Chapter Five: The Serpent’s Head

Disclaimer: I own neither the Forgotten Realms, nor the cover image.

NSFW Warning: Graphic Sexual Content depicting scenes of rape, Graphic Fantasy Violence

Within the tunnelled sanctum of the Talosite priests, far beneath their House of Rolling Thunder, the Sellsword Kharne stood patiently within a circular chamber, a large contingent of Storm’s Rising Mercenaries, bereft of their normal company colors, as well as the hulking Barbarian, Dorn, arrayed behind him.

Also present was the Half-Orc Cleric, Gelrius, as well as a handful of other priests. Despite their shared worship of the God of Destruction, there were very few similarities between the Half-Orc and his counterparts. Where he was well-groomed, they were wild and seemingly unwashed, their hair and, if male, beards, unkempt, as if they had only recently braved a gale of whirlwind proportions. 

All of them stood facing a stone archway, carved to look like billowing clouds. No one spoke and only the occasional shuffle of movement echoed about the chamber’s domed ceiling.

Breaking ranks with the other Talosites, Gelrius stepped to Kharne’s side, turning to face the arch at the Mercenaries’ shoulder.

“What if your agent fails in her task?” He asked in hushed tones that nevertheless reverberated throughout the room.

“She won’t,” was the assured response from within the Sellsword’s helm.

“I always figured you to be a man ever with a plan B.”

“I am, as well as a plan C and a plan D,” Kharne seemed to smirk. “But this night I shall not need them.”

Gelrius nodded, opening his mouth to say more when a crackling sound blossomed amongst them and the chamber became immediately suffused with purple light as the space within the arch filled with a glowing whirlpool of magical energies.

Turning on his heel to face his men, Kharne looked to Dorn.

“Head directly to the brat’s chamber,” he told the Barbarian. “And if the weasel songbird tries to doublecross us, castrate him and make of his scrotum a coinpurse.”

Dorn smiled evilly and nodded.

Satisfied, the Sellsword secured his bandolier of throwing knives and drew his rune-chiseled longsword from his back. With determined strides, he made for the crackling portal, his mercenaries following closely in his wake, the Clerics preparing to seal the portal once more behind them.

*                          *                            *                               *   

Night had fallen fully by the time Kormak and Ethon made their trudging way beneath the safety of the boughs of Myrna’s Grove. The weather had taken a turn for the worse at the halfway mark of their journey and they were now both soaked to the bone, the storm a howling gale beyond the eaves of the encircling trees.

“What magic is this?” The Former Thief marveled in wide-eyed observation of the rain stopping immediately where the outermost branches hung.

“The work of the gods,” Kormak grunted before tugging on Ethon’s sleeve and leading him deeper into the Grove. 

As they descended into the dell, they were surprised to find that the Druidess was not alone near her shimmering well, for at her side was the Gnomish Wizard, Huvertrov.

“Jherek send ye here?” Kormak asked of the Gnome.

Nodding his affirmation, Huvertrov directed their attention to the tunnel entrance at the dell’s far end, making an X with his arms to signify that he had warded it.

“Good thinkin’,” the Dwarf nodded. “An ye Myrna?” He looked to the Druidess. “Are ye ready?”

“No fell creatures has ever stepped foot in this place whilst I held sway,” she replied. “I have no intention of that changing now.”

“Well, I brought back up,” Kormak said gruffly, waving Ethon forward. “Ethon’ll be holdin’ ther fort with ye.”

“Welcome,” Myrna offered the Former Thief a motherly smile. “I do not believe that you have ever set foot within my Grove, Ethon.”

“I haven’t, no,” he replied. “Though I now wish that I had, and brought Alyth here to boot.”

“Bring her here when this dreadful business is over,” she encouraged him. 

He nodded, opening his mouth to reply when the gonging of heavy bells jolted his attention elsewhere. 

All of them turned their gazes upwards towards the sound and, distantly above them, through the leafy canopy of the Grove, they heard cries of alarm from atop the city walls.

“By Moradin’s Beard, those be the alarm bells of High Hall,” Kormak cursed. “Huvertrov, can ye get me there?”

The Gnome nodded, his jaw set, and immediately set about weaving a spell.

“Ethon, ye stay here with Myrna,” the Dwarf commanded, pointing a finger at the Former Thief whilst rushing to the Gnome’s side. “Myrna, ye keep him safe!”

“I will,” the Druidess promised, concern etching her brow. “And you two keep yourselves safe!”

Neither Huvertrov, nor Kormak, replied and, in an instant, were gone in a swirl of wind, the Gnome’s spell teleporting them away.

*                                 *                                       *                                    *

Not far away, at the gates to the city, a lone rider made their thundering approach, their woodland cloak snapping in the heavy air behind them. Immediately recognizing them, the guardsmen at the gate hastened to open the portcullis.

Upon clattering into the courtyard beyond, Jaryn urged Sundril to pause beside the fountain with a soft tugging on his mane, pulling his cowl from his face just as the bells began to toll, distant braziers igniting upon the walls of High Hall, observed hazily through a thick cloud of fog that had risen from around the lower city to encase the keep.

“What’s happening, Moorstrider?” A Guardsman called after him from the gatehouse.

“The Keep is under attack!” The Ranger exclaimed, “gather all available men and head to your Lord’s aid!”

