Swift and silent, the bard and hawk passed through the false wall and held their breath as it slid home again. A few moments later, footsteps approached and paused next to the wall. The seconds crawled by like minutes until the footsteps retreated.
Letting out faint sighs of relief, the still-invisible pair inched their way down the dark passage. They followed a smooth hall which declined gently down to the right. Two hundred feet beyond, the passage opened up into a small room with a pair of desks and a glass-door cabinet. A guard snored at one of the desks, face in his arms. Atop the cabinet, an oil lamp flickered gently. Across the room was a door. In the center of the wall to the right, a flight of stairs led up out of sight.
Faint yowls and harsh thuds filtered through the door beyond the guard. Foradjinn shifted as if to move across but he felt Tinuviel’s hand press against his chest. “Not yet. We need to take care of the guard. Quietly.”
“Not a problem.” The bard tugged her forward. He snapped his fingers when he reached the guard’s side and cast Polymorph upon the sleeping man. Tinuviel snatched up the resultant mouse and shoved it inside one of Foradjinn’s scroll cases. The scrabbling from within sounded loud in the still air, but not loud enough to muffle the cries from beyond the door.
With a nod of approval, the hawk knelt before the frosted glass doors of the cabinet and jimmied the lock. Inside, she found shelves upon shelves of leatherbound ledgers. These dated as far back as one hundred and thirty years ago and grew thicker towards the more recent dates. The initials “B,” “R,” and “D” featured prominently in the “Outgoing” columns. “R” appeared first towards the beginning of the century. “B” showed up in 606 with “D” coming along in 613.
“Tinuviel.” Foradjinn tried the door beyond the desk and found it locked. “We need to get through.” The sound of hits against flesh and fresh howls split the air behind it.
Tinuviel tore the pages where each initial started and various other sections she deemed important. “We could leave now,” she said. “It might be more dangerous beyond this point.”
“I cannot leave without helping them.” Tugging on the door handle, the bard ground his teeth in frustration.
“Fair enough.” Crossing the room, the hawk tucked the papers away into the bard’s bag of holding. “Steady.” Leaning against the door, she listened for a moment until the howls and whimpering died down. She could have sworn she heard a distant door close and so set about picking the lock. Once it clicked open, she rested a hand on the knob and pointed toward the oil lamp atop the cabinets.
Foradjinn understood and flicked a finger at it, the light fading out with Prestidigitation.
Pushing the door open, Tinuviel crept in to be greeted by a faint scent of the sea. A long rectangular room stretched before them, cages lining the walls. In most of them, tabaxi hunched, huddled, and keened. The ones closest to the door shrank back against the bars, then realized the strangeness of the hawk’s movements. “Please,” one hissed. “Help us!”
“Shh!” The hawk hissed back. “We can get you help but we need to be careful.”
The tabaxi nodded and whispered it along the line. The whimpering died down to be replaced with hopeful murmuring. Tinuviel darted toward the end of the room to listen at yet another door. Foradjinn followed at a slower pace, unlimbering his spare longsword, daggers, and throwing knives to disperse among the prisoners.
“How long have you been here?” Tinuviel asked.
“Three, four days,” one said. This tabaxi appeared to be the one still holding it all together the best, though his eagerness belied how close he was to becoming like the others. “The guard just took one of us through that door. Everyone who goes that way never comes back.”
Padding back to the door, Tinuviel set to work unlocking it. Foradjinn slid the scroll case with its inhabitant into an empty cell and moved to back her up. The hawk drew the flametongue dagger and used mage hand to push the door open.
Sea scent increasing, the hallway beyond featured a small door on the wall to the left and a long tunnel to the right. At the end, Tinuviel just made out the tiniest pinprick of light. By this time, the hawk was finding each lock was keyed the same and the left door gave way before her thieves tools in a shorter time than before.
Behind this new door there was another small desk and a larger, reinforced door next to it. On the desk, various alembics and braziers and other alchemical supplies covered the surface. One large beaker and a few small vials contained a light purplish liquid.
Foradjinn jiggled the handle on the door and noted the lock was bigger than the others. As he removed his hand, a dry, gutteral voice pierced his mind. “I don’t recognize you. Who is there?”
The bard leaped back, staring at the door. Behind him, Tinuviel whipped around in surprise, hearing the voice as well. “Are you a slave like the others?” stammered the bard when he found his voice. The resultant chuckle reminded Foradjinn of a tribal leader who laughed as a trader came to him begging for mercy. A persistent ache rose at the base of his neck to couple with the unease at the whole situation.
