Descent into the shrine of Sune...
Aravae thrashed with her hands and kicked with her feet, momentarily breaking out of the naiad's grasp on her ankles. But Cyrena didn't need a constant grip on the bladesinger to keep her under water. She only needed a series of well-timed pulls. Again, and again Aravae spun, pushed, or kicked loose and desperately swam towards the surface. In her invisible state, she should be difficult to find. But the water seemed to betray her position. Each time, just before her head broke through the waterline, Cyrena grabbed her and yanked her back down. And the constant fighting burned through the air in Aravae's lungs quickly.
Forcing down rising panic, the bladesinger reversed her efforts, dragged her hands upward through the water and extended her wings, sending her down towards the bottom of the pool instead. The move surprised the naiad and Aravae suddenly found herself free, feet touching the smooth surface of the bottom and face to face with the Cyrena - though she could barely see the naiad's water camouflaged form. She punched out and her fist connected. The blow earned her some desperately needed space. Aravae then kicked off the bottom, folding her wings back down, and surged up through the water.
For a brief moment she thought she was going to make it. But again, just as she was about to taste sweet air, that now familiar naiad's grip took hold and kept her under. Aravae went limp. Out of air and out of fight, she surrendered to her fate. But before she took that final, watery, drowning breath, she was pushed upward. Her head broke the surface and she gasped in a sputtering lungful of air. For a few moments, she just breathed, floating at the center of the pool, supported by the naiad.
"Do you see how easily I can drown you?" Cyrena asked.
"Yes," the bladesinger said.
"Good," the water fey said. "Now I will ask, and you will answer. Truthfully."
Aravae nodded, and though she was invisible the naiad seemed to sense her acceptance.
"Who are you?" Cyrena asked.
After a moment's hesitation, the bladesinger answered.
"I am who I said I was. Aravae, the sun elf you've met before." She felt the hands of the naiad tense and the bladesinger's voice became pleading. "I am. I swear it. May Tethrin Veraldé strike off my sword hand and all my skill be lost if it is not true."
The naiad might not know the god of bladesingers, but she seemed to recognize a ritual oath when she heard one. Her grip relaxed.
"Did the hags curse you in a portrait and trap you in this demonic form?" Cyrena asked.
There it was. The perfect lie for Aravae to hide behind. But even obscured by the rising steam from the hot pool, it felt like the multiple pairs of eyes of the carvings of the goddess Sune on each pillar watched her. The bladesinger recalled what the feminine voice from her dream had said.
"Let your inner beauty shine through and the truth of it will set you free."
Aravae took a deep ragged breath, perhaps her last if Cyrena didn't believe her, and settled on the truth.
"My companions and I were painted by the hags," Aravae said. "But this is the form I was born with."
"But if you've really visited before with your friend…"
The naiad trailed off.
"I am normally in my sun elf form," the bladesinger said.
In as few words as possible, Aravae told of their arrival at the Temple of the Restful Lily, meeting the disguised hags, the painting, her dream, and awakening transformed.
"They tried to do a portrait of me as well," Cyrena said. "But I was already suspicious of them by the time they learned of me. Mostly because the false Sylvarie didn't know me when she found me here. But also, because all the regular staff went missing. And she had never wanted to paint me before. Never even showed an interest in painting at all. Then suddenly she has to do a portrait of me? I dove and hid deep into the source of the spring whenever she tried."
"Unfortunately, my friends and I weren't as smart as you," Aravae said.
She noticed they no longer talked about whether the naiad would drown her. That was progress in the right direction at least.
"Eventually, I saw through the glamours," Cyrena said. "And knew them all for what they really were. Hags and straw men."
"Straw men?" the bladesinger asked.
"The staff," the naiad said. "Two are usually here in the bathhouse spying on me. They left to have their glamour renewed, like always, but they haven't come back yet."
"Glamour renewed?" Aravae asked.
Cyrena said she was going to be the one asking questions, but somehow it had reversed.
"The magic that disguises them," the naiad said. "It wears off and has to be recast."
