69. Nymph Maniacs
Both Onyx and Imoen were startled by the stark gradient between the upper and lower city, it was as if in passing under the gate wall that divided the two they had come to a different world altogether. Squalor turned to splendor, fashion from ragged to baggy, there were few beggars, and there were actually trees. Both breathed easier. Although their own beginnings might have been modest, Onyx felt a bit more at home here as this was what he had read about - lords and ladies, knights and vassals, even if that was a generous characterization of an average upper city resident. Still, having a wall sundering the city down the middle felt impersonal and uncivil, it was as if the upper city residents were walling out or felt the need to defend themselves against the mangy heathens by the river. Intellectually he knew this was just history; cities built over generations and centuries capturing more land in outward thrown walls, and with the backup defense and bulwark against raging fires they served why attempt to disassemble one.
Imoen was even more aware of the same; she'd taken the same classes, read more besides, and done some of her friend's homework for him in days past. The lower city held a certain appeal to her in that the passersby seemed less snooty and there were more dark corners and alleys to hide, but, of course, there was obviously much more in the upper city to 'inspect' and 'borrow' and that had its own draw.
Quayle led them and stopped across the corner from one of the sillier-looking buildings in the district, a drab dome behind a white picket fence, glass panes, and many flowers, a catapult-sized telescope peeking out of a gap in the roof like the leering central eye of a bloated beholder. Appropriate enough, Onyx thought, if indeed the wizard within had had the audacity to hold a nymph captive. "Up for a little sneakin' recon?" he asked Imoen.
"Aw, Ony," she rubbed her hands together, "Thought ya'd never ask."
Leaving her companions on the shaded park benches outside the temple of Tymora which glittered in the slanted sunlight, she casually strolled around the alleged residence of one nymph-napping wizard. Halfway around, at a moment with no other pedestrians looking her way, nor any facing windows of the abode, she hopped with a scissor-kick right over the picket face, scurried through the bushes of flowering white azaleas and climbed right into a leafy sycamore tree. The curving of the hemisphere away from her meant that the higher she went the more level and thus easier to climb its surface would be, but the further from the tree trunk and thus the harder to reach in the first place. Going out on a limb, which cracked under her modest weight after she’d shimmied out five feet, she half fell half jumped down onto the dome, catlike on the balls of her soft-soled feet and with her fingers splayed. Taking advantage of the uneven, sandpaper-like shingling to use handholds and friction from a swift climb, blocked from the street view by the sycamore boughs, she climbed the leveler arctic circle of the hemisphere, and, laying flat with her head nearly to the apex, peeked through the corner of the telescope’s slit in the roof.
Even though at first she was beaming with elation from her successful sneaking climb, Imoen’s mood sank and her stomach knotted up sickly as soon as she peered in the gap intended for peering out, and she understood the appropriate irony of Ragefast living in an observatory. There was the sky-blue-robed wizard, craggy face and ink black hair, standing in the single chamber that accounted for most of the building, leering, lip-licking, and wringing his hands in the direction of the nymph in the corner. Her features and colors were washed out, like a watercolor portrait of herself wetted again before the paint ever could dry, blonde living hair flowed to her waist, and had withered flat against her shoulders and back, and almost translucent, skin ashen under a much-slit slip of a sable gown. She sat huddled in a corner of the round room formed by a bookshelf, her weight shifted forward as if she wore a heavy iron slave collar yet only a thin-linked golden necklace was visible.
“Now know thee well I cannot let thee leave,” Ragefast croaked with a bizarre inflection that belonged to an empiric tyrant speaking to his spoiled heir, “We are meant to be together, whether ye know it or no.”
The nymph did not look up, but spoke in a voice flowing and yet weak, like a stream as it dried up. “Destiny or no, I am not long for this place.”
Imoen rolled over onto her side, scrunching her eyes and clutching her stomach, quite sick. It was the same revulsion, though, that reminded her of her errand’s urgency. She rolled up to her knees, grabbing her magical bow and an arrow from over her back, and a red ribbon from her pocket which she tied to the shaft of the missile after snapping off its steel head.
