After arriving in Ellandale and doing some cursory researches of their own, the gang eventually decided to seek help from a freelance researcher occasionally associated with the Mage’s Guild in order to answer some of the lingering questions surrounding Tomlain, and Beleg’s supposed apocalyptic portents. The only problem being right now, the unnamed freelancer is caught up working on finding the cause of a mysterious plague infesting the waterfront district. Thus, the only way they’re going to find themselves an audience is to try to assist in efforts to clear the plague any way they can. Before they can do that, however, didn’t Beleg have a date…?
Well, maybe. It all depends on whether Beleg remembers that that’s a thing people do, as his mind is more of a bag of eldritch cats, he can be a bit loopy. The fact that he’s now wearing the patched, tacky looking Robe of Useful Objects out to the tavern he’s meeting Daven, the Mage’s Guild office clerk and archaeology aficionado who recognized him, can attest to that.
“I’ve just got, well, so many questions.” Daven begins after they’re seated. “I’ve admired your work for ages and then you just dissipated– what happened?” Beleg finds himself beginning to sweat, looking around at the backs of other diner’s heads surrounding him, feeling strangely exposed, watched, like all of them are only pretending to be facing away, watching him with their secret, hidden faces… He snaps out of it. He’s almost definitely sure ordinary city folk don’t have hidden secret faces on the backs of their heads. He is nearly certain of that.
“That’s, uh, not an easy question to answer.” Beleg says shakily.
“Not easy to answer how though?” Daven pushes.
“Well I don’t remember most of it.” He closes his eyes to think straight. “I was on a dig, I had a crew with me, we had found an o– we had found something. In the ruins. We dug it up.” He tries to keep his voice level but the darkness inside his eyelids seems to swirl with violence beneath its surface. “Then there’s nothing. I woke up in the ruins and the artifact was gone. And so was the crew. All dead.”
“Dead?” Daven’s eyes widen. “What–”
“I don’t know!” Beleg snaps, anticipating his next question. “That’s why I couldn’t return though. It was a Guild-funded expedition, I was the only one left, and I had no memory of what happened. I couldn’t come back to the Guild with that…”
“Why not?” Daven asks quietly, watching Beleg with a kind of morbid fascination.
“What if they thought I did it? I have no evidence to say I didn’t. Hells, what if I did do it?” Beleg now leans across the table, dark circles under his eyes standing out against his pale skin, the eyes large and full of fear and the edges of madness.
“Are you–” Daven starts.
“No. I am not ok. I see things now. I hear things. I can do things. I’ve told you too much already. Trust me, leave here, you don’t want to get caught up in this.” Beleg warns.
“But I want to know–” Daven argues.
“No you do not want to know. Listen to me. Get far from this.” Daven, who’d been so far avoiding eye contact, can’t help himself but to look up at this, staring deep into Beleg’s strangely black eyes, catching some reflection of the unimaginable horror and darkness within. Daven opens his mouth to speak but, going pale, words fail him. He gets up from the table with a jolt and is out of the room before his chair topples over onto the ground.
“Well, now that that’s out of the way,” Beleg says, holding up a finger to summon a server, “can I see a menu please…?”
“So if that was a date, it sounds like it wasn’t a very good one.” Magnys says the next morning at their temporary residence over a continental breakfast of bread, cheese, and apples. Elessana returns shortly after having spoken to the guards and the Guild offices to gain permission for them to enter the quarantine zone. [Side note, they didn’t just hand over the passes willy-nilly, there was some persuasion involved on her part, I just didn’t think it made for an overly exciting scene to include here.]
“Before we go, there’s something we need to discuss.” Elessana says after delivering the news.
“What would that be?” Maghana asks from her corner.
“Eogred.” She answers. “You never said last night, who was that watching us? What was it all about? You’ve been weirdly quiet since then.” Eogred shifts in his seat a little.
“That was Bill. Bill Huggins. An old buddy of mine from the Ranger Corps.” He finally says. “He said he’d been looking for me, he said it sounded like something strange was going on with the war, something not right. I’m afraid for him, it sounds likes he’s mixed up in something serious.”
“Is this someone that you trust?” Garrick asks.
