With the cloak’s hood up and the symbols that denoted her as a cleric of Aeon covered, Tessa got in line to enter Crimsonvale. Torgrak in front and Hei behind her. She made sure to keep her feet as much in Hei’s shadow as she could while her own stretched and connected with Torgrak’s. Hei’s illusory necklace around all three of their necks, yet she was fighting the urge to nervously check if it was there. She knew it was there, it had to be, but with every shift in the line towards the gate and guards made her want to make sure it was there. To ensure to herself that it was all going to be alright. That this plan Hei concocted was going to succeed.
In her own head, Tessa kept repeating over and over to herself not to panic. All she has to do is keep moving forward and let the guards find what they want to. To just think of it like the lunch line back at Unity Academy. This isn’t any different, right? But with every couple steps forward she took, the more her own mind began to come up with more and more absurd assumptions about what could happen if things go wrong.
Eventually, Torgrak was second in line and Tessa could see the guards clearer than before. Her eyes staring at the genuine necklaces they wore, causing her to doubt if Torgrak’s sketch was accurate enough for Hei to create a good illusion. Or maybe the guards have some special means or a piece of equipment that lets them identify a real necklace from a fake. If they had anything like that, then all three of them were done for.
To make things even worse, the person ahead of Torgrak gets denied access and is pulled into a side room for Aeon knows what. Making it Torgrak’s turn now as everyone in line moved up one more position. What light sweat she had on her forehead from surface level fears had now spread to the rest of her body. All the while, she kept focused on not making any suspicious movements. Otherwise the guards will sense her fear and it really will be all over then. Tessa avoided making any possible eye contact, even closing her eyes to try and calm her pounding heart. Taking deep, steady breaths when possible.
“Hey! Move up!”
Tessa’s eyes snapped open, realizing that Torgrak has already made it to the other side and waiting for her and Hei to get through now. Each one stiff and shaky as she got ever closer to the guards. Hei took steps closer so that Tessa remained connected to his shadow, but everything around her suddenly felt so much bigger while she shrank while under the guards’ gazes. Seconds felt like minutes as the guards looked Tessa up and down. Tessa praying to Aeon above over and over again in her head in hopes the guards won’t notice anything.
She’s just wearing a plain, dark cloak. There’s nothing special about it. Definitely nothing special about it. It’s completely plain. Nothing about it would give away that she’s a follower of Aeon. Nothing at all. It’s just a regular dark cloak that anyone could buy at a store, right? Right?
Suddenly, one of the guards put his hand on her shoulder. Tessa nearly let a scream out of her lips, containing it within her head as she nearly jumped out of her own skin. She couldn’t help but start to panic in her own mind. The guards had found out. They’d seen through the illusion and now she was headed to the side room for who knows what to happen. She’d never see the light of day again. This is the end of the line. It’s all over.
“Hey, no need to worry so much.”
Tessa’s face suddenly went blank. Her head turned so slowly it looked like she was an automaton hidden behind human skin. Perhaps there would suddenly be a loud, metal creak from how slowly it moved.
“You’re now in the light of the Great Flame, you’re protected here. Go on through.”
In shock that the illusion actually worked, Tessa couldn’t remember how to breathe for a moment. Her mind now racing to come up with something to say in response before she blew a proverbial gasket.
“Um. Yes. Th-thank you, sir.”
After thanking the guard, she passed right on through the gate. Each step stiffer and more jagged than the last while the guards switched their attention to Hei. Her heart slowly went back down her throat and returned to where it belonged in her chest as the tension she built up in her mind faded away. All the while wondering how something so minor, so simple as a guard checkpoint was more stressful than any test or kind of combat she’s experienced thus far.
Moments later, Hei joins up with Tessa and Torgrak. Giving Tessa a hard pat on back and looks like he’s about to start laughing at any moment. This isn’t helped by the fact that even Torgrak turns his face away slightly, cheeks puffing up slightly under his beard out of what he just saw.
“I never thought I’d see someone try so hard to not be noticed, and nearly fail so hard~.”
