“Why come to us with this request?” Sam K asked the dwarf.
Istrid Horn shrugged. “You’ve been dealing with our enemies. I figured I’d be safer with you than with anyone else. Plus who wouldn’t want to be protected by the heroes that saved Lord Neverember?”
“Do you have anything you can, um, offer us in exchange?” said Korahd.
“Of course. I was planning on giving you ten platinum for just meeting with me, but if you do hide me, I can pay you forty. Twenty upfront. The rest after the tenday.”
“That would buy a lot of … a lot.”
“Yes, it would.”
“Fine, but your roommate is a ghost,” said Sam K. “You’re not racist, are you?”
“I’ve slept in worse places.”
“You haven’t heard the ghost snore…”
“You haven’t heard dwarves snore.”
“Then we DO have to let her stay,” said Korahd.
Sam K muttered to himself, “And this is why I keep my own apartment.”
Horn nodded. “Well if we are agreed, I’ll go get my things and meet you at the tavern tonight.”
She tossed a bag of platinum coins to the eladrin, who pumped her fist and cried, “Yes!”
“Careful of fireballs out front,” said Swift.
“And it’s talent night!” Korahd called after her. “Have a two-minute monologue if you want to take part!”
Horn arrived later that evening in the guise of a male dwarf named Jorn. She spent an eventless week keeping a low profile in the tavern, paid what she owed, then left without further comment.
* * *
Meanwhile, a few days after the encounter at Gralhund Manor, the City Watch allowed Sam K and Korahd some time to speak with the prisoner Urstul Floxin. The half-elf enchanted the Zhent into thinking they were old friends and got him talking, asking first about the Stone of Golorr.
“They took it from me.”
“Lady Gralhund and her orc.”
“I knew she was hiding something,” said Korahd.
“Were you their guest?” said Sam K.
“Yes. They’ve been supporting the Black Network for years now.”
“Until, it seems, greed won out. We’ve lost days on their schemes now.”
“Yes, she’s double-crossed us. She sent her automaton to take the stone.”
“Were you with the gnome, then?”
“Yeah. I was following him to steal the stone.”
“Well, you took it before the nimblewright could collect. Then, unfortunately, went to the not-so-safehouse.”
“Yeah. I was injured. Nowhere else to go.”
“Of course, friend. Of course. What happened when you got there?”
“They took me prisoner. I managed to escape and called for reinforcements.”
“A magnificent feat considering the circumstances. Alas, we were likewise duped. But how could we know?”
“They are very good at deception. They treat Neverember like a friend, even though they had him kidnapped.”
“Whoa,” said Korahd.
“Cheers, Floxin,” said Sam K putting his hand on the man’s shoulder companionably. “That is a great tip.”
The adventurers left the prisoner and Korahd summarized their next steps. “So, we ‘need’ to find the nimblewright, and we ought to find this stone.”
“That’s about the size of it,” agreed Sam K. “We’ve got to tell Raenar about the Gralhunds right away.”
“Agreed. By the way, I wish I’d known you two were friends; that would have saved us so much time.”
“I-” The half-elf stopped himself from trying to explain and instead said, “Yes, sorry about that. You know how dicey friendships in this twisted city can be.”
“I do,” said Korahd in a tone that belied the statement.
* * *
Korahd interrupted her latest story – which her companions had heard at least three times in the last tenday. “See, one of my mothers used to be my father, but the Blessed of Corellon change back and forth sometimes, and- Wait, hang on, I have to take this." She fished the nimblewright detector out of the bag of holding. It was activated.
“And of course it’s Wean’s day off,” said Sam K. “Welp. Guess we should stay alert.”
“Right. And hope it doesn’t have another necklace,” added Swift.
The half-elf frowned. “Yeah. Definitely that.”
The trio split up to check different windows of the tavern, with Swift heading upstairs. As Korahd moved toward the front of the building the detector beacon sped up, and she called out to Sam K in a stage whisper. “Psst.”
“What does that mean?” Sam K asked her when. “Is it closer or farther away?”
“Closer. Bonnie, be a dear and bring up some ice wine from the cellar? Try and take your time, dear darlin’.” The young woman nodded and did as she was told, her eyes wide.
Swift came back downstairs and Korahd told him, “It’s coming closer.”
“Why the hell would that thing be coming here, anyway?” said Sam K.
The eladrin frowned down at the device as the beacon slowed. “Wait, it isn’t getting closer. I was.”
The half-elf pinched the bridge of his nose. “All right.”
