This thread is the end result of the Discord-conducted Fata Morgana campaign, set in the Ghosts of Saltmarsh adventure module by Wizards of the Coast.
Fata Morgana is a living story written collaboratively and on-the-fly by a team of players (including the game master.) Though the D&D 5e mechanics and dice rolls are not shown in this thread, they are occurring behind the scenes, in Discord, and they drive nearly every NPC interaction and event that occurs, including combat.
For more information on the campaign, please refer to the recruitment thread:
In the southern reaches of Keoland Kingdom, a small civil war is brewing. For generations, the sleepy port town of Saltmarsh was hardly on the map as King Kimertos Skotti waged multiple wars in the north. Saltmarsh, and its close neighbor Seaton, enjoyed a relatively quiet, isolated existence by the Azure Sea. Fishing and shipping ruled the day, and any captain with extra room in their holds could make a tidy profit as a free trader, smuggling some of Greyhawk’s rarer goods through Salthmarsh’s mostly unregulated port.
But the absence of the Royal Navy was a double edged sword. With time, a greedy and unscrupulous minority took advantage of the open waters to engage in darker, more questionable activities by sea and by land. While the low-key, mom-and-pop smugglers were content to move ale, heavily taxed spices, or banned delicacies into and out of Keoland, some captains began trafficking stolen goods, weapon shipments, and even slaves to make their fortune. Others engaged in outright piracy.
When the bandits began to outnumber the fishers and merchants, they came together on the southern border of Keoland to form the Hold of Sea Princes, a loose pirate confederacy nation that dominated the nearby waters. What was once a blessing—the absence of Keoland’s military—had now become an undeniable curse. No ship was safe at sea, and even people inland knew the tyranny of the Sea Princes, who more than occasionally raided towns for slaves, food, and riches.
The tides changed when Keoland suffered a string of defeats in the north, and made peace with its enemies. Fearing a similar defeat in the south at the hands of the Hold of Sea Princes, King Skotti diverted his freshly freed military resources to the fishing village of Seaton, converted the town to a military fort, and brought the short-lived reign of pirates to an abrupt and bloody end.
Today, what’s left of the Sea Princes fleet keeps to the shadows, but the King’s forces remain—which is not a pleasing prospect for the 5,000 citizens of Saltmarsh. When the King realized the economic potential of the area, he began devoting resources towards protecting Saltmarsh, and developing it into a proper port city. The pirates have been subdued, but so too have the smaller, more benign smuggling operations. With the increased presence of Keoland’s merchant navy and port inspectors, even the fishers and merchants of Saltmarsh are finding it increasingly difficult to continue their livelihoods.
Then the dwarves arrived. If ever there were a rosy, bearded face to put to Saltmarsh’s current conflict, it would be that of the Copperlocks Clan dwarf, sent by royal decree to mine the area for mineral riches. Saltmarsh’s dwarven population is now 200 strong and growing every year, a fact many natives are resentful of. When brawls started breaking out on the docks between Saltmarsh fishers and Keoland dwarves, King Skotti responded by doubling the presence of the Royal Militia throughout the region. Now the fate of Saltmarsh is held in precarious balance between two competing factions, equally represented in a torn town council.
What lies ahead for the troubled port town is anyone’s guess. Will Saltmarsh offer enough resistance that the King finally abandons his efforts to shape it, leaving the fishers, merchants, and small-time smugglers to continue their heritage? Or will the old blood simply fade away after a few generations of dwarves, international sea traffic, and military bases take over the region, transforming it into an economic hub for Keoland Kingdom? Perhaps the Sea Princes will take advantage of the local conflict, sowing further seeds of discord to trigger an outright civil war, then sweep in from the south to claim the area for themselves in the aftermath.
The answer to Saltmarsh’s future begins with the story of five strangers, and a single, fateful crate aboard the merchant ship Bellwether as it comes in to port one fair Starday morning…
Ilseh: a mysterious, wandering human barbarian, played by salseethrough Janet: a halfling warlock fisherwoman with a troubled past, played by futuristic-kf Penelope: a seafaring half-elf bard, played by Roostersauce Torestorlim: a dwarven monk formerly of the Aethubara Sanctum, played by Barthoron Tydir: a dwarven cleric of Procan, Sailor of Sea and Sky, played by DirePilgrim Zalo: a gnomish wizard from the Council of Stars, played by xrfm
Mornings in Saltmarsh don’t come much better than today’s. The small fishing community in the Salinmoore province rarely sees the sky before lunchtime, thanks to the inevitable fog that creeps in every night from the Azure Sea. Residents don’t think twice about being oblivious to anything that doesn’t occur right under their noses for a full quarter of the day. Most newcomers find it gloomy and unnerving.
Today the sun has been shining for most of the morning. It’s the second week of Harvester—the elves call the month Fruitfall—which means it’s well beyond the crest of summer. The world has just shifted slightly from green to gold, but on such a fair day as this, few notice the subtle change in scenery, save the elderly and nature-attuned.
Today is also Starday, the first day of the week, the day of the Saltmarsh Weekly Market. The market square, centered around Saltmarsh’s iconic first water well, is abuzz with stands, carts, and people. Visitors from every corner of Salinmoor make at least a few trips every summer to Saltmarsh to behold the Weekly Market, where they can purchase a variety of goods both local and exotic.
If there were an official theme for the Saltmarsh Weekly Market, it would be fishing. All manner of fresh seafood can be purchased, raw or cooked, throughout the day. Local fishers leave Kingfisher Bay a few hours early on Stardays in order to return in the early morning and rush their catches to their market stands—usually staffed by a family member—before returning to the sea to put in a full day of proper, larger scale fishing. Merchant traffic tends to back up on Stardays, as all but a few piers are held open for fishing traffic well into early afternoon.
Twelve long tables are set in the middle of the market square, clustered around the still-functioning well, where shoppers can eat communally and residents can catch up with local gossip and news. The majority of the tables are already full, and the air is humming with casual conversation punctuated by the mournful cries of seagulls and the sharp, shouted commands from ships coming and going at the nearby piers.
About a dozen ships, all merchant vessels, are anchored to the south, just off Kingfisher Bay. Across the bay to the west, a lone figure is on hands and knees, scrubbing the dock that supports the Empty Net tavern in preparation for its afternoon opening, and the Green Market is almost empty. To the north, some misfortunate slender individual is vomiting over the edge of Sharkfin Bridge, which spans the mouth of the Kingfisher River.
This Starday, five newcomers to Salinmoor are visiting the Weekly Market, each from some faraway place in the Flanaess. Though they’ve never met, and their reasons for coming to the quaint town of Saltmarsh are unrelated and known only to them, their lives are soon to be inextricably woven together into the tapestry of Keoland’s history.
Zalo the gnome squints in the morning sunlight, shading his eyes as if unaccustomed to the glare of the outdoors, and takes in the marketplace with a mix of bewilderment and glee. "A local market commons? Ho, how delightfully quaint." He claps his small hands together and rubs them eagerly with anticipation, pondering for a moment.
He pulls a voluminous notebook from the folds of his cloak, dipping his quill into a vial of ink sewn into one of the interior pockets, and makes a few careful notes on a page that is already half full. The writing is dense, meticulous, and careful, yet the quill flies across the page with a practiced air — the work of a professional deep in the flow of practicing his craft.
After a patient moment to proofread his work and ensure the ink has dried, he claps the notebook closed with a satisfied harrumph. The pages slam shut with a heavy thud as a small cloud of dust puffs out, and he returns it to the folds of his cloak.
Sitting at a nearby table, legs spread wide and elbows on the table, Torestorlim the dwarf munches from a small pile of warm pastries sipping deep purple wine out of a small tarnished metal tankard. "Damn thing's empt'eh alread'eh. I jus' poured it..."
Refilling his cup from a flagon seated next to the plate of steaming pastries, he peers over his glasses at the gnome feverishly scribbling in some sort of tome. He mumbles to himself "...tourists... What sor' a folk been needin book in the 'marsh..."
He thinks to himself, "Breaking my fast use'a be the sound of waves and the distant wails a some wench earnin' her day with a man jus' off ta sea, nows I struggle to find a seat at me favorite table..."
Lost in thought, the wine now overflowing the tankard and spilling onto Tore's robes through the large gaps between the worn boards, Tore jumps up, flipping the plate of pastries in the process. "ARR SHIT, ME ROBES..."
Attempting to shake the beads of dripping wine, he thwaps his robes against the stone wall behind him like a dirty floor mat. He mumbles to himself again, "Ah that new vintage is no good anyway....Gotta find somebody ta get the stain out...this me only set a robes..."
In the center of the market, an old, human man with tanned and wrinkled skin glares at Torestorlim from another table, watching the dwarf make a mess of himself. With a grunt and a scowl, the man stands, grabs his cane, and shuffles out of the square. The phrases “Bloody dwarves” and “bilge rats” can be heard amongst his grumbles.
When she awoke that morning, Ilseh the pale human discovered a market was taking place. A huge one, the locals tell her, and rather a traditional affair. All manner of goods are sold. She could take the opportunity to prepare herself for her inevitable departure of this sullen, idle town. "This has been all but worthless." She breathes deliberate and measured. "Only the rest of the week."
As she walks the market grounds, someone shouts a small distance from her and Ilseh snaps her head. It was a drunkard. A dwarf, nonetheless. Her lip pulls up on its right and she rolls her eyes, continuing her survey of the sold wares and sundries.
Nearby, Zalo scans the commerce taking place and spots an intriguing bookseller who's plying his wares from a table. Once he spots that it's books for sale, he makes a beeline across the square.
Behind the table is a middle-aged human proprietor with neatly combed and graying hair, a tidy white shirt, and a pair of clean, brown, knee-length breeches. He’s lounging in a low chair, feet kicked up on a short stool, reading a book whose title has long ago faded from the cover.
The gnome addresses the merchant politely. "Good morning, sirrah! What is the provenance of these fine volumes?" The gnome cranes his neck and stands on his toes to see over the tabletop.
The proprietor sits up, removes his reading glasses, and gingerly lays a bookmark in the crease of the book. “Oh, just a little of this and a little of that, a few from here and a few from there. Sundry old tomes I had lying around the house for years. I must have read each one twice at the least.” He holds up the book in his hands. “This one is historical, it is. It tells the story of the Wild Flame Pact of Burle, yonder north of here.”
Zalo nods approvingly. "A fine thing, that pact. I can't say I much care for the thought of being senselessly assaulted by the horrors of that wretched wood." He shudders, a full-body wriggle of disgust that is briefly evocative of a wet dog shaking itself off, when they are approached by a newcomer with her own question.
The book-seller stands up and stretches. “Are you in search of something in particular? I don’t have them catalogued, but I can dig through and see if there is anything to match your tastes.”
Ilseh had noticed something across the square. Unexpectedly, a merchant was selling books. She walks straight for the elder man, who was currently raising one in front of a little thing. The seller had just finished a sentence and the very small boy seemed to be in thought for the moment. Ilseh almost grunts aloud as she approaches them.
"Excuse me?" She motions her hand almost between them with a curt wave. "Yeh- hello, hi. Have you any tomes of beasts- say of the magical nature?"
As the gruff woman interposes herself, Zalo looks up with a glare of annoyance. "Kindly excuse me, madam. Perhaps you did not notice me, given the considerable difference in our statures, but I assure you I am quite present here." He raps the butt of his quarterstaff gently on her wool-trousered shins for emphasis. "And in any case, I was here first!" he chirps.
"Now, ahem! As I was saying," he leans in, standing on tip-toe to be seen above the tabletop, voice sinking to a conspiratorial whisper. "I confess I was a bit curious about your wares for ulterior reasons. You see," the gnome beckons with his index finger, "I am starting a library."
He grins mischeviously. "But not just any library. A public library, where everyone can be free to learn what anyone else in the world already knows and has cared to write down. You could learn how to be a better fishmonger, entertain yourself with tales of the ages, or get a history lesson like your volume on the Wild Flame Pact, there."
Zalo turns back to the woman, sizing her up with an appraising look. "Or one could even learn, say..." he pauses, looking pointedly at the new arrival, "...basic mercantile etiquette. I'm sure I can lend you something on that if you like. Well, once we get up and running, that is." A furrow creases his brow momentarily.
Mouth hanging incredulously, Ilseh daggers the kid with her eyes. She almost had to lean forward just to meet his gaze, which could barely reach her waist. And he just kept talking! Nothing but idle prattle about himself.
"Yeh, I knew you were there, quarter-pint," she spouts. She would have continued her beratement but she heard rather peculiar words come out of this unbelievably loquacious little person.
"In any case, sir," Zalo says, straightening himself up a bit, "I am particularly interested in whatever you have that you feel might be intriguing or overlooked by others. The best way to start a library is with something that's highly interesting but hasn't quite got the attention it deserves, you see."
He nods sagely, as if this advice were apparent to anyone with half a brain. "What do you have in your collection in this regard?"
The proprietor smiles broadly at Ilseh and Zalo, laying his book down on the table. “Oh, it’s quite all right, I can look for something for both of you. I don’t have very many. To be honest, I didn’t expect to sell many. I just come to Saltmarsh for the fish and the ocean view. A working vacation, if you will.”
He turns to the aged, graying crate behind him, leans over the edge, and starts shuffling books around. “I thought for a moment you two knew each other,” he says, his friendly voice muffled from inside the box. He tucks a book under an armpit and keeps digging.
“It’s so rare that even one person is interested in books in Saltmarsh, aside from that Mr. Fireborn. But he’s never bought anything since the first week I started coming. He just likes to see if I’ve brought anything new, and then chats for a spell.”
After a few more minutes of idle conversation and searching, the seller’s head reemerges from the crate. “Well, I’m sorry to say I didn’t have anything specifically suited to either of your requests. However, young lady, I have this.” On the table he lays a book titled Marine Animals of the Azure Coast.
“Granted, I’m exercising a bit of my own creative license with the word ‘magical,’ but it’s the best I can do.” He smiles warmly and rotates the book, pushing it forward across the table. “You’re welcome to have a look-see before you buy, of course.”
With eyes wide, Ilseh addresses the merchant once more, "No, I don't want a tome of fish. This one mentioned a book of magical flame- a flame pact? How much- I'll buy it now."
The kindly man's eyes grow wide. "Oh! Well, um, it is in rather bad shape. How about four gold?
Ilseh quickly reaches into her coin pouch within her travel pack, palming the metal disks and almost slamming them onto the counter. She exclaims with a grin, "Done! Thank you, good day to you both."
The book seller reaches to grab the bookmark still sticking out of the pages, but Ilseh is too quick, and snatches it away when she turns to leave. He raises his finger in objection, about to speak, but decides against it.
He turns to Zalo and clears his throat. "Well!" he says indignantly. "She was rather unpleasant! I'm so sorry for that abuse! Saltmarsh has a bit of a, shall we say, rustic way when it comes to outsiders, especially if you look the part."
Zalo shakes his head regretfully as the woman departs. "My, there is certainly no accounting for taste, is there? Not that there is anything wrong with a —", Zalo pauses for a moment, considering his next words carefully, "— rustic approach, necessarily. It's just that sometimes folk may get the strange idea that alternatives to the current ways of doing things are equivalent to plunging a dagger into one's own heart, when of course it is nothing of the sort."
“Oh,” replies the seller patiently, “Saltmarsh folk are kind enough, once you get to know them. They’re just, well, they’re frightened. They’ve spent an awfully long time by themselves, making their own lives without anybody interfering. And now, what with the Crown's interest, any alternative ways or alternative, ah, peoples,” he says delicately, gesturing towards Zalo, “can be a threat to their heritage.”
“Anyhow, you mentioned a library? A public library? You should seek out Eliander Fireborn. He’s captain of the guard here. He would probably be able to help you much more than I. He already has quite a book collection as it were."
Zalo smiles. "I've had the pleasure of meeting Captain Fireborn twice now. He is certainly an asset to Saltmarsh, and the diversity of his library seems quite unusual for a fishing town." The gnome looks slightly embarrassed and continues hastily, "No offense intended, of course. I just don't see that kind of a collection frequently."
Zalo thinks for a moment, stroking his beard with a pondering look. "Still, I suppose that it's been at least a while since I visited last. Perhaps I do owe him another visit soon. Thank you for the reminder!"
"One more thing." The gnome fishes around in his coin pouch and pulls out a silver piece. "A request for you: if you do come across anything else interesting, or hear of someone else who does, I hope you'll keep me in mind. You can reach me at the Primewater guest home just down the road, across from Gellan's home." The gnome slides the piece over the table. "Enjoy your morning, sir."
The book-seller slides the coin into his palm and smiles. “Of course you will be competing directly with Eliander in your search for unique reading material. But I have a feeling he’d be completely supportive of your cause."
He pockets the coin. “I doubt I’ll be in Saltmarsh again this year—the Missus would have me out of the house on a rail if I took a third summer vacation! But look me up if you’re ever in Seaton. I’m Merv Stromleer. My farm is out east of town, sixth on the left, with the stand of aspen."
Zalo whistles a tune as he walks off and catches the smell of fresh, cooked fish in the sea breeze. "Oh! I've nearly forgotten breakfast!"
He ambles over in the direction of the smell: steaming plates of butter-braised cod with herbs and lemon, and a half loaf of hard-crusted sourdough. They’re being served by a husband-and-wife team at a small grill station.
Zalo eagerly takes his breakfast and hands over the requisite fee to the fisherman's wife, inhaling the crisp, salty scent as it mingles with the rich buttery aroma and warm sourdough. "Oh, delightful!" he exclaims giddily, practically salivating with anticipation. "Thank you, sir and madam." He inclines his head briefly with a curt bow and totters off to the tables in the market square.
Ilseh is sitting nearby, lost in her new book as she flips through its pages with fervid purpose. Three chapters in particular catch her eye. Chapter 2: The Rise of the Ember Eye in the Dreadwood; Chapter 5: The Final Assault on the Temple of Eternal Flame; and Chapter 7: The Second Flame Arises. She bookmarks each hastily but carefully.
Carefully balancing the plate, Zalo sets it down on the bench and then hefts his short frame on with a grunt of exertion, pulling his pack along with him. He removes a very large, leatherbound book and sets it down on the bench, then moves his plate to the top of the table. One side of the book is conspicuously worn smooth in almost precisely the shape of a gnome's rear end, a similarity which is further reinforced when he sits on it to boost himself to a more conventional height.
He immediately digs in with unrepressed glee, making short work of the delicious breakfast as he observes an apparently besotted dwarf with arms akimbo making his way through the crowd. "I suppose that some days there's no bad time to start knocking them back," he mumbles with a mouth full of cod.
He finishes up by holding the plate up to his face and licking it clean, smacking his lips and patting his stomach with satisfaction.
Hopping off the bench and putting away his book-turned-chair, he heads back to the fishmonger and his wife to return his plate, the delicate bones clattering around. "A scrumptious meal. You are as a skilled a chef as you are a fisherman, and one must never neglect the fundamentals!"
As the pale, waning fingernail crescent of Luna chased the sun higher into the cloudless sky, the air grew warm. The southerly breeze canted slightly to the northeast, wafting in hints of raw fish, algae, and decay from the harbor.
The aroma did little to dissuade the marketgoers. As the square grew fuller by the hour, the hum of steady voices crescendoed to a drone that drowned out even the bellowing of longshoremen on the distant southern piers. A fresh pair of catboats, hung fishing nets still dripping with seawater, bobbed in alongside the two docks nearest the market; fathers steered while sons nimbly jumped the gunnels to lash their vessels to the rutted dock posts.
Penelope the half elf leans over the balustrade of Sharkfin Bridge, spanning the mouth of the Kingfisher River. Looking towards the horizon, she takes a deep breath of the salty sea air and her shoulders raise in yearning. Her moment of peace, interrupted by laughter and shouting, comes to an end and she begrudgingly exhales the scent she holds so dear.
A young halfling child with curly blonde hair flits through the crowd, dragging a reed basket behind her with both hands, its contents clacking and rattling over each cobble. She occasionally stops, pulls on a dress or tunic, and peers upwards with bright blue eyes.
She approaches Penelope, and tugs on the woman’s long, blue trench coat.
“Do you want to buy a lucky Saltmarsh stone? I gathered them this morning at low tide, so they’re blessed by Procan, Himself! Only a copper apiece!”
“Procan, ya don’t say!” Penelope flashes a large smile and squats down to eye level with the girl. “If it’s blessed by Procan, I would be a fool not to buy one. And they are only a copper? You have yourself a deal, Cher,” Penelope says.
“But wait, I don’t have a copper piece, do you know where I can find one?” Penelope asks with an over exaggerated frown on her face. She reaches behind the girl's ear and reveals a newly found copper coin. “Looks like there was one here the whole time!” Penelope smiles and offers the small entrepreneur the coin.
The girl smiles uncontrollably. “My name’s not Cher,” she says shyly, “I’m Sally.”
She snatches the penny, carefully dropping it into a small, roughly made coin purse. Before she puts it away, she runs a finger behind her ear in search of any more coins.
“You can have two stones if you like. I know where there's a zillion more!” Sally drags the basket around to Penelope’s feet. It’s full of smooth, egg-sized beach pebbles in a variety of colors and patterns. “Take whichever ones you like the most!”
Penelope, smiling wide, reaches into the girl’s basket.
"They're all so beautiful, how'll I eva decide?" Penelope says playfully as she searches through the rocks.