Aravae passed a few moments in silence, floating in the warm water and digesting what Cyrena said. Despite the worry gnawing away inside her, soaking in the bath felt good, unwinding muscles and taking away aches.
"All the staff are these straw men?" Aravae asked.
"All except Saeth," the naiad spat out his name in disgust. "And…"
That last word Cyrena said with a certain fondness, then she went quiet. The bladesinger sensed she needed to choose her next words carefully.
"Listen, Cyrena," Aravae said. "I told you the hags were planning on summoning and bartering with dark powers for the soul of my friend, Aleina?"
"Yes," the naiad responded when the bladesinger paused for an answer.
"So, they told Saeth not to disturb them," Aravae said. "That is probably why the straw men didn't come back to watch you. The hags have been too busy to recast their glamours. Which means we have a chance. But time is running out. Who is the other staff member not a straw man?"
For a time, the naiad didn't answer, and they just floated together.
"If you are lying to me and he is hurt," Cyrena said. "I will drag myself from this pool and find a way to kill you. I won't care if I die doing it."
"Please, Cyrena," Aravae said. "Trust me."
"The drow aestheticist," the naiad said. "Ilmar. He does all the hair dressing, massaging, and pedicures. He is an old friend of Sylvarie and came looking for her and knew that glamoured hag wasn't her so posed as someone looking for work instead."
"Where can I find him?" Aravae asked, hope surging.
"At this hour, in his room," Cyrena said.
"Where is that?" the bladesinger asked.
She felt the naiad shrug.
"I am bound to the pool," Cyrena said. "I don't know where his room is."
Aravae sighed, hope deflating.
"Knocking on the doors of all the rooms would cause too much of a commotion," the bladesinger said. "Sure to be noticed."
"You cannot trust the guests anyway," the naiad said. "Sometimes they are hirelings. Brought here to try and lure me out with a fair seeming face, then try and kill me."
They fell silent, Aravae trying to think of the best way to find this Ilmar.
"You are invisible," Cyrena suddenly said, voice excited.
"Yes?" Aravae said.
"You can do what Ilmar cannot," the naiad said. "Investigate the shrine. The hags have it sealed off and a gargoyle guards the grounds. When Ilmar approached the shrine, he thought he heard crying from inside, but the gargoyle blocked him from getting closer. Then the false Sylvarie warned him never to go near it again. That something dangerous was imprisoned inside."
The bladesinger recalled the Restful Lily has three buildings, the bathhouse, the tower, and the shrine. The bathhouse, the one they were in now, held the pool, treatment rooms, and guest rooms. The tower was the residence of Sylvarie and her staff and the shrine was dedicated to the goddess Sune. Aravae had never been in the other buildings.
"He didn't try again?" the bladesinger asked.
"He did," the naiad. "But the straw men watch him closely and the gargoyle follows him the moment he goes outside."
Aravae took a deep breath, then released it, floating, and looking through the steaming haze towards the ceiling.
"Anybody the hags have trapped in there," the bladesinger said. "Is sure to be an ally. But we need to hurry. My invisibility won't last much longer."
Despite her implied urgency, the naiad continued to hold her. She made no move to drag Aravae back underwater, but neither did she let her swim for the pool's edge.
"Cyrena?" the bladesinger prompted.
"I've been disappointed so many times," Cyrena said.
"Why would the hags send me to you?" Aravae asked. "I'm unarmed and if I had any magic that could hurt you, I would have used it when you almost drowned me. I'm helpless. I can, however, be helpful in one way. By learning who is in that shrine and freeing them if possible. But my ability to do so is fading fast."
For several moments the naiad seemed undecided. Then she let Aravae go and the bladesinger saw her clearly for the first time. A translucent head poked above the water's surface, hair cascading like a waterfall down her neck and shoulders, but never splashing into the pool. Instead, it seemed to flow back into her body. She raised a watery hand.
"Go," Cyrene said.
Aravae swam and the naiad effortlessly kept pace. Soon the bladesinger waded rather than swam. Reaching the edge of the pool, she hoisted herself over the lip.
