Chapter 17: The Path Forward Darkens

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

NSFW Warning: Brief sexual content.

With light, determined steps Rendrick led his companions through the dense foliage, doing all that was within his power to not leave too obvious a trail for any potential foes to follow. This was inevitably a moot point, however, given his companion’s far heavier, and less measured, steps. Despite this, he was as of yet sure that they were not being pursued, at least not directly, for wherever they trod the tracks of goblins criss-crossed their path.

When the sun was high in the sky above the canopy and the forest around them had grown hot and close, the Ranger called for a brief halt, marking the weariness-laden postures of his companions. 

While they clustered in a small hollow beneath the overhang of a slowly rotting log, he bade them eat a small fast and take small sips of water lest they cramp up in their further journey that day. Whilst they complied with his commands with tired limbs, he pulled Keira gently aside.

“I will scout ahead,” he murmured to her, his eyes scanning the surround. 

She nodded to his words, her own gaze alert despite her own obvious weariness.

“Be quick about it,” she bade him. “It would seem as though we are stumbling through a veritable nest of goblinoids and I would hate for you to be caught out there alone.”

Though it was far more likely that the resting trio in unknown territory would be ambushed than the Ranger, he merely nodded to her words and stole away, slinking through the underbrush as a serpent through a mire.

As he traversed the uneven terrain of the forest floor, Trotter kept an eye on the sun as it occasionally could be glimpsed through the leafy branches above. It was past midday, he determined by its zenith. Furthermore, he perceived a light haze permeating the air between the forest’s ceiling and the heavenly body, as if smoke from a heavy woodland fire obscured its brilliance. Having smelled no such burning, the Ranger could only surmise that this effect was a byproduct of a combat of wills between deities. Whatever clerical magic had conjured the rain that plagued the rest of the coast was at odds with the grip Silvanus held upon Cloakwood and it would seem as though the woodland god was losing, albeit slightly. This was a troubling thought and suggested that the hold of the High Druid Blacktree might not be as strong as Rendrick had hoped it was.

Not far from where he had left his companions, the Ranger came across a deep gully carved out of the forest floor. No trees grew within the indentation in the earth, though those on the surrounding ridgelines did lean over the gap, providing ample cover from the sunlight above. Across the gully from where the he now crouched, Rendrick spied a massive barbican of sorts made up on raised earthworks as well as the lashing together of numerous vines and roots, spanning the gaps between each massive tree and mirroring the edge of the gully perfectly. Atop this wall numerous goblin heads could be seen bobbing, as if patrolling a castle’s fortifications, and within the gully itself several large mushrooms grew, their thin, umbrella-like sporophore a deep violet in color. The Ranger recognized these immediately as Shriekers, semi-sentient fungi that emitted an ear-splitting cry if any they did not recognize drew too near. Their uniform spacing further told him that they had been placed their purposefully as alarm sentinels should any interloper draw near. 

The entire scene troubled Trotter deeply on a multitude of levels. For one, it told him that he had led his companions too deeply into the woods. In his bid to reach the forest’s northern eaves in haste he had cut too straight a course, leading them into parts unknown to him. For second, the design of the barbican, as well as the presence of the Shriekers, suggested Druidic magic unpossessed by any mere goblin shaman. This meant that the goblinoids currently pacing the wall’s top were either in Silvanus’ favor or, more likely, were in the employ of a creature who was. Lastly, the placing of the Shrieker mushrooms was eerily similar to those Alurust, the High Druid of the Wood of Sharp Teeth, had placed about his own Grove within that forest.

For Rendrick, the obvious answer to this conundrum was that one of the Druids of Alurust’s Grove had turned to evil and had fled to Cloakwood, setting up their own Grove in contrast to his. The more sinister possibility was that this was a design of the High Druid himself, to counter the High Druid Blacktree and usurp his control of Cloakwood. The Ranger hoped this wasn’t true for it meant that the High Druid of the Wood of Sharp Teeth had drifted into madness, something all too possible given his reclusion these past years and his withdrawal from the defense of his forest’s borders.

