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June 26th
Idle Champions: Peril at the Greenhow, Part Three 
Posted in Idle Champions.

Previously in Peril at the Greenhow:

Peril at the Greenhow, Part Three

Umberto

The city guardsmen and magister had just left when Harlow opened Umberto’s door. Umberto had been sitting at the desk while he gave his statement of events to the guardsmen, eyes still where they were now - on the broken and shattered window frame. The memory played in his head over and over again. The wind catching the hood and revealing the face of his dead sister. Well, possibly dead sister. What stayed in his mind most of all were her eyes. The eyes that had looked to him for protection as a child. But as she stood on that rooftop all she had in them then was hate.

“We’re ready,” Harlow said when Umberto hadn’t addressed him. “We have the Greenhow Tavern surrounded. When the proprietor, Aeon, returns, we’ll move in and arrest her.”

“How are you so confident?” Umberto said, still not looking away from the hole in the wall. “That it is this Aeon person? Especially after I have given a statement saying my assumed-to-be-dead sister made an attempt on my life earlier today?”

“Aeon is an artificer,” Harlow said, a note of annoyance in his tone. “She could be using any number of illusionary devices to make you see that.”

Umberto finally looked to the aumarr. “But why my sister? How would she even know to use that image? This doesn’t add up. You are telling me to bake a cake, but giving me the ingredients of a pie.”

Harlow put on a smile that Umberto could see was starting to crack. “All will be revealed in good time. Trust me.” Umberto opened his mouth to say something, but Harlow put up a hand to stop him. “Once we have her in custody, I'll make everything clear. You have my word, Umberto. None of this would have been possible without your detective skills to put me on the right path!”

Before Umberto could say anything, Harlow turned on his heel and left the room. “Come,” he said from the hall. “I’ll escort you to the tavern!”

Umberto let out a sigh. Something was off. That roaring fire inside him was dwindling now, nearly smothered by the shadow of his sister. After seeing the crime scene things were feeling like they had before six months ago. The world was making sense again as he viewed it from behind the lens of a detective. But Sliver had turned the world back to chaos. Nothing felt right and nothing made sense.

“Are you coming?” Harlow called from down the hall.

“Yes,” Umberto said, getting to his feet. “I was just stuck in the mud for a moment.”

Aeon

Aeon made her way through the crowded market, being sure to look down next to her every so often to make sure Beaky hadn’t gotten lost or swept away in the sea of people. Deuce sat on her shoulder, playing look out as always, but she seemed to feel the weight of him more than usual. No, it wasn’t that. It was the weight of the deal she had just made. This is really going to set you back, she told herself. It had been a nearly constant thought since leaving Xanathar’s lair.

But not as far back as being dead, she reminded herself.

Yes, this wasn’t the best deal she had ever made. But it wasn’t the end of her time as a spymaster - that was the important part. It was going to be difficult, but Aeon had every confidence in herself that she could come back from this. Hells, if she hadn’t had that confidence in the first place she wouldn’t even be in a position to deal with Xanathar. Or have been in a position to have a murderer after you.

There was a tug on Aeon’s coat as Beaky pulled in closer to her. “Are we nearly there?” A group of halflings passed by and the kenku eyed them. “There’s too many sounds and way too much light.”

Aeon suppressed an eye roll. “It’s not much further now. We’re just-“ She stopped when Deuce tapped her shoulder. The small gold monkey motioned for her to look up, and she followed his gaze, coming to a stop. A small bird flew through the air, its wings flapping in an unnatural way. The sun caught the side of its metallic body, and it glinted for an instant.

This was one of Aeon’s inventions. Not quite a steel defender, but it would follow orders. She used them to get messages out quickly to her agents around the city. It flew with magic, leaving its wings to flap in ways that could be interpreted by the agents.

She counted the flaps in her mind. Once. Thrice. Twice quickly.

“Nine Hells.”

Beaky chirped nervously. “What’s wrong?”

“The Greenhow isn’t safe.” Questions, plans, and actions all ran through her mind. There could be any number of reasons why the Greenhow was compromised, but there were two very likely reasons at that moment. Still, she needed more information. But she also needed…

She looked back down at Beaky. “Change of plans. I’m going to the safe house near Trollskull - do you know the one?” He nodded. “Good. I need you to take a message back to Xanathar and then meet me there.”

Beaky gulped and looked like he might cry.

Umberto

Harlow looked annoyed. Umberto had been waiting with him on a rooftop overlooking the entrance to the Greenhow tavern for nearly four hours. The sun had well set by then, and Umberto was starting to worry more about the rumbling in his stomach than if this Aeon person would actually show up. It didn’t help that there were some delicious smells from the tavern below. He did his best not to focus on it or try to figure out what ingredients he was smelling.

“Tluning hells, where is she?” Harlow said through gritted teeth. “She must know we’re here.”

That wouldn’t have surprised Umberto. In fact, he had suspected that from the moment Harlow had brought him up to the rooftop. He had pointed out three other buildings that guardsmen were set up on to keep a lookout for her. Not to mention the other out-of-uniform guards spread out through the street, connecting alleyways, and even in the tavern itself. Umberto couldn’t help but consider this sloppy work. It felt rushed.

If this Aeon person were half as skilled as Harlow had made her out to be, she wouldn’t need him to point out the guards.

“Err, perhaps you and I should go into the tavern. Get a change of scenery and keep an eye on things in there.” Plus, Umberto could finally get a bite to eat.

Harlow looked as if he might protest, but then his shoulders sunk, and he nodded. “Maybe that’s a good idea. You all have things under control up here?”

The guardsmen all nodded.

“Good,” he said, then turned and headed for the stairwell door, passing Umberto.

“We should probably disguise ourselves,” Umberto said. “Err, they know what you look like after all.”

Harlow’s hand went for his coat pocket, then stopped. “You’re right. I could wear a hood or something?”

Umberto chuckled, making a note in his head. “I have a disguise kit in my pack downstairs. Come, I will turn you from tulip into a rose.”

Aeon

All eyes were on Aeon before she even got to the Greenhow. Just as she wanted.

The Waterdhavian guards thought all they needed to do was take off their uniforms to blend in, but Aeon could still see it. She could see it in the way they sat, the way they walked, the way they breathed.

Deception and guile were her skills. They were just pretending like they had them.

She let out a breath as she touched the first step up to the Greenhow alone. She had a plan. Things were in place. But, like so many things had been in her life, it wasn’t a guarantee. She took the next few steps quickly and flung open the doors to her tavern.

“Greetings, ladies, gentlemen, and variations thereof!” She threw her hands up in the air as she walked towards the front of the room and the middle of the bar. Everyone turned in the same instant to look at her. She saw eyes she recognized, others she didn’t, and a few that were there to arrest her. One set in particular fell into the former and the latter.

Hello, Harlow. That disguise won’t work on me. I hope you enjoy the show.

“Step right up! Not only are all rounds on the house tonight, but I’m selling all the juiciest, most life-ruining secrets of Waterdeep for the low, low price of free!” A few people raised their brows. A few others even stood. One old man who had already a few too many walked straight up to the bar and ordered another drink.

“Who wants to know which Masked Lords are having affairs? Or which stores are secretly being robbed by a gang of underground goblins? Or better yet, which one of the undercover guards in here is the easiest to pay off?” She said the last one directly to the disguised Harlow.

To her surprise, this antagonizing worked even faster than she had expected.

“That’s enough,” Harlow yelled as he stood up from the back table. He ripped off the wig and false nose, tossing them to the floor. The other man at Harlow’s table, also disguised, looked at Harlow with a furrowed brow. “I am placing you under arrest to later stand trial for-“

“Why wait,” Aeon said, cutting him off. “Deuce! Bring him in!”

The front doors burst open again, and in walked the magister from earlier that day, Deuce on his shoulders. The little gold monkey battered the bearded man and pulled on his cloak almost as if he were piloting the magister.

Aeon stepped forward and pulled out an empty chair from a table. “I couldn’t help but notice that there weren’t any magisters among your undercover guards outside.” Guards in uniform and weapons drawn filed into the tavern behind the magister. Aeon responded to this by taking a seat. “So I decided to bring one myself. It is customary here in Waterdeep for magisters to pass sentencing in the moment, isn’t that right, Aumarr?”

Harlow stared daggers at Aeon but held up a hand to stop the guards.

Aeon got comfy and put her feet up on the table, crossing them at the ankles. “By all means, proceed with your accusation so the magister can pass judgment.”

Harlow looked down at the other man at his table, who looked back at him expectantly. For a moment, the aumarr didn’t seem to know what to say. He was sweating. And it wasn’t because of the wig.

What was your end goal here, Harlow?

The aumarr straightened up and stepped forward towards the middle of the room. “This woman,” he said, pointing an accusing finger at Aeon. “Is a liar, thief, and manipulator.”

Aeon chuckled. “Tell the room something they don’t already know.”

There were a few laughs from the tables.

