Halia Thorton looked out at the city of Phandalin as its hustle and bustle of the day begun to wind down for the evening. With the sun slowly setting over the Altata Sea shining on her, the old beak of a nose drew in the wild country air that wafted in through her window, clean and crisp as a draught from a mountain spring. The air out here was refreshing, almost invigorating, bringing a clear head with ever sniff and a bit of peace in her heart towards the conditions of her displacement so far from her manor near the sea. The air was one of the few things she actually liked out here in the Wild Frontier, that and maybe the newest Fangs who, thanks to her leadership and direction, were more of her fangs than belonging to the black network. Everything else in this city, from the people to the houses, the wild animals to the weather, she held with a special sort of contempt, the way one would view iron bars or shackles or guards when they have been wrongly imprisoned for intangible crimes. To her, Phandalin was sort of a prison. A place carved out in the world for her to sit and wait while the Zhentarim waited for her to either die or to do something that would require her to be killed. But she wasn’t going to wait for either, not her.
She pulled away from the window, taking in one last sniff of air, and turned herself to the kitchen counter. Laying out on the smooth marbled slab, nearly double her diminutive height, were all the ingredients she needed for tonight’s meal. A chicken, plucked and skinned and stuffed with bread crumbs, fresh tomatoes, sweet corn, and greens from the Alderleaf farm, and a loaf of bread fresh from the Stonehill Inn, which surprised her the most being cooked by the drooling goblin Droop, or drop, or whatever the horrid little creature was named. Above them hung from low hanging hooks, were cloves of garlic, leaves of basil, parsley, sage, and yew; all dried and ready to be picked and added, releasing their aromatic odors throughout the kitchen. Against the wall, just shy of her reach without the use of the stepping stool old Mal Tresendar had made her, before his little misjudgment had caught him a horrid case of death, were nearly three dozen little glass jars of herbs and spices from all across the civilized world, some even coming from as far south as Guardia and the Ashen plains. Sitting over the small stove across from the counter, a pot boiled with potatoes and carrots, dashed with salt and complimented by hunks of fresh yew-pork, which hissed quietly as she began to prepare the chicken. And in a basin of under the window just next to the stone, a bottle of rhubarb wine was resting in a bucket of cool water from the stream. Just seeing all of this made Halia smile, a real smile. Thoughts of gold, iron ore, Gundren and his “deals,” or the Zhentarim and their constant “letters” – threats, more like it – washed away from her like castles made of sand during high tide. She took another breath, and began to rub the chicken with the her own selection of herbs and spices, humming a tune that she half remembered from her days spent swaddling against her mother.
As she placed the chicken into a pan and slid it into the oven which sat beside the spit, she felt that old shiver of usefulness creep into her gaunt frame. Not that she wasn’t useful these days, seeing as she was the Zhentarim’s eyes and ears out here so far away from the civilized world, and an important member of this pissant community; but that was different, that was strictly business. No, what she felt was more akin to a maternal feeling of usefulness, a desire to be needed and loved. At least, seeing as she had never been with child, that is what she believed it to be. A type of need from another that had nothing to do with gold or business or passion, the latter of which being much fewer and farther between these since coming out here; but somewhere ineffable that gave her a likewise feeling. A feeling that drove her, for no real reason, to set aside her evenings of dragon-ante or tiles or chatting with Ms Alderleaf, and into the kitchen to cook.
Normally Halia didn’t cook much, especially since being sent out here to Phandalin. She found that, at her advanced age of nearly one hundred years, apatite was just one of those things that faded with youth, much like passionate flames, surprise in an individual’s dishonesty, or caring about what others thought about you when they were people you cared very little for yourself. If she was hungry for something other than a few slices of lemon cake washed down with tea or sweet bread from the Stonehill Inn, she would call upon her assistants, Vex or Abigale, to either fetch or cook something for her. But she loved to cook, deep down, and even more so, she loved cooking for those who appreciated it and for those she appreciated enough to call as regular company. So every Demues, when the city was winding down, after she had closed up the Miner’s Exchange for the evening, answered her letters from the Zhentarim, and filed away all of her receipts into her comically large ledger; she prepared a meal for her Fangs.
