A priestess of Sune lets her inner ugliness shine...
For the second time tonight, Aravae found herself leaving through the back door of the bathhouse. The night mist still blanketed the grounds and the bladesinger felt the cold of the damp earth as she padded barefoot down the well-worn dirt path towards the tower alongside the cursed kobold, Glitter. But thinking of it as night mist was not really right anymore. It was now pre-dawn, and the sky was perceptibly starting to lighten.
Within a dozen paces the building became more than a dark hazy outline and the three-story, finely crafted stone structure mostly matched her memory, including the bright red door decorated with golden swirls. But the statue of the sharp-featured winged elf crouched above the entrance was new. Though it didn't move, it's stony gaze seemed to track their approach.
And since it was a gargoyle disguised as decorative statuary, that feeling was probably not just her imagination.
Her palm itched for the short sword she'd been offered by Ilmar. The drow hairdresser got over his surprise at finding a medusa, a fey'ri, and a kobold tapping at his door in the early morning hours remarkably quickly. Aravae also appreciated that his first instinct, after learning their plan, had been to offer the bladesinger a weapon rather than try to drown her. That was a refreshing change from her initial encounters with Cyrena and Sylvarie.
But as much as she'd desired to finally have a weapon, the plan was to steal her into the tower under the guise of a guest of the Lily wanting a portrait treatment. Gargoyles were not known for their intelligence, but given the hour, the horns on her head, the folded wings on her back, and being clad in only her trousers and girdle like brassiere, passing herself off as a guest would be challenging enough without also carrying a silvered short sword. At least Ilmar had toweled her hair dry and run a brush through it till she was somewhat presentable.
"Glitter is just bringing a guest over for a portrait, rock for brains," she thought to herself. "Nothing suspicious about that. So just stay perched up there."
Her heart beat faster the closer they came to the tower, and she worked to keep signs of nervousness from showing. Staring up at the elf statue would be a dead give away, but so too would avoiding looking at it altogether. Aravae settled on the occasional casual glance. Those felt awkward and obvious. She expected the gargoyle to animate and leap down to bar their way with every step.
Instead, she found herself passing under the ledge above the door that held the statue with no interference. The bladesinger held her breath as Glitter opened the tower door, allowing them to slip inside and shut it behind them.
Her sigh of relief caught in her throat at the sight of the six scarecrows in the foyer. No two were alike, each a unique twisting of sticks, straw, and burlap, shaped into a humanoid form and dressed in ragged clothes. All remained perfectly still, as if they were the mundane variety meant to stand sentinel over fields. But the gazes from their sack visages burned with an intensity that unsettled. She could understand why they needed to be glamoured regularly. Unmagicked, they looked more fit for a nightmare or dungeon torture chamber than for a temple offering beauty treatments.
According to Glitter, this was the crucial moment. What would the constructs do? Inside the bathhouse they mostly smiled and nodded at guests when confronted by an unfamiliar situation, or they fetched the chief steward, Saeth. As the scarecrows were only rarely in the tower, however, they probably had no instructions to keep guests out.
This, at least, was the hope.
For a moment she and the kobold just stood right inside the entrance, waiting for a reaction. Aravae found herself tensing muscles, preparing to fight and was reassured by the still present strength spell Sylvarie had cast from her mirror earlier. But she'd feel so much better with a blade in her hand.
Then the six constructs bent their sack heads and Glitter tugged at her wrist with a clawed hand, leading her towards the central spiraling stairway. The scarecrows had apparently settled on their default reaction, a nod and a smile, but unglamoured as they were, the smile did not translate.
The kobold and bladesinger crossed the room to the stairs, ignoring the two closed doors of thick timber set in the stone walls. According to Glitter, those would go to the chief steward's room and the portrait studio. The stairway was too narrow to ascend side by side, so Glitter went first. Aravae cast a final look at the waiting scarecrows, then followed.
She smelled something dank halfway up to the next floor, then she stepped into a well-used kitchen. Three tables stood in the room, each holding the remnants of previously prepared meals that had only half-heartedly been cleaned away. A wood stove burned ember low against the far wall, and a statue of a winged elf, the twin of one over the tower entrance, stood in a corner, its face carved into an open-mouthed smile.
Aravae was given only an instant to take in her surroundings before the statue in the corner animated. The illusion of the winged elf melted away, revealing its true shape. The gray stone gargoyle was carved into a fiendish form with long, backswept horns and pointy, tusk-like teeth jutting from its lower jaw. It scrabbled forward on sharp taloned hands and feet, wings flaring, yellow marble eyes radiating with a malevolent light.
