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Well before the breaking of the dawn, Rendrick Trotter crawled forth from the burrow in which he and his companions passed the night. It had been cramped within the small cave and so, as soon as he was free of its confines, he stretched, multiple cracks sounding throughout his body as he did. As soon as this was done he cast his gaze about the darkened grotto around him, his nose and ears twitching in an attempt to discover anything amiss. Coming up with nothing, he slunk off into the surrounding woods, a collection of their small companies’ waterskins clutched in his hand.
Not far from where they’d slept he discovered a modest spring bubbling out of the tumbled face of a rocky hillock. Splashing among the moss-ridden stones, the fresh, cool water fed a large pool at the hills base. It was here that the Ranger filled their waterskins as the forest slowly became suffused with the blue light of dawn around him. After he finished his task, he sat upon a large stone beside the stream and watched the forest about him grow steadily lighter, though, due to the denseness of the canopy, shadows yet abounded.
He had always enjoyed this time of day, when the first vestiges of dawn kissed the earth. When the sun had not yet risen but the light had begun its inevitable defeat of darkness. He even considered pulling out his pipe for a quick smoke but thought better of it immediately. Chiding himself for his foolishness, he hauled himself to his feet and trotted off once more, back towards where he had left his companions.
As he neared the glade, he paused. Crouching low, he pressed his fingers into a shallow indentation left upon a bit of exposed soil amid the leaflitter. Almost as soon as he touched the track he lurched away, springing to his feet and running the remainder of the way back to the cave.
Bursting into the glade, he was relieved to find it deserted, though this elation was short lived. All about the soft forest floor before the mouth of the cave in which his companions slept he perceived tracks similar to the one he had spotted nearby. Immediately he drew his blade and stalked towards the cave’s mouth, his eyes darting every which way in case they who had left the tracks lurked nearby still.
Slipping between the encompassing stones, he entered the cavity between to find Kearia awake, crouched near at hand, her own blade naked in her hand. Upon seeing Trotter, she let out a long breath in relief and relaxed her guard. This relief lasted only until she caught sight of his face, highlighted by the first beams of dawn light penetrating the trees above.
“What is it?” She hissed, her face close to his so as to not wake their yet resting companions.
“Goblins,” was his likewise whispered reply. “A great many passed through here last night. The wards I put up held, it would seem, but I doubt they have gone far.”
“Is it those who attacked our caravan?”
“I do not know,” he admitted darkly. “Though I know of none others who inhabit this part of the forest.”
“What should we do?”
“Stick to our course. Make for the forest’s northern reaches. If they are those who attacked us yesterday they might very well be lost, or else caught the scent of some other prey.”
“How likely is that?”
All he offered by way of reply was an aporetic look before shuffling towards their dozing companions and shaking each awake in turn.
“Rise, my friends,” he said softly, yet firmly. “We must begin our journey again immediately, we eat on the path. Come!”
* * * *
Dawn found Jherek and Jaryn leaning opposite one another in an alleyway across the large open courtyard filled with a colorful assortment of merchant stalls, the sprawling awnings of each overlapping to form a sort of rough-hewn ceiling against the unforgiving sky, known to all within the city simply as The Hub. Keeping for the most part dry, thanks to the overhangs of the roofs on either side of the alley, the two men each kept a close eye on the street directly across The Hub from where they watched. The warehouse to which Alora had followed the Storm’s Rising Captains the day before, and from which she’d trailed the thief who had stolen the architectural plans to High Hall, lay a short ways up that street. Jherek meant to raid that warehouse and had requested the Master Ranger’s aid in the assault. He had also sent Kormak to High Hall to see if Eltan would lend some Flaming Fist Mercenaries as well. Jaryn wasn’t sure if this was to make sure things didn’t get out of hand, or to test just how committed Eltan was, or both. In any case so far the warehouse appeared deserted, at least from their vantage point, though the Ranger knew the other Harpers were in positions that fully surrounded the building. If any entered or left they would know.
“What is it you are hoping to find in there?” Jaryn asked, breaking the silence that had reigned between the two since they had taken up their position shortly before sunrise.
“Unfortunately, I doubt I will find Kharne seated upon a chamber pot,” Jherek admitted wryly. “I do, however, hope that there is some indication as to his further whereabouts. A guard we can question perhaps? Or some discarded note or half-burned plan.”
“You do know that, given your agent’s scuffle with the thief, that all of those outcomes are equally unlikely,” the Ranger countered.