Unexpectedly, Penelope gets a sinking feeling in her stomach as if falling suddenly. The half-elf looks about the bridge, but sees nothing out of the ordinary. Grabbing a rock without looking, Penelope stands up and a slight dizziness causes her to close her eyes and bring her hand to her forehead.
"Thank you, Sally, I think one's enough for me. I'm not strong like you. Now go run along." She explains with feigned composure. Penelope, off-balanced, makes her way back to the edge of the bridge, leans over and takes a deep breath.
The girl runs off to her next prospective customer.
Two carts full of dwarves make their way across Sharkfin Bridge behind Penelope, and stop a few blocks north of the market. The occupants, dressed in grubby work attire, amble out as a single massive group, and head towards the market square.
Many in the crowd—mostly human—stare and give the dwarven laborers a wide berth, but the dwarves don’t seem to take notice. They carry on laughing, shouting, and joking in their native tongue, on their way to the food stands for a late breakfast of fish and oysters.
Janet the halfling has been looking forward to the market all week long, eager to see new faces and witness this staple of Saltmarsh life. All that waiting, and then she slept in! What a shame, especially in this beautiful weather!
Running as fast as she can on her short legs towards the market, past the carts, the halfling nearly collides with the group of dwarves. She barely waits to blurt out an apology before continuing straight into the centre of the market.
There are a few cat-calls in Dwarvish, and a round of boisterous laughter. The dwarves quickly lose interest, however, and find a pair of mostly empty tables to claim for their morning meal.
Although not pleased by the rowdy dwarves, Janet pays them little attention.
Suddenly at a loss as to which stall to go to first, she looks around, seeing a man standing over a crate of books, a booth covered in painted shells, and several food stands from which appetizing scents waft into her nostrils to mix with the smell of decay.
Remembering that she had been told of a fortune teller with unique methods, Janet searches through the market to find this strange and wonderful person. She finds the stall, but is slightly confused by the man frying fish in it.
The fishbone-reader's stall is staffed by two elderly humans who look to be a couple. On the left is a tall, silver-haired man with a gentle face. Behind him is a brazier grill, its embers crackling and popping heartily. To the right is a gnarled, haggish woman sitting in a chair, a red kerchief tied tightly over her head.
“Wow, what kind of fortune teller is this?” Janet mutters to herself before going up to the counter and standing on her toes to compensate for her height. “Hi! Can you see the future? Can you see my future!? I’m sure it’s very interesting, so you won’t be bored if you do!”
Eager to hear the answer, Janet flashes a lively smile at the woman.
The old woman scoots her chair towards the table and speaks up, peering forward with dull, black eyes.
“Aye, we can see yer life’s course!” Her voice is frail and raspy. “After you’ve let yer eternal hunger guide yer hand, leaving naught but bones, the shape o’ yer fate is on the plate! The riddle, then, I decipher, an' I tell ye what I find. But I warn ye: beware the mirage and the false horizon!”
There’s a dramatic pause. She leans forward conspiratorially and whispers. “But first ye gots ta procure yer lunch from me husband!”
The man beside her speaks up. His voice, in contrast, is clear and friendly. “A plate of pan-fried cod, fresh-caught this mornin’, is two silver. An’ it comes with a scoop of beans.
“The readin’ fee’s included, it is!” the woman chimes in with a wink.
Janet's smile widens. "Excellent! I was just thinking that fish smelled excellent! Nothing like a good fisherman’s breakfast to fill up the stomach.”
She happily hands over the two silver, and wolfs down the meal as soon it arrives. She picks out several bones from her teeth, although a couple small ones go down her gullet.
Once she’s done, her eyes flick across the plate. She picks it up and brings it back to the woman. “So, what now? Will the gods grant you a vision of the largest fish I’ll ever catch?”
The crone brings the plate close to her face, tilting it to and fro as she peers at its jagged contents.
"I see...I seeeee…there! It be a head. At the bottom! No, a face! It’s a man’s face, a worried face, but no tellin' who."
She spins the plate slightly, cocking her head in speculation. "Hmmm. This here's a rock. A mighty rock. Or a cliff--no a mountain! A great..."
With a gasp the woman drops the plate, and it tumbles off the table, shattering onto the cobblestones below. The brazier next to her suddenly extinguishes with a hiss, a plume of smoke twisting and expanding into the sky. For a moment it looks like the silhouette of a stout man. Then the sea breeze whisks it away.
Janet stands staring at the woman, seemingly unaffected by her reaction.
The woman looks terrified, and scoots her chair back from the table. "Child, yer course ain't fer me or any folk to divine. Yer adrift, an' yer guided by greater currents than those of the weave! Only with time will ye know yer true destination!"
The man, who was in the middle of cooking another fillet, looks back towards his wife. With a passive shrug, he crouches to reignite his grill. A few nearby marketgoers casually glance over at the minor commotion, but quickly return to their activities.
The old woman leans forward. “Child? Child, ye must listen to me! Heed me words!”
Janet continues staring. Her consciousness buckles and collapses into itself. She can still vaguely see and hear the world around her, but it’s as if she’s underwater, staring up from deep below the surface. Sights and sounds are clouded and muted.
Cutting through this haze, the halfling hears singing. Lovely, mournful singing. It’s coming from off the coast of Saltmarsh, somewhere out in the sea. It ebbs and it flows like the tides, and it draws her out, away from the land. She feels the need to swim towards it, to forever be cradled by the waves until only her bones are left bobbing upon the surface.
The fortune teller reaches out and pokes Janet’s shoulder with a crooked finger, and the halfling jumps, startled from her reverie. Her eyes are wide, her smile gone, as she looks up at the woman.
“I’m… I’m sorry. That shouldn’t have happened.” Clearly spooked, she backs up and turns away, then walks out of the market and on to Sharkfin Bridge.
Leaning over the railing facing the sea, she breathes heavily, eyes blinking. She seems as though she’ll be sick into the river. Recovering slightly, she looks out over the ocean, eyes wandering over the horizon searching for something, anything, out there.
Across the market, Ilseh unsnaps the button of the lapel of her travel pack with a huff, and stuffs the old book within it, barely being able to snap it back closed. The market had proved to be too rancorous for her to focus on her newly acquired tome properly, but before she made her way back to Eliander's library, she had decided to attend the market further to experience it at least once before she departed Saltmarsh.
She swears she had seen a small woman- a halfling- that she’d noticed also in Eliander's home, but a real beauty had caught Ilseh’s eye. Pretending to be interested in a trinket seller's shell necklaces and jewelry, Ilseh would glance at a half-elf woman that was walking about the market grounds. She obviously did not fit in with the locals of the muggy town, Ilseh could tell.
After a short interaction with a little girl, the woman solitarily stands at a bridge.
Pulling out at the sides of his robes, stretching the front taught against his thighs to keep the stain from spreading, Tore scuttles away from the tables into the aisles of merchant carts, pushing himself carelessly through the crowd with elbows extended, continuing to hold out his robes.
Astonished the half elven woman even payed the beggar child mind, let alone pulled out her coin, he chuckles to himself, "Tourists.... wouldn't know a diamon' from a lump er coal. Thems is free by the barrel full at the sand don't they know?"
After a short search, Tore comes across the cart of a young woman pitching small bars of soap molded in the shape of seashells, ships anchors, sailboats, and all other sorts of nautical caricatures.
Pulling himself up, chin rising just over the top of the display table, he asks, "Scuse me miss, while your wares seem quite lovely, I'm in need of something.... a bit more concentrated." Looking down at the large purple stain, he continues, "Could you spare a bit of lye and some wormwood in exchange for a bit a coin? This me only set a robes and a rinse in the sea just won't do."
The woman tending to her shop is youngish, possibly in her twenties, wearing a rough, dark blue cotton dress and matching bonnet. Smiling primly, she adjusts the bars of soap splayed out upon one of the three barrels before her.
“Mmmm,” she considers out loud. “You’re in luck. My boy just dropped off some supplies, fresh from Seaton, on his way back to the farm. I can’t spare too much, but if you buy one of these here soaps, I’ll throw in a bit of lye and wormwood to go with it. They’re only a silver apiece.”
She lifts one of the soaps delicately with both hands, displaying it to the dwarf. The smell of peppermint wafts across the barrels. The bar is in the shape of the classic ship’s anchor, though the tip of one of the hooks seems to have broken off slightly.
“You look to be the anchor type.” She thrusts the thing forward, wearing an appropriately friendly expression.
Scrounging around the inner pockets of his robe, Tore removes the coin and exchanges it with the anchor. "Quite suits me life at the current."
Her eyes appraise Torestorlim in detail. “You don’t look like one of the Copperlocks. Are you a priest or something?"
"Erm.. a priest.. or somethin of the sort. Aethubara Sanctum, but 'fraid I've done some sinkin."
He drops the anchor from shoulder height into his pack. "I wish ya well, mus' be off before the stain sets ya know. Sa long." And Tore scurries away.
It’s nearly noon, and the weather is still holding fair. A sheet of clouds, however, is huddled over the sea, far to the south. There will likely be a rainstorm this afternoon.
The bustle of the Weekly Market is in full roar. The people have spilled out of the square, into the street, forcing all but the most essential of traffic to find a detour to the south docks. Across the road, the Snapping Line has opened for business, and already there is a line going out the door. Little else can be heard over the steady thrum of talking and laughing, and the occasional friendly shout.
All five strangers have made their way back into the crowd, exploring the various wares, crafts, and local dishes of Saltmarsh.
The last of the fishing traffic is wrapping up its business in Kingfisher harbor proper, freeing up the smallest of Saltmarsh’s west docks for the merchant vessels that have been waiting patiently for the closure to lift. Already a few of the smaller craft have hoisted their anchors, and are moving by oar into the bay’s bottleneck.
A few blocks away to the south, a single ship’s deckbell begins ringing frantically, its toll barely cutting through the din of the market. It’s joined by another, and then a third.
The market crowd quiets to whispers of curiosity and concern. It’s then that distant screams and shouted orders can be heard from the docks to the south. The crowd falls dead-silent, and movement grows erratic and uneasy.
Across the street to the east, a slender elf in sailor’s garb sprints alongside the rows of houses and businesses, in panicked flight, away from the docks.
“A bear!” he shouts at the throngs of people as he passes the Snapping Line. “There’s a bloody bear loose on the docks!”
Gasps and cries arise from the market square. The masses begin to shove and scatter northwards, towards Sharkfin Bridge.
Ilseh had just managed to gather some courage to approach the lone dame on the bridge, but a shout was heard across the market way- something about a bear?
On the bridge, Penelope's head turns towards the sound of deck bells. She gathers herself and takes stock of her surroundings. Then she hears a sailor shout.
"Did he just say bear?" she thinks to herself and snickers.
Seeing the incoming masses of scared citizens, she whimsically flattens herself out, pressing herself against the side of the bridge.
"Pardon me, excuse you, watch yourself,” she says to the passersby.
Zalo squints as the terrified elf dashes by, and exclaims with delight. "A bear! In the Saltmarsh docks, of all places? What an unexpected circumstance. And a perfect opportunity to catch up on mammal anatomy!"
Avoiding as much of the horde as he can, Tore ducks and dives between, under and over the merchant carts, headed in the direction of the docks. "DAMN TOURISTS!" he shouts, shoving a pair of clueless onlookers aside with his paddle. Now clear of the carts, at a full sprint he begins to yell, "THE NETS! GET THE NETS!" although still probably out of earshot of the now ported fishing vessels.
Ilseh sees the drunkard dwarf run toward the alarms. She'd squared against bears before, not something you want to do alone- and not drunk. She begrudgingly sprints after the buffoon, if to attempt to dissuade this suicidal course of action. "The idiot's going to hurt himself.."
As Penelope watches people flee towards the square, she notices a Dwarf pushing his way through the crowd, heading towards the docks, yelling a plan to capture the rampaging beast. He is soon followed by tall, unique-looking human.
"Oh, I gotta see this" Penelope says aloud and heads towards the ruckus.
Zalo sees the besotted dwarf throwing elbows through the throngs of people, and decides to adopt a similar strategy, making his way to the edge of the market one hop at a time to avoid being overrun by the teeming crowds escaping from the apparent bear.
This proves wildly unsuccessful as he is immediately battered about by the knees and ankles of fleeing passersby.
Frustrated at his inability to make any kind of substantive headway against the masses and witness an honest-to-goodness bear close up, he clambers onto the rough wooden tables and stands on tip-toes, barely above the height of a human.
With an exasperated noise, he lifts a hand up and utters an arcane phrase: "Ullendo!" His thumb and four fingers are pressed together, pantomiming a closed mouth. Then the gnome moves his fingers open and closed as the "mouth" begins to "speak.”
But it isn't a puppet show, for from his hand emerges a voice. Not Zalo's usual strange mix of squeaky-pitched and wheezy-if-authoritative, but a different voice: one with a deep, textured quality, booming across the chaotic market square like the dull roar of the surf.
"Please proceed in an orderly fashion to the northern exit! It won't do to escape an alleged bear only to be trampled by your neighbors, my friends!"
The absurd incongruity of this voice coming from a gnome might be comical if the situation were less serious.
Still shaken from her fortune-telling experience, Janet is overwhelmed by the sudden confusion.
“A bare? I heard these provincial people were prudes, but this seems like somewhat of an overreaction.” Just as she’s pondering that, the wave of bodies washes over her, terrified townspeople crowding to get through the chokepoint of the bridge.
Between dodging boots, Janet has time to say to herself “Well, I didn’t come here to be bored! Let’s go see the show!” It takes all of her agility to avoid being crushed on the bridge, but she perseveres in her efforts to see this supposedly stimulating spectacle.
As the crowd shambles northwards into the main street intersection, it divides. Most continue west, stumbling and shoving their way across Sharkfin Bridge. Their pace slows to a shuffle, and there are angry shouts as the people in the front ranks are shoved onto the ground.
Those in the far rear of the retreating masses, who hadn’t yet made the intersection, choose instead to flee east along the main road in order to avoid the bridge bottleneck.
Zalo makes his way around the perimeter, avoiding the crowds as best as he can, but his cautious approach means it's slow work. "I'll never get to see that blasted bear at this rate," he grumbles with an annoyed tone. But a glint comes into his eye as he pauses for a moment, and a smile crosses his face.
He snaps his fingers, and from underneath a bench totters a magnificent but extremely bewildered barn owl. They exchange a glance as the owl shakes itself out, preening for a moment. Then it clumsily flaps twice, still disoriented, and wheels into the air, careening towards the southern docks with Zalo waddling behind as fast as his small legs will carry him.
And there are at least two others who seem to be interested in the commotion he spots as well — a familiar-looking halfling and that funny dwarf from before, three cups deep into his brews. "Fellow anatomical enthusiasts, no doubt!" squeals the gnome exuberantly.
The crowd thins as it finishes scattering to the north. One by one the deck bells to the south and southeast cease to ring.
Like five strange salmon making their way hastily upstream, the newcomers pushed south, against the traffic, and towards the alarms. Torstorlim was the first to leap into action. The dwarf's brute force approach wasn’t making any friends, but it was making a path—namely for Ilseh, who sprinted through the dwarf’s wake and quickly caught up to him.
Penelope and Janet, intrigued by the two eager front-liners, continued to give chase a short distance behind, though the halfling had trouble keeping up with the half-elf.
Zalo, who hung back to make a futile attempt at directing the townsfolk’s orderly retreat, fell a full two blocks behind Tore and Ilseh after he finally gave chase. His owl, however, quickly glided low and silently over their heads.
When Tore and Ilseh reach the curve in the street to the south, near the docks, the area is empty, including on the decks of the two ships moored nearby.
The owl ahead of them scans the area, then begins flapping furiously to gain altitude as it sweeps back around to the north.
Running into the clearing at the docks, made by the stampede headed in the opposite direction, Tore stops, paddle in hand and over his head. He looks back and forth along the pier... confused...
Arriving in the scene of the docks, Ilseh was surprised to see it calm- vacant. No bear milling about. With a quick survey of the mooring site, she notes a ship with empty crates- large enough for such a creature.
To the north, up the next street, there is a scream.
Tore spins around on his heels, head cocked towards where he thinks the noise came from, then another yell back the way he came, one block over.
"There 'e is, the bastard!" He takes off running.
Ilseh turns back to Tore. ”Hey, dwarf! You can't just-" and with that the burly drunk beat feet and ran in the direction of the ensuing screaming. "Dammit!"
Begrudgingly, she ran after him. At a certain point she wondered if she should just let demise befall the stoutman, but thought better of it- she might need help in containing the bear in the meanwhile.
"That shout sounded like it was across the street!" she shouts behind the dwarf, hot on her heels.
Zalo shuffles along as best as he can, not used to such rigorous exercise, and especially not in the pursuit of bears. He squints at the owl ahead, shading his eyes from the morning sun to get a better look, but doesn't see much in this direction.
Now that the crowds have thinned a bit, he spots not one or two but four other interested parties. "Hello there! Are you too looking for this bear? I think ..." he trails off and cranes his ear, listening to something. "I think the dwarf has the right of it!"
He exchanges a glance with the owl as it swoops in, and the gnome continues trudging in pursuit, panting and wheezing.
Penelope walks down the street with her brim pulled way down low. Ain’t no sound, but a scream in the east, so that’s the way she goes.
Janet stops in her tracks as she hears screams coming from somewhere else. These sound serious, reminding her of the last time she heard screaming like that. Should she help? Even if she could, what might she see if she did? Doubt crawls through her mind, forcing her to confront just what she’s willing to do.
The woman in front of her, with the wide-brimmed hat, turns towards the sounds. Deciding to follow this example of bravery, Janet follows her, although her step is not as sure as before. She begins running again just as a wheezing gnome arrives behind her and says something to her back.
The five strangers, scattered in intervals down the main road to the docks, began to converge towards the next street in search of the disturbance.
Torestorlim was the first to realize the direction of the new scream, and immediately changed directions, heading north along the next street. Even with her delay in examining the ship, Ilseh had no problem re-closing the distance with the dwarf when she finally resumed the chase, herself.
Penelope and Janet, who were quite a ways behind the leaders up until now, were immediately at the front of the chase when the pursuers' direction reversed. They cut through the buildings to the east, and emerged into the street in front of Tore and Ilseh.
After a moment's pause, Zalo, too, began to cut across the east block to reach the next street over. His owl ascended higher into the sky to circle the area. It hoots twice.
He shares a gaze with the owl, then nods and scurries towards the commotion. "Oh my word, not one, but two bears! Perhaps the anatomical sketches will have to wait until they are a bit more placated."
He whips out his notebook as quickly as he can and tucks his quill behind his ear. "I suppose this might get a bit dangerous, friends!" he calls out ahead, from around the corner.
When the half-elf and halfling emerge from between the buildings, a young-but-still-large grizzly bear is about a half-block away. A block further north, behind the Snapping Line, a smaller adolescent grizzly is running away.
The larger bear, startled by Penelope and Janet’s appearance, lets loose a threatening growl, and charges.
The smaller of the young grizzlies, a block down the street, is running away with erratic, loping bounds. Just as it reaches the north intersection, the door of a nearby building flings open, and a man bursts out, fleeing the scene in a blind run.
Startled, the silver-backed bearling attempts to change directions, but loses its footing on the dusty cobblestones, and falls onto its side. It immediately scrambles back to its feet and runs towards the Snapping Line’s open back door.
The other, closer, and much larger grizzly continues its charge.
Tore, in the rear ranks, see it make its move. "Blessed.... that's a BEAR.. not a bear..." Halfway catching his breath, halfway sighing deeply, he lifts the paddle once more and sprints headlong directly at the beast, trying to get to the front line.
Fearing a disaster if the smaller beast should enter the Snapping Line, Janet runs towards the distant silver-backed bear, not sure how she can stop it. She waves her arms and yells at it. “Oi, bear! Now’s not the time to get drunk!”
As she does this, a grey mist begins to form around her gesticulating hands. Janet doesn’t notice this until the mist gathers, becoming nearly solid, and hurtles forward, heading straight for the distant bear.
With a sizzle, the grey energy sails past the charging bear, hitting the distant target square on its left flank. It stumbles sideways, but continues towards the tavern door.
Bringing her hands in front of her face after casting her spell, Janet stares at them with mild confusion.
Torestorlim charges up from the rear to meet the charging bear head-on.
Running after the dwarf, Ilseh holds her right hand low at her side and begins to channel an inner feeling- one of heat and ardor- and a flame engulfs it.
She shouts forward at the sudden number of people between her and the bear, "What're you crazy? Get back- I'll try to scare it!”
The dwarf stumps past Penelope, who is still surveying the new scene, and he continues on to just behind Janet’s position, his mash paddle readied in his fists.
Ilseh ceases her chase of the dwarf when she reaches the half-elf, and watches the scene transpire, smoke curling up from the readied flame in her hand.
Seeing a new companion in her ranks, Penelope runs up to the tall ashen woman beside her, whose hands are now aflame, and draws her rapier.
“Oh Cher, this bear’s got you all hot and bothered,” she jokes.
Ilseh continues to concentrate on the charging threat, flame still flickering low in her right hand.
Penelope turns her attention to the bear, which is almost upon Janet and Torestorlim. “Eh Ti-Bear! You leave dis one alone or it’s me you’ll be answerin’ to,” Penelope yells, mocking the large bear in front of her.
Her words carry an ethereal power, and the bear looks her direction, but there is no other effect.
