Chapter Four: One Way or Another

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

NSFW Warning: Strong Sexual Content

Rendrick awoke slowly from his slumber. Having had little rest since he and his companions had first entered Cloakwood, a fact they had likewise noticed, it had been insisted upon that Keira and Tiberius would split the watch that night, allowing the Ranger a much-needed full nights sleep. Though he had been against their proposition at first, he had relented when even Katarina joined in on their behalf. Waking now, grogginess fogging his mind and a stiffness clinging to his limbs, he knew that one full night’s sleep had not been nearly enough.

Glancing about the small hollow he had chosen for their camp, he immediately became aware of a warm body before him about which he had seemingly cuddled, no doubt for warmth, during the course of the night. Given the slightness of the bodies’ frame, as well as the satin-smooth feel of what skin lay exposed to his touch, he immediately identified the person to be Katarina. 

As wakefulness begrudgingly gained ground on the fuzziness of his thoughts, he became aware of another source of heat snuggled in behind him. From the scents of leather that came to him from their direction, he knew the other to be Keira, snoozing softly, her nose nuzzled against the base of his neck.

Consciously aware of his morning-stiffened manhood pressing against Katarina’s ass, the Ranger carefully, yet insistently, extricated himself from the two women. Rising to a low crouch above them, he heard Katarina mewl in protest in her sleep due to the sudden lack of warmth at her back. Responding immediately, though she too remained asleep, Keira slid into the spot Rendrick had vacated, snuggling against the younger woman and encasing her in a tight embrace.

Ensuring that his shortsword was secured upon his hip, the Ranger made for the hollow’s entrance, a soft, green, early-dawn haze permeating his vision beyond. Sliding himself through the small opening between a pair of rocks and a fallen tree, he stepped out into the chill air, the rotten smells from the nearby swamp, the origination also of the odd, green haze, assaulting his nostrils.

Seated at the base of a nearby tree was the Cleric, Tiberius, softly dozing, having no doubt drifted off during the course of his watch.

Cursing softly, though with little actual vehemence, Rendrick padded past the Cleric. His target, a tree stump that lay a short ways distant, against which he gratefully and heartily voided his bladder. As he did so, he took in his surroundings more fully, noting the spacings of the trees, as well as the thinning of the vegetation that so densely clogged the forest’s floor in its deeper recesses. 

They were nearing the forest’s edge, he surmised, the knowledge lightening his mood and reaffirming his self-assurance that he was not leading his companions astray. Also, if the trajectory he was leading them on was indeed accurate, then that would mean they were close to a place that he and his mentor would use as a supply cache in years past. If the location yet remained unmolested, he hoped that they would find a great many items that would aid them abundantly in the next, and hopefully final, leg of their journey. 

Shaking himself off, he returned to the hollow where he gently shook their dozing sentry awake.

“Trotter! Wha’…?” Tiberius sputtered upon waking, shaking himself and pushing himself roughly to a standing position.

“Apologies,” he said sheepishly after he had composed himself. “I hadn’t realized I had dozed off.”

“We are all infinitely weary, Cleric,” the Ranger replied. “It is not inhuman to succumb to it. Just remember, there are others who rely upon your alertness whilst you watch and, even if a would-be ambusher hadn’t discovered us lying below, your heedlessness would most assuredly have cost you your own life.”

Tiberius cleared his throat uncomfortably. 

“How close are we to the forest’s edge?” He asked, eager to be rid of the closeness of the Ranger’s stare.

“Not far,” Rendrick said, turning his gaze towards the east. “Perhaps before evening we shall have reached its eaves and, I hope, a secret cache of supplies my former mentor left there.”

“That’s welcome news!”

“Yes,” the Ranger returned his eyes to the Cleric, his gaze ensuring the other man he hadn’t forgotten his misstep.

“Wake the others,” he bade him. “I will scout ahead and ensure no enemies snuck near whilst we all slept.” 

*                           *                             *                               *

Though she had been loath to do so, Lystra had allowed Belt to take the second watch. Not so much so because she feared him running off whilst she slept, she was sure enough in her abilities that she knew she could track him easily enough, but more so because there was something in the way he looked at her that reminded her of a bear sizing up wolf over a fresh kill. Beyond that though, there was a certain lascivious hunger in the depths of his gaze. Something she wasn’t altogether surprised to find lurking there, as such was often the case with men like him, boisterous adventuring types with a love of life and all the pleasures it had to offer. Ultimately, she would not be surprised if a few of his past lovers hadn’t been completely willing. However, she knew that she could not stay awake the entire night and had thus relented.

She awoke before the dawn to the smells and sounds of a crackling fire and simmering meat. Annoyance immediately gripping her, she flipped in her bedroll to find the hulking form of the Duke bent over a small cooking fire, his back to her.

“What are you doing?” She hissed in indignation, half-rising, her gaze scanning the surround, expecting at any moment a hail of arrows to descend on them.

“Cooking breakfast,” he replied in matter-of-fact tones. “You Rangers might be able to subsist on naught but berries and roots but I like my food like I like my women, warm and dripping with succulent juices.”

As he said this he cast a wink her way over his shoulder, before returning to his task.

“There is a reason “we Rangers” eat cold fare whenever possible whilst in the wilds,” she said, irritably rising and wrapping her cloak about herself to stave off the damp morning chill.

In response, the Duke offered her naught but a scornful look as she seated herself cross-legged opposite him.

“You may scoff at it but you sure aren’t avoiding what warmth it provides,” he said.

“Shall I stand some distance away?” 

He chuckled.

“You got some fire in you, Ranger’s Apprentice, I like that.”

“Thought you liked your women warm and dripping with succulent juices,” was her wry reply.

“You sayin’ you aint?”

She gave him a pained look and he chuckled.

“Would you like some food to go with that sour look?” he inquired, indicating the small chunks of meat that sizzled amidst their own juices within a frying pan atop the fire between them.

Her mouth watering despite herself at the sight and smell, she nodded but added as an afterthought, “so long as that isn’t off the wereboars from yesterday.”

“I ain’t trying to poison you just yet,” he assured her.

Now it was her turn to chuckle.

“Her icy exterior cracks!” He rejoiced. “Come now, Ranger, if we are to be stuck together for the next few days let us make peace, and nothing buries the hatchet quite like food and strong drink shared between comrades.”

As he said this last part, the Duke reached into a satchel he had stowed against the log upon which he sat. After some digging around, he produced a half-filled bottle of deep, amber liquid. 

She smirked at the sight and he laughed triumphantly. Popping the cork, he took a hefty swig before passing it to her over the fire, his grimace telling her all she needed to know of its potency.

“Figured that’d do the trick,” he nodded. “Now, let’s eat some grub and carry on our way.”

*                               *                                 *                                    *

Rendrick returned to the hollow after a brief reconnaissance of the surrounding area, though he had been careful to avoid the marshland as its eerie green haze, as well as its stench, spoke of some deeper evil beneath its shallow waters. He found his companions clustered about a small fire, warming their stiff muscles, and consuming a sparse fare consisting of what little remained of their travel stores.

“Trotter,” Keira greeted him upon his approach, standing from her crouched position. “Tiberius has told us some heartening news you relayed to him earlier this morning. Is there truly a place where you stashed supplies nearby?”

Looking at all of their hopeful faces, Rendrick mentally kicked himself. If the cache proved empty, or else otherwise ransacked or disturbed, it would surely break what little spirit remained in them. He should have kept the possibility of its existence a secret, he saw then. That way, should they have come across it, and it prove empty, it would have meant little to they who knew not of its possible reality.

‘Well the cat’s out of the bag now,’ he thought, seeing all of their eager gazes.

“Yes,” he said. “Being a prolific Ranger of The Coast, my mentor left many such stashes dispersed along its breadth. I must have unconsciously been guiding us towards one such location as we have reentered regions of the forest known to me. Should we reach it before nightfall, and should it remain intact,” he added, carefully watching their faces but discerning no lessening in the hopefulness he perceived in each. “Then by evening we shall be in good order to complete the rest of our trek well-supplied.”

