Chapter 14: Finding Common Ground

Disclaimer: The world of the Forgotten Realms, nor the header image, belong to me.

NSFW Warning: This particular chapter contains illicit depictions of nudity and graphic sexual content.

Despite the continual foul weather, Lystra had to admit that her ride east along the Tradeway was almost pleasant given the unexpected company of Kivan. Though the majority of her travels were on her own, which was how she preferred it in the wilds, there was just something about riding with another on the open road that made the experience all the more enjoyable.

Furthermore, she was glad that it was Kivan accompanying her. Ever since he had told her of his reasons for joining the Harper’s, she couldn’t help but feel a sort of kindred spirit with the other Ranger. Though they had taken diverging paths because of it, both of their links to the Guild were forged in pain and loss and for those who plied their trade in the most dangerous of environments, as they did, pain and loss were powerful bonds indeed.

“I hear tell that you are from Shadowdale,” KIvan said, shaking her from her reverie. 

“I was just reflecting on how nice it was that we were traveling in silence,” she shot back but quickly offered a grin to blunt the sharpness of her words. “What you hear is true, I was born in the Dales but have not lived there since I was young.”

“Did you ever meet Elminster?” He asked.

The question in and of itself was innocent, she knew. Who wouldn’t be curious whether or not one had met the famous, or infamous depending on who you spoke to, wizard? However, Lystra was immediately put on guard by the other Ranger’s inquiry. After all, Elminster was widely known to be a close associate of the Harpers, even perhaps one of their leaders if rumor was to be heeded, and so any question about Elminster for her could easily lead to further questions as to her association with the Guild and, furthermore, what the nature of her hatred towards their leadership stemmed from.

Deciding to take his question, at least upfront, in the innocent nature in which it was asked, she replied, “I cannot say that I ever actually met him but he was present from time to time when my parents met with…”

She trailed off, unwilling to speak of the familial friend her parents had who would have associated them with Elminster.

True to form, however, Kivan had no such qualms and thus finished her thought with the question, “Storm Silverhand?”

She didn’t answer, which for him was answer enough and so they once more lapsed into silence, continuing on their way.

Some ways further down the Tradeway they came to the husks of several wagons, pushed to the roadside and abandoned. A grim testament to the caravan attack that had occured here not long past and had first alerted Jaryn Moorstrider to the apparent threat to the Sword Coast. Kivan paused beside one of the wagons, forcing Lystra too to stop some ways further along the road and turn to offer him a questioning look.

“Perhaps it is here that our paths must part,” the Harper offered. “If this is the site of the first attack then heading north from this point might be my best bet in discovering whatever force it is that marches against the city.”

“The “Phantom Host” that Jherek spoke of you mean?” Lystra asked dryly. “If such a force even exists, and fits his description, then it will be vast, easily spotted no matter the point at which you start your search. Plus, the Chionthar is wide and deep at this point, fording it will be a bitch and may even cost you your horse.”

The Harper nodded to the wisdom of her words, though his gaze did linger for a long moment on the mist-laden lands beyond the river’s swift-flowing waters before urging his horse back on to the road and to her side.

“Is my company so bad?” She teased as they continued along their original course. 

“Why would I have hailed you outside of the city were that what I thought?” He replied. “I am merely eager to prove Jherek’s worries true or false and return to Baldur’s Gate.”

“Return to Huvertrov you mean,” Lystra spoke knowingly, awarding her a sharp look from the Harper to gauge what she meant by her words. Seeing that she was sincere, he relented. “It is odd to travel without him at my side,” he said. “For years we have been a pair, to not have him near…it is as if I left my bow, or perhaps even one of my limbs, behind.”

“I cannot say that that is a feeling I recognize,” Lystra replied, somewhat ruefully. “Ever have I traveled alone. I tell myself that that is how I prefer it and, in truth, it really is. But I cannot help but wonder some days what it would be like to have a trustworthy companion at my side. Watching my back while I watched theirs.”

“Perhaps your eyes too often stray to lower sights,” Kivan offered, to which Lystra replied with an evil smirk.

“You say that as if it is a bad thing,” she said.

“I merely point out a potential obstacle to you finding a worthy traveling companion.”

“Lovers make great traveling companions,” was her defensive reply to his words. “All the famous ballads are of lovers who stood as one against a superior foe.”

“And how many of those end in tragedy?” He asked. “Better I say to merely have one you trust than one who is more concerned about where your eyes stray when you are in town, or what it is you have between your legs.”

Letting loose a bark of laughter, the Ranger Apprentice countered with, “but isn’t it so much more fun that way?”