“Are you responsible for all of this?” Tinuviel asked.
The voice did not reply. Before she could ask more, distant singing interrupted her investigation. The off-key calling was punctuated by the scraping and bumping of rolling wood. Tinuviel slipped past Foradjinn and relocked the door to the cell room. Then, she put her finger to her lips and motioned the bard to be silent as they hid in the alchemy room.
The singing drew closer, along with the scraping and bumping. It died away just outside. A pause, and then, “All right. Come on out!”
Tinuviel slid her flametongue dagger from her sheath, but Foradjinn rested his hand upon her shoulder, motioning for her to wait. He then dispelled Polymorph.
From within the cell room, a pop cracked and a panicked voice yelled, “Simmons! Oi! Help me out!”
Sure enough, Tinuviel slammed open the door to catch Simmons in the act of opening the cell room door and battle was joined. The hawk soon dealt Simmons a serious gash in his stomach and the guard fell, clutching his gut.
Foradjinn strode forward, letting his dancing sword rise and level toward the other guard, Felton. “Drop it,” he growled.
Thoroughly intimidated, Felton obeyed, dragging his wounded coworker into the smaller room.
“Now, do tell us,” Tinuviel tossed the cowed guard some rope to tie up Simmons. “What the hell is going on? Where are you taking the tabaxi?” She scuffed a wet slick next to the cart Simmons had been pushing. Blood.
“All we do is open up the door and push ’em inside for the purple thing.” Felton finished and backed away.
Tinuviel checked the knots, none-too-gently for she had a pretty good guess already. Simmons groaned. “And then?” she growled.
“Then we take the bodies down the tunnel and toss ’em in the bay.” While Tinuviel tied Felton up, the guard explained. The tabaxi were taken from Bernardo’s and one a day was fed to the creature behind the door. “It eats the brains,” Felton said. “Then it sleeps. And the goo it leaves? We just pick it up when its done along with the body.” He tilted his head toward the desk. “Bottle it. Sell it at the social club up those stairs you passed. People see some pretty fantastic stuff when they taste it.”
“Who do you work for?”
“I don’t know.” Felton flinched when Tinuviel raised her burning dagger, the light reflecting in her cold eyes. “I don’t know! Sort of Bernardo, sort of the Brotherhood. They all get a cut!”
“Who pays you?”
“My uncle, Ignacio.”
Tinuviel fought to maintain her composure. Ignacio Dartan was the leader of the Thieves Guild. Combined with the Brotherhood and Bernardo’s of the Banking District, the whole situation had turned more complicated than she ever imagined. “Does anyone else work down here or is it just you two?”
Taking a deep breath, the hawk crossed her arms. She continued to stare down at them and they shifted under her gaze. “Which one of you pushed the tabaxi in?”
Felton swallowed. “Both of us,” he mumbled.
“I think I shall kill Simmons,” the same flat tone in the hawk’s voice wavered with fury. “And then, maybe, I will shove you through that door, hmm? Or you can try swimming while tied up?” She motioned toward the long tunnel smelling of the sea.
Simmons whimpered and Felton shook his head with a frantic motion. “I’ll take the harbor. Or that knife.”
“Tinuviel,” Foradjinn murmured. “We have evidence now. These Tabaxi and the papers you have will probably be enough to convince Gwendolyn.” He reached over and swept a few vials into the bag of holding. “These, too.” He reached up and caught his sword and leaned on it. “I can Send to Beron and have him bring people. They will see what we see.” Clearing his throat, he shrugged. “But your ways in this place are strange to me and I will follow your lead.”
At the mention of Beron, Tinuviel felt her grip relax on her dagger. The rage did not diminish but a cooler sense of control shunted it aside for the moment. “Send to him, then. Tell him as much as you can.” She strode back into the cell area and proceeded to unlock the cages.
Foradjinn received a reply a few stunned seconds later, affirming help was on its way and asking for more information. “I can send once more, Tinuviel,” he explained after relaying the message. “But then I will not be able to polymorph anyone else.”
“Beron is sending help. The help is not here yet. We must hold out as long as we can without them and we will need your abilities to that end.” Tinuviel turned to the freed tabaxi. “Can you stay as well? We can bring justice for you and the dead both. But we need your help.”
