Table of Contents
Orion sits uneasily astride his new horse at the intersection known as Waymoot where the Way of the Dragon meets High Road. Nallana sits more comfortably on a roan mare on his right, and Marcellus stands to his left holding the reins to a gray stallion. It's a clear spring morning on the first day of Mirtul, and the air around them still has a chill in it. The sun is rising brightly on the horizon, though, and before long it will warm things up.
The early morning traffic flows around them: people on foot, carts pulled by ponies, merchants, tradesmen, guards, scholars, housewives. They call to each other in cheerful voices, barely able to spare a glance for Orion and his friends waiting expectantly in front of Pelauvir's Counter.
Nallana seems lost in thought. She is eager to be setting out in search of Dhaera, but a feeling of foreboding about the trip has closed in about her heart. What if Dhaera cannot be found? What if something has happened to her? She shifts uneasily in her saddle, and looks down at the chain shirt she wears. A gift from Lord Piergeiron, as are her weapons, a longsword, dagger and longbow, and her shield. The least he could do, he said, for a soldier who had served him well in the past. He had offered her her old job back at the palace, but she had declined. Dhaera had been there for her when she needed her. Now she must repay the debt... and save her friend.
Marcellus can barely contain himself, he is so excited to be departing Waterdeep for adventure in the wilds of Faerūn. It is the golden opportunity he has been waiting for so many years, a chance to make his fortune, to become wealthy beyond measure--and with wealth comes power and consequence. No longer will he be a cast out waif, an unwanted nothing. His destiny is to be a man of consequence. For the first time in his life, he is able to see beyond the immediate future to something calling him in the distance, something other than a foggy notion of "making it big." Its outline is clear and distinct, sharp as fate. It may not end well, but it will not end small and unnoticed by the world.
A rider approaches along the Way of the Dragon, picking his way slowly through the hurrying crowd. His face is tanned and weatherbeaten with narrow blue eyes, thin lips, and an aquiline nose that looks like it may have been broken once. His long hair is silver-gray, and pulled back into a pony tail that hangs down his back. A green wool cloak, clasped at the neck with a copper torque, protects him from the morning chill. His almond-shaped eyes and high cheek bones hint at elvish blood. He halts his horse in front of Orion, and studies Nallana and Marcellus for a moment before giving a curt "Good morning."
Orion nods, "Good morning, Greywolf." He nods to the others, "This is Marcellus, and Nallana. Greywolf is to be our guide through the wilderness."
Marcellus smiles, "Good morning. Glad you could make it." The half-elf takes no notice of the rogue, turning to study Nallana instead. Nallana gives him a slight bow, returning his gaze. She greets him non-committally. "Good morning. Pleased to meet you."
Greywolf turns back to Orion, and asks, "Is this the entire group?"
Orion shakes his head, "No, we are waiting for one other."
He nods towards Nallana, "Is the female yours?"
Orion looks at Nallana, "No, she is her own."
Greywolf studies Nallana again for a moment, then turns back to Orion. "It is bad luck to travel in the wilderness with a woman, and even worse when she belongs to no man. It causes... conflicts." The color begins to creep up into Nallana's cheeks.
Orion looks back at Greywolf, "There will be no conflicts over women. We are not a band of drunken sailors."
Greywolf shrugs indifferently. "Drunken sailors are not the only ones who fight over women..."
Nallana seems about to speak when a voice calls out loudly from nearby, "Orion! There you are! Sorry that I am late. I am getting my horse from the stable only just now." A heavy-set, bearded man of dark complexion approaches them from a narrow alleyway that cuts between Pelauvir's Counter and the merchant office beside it. He is leading a well-ladened black gelding by the bridle. He wears a gray tunic and breeches, covered by a black cloak. "Are these our companions then?" Noticing Nallana he smiles broadly, "Ah! Are you traveling with us, my Lady? Wonderful! I am always saying that a woman's influence has a civilizing effect on men. Don't you agree, Orion?"
Orion shrugs, "Just another member of the group to me, Father. Father Almorhaz, this is Nallana, Marcellus and Greywolf. This is Father Almorhaz, follower of Ilmatar. He will keep us healthy on our trip."
Father Almorhaz smiles, and bows deeply, "Pleased to meet you all."
Marcellus grins at the priest, relieved to find someone in a good mood. "Good morning to you, Father. Glad you could join us."
Nallana's smile is merely polite. "Good morning, Father Almorhaz. A pleasure to meet you."
Greywolf stares at the priest for a moment before returning a nod. "Good morning."
Orion scans the group, studying the faces of his new companions. Everyone seems ill at ease, except for Father Almorhaz and Marcellus. The exitement of the latter is palpable, and the other seems to possess an unquenchable good nature.
"Ok companions, it is time for us to head out. I know we all have our own reasons for coming on this trip, however if we plan to live long enough for those reasons to be satisfied, we have got to watch out for each other. This journey will bring more to each of us than wealth, power, or whatever it is you expect to gain from this. his journey will be one that is noted in the histories forever. From here we start a new beginning, with few answers and many questions. Together we will find what each of us is looking for, with each other's help and comradarie. Our lives are in each others hands, and we can expect no one else to care about them, so we must take care of each other. Are we ready to set out?"
Marcellus grins, "Ready, Captain! Let's go!" He and Father Almorhaz mount their horses, and the group sets off down the road towards the south gate and the Trade Way.
Arriving at the gate, they find it choked with wagons and horses, slowly making their way out of the city. It is the beginning of the trade season, and numerous caravans are setting off along the Trade Way for the cities of the Western Heartlands. The party moves up along the side of the road, cutting ahead of the wagons. Soon they're able to squeeze through and set off down the highway, holding their horses to the green sward on the side of the road to avoid the wagons.
As they break into more open road, Orion addresses the group. "Greywolf, I would like for you to take point. Father Almorhaz, stay with me in the middle, Nallana and Marcellus take up rear guard." They soon outstrip the heaviest traffic, and find themselves alone, passing through the Rat Hills. A breeze blows in from the direction of the sea, across the heaps of refuse that form the hills. Broken carts, piles of manure, busted crocks, old barrels and such litter the hills. In one pile of trash, Orion spies what looks like an old chest in good repair. It's lying on its side with the lid still closed.
Orion calls out, and makes a motion for the company to stop, "Hey Mark, let's check out this chest over here." Greywolf reins in his horse, and glances from Orion to the chest. He scans the hills around them, and says, "Dangerous spot. Are you sure you want to do that?"
Orion nods back to greywolf, "Yeah, but cover us, it could be an ambush. Everyone get ready just in case."
Greywolf nonchalantly dismounts. He unshoulders his bow, and nocks an arrow to the string. Nallana and Father Almorhaz follow suit, the latter fitting a bolt into the crossbow he carries slung over one shoulder with a leather strap. They spread out to provide cover, and scan the hills around them for enemies.
Meanwhile, Orion and Marcellus move towards the chest, cautiously scanning their surroundings. Orion leads the way. When he gets close to the chest, he notices something unusual about it. The surface of the wood, doesn't look like wood, but more like rubber. Orion turns to Mark, "This is no chest, it's a monster. Let's go." He begins to back away, still facing the monster.
Marcellus frowns, and reluctantly backs away. The chest begins to change shape into an amorphous blob, and move slowly forward like a giant slug, oozing across the ground. The two friends easily out distance the mimic, reaching the horses well ahead of it. As they approach the others, Orion calls out, "Let's go! It's a monster, not a chest!" The others put away their weapons and quickly mount up. The mimic has covered only half the distance by the time they spur their horses forward and take off down the road. Looking back over his shoulder, Orion can see the mimic moving back towards its hiding spot in the garbage pile.
Once in the clear, Marcellus begins to laugh. "So much for our first encounter with danger!"
Orion chuckles, "I'm sure we won't be laughing about all of them."
Greywolf looks back over his shoulder at the two companions and shakes his head. "We must always be cautious if we expect to survive this trip. There is no need to court danger for trifles."
Orion smiles up to Greywolf, "You make a good point Greywolf. However, danger is a part of this trip, and we all court it by declaring to enter the Tower of Ebenfar. Though we shouldn't go out of our way to court danger, we shouldn't go out of our way to avoid it either. Things along our path are just that."
The half-elf just shrugs and turns his attention back to the road.
A short time later, they find themselves at Zundbridge, a well constructed stone bridge spanning the Dessarin River. An outpost of Waterdhavian soldiers guards access to the bridge, and provides protection for travelers. A large cleared area on the southern side of the bridge serves as a camping spot for caravans. There is even a screw pump for bringing water up out of the river to a cistern that supplies watering troughs.
The party halts here for a short time to eat their lunch, and water the horses. Though the day is beginning to warm, the air by the river is cool and the overhanging trees provide welcome shade from the direct rays of the sun. They spend a pleasant hour relaxing and talking before setting off again. Before they leave, Nallana goes over to the guard post and speaks to the guards for a bit. When she returns she tells Orion that none of the men on duty recall anyone of Dhaera's description coming through last fall.
Orion shrugs, "I wouldn't worry, that was quite a few months ago. I doubt they would remember one girl."
Nallana nods. "Yes, I hope you are right."
Orion smiles and pats her on the back, "We'll find her. I promise."
The party travels on until the late afternoon. Greywolf spots a decent camping spot by a creek that flows across the plain towards the River Delimbyr and the Lizard Marsh. The party pitches camp, fetches water and gets a fire going while Orion prepares dinner from their travel rations. Greywolf explores the land around the camp after dinner, and Father Almorhaz and Marcellus sit and talk by the fire while Orion reads. Nallana retires to her tent early, and before long the rest of them follow suit, tired from their first day of travel. Only Almorhaz stays awake to take the first watch. After a couple of hours he wakes up Marcellus to take the next watch.
