Disclaimer: The world of the forgotten realms is not owned by me.
NSFW Warning: This particular chapter contains graphic descriptions of nudity.
The rain came pelting down in angry sheets as the hooded figure approached what could only be described as complete carnage. Several wagons sat positioned haphazardly along a small stretch of the east-west running road known as the Tradeway, their beasts of burden collapsed in the mud, their bodies pierced with arrows. The wagons themselves had fared little better but it was the caravaneers who had taken the brunt of the assault.
All about the road lay the bodies of guardsman and trader alike. All hailed from different walks of life, and many were of different races, but they had all fallen together under a hail of arrows that seemed to have culminated somewhere behind where the rider now sat. For their part, the rider scanned the scene impassively for some time, heedless of the rain that soaked them, before dismounting in a swift, fluid motion.
Almost as soon as their boots splashed to the muddy road, the rider removed their hood to reveal a man of mixed elven and human ancestry, nearing middle age yet still quite hale of body. Indeed, he struck quite the imposing figure at slightly over six foot, broad of shoulder, with a strong jaw and piercing grey eyes. He wore a thick woodland cloak of deep green, and when he moved it parted to reveal finely crafted leather armor beneath, as well as the pommel of a bastard sword worn at his hip. His name was Jaryn Moorstrider and he took any assault upon the people of his domain very personally.
With easy, lupine grace the Ranger moved about the scene of ambush that arrayed itself before him, searching for whatever clues might yield themselves to him and tell him who had carried out the attack.
He found little.
The rain, which had come on suddenly that morning, the storm clouds that carried it billowing over the Fields of the Dead to the north with a speed he’d found uncanny, having washed away any and all evidence save the thick-shafted crossbow bolts pincushioning the unlucky caravaneers.
One thing he did discern was that the guardsmen were members of the Flaming Fist, a mercenary company commanded by one of the city of Baldur’s Gate’s four Dukes, Eltan. In recent years, with his fellow Dukes taking little note of the goings on in the infamous city, as well as its surrounding countryside, Eltan had taken it upon himself to protect the roadways.
Jaryn knew that not far to the east a fort had been erected to try and prevent this very fate from befalling any caravans bound for the city. Such a brazen attack to take place, and so close to Baldur’s Gate, right under the nose of the Flaming Fist, would surely raise Eltan’s bile. It would be best, Jaryn discerned, for him to deliver the news himself.
Within the past few seasons, especially with Eltan’s increased interest in the wildlands of the Sword Coast at large, the two men had become close allies. It aided Jaryn greatly to have a Duke within the city who wished to tame the wilderness around Baldur’s Gate, rather than merely reap the rewards of his office.
With a final sweep of the slaughter strewn about him, the Ranger returned to his steed, a jet black, sleek beast of elven stock. A gift a long time past from the elves of the High Forest, far to the north. He had named the steed Sundril and it had borne him through many perils.
Stroking the horse’s neck, he whispered something in elvish to the beast. Immediately the horse snorted in understanding and, wheeling about, rode off to the south, towards the northern eaves of the Wood of Sharp Teeth.
Now alone, Jaryn strode swiftly to the nearest wagon and, grasping the lip of its bed firmly, hauled himself up onto its front wheel so that he could inspect its contents. As he’d suspected the wagon was empty. That fact alone succeeded in putting his mind in some form of ease about the ambush. If the supplies had been taken that meant that this had indeed been a robbery. With the onset of the storm happening so quickly following the attack he had feared that something more sinister might be afoot. Though, looking skyward, he couldn’t help feeling as though there was something indeed unnatural about this weather.
As he pondered this the splashing return of Sundril brought him out of his reverie. Leaping from the wagon, he saw that with his horse came a wolf, one toward which his trusted mount showed no fear. For his part Jaryn immediately recognized the newcomer and approached it as one would a trusted acquaintance.
“I did not expect to find you ranging so far from Cloakwood, Karma,” he said, loud enough to be heard above the rain. “What brings you so far east?”
The wolf, large and sporting reddish fur, a rarity in both regards in this region, gazed back at his stoically for the merest of moments before transforming before his eyes.
Paws became hands and feet, the body elongated and stood, thick fur giving way to smooth flesh, deeply tanned and slightly freckled. Where a wolf stood moments before now there was a naked woman, human, and just as tall as the Ranger, with waist-length, rich red hair, normally wild, now stuck to her head, shoulders and back by the rain. Deep green eyes shone from a gaunt, though in no way malnourished, face and, as ever, the look in her eyes hovered somewhere between bestial hunger and taunting mischief.
“I was sent by the High Druid Blacktree, of course,” the woman said, her voice deep but in no way unfeminine, and husky.
“And why has Criven sent you?” Jaryn asked, his gaze ever on hers, never straying to her slender, well toned physique, firm breasts capped with ripe strawberry nipples, or dense bed of fiery curls betwixt her thighs.
“He likes to keep knowledge on the land,” she replied dodgingly, then indicating the butchery behind him added, “caravan attacks for example.
Jaryn gave a disbelieving grunt but didn’t pursue the topic further. In truth her presence made things easier for him.
“I need a message sent to my apprentice, Lystra,” he told her. “She shouldn’t be too far south as we are due to meet in a fortnight near Baldur’s Gate. Also, if Criven is to be sending patrols into woods not his own you may as well let him know that something is prowling the Tradeway.”
