Beryl and Hurk’s investigation of Sylgar and Ott Steeltoes led them to an exotic fish shop in a converted windmill in the docks district. They were in the back room, questioning the sun elf proprietress Viri when an angry dwarf and a gang of bugbears kicked open the front door.
The dwarf has a big crossbow mounted where his left arm should be. He shouts that he knows they are there and demands that the show themselves. He sends his bugbears to fan out and investigate the store. They can hear a back door being kicked in and more bugbears coming inside. One of the goblinoids notices that there’s someone in the back room and moves to investigate.
A frightened Viri asks the adventurers for advice. She says that she has a device that can call for security, but it’s up in the windmill tower and the bugbears are in the way. Beryl hastily formulates a plan: the elf will call out that she’s been robbed and that the intruders turned invisible and ran. Then Beryl will use the thaumaturgy spell to create the sound of footsteps running out the door.
Viri’s quavering voice calls out with the deception. The bugbears sense that it doesn’t add up, but the dwarf urges them to follow the sounds while he questions the elf. Three bugbears pull up their hooded cloaks and dash back out onto the street. The adventurers hear the dwarf and two more bugbears clomping towards the back room.
Hurk and Beryl come up with a new plan: having Viri lure the dwarf into the back room, where they can ambush him in the doorway. Viri tentatively approaches the entrance while Hurk and Beryl attempt to stealthily move into position. Hurk’s boots of elvenkind keep him quiet, but Beryl’s armor clanks. The dwarf and his bugbears hear that and immediately grow suspicious as Viri appears in the doorway. He asks who else is in there and she assures him it’s just the fishes.
Still suspicious, the dwarf, Noska, asks her to step out of the room so his bugbears can investigate. She agrees and steps outside, then as soon as the bugbears are past she dashes for the tower. Noska curses and tries to take aim but is distracted as the bugbears are waylaid by Hurk and Beryl. The half-orc savagely wounds one of them, but it manages to dodge Beryl’s sacred flame magic. The goblinoids hammer Hurk with their morningstars as Noska bellows at them to get out of the way so he can get a clean shot.
Hazirawn cleaves into the wounded bugbear with such force that it explodes into chunks of furry goblin. The other bugbear is terribly wounded on the back swing.
Noska continues to shout at them. “Stop exploding you cowards! When I said get out of the way, that’s not what I meant!”
The surviving bugbear beats a hasty retreat and Noska starts backing up as well. A tinny ringing sound, like a small silver bell being frantically rung, echoes down from upstairs. Hurk comes charging out onto the main floor of the shop, which is a maze of fishbowls and aquariums showcasing Viri’s products.
Noska looses his crossbow bolt but it goes wide and hits one of the aquariums behind Hurk. The fish inside is skewered. In fact, it seems to blow up—literally swelling in size and growing eight long spindly limbs. Once the transformation is complete, it has turned into a man-sized spider, pale white save for a dark blue pattern on the top of its thorax and abdomen.
Faced with this WTF moment, Hurk presses on to attack Noska. But he swings wide and knocks off the legs of a stand holding a fishbowl, which crashes to the ground. The little fish inside also swells up, turning into a gray-skinned dwarven woman with white hair, dressed in rags, her hands and legs in manacles. She looks around frightened and confused. Noska is also startled by these developments, but seems to recognize her.
“Urdra?” he asks.
“Noska?” she replies. “Where are we?”
Hurk, still attempting a rampage, swings at the wounded bugbear but the panicked creature dodges away. Noska then draws a mace and unleashes on Hurk, delivering a savage beating. The bugbear dodges another sacred flame and makes a hasty retreat out of the building. Noska urges Urdra to do the same, but her manacles slow her down.
The man-sized pale spider, meanwhile, shimmers and then vanishes from sight.
Hurk offers to let Noska go if he’ll just explain what is going on with Sylgar and Ott Steeltoes. The half-orc is able to intimidate the one-armed dwarf into compliance. Noska explains that “Mr. X” is obsessed with his pet fish, Sylgar. But the breed of fish only lives for a few years and no one wants to be the one to inform the Xanathar that his beloved pet has died.
So when one Sylgar dies, the fishkeeper Ott Steeltoes and a select few other minion scramble to get a replacement Sylgar before the beholder notices. Of course, a credible replacement would also have to be a very mature fish, so they go through one Sylgar every six to nine months. Noska heard that the two of them were asking about Sylgar and Ott Steeltoes, so he wanted to take them out in order to protect the charade.
“You mean to tell me that the scariest crimelord in the city, a literal beholder, is obsessed with a fish?” Hurk says, incredulous. “And you knuckleheads have managed to fool him for years?”
Noska insists that beholders, while brilliant, have alien minds. They can develop strange obsessions and paranoia.
After Hurk confirms that Sylgar is just a fish and has nothing to do with the shapeshifting creatures, he questions Urdra about the events that led her to be in a fishbowl. She explains that she was in Baldur’s Gate carrying out a task for Mr. X when she and her crew got into a fight with some Zhentarim. The others were killed and she was captured. A wizard—a human man, she confirms—cast a spell on her. Then she just has vague memories of a fishbowl before awaking here.
Hurk says he’s a man of his word and agrees to let them go. Noska praises him and shakes his hand, asking for his name. As Beryl heals him, Hurk refuses to give any names. The one-armed dwarf drapes a rug around Urdra and helps her hobble towards the door. Then the ringing upstairs stops and is replaced by the sound of armored feet tramping down the tower stairs.