Without awaiting a response, he urged Sundril to flight once more, charging up the High Avenue and towards High Hall.

*                                  *                                    *                                   *

Striding brazenly through the corridors of the keep, Kharne made his way towards Eltan’s chambers, Viconia close on his heels, as well as a pair of her shadow-swathed Nightbringers. Cries and the sounds of clashing steel, as well as the hollow clanging of the keep’s bells, echoed about the halls around them, testament to the havoc being wrecked by the mercenaries, as well as the rest of the Nightbringers.

When he had first stepped from the portal the Drow had conjured in her chamber, followed by his host of sellswords, she had questioned their ability to effectively distract the keep’s garrison with so small a force. Effective as the Nightbringers might be, they were best utilized as assassins and covert agents, not vanguard soldiers. In response, he had directed her attention to her window where a dense fog was coalescing, blocking any sight of the world beyond.

“Yours is not the only god with a stake in this fight,” he had replied, as well as adding the cryptic addendum of: “there are also many other entrances to High Hall.”

She could only assume, given the pitch of battle that was seemingly being waged about them, that said other entrances had let loose a veritable army into the keep.

Rounding a corner, they came face to face with a small force of Flaming Fist, on guard at their Duke’s door. At the sight of the Mercenary and his sinister companions, they closed ranks, brandishing their blades in a defensive formation.

“Sorry lads,” Kharne mocked, twirling his blade lazily, not faltering in his stride. “Your Duke is dead,” he deftly parried the first guard’s attack and brushed past, the movement carrying him into the midst of their ranks. “But there is yet information I need from him.”

The Nightbringers swooped in as well, their dark blades materializing in their hands like wisps of smoke as they maneuvered to aid the Sellsword.

Observing the combat, however, Viconia saw that they needn’t have bothered. Like a dancer, Kharne moved among the Flaming Fist, his blade an elegant and infinitely deadly extension of his arm. So fluid were his movements that she was sure half of those he killed hadn’t even registered that a mortal blow had been struck until their bodies succumbed to it.

In but an instant, the mercenaries were dead, their bodies sprawled upon the keep’s stone floor, and Kharne was at the door, slipping a key Viconia had taken from Eltan’s body into the lock.

Once inside, his long strides took him directly to the Duke’s desk, where he immediately began stuffing whatever parchment or ledgers were within reach into a small satchel at his side that, to all appearances, was far too small to accommodate the amount of material being crammed into it. 

She had heard of such magical artifacts, most commonly referred to as Bags of Holding, they were tiny pocket dimensions concealed within mundane material. Capable of holding a nigh infinite amount of items within them.

As Kharne continued his ransacking, she retreated to the door, disquieted by the knowledge she and Eltan had spent so many nights together in the very room she was now aiding in despoiling. Stepping out into the hall, she instead chose to stand among the dead, her eyes watchful of any further approaching threats.

*                                 *                                   *                                * 

As soon as the last of the mercenaries and shadowy beings had departed the Drow’s chambers, the door to the secret passage connecting Eltan’s chambers to hers slid open to reveal the Wizard Damion. His eyes glowed in the darkness, suggesting a magical ability to see in the dark, or else detect otherwise invisible beings. After a quick scan of the chamber, he rushed to Eltan’s still form.

“Be alive you damned fool,” he cursed, leaning close over his Lord. He sighed with relief a moment later when he detected the light beating within Eltan’s veins, as well as the thin, rattling breath wheezing from his lungs.

Inspecting the wound, he then checked his Commander’s mouth, detecting no blood present, he let out another relieved sigh.

“So she missed the lung then,” he whispered, sitting back on his haunches, concern knitting his brow. “If the wound itself is not mortal, a man of your size and ability would not have gone down unless she used poison…of course the bitch used poison.”

Crouched there, muttering to himself, he did not immediately notice a figure wrapped in shadow slip once more into the chamber with him. He did not, however, remain ignorant to their presence for long. Thanks to his magically enhanced vision, he perceived movement out of the corner of his eye and, not waiting to discern the exact nature of the movement, he reacted. Calling out an arcane verse, he slammed his fist to the floor beside Eltan’s body. Instantly, a dome of opalescent light formed over them, just in time to deflect a pair of thrown daggers. As the blades fell harmlessly to the floor, the Wizard lifted his hand anew, esoteric syllables ringing out as lightning lanced from his fingertips.

His foe was quick, managing to avoid the brunt of his spell, though one of the bolts found purchase on their hip and sent them flying back towards the door. Slamming into the portal with an audible crunch, they landed in a heap on the floor, the impact simultaneously closing the door fully and banishing their encloaking shadows, revealing the lithe form of an elf wrapped in skin-tight leathers.

Standing, Damion left the dome encasing Eltan in place and strode to meet his foe, who was in the process of scrambling to their feet. 

Regaining their footing before he reached them, the elf drew another dagger, this one wickedly curved with a serrated edge, and lunged at him. The residual effects of his spell, as well as their impact with the door, slowed their movements, however, and he managed to grab hold of their wrist before their blade could sink into his flesh. 

Murmuring two more arcane phrases in quick succession, he simultaneously caused the metal of the assassin’s blade to become superheated, and summoned a spectral blade in his free hand. Just as they began to cry out, the white hot dagger slipping from their grasp, he cut them short by plunging the ghostly sword into their stomach, their cry fast-turning into a whimpering gurgle.