The more immediate threat, of course, was that which this development posed to the Ranger himself and his companions. Though he was somewhat relieved to find that those Goblins whose tracks criss-crossed the woodland trails did not belong to those who had ambushed their caravan, the existence of the barbican, as well of the multitude of Goblins patrolling its top, meant that he would have to deviate their current course and take perhaps a longer route to the woods’ northern reaches. 

Pulling himself back from the gully’s edge, he slunk away into the underbrush, retreating quickly to where he had left his companions.

*                             *                                       *                                   *  

Thunder rumbled across the skies above Baldur’s Gate, prompting Kormak to look uncomfortably at the leaky ceiling of the small room in which he, Jherek and Jaryn Moorstrider crouched. No light kissed the room’s interior save what dull trails broached the thick boards that sealed its windows. The Harper Master and the Dwarf huddled near one such window, their eyes on the large, walled estate across the street, the address of the fake merchant, Timineus Olanter. 

Few braved the street between them and the estate save the occasional carriage trundling by, no doubt bearing a merchant or minor noble with business in the city, or else returning home from such a foray. 

While the street might have been nigh deserted, the manor itself was far from and bristled with guardsmen bearing the blue tabard and insignia of the Storm’s Rising Mercenary Company.

“None too subtle are they?” Jherek remarked, drawing the Dwarves’ gaze back to their target.

“They needn’t be,” was Kormak’s reply. “Many be the manors of merchants in these parts tha’ are guarded by ‘em. Ye and I migh’ see the difference between six guards an’ twenty but the average man does not.”

“Fair enough,” the Harper Master conceded then, with a sigh, sat back from the window and rubbed his eyes.

“Ye alright there, Jherek?” Kormak inquired. “Ye ain’t been gettin’ much sleep…”

“I thank you for your concern, Kormak, but you needn’t worry. I returned to Baldur’s Gate for a purpose and rest will not be mine until that purpose is realized.”

“An’ if ye drop dead in the process?”

“That also needn’t be a concern.”

Kormak seemed ready to question this line of thinking when a soft knock at the door heralded the entrance of Marissa Tame to their attic vigil.

“Ethon is on the trail of the merc captains Alora followed last night,” the Swashbuckler murmured, joining them at the window, Jaryn having stirred not at all at her debut.

Jherek nodded to her words in quiet satisfaction.

“Then we wait,” he said. “Baldwin and Jewel are keeping their ears to the streets and Huvertrov is attempting to divine malignant magical presences linked to Kharne within the city. Soon one of our lines is bound to catch a fish, however small, and when it does, we move.”

Marissa and Kormak bobbed their heads in answer, the Swashbuckler casting her gaze to the restive Ranger as she did.

“Didn’t think he slept for some reason,” she said.

“He doesn’t,” was the Harper Master’s response. “He perfected the Elven art of Reverie long ago, I guarantee he hears all we have discussed thus far.”

“I have,” the Master Ranger murmured, not even bothering to open his eyes. 

The three Harpers exchanged smirks before Marissa withdrew, leaving the trio once more to their surveillance. 

*                                *                               *                                  *   

“I thought you said no goblins inhabited this part of the forest?” Kearia spoke in harsh, low tones once Rendrick had relayed to them what he had seen.

“I said I knew of none,” he replied, considerably calmer. “It has been some time since I have traversed these woodlands and it is possible that my tracking has led us in a more westernly trajectory than I earlier anticipated. By my estimation, we are now nearer to the center to Cloakwood than the periphery.”

“How much more treacherous has that made our course?” Tiberius inquired as Kearia turned from the Ranger fuming.

“We have not yet encountered any Ettercaps, but a fortress of Goblins looms near,” Rendrick replied sourly. “As such I would say that we are in a pile of Worg dung no matter which way you choose to look at it.”

“What the fuck, Ranger,” Kearia snapped, whirling on him and forgetting herself given the pitch of her tone. “You were to lead us from harm, not further into it!”