At the dinner table Halia looked around at her Fangs, and that smile returned to her face. They were her Fangs, regardless of the Zhentarim’s claim on them, and seeing them each enjoy the meal over pleasant conversations and shared stories made the tiresome process of working away in the kitchen seem to be even more rewarding than her seventy-odd years of climbing through the ranks of the black network. No, she thought, these aren’t their fangs. While they can bite and gnash, and cut when they are needed to, they aren’t an extension of the black network to be used, they’re not tools of the Zhentarim’s shadowy craft.
When the meal was finally finished, when the wine was uncorked and poured, and when the orange glow of the setting sun was overtaken by the vibrant blues and purples of the night sky, dotted with the first gleaming constellations; Halia pushed the remnants of her meal aside and listened to, laughed with, and loved her company even more. No, these are not the Zhentarim’s fangs, she thought to herself, they aren’t my fangs either. They aren’t even fangs at all, but family. Incorrigible as they may be, intolerable as they can behave at times, these are my children. This is my family.
But as her smile crossed her face, there was a sour note in her soul. The dinner, even with all that love that was put in it, and all that love that was emanated from enjoying it, was more or less a formality; and that pained Halia like a dagger of ice to the heart.
“Time for tea,” Cadencia asked Halia from across the table, noticing the waning smile on the old woman’s face.
“I believe so, child,” Halia said, trying to keep her voice as even as possible. Inside though the dagger of ice dug deeper and deeper into her. Looking around the table, listening to the faltering of lighthearted conversation as her Fangs began to focus their attention on her. In their eyes she could see herself, feel herself being examined, judged, mistrusted. She felt like the entirety of the Zhentarim itself, naked on its knees and called to answer for its legacy of deceit among the world, and her lips crooked down on her face, turning her pleasant look of an elderly den mother into that of an old crone.
“So tomorrow we leave with the wizards,” Taros said after taking a pull from his mug of ale and wiping his beard. “But I’m assuming there’s something else you’d like us to do.”
Is it that obvious, she wanted to say. Please believe me that I wish it wasn’t like this, she wanted to say, please believe me that I want to believe our dinners and our friendships have little to nothing to do with the jobs you’re assigned to do, jobs that could very well spell the end to not just any by all of you in the blink of an eye, ripping away from me the only true sense of family I have ever known since joining the black network and becoming interwoven in their black practices and black lies. All of which, she didn’t say. As she nodded her head in reply, only years of practice kept her heart from causing her tongue to wag with the sorrow that billowed within.
“Something Vex or Abigale forgot to fill us in on?” Varis asked as he crossed his arms. To Halia, the way he now looked sitting there compared to how he had looked while eating was like looking at a ceremonial statue adorning the resting sight of a fallen child. He was wild, she knew, dangerous even; but when he let himself smile, he could fool a kingdom of Northern highborns into believe that wood elfs and high elfs were one in the same.
“They have been busy,” Cadencia said, returning with the tea, “they were working on my pendant, and that staff you found, Varis.”
Halia watched the young teifling make her way around the table, delicately moving as a summer breeze through a patch of golden wheat as she offered tea to everyone. As usual, it would only be tea for two, as Cadencia would say after each Demues dinner, being declined the offer of tea by Taros, who preferred his ale, Dexter, who would stick to wine, and Varis, who didn’t drink much of anything besides water or milk. She is a striking girl, Halia thought as she watched Cadencia. In her I see every bit of fire that was used to forge me, every bit of cunning and grace; but those horns, and those scars, poor thing. And inside her she felt that cold pain twist, commanding her to forget the business of their relationship, to end the evening with good tidings and smiles instead of – no, it has to be this way. At least for a little bit longer.
“Just tea for two then,” Halia finally said, looking up at the girl.
“Like always,” Cadencia said, winking her odd colored eye and smiling.
Halia smiled faintly as Cadencia took a seat next to her.
“No thank you, dear,” Halia said.
“That’s right, you’re sweet enough already.” And there was that smile again. Fiendish, yes, glinting with those sharp teeth – no, fangs – but exuberant, kind, playful. Perhaps there is no forge to shape her, unless it be those of the very abyss itself.
“So what oversight did they make this time,” Dexter asked with a yawn.