"There are towels on the benches against the wall," Cyrena whispered from the pool.
Aravae already made her way to one of the stacks of folded white towels, dripping a trail of water puddles in her wake. Though in a hurry, she dried thoroughly, not wanting more dribbling water to give away her presence. Moving to her piled clothes, she dressed, relieved when each article disappeared from view as she donned it. She'd never undressed and redressed while invisible before and hadn't known what would result. She constantly glanced towards the doors until she finished, worried the absent straw men would come in, freshly re-glamoured.
"Thank you, Cyrena," the bladesinger said. "For trusting me."
The naiad only waved in response, elbows resting on the lip of the pool. Aravae got the unspoken message. Hurry. Don't waste your remaining invisibility.
The bladesinger padded across the marble floor to the double doors. With a final glance at the naiad, Aravae slipped out of the bathhouse and back into the corridor beyond the lobby. A wall of cold air awaited her.
The bladesinger shivered from the chill on her still damp hair and exposed skin. But she welcomed that cool air into her lungs when compared to the humid air of the baths. She backtracked, passing between the two rows of curtained changing cubicles, the lobby, and then she was back in the lounge with its illusory music and floral scent. Last time she was here she'd been making her way the other direction. The door at the far corner led to the guest rooms. Aravae resisted the urge to look in on her companions and chose the door in the middle of the north wall instead.
The corridor beyond led to adjoining chambers. Through the ajar doors Aravae could see the small rooms, each furnished with a bed whose frame could be tilted and folded into different positions. She remembered waiting in the lounge with Mialee to be called to these rooms where she was massaged by an acolyte of Sune. Giving a slight sigh, she headed to the far door, the back door of the bathhouse, leading outside.
Cyrena had warned a gargoyle watched the grounds. If so, it would see the door open, and no one would come out. But there was no help for it. Easing the door open just wide enough for her to pass through, Aravae squeezed outside.
The fog that had chilled Jhelnae, Aleina, and Sky even through their heavy cloaks, remained, and goose flesh rose on her exposed skin. She hugged herself for warmth and unconsciously massaged at the exposed skin of her arms.
But the mist was a blessing. Aravae could see the tower and shrine through the fog, but like the tall trees in the area they were hazy, hard to see in detail. It was possible a watching gargoyle would not have seen the door open and close. The bladesinger held her breath while she waited, only releasing it when nothing flew over to investigate after several heartbeats.
A well-used trail led to the tower, but the corresponding trail leading to the shrine had been obscured by large stones. The entire Temple of the Restful Lily was dedicated to the goddess Sune, so why was the path to her shrine obstructed? Invisible and barefoot, Aravae picked her way down the stone laden trail.
The neglect to the stone shrine was obvious as she approached. While she'd never gone inside, she had seen it while enjoying the grounds. It had been beautiful and well cared for. Now it was moss-covered. But the engraved images of Sune were still visible under the moss when Aravae was close enough to see them through the mist. The face of the goddess gazed down on the path the bladesinger walked. A thick, clear resin sealed the stone doors at the front of the shrine, mocking the faint inscription above the entrance:
"Welcome, dearest ones. Come find the beauty within you."
The same resin covered the windows of the shrine as well. Clearly, no one was supposed to enter, or get out.
Aravae couldn't see it through the mist, but she remembered the pyramid shaped roof had been built with a large, square, hole in one of its slopes.
Flexing her shoulders, the bladesinger extended her wings and tested the air. Years had passed since she'd last flown. Her foster father always encouraged her to practice, but it was always easier to hide this other part of herself away and ignore it. With a deep breath, she leapt into the air after a running start.
She came right back down again, but only touched the ground for a few steps before jumping skyward once more. Instincts kicked in and her wings beat against the frigid air, lifting her up, working muscles also generating needed warmth.
