Disclaimer: I own neither the world of the Forgotten Realms nor this chosen cover art.
NSFW Warning: This particular chapter contains nudity, as well as graphic fantasy violence.
Jherek lay upon his bed within the Elfsong Tavern, asleep and yet not fully asleep. His eyelids were closed and, beneath them, his eyes spun as if he were possessed. A slight creaking of the door to his room urged him to wakefulness. A shadow passing his curtained window suggested an intruder. A light exhalation told him someone was near at hand.
With a ragged gasp, he rose, bare-chested, sheets obscuring his body below his waist. Twin daggers appeared in his hands as if summoned and he let fly at either shadow lurking at one or another corner of his room.
Muffled curses, voiced in familiar tones, roused him to full wakefulness, just as one of the figures lit a candle, flooding the room with its meager light.
“Bloody hell, Jherek,” the figure on the left swore in a most feminine timbre.
“Marissa?” The Harper Master croaked, peering through eyes unaccustomed to the light. “Kormak?”
“Aye, it be we,” a gruff spoke from beyond the blaze of the flickering candle flame.
As Jherek’s eyes adjusted to the new lighting, the image of a dwarf man in a wide-brimmed, black hat, one of its sides pinned up with a flamboyantly colored feather, came into view. Beneath his hat, his features were ruddy and dominated by a massive, red beard partitioned into four braids that were in turn held together around his navel by a large, silver ring. From beneath heavy brows, a pair of dark eyes shone with a vibrancy of life that extended to his attire, attire consisting of a loose blue shirt left unbuttoned to his mid-chest to expose an abundance of red curls, as well as a black and green checkered kilt. Wide, black boots with silver buckles adorned his feet and the pommel of a long, wide blade could be discerned above his left shoulder.
“Ye didn’t have to show yer affection quite so enthusiastically,” the dwarf continued.
“Yeah, or violently,” it was the woman, Marissa, who now spoke, and, to Jherek’s eyes, she seemed much as she had when he had last seen her, though much time had passed since then. She was human, tall and lithe, with mousy hair cropped short near the nape of her neck. She had shaved the left side of her head and had run several braids through the locks on the right. Her fair skin had taken on a more olive hue given her, no doubt, extensive time spent outdoors, though her blue eyes shone with the same mischievousness as they ever had, though there was a certain hardness near their edges he didn’t recall seeing in the past. She wore twin short blades at her sides, one at her hip, the other hanging nearer to her thigh, resting upon her tight, darkly-hued leggings. A loose, white blouse and tight, leather bodice adorned her torso. All of which acted perfectly to accentuate her shapely virtues.
Shaking his head to clear the last remnants of sleep, Jherek peered at the pair anew and chuckled dryly.
“Didn’t get either of you did I?” He asked.
“With illusionary daggers? Naw, but you’re lucky we know you well enough to know they were such,” Marissa said.
“Still an unwelcoming hello,” Kormak grumbled.
“Well, you should know better than to sneak up on a sleeping Harper, you two being such yourselves,” Jherek commented. “What cause have you anyways in disturbing my rest?”
The two looked at one another in confusion.
“Well, we considered ambushing you at the gate but figured that would be too rash,” Marissa shot back hotly.
“Yer our leader, Jherek, shouldn’t we have the right to come an’ see ye?” Kormak spoke in calmer tones, casting a baleful glare at Marissa when he spoke, prompting an eye roll from the woman.
Leaning back in his bed, Jherek scrutinized the pair closely.
“Storm tell you I was coming?” He asked, his tone flat.
Marissa opened her mouth as if to offer another smart comment but a firm gesture from Kormak cut her off.
“She told Myrna,” the Dwarf confessed.
“Thought Myrna had distanced herself from our lot, turned in her badge.”
“She has,” the Dwarf nodded gravely. “Couldn’t ever forgive us fer MoMo dyin’ ter them vamps.”
MoMo’s dead?” Jherek asked, aghast. “How? When?”
“Sometime in your absence for all you care,” Marissa snapped prompting Kormak to whirl on her. “I told’ ya ye should’t’ve come,” he growled. “Now get ye out to the bar before ye feel the sting of me blade!”
The woman opened her mouth as if to argue but the look in the Dwarf’s eye gave her pause. Reconsidering, she cast a final angry look at Jherek before wrenching open the room’s door and departed, slamming the portal behind herself with enough force to shake its frame.
“Well I suppose tha’ went about as well as ye expected,” Kormak grumbled, rubbing his forehead and approaching the foot of the Harper Master’s bed.