The flame is hot against Ilseh's skin- it was always hot, but it never burned. The bear continues its charge, more than likely just attempting to defend the smaller one. Hopefully this scares it away she thinks as she flings the bolt of flame at the charging ursine.
The flame leaps off her hand, flares up in size, and crackles over the tops of Torestorlim’s and Janet’s heads before arcing down to strike the marauding bear in the face with a hiss, melting off the fur from the snout.
It’s around this moment that Janet realized she’d also been running straight towards a charging bear.
With a bone-chilling roar of pain, the newly smoldering bear makes two more strides, then leaps. Using a single paw, it swats Janet out of the way, raking four bloody furrows into her head with its claws. The halfling staggers hard to the left from the force of the blow, but remains on her feet.
The bear rears back on its hind legs and lunges towards Torestorlim, who had just arrived behind the halfling. The dwarf raises his mash paddle in defense, but the weight is too much, and he tumbles onto his back with the beast on top of him. There’s a brief struggle, and the thing manages to crane its neck past the paddle, giving the dwarf a nasty bite on the shoulder.
Zalo skids to a halt as he emerges from the buildings onto the side of the street, eyes widening in alarm as he sees the two bears. His eyes get even bigger as he sees the larger one atop the dwarf, and the nearby halfling with four deep gashes on her head, blood pouring down her face.
"Oh, by the stars!" He clutches his notebook protectively against his chest.
The gnome makes a rapping motion with his upraised fist, as if knocking on an invisible surface. "Sonoros!" he squeaks, the words almost catching on his throat.
The air around the bear wavers faintly, barely perceptible, and a dull ringing sound clangs in the street, a sad and faint echo of the now silent alarm-bells.
The animal draws back in pain at the gnome’s arcane sound.
With a grunt, Torestorlim shoves hard with his legs, kicking the massive beast the rest of the way off of him, and then scrambles away, back onto his feet.
Zalo looks up at the owl, perched serenely on the roof, and shoots him a glance, then wipes the salt and sweat from his brow. The owl leaps off the tower into a diving northward glide, towards the Snapping Line.
Combat Round 2 Summary
Zalo skirts closer and around the bear, giving it as wide a berth as he can, and hurries to aid the combatants. His hand raises again, the rapping motion quick and practiced, if laced with a hint of nervous energy. Again, a bell sounds in the street — this time a faint and gentle tinkling like rainfall, strangely discordant and harsh.
The bear, still facing Torestorlim, winces slightly.
Glancing apprehensively at the carnage in the street, Zalo grimaces. "Keep the blood off me and the book, please!" he groans, his face turning several shades of green as he suppresses a gag.
Penelope, still a bit further back, also focuses her attention on the larger bear. “Leave’em be ya big bully!” She yells out.
The fur on the bear’s back hackles slightly, but again it’s unaffected by the half-elf’s enchanted words.
Ilseh's fierce demeanor was struck apart at Penelope’s satire a few moments ago. "Wai-bothered? What?" But as she turned to look at the her, Ilseh saw a familiar face in a grizzly situation.
The halfing woman Ilseh had seen in Eliander's home was among the scene, and she had just been badly hurt, the larger of the two bears looming next to the small thing.
With a growl, Ilseh pushes her body forward, drawing her twin blades from their sheathes. She stands in front of the injured halfling and clangs her weapons, metal to metal, in front of the beast and stiffens her frame. "Hey! That's enough!”
The grizzly turns its attention towards Ilseh and lunges, swinging its massive paw through the air, but the ashen woman steps away with a pivot to shed the force of the blow. The maneuver is successful; though the claw connected with her back, only a few superficial scratches are left behind.
Completing her graceful evasive pirouette, Ilseh comes back around fiercely with one of her swords, and hacks a meaty furrow into the beast’s left shoulder. The bear stumbles away, groaning in pain.
It looks as if it may fall at any moment.
Noticing the bear distracted, Tore leaps in the air, right leg extended, leg leg tucked away in his robe, foot crashing into what he believes is the beast's spine, and he knocks it off balance.
Landing in a three-point stance, he leaps towards the bear once more. Grabbing a heft of fur at the nape of the neck, he pulls himself upwards, now riding the bear like a horse, the other hand clutching his paddle up high ready to strike at the back of the skull.
The thing rears onto its hind legs and roars. Sliding down the now-vertical bear, Tore loses his paddle while trying to regain grip of the oily fur. The bear spins around flinging the dwarf, crashing to the ground.
Like a flash the bear moves in and clamps its jaws around Torestorlim’s side, just under the armpit, and tears away, yanking the dwarf backwards, and again onto the ground.
With some effort, the bloodied dwarf pulls himself back onto his feet, blood gushing from under his arm.
The mighty beast turns to face Ilseh and Janet again.
Despite the massive amounts of blood coming out of her face, Janet still isn’t nearly as scared as she should be thanks to the adrenaline coursing through her veins and the brave fighters around her. Ignoring the advice she’s so often been given, she pokes the bear, aiming for its face.
The animal swings its head to the side reflexively, giving Janet the opportunity to turn her back and runs towards the Snapping Line.
Penelope’s face cringes as she sees the large wound on the retreating halfling’s head.
“Ouch. That’s gotta...” She says, but stops when the Halfling gets up and makes a run for it. “Run mon ami, run!” Penelope says while laughing. “Pshaw!” She yells encouragingly, her voice echoing louder than it should down the street.
The gashes on Janet’s head rapidly close up, leaving behind only a few scratches.
At the sound of Penelope's booming voice, the smaller bear in the distance glances towards the battle raging on a block away, then scurries into the back of the tavern.
Screams and shouts erupt from within the tavern. A loud clatter and the sound of dozens of stomping feet echo down the street as the unseen front door is thrown open violently, and the occupants hiding within the tavern flee towards Sharkfin Bridge.
A few moments later a man and a woman, both in their undergarments, leap out onto the rear second story balcony through a small door, slamming it closed behind them. The man turns and throws his weight against door; the woman frantically peers over the edge of the railing.
At the opposite end of the street, from the direction of the docks and behind the five strangers, two soldiers come running around the corner. They are wearing studded armor marked with the green badge of the Saltmarsh town guard.
They pause, one of them points to the melee next to the brick building, and shouts something unintelligible to the strangers. The two resume their sprint northward, towards the conflict, both drawing swords as they run.
Combat Round 3 Summary
Up the block, from within the Snapping Line, shouts can be heard, as well as the sound of crashing furniture and slamming doors.
Across the street from the tavern’s back entrance, a halfling man in a plain brown robe emerges running from behind the buildings, arriving from the east road. Like a flash he crosses the road, and is nearly at the back door.
The man on the rear balcony quickly pulls the door open, slips inside, and returns with an armload of clothes and linens. He drops the heap at his feet, and again wedges his weight into the door. The woman hurriedly begins to dress herself.
The owl, quickly approaching the tavern from the south, banks slightly to the left, flaps a few times, and soars over the building. Then it dives out of sight behind it, towards its front entrance.
Janet continues to run towards the Snapping Line.
Tore touches the opened flesh along his rib cage. He winces, "EVEN MORE STAIN TO GET OUUTA ME ROBES NOW YA FUZZY BASTARD."
Reaching around towards his back.. "My paddle... my paddle..." Smack dab below the beast’s belly, he spots it.
Ilseh gets beside the bear while it is recovering from the surprise eye-stabbing from the little halfing. She pulls her arm back to slam the pommel of her blade against the bear's head, but it rears suddenly onto its hind legs, causing Ilseh to step back momentarily.
Seeing his foe distracted, Tore slides head first between the front paws and grabs his paddle with his right arm. His slide slowing to a stop, he reaches out with his left and tugs at the back right leg of the bear, pulling himself from out from under the beast.
Back up to his feet and behind the bear, he takes off running towards the Snapping Line. "HANNA!" he yells.
“Bravo!” Penelope exclaims, encouraging the Dwarf.
Magical energy shimmers in the air around Torestorlim. The blood suddenly stops flowing from his side.
As the beat-and-bloodied bear is lumbering around to swipe at the escaping dwarf, Ilseh takes the opportunity to strike. With a leap, she punches the butt of the sword's hilt into the bear's temple. With a groan the bear slumps to the ground, creating a heavy cloud of dust.
Janet, still running, turns around to see the bear fall. "Very impressive!" She shouts back. "I might need some help with the other one!"
Isleh kneels next to the beast and utters quickly between breaths, "I'm sorry.." She darts her eyes, seeing the commotion a nearby building, the running guards, and a gnome. "Hey, make sure the guard know what's happened!" With that, she darts towards the panic-filled tavern.
Zalo nods at the marble-skinned woman's request, steadying himself against the wall with one skeptical eye on the bear. This is the first time he's been this close to her imposing figure, and he reflexively clutches his book closer, taking it in all in. "I'll let them know, madam."
Penelope bites her nails, watching anxiously. First the Dwarf narrowly escapes with his life then a mysterious beauty knocks a bear unconscious, after-which they both run off.
She starts chasing after the two. “Wait for me!”
From the south, the two Saltmarsh guards continue to sprint, swords in hands, up the street.
The gnome immediately turns and yells down the street at the guards. "Oi! You two! This bear is indisposed, but there's another in the tavern!"
He takes off towards the Snapping Line, not wanting to spend a moment more around the grisly scene.
From inside the tavern ahead, there is a loud slamming sound. A man’s voice echoes triumphantly out into the street, “Got the bastard! I got him!”
The robed halfling disappears into the back door. Moments later, the five strangers follow, clamboring at a run through the back door in sporadic intervals.
“Please, stay back,” a sad but urgent voice pleads from upstairs. “She’s frightened, the poor thing. Just let me talk to her.”
A tall human man with rippling muscles and coveralls struts down the stairs, leaning against the wall to watch. He’s grinning from ear to ear.
A few minutes later, the halfling descends the staircase. He's a middle-aged man in bare feet, with voluminous, dirty brown hair peppered with twigs and grass blades. He’s wearing a dirty brown robe, a necklace of tiny seashells, and carries a gnarled staff on his back.
The young bear, its left side badly burned, follows growling beside him, its head nervously sweeping from side to side.
From the stockroom behind the bar, a stout young human woman with bright red hair emerges, wearing a maid’s apron over a corset that nearly bursts at the seams.
She looks over to the staircase with worry. “Oh, thank the heavens for you, Ferrin! The damage that creature might have done to my inn! Was anyone hurt?”
The halfling frowns. “Only the bear, Hanna, only the bear. It merely wanted to find the safety of the trees, but there were so many people. So many.”
The five strangers take a moment to look around.
The interior of the Snapping Line is best described first in olfactory terms. If you don’t brace yourself for that first whiff through the door, the aroma slaps you upside the head like a wet fish—which is also, coincidentally, exactly how the Snapping Line smells. It’s not fish cooking per se; it’s more like the distant smell of old, gutted, rotted fish, like what you might experience aboard a large fishing ship, or on the streets surrounding the Saltmarsh fishmongers’ plants.
Once you’re past the smell—though you never really completely are—the rustic nature of the inn and tavern is quite charming. The entire building, inside and out, is built from the grayed planks and hulls of ships. The interior has been painstakingly fashioned to resemble the deck of a ship.
In the back of the tavern, above the bar, the inn-room balcony resembles a ship’s quarterdeck complete with a massive ship’s wheel mounted in the middle of the railing. Towards the middle of the tavern, large support pillars have been set down the center of the room like masts, each adorned with ropes and fishing nets. Scattered throughout are large tables with chairs, with those nearest to the walls having their own window-portals, the frames of which contains quaint, hand-painted seascapes. At the front of the tavern, near the main door, a miniature “forecastle” platform has been built, with access near either wall via three small steps. A variety of barrels, surrounded by tall stools, provide more intimate seating for couples or groups of three.
As the strangers are examining the inn’s interior, the two guards burst through the back door, their chests heaving.
“Cor!” one exclaims, lowering his sword. “I thought old Hagens were jissin’ us! They really are bears!”
The other guard sheathes his blade. “You got that one under control, Ferrin?” He elbows his companion, who also puts away his weapon. “The other one, ah,” he pauses uncomfortably, looking at the group of five. “There was another one out there. A bigger one.”
Isleh wipes her twin steel against the calves of her boots and secures the blades, letting them hang from their looped sheathes at her sides.
She speaks aloud, her sunset-hued eyes darting from person to person in the room. "The one outside is not doing well. It's been knocked out for now, but it will wake before long."
One of the guards starts for the door, hand on his sword, but the other grabs him by the shoulder.
The halfling at the stairs brightens up, the sad tone leaving his voice for a moment. "Oh, you didn't kill it? Good, good."
He turns to the guards. The melancholy tone has returned to his voice. "Price, do me a favor and, well, secure the poor thing until I can get to it. Try to be gentle. If it's anything like this one, it's terrified, and it's starving."
"Sure thing, Ferrin."
"Oh, but Price? Be safe. Protect yourself if you need to."
The guard nods, shoves the other through the back door, and follows.
The halfling places a hand on the bear's snout and lets loose a growl; the animal lies down on the floor in response. He turns to Ilseh. "And who might you all be?"
Janet looks around the peculiar tavern, one more odd thing in an odd day. She’s breathing heavily, but her mouth widens into a relieved smile.
Answering the other halfling, she says “We’re heroes! That big bear would have killed us all, but these people knocked it out, so we’ll all be fine now!”
She gestures to the rest of the people who were fighting the bear. “And I was going to save everyone in here! It’s a good thing you got here first though, because I was getting tired just running over here.”
Ilseh was about to open her mouth in reply but shoots the halfing woman a look. She walks to a nearby table and pulls a chair out, angled to be facing the rest of the gathered peoples, and sits relaxed, ankles crossed, an elbow leaning on the table's surface.
“And I trapped that one there in a room after it wandered upstairs,” says the sunbleached man leaning against the wall.
“I owe a debt of gratitude to you both.” Ferrin looks around the room. “To all of you, it seems. When I heard the news, I thought for certain I’d be burying bears this evening.”
He looks the motley party of five over. “If you find any more, please come get me at the Sea Grove, north of town.” Then he heads for the door with the bear in tow.
Zalo leans against the wall by the door and surveys the tavern, the empty chairs and tables showing the apparent aftermath of a frightened bear. Forlornly, and still panting from the run, he watches Ferrin depart with his ursine companion.
"The Sea Grove, you say? I shall have to," he pauses to gulp in some air, "pay a visit! Marvelous creatures." He scribbles a note in his notebook.
After Ferrin and the bear leave, Hanna looks up at the man by staircase. "Good work, Jahn. You're getting a raise. Do me a favor. Go find Sam and tell him he's fired."
The sunbleached man smiles and heads out the front door.
She turns to Torestorlim. “So, Tore. Hero of the town now, are ya’? Who’re your friends? I’ll get you all a round, on the house.”
Out of breath and still a little bloody, Tore saunters up to the bar and climbs up onto a stool, wincing as he does so. "I wouldn't call punchin' a bear and gettin mauled for it heroic. I came runnin' when I heard screamin', was commin' ta check on yas 'anna."
“Me friends?” he continues. “You knows I ain't go none cept you. The bear took a chunk out of me armpit," says Tore, raising his arm to show Hanna where the robes are now tattered and bloodstained.
He circles the party in the air with a finger extended, "And one a thems hit me with some sorta magic and grew me flesh back. Dizzy from the blood loss I was, I didn't get a look at the kind soul to thank em. Unbelievable sorta thing it was..."
Penelope raises her head and lifts her cap, which was hanging low in-front of her face. Her posture changes as she turns towards the group and lowers her open hand from the side of her head. She takes a few steps and joins the group, a large smile on her face.
"Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Penelope Perdu," Penelope says with a curtsy.
The woman at the table speaks next. “I’m Ilseh, and like he said," she says, pointing to the tattered dwarf. "I don't know anyone here, but I'd love a tall one."
Zalo lets the others introduce themselves, grateful for the extra moments to catch his breath. Then he inclines his head in response toward Hanna, making a sweeping bow, his notebook tucked under his arm. "Normally I would never refuse such gracious hospitality. However I'm afraid I don't drink in the mornings. Clouds the senses, you see, and I can't have that. It would be unseemly, and it wastes the best hours of the day for scholarly pursuits!"
"Not to mention, I've also just put away a very nice fish breakfast, which is in considerable danger of coming back up the other way after our little scuffle." He grimaces and steadies himself against the doorframe. "Especially after seeing some of your insides come outside, sir dwarf."
He catches a glimpse of the exposed shoulder. "Oh dear, I think I'm going to be sick." He manages to suppress another gag.
Hanna inspects the dwarf’s wounds with concern. “Oh, you’ll live, Tore” she says confidently. “I’ve seen you with worse after a scrap over at the Empty Net.”
“That’s to say nothin’ about the other guys,” she adds, winking to the other four in the party.
Zalo sniffs the dank, salty air of the tavern. "However, do I detect the faintest hint of your local catch being prepared? I wouldn't turn down a second breakfast."
The gnome grins broadly and makes another sweeping bow, bent over at the waist as he pitches forward towards the other folks gathered around Hanna. The motion is sincere and deliberate, if a bit awkward. "Zalo Thunderfoot, may it please all assembled. A pleasure to make your mutual acquaintances!"
Torestorlim motions to Zalo. ”Don't be such a stick in the mud, gnome. Pull up a stool and have a drink. It's like breakfast in a glass and'll settle that belly a yers."
Zalo thinks for a moment on this. "Well, I suppose it's worth celebrating that we all came out more or less alive on the other side of a tussle with two bears. Very well, a drink it is. I'll regret this over lunch, I'm sure."
He wrinkles his nose. "Still, it won't do to have you bleeding all over the place through your clothes, sir. The guards will be liable to think you're up to something! If I might just, ahem, fix that for you." He points at the ragged, bloody patch of Tore's robes. "Esseo!"
Magically, the dwarf's clothing is instantly repaired, and the blood-and-wine stains disappear.
Torestorlim, oblivious to his newly clean robes, calls to Hanna again. "I could smell da new batch yer brewin from the street, a little sweeter smellin than da last few, sticks in yer nostrils quite nicely." He inhales deeply through his nose. "I gots a favor to asks yas, but after the drinkin is done. Since yer offerin', I'm acceptin'. Lets put a little hair on these tourists chests eh?"
“Tourists?” laughs Hanna. “You talk like you were born here!” Turning to the rest of the party, she continues, “Torestorlim used to deliver beer to Saltmarsh once a week, from the monastery up near Burle. He liked the place so much, he decided to move here a few months ago. He’s like one of the family here at the Line.”
She drags an upended table nearer to the bar, and sets it on its feet. “Which reminds me, Tore,” she grunts as she works. “That new guy. He’s really hoisted the prices on me. Won’t take a barrel of the claw in exchange. Cash only. And receipts, too!”
Hanna continues pulling chairs up off the floor, setting them at the table. “Well it’s nice to meet you all. I’m Hanna Rist, owner of this fine establishment. Have a seat, and I’ll treat you to my speciality. It’s Tore’s favorite!”
She disappears behind the bar a moment, then returns with five filled mugs, setting them at the table.
“Claw wine,” she says proudly. “It’s been in the family for generations. I’ve been working on my own variety, lately. Tell me what you think. I call this one ‘Crabber’s Delight.’”
Ilseh grabs the container with a sincere smile. As the fluid swishes to and fro, a very strong aroma infiltrates her nostrils with a fishy tinge. "Oh," she gasps under her breath, staring at this questionable liquid. "You have any firewine?"
"We're a small town, hon. Most places can only do ale and rum. My wine's about as exotic as it gets.
"But teach me the recipe," she adds politely. "Maybe if it's popular, I can add a keg to my offerings."
Penelope laughes at Ilseh. “Aww Cher, you don’t like it?” She chuckles, lifting the tankard to her lips and taking a big gulp. Fishy smelling liquid falls from the sides of her mouth. “Tastes good to me!”
Penelope turns to Hanna and raises her cup to her.
Zalo inhales deeply, swirling the mug with a practiced motion. "Oh, my, I'm detecting notes of... well, mostly fish, to be frank." He tastes it inquisitively, taking a sip. "Hm, yes..."
Then another sip, then another, and then he downs the whole mug. "Potent!" proclaims the gnome. "But a nice pairing to a fish breakfast."
He leans over to Penelope. "I'll have yours if you're taking a pass!"
“A Pass!?” She laughes loudly in Zalo’s face. “I was going to ask you the same thing!”
"I don't know the recipe,” replies Ilseh, “and yeh, either of you can have my mug."
She leaves the tankard on the table, watching the woman down the oceanic concoction in mildly hidden horror. The woman's gall supersedes her beauty, it seems.
Ilseh begins looking around the room pensively, finally noticing the amount of disarray the animal had caused. "Will you be alright, uh, Hannah?"
Before Hanna can answer, an older human gentleman with a finely trimmed beard bustles up to the back door. His dapper clothing straddles the line between luxurious and ridiculous, like a costume worn by an actor upon a stage. A lace-adorned cocked hat sets atop his fine wig, its ebony curls spilling down over his cheeks. He wears a tailored doublet with full breeches and stockings, and immaculately polished boots. A smooth oak cane with a gold-metal tip completes the outfit.
The man steadies himself in the door frame, catching his breath. “My, oh my, oh my! A bear in the very heart of Saltmarsh! Who would ever have thought such a calamity could occur?
“Good afternoon, Ms. Rist,” he says as he steps into the tavern.
Hanna nods in greeting.