"No strangers here," it hissed.
"I'm bringing her…" Glitter began.
Aravae already saw there would be no deceiving this gargoyle. The speed of its advance indicated it meant to expel the intruder immediately and would not be stopping to listen to explanations. She shoved her companion aside and stepped forward to meet the threat.
As the creature's claws swept up to rip at her throat, she reversed direction, seizing stone wrists as she rolled backward and used the gargoyle's momentum to drag it after her. She put her heels into the monster's hips and hoisted it up and over, grunting with exertion as she threw it behind her and down the stairway as part of her backward roll. The weight almost buckled her legs - without Sylvarie's spell of strength, it would have, and she'd have been crushed. She scurried to her feet.
"The room with the portraits?" the bladesinger asked. "Where?"
Glitter also climbed up from where her push had toppled him. He pointed to the closest of the two doors in the room from his knees. Aravae rushed through it and slammed it behind her. She felt bad for abandoning the kobold, but if she was right, the gargoyle would ignore him and focus on her until she was captured or killed.
She put a shoulder against the door, looking for a lock or a cross-piece she could throw down. The timbers shuddered as the gargoyle hit it from the other side. It was sturdily built, enough to handle at least a few blows from an angry, enchanted, stone creature. Aravae lowered her weight and put all her strength into holding the door closed, still looking for a way to lock it. But there was nothing. Why would there be? This was the sleeping room for cursed servants after all. The hags would give them no sense of privacy or personal space. Wood splintered as the door shuddered again, but it was iron banded and still held together. The bladesinger desperately wished she could cast another arcane lock at the moment.
"Who are you?"
The voice belonged to someone very old, with a frail, raspy voice.
Aravae spared a look behind her and saw an elderly dwarf sitting up on a pile of straw, partially covered by a moth-eaten blanket. Another pile of straw held a thin, weak-looking dragon born, cowering behind their own ragged blanket. Other than the three rough beds of straw, one empty, the room contained scatterings of broken furniture and garbage.
But the paintings on the wall and another leaning against it drew her attention away from the squalor. Each picture was hauntingly beautiful - but also strangely unnerving to look upon. The door gave slightly as the gargoyle slammed against it and the bladesinger had to strain to get it closed again. Then she glanced at each portrait in turn. One held a brawny, female, golden scaled dragonborn warrior engaged in battle, the next a tall male tiefling with sparkling violet eyes and wearing many fine jewels, another a youthful male shield dwarf dancing at a feast, and the final hanging portrait held a radiant female moon elf gazing upon her own reflection.
The leaning painting against the wall, not far from the door she held closed, was of Aravae and her companions. All of their posing in the lobby of the bathhouse had been for show. Instead, the painting showed them all laying down in the grass in the shade of a tree. Pink and white blossoms fluttered down upon them, presumably from the flowered branches of the tree they rested under. The painting was beautiful. All of their closed-eyed expressions radiated peace and relaxation, and each bore a little smile of contentment on their lips. It almost seemed a shame to destroy the cursed thing.
The bladesinger continued to brace the door, expecting another blow to land against it from the other side. But no jarring impact came. A good thing as a shiver of weakness suddenly coursed through her body. For a moment she actually leaned on the door to keep herself upright rather than pushed against it. Then the feeling passed, and she felt normal again.
But only normal. The spell of strength had faded.
Gasps from the other two other occupants in the room, the thin dragonborn and elderly dwarf, and the ominous creak of hinges, warned of why the gargoyle had stopped trying to break in.
Apparently, the other door from the kitchen also led into this room. It opened and the gargoyle stepped through. They stared at each other, glowing yellow marble eyes meeting Aravae's own. The carved mouth on the stone face split into a tusked grin, seeming to mock her for still uselessly pushing against the closed door. Then the creature charged at her.
She sprinted forward as well, getting to the leaning painting containing herself and her companions just before the gargoyle reached her.
Glitter had said the crucial moment would be decided by whether the scarecrows would stop an intruder into the tower below in the foyer. But he was wrong. Here was the moment of truth. All others cursed could not even touch the portraits. Did Aravae's fey'ri form bypass this aspect of the enchantment? As her fingers closed around the red wooden frame, she had her answer. She swept it up two handed, holding it between herself and the oncoming gargoyle like a shield.
Canvas ripped and the frame splintered as the creature barreled into it, claws ripping to get at her. Her breath caught and her heart skipped a beat as the painting was destroyed, then she was dodging reaching talons as she tossed the remains of the painting aside. The gargoyle pursued relentlessly and Aravae back pedaled over one of the former sleepers on their straw pile, the dragonborn. Sharp stone talons found her, digging into her right shoulder then raking lines of agony along her side. The thin dragonborn joined her cry of pain in a hissing chorus, the gargoyle not caring if its claws also found another.