“It’s been years since I’ve seen him, but, yes. I think I still can. When he says something is going on, I have to believe he has a good reason for thinking it. I just can’t help but thinking it sounds like he’s involved some plot of rebellion, taking care of things at the top, that kind of thing.”
“And why would he go to you about that?” Maghana asks. “Do you think he’ll try to recruit you?”
“I don’t know. I think so.”
“And what’ll you do if he does?”
“I don’t know.”
“Just be careful, Eogred.” Beleg speaks up. “Even if you trust this Bill guy, you can’t tell him everything. If they are involved with some kind of resistance and they know who you’re traveling with” his eyes flick over to Tomlain, “and what he is, they might try to make him into some kind of figurehead to overthrow the King. It’d put him in danger. Whatever you do, you can’t tell them about Tom.” Eogred meets Beleg’s gaze and nods.
“This could easily be a trap.” Rhai says through an enormous mouthful of bread and cheese. “When he arranges for you to meet again, it might be a good idea not to go alone.” Eogred nods again.
“With that cleared up,” Eogred says, “we’d best be going. Garrick, I want you to stay back with Tomlain, keep him out of sight until we come back.”
And with that, they finished their breakfast and made off for the waterfront. Arriving there they presented their passes to the guards posted and were rushed through the gates with little ceremony after being told they’d be checked carefully for symptoms before being allowed to leave again. The vista changes drastically from the bright and vibrant city behind them. Early-Autumn mists have rolled in from the sea and blanket the district. Shop fronts and houses up and down the streets are boarded up either to protect their occupants from the outside or vice versa, nobody knows. The sick lay in the gutters of the streets or shamble up and down them begging each other for scraps of food, money, treatment. Those unaffected by the plague so far either tend to sick loved ones or wrap themselves in many layers of scarves and gloves in an attempt to risk exposure to the plague. Those latter people keep a stiff distance from the sick, not looking twice when the sick reach out.
“‘elp me, ‘elp me, please, you ‘ave to tell ’em to let me out!” Cries a pale dwarf with bloodshot eyes and a quivering jaw. He limps toward the new arrivals. “Please, you lot, you’ve g-got to tell ’em, lemme out. I ain’t sick, just tell ’em I ain’t sick! They gotta lemme out!”
“Hello sir!” Beleg says trying to sound bright and polite, misreading the scene around him, “We’ve come to try and find a way to end this plague, don’t worry. Help will come, but right now you need to move aside.” He attempts to smile, showing more teeth than is generally considered polite.
“Yer… yer lyin’! You’ve got to lemme out! Jus’ tell ’em! TELL ‘EM! I’N NOT SICK!” At that, the dwarf seizes Beleg by the front of his poncho, shaking him violently. Rhai and Elessana both pull the mad dwarf off of him and toss him a safe distance away.
“Looks like people aren’t too happy cooped up here.” Magnys comments as the mad dwarf is dragged off. “Looks like some neurological side-effects to this plague-thingy. We best watch our backs to make sure more don’t get violent on us.”
They make their way through the waterfront looking for a medical tent they’d been instructed to rendezvous at where they could see who best to talk to about aiding the relief. On their way down however, they get sidetracked by an out-of-place sight. Alongside a street full of the infirm and the afraid, they hear a Tsk sound, like someone might make on seeing a spot of dirt on their fresh clean tile floor. The source of the Tsk-ing is a red-haired human woman in sensible dress– rolled up white sleeves with a waistcoat covered in pockets for various instruments, an impeccable starched collar, and a pair of wire-frame spectacles.
She’s scribbling something in a notebook, clearly in her element intellectually, but looking disapprovingly at the surrounding mess.
“Excuse me!” Eogred says, approaching the woman. “Are you with the Mage’s Guild? We were told to find their tent, we’re here to help.” She looks Eogred up and down, then over to the rest of the group.
“You don’t look like doctors.” She observes. “So I don’t know what good you expect to do for the Guild. You’re clearly adventurers. Now adventurers, adventurers I could use. And no, to answer your question, I’m not with the Guild, despite what they might claim.”
“And what is it we can help you with that doctors can’t?” Eogred asks.
