Phaulkonmere

It was strange how quickly one grew accustomed to living in a new place. Jhelnae had only lived in this city for a few ten days and already felt adept at weaving and dodging her way past early evening foot, cart, and carriage traffic as she and her companions followed Mellanor Fellbranch and his brother Tally off Fish Wife Alley and onto Slop Street in the Southern Ward. A street name that seemed particularly appropriate as the half-drow sidestepped a rancid smelling puddle.

There was a certain polish to the North Ward where she lived. Many of the streets were tree lined and the buildings typically showed good maintenance. The Dung Sweepers Guild made regular rounds there to keep the cobblestone streets clean. In contrast the roads here in this area were of packed earth and gravel rather than cobblestone and you had to watch where you stepped. The visits from the Dung Sweeper Guild, it seemed, were less frequent.

Still there was a wonder to the place.

This neighborhood was much more dedicated to trade and commerce than the North Ward and the sheer variety of shops and uses and the bustling energy that generated amazed the half-drow. There were outfitters, clothiers, stables, farriers, apothecaries, cobblers, butchers, bakers, rope makers, warehouses, boarding houses, inns, taverns, tenements - on and on and all of it crammed together in a warren of commercial activity that was in some ways more foreign to her - having grown up in the forest of Cormanthor as she did - than even the Underdark.

Wary and curious stares watched her as her group made their way through. In the North Ward, and its neighboring districts, the presence of the temple to Eilistraee had somewhat accustomed residents to seeing a dark-skinned elf. Judging from the looks of surprise cast her way now, Tressalara and her fellow drow rarely made appearances this far south in the city. But, then again, the widening eyes and following gazes might not have anything to do with the half-drow. Her group did include a cat-girl tabaxi and a part celestial after all. Curious stares were normal in such company.

"Strange place for a villa," Aleina said.

It was true. Noble villas were all around the North and Sea Wards, usually clustered together, but here any such place would be isolated from high society.

"According to stories," Tally said. "Lord Bronson Phaulkon, who built it, was a merchant noble who wanted a place among the people who supported his family instead of among those who wanted to associate with them only due to their income."

On their journey with the half-elf brothers, Tally typically answered any questions while Mellanor stoically led the way.

"From my family's experience," the aasimar said, sighing. "He was right that some only want to associate with a family while it has wealth. Most, actually. Almost everyone now that I think about it. Even loyal servants and retainers will abandon you when the coin grows scarce. But can you really blame them? They need to eat and support their families as much as anyone else."

"Is that Phaulkonmere?" Fargas asked. "Because if it is, then it looks like the Phaulkons invested their family fortune as well as your's did Aleina."

The halfling pointed at a pair of towers, ominous in the lengthening shadows of twilight. They must face a street further to the west but were tall enough to be visible over the surrounding buildings on the street the companions walked on. The fortified buildings looked out of place in this location and had seen better days. Though they still seemed solid and strong, the patches of lichen far outnumbered the patches of remaining whitewash on the stone walls and the edifices all showed evidence of crumbling.

"Rude, Fargas," the aasimar said. "Both to my family and Lady Jeryth's"

"But seemingly true," the halfling said.

"I'm sure the towers are very nice," Kuhl said, not quite able to sound sincere.

Mellanor grunted and shook his head after the briefest glance towards the towers.

"That isn't Phaulkonmere," Tally said. "That is further up ahead. Those are the Kolat Towers. Built by a pair of brothers of the same name. One brother left a long time ago and the other hasn't been seen since shortly after that. It is thought they might be abandoned and are probably haunted."

"Abandoned?" Surash questioned. "All the windows are lit."

And brightly lit at that. A constant golden light shone from all the windows against the darkening sky.

"The brothers were wizards," Tally said, shrugging.

"That explains the light," Fargas said. "But not why people think it might be abandoned. No one knocked on the door to find out?"

"Powerful wizards," the half-elf carpenter said. "Very powerful secretive, reclusive, and paranoid wizards who valued their privacy. And the brother who did not leave was the more powerful and more paranoid of the two and may be a lich by now."

"I think I am starting to understand," the halfling said.

"Well I don't," Sky said, tail lashing as she gazed up at the towers. "I am really curious now whether or not that brother is alive. After we meet with Lady Jeryth we should go over there and knock on his door. Maybe even take the smallest of peeks inside."