“Let’s not get too boisterous, given our current predicament,” Katarina chimed in. “Trotter has not intentionally led us astray, if he has led us astray at all…”

“He’s led us into a Goblin Hive!” The Mercenary Captain shot back hotly, though she was careful to lower her tone.

“Not intentionally, and only to the outskirts of one, given the results of his reconisainse,” Tiberius countered. “Given our predicament, no judgement can be brought against the Ranger that cannot be equally measured against yourself, Kearia.”

Her glower freezing upon Rendrick, the Mercenary Captain slowly pivoted her eyes to the Cleric, who held her gaze firm, his stance relaxed though his fingers did tighten slightly around the haft of his mace.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” She hissed dangerously.

“It means that you were the one in charge of the caravan’s protection,” Tiberius said, despite a cautionary look from Trotter. “You persevered in your course despite ample warnings against such actions and, as a result, we were ambushed and now find ourselves wandering a hostile woodland. I am not laying blame fully at your feet,” he held up a hand to forestall her heated response. “I merely point out the fact that the weight we now lay upon Trotter’s shoulders is one you recently bore.”

“And stumbled beneath if I am to understand your insinuation.”

“We can only do what we think is best given the resources with which we are presented. While you may have lost faith in our guide, I shall retain mine, for, without him, we may as well strike out our eyes so hopeless shall we be.”

“Though I might be less colorful in my portraiture, I second Tiberius’ sentiment,” Katarina said, offering the Cleric a supportive smile.

Closing her eyes, Kearia sucked in a sharp breath and exhaled it with forced calm. “Very well, Ranger,” she said, “what plan have you of freeing us from this excrement?”

*                                     *                                 *                              * 

Darkness was fast falling upon the land when Lystra made the sparse growth of the northern eaves of the Wood of Sharp Teeth. Here mostly grew birch and thin pines which offered her meager shelter at best. Not wishing to spend a waterlogged night huddled against the trunk of one tree or another, she pressed on, relying on both Shadowflight’s senses and her own to guide her to a more suitable location.

It wasn’t until night had fully enveloped her that she found such a place, a small copse of pines that would at least stop the rain from fully soaking her through the night.

“Well, at least my head will be dry even if my ass isn’t,” she remarked to her mare, who merely twitched her ears in reply. With a sigh, the Ranger Apprentice dismounted and set about preparing her place of rest. This did not take long as she had no intention of lighting a fire but she did scour the area beneath the trees, as well a short ways around, to ensure nothing had traversed the ground recently that might seek to return in the night and see her as a potential meal. Finding nothing amiss, she returned to the copse and sat herself against the trunk of the largest tree among the firs, careful to tuck her cloak beneath her as she did to stave off the damp of the constant rainfall.

Pulling a strip of jerky from her pack, she allowed herself to relax, albeit only slightly, as Shadowflight plodded about aimlessly nearby. She would rely on the horse, as she had done so many times when it was only them together in the wilds, to wake her in the night should danger approach.

Thusly secured in her position, she allowed her thoughts to drift over the events of the last few days. Mulling everything over in her mind as thunder rumbled overhead.

*                                    *                                     *                                      *

Whilst the rain fell and thunder rumbled above the rooftops of Baldur’s Gate. While Eltan mulled over the events of the past week, idly swirling wine within a forgotten glass and Jaryn and Jherek sat huddled within the attic of an abandoned building, Skye, the daughter of Duke Entar Silvershield, rose leisurely from her bath of steaming water within the her lavish rooms within her father’s manor in the city.

Patting her healthy, pink skin dry with a soft towel of lambswool, the young noblewoman drew the cloth up her slender form, careful to wipe away any stray drop of moisture from her fragranced bath, before wrapping it about her shoulder-length, dark, silken hair. Padding her way across marble floors, she approached the mirror of her boudoir, snatching a comfy robe from its hook upon the washroom door as she did and slipping it on as she entered her bedchamber.

