The Fellowship of the Cursed...
Aravae cracked open the rear door to the bathhouse, just wide enough for her to pass through, then slipped inside. Pulling the blindfolded Sylvarie in after her, she eased the door shut behind them.
Once again, she stood in the hallway with the doors leading to treatment rooms. It didn't seem possible that it was still the same evening from when she last was here, then on the way out to the shrine. That felt like a lifetime ago.
She paused at the entryway, waiting, and listening, both down the corridor leading deeper into the bathhouse and also through the door behind her. Hearing only the faint music from the lounge and the occasional patter of drips from her still wet hair and clothes, she breathed a sigh.
"I don't hear any signs the gargoyle detected us," the bladesinger whispered. "Sneaking around from the far side of the shrine must have worked."
The cursed moon elf merely nodded, hugging herself with one arm as her teeth chattered. Leading someone blindfolded around the back wall of the shrine and then creeping from tree to tree across the grounds had been slow going. The night mists outside were cold as well as concealing. Only dressed in rags, Sylvarie felt the cold every bit as much as the wet bladesinger. They both still shivered as Aravae led the medusa into the lounge after peeking through the door to make sure no one was there.
The cursed moon elf took a deep breath and gave a final rub along the bare skin of her arm with her free hand, seeming to relish the relatively greater warmth of this room. She stopped hugging herself, then cocked her head to listen.
"The floral scent and music illusion are still in effect," she said, voice low. "The wizard who cast it came highly recommended for a reason. Coin well spent."
The bladesinger made no answer and headed towards the room holding her friends, pulling Sylvarie along with her. They were almost at the turn in the hallway of the guest quarters when Aravae heard low muttering ahead.
She stopped. Someone was in the corridor, and they'd have to pass them to get to their room. Sylvarie's grip tightened around the bladesinger's hand, showing she'd also heard.
The bladesinger hesitated, thinking, then decided there was no choice. She must at least see who was in the hallway and what they were doing there at this hour. The likelihood was, it involved herself and her companions in some way.
Aravae guided the blindfolded priestess to the corner and stealthily looked around it.
A white-scaled kobold wearing a patchwork dress fiddled with the lock of the door to their room. She watched as he quietly cursed to himself and pulled a different tool from his belt, peering more closely into the keyhole. She'd locked the door with an arcane spell and no amount of tool tinkering by him should be able to unlock it. Still, it would be unwise to give him the chance.
She stole down the corridor, still leading the medusa. Whether due to the inherent stealth of their elven heritage or because of the kobold's focus on the lock, he didn't notice their approach until it was too late to escape.
Letting go of Sylvarie's hand, Aravae sprang forward. She scooped up the little creature and stifled his yell of surprise by pressing the blade of her forearm against his throat. His white scales felt dry and cool to the touch.
"See my friend there?" she asked the kobold in a whisper, "Underneath that rag on her head are snakes instead of hair. I say the word, she pulls up that blindfold and turns you to stone. Nod if you understand."
The spell of strength Sylvarie had cast on the bladesinger still coursed through her veins. She easily held the squirming creature up at eye-level with the medusa. The cursed moon elf lifted a hand to the blindfold in threat and Aravae averted her eyes in case the priestess actually did pull the cloth free and use her gaze.
A struggle followed, the kobold's tail lashing against her and the rear claws of his feet raking against the leather of her trousers but not penetrating. Then the little creature went still. So still the bladesinger feared for a moment he had somehow been petrified, despite the blindfold still being in place. Then, she realized she held her poor captive in such a tight grip she likely suffocated him. She eased off till he took a wheezing breath and obliged her with a nod.
"Good, now keep quiet and you might live through this," Aravae hissed in one of his long ears.
Carrying him one handed, she opened the door to the room, the arcane lock allowing her passage. She took in the four sleeping forms at a glance, assuring herself her companions were all still safe. Then she guided Sylvarie inside with whispered instructions. Only after the door was securely closed again did Aravae put the kobold down and spin him around to face her.