“Then I will settle for depriving them of their ability to utilize this particular hideout further. If the Flaming Fist takes command of it, that is, for I lack the manpower to do so myself.”
“That might drive a wedge further between Eltan and Commander Durham.”
“Perhaps, though their squabbles concern me not at all. Ultimately, what I need from Eltan is the name of whoever officially owns this warehouse.”
“Chances are said name would be a moniker.”
“Chances are equally good that said name belongs to an Zhentarim Agent who may bring me closer to Kharne’s whereabouts.”
Just then the sound of hurried footsteps behind them alerted the pair to someone’s approach and ended any further discussion between them. Looking back, they observed Kormak and Huvertrov hurrying up the alleyway towards them.
“Were you able to secure the Flaming Fist’s aid?” Jherek inquired as the Dwarf pressed himself against the wall at his side.
“Aye,” Kormak confirmed, directing their attention to two small groups of cloaked figures who had just entered The Hub at opposing ends.
“Then let’s move,” the Harper Master insisted, hurrying from cover, the Ranger and his fellow Harpers close on his tail.
Due to the early morning hour and the inclement weather, the marketplace was nearly deserted save the few merchants preparing their wares for the day. As such, the Flaming Fist Mercenaries caught sight of the trio immediately and shadowed their movements across the bazaar towards the warehouse.
As they came to the mouth of the street upon which their target lay, Jaryn caught sight of Marissa Tame on the warehouse roof. As soon as their eyes met, she gripped the roof’s edge and swung down, crashing through a second story window. Similar crashes could be heard on the building’s further side, signaling Baldwin and Jewel had made their entrances as well. The element of surprise now truly gone, Jherek broke into a sprint towards the closest side door, drawing his sword as he did.
Coming up to the entrance behind the Harper, Jaryn glanced down the tight alleyway that separated the warehouse from the row of shops beside it that faced The Hub. He saw one of the groups of Flaming Fist reach the side entrance on that end of the warehouse just as Jherek stepped to the door before them. Facing the door fully, the Harper Master squared himself before it and, murmuring a singular word to himself Jaryn percieved to be “Ignius”, launched a fireball from his bejeweled belt-buckle at the sturdy portal. Equally, at the alleyway’s far end the lead Flaming Fist Mercenary delivered a heavy kick to their door. Both doors crashed inwards simultaneously and their respective groups hurried in, blades glinting in the muted morning light.
Jaryn stayed close on Jherek’s heels as the Harper Master leapt through the burning silhouette of the door. “Be wary of traps,” he cautioned as they entered the warehouse body, the looming stacks of crates and barrels standing menacingly all around them in the gloom.
His words checked the Harper’s steps and they proceeded a slower pace to the clearing among the stacked goods where the lone table sat. They arrived at the place seconds before the Flaming Fist Mercenaries entered from an adjoining direction. Looking up, Jaryn spied the Marissa and Jewel crouched among the rafters just as Baldwin moved to join them from a space between crates opposite.
“The place is deserted,” the Bard chimed, his rapier cutting lines before him as if testing for tripwires.
“Empty perhaps, but not deserted,” Jherek countered, indicating the tabletop, for upon its surface were lain a pair of shortswords, the kind of which a Halfling might wield, with a piece of parchment draped across their pommels. Approaching it cautiously, the Harper Master read aloud to all present the words scribbled upon the parchment.
“You’ll be needing these,” it read.
* * * *
“If there is a real threat poised against the city, you cannot expect me to stand by and let things play out. Not when there is a genuine aid that I can lend,” Ethon insisted, his voice strained with forced calm.
He and Alyth had been at it now for some time, standing on opposite sides of the bar in the empty taproom. Normally at this hour the two would still be in bed, or else seeing to mundane tasks about the tavern as a way of unwinding after the previous night’s work. However, neither of them had achieved much rest the night prior as Alyth had been rather cold and distant after her confirmation that she knew Ethon had met with Jherek. He had managed to draw her frustrations to the forefront as the sun rose and they had both been milling aimlessly about the taproom while they waited for Gyselle to fix breakfast, something the Gnome woman insisted on doing despite both of their continued insistence she needn’t bother.
“We are not Harpers, Ethon!” Alyth shot back hotly to his words. “There is a reason you never joined despite the numerous offers they’ve handed you. We are not Fighters or Swashbucklers, Bards or Assassins. We are commonfolk, Ethon. We are not heroes!”