Banishing the blade, he allowed them to crumple to the floor, where they curled in on themselves, their hands clutching at the blood pouring from their wound. Without remorse, the Mage viciously stomped on the side of their neck, their bones snapped beneath the heavy heel of his boot.

Satisfied that they were of no more threat, he strode to the door and, placing his palm flat upon it, magically sealed it against any further intruders. This done, he hurried back to his Commander’s side.

“Now,” he murmured, crouching once more over his lord. “Let’s see to saving your life, you immeasurable fool.”

*                              *                                 *                                 *   

Jherek had been in the keep’s outer courtyard with Nors, Baldwin and Jewel, filling the Mercenary Captain in on the dangers of the drainage gates strewn along the space’s outer perimeter, when the fog had descended upon them with uncanny speed and fluidity. Just as the uncharacteristic weather encased them, he had discerned the telltale sound of the very grates he was, a moment prior, warning Nors about sliding open. He had called out a warning, his words punctuated immediately by the sounds of joined combat all around them. With some difficulty, the Harpers and the Flaming Fist Captain had fought their way to the stairs leading up to the encircling walls, their footsteps guided by memory and the sounds of combat above them, Nors calling repeatedly for the keep’s doors to be sealed.

Just as they reached the narrow stair’s zenith, a loud curse sounded to the Harper Master’s right and he spun blindly, attempting to face the potential threat as best he could.

“By all ther blasted rings o’ the abyss, Gnome, where have ye deposited us?” An unmistakable voice spoke, leading Jherek to relax slightly.

“Kormak?” He called out. “Huvertrov? Can you banish this damnable fog?”

Even as he spoke the question, the shroud about them began to thin and he was able to clearly make out the forms of the Dwarf and Gnome, the Wizard weaving his tiny arms about, a gusting wind emanating from him and clearing a large sphere around them of blinding mist.

Just as visibility returned to them, a pair of invaders, who Jherek immediately recognized as Northmen belonging to the Storm’s Rising Company, despite their lack of identifying colors, turned from their harassing of a wounded guardsman to face the newly visible adversaries.

Nors, who was nearest, as well as Jewel, immediately leapt at the sellswords, just as a second group materialized on the further side of Kormak and Huvertrov, the Dwarf instantly whirling whilst drawing his blade from his back to face them.

A vicious melee ensued, in which Jherek jumped to Kormak’s side and Baldwin hurried to lend his rapier to the fray. By the end of it, the Northmen were dispatched and Nors had lifted the wounded guardsman, setting his arm about his shoulders, before encouraging the others to get them to the wall-top door leading into the keep proper.

They found the portal open and unsecured, a guardsman and a Flaming Fist Mercenary dead to either side of its opening. Heedless of the fallen, they rushed inside, Kormak securing the door in their wake with a heavy beam whilst Nors sat the wounded guardsman against the wall and Huvertrov dropped his spell, the gusts of wind that had filled the tight corridor about them diminishing until the only sound was that of their labored breathing.

“Can you hold, soldier?” Nors asked the guardsman, kneeling before him. The man nodded stiffly, his breath coming in short gasps, and blood trickling freely from beneath his breastplate. He still, however, gripped his sword firmly in his gauntleted hand.

“We must hurry,” Jherek urged them. “Nors, you must see to the defense of High Hall. There is no telling how many of them got in, or whether or not Eltan yet lives.”

“Then the first priority should be the discovery of whether or not Eltan yet lives,” Nors reasoned, rising. “The defense of the keep means little if the Duke has fallen.”

“There are yet three more Dukes,” Baldwin pointed out.

“Baldwin speaks true,” Jherek nodded. “My Harpers and I will see to Eltan’s survival. You must do your duty to your men.”

Nors glowered at the Harper Master’s words, but nodded regardless, the wisdom in them being undeniable.

“Come,” Jherek motioned for the others to follow him, before setting off at a hurried pace down the corridor, his Harpers in tow. Once they had reached the first junction, however, Kormak called for them to pause.

“What of Marissa?” He asked.

Jherek cocked his head, confused by the question.

“Entar’s daughter was likewise on Kharne’s shitlist was she no’?” The Dwarf pressed. “Tha’ means they’ll be headin’ straight for her…and Marissa.”

“We do not have time,” the Harper Master insisted. “We must head Kharne off, we cannot risk him slipping away.”

Narrowing his gaze, Kormak said, “thought we was going to ensure Eltan’s safety.”

“What we do is for the greater safety of the realms,” was Jherek’s reply, before he turned to resume his progress.

“I ain’t leavin’ Marissa,” Kormak stood his ground. “We aren’t nothin’ lest we stand as one.”

Jherek faltered in his step, well aware that none had followed him, Baldwin, Jewel, and Huvertrov standing firm at the Dwarf’s side.

“Very well, Kormak,” he replied stiffly without turning. “You and Huvertrov go and retrieve Marissa. Baldwin, Jewel and I will make for the passage and try and head Kharne off.”

With those words, he set off again on his original course, not sparing a glance behind himself to see if his command was followed.

“Ye two go with him,” Kormak nodded to Baldwin and Jewel. “But ye watch yerselves. Don’ go jumpin’ into anything ye don’ think ye can get outta.”