Garrick flinched and dropped an apple as an arrow caught in the branch over his head. He looked upward. “Red ribbon.”
“What!?” Ragefast swiveled and snarled at the sound of breaking wood. The front door of his house landed in its foyer, replaced by a hulking bald man that filled the doorframe nicely. Minsc stormed into the observatory, finding the higher ceiling near the center more to his liking but no less angry looking as he neared Ragefast, whose voice cracked, “W-What bandit dares enter the home of Ragefast?! Identify your purpose here, that I might know what to put on thy tombstone!”
A second man in the same segmented ankheg armor of fatigued green, and two inches of hair rather than none, marched through the doorway and towards Ragefast, a hard scowl on immature features, his eye contact constant even though the floor was quite cluttered. Third raced in a little gnome, shrieking, “I can’t hold ‘em back, Ragefast!”
“Quayle!?” Ragefast swiveled his arms, tightening up the pastel blue robe on his shoulders, “What nonsense is this?! Explain yourself before I dispense of you!”
Staring through Ragefast, Onyx tilted his head and spoke, “You dare speak of bandits when you hold this creature captive? My friend and I sundered men for lesser offenses against a dryad, and I see their faces upon you now.”
“This wondrous being is my love and life!” Ragefast declared.
Onyx cocked his head and stared at the wizard out of the tops of his eyes. “You lie.”
“I would be hers as well, but it takes time! She will grow to care for me, as I for her!” He looked to Quayle, who shrugged with comfortable indifference.
Onyx took a step forward, and shouted. “Your twisted feelings cloud your sight! Release her, before you both come to harm!”
Ragefast pulled his hands back to the many pouches upon his robes, “My feelings are genuine, and none shall harm the angelic Abela! I will let no one come between us!” His hands curled forth again, and a dark shape he never saw dropped past the telescope. Ragefast screamed, and fell forward with a crimson jet erupting from under his left shoulder blade, and there stood Imoen, a high-pitched metallic whistle in the air as she drew back her emerald-pommeled short sword with a blood streaked blade. Onyx gaped, but there was no humor or mirth on her face as she knelt behind a very still Ragefast and cleaned her blade on his robe skirt.
“My poor Ragefast,” came the voice of the nymph, which the others had not yet heard. “Like many humans, he could not understand the feelings my kind elicits.” Her voice and eyes were nigh emotionless as she watched Viconia, Dynaheir, and Garrick step into the room, the bard propping the door back up in the doorway as best he could to keep the affair from public eyes.
Abela’s glance danced from Garrick back to Onyx and Minsc. “What of you, saviors? I should like to believe I am free, but mankind often does good things for bad reasons. What are your plans for me?”
“We don’t make plans for others,” Onyx answered, “Save to guard that they are left to make their own.”
we guard that....?
The nymph didn’t smile even then, she simply cast her eyes to the crack of sky in the roof where Imoen had dropped from, and ran fingers under her necklace. “It will be good to feel the grass beneath my feet once more. If you would just release this restraining collar, I will regain a measure of my talents. I thought it only ornamental when he gave it to me.”
Imoen knelt by her and with surgical movements; grasped the chain in one hand, and nicked it with the tip of her sword, yanked the broken ‘ornament’ away and cast it to the cluttered floor in disgust, then offered her free arm to help the nymph rise. “My gratitude is boundless!” Abela cracked a smile at last, a tear in one eye. She wound both hands into her hair, pulling taut a lock of hair and shearing it off against Imoen’s held blade, surprising even Imoen herself. She stepped up to Onyx, her hands weaving, and let a long golden braid fall into his palm. “Please, take this to remember me by. I doubt I shall seek the company of men for some time. Goodbye.” She stepped back from Imoen and through a dimension door and was gone.
Gawking upwards at a pagoda-like tower of alternate orange and blue bands that rose above and clashed with every other structure in the city, Garrick lamented, “The last wizard certainly was prone to rage fast.”
Viconia glared at the bard and Imoen glared at the drow in a well-done mockery, and stuck out a bright pink tongue.