“That is good to hear,” Tiberius nodded, and Katarina smiled, something she had not done in a fully genuine fashion since the death of her father and the loss of the caravan, and an action that seemed to invigorate them all, particularly Keira, who quickly motioned for the Ranger to join them by the fire.

He did so hesitantly, his worries of the future of that day weighing upon him, but they melted away at the sight of the brusque Mercenary Captain hugging the younger woman to her side and Tiberius grinning down at them.

Taking up a small piece of jerky, the Ranger allowed himself his own smile, dismissing uncharacteristically the trepidations he held.

*                                  *                               *                                      *

Kivan drove his mount onwards through the ever more encompassing mists that surrounded that force which had heralded its approach with blatant horn-blasts. He knew not what to label such a body other than an army, an army bent upon the conquering of all that stood before it, for never had he known any other force to herald its advancement so arrogantly. 

He had ridden headstrong towards the looming shadow within the mists without a second thought, for all of his concerns at the time had been of the Shepherd and his family reaching some further, safer ground before the mist, and what evil it contained, could reach them. He knew not what resistance he could offer up against such a beast, and yet he rode, hoping against hope that he might buy some time for what innocence lay in the path of this encroaching tide.

Not long after he entered the wall of fog, the stinging aroma of burning wood filled his nostrils, and the mists became infused with the thicker admixture of smoke. 

Pulling the wrap of his cloak up about his nose and mouth to stymie the influx of irritants to his throat, he barrelled onwards, towards a bloom of orange light amidst the obscuring haze.

Before long, he came upon a flame-ensconced ranchstead and he reined in his charge, his horse bellowing in argument, as he beheld the towering inferno that had engulfed the small hutch and its surrounding buildings.

His wonderment at the awesome sight came to an abrupt end when the yells of what marauders had caused the blaze heralded their materialization into being amidst the backdrop of the blaze. 

Creatures, hunched and hulkling, the very frames of their being identifying them as orcs, sprinted towards him. Their minds and demeanors infused with bloodlust at the appearance of yet another potential victim.

Determined to show them the error of judgement, he lay an arrow across his bow. Drawing back, the Harper Ranger loosed one, two, three arrows, each of which found their mark, before urging his mount onwards, sending still more missiles into the ranks of the creatures as he charged past, his arrows finding victims even when he was well bereft of their charge. 

Hoping against hope that he had inflicted enough damage to mitigate their ability to harass those innocents he had left behind, he continued his charge forward and away from the raiding party, heedless of the handful of missiles that flew in his wake. 

*                              *                                     *                                    *

“I must, once more, express my discomfort with leaving you only lightly guarded, my Lord,” Nors rasped, his hands clasped firmly behind himself as he shadowed Eltan along the Duke’s stroll upon the keep’s ramparts.

Finding the confines of his normal planning room suffocating that morn, Eltan had elected to get some fresh air. Standing now upon the sturdy walls of High Hall, he realized that it had been too long since he had walked its fortifications and gazed out across the city. Feeling the brisk wind upon his face, the parapet above their heads saving them from the worst of the rain, he endeavored to do so more often in the future. Perhaps in better weather though, he mused, observing that the harbor, as well as a large portion of the lower city, was encased in a thick fog that had rolled in off of the Sea of Swords. 

A rough throat-clearing broke him from his reverie and directed his attentions to his captain.

“My apologies, Nors,” he said tiredly. “What was it that you were saying?”

“The highest threat of this imminent attack on High Hall is to your person, My Lord,” the grizzled mercenary reiterated. “It would not be my counsel to keep you so lightly guarded.”

“We’ve been over this, old friend,” the Duke replied, his gaze once more returning to the city below. “If there is a strong presence about my person then that will only clue in any would be assassins that we are on to them. Our best course in eliminating this threat is to lure them in and cut the head from this serpent before it can do any further harm to this city.”

“I’d prefer a plan that did not involve using you as bait,” Nors grumbled.

“While not preferable, it’s our best shot,” Eltan said, just as the door that led back into the keep swung outward to emit Damion and Jherek into their presence.

“We have gone over every possible attack and escape route,” the Wizard said without preamble. “Unfortunately each entryway is as possible as the next and so we will have to watch all of them with equal scrutiny.” 

“I am guessing the same could be said of possible escape routes,” the Duke mused.

“That would be my assessment, though our Harper friend here is less convinced,” Damion replied sourly.

“There is an old tunnel, a branch of the keep’s sewer system,” Jherek said, stepping forward past the Wizard. “We Harpers discovered it years back and believe that it used to be an escape tunnel for the cities’ lords when the keep was first built.”

“You knew of a secret way into the keep and never deigned inform any of the current Dukes of its existence?” Eltan demanded irritably.

“It exits into Myrna’s Grove at the base of the outer wall,” the Harper Master continued as if the Lord had never spoken, turning to point vaguely in the direction they all knew the Druidesses’ Grove lay.

“We shall have men stationed within the tunnel then, in case they indeed seek to exit, or enter, that way,” Nors said.

“I will have an agent stationed within the Grove, as well as Myrna herself,” Jherek nodded. “I will have her send up a signal if any pass that way.”

“How will we recognize the signal?” Eltan inquired. 

A small smile ghosted the Harper Master’s lips and he replied, “I have little doubt that you will have any trouble, my Lord, but I shall confer to you the specifics once I have spoken with her.”

“Very well,” the Duke nodded. “Keep us abreast of any additional information you and your agents come across, Jherek.”

Dipping his head in affirmation, the Harper departed, disappearing once more within the keep.

“There is something off about him,” Damion mused, gazing after him. “Some pallid aura hangs over him, as well as an odd stench. Have you smelled it?”

“I cannot say that I have spent much time sniffing about Jherek’s person, no, Damion,” Eltan shook his head. “Is everything in order?”

“We are prepared for every eventuality, my Lord,” the Wizard confirmed, casting a sidelong look at Nors, who nodded. Clearing his throat uncomfortably, the Mage continued, “there is one other topic we wished to discuss with you, Commander.”

Noting the change in his title usage, as well as the Wizard’s tone, Eltan turned to regard him fully, a cautious look in his eye.

“In regards to the Drow, Viconia,” Damion began, clasping his hands before himself. 

“What about her?” Eltan’s tone was guarded.

“We believe that her continued residence within the keep to be…problematic.”

“In what way?”

“With your fellow Dukes returning, we feel it may be unwise to continue harboring a murderer,” the Wizard stated bluntly. “And besides that, well…”

“She isn’t to be trusted,” Nors interjected, stepping to his counterpart’s side.

“You judge her on her heritage alone,” Eltan snapped, turning from them and stepping to the space between two merlons, setting his hand upon one of the juttings of stonework.

“We judge her on the basis that she burned an entire family alive in their cottage!” Damion hissed, stepping closer to the Duke’s back. “And we know that, however much you may sympathize with her due to her reasonings for committing the act, Entar will in no way see the situation in the same light. He will call a vote and you will have to sway either Liia or Belt, or both, to your side. That is a distraction that we can ill afford, particularly if all Jherek has warned us of comes to pass. Furthermore,” the Wizard once again clasped his hands, “we know that you haven’t spent any time with her since Jaryn cast doubt on her character and thus you have to see the merit of our concerns.”

“I employ you to spy on others, not me, Damion,” Eltan glared over his shoulder at the Mage.

“You employ me to protect you, Commander,” the Wizard corrected. “And I shall endeavor to ever do so, even from yourself.”

Eltan grimaced. He knew that Damion was right. There was no way in all of the realms that Entar would ever see Viconia as anything other than a murderer and Eltan wasn’t even fully certain that he could honestly disagree with his counterpart, should it come to that. Furthermore, he knew that the Elven woman was no longer happy in his company, nor was he fully in hers. 

