Chapter 12: Cleave to Me

Disclaimer: The world of the Forgotten Realms is not owned by me.

NSFW Warning: This particular chapter contains graphic depictions of violence, as well as graphic sexual content.

Guiding Shadowflight off the streets of Baldur’s Gate, Lystra urged her mare down a side alley beside the Elfsong Tavern. Her course led her to a small yard at the Inn’s back where a four-horse stable stood against the far wall. It was rare that all of the stalls were taken in the Elfsong’s stable as most who patronized the establishment were denizens of the city and so had no need to stable their mounts there. Currently, she saw, only one other horse resided there and her eyes narrowed at the sight of it, not due to any action by the horse itself but more so because she could guess whose horse it was. If what Jaryn had told her on the road was true, she knew that the black beast in the stable could be none other than the horse of the Harper Master Jherek for the Elfsong was a favored haunt of his while he was in the city.

Shaking her damp locks, the Ranger Apprentice dismounted and led Shadowflight to the stall farthest from the Harper’s horse.

Sometime later, after she had ensured Shadowflight was fed, watered, and brushed, Lystra made her way into the Elfsong through a back door, her saddlebags and bow draped over one shoulder. 

Her chosen entrance emitted her into a cramped, dimly lit pantry lined with shelves and stuffed with crates and barrels. Dried herbs hung from the ceiling and wheels of cheese, loaves of bread, and casks of wine lined the shelves. Alyth, the Elfsong’s owner and proprietor, made sure to keep her larders well-stocked, Lystra knew, especially since the adventurers who had slain the Beholder, Xanthan, had made her Inn something of a legend in the city and it was a rare day indeed that her taproom wasn’t full of off-duty guardsmen and goodly adventurers seeking rest, refreshment, and the chance to hear the haunting song that served as the establishment’s namesake.

Making her way nimbly through the pantry’s clutter, the half-elf shouldered her way through the door at the room’s far end, entering as she did the Elfsong’s taproom proper.

In contrast to the pantry, the taproom was brightly lit and played host to a decent number of men and women, most, though certainly not all, garbed in the black half-plate of the city’s guardforce. These patrons sat about circular tables, sipping wine or ale, and speaking in low tones as was customary in the Elfsong, lest by their loudness they might miss the notes of the elvan maid’s haunting lament. Along the bar there sat but two, both of whom Lystra recognized, though one only in passing, and behind it stood the beautiful Alyth Elandarra, half-elven like Lystra but whose fae ancestry most assuredly rested among the lofty bloodlines of the High Elves given her high cheekbones, blonde locks, and the golden tint lent to her skin.

 Smiling at the sight of the other woman despite herself, Lystra made her way over, passing as she did the man at the bar nearest her whom she recognized as the towering Icewind Dalian she’d seen at the Friendly Arm Inn two nights previous. Setting her saddlebags down heavily upon the bartop, she inclined her head cordially to the other man who sat near the front door. He was a man of deeply tanned, weathered skin and patchwork clothing, as unassuming as they came, but equally trustworthy and true. His name was Ethon, former thief and current friend to the Harpers and lover of Alyth. He tipped his beer to her in kind welcome and she turned her attention to Alyth who stood watching her, a disapproving look on her exotic features and an elegant hand laid upon a shapely hip.

“What’s that look for?” Lystra asked in mock indignation.

“Your dirty saddlebags are polluting the top of my bar,” was Alyth’s reproachful reply.

“Excuse me for trying to spruce up the place,” Lystra said. “With the wear and tear this wood’s seen I’m surprised Gyselle hasn’t left yet in protest.”

Gyselle was Alyth’s Gnomish cook and general housekeeper.

“Would you like a beer?” The barkeep asked darkly.

“Ale, please, and only if it doesn’t taste of horse piss.”

The two women glared at one another for a long moment before a grin broke out simultaneously on either of their faces.

“It’s been too long, Lystra,” Alyth smiled at her warmly, pouring as she did a frothing mug of amber liquid for the Ranger.

“Aye, it has,” Lystra agreed. “How has business been?”

“Steady,” the proprietor nodded wearily, though a smile touched her lips as she scanned the taproom. “Howabout you? Any news worth hearing from the wider world?”

“Couldn’t say much ‘til a fortnight past,” Lystra replied. “Something’s brewing out there, Alyth. Got Jaryn and the High Druid Blacktree all twisted in knots, and this damnable rain to top it off. I don’t know, I just gotta feeling, y’know? Like somethings not right, like something’s coming.”

As she spoke, the Ranger’s eyes had grown distant and when she refocused them, she realized that Alyth, Ethon, and the man from Icewind Dale were all looking at her closely.

“What? You asked,” she said defensively, taking a long swig of ale whilst noting the concerned glance exchanged by the barkeep and Ethon.

“I think you need a bath,” Alyth said when the Ranger had surfaced from her swig. “Wash the road off. You’re beginning to sound too much like Jaryn.”

Lystra chuckled at that and nodded.

“Very well, old friend, I shall bathe. Is my room still available?” 

“As ever.”

With a final nod, Lystra rose, taking her ale and saddlebags with her. She tipped her drink to the blonde man at the bar’s end, who nodded to her in turn, before taking her leave and making for the stairs leading to the Inn’s second story.

*                             *                                    *                                 *

Just as Lystra was making her way towards her room at the Elfsong, a dripping Jherek was being led by a Flaming Fist attendant across the audience hall of High Hall and towards the culvert in which Eltan had met with Jaryn two days previous.

Upon entering the chamber at the hall’s back, the Harper Master was surprised to find not only Eltan brooding within its confines but Myrna Grey as well, leaning upon her silverwood staff, her ever-present owl companion sitting passively on her shoulder. Both looked up as Jherek entered, Eltan in surprise, Myrna with sad grace.

“So it is true,” Eltan said, striding forward to grasp the other man’s wrist. “You have returned to Baldur’s Gate.”

“I have,” Jherek nodded, clasping the Duke’s wrist with equal strength.

“You have impeccable timing as ever, Jherek,” Eltan said ruefully, releasing the Harper and striding once more back to the table’s head. Extending a hand to Myrna he continued, “Myrna was just telling me of the demise of twenty of my men along the Coastway.”