“I never expect warm welcomings, old friend,” Jherek murmured, leaning forward and rubbing his eyes. “Helps avoid disappointment. Though I would have thought age would have graced her with some maturity. I am still her Harper Master.”
“Aye, ye are that, Jherek,” the Dwarf said. “But ye been gone a long time now an’ the abruptness of yer departure affected some o’ us more ‘n others. Might ye have something for me to bring back to the others ta help explain the reasonin’s fer it all?”
“How many of us remain?”
“Well ye got me,” the Dwarf gave a half-hearted smile. “An’ Marissa of course. Baldwin an’ Jewel are still ‘round an’ KIvan an’ Huvertrov be on their way back. Other’n tha’ we got Ethon, Alora, an’ Myrna as eyes on the ground. Oh an’ Lortimer, though ye already know that.”
“Been following me long have you?” Jherek asked, but waived away any reply the Dwarf would have to his words.
“It matters not,” he continued. “Can you get the others together tonight? Someplace discreet?”
“Aye,” Kormak nodded. “But I have to ask, Jherek. Why didn’t ye come to us direct? We are yer Harpers after all.”
“Ask Marissa,” was Jherek’s reply. “I figured all of you would respond as she has to seeing me. I wanted to approach you only when I had something concrete.”
“Lest we respond the way Lortimer did?”
“What did you interrogate the man as soon as I left?”
“We was curious as to yer motives, Jherek, thas all,” the Dwarf pleaded. “Why didn’t ye at least come to me? I woulda heard ye out and helped explain to the others.”
“I knew not if you lived, old friend,” was the Harper Master’s reply. “I didn’t even know MoMo had died.”
“I figured Storm woulda told ye.”
“No, she didn’t tell me a lot of things. Perhaps she thought the less she told me the more likely I wouldn’t try and come back.”
“Will ye at least tell me what’ happened to ye?” The Dwarf pressed. “Ye don’ look good, Jherek.”
The Harper Master paused for a time, his gaze distant, before he focused it on the Dwarf.
“One day, perhaps, old friend, but now there is work to be done,” he said. “Assemble the others. I must meet with Eltan today. Try and convince him that I am not as mad as everyone, apparently, thinks I am.”
* * * *
The sun was low behind the clouds when Lystra and her companions neared the gates of the city of Baldur’s Gate. As soon as they had reached the open moorlands stretching before the cities’ walls, the ranger had spied a figure standing atop the gatehouse, arms planted wide upon its crenellations. As they neared, the figure’s identity became more and more apparent, though, in truth, she had known from first sight who it was. Now, drawing near the gatehouse, she could plainly see Commander Adrian Durham standing at its top, eyes fixed on her. Not one to back down, she matched his gaze squarely. Perceiving the hunger burning within him, the strength of which not even his steadfast military training could keep down. She smirked. It would seem this night would at least grant her one boon.
Passing beneath the gatehouse arch, the trio stopped in the courtyard near the splashing fountain at its center. No words had been spoken amongst them on their journey following their battle with the orcs. Lystra knew that the Harpers were bitter about the High Druid’s words, and had herself no desire to explain to them the intricacies of druid morality. Though she suspected that their silence had more to do with her own acceptance of the High Druid’s explanation than any real objection to his scruples. Being wanderers of the wild, after all, they could not be overly surprised by his lack of care for the mercenaries, though such callousness would no doubt be forever jarring to those who sought ever the greater good.
She was surprised then, when the Harper Ranger extended his hand for her to grasp.
“It has been an honor to travel at your side, Lystra Silverdragon,” he said, gripping her forearm firmly. Huvertrov nodded his ascent to his partner’s words, a gesture Lystra returned gratefully.
“Be well in your travels, Harpers,” she bade them, releasing Kivan’s arm.
“And you, Ranger,” Kivan replied, steering his mount away.
As they departed, he called over his shoulder, “I’ll try not to climb up any dragon’s bumholes if I can help it,” before kicking their horse and trotting away up the high avenue.
Smiling at his words despite herself, Lystra maneuvered Shadowflight back ‘round and urged her towards the sign of the Elfsong Tavern just off of the main courtyard, glancing as she did towards the gatehouse to see that the Commander had left his vigil.
* * * *
Evening found Jaryn Moorstrider once more passing beneath the gatehouse of the Friendly Arm Inn, the Dameston Caravan in tow.
Their progress no doubt observed by those Gnomish guardsmen stationed upon the gatehouse and walls, they were met in the courtyard by Corbin Bigwig and a small entourage of guards, as well as Tyma Mirrorshade, ready to aid the beleaguered caravan.