Just as she was getting ready to seat herself upon the delicately carved, wooden chair of Tethyrian craftsmanship before her vanity, the strumming of a lute from her open window made her start. Pivoting, she saw, reclined upon the lattice of her windowsill, a rakish man in a well-tailored, though also well-worn, tunic and trousers, as well as well-cobbled, but also well-sullied, black leather boots. A weathered, leather jerkin he wore as well and his tanned flesh, though flawless in its facade, bore a number of smudges reminiscent of his having to spend more than one night recently in less than ideal locales without access to a bath. A thin goatee of black hair encircled his lips and his greasy hair was pulled back into a loose rogue’s knot, allowing several strands to fall rebelliously across his face.

“Oh Avatar of Sune, oh Image of Lliira,” he crooned, his voice like thick honey. “Why hath thee scorned me, your willing servant, your joyful slave?”

“Eldoth!” She cried out in purest joy, rushing over to him and flinging her arms about him, heedless of the grime upon his person which sullied her pristine robe, and almost knocking him from the lattice.

“Stay yourself, love,” he beseeched her, regaining his seat, albeit with difficulty.

Drawing away from him with a sheepish look, her eyes filled with unabated love, the noblewoman composed herself, retying her robe as it had fallen open slightly in her exuberance, revealing briefly to the rake what charms lay beneath.

Perceptive of such sights, Eldoth grinned lasciviously at her. “Oh leave it,” he crooned. “It has been too long since I beheld what gifts you have to offer me.”

“First tell me where you’ve been,” she said, her tone taking the downward turn into reproachfulness. “It has been a long time for me as well, why have you been hiding from me?”

“You haven’t visited our usual meeting places, for all I knew you had left the city,” was his defensive reply. “I know not where you noblewomen flock to when the weather turns poor.”

“I have asked you not to call me thus,” her tone continued its rollercoaster now to hurt and she turned from him. “You know to me that this finery is a cage. I yearn ever to travel with you, to feel the grit and the grime against my flesh and beneath my nails. To go where none know my family name and live life on the edge as a cutpurse or cat-burglar.”

Unbeknownst to her, the rogue’s face had soured during her speech. After all, she spoke of what she didn’t know. When had she ever fought the gnawing hunger pangs after days without food? She knew not the fear of having to avoid guardsmen and guild strongmen alike due to being simultaneously wanted by the law and owing money to less savory sorts. That was, after all, what had landed him in Baldur’s Gate after having fled his native Waterdeep.

Quickly he hid his disdain and, slipping from her windowsill, drew himself close behind her. Gripping her shoulders tightly, he pressed himself against her so that she could clearly feel the hard bulge growing in his trousers against her bum, and savor the clean, fresh smell of her hair.

“That is exactly why I have come this night,” he whispered in her ear.

“Wha…?” She began, attempting to turn and look at him but his grip held her firmly in place.

“I have been approached by a certain group wishing to gain entry to High Hall,” he continued, his fingers digging into the soft material of her robe.

“Why would they approach you?”

“Because I know the city, and have gained entry to the castle before, right under the Dukes’ noses!”

“When did you…?”

“That’s unimportant, what’s important is that, in the confusion, you and I will slip away, leave this city behind us, start fresh somewhere else.” 

“Where would we go?” Her voice became infused with intrigue.

“South, for starters,” he murmured, allowing her to turn and look at him. “To Amn, and then…anywhere we want!”

“Oh Eldoth! That is all I ever want!”

“I know, my love,” he crooned, reaching down to undo the buttons of his trousers and free his cock. “You must get yourself to High Hall, make up a story of being concerned about the goings on in the city.” As he spoke he began to guide her down onto her knees before him. “Let me know what room you are in and…when the time is right,” he gasped as her mouth engulfed his greasy manhood. “I will come for you…”

Whatever her reply was it was muffled by him shoving himself roughly down her throat.

So ends part one of The Black Fang, book one of the Rising Storm Trilogy. You can peruse part one in its entirety here on feveredmind under the Fantasy/Scifi tab. 

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