Jherek looked to the Druidess in alarm and she nodded gravely.

“I received word from the High Druid Blacktree not an hour past,” she confirmed, then added, “it is good to see you, Jherek, though I wish with all my heart that you had not returned.”

“There was no other option for me, my lady,” Jherek replied, dipping his head to her in respect before turning to Eltan once more. “I have grave news as well, my lord, news that I believe encompasses the grim fate of your men.”

“Speak it then,” Eltan bade him.

“There are sinister forces at work here in Baldur’s Gate, and indeed over all the Sword Coast,” the Harper Master began. “In my travels, I had the displeasure of becoming a guest of the Zhentarim. During my stay, I was able to glean some inkling of a plan they have put in motion with the help of a cult within Baldur’s Gate. The plan, it would seem, is twofold. To cripple the city from within whilst it is attacked from without.”

“Do you know the identity of this cult within the city? Or by what means they will attack us?” Eltan pressed. 

Jherek shook his head. “Of but one thing I am certain, Duke Eltan, Kharne has returned to the city, as the head of this cult or merely in assistance to it I know not, but if we are able to get to him before their plan comes to fruition we may be able to counter whatever they have in store.”

Eltan nodded, his chin clasped between forefinger and thumb. Myrna stood silent, eyes closed whilst Jherek awaited the Duke’s verdict, a fanatical fire burning deep within his sunken eyes.

“If you were to guess, Jherek, in what manner will Kharne attempt to cripple us from within?” Eltan asked at length.

“Only one thing, in my mind, would throw the city into enough chaos to satisfy Kharne’s whims,” Jherek replied.

“And that is?”

“KIlling you, my lord.”

Eltan nodded, seemingly unphased by the Harper’s words. 

“And in what manner will they attack the city from without, in your mind?” Was the Duke’s next question.

“By the way they spoke I can only assume one thing, a massive army capable of overwhelming the cities’ walls.”

“But first they would want to isolate us no?” Eltan pressed. “Cut off the roads leading to the city, and the path at sea. And they would start by attacking caravans and neutralizing any response we might send, such as a squad of mercenaries.”

Jherek nodded.

Eltan was silent for some time, his stance pensive, before he finally spoke. 

“Very well, Jherek, I ask that you hunt down this interloper, Kharne, and consider the Flaming Fist at your disposal. I will work in establishing lines of communication with what allies we have. If what you fear indeed comes to pass we will need eyes outside of the city.”

“Thank you, my Lord, Eltan,” the Harper master spoke, taken aback by the readiness of the Duke’s acceptance of his words.

“Go to what agents you have left to you, Jherek,” Eltan bade him. “And take Myrna with you. I feel as though you might need her aid in convincing them.”

With nods from both the Harper and the Druidess, his energetic, her’s subdued, they departed the Duke’s presence, leaving him to brood over what had transpired over the last few days.

*                                           *                                           *                                *

Under a torrent of rain from an unforgiving sky, Jaryn and Karma made their way southward at great speed. About them, the landscape grew ever darker until only the occasional bolt of lightning cast any light on their surroundings. Despite neither of their sight requiring light to function, the unrelenting rain made their path treacherous, impeding both sight, smell, and hearing to the point that they were unaware of the approaching remnants of the Percin caravan until they were nearly upon it. 

Luckily, as their senses were dulled by the weather, so too were those of the few Gnolls who remained at the site, scavenging remains of the caravaneers as well as the skeletal husks of their wagons, for any valuables not hastily taken by the main body of their pack. As such, the two sides became aware of one another almost simultaneously and Jaryn wasted no time in making his presence known.

Drawing back his powerful longbow with an ease few could match, the Master Ranger let fly one, two, three, four arrows in the breadth of an instant. Four Gnolls fell to his missiles and more followed as he charged Sundril into their midst, his bow singing all the while.

Once he was within the thick of the gathered creatures, he expertly brought his feet beneath him on Sundril’s back and lept into the air, leaving his horse to barrel through the Gnoll’s enclosing ranks and onto the safety beyond. Performing a perfect backflip, Jaryn landed nimbly upon the muddied road. As he landed, the Gnolls charged, yipping and snarling as if they sensed an easy kill. They had never been more wrong for with a fluidity of movement one might more closely attribute to a dancer, the Master Ranger drew his blade and began a deadly waltz, dropping a foe with each elegant swing of his blade.

Not to be outdone, Karma charged in hot. Leaping into the air, she shifted to her human form mid-jump and landed atop the nearest Gnoll, staggering the creature. Grasping the wrist of the arm in which it held its blade with both hands, the Druidess twisted herself about the confused beast, kneeing it hard, cracking its jaw, and forcing it to drop the wickedly curved and crudely crafted scimitar it held. She dropped to the ankle-deep mud of the road beside the dazed Gnoll and scrambled to grab its fallen blade before rushing to Jaryn’s side.

Back to back they fought, Ranger and Druidess, and though her movements were vicious where his were elegant, they easily fell into a matched rhythm, a perfect dance of death. The Gnolls proved no match for their matched prowess and, in a matter of moments, most lay dead in the mud whilst the rest scattered, running, yipping and whining, into the night.

The two were left amidst the caravan carnage, breathing heavily, splashed with mud and gore, staring with equal admiration into one another’s eyes. Tossing aside the crude blade she’d stolen from the unfortunate Gnoll, Karma strode boldly up to the Master Ranger and, grabbing the base of his neck in a firm grip, pulled his lips to hers. Jaryn did not resist and they kissed passionately for a long moment, their tongues sparring, her naked form pressed hard against him.

Not one to be distracted for long, however, Jaryn took hold of her shoulders and gently but insistently pushed her from him. 

“We must learn what we can from this scene,” he said, breathless from their kiss. “Come, there might have been survivors.”

Karma rolled her eyes as he moved from her to the nearest of the bodies. “Come now, Jaryn,” she said. “We have found them and they are dead. Should you not make for your precious city and warn your Duke?”

“And what of Trotter?” He countered, still moving among the bodies, checking one here or there more closely.

Karma sobered at his words. The loss of the Beregost Ranger would indeed be a hard blow to the Sword Coast, and so she followed Jaryn’s lead in checking the carnage.

“His body is not among they who lay here,” Jaryn said once they met once more after an extended period of searching. 