"You won't be able to do either," Tally said. "The entire place is encompassed by a sphere of force. Invisible to the eye, but quite impenetrable."

"The whole thing?" the tabaxi said. "Now that I have to see! Or feel, I guess."

"Eventually the Watchful Order of Magists and Protectors will dispel the sphere and the city will auction the place off to pay the back taxes," the carpenter said. "Just like how the Trollskull was sold to Volo. But the bureaucracy of the city being what it is, it takes a while for them to get around to it. Somewhere between a decade and a century."

Fargas laughed.

"Sorry," he said in response to the questioning looks. "I'm just imagining the look on a clerk's face if an undead lich showed up to pay back taxes."

"I'd send a zombie servitor," Aleina said, chuckling. "Who else has the patience to wait in the long lines at a magister's office. But I wouldn't be a lich. In terms of undead, it is a vampire or nothing. And that zombie servitor better bring back a receipt of payment because otherwise it would be shuffling back to the magister's office for one. Being undead is no excuse for shoddy bookkeeping."

Her voice was light with jest, but she realized her mistake almost immediately and gave Jhelnae a horrified look. For her own part, the half-drow stiffened and lost a step against the rest of the group. Phantom pain tingled at two points on her neck in remembrance of fangs that had fed on her while she was a hostage against her mother's good behavior in Thay. No one other than the aasimar knew that particular detail of her history. Something Jhelnae had shared during a late-night talk that involved too many glasses of wine and far more tears and vulnerability than she planned on shedding or exposing while on a busy road named Slop Street. Accordingly, the half-drow calmed herself and forced herself to keep walking. Thankfully a new sight distracted all but Aleina from noticing her reaction, and the aasimar watched with eyes full of apology. Jhelnae answered with a slight nod of reassurance, wanting to drop the matter as quickly as possible.

As they had rounded a curve in the road, a walled villa had come into view. Much of it was covered with ivy, but enough bare spots remained to see its underlying polished stone construction. This was in stark contrast to the leaning with age wood construction of the three-story tenement and two-story warehouse that stood on either side of the villa. Tall trees from the courtyard garden towered over the walls and surrounding buildings. Golden metal barbed spikes poked through the ivy all around the top of the tall wall, further protecting the gardens.

"That is Phaulkonmere," Tally said, pointing.

"Was your home in Baldur's Gate like that?" Jhelnae asked, sidling closer to Aleina to whisper.

"Actually similar in size," the aasimar whispered back, relief crossed her face, likely related to seeing her mistake with the vampire jest being forgiven. "But imagine disrepair all around and patch work done far below guild standards."

"Well," the half-drow said. "Hopefully repairs have been made since you sent them the treasure from our adventures in the Underdark."

"Hopefully," the aasimar said. "Also our home doesn't have trees that dwarf everything around them or ivy everywhere."

"Apparently she really wants everyone to know the Chosen of a nature goddess lives there," Jhelnae said.

"Apparently so…" Aleina said, trailing off.

A pair of thick ivy vines had snaked through and around steel bars of the gate at their approach. These then went taut and the pair of doors swung inward on squeaky hinges. The aasimar and half-drow, who trailed the others to talk in low tones and remain unheard, shared a look and an eye roll.

But their attitude changed the moment they passed through the gate and, after looking around, they shared a look of wonder instead.

A cobble paved drive, wide enough to accommodate carriages, ended shortly after the gate, torn out to accommodate grass, flowers, garden beds, and flowering trees. The rustling of the leaves of the tall white barked sycamore trees growing up along the edges of the walls along with the babble of the water from a multi-tiered stone fountain made the outside city seem to fall away. The cobbles from the carriage drive had been repurposed into walking paths over which wood trellises were built. Wisteria twined in the framework of these structures and flowered clusters hung down from above. In the shadowed light of the last vestiges of the sun, the place was breathtaking. How did it look in the full light of day? When all the bright colors of the multitude of flowers were visible?

A pathway to their left led through a small stand of silver birches to a pillared two-story manor house built of the same polished stone as the outer walls, also covered in vines. Gilded golden falcon statues perched from each comer of its small high tower - wings spread as if about to take flight. The luxurious home had been designed to allow in plenty of light and air through an array of windows and upper floor balconies. All these, however, were closed and curtained with not even a hint of light shining from within.

