Valeria wakes up late. In her dream, she had been back in Arcadia, walking through deep forest, and the sky peeking through treetops had felt impossibly far away.
She spent some time brushing out Chow Chow. His fur always seemed to be damp down here, and she worried that he was growing fungus in there.
When she finished she tried to check on Carol. Valeria had questions about the city, and the Drow could be helpful to her, but she wasn’t in her room, or the common room, either. When she asked the innkeep, he told her that Carol had gone out with Bertram early that morning, to a place called the gnomeland.
Valeria hurried to catch up.
Just walking the streets here gave her a headache. Ever since Edrick had blessed her, she could feel the presence of evil as a low buzzing ache in her skull, and this place made her head hurt constantly. It was a low sort of evil, mostly, but it was constant and steady and she hated it.
Twenty minutes later, she was lost. The pain in her head was so distracting that she could;t keep her sense of direction, and the streets seemed to twist constantly.
She stopped and cleared her head, feeling for a place where the evil wasn’t. A safe place to ask for directions.
“Madam,” says Chow Chow, as the pair stops in front of an undecorated door. There is a smoky fog billowing out of it that smells like a mixture of fruit, sweet trash, and armpits. “I do not think this is the best idea.”
But Valeria’s headache retreats to a dull throb as she pokes her head into the doorway.
The scene resembles a kind of peaceful squalor. There are drow laying around the room on lounges, on blankets, or on the ground.
A drow steps out from a bank of pipes and glass bowls connected to mouth pieces. “Dosst l’thi h’ros doer wun ghil,” she says, pointing to Chow Chow. “Whol natha penis, dos shlu’ta chu’tgera l’tresk’ri tarthe.”
“Do you speak common? Or is there someone here who does? I’m looking to get directions. And my dog is not for sale, if that’s what you’re asking.”
The drow frowns, seems to think things over, and says, “You only say human? How disgusting. This is a hash den. I accomplish no desire to buy your beast, but it cannot come in here. It will frighten my customers. Where are you trying to go?”
Valeria looks deeper into the hash den and realizes that the absence of evil isn’t the result of anyone particularly good inside, but because no one in there seems to have much will to do anything at all.
“The Gnomeland,” she stammers. “The bar. A friend of mine went there, and I’m trying to find him.”
The drow sneers, but gives Valeria directions to Gnomeland. They sound straightforward when she tells Valeria where to go (go straight, turn after this many blocks, if you see the sign with the gaping orifice you’ve gone too far), but the narrow, winding streets prove disorienting once the paladin is out in them.
Valeria sees the gaping orifice painted on the sign above a small inn and groans. “So if I turn and go back one block, then I go right instead of left, because I’m going the other way…unless the sign is more than a block past…Chow Chow, I hate this place.”
She backtracks, turning right, and walking a short way, she finds it. The Gnomeland. The sign above the door is a sort of deeper dark pastoral; small mushroom houses set into the bank of an underground river, painted in purples and pinks.
And standing under the doorway, looking almost as lost as Valeria feels, is Bea Purplebottom.
Valeria calls out to Bea, but before she gets an answer the door opens, and she sees sees Carol being tugged out onto the street by a rough looking deep gnome.
“C’mon then, yer Baroness-ness!” says Roger, shouldering past Bea.
Volcano growls and nips at Roger’s back — Roger starts and yanks on Carol/Ann’s arm.
“Oh — Bea!” says Carol/Ann.
“Ann!” says Chow Chow.
“Chow Chow!” says Carol/Ann. “Valeria!”
“Eh?” says Roger.
Valeria’s eyes narrow. “Carol, is this gnome bothering you?”
Roger looks from Valeria to Carol and back — he drops her hand.
“Oh, ahh, we’re all on the level, eh?” He taps a finger to his nose. “Naw, just escorting — Carol — back to the Nest.”
Carol looks flustered. “I — think I like him,” she says. “He is calling me a Baroness.”
Valeria’s eyes un-narrow. “Oh! Right! Baroness. Yes, we avoid her titles on the street. We never know who might be listening.”
Valeria looks up at Bea and thinks about their conversation last night while they were laying in their bunks.
“Actually, if you are willing to escort us, we are in need of a wizard. A powerful one.”
Valeria’s head throbs particularly hard for a moment and she winces. “There is a catch though. This wizard. He can’t be…you know…evil.”
“That was almost a very easy request,” Roger says. “Wizard, very powerful — check. But then — not evil? That is harder.”
He frowns, rubs his nose and tugs his beard, tapping his foot.
“I don’t know if we have that combination in Erelhei-Cinlu. I know of a — well, he’s kind of a loner? Stays out of errrr, noble affairs, if the lady don’t mind my saying so. Name of Orlo. Very powerful. Very old. Plays by the rules, if that makes sense? But definitely evil tho.”
“I don’t mean to imply we’re all evil down here,” Roger says. “I’m not. No offense, m’lady,” he says to Carol. “It’s just that, y’know. Anyone of consequence is. Evil, I mean.”