“One doesn’t have to be heroic to do good, Alyth! You taught me that when first I lent my aid to Jherek all those years ago and that led to the slaying of the Beholder Xantham. No I did not swing the blade nor land the killing blow but I helped a cause greater than filling the bellies of any who cross this threshold and, as I recall, so did you.”
“There is a difference between lending aid from the sidelines and getting involved directly,” the Barkeep insisted. “With Xantham and with the Fists of Glory we gave advice and a roof under which the Adventurers might lay their heads. We were not in the thick of things!”
“I won’t be in the thick of things!” Ethon retorted, reaching across the bartop and grasping one of the Half-Elves slender hands. “I know the docks well, that is the use I have to Jherek. He told me himself, he needs eyes, not blades.”
“And you believe him?” She scoffed, though she did not pull her hand from his grasp.
“Not wholly no,” he admitted with a sardonic smirk. “But that is why you must trust me. I know my limits and have no desire to die by the hand of any, not when I would much rather die a peaceful death, with your hand in mine…”
When he spoke these words he squeezed her hand gently and she couldn’t help but smile at him a genuine smile, filled with warmth, though her eyes were brimmed with tears.
“I just don’t trust Jherek,” she admitted, sniffling quietly and wiping the tears from her eyes. “There’s something different about him that I feel goes deeper than his appearance.”
“You always did have a knack for seeing what lay within a man below his rugged exterior,” Ethon said. “Though I am curious as to why you allowed him to stay here.”
“Perhaps I too wish to do my part,” was her honest reply. She then leaned across the bar and kissed him deeply, her elegant hands cupping his world-weathered face.
Just then a soft creak heralded the opening of the larder door and both glanced over to spy Marissa Tame entering, a sheepish look on her face.
“Sorry to intrude,” she said. “But I figured, given the nature of your discussion that I was, admittedly, eavesdropping on, that my message was safe to be spoken directly to you both.”
“Don’t be silly,” Alyth smiled welcomingly to her. “Would you like to come in? Gyselle has breakfast almost ready.”
“I shouldn’t stay, though breakfast sounds amazing,” the Harper admitted. “I was sent by Jherek to fetch Ethon. We have need of his services in tracking down a pair of Storm’s Rising Captains Alora was trailing last night. Speaking of, if Alora is likewise still here we could use her aid in identifying said Captains.”
“I’ll go fetch her,” Alyth said, sliding past the Swashbuckler and making for the stairs. Alora had crashed in Jherek’s room the night before when the Harper Master had left with Jaryn in search of the thief who had taken the High Hall plans.
“It will take a bit to rouse the Halfling,” Ethon said to Marissa. “Stay for breakfast, I know no one has gotten much rest or food since Jherek returned.”
“He does have a way of sucking the fun out of things,” the Harper smirked mirthlessly. “But nay, I will be contented with one for the road.”
Saying this, she slipped behind the bar and grasped a bottle of strong, Dalelands Brandy. Tipping the bottle to Ethon with a questioning look, she grabbed a pair of glasses from under the bar and slapped them on the counter as he nodded his assent. As the Former Thief moved to stand before her, Marissa popped the bottle’s cork with her teeth and poured them both a healthy glass of the deep, amber liquid within.
“What should we drink to?” She inquired, leaning an elbow upon the bartop and tipping her glass towards him.
“Down with the Zhents?” He offered.
“All the way down,” she smirked, clinking her glass to his.
They both took their respective poisons in a single gulp than enacted faces that spoke clearly to the potency of the drink.
“By the left tit of the Bitch-Queen herself,” Marissa cursed. “Thank you, Ethon, for indulging me. I definitely needed that.”
“Some food might be far more sustaining,” he offered but she waived his words away.
“What’s your take on all of this?” She asked. “You’ve known Jherek far longer than I. What d’you make of his current gesticulating.”
“I think Kormak might be a better one to ask,” the Thief admitted. “None know Jherek better than he.”
She nodded, pouring herself another drink, though this one was far shallower than her first.
Her eyes growing distant as she nursed her new beverage, Ethon pushed off of the bar and made for the kitchen, leaving the Harper to her thoughts.
* * * *
Late morning found Jherek, Kormak and Jaryn clustered idly at the far end of the Audience Chamber in High Hall, near the door to Eltan’s meeting room, Huvertrov having been left at the warehouse along with a Flaming Fist escort to see if he might divine anything further from the place.