“Not an oversight,” Halia said. “As much as Vex and Abigale are distracted by their tasks here in town, causing them to be somewhat forgetful, this isn’t something that could be helped.”
“Change of plans?” Taros asked, wiping his beard free of droplets of ale again.
“Not entirely,” Halia replied. “You see, what I’m about to tell you does not involve them, and, more importantly, they must not know.”
And there it was. As if the shade of night had dropped over the city of Phandalin like the moon cut from the cord tying it to the heavens, Halia felt all the pleasantness and warmth inside of her spill out into some unknown place, hidden from even her, only to be replaced by the old crone, the dealer, the eyes and ears of the Zhentarim so far from its hedonistic den of lies.
“Do you know where you are off to tomorrow,” Halia asked.
“To the south near the Needle Woods and the Etten Moors of the Wilds, Hamarin I believe,” Varis said.
Halia nodded. “Yes,” she said. After taking a sip of her tea, not tasting it, she continued. “Hamarin has been on my mind since I was displaced out here some ten years ago. It’s strange and powerful history, and even stranger sudden departure from the world of ruling kingdoms that rivaled even those of the Northern Realm during their height, has always struck me as odd.”
“More odd than Phandalin?” Cadencia asked.
“Phandalin I understand,” Halia said. “It was once a great city fueled by the nearby river for trade and the minerals mined from the Wave Echo Caves, as well as the Phandelver pact. It’s fall was also no mystery. It was the center of the War of the Red Mages, and with the loss of the Forge of Spells as well as the mines, it only made sense for this city to become abandoned in those days, but not Hamarin. Hamarin was different. It was an enigma all on its own.”
“What makes Hamarin so different?” Cadencia asked.
“What do you normally look for when you start a city?”
There was a moment of silence as the members of the table looked around at each other. Each one of them weighing the question their own way inside their minds.
“A mine,” Taros said.
“There were no mines in Hamarin,” Cadencia said, rolling her strange eyes.
“And how do you know?” Taros snapped.
“Have you looked at a map, rock rider?” Cadencia shot back. “You can’t mine in the fields or the swamps, and that’s all that surrounds the old city.”
Taros grunted, mumbling something about how little devils knew about mining.
“He is right, you know,” Dexter said. “If we’re just talking about starting a city, you need resources. Something from the land. It could be forests for lumber, mines for ore or minerals or whatever, beasts to hunt. As long as you have some type of resource of the land to exploit,” Dexter snapped his fingers, causing a coin to seemingly appear out of thing air between his fingers, “you have the perfect place to start a city.”
“A river, as well,” Varis said.
“All of which are true,” Halia said, smiling to herself behind her cup of tea. “Resources and a source of trade, whether that be a river or highroad, all of those together make for the good foundations of a city. But Hamarin didn’t have any of those. It wasn’t near a river, only surrounded by a swamp. There were no forests for lumber or mines for ore and minerals. There were no fertile fields for farming, and no game to hunt other than toads and crocodiles. The entire area was little more than a giant wash of flat lands and bogs cut off from the rest of the world by jagged lands of shear stone. But, during its height, during the peak of its existence, Hamarin was booming kingdom of splendor overflowing with power. From all across the world people would visit Hamarin for trade, for knowledge, for ideas; kings and queens from all over the Realms would come travel great distances just to view its glory.
“And then, practically over night, the city just faded away. The population vanished and the surrounding lands became even more hostile than before.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t heard the old stories about Hamarin,” Dexter said, looking at Taros. “Said it was protected from invaders by a labyrinth with such fine stone work that it would have put the stone masters of the sunken kingdoms beneath the sea to shame.”
“And I heard stories that gnomes are akin to nymphs and fairies,” Taros replied sharply, “but you are nowhere near the beauty and slapping your behind will likely make you cry instead of granting me a wish.”
The two of them eyed each other from opposite ends of the table. Halia watched them as contempt began to push through. There was no more of those maternal feelings rolling inside her heart, not when she was – “What caused Hamarin to collapse?” Varis asked, holding up the flat of his hand and scowling at the dwarf and gnome.
“No one knows,” Halia said, ignoring the indigent stares the gnome and dwarf were exchanging. “Not one person,” she continued. “Some attribute the war of the Red Mages to this, but the dates don’t entirely line up. But, what’s even more queer is that there is no word or sign of one of Hamarin’s ruling class, or their blood line, to ever be tracked down anywhere in the civilized world at all.”