“I cannot honestly say that “fun” enters the equation for me,” KIvan admitted. “Though I am beginning to understand more why it is that you and Jaryn do not travel more together.” 

“Would you like it if it were Jherek who you traveled with?” Was her sour-faced reply.

“Though they are vastly different men, I see your point,”Kivan allowed. “Have you ever considered a traveling companion who was not also your lover?”

“I do not consider traveling companions, nor do I choose jealous lovers, to your earlier point. I prefer to allow the road to take me where it wills. If I gain a temporary companion, all the better. If I gain a lover, even more so.”

She was careful to avoid his gaze after speaking thusly, keeping her eyes on the surround, despite there being no sign of danger afoot.

They lapsed into silence once more after this exchange and remained thus for some time further in their journey, until Kivan broke it once more by returning to an earlier topic.

“Were both of your parents Harpers?” He boldly asked.

In response, her posture stiffened and her gaze remained on the road ahead, though it hardened considerably. She didn’t answer for some time and when she did it was not to his question.

“We should make the Flaming Fist Fort by nightfall, though I do not think that we should encamp within its walls, just in case it is besieged by this Host Jherek spoke of,” she said.

He did not respond and after another drawn out silence she rode ahead, lengthening the distance between them and ending any further option for conversation.

*                                       *                                 *                                 *

As afternoon crept towards night above the city of Baldur’s Gate, Ethon made his way from the Elfsong taproom proper to its larder. This was a ritual of sorts for him to, every evening, check to make sure Alyth had all that she would require for the coming night’s clientele. She inevitably always did, thanks to her meticulous inventory, but he still liked to check. He told himself that it was him doing his part for the success of the Elfsong but, in truth, it helped him feel relevant. For a man who had once been a key member of one of the cities’ main Thieves Guilds, and who had a hand in the destruction of both Xantham’s Guild, which had usurped his own guild’s place within the city, and later the Hands of Glory who had sought to continue the Beholder’s legacy, such rituals and fabrications kept at bay the itch to once more be a part of something bigger than himself.

He told himself, of course, that he had done his duty to the city. That his time as an agent was over and all he wanted now was to relax and enjoy life with his lover but, in truth, he missed the intrigue and excitement. The narrow escapes and the victories.

Lighting a lantern to aid in staving off the gloom of the larder, he made his way along the rows of stocked goods, checking a label here and there to ensure the most popular items were in good supply.

“Good evening, Ethon.”

The voice came from a shadowed corner of the room and sent the former Thief’s hand instinctively to his belt where his long dagger was sheathed. Another relic of his former life. Lifting his lantern higher, he spotted a hooded and cloaked figure seated in the larder’s far corner. The figure’s head was bowed but Ethon’s mind, now clear of his initial shock, made the appropriate connections he had been unable to formulate when the voice had first spoken to him.

“Jherek?” He questioned cautiously. 

As he spoke, the figure moved, as if stirred from a dreamlike state, it came to. Standing, it removed its hood to reveal the gaunt features of the Harper Master. 

Ethon was unable to stifle a gasp at the man’s appearance but composed himself quickly, stepping forward and setting the lamp on a shelf near at hand so that it shed light adequately upon the area where he and Jherek now stood.

“Yes, it is me,” the Harper Master replied ruefully. “I do not take offense to your response to seeing me. I know that I do not appear as I once did.”

“No, no, you look…,” Ethon stumbled over his words, unable to say the word “good” in connection to his counterpart’s appearance.

“It is good to see you again too, Ethon,” Jherek spoke for him, overriding his discomfort. “By the fact that you are surprised to see me I feel that it is safe to assume that you have not been in touch with any of your former contacts.”

“I haven’t no,” Ethon admitted. “Though not out of any reluctance to, it’s just that…well, after the death of MoMo…well, I didn’t feel as though…”

“You mean Alyth didn’t feel as if you should keep in touch,” Jherek said knowingly.

“I would prefer she not be brought up in that manner,” Ethon said, standing straighter and regaining his composure. “What happened in that mission was fucked, Jherek, fucked beyond belief. MoMo should not have died, nor should any of us have been involved in it. It was beyond us and that’s when Alyth…Alyth and I, decided that aiding your Guild might not be in our best interests.”

Jherek chuckled softly at his words, though not in a way that might have been perceived as mocking, if anything he seemed to commiserate with the Former Thief, as if, perhaps, there were some part of him that wished he could live as Ethon was now, a life more simple.

“We are not the sort to live sedentary lives, Ethon,” he said, somewhat sadly, an echo of that buried self persevering in his words. “We are men of intrigue, you and I. We are not meant to be sat upon a rocking chair on a porch and congratulated for past deeds. We are meant to live further deeds in that manner…or die in the process.”

