Curse of Strahd
The nightly fog coated everything with a foul stench. The tide was receding, no doubt an attempt escape the fetor. This area of Waterdeep was called “the dredge’. It was created years ago when wealthy merchants invested in expanding the dock area and dumped all the green and purple sludge on this edge of the city. Over time wormwood shacks and driftwood hovels sprang up – “homes” for the outcasts of society. Even the poor looked down on the ragged folk who lived in the dredge.
Twilight barely revealed the dark figure leaning against a tumble of wood that had once been a building. The man’s taut face stared impassively down the unlit street. Furtive shadows of dredge denizens darted here and there; it only took them a quick glance to see that this was no mark. A thief would lose a hand, a brigand would lose his life; making an enemy of this one would be a short-lived affair.
Slate brushed a lock of jet-black hair from his eyes, and let out a sigh. He was back home. It had been five years since he had smelled the agony of the dredge. Sour odor…sour memories. He had liberated himself from this hellhole when he was 17 years old, although his age was just a guess. He and his friends had been called many things…urchin, ragamuffin, gamin, guttersnipe, dredge-rats…and much worse. He really didn’t know when he was born or where. As far back as he could remember his home was a corner inside any work-shed, stable, or abandoned building. The local orphanage helped feed him, but he never slept there. They didn’t care, didn’t have room anyway.
His name was Slate…had always been Slate. It was because of his stygian black hair. He had a handsome face with chiseled features and was fair skinned. His penetrating eyes were a brilliant blue…a summer blue…a counterpoint to his hair. He was now 22 and had lost his childish features. His visage now was marred by a thin 3” scar across his right cheek. He always had been tall for his age…with broad shoulders. Now, with five years of fighting behind him he was hard and sinuous…calloused on the inside too…daring life to stand in his way.
As a hired caravan guard he had earned a living here and there over the past several years and now owned decent armor and a well-crafted longbow. Now it was time to seek his fortune. It was time to play hide-n-seek with death again, time to see if he could reach the gold before death found him.
With another sigh Slate turned and ambled out of the dredge and along the waterfront of the Dock Ward. The pearl-grey mist wrapped itself around the docks like a hooded cloak covering an unwilling informant. The night air swirled around every street-side object, leaving its wet and beaded mark. The heavy air transmuted ordinary sounds to an infernal shadowy din. The distant bark of a dog…the nearby lifting of a latch…the indecipherable murmur of secrets through an open window…all seemed surreal…unnatural. Even the musty smells, dense with nighttime moisture, seemed eccentric. The wafting redolence of potent ale, the thin serpentine scent of tobacco, and the sweet muted fragrance of tomorrow’s bread all seemed not quite recognizable.
Slate slid silently along the dark and narrow street…his footfalls almost silent. Yellow light from the occasional open window glistened off the wet cobblestones as he passed. The two-story gray-brown buildings crowded close to the narrow street leaving little room for the thin cobbled sidewalk.
Though all of Waterdeep was dappled with taverns and inns…they seemed to be
the life-blood of the city’s economy…the dock ward was especially
known for the more seedy repositories.
It was the Dock Ward that was frequented by Waterdeep’s most skilled assassins, cutpurses, spies, and criminals in general. The nefarious denizens of Waterdeep lived and worked from here. It was deep into this dank barrio that Slate strolled this night.
Slate kept his eyes alert to any movement. Occasionally he glimpsed a figure step into a doorway ahead…sometimes on his side of the street…sometimes on the other. He noted the movement instinctively and used his eyes — never turning his head — to survey his surroundings. He had learned many years ago that movement could be used to distract the eye, so he investigated every blur not only for itself but also for what it might be masking on the other side of the street.
Slate’s eyes darted from side to side as he walked slowly and deliberately along the deserted street. As he approached a darkened alley that bisected the street ahead his pace quickened. With a speed that would have been a blur if anyone were watching, he plunged into the dark abyss of the alley. Then, just as suddenly, he returned to the street grasping a thin cringing little man.
“Aieeee…I wasn’t doin’ nothin’…I swears,” the rag-clothed man winced
with pain. Slate had the man’s right wrist bent backward.