“Well that doesn’t sound like us at all,” Baldwin replied dryly but offered Kormak an assuring smile before setting off after the Harper Master. Jewel, for her part, held the Dwarf’s gaze for a long moment, before jerking her head in a stiff nod and taking off after her lover.

Kormak watched them go for a long moment before Huvertrov laid a gentle hand on his arm. Glancing down at the Gnome’s earnest face, he set his jaw and took off in the opposite direction, the Spellcaster at his side.

*                                     *                                   *                                  *

Marissa Tame was seated across from Skye at the small table within the Silvershield suite, engaged in yet another round of dice at which the noblewoman was surprisingly adept, when the ringing of the keep’s alarm bells began, followed closely by cries of alarm and sounds of battle that echoed up to them from the fortresses lower levels. Rising swiftly, Marissa had urged her charge to the room’s far corner as she stepped to the door, one of her blades halfway from its scabbard. Before she could open the portal, however, it swung inward slightly, the head of one of the Silvershield house guards peeking in through the gap.

“What’s happening?” The Harper demanded before he could speak.

“We know not, ma’am, shall we send a man to investigate?” He asked.

“Nay, hold your post,” she commanded, pushing the door closed again, in doing so forcing the guard to retract his head quickly, before setting the lock and drawing both of her swords. 

“Just stay there, Skye,” she urged the noblewoman, noting the concern in the young woman’s eyes. She then squared herself facing the door, her posture coiled like a tightly wound spring and her weapons ready.

For a long while all they heard from beyond the door were the continued sounds of distant battles joined. Marissa was just beginning to consider asking the guards to indeed investigate the happenings within the rest of the keep when a cry went up just beyond the door’s sturdy facade.

“Hold men!” She heard a guardsman cry. “Don’t give these bastards an inch!”

These words were closely followed by the sounds of joined combat near at hand. 

Setting her feet wide, the Harper spun her blades in lazy circles, loosening the muscles of her arms in preparation for combat.

It was then that she heard an audible click, as well felt a soft, damp breeze upon her cheek and the heightened sound of rain. Spinning, she beheld Skye standing before an open window and a small man crouched upon its sill, the teeth of a grappling hook biting into the stonework between his boots.

“Skye, don’t…!” She began to shout, just as the door to the room verily exploded inwards and she was forced to turn her shoulder, protecting her face from the flying splinters.

Whirling back, she beheld a mountain of a man filling the doorframe, a massive sword gripped in his hands, his bare arms and chest bearing the marks of several of the guardsmen’s blades, and though these wounds wept freely, he seemed bothered by them not at all. Behind him, the bodies of the guards, as well as a handful of differently clad men, the keep’s invaders she suspected, lay sprawled in growing pools of blood. The intruder spared a glance towards the open window over Marissa’s shoulder and, taking advantage of his momentary distraction, she lunged forward, her blades leading.

With agility belying his size, the man effortlessly deflected her initial attacks before lowering his shoulder and barreling her backwards. The strength of his charge lifting her from her feet, the Swashbuckler was lifted bodily into the air, the breath driven forcefully from her lungs when her back hit a stone pillar behind her, her head cracking against its face, dazing her and wrenching her blades from her grasp. Rebounding from the pillar, she landed in an undignified heap on the floor.

Dismissing her, the Barbarian stomped towards the window with a roar of, “Eldoth!” Upon his lips.

Groaning, the feeling of warm blood trickling down the nap of her neck, Marissa did her best to collect her scattered wits. Spotting the pommel of one of her blades near at hand, she snatched it up and hurled it at her foe as he stomped past. Whatever her reason had been to flee through the window, Skye was still her charge and she was resolved to do everything within her power to hinder this man from getting his hands on her.

Despite her impaired vision and weakened strength, the Swashbuckler’s aim was true and her sword buried itself deeply in the meat of the Barbarian’s thigh. Roaring anew, he twisted from his original course, heedless of the sharp object jutting from his leg, he rushed her and she barely had time to grab a dagger from her boot before he was upon her. 

Tracing a wide arc with his claymore, he brought the flat of the blade against her dagger, which she had finally lifted in an attempt to deflect his attack. Pushing through her pitiful guard, the blunt side of his sword struck her hard along the side of her face. Blood spurted from her mouth and she was flung once more aside, her body sliding unceremoniously beneath the table beside the door.

Satisfied that she would not rise again, Dorn stalked back to the window. Peering forth, he saw naught but the gently swaying rope of the grappling hook disappearing into the fog.

He considered, albeit briefly, unhooking the line and allowing they who clung to it to fall to their deaths. Unfortunately that would not ensure the Bard’s demise and the killing of Entar’s daughter was certainly out of the question.

Snorting like a bull, he turned from the sill, wincing slightly at the blade embedded in his leg, the haze of battle-induced rage lifting from his mind, enabling him to once more feel pain. Gingerly, he plucked the shortsword free before reaching into a small pouch at his waist to withdraw a small vial, appearing tiny in his large hand, of bright red liquid. Popping the bottle’s cork, he downed its contents with a grimace, his blood-shot gaze falling upon the still form of the woman who yet lay beneath the room’s table.

Anger welling up within him anew, the Barbarian stomped towards her, casting his sword aside as he did, the trickle of blood from his wounds drying as the wounds themselves began to magically knit themselves closed.