"Who are you and what were you doing at our door?" she asked.
The little creature took a moment to answer, rubbing at his throat with scaly hands first.
"I am Glitter," he said. "Saeth told me the lock was broken. I was trying to fix it."
To her surprise, though nervous and afraid, he spoke Common in a pleasant, if rasping, voice. And she had a feeling the source of the rasp was from her rough handling.
"Saeth?" the bladesinger asked. "The chief steward?"
The kobold, apparently named Glitter, nodded.
"He tried to get in here, but couldn't," Aravae said, verbally piecing it together in her mind as she spoke. "So, he assumed the lock was broken and sent you here to fix it."
"They break frequently," Glitter said. "I have to fix them constantly."
"The locks aren't the problem," The cursed moon elf said. "Those are high quality. It's the keys. Over the years guests have left with the originals and we had locksmiths copy our spares, then eventually had to replicate the spares of our spares. Some of those don't quite fit right. That causes the guests to jiggle the key in the lock so much they end up loosening the mechanism. I'd meant to have a master locksmith come out and get everything working properly again."
The kobold's burnt orange eyes widened as he looked over the bladesinger's shoulder.
"You're Sylvarie," he said.
"Do we know each other?" the medusa asked. "With the blindfold, I can't see. Obviously."
"No," Glitter said. "We don't know each other. But I know your story and have seen your painting. It's hanging in the room we all sleep in, along with our own."
"The painting the hags did of me?" the cursed moon elf said, fists clenching. "Where is it? I'm going to rip it to shreds."
"It's in the tower," the kobold said. "In the room where we servants sleep."
"Which room is that?" Sylvarie asked.
"Second floor," Glitter said. "Next to the kitchen."
"One of the acolyte bed chambers?" the cursed moon elf asked.
"I guess…" the kobold said. "But there are no beds there. Just piles of straw and filthy blankets. The hags have our portraits hanging in there to torture us. We can look at them but can't touch them. We can't even throw anything at them. Even the ones that aren't of ourselves. No matter how many times we've tried."
The medusa let out a growl, clearly angry about the hags' abuse of her Temple of the Restful Lily. Understandable. She was the proprietor and founder of the place. But Aravae focused on what the kobold said about the paintings.
"You say none of you can," Aravae said. "Which means your own cursed painting as well, doesn't it? You're like us. A victim of the hags."
Glitter nodded, and actually cracked a little smile.
"I'm normally taller than this and much more handsome. Some would say devilishly so," he gestured to the top of the bladesinger's head. "I have horns myself. Only a pair, so you have me beat by one. And a tail. Well, I guess I still have a tail. No wings though, unfortunately."
"A tiefling?" Sylvarie guessed. "Can someone tell me what he looks like now? I am blindfolded, remember?"
"He's a…" Aravae trailed off, for some reason afraid she was going to hurt Glitter's feelings by telling the truth. Strange as she'd only recently been choking him and threatening to have Sylvarie turn him to stone.
"Kobold," the kobold said. "I wanted to be a little taller and ended up being cursed into the form of a kobold."
"Why didn't you hire a wizard to polymorph you?" the cursed moon elf asked. "Surely that would have been better than dealing with hags?"
"Do you know how much wizards charge for a service like that?" Glitter said. "And I didn't know I was dealing with hags, did I? All they required was that I pose for a painting. Sounded too good to be true. Which, of course, it was."
The medusa sighed and nodded in understanding. "Fair enough. I had no idea who I dealt with either. And now I'm a medusa. But you have a very nice voice, Glitter. No matter your form or height."
It was true. The scratchy quality of his voice was gone, confirming it was Aravae's choking that had been the cause.
"Thank you," the kobold said. "You have a nice voice as well. No wonder Morgan mimics it. And let me say even as a medusa you cut a striking figure."
"Why thank you Glitter," Sylvarie said. "Very nice of you to say so."
"Even with the snake hair, which I can't see, but I am sure is quite scary," Glitter said. "And even with eyes whose gaze turns people into stone."