“Something?” Karma snorted derisively. Kneeling by the nearest corpse, that of a silk clad merchant, now half submerged in a growing puddle, she wrenched free the bolt that had struck deep into his ribcage. Waggling the missile before Jaryn’s gaze she continued. “Looks more like someone to me, Ranger, more your field of expertise…and that of the high lords of the city.”
“Are you saying that their deaths by the hands of a humanoid rather than a beast makes it any less worrisome?” He asked.
Karma shrugged, tossing the bolt aside. “ I am merely pointing out that the High Druid cares about the forest, and the forest alone.”
“Whatever ideology you wish to employ, the topic is moot.” He turned from her and strode to Sundril. Hauling himself onto the horse’s back, there was no saddle as he needed none, he continued. “You have witnessed this and thus will tell your High Druid, all I need is a message sent to Lystra.”
“She will be told,” Karma assured him. Their gazes held for a moment longer before Jaryn returned his hood to his head and, guiding Sundril with his knees, turned westward and sped away, mud and water flying in his wake.
Karma watched him go until the mists rolling off the nearby River Chionthar swallowed him. Then, with a shake of her head, she transformed once more into her wolf form and bounded away towards the south.
* * * *
Lystra stretched in a most feline fashion, moaning with pained pleasure as her muscles, stiffened by idleness, protested the movement. It was sometime after midday, her second day spent with the Wild Elf twins, and she couldn’t recall when in the last year she had felt so relaxed.
For their part the twins too lay about, the three of them having collapsed in the shade of a towering oak after Kothir had proposed a race to the nearby stream and back. That had been almost an hour before but none of them were feeling in any particular hurry to uproot.
Lystra, who wore only her trousers and sword belt, as she had been unwilling to leave Skysinger at their camp, was the first to move and Lethir, who was closest to her, looked up at her with one eye closed in a disapproving fashion.
“Where are you off to, Silverleaf?” He asked, neither he nor his brother wore a lick of clothing, “some important ranging to do?”
“Ha ha,” she retorted. “I seek only to check on Shadowflight, if she gets into my bags she’ll eat all the biscuits I made and a fat horse is of no use to me.”
The brothers chuckled and returned to their lazing as she made her way through the loosely spread trunks, back towards their camp by the glade.
As she walked, the Ranger noticed a shadow gliding across the leaf litter between the shade cast by the canopies of the trees around her. Glancing skyward, she spied a large raven soaring overhead, its jet plumage standing out perfectly against the growing stormhead to the north. Coming out from beneath another tree she saw the bird angle its flight towards the glade, not far before her. This was unlikely to be a coincidence, she surmised, breaking into a slow jog. Besides, she had a feeling she knew who it was.
She reached her and the twin’s campsite in short order and, staying under cover, peered out into the clearing. Shadowflight stood in the glade’s center but the mare was no longer alone beside the sentinel stone. A man now stood at the horse’s side, gently stroking her muzzle. The newcomer struck an impressive profile and seemed to fit in perfectly with his surroundings. His hair was long, ragged and black as night and fell almost carelessly about his gaunt, dark, crowlike features.
Most notable about him, however, was his cloak of raven feathers that hung about his shoulders despite being held in place by no broach nor fastener. In the hand that did not pet Shadowflight he clasped a gnarled, ashwood staff and his flesh, as he wore no clothes but the raven cloak, was festooned by curving tribal tattoos and runic inscriptions.
She knew this man well and yet was in no hurry to approach him. The power that radiated from him was like a cool, refreshing breeze and a wrathful gale all at the same time. It was overpowering, and intoxicating, but dangerous.
With a deep, steadying breath, she broke her cover and approached the man, careful to keep her steps even and not show her discomfort.
As soon as Lystra broke the treeline the man’s eyes turned towards her. She knew not how old he was but he appeared no further than thirty in his years, and his piercing, grey-eyed gaze was as bad as her mentors.
“Greetings, Lystra Silverdragon,” he spoke, his voice, as ever, reminding her of an ancient tree, weathered yet strong.
“Greetings, High Druid Blacktree,” she replied, inclining her head slightly.
“I come with a message,” he said, turning to face her fully.
“You can command any woodland beast to carry a message for you, why come yourself?” She asked.
“Call it professional courtesy, also, I was in the area.”
Lystra nodded, accepting his response, though not believing a word of it.
“Karma came into contact with Moorstrider this morning,” he elaborated after a short pause in which his gaze bore into hers and she refused to yield. “He bids you to hurry. You are to make for Baldur’s Gate with all speed. He has need of you there.”
Lystra cocked a brow, surprised by his words. She had expected some grim prophecy, or at least some more pressing missive. Her and Jaryn were agreed to meet anyways, though in a fortnight’s time. It didn’t seem, by the High Druid’s words, that Jaryn had meant for him to come personally.
If the High Druid picked up on her confusion, he didn’t show it, instead his gaze drifted northward before he closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.
“This forest radiates power untapped,” he murmured. “Too long has it been made to sleep, its own guardians grown negligent, lax, abandoning its borders for safer groves.”
Returning his gaze to hers, he continued in a more forceful tone. “ There is an evil rising in this land, Ranger’s apprentice, one no sword or bow can keep in check, but the wood might. Ride now to your city,” he almost spat the word, “but if ever you seek safety go to where the rain does not fall.”
With those ominous words hanging between them, and before she could question him further, he spun away, transforming into a large raven, and taking wing.
Just as the rain began to fall.