Quayle looked upward at Onyx. “The damsel is freed! Thank you all for that, forest folk everywhere owe ye all one, specifically, one who would seem to be named Abela. And the captor is dead. Yes, I heard from Ramazith’s own lips that he would have had her as well, indeed demanded...”
“Does this not sit will with you?” Onyx looked at Quayle then nodded to the tower. “I don’t like to think of us apprehending anyone who might have committed a vile crime. As with the mine guards who drew against me...it is a decision I let the other person make.”
Quayle shrugged, “I don’t care about that nonsense! I was going to say was that he boasted of three floors of monstrous servants and this probably wasn’t a prudent house call!”
Viconia slid her tongue along a bright gleaming canine tooth. “Is he wealthy?”
Quayle shrugged again. “You’ve seen the real estate, Miss drow.”
Garrick laughed nervously, and clapped Onyx on the shoulder. “The paladin ascending the tower of the evil wizard? How can I resist? Even if the shining armor is a big centipede carcass....”
Viconia flashed a predatory smile. “...and the damsel is the one you should really be afraid of.”
Garrick hopped back, and Onyx knocked on the ornate door, which opened outward to reveal no one having opened it from the other side. He stepped through, into a den over furnished with bed, tables, divans, bookshelves, a fireplace at the wall and a spiral staircase in the center of the floor. "Knock knock!" Onyx called. Silence reigned for a minute, then came the soft padding of footsteps which reminded him of the Candlekeep monks going about quiet as churchmice.
A wizard descended through the ceiling, clad in wizard's robes of crimson with gold trim, not unlike the attire of Edwina - well, before her new rose-petal-pink colors paraded at the Friendly Arm rendezvous. His white beard was cut sharp and triangular like a spade, with eyes as piercing. "Who dares breach the tower of Ramazith!?" he said near enough the tops of his lungs.
Garrick snickered, recognizing the practiced air of the line. "The door invited us in?" he supplied. Quayle stepped forward between Onyx and the bard, and Ramazith groaned under his breath, like someone foreseeing the bad punch line of an ongoing joke.
"Ah, Quayle brings muscle," Ramazith turned his nose up, and he looked over the other adventurers filing in. "Your compatriots be so obviously…well….I just say you do not look like farmers or merchants. I’ve a service needing completion, and it require that which I think you have. I reward well, but the mission is dangerous…and…beyond what the law would technically allow. Interested, yes?” He scarcely waited for nods from Onyx and Garrick before he lectured on, “My proposition is thus; I would have you enter into the home of a colleague of mine, and effect the release of a creature he has imprisoned there. Ragefast be his name, and he has in his possession one of the most beautiful and useful creatures in all of Faerun. It’s a Nymph he captured some time ago, and I know not what laughable plans he has for her, but I am sure she be more…productive in my care."
Onyx slapped Garrick on the shoulder and hyucked, "Huh-huh, heey, Carbo, ya here that, tha Nymph! "
"Nye-heh-heh-heh!" Garrick giggled, balling and shaking his fists. "Ah sure do Krumm! Nymphs! Nymphs! We already took reeeeal good care of her!""
"You WHAT?" Ramazith's face went red as his robes.
"Yessir, brother," Onyx guffawed. "She war right purty too!"
"Purtier than this man in a skirt, cousin!" Garrick wagged his head.
"It's a ROBE!" Ramazith sputtered. "You - you lie! This is, ah, all a facade! HA! One of you said brother, the other cousin!"
"It be a long story!" Garrick slapped his knee, and draped an arm over Onyx's shoulder. "See, ma and pa grew up in a log cabin with six other- "
Ramazith's eyes rattled back and forth between the two; indeed, they were a bit similar. Same eyes and hair, high cheeks and smooth planed chins...he looked accusingly at Quayle, who shrugged casually. "Humblest apologies, my intellectual halfling of a colleague. I simply couldn't dissuade them from believing they could have their cake and eat it too, or that you were 'hoarding' more nymphs than Ragefast!"
"Nymphs! Nymphs! Ny-y-y-y-ymphs!!" Garrick shook his fists, trembling excitedly and seeming on the verge of a seizure.
