Our friends reported to Azaria’s unassuming room at the Bright Tomorrow to allow him to proceed with the magical ‘scanning’ of Zharra. She was enveloped in a pillar of lavender light with strange shapes swimming through it, but emerged unharmed. Azaria provided the party with several pieces of not-immediately useful information: 1) Zharra’s power as a sorcerer was derived directly from the Magician herself; the fact that she could wield it directly was most like the reason the bond between her and the Magician was stronger than any of her ‘sisters’ shared, and thus probably the reason she was most favored for eventual possession. 2) Zharra’s ‘fire’ was not in fact elemental fire but a reality-warping energy that mortal minds (and indeed inert matter) perceived as fire as a defense mechanism. 3) Zharra’s blood contained a magical signature similar to her ‘sister’ in the far north, which was probably an effective tracking mechanism. It was unlikely that any of Zharra’s doubles could truly hide from her. Azaria also admitted that he had a similar bond with a different Great Old One, in an attempt to “fight tentacles with tentacles”, but declined to reveal which one. He promised he would be in touch if the Silver Lodge learned anything of practical use; the possibility of using the bond between Zharra and the Magician as a magical focus to influence the Magician was raised but remained at this point conjecture. He also warned Zharra that if the Lodge found a way to use her to destroy or neutralize the Magician, they might not necessarily be held up by trivial matters like her consent.
With this new information in hand, the party turned to the next order of business: the night’s meeting with the dragonborn Quauhtli, a merchant who travelled the road between Aztlan and Vegas. Harley and Hardluck took Zharra to purchase less conspicuous clothes and ended up at a second-hand shop where several of Mother Mercy’s prostitutes were in the fitting rooms, loudly venting their frustrations about one of their number, Evony, who had recently come into Mother Mercy’s favor due to ‘the business with Macavoy’. Hardluck’s ears pricked up at the mention of Lear’s least favorite person in the universe, and he assumed the guise of a shop clerk to try and milk them for more information. It turned out that Evony had been spending quite a bit of time in Asher Macavoy’s office and was always called in to spend private time with Mother Mercy after she returned. Hardluck and the others reached the natural conclusion that Evony was spying on Macavoy for Mother Mercy, a fact Lear was later able to confirm matched with the story she had heard from Madeleine MacGillicudy.
While Lear tried to plumb her host’s memories of sorcerous theory to better understand the bond between Zharra and the Magician, largely without success, Iron Horse and Gable went to the workshop of Duna Sparksteel for Iron Horse’s weekly tune-up to find Ms. Sparksteel uncharacteristically absent. Gable attempted to break in but realized he was outmatched by the lock and called in the big guns in the form of Hardluck, who was able to pick the lock over the protests of his ‘conscience’. The party searched the house and found no sign of a struggle, but that two of the prosthetic hands Sparksteel habitually wore were missing: a hand used to pick locks and one that produced a small, localized electric charge. Iron Horse was concerned and so they bagged up one of the other hands to take to Bette. Bette scried on the hand but declined to reveal the whereabouts of Duna, stating that she was in no physical danger and that she would say more if Duna failed to return the next day, but that otherwise her principles forbade her to invade Duna’s privacy.
Hardluck and Lear proceeded to Mother Mercy’s house, where they arranged a meeting with Evony, but as it quickly became clear they were interested in dealing in information, Evony set off a silent alarm which summoned Mother Mercy herself to do the negotiating. Mother Mercy openly admitted that Evony had been spying on Macavoy and had been looking for the right buyer. She proposed a trade of information: she would give Lear and Hardluck everything she knew on the subject in exchange for the secret of how the Shadowskins, a local gang of smugglers and burglars, managed to always be in the right place at the right time. Disrupting this mechanism was not required, and perhaps not even preferable; only the information was important. Hardluck and Lear agreed to look into this and went on their way.