Grabbing the woman’s ankle, he dragged her out from under the table. A pitiful moan emanating from her telling him she yet lived. Reaching down, he lifted her bodily with one hand and slammed her down hard upon the tabletop, driving the air once more from her lungs, leaving her gasping, and causing the table’s legs to groan, threatening to give way beneath the blow.

Seizing the cloth upon her chest, Dorn tore it open, baring her shapely breasts to his uncouth pawing. Still dazed, she could but protest weakly as he squeezed and prodded, before gripping her hip tightly and flipping her over. Holding her in place with a single, massive hand, his strength ensuring she could not escape, he grasped the waistband of her trousers and tore viciously downward, eviscerating the garment and laying her ass bare to his inflamed gaze.

“Next time you see me, bitch,” he growled, freeing his cock and laying its heavy heat upon the pink flesh of her ass. “You’re gonna know to step aside!”

Spitting in his palm, he rubbed his saliva across the thickening length of his manhood before positioning it at her anus, relishing her protesting cries.

 *                                *                                     *                                 *

“Make your way towards the tunnel,” Kharne commanded Viconia upon exiting Eltan’s chambers.

“Where are you going?” She inquired skeptically.

In response, he cocked his head at her, and she could almost feel the smirk within his helm.

“I will be close behind,” he assured her. “You have use to me yet, Viconia, and I am not the type to throw away an asset needlessly.”

“Is that all I am to you?” She challenged, her eyes narrowing.

Without hesitation, the Sellsword swept his helm from his head and, grabbing her forearm with the gloved hand that held his blade, he drew her roughly to him, catching her lips firmly with his own. 

Their kiss was long and passionate, and when the Mercenary eventually pulled away she briefly caught sight of the fire in his eyes before his helm was, once more, replaced upon his head.

Requiring no further proof, she turned from him and set a brisk pace down the corridor, the Nightbringers shadowing her closely. Kharne watched her go, appreciating her charms, before turning himself and making his way towards the keep’s lower levels. 

Though the sounds of battle yet raged around him, he encountered no conflict on his journey. After a number of twists and turns and descended stairwells, the Sellsword arrived at his destination, the door to Eltan’s planning room.  

Pausing briefly outside, he listened for any signs of movement within. Hearing none, he set his shoulder to the door, forcing it open. 

Within, the room was as Eltan had left it last, its tabletop festooned with papers and maps, a half-drunk bottle of wine sat carelessly near where the Duke would normally stand. The fire had burned low and, as such, shadows reined within the chamber though this deterred Kharne not. He was, after all, their ally that night.

Quickly, he made his way to the table and began shoving every bit of parchment within reach into his magical satchel, perking only every now and then if the sounds of battle seemed to draw closer.

After the table was bare, he made a final sweep of the chamber before striding boldly out of the door that led to the main hall of the keep. Surprised to find it empty, its lighting low, the Sellsword began to swiftly cross its breadth when the sight of the Duke’s thrones caught his eye upon their raised dias. 

His gaze sweeping up to behold the banners hanging behind each, he chuckled to himself. After all the intrigue he had wrought within the city, what grim satisfaction might he get from seating himself upon one of their ostentatious chairs?

Deciding that Eltan’s would be the most fitting, he set his boot upon the lowermost stair to the platform when the light tapping of metal upon stone caught his attention, the emptiness of the hall causing the noise to echo off of the walls around him.

Turning, he beheld a tall figure, wrapped in a woodland cloak, standing beside one of the closer pillars. Half of their profile was coated in shadow, their other half lit by a nearby candelabra, the wicks of which had burned low. Kharne saw nothing of their face as they had their cowl drawn, though the candlelight played upon the edge of the naked sword they held, which they had used to tap upon the hall’s marbled floors.

Backpedaling from the dias, the Sellsword traced a path across the smooth floor until he faced the figure fully. Observing them closely through the slits in his helm, keenly discerning their relaxed posture and, recalling the forthright way they had garnered his attention, Kharne knew that this could only be one man.

“So you are the one they call Moorstrider,” he drawled, tracing the tip of his blade in half-circle before himself. “I must say it is both an honor and a privilege, I had not considered I would be meeting a legend this night.”

Wordlessly, Jaryn stepped from the shadow of the pillar and began to approach the Sellsword with measured steps. 

Despite himself, the Mercenary had to acknowledge the eagerness welling up inside of him. He had been worried, after all, at the onset of this attack, that the night would end before he had crossed swords with a worthy opponent. 

Adopting a low guard, while the Ranger set himself in one high, Kharne circled his opponent, neither of them foolish enough to lung into combat without first measuring the make of their foe.

In the end, it was Jaryn who struck first, his blade slicing towards the Sellsword with deadly intent. Effortlessly, Kharne deflected the blow, only to enact the movement similarly elsewhere when the Ranger reversed his grip and struck again with fluid ease.

Across the surface of the hall’s floor the pair battled, their blades clashing together again and again, both of them proving themselves an expert in their craft, neither finding purchase, and neither showing any sure sign of tiring quickly. Though after the initial bout they were, both of them, exhibiting more labored breath, neither faltered in their step, nor their guard, and thus the dance continued.

*                                *                                   *                                *

“Oh no, lass,” Kormak breathed upon reaching the doorway to Skye’s suite and spotting Marissa, huddled at the foot of the Noblewoman’s bed, having pulled the sheets from it to cover her bruised and beaten body.