"You've tricked me!" Ramazith howled at Quayle, backing up. "Swindled me!"
"Snookered?" Quayle offered. "Fleeced? Hornswaggled? Carpetbagged?"
"You are indebted!" Ramazith snarled, and his eyes dismissed Minsc, appraised Imoen a moment, then Dynaheir, and finally settled on Viconia. "Yes! The dark elf! She will do instead. Yes she will do quite well indeed."
"You fool! " Viconia snarled, and broke from her place by the doorway, stride faster and long for her five feet, her hand's fingers spreading and dropping to her hip like a spider on a thread. "You know nothing of drow female! You want one, you got one!"
Ramazith blanched and backed up until he nearly tripped over the foot of the stairway, then started spellcasting. Onyx moved forward, passing Viconia, and reaching out for a handful of the wizard's robe. "Lightning bolt," Dynaheir called. Ramazith's hands crackled in confirmation. Viconia hopped into Onyx, pushing him out of the path of the bolt as it left the wizard's fingers for the paladin. It passed through her, and she exhaled in relief while dropping to a crouch in an instinctual avoidance of the ricochet, swinging her hammer at Ramazith's knee. Her companions threw themselves this way and that while the lightning bolt bounced around, and the wizard vanished through a contingencied or quickened dimension door.
"I grow weary of those," Onyx grunted a moment later, crawling out from under a table after the lightning bolt discharged.
"The instant escapes or the lightning bolts?" Viconia asked.
"Come to think of it, both," he sighed.
The drow looked upward. "Convinced?" He nodded.
"Okee dokee, time for sneaky," Imoen twisted her mouth. Garrick spellsang, touched her, and she vanished.
Onyx stared at where she had been. A moment of silence passed, and he said, "Okay, Im, you can go."
Viconia chuckled. "She already ascended the stairs."
The paladin gaped. "I didn't even hear."
Neither did mustard jellies, apparently. Imoen wrinkled her nose as she reached the second floor, spotting half a dozen of the oozes that could have passed for the byproduct of a frost giant's cold, if they got them. That line of inquiry helped distract her on her slow, soft-footed ascent to the third floor, which like the second was a single bare open room save for a pair of semicircular floor recesses filled with dirt and home to a floral menagerie most of which Imoen did not recognize, much less could name. She just hoped the plants wouldn't spit or bite or unleash breath weapons; the three ghouls on this floor were unpleasant enough, very stinky, and reminded her of the secret passages in the Cloakwood mine. Sheesh , she thought, if Ramazith can live with their smell, I reeeally don't want to spring open his sock drawer. Worse than a Stinking Cloud trap 'twoud be...
As soon as she hit the fourth floor, which looked just like the last two, she had a moment of relief that it was deserted, then a moment of dread as she felt an uneasy sensation inside. It reminded her of playing with the wand of fire...and as six greenish puffs left a horde of hobgoblin archers standing in the room, grunting, looking around for something to shoot, and chewing plants when they got bored. Remember what Dyna said...summons don't last long, Imoen thought, and left them alone to do just that, studying the stairs as hard as she could in continuing to ascend. All the same, she triggered another magical trap as she reached the fifth floor, and a squad of kobold kommandos appeared and yipped and twanged their bowstrings. Not fair! she thought. There wasn't even a real triggering mechanism...was there?
Fortunately their own guttural yipping kept them no keener to the sound of her than the hobgoblins had been, and yet again she snuck past. She could tell the next room would be the last one, and be Ramazith's own. The first reason was that she had been observant while outside, and counted the number of floors; the pagoda-like bands of wide and thin made that easy. The second reason was she could hear his paranoid mutterings to himself quite closely. She waited and waited, letting the kobolds unsummon, analyzing the patterns of sound from Ramazith, then she crept step by step, each footfall held over the course of several seconds, and she emerged onto the landing of a study; the six radially oriented bookshelves and the curtaining of the windows made the room seem incredibly small. Most of the outer wall was also bookshelf, and two chests and the desk where Ramazith himself sat were the only other furnishings. The wizard was hunched over his desk, arms crossed, muttering, but he did seem to be listening out, presumably for the expected battle sounds of adventurers climbing his tower.