“He may then yet live,” was her hopeful reply.

“And so others might as well,” Jaryn looked west, towards the distant eaves of Cloakwood, above which the night sky could be seen unimpeded by cloud cover. 

“You can’t be seriously considering going after them,” she said incredulously. 

“I am not,” was his stoic reply. “I am merely wishing them safe passage through your forest. By what I can discern from what tracks remain to us, the attackers split into two groups after they finished with the caravan. It would seem that the bulk of the Gnolls went southeast, back towards The Wood of Sharp Teeth, whilst their goblin allies pursued whoever fled westward, towards Cloakwood.”

“I have never known goblins to work with Gnolls.”

“Nor I, but that is what the evidence tells me, see the smaller cuts among the victims?” Jaryn grimaced. “Beregost might be in danger.”

“I will alert the High Druid,” Karma told him reassuringly. “He can travel faster than we and perhaps warn the townsfolk of an impending attack.”

Jaryn nodded wordlessly before calling for Sundril who came obediently to his master’s side. Mounting, the Ranger looked down upon the Druidess. “Be safe in your travels, Karma,” he said. “It is mine hope that we meet again soon.”

“And finish what we started?” She asked wickedly and was surprised to see a ghost of a smile grace the Ranger’s lips before he was off, riding hard northward once more. She watched him go before making one last scan of the carnage about her before transforming once more into her lupine form and bounding away in his wake.

*                                        *                                        *                             *

As darkness fell upon the city of Baldur’s Gate, a small retinue clad in black, with the emblem of the Flaming Fist emblazoned on cloak and tunic, set out on horseback from the gates of High Hall. At their head rode Nors, grim-faced and steady, and at their center was Duke Eltan with a pointed-faced mage at his side. Completing the company were seven armed mercenaries who, along with Nors and the mage, made up The Gauntlet, Eltan’s personal bodyguards.

As one, the retinue made their way down the high avenue and towards the city’s main gate where Commander Adrian Durham had his quarters. 

Upon reaching the gatehouse, they found the commander himself descending the stairway to the gatehouse zenith accompanied by an escort of guardsmen, prominent among which was his second, Captain Emilia.

If the Commander was surprised by their coming, he quickly concealed it and strode forward to meet them, converging with them beside the fountain at the courtyard’s center. 

“Well met, Commander,” Eltan spoke, guiding his horse alongside Nors’ before the guardsman.

“Duke Eltan,” the commander saluted. “It is an honor to find you here this evening. Might I inquire as to the nature of your visit? Surely you do not wish to journey beyond the city’s walls.”

“Gods no,” Eltan chuckled. “I thought we might have a word, Commander. One with you and Emilia both.”

Adrian dipped his head in consent and led the way back to the gatehouse where his retinue looked on passively. 

“Captain Emilia,” he called as they approached. “See to it that Duke Eltan’s men have a dry place to stash their mounts then rejoin us in the southern tower.”

“There is no need for that, Commander,” Eltan assured him, even as Emilia saluted in acknowledgment. “The Gauntlet is just as comfortable in this deluge as they would be on a sunny day. Isn’t that right lads?”

In response, the Duke’s retinue struck fist to chest as one and let out a single “hah.”

Adrian observed the display with an air of indifference before turning once more to Emilia. 

“As the Duke commands, Captain,” he said. “And if his retinue will go without comfort, so shall mine. Isn’t that right guardsmen!?”

In response, the commander’s escort raised their spears as one and cried, “Baldur’s Gate!”

Dipping his head in mock appreciation, a smirk playing about his lips, Eltan dismounted alongside Nors and his wizard and followed the Commander and his Captain back up the gatehouse stair to its top, and then through the heavy, iron-studded oak door to the south tower interior.

The room the group gathered in at the tower’s top was small, circular, and sparsely furnished with but a small circular table dominating its center. Several, tall, murder hole windows opened eastwards and showed nothing but blackest night where one might spy the open moorlands before the city in the light of day. Racks of bows and crates of arrows lined the walls between windows and a number of tallow candles burned throughout, shedding meager illumination on the room at large.

Taking little note of their surroundings, though no doubt absorbing every minute detail, Eltan and his wizard sat themselves at one end of the circular table with Nors standing intimidatingly behind whilst Commander Durham sat opposite them, Emilia standing at his right shoulder.

“Fine display, Commander,” Eltan began mildly. “I believe you know my second, Nors, as well as my personal Court Wizard and advisor, Damion.”

Upon speaking of him, the Duke motioned towards the wizard at his side who, in turn, lowered his hood to reveal pale, hawkish, though remarkably youthful and handsome features. Damion sported a pointed goatee and long, black hair with a substantial widow’s peak, as well as sharp, grey eyes and thin, red lips.

“I know both of your subordinates well, my lord,” Adrian countered, inclining his head to each in turn, though somewhat more stiffly to the wizard. It was well known within the city that, while Nors cleaved to his lord’s will, Damion was a fairly outspoken opponent of the Flaming Fist being removed as the city’s main guard force and replaced by ‘an outsider in command of a bunch of Entar loyalists.’

“Good, then introductions will be brief,” Eltan smirked. “In any case I did not come here this night to exchange pleasantries with you, Commander.”

“I’d assume nothing of the sort, Duke Eltan,” Adrian replied tightly.

“I’d hope not, considering your seeming inability to come yourself to High Hall when it might behoove you to. Instead, sending your subordinate to hear what it is I have to say.”

As he said this, Eltan inclined his head to Emilia who, in turn, remained passive, her gaze not straying to the Duke, but rather remaining trained on Nors. For his part, the grizzled mercenary captain seemed amused by her glare.

“Your Duke just spoke to you, girl,” Damion sneered. “Might want to at least acknowledge your superior lest you make your treasonous heart plain.”

The mage’s words seemed to shock both Commander and Captain and both straightened in their respective stances.

“If your reason for being here is to accuse my subordinates of a crime as grim as treason, my Duke, then I might remind you that such trials require the presence of all four Dukes. Not just you and your counsel of mercenaries,” Adrian commented warily, gaze passing between Eltan and Damion.

“Such accusations were not my intention,” Eltan said. “Though, now that it has been voiced, I cannot help but see credence in my advisor’s words. Perhaps this is something I must discuss with Entar upon his return to the city?”