She kicked out to get some distance, then twisted away, knowing to get pinned under this creature of stone was certain death. Aravae leapt up, started for the closed door, then skidded to a stop as the chief steward opened it, brandishing a short sword with infernal glyphs. Glamours weren't limited to the hags, the scarecrows, and the gargoyles it seemed. Saeth was recognizable, but now had reddish skin, made more obvious from being bare chested, and a pair of devilish horns poked through his mussed dark hair.
Catching sight of the bladesinger he swept a second short sword from a scabbard at his waist and leveled it at her.
No escape that way.
The scraping of stone claws against the floor warned the bladesinger of the gargoyle bearing down on her again. She spun, saw the four windows in the wall, and decided. All of them held two wood frame shutters containing small squares of thick glass. In better times these probably provided light to the room during the day but were now crusted with a layer of grime and dirt. They were probably latched against the cold outside. But would those latches hold? Aravae was about to find out.
She sprinted towards the widest one, launching herself sideways with a double kick. Her heels struck the wood frames at the center, and, with a loud crack, the shutters flew open, banging against the outside stone walls of the tower and glass shattered with a crash. The bladesinger sailed out into the burgeoning pre-dawn light of a new day. The air was cold against her wings as they flared to slow her fall to the ground below.
But she wasn't the only one who could fly. Part way down, something collided with her, buckling her wings and sending her tumbling down. She managed to crash feet first, take a few stumbling steps, then fell in a painful roll.
Fighting against the urge to just lay there, she climbed to her knees. Her right wing was broken, she couldn't even extend it halfway before agony ripped through her, making her want to pass out. Not that she could have flown if her wings were healthy. The gargoyle circled overhead, as if daring her to take to the air again or run. The other one leapt from the ledge over the tower entrance and flew over to join the circling. With a groan, Aravae stood, just as Saeth came through the bright red door of the tower accompanied by the six scarecrows.
Weaponless and well and truly outnumbered, the bladesinger gave a resigned smile. The mist was dissipating with the rising sun and the chief steward seemed to have seen her expression. He took it for surrender and lowered his swords as he approached.
"Who are you?" the cambion demanded.
"Don't recognize me?" the bladesinger asked. "You told me last night you were here to serve. Well, you can start by loaning me one of those swords. I promise to give it back."
She left out she planned to give it back point first, but he probably guessed that. He shook his head in answer, brow wrinkling in confusion. Aravae decided to help him remember her. Her wings were useless and Sylvarie and Ilmar would need time to wake and explain their situation to the others. Besides, it was time to see if breaking the painting really had ended the enchantment.
She shifted into her sun elf form, hissing in pain as her broken wing retracted and she wondered if it would be healed the next time she shifted. Then she realized it was unlikely she'd be alive long enough to find out.
No enchanted sleep took hold, and she lifted her chin defiantly at the cambion.
"How?" the chief steward said, staring.
"You and the hags weren't the only ones with something to hide," the bladesinger said, shrugging.
"Apparently not," a voice croaked from the tower entrance.
The hags had arrived, and in their true shapes rather than as elf maidens. One was a thin, pale creature with long, matted black hair festooned with ornaments made of bones and teeth. She had blood red lips covered in boils and blisters that curved up unnaturally high at the corners. Another was a hunched figure with one muscular and one withered arm. Her catlike eyes and fanged mouth were framed by rust-red hair which not only covered her head, but also her back, and arms. The last, the one, the one who had spoken, was shriveled and worn, with dark green skin covered in bark and fungus and a thick braid of white hair that curled around her shoulders like a serpent. She stared at Aravae with milky-white, seemingly blind eyes that obviously saw fine, despite the fading mist. A charcoal furred massive hound with burning eyes and a chest and maw filled flickering inner orange fire prowled next to her, muzzle twisted into a snarl.
"Which means you are no true elf and we have no need of your skin," the white haired hag croaked, containing and laying a restraining hand on the fiendish canine. "A fey'ri. Not many of your kind left after the Elven Crusade. You could be useful to us, like Saeth. And you have your own shapeshifting ability, which makes it easier for us than our other servants."
"You're too trusting Greenbones," The hunched one hissed, her sharp fangs causing her to slur. "I say we see if a fey'ri skin works for a canvas. If not, we'll just need to paint another one."
"So, a bargain for me," Aravae said, focusing on the one named Greenbones and ignoring the other. She needed to stall and pretended to consider. "And for my friends?"
