Chapter One: A Willingness to Aid the Cause

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

NFSW Warning: Some intense scenes of violence and otherwise dark content.

With the breaking of the dawn, a rider came thundering up the Coastway upon a white steed whose coat was marred by a hefty splattering of mud. The rider himself wore blue finery as well as a silver breastplate upon which had been etched a rearing griffon. A silver helm he wore as well, the visor of which he lifted upon reaching those guardsmen who stood watch at the gatehouse. Not long after, Commander Adrian Durham was roused from his cot within the southern tower and within minutes he was striding forth, his helm held in the crook of his arm, to meet with the rider just within the cities’ courtyard.

“Hail, Captain,” he said, recognizing the man upon the white steed to be William Messallantir, captain of Entar Silvershield’s personal guard unimaginatively named “The Silver Shields.” “What news have you of Duke Silvershield?”

In the time it had taken the Commander to meet him, William had caught his breath somewhat, though his well-chiseled features yet held a pink hue from the exertion of his ride. Removing his helm to reveal high cheekbones, a strong jaw and shockingly blue eyes, as well as a head of brown locks shaved along either side, he addressed the Guardsman directly.

“Commander Durham,” he said, saluting and dismounting so that he wasn’t looking down on the other man. “Duke Entar requests an escort to the city. We have been harried in our approach by Gnolls, as well as other creatures of what ghastly origin we know not. They are well-armed and organized, however, and have proven quite stubborn in their pursuit.”

“Have you lost any of your number? Is the Duke injured?” The Commander inquired, motioning to the nearest guardsman to fetch Captain Emilia.

“We have sustained only minor injuries but it is the Duke’s concern that they mean to cut off our route to the city.”

Adrian nodded to their words, then turned towards Captain Emilia who was then striding forth to meet them from the gatehouse.

“Captain, ride to High Hall and assemble a sortie of twenty riders in all haste, and bring my horse,” he commanded, then, turning once more to the other man, beckoned him to follow.

“Get some water,” he bade him, “and tell me further of your journey’s perils.”

*                                *                                    *                                   * 

Eltan cursed over his breakfast as Nors informed him of the sortie Commander Durham was organizing. 

“I was worried some ill had befallen Entar, at least it would seem as though our messenger reached him,” he said ruefully. “Do we know of Jaryn Moorstrider’s location within the city?”

Nors nodded. “He yet watches the estate of the fake merchant with Jherek.”

“Send word to him, I would have him ride with Commander Durham. If any might ensure Entar’s safe entrance to the city, it is he.”

With a stiff salute, Nors departed. Eltan returned to his meal, though paused once more almost immediately when a sharp movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. Looking up, he saw that none other occupied his chamber, though a sudden, damp breeze from his open window had caused a candle to flicker. With narrowed eyes he scanned the area a moment longer before, with a shake of his head, he returned his attention to the food before him.

    *                                  *                              *                                          *

“So our agent has failed to hold Entar in the south,” Kharne mused, his stern gaze, hidden within his helm, fixated out of a tall window within the fake merchant’s manor that overlooked the harbor.

Behind him, Nook lingered flanked by two towering Northlanders in Storm’s Rising regalia. 

Slightly removed from the trio was another person, though one whose presence there could very easily be called into question given how their appearance seemed to fade in and out of existence as if they half-stood behind a fluttering curtain of shadow. When it did flutter into sight, the being seemed to be of standard height and build of an average human man, though they were swathed and hooded in black cloth making their true identity anyone’s guess.

“But perhaps we can make this work in our favor,” he continued, turning to regard the room at large. “Two birds with one stone is, after all, better than just one. Alert your mistress that I will be in touch, things may need to be put into motion sooner than we originally planned,” he said to the being of shadow.

With a stiff, wordless bow, it turned and walked away, yet it took no path through the room and was gone in an instant.

“Go to your cohorts,” he said then to the two men behind Nook. “Await the signal from Nook but be prepared to act within a moment’s notice, all pieces must move as one.”

The Northlanders hovered until Nook gave them a nod and then they departed, their heavy footfalls echoing softly upon the well-polished floorboards of the manor.

“You have them on a short leash,” Kharne observed once he and Nook were alone. “Though I would expect nothing less from one known throughout Tashalar as “The Whip.””

“What would you have of me once the plan is enacted?” She hissed, her mouth hidden behind her cowl, her serpentine eyes fixed upon him.

“After things play out I will depart,” he replied, turning from her to once more gaze out the window at the rain-swept harbor. “You will stay and assist the Talosites in any manner they desire. Speaking of which, Gelrius has sent word. He wishes to meet with you to discuss the next steps of their plan.”