“What is it you are saying, Jherek?” Ethon asked.

Seeming to shake himself slightly of the thousand-yard stare he had adopted when speaking, the Harper Master seemed slightly uncomfortable.

“I am sorry, Ethon,” he murmured. “I had not meant to speak with words so heavy. My reasons for coming to see you this evening are not so grim in truth. There is a new Mercenary Guild in town known as Storm’s Rising…”

“I know of them,” Ethong nodded. “They do a lot of work in the docks, guard merchants and such.”

“Yes indeed,” Jherek said, a small smile touching his thin lips. “There is a cabal working within the city who might very well be planning the assassination of one, if not multiple, of the Dukes. It is our belief that these mercenaries might be in league with this cult given their choice of deities worshipped within their ranks…”

“And you wish for me to follow a few of their number, to see if there is any substance to your theory,” the Former Thief finished for him. “Just because they worship gods we dub evil does not mean they are themselves evil. Many who sail the seas pay tribute to Talos and Umberlee and, as the majority of these Storm’s Rising Mercenaries are of Northlander stock, I don’t see how their wearing the talismans of such deities links them to some sinister cabal.”

“It goes much deeper than talismans and the odd ritual,” Jherek insisted. “They are often seen entering or leaving the House of Rolling Thunder in large numbers and that the Clerics employed by their Guild are, to a one, Clerics of Talos. This goes far deeper than mere superstition, my friend. They are Talosites and it is our belief that this cult that we seek has its roots in the worship of the God of Destruction.”

“So why come to me?” Ethon asked. “You have other, younger agents at your disposal. What need have you of a sedentary Former Thief well past his prime?”

Jherek let out a wheezing laugh at his words.

“Do you see a man before you in his prime, Ethon?” He asked. “I am not looking for a fighter for it is not my wish for you to be in any sort of danger. I need a man who knows this cities’ streets like the back of his hand, particularly those of the docks. I need someone who can see and not be seen and I have to assume that this cabal knows the identities of we Harpers.”

“Why assume that?” Ethon narrowed his eyes. “Wait, this had something to do with Kharne doesn’t it!”

“Keep your voice down, lest someone interrupts us,” the Harper Master hissed. “Whatever my beliefs or prejudices might be, the fact remains that, if this cabal indeed exists and is at work within the city, the Zhentarim are backing their play. So, whether or not Kharne is involved, they are a threat and I need to know if these mercenaries are too. Now, are you with us? Will you help?”

Just then, the door to the larder opened, emitting the light and sounds of the taproom into its murky interior. Nodding quickly his agreement to Jherek, Ethon grabbed the lamp from where he’d set it on the nearby shelf and dashed it upon the hard, stone floor, cursing vehemently as he did.

“Ethon?” The concerned voice of Alyth echoed throughout the room and in a moment she was at his side, just as he rose from collecting the pieces of lantern from the floor.

“Sorry…I think I broke it,” he stammered.

“Are you ok?” In the gloom, he could just make out the worry etched on her features near at hand and his heart almost broke, as it ever did, at the sight of any pain in her eyes.

“I am fine, yes,” he assured her. “You merely startled me is all.”

In an instant, the concern on her face changed to suspicion. 

“You are hardly a man easily startled, Ethon,” she admonished. “If you were sneaking in here for a sip of wine, I have told you before you needn’t bother, there is plenty easily available in the taproom and there is no cause for you to be furtive when under this roof.”

“Yes, of course, old habits die hard,” he smiled weakly at her. “I’ll just discard these pieces and get myself that drink.”

She nodded and he made his way back towards the still open door to the taproom. Still suspicious, she moved deeper into the larder, her gaze, aided by her elven ancestry, easily piercing the near-darkness. Coming to the rooms far end, she spied the latch on the back entrance door open and the portal itself slightly ajar. Striding to it, she wrenched it open but was met by naught but the soft echo of the falling rain in the empty back courtyard.

Peering about to ensure no one was lurking, she closed the portal once more and secured its latch. With one last dubious look about the larder, she followed in Ethons footsteps, back to the taproom.

*                              *                                   *                            * 

Far to the south, within the depths of Cloakwood, the remnants of the Percin Caravan made their way slowly northwards through the forest’s dense underbrush as night quickly fell about them.

Trotter was leading with Keira close on his heels, followed by Katarina, clutching one of the Mercenary Captain’s shortswords in her hands and dressed in a loose, white blouse and tan leggings from Keira’s saddlebags. Tiberius took up the rear, his gaze continuously cast behind them, convinced every small noise emitted by the surrounding woods were new foes seeking to ambush them.