“Let’s go out to confront it,” said Swift. “I don’t want it to blow up the bar.”
“Seconded,” said Korahd. She threw the front door open and followed the detector out into the streets. They traveled for several minutes as the device continued to whirl and beep faster and faster. “I don’t remember it being this alive when we were following it last time – we must be close!”
They turned down an alley and saw the top of a hat poking out from a pile of uncollected garbage in an alley. Swift drew a pistol as Korahd charged forward and called, “Over here.” The nimblewright stood up from the refuse, pulling the eladrin up short. She drew her weapon and flashed it in a salute before closing the remaining distance. “Ha! En garde, machine-man!”
The encounter was surprisingly brief, and only Korahd took any injury from the automaton before the trio took it down. The eladrin nudged it with one boot, searched it for the Stone of Golorr (which it apparently did not possess), then started shoveling the bits in her bag of holding.
“Okay. How do we prove Lady Gralhund sent it?” said Sam K.
“We don’t even know what its purpose was,” said Swift. “Possibly just to observe and see if we were on to her.”
“Point. Honestly, the manor is so close to the tavern, it may have just been passing by on its way somewhere else.” The half-elf started pacing as he spoke. “At least we’ve taken it out of play. But how was she even controlling it? Maybe the Gondians have an idea. Plus, didn’t they offer a reward?”
“They did, yes,” said Korahd. “But maybe we can still fix it.” She sounded unconvinced.
“I can tinker around with it, but it would take months to really understand something that complex,” said Swift.
Sam K looked over at the eladrin and squinted at the bag of holding in her hands. “Hang on. There’s something under its tabard.” He pointed to a piece of parchment sticking out.
Kor pulled the torso and attached bits out of the bag to retrieve the parchment. “Oooh,” she said as she unfurled it. The adventurers looked it over deciding that it was a map of Waterdeep. They saw the word “Thrakkus” written by an X in the Field Ward.
“Who or what is a ‘Thrakkus’?” asked Korahd. “Should we go find out?”
Swift shrugged and Sam K said, “Sure. Do you want to take a few minutes? Shake off that stabbing?”
About that time, half a dozen City Watch arrived. “Oy, what are you lot doing?”
“Drug … deal?” said Sam K.
“Urinating!” offered Korahd.
“So much asparagus,” the half-elf complained.
Swift frowned at his companions. “Not doing anything. Were about to leave.”
The men looked more confused than anything. “You’re lucky it’s the end of our shift. I suggest you move along.”
“Rock-solid suggestion,” said Sam K.
“With alacrity!” crowed Korahd.
“What’s allcritty?” they heard one of the Watch ask as they walked away.
* * *
As you approached the X on the map, they saw an old, fire-scorched windmill with a red wooden sign carved to look like a butcher’s cleaver hanging above the door. Thrakkus’s Butchery occupied the westernmost room of the windmill’s west wing. The rest of the building looked run down and unkempt.
As they stepped inside, the butchery reeked of meat and blood. A bloodstained chopping block dominated the room, and shelves of cut meat wrapped in bloody parchment lined the walls. The floor was streaked with blood and covered with bits of gore. A red-scaled Dragonborn was the shop’s lone occupant.
“Thrakkus?” asked Sam K.
“You come for my meat?”
“Let’s not rule it out. Do you know what a nimblewright is?”
Swift pointed at a hunk of meat behind Thrakkus “That looks nice, what is it?” When Thrakkus turned to look, the Shifter mouthed to the others “He’s lying.”
“Venison,” said the Dragonborn, turning back around.
“Oh… it’s been a while since I’ve had that,” said Swift.
“I got the best meat in town.”
“Oh, deer,” deadpanned Sam K.
Gazing around the shop, Kor giggled. “Deer! Oh, that is funny.”
The half-elf suppressed a pleased smile. “Anyway, a nimblewright is an automaton. We followed one and were attacked. We’re fine, though. It was carrying a map with your place marked on it. Know why that might be?”
“How should I know?” said Thrakkus. He reached behind the chopping block. “I think it’s time for you to leave.”
“But we came from all the way across town, and we’re hungry … for _information,”_ said Korahd.
“C’mon, buddy,” said Sam K, casting charm person. The Dragonborn shook his head to clear it of the enchantment and raised a greataxe in response.
“Shit!” cried Korahd, whipping out her rapier and stabbing Thrakkus over the counter.
“Careful. I think they can breathe … badness,” said Sam K.
Thrakkus took a positioning step and exhaled a cone of fire that burned both Korahd and Swift. “I think you’re right,” said the scorched Shifter as he changed into his rat form.