"It would have been better to leave off with just the compliment, but still thank you," the cursed moon elf said. "It's the thought that counts."
"Can we focus," Aravae said, cutting off whatever the kobold was about to say back.
"You're a medusa and you're a kobold," she said, pointing at each in turn even though Sylvarie couldn't see that. "And my friends there are cursed with an enchanted sleep, as am I, sort of anyway."
Glitter looked at the sleepers on the beds and floor, then back at the bladesinger appraisingly.
"I just figured it out. Your painting is in our room as well," he said. "They just brought it in tonight. You are all sleeping in it, but you look different. No horns, no wings."
He pantomimed horns on his head then gave a slight shake of his head to emphasize the difference.
"My sun elf form," Aravae said. "If I shift back to it, I'm asleep. Like the others."
"I see," he said, with a sage purse of his scaly lips like this meant all the sense in the world.
"They hung up our painting as well?" the bladesinger asked, confused.
That seemed strange. The hags said they planned to skin herself and Mialee for more canvases as soon as they were ready. They also had planned to bargain away Aleina's soul and had probably been busy negotiating that all night. So why would they bother to hang the painting when it never was meant to be used long term?
"Not so much hung it as leaned it against the wall," Glitter said.
That made more sense. They weren't planning on keeping that painting, but casually just stored it with the others temporarily as a matter of habit. A mistake. But could she take advantage of it?
"You say you can't even touch the portraits," Aravae said. "Are they behind a wall of force or something?"
"Nothing like that," Glitter said. "We just can't touch them. The other cursed and I tried to destroy them. Many times. But some kind of compulsion prevents us."
"Has anyone that is not cursed tried?" Sylvarie asked.
"Other than Saeth and the hags," the kobold said. "No one else is allowed in the second floor other than those that are cursed. A gargoyle on that floor ensures that. But the studio where they do the portraits is on the first floor, so they have to allow visitors there."
"This gargoyle guarding the second floor," the bladesinger said. "Is one that watches the grounds or another one?"
"Another one," Glitter said.
Aravae's hopes deflated at that. They were unarmed with no offensive magic. Sylvarie's ability to turn someone to stone was a powerful weapon. But the two guardians they had to get past were gargoyles. Already stone.
Favor of the Seldarine! It was like being handed a well-crafted bow and an empty quiver along with it.
She reflexively ran a hand through over her scalp, thinking, surprised when her fingers encountered the trio of horns high on her forehead.
She glanced up at the large mirror hanging on the opposite wall to the entrance, reading the engraved words again.
A mirror is a gateway to happiness, truth, and to accepting ourselves."
As she and her reflection eyed each other across the length of the guest room, happiness and acceptance seemed to be in short supply, but haggard tiredness and frustration flowed in abundance.
"The gargoyles have been instructed to let you inside the tower, obviously," Sylvarie said, still working on their problem. "Would they let you take another inside? Or two?"
The kobold sighed. "Not you. The gargoyles are not smart, but even they would recognize you. They've been tossing food scraps and firewood down into your shrine for years, haven't they?"
"They have," the medusa said, voice resigned to this truth.
Glitter tilted his snout towards Aravae, though the blindfolded priestess would not see it.
"But even if I got her inside," he said. "What would be the point? As I said, the gargoyle inside won't let her stay on the second floor. And even if it did, we who are cursed can't harm the portraits."
"We don't know that," Sylvarie said. "She is supposed to be asleep with her friends in here, but she isn't. So, whatever compulsion affects the rest of us might not work on her. At least in her current form."
"Maybe," Glitter said, sounding unsure. "But what about the gargoyle?"
"Let me worry about that," Aravae said.
The kobold barked out a laugh. "Forgive me, but you're unarmed, have not mentioned being a wizard or sorcerer, and the gargoyle is…stone. Not something you are going to punch your way past."