Pushing her way to the Ranger’s side as he paused to scrutinize some tracks, Keira knelt beside him. Speaking in low tones, she said, “we need to stop for the night.”

“We haven’t made much progress from where we first entered the woods,” he countered, likewise keeping his tone at a low pitch. “If any of our foes from the ambush have followed us, they will be sure to overtake us if we stop.”

“It will be pitch black in this damnable wood soon, Ranger,” she persisted. “And we are not as adept as you at walking these woodland paths in the dark, not to mention the fact that we are near dead on our feet given the ordeals of the day. Do you wish for one of us to wander blindly from the others in the dark?”

He grimaced at her words, knowing she was right. There had been no sign that they had yet been pursued and he had doubled back multiple times during their trek to ensure such was the case. Despite this, however, he remained on edge. There was just something about those Goblins among the Gnolls that unsettled the Veteran Ranger. He knew that it was they who had ambushed the caravan in the dell that first night, not the Gnolls, and that eerie silence they employed spoke of a sinister upbringing and training regime. Those had not been normal goblins, nay, someone or something had bred them to be as they were, silent and deadly killers. He feared what would become of he and his companions should they be overtaken in the night.

However, were they to continue on, with the amount of noise his companions made whilst traversing the forestland, coupled with the sound amplification of night, it was more like than not that some other predator would discover their trail.

“Very well, Captain,” he murmured. “The three of you wait here, and stay alert. I will scout the area for a defensible place for us to take our rest.”

“Thank you,” she said, before retreating back to where the other two stood awkwardly in the gathering gloom.

Somewhat taken aback by the earnestness in her voice when she had spoken those two words, Rendrick glanced back to where the Mercenary Captain had rejoined their other companions, drawing the other two to the stout trunk of a nearby elm. The three of them positioned themselves with their backs to the tree, facing outward, ready despite their growing inability to see.

His jaw setting at the sight, the Ranger was away, moving through the thick foliage, his footing quick but careful, aware of any opportune hiding place. Not surprisingly, given the unevenness of the terrain, it did not take him long to find such a place which took the form of a shallow cave between two tall outcroppings of jagged stone in a small dell well obscured by the surrounding trees.

Crouching low against the truck of one such tree, the Ranger tested the air with both nose and tongue, cocking his head to any sound or stench that might alert him to danger within the cave. Finding none, he bounded lightly across the dell to the cave’s mouth. Here again he tested the air, detecting only the usual and natural rots and growths that would exist within any hollow in any wood.

Finding the place adequate to their needs, he quickly retraced his steps to his companions, the forest around them having now grown fully dark and full of the sounds of chirping insects and the small scurryings of what creatures might hunt said six-legged musicians. 

Approaching where he knew his companions to be with caution, knowing how on edge and prone to lashing out at the first sign of movement they were, he let out a low whistle to announce his coming. Even with his advance warning, he still detected the audible rustling of clothing and a directing of weapons in his general direction when he drew nearer.

“It’s Trotter,” he hissed lowly. “I have found a suitable location for us to spend the night, it isn’t far.”

“This is useless,” Keira retorted in a harsh whisper. “I cannot see my own hand before my eyes let alone you, Ranger. How are we to follow you, with a lead and collar?”

“Unless you have one on hand I do not believe such an option is practical at this time,” was his reply, a small smile touching his lips despite himself. Turning in the direction that he knew Tiberius stood, he asked, “have you any cantrips that might be of aid to us, Cleric?”

“Sadly, I think not,” was the Lathanderite’s dolent reply. “As a Priest of the God of Morning I am blessed with many spells that conjure light, none of which are to the slightest degree subtle.”

“I think that I might be of assistance in that area,” Katarina’s voice drifted softly from between where Keira and Tiberius’ had originated. “When I was young, I began showing talent in the magical arts, something that is not smiled upon in the city of Athkatla. My father was keen to keep this fact a closely guarded secret and I was forbidden to ever practice the art within the city, where the Cowled Wizards were sure to detect its usage. However, in our country estate, he allowed me to dabble, with the aid of a tutor of course. I am in no way possessed of great power but I do know of some small cantrips that may be of some use…Faerie Fire for example…”

As she said this, Keira immediately became haloed in soft, benign flames of a crimson hue. The flames did not illuminate in any way the area about the mercenary captain, though a soft glow did fall upon Katarina’s face as it was close at hand, as well as her hand that was laid upon the Mercenary Captain’s forearm. Visibly disturbed by the flames’ immediate appearance, Keira kept her cool, though a small twitching of her jaw hinted to her discomfort at having a spell so suddenly cast upon her.