The Harper Master was disquieted, his foot tapping while he wasn’t actively pacing. Kormak stood nearest the door, his worried gaze upon his commander while Jaryn stood with his back against the nearest pillar, his head lain against the cold stone behind him, his eyes closed.
A moment later, raised voices within the room drew all three of their attention. The yelling was short-lived however, for scarcely a minute later the door was wrenched open and a fuming Commander Adrian Durham strode out into the hall. He paused immediately, catching sight of they who waited. His fierce gaze rolled over Jaryn and Kormak before landing squarely on Jherek.
“You have no authority within this city!” He growled, thrusting a gauntleted finger in the Harper Master’s direction. “If you possess intel of importance to the city it should have come to me! The Guardforce could have handled…”
“Your Guardforce, Commander, would have dragged their feet as they have always done,” Jherek drawled. “Besides, I could not be certain how many Zhentarim Spies riddle your ranks, or those of the Watchmen who, let’s be honest, you would have sent to enact the raid in your stead.”
“There is a hierarchy in place!” The Commander declared. “The Watch patrols the streets backed up by my Guardforce who patrol the walls and keep. The Flaming Fist patrols the roads and wilderlands. There is a reason why they have been banned from operations within the city…”
“We were not banned,” the words were spoken by Eltan who had just stepped forth from the doorway to his chambers to join in on the exchange. The Duke seemed to all present to be infinitely weary. His shoulders were slouched and dark circles sat heavy beneath his eyes. However, the gaze within those eyes remained fierce and his voice yet held the hard edge of command.
“As we were just discussing, Commander, the Flaming Fist has never been officially banned from operating within the city,” he continued, leveling the Guardsman with a measured stare. “Jherek came to me in the early hours of the morning with a request I felt required immediate action. I acted. I have also now informed you of the operation and will strive to continue to do so as this affair unfolds.”
“I trust you will, Duke Eltan,” the Commander said in a calmer tone, standing straighter now that the Duke stood among them.
Eltan nodded to his words and turned to reenter the chamber as Adrian added, “more so now that Entar and Liia will be returning to the city.”
“Er, an’ Belt, Commander,” Kormak broke in.
A ghost of a smirk played across Eltan’s lips for only the Dwarf to see before he continued on his way into his chamber, motioning for the trio to follow as he did. Kormak and Jherek proceeded after the Duke but Jaryn paused before entering, offering the Guard Commander a meaningful look.
“We all want what’s best for the city,” he assured the Guardsman.
“Yes,” Adrian agreed stiffly. “It’s the path we take to achieve that end that truly matters, however.”
Dipping his head in agreement to the other man’s words, the Master Ranger entered the chamber, closing the door behind himself.
“Have you discovered who it is that owned the warehouse?” Jherek inquired of the Duke as soon as Jaryn had secured the door, barely acknowledging Nors and Damion who also stood in attendance. For his part, the Ranger was keen to discover the Drow Cleric, Viconia, was not in on this particular meeting. He wondered if this was more for Commander Durham’s benefit or his own.
“We have,” Damion confirmed as Eltan made for the side table and his decanter of wine. “It would appear as though the warehouse in question is owned by one Timineus Olanter of Sembia.”
“What do we know of him?” The Harper Master pressed.
“Well nothing and everything all at once considering he doesn’t exist,” the Mercenary Wizard shrugged. “Though he does have a residence in town near where the Gray Harbor and the Upper City meet.”
“Then have a detachment of your men meet me there within the hour,” Jherek said, before turning on his heel and taking a step towards the door.
“Hold, Jherek, if you will,” Eltan said, his hand not occupied with filling his wineglass risen lazily in silent solicitation. After he had finished pouring his drink, he turned, clutching the goblet to his chest, he spoke in measured tones:
“The Flaming Fist will not be accompanying you on this foray.”
“You said that I had your men at my disposal,” the Harper Master reminded him. “I came to you with my concerns and you claimed to have my back.”
“And so I do,” the Duke nodded. “My belief in your words have not changed, Jherek, but my ability to back my beliefs have somewhat.”
“How so?” To everyone’s surprise it was Jaryn who posed the question. The Master Ranger stood back from the room’s center, hovering near the door, shadows clinging to his person. His eyes, however, shone clearly and his piercing gaze bored into that of the Duke.
Eltan sighed. “As you heard our esteemed Commander just relay, I am beholden by a hierarchy set down by myself and my peers. I can easily write off a singular event, like this morning’s warehouse raid, as a mission requiring immediate response and so I could be forgiven for bypassing said hierarchy. If I were to order my men to support you in breaking into the estate of a nonexistent merchant within the city now, after meeting with the Commander of the Guardforce, that would be seen as an action in direct opposition to said hierarchy.”