"We need the wood elf's skin," the white haired one said. "The drow could be useful, so the two of you could work together. If you are fond of the cat person, you can keep her as a pet. But the soul of the celestial touched has already been sold."
"I do hope you got a good price for it," Aleina's voice called out. "But it really doesn't matter, as you're not going to be able to deliver on that deal anyway."
Aravae turned and saw the aasimar and the rest of her companions coming out of the bathhouse, the building now fully visible in the thinning mist and growing light. Fire blazed in the aasimar's hands and barkskin armor already encased Mialee. Jhelnae held her abyssal sword, vapors still swirling off its blade of darkness and starry light from its summoning and Sky wielded a silvered short sword, presumably the same one previously offered by Ilmar to Aravae earlier.
"Someone owes me a pair of magic boots," the tabaxi said. "And a magic bag that is bigger on the inside than outside."
"They're all awake?" the thin pale hag said in the same husky voice she used in her moon elf form.
"Their portrait," Saeth said. "It was…destroyed."
The pale hag's gaze flicked to the chief steward, then to the bladesinger, then to the rest of the companions.
"Who are you people?" she asked.
"Us?" Jhelnae said, narrowing her eyes and brandishing her blade. "We're the Sweet Sisterhood of Swanmays."
All eyes shifted to the half-drow, even those of the hound and scarecrows.
"Sweet Sisterhood of…what?" Aleina asked, with a sidelong glance.
"Swanmays," Jhelnae said, shrugging. "I don't know. It just came to me."
"What's a swanmay?" Sky asked, tail lashing.
"A woman who can turn into a swan," Mialee answered, voice like an echo out of a tree hollow.
"A swan?" the tabaxi asked, shaking her head. "Well then why don't they call them were-swans? I mean you have werewolves, wererats, wereboars, weretigers, and even were-ravens. But someone who turns into a swan is a swanmay? That makes no sense."
"It does have a nice alliteration to it," the aasimar said, pursing her lips in thought. "So maybe?"
"Oh, by Baba Yaga's Missing Teeth! They don't even realize you made that name up while we were mocking them," the hunched one slurred, waving her muscular arm at Greenbones. "And they're actually considering it! I really can't stand them anymore! I know it's wasteful, but let's just kill them and be done with it. No one sided bargains. No deals with deceiving clauses. I just want to see them dead."
"I actually agree," the pale thin one said.
"For once…" the green skinned one started.
A shriek of rage cut her off, accompanied by running footsteps. Aravae had never fought a banshee, but if she had, she was sure its wail couldn't be any worse. Even though she'd been expecting it, she had to fight against the instinctive urge to turn her head and look towards the sound. Instead, she shut her eyes tight and threw an arm over her face to avoid even the temptation of opening her eyes. The yell endured then, growing closer, paused for a breath, and renewed with greater intensity. Another breath and more screaming.
In the silence during the breaths, the bladesinger heard something hard to describe. A crackling? But she kept her eyes shut tight, not daring to look at what this might be.
"Morty!" the old voice of Greenbones croaked.
"You can open your eyes," Syvarie called out.
Aravae did. The chief steward Saeth caught her attention first. He stood, threateningly close, swords held loosely down by his side, but ready to use. His skin had gone from red to gray, his clothes, eyes, hair and everything else as well. He stood still, unmoving, made a stone statue from meeting the medusa's petrifying gaze. And he wasn't the only one. The scarecrows, the pale thin hag, the hunched fanged hag, and the hellhound had all succumbed. Only the two gargoyles circling overhead and Greenbones had avoided Sylvarie's attack.
"Once I free him, I will rip out your heart and feed it to Morty for doing this," the green skinned hag said, looking at the hellhound. "And that will be after torturing you on a rack longer than you were trapped in the pit of a temple. Attack!"
The last was an order for the gargoyles overhead, and she waved them down. One swooped towards Aravae, but a crackling beam of energy from Jhelnae abyssal sword blasted into it, sending it crashing to the ground where another of the half-drow's beams found it.
Aleina sent scorching rays lancing into the other as it started its dive towards the blindfolded priestess and the male drow with her. The creature screeched in pain and adjusted its flight, gaze malevolently fixed on the aasimar.
Mialee raised a hand skyward, and a vine burst up from the ground and lashed around the gargoyle as she made a fist. Then she yanked her arm downward and the vine pulled the stone monster down to the ground with a heavy thud.
"This is not over," the hag said, fading from sight. "Don't think you've won. Auntie Greenbones never forgets."
Then she was gone.
