"It almost sounds like the start to a joke; a tiefling, a sphinx and a human walk into a tavern. . . only to be pretty much ignored by the extra planar frequenters of the Hidden Lizard. Much like the World Serpent, this place is alight with the glow of a multitude of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Magic is forbidden here but the real magic isn't cast in spells or potions, it's in the air and in the faces of these people. Eveningstar never had anything like this, let me tell you.
Humans are an exotic minority among the jumble of fey folk, natural spirits here but it's kind of peaceful even if its just a lay over.
I. . . spoke to the man she told me to meet with, a large half-minotaur, half-something else creature who assured me that planar gate travel was indeed safe- neglecting, of course, the possibility that someone might've randomly bumped you into a portal- It's not exactly as though I needed that, but I. . .
I don't know. I'm sitting here looking at my sextant wondering if maybe I was wrong to want to stay with her. But what can I do? She accepted my offer. And realistically, I owe her my life. . . But something still nags at me.
My father used to say that sometimes sacrifice was the inevitable cost of making sure evil wasn't allowed to be done to the un deserving. But who am I to decide what is and what isn't evil? I thought for sure trying to help Jezebel would've been the 'right' thing yet my own goddess voiced Her divine anger at my actions. . . Not that I ever sold myself out to evil ends, but-
My father had another saying. It went something like: "Do the best that you can with what you have and never forget what it is you're trying to do. There'll be those who'll tell you you're crazy and others who'll offer an 'easier way' but in the end it's you and you alone who must answer for your actions."
I don't know what it is I'm trying to do, though. I want to make sure this thing gets used for good ends- or at least to keep it from being used for evil ends. But I don't know what she plans to do with it. All I can do is sit on the sidelines and watch, wondering.
Maybe that's the punch line of this joke.
It's been two days since my last drink."
-Diary of Kathrine Stoneriver
Kathrine sat at the booth on the far side of the tavern staring at the mangled remains of her planar sextant. Sitting precariously on the edge of her diary, the circle at the base of the device kept pulsing a steadily fading glow in the direction of the nearest planar portal. With each pulse the glow was becoming fainter, reminding Kathrine that her chance to return to the Prime Material was also fading. There was still time. She could still go.
The fading pulse of her dying chance burned itself into her eyes at regular intervals as she weighed her options. She could abandon the relic to Bree and her ends and hope that the woman wouldn't do something dangerous with it. She could go back to her life trying to bring people to Chauntea and just pretend this little adventure had never happened.
But was she was a Stoneriver. She wasn't supposed to be a wuss.
More to the point; this was more important, by far, wasn't it? The church of Oghma were dedicated truth seekers and knowledge keepers, not- as far as Kat knew- soldiers and mercenaries. Yet they'd offered gobs of gems to coax Bree to recover the artifact for them and then tried to kill her once they had it in sight. That didn't sound like something the church of Oghma would have done.
She couldn't help what the church had done but if they thought it was important enough to keep Bree quiet, then it was easily conceivable that the artifact held vast power not meant for mortals but what? What would've made it worth killing for? Could she have stopped it if Bree found out what it did or how to use it? The only way she could have, would've been to keep an eye on it and the woman herself.
It was a small sacrifice, that's all that was being asked of her. Give up her life as she knew it and shadow the artifact, keep it safe. Keep it out of the hands of those who might potentially misuse it. Kat ran a hand through her hair as the glow faded a little more. Duty was a Stoneriver family value, could she really turn her back on this potential evil and live with herself?
She knew the answer even as she stood up.
She packed the sextant into its new box and stuffed it into her coat pocket along with her diary. She glanced around the tavern with growing trepidation. The low hanging vines that cast off a natural glow lit the spongey walls with shadows from the various occupants but it was at the edge of the bar nearest the door that she found her 'companions'. The ones she'd inevitably have to betray if it came to a question of them or the artifact. Her jaw clenched. She couldn't do that.