“None?” Cadencia asked, absorbing the story as if it was a bedtime tale.
“Not one,” Halia said. “Not even their middle or lower class, either. It’s as if the entire population just up and vanished, swallowed into a void of nothingness, leaving behind ruins of the once great city as a tomb stone marking their existence.
“But do you want to know what I think?” Halia asked. Looking around she could see that she had regained the groups attention. No longer were Dexter and Taros peering at each other with their dark eyes, waiting to leave the dining hall to exchange blows. Cadencia, wrapped in the story like a downy blanket, sipping her tea as her pointed ears flicked with excitement.
“I’m going to tell you a story that may seem long, but it is important, very important, that you know the details,” Halia said.
This story takes place when the world was much, much different than it is now; in a time so far back that the great cog of time had yet to begin its ceaseless spinning through the eons. Before the war between the Feywild and the Shadow fell, before the descent of the fallen into the abyssal realm, even before the gods gave shape to the material realm. In that unimaginable time, before the gods even looked upon the world, there was but one creature swimming in the primordial ooze: the Aboleth. It is not known where they came from or what their history was, but after the gods had shaped the world with their power and populated it with life, the Aboleth hid and watched and waited. It is said that in those times, when the ether of creation still hung heavy in the sky as great ribbons of color beyond that which we can comprehend, the Aboleth surfaced from the depths and laid dominion over all that was created. Their deep magic turned the budding forests into twisted shambles of blackened trees, oceans of crystal clear water always cool to the touch into bone dry deserts, and the gentle hills of the early lands into jagged mountains filled with vile darkness only seconded by the Aboleth themselves.
It was then, when the clouds became soot and the very air of the world poisonous to breath, that the first creatures with thought, elves, or humans perhaps, though some say it could have been an earlier creature that had fathered all of the races in the good graces of the gods, cried out to the gods for salvation; and the gods answered. Sending down a countless regiment of devi, angels, demi-gods, even devils and demons who had yet to fall from their heights into the abyss; the gods led a terrible army to quell the threat of the Aboleth. The war lasted an eternity and reshaped the cosmos. It was after then, that the material world was divided into three, separating the poisoned from the blessed, creating the Feywild to house the elves and fey creatures empowered by the gods and the Shadowfell to imprison the fell beasts tainted by the Aboleth. The great Cog of Time was then spun, pushing the world of that instant constantly further from the events of that war. But the Aboleths did not perish, for their bodies were tethered to the very fabric of the material realm itself. Instead they put all of their remaining powers into the last unformed stone, calling it the Aboleth stone, an artifact that exists beyond the reaches of time. It protected them, hid them, gave birth to them when their mortal bodies were slain, and within it there was a dark, ancient power that could kill gods. When the hunt for the Aboleth was over, the dark creatures slunk to the depths of the ocean, passing down their memories from generation to generation, always plotting and planning for their next attempt to regain the world.
As time moved on the world rose and fell and rose again a countless number of times, only known by the gods themselves, those of which who have remained that is to say; there came a point where the gods began to war among themselves. While it is not known how it started, though some suggest the Aboleth may have had some involvement, it caused a great shift in the cosmos. In the time of the Descent, when half of the gods fell into darkness, and became swallowed by the Abyss, twisting them into Demons and Devils; the Aboleth seized the opportunity to strike the gods when they were weak, killing many of them. In an act of retaliation, Bahamut, with Torm riding on his back, struck the waters of the oceans apart, raising the Aboleth and their hidden kingdom from the ocean depths, and set forth a new host of angles and devi and demi-gods and many other astral creatures to purge the material realm, and the cosmos, of the Aboleth threat. Torm ripped the Aboleth Stone from their slimy kingdom, but he could not destroy it. So he raised a continent from the ocean depths and dug a deep pit into it of iron and stone. In the pit he placed the Aboleth Stone and filled it with icy waters, around which he created an astral boundary that could only be crossed by the gods, or their mortal hosts forever hidden from what Aboleth that might remain; and then he buried it under rock and stone and clay and mud.
