Sheen looked around the dim, smoky tavern, spotting Lissandra and Jazra sitting at what was apparently their favorite table.
“Oh, good, you’re here. We’re lucky today,” Sheen said to them as she approached. Lissandra’s expression was uncertain.
“Uh, hi Sheen. Glad you made it back okay, anyway.”
“Did I do something wrong?” Sheen asked, perplexed. Jazra’s expression was easier to read: it was downright suspicious. She started to say something, but Lissandra shushed her emphatically.
“I made a mistake,” Lissandra said quietly, “in telling you about that portal. Only certain folks were supposed to know about it, if you follow me.”
“I hardly think it matters, since we were looking to save Haden,” Sheen said, irritation creeping into her voice.
“It’s not like you to worry about politics, Lissy.”
Lissandra bridled visibly at the familiarity. “That’s what I want people to think, Haden.”
Jazra grinned. “Oh, that’s right! Haden! At last we meet.” She held out a slender four-fingered hand. He squeezed her fingers briefly and made a polite half-bow, but Jazra seemed disappointed. “You’ve got a bit of a reputation . . .” she said coyly. Haden shrugged.
“Yes, I’m sure I do. What were you saying, Lissy?”
Lissandra grimaced. “The truth is, I’m an Anarchist, same as Jazra here.
Sheen shrugged. “Well, the League operatives on the other side were looking for help, and we helped. So it worked out.”
“Well, that’s good to hear,” Lissandra said.
“You can just tell them we were incognito or something,” Sheen added.
Lissandra shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t really matter so much, since you’re so definitely not affiliated with anyone.”
“You’re sure?” Talan asked.
“Yeah, I just wanted to make sure we all understood each other,” Lissandra explained.
Haden smiled slightly. “Am I the only one who finds the idea of an organization of anarchists to be somewhat amusing? Or, at least, oxymoronic?” Mal raised his hand. “There you go, that’s two of us, at least.”
“Organization is too strong a word,” Lissandra said, laughing. Jazra looked Mal over carefully, clearly enjoying what she saw.
“What’s on yer mind there, friend?” the tiefling asked.
“That’s Mal. Don’t talk to him,” Haden said quickly. “Gods only know what might happen.”
“In any case,” Sheen interrupted, “We could use your help again. We’re more than willing to actually pay you this time. We can’t keep asking for favors. We need to go to Arvandor right away, as close to the Grandfather Oak as possible.”
“That shouldn’t be too hard,” Lissandra said, digging out her heavy volume of notes and flipping through it slowly. Jazra continued to eye them.
“The word is that you lot kept Plague-Mort from slidin’ into the Abyss?”
Sheen gestured toward Haden. “Actually, it was mostly him.” Haden shot her a startled look.
“No kiddin?” Jazra asked.
“Yes, he has quite the silver tongue, it seems,” Joris added.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Haden said, shrugging.
“Who did you hear it from, anyway?” Talan asked. “Is it all over town?”
“Nah,” Lissandra said. “From Rothwell. The chant spreads quick, though. People are going to be hearing about you sooner or later.”
Jazra’s grin widened. “Well, if yer silver tongue ever needs a little taste of what ya missed in the Abyss, you know where to find me.” Haden blinked at her and Lissandra groaned.
“Don’t mind Jazra, she started early this morning.”
“I had to, didn’t I?” Jazra retorted, pointing at Talan. “He an’ Hexla was in my room all night . . .”
Talan stiffened. “We were catching up on old times,” he said primly.
“I wish I had some old friends like that!”
Haden pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and reached toward Jazra. “Excuse me, dear, could you just lean over here for a moment? I have to fix this one little thing . . .”
Jazra leaned over cheerfully. “What’s that, dearie?” Haden smiled and stuffed the handkerchief in her mouth. The table immediately erupted in a chorus of badly suppressed laughter, and Jazra slumped in her chair, defeated.
“That’s better. Now, what were you saying about Arvandor, Lissy?”
“Before I forget, Hexla did leave a message for Talan.”
Talan grinned excitedly. “Yes? What did she say?”
“She just wanted you to know that the equipment you brought her was exactly what she needed,” Lissandra said. Talan blushed crimson and stammered. “For her research,” Lissandra added. “She was off to see someone about some business but didn’t want you to think she was duckin’ you or some such.”
“G-good,” Talan managed.
“There is a portal that leads right to the Grandfather Oak. It’s in the stage left of Elloweth Hall, that’s one of the theaters in the Civic Festhall.”
“Is that awkward to get to?” Sheen asked.