It wasn't in her nature.
But what choice did she have?
Courage was another family value. Do what's right, not what's convenient. She'd live and die by her family's values, her father would've wanted that, especially from the last Stoneriver in the multiverse. How could she betray her family now of all times? Of course, she could have just as easily been wrong about Bree's intentions for the artifact. Maybe she'd use it for good. All she could really do was wait and see.
Just don't be a friend. Don't be yourself.
She repeated the words in her mind like a solemn mantra as she approached the sphinx and the tiefling. They glanced up at her approach while the Seelie merchant across from them rubbed some cotton fabric between her fingers and shook her head, practically belching out the word 'bad' in guttural common.
"This is the finest cotton in all the realms! Hand picked by-" Vaius started to object.
"What she means is that it's made out of natural fibers. You're selling dead plants to an arborist." Kat tried to keep her tone neutral. Don't be a friend. Don't.
"She's wearing plants herself! She could-"
"Here, may I?" She knelt down to the woman's eye level with a soft smile she didn't quite feel. The woman looked at her curiously as Kat motioned over the goods with a questioning expression. The light in her bright green eyes dimmed a bit when Kathrine spoke to her in Slyvan. "Please excuse the horn headed one, he can be a bit thick headed at times."
She stared Kat for almost a full second. "You speak our language? Who taught you?"
"My mentor. She. . . demanded I learn it."
Kat glanced up at Vaius and Nyx, catching a puzzled expression from both of them in return. "Here, let me see that silk." Kat looked back to the woman. "We do have some very fine cloth here, made from the willing gift of worms." She motioned to the silk bolt nearest Vaius and began the negotiations.
A few minutes later the negotiations wound down with them trading the silk cloth and a couple of gold pins for the food she had on display and some spices from her 'select' collection meant for those of fey blood. As they loaded the goods into a back pack she could feel Nyx's gaze following her. When she glanced back at him he murmured something in Draconic barely loud enough for her to hear. Her blank expression was all she could muster for a response. She wasn't skilled in the tongue outside of spell casting. He shrugged an awkward shrug and plodded on back to the ship to wait for them.
"Huh. . ."
"Hm?" Vaius glanced up as he finished loading the bag. "Oh yes, he does that. Must not like the company."
"I guess not. . ."
"So you're more than a pretty face and generous back side, I see. No wonder she likes you." He offered a friendly smile before hefting the bag over his shoulder.
Kat looked at him. "You know, some would call it pleasant, thank you very much." Despite the words in the back of her mind she stuck her tongue out.
"Oh I'm sure. I've heard the same thing about dwarven women and facial hair too. To each their own, I say!"
"What do dwarven-" She blinked. "Ew. Oh, gross!"
As he stood up he offered his hand. Kat looked at it for a moment then up at him with an uneasy expression and pushed herself up. She could handle her own. She needed to remember that. Above all, she was here to prevent the artifact from falling into the wrong hands, not make friends.
Don't be a friend.
Some part of her felt dirty and wrong even thinking such things but she had to keep the goal in mind. That was the only thing she needed to concern herself with. The tiefling retracted his hand with a flicker of something she couldn't read in his eyes. It might've been hurt or acceptance of some life long cycle of mistrust she was only propagating- No. That wasn't her concern.
She needed to stay focused.
"I uh. I have stuff on my gloves. I didn't-" Kat bit her tongue. Just because she had to remain distant didn't mean she had to lie to do so. "Sorry. . ."
He gave her a slightly puzzled look and shrugged. Without another word he slipped past her heading for the door. She was about to turn when something caught her eye. A human man in a long brown coat was flipping through a book walking from the bar to a booth across the room. He was putting up a good appearance that he was reading but in Kat's state of heightened awareness, she could see him watching her out of the corner of her eye. He slipped himself into a booth and when Kat didn't look away he looked up at her as though doing so for the first time.