“Hmm, if he plays by the rules, then he can’t be all evil. We will try him. Can you show us where to find Orlo?”
Valeria turns to Bea and whispers, “We might be able to make you young again, if you want it. But keep an eye out…or, er, I mean watch out for…, or…oh, just pay attention. If you see anything evil happening, tell me right away. We don’t want to be involved in any of that.”
“Oh, to be young again,” says Bea. “I would like that of all things. Maybe this Orlo has a way, though it’s hard to imagine how. If it were easy, you’d assume everyone would be after such a thing.”
How strange it was to talk to this young woman, the child of Jongle fully grown! The age would be as her own daughter, if only… If only what?Bea had yet to fully understand what had happened to her in those ensuing years with… him. Tristan. And she his wife, and her dear phantom children, and 40 long years of life. And then to wake among her companions, friends she hadn’t thought about for years, for them as if no time had passed. Time was wild and amoral and it conspired to rob us of sanity. Is youth so precious, was she so greedy for more life, that she could look to evil to place her old soul back in a shell familiar to her friends, strong and lovely and new? Perhaps only those lonely mad liches in their eternal myopic arcane hells knew the answer.
“Anyway, I’ll keep my eyes peeled,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve had a chance to say so yet, Valeria, but it’s really nice to have another lady romping around here.”
Roger leads Bea, Valeria, and Carol/Ann through the windy city streets. He explains that Orlo is a deep gnome wizard, very very old, and set in his ways.
Orlo’s home is in a spooky and run-down — even for the drow city — part of town. It is a one-story stone building surrounded by taller, darkened, and seemingly abandoned buildings.
“The ritual for meeting Orlo,” Roger explains, “is that you knock on the door, perhaps stepping aside in case he attacks you through it without asking who you are first. But then if he invites you in — you are safe! Oh, and he might ask to drink your blood, but he is honor-bound to respect your wishes in this regard. He is a vampire, you see.”
Valeria leans back in towards Bea. “A vampire!” she whispers. “Of course that’s the least evil wizard down here. Tou know, the last time I dealt with an evil wizard things went south pretty fast. Of course, he was a Rakshasa, not a Vampire. I needed his whiskers for a paintbrush.”
“Be on the look ou—I mean keep your eyes peele— oh you know what I mean.”
Valeria raps her knuckles on the door and then steps to the side quickly.
After a moment of quiet, the door bursts open with a bolt of electricity. The hair stands up on the arms & neck of anyone within a few feet of the building.
After another moment of quiet, a low and dusty voice calls out: “If you are alive, and if you are meaning me no harm — come in. Enter my home.”
“Nice lighting bolt, sir! No, we don’t mean any harm!” Whispers: “Why don’t you lead us on in, V?”
“That voice seems awfully gentle for a homicidal lightning vampire,” Valeria whispers back, and then she steps in through the front door.
“Hello, we’re looking for Orlo the Wizard. We’ve heard he is quite fearsome and powerful, but also fair, and maybe kind?”
“Bah!” spits the voice. “I am he, I am Orlo. You are in — my realm.”
The room around Valeria is very much like a hole in the ground — a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell. It is also filled with a small table and some stools, piles of papers and books, and bookcases proper. Everything smells damp and moldy and near unto death.
In the middle of it all is Orlo: a deep gnome, clearly long dead and also long un-dead. His head is bald and pale, his ears are long and pointed. He has teeth like a rabbit — long, extended past his lips almost like they are too big for his mouth. They are pointed. His eyes are dark and bloodshot. His fingernails are long and they clack together.
“If you mean no harm to me, ehhhh — you are safe here. You velcome.”
Orlo pushes some books off of some stools and offers seats to Valeria and Bea.
“You two are velcome. That one —” and he points at Carol/Ann — “that one is a spy for the others. She is not velcome. Vhat do you — ehhh — vant?”
Orlo appears to be gathering small, dust-covered cups, blowing the dust out of them (mostly) and filling them with the dark, red liquid from a bottle.
Carol/Ann hesitates at the doorway to the dank hole — as does Volcano, as does Chow Chow.
“Carol, you don’t need to hide just because Mr. Orlo is being rude.”
“We know just who she is, thank you, and she has proven to be quite trustworthy. We will vouch for her.”
Orlo sneers — “Then you are agents of the illithid — or you are fools! Either vay, Orlo cannot help you.”
With a shaky hand, he tries to pour the red liquid in the cups back into the dusty bottle.
“Oh, now that’s just silly! I am Valeria Janglemancer, Paladin of Edrick Half-Ogre, first of that order. This is Bea Purplebottom of the something or other Purplebottoms—Bea, where is your family from again?—and this is Carol-Anne, who used to be an agent of the illithid, but who is making her own descions these days. Isn’t that right Carol?”
“Um, except for when you tell me what to do, yes,” says Carol/Ann.
Orlo’s bushy eyebrows knit together as he regards the group with deep suspicion.
“Vhat … do you vant,” he says.