The gargoyle sent to the ground by Jhelnae's blasts tried to flee, but more beams of eldritch energy turned him into a shower of falling rubble as he tried to fly away. A similar fate came to his entangled fellow as Aleina, advancing steadily on the trapped, writhing creature, sent more rays of blazing light into it. It cracked and crumbled from the heat, conjured vine smoking and burning away.
"Will someone tell me what is going on?" Sylvarie said, blindfold still in place. "Is it over?"
"It's over," the male drow near her, Ilmar, said.
He'd moved protectively in front of her when the gargoyle had threatened the cursed moon elf, holding up the thin bladed rapier he wielded. Judging from all the petrified enemies, Ilmar had played his part as the medusa's guide well, watching from the bathhouse and telling Sylvarie when best to make her surprise attack.
"Good," the cursed priestess said. "Then can someone destroy my painting so I can take this damned blindfold off?"
"Sorry, yes," Aravae said. "I can. I need to find Glitter and make sure he is fine. Sky, Ilmar, would you help?"
The short sword the tabaxi wielded and the drow's rapier would make short work of the portraits.
"I should feel a bit of kinship with those made into statues," Jhelnae said. "But for some reason I don't. We should break them up in case the hag returns with a cure and uses them against us."
The bladesinger nodded, but started for the tower entrance, leaving the grim work of smashing the medusa's victims to the others. She had meant for Ilmar to come up to the room with the painting without the cursed priestess, but the drow hairdresser led Sylvarie by the hand, which slowed things. But the foyer was empty, the kitchen as well. In the servants' room, however, they made an unfortunate discovery.
Three newly formed stone statues stared down into the yard below through the window Aravae had escaped from. A short kobold, a thin dragonborn, and an elderly dwarf.
"You didn't tell the kobold to cover his eyes when she started screaming?" Sky asked, with a nod towards Sylvarie.
"He was there when we planned it," Aravae said. "He must have forgotten."
"What has happened?" the cursed moon elf asked.
"Three others were caught by your gaze," Ilmar said. "Up here in the tower."
"The bathing pool of the Lily has restorative properties," Sylvarie said. "It might be able to free them."
"Will it work?" the bladesinger asked, staring at Glitter and feeling guilty for leaving him.
"We can try it," the medusa said. "Where are the paintings?"
"Behind us on the wall," the drow hairdresser said. "Would you like to look at yours before we destroy it? It's beautiful and we can stay behind you."
The blindfolded priestess hesitated, then shook her head.
"Get rid of it," she said. "Get rid of all of them."
Between the slashing swords of Sky and Ilmar, it was soon done.
Sylvarie raised her hands to her cheeks, feeling the now smooth skin before she whipped off her blindfold and tugged her hair free of the rag tying it up. Dark locks spilled free rather than a nest of snakes.
She pulled out her hand mirror, Radiance, and slowly looked into it.
"My hair is a tangled mess," she said. "There are dark circles under my eyes, I'm dressed in dirty rags that are barely holding together, and my body is battered and bruised from a fight with a vaarn karask."
She laughed as she said the last part, glancing towards Aravae with a smile.
"But I ask you," she continued. "Does my inner beauty shine through?"
Her smile grew wider, and tears of joy spilled from the moon elf's blue and gold flecked eyes.
"You look…" Ilmar said, voice indicated something honeyed and romantic was about to come.
"You look great," Sky said, cutting the drow off and not even looking at Sylvarie, her gaze instead wandering the room. "Now if you were three hags, where would you stash a pair of magic boots and a magic bag? Also, since you are dressed in dirty rags and all, you probably need a bath. Could you introduce me to the water sprite who lives there while you have one? I've come a long way to meet her."
Once again I'm not sure if this works. I'm okay with the first two-thirds, but part of me feels like it lingers too long. I thought of cutting it off at 'Then she was gone' but I then decided a reader might want to actually see Sylvarie's painting destroyed. So I wrote more...which is probably a bad thing.
Then, when trying to end it, I was trying to think of something appropriate for Sylvarie to say to work in the title of the adventure (the Price of Beauty) but Sky kept butting in saying, "Hello, you let everyone else do cool things while I just slept and then stood around with a sword. At least let me be my normal flippant self at the end."
So I gave in to her. But should all that be cut? I think it works if I just cut it at 'Then she was gone'?
Oh yes, HAPPY NEW YEAR and thanks for reading. I only have the Epilogue left for Part 1. Now, we could go back to the Underdark, but I actually have a bunch of stuff planned for Waterdeep (Sky wants to open her own Private Investigator agency). So we'll probably go that route...
Update - 5-15-2022 - Did some edits.