After a quick glance out the door, the man turns to the table of adventurers. “You five look to be the fearless cadre the guards spoke of. It seems the town of Saltmarsh has you all to thank for dealing with such an unthinkable menace. On the day of the Weekly Market no less!”
The man approaches the table, surveying its occupants individually. His eyes pause on the gnome. “Well, now! Mr. Thunderfoot! I am happy to see my judgment of character was not made in error!”
With a sturdy tap of his cane on the floor, the man straightens his posture. “I am in the slightest of hurries, so allow me to introduce myself and get on to the sordid business at hand.” He clears his throat.
“My name is Gellan Primewater. My title, at least in the most official of capacities, is esteemed Saltmarsh Council member. But I like to insist that my true contribution to the town still lies in my entrepreneurial accomplishments; I am, you see, the premier purveyor of lumber and textiles this side of the Dreadwood.”
Gellan leans forward, laying the blade of his hand next to his mouth in a mock whisper. “Between you and me, this town council business is an insipid affair in comparison!”
“But,” he says with a gentle laugh, “one must do one’s duty in a position as vital as my own.
“That said, I must bother you all with a brief question as I endeavor to address this little ursine issue. Tell me, did any of you see where those savage creatures originated from?”
Ilseh didn't care for this pomp of a man taking great strides physically- and metaphorically-, to introduce himself. Already she didn't trust him with the knowledge of the bears. He was just.. ughh.. She almost gags as the man gesticulates with exaggerated aplomb.
Janet was sipping the claw wine cautiously, an ambivalent expression on her face. It seems unlikely she would choose such as brew if she were given the choice. She was on the verge of introducing herself when the foppish human walks in.
She rapidly examines the gentleman, whose attire is completely at odds with his surroundings, her eyes flitting from the ridiculous hat to the pompous wig and back again.
Once again, she gives the others little chance to answer before she blurts out her version of the events. “They came from beneath the sea! One moment, it was a calm market day, and then horrid screams pierced the air as the monsters appeared at the docks! Surely the people who were there saw the foul beasts crawl out of the waves. There’s no other explanation!”
"Careful little lady," Gellan chides playfully. "Ms. Rist's claw wine packs a punch, I hear. It sounds very much to me like you've had your fill already."
He smiles broadly. "Does anyone have a different, perhaps less imaginative account? If we can determine the manner in which this beast arrived, we can prevent a similar occurrence in the future."
Penelope smiles wide at Janet's explanation of recent events.
"A fine tale, as good as any!" Penelope raises her glass once again, this time to Janet. "Well, I for one did not see where the animals came from, only the afta'math of their arrival."
Zalo smiles politely as Gellan makes his introduction. "Good morning, Councilor. I hope your breakfast was not unduly impacted by the momentary chaos. And thank you again for your generous hospitality." The gnome performs a sweeping bow, then turns to the others by way of explanation.
"Councilor Primewater has permitted me to use his guest house for my studies, as I work towards supporting the fine folk of Saltmarsh with their very first public library." He smiles, a twinkle in his eyes. "Of course, not every member of the Council agrees with this idea. Yet. But I am nothing if not persistent."
He nods at Penelope's account. "She has the right of it. I didn't see where the bears came from either — we all simply heard the alarm bells ringing from the Market and we came running."
As the group continues to investigate the origin of the ursine invaders, Penelope reaches for the egg shaped stone in her pocket and pulls it out, placing it on top of the table. Holding it upright between her pointer finger and the tabletop she slowly spins and examines it.
Zalo grins. "I'm sure they were just frightened and agitated about the whole situation. A fish out of water, so to speak."
Ilseh leans back in her chair, arms crossing in front of her chest. "Just as they said," she nods in Penelope and Zalo's direction. "We heard a commotion and couldn't stand by."
“Mmmm,” Gellan muses. "A most troublesome situation. It’s not uncommon knowledge that live wild animals are not allowed in Keoish ports of entry, for this very reason. Perhaps one of the dockworkers knows.”
“Well, I must be off,” Gellan says. Just before before he steps out the still-open door, he pauses, and turns back to the group. “Pray, stay here a spell. I’ll have someone along shortly to reward you for your troubles.
“Ms. Rist? Please give these fine folks any food, drink, or merriment they desire for the afternoon, until one of my representatives returns with an apposite gift of thanks. I’ll cover the expense.”
Hanna nods again, offering a smile in return. “Will do, Gellan.”
Gellan smiles once more into the tavern before leaving. “Again, Saltmarsh thanks you!” He closes the door behind him.
“Pompous ****,” replies Hanna before returning to work.
"Yeh to that." Isleh accompanies their patron, now leaning her body over her table, elbows pressed onto its surface.
Tore glances up from his wine. "Ya took the words outta me mouth Hanna. Pompous ****.”
Zalo arches an eyebrow. "Not a fan, I take it, Hanna? He certainly seems to have..." he pauses, searching for the right words, "... quite a reputation."
"Reputation of a dolled ass to me,” replies Ilseh.
“Oh, Gellan is nice enough,” says Hanna as she wipes a table down nearby. “He’s just obnoxious, that’s all. He does great things.“
She laughs, “he’ll tell you as much, himself.”
“Mus be one a them prissy folk the loyalists brought wit em,” says Tore. “Don't know a good thing when it bites em in the arse."
Penelope turns to Torestorlim. “Just because something bites you in the ass doesn't mean its a good thing. You'd know that better than anyone, I would think." She gives a devilish grin then stands up, and moves to the bar.
"Well said, Penelope," Zalo nods approvingly.
Hanna stops what she’s doing and looks up. “Those first impressions’ll getcha, Tore, if you’re not careful.
“He doesn’t look it,” says Hanna, “but Gellan is a Saltmarsh local. His family’s been here for years, and he’s worked pretty hard to establish major trade routes to the Keoish interior, and to other nations overseas. He’s the richest man in town by far. He loves to share his wealth with Saltmarsh. People here love him, especially traditional folk.
“But he is a dolled ass,” she laughs, winking at Ilseh.
"When don't I have me words gettin me in ta trouble?" Tore chuckles. "I don't give a pile a bear shit how nice the man seems, them political types is always up to somethin, even if ya never sees it, he's up ta somethin no good."
At the bar, Penelope grabs the nearest bottle of claw wine and fills her cup. "That gentleman said he was buying." She turns to face the group and leans back on the bar and takes another sip from the tankard.
Zalo ”Much as his personal attitude might be a bit flowery, I won't be one to refuse the Councilor's hospitality. And it's about time for second breakfast! What's on offer, Hanna?"
Hanna heads to her stockroom. “Well, if Gellan is treating you all, we’ll go all fancy-like. He wouldn’t have it any other way. Old Pitre buried some fine rib steaks in my beef delivery this week. Been promising me them for ages. I’ll fix those up.”
She grins. “I’ll just charge Mr. Primewater,” she says, mocking Gellan’s eccentric speech, “for the full price, and keep one for myself.”
Tore stands up and makes his way around the bar. "None fer me 'hanna, I just lost me appetite. About that favor.. could I use one a yer pots at the hearth? Gots me an idea I been thinking a."
“You’re always welcome in there, Tore. Just keep the left-hand hearth free for me, please. Oh, and go upstairs first. Get in the linen closet and grab some old towels. Bandage yourself up. You’re still bleeding a bit, hon.”
Tore pushes through the swinging door behind the bar leading to the kitchen. Finding a small dented copper pot hanging from a rack above the basin, he fills it just about halfway with water from a large cask rested sideways a few feet off the floor on a crudely constructed iron frame. He places the pot towards the front of the hearth.
"Not so much heat this time Tore, we don' want that sticky mess again... not with 'anna's pots at least..."
Out in the tavern, Janet pouts for awhile after Gellan dismisses her theory, and she drinks her claw wine slightly more quickly. Once she’s finished her glass, she puts it down rather forcefully. A twinkling light returns to her eyes as she begins to speculate about his visit.
“There’s definitely something suspicious about that man. He arrived here awfully quickly, don’t you think? His costume certainly didn’t seem designed for walking fast! Right away he made sure we hadn’t seen anything incriminating, and then he tried to bribe us with food!”
She stops, and quickly makes an amending remark. “Of course, I wouldn't refuse a nicely fried fish if you have one, Hanna.” She then continues on with her theory. “Does anyone know which ships were at the docks when the bears attacked? Maybe Mr. Primewater hoped that the feral beasts would maul one of his enemies! A man like that must have lots of them."
"I saw a vessel with two open crates down the dock, big enough for the animals,” says Ilseh. Before she gets any looks for lying to the apparently good peacock of a man she adds, opening her arms slightly in acquiesce. "I didn't say anything because he seemed like a d**che!"
Zalo chortles heartily, both hands on his belly. "Ho ho! Your pluck is as magnificent as your sword arm, my dear Ilseh," he grins, wiping the tears from his eyes after a moment.
"That said, regardless of the airs he puts on, I only have Primewater's actions to go on at the moment. And he's been nothing but generous and accommodating for my stay in Saltmarsh."
Zalo cocks his head at Ilseh thoughtfully. "Still, I don't think anyone will be happy if more bears are set loose in the town. Perhaps we should take a gander at these crates before the docks fill up again? A bear is..." he thinks for a moment, "... unusual cargo, is it not?"
“Ferrin, the one who came to subdue the bear, he too came quickly...” Penelope swings her tankard left and right watching the contents slosh around. “A little too quickly. I saw him running across the street. He was moving far faster than any Halfling I’ve ever seen”
As if on cue, there is a screech from the front of the tavern as its main door swings open. A burly, older man in studded leather armor bearing the badge of Saltmarsh enters, stumping down from the platform on a finely crafted peg-leg.
He smiles a grandfatherly smile. “Hello, Hanna. Slow day today? I heard you had one customer. Barely one, at that.”
Hanna smirks. “Very funny, Eliander.”
The man bellows with laughter at his own joke. “I try. Everything okay? Word has it Ferrin took care of everything?”
“Yes, he was a sweetheart. But he didn’t do it all.” She points to the five at the table. “These folks also helped. They put the big one down out back. Gently, that is.“
Hanna’s smirk turns into a laugh. “Would you knock it off, you smartass? Yes, barely. It was still alive, so Ferrin was happy. Well, I mean…”
“Yes, Ferrin’s never really happy. But as long as he was satisfied.”
“Good. Listen, I’m headed—” he pauses mid sentence, finally looking over the tableful of guests.
“Oh! Janet, how are you? I never would have expected—and Ilseh? And Zalo, too? I know for a fact you didn’t all arrive together. So how’d the three of you end up saving the docks from the Great Bear of Saltmarsh?”
Ilseh's face lights up with recognition. "Hey, Eliander." She waves her hand once, casually. "I was just in the market. Had to experience it once before I go on my way, but you know - if the worst can happen, it will."
Zalo offers a wave and grin.
“Lucky you were there,” Eliander says soberly. “All of you.”
“It’s hard for the guard to keep up," the man continues wearily. "Who knows what might float into Saltmarsh these days, with all the smugglers still about.”
Hanna shifts uncomfortably in place. “They’re not all bad, Eli. You know that. Back in his day, my old man used to run refugees across the sea in his crabbing boat. Into Keoland, when it was still illegal. Families, Eli. And kids.”
The guardsman shakes his head. “I know, Hanna, I know. They’re not all bad. But good or bad, they’re breaking royal law. And once you start to allow—”
The tavern's back door swings open violently, slamming against the wall. In the doorway stands a stout, no-nonsense-looking woman with short-cut, graying hair. Her face bears the marks of a life lived outdoors. Her fiery brown eyes sweep the room.
“Where the fuck is Primewater?” she all but shouts.
Eliander quickly moves to confront the woman. “Eda, please. There are ladies present.”
“I don’t give a seagull’s shit if my grandmother is here on her bloody deathbed. Where the fuck is that pissant little barnacle?”
“He just left,” Hanna says calmly. “He was headed to the docks.”
“I was just there,” the woman says, her face deepening its shade of red. “I swear to the gods when I find him I’m going to tear his balls off and throw them into Crabber’s Cove.”
Eliander frowns. “Eda, I said calm down. Now go check the Empty Net.” He pauses, holding Eda’s gaze.”I’d bet my other leg Gellan is over there.”
There’s an awkward silence as the two stare each other down. Eda breaks first. “Sonofabitch!”
She sighs. “Sorry, I’m just…well I swear to the gods if I hear of any more wild fucking animals on my streets…” her threat trails off as she sees the five strangers. “Who’re they?"
“They’re the ones you can thank for dealing with the 'wild fucking animals.'”
Eda cracks a smile. “It sounds so much worse coming from you, Eliander."
"Sorry,” she adds.
Eda turns to the group. “I’ll get around to you lot later. Saltmarsh owes you. I’ll see to it you’re compensated for your deeds.”
She then turns back to the guardsman. “Eli, can you come to my office this afternoon? At the council hall? Just you and me. We need to chat.”
“Sure as seagull shit, Eda.” Eliander’s face is deadpan.
Eda suppresses a smile, shakes her head, and leaves, slamming the door behind her.
Hanna holds a clenched fist to her mouth, trying to hide her stifled laughter.
“Eda Oweland,” Eliander says to the five at the table, as an aside. “Senior member of the Saltmarsh town council.”
The guardsman sighs. “I suppose I had best get going and finish up this bear business. If I’m not at the hall by sunset, I fear the crabs in the cove will be dining on two sets of testicles.”
Eliander smiles, the kindly nature returning to his voice. “Janet, I’ll see you tonight? Ilseh, Zalo, until later. Sorry there’s no time for introductions for the rest of you, but we’ll meet soon.”
Zalo, not able to get much of a word in edgewise, says, “Goodbye, Councilor. I'll come around the next few days and chat with you about some recent findings."
Eliander marches back out the front door, his peg leg stumping every other step.
Janet was visibly more relaxed while Eliander was in the room, and she waves as he leaves. “See you around, law man!”
After the door screeches shut, Hanna shakes her head. “Lucky lot, you all. Half the town council decided to grace you with their presence.”
She heads back to the kitchen. “Now to get on with those steaks.”
Janet laughs as she turns around to face the others again. “They’re certainly a colorful bunch! I wonder what hijinks they get up to behind closed doors. That woman seemed as ferocious as the bear!”
Remembering she hasn’t introduced herself yet, she decides to do so now. “I’m Janet, in case you hadn’t picked up on that yet. I haven’t been in Saltmarsh very long, Eli’s really the only person I’ve gotten to know.”
Zalo turns to Janet and looks a bit embarrassed as she introduces herself. "I knew I'd seen you before! I'm sorry for not recognizing you from our previous run-ins at Eliander's house; I have a terrible memory for faces. How fortuitous that our paths have crossed again in such unusual, bear-related circumstances!"
"What brings you to Saltmarsh, if I may be so bold to inquire? I assume it's not a fondness for bears."
Janet withdraws momentarily, but recovers her composure as she answers. “Oh, you know, the winds of fortune swept me up and set me down here. It’s really quite a nice place, and I’m sure it will be much improved with a library!”
Zalo looks around at everyone else. "Oh, and er, not to be too much of a stick in the mud about this, but if Ilseh saw those crates, I can't imagine it will be much longer before everyone trickles back in to the docks and sees them too. Perhaps it would be best to do a little investigating now before things get too thick?" The gnome grins through his well-kept beard. "I don't want us to be known as the local bearcatchers!"
Janet adds “I think it’s a little late for that! I doubt the three council members we’ve just met will stay silent about the great bearcatchers who saved their town!”
Back in Hanna’s kitchen, past the swinging doors, Torestorlim has been hard at work.
He removes two small burlap pouches and empties them into the now slightly simmering water. "Wee bit a lye... wee bit a wormwood.. stir....." He hustles back towards the basin, finding a wooden spoon, then quickly back to the hearth, stirring rapidly. "Not to burn it... quickly."
Pulling the pan off the heat and resting it the floor, he digs through his pack, removing a small black leather briefcase tied shut tightly with some twine. Unraveling it and popping open the case, he removes two small glass vials. "A little some a this... and a little some a that... annnnnd stir... quickly now Tore, not much time." Stirring vigorously until the powders once contained in the vials disappear into the liquid, he plunges the pot deep into the hearth. "4...3...2...1... OUT OUT OUT!"
"I think ya did it Tore, well done ya old man."
Carefully lifting the steaming pot over to the basin, he dunks the pan halfway into the water. "Cool it, quickly, best results that way..."
Once the concoction seems to be cool enough, he removes a larger vial from the briefcase, pulls the cork, and carefully tips the contents of the pot into the vial, corks it, and returns the now-filled vial to his briefcase.
He emerges from the kitchen with a victorious air about him. Just as he’s sitting down at the table with the other four, Hanna comes out carrying five plates of food, three on one arm and two on the other.
Each plate is almost half-covered by a massive cut of ribeye steak, perfectly crusted, with a mahogany wine-and-mushroom sauce drizzled over the top. Next to each steak is a perfectly braised lobster tail with a thick slab of herbed butter resting atop, its golden liquid trickling down onto the plate. Scrunched into the final empty space of the plate is a heaping mound of steamed cauliflower, drizzled in halves with the juices from both the steak and the lobster, and swimming in their mingling juices.
With a smile Hanna lays each plate out, then says, "Enjoy. Pitre's beef is highly prized in Saltmarsh." She then continues her bustle.
The five strangers spend the rest of the morning getting acquainted and drinking their fill on Primewater's tab. Jahn, the bouncer who trapped the second bear upstairs, returns and finishes tidying up the tables. Patrons begin to trickle back in.
As the afternoon unfolds, a heavy, thunder-less rain rolls through Saltmarsh. The Snapping Line quickly and completely fills with patrons, and large puddles form under the coatracks.
The faint aroma of claw wine and beef stew—Hanna's dish of the day—mostly obscure the scent of old, raw fish. People, mostly human, are seated at every table, and the air grows full of conversation and laughter. A young gnomish child stands proudly on the balcony above the bar, spinning the ship’s wheel from side to side.
Through the front door walks a slender, pallid man with a slack face showing little emotion. He wears a prim white wig with a single tight curl on each side of his head, and a plain suit of gray velvet with silver trim. As he stows his umbrella he sniffs the air disdainfully, scans the tavern, and spots the table of adventurers.
After making his way down the side steps from the forecastle platform, he weaves his way to the table and stops, towering over its occupants. In his hand is a fine leather handbag with silver bindings and a luxurious gold clasp securing the cover in place.
“My apologies for the interruption,” the man begins. His speech is slow, articulate, and subservient in tone. “Might you be the five individuals involved with the rampaging bears earlier today?”
The group is so engrossed in conversation they don’t notice him.
He man speaks again, this time louder, over the noise of the tavern. "My apologies! But are you the group who engaged in combat against the bear today?"
Startled out of his reverie, Zalo looks up at the inquisitive fellow and around at his companions. "Well, I don't know if I'd use those words. I'm sure the poor creature was simply confused out of its mind."
The gnome spreads his hands wide, gesturing to everyone else. "But I suppose it's us you're looking for. What errand brings you here, and to whom do we have the pleasure of speaking?"
“Mmmm,” the man drones stuffily, ignoring the latter half of the gnome's question. “I have for you a gift and a message from Gellan Primewater."
He sets the bag on the table, carefully twists the clasp, and pops the latch. From within he produces two potions, one at a time, and sets them carefully at the middle of the table. Each is filled to the neck with a vivid red liquid.
“Mister Primewater insists that you accept these potions of healing on behalf of the Primewater Estate, to help mend any injuries you sustained while defending our fair town.”
The man sniffs the air again as he looks around the room uncomfortably. He removes a scroll from the handbag, and slips a loop of white ribbon off of one end.
With outstretched arms he unfurls it before him. “In addition, Mister Primewater will be holding a celebration of honor, in his manor, one week hence, on Starday, Harvester the 15th, at sundown. Attendees will include the entirety of the Saltmarsh town council, as well as a number of esteemed businessfolk and community leaders of both Saltmarsh and greater Salinmoore.”
The man’s eyes move to the table’s occupants as he lowers the scroll. “You five, of course, will be the guests of honor.”
He splays the scroll out onto an empty section of the table for all to view. “Shall I impart a message on your behalf to Mister Primewater?”
Torestorlim speaks through the beef rib only halfway chewed. "I seen you before I did. Goin to and fro the mansion! If we be guests of honor, I think it'd be proper for Mr. Primewhoever to get us all some better dress dontcha think? These robes are all but shreds they are."
Holding up the bunch of robe where the wine once stained it, he says, "See for yourse...."
He looks down at his robes, puzzled. "I swears ta ya, not but 10 minutes ago the front was purple and the side was crimson with me own blood it was. Ahem... but the point still stands... some finer dress should be in order if you'll ask the Sir Prunewater fellow."
"He means Primewater," says Zalo hastily, patting Tore on the back. "I'm sorry, it's been a long day and my colleague here is very tired after his scuffle in apprehending the bear. But yes, as he says, I am not sure we are all equipped to attend such a gathering."
"I will inform Mr. Primewater of your request," the man replies, maintaining his blank expression.
The gnome furrows his brow with a calculating look. "Besides the council, who else of import can we expect to be invited or in attendance?"
"The guest invitations are still being written and delivered, sir. Aside from the council members, the attendees are not yet known."
After a short silence, the man rolls the scroll back up, slips the ribbon-loop back over it, then looks the party over. “Very well. If that is all, I will take my leave.“
He presents the scroll to Zalo.