“Very well,” he murmured, nodding in surrender. “I shall speak with her tonight…ask her to leave.”

“I would advise that I accompany you,” Damion said.

“No,” the Duke replied flatly. “I will see to Viconia myself.”

As he spoke these words, a shadow detached itself from the edge of the door behind them before slipping silently within. The movement went unheeded by the trio who were all seemingly lost in their own thoughts.

*                         *                                     *                               *

“Captain Messalantir,” Commander Durham hailed the other man, drawing his mount alongside that of his counterpart as their procession made its way southward along the Coastway.

The Captain of Entar’s bodyguard had been icy towards the Guard Commander for the remainder of the night after Jaryn’s departure, as well as through the process of them breaking camp early that morn and continuing on their journey south. While the man’s immature attitude annoyed Adrian, he knew that it was better to soothe the younger man’s pride before it could fester into full blown rivalry. It was something he had to do often while he was a Guard Captain in Waterdeep as so many within the City Watch there were the sons and daughters of nobles, or otherwise important public figures.

“Commander,” the Silvershield dipped his head before returning his gaze to the rainswept path ahead.

“Perhaps I spoke too harshly last night, suggesting too heavily the meaning behind your words,” Adrian said. “Many among the Guardforce respect The Moorstrider, as do I, and would not appreciate any questioning of the integrity of his character.”

The younger man was quiet for a long moment before speaking stiffly.

“You were correct in your condemnation of my words, Commander Durham,” he said. “I was petulant to speak thusly, and I believe Duke Entar would have responded similarly were he in your shoes.”

Taken aback by the nobleman’s sincerity, the Commander opened his mouth to convey his appreciation at the other man’s seeming maturity when a loud, clear trumpet sounded distantly, some ways down the Coastway.

“That is a Silvershield horn,” William insisted, rising in his stirrups. 

Drawing his blade, Adrian urged his mount forward at a quicker gait, Captain Messalantir quickly falling in at his side. Behind them, the rest of the guardsmen followed suit, the banner of Baldur’s Gate snapping to life as their newfound speed freed it from its stagnation. 

Soon after, they heard the horn blare a second time, followed closely by the faint sounds of alarmed cries and the unmistakable bellows of fell creatures. Lifting his sword high, the Guard Commander urged his horse into a full gallop, the crescendo of beating hooves upon muddy roads rising as they crested the top of a hill to behold an unfolding scuffle below.

In a cluster at the roadway’s center, just where the ground leveled out, were three wagons defended by what appeared to be a contingent of darkly clad dwarves, as well as a handful of humans. Closing in on them was a ring of small creatures that Adrian quickly identified as Goblins, though they were behaving in a markedly ungoblinlike fashion. Though few had been the Guard Commander’s interactions with the creatures, having only rarely led forays beyond the walls of cities, he knew them to be a discordant race prone to ruccous and mayhem. Contrary to this, these Goblins moved as a well-oiled machine, silent and efficient. Also out of place were their choice of weapons. Gone were the vicious scimitars, clubs or daggers one would normally expect the sinister little beasts to wield and in their place were wicked sickles that glinted dully in the muted light.

Moving in behind the Goblins were a number of larger creatures in dark leather and chain, wielding falchions, spears, or crossbows. These creatures, seemingly they who Captain Messalantir had warned him about previously, appeared to command the Goblins and direct them in their assault on the small caravan.

All of this Adrian took in with but a glance for he had neither slowed his charge, nor otherwise faltered in his step. Lifting his sword high above his head, the Commander made a circular motion with it before laying it flat to his right. The Guardsmen who followed him responded immediately and fanned out to either side of him, reforming their column into a line with Captain Emilia at one tip and her Silvershield counterpart mirroring her opposite. Staying close beside his Commander, the banner-bearer raised the cities’ emblem high just as Adrian cried, “for Baldur’s Gate!” And led his men in a downhill charge to the rescue of the caravan.

Immediately, those who had ambushed the caravan took note of the new arrivals and those who bore ranged weapons turned them on the cavalry. Those who guarded the caravan likewise took note and a ragged cheer went up just before they became preoccupied with the Goblins who had not deviated in their course. Luckily, speed was on the Guardsmen’s side and they closed the distance quickly. The Goblins had barely made it to the interlocked shields of the Dwarves, who had formed two rows on either side of the wagons, when the cavalry reached the hill’s bottom. 

Adrian quickly directed his riders to split and sweep away the ambushers to either side of the caravan, before the sides met and the chaos of battle took hold.

Crossbows clicked, men and Dwarves cried out in varying pitches of triumph and pain, and blood quickly mingled with what rainwater had accumulated on the roadway. The Guardsmen’s swords rose and fell, but it was the hooves of their mounts that wrought the most carnage within the Goblinoid ranks.

The impetus of their charge carrying them clear of the caravan, Adrian quickly called for a reformation of the line, preparing for another pass. He quickly realized, however, that there was no need. The ambush party had not, after all, been overly large to begin with, and their charge, combined with the skill at arms of the caravan guards, had immediately broken any desire among those who yet lived to continue the assault and they were hurriedly making a run for whatever cover they might find.

“Captains, take ten men each and sweep the surround!” Adrian commanded, just before a clear horn sounded from behind them along the Coastway. Turning in the saddle, he spied a contingent of riders approaching, all dressed in uniform similarity to Captain Messalantir. They were of a number smaller than what he knew the Silvershield full strength to be, and he didn’t see Entar among them, causing his heart to plummet and his veins to run cold. Wheeling his horse about, he galloped towards them, Messalantir in tow, leaving Emilia to follow through with his earlier command and make safe the caravan.

The one who led the Silvershields reined in their mount and lifted a hand in simultaneous salute to their captain and the guard commander, as well as to motion their subordinates to halt.

“Sergeant Featherglare,” Messalantir greeted them, mirroring their salute. “Where is Duke Entar and the rest of our number?”

In response, the sergeant raised their visor, surprising Durham with the sight of a sharp-featured, Moon-Elvan woman with cold, ice-blue eyes.

“We ran into a rabble of Gnolls some ways back along the roadway, Captain,” she replied, the hard edge in her voice lending weight to the coolness of her gaze. “We had spied the recent wagon-treads and worried they were stalking a caravan. Duke Entar led the rout on the Gnolls and tasked me with checking on the caravan, though there seems to be little need of a rescue now,” she turned an appraising look on Adrian.

“This is Commander Adrian Durham of the Baldur’s Gate Guardforce,” Captain Messalantir introduced him. “Commander, this is Sergeant Vearalla Featherglare.”

“Commander,” the Sergeant saluted.

Adrian inclined his head to her before turning his attention to William.

“Captain, my men and I will secure the caravan. Ride back with Sergeant Featherglare and inform Duke Entar of its safety and the necessity to return to the city in all haste,” he said.

With a hasty salute, Captain Messalantir snapped his visor shut and rode off, the other Silvershields arching their column and following in his wake. Turning his mount, Adrian trotted back towards the caravan, where he saw Emilia conversing with a large man and a Dwarf who were seated in the lead wagon.

“Commander, this is Karl Dameston,” she said when he had joined them. “This caravan is his. The Dwarf is…”

“Forsten Blackpeak of the Blackpeak Brawlers, Commander,” the Dwarf interjected, lifting his crossbow in greeting.

“Thank you for the assist, Commander,” Dameston rumbled. “Seems we are ever in need of rescuing these days.”

“I have heard of your earlier troubles, Master Dameston, and apologize for your having to experience them,” Adrian replied. “Though I would have encouraged you to stay at The Friendly Arm Inn where Moorstrider left you, given The Coast’s current temperament.”

“Can’t open up shop in Baldur’s Gate if I ain’t in Baldur’s Gate,” Dameston shrugged. “Besides, room and board costs coin, as do guards,” he indicated Forsten. “If I had waited much longer then I wouldn’t have had the coin to open up shop, let alone return home afterwards.”

Adrian held up a hand to forestall any further explanation.