Vines rustled behind them, and the steel gate closed with a clang.

"Welcome to Phaulkonmere," Mellanor said, and they were treated to a rare smile from the half-elf. "As the groundskeeper here, I must ask, do the grounds please?"

"They're beautiful," Aleina said, almost whispering as though she was afraid to disturb the tranquility of hallowed ground.

The others nodded their agreement, which made Mellanor's smile grow. It fell slightly when he saw some were less impressed than others with all the blooming plant life.

Tail lashings, Sky glanced around with an expectant air.

"Where is the Chosen of Mielikki? she asked. "Is she hiding and watching us? If she is, she is very good. I don't see her. But then she should be good, shouldn't she? I mean she has the power of a goddess inside her after all."

In response a lantern hanging from the top of one of the trellises lit with a faerie orange glow. Another followed, lighting along the same path in purple. Then another, pink, and so on until a way was lit in multi-hued radiance, one leading away from the manor house rather than towards it.

"Follow me," the half-elf groundskeeper said. "She is waiting at a place where you can take your ease."

He headed down the lit path and his brother motioned for the companions to go first. Jhelnae breathed in the scent of the wisteria above as she walked down the trellis-covered cobblestone path that wound around the stone fountain and through a copse of a variety of fruit trees thick with blossoms. The place where they could take their ease turned out to be a grouping of stone benches on a circular patio where a few paths converged. Water falling from the fountain passed nearby in a murmuring brook. Melannaor directed them to take seats then served them glasses of cool water poured from a tall decanter. It tasted delicious and the half-drow felt refreshed after drinking.

"Welcome to Phaulkonmere," a feminine voice said in greeting. "Thank you for coming."

Along with the others, Jhelnae looked around, but she didn't find the speaker. It almost sounded like the voice had come from the center of the circular patio, but there was no one there. No one visible at least.

"Thank you for inviting us," Kuhl said hesitantly, then stood and bowed, "I am Kuhl Nightstar. Of Evereska."

One by one, he introduced the rest, who stood and bowed in acknowledgement. He finished with a question in his tone, inviting the unseen speaker to introduce herself.

"Beautiful city from what I've been told, Evereska," the voice said. "Never have had the opportunity for a visit. I am Lady Jeryth Phaulkon. Although the lady part is a bit in question since I don't have a body anymore. But old habits die hard."

"Your voice still sounds like a lady," Surash said. "But now I wonder, how do you speak without breath, vocal cords or a tongue?"

"Same as everyone else really," Lady Jeryth said. "Moving and vibrating air."

"Fascinating," the alchemist said, licking his lips and tasting the air with his tongue.

"How did you lose your body?" Sky asked. "Wait. Let me guess."

The tabaxi's golden eyes looked skyward for a moment as she thought.

"You traded bodies with a faun so it could experience being human," she said. "Only you weren't used to walking around on those cute little spindly deer legs and so you got caught by a mama owlbear and fed to her cubs. So, then you didn't have a body to trade back and let the faun keep yours. So somewhere, in the forest, there is a woman with the mind of a deer who keeps trying to eat grass and refuses to wear buckskin."

"I didn't think it was possible," Fargas said, shaking his head. "But you managed to come up with a theory even dumber than your theory on how my family got the name Rumblefoot."

Laughter came from the disembodied voice.

"Red Sky in the Morning and Master Fargas Rumblefoot," Jeryth said. "You are just how Zephyr described you both. What a delight."

It took Jhelnae a moment before she placed the name. Zephyr was the unicorn the tabaxi and halfling had ridden during the Wild Ride in the High Forest.

"I love your theory," the voice went on. "But that is not why I don't have a body. I just sort of gave it up."

"Gave it up?" Jhelnae asked.

"One day I sought the bliss of solitude," Lady Jeryth said. "Amidst a host of golden daffodils.

Beside a lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze. I don't know how long I sat there, but when I went to rise, I found I had transcended in some way. Become one with nature so to speak."

"Have you ever tried to change back?" Kuhl asked.

"Manifest my body again?" the voice asked. "Not really. It might be possible, but really there are so many advantages to being formless. My singing voice for one. I had such a terrible one before. I took lessons from Master Arkiem Arren of the Temple of Good Cheer, but he finally told father I was a lost cause. Now I can manipulate the air directly and I have a wondrous voice."