“They were attacked by Gnolls,” Jaryn told Corbin and Tyma, dismounting before them, careful not to splash them with water as he landed.
“Ragged Ears?” Tyma asked.
“We will see to their wounds, Jaryn,” she said. “You take some rest as well. I know that you are eager to depart again but you are worth little to this land if you’re half dead.”
With those words she hurried away, sloshing through the almost waist-deep waters, for her, of the courtyard after Corbin to help the Dameston’s.
Watching her go, Jaryn lifted his gaze to the gatehouse where he spied a red wolf standing at the exact center of the arch, the nearby guardsmen eyeing it suspiciously but doing nothing to shoo it away. Clicking his tongue to Sundril, urging his horse to follow, the Master Ranger made his way towards the beast, sure the Dameston’s were in safe hands.
As he neared it, the wolf morphed fluidly into the human form of Karma as he knew it would, sending the Gnome guardsmen into red-faced stammers as they excused themselves from the Ranger and Druid’s company.
“We meet again, Moorstrider,” she said, offering a hungry smile she no doubt meant to be welcoming.
Unphased, the Ranger nodded. “Under circumstances eerily similar wouldn’t you say?” He said. “Perhaps Criven has given these attacks more credence then you deemed he would?”
“Sheep have a tendency of dying to wolves do they not?” Was her reply. “Speaking of which, it is Criven who sent me. Your Flaming Fist shadows are dead, cut down by White Skull Orcs. Your Apprentice would have suffered a similar fate had not we stepped in to aid her.”
Jaryn’s eyes narrowed and beneath the sternness of his gaze even her poise seemed to droop. He said nothing, however, but simply dipped his head in acknowledgment of her aid in saving Lystra’s life. His gaze, however, remained firm, letting her know, without equivocation, that he knew they had let the Flaming Fist be slaughtered and though the intensity of his stare caused her to shrink somewhat, she could not deny that it also caused the muscles of her vagina to unwillfully clench as though in anticipation for something more.
“There is a second caravan in need of our aid,” he said, the hard edge of his tone suggesting without debate that she accompany him in their defense.
“The one led by Trotter of Beregost?” She asked, feigning detachment. “I will accompany you.”
Her tone suggested it were her idea, but the look in his eye confirmed it was anything but. He held her gaze for a long moment before a voice behind them interrupted their clash of wills.
“Erm, Master Jaryn. Do ye mean to stay the night? We would be happy to accommodate ye.” It was Forsten Blackpeak who had spoken, and as Jaryn turned to regard him he saw that the flesh beneath his beard had turned a deeper red in hue given the proximity of the fully nude and unabashed Karma.
Seeing his discomfort and jumping as a chance to regain her footing beside the Master Ranger, the Druidess stepped forward, a devilish smile on her lips.
“Moorstrider will be joining me for the hunt,” she growled. “Shall we bring you back a Gnoll scalp or two?”
“Thank you but no, Master Blackpeak,” Jaryn spoke, pulling the Dwarves’ gaze to his. “I must see to the second caravan. You and yours rest easy here as long as you need. The Friendly Arm Inn will protect you.”
“Aye, thank ye, Ranger,” the Dwarf said, eyeing Karma distrustfully. “Mistress Mirrorshade has said as much, and said you’d say as ye have. Good luck to ye and be wary of they ye travel with.”
Karma chortled at his words, but Jaryn merely dipped his head in thanks. Mounting Sundril, he made to follow Karma as she morphed once more into lupine form. Before he departed, he glanced back to spy Tyma Mirrorshade lift a hand in farewell, a gesture he returned before riding forth from the Inn once more.
* * * *
As evening came, Trotter looked hopelessly to the sky. At their current speed, they would not reach the Friendly Arm Inn by nightfall. He would have to ride forth once more to scout out a place for them to stay the night, a night he wasn’t sure if they would survive.
Looking back, he took in the slowly trundling train of wagons behind him, their drivers sullen-faced, their beasts of burden haggard. Nearer to him was Keira, just ahead of Percin’s wagon where the petulant merchant and his tired daughter sat behind the reins. Despite her brave attempts the hide it, the Ranger could see that Katarina was worn out. It was a face all too familiar among the merchants and guardsmen of the caravan. Only that of Edwin differed.
The sinister Red Wizard rode close behind Percin’s wagon and, Trotter was happy to see, Tiberius rode close behind him, narrowed eyes ever on the wizard’s back.