“I’ll be damned,” Slate shook his head. “Skulk, I almost turned you into a castrato for the orphanage choir.” Slate let go of the man as he slid his hidden knife back into its scabbard.
The little man froze in place and gaped as he looked Slate in the face. Gradually standing straight he blinked twice. “Slate? Slater, that you?” he whispered.
“None other,” Slate grinned widely
“Gor, the gods strike me!” Skulk grabbed Slate and hugged him tightly. “How long its been?”
“Too long and not long enough, my friend. I see you still have both your hands,” Slate chuckled.
“Yeah, but I be gettin’ too old. Still dippin’ and getting’ tha five-fingered discount when I kin. Mostly, I jist swing a panni if there be choice swag init…an o’course if I has good nuff kifers.”
Slate grinned widely, “You don’t look the worse for wear, n’ you’re only three years older than me. So, how’re the old dredge-kin?”
“Ah…pretty clean. “Sweet-face he’s doin’ a tail piece in tha steel fa dippin’. Li’lbit, she’s still snakin’ and stall-farmin’. Hoister’s turned inta a pip fine-wirer n’ bought hisself some nice fits ta troll in. An, Sneezin’ Jack’s ‘come a kidsman, if ya kin believes it.
“A kidsman,” Slate laughs, “ Sneeze is teachin’ the nippers to tea-leaf? Well there’s never a shortage of dredge-rats”
Skulk nodded then continued, “Say, Slater, if ya don’t mine me askin’ what’s happen to yer flash patter?”
“Well, ya gotta aver uptown out in tha real, if ya wanna fill tha old dumplin’ depot by tha set,” Slate winked as he imitated his old accent. Skulk laughed heartily.
“You been out in tha real how long now?” Skulk asked
“Been five years,” Slate responded as his eyes glazed over momentarily. He hesitated a moment, looking down at the street. “You heard anything ‘bout Wink?”
Skulk too stared at the ground for a short time. “Was waitin’ fa ya to ask. Wink come back a few months now, lookin for ya. Nobby as ever, I mean real topper. Ya know, Slate, nothin’ never so dazz come from the dredge afore Wink.” Skulk shook his head and hesitated.
Slate smiled, “And?”
Skulk looked up at his friend then back down to the ground, “She’s doing a full stretch, Slate” then quickly added “Not her fault!”
Slate’s teeth clenched and his jaw muscles began to contract. “What do you mean? How?” he hissed.
Skulk sighed and began, “Wink comes back and, like I says, lookin’ fa ya. Nothin’ special, jist wantin’ to see if ya was back. Well, tha Sweep got the smell she was in tha limits.”
Slate’s teeth began to grind noticeably at the mention of Sweep, but he said nothing.
“So the Sweep’s still got this old groan for you, an decides to settle by rollin’ Wink ‘n brassin’ a few beaks to get her slammed. Wham bam, Wink’s in the Black Maria headed to the cold-bath. They gives her a full stretch; she won’t out till leaf.”
“Where?” Slate blurted.
Skulk hesitated then murmured, “The Trench.”
Slate’s falchion sang as he pulled it from its scabbard. “The Trench? That depraved pesthole?” he shouted. “I shoulda dusted that bastard when I was a kid!”
Skulk jumped back a step and quickly glanced about to see if anyone had taken notice.
“The Sweep brassed a lot of mawleys to get her in there,” he replied, “Slate, she’s been in a tail-piece already.”
“Where’s the Sweep’s nest these days, Skulky?” Slate slammed his sword back into its scabbard.
“Oh, the Sweep went lavender soon as it was done. He knew the kin would be rattlin’ his mob. But, without you we didn’t have the stout ta do much.”
Slate snorted, “Bastard went lav.” He turned and strode down the street. “I’ll be in touch, Skulky.”
“Where to, Slate?” Skulk asked.
Slate stopped and looked back at his friend. “If the Sweep’s gone lav I’ll find out where…at the Paradox.”
The diminutive man’s pallid face paled further at the mention of the Paradox but he just shook his head and nodded his farewell.