“Anyway I’m sure by now you have sensed that we’re no fools” says Bea," nor are we weak. We’ve killed illithids and other fouler things than, though perhaps not so powerful as you to bring us to your audience. There may be or maybe not things we can learn from one another, in time, I suppose. But what a shame if such an interesting opportunity for a bargain were to end before it began, don’t you agree?"
Orlo sniffs and licks from his hand the sticky red liquid that has spilled on his hand. He offers none to his guests.
“I do not vant a student,” he says. “I killed the last one. That was … ehhh, I don’t remember. A long time ago. She was fool. I sense only vanting from you — no power. But you vill not say vhat it is.”
There is a scuttling from deeper within the hole — there is a tumbling of loose soil. A wrapped and rotting creature shambles from the dirt — has it emerged from a deeper warren? From the wall itself? — carrying a tray. On the tray is a rotting mound of something that may have been … cheese (???) and a pile of small bones.
“There is refreshment,” says Orlo, gesturing to the creature and the tray. “You are not scared of Orlo. Perhaps you need to be.”
“Hmm, well I’m sorry if we got all this off on the wrong foot. We didn’t mean any disrespect. You see, we’re looking to purchase something. Bea was aged prematurely, and we are looking for an elixir of youth. To restore her. Roger here told us that of all the wizards here in town, you were the most…fair.”
His dark eyes sparkle. He rubs his hands together and his long nails clack against themselves.
“Elixir of youth? Oh, haha — hahaha — moo-hoo-hahahaaaaa, why yes, Orlo has elixir of youth! A limitless supply!”
He seems to glide over the dirt floor to Bea with alarming speed, stopping just short of physical contact.
“Is this your desire … Beatrice Purplebottom?”
“Frankly, I’m not really sure, to tell you the truth.”
Bea, increasingly distressed by the seeming presence of a rotting animated corpse in the same room, and the odd vile lascivious eagerness of this Orlo, raises her clawed hand to tap once at her opaline eye in blackness, a new gesture she’d adopted, a reminder of all that she had allowed to spiral out of control in her life. There was a time when she reveled in that.
“I’m just so tired. I’m sorry… Thank you for seeing us. I think I’d better leave.”
Volcano, growling low, edges her toward the door.
“Oh!” Orlo seems momentarily transfixed by Bea’s plink on her opal eyeball. “You are blind. I had not noticed this — so strange. That is something Orlo could legitimately fix, should you desire to … make deal.”
The rotting, bandaged corpse holds the door open for Bea and Valeria’s exit.
“If not,” says Orlo, “I bid you … farewell.”
“You can fix my eyes? What would you ask in return?”
“You … could see as Orlo sees. Invisible creatures made visible. Hidden doors made plain. Illusions? Bah! As nothing to you. Ahh, but…”
Orlo steps away from Bea and strides around his muddy room.
“Orlo is kept here by a promise, and a curse. Orlo has much business in the vorld. Much enemies. You would destroy one of them. Bring his head to Orlo, as proof. And then, could your opals see. They vould see true, for as long as you have them in your head.”
“We have gold to pay you, or gems,” says Valeria. “We are not assassins, sent out to murder for coin.”
“That doesn’t sound unreasonable,” says Bea. “I appreciate the bargain, thanks. Tell me, who would you have destroyed?”
“Bea!” Valeria whispers, “we are not just going to kill someone because he does;t like them. That’s just…evil!”
“Yeah, but… what if it’s someone who we’d want to remove from this plane anyway?” whispers Bea. “Some people just got to go.”
“That is for the law and the gods to decide, not some shaky old vampire!” Valeria says, much too loud.
“He is old, fat drow, kept as incubus in the House Tormtor. They are a veak house. His name is Trill. He is old, he is fat, he is close to dying comfortably in his bed. I vish him to die in blood. By the point of a blade. I vould vish him to know it vas Orlo who villed this to be.”
Orlo looks to Valeria. “Shaky old vampire? Valeria Janglemancer, Paladin of Edrick Half-Ogre, First of Her Order. Father is dead. Mother is — ahh, long, long dead.”
Orlo closes his eyes, he seems to be looking somewhere else, somewhere far, far away.
“She is dead longer than Orlo has lived. Her bones are dust, and far away. Yet she leaves messages for those who vill listen. Who is god? Who is law? Maybe it is Orlo. Hm?”
“Obviously we won’t do it unless it’s some jerk,” says Bea. “But hey, if it won’t sit right with your gods or whatever, that cool, we just won’t do it. How about it, Orliolio? Will you be content to simply enrich yourself further? You can always pay somebody else to do the deed.”
//Or just let me know on the downlow//, she thinks, hoping he can somehow hear her thoughts, //and I will consider it once I learn more about this person.//
“Your riches mean nothing to one such as Orlo,” he says, “one who has had centuries to acquire vealth. One who has lost interest in such things. You be gone from here — you are no longer velcome here.”
While Bea and Valeria are not forced to leave, you both feel very certainly that you would like to leave. It is a strange feeling indeed.
Orlo says, in a voice that resonates deeply with Bea, “You are not velcome here, except bearing the head of Trill Tormtor.”
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” says Bea.