Instead, he got more or less what Ragefast had, the tip of Imoen's whistling short sword (its odd special feature was not really conducive to sneak attacks, she was starting to realize, but the split second had yet to make a difference) striking him just under the left shoulderblade of his hunched-over back. Less, it would turn out: the steel tip punctured the fabric, and then it bounced off his back.
not sure if shoulderblade can be hunched – a back can...
Ramazith shrieked, pushed his chair back nearly hitting Imoen, and turned to reveal hands and face of a pale stone gray. Fiddlestick, Imoen thought, Stoneskin. Note to self, less time pestering cosmetic tips from Viccy, more time learning spellcraft from Dyna...
She stabbed his chest with much the same effect; Ramazith threw his chair at her and began casting while she popped behind a bookshelf and out again. She was panicking and knew she should probably just run for the stairs, the last two floors were empty, but she found herself just hacking at the wizard to no avail, she didn't have the force to just shove him back with her blows like Onyx and Minsc did.
"Owww!" just a moment after the sound of wood smashing behind her, Quayle's voice protested. Imoen spared a glance back, and the gnome became invisible just as an acid arrow left his fingertips. Ramazith threw one of his own at Imoen, she flinched back behind the bookshelf, and it flew over Quayle's head to sputter and dissolve a few of Ramazith's own tomes. The gnome's splashed right over Ramazith's gray face, and he stumbled back against his desk, hands thrown to his face in reflex only to have his fingers corroding as well.
"Let me put that out for you," Quayle giggled, a little sadistically maybe Imoen thought, and spellcasted a blinding orange jet of flame upon his rival wizard.
"Um" Quayle..." Imoen winced, "Fire, books...?"
"Aiee!" the gnome squeaked and desisted his scorching. "Bavaern don't fail me now!" He cast a bit differently; the somatics were much simpler and Imoen recognized only that it was a divine spell. Water dropped right out of the ceiling, drenching Ramazith and the places his flailing arms had brushed.
Imoen fell upon Ramazith, whacking him repeatedly with her sword and sending flakes of stone every which way, then her blade sank in deep in his belly, and she dragged it upwards. "Yech..." she whimpered, pulling back and letting him fall to the floor with an unceremonial gurgle.
Quayle adjusted his spectacles, and looked down pityingly at the wizard. "Those your last words then, mmm?"
A minute later, the horrid smell of cooking undead flesh wafted upward through the stairwell, and another minute until Onyx marched up with green slime streaked on his sword, then Minsc and Garrick with the same. All three were quite relieved to find Imoen quite well (Quayle too) and Ramazith very, very obviously dead.
"Invaluable your help, yes yes," Quayle tipped his bowler hat; "I wish you all the best of all with the doppelgangers and everything. Without my practical and moral inferences at every turn you will doubtless need it."
"You're not coming with us, little traitor?" Viconia inquired. "...not that I would miss the company of a foolish acolyte of a rock-sniffer. Simply, while I enjoy being an estate trader who negotiates with a warhammer, I resent doing it for someone else's sake..."
"I've got a new tower to fix up," Quayle reached up to pat the burnt desk, then hopped back as one of the charred legs snapped and it almost toppled him over, "They don't stay vacant for long, you know. Feel free to stay over and bask in my strategic acumen, spiritual guidance, and witty banter. Write up a joint deed if you really must. I was never much for the taverns in human cities, and Onyx, I know how you've gotten so popular in all the wrong ways."
And an hour later, after the cover of darkness dropped and a much needed dinner had been had for seven, said paladin and his five faithful friends (or four friends and one calculatedly loyal lover) were plodding back to the lower city, the business district, and the Seven Suns.
"We didn't appraise the tower carefully," Viconia grumbled to Onyx, "I'd stake your life on it that that tedious gnome got an outrageous share..."
From the back of the party, Imoen clutched a hefty manual and smiled as Garrick glanced over to inspect what he had minutes ago identified for her as a 'tome of clear thought'. "...Oh, I don't know about that," she whispered back.
69. Nymph Maniacs
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