An hour later, Marcellus is sitting just outside the light of the campfire, watching the play of shadows on the tents and starting at all the new noises out in the wild. Amongst the furtive scurryings of various night creatures, he detects the unmistakeable thud of horses' hoofs, walking slowly towards the camp. He rises, uncertain whether to call out a warning or meld into the shadows and wait. A voice from the darkness calls out, "Hello the camp!"
Orion is awakened by a booming voice hailing the camp, he quickly rolls to his feet, grabs his spell componets and ducks out of the tent. Stepping into the firelight, Orion looks around for Marcellus and doesn't see any sign of him or the newcomer. He catches a glimpse of Greywolf slipping out of his tent and into the darkness. Father Almorhaz crawls out of his tent dressed in just his robes, and stands up. "What's going on? he asks. Nallana comes out of her tent, gripping her sword, and steps protectively in front of Orion. Again the voice comes from the darkness, calling loudly, "Hello! We're traveling late, and looking for rest. May we approach the fire?"
Orion nods and calls out to the darkness, "You may...slowly...."
Orion hears the creak of leather as the person dismounts, then stepping into the firelight with the reins of his horse in one hand and his other raised in a gesture of greeting, a large black-haired, bearded man in studded leather armor. The hilt of a great sword slung across his back protrudes over his left shoulder. He smiles showing a set of yellowed crooked teeth, "Well met! Well met! My name is Bharis Khorvan I have two companions with me. May we come in and share your fire? We have our own food, and enough to share if you have need..."
Orion looks past the warrior, "Have your companions step into the light, Bharis."
"Bharis makes a motion with his hand, and calls out, "Lisaran! Mhoram! Come forward, men." Into the light steps a slender elf with brown hair and tanned skin, and a smaller human with blond hair and a ruddy face. The latter is dressed in a tunic and loose-fitting breeches. The elf gives a courtly bow, "Greetings, friends. We thank you for your indulgence. It's late and we're tired. It would help us greatly, if we could share this fine campsite." The blond human merely nods to Orion, and looks around at the tents and the shadows beyond.
Orion puts a hand on Nallana's shoulder and moves to stand beside her, "Where are you coming from?"
The blond looks irritated, and growls, "What does it matter where we came from? Can we park our gear, or not?" The elf puts a hand on his shoulder, "Mhoram, behave." Turning to Orion he smiles apologetically and says, "I'm sorry. My companion is tired. We come from Secomber to the east, and are traveling south to Daggerford and perhaps beyond. May we stay here tonight, or must we stumble on through the dark?" Bharis looks on, seemingly amused by the exchange.
Orion give the blond a sharp glare, eyeing him for a minute, "Go ahead and....park...your gear. Be easy with your weapons, I would hate for this night to go sour."
Bharis bursts into laughter. "Me too! By the gods, I'm so tired I think this lady here could knock me over with a feather." Mhoram and Lisaran both grin at the big man's jest, and the tension seems to go out of them. He jerks his thumb towards the horses and tells his companions, "You two get our stuff parked, and set up the tents while I make the acquaintance of our host here."
Orion studies Bharis, taking his measure. He stands several inches over six feet, taller than Orion even. His shoulders are broad, and his arms thickly muscled. His face is flat and broad, but the forehead is high. His eyes are squinty, but show a glint of intelligence and humor with laugh lines deeply etched around the corners. Beneath his thick beard his chin juts out, giving him an almost orcish appearance accentuated by two prominent lower canines.
Bharis's gaze sweeps the camp, sliding across Orion and only briefly pausing on Nallana and the priest. His eyes fix deliberately on the five horses tethered at the edge of the camp, and he grins, "Perhaps your friends will join us too. It's probably cold out there in the shadows." He walks over to the fire and squats down warming his hands.
Orion smiles, "Precautions friend," He looks out to the shadows where Mark disappeared, and motions for him to come over. Turning his attention to Bharis, "They should be back shortly. What has you travelling so late Bharis, trying to get away from something?"
"Trying to get to something. Where might you people be headed?"
"South, to Daggerford."
"And from there?"
"Into the Moor...."
A slight flicker of interest passes across Bharis's face. "Adventurers. Got a lead, or just casting your net?"
"Just casting our net, trying to make some spare change. What about you, what are guys looking for?"
"We're mercenaries... looking for employment. I've fought in battles all over the North. Looking for someone down southways who needs a strong sword." He stands up, and unstraps the sword slung over his back. The sheath is about 4 feet long. He pulls the blade halfway out to show Orion its expert craftsmanship. A tracery of runes runs up and down the blade. "I've slain many an orc with it," he says, grimly, "and many a man." He shoves the blade back into the sheath, and sits down on the bare ground, laying the sword across his lap. "Ever killed a man?"
Orion shakes his head, "No, none that I can recall."
The big man chuckles. "I think you'd remember if you had. "They always manage to look surprised, as if they expected to soldier all their lives and then retire to the country in their old age. The right death for a soldier is on the point of another soldier's sword. May Tempus protect me from a long death, wasting away in old age."
"And what of your friends, are they both soldiers, just looking to sell their swords?"
He glances over at the two men setting up their tents on the far side of the camp. "They are in my service. Lisaran has been with me for a number of years. The other, Mhoram, joined us last spring. Both are stout men. They are deadly foes, and might be leaders of men in their own right, but they choose to stay with me."
While Orion has been speaking to Bharis, Nallana and Father Almorhaz have moved towards their tents but stand hesistantly outside, speaking quietly. Finally, Nallana walks over to stand by the fire, her eyes on Bharis and her naked sword still in her hand. "Orion, I do not like this," she says frankly. "We do not know these men. There might be trouble."
Orion nods, "You are right darling." He gives her a flirtatious smile, "Bharis, forgive her abruptness, but I am sure you can understand her worries?"
"Of course. Milady, you are capable with that sword?"
"Most," Nallana replies tersely.
"You have been in service?"
"To Lord Piergeiron himself."
He places his right hand upon his sword, "Well then, I swear to you, as one soldier to another, upon the blade by which I live or die, you are more safe with us here tonight than you would have been without us. Should something befall during the night, you will have us to stand with you, and the sword of Bharis has never known defeat."
Nallana nods. Raising her sword, she salutes the man and says, "Goodnight to you, then." Turning, she walks back to her tent, and goes inside.
Seeing this, Father Almorhaz shrugs his shoulders and crawls back into his tent.
A few minutes later, Marcellus steps out of the shadows, bow in hand. "Ah, we have company, eh? Nice. I had to step over behind a tree for a few minutes. Sorry about that." He nods at Bharis, "Marcellus is the name. Pleased to meet you." Bharis just grins and returns his nod.
Orion gives Mark a nod, then turns back to Bharis, "You say you are looking for work?"
"Yes... some noble lord, perhaps. We seek to join an army on the march. I have no use for guard duty." He nods towards Nallana's tent, "Though I'm sure it has its benefits."
Orion chuckles, "What is the highest position you've held in an army?"
With that, Orion looks up with renewed interest. "I see...." He looks down, turning this over in his head. "I am in need of someone to help me assemble, train, and lead an army. These are things that I am not skilled in. Would you be interested?"
Bharis laughs heartily. "You have need of an army? Do you intend to conquer the High Moor then? That is casting your net very wide indeed! Will you lift it up, and shake it until every copper nib falls out of it?" He rocks back and forth, enjoying his jest immensely.
Orion continues looking directly into Bharis' eyes, using every bit of self control not to let his anger through. He speaks with a cold intensity. "The offer stands. I will have need of an army, and I will have need of a competent general. I will be ready to begin when we are through with our business in the Moor. If you have no desire, that is just as well to me. "
The smile fades from Bharis's face. "Orion, I have need of a wizard to cast cantrips on my armor to make it shine. Are you interested in such a job? Of course not. Forgive me if I don't jump at your offer, but unless you are, unbeknownst to me, a prince in exile, then it would be aiming a bit lower than what I seek for me to accept your offer... Do you have castle? Where is your kingdom? Do not offer me the opportunity to burnish your armor, when what I seek is a position of command in the army of a southern kingdom."
Orion lowers his voice some, "Allow me to be more honest with you. There is a tower near Ebenfar. This once belonged to a powerful wizard by the name of Balen (last name). I am the heir to that kingdom, fallen as it may be. My business in the Moor is just that, to find and reclaim the throne that belonged to my ancestor. When that has been done, I will be in need of someone to command my army. The opportunity that I offer you is that. If you are interested, you can await our return to Daggerford. If we are not back in a month, continue south. The choice is yours to make."
Bharis sighs. "Let me be equally honest. It's a slim chance that you will ever see Daggerford alive again, Orion. I will continue south. If I hear of you down there, then I will return. If you survive the Moor and succeed to make your name known, it will be a sure sign that the gods have marked you for great things. If you die, unremarked on the Moor, then I will have wasted no time waiting upon a dream."
As soon as Bharis mentions that the gods have marked him for great things, Orion bursts into laughter, muttering, "I wish people would quit telling me that." He clears his throat, and gives Bharis a friendly smile, "When I have finished my business in the moor, I will be in touch with you. If you will excuse me, though, I must get back to my rest."
"Yes, it is getting late. I should retire also." Bharis stands, and leans his sword across his shoulder. "I look forward to hearing from you. If you hear news of a war in the south, that is where you will find me."
Orion nods and rises, retiring to his tent to think about what has transpired, and hopefully get a few more hours rest before his watch comes.