“Your business is your own, Master Dameston,” he said. “In any case you have us here now to escort you to the city. We will head north as soon as Duke Entar joins us.”

“Duke Entar?” Dameston marveled and Fornsten let out a low whistle.

“Seems we are ter have a royal escort,” the Dwarf mused, setting his unlit pipe between his teeth.

Turning from the pair, Commander Durham motioned Emilia to his side as he surveyed the surrounding landscape.

“Did we suffer any losses?” He asked her.

“No, Commander,” she replied. “We were on top of them before they knew what hit them. A couple of the larger brutes got shots off but nothing serious.”

“Good,” he nodded. “Let’s call in the men, set up a perimeter. With any luck we will be underway within the hour.”

*                        *                                     *                                     *

Kivan had slowed his charge some time ago, not wishing to drive his mount to complete exhaustion, and now continued onward at a slow trot. A further concern for him was how dense the fog had become and he had no desire to become hopelessly lost in its depths, unable to fathom from what direction he had initially ridden and thus be unable to return from whence he had come.

In the time since he had encountered the orcs at the burned ranchstead, he had come across no further foes. Either this meant that the forward pilliagers had ranged far beyond the ranks of their main body, or else there was no main body, at least not in any cohesive sense of the word. Perhaps this was nothing more than a handful of orc tribes, held loosely together by the brutality of one Warchief or another, seeking to raid the lands south of the High Moor. Though such a thing would be terrible indeed, especially for the people of the Fields of the Dead, it certainly posed no threat to Baldur’s Gate itself.

It was as he was musing over this possibility that, before him, the fog thinned, and then parted altogether, to reveal the open, gently rolling hills that comprised the majority of the landscape of The Fields of the Dead.

Perhaps it was that his eyes had grown unaccustomed to sight beyond the fog, or else his mind couldn’t immediately fathom what it was he was seeing, but at first glance the landscape before him appeared to be blackened and burnt.

Perhaps it is the work of pillaging orcs,’ he mused foolishly, before quickly realizing that the darkness he perceived upon the land was moving. As his gaze focused in on what exactly it was he was seeing, he would have been unashamed if he learned later that his mouth fell open, so awesome and terrifying was the sight.

Before him, spreading over miles and miles of countryside, was a vast army. No rabble of orcs was this, descending to pillage and burn. Though the initial ranks were indeed composed of these creatures, at least ten clans worth, they marched with measured steps without any of the animation or boisterous temperament that normally would accompany such an accumulation of their kin. It was what came behind them, however, that truly took the Ranger’s breath away.

Rank upon rank of hobgoblins marched in massive rectangular cohorts, their battle unit chiefs barking cadence to keep them in order. In two columns they came, stretching far into the distance behind, seemingly all the way back to the corner of the world from where Kivan sat. In between the columns were rolled gargantuan carts, upon which were piled the components of the true weapons of war. Though he had never been in a siege himself, the Ranger knew the sight of dismembered catapults and battering rams, and pushing the carts were hulking ogres beyond count. 

Leading the carts, and borne on the backs of many servile orcs, was a large, lavishly draped, poliquin, the posters of which were wrought of gold and hung with numerous skulls, the drapes comprised of the stitched together hides of the choicest hunted game. 

The front of the litter was open, and Kivan could perceive some manner of being lounging within upon a massive throne, a handful of female orcs and hobgoblins clad in chains, but otherwise naked, lounging about its feet.

Taking all of this in, the Ranger regained his senses and, after taking an estimated count of the force’s number, he wheeled his horse around and raced away, the fog swallowing him once more, the blaring of warhorns echoing in his ears.

*                              *                                 *                                    *

“You want me to what!?” Alora demanded, spitting out what she had just sipped from the suspiciously cloudy glass Lortimer had handed her upon her sitting down with he, Jherek, and Kormak.

“I need you to break into the Temple of Talos and discover what it might be that links them and the Storms Rising Mercenaries,” the Harper Master reiterated calmly, wiping her spittle from his sleeve.

The Halfling looked around, dumbstruck, at the faces of the men around her, as if expecting them at any moment to crack a smile and let on that all of this was some kind of sick joke. 

None of them did.

“You’re daft,” she said, shaking her head and taking another sip of the amber liquid, pulling a face as she instantly regretted the action.

“We know they’re involved with the mercenaries, to some fuller extent than they all worship the same god,” he continued. “I just need to know how, preferably before Kharne makes his move against High Hall.”

“It can’t be done,” she insisted. “Not to mention I would be pissing off a fucking god, a big no no in the thieves handbook by the way, they have magical wards, an army of sellswords, and did I mention pissing off a god.”

“Ye did,” Kormak said tiredly.

“Good, because I don’t go around pissing off gods!” She shot back. “Especially not wrathful ones like the literal God of Destruction.”

“We are not asking you to steal any holy relics, Alora,” Jherek said.

“No, you’re just asking me to desecrate the sanctity of their secrets. C’mon, Jherek. Besides don’t wave the whole “we” things around, I know for damn sure this insanity wasn’t concocted by either of these numpties.”

“Just scope the place out then, if it doesn’t feel right, or it feels like you’re out of your depth, just back off.”

She glared at him over the rim of Lortimer’s glass from which she was about to take another sip, before thinking better of it. Setting the glass down on the tabletop, she heaved a sigh.

“You really are a bastard, you know that Jherek?”

“I’ve been told.”

“What’s in it for me?”

“This,” he produced from within his cloak and folded parchment with an official seal.

Alora’s eyes grew wide at the sight.

“Is that what I think it is?” She asked in hushed tones.

“Er, Jherek, if I might have a word,” Kormak cut in but the Harper Master ignored him.

“Yes, it is,” he confirmed. “An official pardon from Duke Eltan himself. The reason for the pardon if left blank. This is a get out of jail free card, Alora, but it is a one time use. You infiltrate the church, you get the card, agreed?”

“Even if I back off?” She asked slyly.

“Even if you back off,” he confirmed.

“Fuck you, Jherek,” she spat, even whilst snatching the parchment.

In reply, the Harper Master merely nodded, before standing and making for the door to Lortimer’s home, Kormak in tow, the Dwarf’s demeanor dark. 

Lortimer rushed to the door to head them off, a sidelong look telling him that the Halfling was still engrossed in her prize.

“You know she wont ‘back off’,” the Information Broker hissed, glaring at Jherek.

“Excuse me, Lortimer,” the Harper Master spoke politely but dangerously.

“You go to Ethon now?” Lortimer insisted, stepping reluctantly aside so that Jherek could begin undoing his multitude of locks.

“I do not see how that is of any concern of yours.”

“He’s my friend, Jherek!” The smaller man insisted as the Harper wrenched open the door and strode out into the late afternoon rain. 

Lortimer pursued him, followed closely by Kormak, who made sure to close the door as the Harper Master whirled. Grabbing Lortimer by the front of his jerkin, he slammed the other man hard against the doorframe.

“I know what it is you truly desire, Lortimer,” Jherek wheezed. “And it isn’t to protect Ethon. Do not forget, I know your past.”

Lortimer briefly raised his gaze to that of the Harper Master before shame seemingly eclipsed him and he lowered it, shrinking within the other man’s grasp.

“Enough, Jherek!” Kormak barked, forcing himself between them, catching Lortimer before he collapsed upon his own porch once Jherek had released him.

“Ye all righ’, lad,” the Dwarf assured the small man, rubbing his shoulders before opening his door and ushering him within with the words,“Ye get yerself a drink now,” before firmly closing the door once more.

“Tha’ was uncalled fer, Jherek,” he said, taking a deep breath, before turning to face his commander.

For his part, the Harper Master stood in the rain, his face in his hand, his fingers kneading his temples.

“Ye all right there, Jherek?” The Dwarf took a step towards him but paused when a hand was lifted to ward him off. 

Kneading his temples for a secord longer, Jherek lifted his face and Kormak was taken aback anew by just how truly haggard he looked.