The woman hesitated for the briefest of moments, seemingly as if there was more she wished to say, before pivoting sharply and following in the wake of her mercenaries. Kharne didn’t even perceive her depart, his mind was already on other things.

*                                 *                                    *                                 *  

“They’re movin’!” Kormak exclaimed in hushed tones, rousing both Jherek and Jaryn from their respective reveries. 

Moving swiftly to the Dwarf’s side, the Harper Master peered through the wooden planks on the window to observe two tall Northlanders they had identified as captains stride forth from the manor gate. They spoke briefly, then parted ways, each heading in opposite directions down the street, a small retinue of mercenaries in tow.

“We pursue the one on the right,” Jherek hissed. “Ethon and Marissa lie in that direction and might assist us.”

No one questioned his words and they rose as one to make for the exit, their joints popping audibly in defiance of the sudden movement. As they had been cooped up in the attic room for multiple days, they were all eager to once more be on the move.

Exiting out into the alley behind the abandoned building in which they’d dwelt, they made immediately for the street, Jherek leading. Before they could make good on their pursuit of the Storm’s Rising Captain, however, a jostling in the alleyway behind them gave them pause and they turned as one to regard Baldwin and Jewel approaching, a woman in Flaming Fist attire between them.

“Oi, Jherek,” Baldwin called softly. “We found this interloper who claims she had words for the Moorstrider.”

“Fuck you, songbird,” the woman, who appaeared to be a Half-Elf with short-cropped auburn locks and a freckled, youthful complexion, snapped. “Agents in the employ of Duke Eltan may tread where they wish within the city.”

“Ah but can spies pretending to be agents of Duke Eltan?” The Bard countered cheerily, oblivious to the deathly look she cast his way.

“What words have you for me?” Jaryn asked, ignoring the back and forth and addressing the woman directly.

“Duke Entar has been attacked on the Coastway,” she said. “Commander Durham is organizing a sortie to lend him aid in reaching the walls and Eltan wishes for you to join them.”

Jaryn looked to Jherek, who nodded curtly.

“Entar is tantamount to the stability within the city,” the Harper Master said. “Go, we will deal with the mercenary.”

Dipping his head to the other man’s words, the Ranger gripped Kormak’s shoulder briefly before striding swiftly in the Flaming Fist’s agent’s wake, away down an adjoining alleyway.

“Come,” Jherek bade the others once they had departed. “We have a quarry of our own this day.” 

*                                      *                                         *                              *

“You look uncomfortable, cutpurse,” Marissa remarked to Ethon, lounging in the chair in which she sat across from him within an awning covered veranda attached to the upscale tearoom which they were currently patronizing. 

“I am not accustomed to such posh establishments,” the Former Thief acknowledged, looking indeed very grungy beside their otherwise well-dressed compatriots. 

He was right, Marissa observed, upon taking a glimpse about them. All others who shared the veranda with them were minor nobles or else the sons and daughters of wealthy mercantile families. Indeed, the only way they had gotten access to such an establishment was through the Swashbuckler flashing her Harper pin. Mistress Dissenloper, the Gnomish proprietor, was a personal friend to Cylyria Dragonbreast, the leader of the townstead of Berdusk and a prominent Harper herself, and so she remained sympathetic to their cause. Her only rule was that no clandestine operations were decided within her establishment, but if it was merely a strong drink or a place to lay low that they desired, Mistress Dissenloper’s Tearoom was open to the Harpers.

Marissa knew that they were treading the line a bit, given that their purpose there that day was to watch the street for the movement of Storm’s Rising members, but she didn’t predict anything clandestine happening and so allowed herself the slight flouting of their Gnomish patron’s wishes. 

Maybe Jherek was rubbing off on her, she supposed. His willingness to blur the lines as of late as to what the Harpers should do as opposed to what was needed to be done was concerning, but maybe she had merely blinded herself up until then as to what it truly meant to be a Harper. The question was not one she was altogether comfortable in confronting, but she was enjoying the added freedom Jherek’s methodology had lent them in these recent days as opposed to Kormak’s more rigid adherence to the ideals of their guild.

“Try and relax,” she bade him. “We are but here for an instance, after all. More likely than not Jherek will call us away soon enough to some further goal that is not so much of our choosing.”

“You make it seem so easy,” Ethon remarked. “I am unaccustomed to this. What other times that I have aided your guild…well, there was a clear and present threat then.”

“You do not believe there to be now?”