“The Guild is obsessed in treating this mess, but the virus is smarter than they are. They’ve seen dozens of permutations as it adapts to each treatment they attempt. They’ve committed too many resources into treating symptoms that they haven’t got anything left to look for the cause. That’s where I come in. I’m convince that by finding the root cause of this plague then we’d hold the key to putting a stop to it.”
“What makes you think it has a “root cause”?” Magnys asks skeptically, stepping forward. “Hello, Magnys Schlong, MD here. What makes you think the “cause” is anything more than plague rats off of a ship from gods know where? What good does finding that do verses treating it?”
The woman cocks her head in Magnys’ direction, narrowing her eyes.
“Well, Dr. Schlong,” she starts, indicating heavily that from his muddy robes and the twigs still tangled in his beard that she doubts he earned his M.D. at any credible university, “that would be all well and good if we were talking about any purely mundane ailment. This virus, however, from what samples I’ve been able to gather, is arcane in nature. I’ve theorized then that it isn’t being passed through contact or airborne pathogens, but that the virus’ effects are being spread and amplified through the use of a curse, one that originates from somewhere within or beneath the district. That would account for the even distribution and the nebulous nature of the symptoms themselves, ranging from fever to madness, even violence, from individual to individual. All these things point to one conclusion: Whatever is happening here is intentional. Someone is doing this. If we can find the source, I should be able to synthesize a counter-curse in my lab and release a cure simultaneously, ending this. Do you have any questions, “Doctor”?” Magnys closes his mouth indignantly.
“Just one.” Eogred says, stepping back in. “Who are you?”
“Oh, right. My name is Natasha. Natasha Stormcrown. Now, if you all are serious in wanting to help, then you should really come with me. Any objections? No. Ok.” Natasha flips her notebook closed as introductions are made with the rest of the party and draws a map of the waterfront out of one of her many pockets. She circles a street block at the center by the docks telling them that the origin should be somewhere in that square, and begins leading them through the ailing city.
“Ok” Natasha says, rubbing her hands together as they arrive in the square, “I’ll need someone to check those three buildings for anything out of the ordinary. Failing us getting extremely lucky and finding it right off the bat in one of them, I want you looking for sewer grates–just to confirm a pet theory. Not every building in the city has sewer access, but a least one of these three should according to my research.”
With instructions in hand, Elessana decides to check the first building, a dingy looking tavern with several sad-looking hangers-on warming the bar-stools. Elessana’s well-dressed and relatively cleanly visage draws some suspicious looks from the small, shriveled old gnome woman behind the bar.
“Can I buy a drink?” Elessana says uncertainly, not really sure if they even have drink left or if they’re just there out of habit.
“Go get it yourself!” The barkeep snaps at her, returning to cleaning the same grimy spot on the bar with a similarly grimy washcloth. Nobody makes eye contact with Elessana.
“Ok then. I guess I’ll just…” She looks around the place to see if there’s anything “out of the ordinary.” “Where’s your bathroom?” She asks eventually. The barkeep continues ignoring her, but one of the patrons begrudgingly inclines his head to the back. She looks around before finding what she was looking for– eureka! Creaking the bathroom door open she finds a new-style indoor water closet and, upon pulling the chain down, she watches the water flow down into the bowl. Running water– must be connected to the sewer somewhere. Check. She turned to leave to let Natasha know of her findings.
Meanwhile Beleg and Maghana decided to tag-team the second building in the square. Among several windows and doors that are boarded up, they eventually find one that’s still accessible. A harried-looking human girl answers their knock on the door after a few attempts. She looks to so far not be affected by the plague and speaks hurriedly, politely dismissing them. Before they can get much out of her, she seems to have gone off again to care for whatever family she had left inside, closing the door in their faces.
Eogred, Rhai, and Magnys find the third building completely boarded up. Eogred suggests prying the boards off, but Rhai indicates as she looks through the window, that this would probably be a bad idea. She points out that the boards were nailed on from the outside to keep something in, and through the window she can make out hunched shapes of plague-maddened people hunched over, writhing, screaming, occasionally attacking one another.
“I think they might be too far gone. We open this door, we have to kill them.” Rhai says, remorsefully.
They reunite to bring their findings to Natasha.