Approaching her slowly, his hands extended as if she were a spooked animal, the Dwarf observed her vacant gaze, noting that it had not risen to his, as well as her bloodied face, fully half of which was swollen and already beginning to bruise. For his part, Huvertrov remained at the door, not wishing to overwhelm her whilst also not neglecting the fact that, at any moment, their foes could descend on them anew.

“Marissa,” Kormak called softly, reaching her side.

For her part, Marissa Tame acknowledged him not, but continued to stare sightlessly into the corner of the room. Trails of tears marked themselves down her cheeks in glistening rivulets as she clutched the coverlets to her form.

“Marissa,” the Dwarf called again, his hands outstretched as if he wished to embrace her, tears filling the copious creases ‘round his eyes, like water fed through rough-dug canalworks.

At his secord beseechment, the Swashbuckler turned her head slightly towards him, though her gaze remained distant and unfocused.

“Aye, it’s me, lass,” he managed a reassuring smile, though sadness filled his chest,

At last, the woman’s gaze met his. She held it briefly before her features contorted and she began to sob, burying her face in the soft sheets she had ensconced herself in. 

“Huvertrov!” Kormak hissed over his shoulder and the Gnome hurried to his side.

“Ye know how ye got me here, Huvertrov?” The Dwarf asked.

The Gnome nodded.

“I know it’s taxin’, but get her ter Lortimer’s the same way. Than ye stay with her there, ye hear me?” 

The Gnome again nodded.

Reaching out, Kormak clasped Marissa’s hand through the barrier of the blankets.

“Ye don’ good, lass,” he said, an errant teardrop descending his ruddy cheek. “Ye are ther best o’ us. Know that.”

The Swashbuckler did not reply to his words, nor touch, continuing to sob, the blanket covering her face.

“Alright, get ye gone,” he bade Huvertrov, before rising and striding purposefully from the room, his jaw set against the sorrow and fear expanding like a balloon within his chest.

*                           *                               *                                      *

Jaryn and Kharne streaked across the breadth of the hall, their swords clashing, their bodies moving in an almost mesmerizing dance of skill, agility and endurance. Neither one could best their opponent, it would seem, though both of them were obvious masters of their craft. At one point or another one had gained the upper hand, only to be thwarted, enabling the continuation of the dance.

At long last, Jaryn seemingly cornered Kharne against the dias to the Duke’s thrones. The Sellsword retreated atop the platform, gaining the high ground and forcing the Ranger to retreat a number of steps so as to not expose himself to the superiority of his opponent’s position.

As soon as he had, the main doors to the hall crashed inwards to emit a large group of Flaming Fist, Nors at their head. Catching sight of the duo, the Mercenary Captain called out, directing his men to surround the platform.

“It has been a pleasure, Ranger,” Kharne saluted Jaryn with his sword, his free hand grabbing something from his belt. “Unfortunately, we shall have to conclude this affair at a later time!”

Jaryn charged, but Kharne was faster, dashing whatever it was he held within his hand upon the dias at his feet and disappearing in a cloud of acrid smoke. Reaching the spot a moment too late, the Ranger slashed his blade through the smoke but found no firm purchase within its cloud.

Turning from it, he descended the stairs to meet Nors at their base. 

“Where is Eltan?” He demanded calmly of the Mercenary, removing his hood.

“We have yet to locate him,” Nors replied gravely. “We have secured the keep’s lower levels, and I have sent Captain Ivenshield up and will follow her shortly, will you join us?”

“I must find Jherek,” Jaryn said, shaking his head. “That was Kharne with whom I just crossed blades. Jherek knew of his presence within the city, he will seek to confront him.”

“Last I saw of the Harper, he said he would seek out Eltan.”

Again, Jaryn shook his head, then realization dawned in his eyes.

“I know where Kharne is going,” he said with grim finality.

*                                   *                                    *                            *

Alyth hugged herself as she stood in the doorway of the Elfsong Tavern, her worried gaze scanning the courtyard between her establishment and the city gates, alarm bells and distant cries ringing out across the city around her, punctuated occasionally by the concussions of spells that manifested themselves visually as blossoms of light within the dense fog that had blanketed the city.

The courtyard was abuzz with activity, being utilized by the Guardforce as a kind of staging area and many of their number stood ready, as well as several cohorts of the City Watch. Every now and then, a commander of one of the groups would direct some of their men in a specific direction, leading them off to face whatever foe it was that was wrecking such havoc throughout the city.

What had begun with the clanging of the alarm bells of High Hall had transformed into an all out defensive action throughout the city. The Barkeep had long since relented in her pursuit of information from the passing guardsmen. If anything, most of them looked equally as confused as her. As such, she could but helplessly watch and wait, scanning the area desperately through tear-rimmed eyes for any sign of Ethon returning to her.

*                                   *                                *                                       *

“I had hoped I would find ye hereabouts somewhere,” Kormak said upon reaching the mouth of the tunnel leading to Myrna’s Grove in the keep’s dungeon.

Jaryn merely dipped his head to the Dwarf, before returning his stern gaze to the darkness of the tunnel that yawned before them.

“I don’ suppose I can expect us ter have any back up,” Kormak said.

The Ranger shook his head.

“Aye, well then let’s go an’ get these bastards.”

Gripping his sword tightly, the Harper descended into the darkness, the Master Ranger close behind.