“I have received no word of Entar’s return,” Adrian said, his tone guarded.

“Nor would you have, for that is the reason for my visit this night. I have just finished meeting with the Harper Master Jherek who spoke to me of concerns within the city and without. Concerns that require all Duke’s present to attend to. Concerns that call into question the wisdom of a Duke and a Commander being at odds with one another while they alone hold the security between them.

“For too long you and I have held animosity between us, Commander. Animosity that does neither of us any credit. Animosity that has, in turn, bled into our lower ranks and has made my Flaming Fist and your guardsman working together nigh impossible. In this time of peace we have enjoyed, this has been a nuisance but not a threat to the security of our stations. It has now, however, become such, and I feel that now is the time for us to bury the hatchet between us, Commander.”

Silence reigned between the two sides seated at the same table after the Duke had finished speaking. Adrian’s eyes were on the lord’s face, searching for any sign that this might be a trap, or else otherwise disingenuous. Emilia watched Nors and Damion closely lest her Commander’s response illicit some violent action from them. Nors watched Emilia for much the same reason, and Damion’s gaze flicked between Commander and Captain, searching their features for signs of their internal thoughts.

“Your words are well spoken, Eltan,” Adrian said at long last. Damion opened his mouth as if to correct the commander’s lack of use of the Duke’s title, but a slight lifting of Eltan’s hand silenced him.

“I would like to first know what information you hold as to the threat you claim we face before I agree to your terms, however. What evidence have you beyond the ravings of a mad Harper Master?”

“Your arrogance is astounding,” Damion mocked. “How nice it must be for you, in your position, to feel as though you have the right to question the warnings of a Duke to whom you’ve sworn loyalty.”

“My loyalty is sworn to the Dukes of Baldur’s Gate,” Adrian replied, his eyes not leaving Eltan’s. “No one Duke might command me without concurrence of the other three, or vice versa. And I might remind you,” he turned his gaze to the wizard, “that no subordinate of any of the four Dukes is in a position to question the actions of an official appointed by all four.”

“Perhaps a brush up of the hierarchy within this city is in order,” was Eltan’s bemused response to Adrian’s words. “But to answer your question, Commander, my belief in the imminent threat to the city does not solely stem from the words of Jherek, half-mad though he may be. They also come from Jaryn Moorstrider and The High Druid Blacktree.”

“Two more of your creatures,” Emilia stated.

“If you believe that Jaryn Moorstrider is “my creature,” Captain, then you are a greater fool than I thought,” Eltan said disdainfully. “And to claim that the High Druid Blacktree follows any whim but his own is pure folly. Nay, both men are this city’s greatest connection to the greater Sword Coast, and their concerns voiced to me, coupled with Jherek’s testimony, are, I believe, reason enough to batten down the hatches.”

“What is it that Jherek told you?” Adrian pressed. “I sorely hope you didn’t pay tribute to his ramblings about the great and mysterious Kharne being within our midst once more.”

“Your glibness does you no credit, Commander,” Eltan admonished. “Jherek might be a one-trick pony but his singular trick has done this city service in the past. And, who is to say that his pursuit of Kharne, be it figmented by his mind, or else true in nature, does not yield results beneficial to the city? He spoke of a secretive cabal working within our walls to dismantle our defenses from within whilst a great force assaulted us from without. Perhaps you would dismiss the recent caravan attack along the Tradeway, combined with the dreary weather we have been experiencing as mere happenstance, but I do not. There are some evil forces at work here, Commander, and thus I come to you now in the spirit of truce to implore you to stand beside me and my Flaming Fist in the defense of Baldur’s Gate, aid me in recalling the other Dukes, and help me convince them of our plight.”

Again, Adrian was silent for a long moment, his chin resting between the thumb and forefinger of his gauntleted hand, as he monitored Eltan’s features ‘neath laden brows.

“Did Jherek say how he thought this cabal might dismantle us from within?” Was his next inquirement, again, after a long pause. 

To this, Eltan smirked before giving his answer. “He spoke of my death,” he said at long last. “But I do not necessarily believe that that is their only goal. Entar’s daughter, Skye, also resides within the city. I believe she might be a target of theirs, as well as Liia’s daughter, Aurora, in Elturel. Perhaps even Entar at his estate, or Belt wherever he might currently be roaming, might well also be in danger. As such, I wish for all Dukes to be recalled to the city so that we might attend to this threat as one, as we were meant to do.”

“Apologies, Duke Eltan, but you seem to substantiate much of this on rumors and hearsay,” Emilia interjected. “Yes, the weather has been oddly morose for this time of year, and yes a caravan has been hit. I do not mean to question the words of Jaryn Moorstrider, or Jherek, though he did attack two of our guardsmen upon entering the city, but these seem to me drastic responses premature to our current situation.”

“You really keep your subordinates on a loose leash, Commander,” Damion said dryly. “I would have cut the tongue out of one of mine own captains for speaking so boldly.”

“Duke Eltan, please keep your wizard’s own leash tight if he so desires to keep his head,” Commander Durham snapped, glaring daggers as the mage.

To his words, Damion had naught but laughter but Eltan was less amused. Slamming his palm upon the tabletop before him, the Duke glared at his wizard whose laughter, in reply, transformed into mere chortles 

“This is not our main concern!” The Duke snapped. “I did not come here to bandy paltry words with fools! I have not the time nor the desire for these games, Commander. I am telling you now that there is a clear and present threat to the city of Baldur’s Gate, one I am prepared to respond to with prejudice. I am sending missives to Entar, Liia, and Belt, imploring them to uphold their oaths of office to this city. You yourself, Commander, made a similar oath when you took your station lest you have forgotten. As such, you and I will bury the hatchet and agree to work together, or else, when my fellow Dukes return, I will bring you up on charges of high treason, along with any of your subordinates who do not fall into line behind their ruling lords. Mark my words, Adrian, we are at war whether you choose to find the evidence credible!” He glared at Emilia before returning his gaze to Adrian. “Or not!”

The Duke sat back, as he had become very animated in the course of his diatribe. Smoothing his hands down the front of his fine tunic, he continued in a more even tone.