The Aboleth’s did return, however, for they have been seen. They are in small numbers though, licking their wounds from the ages that have passed away from the world in the darkened depths of the ocean floors. But their power has forever been weakened. However terrible they are, rendering some parts of the wide oceans unsafe for travel, without the Aboleth Stone, a wondrous artifact filled with their ancient knowledge and power, they are nothing more than another beast – and any beast can be slain, or controlled.
Halia stopped her story and sipped her tea. It was cold now and the mint leaves had started to break apart causing a small amount of grit to cascade along her failing teeth. The smoke of the story swirled in her head with questioning tendrils as it did when she heard it the first time so long ago during an early Altra morning mass when she was still yet to be upon her womanhood. The questions she had back then were much different as she sipped her tea and gazed about her dining room. In the dim orange light of the fire, seeing the faces of her listeners about their own idling as they pondered her story, she remember that the lesson of the old tale, as directed by the cleric who happened to be leading the mass that Altra council, was that of the power of gods when they worked together, which was broken down in the every day life to be a message about following virtues not of your own, but goodly in and of themselves.
She took another sip of her tea and placed down her glass. Cadencia was up now, pulling the curtains of Halia’s windows closed. Outside Halia could see the thin crescent moon, paired by the completed circlet halo that was just now beginning to spin, bringing it’s ancient starry companions with it. Varis was placing wood on the fire, turning the coals gently as he listened. Dexter sat quietly, scratching the soft whiskers on his chin as a coin flipped in his fingers, rolling from knuckle to knuckle almost as loose as a droplet of water. Taros remained where he was when the story began, moving only to exchange a glance to the others and to sip at his ale, which was now warm. That is one thing Halia could say carries through no matter who she’s trying to be. Whether the mother or the viper, the friend or the business partner, the raw iron that once was a woman or the thing the Zhentarim forged; the way a story is woven transcends every angle, and a story teller transcends every incarnation. It was funny to her how she could remember that tale so vividly, not just its weaving but how it was woven for her as a child, all those years ago when her mother would take her to Service on Altra and Alirst, and how something so unrelated as a clergy lesson in those innocent years seemed to play a reoccurring role in her adulthood among the blackened vipers of the Zhentarim, where the only dealing with clergy was underhanded if at all.
“And then what happened,” Taros asked, breaking the silence of the room.
Halia’s smile returned as she regarded the dwarf. They were simple people, all stone and iron and ale, and a good story goes a long way with them, but her smile was shortly soured when Varis turned his back to the fire, which was now casting a brighter light across the dining room creating his figure an almost duplicate of that which the black network portrayed through the underbelly of all the great cities where they sunk their fangs.
“More importantly,” Varis said, returning to his seat. “What does this have to do with Hamarin, and our mission?”
“To the point as always, just like a true Fang,” Halia said, trying to match his question in tone.
“Years went on,” Halia started, “Years upon years. Kingdoms rose and fell, some that were never known and some that have yet to be uncovered. But where the story picks up is quite recent.
“A few months before Gundren took you on your wild adventure for the Forge of Spells, an Ardragon Zhentarim, a dwarf named Harbek Strakeln, acting on his own accord took a regiment of Zhentarim scouts, aids, and warriors with him to the ruins of Hamarin. He did not say why, and, seeing as he was an Ardragon and all, was questioned very little, but watched very closely. Through the corespondents between the Zhentarim spies that were sent with him and the black network, word of the Aboleth Stone camp up.”
“The one from the story?” Taros asked.
“We weren’t certain,” Halia replied. “There have been hundreds of claims by thousands of adventures throughout the ages pertaining to the whereabouts of such an artifact, and each one more fruitless than the last; but there was something about this claim which seemed to be more promising than one could imagine. But, where most would see the prospect of finding the Aboleth Stone as a great benefit in the right hands, being able to channel a limitless source of knowledge that ranges back before the gods had descended upon the word, the black network knew of the risk. At least, that’s what the Zhentarim leaders said.”
“So then what happened?” Cadencia asked.
“The same thing that happens every time a member of the Zhentarim move the black hand where the whole doesn’t want it,” Halia replied.
“They cut it off,” Dexter said.
“Precisely,” Halia said, smirking. “An order was passed down to the spies among Harbek to see that he was silenced with his claims, forever, be them true or just a wild jaunt through the wilds; and silence was all that came in return.”