“So your promises were meaningless,” Jherek accused. “Merely pretty words decorating a blunted knife’s edge.”
“Not so,” Eltan held up a finger. “Jaryn Moorstrider is unbeholden to any such confines.” His finger turned into a full hand offering to the Harper Master the Ranger in the doorway.
“Furthermore, I can assure you that he is worth a company of my men and that is in no way a disparagement on them for they will be by your side the moment you can offer more concrete evidence as to the existence of this cabal, and their plot against High Hall. Until then, I offer you The Moorstrider.”
“I thought you asked me to stay for your personal protection,” Jaryn said.
“I did, old friend, but until that eventuality becomes a reality, I ask that you aid Jherek in his investigation. If you are willing of course.”
“I would aid them even if you hadn’t asked,” the Master Ranger said. “Though I wish you had made such plans clear to me upon my acceptance to stay in the first place, rather than relying on me stumbling upon Jherek at the Elfsong early this morn.”
“Admittedly, I did not conceive of such plans until just now, when Commander Durham confronted me,” Eltan admitted. “I had hoped he would see our movements within the city as necessary to its protection. However, his distrust of me runs deep and has now poised itself as a needle I must thread. Particularly due to the fact that Entar even now rides for the city.”
“This jurisdictional bullshit,” Jherek spat. “I thank The Moorstrider for his assistance. The Harpers have ever accomplished their goals without the aid of the ruling classes, and so it must be again. It is nothing new, though I had wished for a different outcome here, Eltan.”
“Duke Eltan,” Damion interjected.
“Oh shove it up your ass, spell-slinger,” the Harper Master said. “I find Eltan’s advisors sorely lacking of late and your tongue-waging is doing nothing to cure me of that prognosis.”
“I will go with Jherek,” Jaryn said, stepping forward before more barbs could be thrown. “Come,” he bade the Harper Master before striding for the door and opening it.
“C’mon now, Jherek,” Kormak murmured, touching his commander’s arm gently.
With a final glare directed at all three Flaming Fist members before him, the Harper Master pivoted and stode out in Jaryn’s wake.
* * * *
Midday saw Lystra and Kivan riding side by side along the road to Eltural, the city looming before them now as they neared the river-crossing that bridged the Chionthar to its gates. Two tall and slim stone towers marked the crossing’s southern side and the bridge beyond was well fortified. Commanding the next several miles of the river’s northern banks were the high walls of the city itself, a multitude of red-tiled roofs and smoke-steeped chimneys encased within. Despite her years spent on the Sword Coast, Lystra had visited the city only rarely as it amounted to little more than a merchant’s way-station between the Dales and Baldur’s Gate, the surrounding lands largely docile and requiring little upkeep by a Ranger such as herself. Furthermore, though many in Baldur’s Gate considered it as part of the Sword Coast, Elturel was an independent city-state ruled by an autonomous governor. Though it was rumored Belt was taking a greater hand in the ruling of the city and that said governor was no more than a puppet of the Duke.
The Rangers had ridden in almost complete silence since they had broken camp earlier that morning. It was a silence born not of discomfort, however, but rather a shared understanding. Their bodies had said what their mouths could not articulate the previous night, and so they rode in mutual understanding and admiration of one another, neither wishing to utter a word or phrase that might break that which they had achieved.
Approaching the bridge gate, they simultaneously slowed their mounts some ways before its raised portcullis, and sat in silence for a time, both of them considering what course their diverged paths would take. After a long moment of shared contemplation, Kivan turned in the saddle, catching his companion’s eyes as he did. He seemed about to speak but then thought better of it. Instead, he offered her but a nod and a genuine smile, one she returned without hesitation.
With that, he urged his mount forward, towards the awaiting gates to Elturel.
“Farewell, Harper,” the Ranger Apprentice called after him, urging him to cease his advance and turn halfway to look back at her.
“Good-bye, Kivan,” she said once their eyes met.
“Good-bye, Lystra,” he replied. “Until our next meeting.”
She smiled at his words and dipped her head. He returned the gesture before turning his mount once more and trotting off towards the city.
“Until our next meeting,” she murmured to herself, her eyes on his retreating form, before turning Shadowflight from the road and riding away to the southeast, towards the distant eaves of The Wood of Sharp Teeth.