“If you think that your precious scion will place the relevancy of your position above the safekeeping of his daughter, you are sorely mistaken, Adrian,” he said. “Take the olive branch I have extended to you, or else find yourself unprepared when the full weight of our enemies’ might falls upon us.”

For a long moment, Commander Adrian Durham was silent, his gaze disfocused, staring into the flickering flame of the candle upon the tabletop between them. Before he again lifted said gaze to meet that of the Duke before him.

“As you say, Duke Eltan,” he murmured. “I too will send Entar a missive, asking him to return to the city. And know that the cities’ Guardforce stands behind you in your current mission to defend Baldur’s Gate.”

Knowing that that was the best he was going to get, Eltan rose and extended his hand to the man before him. In his turn, Adran too rose and grasped the offered hand, so sealing their agreement. 

*                                      *                                    *                               *

Nightfall found Jherek and Myrna entering the backdoor of an upscale tavern in the cities’ Manor District known widely as the Helm and Cloak Inn. This was a favored haunt among the cities’ less well-inclined elite, and not at all the first place Jherek would have expected to find his harpers. True enough, this was often where Baldwin the Bard and Jewel performed as a way to keep a finger on the pulse of both the caperings of the cities’ higher class, as well as the less noble pursuits of the nobility, but he had never known Marissa Tame or Kormak Mckinnick to enjoy the company of the elite. 

Myrna had explained to him somewhat en route to the Inn where Kormak had sent word he’d gathered the Harpers, that, in his absence, his Harpers had found that keeping tabs on the unscrupulous nobles more often than not gleaned them more knowledge of the cities’ less savory side than their rubbing shoulders with lowly thieves and smugglers ever had. Also, she had reminded him that that was what their contacts, Alora, Ethon and Lortimer were for.

As such, since he had departed the city in pursuit of Kharne, it would seem as though his Harpers had managed to lift themselves above the drudgery of wading through the cities’ filth themselves, and rather had delegated that honor to Eltan’s Flaming Fist who, though they had been outed as the cities’ main guard force, Myrna informed him, still performed many actions within the city at the behest of their Commander, though in a far less official capacity. He couldn’t help but wonder what Adrian would have to say if he knew Eltan was ordering his Flaming Fist on missions into the cities’ underbelly.

Despite himself, Jherek had to admit he was impressed. With minimal effort, Kormak seemed to have managed to lift the Harpers from the perils of direct investigation and interference to the safer realm of information brokers. He felt a shimmer of guilt at this realization, considering what it was he was about to ask of them, but it was a shimmer quickly overwhelmed by his fervent belief that the erasure of Kharne from the face of Faerun was to the greatest benefit of all who lived within the realms.

The bouncer at the Helm and Cloak’s back door had informed them that Kormak was awaiting them in the establishment’s cellar, and so they made their way there, skirting the Inn’s taproom full of melodic music and loud voices as they did so.

Descending the stair, Jherek felt a moment of trepidation in confronting his agents. Was it worth it to pull them into the hunt for Kharne? Was not Kormak doing a good enough job as their leader? Was it worth it to again thrust them onto the front lines of their Guild’s ever-waging war against the Zhentarim? 

When his thoughts turned to the Zhentarim however, it was as though a dark cloud descended over his mind. Flashes of ropes, chains, whips and a white-hot knife took command of his mind and he refocused. Getting Kharne was what mattered now. Erasing him from the face of Faerun was the ultimate mission. With his erasure, so went the Zhentarim’s greatest tool on the Sword Coast, and that above all was for the betterment of the vast majority of the region’s denizens. 

When his boots hit the dusty floor of the Inn’s cellar, the Harper Master had made up his mind. Whatever comfort his harpers now enjoyed was a worthy sacrifice upon the altar of what was best for the peoples of Baldur’s Gate, and the greater Sword Coast at large. With a more determined stride, he brushed past Myrna, who had been leading thus far, and strode boldly among the towers of crates and barrels that dominated the cellar towards the meeting place with his Harpers.

A clearing had been made within the labyrinth of stacked goods. A place seemingly perfectly crafted for clandestine meetings, with a handful of chairs and stools set up about its perimeter, and lit by a dilapidated chandelier that someone had inexpertly hung from the ceiling to shed light upon any who congregated there.

Jherek’s footsteps faltered somewhat as he neared the space, spying Kormak awaiting him at its apparent entrance. The Dwarf stood, feet widely spaced, filling the entrance’s frame, a clay pipe clasped between his teeth. 

Though his stance was defensive, a smile broke out on the old rogue’s face upon seeing Jherek, and he stepped aside, sweeping his arm to welcome his commander.

Accepting the invitation, Jherek strode boldly into the clearing, stopping just within the confines of the encircling stacks of trade-goods, dipping his head as he did to the welcoming Dwarf.  

Immediately upon entering the space, however, Jherek faltered. Upon seeing all those present he could help but acknowledge the wave of emotions that crashed upon him. It had, after all, been so long since he had seen them and all of their faces, though slightly changed with age, were known to him.

Directly to his left, her stance both defensive and aggressive, was Marissa Tame, the blonde-haired swashbuckler who had invaded his room at the Elfsong just that morning with Kormak. What feelings he had for her that he had suppressed then came rushing back now. Seeing her standing there in such a manner undeniably hurt him. He recalled that which had been between them before his leaving, the talks they had had, the beds they had shared. To see her now so distrustful of him sent a pang through his otherwise guarded heart. This emotion he quickly smothered, however. It was he, after all, who had ended their affair due to the dangerous nature of his mission.

Rather than dwell on the uncomfortable emotions, he instead turned his attention to who it was that sat next to her, lounging upon his chosen stool as if it were a throne. Here sat Baldwin the Bard, a man the Harper Master had known almost as long as he had Kormak. 

True to his profession, Baldwin wore brightly colored clothing that at first glance could easily be described as both ostentatious and mismatched. Once the man opened his mouth, however, or one witnessed him play, such an opinion would evaporate and one would have no choice but to embrace the fact that the man’s attire fit him perfectly and that he was, without a doubt, a master of his craft.

Beneath his flamboyant attire, the Bard was of a slight, pale-fleshed build. Encompassing with near perfection the image one might associate with the starving artist. Despite his somewhat sickly appearance, however, it was within Baldwin’s eyes that one beheld the full fervor of his spirit. A blueish-grey, his eyes held within them an energy of youth one would, at first glance, find conflicting with his appearance, and spoke of a deep magical talent few would expect from him.