“I shouldn’t think so,” Haden said. “It’s a public theater, and even if it wasn’t, people are in and out of the Festhall all the time. The Sensates don’t care, in fact, they welcome it for the most part.”
“The key is a holy symbol of Labelas Enoreth . . . I can’t read my own handwriting . . . it looks like e. tim . . . now I don’t remember who he is.”
“Elven god of time,” Joris said helpfully. Mal winced and groaned slightly.
“No charge, cutters,” Lissandra said. “I should have warned you about the other portal, last time. Seems fair to me.”
“All right, thank you again,” Sheen said. “Let’s go.” They hailed a cab outside Vanders, which took them through the Hive, heading for the Clerk’s Ward. Haden climbed out first and offered a hand to Sheen.
“You’re awfully quiet today,” he ventured. “Are you sure you’re . . . feeling all right?”
“I’m not sick any more. I guess I’m just not in a very talkative mood,” Sheen said awkwardly.
The Festhall soared above them, rising more than a thousand feet and casting a wide shadow over the hordes of jugglers, singers, dancers, and vendors that clustered around its base. Several of the vendors were hawking religious accoutrements of astounding variety.
“Can you tell which one of these is the right one?” Haden asked Joris, pointing to the nearest vendor. “Religion isn’t my strong suit.” The halfling minding the display saw them looking and began speaking quickly.
“Devotion to the powers *is* an experience, my Sensate brethren! Don’t rule it out! Symbols of all faiths for sale here, discount if you buy more than one!”
Sheen grimaced uncomfortably. “Faith is the opposite of experience,” Sheen said. “Faith is belief without knowing . . . if you experience something, then you do know.” The halfling vendor scowled at her.
Joris eyed the selection. “Have you got one for Labelas Enoreth?” he asked.
“Sure!” The halfling said, pointing at a gold heart.
“That’s Hanali Celanil, the elven goddess of love. I said Labelas Enoreth. It’s a setting sun.” The halfling transferred his scowl to Joris. “It is true that miracles aren’t supposed to win your faith. They reward your faith.”
“I’m not sure reward is the right word,” Talan said. “And sometimes experience can reinforce faith . . .”
“Is it really necessary for us to have a discussion in comparative religion at this exact moment?” Haden demanded. The halfling emerged from the depths of his case with a setting sun symbol and slammed it on the table with more force than could really be considered civil. Haden handed him a few coins, grabbed the various members of the developing debate society, and hauled them away by main force.
They walked around the outside of the Festhall to a small outdoor theater. Half a dozen githzerai occupied the stage. It looked very much as though they were rehearsing a play. As the group approached, though, the actors paused.
“Master Haden!” One of them called, waving delightedly.
“Every single time we go somewhere . . .” Talan said to Joris, chuckling.
“Ah, um, hello, Suinjes. I didn’t know you were, ah, interested in the arts . . .” Haden choked out, stunned at the sight of the gatekeeper away from his usual post.
“Actually, we’ve seen him before, too,” Joris said.
“Oh, that’s right, he was at Honorgard.”
“Art?” Suinjes asked. “This is history. Living history, Master Haden. Cousin Halla is covering me so I can participate in the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon. I am portraying Zerthimon!” the githzerai enthused. “I am honored,” he said simply.
“I’m glad that your worth is recognized,” Haden said. “Could we trouble you to allow us onstage for a few moments?”
“Yes, of course!” Suinjes said, waving the other actors aside. “Your father, he seems to be doing better recently, yes?”
“What?” Haden asked. “Better? How?”
Suinjes shrugged. “I am no expert in these things, it just seemed to me that he was more present, less lost in time. I have not seen him since we began rehearsing, though. He asked for you, but we knew that you were out of town.”
“Well . . .that’s good news,” Haden managed.
“We could go see him when we get back,” Sheen suggested.
“Um . . .yes. I have to go, Suinjes, I’ll see you later.”
“Of course. Farewell to you and your friends, Master Haden.”
The Arvandor portal flickered into existence when Joris held up the symbol, and the five of them—followed, of course, by Ari—stepped through. Unlike many of the portals they’d encountered, this transit was smooth and unsurprising. It seemed that they’d simply stepped through the more normal sort of doorway, emerging in a small chapel. The flowing lines of the wooden walls and roof looked more grown than carved, and the wood smelled less of varnish than of living sap.
An elf looked up from the altar. “Hail, travelers,” he said, his Common heavily accented. “I am Sinellan Rainseeker.”
“Greetings, Speaker of the Ages,” Mal said quietly, running his fingertips along a wooden wall.
“Have you come from Sigil?” Sinellan asked, looking at Mal and Talan, mostly.