“Howabout ye get yerself along ter High Hall,” the Dwarf suggested. “I’ll go and talk with Ethon.”

“I’m fine, Kormak,” Jherek insisted, not meeting his subordinate’s gaze, but rather glaring off in some vague direction, as if trying to focus his thoughts.

“I know ye are,” the Dwarf assured him, coming to stand beside him. “But let me talk with Ethon eh? He won’t take no cajoling. He knows his duty an’ will see it through.”

Returning his gaze briefly to the Dwarf, the Harper Master nodded, before turning away and making for the nearest alleyway, pulling up his cowl as he went.

“Er, Jherek, just something I need ter know,” Kormak called after him.

He paused there in the rain, his boots sunken in the mud of the yard.

“Tha’ get outta jail free card ye gave Alora. Tha’ wasn’t actually signed by Eltan was it?”

Jherek stood still for a long moment, as if considering responding, before turning resolutely and trudging away.

“I didn’t think so,” the Dwarf said sadly to himself, before straightening his cap upon his crown and making his way towards the Elfsong.

*                           *                                 *                                         *

“There,” Rendrick pointed, directing his companion’s gazes to an overgrown arch made of finely-crafted stone. It was late afternoon and the lighting about them under the forest’s canopy was already fast-darkening. The closer they drew to the forest’s edge, the less dense the canopy became, though it was as of yet thick enough to blot out the majority of the already muted daylight above. Not that there was much to begin with, for it would seem as though the storm clouds were lengthening their dominion over the wood and all about them the soft patter of raindrops on leaves echoed, as well as an ample amount of dripping from the treetops above them. In addition to this, the air had grown close and humid, making everything damp and uncomfortable, though the sighting of the arch did improve their spirits greatly for it signalled that they had, at last, reached their destination.

Drawing his blade, the Ranger motioned for them to follow and so they did, all of them drawing their own weapons and matching his cautious steps.

Reaching the arch, they saw that it marked an expanse of flat terrain, about which the trees bent inwards as if they sought for their branches to conquer the ground that their roots could not.

Crouching low at the arches center, Rendrick brushed away a thick layer of leaves to uncover a wooden panel. More brushing uncovered the latch to a door lying flat upon the ground. Laying his hand upon the latch, he murmured an arcane phrase that heralded an audible click from beyond the portal. With a heave, he opened the door fully, leading to a cascade of leaves and other debris, and revealing a tight stairwell leading downwards into darkness.

“This stonework looks Elven,” Tiberius commented, peering at the arch, and then down the stairs. 

“It is,” Trotter confirmed. “I know not of what colony or civilization, however. Only that such structures dot Cloakwood, as well as the surrounding countryside. Near invisible to the casual observer and few as expansive as this one.”

“Is it safe?” Keira asked, her expression dubious as she too looked into the abyss below.

“The enchantment remained unbroken,” Rendrick said. “But, as I said, this ruin is expansive and possesses other entrances elsewhere, not all of which I have explored. Tiberius, summon that shield of yours, we will need its light below.”

Nodding, the Cleric closed his eyes, whispering a prayer to Lathander. A second later the glowing kiteshield appeared on his arm, causing the others to look away from its sudden brilliance.

As the shield’s radiance dimmed, Rendrick glanced about quickly to ensure the spectacle hadn’t garnered them any unwanted attention.

“Perhaps I should have waited until we were below,” he commented to Keira and Katarina. 

Tiberius, for his part, paid them no mind and strode boldly down the stairs, his glowing shield held aloft, as if the communion with his god has washed any trepidation from him concerning what might lie below. 

Exchanges glances, the others followed in his wake, Rendrick taking up the rear to cast one last wary look at the forest about them.

The staircase, as it turned out, did not descend far, and deposited them in a small, low-ceilinged room, circular in design and sporting naught but two wide-spaced pillars to support the roof within its encompassing walls. The light cast by Tiberius’ summoned shield filled the entirety of the room, leaving only those areas blocked by the pillars in shadow. Three other archways led off from the room at exact intervals so that if one drew lines from each they would meet perfectly at the room’s center. 

Whatever might have originally lay beyond the leftmost arch had collapsed, leaving not but a wall of dirt and broken stonework to fill its breadth. The rightmost arch bore a heavy oaken door, and directly across from where they had descended darkness loomed beyond the last archway’s frame.

Coming to stand at the Cleric’s side, Trotter motioned for him to proceed towards the empty archway. Tiberius did as he was bid, the light from his shield banishing the darkness within upon their approach. Inside, they saw upon reaching the arch, was a smaller room that may have at one point been used for storage, or perhaps an armory. Thick roots had broken through the ceiling here forming a new awning of gnarled appendages.

Moving from the empty room, Tiberius and Rendrick rejoined their other companions near the rightmost archway. This time, the Ranger took the lead, stepping close to the portal and laying his hand upon its latch. He whispered a similar incantation to that which he had used on the door above and, as its kinsman had done, the latch here clicked beneath his palm, allowing him to push the door inward.

Tiberius quickly rushed to his side, allowing his shield to spill its radiant light within. Just inside, another short stair led to another circular chamber, this one completely encased in stone. Beautifully crafted mosaics adorned the walls, depicting scenes of elven beauty and triumph. Though time had robbed the mosaics of their luster, and a fair number of the tiles had fallen from their original places, the scenes portrayed could still clearly be discerned. At the room’s center was an ornately rimmed well, into which hung a thick rope that had been secured about one of the chamber’s four pillars.

It was to this rope that the Ranger huried, Keira close on his heels, whilst Tiberius and Katarina paused to admire the murals around them.

“You left the supplies hanging from a rope in a well?” The Mercenary Captain admonished. “I have little hope of their survival now.”

“You of little faith,” he chided, elation coloring his features. The fact that both enchantments remained undisturbed assuring him of the cache’s survival. 

“What will Tiberius think of you?” he smirked, directing her attention to the well’s depths. Peering down, she saw that, rather than more darkness, or perhaps water, as she had expected, she was greeted by a rather dizzying sight. For just within the well’s rim was a swirling miasma of purple and blue material. It wasn’t liquid and it gave off no light and yet its movements were fluid. Try as she might, she could not fathom what truly comprised the essence of what she was looking at.

“Is that cloth? Sand?” She stammered, trying to make sense of it.

“That is a portal to a pocket dimension,” the Ranger replied triumphantly, his words bringing both Tiberius and Katarina to the well’s edge beside them.

“Wait here,” he bade them, taking hold of the rope and stepping onto the well’s rim. Before their eyes, he began to repel into the bowl. Slowly, his form was absorbed into the miasma until he had disappeared fully into its depths. 

For a long moment, the remaining three companions stared after him until, suddenly, his hand, gripped tightly to the rope, burst once more into view. Slowly, the entirety of his being clamoured into view once more, though this time with a heavy pack upon his back.

“Here,” he said, landing lightly among them and swinging the pack heavily to the floor. Pulling the drawstrings, he revealed to them its contents, the sight of which brought a smile to all of their faces.

A veritable cornucopia lay within. Jars of pickled vegetables, cans of fruit, and pouches of jerky.

“We have eaten little over the past week,” he was quick to remind them, observing their faces. “Eat only enough to satisfy your hunger. I shall reset the wards and we can rest safely here tonight.”

“Even preserved, this food would not stay edible forever,” Keira observed, grabbing a jar of peaches and scrutinizing it closely, as if attempting to detect rot.

“The pocket dimension slows the aging of whatever is placed within,” he informed her. “Though these supplies have been within for almost ten years by this point in our dimension, within,” he indicated the well, “nary a year has passed.”

“How did you discover this?” Katarina marvelled. 

“My mentor did,” he replied. “Eldarion was an Elf himself, and thus knew many of the secrets his kind left behind when their kingdoms fell and the majority of their race fled to Evermeet. In any case, rest easy, we are secure here and shall remain so throughout the night.”