The fire crackled as Halia’s dinner party exchanged glances, when finally Cadencia spoke up. “What of the spies?”
“The Zhentarim are divide about what exactly transpired when the orders were handed down,” Halia said.
“Some believe that the wild lands of the Frontier simply swallowed them up bit by bit, scattering their corpses along the unknown lands; while others believe that they were paid off by Harbek, or that they were conspirators who went against the orders of the Zhentarim and, after finding Harbek’s claims of the Aboleth Stone false, turned on him and then fled their separate was across Altara.”
“But you believe differently,” Varis stated bluntly.
“Very much so,” Halia said. “And while this is all just a hunch” – one that found you out here in the first place, “the prospect of finding such an artifact is too overwhelming to overlook. Sure, the black network would prefer that something like this would remain undercover, buried in the sands of time and forgotten, especially seeing as it took a lot of foot work to cover up Harbek’s sudden disappearance among all of those he knew; but there’s no way for them to know what happens out here when their eyes and eaters, me, aren’t looking or listening.”
After Halia finished she drew her tea up again and took another sip. It was cold now, as chilly as the winds that will soon blow across the land as the summer died. Even now, as the evening winds began to glide across the plains around Phandalin, she new the harsh winter of the plains was soon on its way; and she would be damned by all the rings of hell to spend one more winter bundled in furs and skins near and iron furnace waiting for the ice to melt off into another dreary, wet spring. She wanted out of this wild land, away from these farmers and miners and sellswords with less coin in their purse than wits in their head. She was respected here, that was true, sitting on Phandalin’s council as well as owning a share in nearly all business that passed through these lands; but that’s what stewards were for, people to sit in her stead while you finished off your life in your home back west, along the shore, listening to the call of seagulls and the gentle crash of wives. And this could be the ticket home, she thought, this could be a way back into the good graces of the Zhentarim. But as she looked at the group contemplating the prospects in their own thoughts, casting questioning glances at one another, she kept the desperation from her face. She kept her face as the shadows she worked for, empty.
“Not to mention,” she added, “That if such a discovery was made, and the whereabouts of those who had turned their backs on a direct order from the Zhentarim were located, the black network would have no choice than to roll out the red carpet for us, all of us, to climb in rank.”
“What will be required of us if we decide to take you up on this -” Varis started, choked as he decided his words carefully, “request.”
“And what will the pay be like?” Cadencia added, almost on the heels of Varis.
“The pay will be what I can get for the stone,” Halia offered with a smile. “A wondrous artifact never gets sold too quickly, but neither does its price ever waver below that of an outstanding amount. But unlike the treasures that you bring to me in the name of the Zhentarim, this one will be split evenly between us all.”
“Even between the Paladin and the Cleric,” Dexter asked.
“And why shouldn’t it,” Cadencia started at the gnome. “They’ll be going along with us, I believe. Cidem and Jhonen might even know a bit more about it, seeing as it has to do with the gods and the elder times.”
“You’re just saying that because you’ve taken a fancy to one of them,” Taros laughed, his smile showing through his beard. “Or both.”
“Shut up, stone rider,” Cadencia returned.
“Fiend spawn,” he replied.
“Enough,” Varis said, bringing his hand down on the table.
“You may count the paladin and the cleric in on these plans,” Halia said. “While I never learned to trust the men of the cloth, with their honeyed words of the worlds after and their usual take to the drink to avoid the realities here below, they have proved to be trusty worthy companions to you, for a multitude of reasons.” Halia locked eyes with the teifling, who tried to hide a smirk on her lips as her eyes quickly moved about the room with a flush on her face.
“But to the wizards you shall not speak a word, nor will you mention any of this to Vex or Abigale, they are too close to the pulse of the black network. You are to make sure the wizards arrive to Hamarin safely. During the time it takes to set up their little experiment, which should be several days I am told, you are to explore the ruins of the old city, starting with their Grand Hall, that seems to be where Harbek had last stuffed his dwarven nose before the trail went cold.”
After a moment Dexter straightened in his chair, the coin in his fingers seemingly vanished in his palms. “What does the Aboleth Stone do, exactly?”
“It is said it can kill a god,” Halia answered.