimaced as the elf picked up a fragile-looking apparatus.
“So I’ve heard,” Baltazo said finally. “Very well, then. He’s gone to Arvandor, in the vicinity of the Grandfather Oak. I believe he’s looking for a sage, Firil Starwing by name.”
“I know . . . I know that name,” Joris said. “She was the Circle’s cleric of Corellon.”
“Round and round it goes,” Sheen muttered.
Haden peered through the doors into the room Mal was exploring. “So what are you working on in your little laboratory there, Mr. so-called Baltazo?”
“At the moment?” Baltazo asked. “Nothing of importance.”
“I think we’ll let Mal be the judge of that,” Haden said.
“Hmm, interesting,” the elf mumbled, pulling a book from the shelf and flipping through the pages. Talan, meanwhile, seemed to have regained some self control and raised a questioning eyebrow at Sheen.
“I’m voting we tie him up and get out of here,” she volunteered.
“Right,” Talan said. “And no need to be too gentle.” Sheen grabbed Baltazo’s collar and hauled him bodily into the next room, to the heavy wooden table that so recently held Haden. He offered no resistance as she strapped him down, but his expression was clearly distasteful. Sheen found a few rings and other potentially valuable items and made a point of relieving Baltazo of them before continuing.
“Enjoy them while you can,” he spat.
“I’m sure that by the time the magic comes back you’ll be able to teleport yourself out, but we’ll be long gone by the time that happens,” Sheen said.
Joris pointed at Yolette with his thumb. “What about her?”
“That’s up to her,” Haden said. Mal returned from the other room.
“She has been ensorcelled,” the elf remarked, this time apparently addressing a wall.
“Whatever,” Haden said, crouching to look Yolette in the face. She stared into his mismatched eyes, fascinated. “Would you like to come with us?” the bard asked gently. He watched her gaze slide sideways, toward Baltazo, then dip towards the floor. “Don’t look at him, look at me. Do you want to come with us?”
“Y-yes,” she whispered.
“Good girl,” Haden said, standing and offering her a hand, which she gripped tightly. He glanced over at Mal.
“Did you require something of me?” the elf asked.
“Are you done in there?” Haden queried, nodding towards the lab. Mal blinked slowly for several moments, then nodded. “Good enough,” Haden said, and pulled a red glass bead from the necklace he wore, tossing it casually into the room. There was a deafening roar, and the chamber erupted into flames. Haden turned towards the cellar stares, ignoring Baltazo’s enraged shriek.
Talan climbed the stairs, shaking his head. “Haden, I don’t know how you kept from . . . I’m really sorry we let you down.”
“Me too,” Joris added.
Haden looked startled for a moment, then smiled a bit shyly. “Er . . . thank you. I’m not much of a killer, really. Besides, leaving him alive is worse in the long run.”
“Are you sure you want to join this group, Mal?” Talan joked. “We seem to have attracted a lot of unpleasant attention.”
“The choice is not mine,” Mal intoned sonorously.
“So . . . where are we going?” Yolette asked nervously.
“That is a good question,” Sheen said, opening the front door of the Bell and Whistle on what appeared to be a maelstrom of utter chaos. The square outside was full of rioters, everyone shoving, shouting, and fighting at cross-purposes. A man ran past them, hurling a bottle of flaming oil through a shop window and laughing manically.
“Oh look, a festival,” Mal announced. “What strange celebrations they have here.”
Haden blinked. “I recognize . . . that was Mordrigaarz Antill. And look, there’s Dalla!” He looked at the group, all of who were watching him with hopeful expressions. Haden sighed. “All right, folks, follow my lead and be ready to keep rude strangers from attacking me.” He released Yolette’s hand. “Stay close to Sheen, she’ll look after you,” he instructed. Then he strolled out nonchalantly into the riot, making a bee-line for Dalla and Antill. Sheen, Joris, Talan and Mal fanned out to surround him, Yolette and Kalisa tagging along.
“Ah, good friends, so nice to see you again,” Haden said, catching up with the two Xaositects. “Might I convince you to desist in your activities for a short time? It really is urgent.”
Antill looked confused, but Dalla’s face lit up. “Thank the Trickster you’re all right!” she burst out. “I told them what happened to you. Do you want a firebomb?”
“Oh, no thank you. I was hoping you could tell us what’s going on here.”