A moment later, Tiberius too sprouted the fire about his person, though that which covered him had a slight, peachy tint to it.

Now somewhat illuminated by the Mercenary and the Cleric’s soft glows, Trotter saw the Merchant Daughter touch her own hand to her breast. Immediately she too was engulfed by the harmless fire, hers a deep blue in color.

Keeping her hand nestled at the base of her throat, the young woman extended her other towards Trotter, her blade left to lean against the sturdy trunk behind her. Reaching out to her in turn, the Ranger saw his arm immediately ignite just as their fingertips touched, his own emerald flames wreathing his form.

For but a moment, their fingertips remained touching before the Ranger withdrew his hand, his gaze flicking from Katarina’s to Keira. The Mercenary Captain offered but a firm, approving nod, signaling for him to lead them on.

*                               *                                  *                                      *

When they were roughly a mile out from the Flaming Fist Fort along the Tradeway, Lystra and Kivan left the road, heading southeast upon the open fields that stretched from the river to the northern eaves of The Wood of Sharp Teeth, broken only by the occasional small copse of trees or outcropping of stone. Unlike the lands which shadowed the Coastway that were oft broken by small, rocky ravines and dells, where the Ranger’s now rode was, for the most part, flat, though there was a gradual sloping of the land towards the distant forest edge.

Just as night was falling, the pair found a suitable location to rest for the night, a small grove of sturdy oaks perhaps a league south of the Flaming Fist garrison. 

Beneath the oak’s bountiful boughs, the air was moist and the ground damp but not sodden. For two travelers well used to sleeping in conditions most others would find disagreeable, it was as though they had found a cozy room at an inn. A small creek-bed had formed through the grove’s center thanks to the neverending deluge and it was beside this that the companions made their camp, building a small fire with mostly-dry sticks and fuel they had brought with them consisting of bundles of dried lichen and leaves.

Their horses left to amble freely about the glade, the pair reclined beside their small fire, consuming a supper consisting of dried fruits and meats whilst watching the landscape darken about them.

“Tymora smiled on us this evening,” Lystra remarked, her earlier surliness with her counterpart forgotten. “And here I was fearing we would have to spend our night in the saddle.”

“The mercenaries would have offered us shelter,” Kivan reminded her mildly, though, in truth, he too preferred their current accommodations.

“And what if Jherek’s Phantom Host descended upon us in the night,” she retorted, her fingers waggling in the air.

“You dismiss his warning so willingly because you dislike him, it is unwise to allow prejudice to cloud judgement.”

“Oh, c’mon, Kivan,” she said dramatically. “if such a host existed we surely would have had some word. We are not, after all, the only ones who travel the lands between here and Neverwinter.”

“Few travel the Fields of the Dead,” he reminded her. “An army could pass that way and none would be the wiser until it stood upon the banks of the Chionthar.”

“I suppose,” she replied, stretching, obviously unconvinced. Coming out of her stretch, she rested her chin in the palm of her hand and, planting her elbow upon her pack, stared straight at the elf.

“You really trust him, don’t you?” She asked.

“You know of my joining with The Harpers. You know my opinion of his character.”

“Even though he has demanded that you charge headlong into perils that might surely get you, not to mention Huvertrov, killed?”

“How is your obeyance of Jaryn’s whims any different?” He inquired. “You do not enjoy working for the Dukes and yet here we sit, both of us on a mission at the behest of those who would demand we charge headlong into peril.”

“I can always say no,” was her resolute reply.

“So can I.”

“Yes, but then you would be removed from your Guild, stripped of the harp and moon pin your lot are always going on about.”

“Given the secretive nature of my Guild, I doubt that many Harpers “go on” about the sigil of our membership.”

“You know what I mean, Kivan,” she said, sitting up straighter. “If you were to defy Jherek’s orders you would be stripped of your place among the Harpers and cast out like a deviant.”

“And I would happily walk away, were that the case,” was his easy reply. “But the threat to one’s safety is not in and of itself an evil. Sometimes we must place ourselves in the face of harm for the betterment of society. Again, how is this any different from your creed under Jaryn?”

“The fact that I retain my free will,” was her curt reply. “And the fact that I would never put the lives of those I care for in the path of harm in the name of the “greater good.” Which is a term I hate by the way. Everyone’s definition of what the “greater good” is is different. I am sure what Jaryn believes the greater good to be differs greatly to what Jherek sees it as, or even Eltan.”

“And your following of Jaryn suggests that his view of the greater good aligns most closely with your own, as is the case with myself and Jherek.”

“That is a vast oversimplification, Kivan. I follow Jaryn because he has never and would never throw my life away in the name of some greater ploy!”