“I do not, no,” he admitted. “In the past when Jherek came to me for aid it was in response to a more obvious evil. Now, well now we have the demons Jherek believes manifest in our midst and we must blindly trust in him that they do truly exist.”

“You doubt him.” 

“I have known Jherek for a long time and, though fleeting, those times that I have worked with him in the past there was ever a clear and present danger to the city of baldur’s Gate. Now, however…well, let’s just say it is more muddled.”

Marissa stewed on his words for a time, swirling her tea in its cup, pensive in her own right regarding the merit of Jherek’s claims. 

“I believe him,” she said at long last. “Perhaps I do not fully agree with he who he has become but I choose to believe that the declarations he has made have merit…”

“And thus you follow blindly?” He questioned.

“Is it considered blind if you believe another’s sight?” She countered.

“Fair,” he relented. “And so here we sit, waiting to see if the claims our leader has made come to fruition.”

“Indeed we do,” she agreed, tipping her teacup to him.

Ethon looked away and then, after a time, turned back and looked as though he was about to say something more when a person approached them from outside the barrier that ensconced their veranda. They both looked up to see Kormak laying a heavy hand upon the nearest post of the barricade between them and the street.

“C’mon,” he bade them. “Our net has baited a fish an’ we are of a mind ter catch ‘em.”

Marissa and Ethon looked at one another and, with an affirming nod from the Former Thief, they rose and followed the Dwarf in the direction he beckoned, down the lane in pursuit on a tall, blond-haired man in Storm’s Rising colors trailed by a small grouping of mercenaries in similar garb.

*                               *                             *                                          *

“I do not believe that we have ever met,” Jaryn remarked to his escort as they made their way swiftly through the cities’ winding streets towards the keep of High Hall that loomed ever above them.

“We have not,” was her curt reply. “But all know of the exploits of Jaryn Moorstrider.”

“Have you exploits of your own?” he asked. “And if so might there be a name that accompanies them?”

Casting him a sardonic look over her shoulder, she replied, “few exploits any beyond my fellow mercenaries would know of or hold to any standard of regard. My name is Triska Ivenshield, though all who know me call me merely Tris or else Captain.”

“Captain being your rank among the Flaming Fist.”

“Quick aren’t you? Yes, that is the rank I hold, second to Captain Nors here in the City.”

They lapsed into silence then, the Ranger’s curiosity satisfied, and remained so until they entered the keep’s courtyard.

Within, they found Captain Emilia mounting up beside twenty of her fellow guardsmen, all fully armed and armored. In her hand, the Captain clasped the reins to a jet black charger Jaryn recognized to be Commander Durham’s. She paused when she saw the Ranger and mercenary approaching.

“If you mean to join us, Moorstrider, I beg you hurry. We mean to depart the city in all haste,” she bade him.

He nodded stiffly to her before letting out a long, low whistle. An immediate crashing from the stables had all heads turning in that direction. Sundril barrelled forth, two flustered stablehands stumbling in his wake. Jaryn held up a hand to stall their pursuit and fluidly pulled himself onto the stallion’s back.

“Come,” he said to their looks of surprise, and more than one of admiration, “you mentioned something or haste.”

*                             *                              *                             * 

Careful ever to keep their distance, the Harpers stalked their quarry as he made his way down the street towards the Gray Harbor. Though they were wary of ever catching the gaze of the mercenaries, it seemed as though they needn’t have bothered, so boldly did they stride. Indeed, all others they passed seemed to give them a wide berth, as if out of fear that they would suddenly lash out or else they carried some baleful plague. This was the case with all but others of their guild, small groups of whom became ever more prolific the closer they came to the dock ward.

“How many of their Company now occupy the city?” Ethon asked Marissa as they lingered briefly beneath a storefront’s awning. 

“I’ve counted nigh forty thus far,” she replied. “With what contracts we know they possess among the merchants, I would estimate their number being close to two hundred if not higher, perhaps much higher.”

“Well that’s concerning,” the Former Thief admitted. “Eltan has what? Eight-hundred Flaming Fist currently stationed here?”

“Nine-hundred and forty-six,” she replied. “With another eighty at the fort between here and Elturel.”

“That’s precise.”

“Knowledge, even that which seems useless, keeps you alive, you should know that, cutpurse.”

“Indeed I do,” he admitted, setting off after her once more down the street.

Glancing sidelong, he spotted Baldwin buying an apple at a stand across the way, and, looking up, he spotted Jewel moving swiftly upon a rooftop before disappearing once more from view.