“Silence,” Harlow said with a raised voice. “You want me to tell them something they don’t know - how about this? You got yourself in deep with the Xanathar Guild. You… you promised them information but came up short. This infuriated the Xanathar Guild.” He paused. “…and they started making threats! If you didn’t get them what they wanted, something bad was going to happen. But you couldn’t deliver - you were in over your head playing the role of a spymaster in bigger leagues.”

He turned to face the guards and the magister, a confident grin spreading across his face. “What was she to do? The Xanathar Guild is too big for her to contend with. It wasn’t a problem she could just make go away. Unless she set things into motion to weaken them. Even destroy them.” Harlow began to pace in the small area between tables. “The Xanathar Guild has one big rival. The Zhentarim.” Several people shifted at their tables. “If she could make it so the two factions went to war - her problem might be forgotten about. And if the Zhentarim won, her problem would be completely taken care of. And even if they didn’t, the Xanathar Guild would be weakened to the point that she and her agents could swoop in.

“So she planted sending stones in her music box trinkets and made sure they ended up in the hands of Xanathar agents so she could track them. She used them to follow her victims to the opportune place and strike.” Harlow seemed to be enjoying his lie. “The first several would just be to start suspicion. Then, she would start leaving calling cards for the Zhentarim - so the Xanathar Guild would piece it together that all of their murdered agents had been killed by their rival.

“And to really sell it. She used her skills as an artificer to disguise herself with illusions to look like one of the Zhentarim’s most infamous agents. Sliver Thornheart.” Harlow stopped in front of Aeon, looking down at her with a smile like he had already won. “You really thought you could pull all of the strings like a real mastermind. But you’re nothing but a-“

“No,” came a voice from behind him.

Harlow looked as if a arrow had struck him in the back. “What?” He said, turning around to face the speaker.

The man who had been sitting at Harlow’s table took off his own wig and peeled off some fake sideburns. Impressively, the mustache stayed. He stood and let out a sigh.

“I said no.” He looked at Harlow with a hard gaze. “None of that is true.”

Umberto

Umberto looked to the magister. “Please disregard what you just heard. This woman is not part of the murders.” He paused, looking Aeon over. “She may be guilty of other crimes, but not this one.”

“How dare you,” Harlow said, walking towards him. “You think you can just come here and-“

Umberto put an opened hand in front of Harlow’s face when the aumarr reached him. He looked past Harlow to Aeon. “Can we speak in private? Perhaps in a back room?”

Aeon smiled. “I like you.” She gestured to the door behind the bar. “We can use the storage room.” With that she got up, and made for the bar and Umberto followed, moving past Harlow.

“I’ll not allow this,” Harlow said, sounding more and more like a petulant child. “Guards! Arrest both of them!”

Before the guards could move further into the tavern, over half the people at the tables stood, each drawing hidden weapons. Umberto froze, as did the guards and Harlow.

Aeon smiled at Harlow. “You didn’t really think I came unprepared for a fight, did you? Say hello to these agents of the Xanathar Guild. You know, the guild that you claim has it out for me? They’re under orders to protect me. At all costs.” She looked back at Umberto. “Come on. Let’s talk.”

Umberto couldn’t help but be impressed. This woman was clearly on the wrong side of the law, but he could still admire her complete handle on the situation.

The storage room was more of a storage closet with a staircase in the back leading down into a darkened basement. It was cramped, but Umberto wasn’t planning on pacing or making a show like Harlow had. He was here for information, and there was plenty of room for that.

“Err, thank you for agreeing to talk,” he said as she leaned against the opposing wall, arms crossed.

“Well, you seem to be the only one of the guards that is willing to believe me.”

He shook his head. “I am not part of the city guard.”

“Then why are you here?”

“I am here as a favor to an old friend to help solve the case of these murders. Murders that I am very confident you did not do.”

She cocked her head. “I’m happy to hear that - trust me, I am. But how can you be so sure?”

“Because I believe I already know who the murderer is.” The fire was back, and his mind was beginning to clear once again. “Harlow was correct about the music box, yes?”

Aeon nodded. “I’m not happy that little secret is out, but yes, it’s true.”

“Err, so you heard what happened the night of the murder?”

Aeon smiled. “Hey, Beaky,” she called down the stairs.

An albino kenku emerged from the darkness, his eyes shifting between Aeon and Umberto. He made his way quickly up the stairs and shivered next to Aeon.

“I need you to repeat the murder one more time,” she said to him - softer than Umberto had been expecting.

The kenku nodded. A moment later he opened his beak and began producing sounds of two men talking while walking down a street.

Umberto smiled. “This kenku is able to perfectly recall what he heard on the sending stones.” He looked up at Aeon. “That is very clever.”

Aeon smiled back and tipped her top hat to him.

Umberto listened to the kenku mimicry. As he did, he played the scene out in his mind as he had done in the alleyway earlier that day. Connecting the images he had memorized with the sounds of the murder. It played out nearly exactly as he had deduced, with only a few minor differences. When the name of his sister was said, it came as no surprise - in fact, he hadn’t even realized that he had put Sliver in the place of the killer already.

“Stlarn,” said his sister’s voice, and Umberto smiled.

“Thank you,” he said as the kenku finished. “And you believed the killer would be coming after you? To stop you from revealing this information?”

Aeon nodded. “That would be why my tavern is full of Xanathar agents.”

“Err, a reasonable expectation and,” he paused. “A measured response.”

“So,” Aeon said. “What do we do now?”

“Follow me back out there. I am ready to reveal what happened.”

“Sure,” she said. “Why not? Beaky, you stay here.”

The kenku looked relieved and nodded.

Umberto stepped back out into the tense tavern room. Waterdhavian guards stared down Xanathar agents and Harlow still stood in the center of the room. The aumarr stared at Umberto with hate in his eyes. That made Umberto put on a smile he’d seen Brenton wear so often when Umberto was young. It always came before Brenton said, “Let me teach you a lesson.”

“Aumarr,” Umberto began as he stepped up behind the bar. “You said something that stood out to me earlier today. When talking about the Xanathar Guild and the Zhentarim, you said, ‘ Let the tluining bastards destroy each other, I say.’ This seemed odd to me for an aumarr to say. An aumarr of Waterdeep should want to bring those factions to justice, should they not? No offense to those present in the room.”

Harlow’s eyes narrowed as he looked around at the Xanathar agents. “What’s your point? Both are a stain on this city. Why should I care how they get brought down?”

“You see,” Umberto said, wagging a finger towards Harlow. “That’s the thing. I think you do care. I think you care so much you planned it out. And who could blame you? You’re the son of one of the most celebrated members of the Waterdhavian guard - that’s a lot to live up to. But from what I have heard, you’ve fallen short of those expectations.”

Harlow growled. “Is there a point to this? Or are you just here to insult me?”

Umberto ignored him. “You decided to step things up. Make a name for yourself that isn’t just because of your surname. You needed something big. Something people would remember for generations. You needed to solve one of Waterdeep’s longest running problems. The Xanathar Guild.”

Aeon chuckled behind Umberto, leaning against the back counter. “But I thought they were my problem?”

“That is a good point,” Umberto said with a nod. “The accusations you made about Aeon were very interesting to me. When you started, you sounded unsure of yourself, as if you were coming up with the words as you spoke them. But then, at a certain point, you got onto a roll. The story flowed out of you like you knew it already. It was you that wanted a war between the Xanathar Guild and the Zhentarim. You wanted to weaken the Guild or obliterate them in the process. I wouldn’t even be surprised if you hoped to weaken both factions to the point that you thought you could take both of them down.”

Harlow was as red as an apple now. Fists clenched. Face twisted in a scowl. “And what? I hired your dead sister to do the killing for me?”

Umberto felt that thorny vine twist a little, but he ignored the pain. “That was the funny part for me. You had no idea that I would be here. It just so happened that the only Zhentarim agent of renown you had ever gotten up close to had been my sister. That’s why you looked so shocked when we first met. You were already stumbling through a string of bad luck. First Aeon’s music box, then your father calling in someone to do your job, and then the brother of the person you stole the identity of arrives in their place.”

“None of this is true,” Harlow said.

Umberto ignored him again. “I’ve heard what happened that night in the alleyway now, thanks to Aeon.” He gestured to the goliath and she made a mocking curtsy. “And again, if it were not for the fact that I grew up with Sliver, no one would have suspected it wasn’t her.” Umberto stared down Harlow. “My sister never swore. She found them to be filler words used by people who didn’t have anything to actually say.”

Harlow began to shake. “I did not impersonate your-“

“You must have been so scared when that sending stone fell out of the music box,” Umberto interrupted. “I found it so strange that it was broken and tossed away. But you panicked. You broke it, then realized you couldn’t just leave it, so you put it somewhere you thought no one would ever suspect to look. If you had just left it there it would have been so much easier for you to pin all of this on Aeon. And you realized that. Which is why you started pointing everything you could towards her.”

“You have no proof!”

“You’re right,” Umberto said. “I don’t. But you do. When we were on the rooftop, I noticed your hand went for your coat when I mentioned a disguise. When I was applying your wig and nose, I cast a Detect Magic spell and found an aura of transmutation on you. If I had to guess, you have some item that lets you cast True Polymorph.”