“We have,” Mal answered. “Pardon our intrusion.”
Sinellan shrugged. “I’m used to it.”
“We are looking for a man named Gyderic who may be here and up to no good,” Sheen announced.
“It does not sound very familiar,” Sinellan said, glancing at her for the first time, “but I do not see everyone who visits this place. This is not the only portal, of course.”
“Do you know me?” Mal asked suddenly.
“I cannot say that I recognize you, friend. But again, I have seen many faces in my time.”
“Baltazo said Gyderic was in the ‘vicinity’ of the Grandfather Oak,” Sheen muttered. “Perhaps we’d best speak with the local hunters or rangers.”
“What about the sage he was here looking for?” Joris asked.
“Oh, that’s right,” Sheen said. “Firil Starwing, that’s who he was looking for.”
“She holds services at the temple of Correlon Larethian further up Grandfather, just past the Moot,” Sinellan said.
“Right,” Sheen replied. “We’ll be going, then. Thank you.” She hurried towards the chapel exit, grumbling under her breath. “Elfs. Hmph.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Joris asked, looking at Talan and Haden for help. Talan shrugged, trying to nudge Mal away from his exhaustive examination of the living chapel. Haden frowned.
“Oh, I get it,” the bard said after a moment. “It’s a dwarf thing.”
“Oh,” Joris said, not really sure whether this answer was helpful or not. They emerged at the base of an immense tree—truly immense, like Sigil it dazzled the senses, the sheer scale of the thing almost impossible to take in.
“Showy,” was Sheen’s only comment. “Typical.” She spotted a staircase and began climbing methodically.
“May be a bit of racial jealousy,” Haden theorized.
“She’ll just have to get over it,” Talan said.
They climbed for a long time before they came to the first cluster of buildings. A vast circle stood between two massive branches, built from interwoven balks of deadwood, most likely hauled from the forest floor far below. Several beings were gathered in the open area. The most obvious was an ancient treant, not even approaching the size of the Grandfather Oak, but imposing nonetheless. Its bark was cracked and peeling, and its leaves drooped from limbs that showed the scars of more than one lightning strike.
Sitting in front of the treant was an older half-elf dressed as a warrior in very practical armor and weapons. If they had encountered him on the streets of Sigil . . . or on the streets of Waterdeep, for that matter, he would have passed without comment. The elf that stood beside him, though, would not likely be found anywhere outside the elven homelands. He wore rich multicolored robes of characteristic elven make, and bore a haughty demeanor that matched the silver crown he wore.
The one woman of the group had an elvish cast to her features, but she was not an elf. Her eyes were opaque, with a pearly, opalescent sheen, and she seemed to radiate power. She was obviously a celestial of some kind. She stood beside a tall man who bore curving antlers, a mane of leaves, and a ridge of thorns along his shoulders. His eyes glowed with green light.
“Kelinthal sili valmura alisair. Mornia cantruvi,” Mal said, walking towards the gathering without the least sign of concern. Four of them, aside from the treant, whirled to look at him.
“Trillamir, what is the meaning of this?” the regal, crowned elf demanded. “Who are these people?” The half-elf rubbed his face, grimacing awkwardly.
Haden hung back and Sheen looked at him with concern. “It’s strange . . .” he whispered.
“What’s strange?” she asked.
“I don’t know, but the woman seems familiar to me. She’s an eladrin, like my grandfather.”
“Identify yourself,” the half-elf said finally.
“I am Maloranserani Valtheris’Heranusee, and I beg thy pardon,” Mal said warmly. “We do not wish to disturb your gathering.”
“Indeed,” said the antlered man, his voice dark and threatening. “You should take care that you do not.”
“We should like to bend your ear when your business is concluded, though,” Mal added.
“Then I shall continue my report,” the eladrin woman said, glancing at Haden. She spoke in the Sylvan tongue. “We find the timing of this tanar’ri attack on Plague-Mort suspicious. They are capable of planning, but to us it suggests that they are afraid of something.”
“They are speaking of the attack upon Plague-Mort,” Mal whispered.
Sheen frowned. “Really? I’m surprised they were even aware of it,” she said.
“Then you think it’s a reaction to something the baatezu are planning?” Trillamir asked. The antlered man growled.
“This does not involve the fey! Why have you dragged me here?”
“Because it may yet involve you, Frostthorn,” Trillamir said, a warning tone in his voice.
“Then you think the realm of Arvandor may be at risk?” the regal elf said calmly.
“Perhaps, Lord Labelas. But perhaps we should direct that question to the people that were actually present during the attack,” Trillamir said, turning to look at Mal.
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