Despite himself, and his earlier trepidations voiced to the Swashbuckler, Ethon had to admit to a certain excitement running through him that he hadn’t felt in some years. It was the thrill of the hunt, he knew. It brought back memories of when he was a member of the old Thieves Guild. When he made his mark and was trailing them, awaiting the perfect time to strike.

At long last, the mercenary captain and his retinue reached a three-story tenement squashed between a pair of fishmongers somewhat removed from the main harbor and knocked heavily on its front door. 

Marissa and Ethon turned down the nearest alleyway and crouched amongst the detritus that had built up against of the looming buildings on either side. Hunkering down, they peered forth just in time to see the captain and his men disappear inside.

Jherek, Kormak and Baldwin stepped froth from a small throng of people congregating near the fishmonger to the left of the tenement and, after conferring briefly among themselves, approached the tenement door.

“What are they doing?” Ethon barely had time to hiss before Marissa broke cover and began striding across the street towards her fellows.

“We are going through the front door?” Ethon said, flabbergasted, before forcing himself also from cover and falling into step behind the Swashbuckler.

As the duo approached, Baldwin rapped smartly upon the tenement door and, when bidden from within, called out “Fury’s Heart.” That must have been the password he had overheard the mercenary captain give, a marvel in and of itself that he had heard it from among the fishery throng, for immediately the door began to open.

As soon as the portal was cracked, Kormak rushed forward and set his shoulder to its face, forcing it fully open and sending whomever was on the other side sprawling. Baldwin and Jherek were hot on the Dwarf’s heels into the building and Marissa lept to pursue, drawing her dual shortswords as she did. With a curse, Ethon followed suit, drawing his long dagger and giving chase.

Just within, a long hallway stretched. Kormak knelt above the doorman, sawing at his throat with a knife, blood pouring forth to soak the ill-used floorboards and mist the walls.

Ethon had barely enough time to take account of that image before he was past it, stumbling in Marissa’s wake and she pursued Jherek and Baldwin down the hall. At its end was another door and a stairway leading up, cutting back towards the way they had entered. 

Someone within the room beyond the door must have spied their entrance for it was half-closed against them when Baldwin threw himself against it to stop it shutting fully. Close behind the Bard, Jherek brought his own shoulder to bear as well and their combined might forced it open fully. Together the pair, their weapons drawn, faced off against the several half-clothed mercenaries within. Ethon had barely glimpsed a form huddled upon the floor between them when Marissa grabbed a handful of his tunic and dragged him with her up the stairs. Behind them he heard Kormak’s battle-cry as he rushed to join his comrades.

Stumbling up the stairs behind Marissa, Ethon kept his focus forward, trying desperately not to think of the form hundled on the rooms floor and what it was, and what the half-clothed Northlanders had been doing to it. Luckily he had little time to, for he and the Swashbuckler fast approached another door at the stairs top. 

Slowing as she advanced on the portal to the tenement’s second story, Marissa held her finger to her lips and pressed her ear against the peeling paint of its surface. Stepping back slightly, she sheathed one of her swords and set the point of her other against jam. Listening now too, Ethon perceived heavy footfalls within, as if someone were hurtling themselves towards the door. Just as the heavy thumping reached its crescendo, Marissa levered her sword, splitting the handle from the frame and sending the door swinging inwards, just in time for it to hit whomever was charging it in the face. There was an audible crunch and a muffled grunt and Marissa, capitalizing on her surprise attack, charged into the room. She hesitated but a moment as she faced off against three mercenaries within the room, these fully armed and armored, though one was stumbling backwards clutching his nose, blood seeping freely between his fingers.

Before any other within the room could react, the Swashbuckler launched her blade with both hands directly into the stumbling sellsword’s chest, before drawing her other sword and rushing to meet the other two. Ethon charged through the splintered doorway soon after and leapt to her aid, his adrenaline pumping, making him heedless of the danger he had just hurled himself into.

A vicious melee ensued in which the Northlanders gave as good as they got but proved ultimately to be too clumsy to keep up with the dexterity exerted by the Harper and her ally. By the time Kormak and Jherek made the second story they found Marissa and Ethon standing back-to-back, their weapons bloodied, their breathing heavy, their foes in heaps on the floor.

The Harper Master took the scene in in but a moment before the sounds of further scuffle upstairs had him charging through the room and up the stairwell at its far end.

“Ye two alright?” Kormak inquired as he jogged past.

They both offered him but a nod in reply, Marissa’s stiff, Ethon’s tired, before he was also away and up the stairs.