“And you believe that the Harpers do?”

“I know they do!”

“How?”

“Because they did it to my parents!”

She hadn’t realized she had been yelling until her voice echoed back at her off the trucks of every oak in the glade. Looking around, she saw Shadowflight watching her, the mare’s ears cocked and hanging on her every word.

“I am sorry,” Kivan murmured as she regained her composure.

“Fuck you, Harper,” she hissed vehemently before pushing herself to her feet and stomping scross the grove to its outermost edge. Leaning against the nearest tree, she gazed sightlessly out into the night, her hand unconsciously gripping the hilt of her sword so hard her knuckles turned white.

*                               *                                      *                                    *

Near midnight, those guardsmen at watch at the gates of Baldur’s Gate were startled from their stray thoughts when a dark horse bearing a rider in a woodland cloak barrelled into view, mud spewing from each beat of the steed’s hooves upon the sodden ground of the Coastway.

Just before the gates, the horse came to a thundering halt, rearing, his rider easily maintaining their seat despite the lacking of either saddle or bridle. The movement did, however, cause the rider’s hood to fall back to reveal the tired features of Jaryn Moorstrider.

“Raise the portcullis!” The Sergeant on Duty cried, stepping aside as the iron grate began to raise, and urging his subordinate to do likewise.

Lucky they had, for as soon as the portcullis was raised far enough to permit his entry, the Master Ranger once more urged Sundril to a full gallop, charging across the courtyard and up the High Avenue towards High Hall.

It wasn’t long before Jaryn was at the gates to the keep where he was also quickly admitted.

Despite his level of exhaustion, the Ranger didn’t fail to take note of the heightened level of security at the keep, most notably the fact that Flaming Fist Mercenaries now manned the battlements alongside the usual guardsmen.

Dismounting Sundril fluidly beside the statue of Balduran, he made his way with swift strides up the stairs and through the keep’s front doors. He was surprised almost immediately upon entering, to find himself face to face with Commander Adrian Durham, the guardsman appearing somewhat haggard as well.

“Greetings, Moorstrider,” The Commander said, put off by the Ranger’s sudden appearance before him.

“Greetings to you as well, Commander,” Jaryn dipped his head. “Long has it been since I have seen you walking these halls.”

“Indeed it has, though I find myself hastened to leave them once more,” Adrian admitted. “Might I ask what it is that brings you here at such haste?”

“Would you like to join in my meeting with Duke Eltan?”

“Nay, I just left him, though I would know if any ill has befallen the peoples of the Sword Coast.”

“Two caravans were attacked on their way north from Beregost.”

“Survivors?”

“The first I came upon made it out relatively unscathed. As for the second, I have only hope that any made it from the massacre.”

“And you believe them linked to the first attack upon the Tradeway?”

“I am sure of it.”

“Did you gather any further clues as to who orchestrated the attacks?”

“Orchestrated? I am unsure. Performed? Gnolls and Goblins.”

“So this might yet be the work of ravenging beasts.”

“Nay, Commander, that would not be my assumption.”

Adrian sighed. “Thank you, Moorstrider, The Duke is in his usual place.”

Dipping his head again to The Commander, Jaryn continued on his way towards the Audience Hall while Adrian made his way out into the rain.

In stark contrast to his last visit, the Ranger found the Audience Hall well lit and in a state of pristine cleanliness. Although none other shared the hall with the Woodsman, braziers crackled with flame along the walls and a great fire had been kindled in the main hearth. Furthermore, the dias bearing each of the Duke’s chairs had been meticulously cleaned and made to look for all the world as if their owners had merely stepped away for the briefest of moments.

Taking all this in with but a glance, Jaryn made his way to Eltan’s side chamber, rapping smartly upon the door as he came to stand before it.

Somewhat surprisingly, it took a longer moment than he expected for the portal to be opened, and when it was it was Nors with whom he found himself face-to-face, the grizzled mercenaries’ entire demeanor suggesting one who was just as ready for a fight as to greet whomever had knocked.

Upon seeing Jaryn, he visibly relaxed, however, and stepped aside with a murmured greeting, before closing the door securely in the Ranger’s wake.

Duke Eltan reclined in a chair at the far end of the map table, his magician advisor, Damion close by his side. Further back, in a shadowed corner, Jaryn detected a lithe form wrapped in a silver cloak lurking. Instinctively, his hand fell to the hilt of his blade upon noticing the furtive guest, his eyes narrowing.

“Be at ease, Jaryn,” Eltan beseeched him. “I have authorized Viconia’s presence and you may shed whatever words before her as you would me.”