“Good day,” he says with a bow, and weaves his way hastily back out the front entrance.
Tore reaches to the center of the table and grabs one of the vials of red liquid. Swirling the liquid inside, he pulls it close to his face. "Hm.. thick like syrup... slightly metallic.."
Pulling off the cork, he dips the very tip of his little finger in, just grazing the surface. Placing the vial back on the table, and placing the cork back in, he pulls his bottom lip down with a few fingers and rubs the residue on his pinky across his gums. "Herbal and sickly sweet it is...numbs the gums too. Great for a aching tooth it would be.”
“Well, you folk can tussle over the other one, this is goin in me pack."
Zalo smiles and shakes his head. "Any day I need a healing potion is a day on which I've made a series of terrible decisions, and I'd prefer to minimize those, thank you very much.. I believe Ilseh took a scratch or two; perhaps this would ameliorate any further problems?"
Turning her body to attempt to look at the scratches the bear left on the back of her attire, Ilseh couldn't exactly get them into view. But she knew the animal's claws didn't rip through and break into skin. She hadn't felt a draft either, so perhaps she wouldn't even have to have her leather mended.
"Thanks for your worries, halfing, but the bear didn't get through my leather. Maybe one of you smaller folk should take it."
Ilseh: a mysterious, wandering human barbarian, played by salseethrough Torestorlim: a dwarven monk formerly of the Aethubara Sanctum, played by Barthoron Tydir: a dwarven cleric of Procan, Sailor-god of Sea and Sky, played by DirePilgrim Zalo: a gnomish wizard from the Council of Stars, played by xrfm
Directed by: Alpha Lyrae
A night not too long ago, in the Snapping Line:
“You hear the scuttlebutt ‘bout the old alchemist’s house?”
“The haunted one? Out Seaton-way?”
“The one. Last week the dwarves on their way to Skotti’s mines said they heard a fit o’ wailin’ and screamin’ from within. Devilish, hair-raisin’ caterwaulin’, like it were Iuz the Evil, himself, pitchin’ an infernal fit.”
“Ain’t nothin’ new, that. Ever-one knows the place be haunted as all get-out. 'Twas evil when the alchemist lived there, an’ it’s only gotten worse after he gone missin' way back when. Hell, the evil old bastard might still be lurkin’ around in there.”
“I heard-tell he fell into a vat of somethin’ of his own brewin’. Ate the flesh right off his bones. Now his skeleton patrols the halls durin’ the day, an’ his ghost haunts the upstairs at night. I’ve seen its light myself one night, from the sea, ‘bout midnight-time. Gimme the death-chills, it did.”
“Why ain’t they just teared the gods-damned place down already? Be rid of the bleedin' thing, an’ its curse?”
“You volunteerin’? I betcha the council’d pay ya good to get the job done.”
Starday, Harvester 15th, 469 CY The Primewater Mansion Early Evening
For the past week, all of Saltmarsh has been abuzz with talk of how a mysterious band of outsiders saved the town from certain peril after a pair of grizzly bears escaped from a docked merchant ship. The local stories of the animals’ origins varied. Some say they were smuggled goods gone amok. Others say an eccentric captain’s personal pets broke loose from a hold. Still others insist it was a sabotage attempt by the Sea Princes, still bitter about their savage defeat at Jetsam Island five years ago.
No matter where the bears came from, each tale concluded in identical fashion: were it not for the strangers, someone’s child would have been mauled or eaten. To most of Saltmarsh, the Grizzled Five (a name that’s begun to take hold amongst the townsfolk) are nothing short of overnight heroes. Consequently, for the past seven days, they’ve hardly paid a single silver coin for room or for board.
The five heroes went their separate ways for the week, each attending to personal endeavors on their own. Ilseh spent the week with her newly purchased tome, and consulting with Eliander Fireborn. Janet spent much of the time with the people she was most comfortable with—fishers at the Snapping Line. Torestorlim accompanied Hanna in the kitchen, helping her with various kitchen and tavern duties. Penelope spent quite a bit of time at the Empty Net. And Zalo continued his scholarly pursuits, tracking down a few new sources of information for his own research.
When Harvester the 15th arrived, the evening of the celebration, the entire town of Saltmarsh was ready. The wealthy merchant and town council member Gellan Primewater was hosting the upper crust at his private mansion on the east side of the bay. There, the Saltmarsh Town Council would hold an official ceremony of recognition, commending Ilseh, Janet, Penelope, Torestorlim, and Zalo for their bravery.
In order that the whole town could celebrate along with the Saltmarsh elite, Primewater vowed to take up the tab at all three taverns for the night, in the name of the five heroes.
The town guard would certainly have their work cut out for them this night.
It’s just after sunset. The slivering crescent of Luna, the pale Great Moon, lingers above the west horizon, and aquamarine Celine, the Lesser Moon, hangs fat and gibbous straight overhead.
Zalo checks his reflection in a puddle, straightening out the cuffs and smoothing out the ruffles of his collar. Above hang the moons, the only companions he can see that he's comfortable with. He steps out into the street and walks across the lane to Gellan's demesne.
The party venue is certainly convenient for Zalo; he exits the guest house and carefully locks it behind him, brushing off his dress robes. They were more to Gellan's taste than his, and his furrowed brow conveys the mild disdain at this state of affairs better than any words ever could.
Still, it wouldn't be very gracious to look a gift horse in the mouth. And after a week of busily researching with a few brief trips to see Eliander and crew, almost any excuse to get out and about was starting to seem more attractive.
"I do so hope the others are coming," he harrumphs nervously, looking at the imposing façade. The gnome approaches the double doors with a bright but measured pace.
Gellan Primewater’s dockside mansion is a three-story, gaudy edifice constructed of white sandstone brick, with a steeply gabled roof of immaculate, gray, slate shingles. The windows and doors are framed with polished mahogany carved in an intricate, peacock-feather design. A giant double-door entry is centered at the front of the building, surrounded by a sweeping, wrap-around porch.
Most of the celebration’s invitees seemed to prefer making the trek across town by foot. Others chose to travel with a bit more style. The mansion’s attached stable already held three horses, and a pair of carriages were parked at the neighboring, now-empty Weekly Market Square.
Across the bay to the west, at the Empty Net, screams and shouts of laughter could be heard echoing over the water. An occasional splash and cheer signalled the most unruly patrons being tossed off the dock. Up the street, at the Snapping Line, sea shanties were crooned, one after another, by dozens of drunken sailors that had long ago spilled out of the tavern and onto the street.
As Zalo steps onto the porch, Gellan Primewater, himself, steps out the front door. Though the colors of his attire have changed slightly since the Snapping Line—this time purple with red accents—he’s dressed just as splendidly as before, with a red cape bearing an ornate “P” on the back.
He smiles when he spots the gnome.
“Zalo! I see you paid Gina the tailor a visit. Such splendid garb suits you. Be sure to wear that at next week’s council hearing for your bookstore. You’ll make an indelible impression when you plead your case for vote.”
He glances around the yard. “I’m sure the others will be along shortly. Please, come in.” Gellan steps into the house and beckons Zalo inside with a grand, sweeping gesture.
Entering the Primewater mansion feels like entering a rustic museum. The entryway is enormous, with a polished marble floor, and white pine walls bedecked with dark mahogany trim. To the right and left, along the entryway wall, two staircases of stained mahogany climb to wide, corner landings. From there a second set of stairs finish the ascent to a wraparound, second-floor balcony. Another balcony completely encircles the room far above, on the third floor. A massive chandelier hangs above the center of the first floor, suspended by a long ship’s anchor chain from the third floor ceiling.
Various arts are on display at the ground floor, each of them clearly exotic. There are four pedestals of white sandstone, atop each some cherished item sits for display: a ceramic water pitcher with an intricate blue pattern painted on; a pumpkin-sized geode split open to reveal strange, glowing red crystals within; a shining, silver, visored helm with crusted blood spattered upon it; and a finely carved marble bust of a man. A collection of silk tapestries adorn the walls, each showing a group of fox hunters on horseback, in various stages of their hunt.
There are clusters of people scattered amongst the open spaces, all with drinks in hand. Both balconies also contain pairs or small groups of people in light conversation.
“Ms. Oweland will no doubt want to know that the first of our guests of honor are here,” says Gellan, “so I will inform her and the other council members of your arrival. Please, make yourself at home. Food and drink is in the kitchen, ahead and to the right.”
Gellan heads to the left-hand door, pausing to chat with the pale, slender, white-wigged man standing in attendance nearby. It’s the same man who came to the Snapping Line after the bear attack. Gellan points to the front door, the man nods, and Gellen disappears through the doorway.
Ilseh walks across the manse's courtyard, pulling at her newly acquired dress sleeves and skirt. Her eyes dart around, back and forth, wary of prying eyes. Honestly, her normal attire didn't reveal any less than this "fine cloth" did, but the material was different.
She was wearing short-heeled black boots, nowhere near as rugged as her other pair, and they only reached halfway up her calf, tied around with sets of ribbon. Her sangria long shirt hugged her body until reaching her hips, with rippling, veiled tails that resembled the fins of elegant betas. Its shoulders were broad- one would constantly shrug off down her arm, to Ilseh's chagrin. A black cord hung around her neck, its pendant falling beneath and under the shirt's breast. She gritted her teeth and constantly fiddled with a faux red Dahlia pinned in her hair as she passed through the mansion's doors.
Scanning the expanse of the room, Ilseh regretted her deference in staying in town- not just because of the recent addition to her wardrobe. Not that it could be helped- she couldn't focus at least for the past week. Every time she'd try to concentrate on her new book, that elven woman would appear and- Whatever!
Dissatisfied with the decor, Ilseh began searching the faces of the party's patrons. All too soon Ilseh realized that she was hoping the woman would show- but when Ilseh saw Zalo she immediately buried the thought and approached the little thing.
"Zalo, right?! How long you been here?"
Zalo had taken out his notebook and was engrossed in sketching the beautiful, pumpkin-shaped geode on display, while occasionally peering thoughtfully at the other guests from across the room.
He hears his name and yelps with a start.
Turning around, he sees Ilseh, resplendent in her new garb, and smiles. "Well, well! It seems Gellan made good on his promise to you too. How positively delightful you look! I feel shabby by comparison." He pats the purple and golden patterns on his robe uncomfortably.
"It's not been too long here for me. I've had a few chats, but Gellan has invited us to the kitchen for food and drink and I wouldn't mind a refresher."
"Eh," Ilseh starts, pulling at some tails at either side of her dress. "'Resplendent' is not one of my ideal looks. You're fine- gold and purple is not the colors of royalty, no? I'd just arrived myself. Think they have better bottles than that fish water we had back at.." Ilseh brings a hand to her mouth. "What was it- that tavern?"
Before Zalo can answer, the entryway door creaks open, and Penelope steps into the room. Gone is her feathered cap and blue trench-coat; instead she is wearing a green, full-length, off-shoulder cocktail dress with white lace on the fringe. Her long, red hair flows down her back into a taper, the end of which is bound by three white ribbons.
She glances around until her eyes fall on Ilseh. “Ça c'est bon! Ilseh, I’d have felt a fool if I’da been de only one dressed up all fancy."
“How long ya’ll been? Any of dat claw wine bag daer?” she says, pointing to the dining room.
At the soft sounds of her name, Ilseh turns and sees the familiar woman. She was dressed spectacularly, matching the human's own bedecking. Penelope looked beautiful, Ilseh thought.
"Then we'll be fools together," Ilseh smiles as she gestures to her over-the-top shirt-dress-thing. "I'd hope not. I like my firewater to actually be spicy."
"It's plenty spicy, mon cher. You just gotta find your sea legs. Maybe I'll help you one day."
Penelope looks around the room. "I'll be back. I gotta find that Gellan gentleman."
She heads to the pale man at the door, speaks to him a moment, and disappears into the room Gellan entered.
Zalo and Ilseh make their way to the kitchen. It's a large, oblong, room of rough-cut stone, with two sooty, well-used hearths on the long wall opposite the doorway. To the left, a few sturdy wooden tables are covered with ingredients in various stages of completion, on cutting boards, in bowls, and on plates. At the far end of that direction is a small door, likely the pantry.
To the right are two longer, finer tables. One is lined with small clay beer steins, crystal wine glasses, and a rainbow of prepared aperitifs. Two barrels are tapped under the table—the scent indicates a crabby concoction of Hanna’s doing. The other table is covered with a variety of hors d’oeuvres, most of them having some form of fish in them.
The smell of the place is nothing short of divine. Steam and smoke mingles in the wooden support beams overhead. A middle-aged gnomish woman in an apron is attending the hearths energetically. She smiles perfunctorily as the two enter, but keeps to herself. Occasional another gnome darts in and out with a tray, refilling it with fare from the kitchen, then heading back out into the party to serve.
Ilseh grabs and sniffs a wine glass. She reaches for and looks at a wine bottle with introspection. "Oh," she says under her breath before setting it back down on the table.
"Zalo, I wanted to ask you about a library you were working on- I had overheard you talking with the shopkeep. I'm looking for.. some specific topics."
Zalo perks up with delighted enthusiasm. "Yes, very much so! I can't say that there's much to speak of to the library yet. It is just an idea, for the moment. But I'm happy to answer any questions that I can." He rubs his hands together and smiles. "How can I help?"
"Oh," Ilseh replies, her face was cast over with slight disappointment, but is lit anew. "But surely you've read dozens if not at least a hundred books, have you not? Have you read anything about-" She then speaks in a low voice, her eyes looking left and right across the table before bending toward to Zalo. "Anything about fire elementals?"
Zalo nods slowly, a bit confused, as if Ilseh were asking if he'd heard of grass. "Yes, I've certainly heard of them before. Were you interested in the arcane resonance patterns of how they form at intersecting nodes and planar rifts? I could sketch some diagrams if you'd like."
"Wha-no, no." Ilseh makes quizzical look as the gnome begins speaking far out of her breadth. "I'm looking for a specific creature of flames. Something powerful. Revered. Something.. that can't die. Have you read of anything like that?"
Zalo considers this description for a moment. "Oh! Are you talking about a phoenix?"
He puts his palm out and makes a pass over it; the air shimmers briefly and coalesces into an unusual scene. A miniature, translucent bird composed entirely of blazing flames flaps its wings and preens serenely as it perches above a scorched rock looking over a plain of lava.
"Like this? I've heard of them, but not much else I could tell you, I'm afraid."
At first, Ilseh's face is bright with excitement as Zalo recognizes the creature she speaks of, reinforced by his miraculous illusion- but the moment fades.
"Oh. I see. I've been looking for one." Her hand unconsciously reaches for the center of her chest, where her necklace falls beneath her dress. Her fingers close, pulling the soft fabric. "I need to find one more than anything."
She realizes her hand's action and pulls both down to her sides and looks slightly embarrassed. Composing herself, she continues. "That book I snagged. I need help reading it- I'm not the best at concentrating. Would you be willing to help?"
At the mention of a book, Zalo lights up with enthusiasm. "Certainly! If I may ask, what is it you're looking to learn, precisely? I'm happy to help with the research, but it would be best if I knew a bit more about what we were looking for. And, of course, there will be some nominal expenses associated with this sort of scholarly investigation." He waves a hand dismissively as if this is the merest trifle.
"Expensives.." Ilseh rolls her eyes. Typical. She wasn't exactly rolling in roll at the moment. Though, sticking here in Saltmarsh has already landed her a good sum. If she stuck around longer, despite how she felt about her current notoriety, she might find herself with more.
She returns her gaze to Zalo and speaks with intent. "I'd like to find one." Then she paused. She never knew why it hadn't occurred to her before, but she hadn't given any thought as to what she'd do once she found the beast. "Then, I don't know. Capture it, I guess?"
Zalo looks at her quizzically. "Er, sure. But... why exactly? They aren't exactly pets. They're huge. Enormous!" He spreads his hands wide dramatically. "And, er, they also aren't native to this plane."
Ilseh crooks her jaw while looking away at some random corner of the room. "Well that makes sense." She huffs. "Well it's either that, or I discover how they do what they do- how they're immortal. The rebirthing and all that. You want a library, right? Why, because you want to know things, right? Well I want to know this."
After his conversation with Ilseh, Zalo finds himself in the drawing room. An enormous, unlit, black marble fireplace dominates the entire wall opposite the entryway. Two exquisite oil paintings of the same woman are hung in the center of each of the flanking walls, with two long davenports beneath each. A tea table with two chairs is in the center of the room.
On one davenport is a young couple, sitting closely together, speaking in giggling whispers. On the other sits Eda Oweland in a modestly tailored blue dress, her short hair parted neatly at the side, a wine glass in her hand.She looks to be wrapping up a conversation with a well dressed sailor, perhaps a captain. The man is standing, preparing to take his leave.
Zalo takes a few steps forward. "Councilor Oweland," he smiles, inclining his head in a subtle gesture of deference. "A pleasure to see you again. How is the evening treating you and your friend? I hope I'm not interrupting."
“I was just leavin’,” says the man. “We was just discussing the fishing.”
He turns to Oweland and says, “I be on my way, Eda.”
Oweland stands unsteadily and smiles as he leaves. “I’m steady as she goes,” she slurs to Zalo, lifting her wineglass. A bit splashes onto the floor.
“Oh. Bugger,” she says, leaning forwards and squinting at the floor. “Eh. Can’t tell it apart from the fuckin’ pattern. Besides, he probably hires magic to clean.”
Zalo furrows a brow as the wine spills. "Oh, it's no trouble; I can fix that right up."
He points surreptitiously at the flooring. "Esseo!"
The wine instantly disappears from the fabric at their feet.
She watches with interest. "Oh, now. Ain't you handy to have around?"
She looks up and squints again. “You...you’re the one. One of the ones. Who stopped that blasted bear.
She extends her hand. “Glad you could make it!”
"It'll be our little secret." The gnome grins and shakes her hand enthusiastically, but not too hard, lest he cause any more of the drink to spill. "I'm glad to be here too.”
“Zalo Thunderfoot, as you may remember. And yes, I'm certainly glad to have been of service to this fine city. I was hoping to talk to you about another way I feel that I can be of service, if you have a moment."
Looking up, her eyes perk open in recognition. "Zalo. Yes, yes."
She frowns and shakes her head. "No. No, actually. I can't remember names to save me gods-damned life. Not unless I've sailed with 'em."
She sways a bit. "With you, I mean. And I ain't. But I ain't never forgot a face, either. Zalo. Zay. Low. Zaaaaaaylo."
She tips her wine glass back and finishes off its contents. There is a distinct aroma of crabmeat.
He nods agreeably. "Yes, just about. Certainly more accurate than some tries I've heard from someone who hasn't imbibed!"
Staring down into the empty glass, she mutters, "Ugh. Probably ought to be the last one for a bit. I gots to deliver the speakin'."
She looks up. “Aye, I do remember you. You were of service with the bear. And we'll be repaying you tonight. I'm not sure where the hell Eli's men were. But that ain't here or there. And I still think..."
She pauses, catching herself. "Well, we just all be glad you five were there."
Zalo watches intently, reading her face.
"So what's this other service?" Eda slurs.
“You may recall,” begins Zalo, “my presentation to the council. But if not, a brief refresher: a place as fine as Saltmarsh deserves a library, something owned by the fine people of the town."
There’s another look of recognition from Eda. “That’s right. I remember now. You be the free-book gnome.”
He puts up a hand preemptively. "I know what you're going to say. Who needs books when the sea provides all the work an honest person would like? And I don't begrudge anyone their profession, nor do I want to get in the way of their fine work."
The gnome leans in closer, laying a finger aside his temple. "Now, what if the library wasn't just a place to hold books anyone could use, but a place where practical research could occur for the public good of the town? For instance, what if we could improve Saltmarsh's daily catch with better understandings of fish migration patterns, or the efficacy of Hanna's concoctions? What if the lives of good, honest folk could be bolstered by supporting this kind of research?"
He levels a gaze at her. "Is that idea something you think you could eventually support, given the right parameters?"
She laughs drunkenly. “Unless a book makes good chum, it won’t do nothin’ to improve catches. That takes half salt and hard work, half the-ship-yer-sailin’-on, and half grace-of-Procan. Some things ya just can’t learn from a book, gnome. You ever try to run a rig with someone’s writing? It’s fuckin’ near impossible. Yer knots are gonna look like a cat coughed ‘em up. From its ass.”
She lifts her empty glass with a grin. “As for Hanna’s wine. Trust you me, it don’t need no more effigy. The shit already tastes like last week's catch as it is.”
"As it is," she repeats in another tone of voice. Again she laughs, this time uproariously.
Her eyes refocus on Zalo. “But I’m all for improving the lives of good, honest folk. Saltmarsh folk. Fishers and farmers and merchants. Even the free traders who want to get their kids somethin’ nice for Needfest by sneakin’ a little something extra through the port.”
There’s a visible pause as her brain shifts gears. She glares at the door to the drawing room. “‘Cept bears. If I see another bear in Saltmarsh, I’ll scuttle the fuckin’ ship right there. At the fuckin’ dock.”
Zalo watches her reaction intently, but says nothing in response.
There’s an even longer pause as she returns to the topic at hand. “So, books. You tell me how a book’ll make life better here, and I’ll back you. No, you show me how a book’ll make life better here, and I’ll vote you in, myself.”
Zalo chuckles. "Well I'm not ashamed to say that for me, books are often useful as seats just to see over the top of the table sometimes! But I imagine that's not what you meant."