Turning back to face the road ahead, Rendrick rested the haft of his spear against his hip, preparing to call a halt to their journey so that he and Keira might confer as to their next move, when, out of the corner of his eye, he spied movement among the shrubbery some ways off from the roadside.
Spinning South-Eye ‘round, the Ranger had barely managed to cry: “AMBUSH!” Before the shrub-land to either side of the road burst into movement.
Mainly, he could see, their numbers were made up of Gnolls, ghastly creatures seeming as hybrids of human and hyena blood, their bestial faces yipping and barking madly as they charged, all manner of weaponry clasped in their humanoid hands. Among them, however, smaller forms could be discerned. Goblins, he saw, though none that he had ever seen before. Their small frames, perhaps four feet in height, wrapped in black leathers of a fine make, their greenish flesh smeared in grease, lending them a brackish hue. In their small fists, they clutched duel sickles and they charged in silence, despite the cacophony of the Gnolls about them, something he had never known Goblins to do.
In but a moment, he took all of this in before his instincts took hold and he charged back to aid the caravan.
As one part of the wagon train was hit so was it all, so complete were the beasts attack. Keira barely had time to draw her twin blades from her back before the ambushers were upon her. Rendrick ran South-Eye headlong into the Gnoll on her right, barreling the creature over as he threw his spear to tear a goblin from where it sought to climb the side of Percin’s wagon.
Immediately, his short blade and hatchet were freed from their respective places at his side and he maneuvered South-Eye with his knees to the side of Percin’s wagon where Katarina sat. The young woman’s eyes were wide with fear, he saw, and he tried to throw her a reassuring smile before returning to combat, his blades working ferociously to keep their assailants at bay.
One, two, three Gnolls he was able to repel before one lept in with a spear and jabbed at South-Eye’s throat, tearing the beast’s flesh and causing it to rear, dropping Rendrick from the saddle.
Twisting as he fell, the Ranger managed to transform his fall into a roll, absorbing most of the force of it as he hid the water-logged road. Coming up, soaked in mud, he threw his hatchet into the spear-wielding Gnoll as South-Eye fled, tearing off across the shrub-land, all but forgotten by the ambushers.
Twisting, the Ranger deflected an oncoming Gnoll’s strike and, finishing the creature off, called to Keira who yet remained saddled.
“Take Katarina!” He yelled to the Mercenary Captain. “Towards the woods! Go to where the rain does not fall!”
A tugging at his cloak told him a sickle-wielding Goblin had attempted to strike him from behind. Twisting, he split the creature’s skill, bright ichor splashing him, before he turned back ‘round to ensure that Keira was indeed guiding her mount to him.
“My men!” The Mercenary Captain cried as she neared.
“Will take care of themselves, save the girl!” Was his reply, jumping to kick a Goblin scrambling onto the road near at hand in the face.
To his words she said nothing, but urged her horse alongside Percin’s wagon so that a frightened Katarina could jump on behind her.
As they galloped away, Rendrick saw that Percin himself was dead, a spear protruding grotesquely from his chest, before he was forced to spin to assess how the rest of the caravan was doing.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t well, he saw. Tiberius too was now on foot fending off attackers with his mace and shield. Edwin was nowhere to be seen and Mellick seemed to be attempting some form of defensive action at the caravan’s center with a handful of guardsmen. It didn’t take a strategist to discern that the caravan was doomed and so Rendrick made for Tiberius, seeking to save any he could.
Barely had he made it to the Cleric’s side, however, when a massive Gnoll lept forward from behind the Lathanderite and brought it heavy blade down upon his head. There was a sickening crack and Tiberius stumbled, his pot helm splitting in twain and bright blood blossoming atop the crown of his golden-curled head.
Diving forward, Trotter rolled, coming up beside the massive Gnoll, he swung viciously sideways, severing it leg off at what would be considered its knee joint. Howling, the beast crumpled and Rendrick dove atop it, driving his blade deep into its chest. Turning its howl into a pathetic, gurgling whine.
Rising, the Ranger went to Tiberius’ side only to find the Cleric dazed, bloodied, yet otherwise stable. Guessing that he must have had some spell of protection up, or else was simply incredibly lucky, the Ranger grasped him by the crook of his arm and hauled him away, carrying him as fast as he could towards the road’s edge.
Briefly, he glimpsed, as he dragged the Cleric in the direction he’d bade Keira ride, Mellick fall beneath a seething tide of silent Goblins and thus knew for certain that the caravan was lost. Shouldering Tiberius’ bulk, he dove into the tall grasses to the west of the road and made his way towards the not-too-distant eaves of Cloakwood where the rain did not fall.