*                                *                                        *                                *  

“Duke Entar, it is a great relief to find you well,” Commander Durham saluted, having rode forth from his guardianship of the Dameston Caravan, Emilia and his banner-bearer in tow, to meet the Silvershields upon their approach, the Duke at their head.

Though fast-nearing fifty years of age, Duke Entar Silvershield yet held the vigor of a man half his age. Slim of form, though broad of shoulder, with a noble visage and eyes as grey as the stormclouds above, the Duke was both formidable and fatherly, his stern gaze able to cause even the most stalwart soldier to feel immeasurable pride, or crushing shame, with but a look. His dark hair was cropped short and suffused with grey and, though normally clean-shaven, a light dusting of stubble decorated his strong jaw, speaking to his days on the road.

He sat straight in the saddle, his helm beneath his arm, the dual banners of his House, as well as the city he served, hanging heavy in the damp air behind him. Adrian was quick to note that the cities’ banner was carried by Private Seera, the Guardswoman he had sent, on Emilia’s encouragement, to alert the Duke to Eltan’s summons.

“Commander Adrian Durham,” Entar returned his subordinate’s salute. “Captain Messalantir has informed me of how quickly you responded to my request for aid, as well as your valor in protecting the caravan. Though I have never doubted it, I will forever be reassured at my correctness in placing you at the head of Baldur’s Gate’s Guardforce.”

Though his heart swelled with pride at the compliment, the Commander fought hard to remain stoic, though he saw that Captain Messalantir, who rode just behind the banner-bearers, puffed out his chest as his lord spoke his name.

“We do our duty, My Lord,” Adrian replied. “Have you sustained any casualties.”

“Nay,” Entar replied. “Though I am glad that we bypassed The Friendly Arm Inn. The beasts that harry the Coastway seem to gravitate towards that keep more so than any other fixture upon The Coast, and I fear we may have become trapped there had we lingered.”

Commander Durham nodded darkly, disturbed by the Duke’s words. Guiding his horse to his lord’s side, they continued on to the caravan, Emilia and his own banner-bearer falling in behind him, a sidelong look exchanged between his Captain and Seera going unnoticed by any other. 

“Have you sustained any casualties?” Entar inquired, his stern gaze taking stock of what Guardsmen held the perimeter around the Dameston wagons.

“No serious injuries,” Adrian confirmed. “They didn’t have much time to react before we were upon them.”

“Good,” the Duke nodded. “Master Dameston!” He called upon their approach to the lead wagon.

In response to the lord’s call, the merchant turned in his seat upon the wagon to observe them.

“Aye, that is me,” he replied. “You must be Duke Entar Silvershield,” he dipped his head. “Afraid we ain’t much suited to be in your presence at present, m’lord.”

“I could just as easily speak the same of myself in yours,” the Duke smiled genially. “I am told that you seek to set up shop in Baldur’s Gate.”

“Aye, that is true m’lord.”

“Then might I offer my services in ensuring that happens. My men and I will gladly protect you in your approach to the city. Unfortunately, we are in great haste, and that means we must ride through the night. Can you and your family manage that?”

Dameston chuckled in reply.

“M’lord, I ain’t about to pass up the offer of Duke Entar and his Silvershields, not to mention the Commander of Baldur’s gate’s finest, escorting me to the city,” he replied.

“Glad to hear it, let us be off then,” Entar said, setting his helm back upon his head. “Commander Durham, rein in any men you have afield, we don’t stop until we are within the city!”

*                                      *                                         *                                         *

“Evening, Alyth,” Kormak dipped his feathered hat to the innkeep upon crossing the Elfsong’s threshold. “Might ye man be about, I’d like a word with him.”

“Oh you would, would you?” The Half-Elf set her hands on hips, an annoyed look on her elegant features.

It was early yet and the Elfsong’s taproom was in no way full of patrons. A handful of adventuring sorts and a couple lesser merchant sons decorated the tables but afforded the Harper no crowds to slip away into should this conversation go sour. Steeling himself, the Dwarf marched to the bar and hefted himself onto one of the stools.

“Alyth, c’mere, lass,” he entreated her. “An’ bring ye a bottle of yer stoutest.”

Narrowing her gaze, the Barkeep nonetheless obeyed, grabbing from the shelf behind her a crystalline bottle of clear liquid before coming to stand before him, slapping as she did a pair of shot glasses upon the counter.

Kormak grimaced at the sight of the bottle. He knew not what it contained but knew from experience that clear liquor was not to be trusted.

“Wha’ poison are ye sending down me gob?” He asked dubiously as she poured each of them a shot.

“It’s called Sfeneibelen,” she replied with a smirk, setting the bottle aside and lifting her shot, indicating with her eyes that he should follow suit.

“I don’ like ther sound o’ that,” he admitted, but nevertheless took up his shot.

As one they both took their shots, then shared a grimace at the taste and potency.

“By Clangaddin’s bronze balls that’s straight troll piss,” Kormak cursed. “What gods-be-damned sphincter did that get squeezed outta?”

“It’s Deep Gnomish,” Alyth replied, coughing slightly. When she had recovered, she leaned a forearm on the bartop so that she and the Harper were face to face.

“Now what is it you want with Ethon, Kormak?” She asked, her gaze stern.

“Jherek need his eyes tonight…” he began, leading her to curse and turn from him.

“It won’ be like last time, Alyth!” Kormak tried to assure her.

“Last time wasn’t supposed to be like last time!” she shot back, then immediately lowered her tone when several of her patrons looked up.

“Come on, Kormak,” she continued, leaning against the bar again. “Stop bullshitting us. Ethon isn’t a scrapper nor is he a cutthroat. If blood is to run in the streets he shouldn’t be anywhere near it.”

“He won’ be, lass, believe me,” he assured her. “We jus’ need him ter watch, that’s it, I promise.”

“Watch what?” The voice was Ethon’s, and they both looked up to see the Former Thief standing near at hand, having crept up on them whilst they argued.

Kormak sighed.

“Pull up a stool, lad,” he entreated. “Alyth, pour us a round ‘o something real, not tha’ Svirfneblin shite.”

The Barkeep looked to her lover, who nodded, before seating himself heavily on the stool beside the Dwarf. Alyth, for her part, sighed then strode to the barrel of mead and poured three mugs worth before returning and setting one before each of them and reassuming her stance of leaning upon the bartop.

Taking a deep swig of the ale, the Dwarf sighed. 

“Ah now tha’s the stuff,” he smiled, but sobered quickly upon observing their faces.

“Jherek thinks Kharne may be makin’ his move tonight,” he told them. “There’s an old tunnel leadin’ from ther keep ter Myrna’s Grove that we suspect they migh’ be usin’ as either an escape tunnel or an entry point. We need ye in tha’ grove, Ethon.”

When both the Barkeep and the Former Thief rocked back in their respective stances, Kormak quickly patted the air, encouraging calm.

“Now this is me talkin’,” he assured them. “Ye aren’t, under any circumstances, ter engage the bastards should they utilize the tunnel. Ye are to observe and report only, an’ we only need ye there should Myrna get called away fer any reason. An’, should she be, she will disguise ye first. Like I said, ye aren’t fer any reason to give away yer position.”

“And what do I do, should Myrna be called away and I observe them coming or going?” Ethon inquired.

“Ye sit tight,” the Dwarf told him. “Ye count their number, ye take stock, but ye don’ make yer position known.”

“Is this Jherek’s command? Or yours, Kormak?” Alyth asked, skeptical.

“Jherek’s o’ course,” he replied without a beat, taking a swig of ale and observing their exchanged, disbelieving looks.

“So Jherek thinks it will go down tonight,” Ethon mused, his fingertip tracing the rim of his mug.

“He does,” Kormak replied.

Alyth and Ethon exchanged a long, meaningful look before Ethon looked down and nodded to himself.

“Give me a moment, Kormak,” he requested. “Then I will meet you out back.”

With a nod, the Dwarf downed the remnants of his ale before sliding off his stool and striding towards the door with not a backwards glance.