He leans in. "Councilor, I think the degree to which books are useful is limited only by your imagination and the right books. Where did the first fishers and farmers and merchants of Saltmarsh learn their trade? They had to scrabble for that knowledge and work hard to get it, same as anyone else. But a thousand other towns and cities have done the same."
"Now, what if I told you that there are those who have studied what works and what doesn't, and that it's possible to make simple changes to the way you might slip a rope or haul a catch to gain improvements? What if that knowledge has been written down, and is there for the benefit and use of Saltmarsh, if only you'll take it?"
He spreads his hands wide. "I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the way things are done now. But if it's possible for a hardworking sailor to put more food on the table for their family because of the right kind of research and investment — sponsored by a public library — and for us to share that knowledge for the public benefit, then it isn't just the _right_ thing for the town to do. It's the _best_ thing to do for the good of Saltmarsh." He thumps his chest affirmatively.
"Now, I don't want to be presumptuous. I'm sure you get many such proposals about what is for the good of the town and so forth. But I think a small initial sponsorship and investment by the town in this effort will lead to potentially large dividends. It will, in essence, pay for itself."
Zalo inclines his head. "Perhaps there's even something there for discouraging the future ship-facilitated importation of bears? Though I can see you can see don't expect that to be a problem in the future."
Eda stares long at the gnome, trying to navigate his plea. “Well, I ain’t got the faculty to reason with all that just now, and besides, it ain’t mine alone to decide. Everything in Saltmarsh must be put to a vote. At least until King Skotti steps in.
“But come by my office after your council hearing. On Godsday, isn’t it? We’ll chat. If you can show me how a book can improve life by...no. If you can improve someone’s life by using a book for more than a doorstop or a seat (by usin’ the words, I mean) then you’ll get my vote.”
As Tore is about to leave the Snapping Line for the party, he turns to Hanna. “Well 'anna, I guess you're too busy runnin the place to be joinin' me at this party fer my 'heroics’,” Tore air-quotes. "I got fitted for these nice new robes an' everything... a bit itchy about the neck but I'm sure they'll wear in, they always seem ta."
Tore's fancy new robes are virtually identical to his previous set, minus the wear at the feet, the bad odor, and the sweat stains. Rather than a skeleton-bone shade from years of abuse, the new robes are pearly white with tight silver stitch-work at the seams. Contrary to his behest, two quarter-sized golden roses have been stitched just at the peak of the shoulders, one on each side.
Nearing the entrance to the mansion, Tore sighs deeply and mutters under his breath "These ain't my type a folk, they're not, but word says they gots the best wines in their cellars, and they owe me a great deal of gratitude, or so they say. "
Grabbing the handle to the door, he takes a deep breath and opens it slowly. Immediately upon showing his face, he's grabbed in all directions by unacquainted fancy folk practically begging him to recount the tale.
"Now 'old on, 'old on folk.... I SAID 'OLD ON... this hero needs a flagon a this house's finest, and whoever gets it first gets the tale straight from my mouth, they will, and the rest a yas will leave me be!”
Tore shoots up in bed, heart racing, back at the Snapping Line.
Standing at the far end of the mattress, Hanna, a load of linens under one arm, is nudging the dwarf's feet.
"I didn’t mean to butt in here, Tore, but you’re late to your party."
Tore jumps out of bed and hastily puts his robes on. "AH SHIT 'ANNA THIS WAS ME CHANCE TO GET SOME GOLD AND GET OUTA THIS PLACE!!! POUR ME A GLASS A WINE, I'LL DOWN IT ON THE WAY, QUICK 'ANNA THERE'S NO TIME! AH SHIT!"
For the next few hours, the guests of honor, except for Torestorlim, wander through Gellan Primewater’s mansion, exploring the high-class social setting. As the aroma of the impending meal grows to fill every room, the air slowly fills with quiet, reserved conversation.
Finally, a gnome in butler’s garb, who had been supplying all three floors’ occupants with appetizers and drinks from the kitchen the whole evening, begins roaming the mansion, ringing a tiny bell, telling each guest that dinner is served.
Around thirty people file into the dining room and take seats. The five members of the Saltwater Town Council occupy one end of the table, with Gellan Primewater at the head. To his right sits Eliander Fireborn, in full royal guard uniform, and a grim dwarven woman dressed in royal red and black, bearing the sable rampant lion of Keoland upon her breast. To Primewater’s left sits Eda Oweland, her sun-leathered face rosy with merriment. Beside her sits a very young, blonde man—much younger than the rest of the council—who has sharp features and a toothy smile, and who is dressed in a fine gray merchant’s suit.
The adventurers are seated at the opposite end of the long table. Zalo sits at the head, in a tall chair specially crafted for the smaller folk. Ilseh, Janet, and Penelope occupy three of the four flanking chairs, while the third, Torestorlim’s chair, remains empty.
As soon as all of the guests have situated themselves at the table, a team of four gnomes, dressed in black aprons, brings out the main fare of the evening upon silver platters and bowls. The main dish is herb-crusted roast of lamb upon a bed of red potatoes and parsley, followed by sides of roasted baby leeks, rum-glazed carrots, lard-fried crab cakes, a zesty mandarin and cabbage salad, and a hearty mussel-and-seafood stew. Cups, tankards, and plates are also dutifully refilled by the waitstaff.
As the staff concludes its serving duties, Gellan stands and taps his wineglass with a fork to get everyone’s attention. The room quickly quiets.
“I do thank you, each and every one, for coming to my—ahem—humble abode for the evening.” There are a few scattered laughs around the table.
“Of course, as you all know, I do enjoy festivity and merrymaking with exotic flair. You’ll be happy to know the lamb has all been brought in from the Northland, and has been raised exclusively on a diet of apples. Thus it has a delicate and sweet, melt-in-your-mouth finish.”
Sporadic applause breaks out around the table. The clinking of a fork or two can be heard.
“The carrot’s glaze is one of Furyondy rum.” There is an uncomfortable silence, and Gellan continues, “from an old cask I had lying around in the cellar, acquired long before the present embargo. Let it be said that Captain Firewater has no need to fear breaking royal law here, tonight.” Again there are scattered laughs; Eliander smiles politely.
“All of the other dishes are, of course, from dear, sweet Saltmarsh, most particularly the seafood.”
As we all know,” continues Gellan, “tonight isn’t our typical life-and-love festivity. After our meal, senior council member Eda Oweland will take the helm, so to speak, and give much-deserved recognition to our five guests of honor seated at the far end of the table.”
“Until then, and without further ado, please enjoy your dinners!”
There is another, louder round of applause, and everyone digs in.
Having skipped breakfast and lunch out of frugality and anticipation for a feast on someone else's dime, Zalo wastes no time immediately stuffing himself with food. "Oh.. oh my, yes," he chirps delightedly as he carefully savors each bite. His notebook and quill are out on the table, and he scribbles down the details of each dish.
Zalo insists on shaking the hand of every gnome that serves him, praising their skill and asking they pass the compliments onto the chefs. "Truly, the best feast I've had in years!"
They each simply smile politely, and go about their tasks.
He casts a sidelong glance at the empty chair. "It seems unusual for Tore to pass up a night of free booze. Where do you suppose our esteemed colleague is? Not getting into another scuffle with bears, I hope." He grins and eagerly shovels another forkful of crabcake.
Everyone else seems too busy eating to notice.
Hair and beard a fluffy mess, robes crinkled and crooked, Torestorlim dashes out into the tavern to grab the tankard, and sprints towards the door.
An unaware drunkard sitting at a table nearby, curious about the commotion, pushes his chair back to look at the Tore-shaped freight train now headed directly in his path. Tore jukes to the side to avoid the sliding chair legs, but it's not enough. His ankle clips the back of the chair, the arm holding the tankard hitting the back of the drunkards head. Like a fountain, the wine splashes up into the air and falls in small droplets, polka dotting Tore's brand new robes.
"AYE, YA FOOKIN IDIOT! YA RUINED ME BRAND NEW ROBES!!!!!! I DON' HAVE THE TIME TA BASH YER FACE IN, BUT I'LL FIND YA LATER, I WILL!"
The clinking of silverware against plates grows less and less frequent. Gellan Primewater again stands, and tings the side of his glass with a fork.
“Hear, hear! Please! Quiet now!”
Clearing his throat, he continues, “Please direct your attention to Ms. Eda Oweland, senior member of the Saltmarsh town council.”
There is sporadic applause as the woman stands. She gulps down the last of what’s in her wineglass, grabs a piece of paper off the table, and begins.
“As you all know, Saltmarsh is full of squabblin’ these days. It seems none of us can decide what’s best for the town, and we council members sometimes be arguin’ more than we be doin’.”
“But last week, five strangers to Saltmarsh got straight to doin’ when they saw there be danger on our street. By some unknown circumstance, a couple o’ grizzly bears got loose on the docks from an unknown ship.
“Those bears could’ve caused a treasure trove ‘o trouble, but these five,” she says, carefully pronouncing the names as she reads them from her sheet, “Ill-say, Janet, Pen-nel-oh-pee, Tore-store-lim, and Zalo, brought down the menace as quick as it showed up.”
This time there’s much more applause, along with murmurs of approval.
Eda continues again, “We council members discussed the matter a bit, and we’d like to reward these outsiders for their service with a purse of thirty gold apiece.”
Again, there is applause.
Gellan, who had remained standing through Eda’s speech, clears his throat, reaching into his pocket, bringing out five coin pouches. With a charming smile he says, “Well, I doubt my coffers will miss a paltry hundred-and-fifty gold. It’s the least I can do to help better the town of Saltmarsh.”
The guests again rouse into a round of applause.
Sprinting to the mansion, Torestorlim stops just short of the door. "Please don't be started yet, this was yer chance ya idiot!" he murmurs to himself.
With a shove, he pushes the door open and runs inside to see the ceremony had in fact started without him. "Damnit ya old man!"
Running towards the rest of the now-gathered party, dodging around tables (now paying close attention to the possibility of sliding chairs), he grabs a tankard out of a guest’s hand "I need this more than you, trus' me!" Making his way swiftly through the crowd, he downs the man’s drink in a gulp or two. "I'M 'ERE I'M 'ERE, START AGAIN, START AGAIN!"
The applause quickly tapers, replaced by gasps of astonishment. Eda’s brow furrows slightly at Torestorlim, and she opens her mouth, but Gellan speaks first.
“Ladies and gentlemen, our fifth guest of honor, Torestorlim. Perhaps he became lost on the third story of my mansion. I dare say it’s happened to me a time or two after I’ve had too much to drink.”
There’s scattered laughter, and Gellan turns to Eda. “Please, Ms. Primewater, continue.”
Eda offers a forced smile to the audience. “Lastly, I have a personal gift for Ill-say, from Ferrin the druid. He couldn’t make it today, but he sent a message along with this gift.” She digs her hand in her pocket and pulls out a necklace of stones and seashells.
She flips the paper over in her hands, and begins reading, “To the yellow vole? The valley hallow?”
Her face turns crimson. She leans towards Gellan, whispering hoarsely. “For fuck’s sake. Gellan, can you make sense of this shit? I think the senile bastard be writin’ it with a three-foot-fuckin’ stick tied to his head. It all looks like the same gods-damned letter over and over!”
Gellan shrugs and smiles magnanimously at the crowd. “Perhaps Mr. Fireborn might be of help. He knows the druid personally.”
Eliander stands, and Eda thrusts the note forward into his chest. He reads it, then folds it back up.
“Ferrin would like to thank Ilseh for dealing the merciful and non-fatal blow against his brethren bear. She will be happy to know both creatures live today, peacefully, in the woods north of Saltmarsh. To show his gratitude, he made her a keepsake necklace.”
“Please,” says Gellan, clapping his hands. “Come and claim your prizes, all you!”
Each of the guests of honor file to the front of the room, receive their rewards, then return to the table. As the group passest he council members, the young one slips Zalo a note.
Ilseh takes the necklace. It’s a bit.. rustic. She didn't particularly enjoy the beach or much of anything it has to offer, but it was a gift.
The speeches continue on for a bit, mostly concerning Saltmarsh politics and happenings. Finally, Gellan’s waitstaff ushers everyone out the door, into the moons-lit night.
Ilseh wraps the necklace around her wrist, but isn’t sure what to do with the purse of coins. “Another reason to hate dresses," she mutters as she awkwardly holds the bag at her side while she walks out of the manor.
As the guests file out, Zalo glances down at something in his hand and tucks it into his robes. Before his companions stray too far afield back to their beds, he chirps. "Won't you all join me for one more drink? I insist, and my guest house is just over there. And... there's something I'd like to talk about." He points at the wooden door of the cottage, much larger than gnome-sized.
Hearing Zalo offer one last party favor before respite, Ilseh expects a short-made house and was going to politely decline, but seeing his quarters weren't the case, she didn't see a reason not to. "Sure, I'm game to continue on. Couldn't drink enough at the party, right? Their glasses weren't tall enough."
Tore had been counting the coin one by one, transferring them from the gift pouch to a roughly handmade burlap pouch tied at the top with a thin scrap of leather. Eyes never losing focus on each individual coin he swaps, he says out loud, “Ya had me at drink ya did, I don't need much convincin' fer that. I need ta talk ta the fella who gave me them potions after I finish countin' me coin."
Another dwarf—a stranger—approaches the party, bowing his head slightly by way of greeting.He is wearing robes worked over in a subtle blue and white pattern that mimic the rolling waves of the ocean; or maybe it's the fluffy clouds of the morning sky; or are they storm clouds building on the horizon?In any event, those who look closely can see the collar of leather armor peeking out from underneath the dressy robes, and the hilt of a ceremonial dagger at his waist.
'Master Wellgar sends his regards and thanks for the service you have offered the town and those who live within.The winds blew calamity into our midst, but thankfully heroes such as you were ready to meet the test. Procan provides what is needed, even when it is unwanted.”
Janet perks up. "Oh, wow! You think Procan sent us? Are we holy?"
“Well, that's not for me to say one way or the other - but it seems you all were in the right place when you were needed, and the good people of this town are blessed that you were.”
"Some may call it luck, some may call it fate; I see the hand of Procan who brings the storm and calms the seas.Your storm just had more bears than most!”
His tone is solemn and formal, and sounds as if he is reciting from a newly learned catechism.
“Please let us know if the temple can be of service to any of you.”
The devout dwarf dips his head as hes says this and then turns to walk away. At the last moment, as if on impulse, he turns back to the group, his tone lighter and more natural. “Seriously, we'd - I'd - be happy to help.Don't hesitate if you need anything at all.”
Being approached by a stranger wasn't becoming too uncommon as of late, but Ilseh remained quiet at first when a blue-clad dwarf offered his services to the group. "Well come join us then! We'll be having drinks over at this one's. There's no need to be so formal- celebrating, are we not? I, personally, have had enough posh for one night, perhaps for the season."
The dwarven newcomer looks up at the striking human, a broad grin sweeping across his face.'Well, that's a most unexpected and most welcome offer.A nightcap in a less formal setting sounds delightful - that is if the Master Gnome is agreeable to me joining?'
Zalo leads everyone just across the street to a tiny, nondescript, run-down, ocean-blue house. Flecks of the paint are peeling away, revealing an older, moss-green coat beneath. Above the door hangs a decorative wooden mermaid with one of its arms missing.
Fumbling in the darkness, he unlocks the door and lets the group inside. Inside there is a single room with a tattered sofa, a table with two chairs, a small woodburning stove, and a cot. Over the window next to the stove hangs a large, mounted salmon. Frames with various handwritten sailing proverbs and prayers adorn the other walls. Most everything is covered with a thick layer of dust.
Penelope whistles low as she enters. “How much you payin’ for this here place? It looks like the house time forgot.”
Once the group is safely inside, Zalo waits a beat for the street to clear and looks up to the sky through the window, scrunching up his face with a moment of concentration. An owl reveals itself in the moonlit sky and banks into the night.
He clears his throat, a bit embarrassed. "Much as I'd like to offer further hospitality, I'm afraid that was a ruse to get us out of the street.”
"Oh." Ilseh wasn't so much a drinker, but she did feel a small ounce of disappointment when Zalo had admitted there was no firewater. She wasn't around others often, but it turned out if there were others and if there was was drinks, Ilseh was a social drinker.
“Councilor Solmer,” Zalo continues, “passed me this note on the way out of the party." He shares the note around and takes it back once everyone's had a chance to read:
Please meet me at the council hall across the street after the party, for a matter of utmost importance. It’s the large, brick building with the bell tower. The back door will be unlocked.
Bring your friends with you.
"I have no oearthly idea what he wants. And I didn't think it was prudent to lead you all there without first telling you what was going on." He grins. "But I fear we're beginning to get a bit of a reputation as problem-solvers around here. And I'm sorry I don't have anything on hand to imbibe, Tore."
He arches an eyebrow at the newer, blue-robed dwarf. "I trust you can keep these kinds of matters private, too, yes?"
“As it turns out, privacy is something of a specialty of mine, Master Gnome,’ the nameless dwarf says with a wry grin on his face.
"It’d be easy to keep me mouth shut if it was full'a the drink you promised it would,” Tore says with a scowl. "BUT... it sounds like we may be able to squeeze a bit a gold outa these rich folk ta get our hands dirty, and that's the mos' important it is. I know when ta keep me mouth shut I do."
Pondering to herself, Ilseh angled her jaw, crossing her arms- realizing once again that she is strangely wielding a pouch of gold and becomes annoyed. "Well I don't know about you lot, but I don't want to be the permanent 'town heroes' catering for every problem these fancy-folk have."
Zalo nods thoughtfully at Ilseh. "Precisely! I have a library to build! All this prancing and capering cannot be allowed to become a bothersome distraction to our respective purposes. But, on the other hand, we do get parties so that seems a fair trade."
She shifts her weight on her heels. Some more annoyance. "How important is this councilor?"
Zalo strokes his chin for a moment. "I can't say that I know exactly his standing, but Anders is respected as any councilor is, if a bit green relative to the others."
Penelope interrupts, leaning casually against a dark wall and grins at the dwarf in blue. "I don't believe we never did meet proper-like. Throw us yer name an' all that. I'm Penelope."
"I'm Janet!" exclaims the halfling who took up a spot beside her.
The dwarf smiles back at Penelope “I’m Tydir. Tydir Stoneheart from the Procan Temple. Pleased to meet you both.” He looks around at each of the gathered party, making eye contact with each.
"I can pick a hill dwarf out a crowd,” says Torestorlim, “that's fer certain. But that name makes the top a me head itch, it does. Stoneheart... Stoneheart... I know the name but I cant remember from where. Always pleased to meet a brother. I'm Torestorlim of the Aethubara Sanctum."
"Aye, a Hill Dwarf I am,” says Tydir, “and a Stoneheart I am as well, both by clan and right of birth." And while his response was directed towards his fellow dwarf, his eyes never left the large salmon mounted on the wall above Torestorlim's head.
"I say Master Gnome - that is a magnificent specimen you have mounted up there.Would you object to me taking a closer look?"
Even as he says this, Tydir has begun dragging a chair underneath the mounted fish - clearly intent on using it to boost himself up to get face to face with the wall hanging.
Zalo is in the middle of introducing himself, bowing as he does so, "Zalo Thunderfoot, at your service," when Tydir begins rearranging the furniture.
The gnome looks a little alarmed but doesn't move to stop Tydir. "Oh, um. Well, this isn't exactly my place, I'm just residing here by the grace of Councilor Primewater. Indulge yourself, I suppose, but not too loud. I'm trying to be inconspicuous!" He casts a worried glance out the window. "What's so interesting about the fish?" Zalo's eyes narrow, scrutinizing it with mild confusion.
Tydir barely hears Zalo's conditional consent, as he seems completely consumed by the inanimate object mounted on the wall.
He climbs up onto the chair - balancing his sturdy frame on the delicate piece of furniture- stretching to reach up to touch the preserved specimen.
As his hands stroke the scaly side, his body goes rigid and his eyes roll back into his head. All at once, as if hit by a bolt, he's thrown back from the wall, spilling onto the floor and shattering the chair in his fall.
Zalo yelps in alarm as the stricken dwarf tumbles to the floor.
"What the-" Ilseh exclaims. Instinctively, she doesn't maintain focus on the fallen man, but instead at this strange curio.
She squints her eyes at the thing, but notices no particularity about it. It's just a fish on a board. "What happened?"
"Tydir?” Zalo asks. “Are you alright?" He leans down and checks him over carefully. "Can you hear us?"
Tore laughs. ”He mus'a been rubbin his socks on the rug a bit long to give 'im self a shock like that, he mus'. Stand and straighten yerself up dwarf, yer makin us look clumsy, ya are.” Ironically, Tore’s robes are still polka-dotted from his previous missteps.
Tydir's eyes flutter open to see the gnome looking down at him as he lays flat on his back on the floor.A soft bluish-white light seems to briefly surround him, and then fades almost as quickly, as if he were absorbing the light into his body as he lay there.
A soft smile creeps across his face as the glow fades, and Tydir pushes himself to his feet.His voice billows forth, infused with a confidence and cadence hadn't heard up until this point:
"As a Salmon is called all its life to the sea, so too do our lives run towards some purpose we can only feel but may never see.It seems the Sailor has indeed smiled upon this gathering, and indeed on each of you.Our meeting tonight was no accident, I fear you all will have need of my services on the task set before you. Procan provides, indeed.”
With that, Tydir seems to shake off whatever it was that washed over him, and his voice shifts back to its normal tone and tenor.