In the morning, Bharis and his men are up before dawn, packed and ready to leave, when Orion comes on watch. Before setting forth, Bharis has a final word with the ambitious young wizard. "The High Moor is a poor place to form the seat of a kingdom. It has few resources, and the only inhabitants are goblinkin, orcs and a few rustic humans. You will have to conquer them before you can call it yours, and even then you will not have much. If you attempt to spread your empire beyond the Moor, you will be opposed by the Lords' Alliance, as well as the independent city-states of the Fields of the Dead. Defeating them will require a massive army, and for such an army you will need lots of gold. Good luck to you!"
The three men ride off at a fast trot, leaving Orion to study his spell books and prepare his spells for the day. By the time he is done, the sun has risen and the other members are beginning to stir. Orion notes that Greywolf must have returned to his tent sometime during the night. The woodsman crawls out of his tent armed with his bow, and sets off on foot following the the little creek away from the road. A short time later, he returns with a couple of rabbits, which he skins and sets to roast over the fire.
Meanwhile, the others have been busy breaking down the tents, packing up and getting the horses saddled. After a bit of bread and rabbit to break their fast, the party mounts up and sets off on the road for Daggerford.
By lunchtime they are traveling along a ridge that overlooks the valley of the River Delimbyr to the south. They stop for lunch at a place where the sound of trickling water announces the presence of a spring below the road. A narrow footpath leads into the brush and winds downhill towards the water source. "This looks like as good a place to stop as we're likely to find," Greywolf tells the party. "We can refill our waterskins and eat here. If we rest the horses for an hour, we will still be in Daggerford before dark."
Orion nods and dismounts his horse. He walks to the edge of the ridge, and stretches. "What a view!"
The others dismount, unsling their waterskins from their saddles and pull rations from their saddle bags. Marcellus shakes his waterskin and listens to it slosh. I'll be ready for more water after lunch. He looks dubiously at the overgrown path that snakes down the steep-sided ridge towards the spring. "Are we all going down to refill?"
"What's wrong Mark, don't think you can make it down?"
"Oh, I can make it... just looks like a good place for snakes."
Greywolf nods. "Yes, it's a very good place for snakes."
Marcellus gives him a wry look and quips, "I'll just follow you down then, when you're ready."
"Good idea," the half-elf replies.
Orion chuckles, then walks over to Nallana. "You still worried about Dhaera, huh?"
"Yes..." the woman replies. "I will be worried until we find her, and I know she is safe."
Orion sighs, "You know it seems as if it's my fault. I guess I shouldn't have cracked her world."
Nallana shrugs. "It was foolish of her to run off like that. She wouldn't have done it if she hadn't found something compelling in what you said, but there were better ways for her to accomplish her goal. Dhaera is a romantic... impulsive, emotional. It makes her a very open person. It's why she was able to adopt me as her sister from the moment we met. She made my transition from captivity much easier. So her weakness is also her strength, and it is the reason I love her. I wish she had not left so thoughtlessly though."
Orion nods, "Well, try to relax some and enjoy the view!" Orion walks to his horse and grabs his waterskin, ready to go fill it up.
The other party members follow suit and Greywolf takes the lead going down the narrow path. Marcellus follows him, nervously watching the path for any sign of snakes. The path goes to the left first, sloping down along the side of the ridge. After about a hundred feet, it turns sharply back to the right. Trees and bushes grow thickly on either side, crowding the path. Briars snag at their cloaks as they wade through the undergrowth. The leaves are bright green with the new growth of spring. Another switchback takes them back to the left and the path levels off a little, following the contour of the ridge. Soon the sound of the water grows louder.
Suddenly, there is a crashing in the underbrush, and the party is taken by surprise as four figures seem to rise up out of the ground and rush at them. The creatures are humanoid in shape, but their eyes glow red with malice. Their faces are deathly pale, and their mouths are full of sharp, pointed teeth. The creatures spread out, moving to strike at the first four party members in line. The one attacking Orion, strikes him a glancing blow with his fist. The pain from the blow is not that great, but he feels weakened. A coldness creeps into his bones, making him lethargic.
Nallana rushes forward, side-stepping Father Almorhaz to attack the creature on Orion, and drawing her sword. With a cry of fear, Marcellus pulls his short sword from its sheath, and stabs at the creature attacking him. The sword thrust pierces its shoulder, eliciting a hiss of pain from it. Father Almorhaz steps back from the undead beast attacking him, and brandishes his holy symbol. In a language Orion doesn't recognize, he speaks in a commanding voice. The creatures attacking him, Orion and Marcellus shrink from him in fear, groveling upon the ground. Taking advantage of its distraction, Orion casts a spell upon himself. Holding a piece of leather to his chest, he utters words of power and his body glows with a red light, then fades. Greywolf slices with his sword at the one in front of him, cutting a bloodless gash across its chest. It screeches in pain, and swings at him, missing.
Nallana swings ruthlessly at the creature on the ground in front of Orion, slashing it across the back. It wails mournfully, but continues to cower on the ground. Grinning now, Marcellus drives the point of his short sword through his opponents neck, and plucks it out. Father Almorhaz laughs grimly, "Yes! Kill them! Kill the foul little heathens! Down, you lap dogs of Orcus!" Orion points at the creature attacking Greywolf and utters a command word. Three bolts of energy issue from his finger tips and strike the creature, knocking it backwards. Greywolf follows it up, and thrusts his longsword through the creature's chest. It collapses to the ground with a shriek, and he yanks the sword back out, turning to take on another foe.
Held to the ground by the power of Father Almorhaz's command, the other creatures are quickly, and brutally dispatched. Their fetid corpses seem to shrivel and rot into the ground. Orion leans upon the quarterstaff he used to dispatch the one in front of Father Almorhaz. The cleric steps forward and says, "You are hurt, I think. Let me examine you. The beast has left barely a mark, but you are pale and your skin feels clammy."
Orion shakes his head groggily, "I can't remember how to fly."
The priest raises an eyebrow at Orion's apparent delerium. "Yes, this is a grave concern, but more pressing I think is your lack of color and your lethargy. We must get you to a temple in Daggerford as soon as possible. If caught in time, your condition may not become permanent. Otherwise..."
Greywolf wipes his sword clean with a leaf, and returns it to its sheath. Addressing Almorhaz, he says, "Give me and Marcellus the waterskins, and you and Nallana can help him back up the path while we get the water."
Orion begins to make his way back up the path, steadying himself with his staff. Father Almorhaz offers his shoulder for additional support, and Nallana walks behind him to make sure he doesn't tumble back down the trail.
Meanwhile, Greywolf and Marcellus continue along the path to the spring. Water trickles from the rockface of a low cliff into a small pool. The pool is edged with rocks, and appears to have been made by intelligent hands. Marcellus fills the waterskins while Greywolf keeps an eye out for anymore attackers. When all are full, they sling them over their shoulders and tread back up the path. "I may get the hang of this nature stuff yet," Marcellus quips when they reach the top.
Orion laughs as he jumps into the saddle of his horse, "Ok, are we ready to get going?"
The other horses are rounded up, and soon the party is headed back down the Trade Way. In a short time, they pass a small caravan headed north from Daggerford. The guards and merchants treat them cautiously at first, but seeing that they are just travelers upon the road, they greet them with friendly nods and waves before passing on.
The road begins to wind down into the valley of the River Delimbyr as they draw nigh to the town of Daggerford. According to legend, the town got its name from the heroic stand of a young boy who held off an attacking band of lizardmen at the ford armed with only a dagger.
As the shadows lengthen, the air becomes cooler. At last, the party can see the walled town below them on a hill by the banks of the River Delimbyr. The road passes to the west of the town below the hill and over a bridge spanning the river. A fork leads up to the heavily fortified main gate and crosses the moat over a stone bridge. There is still an hour of daylight left as the party rides through the gate into town. The guards give them a cursory inspection before passing them through.
Orion looks at the others, "I think we should head to that temple first, then perhaps we'll see what kind of trouble we can find here before heading out towards the Moor. Nallana, I take it you will want to scour the city for clues of Dhaera?"
"Yes... eventually. We can see you to the temple first, and then I will look for the town constable."
"Do you know where we could find him?"
"Someone here might..." She hails a passing townsman, "Excuse me, sir! Do you make your home here?"
"Why, no, Milady. It was made afore a bought it."
"I see that you are a man of wit. Have you wit enough to tell me where I might find Bando the Lame?"
"No, Milady, but I can tell you where to find the house in which he is often found."
"I will settle for that, and count myself lucky if you do so before dark."
"Follow the wall towards the river, and when you reach the drilling field you will see a church, newly built. That is Fairfortune Hall, and may you have the fair fortune to find him there."
"Thank you, good sir." The townsman gives her a facetiously courteous bow, and she tosses him a silver piece. "Have yourself another drink on me."
He pockets the coin as he turns to go, and calls back over his shoulder, "That I certainly shall, Milady! That I certainly shall!"
Marcellus laughs, "This town must see lots of traffic. They are very familiar with strangers." He looks around at the crowded streets. "It is certainly busy this evening. Do you think we'll be able to find a room?"
"I don't know," Nallana replies. "I intend to stay with my family, but they will not have room for extra guests." She seems a little embarrassed to be abandoning her companions. "I wrote to them and they are anxious to see me...
"When I lived here before, there were three inns in the town," she continues helpfully. "The largest stands there before us, the Daggerford Inn. It was cheap, but had a foul reputation. It was said that they clean the rooms once a year whether they need it or not. By the North Gate stood the Dragonback Inn. It was a favorite with visiting farmers. Somewhat rustic, but clean at least. Then there was the Chateau Elite, which catered to visiting dignitaries and rich merchants. I never saw the inside of it, but it was supposed to be very grand. It's been many years since I was here"
Orion nods, "Hopefully one of them will have an empty room or two, Mark, why don't you go ahead and see if you can secure us a place to stay, and then meet us back at the temple in an hour?"