"I am sure it was wonderful before, my lady," Mellanor said, speaking for the first time since his mistress had joined them.

"You never heard it, Mel," the disembodied voice said. "It was better described as caterwauling than singing. But now, Mel loves it when the songbirds and I sing for him while he works."

No hint as to whether the groundskeeper enjoyed it or not could be found in his stoic expression, but his brother Tally smiled at a memory.

"Also," Lady Jeryth said, prattling on. "No more moon's blood cycles. So that is a relief."

"That would be a benefit," Aleina said, nodding.

"Not something I thought about when I was offered the eternal youth of a Chosen," the voice said. "Month after month of that, potentially forever. I honestly don't know how Laeral Silverhand and her surviving sisters have handled it for over seven hundred years. I only lasted a little over a hundred years before I decided to go incorporeal."

"Tell me about it," Jhelnae said. "Hundreds of years of that is what we elf women face."

"Yes, well…" Lady Jeryth began, then she trailed off.

There was something in the tone of the Chosen Mielikki that made half-drow's eyes narrow.

"Yes, well what?" she asked.

"It's just that I never felt…" the voice said. "Never felt the moon's blood cycle is the same for elven women as for humans."

"What?" Jhelnae asked.

She actually understood what Lady Jeryth had said and meant, so the half-drow's statement was more one of disbelief. Her aasimar friend, however, felt the need to explain anyway.

"She means not the same level of discomfort," Aleina said. "And yes! I mean they complain but…"

"They complain, but then they are still flitting through the forest like nothing and still dancing through moonbeams while they do it," Lady Jeryth said.

"I know, right," Aleina said. "So nice to meet someone who understands what keeping up with one or three of them is like."

"Oh, try a whole forest full," the disembodied voice said. "Especially when you are the Chosen of Mielikki and everyone is just watching and judging you, expecting you to track and stalk threats to the natural order like some sort of deadly avenging tree ghost or something. Trust me, when you feel cramped and bloated, you don't do anything like a ghost."

"I believe it," the aasimar said in commiseration.

"By all that dances!" the half-drow said. "Are you two actually insinuating moon's blood cycles are easier for elves than humans? You better not be!"

"Oh," Fargas said, smiling and eyes widening as he looked between Aleina and Jhelnae. "This is getting good."

"Yes, the differing physiologies of races is always a fascinating subject," Surash said. "It is what makes getting a universal formula for an alchemical potion so challenging and also so rewarding."

"Not what I meant," the halfling said, with a chuckle.

"So glad we tabaxi are more like cats in this regard and don't have these moon's blood cycle thingies," Sky said. "They sound terrible."

"You don't?" Kuhl asked. "Ah, that explains a lot."

"Hold up a moment," the aasimar said, holding up a calming hand to forestall the half-drow's defense for the honor of all female elvenkind. "What is that supposed to mean? How does Sky not having moon's blood cycles explain a lot?"

Now that Aleina mentioned it, the Jhelnae wanted to know what the half-elf paladin meant as well. She shifted her gaze to him.

"It explains why sometimes," Kuhl said, then began again as two sets of feminine eyebrows raised, daring him to go on. "Explains why…you know, I forgot what it explains. But I do remember Lady Jeryth summoned us here to return a favor to her goddess for granting us the Wild Ride. I'm sure we are all wondering what we can do for her."

He pointedly fixed his attention towards the disembodied presence at the center of the cobblestone patio.

"Ah yes," the Chosen of Mielikki said. "The Snobeedle requests. Do you know the Snobeedles?"

She waited until the collective shakes of their heads were given in answer before continuing.

"They are a halfling family who own orchards in Undercliff outside of Waterdeep and one of them, Blossom Snobeedle, is a member of the Enclave," Lady Jeryth said.

Mention of the Enclave raised Jhelnae's interest. That could only be the Emerald Enclave and her two friends in the High Forest, Aravae and Mialee, were members of that group. Helping another member would, in essence, be helping her friends.

"Blossom's son went missing in Waterdeep around six months ago and one of the things she wants is help getting him back," the disembodied voice said.

"Oh, here I thought it might be something difficult," Fargas said. "But you only want us to help you find a halfling youth in the biggest city on the Sword Coast who has been missing for six months. Easy."