“Chaos beautiful it’s most at!” Antill announced. “Spread burg throughout we!”
“Yeah, we came here to help things along,” Dalla confirmed.
“Really?” Haden said. “So you want the city to fall into the Abyss?”
“Sure!” Antill exclaimed while Dalla looked shocked. “What?” she asked.
“Pardon me if I seem dense,” Haden replied, “but wouldn’t that be counterproductive? I can sympathize with your desire for freedom from terrible Authority, but sending this place to the Abyss is not going to accomplish that end.”
“Yeah, you berk,” Dalla grumbled, “you didn’t say anything about falling into the Abyss!”
Haden leaned closer to Antill, who was looking increasingly confused. “There is no tyranny so absolute as that of complete anarchy, my friend. When all men turn against each other, each individual has no choice but to fight simply to survive. Where is the chaos in that?”
The Chaosman continued to stare at Haden for several moments, his lips moving as he tried to puzzle out this line of reasoning. Then he looked down at the sizzling bomb in his hand. He pulled the fuse and stomped out the flame on the pavement. Haden clapped him on the back, smiling, and vaulted onto a pile of rubble nearby. He could see that this small interruption was already having an effect: people were stopping to watch , if only because their pocket of stillness was noticeable.
“People, listen to me!” Haden shouted. “You think you are fighting something, but do any of you know what you’re trying to accomplish here? Does anyone know what’s going on in the city? How this started? Where it’s going to end?”
“Thieves are coming!” one man shouted. Others took up the call.
“The Hounds are allied with the tanar’ri!”
“The poor killed the Arch-Lector!”
“No, it was the priests! They wanted him dead!”
“The merchants are summoning fiends to enslave us!”
“Where are all these rumors coming from?” Sheen muttered.
“This *is* an attack on Plague-Mort,” Kalisa said. “If someone really did murder the Arch-Lector, they waited for just the right moment.”
“You see?” Haden said, still addressing the crowd. “No one really knows anything. Well, my friends and I are going to find out. All we ask is that you try to maintain some semblance of calm until we have a chance to assess the situation. Fair enough?”
Mal groaned. “He means us, doesn’t he? There goes hoping I was done here.”
“It’s never that simple,” Joris said.
“I did try to warn you,” Talan added.
Haden jumped down to street level again. “Dalla, Mordrigaarz, I’m going to need you two to take over here, keep an eye on things for the moment.”
“Sure thing,” Dalla said. “Again, I’m glad to see you’re all right.”
Haden patted her hand gently. “It’s nice that someone was worried about me. We’ll meet again.”
They closed ranks, Sheen putting her head down and bulling her way through the crowd by main force. “So where are we headed?” she asked. “The Arch-lector’s palace might be favorite. If anyone knows what’s going on, they’re probably there.”
“I think you’re right,” Joris said.
The calm seemed to be spreading as the peaceful citizens scrambled away from the fighting and the fighters began to lose some of their frenzy from lack of available targets. In a short time, the palace came into view, the great Abyssal portal visible as a terrible reddish glow. A woman spotted them and came to an abrupt halt: she was the same woman who’d been agitating the crowd only a few hours before. She pointed at Kalisa.
Kalisa drew her blade. “Yes, me. Hello, Latana. The tanar’ri are behind this, all right,” she added as her mortal guise dropped away, revealing enormous bat wings and glowing eyes. “It’s me she’s after! You keep going!” She turned and sprinted for one of the alleys, Latana only a few steps behind.
They charged the palace just as a hideous scream rang out and a voice howled, “ELEVEN!!” There was another scream as they crested the stairs, followed by a shout of, “TWELVE!”
Sheen flung the doors aside in time to hear a last, very final-sounding scream of mortal agony, and a cry of, “THIRTEEN!! THIRTEEN SOULS!!” Standing before them, surrounded by thirteen dead bodies, was a tiefling with jet-black skin, pointed ears, and wild, spiky hair. A chaotic swirl of flame flared into existence in the center of the hall, and he turned to face it. The portal opened and a hideous creature emerged, a tall, emaciated man with a cruel raptor’s beak and two pairs of vast feathered wings.
“This town is yours, O Prince!” the tiefling cried. The Abyssal Prince screamed and whirled his greatsword, neatly separating the tiefling’s head from his body.
“Say hello to the Aspect of Pazuzu, everyone,” Haden remarked.
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