The room went still, and all eyes fell on Harlow. It looked as if the man might suddenly explode with rage. Instead, Harlow seemed to gather himself. He stopped shaking, lowered his shoulders, and let out a long breath. After a moment, he looked up and locked eyes with Umberto. “My biggest mistake was missing that crossbow shot.”

Aeon laughed. “You’re biggest mistake was that haircut!”

Harlow pulled a wand out from his coat. Xanathar agents, even some of the undercover guards, moved to stop the man, but he was faster and the spell was instantaneous. Lavender colored smoke flowed from the end of the wand, covering Harlow as he smiled at Umberto. Then, everyone around Harlow was thrown back against the walls of the room as something massive formed in the tavern.

A shape moved in the smoke. A low growl rumbled through the building as a clawed, skeletal hand appeared. The growing glow of firelight cut through the smoke as the skull of a red dragon came into view. Bits of dead muscle and flesh still hung to the bone, and red glowing firelight filled its empty eye sockets.

The guards yelled in fear as the red dracolich that had been Harlow readied to strike.

Aeon

“Get him, Deuce,” Aeon said as the dracolich began to approach.

The undead creature’s claws dug into and split the boards she had laid by hand years before. It pulled itself forward as if still trying to understand how its body worked.

That’s what you get for choosing something showy, you plinth head.

Deuce leaped from her shoulder, landing on the bar just as Umberto climbed on top of it. It was clear the older man could do magic, but Aeon didn’t know what to expect from him. A moment later, Umberto hunched forward, then threw his arms out with a fearsome roar as he shifted into a large brown bear.

Somehow, she noted, that makes sense.

Xanathar agents and city guard sprung into action, weapons at the ready. They charged the dracolich, for whatever good it would do. Aeon commended them for their effort, but those weapons were going to need a magic touch if they were going to be effective. Especially since the dracolich looked as if it planned to take care of them with a swipe of its wings.

Luckily for them, Deuce had been charging up his energy beam.

There was a flash of white light as Deuce opened his mouth wider than a real monkey would be able to - and an instant later, a blue beam of magical energy streaked towards the dracolich. In the same moment, the bear that was Umberto leaped into the air, crossing the distance between the bar and the undead creature just after the beam struck.

The blast from the beam made the dracolich flinch, its head bobbing for a moment - giving the guards and agents their opportunity to strike. As it shook off the attacks, Umberto’s claws connected with the creature’s skull, slicing deep grooves into the bone. The bear landed on its hind legs with a thud that shook the whole tavern and readied for another swing.

The dracolich that had been Harlow let out an unnatural roar. Somehow, there were bits of Harlow’s voice in the sound. “You’re dead,” came Harlow’s voice. “I’ll kill you all!”

Aeon clocked Umberto’s next attack and gave a quick whistle to Deuce, who instantly understood, as she flipped a switch on her cane. The crystal in the head of the cane began to glow and charge, humming with energy.

The dracolich righted itself, sweeping out its wings and tossing the agents and guards into the opposing walls. As it did, it roared at Umberto, fire forming in the back of its skeletal jaw like a raging inferno.

Umberto responded to this with an uppercut swing of his bear claws. As he swung, Deuce scrambled up the bear’s legs and body, then down his arm, charging another blast. As Umberto struck the lower jaw of the dragon skull, Deuce unleashed another powerful blast - the combined force sending the dracolich’s head up and crashing into the ceiling.

“You’re paying for all of this damage, Harlow,” Aeon said with a grin as the dracolich tried to pull its nose out of the ceiling. She raised her cane and leveled it like a crossbow, eying the sinew and decaying muscle between the dracolich’s ribs. With three quick pulls of the trigger, the cane fired as many bolts of blue, flaming energy. Each bolt found its mark, disintegrating the bits holding together several of the ribs.

Umberto seemed to understand what she was going for. He grabbed onto two of the ribs and began to pull with a roar that Aeon could feel in her chest. Bones snapped and muscle tore - and with another whistle, Deuce scurried around Umberto and onto his shoulder. As the ribs parted, Deuce fired another beam - this one sustaining longer than the others - into the dracolich.

Bone and sinew disintegrated as the beam cut through what had been Harlow. It roared with pain - Harlow’s voice sounding like the most pained part. After a moment, the beam sliced through the dracolich’s spine, severing the creature in half. The lights went out in the skull, and the skeletal form began to collapse.

Before it could hit the floor, or land on Umberto, the image of the dracolich wavered, replaced by the small form of Harlow - who landed on broken boards with a grunt.

“No,” Harlow said with a groan. “No!” He tried to get up, but the end of Umberto’s staff pressed down on his back.

Umberto’s form returned, Deuce still on his shoulder, as Harlow looked up at him. “Guards,” Umberto said. “Take this man away.”

Umberto

Umberto enjoyed every bite of breakfast the next morning. Aeon had invited him the night before for a free meal and drinks if he wanted them. He had graciously accepted the food but passed on the drink. Alcohol wasn’t something he liked having in the morning. But, after everything he’d been through the day before, he’d given it serious thought.

But, as he swirled the last piece of sausage in the yolk of the perfectly cooked eggs, he knew this was all he needed. Good food did wonders for Umberto’s mind, and he felt as if he could enjoy it just a bit more than he had the day before. Things were different. He was different. No, that wasn’t it. He felt like he had over six months before. And that was a feeling he needed.

Aeon sat down at the table. “How was it?”

Umberto was still chewing the sausage, but smiled and made a warm sound that clearly said, “it was delicious.” When he finished chewing, he added, “like honey from the hive.”

“Good,” Aeon said. “I’ll give your compliments to the Chief. They’re an automaton, but I’ll still tell them.”

Umberto wiped his mouth and mustache with the napkin, then set it over the finished plate. “You certainly cleaned things up quickly.” He gestured to the tavern that looked almost like new. The only hint from the fight with the dracolich were the broken boards of the ceiling.

“Just one of the plus sides of making all of my staff by hand. I get to decide how fast they work.”

They laughed, and Umberto noticed an envelope Aeon was holding.

“So,” Aeon said. “What do you think Harlow’s endgame was with me? Did he really think he could just pin everything on me?”

Umberto nodded. “I believe so. The reason he didn’t have a magister here was probably so he could toss the place and find enough things to make a story. The guards found a magical dagger on him - no doubt the one he used for the murders. He was probably going to plant it somewhere here in the tavern to make a case for a magister to convict you.”

“What a plinth head,” Aeon said with a scoff.

“Indeed.” Umberto eyed the envelope. “Err, may I ask what is in that envelope?”

“Oh,” Aeon said as if she had forgotten she was holding it. “I wanted to thank you. I had a pretty good plan in place last night, but I don’t know if I could have pulled everything off without you. I for sure couldn’t have gotten the guards to let me go without any extra investigation without you. So,” she trailed off as she put the envelope on the table.

Umberto went for it, but Aeon held up a hand. “Before you look at it, I need to tell you. Your sister is alive. Don’t ask me how I know, or how I got this information - because you won’t like either of the answers. In that envelope is the location of where she is being held. Do with it what you will.”

She moved her hand and Umberto found his own moving slower now as he picked up the envelope. The vine began to wilt as a flower of hope began to grow. “You’re sure it is her?”

“As sure as I can be,” she said as she stood. “Just please, don’t go getting yourself killed. You seem like too nice of a guy for that to happen to you.” She paused for a moment. “Before I go. I heard from one of the guards that this was your first case in six months? That you had given this line of work up?”

Umberto nodded, having to force himself to look away from the envelope and up at the goliath. “I… I’m still not sure if I will be picking it up again.”

Aeon gave him a friendly smile. “Well, you should. People like you make being a criminal fun.”

With that, she walked away, Deuce hopping down from the rafters onto her shoulder.

For a moment, Umberto let himself think about getting back to work again, full-time. Taking on cases, solving crimes, bringing criminals to justice - everything. And, to his surprise, there was no fear. No anxiety. No mud around his feet holding him back. Yes, he could do this again. He would do this again. But first…

He picked up the envelope.

“But first, I have something I need to do.”


The End


Umberto Thornheart and Aeon are coming to Idle Champions July 3rd as part of Founders' Day. Keep an eye out for their Champion Spotlights coming later this week!

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June 25th
Idle Champions: Peril at the Greenhow, Part Two 
Posted in Idle Champions.

Check out the other parts of Peril at the Greenhow:

Peril at the Greenhow, Part Two

Umberto

The crowd was beginning to disperse when Umberto and Harlow arrived at the crime scene. The City Guard had blocked off both ends of the alleyway from onlookers, but that hadn’t stopped several people who had rooms in the inn above the scene from taking a peek. Tall buildings crowded the alley, with about fifteen feet of space from wall to wall. Overflow from the various businesses and inn were haphazardly placed throughout the alleyway, most notably a large stack of crates and barrels near what Umberto assumed was the back door to the inn’s kitchen.