*                        *                                    *                                  *

Miles from his lover, Ethon crouched among the ferns near the glowing well in Myrna’s Grove. In the open space of the dell, standing upon the various levels of terrain, the Harpers awaited their foe. 

At the forefront was Jherek, his cowl drawn and body taut, his blade jabbed into the soft, mossy ground at his feet, his forearms resting upon its pommel. Nearer to the well was Jewel, the Dancer equally poised, her lithe form tightly drawn, ready to spring forth at the slightest moment. Across the dell from her, perched halfway up the twisting stair leading to the dell’s bowl, was the Baldwin the Bard. Contrary to his comrades, the Songbird appeared completely at ease, his rapier held loosely in his grip, its tip to the stonework beneath him. Furthest back was the Druidess herself, appearing to Ethon as an alabaster statue, imperious and reserved. Both of her hands gripped her whitewood staff, which she had planted firmly before her and, as ever upon her shoulder, her snowy owl familiar scanned the area with its keen, avian gaze.

All of them faced the entrance to the tunnel beneath the city’s walls, from whose depths the occasional blossom of light could be seen, evidence of someone tearing down the various wards Huvertrov had put in place.

The air in the Grove felt tense and close to the Former Thief as he huddled where Myrna had directed him shortly after Kormak’s departure, a time that now seemed to him days in the past, before cloaking him with a magical guise that blended him neatly in with the foliage around him. Despite this camouflage, he scarce dared to breath, his anxious gaze fixated on the ever approaching blooms of light within the tunnel.

Eventually, figures could be seen moving within the tunnel. As they neared its opening, there appeared a wall of reddish glass before them, blocking their way. The lead figure, barely discernible within the gloom of the tunnel, lifted a hand and the glass shattered, a pulse of rust-hued light bathing the dell. 

The figures within the tunnel paused, then a light, mocking applause echoed out to them from within its depths.

“Bravo,” a voice drawled, echoing forth from the tunnel’s depths. “I supposed that’s you, Jherek? I have to admit that I hadn’t expected the condition I left you in to enable you your normal perseverance. Perhaps I should have taken your eyes, as well as your balls.”

From the tunnel, a man stepped forth and Ethon’s heart nearly stopped dead in his chest. Before them stood he who they had all believed dead and who Jherek had warned them yet lived, Kharne.

Following closely on the Sellsword’s heels was a beautiful Drow woman, her brow beaded with sweat, no doubt due to the ordeal of dismissing the Gnome Wizard’s wards, as well as four beings seemingly made of shadow itself. Again, Ethon’s heart almost stopped at the sight for he knew very well that the shadow-beings were none other than Nightbringers of Shar.

Without reply, Jherek drew his sword from the ground and held it before himself in a readied stance, Jewel and Baldwin moving closer to him, their own weapons ready.

“As much as I would love to savor this, I am very pressed for time,” Kharne continued, drawing his own sword and striding forward, his lackeys keeping close behind him. “You should have stayed huddled in that cell where I left you.”

With a strangled cry, Jherek charged, his sword sweeping before him to clash against Kharne’s. Jewel sprang forth and, with a muffled oath, Baldwin followed, leaping down to meet the crossed daggers of an oncoming Nightbringer.

Desperately, Ethon looked to Myrna and beheld the Druidess raise a hand, the other yet clutching her staff. Immediately, thick roots burst from the soil about the dell. Sporting thick thorns, the brambles lashed out at the intruders, succeeding in impaling one of the servants of Shar whilst a thick cluster encased the Drow. For her part, the Dark Elf gripped one of the thick fronds, igniting it. Soon enough the entirety of the cluster that surrounded her like a cage was engulfed in a brilliant inferno, the blaze silhouetting Jewel as she clashed with her own Sharite foe, their blades dancing with equal, deadly skill.

Stepping from the ashes of the vines, the Drow, appearing completely unharmed, extended her hand towards the Druidess. A thick beam of purple light, with a core of blackest night, shot forth from her outstretched fingers.

Myrna swiftly enacted a shield of dim, green light. One that, sadly, proved no barrier against the spell thrown by the Drow. Cutting through the shield, the purple spear struck the Druidess squarely in the chest, leaving a blackened hole in its wake. 

At first, Myrna only seemed to be set off balance by the attack, stumbling a step back as the dark energy pierced her. A moment later, however, dark tendrils spread from the blackened hole and she gasped, falling to her knees, her hand upon her staff all that saved her from landing face first upon the floor of her Grove. The tendrils continued to spread, even as she gripped her chest and, before long, not even her staff would support her and she pitched forward, her staff falling noiselessly to the soft moss beside her still form. 

“No!” Baldwin cried, having beheld her fall, his momentary distraction costing him dearly, as his opponent took full advantage, batting aside his rapier to bury the blade of their dagger in his throat.

A wretched wail tore from the throat of Jewel as she, having just bested her own foe, beheld the death of her soul mate. With speed faster than the eyes could follow, she launched her blade across the dell, where it landed squarely, buried in the side of the skull of the Nightbringer who had killed Baldwin. 

Turning, she then charged the Drow, her other dagger flashing, just as, with an ear splitting screech, Myrna’s owl familiar streaked in, its talons extended towards the Dark Elves’ face.