Something about him gave off a very homely air. It was familiar and warm as though she could've run into him at her village at any time and he would've fit right in. He had messy brown hair streaked with grey and a face like her fathers; sun kissed and lined from years in the field. Underneath it all, however was a subtle tension like any adventurer Kathrine had ever met. He was prepared for combat and danger in ways not readily apparent.
Kat smiled and inclined her head in return before she turned to head for the docks. Maybe it wasn't all that unusual. She did get glances from men often enough but with the severity of everything they were involved in her mind kept her on alert. Anyone could've been a potential enemy.
She'd gone through the same problems when she and Jezebel were running from the Eclestian Order, everyone was watching them, every shadow threatened to jump out at them. It was the surest path to madness but it'd kept her alive then. She just needed to be careful. That was all. Not everyone was out to 'get' her.
The man was just looking at her. Maybe he had a thing for blondes in white coats, who knew?
As she headed for the docks her hand subconsciously came to rest over the sextant in her pocket. It was too late to go back now. She needed to keep the relic safe.
She also needed to find out exactly what in the Nine Hells the damned thing could actually do.
# # # #
"Captain's privilege indeed." Nyx rolled his eyes, casting a brief glance towards Kathrine as he took a sip his wine. The four of them sat on the main deck finishing dinner while the ship drifted through the forest of impossibly tall mushrooms. Bree was the only one who hadn't touched her food but she drank, though. Nearly a full bottle of the stuff that'd put Kat on her butt in two sips. This wasn't necessarily unheard of but it still made Kat wonder.
Maybe she was an Aasimar. A mixed blood between humans and celestials would have made some sense. She certainly had the profile of one; beautiful eyes Kat couldn't help but search out, flawless skin, glossy black hair that seemed to retain its luster no matter where they were. And those angular features rounded only by the passage of time. She was a staggering beauty and she was strong, confident, warm and- Kat imagined- generous, too.
Why was it, then, that Kat wasn't comfortable around her?
"Captain's privilege." Bree smiled and took another small sip from her glass. "So the next thing on everyone's mind will likely be where do we go from here, yes? Well, I'm glad you asked! I've taken the liberty of checking the library and it seems-"
"We have a library?" Kat blurted.
"Yes, I do! Now please try to keep up." The woman's smile was warm and soft as she motioned to indicate the food between them. "Apparently there is a rather large repository of knowledge called The Vault of Shakla in the city of Shekla, specifically."
"On which plane?" Nyx grabbed a piece of the cooked bird just before Vaius could get to it. They exchanged a glance but Vaius backed off quickly, feigning an interest in his own wine.
Bree watched impassively for a moment. "Mechanus."
"Easy enough. All law and order. You'll fit right in." The sphinx's claw wrapped around the bird and without even a moment's breath he tore off one of its legs and tossed it in his mouth.
"Yes, like a shoe-glove."
Vaius sighed and laid his hands in his lap giving his attention over to Bree.
Kathrine discretely slid her plate over to Vaius. Somewhere between the dock and the boat she'd lost her appetite anyway. "So uh. . . Forgive my ignorance, but what's Mechanus?"
"Mechanus. . . Nyx, care to field this one?" Bree glanced at him just as he snapped off the leg bone between his teeth. "Or not." She flashed a smile at Kat. "Mechanus is a plane of ultimate order, like a giant machine. Everything runs on its own schedule and the universal laws are enforced without question. If you ask me, it's a dreadfully boring place- the wine is terrible and the food lacks any sort of flavor."
"Shush. Anyway, there are colonies of all sorts of creatures built atop gears there and one we need to find specifically."
"Which would be Shekla. . ."
"Got it in one." She winked. "In Shekla, there's a small monastic order that hails from the Prime and serves as a kind of repository for lost lore and artifacts. It's built in the heart of a rather small cog no bigger than your Arabel and surrounded by a city of mixed inhabitants. They even have their own banks and taverns." She added the last part with a slight roll of her eyes.