Aumarr Harlow told him that the clerics had asked to check the body themselves before moving it to make sure there weren’t any curses or arcane traps around it. Unfortunately, the clerics were not able to get to the crime scene for some time, which seemed to irritate Harlow. Umberto found this to be in his favor. The scene may have been cold, as some liked to say, but at least it wasn’t completely cleared and contaminated yet.

A wagon waited nearby, and the small crowd was beginning to part. Two clerics dressed in white and gold robes moved through the crowd carrying a stretcher between them. On it, covered in a tan sheet, was the body of the victim.

“Errr, one moment,” Umberto said, pushing past Harlow and through a group of onlookers. “I would like to take a look at the corpse.”

The cleric, a tabaxi woman with green eyes, gave Umberto an offended look. “It’s fine,” Harlow said from behind him. “Let him look.” She gave Umberto a once over, then looked away.

Umberto reached for the head of the sheet, then stopped and looked around at the civilians. “This will not be a view of sunshine and flowers. I would recommend those with a poor constitution look away. Just in case.” Several people did so.

Under the sheet was a tiefling man with red skin, purple hair, and black horns that protruded from the top of his forehead and curled like a ram. His eyes had been closed, most likely by the clerics, but fear and confusion could still be read in the stiffened muscles of his face. He must have been lying in the alley for some time for the muscles to have frozen like that.

Umberto pulled the sheet down further, and a few gasps came from the crowd. Just where the man’s heart would have been was a jagged, black cavity. It looked like a fissure that had split open the man’s chest, burning away bone, muscle, flesh, and even his leather armor. Umberto leaned closer. The insides were cauterized and nearly unrecognizable.

“Thank you,” Umberto said, replacing the sheet and stepping back. The clerics nodded, then continued on to the wagon. Umberto didn’t take his eyes off the stretcher as Harlow into view.

“Find anything?”

“No,” Umberto said. “Which is why magical weapons are such an annoyance. They are the weeds in a detective’s garden. Come, I want to look at the alley.”

Guards moved the wooden barricades aside at Harlow’s command. He also handed off Umberto’s pack and told the guard to take it to the inn. The guard offered to take his staff as well, but Umberto waved him off.

Watching where he stepped, Umberto moved into the alleyway, taking in everything that he saw, as if painting the image on a canvas in his mind. All sounds of the city were cut off as he imagined possible scenarios playing out. Moment after moment, he watched the tiefling die in different ways, noting with each what was wrong and what might have been right.

“We believe,” Harlow said, snapping him out of his analysis. “The attacker was waiting on the rooftop and got the drop on our victim, Xev Karshar. Xev tried to get his dagger out, but the murderer was too fast and-”

“No,” Umberto interrupted.

You’re doing it again, he said to himself, but pushed the thought aside for a moment. The fire was beginning to grow and he didn’t want anything to stop it.

Harlow stared at him for a moment. “I’m sorry?”

“That is not what happened.” Umberto moved to another part of the alley and crouched over the dirt. “Our victim dropped something. A bag with some items in it. Did you recover it?”

“Yes,” Harlow said, not hiding his annoyance. He took out a notepad and cleared his throat. “Leather satchel. Contained one sheathed dagger, rations, fifty feet of hempen rope, and a bag containing six gold, one electrum, and forty silver. Also nearby were six caltrops, a handkerchief with a small Xanathar Guild sigil, and a broken music box.”

Umberto’s brow furrowed as he looked up at Harlow. “He was just carrying something with the Xanathar Guild sigil on it?”

“It’s one of their recent calling cards. We’ve found them at several robberies they wanted to take credit for. Our victim was no doubt on his way to his next robbery.”

“The victims of the other murders,” Umberto said, looking at where the tiefling had been found. “Did they have any underworld ties as well?”

Harlow nodded. “All of them, we believe, were members of the Xanathar Guild.”

Umberto stood, brow raised as he took in the scene again.

“We suspect,” Harlow continued, “that this has been the work of the Zhentarim. That the two factions may be at war and it’s now spilling into the streets. Let the tluining bastards destroy each other, I say,” he said with disgust. “Oh, apologies for the language again.”

“Forgive me,” Umberto started. “But I do not believe your suspicions to be correct.” Harlow opened his mouth to say something, but Umberto didn’t give him a chance. “The attacker was at the other end of the alleyway when Xev and his friend entered from this side. The friend-“

Harlow waved a hand. “Friend? What friend?”

Umberto pointed to a spot near the mouth of the alleyway. “The friend that got away and who your guards did a fantastic job of nearly covering up with their own tracks. As I was saying - the friend got away. Our victim stood his ground, possibly thinking he could delay the attacker. Perhaps they had something Xev thought the attacker was after - it is difficult to know.

“The murderer rushed him, closing the distance with as few footsteps as possible.” Umberto moved further into the alley. “The murderer cleared their tracks here. They did their best to make it look like dirt had already been there, but see here? They covered it with dirt from this side of the alley, which contains pieces of the red brick of that wall. There are more bits of red there than there should be for just normal foot traffic. And that continues all the way to the other end of the alley.”

Harlow stared, brow raised and mouth slightly open. When he seemed to catch his breath he shook his head. “Is there anything else we’ve missed?”

“Indeed,” Umberto said flatly, then marched back to where the victim had been murdered. That sparking flame in his chest was becoming a roaring fire. He approached the stack of crates next to the inn, but specifically one of the barrels. “These were a night time delivery?” He unsheathed his skinning knife.

“Yes,” Harlow said, catching up to him. “The owner of the inn has been begging us to let him bring these in all morning.”

Umberto made quick, arcane gestures with his open hand as he whispered words to the Weave, casting Detect Magic on one of the barrels. When nothing came up, he continued.

“Well,” he said, sticking the tip of the knife under the lid. “It’s a good thing you didn’t.” With a quick flick the lid popped off and he tossed it to the ground. Pickles bobbed in a thick brine, the stench of which was overpowering. Still, Umberto couldn’t help but smile. “These have been opened already.” He ran his hand over the edge of the barrel where the seal had already been cut. Then, without another word, Umberto took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeve, and stuck his arm in the barrel of pickles.

Harlow watched with a confused expression. “What are you-“

“Ah,” Umberto said when he found something that was not a pickle. He pulled out his arm and put half of a sending stone in Harlow’s hand. “Here,” he said, then stuck his hand in again. After a few more moments he retrieved the other half. He handed it to Harlow. “You there,” he called to a guard. “Tell the innkeeper they can collect their shipment now.”

Harlow looked down at the two halves of the sending stone he held in his hands. The man looked shocked, more so than Umberto was expecting. He noted that, but before he could say anything Harlow began digging through his satchel. After a moment he retrieved a scuffed-up music box. He handed the sending stone pieces to Umberto

“Errr,” Umberto started. It was his turn to be surprised. “Why do you have that on you?”

“I was following up on a lead earlier,” he said as he examined the music box. He seemed to find something and pressed in on one of the sides. A hidden compartment opened. “I knew it.” He took the pieces back from Umberto and slotted them into the compartment.

“Care to explain, Aumarr?”

Harlow smiled. “Time to bring in a suspect.”

Aeon

Aeon stood on a rooftop overlooking one of the open markets of Waterdeep. This area was called the Court of the White Bull, though she wasn’t sure why. Caravans who had recently come through the River Gate usually made a stop here to quickly sell some wares before finding a place to settle for the night. It was also common for livestock to be sold there, which was treating her to a lovely aroma she was eager to get away from.

Also common here were Xanathar Guild thieves looking for easy targets - whether they be customers or vendors.

An hour earlier, she had instructed a few of her agents at the River Gate to place a few modified sending stones in some of the caravan carts as they came through. These were part of a new invention she had been working on. The modified sending stones were magically connected to a spyglass and earpiece that all together made it so she could look in the direction of a sending stone and hear only what was being said around that stone.

With the ones placed by the agents, and a few scattered around by Deuce, Aeon would be able to perfectly track a Xanathar Guild agent. Now, she just needed one to slip up enough to out themselves.

“I can’t go lower than twenty gold,” said a merchant she had her spyglass on.

She groaned and lowered the spyglass. “Everyday life is just so boring,” she said to Deuce, who was doing a handstand on the edge of the roof. He had been getting restless for the last half-hour. She couldn’t blame him. It had been a while since she had done her own work like this. That’s what she had agents for. But still, there was a charm to spy work like this that gave her a thrill.

She smiled at the mechanical monkey. “Bored?”

Deuce nodded, still doing a handstand.

“Why don’t you go fetch me a shiny red apple from down there? Just don’t get caught.”

Deuce flipped right side up, nodding quickly. He didn’t have the ability to smile, but she could tell he was happy.

“Off you go,” she said with a wave, and the steel defender was off. He slid down a slant of the roof, then bounced off and landed on one of the awnings of a vendor. From there Aeon watched Deuce through the spyglass as he hopped from stall to stall.

“-they entered Skullport this morning,” said a voice that snapped Aeon’s attention away from Deuce.

She brought the spyglass back down to a small gap between stalls.

“Are you kidding,” said the same voice. “Xana-“

Another voice hushed the first, which helped Aeon find the two people talking.