The halfling's tone indicated he thought it was the opposite of easy.

"I told you this was a mistake, Lady Jeryth," Mellanor said, giving an admonishing look at Fargas and shaking his head.

"A missing person!" Sky said. "That will be easy. Finding missing people is a specialty of the Red Sky and Nightstar Agency. We'll find him, and it will only cost two copper bits a day, plus expenses."

"By specialty," Kuhl said. "She means we've never found a missing person before."

"Oh, we know where Dasher Snobeedle is," the Chosen of Mielikki said. "I've sent Mellanor to fetch him and even sent animal messengers asking him to come visit me here. But he runs away from Mellanor and ignores the summons. Which is very strange behavior since I've known him since he was a small child."

"You know where he is?" the tabaxi said, sharp toothed smile falling. "So we don't need to find a trail of clues to his location? What do you need us to do, snatch him up, stuff him in a bag, and carry him here?"

The half-drow noted her friend did not seem unwilling to perform a benevolent kidnapping, but just disappointed it wouldn't be as challenging as she originally thought.

"We know where he is," Lady Jeryth confirmed. "As strange as his behavior has been, he is now grown and free to choose his own path. Blossom and I decided the best course of action was to watch him and wait for him to outgrow whatever young adult angst clouded his mind and made him run away from his family. But recently, his judgment went from bad to worse. He joined a gang, the Shard Shunners, a group of halfling wererats and let himself be infected."

"Wererats?" Fargas sighed. "Again?"

The halfling shook his head, then pursed his lips thoughtfully.

"Actually, I think we can help with this," he said. "Being once a disaffected halfling youth myself who ran away, I'll be able to talk to him. Can you still cure lycanthropy? Like you did with Topsy and the others in Blingdenstone?"

This last question was directed to Aleina, who nodded.

"No reason to overwhelm the lad," Fargas said, musing. "Six of us are too many. Me, to try and relate to him, Aleina to sweet talk him and remove the curse of lycanthropy when he is ready, and…

He glanced at each of the companions before his gaze settled on Jhelnae.

"Me?" the half-drow said, pointing at herself.

"I think so," the halfling said. "We can come at him from different angles and see what works best."

"Oh, I get it," Jhelnae said. "You'll be the relatable one, the friendly uncle type, and Aleina the sweet one. But if neither of those work, I go all drow on him and scare him straight. Yeah, I can do that."

"Actually," Fargas said, rolling his eyes. "I was thinking of a much softer touch. Compliment him on the muscles he has built from working in the orchards and such. A seductive presence, luring him back into the fold."

"Compliments?" the half-drow asked, unable to keep the doubt out of her voice. "I can do that, I guess."

"If the soft touch doesn't work," Aleina said. "We can then go with guilt and fear. I'll lay on the former, talking about his poor worried mother and asking how he can do that to her, and you lay on the latter."

"That does sound a lot more like us," Jhelnae said.

"Fine," the halfling said, blowing out a breath. "But try my way first. Trust me. I know young male halfling minds. It will work."

"But what are we supposed to do?" Sky said. "I mean this all sounds kind of boring since we already know where he is and we've already dealt with wererats before."

"Gnome wererats," Fargas said. "Not halfling wererats."

"Whatever," the tabaxi said with a dismissive wave. "But Kuhl and I should do something. If we have a client list that includes both the Open Lord of Waterdeep - a Chosen of Mystra and the Chosen Mielikki, think of how impressive that would be for our agency."

"Well," the disembodied voice said. "It just so happens I have a second request from Snobeedle."

"You do?" Sky asked, brightening.

"There are these disturbing reports of scarecrows coming to life and slaughtering livestock that need to be investigated," Lady Jeryth said.

Okay...as a guy, I probably shouldn't put menstrual cycle jokes in. Feel free to admonish me. I was inspired by Lumen de Mari's fic because I was trying to figure out what to write about the Chosen of Mielikki, who has no body, and Lumen had menstrual jokes in her fic, and I thought, "Wouldn't it be funny if Lady Jeryth mentioned how she loved having no body because it allowed her to escape her monthly period.

Then I dismissed the idea thinking it was in very poor taste.

But then it kept popping into my head and I asked a friend, who is actually reading the fic (she still in Out of the Abyss), is it okay if I have these sorts of jokes. And she said, "Just go for it."

So I did.