Conversing among themselves, the tabaxi turned and nodded.
An hour passed and all grew restless. A knock at the door leading back to Bernardo’s and the social club startled them all out of their reverie. Tinuviel and Foradjinn waved the Tabaxi into the tunnel. “I don’t recognize the voice,” the hawk warned. She flattened herself to the side of the door and motioned Foradjinn to open it.
The bard swung the door open and cast Polymorph again. He caught a glimpse of a human woman clad in a fine blue vest and uniform before she collapsed into mouse form. Foradjinn scooped her up in his last scroll case and capped it. To the sound of frantic skittering within, he raised it to his lips and growled. “Shush. There are cats about.” He then inched the tube into cell and locked it.
“Who was she?” Tinuviel asked Felton.
“Part of the social club. She was collecting the vials for tonight’s party.”
“Anyone else coming down?” The hawk twirled the dagger pointedly.
“Uh, no. They might notice she’s missing soon, though.”
“One hour,” Tinuviel exchanged nods with Foradjinn. “One more hour,” she announced to the tabaxi. “And then we go, help or not.”
Forty-five minutes later, another knock sounded on the door. By this time, Tinuviel had been mulling over the intricacy of the conspiracy around them. With most of the shady organizations of Port Cecil in on it, she wondered if her fellow hawks could be trusted. Catching hold of the two strongest tabaxi, she sent them off down the harbor tunnel to swim around to the docks and inform her contact, Narvi, of the whole situation, just in case.
Then she called through the door. “Who’s there?”
“Tinuviel? It’s us! Therdina, Boronir, and Alanros.”
The third name Tinuviel did not know and it did little to calm her nervousness. “Who sent you?”
“Beron. Sorry we’re late. We had to sneak through Bernardo’s.”
Foradjinn, by this point, had approached the door and reached out to open it. Tinuviel caught his hand and whispered her fears in dwarfish. The bard nodded and cast invisibility upon her, murmuring a small battle chant to provide a little inspiration. She once again flanked the door and Foradjinn at last opened the door.
As they had said, Therdina, Boronir, and a tall elf in hawk uniform like the others stood outside. “Welcome! At last, at last.” The bard guided them in, chattering away, professing his gratefulness for their assistance.
“Where are the tabaxi?” Boronir demanded, a grumpy expression on his face.
“Who is that woman?” Therdina asked, pointing at the unconscious former mouse in one cell.
“Where is Tinuviel?” Alanross added.
“Right this way!” Waving them on, Foradjinn led them into the tunnel. Tinuviel followed behind and put her foot in the door as Alanross attempted to close it behind them. Thankfully, he was distracted by Foradjinn getting to the part of the story where the Dartans collected the vials of brain goo and the Brotherhood sold them as drugs.
“You have to be kidding,” snapped Boronir. “Goo? A creature eating tabaxi brains?” He frowned. “You’ve been down here too long.”
“It’s true,” said Tinuviel at last. In the ensuing surprise and demands for explanation, the invisible hawk managed to add credence to the whole scenario. The three newcomers eventually came around to their view.
Borondir rubbed his eyes. He stared at the remaining tabaxi and said, “Well, you’ve got two choices, friends. You can either head back up through Bernardo’s and take your chances traveling back to the pearl via the Banking District, or head down the tunnel and swim for it.”
Unhappy with either choice, the tabaxi nonetheless opted for the swim. They scurried away into the darkness and Borondir turned to his fellow hawks and the bard. “Well, Bernardo’s gonna be jailed. That much is certain.” With a half-smirk, he sucked at his teeth. “This is also gonna be quite the blow to the Banking District, but,” he shrugged. “Not our problem.” Pointing at the thick door, his eyes narrowed. “That thing’s gotta go.”
Tinuviel nodded. “With so many powerful people dependent on this, we’re in danger. If we leave this, they could bury it all along with us.”
“So we take out the thing they need most.” Therdina jutted out her chin, a serious gleam in her eye. “The source.”
“I’m tired, I’m done with sneaking around,” agreed Boronir. “I’m pissed this is happening in my area of the city and I’m not having it.” Clapping Foradjinn on the shoulder, he took a breath. “You two have done so much to get this far. Can you help us?”
“I am almost out of tricks,” Foradjinn shrugged. “But yes.”
The other hawks nodded in unison.
“Good.” Unsheathing his shortsword, Boronir set himself. “What’s our play?”