“Time to go!” Noska says. He slings Urdra over his shoulder and dashes out.
The new arrivals descending the tower stairs are half a dozen armored mercenaries bearing the winged serpent badge of the Zhentarim. They are accompanied by a blond tiefling woman with not one but three sets of horns, as well as a familiar pink-haired gnome.
It’s at this moment that the man-sized pale spider reappears and bites Hurk in the neck.
The tiefling uses a wand to turn the spider into a gerbil, which one of her mercenaries quickly picks up. Beryl bestows yet more healing magic onto Hurk to clear up the bite and the poison.
The many-horned woman apologizes for the inconvenience. She introduces herself as Rian Nightshade, Director of Operations for the Black Network’s Waterdeep Office. Jamna add that she’s “my boss’ boss.” Hurk questions her about the shapeshifting fish and the tiefling explains that Viri is kind enough to house the exotic merchandise in her shop for pick up. Rian asks that they forget what they saw here and Hurk agrees that he will pretend it is due to heavy drinking. He declines her servant’s offer of a bottle, however.
Hurk and Beryl then privately question Viri, who didn’t know what the fish actually were. She does “no questions asked” business with the Zhents in exchange for their protection. She confirms that the polymorphed fish were a completely separate contract from the quippers that are used as replacement Sylgars.
Rian tells them that retaliatory measures will need to be taken against the Xanathar for this attack on a Zhent-protected business. She asks if they caught the names of the attackers, and Hurk IDs one as a dwarf with a crossbow for an arm. Rian compliments them on the good work they are doing and says that she is sure they will meet again.
Hurk asks for assurances that the Zhents won’t destroy the Sword Coast in the near future. Beryl apologizes for his brusqueness. Rian praises Jamna for the accuracy in her reports, then tells Hurk that they are all on the same side against Tiamat and the Cult of the Dragon.
After alerting Jamna to meet up with them when she is finished, the two adventurers make their way back towards the Yawning Portal. Hurk and Beryl have come up with an idea for getting leverage over the Xanathar: kidnapping Sylgar and holding the fish hostage. They know it’s the Xanathar’s one weakness and they have a backdoor into his lair.
The two of them head into the alley behind the Yawning Portal, where Laeral Silverhand had created a magical safe house. As they attempt to enter the shimmering door, a figure steps out of it. He’s looking back over his shoulder, assuring someone on the other side that there are a million uses for a ten foot pole.
The stranger is dressed in rich robes, with a bald head, mustache and sharp, pointed beard. He looks like he is in his forties, but talks with the voice of an old man. He’s a little surprised to see them here and tries to get out of their way so they can enter.
Hurk and Beryl demand to know how he got into the safe house. The stranger tells them “it’s my mansion.”
They correct him that it is Laeral Silverhand’s mansion, but he chuckles and says he taught her the spell. He assumes they are friends of Garrett and “the nice young half-elf boy Larion” inside.
He was very pleased that they recognized the value of a ten foot pole, since so many young people these days refuse to use them. He manages to talk Hurk into getting a pole as well, which he is giving away for free, and draws one out of his voluminous pockets.
“Oh, looks like you’ve got a gazer problem!” the stranger suddenly says. He raises a hand and several bolts of energy lance out to strike a small object floating in the alley.
The charred remains look like a miniature beholder, about the size of a softball. The stranger explains that they are beholder spawn, used as spies, and muses that you always find them lurking around Waterdeep for some reason.
A confused Beryl and Hurk explain that there is a beholder crimelord under the city, the Xanathar. The stranger chuckles and says that “Xanathar” is a pun in Githyanki. He’s amazed to hear about the beholder and says that he should spend more time in Waterdeep instad of just using it as a layover. He putters off into the city, leaving Hurk with a ten foot pole.
Unsure of what they will find, the two adventurers step into Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Mansion. On the other side, Garrett is using his ten foot pole to methodically tap the walls and ceiling of the mansion, while Larion spots for him. After trying and failing to hide the pole, Garrett explains that they are using it to check for secret doors. The stranger came in through a secret door and Garrett wants to find it so that they can block it up to keep anyone else from coming through.
They catch the two rogues up on what transpired at the fish shop and their plan to go after Sylgar. Garrett considers his own fish Sammy and can understand where the Xanathar is coming from, even if it’s crazy.
Jamna arrives and provides more information she found out from the Zhents. The Xanathar’s lair is underground in Skullport, and the main entrance is in the back of a tavern/brothel called the Guts and Garters. The entrance leads down a corridor to an audience chamber. The Zhents believe that the Xanathar’s personal quarters can be accessed from the back of the audience chamber. The Xanathar is also known to host violent gladiatorial matches to entertain its minions, sometimes using prisoners and other times recruiting fighters.
Most importantly, the Zhents have learned that the Xanathar employs a cabal of dwarven wizards who have installed magical eye stalks in certain locations of the lair. The wizards can see everything the eye stalks see and can sound an alarm if intruders are detected. They eyes may have darkvision, but it’s not believed they can see invisible creatures. Jamna can cast invisibility on one creature, anyone else would need a potion or scroll of invisibility. In either case, the spell only lasts an hour or until the invisible person attacks or casts a hostile spell.
Hurk wants some time to ponder their plan. They have the mansion’s ghostly servants prepare hot baths for them to relax after a long, strange day.