Marcellus nods. "Alright, Chief."
Father Almorhaz interjects suddenly. "I will go with him, if that is alright. I am feeling quite tired, and rather... sore. It would do me well to get off this horse and rest my backside on a bed or cushioned chair. Ilmatar tells us that life is pain, and pain must be endured, but I have endured all I can stand for one day." He smiles apologetically. "Please excuse me."
He dismounts from his horse stiffly, and begins to lead it towards the Daggerford Inn. Marcellus grins at the others. "Looks like I'm babysitting the good father. See you guys later." He dismounts his horse and follows the priest.
The others follow the wall a short ways until they come to the drilling field. The church is unmistakeable in the fading light. It has a high thatched roof and narrow stained glass windows. Stone steps in the shape of a half circle lead up to a set of plain wooden doors on the front wall.
Orion dismounts his horse wearily, and leads it to the front of the church, tying off the reins. He waits for the others to dismount before walking into the front of the church. Inside, the church is lit by two chandeliers hanging from the heavy wooden beams that support the roof. The beams are supported by rough hewn pillars of wood spaced along the main hall. At the far end, is an altar upon a raised platform. Above the altar hangs a large, shining, silver disk suspended by a silver chain. It turns slowly at a constant speed. A pivot in the clasp allows it to turn without twisting the chain. As it turns, it catches the light of the chandeliers, and reflects it back at random angles.
"Good day to you!" a small voice calls. From behind the altar steps a halfling leaning on a wooden crutch. "I am Bando of Tymora, called by some, Bando the Lame, which I hope is a reference to my long-injured leg. Is there something I can do for you today?"
Orion nods, "On our way to Daggerford from Waterdeep, we were attacked by undead...I was scratched by one of the creatures...and it sapped me of all of my energy....I am Orion."
The priest hobbles towards them. He has curly blonde hair, and a youthful bearing though the lines around his eyes indicate that he is in his middle years. "Undead? Do you know what type of undead?"
"They were white, ghoulish looking things..."
"Ghouls? Did they have a foul stench about them, like that of carrion?"
Orion shakes his head, "No, I didn't notice any peculiar odors."
"Eh, well. Not ghouls then. You say they drained all your energy, but yet you walk, you breathe, you live. Is this poetic exaggeration? How do you feel? Bend down so I can look at you. Twas not my luck to be born tall. I was born handsome instead."
Orion laughs, "Somehow I forgot one of my spells....and I haven't cast it..."He then sits down near the halfling so he may be looked over.
Bando pulls the skin of his left cheek down to look at the lower rim of his eye, then lifts up his brow and clucks his tongue. "The eyes look jaundiced. You say you forgot a spell? Perhaps you forgot you cast it?"
"No, it is a spell that I have never cast before."
"It's a spell that I just learned, and I haven't had a chance to try it out yet."
"What is it?"
"Fly...? You can cast fly, but you've never done it?" The halfling looks at the wizard in amazement. "I have always wanted to fly! If I could cast that spell, I would never limp anywhere again. And you haven't cast it yet? Where is your sense of adventure?"
"In the High Moor....tell you what though, you help me remember the spell and I'll come back tomorrow and let you fly."
The halfling's face pales. "In the High Moor, you say? Is that where you're headed?"
"Yes, after a brief stay here in Daggerford."
At the mention of the High Moor, the priest's demeanor changes entirely. He seems suddenly aged. The lines around his eyes deepen, and his shoulders sag with weariness. "It's a dangerous place," Bando says sadly. "I saw my companions slaughtered there... devoured by ravenous trolls. I barely escaped with my life. You would think my injured leg a sign of misfortune, but the day I received this limp was the luckiest day of my life."
Orion looks on with interest, "Trolls you say? What else did you face in the moor?"
"Fate... Fortune... I saw the face of the Goddess that day. She smiled upon me, and so here I am. Until that time I was nothing but a lowly thief. Now, I am Bando of Tymora. Lame to be sure, but no longer Fortune's Fool." His smile returns, and he shrugs off the sadness. "Don't try to change the subject, though! You promised you would allow me to fly! Here is what I will do. I can cast a spell which I believe will restore your health. The usual price is 280 pieces of gold--none of your brass taols, please. Pay now, and tomorrow when you cast your spell upon me, I will refund all but 100 gold pieces to you. Lady Luck must have something for the house."
"It's a deal."
The halfling's face splits in a big grin. "Well! That's wonderful! Come! To the altar, and we will have you fixed in no time." The halfling tugs at Orion's arm to get him to rise. He glances at Nallana and Greywolf who have been standing patiently in the background. "You may come too, and watch." He does a double take at Nallana, and frowns. "I know you, don't I?"
"Yes," she replies smiling. "I used to live in Daggerford when I was a younger."
"Right, that's what I said. So, what brings you home?"
"Visiting my family... and looking for a friend who passed through here back before winter. Perhaps you might have seen her. She was a priestess of Sune. Dark curls, brown eyes, very beautiful."
"I wish I had seen her. Sounds like a dish. But no, I'm afraid not. You should ask at the inns. She probably stayed in one of them."
"Thank you, I will look there. There are still just the three?"
"Oh, no. The Daggerford, Dragonback and Chateau are all still there, but now there's a new one called the Blackstone. Wouldn't stay there, though, if I were you. There's a rumor going around that the proprietor is connected to the Zhentilar somehow. I'd rather sleep with the rats in the Daggerford than in that place."
Orion laughs heartily at that.
A short time later, the three companions are walking out of the temple. The sun is below the horizon, and the pale light of dusk has spread across the sky. Orion feels much better thanks to the priest's ministrations, although his purse is a great deal lighter. Bando waves to them from the door and calls out, "I will look for you in the morning! Don't let me down! Haha!"
Greywolf, who has been silent the entire time, mutters, "Halflings talk too much."
Orion chuckles, and grabs Nallana for a quick peck, "I'm feeling so much better now! See you in the morning!"
Nallana stiffens reflexively when Orion grabs her. She reluctantly allows him to kiss her cheek, and manages a weak smile. "I am glad you're better. Sleep well." She nods at Greywolf, "Goodnight." Taking her horse's reins, she mounts up and with a wave, heads northwards at a trot.
Orion looks around, then back to Greywolf, "So Wolf, what were you doing before you signed up with our company?"
"Wandering." He seems about to leave it at that, but then adds, "I've travelled up and down the Sword Coast a few times."
"Did you settle down in Waterdeep, or were you just passing through when you saw my advertissement?"
"I was holed up for the winter. Between jobs."
"What kind of job did you hold before?"
"Are you looking for more permanent work when we are done? I could use someone to help patrol the moors in the beginning phase..."
Greywolf looks at Orion curiously. "Beginning phase? I thought we were just going to loot a ruin..."
Orion shakes his head, "This ruin belonged to my ancestor. I am going to restore the ruin."
"Oh." The ranger considers this for a moment. "You aspire to rule the High Moor?"
Greywolf shrugs. "Who knows if we'll even survive the moor? I'll think on it. Ask me again when we've ransacked the ruin."
"The halfling wasn't lying about trolls. The place is crawling with them. Not as many as the orcs and goblins, but enough. Orcs at least can be ruled, but trolls... they're ruled by their stomachs."
In the half light, Orion notices Marcellus approaching them from across the drilling field. He's on foot, and Father Almorhaz is not with him. A big smile spreads across his face when he sees them waiting outside the church. His step is light and cheerful. Walking up, he gives Orion a mock salute and says, "Mission accomplished, Chief! I did some nosing about, and discovered that there's another Inn in town. It's down on the south side, a place called the Blackstone. We were lucky! They had two rooms available! I snatched them both up before someone else could claim them, so we're all set. They even had a stable for the horses."
"Rats, farmers, nobles or Zhents," mutters Greywolf untying the reins to his horse. "Might as well be Zhents."
Marcellus looks from the half-elf to Orion, confused. "What's he on about?"
Orion chuckles, "The Blackstone Inn is rumored to be controlled by the Zhents. Nallana has gone to her parents, so we should be ready to go." He unties his horse and motions for Marcellus to lead the way. They head east across the field, and onto a cobblestone street. The turn south down a side street, and back to the east to reach the front of the inn.
It is not as large as the Daggerford Inn, and it's not obvious that it offers any advantage in cleanliness. The outside is nondescript, the plaster cracked and stained. A boy at the entrance takes their horses at a word from Marcellus, and they go inside, carrying their saddlebags and packs. The common room has a fair number of visitors, but is not overcrowded. Marcellus nods to a middle-aged man sitting at a table with two young toughs. "Gildamesh, these are the friends I told you about. I'll show them up." Gildamesh nods, "Good evening, gentleman. I hope you have a pleasant stay in Daggerford."
Orion follows Mark up the stairs, "You know him?"
"Just met him. He's the proprietor."
Greywolf follows the two quietly up the stairs. Marcellus opens a door, and waves the other two inside. "This is your room. I'm with the priest." He pulls a face and rolls his eyes.
The room is reasonably clean, but nothing spectacular. It is about ten feet square. Two narrow beds are set against the side walls. On the back wall is a table with a water basin and pitcher. Above the table is a small square window covered with a wooden shutter.
Orion, looking down at his own growling stomach after being so sick, and then the exhaustion of the spell Bando cast on him, nods in agreement. "I'm famished, and could do with a nice glass of wine."
They stop at the room next door to get Father Almorhaz, and then descend back to the common room. A waitress brings them food and drink, and they set too with a will, devouring platters of mutton, pork, beans, potatoes and carrots. Hunger and thirst sated, and with a head full of drink, the four companions return to their rooms for a good night's sleep. Just before dropping off, Orion hears the door to the room beside him open and close softly, and the sound of feet moving quietly towards the stairs.