Hardluck, having several connections within the Shadowskins, went to see their fence, Squinty, and made out as though he had information on a job that he needed confirmed. Squinty naturally stated that the Shadowskins would prefer to be cut in, but Hardluck, knowing the rumors that the Shadowskins and the Merchant Prince had an arrangement, bluffed his way into pretending that he was closer to the Merchant Prince than he perhaps was, and Squinty agreed to see if his boss, Stiletto, would give him access to their information source.
Hardluck also stopped into Prosper’s office to seek employment as waitstaff at the Merchant Prince’s engagement banquet in three days; although the engagement was not officially announced, preparations were underway for a week of festivities throughout the city. Prosper was perhaps a little suspicious why Hardluck would want to serve drinks to rich people, but was hard up enough for workers that he agreed.
The time drew near for the meeting with Quauhtli. Lear led the party through the patrolled areas near the gate to a cave, where she stoold guard. The rest of the party positioned themselves inside the cave and waited for the merchant to arrive. Two dragonborn, one more ostentatiously dressed than the other, arrived, and it quickly became clear that they had no idea who Zharra was or why they were called there. After a brief, tense standoff, once it became clear that neither party was interested in hostilities, the real Quauhtli emerged from one of the deeper passageways of the cave. Quauhtli insisted that he had no interest in burning Vegas down as it was a very profitable for him, but admitted to being a member of the Army of Io, smuggling chillglobes into the city in exchange for cash, currency being hard for the Army to come by. Quauhtli suspected his superior, Graxus, of having set him up to take the fall. The party agreed to try to find his agent, although after leaving, also considered turning Quauhtli in himself, the Army of Io being known saboteurs and terrorists.
The party split for the night, and everyone slept peacefully except Harley, who dreamed of the painted desert landscape and his spirit guide, Sedona. He began playing fetch with the puppy and telling her the events of the past days when the Trickster appeared behind him, thanked him for the cactus fruit, and told him she had another job, suggesting he and his friends meet her at the Spider and Fly that afternoon.
First thing the next morning, our heroes gathered in Prosper’s office to pin the blame on the Army of Io. Prosper accepted this as an expected outcome, paid the party their wages, and offered an additional 200 gold per person bounty if the agents themselves could be apprehended. Full of pride in a job well done, they then proceeded to Duna Sparksteel’s workshop, where the tinker was hard at work. After bringing Duna to Madame Mysterio for analysis, it quickly became clear that Duna had had false memories implanted in her for the last twenty or so hours. Furthermore, she was distinctly less concerned about this fact that she should have been. This was a matter of some concern, but as she was unharmed physically, the party left her in the hands of Madame Mysterio to try to determine what exactly may have happened.
Harley and company proceeded to the Spider and Fly to meet with the Trickster, only to find a note on her door that only Harley could read, apologizing for her absence and directing them to ‘retrieve’ a magical artifact, a double-bolted hand crossbow, from the vault at the High Temple of the Triune God.
Hardluck, meanwhile, inspired by seeing Madame Mysterio inside Duna’s head, went to see if she could tell him what was really happening with the voice telling him to behave. She took one look and then began laughing; it seemed that while the healer Gratia had in fact removed a twisted spawn of the Magician from Hardluck’s brain, she had filled the space with an artificial conscience. It was half corrective mechanism, half practical joke, though Hardluck was not amused. He, guided (and a bit restrained) by Harley, sought forgiveness from Lazgar, and Gratia restored him to his former self.
Now freed of all compunction in matters Priestess, Harley and Hardluck availed themselves of the services of the paladin Ausviir, who seemed to have a crush on Harley and guided them on a full tour of the temple, including the vault itself. Before entering the vault, she pulled out a small green stone on a chain around her neck and prayed briefly; she explained that the wards on the doors would only relax for someone who truly intended to open them for a purpose that would increase Good. Inside was the crossbow, as well as several other artifacts of the Dragon Crisis, including a hat of disguise worn by the Trickster herself. Hardluck and Harley opted NOT to beat Ausviir about the head and make off with the crossbow immediately, but Hardluck was able to locate a secret passageway that led from the sleeping quarters to directly outside the vault, and armed with this knowledge, they returned to their friends to plan their next moves.