"But isn't this order going to be composed of Oghmans?"
"Naturally! So, my question to you, dear priestess. How do we sneak in without getting killed?"
"Mph mh" Nyx muttered around a mouth full of bird meat.
Bree glanced at him and for just a split second, Kat was sure she could see a kind of motherly spark in her eyes ready to chide her child for bad table manners. Instead she looked back to Kat patiently smiling with a knowing expression. "Go on, dear."
"Uh. . ."
"We could disguise ourselves as one of them-" Vaius began.
"No." Kat cut him off. "No, monks train together and stuff, they'd pick us out in an instant. Um. . . I'd say we'd need to get in without being obvious about it but, eh, Captain? You're really asking the wrong person, I'm not much on breaking into places and stuff."
"Who said anything about breaking in? I plan on using the front door to enter and exit." She calmly took a sip when the three of them looked at her with disbelief. "I'm no fan of back door shenanigans-"
Nyx opened his mouth.
"Oh behave." Bree set her glass down and steepled her fingers under her chin looking at Kat with that same little smile. "Go on, miss Stoneriver, let's hear your thoughts."
Kathrine swallowed. "Okay, uh. . . I'd say we'd need to blend in with the locals and we'd need to know exactly what it is we're after and how to get to it."
"Leave that to me." She nodded. "Go on."
"Secondly, we'd need some kind of uh. . . reason for being there in the first place. They'd have to have a reason to grant us entry." A moment slipped by in silence with Bree's pale blue eyes lingering on Kat. She fidgeted unconsciously. "Um. . . Nothing I'm sure you haven't thought of, huh?"
"This, my friends, is the power of positive thinking." Bree motioned to Kat. "Despite every reason not to, the good woman's come up with a very realistic set of problems for us to over come. No flying in using distractions and explosives, no elaborate costumes and theatrics. Just simple, straight forward 'here's our goal, here's what could stop us'. How ever did we get by without you, dear?"
Kat could feel the heat rising on her cheeks even though the two men at her side didn't really pay any attention. She was supposed to be the logical one and it only made sense to look at the problems objectively. She hadn't even done anything particularly note worthy yet the woman's lavish praise still tickled some part of her, coaxing a smile she didn't really feel at first. "Oh come on, it's basic stuff. . ."
"Not nearly as fun." Vaius murmured with a shrug.
Nyx grunted softly.
Bree looked at her. "Come then, miss Stoneriver, what would you suggest?"
"Uh. . ." Kat rubbed the back of her neck. "I'm really not one for deception-"
"Minstrels." Vaius snapped his fingers abruptly. "Every city needs bards."
"Bards, you say?" The woman theatrically stroked her chin like some paper cutout villain Kat had read about when she was a child. "Well now, how could this go wrong?"
"A monastic order really doesn't have need of a bard?" Kat pursed her lips. "I mean, it'd probably get us into the city, but. . ."
"Well that's half the battle isn't it?" Vaius shrugged. "You get into the city and move about freely, then wing it from there. Isn't that what you do?"
"Uh. . . No?"
"What you have to understand, gentlemen, is that our young friend here is a very methodical sort. Artifact of the training, I suppose!"
"Uh huh." Kat nodded quietly. "So uh. . . I mean, it'd get us in but what do we do to get into the library?"
"Oh I can help with that." Bree shrugged.
"You?" Nyx tilted his head just slightly. The look of genuine puzzlement across his face set Kat's nerves on edge. It was the look of someone who had no idea what to make of a situation. "You're going to leave the ship?"
"And why not? It's been a while, I could do with a stretch of the legs."
"Hmph." He shrugged.
Kathrine glanced between them. "How would that work, though? If you're thinking about getting in under invisibility, it could work but there's a pretty good chance things could go wrong. They might have anti-magic wards and stuff in place. We'd be picked out in no time."