"My apologies to you all, and to you in particular Master Zalo, I appear to have broken your chair. I didn't mean to startle you all on our first meeting like this, but sometimes our lives are not entirely our own to control."
Zalo looks glumly at the shattered chair and struggles to adopt an understanding expression, seemingly oblivious of Tydir's transformation. "Well, as long as Fate and Destiny and Procan will pay for a replacement or repair, I suppose that's alright. I certainly don't have any plans to bother Gellan about this."
He ambles over to the closet and fetches a broom, awkwardly sized for his stature, and begins sweeping up. "Regardless, I'm glad you're fine.”
“My apologies again Master Gnome, if you'll allow me, I believe I can repair the chair tomorrow.”
Tydir helps Zalo clean up the broken pieces and stacks them neatly together out of the way.
“Now,” says Zalo, “to the matter at hand; it's nearly midnight. Do we care to pay Anders a friendly visit? I'm keen to hear what he has to say. But I don't want to involve anyone who isn't willing, and I won't be a party to duplicity against a councilor."
Tydir puts the broom away. “I believe the Sailor wishes us to hear him out and help him in anyway we can.'
The dwarf’s hand drifts to the small knife on his belt, and his voice falls into the now-familiar singsong cadence.
Everyone else agrees that Solmer should at least be heard out, and so the group leaves the Primewater guest house and arrives at the back of the council hall. In the dim moonlight, the dark stains of last week’s battle with the bear can still be seen on the cobbles. On the top of the building’s tower a solitary owl perches, scanning the streets below for prey.
Zalo opens the back door and peeks inside. Leaning against the far wall stands the young councilman from the party. He takes a step forward and claps his hands together.
“Grand! I was afraid you wouldn’t show! Come on in. Lock the door behind you. Those drunken sailors up the street tend to wander. Please, follow me into my office.”
The man leads the group through the dark hallway of the council hall to the administrative offices, up a flight of stairs, through another hallway, and opens a door. Inside is a wide desk and chair, both facing an east window overlooking Saltmarsh. A flood of aquamarine light from low-hanging Celene is washing into the room, upon the desk.
“Berth your bottoms!” the man says, gesturing at a bench beneath the window. Rather than use his chair behind the desk, he vaults himself onto the desk to sit, his feet dangling off the edge.
“I should introduce myself properly. I’m Anders J. Solmer, fifth member of the Saltmarsh Town Council. I also own a fairly successful combined fleet of fishing and merchant ships, second generation. Every vessel is squeaky-clean legal, which can be a rare thing in this town.”
“But enough bragging. Gods knows we’ve had our fill from Gellan tonight.” He rolls his eyes, flashes a charming smile, and kicks his feet in the air a few times.
“Let me aweigh the niceties, here. We’ve had this tiny bit of a problem in Saltmarsh for quite some time, and I think you’re all equipped help us, and to profit from it. It concerns an abandoned house out east of here. Have you heard of it?”
Tydir passed up the chance to 'berth his bottom' and instead elected to stand in the corner opposite the councilor's desk.Having shed his formal robes before leaving Zalo's quarters, he seems to be at home in the shadows cast by the moon streaming in the window.
“Indeed I have Master Anders. The rumors are the house is haunted, teeming with unclean spirits and things that shouldn't be on this edge of the world.I don't know that anyone in town would approach the place, let alone set foot inside its doors.”
Choosing to stand as well, Tore leans against the frame of the door with his arms folded across his chest, a scowl on his face. "You 'spect us ta go inta that house with a vampire roamin it's walls, ya do? I needs ta know how much gold ya plan on givin this old man 'fore he sends himself to his death 'fore I agree to any such plans..."
Ilseh would have immediately seated but she remembered she was in a dress and didn't feel like comporting herself in an unfamiliar way. She had placed herself beside Tydir, arms folded, simply listening.
Anders rubs his hands together. “You guys are tip-top on-the-spot! You’ve heard of the place already.”
He turns to Torestorlim. “But don’t let the rumors fool you. The truth is, we don’t know what’s in there, exactly. From what I gather, it’s just a bunch of noise and lights, and nobody has actually seen anything within. It could just be a minor poltergeist that needs to be scared off. It could be critters.”
“The real evil left ages ago. It was an old alchemist who lived there. But he disappeared around 40 years ago, and the place just sat there and collected dust. Nobody wanted anything to do with it. It started falling apart.”
Anders leans forward on the desk, resting his elbows upon his legs, and lowers his voice. “Thing is, about five or ten years ago, something moved in there. Who knows what. We’re always hearing stories of horrible shrieks coming from inside, and eerie, dancing lights floating through the windows. I’ve never seen them, myself, but the reports are too frequent to dismiss entirely.”
He leans back. “As for the vampire, or the lich, or the dragon, or whatever the merry folk down at the Wicker Goat claim they saw inside—I think that’s imaginative speculation.”
“Whatever it is, it needs to be checked out. And cleared out. But no local will set foot inside. So I thought maybe for the right price, a few brave, out-of-town souls might poke around and give it a proper run-through. Put to rest whatever nastiness took up residence there, as well as stop these out-of-control rumors from everyone coming and going to Seaton and the mine.”
“So here’s my offer.” He leans back, slides a desk door open, and digs out a large, linen pouch, plopping it firmly on the desk next to him. It jingles mutedly with coin.
“Here is one hundred twenty five gold as a show of good faith. That’s twenty five apiece for you.” He reaches into his pocket and digs out more coin, briefly counts it, and adds it into the pouch. “Let’s make it one hundred thirty to include your new friend, here.”
He points out the window behind the party. “You go and check the place out, chase out the bogeymen that have taken up residence, and report back to me what it was. You get to keep anything you find. I’m sure there’s bound to be some antiques of value there. Rumor has it, the old bastard was working on a philosopher’s stone. A fantasy, I’m sure, but he’s certain to have had plenty of valuable alchemy equipment and an extensive, ancient library of books on the subject. All yours to keep, of course.”
Zalo’s face brightens up. "Of course, if there's some material we could be seeding Saltmarsh's potential future library with, that certainly makes this a worthwhile endeavor! Speaking of which, we should chat about that at some point, Councilor."
“When you complete the task,” Anders continues, seemingly ignoring the gnome’s proposition, “I’ll have another sack with six hundred twenty five—no, make that seven hundred fifty gold,” he says, gesturing to Tydir, “waiting right here for you. You split it up, we at the council announce your findings and your deeds, Gellan blows a bunch of his money on another party for you, and you’ll have the most grand of reputations.”
He grins again, his teeth shining brightly azure in the moonlight. “So, what do you say? Do me this minor thing? Make some coin? End up in the local history books?”
Tydir speaks first. “Neither the gold nor the notoriety is needed for me, but this seems like a task that needs doing.I'll face whatever denizens lurk within those walls in Procan's name."
Even as he finishes, you can see the embarrassment set in at his overly earnest declaration.
“Not that I'm opposed to the gold mind you, Procan provides, but he doesn't often drop gold in my lap, and goodwill only buys you so many mugs of ale.”
Zalo pats the dwarf reassuringly on the shoulder. "I'm sure Procan admires your resourcefulness."
Anders grabs the pouch next to him and jiggles it toward Tydir. “If you agree to the task, I’ll be giving you all the full amount promised, as a group. How you divvy is your own haul.”
The gnome adopts a thoroughly skeptical expression, letting out a sound that verges on a scoff. "A haunted house, after decades of quiet? I'll believe it when I see it. I don't know of any spirits that just 'move in' when there's an empty residence."
Anders smiles softly. “Oerth is a land of many mysteries, Zalo. You should have wind of that by now, given your arcane nature. You see magic everywhere. Halflings who talk to bears, troubled geists that bang around in abandoned houses.”
He grins knowingly, leans towards Zalo, and points upwards, at the ceiling. “Tiny celestial beings trapped inside owls' bodies.”
Anders settles back onto the desktop. “I do hope your guess is on course, though, and it’s just rats or raccoons. But given the history of the place, I fear there is something evil involved.”
Zalo ponders for a moment. "You know, I have to wonder a bit about the nature of this meeting. Why all the secrecy? Is this request at your behest or at the Council's?"
Tydir looks admiringly at the little Gnome.They were very good questions indeed.
Anders sighs. “Well, the simple answer is politics. It can be messy stuff. I’m still learning the ropes, myself. I was only voted in very recently, you see. It was after my mother died, and I inherited the family fleets.”
He purses his lips in thought, and continues. “As for whose request, let’s call it both. The council would want this for the betterment of Saltmarsh. It’s been chit-chatted several times, in fact. Offically. Our sinister little secret.”
“But the money I’m offering tonight is my own. I’m willing to personally compensate this task from my fleets' earnings, outside the authority of the town council, but in the name of the council. And, of course, for the good of Saltmarsh. I don’t want word to get out beforehand.”
He pauses again and continues, “Look, I just want the job done. If I were to announce this idea before the council—well, if Gellan Primewater got wind of this, he’d want to get involved. And you’ve seen him as it is, parading the five of you around town like his personal, purebred show-ponies. He'd want to 'sponsor’ you, and your deeds would be in the name of the Primewater family more than the council as a whole. Or even yourselves, I fear.”
Anders Solmer bites his lip. His friendly smile is gone. “And if by some chance you fail in your attempt—and I won’t lie to you, I do feel there is some evil in the haunted house—but if you were to fail after the council officially and publicly sent you, it’d be a storm of shit that would sink our ship. The council would be done for. ”
He stares out the window. “Say what you will about our current political conflict, but it’s better than the alternative. As you all know, Keoland is a feudal monarchy. Yet we still vote for leadership here in Saltmarsh. Even with hundreds of royal guard within our city limits.”
“Salutary neglect, the Crown is calling it. They pretend not to notice us defying the King with our little democracy down here, but they’re just trying to avoid another Seaton uprising. If they can change us slowly, and let us keep some of our more harmless ways, they won’t have to explain putting Keoish countrymen to the sword for the second time in a decade.”
“But if the people of Saltmarsh so much as bat an eyelid in defiance against the council or the crown as a whole, Skotti will take it all over, garrison a standing army within town limits, and replace the five of us with a royal governor. A few of us could be jailed or hanged. And then Saltmarsh, the last bastion of Salinmoore’s old ways, will be gone. We’ll be just another damned and dead military and naval base like Seaton.”
Anders levels his gaze at Zalo. “Nobody here wants that. Not traditionalists, not loyalists; not me, not Gellan. Nobody.”
Uncrossing his arms, now standing as tall as a dwarf can, Torestorlim speaks sternly at Anders. "Seems ta me fella, you want this kept a secret ta get the notoriety fer yerself once we finish yer dirty work ya do, if we come back alive that is. I'm most certain if we went ta Prunewater offerin ta do the work, he'd be supplyin' us with all type a potion and ten times the gold he would!”
“Now... I'm fine with ya wantin' a good deed tied ta yer name, freshly elected and wet behind the ears an'all, but ya should really think about makin it worth our while or we'll jus' go ta Primewalter, tell 'im bout yer shady business and pocket the change, wadda ya say?"
“If I wanted the notoriety,” says Anders, “would I not simply sail the same seaway as Gellan? Get the council nominally involved, publicly fund you in my own name, and stir up the whole town?”
“I don’t want your deeds kept a secret. You tell everyone and anyone what you’re doing. I’m assuming you’ll be doing a bit of footwork anyhow, asking some of the locals what they’ve seen or heard, or what they know of the place.”
“I just want this done. No fanfare, no parties, no parades. Those can all wait until afterwards. It’s a job, not a bloody public relations opportunity. But if Gellan gets his finger into this pie, it might never get eaten.”
Anders smiles, and chuckles a bit under his breath. “You’re welcome to sell the idea to ‘Prunewater,’ my rambunctious friend. But if it’s profit you’re seeking, I’d like you to consider carefully what you’ve actually received from Gellan. Now I don’t know what he’s given you behind closed doors, but I’ll wager a leg it’s not nearly what I’m offering you here, up front.”
“The thirty gold you received tonight was Eda’s doing. She suggested it, we voted on it, and, well Gellan swooped in and offered to supply the gold himself, in the name of the council. ‘To ease the financial burden of this lovely little town,’ he said."
“We all chip in from time to time, aside from Manistrad and Eliander. But they just moved here. They don’t have the resources we longstanding folk do.”
“As for the party, itself, well…” he pauses as his eyes sweep the room. “You’re all new here, so I’ll key you in on a little Saltmarsh culture. Gellan throws that same party once, sometimes twice a month. He goes all out, shipping in some exotic food, blowing money on trays and trays of drinks, and giving a pompous speech. Or ten of them. The parties have the same guests, the same fanfare, and the same expense.”
“Well, there was one additional expense. But it added no weight to your own coin purse. It was the free drinking tonight in Saltmarsh’s three taverns."
“All done humbly by yours truly, in the esteemed names of Saltmarsh’s newfound heroes, indubitably,” Anders says, mocking Gellan’s posh accent.
He laughs. “I’m a businessman, dwarf. I know a good deal when I see one—or offer one. So my reward still stands.”
“However,” he continues, “on the subject of supplies. You come to me, at my home, and let me know what you require for this task at least three days in advance, and I’ll provide what I can from my ships’ stores. Within reason, of course. The haunted house is a mere four miles away.”
Ilseh had been bored for most of this man's prattle, which should have been plainly evident. He played the nonchalant entrepreneur of opportunity, but he was an aristocrat nonetheless.
But when he mentioned that he'd render supplies upon request. That and the amount of gold he was willing to let go of. And Ilseh had just recently found a worthwhile reason to sink some coin. She speaks up for the first time.
"If we're making requests, I'd like a shield and sword. Something a little bigger than my twins. They might not cut it if this house holds something more preternatural than a couple of bears."
Anders nods. "Noted. I'll add the request to the list. I can't guarantee anything. I have a few quartermasters to consult, first."
He looks around. "So does this mean you're accepting the task? Of course, if you need a day or two to discuss the matter in private, you're welcome to it. Just come see me at my home to let me know your answer."
"I'm not in a hurry," he adds. "I just want it done."
Tydir has been listening carefully as the core party members begin haggling for supplies and seeking additional details.He nods approvingly as Zalo probes for all the available intel, and when Ilesh uses the moment to assess just how badly the Councilor wants this job done.
'It seems Master Anders, that we should get back to you with our thoughts and likely a list of requirements to complete this job.Would tomorrow afternoon be soon enough?'
As Tydir says this he looks to the other party members to gauge their assent.
Their faces all say “yes.”
Anders claps his hands together. “Grand! Grandy! Grandy-dandy! I had a feeling I could count on you!“
"Tomorrow is fine. The sooner you get me the list, the sooner I can send the request to my captains.”
Zalo nods at Tydir and Anders. "Suits me just fine. I'll make sure I get my requests in."
"Perhaps though,” continues Zalo, “I could trouble you to show us the most expedient route there?" He traces a large square in the air with his hands, then forms a rectangle with the thumb and forefinger of each hand. As he slowly pulls them apart, a map of the area surrounding the city of Saltmarsh shimmers into view and hangs in the air, silent and unmoving.
Anders laughs to himself, then slides off the desk. “You really don’t need a map. It’s a few hours’ walk, right along the south road to Seaton, halfway to the Copperlocks mine. You can’t miss it.”
Leaning over Zalo’s illusory map, he points at a spot along the coastline, to the east of Saltmarsh. “Right there.”
He then takes the money off his desk, and holds the sack out to Zalo. “As promised.”
“Have you all any other questions? It grows late. I fear we’ll all miss the cock’s crow tomorrow if we don't find our beds soon.”
A few heads shake in the room.
“I’ll show you out.”
Anders leads the six adventurers downstairs. “Oh, and Zalo, about that library of yours. Come visit me during office hours. We’ll parley it around a bit.”
At the back door, he pauses before opening it, and turns to the group. “Remember, no word of this conversation to anyone. Your final payment depends on it. I don’t want Gellan getting the idea he can commandeer the situation the way he did with Eda’s reward tonight, or with your actions last week.”
“Make this deed your own for now. Once you’re done, I’ll likely let Eda in on the details, just to see if we can’t use my involvement to better the reputation of the council as a whole.”
He opens the door. A few faint bits of laughter echo down the street from the Snapping Line, as the last of the patrons are leaving for their homes. Across the street, the buildings are outlined in a blue, eerie glow; gibbous Celene is behind them, about to set. An unseen owl lets out a single hoot from atop the council building.
“All clear,” Anders says, winking at Zalo.
“Don’t forget to create a list of what you need, and drop it off at my house. If I’m not there, my wife Gwen can receive it for me.”
After the six strangers leave the building, Solmer steps out, locks the door behind him, and heads up the street to the north.
Alton: a down-on-his luck halfling bard, played by dckeith Ilseh: a mysterious, wandering human barbarian, played by salseethrough Nicolas: a human mercenary and rogue who just arrived in Salthmarsh, played by STurk Torestorlim: a dwarven monk formerly of the Aethubara Sanctum, played by Barthoron Tydir: a dwarven cleric of Procan, Sailor-god of Sea and Sky, played by DirePilgrim Zalo: a gnomish wizard from the Council of Stars, played by xrfm
Directed by: Alpha Lyrae
The next morning, Penelope and Janet showed up on Zalo’s doorstep. The half-elven woman, it turns out, was simply in Saltmarsh because the ship she captained was hidden in a cove to the east. It’s since been repaired, so she decided to decline Anders Solmer’s offer, and take to the seas again with her crew.
Janet was in a similar metaphorical boat, and intended to take the same literal boat out of town. The halfling explained that while she admires the bravery of the other three, her short adventuring career was over. The bear left a scar on her scalp that would likely be there the rest of her life, and it was nearly the death of her. She intended to find another port, one without so much bear-smuggling, and return to her old fishing profession.
Penelope kindly offered the halfling passage to her next destination.
The two of them returned their payment to Solmer later that day, notifying him of their decision. They sailed out the next day.
When he got word of the two deserters, Anders Solmer grew worried that the three remaining adventurers-to-be wouldn’t be able to complete the task he assigned to them, so he visited a local mercenary agent in Saltmarsh to find them a hired sword. There he was recommended Nicolas, a human adventurer for hire. Through the mercenary agent, Solmers promised the same down payment and reward to Nicolas. He provided a letter of recommendation, and Zalo’s address for further details.
Nicolas visited the gnome later, that very day, notifying him of Solmer’s request.
Zalo decided Ilseh and Torestorlim needed to meet Nicolas proper, and so arranged to have everyone meet at the Snapping Line that evening, before they provided Solmer with their list of required items for the haunted house agreement.
The smells of the Snapping Line are as potent as always, but this time they are accompanied by a lively flute punctuated by short bursts of storytelling:
The fella' looked down from his ship!
Saw that pretty lady with a hand on her hip!
And the last thing that the lady did say!
Was "Tell me you'll be back some day!"
As the bard bows, his costume-pirate hat falls off, but he does a tumble and catches it in his hand. He rises from the tumble and leaps up with a big smile on his face. He shouts out, "Thanks all! I'm Alton! I’m going to take a break and be back in a bit! Be nice to the waitresses or they'll spit in your claw!"
He climbs down from the stage mumbling about how the spit might improve the flavor, and walks up to the bar. He climbs up on a stool and puts his flute on the counter. He cracks his knuckles and stretches his neck. Alton scans the room to see if there are any new people he can talk to. He's always on the lookout for new people, and new stories.
Hanna emerges from the kitchen, her apron stained red and brown. She leans forward on her elbows at the bar, in front of the halfling.
"I sure hope you're sticking around Saltmarsh a while, hon. We don't get too many musical types 'round here, aside from the squeeze-box, I mean. And things have seemed a lot calmer the nights you're playing."
She leans even further forward, grinning. "Careful what you promise 'em, though. Some of these sailor-types are lonely. They'd pay extra for us to add a little of our own sugar to their drinks."
"So what'll it be?"
Alton looks up to Hanna. "Calmer you say?" He scratches his chin and looks around. "I guess I need to up my game." Back to Hanna he says, "I'll take a dark ale, half sized. Gotta keep my wits for the rest of the show."
Alton looks excitedly around the room. On the forecastle platform, towards the front of the bar, the four adventurers and a human in a black jacket are crowded around a ridiculously small barrel-table, speaking in hushed tones and whispers.
Alton’s eyes lock onto the group. He motions to them and asks Hanna, "Hey, what's their story? Actually, no, I'm going to ask them myself!"
Without waiting for his drink Alton jumps down from his stool and walks straight for the group.
"-so in summary,” says Nicolas, at the table, “I have been asked to aid you all in dealing with the strange goings-on as you appeared to have lost a fair number."
In the hectic-ness of the bar his tone remains controlled and formal, if not a bit friendly. Despite his larger size than most of his companions, and the near-comically cramped seating arrangement, he appears unfazed, and based on his lack of fidgeting or adjustment, one might mistake him for comfortable.
Reaching into the right breast of his jacket, he pulls out a letter and offers it openly to the seated group, though specifically pointed towards Zalo. "All matters of introduction, explanation, and verification should be within this, if you all so require it."
His eyes scan the group for who might reach for it first, but his face is nothing beyond a polite introductory smile.
Zalo leans over to take the letter, reading it carefully. "Well, you come highly recommended from Anders, I see. I think we need all the help we can get given our recent... personnel changes."
Tydir sits with his back to the wall, his toes tapping almost imperceptibly under the table despite the bard leaving the stage.