The next morning dawns brightly. Orion yawns and rolls out of bed, rubbing his sore back. "Good grief, what do they stuff these beds with?" Thinking again, he mutters, "I'd rather not know."
Greywolf is already up, and his saddle bags lie across the bed, packed and ready to go. The half-elf is nowhere to be seen though. Orion gets his own gear packed, and then sits down on the bed with his spellbook to prepare his spells for the day. Midway through, Greywolf enters and nods at Orion. "Breakfast is on downstairs."
"Give me a few more minutes," the wizard replies.
Greywolf stands in the door for a moment, and then says, "I'll get the horses saddled." He grabs up his gear and heads downstairs. A half hour later, Orion makes it down to the common room. He grabs some bread and cheese to take with him, and settles up with the innkeeper. Walking outside, he finds the rest of the party gathered in front of the inn with the horses, except for Nallana. She is waiting for them when they arrive at the temple, though, along with Bando, who sits astride a small pony.
"I thought it would be best if we rode out of town a little ways," he suggests with a grin. "I would rather not kill myself doing something foolish in front of the whole town."
The company rides out of town via the west gate and heads south across the River Delimbyr. The land below the bridge is tilled farmland, with scattered homesteads on either side of the road. The peasants are already at work laying off rows for planting.
Finding a reasonably isolated spot between two farms, Bando says, "This should do." He dismounts from the pony, extracting his crutch from a sheath attached to the saddle, and sets it to graze along the roadside. He seems both eager and nervous. "Any time you're ready," he grins at Orion.
Orion dismounts, pushes up the sleeves of his robes and begins casting the spell. His companions also dismount and gather around to watch. The young wizard pulls the power of the shadows out of the empty places in the Weave, and shapes the dweomer into a shadowy pair of wings on the halfling's back. The halfling looks at them in wonder. The wings unfold, and begin to flap of their own accord. Slowly, the priest is lifted up into the air, grinning happily. As he rises, he takes control and begins to make the wings flap faster. Soon, he is soaring up into the sky. On the ground, the companions hear him shout, "I can fly!"
Nallana looks at Orion and asks, "How long will the spell last?"
"Should last just a few minutes."
"Perhaps we should tell him that..." The halfling is now up so high that he looks like a small bird.
A suppressed chuckle comes from Marcellus. Nallana flashes him an angry look.
Orion shakes his head, "Once the spell wears off he will float safely to the ground."
Nallana breathes a sigh of relief. "Good. I would hate for anything bad to happen to him."
The five companions stand by the roadside, staring up into the sky at the halfling who is now just a pinprick in the sky. The pinprick begins to grow larger. It takes on the shape of an eagle, and then they can see that it is plummeting downwards at a high speed. "Are you sure he will just float down when the spell expires?" Nallana asks nervously.
Orion nods, "He'll be fine."
As the halfling dives towards them, they can see that his eyes are wide with terror and his mouth is open, screaming at the top of his lungs. About fifty feet above them, he pulls out of the dive and they can hear him laughing as he swoops overhead. "I can see Waterdeep," he yells as he flies past.
Orion gives a hearty laugh, then turns back to Nallana, "Was it good to see your family again?"
Nallana is still smiling with relief when she turns to reply, but there is strain in her voice when she answers, "Yes, the visit went well. They were happy to see me... they don't want me to leave again, though. It's been so long since I've been home."
Orion looks back at her, "Well maybe you should stay here and spend some time with your family before running off again. I know how much you care for Dhaera, but she is a grown lady who made her own decision. Even when we do find her, she is a girl of such strong conviction that she won't come back no matter how hard we try."
"Unless she is in some sort of trouble. I have this feeling that she needs my help. I don't necessarily want to make her come back to Waterdeep. I just want to make sure that she's okay."
"Then don't leave the group. If you head south then it will be like trying to find a needle in a stack of needles. Stay with us through the tower, and by that time I should have the power necessary to use my magic to find her."
"I... I just chafe at any delay. There's a sense of urgency pressing on me. I'm afraid of being too late to save her from danger."
"I know you don't, but you know it's a possibility. We have had absolutely no leads. We don't know who she traveled with, or what her destination was. Hell, she could be in the moor right now! Waterdeep is a far way North, and you know as well as I that she could be anywhere on Faerun by now."
Nallana laughs bitterly. "My family would have me stay, you would have me go to the High Moor, and my heart urges me to keep searching. Was any woman ever torn so? I can't go on alone though. If I stay with my family, would you return for me and take me with you to find Dhaera?"
"Yes, I would, I plan on coming back to Daggerford anyways. Once my property is cleared, and I can find something about Dhaera I will send word to you, and we can continue our search."
Nallana exhales, trying to let go of the tension she has been feeling, now that a decision has been made. "Very well. I will stay here with my parents. I still have to ask around the town to find out if anyone here has seen Dhaera. I will look for clues here, and perhaps I will have some helpful leads when you return. How long do you think that will be?"
"I do not know for sure, I don't know what this tower holds for us. If it becomes too long of a wait, and you feel you must leave, then I will try to catch up with you."
"If I do have to go, I will leave a letter with my parents, telling you where I've gone and what information I found."
"Then it's settled." Orion turns back to the halfling, watching him fly with amusement.
Her gaze follows his, and they see the halfling a little ways to the south do a wingover and come flying back. He attemps a barrel roll as he passes overhead, and comes out of it shakily, almost spinning out of control. "Those are a little tricky!" he shouts.
He comes flying back and this time attempts to do a loop. At the peak of his climb, he stalls and suddenly begins to float towards the earth. "Awww... Besheba's sour teats! I wasn't done yet!" He lands in the middle of a plowed field, and has to stumble back to the road through the loose soil. By the time he reaches the group, his face has brightened again. "That was wonderful! I really can't thank you enough. Anytime you need healing, come back, and we'll arrange it on the same terms." He pulls a leather pouch from inside his tunic and tosses it up to Orion. "Are you guys headed on from here, or coming back to town?"
"I am returning," Nallana answers. "I'm not sure about the others."
Orion looks down at the little guy, "We will be pushing on to the moor. I'm glad you enjoyed that."
The halfling grows serious. "Take care of yourselves out there. It is a dangerous place. Watch out for the trolls!" He takes the reins of his horse, steps up into the stirrup and throws his injured leg gingerly over the saddle, wincing. Turning to Nallana, he asks, "Milady, will you be riding back with me?"
"Yes... one moment." She gives Orion a hug, and kisses him on the cheek. "Do be careful. I hope to hear from you in at least a month." She shakes hands with the other companions, and wishes them well, then climbs into her saddle and heads her horse towards Daggerford.
Bando smiles at the group one last time, and waves his hand. "May Tymora smile on you all!" Then he too points his pony northwards and leaves them standing by the Trade Way.
Orion turns to the guys, "Does anyone need to get anything from town before we head out again?"
The others shake their heads. "Nah, Chief." Marcellus replies, "I'm ready when you are. I was just waitin' for the halfling circus to be over."
Laughing heartily, Orion mounts his horse, and begins trotting off. "Then let's get into the moor and go....home...." He sits in silence for a few minutes, turning that over in his head, while trotting down the road.
The others mount up, and follow him. All absorbed in their own thoughts. The farmland soon gives way to hills on their left and flat prairie to the right. The road skirts the edge of the hills, rising and falling over folds in the land. Shortly after midday, they pass the hamlet of Gillian's Hill. They stop just long enough to water their horses outside an odd looking shop, and then push on to reach the next village before sundown. They manage to reach Liam's Hold just as the guards are preparing to close the gates for the night.
"Are you staying in the inn, or do ye just wish a place to camp for the night?" one of them asks.
"We will stay at the Inn, if there's space."
"Like enough there is, but if not ye can always camp in the caravan grounds below the walls." The hamlet is situated on a tor with a flat top. Inside the stone wall huddle a few peasant homes, a stable and an old tower connected to a newer thatch-roofed building. "The inn is there," the guardsman points a thumb towards the tower.
Orion trots past the guard, "Thank you."
"Yeah, don't mention it," he says gruffly.
The party makes its way to the top of the tor, and to the building which serves as an inn. The sun has set, and the sky is darkening. Lights shine out from the windows of the homes, and the sound of music drifts out from the inn. The innkeeper is able to provide them each with a separate room for five pieces of gold each. "The stabling for your horses is included in the price," he informs them, "as are your meals."
Orion mutters an oath. "We'll share rooms."
"Umm..." the innkeeper smiles apologetically. "I'm afraid it's still the same price. The price is per person, not per room. You are just fortunate that it's the beginning of the season, and we have extra rooms available."
Orion hands the inn keeper some gold, and waits to be shown his room.
The other three companions hesitate. "The guard said there was a place to camp..." Greywolf mutters.
"I could stay in the Gentle Rest in Waterdeep for that much," Marcellus grumbles.
"Such luxury is perhaps an offense to Ilmater," intones Father Almorhaz.
Orion laughs, "Ok glad to know I have your support. I didn't want to make you sleep on the ground when there's no telling how often we'll be getting that luxury in the future."
Orion turns to the Innkeeper, "I don't believe we'll be staying here tonight."
The innkeeper returns his money to him icily. "Very good, sir. Enjoy your stay at the Livestock Inn."
Orion looks at the innkeeper with a momentary glare, opens his mouth to say something more, and then turns to walk out the door, thinking better of it.
The guardsman chuckles when Orion and his friends return to the gate. "Thought I'd be seeing ye again." He opens a postern for them and motions to the right. "The caravan grounds are around the wall, east of the town yonder. You'll see the campfires."
Orion looks at the guardsman, "Yes...the inn here is quite outrageous. Thank you for the directions, sir."