It was strange. She rarely took her fey'ri form and the muscles of her wings should be atrophied from long disuse. But that was not the way her dual body worked. All the training, honing, and hiking around the high forest she did as a sun elf seemed to flow into her fey'ri form as well. She flew up, found the opening in the roof. It was just big enough to squeeze through. Aravae hovered above the hole, then folded her wings to drop inside the shrine. The moment she passed through she flared her wings wide, both to slow her fall and to guide it away from the large statue standing below the opening.
She landed in a crouch and looked around. It appeared like some sort of terrible confrontation had occurred here years ago, and then the place was abandoned. Fungi laden shredded cushions lay strewn about. The benches they previously covered, broken. Four large frames hung on each wall, bordering nothing. Their former contents littered the stone floor in the form shards of broken mirrored glass.
Barefoot as she was, Aravae was lucky she didn't cut her feet when she landed. But the center of the floor was relatively clear.
A grime-encrusted statue of Sune stood against the wall, under the opening. During the day sunlight would grace the statue, highlighting her, and rain would fall on her like a blessing, to be pooled and drained away by the basin at her feet.
"Hello again," Aravae whispered, staring up at the statue's face.
The representation of the goddess had been neglected. Her expression once would have suggested smiling laughter, but streaks of dirt now make it appear as though she wept.
Searching the room once more, Aravae verified no one was present. Behind the statue, was a descending staircase. Carefully avoiding the broken glass, the bladesinger made her way to it. On her way there her vision slightly shifted. A glance down at herself confirmed her fears. Her invisibility had lapsed. Whatever was down those stairs, she would face unhidden and unarmed.
Aravae descended slowly, one step at a time, still hoping to sneak on any occupant and spy on them while they were unaware. If the place truly imprisoned someone dangerous, she could run back up the stairs and fly up and out.
The room below came into view. A soft white glow rose from a square pool set into the floor at the center. Torn cushions, rugs, tapestries, and clothing were piled in one corner like some sort of makeshift bed. In another corner, twigs and scraps of deadfall formed a simple campfire. Unlike what would be expected of a pool in a subterranean room, the water was crystal clear and Aravae heard the telltale signs of constant draining. It was spring fed then, like the one in the bathhouse. But no steam rose from this one.
The bladesinger reached the final step and still saw no one, but someone clearly lived amongst this squalor. She had just started creeping towards the glow at the center of the pool when the voice surprised her, feminine and husky.
"So, the hags finally have decided to end my torture and send a demoness to slay me? Did they tire of throwing down firewood and table scraps?"
Out of a darkened corner a shadow moved. The light coming from the pool had interfered with Aravae's dark vision and she hadn't seen someone was there.
A brief glance, and the bladesinger cast her gaze downward.
"Come now," the rag clad woman said. "If you are here to kill me, at least have the good grace to look me in the eyes while you try."
The last part was shrieked as she rushed across the room to attack. Aravae did not look up as she readied herself to fight back - dared not. She had caught a glimpse of the head full of snakes, heard them hissing and snapping in anticipation over the running footsteps of the other woman.
The hags had actually spoken truly. The shrine did hold a dangerous prisoner. A medusa.
First off, if you like the setting and encounters of the last few chapters, I need to give all that credit to Mark Hulmes and his adventure The Price of Beauty in Candlekeep Mysteries. Obviously, I'm a fan. I've read a lot of Forgotten Realms novels and typically, when you see some sort of temple to Sune, it is presented as some kind of high class bordello where the priestesses take donations for the church and consider entertaining their patrons some sort of worship. As a guy, I understand the appeal. But it really stretched my suspension of disbelief that this is the way the church of a goddess would operate, particularly one dominated by female clergy.
But when I read the Price of Beauty I was like, "Temples being salon spas where people can go and get treatments? Yeah, I can see that..." I thought it was really just fun world building.
I had not, however, planned on writing about it. Then a sudden full formed set of encounters Aravae could have with the stuff in the adventure just popped in my head. That is the reason the recent chapters have been coming so fast. It all just came at once. That might mean, however, it is terrible. Hopefully not...
Update 5-15-2022 - did some edits