At the Bard’s side, as ever, lounging upon her chosen crate in a most feline posture, her hand laid lazily upon his thigh, was his longtime lover and, for lack of a better term, soulmate, Jewel.

To attempt to describe the true exoticism of Jewel’s appearance would be a fool’s errand. Swathed in flowing cuts of cloth of the family of satin and silk, and drenched in the coloration of lust itself, the Moonelf dancer eyed Jherek with a stare beyond definition. It was the look of pure neutrality and it was one in which the Harper Master took great comfort. Jewel was not, after all, one to disguise her mistrust for someone. It was a trait that the majority of her patrons found irresistible about her. With that lack of distrust came also, however, a lack of acceptance and so Jherek allowed his gaze to leave her’s and travel to he who sat some ways from her, wrapped in his woodland cloak from which hung those leafy appendages that so effectively allowed him to disappear into the wilderlands of the Sword Coast.

He was, of course, Kivan, and beside him, as ever, was his Harper Companion, Huvertrov. The two looked upon their long-lost leader with an air of suspicion and curiosity. In fact, so identical were the looks on the pair’s faces that it was almost comical.

Myrna slid into the space silently on Jherek’s heels, and took up a watchful position to his right, nodding in turn to each murmured greeting offered by the assembled Harpers.

“So we are here, Jherek,” Marissa stated flatly, breaking the silence that reigned briefly after Myrna’s entrance. “What is it you would have of us?”

Out of the corner of his eye, the Harper Master could see Kormak grimace at the bluntness of her words, but he chose to speak before the Dwarf could offer his own rebuke.

“As you all can see, and no doubt already knew, I have returned to Baldur’s Gate,” he began. “Perhaps I appear less than the man who departed all those years back and if that is so then it is because I have been on the trail of an enemy of the Harpers for the entirety of that time. It is not only the trail of Kharne that I have been on, however, but also those of numerous other Zhentarim agents throughout the lands of Sembia, Cormyr and Amn. In doing so I maintained my position as a Harper of the Realms, upholding the oath we all swore upon accepting the harp and moon pin upon our breasts.”

As he spoke he began to pace about the clearing, gazing intermittently at each of his Harpers in turn. Clasping his hands behind his back, he continued:

“My actions on this mission differed not at all with all of your continued efforts within and without of Baldur’s Gate to thwart those who would attack both the goodly peoples of the city and those wildlands beyond its walls. We are, all of us, cut from the same cloth. It was I who pinned that harp and moon pin to each of your breasts and I did so not because of your skill at tracking your query,” he looked to Kivan, “or your prowess at enthralling those who hear or see you perform,” his gaze traveled to Baldwin and Jewel. “But because of that which I saw in you that perfectly fit with what it means to be a Harper. We are, all of us, Harpers. Our creed is to defend the realm from those who would seek to defile it. As such, I am asking you now to stand with me once more in defense of this land, against an evil that has once more slipped between the cracks and into our midst.

 “Kharne has returned to Baldur’s Gate, and with him he brings that disease which is the Zhentarim’s influence. It is my belief that he seeks to destabilize the city by crippling its leaders, whilst a sinister cult weaves their machinations in the shadows, and a host of war gathers at the borders of the Sword Coast, eager to pounce once the city has been adequately unhinged.

“It is we who know the moves of the Zhentarim best, Kharne’s moves. I need my Harper’s beside me once more. Aid me in cutting the head from this serpent who has plagued us for so long. Will you stand with me?”

He finished, his fist clenched before him, his teeth gritted, and the telltale fanatical fire burning within the depths of his sunken eyes.

Silence reigned among those gathered after he had finished talking. All seemed lost in their own thoughts, or else looking to others to see what their reaction might have been. In the end it was baldwin who broke the silence by glancing over at Jewel, shrugging, and saying, “nice enough speech eh?”

A chuckle rippled through the gathered Harpers, and Jherek couldn’t help but join in, deflating somewhat and adopting a more relaxed posture.

“What sort o’ cult is it that ye think we’re facing, Jherek,” Kormak asked.

“Of it I know little,” the Harper Master admitted. “It was only by happenstance that I learned of its existence, as well as that of the war host. From what information I have gathered I can safely assume that the cult worships a deity widely revered, or else feared, within the city so as to more safely avoid detection. Of the host I was unable to glean anything more than that it exists and the Zhentarim are confident in its ability to break the city should Kharne and the cult succeed.”

“Do you think Kharne is leading this cult?” Kivan asked.

“He may,” Jherek nodded, facing the Ranger. “Though I have my doubts only in that, since his unfortunate confrontation with the adventurers who slew Xantham, he might be leery of attaching himself so openly to such an enterprise.”

“And you are sure he is within the city?” Marissa asked, her tone genuinely curious rather than the expected aggressive. “How was it you learned of his coming, or else otherwise tracked him here as we have heard no whispers of any major Zhentarim agents entering the city.”

“I doubt you would have,” Jherek replied darkly. “If Kharne would risk returning to a city in which he had such a notorious reputation, even if said city believes him dead, he would only do so only under the most secure guise. Have any new Mercenary Companies, Adventurer Guilds, or other agency which employs individuals of a more violent inclination recently entered the city?”

As he asked the question he noted a ripple of affirmation pass through the assembled Harpers. Looks were exchanged and Baldwin cracked a grin whilst uttering, “that just makes too much sense.”

“What does?” Asked a slightly annoyed Jherek.

“Not long past, a Mercenary Company under ther name o’ Storm’s Rising set up shop in the city, Jherek,” Kormak said. “It is widely known tha’ they are one an’ all worshippers o’ Talos.”

“And with what dreary weather we’ve been suffering it takes little to image what sort of cult the meddlers might belong to,” Baldwin smirked. “It almost makes too much sense.”

“Let us not be too eager,” Jherek cautioned. “Whilst the possibility of their involvement in the machinations of Kharne and the Zhentarim is very possible, as you say, Baldwin, I cannot rightly approach Eltan and demand their expulsion from the city merely upon the basis of it ‘making too much sense.’”