“That was well fought, cutpurse…or should I say cut-throat?” The Swashbuckler smirked, striding over to retrieve her other blade from its macabre sheath in its victim’s chest cavity.

“Ethon, if you don’t mind,” he replied, absentmindedly, his gaze focused on the man he had killed at his feet.

Her features softening, Marissa came to stand beside him and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“You did well, Ethon,” she said, “now come. Let us see what Jewel has left for us above.”

*                                   *                               *                                    * 

“It is good to see you, Moorstrider,” Commander Durham commented as the mounted retinue of his guardsmen, accompanied by the Ranger, approached the gatehouse in the late morning hours.

“Commander,” Captain Messallantir pressed, already mounted upon his own freshly groomed steed and awaiting them within the gatehouse arch. “We mustn’t tarry.”

Commander Durham nodded, grasping the reins of his horse from Captain Emilia and mounting swiftly. Once he was in the saddle, he looked to the Master Ranger.

“Shall we hunt?” He inquired, an out of place, energetic grin on his face.

“As you say, Commander,” Jaryn nodded.

“Raise the banner high, Emilia,” Adrian bade his Captain. “So that Duke Entar knows Baldur’s Gate comes to his aid!”

With that, and a blaring of trumpets from the gatehouse zenith, the host rode forth from the cities’ gates, to the reinforcement of their harried lord.

*                            *                                    *                                *

Mounting the steps to the tenement’s top story at a much slower pace than his counterpart, Ethon crossed the room’s threshold just in time to see Marissa attempting to hold Jewel at bay whilst Jherek and Kormak wrestled the Mercenary Captain they had tracked there into a chair, his blond hair and blue uniform now considerably stained in blood, his own by all accounts, or else that of his men.

“A Little help here, Ethon?” Marissa called, clearly struggling to keep Jewel from throwing herself once more upon the man.

Taking in the rest of the room with but a glance, the Former Thief counted no less than five other dead mercenaries, their bodies splayed about what could only be described as a staging area complete with maps of the city as well as racks of spare weaponry and other sundries related to urban assault.

Coming to Marissa’s side, Ethon grasped one of Jewel’s arms, careful to avoid the wickedly curved dagger she yet grasped in her white-kuckled fist. The Elf was surprisingly strong, he found, as he was forced to throw more of his weight against keeping her from their captive who even now Jherek and Kormak were binding to the chair they had forced him to sit upon.

“Jewel, restrain yourself!” The Former Thief gasped. “We need to question him! Have you taken leave of your senses!?”

His words earned him a vicious backhand from the Elven Dancer. One which, considering she yet clasped her dagger, brought the pommel sharply against his temple. Dazed, he released her and stumbled, barely managing to steady himself against the building’s wall.

“Jewel! Hold!” Jherek barked. Having just finished aiding Kormak in securing their prisoner, he now squared himself before him, and against the Elven woman.

The Dancer’s fierce gaze met his and she ceased her straining against Marissa, though her body yet remained taut in the other woman’s embrace.

The Storm’s Rising Captain guffawed at this, though his mirth ended in a choke as he spat up blood.

“What’s the matter, Little Kitty?” He chuckled after spitting a gob of bloody phlegm at Jherek’s feet. “Are your claws so easily sheathed? I wonder, are other bits of you so easily tamed?”

Kormak ended any further taunts from him by delivering a savage punch to the side of his face, sending his head snapping in the opposite direction and a spray of blood from his lips.

“Jewel, go downstairs,” Jherek insisted, stepping forward and drawing her gaze once more. “Baldwin requires your aid. Let us deal with this lout, I guarantee his end will not be a comfortable affair.”

The Elven woman’s jaw smarted at his words but she stepped back, allowing Marissa to relax and retreat a pace towards Kormak.

“Ethon, go with her,” the Harper Master continued, stepping back towards their captive and beginning to roll up one of the sleeves on his tunic, revealing an arm spotted with weeping sores masked only slightly by thin strips of cloth that smelled faintly of herbs.

Holding his head where he had been struck, the Former Thief wobbled towards the door in the Elf’s wake as she strode, stiff-backed, from the room, sheathing her daggers fluidly within the folds of her burgundy cloak.

As he reached the landing, Ethon glanced back to spy Jherek removing his glove to reveal a desiccated hand one might suspect to find more commonly adorning the wrist of a mummy rather than any living man. Marissa came forward to close the door and the last thing Ethon saw before it blocked his sight was the Harper Master positioning his unliving hand above the mouth of their captive and the digits begin to elongate just as the door snapped shut.

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