Once outside of the Elfsong, Kormak set his back to the Inn’s wall and let out a long breath. Reaching within his jerkin, he drew forth his pipe and set about loading a bowl.

There was still some light left in the sky, beyond the prevailing storm clouds, though evening was fast approaching. Once his pipe was loaded and lit, he set his narrowed-eyed gaze on the distant battlements of High Hall.

He couldn’t truly tell, within himself, whether or not he hoped Jherek was right about that night or not. There was a part of him who wished to be done with it, have it well and over with. Let Kharne strike and fall into Jherek and Eltan’s trap. Let the head be struck from the serpent so that they all might move beyond this dark chapter. He knew that that wouldn’t be the case, however. Even if Kharne did show up that night, and subsequently die by one hand or the other, for certain this time, he knew it wouldn’t be the end of things. Jherek wasn’t Jherek anymore, or perhaps he was more Jherek then ever but not in any good way. This wouldn’t end tonight, one way or the other. 

Which led him to his other course of hope. That Kharne wouldn’t show. That things wouldn’t go down the way Jherek predicted. If that were the case, however, he knew, then there would also be no end. Jherek would continue hunting the phantoms of his mind and drag them all along for the journey.

Sighing, the Dwarf knocked the spent contents of his bowl against the doorway of the Elfsong’s front door, and made his way down the side alley to the back door. He was surprised to find Ethon already awaiting him, the Former Thief looking as he ever had, tired, but willing to do what was needed of him.

“Ye ready, lad?” Kormak found himself asking.

His jaw set in a determined grimace, Ethon nodded.

One way or another, Kormak decided as they made their way towards the city gate, he would keep all of them alive, one way or another.

*                            *                                    *                                   *

Keira, Tiberius and Katarina lounged about the chamber with the mosaics and well, Rendrick having descended once more into the depths of the alternate dimension after resecuring both portals they had originally passed through with the enchantment that had, at the outset, bound them closed. The satchel of food lay open between them and they picked at whatever foodstuffs grabbed their attention, whilst also trying to heed the Ranger’s warning against gorging themselves. 

This was easiest for the Mercenary Captain, who was used to long hauls with little food, and she kept a close watch of her counterparts, though neither of them seemed overly a cause for concern.

A moment later, the Ranger reappeared, hauling with him their waterskins fit for bursting. As soon as he dropped them beside the food, each of his three companions grabbed one at random and drank deeply of its contents. What met their lips was, surprisingly to them, the sweetest spring water any of them had ever tasted.

After taking a deep draught of her own, Keira looked at Trotter meaningfully.

“What is this sweet nectar?” She asked, water dripping down her chin.

“It has been a long while since you have had fresh water,” he replied nonchalantly, digging into the satchel of foodstuffs himself. “It merely tastes exquisite since you have had naught but the dregs of a week old skin for the past few days.”

Tiberius and Katarina seemed to accept him and his word and each took another deep drought of their skin. Keira, however, remained skeptical and set her aside whilst keeping a close eye on the Ranger.

They sat for a time, all of them lost in their independent thoughts, gazing sightlessly as they absentmindedly munched on whatever preserved edible they preferred, or else sipped the pleasantly cool spring water Trotter had delivered to them.

“What is the full story of these murals?” Katarina asked at long last, tracing her finger along the walls.

“I fear that I may not be the right one to tell you,” the Ranger confessed. “I know only what my mentor told me, I claim no title to scholarship.”

“Nor do any of us,” Keira pointed out. “Tell the lass what you know.”

Seeing that the Merchant’s Daughter was watching him expectantly, Trotter relented.

“That one there is the Elves’ first arrival to the shores of Faerun,” he said, pointing to that which lay to the right of the doorway, depicting white ships bucking amidst azure waves. 

“The next is of the founding of their greatest kingdoms, chiefly that of Myth Drannor,” he traced his finger to the next mosaic depicting white towers floating above canopies of green.

“And then the fall,” he indicated the next which showed those same towers wreathed in flame beneath a merciless sky.

“What was “the fall”?”Katarina inquired.

“It was borne from a multitude of factors,” Rendrick tried to explain. “The betrayal of the Dark Elves, or Drow. Their subsequent banishment beneath the surface, into the Underdark. The wars with Dwarves, Humans, and Orcs that followed. Then, their final retreat from Faerun,” he indicated the second to last mural which depicted silver vessels fleeing from smoldering shores.

“And the last one?” The Merchant’s Daughter inquired, indicating that which lay to the left of the door that depicted a green isle on a sea of blue crowned in golden rays.

“That is their return to Evermeet, their ancestral homeland, where the majority of their race currently reside,” Rendrick recounted, staring vacantly at the depiction.

“Will they ever return?” She asked after a long pause.

“Perhaps,” the Ranger mused. “But then again, perhaps not, for why would they? But not all of them left. Many Moon and Wood Elves yet remain here to this day, not to mention the Wild Elves who never truly desired to return to Evermeet to begin with.”

“That’s sad.” 

They lapsed into silence then, all of them content to leave their comrades to their own thoughts. Rendrick saw that Katarina’s gaze remained wistfully fixed upon the murals. ‘She’s got an adventurer’s spirit, that’s for sure,’ he mused inwardly, before turning his attention fully to the filling of his belly.

It didn’t take long for each of them to begin drifting off. It had, after all, been a long time since they had been able to rest without care. A lifetime, no doubt, as far as Katarina was concerned.

Trotter was reclining against the well, idly puffing on his pipe as he had found a small packet of pipeweed in the satchel, when he looked around to discover all of his companions snoozed quietly, curled on the stone floor, or else, in Keira’s case, with their backs to the mosaic walls.

Deciding to make a final sweep of the pocket dimension before retiring himself, the Ranger rose and, stowing his pipe once more within his cloak, gripped the thick rope and descended into the well.

If he had done a final scan of the chamber before climbing down, he may have spied Keira crack an eyelid in observation of his movements.

Rising, the Mercenary Captain padded to the well’s edge herself and, once the rope was stilled, signalling that the Ranger had reached the bottom, she gripped it and, swinging herself over the well’s lip, began to descend into the swirling miasma.

It was an odd sensation, she discovered, as whatever it was that gave the portal form wrapped itself about her boots, calves, then thighs.

Sucking in her breath, she made the plunge, hastening her descent as she did, eager to be on the portal’s further side. Surprisingly, once the miasma had fully encased her crown, she was immediately free of its grip. Opening her eyes, she saw that she dangled in midair above a small woodland glade locked seemingly in perpetual twilight. A soft breeze tickled her exposed flesh and teased what strands of hair had freed themselves from her braids. About her the blue leaves of the surrounding trees rustled softly and she could distantly hear a soft gurgling of water.

“Well, you’ve come this far, you might as well come all the way down,” Trotter’s tired voice wafted up to her and she glanced down to spy the Ranger standing at the base of the rope upon a soft carpet of grass, hands on hips and a bemused look on his face. Reddening, she quickly clamoured down the rest of the rope, landing easily at his side.

“I figured one of you would follow me down here eventually,” he smirked, the facial gesture contorting the scars that dominated the side of his face. “Though, I admit I thought it would be Katarina.”

“Thought? Or hoped?” She asked, eyeing him closely.

“Go ahead and explore,” he replied, dodging her question and turning from her whilst extending an arm to their surroundings. “There isn’t much to see, admittedly.”

She had to disagree with him. She had never been to another dimension, and wasn’t one to dwell on such things, but she had heard tell of the Feywild and immediately drew comparisons to that realm and the glade that surrounded her. It wasn’t large, that was for sure, but sported a myriad of enchanted-looking vegetation and this, coupled with the soft breeze and muted light, had all the bearings of a page torn straight from a fairytale.

“Did your mentor create this place?” She asked, moving slowly to follow the Ranger deeper into the glade where, she saw, a small fountain of clear water bubbling up from its exact center. 