They were dressed in nondescript clothing - no armor or weapons that Aeon could see, but she was sure was there.

“I know you’re new at this,” said the human in a long coat. “But you can’t just go around talking about guild business like no one is listening.” They each looked around at the flow of people around them. “Someone is always listening.”

Aeon smiled.

“Sorry,” said the other. He turned to look behind them and Aeon caught a pointed ear under his neck length amber hair.

“Come on,” said the human. “Let’s get out of here. We can hit one of the other markets.”

The two men began making their way through the crowds of people. Fairly quickly Aeon put together which direction they were heading towards. There was an alleyway in the direction they were heading, which gave Aeon a perfect place to intercept.

“Uh,” said the elf. “Do you feel like we’re being-“

Aeon fell like a feather, landing toes first on the dirt of the alleyway. The two men started, hands each going for their hidden weapons.

“That won’t be necessary,” she said, raising a hand. As a goliath, she towered over the two thieves - a fact that did not seem lost on them as they froze in place. “I’m not here to hurt you. In fact I want you to leave happy and healthy.”

The human’s eyes shifted, looking for a way out, then came back to Aeon. “Why?”

“Because I want you to take a message to your boss and arrange a meeting with him.”

The human’s hand went fully for his weapon, but did not draw it. “And what makes you think I would do that?”

“Because,” Aeon said as Deuce jumped onto her shoulder and handed her a very shiny red apple. “I know who killed Xev Karshar.” She took a big, loud bite of the apple.

Umberto

Harlow wouldn’t say more about who the suspect was and insisted Umberto wait for him at the inn. Umberto was going to protest, but felt he had already pushed the aumarr enough already.

Umberto’s pack was waiting for him in the room when the City Guardsmen opened the door for him. The guardsmen had escorted him the entire way from the crime scene to the door - which Umberto felt was unnecessary. He was sure Harlow had given the direct order to make sure Umberto didn’t run off to investigate further. The druid was only mildly offended, since Harlow wasn’t wrong in his assumption.

The guard gave him a nod, then closed the door, giving Umberto the closest he’d come to silence since arriving in the city.

The inn, named the Galloping Minotaur, was probably a magnificent inn at one time. The decor and furnishings were nearly two decades out of date and looked as if there had been very little upkeep. Perhaps the owners assumed what worked once would always work. Luckily, this wasn’t something that really bothered Umberto outside of noticing it. As long as he had a warm bed and a roof over his head, Umberto was happy.

The room was the perfect size for a single person. There was a bed, a wardrobe, and a nice desk with a cushioned chair. A window on the opposite side of the room looked out onto Copper Street.

He set his pack on the bed and moved to the window. The city was alive on the street below, people coming and going - moving about their day. It was moments like these during the early parts of a case that he couldn’t help but wonder if one of them was the killer. Or the next victim.

A sigh escaped him and he turned his back on the window.

Rummaging through his pack, being sure to not let the salmon touch the blankets, he found his notebook and emerald pen. Both had been a gift from a special someone nearly a decade before and both served him well still. The notebook was able to be refilled with fresh paper and the full ones placed neatly on a shelf back home. There was nothing magical about that, but the pen itself was the real key.

Anyone who looked through his notebook would simply find blank pages. But, when Umberto spoke a key phrase the dark green ink of the pen would slowly seep into the paper. This made it so he was never worried about what he could write in its pages about a case. The information was safe.

He took a seat at the desk and opened the notebook to a fresh page. It had been over six months since he had written in the notebook, let alone opened it. This gave him pause for a moment. But, he felt that thrill of the case inside him once more. He smiled, leaned forward to write the first note, and a crossbow bolt struck the wall next to his head.

It took a moment for him to register that he’d heard the sound of glass shattering an instant before the bolt hit the wall. His head swung to look at the window and the jagged hole punched in one of the panes. His eyes focused on the broken glass, then past it, across the street, and to the hooded figure lowering a crossbow on the opposing rooftop.

They were dressed completely in black leathers with a matching block cloak, the hood pulled far enough that Umberto couldn’t get a good look at them. Despite that, it was obvious they knew their attack had missed, spinning quickly and vanishing over the slanted roof.

Umberto flew out of the chair, a plan forming in his mind. A few quick calculations and he was moving towards the window. Arcane words flowed out of him, connecting with the gestures his hands made, and a grasshopper’s hind leg that was tucked into his components pouch. He picked up speed as he finished casting the Jump spell and let the bear start to take over.

A druid’s wildshape varied from druid to druid. Some moved in and out of shapes - changing what type of animal they became based on the situation. Others, like Umberto, had a preferred shape. Some said they just had a particular connection to that animal. Others were just more comfortable in that form. For Umberto, however, it felt more like it was a form that had always existed inside him. One that needed to come out, especially in times of anger.

And after an attempted assassination, Umberto didn’t think he’d be able to stop the bear from coming out even if he’d tried to.

Umberto’s skin and clothes morphed, moving as if seen through a murky glass, then refocused into the brown fur of a bear. He leapt, arms up and shielding his face, as he crashed through the window - the power of his spell propelling him forward. By the time he’d reached the zenith of his jump he was in full bear form, roaring as he hit the roof of the opposing building.

The bear scrambled for a moment until it was able to get its claws into the tiles of the roof. Once stable, it pulled itself up and over the top of the roof. Its eyes instantly landed on the cloaked assassin, running down the line of rooftops on the other side. The bear let out another roar and flung itself forward, landing in a full, four-legged charge.

Crossing three buildings and a small leap across an alleyway, the bear was gaining speed on the assassin. In its head it was making plans for what it was going to do to the assassin when it caught up, but Umberto held those thoughts at bay.

One thing at a time, Umberto told the bear.

For a moment, the bear lost sight of the assassin as they dipped down below a rooftop. As it sped closer, the assassin appeared again as they leapt high into the air, crossing another street. The bear grinned, sure it could make that jump again, but Umberto was unsure if the spell would still be active.

The assassin landed just as the bear reached the last rooftop. They stood, turned to look back, and the wind caught their hood, sweeping it off their head.

Sliver Thornheart locked eyes with the bear as it was about to leap. Umberto’s heart jumped into the bear’s throat, throwing off its stride and positioning - its hind paws slipping on the edge of the roof. The bear fell with a roar, breaking a set of window shutters, tumbling over the banister of a balcony, and crashing through an awning onto the pavement below.

The bear receded, leaving Umberto overcome with pain and confusion. People on the street rushed to his aid, but all of their voices were drowned out in his mind. He looked up, through the hole in the awning, at where his sister had stood moments before.

“Impossible.”

Aeon

“And why are you so willing to freely give this information to the mighty Xanathar?” The mighty Xanathar said, all eleven eyes on Aeon.

Aeon had never been up close with Xanathar before. Any dealings they had in the past were done through intermediaries - whether that be agents talking to each other, or messengers between them. She had also never been up close to a beholder before. Both of these facts together made her slightly uneasy as she stood in the audience chamber of the Xanathar Guild.

Xanathar was a blue beholder with tan, rough skin around its mouth of pointed teeth. Aeon estimated that its ball-like body was about ten feet in diameter, which was mostly taken up by its large mouth and massive, central gold eye. The top of its head/body were ten wiry eyestalks, each ending in an eye with a gold globe and either a red or green iris. Occasionally, these eyes flicked to other parts of the large room, or to Deuce on her shoulder, or to Beaky standing beside her. The central eye, the one that dispelled all of the magic Aeon had on her, stayed fixed on her.

Next to Xanathar was a large, ornate fish bowl on a pedestal. Inside the bowl swam a goldfish. Xanathar’s prized pet, Sylgar.

Aeon stood a little straighter. “I didn’t say I was giving the information freely.”

There was something about the way Xanathar bobbed as it floated in the air that denoted annoyance. Its single brow moved in a way that, if he’d had two eyes, would have had one brow higher than the other. “How much do you want?” It then adjusted so that the way it floated to hold up its chin towards her. “The mighty Xanathar is rich, but I have my limits.”

“I don’t want money,” Aeon said. “I want protection.”

All eleven eyes refocused on her. “Protection?”

“From the murderer,” she said, shifting a little. “The murderer knows someone was listening and I don’t think it will take them long to figure out who. In exchange for the information I want you to assign some of your agents to watch out for me. If an attempt is made on my life, they step in and defend me to the best of their abilities.”

Xanathar furrowed its single brow. “Why not just have some of your agents protect you?”

“My agents are spies,” Aeon said. “They’re trained in how to stay out of sight and escape without being seen. Fighting a murderer isn’t something I look for when I hire people.”

Xanathar smiled. “Maybe you should have thought about that ahead of time, like the Mighty Xanathar did. The mighty Xanathar’s agents are the best in Waterdeep!”

“I have no doubt,” she said, placating the beholder. “Which is why I would feel so much safer knowing the mighty Xanathar’s very best had my back.”

“You would be the safest!” It took its main eye off Aeon as it struck a pose and she could instantly feel her magic rush back to her. A moment later it looked back with a wicked grin. Besides the dread of feeling her magic cut off again, the grin gave her a sinking feeling. “But, the mighty Xanathar wants more than just this information.”