He is content to let Zalo handle the specifics where it comes to this mercenary. Not that he begrudges the man his profession, just that he has no interest in the details of any such arrangement. The extra blade and the body would likely come in handy if they ran into any trouble, but the Sailor had not called him to watch over this dark haired human - and so he was of little concern to Tydir.
He listens as his comrades excitedly discuss just how to negotiate with the young councilor. He's happy to let them lead the negotiations, asking for nothing more than some healing potions for the party, and his share of whatever they get paid.
Tydir is a moderate drinker for a dwarf - which means a prodigious drinker by any other measure - but he’s careful and measured in his Claw intake, and keeps his wits about him throughout the night.
Ilseh had taken the section of the table closest to the corner, hoping it would somehow provide some breathing room. With an un-imbibed tankard of claw before her, she listens as this newcomer pointedly made his case.
When he finishes, she interjects, ”Personally, I'm glad to have someone else with us taller than a barrel. Welcome aboard.” She lifts the ale slightly.
Tydir snorts derisively at Ilseh. “Taller than a barrel indeed. No one has ever accused a dwarf of not punching above his weight - or his height for that matter.”
Tore grabs his belly with both hands and jiggles it up and down. "This dwarf only punches below his weight." he chuckles.
Zalo folds Nicolas’s note precisely and tucks it into his journal, and is about to say more when the halfling Alton approaches the table and announces himself.
"HI!” Alton says loudly, “What are you guys talking about? I bet it's something really exciting!”
“Oh! Did you guys just get back from an adventure? I bet you just raided an old tomb, or OH! Maybe a pirate lair? Please tell me it was a pirate lair. I, uh, owe some…”
“Anyway! I’m Alton Brackwater. Can I buy you all a round? I'd love to hear about your adventures."
Ilseh, her tankard still held in salute to Nicolas’s tall stature, simply places it back on the table. “Blast!”
"Oh, er, hello." Zalo scrutinizes the shaggy halfling. "I'm Zalo.”
“I’m afraid I don't have much to recount in terms of my own adventures, unless you'd like to hear the story of how we subdued two bears. For the umpteenth time." He takes a long drink and rolls his eyes good-naturedly.
Alton's already bright face somehow gets even more excited. He sings,
All manner of beasts are dangerous in pairs
But few can compare to a duo of bears!
Encounters with bears can end up gory
Now tell me the tale in all its glory!
Ilseh raises both hands, fingers wide, besides her face. "We subdued some bears! Let's give it a rest for a day! And save the singing for up there, yeh?"
She lazily waves a finger towards the stage.
Alton nods at Ilseh and says, “Fine, fine, I’ll leave my performance to the stage. Bears are quite dangerous though. Did any of you get injured? I have some healing magic that might help.”
Nicolas looks over the halfling with a glance, assessing the figure and his offer. Whether he deemed him a threat or not was entirely within Nicolas' own mind. Seeing the irritation that some of his new compatriots were undergoing he decided to step in.
”If you would like to offer your services to the group I'd suggest a more direct method. It would be to everyone's benefits if intentions were made clear.", he offered flatly.
Alton sighs heavily and says, “Ok let me cut to the chase. These tavern gigs aren’t exactly payin’ the bills. Now I’ve got all sorts of magic and healing spells, and I’m even pretty handy with a rapier.”
“Oh! And after we're done I can sing in every tavern and street corner of our, I mean, your! heroic feats! No better publicity than someone like me eh? Great way to get better clients, right? All I ask is a fair cut of the loot. How does that sound?”
"We ain't got no group, we don’t,” says Tore, “so your presence is as good as mine. If some fool be willins ta pay us fer his dirty work and we're all equal part fool for doin it, only makes sense the share be equal. Said fool is buyin us supplies, he is, so make sure ya add what ya need ta the list."
He rubs his hands together, cracking a slightly crooked smile “Anyways, I says we over-ask Solmer, and let 'im under-deliver. That fella keeps a good gamblin' face, he does, yet I got the feelin this be nothin more than political for the fella. Gut tells me he'll give us almost anything we ask and the mos' he can do is say no.”
Alton's face lights up at the invitation, and he interrupts the dwarf’s scheming. "I knew it! I knew you were planning something! What's the job?"
Zalo looks around the Snapping Line and sighs exasperatedly. "Harumph! At this rate we'll all be making peanuts when we carve up the fee. But, very well."
He scoots over and gestures to the empty spot to Nicolas and Alton.
Then he flips to an empty page in his journal and makes a pass over the paper, and a map like a miniature version of the one conjured in Anders' office replicates into the page."This is the location of a former alchemist's house."
He takes a drink before continuing. "It has since been the site of repeated strange noises and spectral sights. Now the council wishes it to be un-haunted."
"No bears, fortunately. Just some investigating and cleaning up." He smiles. "Is all that clear? We leave in a few days. As my esteemed colleague Tore said, get your supply requests in shortly."
He lowers his voice a notch. "And, please, keep this among yourselves. This is a very specific request from a very specific Councilor we've been asked to do."
“Well then,” replies Tydir, “it seems we're back to six then. And while some of us may be shorter than others,” Tydir clears his throat and shoots Ilesh a pointed look, “I believe Procan has drawn us all together for a purpose. I for one am ready to face whatever horrors await us within.”
With that, Tydir pushes himself back from the table, hoists his mug aloft and raises his voice to carry throughout the tavern. “May the Sailor keep your course true, your keels clear, and your nets full!”
"Ahoy!" most of the patrons shout in unison to the Procan priest's blessing, raising their own mugs into the air.
Tydir then tosses back the remainder of his Claw, slams the tankard on the table, and wipes the dregs from his beard.
Returning his attention to the party, he says, “I wish you all a very good night. I will spend the next several days in prayer and preparation. Find me at the Temple if you need me. Otherwise I suggest we meet back here in two days?”
Zalo waves farewell at Tydir, and turns back to Ilseh with a mock-stern expression on his face and a twinkle in his eyes. "Now that his poor gentle ears are elsewhere, please mind who you're calling a barrel, my fair lady! Sometimes if you push a barrel the wrong way it tips over and stubs your toes."
He grins and points at her drink, frothing it with bubbles as some spills over the lip.
Watching the wine in her mug slosh up and over, Ilseh reactively leans a little back and looks at Zalo, if somewhat annoyed. "I didn't mean it as disrespect, gnome. Just a statement of fact."
The gnome slams his hand on the table, chortling heartily at his own joke. But with another wave of his hand, the mess is cleared. "Ah, don't worry, that one's on me. What can I get you for your next round?"
Ilseh hmphes derisively and crosses her arms as Zalo, with magic yet again, cleans up the little mess on the spot.
"No worries- they don't have anything I like."
Alton tried to squeeze in around the table and says to Zalo, “No, no, my friend, the next round is on me!”
He then points his finger at Hanna with one hand and holds his flute in the other. He whispers something under his breath then says, “Drinks are on their way!”
Zalo smiles broadly. “Well, I can see we can dispense with any worries about you pulling your weight! I can tell this is going to be a mutually beneficial partnership."
A few moments later, Hanna is weaving her way through the tables with six tankards on a tray. “Claw wine for all," she says as she places them onto the table. She clunks Alton’s mug down last. “Except the dark for you.”
As she gathers the empty tankards, she looks down at Ilseh’s still-intact drink. “I’m sorry, hon. I forgot you don’t care for the claw. Is there something else I can get you?”
Ilseh is swept with a flight of embarrassment. "No, no- it's fine. A water would be just fine."
Seeing that Hanna wasn't satisfied, Ilseh adds quizzically. Maybe some brandy?"
“Sure thing,” says the barkeep. “I’ll be right back.”
She pauses and looks around the table. “I see you’ve met our new resident bard. He came around just after the bear incident. As if fate were somehow involved.”
“I had a feeling you’d all take to him. Good thing, too, what with most of the ladies sailing out tomorrow.”
Alton looks up to Hanna and smiles, “The only fate we need to worry about is our future success!”
The five who remain at the Snapping Line continue to discuss their next big adventure. But soon, people begin to head back to their homes for the evening.
Torestorlim, swooning with ale and anticipation, is the first to stand. “After that little party fer us the other night, I inquired as ta where them healin' potions were procured from, I did, and the Prinewalther fella tol' me about The Faithful Quartermasters of Iuz. Told me he sells magic items. I'll be stoppin' there in the morn if anyone cares ta join there, too.”
Ilseh doesn't remain much longer after finishing her newly acquired drink, returning to her temporary lodgings at the Wicker Goat.
Nicolas and Zalo, too, make their way back to their residences.
Alton makes it a point to be the last to leave. Once he is alone he walks over to Hanna who is presumably cleaning up for the night. He simply says, “Thanks for giving me a chance tonight. Eda might be giving me a place to sleep, but here, here is where I call home.”
He pulls out a gold piece from his pocket and gently taps it on the counter. “This should cover our drinks. Have a good night.”
Hanna smiles warmly. “You come back any time to play, Alton. The place is a lot homier with your tunes in the air. The boys around here like that. They got a lot of home to catch up with all at once, after they come to port."
She puts her finger on the gold to slide it into her palm, but pauses. "Something was in the air with you lot tonight. You're planning your next bear rescue or something back there. I've seen looks like those."
Her kind smile fades slightly. "Take care of yourself. The other of your kind, the girl who left with that part-elven lass, she was hurt pretty bad with that bear business. Looked like the dead walkin' upright."
She pushes the coin back towards the halfling. "Take care of Tore, too. The headstrong old bastard needs some watchin' out for while he does his thing."
As Ilseh lay in her bed, idle thoughts bounced in her head.
The halfling, Janet, had left apparently. If bears were a bit too rough for her, it was a good thing she left, Ilseh thought.
Penelope left as well.
"Too bad for the half-elf though. Could've had some fun."
Alton: a down-on-his luck halfling bard, played by dckeith Nicolas: a human mercenary and rogue who just arrived in Salthmarsh, played by STurk Zalo: a gnomish wizard from the Council of Stars, played by xrfm
For the next few days, the newly formed party conducted their own affairs to prepare for their upcoming adventure. Nicolas spent most of his time at the Empty Net, learning about the locals. Tydir consulted Wellgar Brinehanded, the priest of the Procan temple, for supplies and information. Torestorlim spent most of his time at the Snapping Line converting cooking oil into lamp oil. Alton spent his time fishing and making his artistic presence known, playing his instrument down on the docks for the local fishers, as well as at the Snapping Line for a few spare coin. Zalo, on task as always, conducted research on the old alchemist’s house, as well as asked a few locals what they’d seen and heard at the haunted house in recent days. Ilseh spent the days milling about town in pensive silence, watching her companions-to-be from afar whenever she could.
Zalo, ever the diplomat, invited everyone over for dinner the night before they were to set out for the haunted house. Only Nicolas and Alton accepted the invitation, and they both showed up on the gnome’s doorstep early in the evening.
Nicolas is the first to arrive, and as promised at the exact hour. An owl is perched above the lintel on the door, scrutinizing the visitor curiously. Nicolas adjusts his collar to a more presentable fold, and reaches for the door.
Before he has a chance to knock, the owl hoots twice and the door flings outward. Nicolas quickly side steps to avoid being smacked in the face, but manages to handle himself and the bottle he's carrying with enough grace that the effort seems to not have stirred him.
Zalo shouts from across the room. "Hello and welcome!”
The guest house is in a state of merry, magical chaos, but otherwise considerably cleaner than it was a few days before.
As Nicolas enters he stops and he examines the room, and it's relative chaos. A book flies near his face, and he makes effort to avoid that, as well as an incoming patrol of silverware. "This is quite the home" he offered to some degree of amazement at the goings on around him.
“Please,” shouts Zalo, ”help yourself to anything on the table." He gestures dismissively with a hand full of blackberries to the table, where several place settings are laid out in front of two chairs which seem to be for guests.
Zalo's "chair" is a small tower of books and papers on the floor that reaches nearly to the table, but seems to double as a place to sit. A worn, leatherbound contraption that seems to be a book rests at the top of the precarious edifice. A number of smaller stacks lead up to it, like a staircase.
Nicolas eventually makes his way through the busy room and finds his seat.
There are another two hoots from the owl, and the front door again swings open, revealing Alton. The halfling is not wearing the pirate costume from the Snapping Line, but instead a simple white shirt and brown pants. He has a green cloak draped over his back, and carries with him his flute in his cloak pocket, and a pan of lightly seasoned, baked fish in his hands.
"I brought something for dinner!" Alton happily declares. His eyes turn upwards at the magnificent house. His eyes drift towards the piles of books. "Wow, I've never seen so many books in my whole life!"
After placing his dish on the table Alton walks over to the pile and picks one of them up. He uses his finger to slowly trace the letters on the cover of the book, slowly mouthing out the words. Upon opening the book he marvels at the words, maps, and especially pictures. He likes the pictures a lot.
A pot of fish stew floats through the air, making its way to the table and setting down gently into the center of the table. This is followed by a plate of roasted root vegetables, and then finally by a main course of marinated sea bream served over parsnips. Two bottles of Hanna's claw wine are on the table, along with another, darker bottle.
Zalo is decorating a cake with intense concentration, as he places the last of the berries in a precisely arranged pattern. The gnome mumbles under his breath as he looks around the room, multitasking what seem to be mental commands. Here and there a candle becomes brighter, or a crooked picture is straightened, or a utensil arrives at the table.
"How was your afternoon?" shouts Zalo above the low din of the cleaning and clanking. "Oh, and I'm sorry about all this racket. I got carried away with my research and I didn't leave enough time for dinner!" He gestures sheepishly. "But it won't do to leave for our trip without being on a full stomach, yes?"
"My afternoon was very good, thank you for asking,” says Nicolas. He brings up the bottle from under his arm and places it on the table. "I hope you don't mind, but it would feel a terrible transgression on my part if I didn't contribute something to you as a host."
He puts the bottle on one lip and spins the labeling to himself, "The vintner said that this would pair well with nearly anything local to here, but noted that fish would likely be best."
Seeing that Zalo continued to be lost in study, however, he places the bottle flat and eases more into his chair, "If I may ask, what are you researching that has so engrossed you?"
The gnome nods at Nicolas, bubbling over with excitement to talk about his research. "Oh, this and that! Ilseh asked for some help learning more about phoenixes and how one might procure one. They're not native to this plane, of course, but they're just absolutely fascinating."
He licks some frosting off his fingers and starts carrying the cake over to the table, picking up a piece of chalk off a bookshelf.
"You see, the world we inhabit is part of a broader multiverse. I don't just mean other places on Oerth — I mean places you can't get to no matter how high you fly or deep you swim, places that just aren't part of our universe at all."
He sets the cake down on the table and draws on the floor with the chalk, marking a circle. Having started now, it doesn't seem like he's going to stop anytime soon.
"This is us. We are ants moving inside the circle. We can explore anything we want in the circle, even if it might be very far apart, but we can never leave the circle."
He takes a plate off the table, holding it above the circle. "There are lots of these circles. Arcanists call them planes. Everyone has their own space, as it were. Creatures and spirits and elementals and devils and celestials and all manner of other things we can't even imagine."
"But there's no way to go from one plane to another. I am an ant on this circle. I can't traverse the gap between the circle and this dinner plate."
He smiles. "But sometimes... the planes are close together." The gnome lowers the plate so that one edge is touching the floor, inside the circle. "And now ants like us can go somewhere else. We can cross between planes at these kinds of spots — ripples and tears in the fabric of the universe where one plane bleeds into another."
"And if you're a powerful ant and you study this sort of thing — which I'm certainly not — you can even make your own roads between planes. And if you're really powerful you might even be able to bring people with you! Well, in any case, Ilseh is looking for a phoenix, and they're on a very different plate — er, plane — than ours. It would take quite a lot of work to find a similar spot where another bleed-through could exist, though I have some leads."
Zalo stands up and pushes the cake so it's in the middle of the table and arranges the other dishes. "As for the other research, well, of course, I didn't want to head into a potentially haunted house without learning just a bit more about its former inhabitants. I didn't turn up much, though. Seems that its former inhabitant was a bit of an experimenter, then one day just stopped coming to town. I imagine that usually happens because the experiment didn't go so great!"
He clambers up the book-steps leading to his tower of books. "Anyway, I'm sure you didn't come here to listen to a lecture. Let's eat!" He waves a hand at the chalk drawing and the floor is wiped clean.
Alton’s eyes seemed to glaze over. With a confused look, he says, “So If our ocean is like a plate, then wouldn’t the oceans pour off the side?” He holds up a cup of Nicolas’s wine and says, “Shouldn’t the world be more like a cup?”
Zalo squints at Alton and laughs. "It's just a metaphor! The world can be a tree, or a river, or a duck, if it helps you think about it that way. Whatever works, you know? No one has any time for stuffy academicians in their ivory towers. Real understanding comes from being out here and getting your hands dirty."
He pauses for a moment. "That was also just an expression. I washed my hands thoroughly before preparing this food, of course!"
Alton has a worrying look on his face. He whispers, “...the world...is a duck?
He looks down at his stew and starts pushing the pieces around, as he has seemingly lost his appetite.
"A reassurance I'm sure we didn't require,' notes Nicolas. He puts down the cup of wine after considering it for a bit, "that's certainly an amazing piece of information, Zalo, and I thank you for sharing. Though, if you might permit me, why would our friend be searching for a phoenix? They seem too rare for sport, and if they do exist on another plane as you say, I cannot believe that revenge might factor into this."
Zalo considers the question carefully as he helps himself to some roasted vegetables, passing the plate. "I suppose you'd have to ask her! We all have things that are important to us, and I guess this was one of them."
Alton perks up as the conversation turns to talk of a phoenix. He seems to be trying to quietly develop a song, “Phoenix...sea fix...he licks...”
Nicolas takes another carefully considered sip of the wine, "I shall have to do that then. But if I might ask another question, where did you do your studying in the magical arts? I find one never has such disdain for pure academia unless they have been under its weight before."
Zalo waves a fork in the air. "Ha! Well, I don't know if I would say I have a disdain for it, just a friendly difference of opinion. The Thunderfoots have been very skilled farmers for many generations, but as it turns out, my brother and I seem to have an aptitude for the magical."
He chuckles. "And a not-aptitude for almost anything else. I wouldn't be any more use on a farm than he would, these days. But I do very much miss it, being so many leagues from home. I'm glad my other siblings have more of a green thumb. We have the best peaches in a hundred miles and it's tough to keep that reputation."
The gnome crosses his arms sternly and looks at Nicolas and Alton, grinning. "No more questions about me without something in return, my friends. What brings you both to Saltmarsh? And pass that baked fish, please! I'm dying to try your concoction while I pour myself some of Nicolas's wine."
Nicolas remains silent, eating his meal.
Alton is finishing his second cup of wine and is nibbling in the stew. He pushes the pan of fish towards Zalo and replies, “Well it seems we come from similar backgrounds, only my family lived off the bounty of the sea. I say lived, of course, because my own brother is a bit of a drunk and crashed our fishing boat a few months back. When the tax man came around, my father couldn’t pay up, so he got a loan from a, uh, well, ok fine I’ll just say it: A pirate. My dad got a loan from a pirate.”
Alton sighs and continues, “So now I’m traveling the countryside playing taverns trying to perform my way out of debt. That’s why this adventuring gig is so important to me. My family really needs the money.”
Alton looks around at the room, and his new friends. Suddenly with a more cheerful tone he declares, “But don’t worry about me! This gig will go a long way towards paying off that debt.” He gasps, “I’ll bet with a few more jobs like this I can buy them a new boat!”
Zalo chuckles. "Maybe next time Anders asks for a list we can put 'one boat, if you please' on it."
"No reason to be ashamed,” he continues. “I'm no fan of pirates but we all do what we must in difficult times, yes? Adversity finds us all in time and it's our friends and skills — and sometimes our money — that get us to the other side.
The three new friends continued their dining and merrymaking, sharing stories and personal histories well into the night. Soon it came time to leave, and Alton and Nicolas went home; Zalo insisted he and his magic could clean up.
When it first stirs, it’s a distant flicker on the shore, eerie and silent. Always on the darkest of nights, alway suspended above the horizon, like the wavering beacon lantern of a ghastly ship.
The fey flame dances and shimmies through windows, a nocturnal mirage, a looming nightmare just at the edge of remembrance. It winks in and out, flitting, changing from orange to white to green. The ephemeral remnant of some ancient memory.
And then the flash. An outburst of searing light, followed by green fire, followed by blackness.
Has it gone?
Another flash, this one harsh and cruel, longer than the first. Afterwards, a jumbled mess of green and red specters fill the windows.
More flashes, an optic echo, an evil that dwells in twos. Like the first two steps of a death waltz. Like a dying dirge’s refrain. Like a broken heartbeat.
The cruel, shuttered heart of the Haunted House of Saltmarsh.
And then darkness.
Always it ends in darkness.
CAST OF PLAYER CHARACTERS
Alton: a down-on-his luck halfling bard, played by dckeith Ilseh: a mysterious, wandering human barbarian, played by salseethrough Nicolas: a human mercenary and rogue who just arrived in Salthmarsh, played by STurk Torestorlim: a dwarven monk formerly of the Aethubara Sanctum, played by Barthoron Tydir: a dwarven cleric of Procan, Sailor-god of Sea and Sky, played by DirePilgrim Zalo: a gnomish wizard from the Council of Stars, played by xrfm