Jherek backpedalled past the charging Elvan Dancer, harried by both Kharne and a Nightbringer. Ethon fought the urge to rush to the Harper Master’s aid, the words of Kormak to not give away his position under any circumstances echoing in his head.

Descending upon the Drow, Myrna’s familiar raked the side of her face with its talons, eliciting a desperate shriek from the Dark Elf, even as she attempted to parry Jewel’s aggressively slashing dagger with her quarterstaff.

Immediately upon hearing the Drow’s shriek, the Nightbringer who was aiding Kharne in battling Jherek broke away and charged towards Jewel’s exposed back. Very nearly calling out to warn the Dancer, Eltan choked on his words as Jherek and Kharne drew near his hiding place, the silvery light of the well reflecting off their dancing blades, as well as the mercenaries helm.

Luckily, Jewel proved to have not lost her wits completely when she pivoted to face the Nightbringer, having pushed the Drow off balance, their struggle with the owl continuing. Deflecting the Sharite’s initial blow, Jewel managed to get her own dagger within her opponents guard, slicing their stomach open, even as their second dagger made contact with the side of her face, viciously turning it and sending a splatter of blood across the moss-covered ground. 

Heedless of the wound, the Elven Dancer twisted back to find the Drow’s quarterstaff, which she had just used to bat away the owl, sending it careening away in a puff of feathers, reverse suddenly and connect squarely with her forehead. 

The ensuing crack echoed about the dell and Jewel stumbled. Blood pouring from the gash across her cheek, as well as the newly formed dent in her forehead, she slumped to her knees. From the shadows behind the Drow, a fifth, as of yet unseen, Nightbringer stalked. Languidly, they laid their own twin daggers across Jewel’s neck and, in a singular, quick motion, severed her head cleanly from her shoulders.

Horror infusing him, Ethon returned his attention to the bitter struggle between Kharne and Jherek, just in time to witness the Harper Master’s blade struck from his hand, the sword arching away into the deeper darkness of the Grove. 

Reversing his grip, the Sellsword cleaved Jherek’s inner thigh, bringing the man to his knees mere feet away from where the Former Thief crouched, the enchantment Myrna had cast upon him yet enshrouding him.

Triumphant, Kharne towered over the kneeling Harper, his sword held high to deliver the killing blow. It was in this moment that Ethon made his ultimate decision.

“This is how it was ever going to end, Jherek,” the Sellsword gloated. “You…” 

He was unable to finish his sentence, however, for it was at that instance that Ethon made his move. Leaping from cover, the Former Thief buried his dagger deep in the Mercenaries’ thigh. Roaring in pain, Kharne directed his swing towards his new assailant. Rolling clear of the attack, regaining his feet on the well’s further side, Ethon yelled, “Jherek, run!” 

Even as the cry left his lips, the air was driven from his lungs as something solid struck his back. Looking down, he saw the tip of a dagger protruding from his chest, his medallion of Tymora balancing upon it. Looking back up, he saw Kharne’s sword connect with the side of Jherek’s neck, just as a fireball blossomed from the Harper Master’s belt buckle. Their eyes meeting for but an instant, Ethon beheld a contented smile on Jherek’s face, then his vision was engulfed in flame.

*                        *                               *                           *

Thrown forcefully backwards by the fireball’s blast, though protected from the brunt of its heat by the myriad magical wards he had about his person, Kharne landed hard beside Viconia and the sole surviving Nightbringer, both of whom had likewise been propelled backwards by the explosion.

For a moment, all of them lay in a heap upon the dell’s cool moss carpet, their breathing labored, as the grove darkened once more around them. The silver light of the well returning as the only source of light.

Recovering first, Viconia scrambled to Kharne’s side. Turning him over, she saw that he was still breathing, though shallowly. 

“We must leave,” the Nightbringer spoke in heavily accented common, crawling to a crouched position and casting a desperate look about the Grove, as if fearful of yet more threats rising from the trees about them.

“Use this,” Kharne wheezed, surprising Viconia with his ability to speak. Looking down, she saw a silver amulet he was pressing into her palm. “But you better fucking take me with you.”

“How do I activate it?” She asked, wiping away blood that ran freely from the talon-marks across her forehead and cheek. 

“You’ll appreciate it,” he seemed to smile beneath his helm. “The words are ‘Mistress of Night, harbor me’.”

As he said the words, his hand covering the amulet cupped in her palm, a swirling vortex of deepest black, ringed in purple, manifested close at hand. At the sight of it, the Nightbringer murmured a prayer to Shar.

*                                *                              *                                    *

Just as the trio was stumbling into the portal, Kormak Mckinnick and Jaryn Moorstrider charged from the tunnel’s mouth. Leveling his bow, the Ranger sent an arrow after their retreating backs, the missile disappearing into the swirling vortex just as it closed in on itself, fading into nothingness.

“No!” The Dwarf exclaimed, rushing forward, his sword slipping from his numbed fingers as he beheld the bodies of Jewel, Ethon, Jherek, Baldwin and Myrna. After desperately checking one or another for signs of life, he fell to his knees in the midst of the carnage, his head bowed, his feathered cap falling from his crown.

A grim look of sorrow etching his own features, Jaryn stepped to the Dwarf’s side. Laying a hand upon the Harper’s shoulder, he surveyed the scene, his gaze coming to rest upon the body of Jherek, his body charred and blackened except for his face that yet held the small, contented smile.

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