The soldier is still chuckling as he closes the postern. The companions make their way down to the caravan grounds, and join a couple of small caravans camped out there. A few women from the hamlet have joined them, and seem to be doing a brisk business, disappearing occasionally with a customer behind the wagons.
"As virtue is its own reward, so vice is its own punishment," Father Almorhaz observes. "They will suffer for that by and by, I think."
"Yeah," Marcellus replies, "a proper case of the clap awaits them tomorrow, but tonight they're having a good time. Shall we join them?"
"Someone should speak to those girls, and explain to them the errors of their ways. I may walk over later and see if I can minister to them."
"Yeah, me too," Marcellus grins.
Orion shakes his head, "Not the kind of girl I'm looking for Mark, but to each his own."
"I agree," the priest chimes in. "Someone should speak to those girls, and explain to them the errors of their ways. I may walk over later and see if I can minister to them."
Orion puts his hand to his mouth, hiding a smile, "Father that sounds like a wonderful idea."
The priest looks around defensively and then just shrugs. "They need money to relieve them from the sufferings of hunger, and men need what they offer to relieve themselves from the sufferings of a different sort of hunger. I will leave it for Ilmater to judge."
The party finds a spot upwind of the mules and oxen, and make their camp. After dinner, Marcellus takes his leave of the group, and heads over to the other wagons, where the party still seems to be in full swing. A short time later, he is followed by Father Almorhaz.
Orion laughs as they both walk off, then turns to Greywolf, "Not your interest either I see?"
"The last thing I need while fighting trolls is a case of the clap," the ranger mutters.
Orion laughs, and pulls out the Tome of Shadows to read before bed time. Nicodemus comes back from prowling around the campsite, and curls up next to him to be petted.
The night passes uneventfully, except for when Marcellus comes back to the camp, singing loudly while stumbling around trying to get his blanket roll spread out.
Over the sea to me!
Come back, come back, my bonny lad,
And I'll belong to thee!
She'll no more see her Bonny now,
His ship brought by the lee,
It crashed upon the jagged rocks,
And drowned him in the sea!
"Shut up with your caterwauling," Greywolf grumbles, "and go to sleep."
In the morning, the sun peeks up over the eastern hills through a haze of clouds, looking more like the moon but spreading a dim light across the countryside. It shines in Orion's eyes, waking him up. Father Almorhaz lies wrapped in his blankets, having returned quietly sometime during the night. Marcellus sleeps like a dead man, if dead men were able to snore like the growling of a hungry bear. Greywolf is already up, and has gone off to hunt. He stirred up the fire before he left, and added a bit of wood to it. The smoke hugs the ground, moved by the barest of breezes. Nicodemus meows hungrily and nudges Orion's face with his nose.
Orion pats Nico, rolling him over to scratch his belly, "How are you doing this morning Nico?" The cat attacks his hand playfully, biting at it and batting it with his hind feet. Orion spends the rest of the morning playing with Nico, until Greywolf gets back.
Greywolf comes back after a half hour carrying two small rabbits, and surveys the camp before dropping his kill by the fire. "It's a hard day's ride to the Way Inn from here, if we want one last night in a town before we set out for the Moor. There will be no more ale or women past that point."
"That sounds like a good plan."
"Then the sooner everyone is up and packing, the better." He picks up the rabbits, and goes off a little ways to clean them. Nicodemus follows him to watch and wait for scraps.
Orion goes about gathering his things, and waking the others, which proves difficult. Neither is eager to roll out of his blankets, and it is only after a good deal of nudging and some harsh words that he's able to get them up and moving. Both are rather moody as they get their gear packed up and their horses saddled. Meanwhile, Greywolf has set the rabbits cooking on a spit over the fire. By the time everyone is packed, there's fresh meat and bread for breakfast with water to wash it down. After an hour of riding, Marcellus's buoyant spirits have returned. "What a night!" he laughs. "Remind me to tell you about it when you're older," he quips to Orion.
"I shall have to cast remove disease on you next week, though," Father Almorhaz grumbles.
Marcellus nudges Orion and whispers, "He'd better be able to cast it on himself too."
Orion laughs, "Mark, I've had my share of the ladies, and they've done things to me darker than you can ever imagine. I just choose not to put those desires ahead of my other desires, which are more important to me at the moment."
"Ah, well..." Marcellus shrugs and falls back a little, leaving Orion to dwell upon his ambitions.
The journey continues with the companions pushing hard to make the Way Inn before nightfall. They eat their midday quickly, barely giving the horses time to rest and graze. They pass by the village of Bowshot without stopping. When the evening shadows begin to lengthen, they are still some miles from their destination. An arm of the Misty Forest crowds down close to the trail. They top a ridge, and below them is a group of riders headed their way. Greywolf leans forward in his saddle. "It looks like a warband of some sort," he says uncertainly.
Peering through his spectacles, Orion can see that it is a group of orcs. Glancing to his left, he sees another group hiding in the trees. "Orcs!" he shouts. Ahead of him, Marcellus unshoulders his shortbow, and nocks an arrow in it. One of the orcs on the road spurs his horse forward and sounds a horn. His companions veer off the road and whip their horses forward, attempting to flank the party. Greywolf leaps from his horse, and it bolts forward. Orion begins casting a spell to protect himself from arrows. The dweomer takes shape and covers both him and Nicodemus. Behind him, Father Almorhaz begins intoning a prayer.
Marcellus takes aim on the lead orc in the group by the trees. It's a long shot, and his arrow goes wide. The group of orcs moving to flank them from the south fire a volley of arrows in Greywolf's direction, but they fall short. The lone orc on the road raises his bow, steering his horse with his knees and sends an arrow arching high towards the half-elf. It grazes his shoulder, causing him to wince in pain. Undaunted, the ranger unshoulders his longbow, nocks an arrow and draws it back to his cheek. He launches the arrow at the orc racing towards him, and hits him full in the shoulder, nearly knocking him from his horse. Orion leaps from his horse, followed by Nico, and begins casting another defensive spell. The orcs by the trees spur their horses forward and draw their sabers, yelling a war cry as they charge forward. Father Almorhaz calls down a blessing from Ilmater. He ends it with, "Ilmater help us, I doubt we'll survive this one."
Marcellus sends another arrow towards the lead orc charging towards them from the trees. This one hits, and causes the orc to cry out in pain. His eyes turn red, and he begins to froth at the mouth, as he bears down on them. The orcs to the south, still moving to flank, fire another volley of arrows towards Greywolf. One hits, spinning him around. The leader of the orcs, drops his shortbow and draws his saber, urging his horse to greater speed. Flecks of foam appear at the corners of his mouth and he begins to chant in orcish, twirling his saber as he rides. Greywolf recovers his balance, plants his feet and draws his bow back. He sends another arrow flying at the oncoming orc, and hits him again. This time the orc barely takes note of it, so caught up is he in his blood lust.
Orion turns towards the orcs bearing down on them from the north. Pulling a small ball of bat quano from his spell component pouch, he hurls it towards them, uttering words of power. The ball explodes in a burst of black flames. The horses rear up, screaming, throwing their riders to the ground. Chaos reigns. When the flames and smoke have cleared, only one horse still stands, bolting wildly for the trees, it's hide badly singed. Four orcs lie dead on the ground. The leader of the group managed to leap from his horse as it fell, but he is now on foot. He begins racing towards Orion at fast speed, saber raised to strike him down.
Father Almorhaz casts a spell at the leader of the orcs racing towards them from the south. "My Lord bids you hold," he intones, pointing at the orc. The orc doesn't seem affected by the spell. "Damn him to the Nine Hells," Almorhaz curses.
Marcellus drops his shortbow, draws his sword and moves to protect Orion. A hail of arrows falls around the wizard from the orcs to the south. One hits him, but the protective aura around him flares, pushing the arrow out and closing the wound. The orc leader stands up in his stirrups and leans down as he bears down on Greywolf. The half-elf tries to dodge out of the way, the orc's saber slices through his armor and leaving a gash across his chest. As the orc gallops past, he turns and fires an arrow at his back, striking him a solid blow and causing him to slump forward. Orion turns towards the orcs to the south, and sends another fireball bursting in their midst. Black flames engulf them. The screams of horses and orcs mingle together. Only the leader of the orcs survives the conflagration.
Marcellus drops his shortbow, draws his sword and moves to protect Orion. A hail of arrows falls around the wizard from the orcs to the south. One hits him, but the protective aura around him flares, pushing the arrow out and closing the wound. The orc leader stands up in his stirrups and leans down as he bears down on Greywolf. The half-elf tries to dodge out of the way, the orc's saber slices through his armor and leaving a gash across his chest. As orc gallops past, he turns and fires an arrow at his back, striking him a solid blow and causing him to slump forward. Orion turns towards the orcs to the south, and sends another fireball bursting in their midst. Black flames engulf them. The screams of horses and orcs mingle together. Only the leader of the orcs survives the conflagration. Behind Orion, he hears the orc charging foot bearing down on him. Marcellus stabs at the orc as he tries to barrel past, and sticks him in the leg. The orc is thrown off balance, and his swing goes wide. Orion can smell the pungent odor of the orc's sweaty body pressing in on him. It's breath smells like carrion, and it grins at him with sharpened fangs. Father Almorhaz casts a spell upon himself, and draws his mace. "The odds are much better now! At them, men!"