“I’ll ge’ Alora on it,” Kormak assured him. “She’s already had a wee bit o’ a run in with ‘em and migh’ enjoy a bit o’ payback.”

“What sort of run in?”

“Well ye see, Jherek, these Storms Risin’ fellas came already hooked up with some nice merchant contracts,” Kormak said. “As such they tend to be the ones guardin’ ther homes o’ the rich merchant types. Homes Alora has a knack for targetin’.”

“Then perhaps if she is known to them Ethon might be a better choice for keeping an eye on them,” Jherek offered. Immediately after he spoke the words, however, he could tell that it was not the suggestion to make given the looks he quickly received from almost all assembled. Baldwin, as ever, was the least conspicuous of the bunch.

Sucking his breath dramatically between his teeth and offering Jherek a pained expression, he said, “I wouldn’t recommend putting Ethon in any sort of possibly dangerous situation, Jherek. You see, past instances of us putting Ethon’s life in danger, as well as a few more recent ones, has placed our Guild in a bit of bad taste with Alyth. And whilst she is certainly not the controlling sort, allowing her man his espionage and so forth, I do not believe she would look kindly upon him trailing men and women whose very job it is to make people disappear.”

“I’ll speak with him directly, then,” Jherek said, almost to himself, his posture pensive. “For now, tell Alora that she is to watch but remain unseen. If she has escaped them once, I doubt they will be overly kind should they discover her skulking about again. In the meantime I ask that we spread out, begin probing the usual places for rumors of a new captain in town, perhaps someone recruiting men, or else asking for information. Kivan,” he turned to the Ranger once more. “I would ask that you and Huvertrov part ways for now for I need you to journey forth and search out any evidence of this host. It is my belief that they will come from the north as from any other route they will be perceived long before they reach the walls of this city. I need Huvertrov here, I will require his detective skills as well as his knowledge of illusion.”

Both Ranger and Wizard nodded to the Harper master’s words and so he turned to Myrna.

“My Lady, I ask for no more involvement in this than you are willing to give. I, however, would request that you contact the High Druid Blacktree and get word to Jaryn if you can. Inform them of my concerns regarding the host and tell Jaryn that Eltan backs my words.”

“If I were not willing to be involved, I would not have been here this night,” was the Druidess’ stoic reply. “I will send word in what ways I can to the High Druid and to Jaryn, and assist in any further way I might.”

Holding her gaze, Jherek nodded, ardently grateful for her willingness to aid him despite her breaking with his guild.

“Alright then,” he said, turning to the group at large. “Lets begin.”

*                               *                                    *                               *

With a sigh of utter bliss, Lystra lowered herself into the steaming bath Gyselle had drawn for her within her quarters at the Elfsong. Modest though they were, it seemed to the Ranger a noble’s suite after so long wandering the wilds.

Amenities-wise, her room consisted of the tub in which she now sat, a wood-framed, paper divider for modesty sake, though she was alone, a small table for breaking her fast, and a large bed with an oaken-carved frame. Where Alyth had dug up such a monstrosity, the Half-Elf didn’t know, but when she lay upon it, wrapped in cotton sheets and the down duvet she could easily imagine herself as possessed of far more wealth than she would ever in reality have.

Laying back within the tub she let out another sigh of contentment. Her hair she had allowed to run free and soak about her. Her saddlebags and bow she’d discarded on the table, though she kept Skysinger close at hand out of force of habit as well as her inability to ever be far from the blade.

Allowing herself to relax, Lystra’s thoughts drifted, her fingertips unconsciously stroking the pommel of her sword.

It was Spring in The Dales and she was in the garden of her family home in Shadowdale. Across from her stood her mother, wooden sword in hand, her other arm tucked behind her back in a fencing posture. Lystra held her own mock blade before her, gripped in both hands, its tip high in a manner she’d seen her father use.

About them, the yard was filled with dandelion tufts and each of their steps set free a puff of the white-frilled seedlings, haloing their dance of death with the possibilities of new life.

The impetuousness of youth urged Lystra to make the first attack, and so she did only to have it expertly and easily countered by her mother. It was always a thing of beauty for Lystra to watch her mother practice swordplay. Her movements always smooth and fluid, like flowing water or the thin motes of pollen carried from trees by a passing breeze. 

A soft yet insistent knock upon her door broke the Half-Elf from her reverie and she immediately sat up in her bath, her fingers curling about Skysinger’s handle.

“Who is it?” She inquired loudly, her tone making it clear to her interrupter that she did not appreciate their intrusion.

“An old friend,” the all too familiar voice of Commander Adrian Durham called through the solid wood.

A wicked smile curving the Ranger Apprentice’s lips, she urged him to give her a moment before lifting herself from her bath. Plucking a white cotton robe from where Gyselle had draped it over her room divider, she wrapped the thin, cloth garment about her still wet body, tying it loosely about her waist, before padding barefoot to the door.

Lifting the portal’s latch, she opened it halfway, hanging out into the opening so that the majority of her body was concealed behind the door and her damp locks fell across her shoulder and barely concealed breast, she smiled coyly at her guest.

Despite his grim demeanor and the tiredness evident in his face, the Commander couldn’t help but return her playful smile with a soft chuckle. Lifting a bottle in one gauntleted hand and a pair of glasses in the other he asked, “may I enter?”

“Only if that’s Daleland Mead,” was her reply, stepping back and opening the door fully so that he might cross the threshold. His boots clunking hollowly on the Inn’s floorboards, he did as he was bid and she smartly closed the door behind him.

“You look as tired as I feel,” she said, moving to the table and dumping her bow and baggage in a corner so that he could set the bottle and glasses upon its rough-hewn surface.

“It’s been a strange night,” he replied, pouring each of them a cup of the rich amber liquid within the bottle. “But it is good to see you, Lystra.”

They both lifted their respective glasses and clinked them together before drinking deeply of the smooth and slightly sweet draught. When they had both surfaced once more, Adrian topped them off before seating himself heavily upon one of the two simple chairs set beside the table.

“I regret that my calling this evening is not fully social,” the Commander said, removing his mailed gauntlets and setting them neatly beside his drink.

“Oh no?” Lystra smirked lasciviously. “Something else on your mind, Commander?”

“Unfortunately someone,” he replied ruefully. “Duke Eltan came to visit me at the gatehouse this evening with a proposition that was more demand than request.”