As her name was spoken, the figure in the corner stirred and stepped forth, revealing to the Ranger her identity as a Drow Elf, the cowl of her sheer, silver cloak framing her well-chiseled features immaculately.

Despite the Duke’s assurance, Jaryn noted the souring of both Damion and Nors’ expressions upon her approach, the grizzled mercenary moving to stand at Eltan’s left, directly between her and his lord.

“She is the one who slaughtered the Midfallow family,” Jaryn remarked.

“If you are referring to the roasting of rapists then yes,” she smirked.

“I have heard Eltan’s account as to why he chose banishment over execution,” the Master Ranger said. “Though I see now that even that sentence was not carried out,” he turned his piercing gaze to Eltan before returning it to the Drow. “If your accusations were true then Roran and his boys deserved their foul fate. This cannot, however, be said about his wife and unborn child.”

“I knew not that they were in the house,” she replied dismissively.

“You knew,” he said, his words bearing the firm finality of truth.

“Enough!” Eltan insisted, rising swiftly from his chair and striding past Damion to the side table where his decanter of wine lay. Pouring himself a glass, he said, “the punishment for Viconia’s crimes has already been meted out. Whether or not you find the results satisfactory will be set aside for the time being, Jaryn. I have asked Viconia to join me because she, as a Cleric of the Goddess of Shadow, has expertise in fields currently beneficial to me and I…” He drank deeply of his wine. “Trust her,” he finished, setting the stopper back into the decanter with the force of finality.

“Now, if you would be so kind, Jaryn,” he continued, the steel edge leaving his voice. “Please recount to us the events of your exploits along the Coastway. Events I know that you have already spoken of with my subordinate.”

Jaryn’s eyes narrowed at the choice of the Duke’s words. Never had Eltan referred to Commander Adrian Durham as his subordinate, and it could only be Adrian that the Duke had referenced.

Choosing to sidestep that particular informality, as well as his misgivings of a Drow Cleric of Shar being present, the Master Ranger stepped to the table and chose from among the Duke’s maps one that clearly depicted the Coastway from Nashkel to Baldur’s Gate.

“I encountered the Dameston Caravan here,” he said, indicating a spot a short ways south of the Friendly Arm Inn. “They had been harassed in the night by Gnolls as to their own account. They had sustained injuries, none of which proved mortal, and so I guided them onwards to the Friendly Arm Inn where they could rest and recover. To my knowledge they reside there still. After leaving them, I traveled southward once more in the company of one of the High Druid Blacktree’s Grove. We discovered the Percin Caravan here,” he indicated a spot some ways further south. “They had been completely overrun with the use of tactics similar to those utilized in the Chambers Caravan ambush.”

“Any survivors?” Eltan asked.

“Evidence suggests a small group may have made their escape towards the eaves of Cloakwood,” was the Ranger’s reply.

“And who were the attackers?”

“Gnolls and Goblins by my estimation.”

“How can you be sure?” Viconia interjected.

“By the fact that my Druid companion and I slew several Gnolls at the site of the attack, though they were only stranglers,” Jaryn answered without looking up from the map.

“What of the Goblins?” Damion asked before Viconia could speak further.

“I gathered they were present by what tracks remained and by the wounds sustained by many of the caravaneers. It would seem as though whilst the Gnolls were the brute, chaotic force, the Goblins were the true exterminators,” Jaryn said.

The room was quiet for sometime after he spoke, his words ringing in the ears of all assembled. 

“So what is it that you are saying, Jaryn?” Eltan asked.

The Master Ranger straightened, looking the Duke square in the eye, he said, “I am saying that these attacks were coordinated, Eltan. I am saying that you are under siege. Karma told me that she and her Grove aided my Apprentice in fending off an ambush by the White Skull Orc Tribe at the very site where your men were ambushed themselves. It is my belief that the White Skulls, along with these Goblins, attacked the Chambers Caravan before traveling south. I think the Ragged Ears harassed the Dameston Caravan because they couldn’t help themselves but something restrained them from finishing it off. It is my belief that that which made them hesitate was the absence of the Goblins. Once they teamed up, they eradicated the Percin Caravan and then continued south. South to Beregost.”

“Your findings run parallel to other reports that I have received recently,” Eltan said, pacing around the table to stand at the Ranger’s side. “I am sure that you know that Jherek has returned to the city.”

“I have,” Jaryn nodded.

“Then you should know that I have spoken with him,” the Duke tapped an idle finger upon his wine glass. “He has given me intel which he claims is valid. Intel that, it would seem, corresponds with your experiences on the road.”

“What is it he has spoken of?” The Ranger asked, casting a distrusting look at Viconia, then a wary one to Damion, before resting his gaze once more on Eltan.