“Hm, good then. I think we can rule out the boarded up building. If this is being amplified with a spell, it would need a caster or likely a circle of casters to maintain it. If that building is inhospitable, then I think we can rule it out. Likewise with the little girl, she seemed unaffected.” She turns to Elessana. “You’re sure there was nothing going on in the tavern? Nothing ritualistic?” Elessana shakes her head. “I didn’t think so. The water-closet confirms it though. I’m willing to bet the other two buildings, among with a great deal more throughout the waterfront, have some kind of sewer access. It’s perfect when you think about it– you want to spread a plague to an entire population, use the city infrastructure against itself. It’s almost clever. Well then, who’s up for a trip down where the sun doesn’t shine?” She speaks sarcastically, clearly not relishing the thought of even more filth. She doesn’t waver however, and before long the party has located a manhole cover and Natasha is the first to climb down.
What can we say about the sewer in a magically augmented pre-Industrial technological society? Mainly, much like their contemporary counterparts, that they stink. A lot. The main difference however, from the sewers in our own world, is that here on Earth, crocodiles in the sewer is a myth. In Ellandale, crocodiles are the least of your worries.
Natasha pulls a strange floating orb from her pocket that, at a gesture, glows as if with sunlight, following her at a pace behind illuminating the dark, slimy stone walls of the tunnel they emerge in. Several of the others light torches on finding their way down as well. They begin to investigate their surroundings as they try to work their way down to what Natasha theorizes to be the plague’s epicenter, however there’s some harsh speech around the next bend. The party freezes, listening for a second. Two raspy voices seem to be arguing, and before they have time to douse their torchlights, two shabby figures are running at them, waving their arms wildly and yelling.
“Git! Go on, git! Leave ‘here and ne’er return!” says what looks to be a human enough figure, however in a severe state of shabbiness. Clothes in tatters, unshaven, covered in mud and– well, hopefully just mud. The two figures stop halfway across a bridge over a river of filth to the east after seeing the new arrivals won’t be scared away so easily.
“Now what Gaff?” One of them says to the other.
“I’m thinkin’ Daff!” the other one hisses.
“You think they’re here for…?” Says Daff.
“The treasure! Our treasure, of course they is!” Says Gaff.
“Well they’s ain’t gettin’ it” Says Daff, cracking his knuckles.
“They’s sure as hells–” Gaff is mercifully interrupted.
“Listen here, we don’t want any trouble with you, we’re here researching the plague. If this “treasure” of yours has anything to do with it, we might have to take a look.” Elessana says, patiently.
“Plague?” Asks Daff.
“We don’t know nuffink about no plague.” Says Gaff.
“And we wouldn’t tells yeh if we did!” Says Daff.
“Wouldn’t we? Why not?” Asks Gaff.
“I jus’ thought we wouldn’t. I guess we could..” Says Daff.
“Then we’d have to show em’ the treasure!” Says Gaff.
“We can’t shows ’em the treasure!” Says Daff.
“ENOUGH!” Elessana cries. She draws her rapier and touches the tip right to Gaff’s chest. “I don’t know how long you two idiots have been down here, but you’re going to tell me everything you know about this “treasure” and then, related to the plague or not, I’m taking it if it’s even half-valuable just so you can’t have it!” [To any interested parties, that’s what a successful intimidation check sounds like]. Gaff freezes still as Daff leaps up and cowers behind him.
“W-we dun’t know what the treasure is!” Gaff stammers.
“Of-of course we dun’t!” Daff adds.
“‘ow could we?” Say Gaff.
“Never see’d it.” Says Daff.
“W-we can take yeh’s to it though!” Gaff says, noticing the impatience on Elessana’s face again.
“We worked down here y’see.” says Daff.
“In the sewers.” Says Gaff.
“Tha’s when we found it.” Says Daff.
“Issa tunnel.” Says Gaff.
“Down teh the ol’ city.” Says Daff.
“Ancient like.” Says Gaff.
“Ok, ok, just, lead on. No more talking from either of you. Please.” Elessana says, as Gaff and Daff lead their way down the tunnel.
“Are you sure about these guys?” Maghana whispers to her as she catches up.
“They look half-starved. I really don’t know how long they’ve been down here. We can take them.”
And on that, the gang descends into the the smelly, smelly darkness.