Marcellus steps behind the orc attacking Orion, and stabs him in the back, shoving his sword through the orc's ribs and into his heart. "That'll teach you to turn your back on me, ya pig-faced bastard!" The one orc still charging from the south urges his wounded horse torwards the party, and fires his bow at Greywolf. The horse balks, causing his shot to go wide. The orc leader wheels his horse about and spurs it back towards the group. His face is a mask of rage, and he aims himself directly at the one responsible for his defeat: Orion. The mage ducks underneath the blow, and the orc howls in rage as he gallops past. Straightening up, Orion sends three bolts of energy at the orc's fleeing back. The missiles strike unerringly, causing the orc to curse. Greywolf grimly nocks another arrow in his bow. "You won't get away that easily..." He takes careful aim and lets the arrow fly, straight at the orc's horse. It whinnies in pain as the arrow strikes it full in the flanks. Father Almorhaz spurs his horse towards the orc coming at them from the south, and swings his mace at it. The orc easily dodges the blow.
Grasping Greywolf's intention, Marcellus leaves his sword in the back of the orc he just slew, and grabs up his bow. Nocking an arrow, he takes aim and sends the shaft flying towards the orc's horse, barely grazing it. The orc engaged by Father Almorhaz realizes that the battle is lost. He turns his horse to the west and leans low over its neck. The priest takes a parting swing at him as he attempts to flee, but the orc dodges the blow. As the orc flees, it turns in the saddle and sends an arrow back towards the priest, but the shot goes wild. The orc leader urges his horse to fly across the plain, heading him to the northwest and towards the treeline. As he flees, he sounds his horn, a long winding blast. "Don't let them get away!" Orion yells. He rushes forward, hoping to send another magic missile at the fleeing orc, but decides that the range is too great. Greywolf draws back his bow and sends an arrow after the fleeing horse. He hits it through the neck, and the horse goes down in a tumble. The rider leaps clear, rolls and comes up, still holding his saber. "I will kill you, filthy human!" he shouts at Orion. "I will tear your heart out and eat it!" Father Almorhaz turns his horse away from the orc fleeing west, and returns to the group, unsure what to do.
Marcellus calls back to the orc leader, "You and what army?" Taking aim with his bow, he lets an arrow fly towards the orc, but it falls short. The orc takes the hint, though, and decides to continue the quarrel another day. He turns towards the woods, and begins to run at a fast pace, disappearing into the trees. The other orc continues to gallop west, getting away from the party as quickly as possible, but slowly veering towards the north and the Misty Forest.
Greywolf lowers his bow, and growls, "Damn! His head would have been worth a fair amount of gold, unless I'm mistaken."
"You recognized him?"
"No... but few orc bandits would operate this close to the Way Inn and the Misty Forest. He must be a great war leader. He certainly showed great valor in his charge." There is a hint of respect in the half-elf's tone as he speaks of their opponent.
"He showed great discretion in running," Marcellus mutters, shouldering his bow.
"I can't say I'm sorry," the ranger returns. "He was more than a match for me, even with his wounds... and me half dead." His voice wavers and he seems about to swoon. One hand goes the gash on his chest.
"Looks like we made quite an impression on him," Orion chuckles, "Let's hurry up and strip these bodies so we can get to The Way Inn as soon as possible. Mark you come with me, Father, see what you can do with Wolf."
"Yes! Yes, of course!" Father Almorhaz cries. He quickly dismounts and helps Greywolf to a sitting position. "These are very bad wounds you have. You are lucky to have me here. We must give special thanks tonight to the god- to Ilmater."
As Greywolf gives himself up to the priest's ministrations he calls to Orion, "Be sure to take the ears. They will pay us a bounty for them at the Way Inn."
Orion nods, pulling out the dagger he received as a gift from Keilier, and starts with the leader near the group. While he cuts off its ear, Marcellus retrieves his sword from the orc's back. Together, they drag its body off of the road and search it thoroughly for any valuables. Once finished with it, they split up to search the two groups of charred orcs.
There was very little left on the orcs destroyed by Orion's fireball. They managed to find a few hundred silver pieces and one small gem. The orc that Marcellus slew, however, carried platinum and gold pieces in addtion to silver. They also found a handful of gems on him. His sword was of superior make, as was the shortbow he carried. They also picked up the bow that the orc leader let fall during his charge.
The warhorses ridden by the orcs shy away from Marcellus when he tries to approach them. Badly injured and unused to humans, they refuse to let him get close. Once Father Almorhaz has removed the arrows in him and cured his wounds, Greywolf goes out and calls the horses to him. It takes him several minutes to lure them close, but he continues until each one allows him to approach and soothe it. Three of the horses are in sad condition. He removes the beasts' saddles and leads them back to the group. "They would make good mounts, if their wounds were healed."
"Well, let's lead them to town, and perhaps the good father can help you out."
"Eh? You want me to use the power of my god to heal horses?"
"No, but you have knowledge ot binding wounds and such things that could help these horses at least be well enough to travel."
The priest seems to be put on the spot. "My dear boy, I am a healer of humans, not of beasts! It's not the same thing."
"It's not the same, no. But of the four of us, who do you think has the best chance of knowing how to do this, other than yourself and what Wolf may know?"
The priest seems flustered. "Well... I will do what I can, but I make no guarantees." He goes over to one of the horses, examines it uncertainly. Calling for water, he makes a show of trying to clean the horses wounds. It's plain to Orion that he doesn't have any idea of what he is doing.
"Father just do what you can to make them ok to travel into town, from there perhaps we can find someone to doctor them to a more sufficient level of health."
"Perhaps Ilmater would condescend to help them. After all, the beasts are suffering." He places his hands on one of the most injured, and intones a prayer. A blue aura flows from his hands over the horse, and it seems to be healed of some of its hurts. No one is more surprised than the priest himself. He goes happily to work on the other two and casts a healing spell on each of them. "I am afraid that's all I have for today. Let us hope none of us needs anymore healing"
The bodies looted, ears taken and horses gathered, the party sets off again towards the Way Inn. The sun is setting, and they follow the road into the deepening twilight. A crescent moon is rising in the east when they finally reach the gates of the inn.
Like the inn at Liam's Hold, the Way Inn is heavily fortified. It sits upon a hill, surrounded by a many-towered stone wall. A narrow road leads from the Trade Way up the side of the hill to the main gate, which is protected by a barbican. "Who goes there?" a guard calls down to the party as they approach.
Orion walks ahead, "I am Orion Khelstar, and we seek a room for the night. We were attacked at dusk by Orcish raiders...."
"You were the only ones who escaped?"
"We were the only ones attacked."
Another voice calls down, "How many were there?"
"Eleven, but only three of them escaped."
Orion hears one of the voices mumble to the other, "Must have been a ragtag bunch of orcs." He calls down, "Hang on, we'll open up the postern."
Orion laughs at the guards, "I wouldn't say that to them. They just didn't know what they were up against."
The other guard coughs politely, but makes no reply. After a short wait, a postern gate opens to the side of the main gate, and the guardsman calls, "In through here. You should find plenty of room in the inn. Only one caravan in tonight. Things are still slow for now."
The party passes through, and he points them towards a large, well lit building by the north wall. It consists of a two-story central hall flanked by two one-story wings. They walk their horses in, leading the captured warhorses of the orcs. Orion steps inside the building to ask about rooms while the others stand outside with the horses.
A round watchtower is set into the front of the main hall, and the front door opens into the base of it. Orion steps through the door into an ante-chamber that takes up half of the base of the tower. An open door on the opposite wall leads into the common room from which floats the sounds of laughter and the smell of food, tobacco and ale. A bell rings somewhere out in the common room, and a young redhaired girl steps into the ante-chamber. Cute and freckled, she smiles at Orion, "Good e'en, sir. Will you be staying in the inn, or just for dinner?"
"Well... how many people do you have? All our rooms, save two, can be occupied by two people. Most have two single beds, but we have a couple with double beds, if you don't mind sharing. Each of those is two gold pieces. We also have two rooms with three single beds, but those are occupied tonight, I'm afraid."
"There are four of us, and we don't mind sharing."
"Very good, sir. A bath and your meals are included in the price for the room. Stabling for horses overnight is just one silver piece each. Do you have a wagon or cart?"
"No, just horses. Also I have some...ears....of a group of orcs that tried to attack us."
"Oh!" Her smile is replaced with a look of vague disgust. "Umm... my father handles that. I'll let him know. I'll send someone out for your horses too. Your companions are outside?"
Orion counts out a handful of gold and silver to pay for the rooms and stabling, and she puts them into a pouch on a belt around her waist. He adds a couple of extra silver pieces, and smiles at the girl, "That's for you. Thank you." He bows. She drops the coins into her bodice, and gives him a curtsy. "Thank you, sir. If you'll wait here, Dad will be right out to see you."
A few minutes later, a large beefy, red-bearded man enters the front room. "Good e'en, traveler! I'm Dauravyn Redbeard." He grasps Orion's hand in a vise-like grip. "My daughter tells me you encountered a band of orcs on your way here. You're wanting to collect a bounty for them?"
"Orion Khelstar. Yes, I was told you pay a price for their ears. You'll have to excuse some of them, they couldn't take the heat."
"Couldn't take the heat, eh?" he laughs. "Let's go look at them. I pay 5 gold pieces for each ear I'm brought. One-eared orcs are worth only half as much." He laughs heartily as they step out into the yard.
Orion chuckles along with him, and follows him into the courtyard where the others are waiting impatiently. "The leader of this band was very powerful, and managed to get away. Are there any orcs in particular that give you the most trouble?
"All orcs give me heartburn, but they're not the worst things out there. I'd pay a bounty for trolls too, if there was any way to bring back one's ear without it growing a new troll." He chuckles. "I have heard tell of a new orc bandit leader operating to the south on the Trade Way. Is that the direction you came from?"
"No, we were headed south from Waterdeep, just north of here where the forest approaches the road."
"Eh? Hmm... Wonder how the sneaky bastards got past my patrols. What did the leader look like?"
Orion describes the leader in detail, from his horse to the horn he was blaring, and then recounts the rest of the story.