Aron raised a brow. “What else do you want?”

“How long do you want protection?”

“Until the murderer is caught or killed.”

Xanathar thought for a moment. Then it straightened up, floating just a little bit higher. “The mighty Xanathar wants any information you have on the Zhentarim as well as any new information you gather until the murderer is caught or killed.”

Aeon held her composure. It took everything in her not to react in some way, but she’d trained too much to let her body betray her like that. She had a lot of information about the Zhentarim. And that information was supposed to make her quite a bit of money from more than one source - the most lucrative being the Xanathar Guild. She ran a few calculations in her head as the beholder turned to its goldfish.

“Are you doing all right in there, Sylgar?” It had all, but three eyes on the fish - the other three still on Aeon. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you fed and back in your bigger bowl soon.”

“All right,” Aeon said. “I’ll arrange for an agent to bring the information I have later tonight.” She drew in a long breath. “Anything else I turn up during this time will be reported to you immediately.”

It was just information. It was just money. She could deal with losing both. What she couldn’t deal with was her soul being destroyed by some murderer named Sliver Thornheart.

Xanathar’s large mouth split into a pointed tooth smile. “You are very wise to take the mighty Xanathar’s deal! Now,” it said, floating down a little closer. “Who is killing my agents?”

Aeon turned to Beaky. “I think it’s better that you hear it. Come on, Beaky.”

The kenku wrung his hands. He’d told her he was very, very nervous about going with her to see Xanathar. He barely left the hideout as it was. She’d made it worth his while with a big sack of gold and the promise of a more comfortable bed and armchair in the hideout. Still, she could see the regret on his face for taking the deal.

Beaky stepped forward and Xanathar narrowed its central eye.

“This tiny bird saw the murder?”

“No,” Aeon said, moving Beaky in front of her and putting her hands on his shoulders. She saw a mother do that with her child once to calm him down and hoped it had the same effect for the kenku. “He heard it.” She looked down at Beaky. “Repeat for him what you repeated for me.”

Beaky nodded, sheepishly. He then turned to look up at the floating beholder, straightened up a little, then started mimicking the sounds of the murder. Xanathar seemed surprised at first to hear the accurate sounds of its agents and the alleyway - even looking around at one point with its eyestalks as if expecting to see them in the room.

After the initial surprise, Xanathar listened intently to what Beaky was mimicking. As the scene played out, it even began to float a little closer, turning its large, ball-like form as if to hear it better.

“Sliver Thornheart,” mimicked Beaky.

Xanathar pulled back suddenly, a look of disgust on its face. It opened its mouth to say something, but Aeon held up a hand to let the kenku continue. The scene played out, the sound of the murder, the discovery of the sending stone, and the voice saying, “You’re next.”

Xanathar’s face turned to a sneer. “You’re little bird friend is wrong,” it said. “Or Xev wasn’t seeing things correctly.”

Aeon raised a brow. “You know who this Sliver Thornheart is?”

Xanathar nodded, which for him moved its whole form. “She was a Zhentarim agent.” The name of the rival faction was thick with disdain.

Aeon took her hands off of Beaky’s shoulders and the kenku rushed to get behind her. “I’ve never heard of her.”

“She left Waterdeep a year before you arrived. They had her doing all sorts of secret missions around the Sword Coast. But not so secret that the mighty Xanathar didn’t know about it.” It raised himself up a little higher again. “It is believed that she died several months ago outside of Luskan.”

Aeon thought this over for a moment. “She could have been revived somehow. Unless something happened to her soul, like Xev.”

Xanathar shook its form as if shaking its head. “She’s not dead,” it said with a knowing smile.

“Then why are you so sure it wasn’t her?”

“Because,” it said, smile growing. “She’s been my prisoner in Icewind Dale for the last four months. And I know for a fact she’s there right now.”


Continue on to Part 3!

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June 24th
Idle Champions: Peril at the Greenhow, Part One 
Posted in Idle Champions.

Check out the other parts of Peril at the Greenhow:

Peril at the Greenhow, Part One

Umberto

Umberto Thornheart had picked the perfect spot for his picnic for one. He had heard stories around the village of the dangers that lurked within the forest, but the druid had found a calming peace just within its tree line. There, squirrels harvested nuts, deer grazed, and birds chirped in the early morning light. It was the sort of place that always calmed his mind.

It didn’t calm it as much as a case, but he wasn’t taking on any of those right now.

Umberto sat on a freshly cleaned blanket, his pack and staff, beehive hanging from the crook of the staff, resting against a nearby tree. He opened the overly-stuffed basket, salivating as the mixture of tantalizing aromas filled his nostrils - a few hairs of his impressive mustache rising as he breathed them in. This is what I needed, he thought as he began taking out the various dishes. He placed bags of nuts and berries on the edge of the blanket. While he intended to enjoy this picnic by himself, it didn’t mean he was opposed to any of the animals joining.

After all, none of them would ask him when he was getting back to work; they were sure to not break his peace.

“There you are,” came a voice, breaking his peace.

Umberto turned to find his mentor and teacher, Brenton Lonefire, silently walking along the tree line. Brenton was an old dwarf, but his years as a ranger and detective stayed with him - no matter how much gray was in his beard. Shadows made more noise than Brenton in the forest.

“Walsh said he’d seen you heading out early this morning. Mind if I join you?”

Umberto opened his mouth, but decided that saying he did in fact mind was too rude. “Errr, please, have a seat. Would you like one of the pies?”

“You know me too well,” Brenton said as he flopped onto the blanket and picked up the blackberry pie.

“Forgive my confusion,” Umberto said as he watched his mentor dig into the pie he had been looking forward to. “But, I thought you were leaving for Waterdeep today?”

Brenton wiped some blackberry juice out of his beard. “I was, but then I had a thought.” He dug into the pie again instead of continuing.

“Errr, which was?”

Brenton finished the first half of the pie, wiped his face, and smiled. “You should go in my place.”

“Oh, I’m not up for-“

“Umberto,” Brenton cut him off, leveling a stern look at him. Umberto knew that look well. “It’s been six months. You’re wasting your precious gray matter hiding away out here.”

“I am not hid-“ Umberto started, but stopped with another look. He held his mentor’s gaze for a moment, then let his shoulders drop and sighed. “I still feel the loss like a thorny vine around my heart.”

In his mind, Umberto was back on that cliff, the sky dark, the sea roaring. He could still remember every stitch in the skin of the massive undead ogre, that clutched his sister, Sliver, in its massive hand. She locked eyes with Umberto and for the first time since they were children he really saw the sister he loved - not the master thief of the Zhentarim. A moment later, the ogre threw Sliver like a rag doll over the cliff’s edge and into the dark, crashing waves of the ocean below.

Umberto felt Brenton’s hand on his shoulder, bringing him back to the present.

“And you always will,” his mentor said. “But you can’t let that prevent you from doing what the world needs you to do.”

Every excuse ran through Umberto’s mind. But as he looked into his mentor’s eyes, he knew none of them would suffice for the old dwarf. He drew in a deep breath.

“What is the problem in Waterdeep and how can I help?”

A wide smile of teeth cut through Brenton’s thick beard. “That’s my boy!” He set what was left of the pie down and straightened up. “An old friend of mine, Rickard Harlow - formerly the aumarr of the Waterdhavian Guard - wants someone to help his son, the current aumarr, with a string of murders in the city. Rickard doesn’t think his son will be able to solve the case.”

“He does not believe in his own son?”

“It’s a long story, but let’s just say his son, Alister, didn’t reach that rank on his own merits. Though, I should tell you, his one claim to fame was apprehending your sister years ago.” The thorny vine tightened, but Umberto did his best not to show it. Brenton seemed to acknowledge this and continued. “Rickard has already told Alister to expect me, which he begrudgingly accepted.”

Umberto shifted, trying to get away from the pain in his heart. “And this Alister Harlow is expecting you today?”

“Indeed! There was another murder just last night. Which is why you must be on your way.”

“Now?”

“Yes, now - there’s a wagon down the road waiting to take you to New Velar where I’ve arranged for teleportation to one of Waterdeep’s circles.”

Umberto looked solemnly at the spread of food. “Very well,” he said with a sigh and got up. He retrieved his pack and staff. The beehive that hung from the staff swayed softly. A few bees hurriedly flew back the hive, knowing it was time to leave.

He moved to head towards the road but found his feet unresponsive. As if stuck in the thickest of mud. He looked out into the distance. “Errr, and what if I get there and find I cannot properly solve this case? What if I cannot function?”

Brenton walked over and held out the other pie - this one apple. “You won’t.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because this is what you do.” The dwarf smiled. “Have fun. Enjoy it!”

Umberto took the pie. It was cold now, but at least it would be something on his way to Waterdeep. He felt the excuses piling up again. The mud tightened around his feet. He saw his sister’s face as she vanished over the cliff.

And then Brenton gave him a pat on the back and he was walking. Walking towards a road of uncertainty, a city of murder, and away from the comfort of hiding.