“Oooh,” said the half-elf sympathetically.
Korahd and Swift unloaded with everything they had, which was substantial, but the Dragonborn weathered the assault long enough to injure the eladrin significantly. Sam K was forced to lean heavily on Mask’s healing magic to keep her in the fight. Fortunately, Thrakkus’s strength was not limitless. Korahd pulled her rapier free of the Dragonborn as he slumped to the ground. She wiped it clean on a dainty cloth she kept for such occasions.
“Welp. I guess let’s search the building,” said Sam K, taking a ring of keys off the Dragonborn’s body. “This shop bloody enough no one may notice for a bit.”
The larder next to the butchery smelled heavily of meat and blood. Six half-frozen humanoid carcasses were stacked under a ten-foot-square canvas tarpaulin near the western wall. The adventurers’ faces paled at the sight of the victims.
They passed through the less-well-kept portions of the building encountering several squatters. Some of these trailed the adventurers upstairs where they came to another locked door. Unlike the rest of the building, the room beyond was in good repair. A wood-framed, king-sized bed with clean mattresses stood against one wall. Next to the bed, on the west wall, was a door. The window was recently repaired and quietly swung open on oiled iron hinges. Against the wall across from the window stood a wooden armoire. It held little more than clothes, a heavy crossbow, and a wooden case containing twenty crossbow bolts.
“He’s not going to like you going through his room,” commented one of the squatters.
“No, we talked. It’s cool,” said Sam K.
“He’ll think it was one of us and punish us. You don’t want to know what he does to those he doesn’t like.”
“Nah, you won’t be getting punished. Don’t worry.”
“If you’re talking about Thrakkus, yeah, he’s done punishing you guys,” said Korahd.
“Did you kill him?” the man asked hopefully.
“Well, he’s dead, anyway.”
“Thank the gods. He kept us as labor and food.” Swift looked a little queasy after that admission.
“Oh, if you’re religious, send your regards to Mask,” said Sam K.
“How can I repay the mighty Mask?”
“Cash and prizes, mostly,” Sam K muttered, sotto. Then in a normal tone, he said, “Take what you can. Give nothing back. Thank Mask after. He’s pretty laid back.”
“Did he owe you money or did you come for that stone thing?” asked the squatter, suddenly commanding the adventurers’ full attention.
“The latter, yeah,” said Sam K.
“He sent it off with Justyn. Justyn Rassk.”
“Of course he did,” said Korahd.
“What did you say your name was?” asked Sam K.
“Billy Bob Thort.”
“Cheers, Billy Bob.” The half-elf palmed several gold coins to the man as they shook hands. “Seriously, if you ever need work, come to North Ward. We have a tavern there.”
Billy Bob smiled. “Thrakkus gave him extra coin to deliver it quickly and quietly to Cuttle’s Meat Pies in the Trade ward.”
“How long ago was this?” asked Korahd.
“A few hours ago.”
She turned to the others. “Maybe it’s still there.”
“We should find out, yeah?” said Sam K.
“Yeah,” said Swift.
* * *
They reached the Trade Ward around 4 PM, as the sun was getting low on the horizon. Upon entering the alley, they spotted bloody hoof prints and wheel tracks indicating that a cart passed through the alley recently. The sound of thunder roared above them as the weather threatened to turn sour.
“Thaaat can’t be good,” Kor sighed.
A sign above the store read: “Cuttle’s Meat Pies.”
“I don’t recommend eating from here,” said Swift. “Or our own tavern, for that matter. I just remembered where I know the name Justyn Rassk. He’s our meat guy. Gods…”
“Oh. Oh, no,” said Sam K.
“Who was in charge of our vendors anyhow? Wean?”
“I’m going to say yes.”
“I’m going to fix him a nice steak when he gets home. And then tell him.”
“There’s an eladrin tragedy that has that exact ending…” said Korahd.
Through the door, a small room served as a cloakroom where visitors could hang their heavier overgarments. Past the cloakroom was the store proper, with several meat pies on display. A portly middle-aged woman stood behind the counter. “Welcome! How may I help you?”
“We are in the market for some fresh meat,” said Korahd. “The freshest you’ve got. Did you receive a delivery today?”
“I did. It was unexpected. He usually only stops by every couple of weeks, but I won’t say no to an extra delivery now and then.”
The eladrin leaned a little closer to the counter, ostensibly to see wares, but mostly to make sure the woman doesn’t also have a greataxe. It appeared that she did not, and Korahd relaxed. A little.