This was not lost on Eltan, who shared a private smile with himself before turning from the Ranger.

“He spoke of a plot on my life,” the Duke said, staring into the flames of the small hearth behind the woodsman. “And more than that he spoke of a Great Host bent upon the utter destruction of this city, as well as the entirety of the Sword Coast. I have no choice but to take these warnings to heart, however depraved their source might be.”

As he spoke, Jaryn looked to Nors, who nodded in his turn. Flicking his gaze to Damion, he saw that the Mage had eyes only for his commander. It was only then that he glanced at the Drow Cleric, Viconia, who he saw was watching him closely.

“I have recalled my fellow Dukes to the City,” Eltan continued, drawing the Ranger’s gaze once more to him. “Whatever the outcome of these events might be, we must face them as one. All of us.”

“You would ask me to stay,” Jaryn said, understanding the Duke’s line of thought.

“I would, old friend,” Eltan confirmed. “Baldur’s Gate is the beating heart of the Sword Coast and I need you by my side now. To aid me, to aid Jherek, and to oust whatever evil it is that has taken root within our city.”

“And Lystra?”

“I have sent her to fetch Belt back to Baldur’s Gate.”

“Where is he thought to be?”

“Near Elturel.”

Jaryn nodded, mulling over all that had transpired within the last few days.

“Very well,” he said at last, accepting the grateful smile from Eltan even as his stomach churned with thoughts of those others he cared for beyond the cities’ walls.

*                                 *                                         *                                      *

The early morning hours found Kivan seated at the far edge of the grove he and Lystra had camped within, on the far side of the weather-made creek that bisected the encircling trees, his back to one of the sturdier oaks facing south, his gaze switching between the sleeping form of the Ranger Apprentice beside their dying fire and the night-shrouded, storm-laden countryside around them. Being an Elf did have its perks, chief among them, given his current predicament, being the lack of need to sleep. He had drifted into reverie once or twice throughout the course of the night, since his self-imposed exile to the periphery which was the only thing that had allowed Lystra to retire to her bedroll some hours before.

He hadn’t meant to push her so far, he knew. Perhaps it was his nature, or perhaps it was that part of him that yet clung to he who he once was, before the tragedy, before him becoming a Harper. 

Either way, he knew that it was unfair for him to have pushed so hard. Whatever her reason was for resenting the Harpers so much was, truthfully, her’s alone.

Sighing, he gazed out from his vigil, observing the occasional forks of lightning above the Wood of Sharp Teeth. He was in the midst of wondering why the rain fell above this forest and not Cloakwood, when a light snapping of a twig in the direction of their camp pulled his attention back in that direction.

Coming towards him, her stride determined, was Lystra. She had stripped away her armor and cloak, though she did carry her blade, Skysinger, with her. She held it in one hand, snug in its scabbard in a manner that would suggest she brought it with her only out of force of habit and not out of concern of any imminent attack.

He began to rise as she approached, a look of concern beginning to grow on his features, but stopped dead, his expression frozen, when he spied the determined gleam in her eye.

Coming straight up to him, she, in a swift motion, stepped over his half-risen form and lowered herself so that she straddled him, forcing him back into a seated position with her astride.

“Lys…” He began but she silenced him with a kiss, her lips molding to his, pushing him back, gently but insistently against the trunk of the tree behind him. Pulling back from the kiss, they gazed deeply into one another’s eyes. That look held for a long moment before he leaned in, catching her lips once more in a fervent kiss. 

Quickly, their embrace became more impassioned and soon his arms had wrapped about her, crushing her lithe form to his as her hands fell to his belt. As her nimble fingers made short work of his buckle and began on his trousers, his own hands reached in between them and unlaced her blouse, pulling it open to free her shapely breasts just as she freed his cock.

Mewling against his mouth, she turned her attention to her own trousers, loosening their clasps, then rising briefly to divulge herself of them. Lowering herself once more, she grasped his cock in her hand and guided it smoothly into her as she descended upon it, their gasps mingling in the heavy air between them.

Despite their earlier impatience, she did not ride him swiftly now that he was inside of her. Rather, she adopted a steady rhythm, grinding her hips against his, reveling in the depths within her he reached as his road-roughened hands caressed her smooth, heated flesh. As his hands explored, so did his mouth, running tongue and lips over the soft curve of her throat before peeling away her shirt to better expose her shoulder and breasts to his exploration. As his mouth enveloped one of her nipples, she arched back, her hips picking up speed as lightning lanced beyond their shelter, throwing their silhouettes into shock relief against the night as their bodies moved as one.  

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