Ruefully, she noted, it wasn’t large enough to bathe in, but she didn’t hesitate to take a knee beside it and fill her cupped hands with its deliciously cool bounty.

“It was here when he first discovered this place,” Trotter replied, heading for a nearby log and peering behind it. 

“Ah,” he said, pulling forth a long wrap of canvas. Laying it upon the grass, he pulled the drawstrings and unraveled it to reveal a number of weapons encased within. There was a shortbow and quiver, a pair of shortswords, as well as a hatchet and dagger.

“I was so eager to bring the food up that I almost forgot about these,” he said, stringing the shortbow and testing its tautness.

Knowing not if it was the magic of their surroundings, or something far more primal, the Mercenary Captain came to a sudden and resolute decision as she gazed upon the Ranger.

“We are truly fortunate that this place existed,” she said, standing and taking a step towards him. “As we are equally fortunate to have you as our guide.”

As she said these words, she lifted her fingers and began to unlace the catches of her leather jerkin. Allowing it to fall to the soft grass behind her, she began work on the buttons of her blouse beneath.

“Keira, I know not if this is the time…” He began to protest, rising as well, but fell silent as her blouse followed her jerkin in being discarded, revealing to him the scarred, tanned, and heavily freckled expanse of her shoulders, the ridges of her collarbones, the small mounds of her breasts, capped with strawberry nipples, and down to her tightly muscled stomach, sloping to where her hands now fell to unlatch her belt.

“This is exactly the time,” she corrected him, the belt falling heavily to the glade’s floor. Coming right up to him, she pressed herself against him, the weight and heat of her body felt through his own jerkin. Bending her lips up to his, she captured his mouth in an insistent kiss.

He stiffened in her embrace, and pulled back slightly, breaking their kiss. Looking down into her fierce gaze, he ran his gaze along her flushed cheeks and lips, puffy from their kiss. Lifting a hand to cup her chin, he felt his own desire rising within him and, crushing her to him, brought their lips crashing together once more.

It didn’t take long for the rest of their clothing to be striped away, all the while their mouths and hands roving one another’s forms. Lowering her to the dew-dampened grasses, he took a firm hold of her thigh, corded muscle rippling beneath his fingertips, and lifted her leg to mold with his side, sliding between to enter her fully and deeply with a smooth, determined thrust. 

She moaned aloud as he penetrated her, the wet heat of her sex encasing him, her internal muscles squeezing as he began to thrust, his hungry mouth falling to her breast as her fingernails dug into the flesh of his shoulders and back, before being flung back to dig trenches in the cool soil, her palms filling with fistfuls of grass as an orgasm ripped through her. 

He wasn’t far behind, but seemed to hesitate before allowing his release, as if unsure of where it should be spilt. 

Grabbing his face, she pulled his gaze close to her’s and gasped, “come inside me, Trotter!” 

And he did, his back arching as his seed pumped into her.

They lay together for some time after, side by side within the glade, their breathing labored, riding the residual waves of their ecstasy. 

Keira was first to rise, hauling herself to the side of the bubbling fountain where she splashed water, first on her face, and then between her thighs, cleaning away the sticky residue of his release.

Lifting himself to one elbow, he watched her briefly, before also hauling himself to his feet and moving to retrieve his clothing.

“How’d you get that scar?” She asked, finishing her wash and moving to join him.

“I have many scars,” he replied evasively.

“Come on, Trotter, my cunt is dripping with your seed and still you dance about my questions.”

He chuckled despite himself.

“Very well,” he replied, seating himself on the log, his clothing in a heap at his feet. “This,” he gingerly touched the ruin of his face. “Was a gift from Murvran the Wanderer on the night he killed my mentor.”

“That name sounds familiar.”

“Most would call him a legend, but I assure you he is all too real. He is a Werebear, one of the greatest and oldest of his kind. There was a time when he was considered a guardian of the Sword Coast and that when it came time for him to die he left in search of his fate, never to return.”

He chuckled mirthlessly.

“I do wish that had been the case.”

“How are you sure it was him?” She asked, pulling on her trousers.

“Eldarion told me, it was not a mistake after all that we happened upon him. My mentor had caught wind that he wasn’t dead, that he yet wandered The Coast. Supposedly they had ranged together at one point. But Murvran was not the man he once was, was not a man at all any longer. As we neared where he was rumored to lair, in The Wood of Sharp Teeth, he ambushed us in his hybrid form. A massive beast he was, killed my horse with a single swing of his paw. Eldarion called for me to flee while he faced down our savage foe but I could not abandon him.”

“Unfortunately, it was all for naught,” he sighed, slipping a leg into his trousers. “Eldarion was a great warrior but was not a match for the Werebear. I saw him fall, saw Murvran’s jaws close upon his chest, and then he gave me this,” he once more touched his cheek. “I know not why he left me. Perhaps he had gorged himself on our horses and my mentor…I awoke in the morning, bloodied and alone. I managed to make it to Allurust’s Grove where the Druids nursed me back to health.”

“I swore vengeance, of course,” he continued, seating himself again to pull on his boots. “But since that time I haven’t ventured north. I have stayed and protected Beregost, which had been Eldarion’s charge.”

“And now you are here,” she murmured, buttoning her blouse.

“Aye, now I am here,” he nodded.

“You are a good man, Trotter,” she said, drawing his gaze to hers. “And a great Ranger. Your mentor would have been proud.”

“Let me get you to Baldur’s Gate,” he offered a wry smile. “Then you may heap me with praise.”

“We’ll make it there,” she spoke with certainty. “One way or another.”

*                                   *                                    *                                  * 

With night fast-falling over the city of Baldur’s Gate, Duke Eltan crested the stairway that led him to Viconia’s chambers. With a heavy sigh, and a heavier heart, he lifted a fist to knock upon the sturdy portal.

He was surprised however, that just as his hand touched the wood, the door swung inward to reveal her candlelit suite, and she herself standing at its center, dressed in well-crafted, form-fitting black, leather armor, a satchel of her belongings upon the tabletop near at hand, as well as a dark-wood quarterstaff.

“I see that I am expected,” he spoke warily, taking a step within, his cautious gaze scanning the chamber, before coming to rest on her face.

“I have been expecting this for some time, Eltan,” she replied in sad tones. “You have come to send me away.”

“I have come to encourage you to do what is in your best interest,” he corrected, moving further into the room. “As you know, my fellow Dukes have been recalled and should be arriving any day now. They will not look favorably upon you and I do not know if I will be able to spare you the pyre a second time.”

Turning from him, she gazed out of her open window. Beyond its gently fluttering curtains the sounds of a steadily rising gale drifted.

“Will you miss me?” She asked.

“Yes,” he replied without hesitation. 

She bowed her head at his words, seeming to shrink before him, before seemingly steeling herself and turning once more to face him.

“One for the road then?” She asked, gliding towards him and meeting him beside a decanter of wine and two glasses she had set upon the table.

His eyes narrowed slightly.

“I hope you aren’t foolish enough to poison me,” he chided.

She smiled at his words and began pouring. Handing him a glass, she gently clicked hers to his, saying, “I am certainly not so foolish.”

Still on edge, he turned his gaze for but an instant to inspect the glass she had handed him and it was in that instant she acted. Moving faster than the lightning flashing just beyond her window, she drew a slim dagger and plunged it between his ribs.

He gasped and stumbled, his fist closing about her wrist as he sought to stabilize himself against the table. His strength failed quickly, however, and he collapsed upon the floor. 

Kneeling over him, she drew the dagger from his flesh as she leaned in, putting her lips close to his ear as his breath wheezed, his fingertips scratching weakly at the flagstones he lay upon. 

“Not with wine in any case,” she whispered, laying a gentle kiss upon the lobe of his ear.

Standing straight, she sheathed the dagger as the shadows in the chamber around her coalesced into humanoid forms.

“Give the signal,” she commanded, taking up her quarterstaff. “And let us give this night to Shar!”

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