Aeon

Aeon, spymaster of Waterdeep, was beginning her day in the way she most enjoyed; scrubbing the bar of the Greenhow tavern. Sure, she could command any one of the service automatons she’d made to work the bar do it. In fact, there were so many things she had them do she could barely remember the list. But, scrubbing the bar each morning grounded her. It, for the small bit of time it took, brought her back to days long gone by. Before she was a spymaster. Before she came to Waterdeep. When her name was -

A mechanical monkey dropped from the ceiling, crashing into a bucket of soapy water, which spilled down the bar she had just wiped down.

Luckily, none of it had gotten on her gown. It was a custom piece - made of black and red fabrics with hints of gold trim. She’d fashioned a leather corset with gold gears that glowed with magic blue light to tie the whole look together with her enchanted top hat. But just because she was wearing all that while scrubbing the bar didn’t mean she wanted any of it to get ruined.

Aeon drew in a breath and narrowed her eyes at her steel defender. “Deuce. Really?”

Deuce’s gold face peeked up from behind the overturned bucket, the blue orbs of magical energy he had for eyes looking it over. He gave a shrug that said, “I didn’t mean to.”

Aeon rolled her eyes. “Well, you’re cleaning it up.” She tossed a towel on Deuce’s head and moved to the other end of the bar that wasn’t covered with soapy water. She watched the other automatons move throughout the tavern. Some of the smaller ones popped in and out of small brass doors set into the walls and ceiling - cleaning up messes, then taking the waste back to their tunnels to dispose of outside. The larger ones - these the size of an average human - rolled around on wheels and set things up for opening later that day. Some of them set up tables and positioned chairs, others cleaned the various lights, while some in the back got the kitchen ready.

Things were going pretty well. Which could only mean -

Three heavy knocks came from the front door.

Aeon smirked. “Like clockwork,” she said under her breath. “We’re closed!”

“City Guard business,” came a stern voice from the other side. “Open up.”

“Lovely.” She hit a button under the bar and the lock on the door clicked. A moment later the door swung open revealing Alister Harlow, Aumarr of the Waterdhavian Guard, his fist still up and ready to knock.

He furrowed his brow at Aeon as he lowered his hand. “Thank you.” He stepped inside, but not alone.

An older, human man with a short white beard followed Harlow. He was dressed in black robes with a high collar. The collar was trimmed with gold and had a matching design worked around it, marking him as a magister - the walking judges of Waterdeep.

Intimidation, Aeon noted. Harlow wants to make a statement.

She ignored the magister and put on her the-fool-with-the-coin-knows-best smile. “Aumarr Harlow, what can I do for you at this early hour?”

Harlow raised a brow as he approached the bar. “It’s nearly highsun.”

“And highsun is early for a tavern.”

“Only your tavern.” He gave a look over his shoulder to the magister who did not make any visible movement to respond. Subtle, but Aeon knew this meant the magister was fully paying attention. What did Harlow think he had on her?

Harlow glanced around the Greenhow. “Busy night last night?”

“Every night is a busy night at the Greenhow.”

He let out a chuckle that was more of a scoff. “I’m sure. Any problems with any of the patrons?”

Aeon held his gaze for a moment, taking in his tone, his posture, his expression - everything she could about him. His confidence was a mask. He was not holding all of the cards, but he might think he could change that if he was brash enough. Was he after someone that was in the tavern last night? No - his tone was an accusation. What was he playing at?

“No more than usual,” she said after a moment. “Why, should I have been watching out for someone? Are the Bregan D'aerthe back or something? Because I told you last time - they just liked my tavern, they weren’t-“

Harlow set a music box down on the bar. It was ornate enough. Polished dark wood, brass clasps and adornments. It was obviously made by someone with refined taste and skill.

The captain gestured to the music box. “You make these, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she said, picking it up. It had seen better days. She sold several of these every night - either to folks looking for a cute gift for their partner or patrons too drunk to realize they’re buying something. She always made sure they shined in just the right way that made you want to buy one. This one, however, looked like it had been kicked down the street. Some loose gears and springs rattled around inside when she shifted it.

It was also much lighter than it was supposed to be.

“One might assume,” Harlow continued, “that if someone were walking around with one of these they most likely had visited your tavern recently.”

Aeon stole a glance at the magister. His expression had not changed. “I would agree that most folks don’t walk around the city with a music box on them, yes. Who did you find this one on?”

“A murder victim,” Harlow said, raising his chin.

Aeon set the music box back on the bar. “That’s dreadful. Who did it?”

“That’s what I’m trying to find out.”

“Well,” she said, eyeing the magister again. “Why don’t you just have a cleric bring the poor soul back and ask them who killed them?”

“That’s hard to do when the victim’s soul was destroyed.”

Now that was interesting. It meant the killer didn’t have to be careful. They could have come face to face with their victim, talked to them even, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was hard to get away with looking someone in the eye when you killed them in a world where they could easily be brought back to accuse you.

“Are you going to accuse me of the murder?”

Harlow’s eyes went wide, and his mouth hung open a moment before speaking. “What? No.”

“Then I think we’re done here.” She started to walk away.

Harlow slammed a fist on the bar, bringing Aeon to a halt. “I want a list of every person that was in here last night. And don’t pretend that you have no way of knowing that. You may think you’re clever with your little machines and trinkets - but we know what you really are, Aeon.”

She let a moment pass. Then another. Finally, she turned around and walked back, standing directly across from Harlow. She put on a mocking smile, looking him in the eye.

“Darling, I don’t know what taverns you frequent - but I couldn’t possibly keep track of the number of people who come through here each night.” She paused and let her smile widen. “Even with all my little machines and trinkets.”

Harlow held her gaze, fire burning in his eyes. “I will return tonight. I will be expecting that list when I arrive. Is that understood?”

She didn’t make a move to confirm or deny. She just held her smile.

“I will bring every guard in the North Ward here if I have to. They’ll search every corner of this-“

“Understood,” she said. She maintained the cocky demeanor, but knew he could do it. This man may have been a buffoon, but he was aumarr of the City Guard. A deadly and unpredictable combination.

A heartbeat passed. Harlow swiped the music box off the bar and marched out the way he had come in. The magister hung back for a moment, looking Aeon over. Then, without a word or sound, he turned and followed Harlow out and into the streets of Waterdeep.

Aeon pressed the button under the bar again and the door slammed shut, locking with a click.

The magister hadn’t been here to pass judgment. Harlow came expecting to threaten her and brought the magister to prove it wasn’t a bluff. If Harlow had said anything out of turn the magister would have done something. Which meant the aumarr was well within his power to flood the Greenhow with as many guards as he wanted if she gave him the chance.

Her eyes fell to where the music box had been. “I’d say today couldn’t get any worse,” she said to Deuce. “But I think it already has.”



Umberto

The city of Waterdeep materialized around Umberto. The smell hit him first - a combination of all the things that come with city life that most people eventually stop noticing. This was quickly followed by the noise. Even on a quiet day, any city street was deafening compared to the forest, or even Brenton’s small village in Harrowdale. Anxiety rose in Umberto as the sights, smells, and sounds of the city washed over him.

You’ve been away for a while, he told himself. This will pass. That last part was more of a hope than a promise.

The teleportation circle was on the corner of a non-main street. A few stone stairs led down from the dais that Umberto now found himself standing on. Nearby were two cloaked members of the Watchful Order of Magists and Protectors - people with the ability to use arcane magic who watched over the teleportation circle and made sure it was functioning properly. One of them, an aarakocra with brown feathers, nodded to him.

“Welcome to Waterdeep,” they said in a friendly tone. “Please descend the steps so the next transport can arrive.”

“Errr, apologies, of course.” Umberto hefted his pack and made his way down the stairs.

The buildings of the North Ward district of the city were taller than he remembered. They loomed over him, the dark windows feeling like eyes of predators watching his every move. Between that, the worked stone under his feet, and not being able to see one hint of trees or bushes - Umberto found himself wondering how he had ever managed to live in a city for any length of time.

“Are you Brenton Lonefire?”

The voice snapped Umberto out of his drifting thoughts. “Errr, no,” he said, turning to face the man that had spoken. “I am here in his place.”

The man must have been Alister Harlow. He was dressed in shining armor that looked as if it had never seen battle. A red cape with gold trim was fastened to the pauldrons and draped behind him. This marked him as a captain, or aumarr as they were referred to in Waterdeep. He was human, like Umberto, and the two men came to about the same height. He had slicked back brown hair, which wasn’t what Umberto would have suggested, but the style fit him well enough.

With a cocky smile, sharp jawline, and sparkling blue eyes it was no wonder Alister Harlow had charmed his way up the ranks. He was an attractive man, but not Umberto’s type.

“Ah,” Alister said. “Well, I’m Alister Harlow, aumarr of the City Guard. Brenton Lonefire came highly recommended by my father. I’m sure if Brenton thinks highly enough of you to send in his place, then we are in good hands.” He held out a hand. “You are?”

Umberto shook the outstretched hand. “Umberto Thornheart.”