Lystra took the seat opposite him whilst sipping her own beverage, waiting for him to continue.

“He spoke of an accord that needs to be reached between him and I in the face of some clandestine threat proposed to him by the Harper Master Jherek. Apparently the city is, or very soon will be, under siege by forces within and without. I suppose that he believes Jherek in that Kharne has returned and seeks to dismantle the cities’ hierarchy by killing Eltan and perhaps The Lady Skye as well. He believes that the recent caravan attack that took place along the Tradeway is a testament to this threat with more to come. That our enemies seek to cut the city off from the wider world by means of these attacks in preparation for a legitimate invasion.”

“You don’t seem convinced,” she observed.

“It is immensely hard to be,” he said. “Other than the singular caravan attack, and the loss of Eltan’s mercenaries on the Coastway, I have seen no evidence of any great host marching towards our walls. We have received no reports from Elturel or Beregost suggesting such. What of your travels? Seen any great hosts wandering about?”

His question was asked wryly but he seemed genuinely interested in her reply. As he spoke, he absentmindedly removed his heavy boots and loosened his breastplate, signifying to the Ranger that he fully intended to stay the night. This comforted her concern that he had merely come to her to vent about his issues with the Duke.

In reply to his question, she shrugged. 

“On my journey northwards I did come in contact with a small warband of White Skull Orcs,” she said. “Orcs Jaryn drove across the Chionthar with no small assurance that, were they to return, they would be slaughtered one and all. For them to return now, and in such a small group, I do think that it is safe to assume that they have backup. Be it the rest of their tribe or else some greater power, I know not. It is odd out there though. There is some power behind this rain, something sinister that has both Jaryn and the High Druid Blacktree on edge. When last I met with him Jaryn was riding hard for the south to meet with two caravans traveling north from Beregost. Perhaps he will have more information upon his return to the city.”

Adrian nodded along with her words, his gaze vacant, his drink left forgotten beside his elbow.

“I am of the opinion,” she continued, waving her glass. “That Eltan is paranoid, and you know how I feel about Jherek. However, if Jaryn is worried, I can’t help but be worried. What are you going to do?”

His eyes lowered to the opening of her robe that offered him a clear view of her cleavage, a view aided by the dampness of her robe through which the darkness and definition of her nipples were clearly defined. An impish smirk graced his features and he rose, approaching her around the table.

“I know what I am going to do now,” he said, his voice growing husky as hunger crept into his eyes.

“What is that, Commander?” She asked innocently, leaning back in her chair so that her damp robe fell flush against her, highlighting the form of her body beneath it perfectly.

His eyes roving her barely concealed form, he unlatched the buckle of his swordbelt, depositing it along with his blade heavily upon the tabletop. Reaching forward, he grasped either end of her robe and wrenched the cloth open, baring her fully to him. Lowering himself to one knee before her, he, whilst keeping his gaze locked with hers until the last moment, brought his mouth to her breast, pulling the hardening flesh of her nipple into his mouth, eliciting an ecstatic gasp from the Ranger. Bringing his hands to bear he ran them up her heated, bath-slickened body, pressing his roughened digits hard into her flesh, causing her to croon and thrust her hips up and against him. 

Just as her hips rose from her chair, he responded with fluid ease, wrapping a strong arm around her ass whilst trailing kisses and small bites down her stomach and abdomen before burying his face in the curls betwixt her thighs. 

Supporting herself with one arm, she buried the fingers of her opposite hand into the thick curls atop his head, pushing his lips harder against her pussy, encouraging his tongue to delve deeper within her. Her hand was aided in its insistence by her legs that wrapped themselves about the guardsman’s shoulders, pushing against his back whilst her lips moaned his name.

While his one arm supported her weight, cupping her ass, his other hand reached up to grip one of her breasts, squeezing the soft flesh roughly whilst his thumb flicked across her nipple. This, combined with his continued expert assault upon her sex, soon wrenched from her a realm-shattering orgasm, causing her to cry aloud with such exuberance he was sure the patrons in the taproom below had heard her.

As she collapsed in his arms, her breathing heavy, he gathered her up and carried her to the room’s bed, depositing her atop the down duvet as one might place a precious gem upon a silken pillow. Rising, he quickly divulged himself in his clothing and climbed atop her. She welcomed him back by wrapping her arms languidly about his neck and spreading her legs to welcome the full length of his manhood within her in a single, full thrust.

For the next several minutes he pounded into her inviting depths as she bucked to meet every thrust with equal eagerness. Her nails dug into his back, her legs wrapped about him as his lips traveled constantly over her neck, shoulders and breasts. As he drew near his end, he pulled his cock from her slickened passage and pumped the thick strands of his seed upon her quivering stomach whilst she moaned against his neck, savoring the hot weight of his pleasure upon her flesh.

Some time later, the pair lounged upon her bed, each clasping a glass of mead which they sipped while recovering from their respective peaks. In time, she glanced over at him and asked that which she had before and he hadn’t answered. “So what is it you are going to do, Adrian?” She said.

He was silent for a time, idly tapping his finger against his glass before he answered, though even when he did his eyes did not lose their vacant expression.

“I will send a message to Entar,” he said. “If there is any suggestion of a threat to his daughter, be it real or imagined, he will want to know of it. Liia will also have to be notified.”

“And Belt?” She asked.

“That is the second reason I have come to see you,” he sighed. “Eltan requests that you seek out Duke Belt wherever he might currently be ranging and return him to the city.”

The Ranger Apprentice sighed. She knew when Jaryn asked her to return to the city and be at Eltan’s behest that she would be used as an errand-girl. At least the mission would be beyond the cities’ walls and not within its claustrophobic, for her, streets.

“Any idea where I might find the wayward Duke?” She asked.

“Try Elturel,” the Commander offered. “He has been spending much time there of late. Much more at least than in the city to which he’s sworn fealty.”

Just as those words left his mouth, a haunting voice drifted through the room. It was a voice both melodic and sad and it wrenched at Lystra’s heartstrings as it had ever done. Both fell silent, as they knew all within the Elfsong did, as the song washed over them, filling them, and sending both of their thoughts to places far from the tavern, or indeed all of Baldur’s Gate.

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