"Don't underestimate her," the cursed moon elf said. "When she came into the shrine, I tried with every fiber of my being to petrify and poison her. Yet here she is, not poisoned and not a statue. She is very resourceful."
The bladesinger kept her face neutral. She actually hadn't been resourceful enough to not end up at the medusa's mercy, but Glitter didn't need to know that.
"There are other problems," he said. "Saeth might be just inside the tower, waiting for me to report on whether I've fixed the lock or not. He even might be on his way back here right now to find out. Then there are the animated scarecrows. Normally at night they are stationed throughout the bathhouse. But tonight, all six of them are on the ground floor of the tower. Waiting for the hags to cast the glamour on them again."
"Scarecrows?" the medusa asked.
"Cyrena told me about them," the bladesinger said. "But she called them the straw men. It's who the hags use for staff. But they disguise them with magic."
"Animated straw men giving beauty and relaxation treatments?" Sylvarie said, shaking her head in frustration. "If I manage to win back control of the Lily I'm going to have to work very hard to re-establish the reputation of this place."
"Would the scarecrows stop you?" Aravae asked. "And anyone with you."
Glitter shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. But that's the point. There are too many unknowns. It's too risky. The hags catch us and it's over. And they'll torture us. You haven't heard the kind of screams Sazha can drag out of a victim when there are no guests at the Lily."
The kobold shuddered.
"Glitter," the cursed moon elf said, husky voice purringly pleasant in a way appropriate for the priestess of a love goddess. "You have to decide. Are you going to spend the rest of your days as a kobold servant, fearing the next beating? Or are you going to take the chance Sune is giving you to recover those devilishly good looks you bragged about? And maybe someday get the chance to use them, along with that fine voice of yours, to win the love of some winsome lass in the future?"
"I actually lean more the other way," the kobold said.
"A handsome fellow then," Sylvarie amended.
Glitter took a deep breath, held it, then released it. He took a long look at Sylvarie and then regarded Aravae in turn.
"You have very little to lose and everything to gain," the blindfolded priestess said.
The silence for her must be unbearable. She wouldn't be able to see the signs the kobold was coming to a decision.
"You know the last time someone said words to me like that," he finally said. "It was by someone wearing your form, Sylvarie, using your voice, and it turned out I actually had a lot to lose. But I've never been someone who could resist making the same mistake, twice, or even more than that. So why start now?"
"That's the spirit," the medusa said. "Do you know which room Ilmar is in? He can also help us."
"Ilmar?" the kobold asked. "The drow hairdresser? Yes, I know which room is his."
"A good idea," Aravae said, cutting in. "But we stop by his room on the way out and you'll have to be the one to explain everything h to him, Sylvarie. We need to hurry. We've been lucky so far, but Glitter is right. At any moment the scarecrows could be glamoured again and back on guard in the bathhouse. Or the chief steward might come back to look in on his sleeping prisoners. Can you renew the spell of strength you cast?"
The cursed moon elf shook her head. "Not until sunrise."
"All the more reason to hurry before it expires," the bladesinger said. "I might need all the strength I can get. I'll modify my lock to allow you through as well, Sylvarie. Glitter gets me to the paintings, and I destroy them. Every one of them. If I can."
The medusa nodded, but she gave no sign indicating she was ready to act on their plan. Instead, her body language indicated deep thought. Glitter seemed to sense it as well, because he also remained still, watching the blindfolded priestess.
After a few moments, Sylvarie smiled, a tight curving of the lips. Aravae imagined if she could see her eyes, they'd have a dangerous cast to them.
"Do not destroy all the paintings. I have a better idea."
Note sure if this works. I had a very long day of work travel with lots of lay over time. So what did I do? I typed on my phone. Which could mean this is very very bad.
Glitter the tiefling-kobold is in the adventure. His sexual preference is my doing, not that I really have anything planned with it. I thought he might stick around for a bit and I just figured I'd show the Realms have all sorts of different people.
I hope this flows. As usual, I'm too close to it to tell.
Update - 5-15-2022 - did some edits