“Would you like to try one?” the woman prompted. “I have some samples here.” She pushed a tray toward the eladrin.
Korahd looked down at the tray. “Long pork, is it?”
“No,” said the shopkeeper, completely oblivious. “It’s venison, along with some special ingredients. It’s what makes it the best meat pie in the city.”
“One of my mothers used to make meat pies. Not as good as these, but she would keep the crust from rising by putting stones in the pans.”
“Ah, you’re trying to fish for my recipe, but you won’t get it,” the woman said beaming.
“You got me,” Korahd said, suddenly beaming just as hard. She glanced over at her companions.
Sam K shrugged and shook his head, looking a little surprised. “I’ll have a sample, I guess.” He and Korahd each took a bite that was almost all crust.
“Would either of you care to try some?” she asked Swift hopefully.
“Don’t want to spoil my dinner,” said the Shifter.
Sam K put the rest of his sample on the counter and said, “We were given to understand that Rassk wasn’t just bringing meat today. Maybe we got the wrong end of that stick?” He let the question hang.
“What else would he be bringing me?” she said, sounding confused.
“A magic stone capable of finding and/or unlocking a vault containing vast wealth. It’s a little unclear, really.” She blinked at the half-elf, completely bewildered. “I know, right?” he said. “It’s been a weird week.”
“Yes, it has.”
“Oh? What’s been weird about your week aside from the extra delivery?”
She leaned forward. “My ‘neighbors’ have been getting more visitors than usual lately. At strange hours.”
Korahd’s eyes went saucer-wide. “You don’t say.”
“Yes. They’re pretty strange themselves. Keeping strange hours, sometimes coming back with blood on their clothes. I almost reported them to the watch, but… I don’t like the look of them. Didn’t want any trouble.” Sam K nodded sympathetically.
“I can look into that for you. I mean, WE can,” said Korahd.
“Which neighbors, did you say?” asked Sam K.
“The ones next door,” she said, pointing to the west wall of the shop. “There’s two of them. The woman is young. She’s pale and gaunt looking. Her hair is dark and stringy. The fellow is much older. Dark-skinned with a bald head and a short white beard. Oh yeah, he’s also missing part of his ear.”
Sam K nodded and exchanged a glance with his companions. Kor nodded, once, to him.
“Let’s go say hi,” said Swift.
“Oh, but, before we go, you should stop buying meat from Rassk. It’s people. His venison is people. You’ve been serving people people.” She pauses. “Of course, his butcher’s out of business, so maybe he’ll find a new source? But I’d still cut him off if I were you. Okay byeee!”
The woman grew paler by the word, then turned green and projectile vomited in Korhad’s direction. The agile eladrin evaded the spray then turned and left without a backward glance, her companions on her heels. “Well, that went well,” Korahd gleamed.
“It certainly went,” said Sam K.
“I’d hate to see what would have happened if it went badly,” said Swift.
The half-elf gave him a look. “We’d be covered in vomit, Swift. I know it’s difficult, but try to keep up.”
They were interrupted by a rough voice from around a corner. “Well, well, look at what we got here boys,” said a bugbear to his four fellow thugs. “Some adventurers looking for some … uh, adventure?”
“Oh my, yes, please and thank you!” Korahd called out.
“Are you a writer? You should be a writer,” said Sam K.
“Oh, they are going to make it easy on us. How nice,” said Swift.
“Looks like the Xanathar is going to have some extra trophies tonight,” rumbled the bugbear.
Swift shifted into rat form and took a shot at the first thug to rush him. Sam K readied his dagger and shield, cast shield of faith on Korahd, and stepped between her and the bugbear that had attacked Swift. The eladrin was struck by a morningstar and responded with a hex-infused stab of her own. Thunder boomed overhead as the desperate melee unfolded.
Once two of the thugs had been dispatched, Sam K said, “Are you lads sure you like the odds even like this?”
The bugbears continued to press the attack, but the adventurers rallied and slew two more, leaving only one.
“You’re outnumbered now,” Sam K said reasonably. “You should surrender.”
“Running is not surrendering,” Sam K explains to the bugbear’s back.
The creature broke and ran for an open sewer entrance, taking a dagger slash to the back as he fled. Sam K sighed. “Well. We’re alive, anyway. Ow.”
“I’m glad to hear you say it because I wasn’t sure,” said Korahd.
“Let’s take a few minutes, then check out the ‘neighbors’?”
“Okay,” said Swift.
The trio rested and reloaded.