Slate charged down the dimly lit street, not looking back. Slate passed several taverns…all of which he knew intimately; not so much as a patron but as a boy seeking handouts or looking for a mark. However, tonight he headed straight to a destination not many in Waterdeep ever heard of and never saw. Only the most skilled and respected of the covert professionals in the Realms were allowed inside this infamous tavern-citadel. The Paradox lay at the dead end of an alley no wider than the doorway at its end. Of course, no one in the Dock Ward ever ventured up a dead alley. But, that was why this configuration had been chosen as the only way to enter this covert establishment.
Slate reached the corner where the constricted passage shot off to the right. Without hesitating he turned down the murky tunnel. The passageway was about 100 feet long with sidewalls made of dark earthy bricks that were wet with condensation. Slate noted a narrow door on the right wall about half way down the passage. And, of course, he could see the weathered wooden door at the very end.
Some claimed that The Paradox tavern was as old as Waterdeep itself. In fact,
most believed that a system of secret underground passages meandered from its
basement to every corner of the city…built and extended as the city grew.
Of course, no one had seen any of these clandestine burrows…or at least none had
admitted having seen them. Nevertheless, the very nature of Waterdeep intrigue gave credence to the legend.
As Slate passed by the dark side-door, he shifted his eyes in time to see a small
sliding panel close silently. He quietly continued straight to the doorway ahead. The stout but weathered door that served as entry to the Paradox imparted a definite feeling of protection and strength. Slate was not quite sure what it was about the common looking entry that affected his perception so, but he knew some magic was at work. He imagined that no force of strength could pass through this door uninvited and he was sure no one would try. As he reached the worm-eaten entry, the door slowly opened inward, unlatched by some unseen hand within. Slate entered confidently.
A blue-gray haze hovered about the room floating just over the heads of its occupants. The spicy aroma of shisha tobacco seduced Slate’s senses as he glanced at the patrons. But, his mind came into quick focus as a giant hulk suddenly appeared at his side.
Though he knew better, his reaction was the same as if he were being approached by a bear…and not an ordinary bear at that…a giant one. The Half-orc stood at least a foot and a half taller than Slate’s six-foot frame. Its skin was a dankish green-gray. The large, muscular body bulged and rippled with power, convincing of the potential brutality of this creature. A massive hand reached out from an endless arm to grasp Slate’s shoulder and with a crushing grip spun him around.
“Haw, Haw, Haw! This be little Slate?” The deep throaty voice boomed with a huge grin. The half-orc leaned backward and let out a roaring laugh that filled every corner of the large room.
“You know Feral, I think you get more handsome each time I see you,” Slate smiled as he caught his breath.
The roar of Feral’s laughter redoubled, once more flooding the cloudy
“Where you go so long, little fish?” Feral asked as he took a backward step to see Slate better. “Not so little now.”
Slate smiled, “I grew up Feral, been working. Guarding caravans, nobles and the like. Slate shrugged. “Thanks for letting me in, I wasn’t sure if you were still here,”
“Ah…where Feral go? Plenty heads to crack here!”
“Just not mine, Feral,” Slate grinned.
“Feral crack you head plenty already,” he winked.
Slate rubbed his head and nodded, “Is Brielle here, Feral?” He asked.
“Where else she be,” Feral retorted, “she find you.”
Slate slapped Feral’s shoulder; it was like smacking a boulder. He spotted an empty table in the center of the large room and took a seat. Tables in the center were the ones most often available. The Paradox was not like most taverns where community tables were crowded as close together as possible. In here the edges of the room were lined with head-high three-sided compartments where up to six people could gather around a table and not be heard. For the fare of the Paradox was neither ale nor wine, it was information. All the secrets of the Realm passed through this institution at one time or another. It is said that for centuries there had been an oath of all races that this place was a safe-haven, a place to trade information. Of course, not many were allowed in. Only the truly professional infomongers passed the warded door; only the most notorious operatives and agents were welcome. No one came here to hide, rather they came to meet their counterparts and to barter information.
The Paradox was ageless. At least it had been here for hundreds of years. And, it had always been owned and managed by a women from a single elven lineage. For the past century that woman had been Brielle. She was far from a normal inn proprietor, in fact she was quite the opposite.