"As I said, let me worry about that, my dear." Bree stood up slowly and dusted her knees off. "In the meantime, I'd like to show you something. . . The two of you can get some rest, we'll head out when you're all appropriately fluffed."
Kathrine stood up to follow the woman almost without thinking about it. Even when she tried to resist, her body moved without her, drawn to the woman like a moth to the flame. Her objectivity was already failing her and she knew it. She wanted to believe this woman had the best of intentions at heart. Who's smile could be so beautiful and mask an ugly nature so well that even Kat couldn't see it?
They headed down below deck but stopped after the ladder. The T shaped hallway was bent slightly to the right and missing its left branch. The hall that had lead to the crew quarters with the bunk beds was now a featureless hallway devoid of any signs of its former occupants. Directly ahead was the door to Vaius's room and off to the right was an ornate silver inlaid wooden door bearing a wreath made of wheat with a rose in full bloom in its center. The symbol of Chauntea. Under it the word "Chaplain" had been carefully written in flowing silver.
Kat flinched. She had to be objective, cool and calm. She couldn't get attached to this place and these people. But she didn't want to offend them either. When Bree ushered them forward Kat took a slight step back and sighed. "I. . . Captain. . ."
"Hm? What wrong, dear?"
"I uh. . . I really appreciate the thought, I mean it, I do-"
"I do hope you're as much a dancer with those legs as you are with that tongue, miss Stoneriver." She smiled playfully as her hand came to rest between Kat's shoulders. "What's wrong?"
"I uh. . . I can't accept this. I think a little spot on deck to rest my eyes once in a while will be more than enough." Kat swallowed.
The woman's gaze searched Kat's face. A flicker of curiosity burned deep within but it was quickly replaced by suspicion, just briefly, fading into acceptance before she shrugged. "As you wish, miss Stoneriver. But it'll be there if you change your mind, hm?"
There was a moment between them that lingered in silence, as though unspoken agreements were meant to be honored but only one of them knew what that agreement was and they weren't ready to share. Something nagged at Kat as she watched the woman. The concern that she was going to do something potentially dangerous with the artifact, of course, but there was something else. Something that just felt right about the touch.
No, she was getting attached.
No. Bad idea. Don't do that.
Bree leaned in a little almost as though to kiss her. Kat backed up against the wall. The woman didn't stop even as her hand pressed against the wall beside Kat's head. She stopped just an inch from Kathrine's face, whispering in a voice only they would hear. "I sorely miss seeing you in that dress already. "
Kat swallowed. "Sorry?"
"And I had no idea." Her tender lips brushed Kathrine's. She shivered. "You spoke Sylvan."
"I- I-. . ."
"Say something to me in it. . ."
How was it this woman could change pace on the edge of a coin and still keep Kathrine enraptured by her voice? She swallowed and murmured in Sylvan. "You wouldn't understand how much you terrify me."
Bree fixed Kat in place with a look as she stepped in a little closer, pressing her chest against her and giving her no where to go. Her other hand came up beside Kat's head as her own head brushed by Kat's cheek. When she spoke her voice was a sultry purr that tickled Kat's ear. "I think you enjoy every moment of it."
Kat swallowed. "M- maybe."
"Good!" Abruptly the woman pulled back. She smiled softly at Kat's confused expression. "I've a feeling we're going to become very good friends."
Kat couldn't bring her voice to the surface, frozen by uncertainty she simply stared at the woman who's smile never wavered. "O- okay?"
"The room is yours if you wish it, priestess. If you prefer the view of the sky light and the mirrors, that's also open to you." She turned to head back up the ladder.
"Um. . . B- Bree?"
Kathrine sucked air through her teeth and spoke in elven instead. "I don't suppose you know this language too?"
Bree winked at her. "As I said, I hope those legs of yours dance as well as that tongue." With that she headed up the ladder to the main deck.
Kat slumped against the wall, not trusting her legs to keep her up. She rubbed her face with both hands. Focus. Stay. Focused.