Alister’s grip tightened and a paleness ran through his face.

Umberto raised a brow. “Is something wrong, Aumarr? You look like a deer that has spotted a bear.”

Alister released his hand. “Apologies. It’s just… Stlarn - forgive my language. It’s just, I once put your sister behind bars.” Umberto felt that vine tighten. “We tracked her for months, but I was the one that finally caught her.”

Umberto did his best to put on a smile, though it was still hidden behind his mustache. “Yes, Brenton told me about that. You must be quite an opponent.”

The aumarr smiled back. “Well, I don’t know about that. But thank you for the compliment.” He shifted, as if putting back on the role of aumarr. “You must be tired from your trip, I-“

Umberto swung his pack around, and Alister caught it with a small gasp. “Indeed. The wagon broke down outside of New Velar. I would appreciate the reprieve from the weight of my pack. Don’t mind the salmon. It’s fresh, but dead. I couldn’t say no to the fisherman in the New Velar market.”

“Uh,” Alister said, putting one strap over his shoulder. “Of course. Well, I’ve arranged for a nice room for you while you’re here. If you’ll follow me I’ll take you there and-”

“Are we not going to the scene of last night’s murder?”

Alister was still getting the burdensome pack situated on his back. “I’ve made plans for that tomorrow. As well as a visit with the clerics who are seeing to the body. The alleyway has been blocked off and will not be tampered with I can assure-”

“That is a waste of time,” Umberto said, feeling the irritation on his words. “If I am not allowed to see the crime scene as soon as possible there was no point in having myself or Brenton make the trip here. Evidence can be lost, weather could hide a trail, and our murderer could be choosing their next victim.”

The aumarr’s brow furrowed. “I promise you, the guards of this city would not let-“

Umberto scoffed. “It is a wonder you were able to catch my sister.”

“That is not-“

Umberto, for the first time, looked the aumarr in the eye. “I appreciate and understand the rank you hold and that this is your investigation. But, I have solved more cases than you have years in this world, I have faced more villains than you could dream of, and I am here to find this murderer and stop them before they kill again.”

Alister held his gaze for a moment. He opened his mouth to say something, but stopped himself. Hefting the pack, he gave a nod. “Very well.”

“Thank you,” Umberto said, then added, ”apologies for being terse. I.. Errr, don’t like to waste time with an investigation.” This isn’t like you, he said to himself. That time hiding away changed you more than you thought. He tried to put on a smile. “I won’t let it happen again.”

“Apology accepted,” Harlow said. “Follow me to the crime scene.”

Umberto followed the aumarr. It finally registered with him that he was on a case again. The thrill of an investigation lit a fire in his chest that hadn’t been there for a long time. He just hoped his skills hadn’t dimmed enough to snuff that flame out.



Aeon

Aeon didn’t become one of Waterdeep’s greatest spymasters overnight. It took her years to get where she was now, and a few decades before that to even get to Waterdeep. Mastery required skill, and skill required patience and training. Whenever she would spend time working on an invention or deceiving folks in the local tavern, she thought of it as praying at the Temple of Knowledge. And she was a frequent attendant.

Now, so many years after honing this mastery, Aeon gazed at a wall of over one hundred sending stones set into small shelves, looking for the one that heard a man being murdered. Each shelf had a small brass plate with a number on it and the sending stones had a matching number carved into them. Each box that was sold was recorded with that number.

She had sold a few music boxes that night before, but luckily enough, only one that contained a sending stone. Not everyone that was interested in a music box was going to have information she could sell. They all had the compartment, however, so if she later learned someone did have some lucrative knowledge she could send Deuce to install one. However, there was a small, barely noticeable difference between boxes that had stones and those that didn’t.

The one that Harlow had foolishly let her hold was one that was supposed to have a sending stone in it. She had made sure that an agent of the Xanathar Guild, a tiefling named Xev Karshar, went home with it. He had been more drunk than he’d meant to be, which Aeon had also made sure of, and was therefore easily convinced into buying one. And apparently, sometime after he left with a friend, he was killed in an alleyway with a weapon that destroyed his soul.

Usually, that’s not really something she would care about. The Xanathar Guild and Zhentarim had been fighting for years and offed each other regularly. There wasn’t really anything in it for her to hear what happened, save for one small problem.

The music box was lighter than it should have been. Which meant the sending stone had not only been found, but taken.

“There,” she said to Deuce. The little gold monkey scurried up the shelves and retrieved the stone. He landed on her shoulder just before she passed through the doorway to the next room.

It hadn’t been easy constructing an entire spy network headquarters under the Greenhow. Several different contractors had to be used, some of which were just to confuse anyone looking into what she was doing. It had started as just a small hidden room below the basement, but now spread out like a spiderweb under the streets of the North Ward.

After a few rooms and hallways she stepped into a dimly lit den with carved stone walls. Lanterns hung from sconces giving off enough light to read and write, but not disturb the kenku who were trying to focus. There were six of them, five of whom sat in stations with comfortable armchairs. Around each of their heads was a contraption that dangled up to six sending stones a few inches from them. Each station also had an unseen barrier of a modified Silence spell. No sound passed beyond a few feet from them and nothing from the outside came in.

The kenku who worked for Aeon had near perfect memory. This wasn’t a unique skill to these kenku - plenty of other people in the world could recall conversations and things they have seen with crystal clarity. What was unique for kenku, however, was that they could perfectly mimic sounds and voices they heard with their raven-like ability.

Aeon approached the sixth kenku, Cricket, who was sitting behind a desk nearby and kept track of the kenku and the sending stones. Deuce handed her the sending stone and she in turn showed it to Cricket. “I need to speak with the one that was listening to this stone last night.”

Cricket checked the number against his notes, nodded, then hopped off his chair and led her into the next room. It was full of small beds, which the kenku slept in between shifts. Several of these were taken and Cricket led her to one which was occupied by a kenku with stark white feathers.

“Beaky,” Cricket mimicked in one voice. “Boss wants to talk to you,” he said in another.

Beaky opened his red eyes with a start and shot up in the bed. He looked as if he were going to run at first, but then seemed to realize where he was and calmed down. He nodded to Cricket, then to Aeon.

“Uh,” he said. “What can I do for you, boss?” He moved between three or four voices as he spoke.

Aeon handed him the sending stone. “You heard a murder last night.”

Beaky looked at the sending stone number, then nodded.

“I want to hear what happened just leading up to and then all the way through what transpired.”

Beaky thought for a moment, pulling up the memory, then started moving his beak.

“I’m telling you,” said a very drunk man, the sounds of his feet shuffling on the pavement somehow coming from the kenku. “Sylgar is really the brains of this operation.”

Another voice laughed. “I think you’ve had one too many. Maybe even four too many.”

“I’m telling you,” the first voice repeated. Aeon recognized Xev’s voice. “Sylgar is a fiend in disguise and its running this entire city!”

“Gods,” the other voice said. This must have been the halfling that had been with Xev. “You really need to stop saying that before we get back to-”

The halfling cutoff followed by the sound of boots shuffling to a stop.

“Who the hells is that?” Xev said.

“I don’t know,” the halfling said. “But, I don’t think people that stand ominously at the end of alleyways mean well.”

“Hrast,” Xev swore with a sobering tone. “They’re probably after the delivery. Here, take it.” There was a sound of rummaging in a bag.

“I thought you said you’d already taken care of that!”

“Well, I lied!” By the sound of his voice, Xev was sobering up with every passing second. “Just take it and run. Get to the hideout. I’ll hold them off and meet up with you later.”

“But-”

“Go!”

There was a pause, then the sound of boots on pavement quickly moving away.

“All right,” Xev said. “It’s just you and me you tluining-”

Boots on pavement again, but this time much faster and growing louder. Xev roared just before the sound of weapons clanging flooded from Beaky. Aeon couldn’t be sure, but it sounded to her like daggers.

Xev groaned alongside a scuffling sound like the two opponents were grappling one another. A moment later Xev screamed and a dagger clattered on the pavement. Next came stumbling and a crash. This must have been when the music box fell out of the bag, and possibly the sending stone out of its casing.

“Who,” Xev gasped. “Who the hells are-“ he cut off with another scream. He panted through whatever pain he was in. “That can’t be. You’re Sliver Thornheart - that’s impossible! You’re-“

The distinct sound of a dagger plunging into Xev’s chest was barely covered up by the air escaping the tiefling’s lungs. This was quickly followed by a sparking, swirling sound that lasted a few seconds. Aeon assumed this was the sound of the man’s soul being destroyed.

After a few moments there was soft shuffling - the murderer getting to their feet. They sheathed their weapon, then paused.

“Stlarn,” cursed a feminine voice. Next came shuffling sounds as the stone was picked up. “You’re next.”

Beaky mimicked the sound of what Aeon assumed was the stone being broken. “That was where it ended.”

Aeon sat unblinking for several moments, then let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “Well, I didn’t have catching a murderer on my to-do list today, but I guess I can make room.”



Will the killer be found before they can strike again?
Continue on to Part 2!


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