“Oh, that was priceless! Ye looked more ready ta explode than any bomb I've ever made!”
“A fuse near a fire could handle better heat than you and would probably lead to a less explosive result~.”
“Between ye an' nitroglycerin, I think ye'd go aff with less pressure!”
Tessa’s eyes felt like they were going to tear up as her mentors teased her. Cheeks puffing up and turning red in embarrassment over how she overreacted to just passing through a checkpoint.
“C-can we just move on, please?”
“So what are we going to do now that we’re in the city? Split up and search for clues?”
The moment Tessa suggests it, Hei and Torgrak both look at her with concern in their eyes. Absolute confusion in their faces from her suggesting to split up and work individually.
“No. Do you have brain damage or something?”
“Whoever put that idea in yer head has more screws loose than a goblin in a black powder factory with a lit match an' a desire ta go 'boom'. We'll be stickin’ together, surveyin’ tha city as a squad. It's both safer an' prevents anyone from gettin’ isolated. There's nothing worse than being cut aff from your party members in enemy territory; or at least not much tha’s worse. Whomever put that idea in your brain shou' be drawn an' quartered.”
After having said it out loud, even Tessa questioned why splitting up was her suggestion, “Yeah, you’re right. Why did I suggest that?”
Sticking together, the three of them walked around the city and kept any eye out for anything significantly out of the ordinary. Going from spots that had considerable amounts of people moving back and forth through them, such as marketplaces, as well as looking for any buildings or people that didn’t fit the idea of a “normal” city. Through their investigation, they stumble across three significant details.
First thing they noticed was that just about anywhere they went where there was a fairly large number of people, there was also someone preaching the word of the “Great Flame”. Speaking so loudly that even a deaf person would want to throw a rock at the herald just to get him to shut up. Over and over again the preacher would repeat his words. And if not repeating them word for word, they’d be generally similar. All in an attempt to spread the word of Nencog to any that would listen.
Second was the existence of a massive cathedral that stood taller than any other building in the city. It towered several stories above any other building in the city, but there were also no other buildings that had a similar formality. No castles or central government buildings were anywhere in Crimsonvale. Outside the cathedral there were also several guards that looked more “advanced” than those that were at the gate. This is likely where the leader of the cult is holed up.
The third detail that stood out was how the three of them were getting weird looks from people off in the shadows. Whenever Hei, Tessa, or Torgrak tried to meet their eyes, the person quickly slipped back into the shadows. Avoid any potential contact with the party. It’s likely that someone is trying to keep an eye on them. Whether it’s because they’re outsiders or potentially for some other reason.
With the surface level investigation of Crimsonvale finished, the sun was now approaching the horizon. And now it was time to figure out what to do next.
“Let’s find an inn~. Best to call it for now~.”
“Is that a good idea? We are in the middle of e-...”
Hei put a finger to her lips, shushing her, while holding one to his own. Winking to Tessa to try and clue her in.
“Best not to say that when you’re in it.”
Pulling his finger away, Hei let her resume talking.
“We’re...among ‘unsavory fellows’, so wouldn’t it be better to leave?”
“You’re right, it is a bad idea to stay where we are with so many ‘unsavory fellows’ potentially around us. But the ‘unsavory fellows’ are likely also going to keep us from walking out the front door. Keeping it locked so any curious mice that wandered in are trapped.”
“Alright, but what’s the plan if they appear in the middle of the night?”
“Couldn’t say~. It’s their turn to act, so we can only prepare for it and react when they do take action.”
With those words, Hei and Torgrak entered the nearest inn. Quickly paying for a large enough room to accommodate all of them and moving up into it. Closing and locking the door after getting in. Tessa just rested on the edge of one of the beds, watching Hei and Torgrak.
“So, what do we do to prepare?”
Torgrak pulls out Tessa’s Staff of Aeon and tosses it to her. Looking it over, Tessa notices it looks a bit different than she remembers. It’s the same staff, probably, but there's something different about it. She shakes her head, thinking it's just her imagination.
“I'll be tossing some supplies an' potions your way, so get ready ta down them. It's gonna be a long night.”