“Well if it isn’t that cute-faced kid all grown up.” A willowy sylph nestled up beside Slate then sat down beside him.
Slate blushed slightly and replied, “Hello, Birdie.”
Brielle shook her head and scrunched a false frown. “You know, Blue Eyes, there’s not a creature in the realm that would dare call me that, but you.”
Brielle’s hair was short, bouncy and as shining black as Slate’s. But, it was her dazzling green eyes that immediately seized one’s attention. Brielle’s mother had been a handsome woman – poised and dignified with a strength of mind and character in her face. But, Brielle was much different. She had been born with the sort of heartbreaking beauty and sensual grace that is oft talked about but seldom experienced. Just five feet tall, petite for an elf, her slender figure nonetheless provided a perception of elegant length. She did not wear dresses so much as diaphanous veils. As she floated across a room these ethereal shades would magically reveal momentary glimpses of her sensual body then conceal her completely once again. The effect was a merciless tease that mesmerized every male customer.
Slate grinned broadly, “Yes, I know. But, when I was five years old you looked just like a beautiful bird flitting around the room. You’ll always be Birdie to me.”
Brielle reached over and ruffled his hair. “It’s so good to see you, Precious. I’ve gotten my reports on you from time to time,” She smiled, “tell me how you’re making out.”
“Ever since you gave me my bow and pushed me out the gates, I’ve been learning. Lots of fighting, mostly orcs.” Slate grimaced. “I’ve gotten pretty good, actually. And look at me.” With that Slate pushed back his chair and flexed his biceps in mock arrogance.
In a flash Brielle reached over and poked him in the stomach with a fork that was lying on the table. “Care to arm wrestle?” She grinned.
Slate flinched then collapsed back into his chair laughing. “No, I know better than that.”
“I know about everything that’s happened, Blue Eyes. You don’t think I would send you out into the world without keeping an eye on you.” Brielle smiled kindly. “You know I’m so pleased to see you, but something’s bothering you. What is it?”
Slates lips tightened and he told her what he had found out about Wink and the vicious effort of the Sweep to not only incarcerate her but to do so in the most heinous prison in the city. Tears of anger swelled in his eyes as he revealed what he had learned from Skulk. Brielle listened intently but dispassionately.
When Slate was finished he said, “I don’t need help, Birdie, I just need to find out where the Sweep is hiding.”
Brielle sat for a moment, thoughtful but impassive. “You know Blue Eyes, I have a favor I would like for you to do for me. There are two newcomers in the city that I’d like for you to meet. They need a little guidance on the art of living in a city, who to kill, who not to kill,” she grinned, “and you would be the perfect person to provide it.” She laid her hand atop Slate’s.
Slate looked puzzled, “Of course, Birdie. But, what about my problem?”
Brielle reached her hands in the air and stretched with a small sensual rotation of her body. “What problem, my dear?” Her mischievous emerald eyes bore straight into Slade’s.
Slade sat quietly for a moment. “Where might I find these friends of your’s, Birdie?” He said with a knowing smile. “And what are their names?”
“They’re staying at the Wanderer, you know it, in the Castle Ward…a Paladin named Maestoff and a young female bard, called . See if you can’t find some adventures together.”
Slate stood and tenderly kissed Brielle’s hand. He simply nodded and emitted a bashful smile. As he turned to leave he answered, “I’ll find them.”
Slate walked across the room toward Feral and the equally behemoth front door. But, in just a few steps he heard Brielle speaking to him in a quiet voice. “I think a lavender bush would look good on top of that old chimney sweeps grave, don’t you? Slate grinned and kept on walking.
Spending time with Slate you would learn he is:
Impulsive and undisciplined but not uncooperative
Surprisingly easy going, is wise-cracking and sarcastic – not very diplomatic
Likes to flirt with women
Not scarred by his deprived youth, but aggressive toward injustice as a result
Welcoming to all non-evil sentient creatures
Dismissive of anyone of official authority
Indifferent to the gods
Violently and instantly reactive to evil creatures