Dauravyn looks at each member of the party as Orion recounts their part in the victory. "Shot his horse out from under him, eh? That'll slow him down, by Tempus! It sounds like the one I was thinking of. His name is Kush the Red, or the Bloody--not sure exactly how to translate it. Orcs only have the one word for both." He chuckles. "My name translates as Bloody-Face in their language."
He glances around at the road-weary travelers, and realizes they are probably not interested in orc languages. "Ah, well. You look tired. Fiona should have your baths ready soon. Leave the horses out here. I'll take the ears and have someone show you to your rooms. I'll send up a purse in a bit. Here comes Mhalkum now for the horses."
A young man with redhair rounds the corner of the inn and greets them. Dauravyn gives him brief instructions, and leads the party inside. Another redhaired girl comes up, younger than Fiona, and leads the group to their rooms upstairs while Dauravyn goes off towards the west wing of the building.
A couple of redhaired boys are filling up a pair of bathtubs in each room. A redhaired woman brings up towels and soap for each guest, and offers to have their clothes laundered for them. Marcellus and Father Almorhaz gratefully accept. Greywolf declines the offer. "No point in going out on the Moor smelling like soap. It'll attract every troll within miles."
Orion also accepts, looking at greywolf, "Well it will be nice to be fresh one last time before going into the swamp. I would like to stay here a couple of days, there is something that has been nagging at me since we got the loot from those orcs. Besides, we could use a chance for everyone to get fully rested before we head out in earnest."
Greywolf shrugs. "That's fine. What's wrong with the loot?"
"It's not the loot, it's something of mine that has never shown any sign of being magical."
Greywolf frowns as he pulls a set of town clothes out of his saddle bags. "What do you mean?"
Orion pulls out his dagger, turning it over in his hand. "This was a gift from a wizard in waterdeep," Orion rubs his throat at the memory, smirking. "I cast a spell to detect magic on it when I first got it, but it did not appear to be magical. When I was looking for enchantments on the orc's weapons earlier, I noticed that the dagger now appears to be magical. I would like to find out what it does before continuing on."
"How long will that take?" the half-elf asks, pulling off his shirt.
"Well tomorrow I can identify it, and then we will just need to stay one more night so that I can replace that spell with something that will be more useful against trolls."
"That's good." He removes his breeches and steps into the tub of steaming water. "A couple of nights will give Marcellus a chance to do some drinking and wenching and get that out of his system. Once we leave here, it will be a long time before he has another chance."
The woman comes back into the room carrying an armload of clothes belonging to Marcellus and Father Almorhaz. She picks up Grewolf's clothes and sniffs them. "Are you sure you don't want these washed?"
"No," the ranger replies gruffly. "I have a set of town clothes to change into. Clean clothes are troll bait on the Moor."
"Well, certain it is that the trolls won't know you from one of their own," she quips. Looking at Orion, she asks, "You wanted your clothes washed, didn't you?"
Orion nods, "That would be fine."
"Did you want to take them off first?"
Without a hint of inhibition, Orion drops down to his skivvies and steps gingerly into the hot tub, testing the water with his hand first. "Ma'am, my cat Nicodemus is probably very hungry, do you have any table scraps that you could collect for me to give to him?"
She takes Orion's clothes and adds them to the pile she's carrying. "For a silver piece, I can feed him a full dinner, or you could just bring him up some scraps from your plate when you're done."
"If you wouldn't mind giving him a meal that would be very nice. I will pay for it."
The woman raises an eyebrow. "Well... alright. But he can't eat it at the table, and I won't serve it to him. I'll let you bring it up to his highness." Nicodemus eyes her from the bed where he's perched. Something about his stare unnerves her, and she makes a sign of warding against enchantment before leaving the room.
Orion chuckles, looking back over at Nico, "You want a bath too?"
The cat stares at Orion for a moment before replying, "I've got it covered, thanks." He begins to methodically lick himself, ignoring the wizard in the tub.
Orion leans back in the bath tub, "Funny little thing."
Orion spends the next day locked in his room. He sends down to the kitchen for a mortar and pestle and a glass of wine. Fiona brings the items up to him and gives him an odd look as she passes them through the door. "Do owls roost in the stables?" he asks her.
"Yes, they do," she replies with a quizzical expression.
"If you could have one of your brothers fetch one and bring it up to me, I'll pay him a half-griffon for it... and here's one for you for your trouble," he adds, handing her a silver coin with a hole in the center.
She takes the coin hesitantly, drops him a curtsy and answers, "I'll see to it that he brings it up shortly."
"Tell him to be sure it's an owl's feather."
After she leaves, he goes to the lone table in the room and sets down the mortar and pestle and the glass of wine. Taking a pearl from his belt pouch--one of the gems taken from the orcs, he drops it in the mortar and uses the pestle to crush it, then begins grinding it into a fine powder. "
A short time later the boy arrives with the feather. Orion takes it from him and examines it closely to make certain it is an owl's feather. Satisfied, he hands him the promised silver. The boy tries to peer past Orion into the room, but the wizard closes the door on him and pushes home the bolt.
Going back to the table he takes the mortar and slowly pours the powder into the glass of wine. Then he drops the feather into the glass and stirs it with his finger. Placing his hand over the glass he mutters and incantation that causes the liquid to bubble and froth. He quickly picks up the glass and drinks it, making a face as the bitter concoction slides down his throat.
Now taking the dagger in his hands he studies it carefully. Faint traceries of runes appear upon the blade. He reads the inscription. Drenched in the blood of innocents to serve the servants of the Queen of Shadows, I strike at her enemies. An empty vessel, filled with shadows, I carry the dark magic to drink their souls.
The riddle unfolds itself in his mind, laying itself open to the penetration of his thought. He remembers the ceremony, the ritual sacrifice, where he bathed the dagger's blade in the blood of an innocent. He shudders at the memory. The ritual must have activated the magic within the dagger. He can see that the enchantments upon it were placed there by a master of the shadow magic. An empty vessel, filled with shadows... Shadow magic spells may be cast on the blade... dark magic... necromantic spells... to drink their souls... that will drain the life from its victims.
Orion turns the riddle over in his mind, "I know the dagger wasn't magical before...and all I did was stab a sheep with it, albeit an innocent sheep." He remembers the words of Balen, "Shar doth not give such power for the killing of a lamb." He recalls the dream he had, where Dhaera asked why he killed her, and begins to feel a sickness grow in his stomach. "Maybe it really wasn't a sheep..." He fills with anger at the thought of being tricked by the Dark Goddess, but soon realizes that it was the only way he would have made that commitment. He smiles as he thinks about the orcs bursting into flames from his newfound power, and though the anger is still there, it begins to subside, "If this is what you ask of me, then so be it. I will continue my part of the bargain, Mistress of Shadows..."
Orion gazes upon the dagger with a new appreciation. It is a very powerful weapon. "What does it mean, though, that magic may be cast on the blade?" He racks his mind for the answer, and remembers vaguely a book that he read about magic rings that would store spells to be used later by their Wizard. "Hmm, maybe this works the same way..." Flipping through the pages in his spell book for something that would go nicely into his new dagger, Orion finally stops on the page entitled vampiric touch. He scratches Nico's neck absentmindedly, "Ah, this would do very nicely."
Orion spends the rest of the day in his room, studying his books and preparing to enspell his dagger. Late in the afternoon, Greywolf knocks on the door of the room. In a trance from enspelling this dagger, Orions speaks the last power word, and the dagger glows with a shadowy aura before fading to look like a normal dagger again. He slips the dagger into its sheath, and then walks over to unbolt the door. The half-elf walks in with a small leather sack in his hand that jingles when he drops it on the table. "There's the coin from the sale of all the gems and weapons we found on the orcs."
Orion picks up the sack, feeling it's weight, "Seems as though you got a good price. Have you seen the others today?"
"Yeah. Marcellus helped me with the haggling. He and the priest will be up in a few minutes to divide it up."
Orion nods, and begins to clean up the mess from his work while he waits for the others.
A few minutes later there's another knock at the door, and Marcellus and Almorhaz enter. Marcellus smells of ale, and is in very cheerful spirits. "Hey, haven't you seen enough of this room yet? You've missed a beautiful day outside."
Finished cleaning, Orion turns to Marcellus, "I have, and it has been a very enlightening day for me." He walks toward the table and overturns the bag of coins, counting them out.
Marcellus rubs his hands and grins, "It's been a very enriching day for me."
Orion nods, "Of course, of course. The pearl was invaluable for my research." Orion counts out 75 gold from his pile, and splits it between his three companions.
"Oh, no," Marcellus protests, "you don't have to pay us full price for it. That's part of the rigors of the road. Fair or foul, share and share alike..." He passes back five of the gold, and smiles nervously. Greywolf shrugs and follows suit.
Seeing the awkwardness of the moment, Father Almorhaz seeks to intervene. "That's right, Marcellus," he says jovially. "The value of the gem is no more than whatever we can get for it." He takes five gold from his stack and puts it with the others, sliding it towards Orion. "I have an idea. Let's all go down to the common room, and spend some of our 'ill-gotten gold' on a gluttonous meal, and excessive quantities of ale!"
Orion laughs, slipping the gold back into his purse. "Well Father that sounds like a fine plan," he says, while thinking to himself that he will not be drinking ale. Orion stands up, clicking his tongue, "Come Nico, let's get something to eat, I haven't eaten all day."
The companions go downstairs to the common room. Half the tables are full already. There are two very well dressed men in velvet doublets and breeches seated by themselves at the table on the left side of the fireplace. To the left of them is a group of guardsmen wearing the livery of a trading coster. On their right is an old man dressed for traveling accompanied by a young boy in his early teens. To their right are four men dressed in studded leather, with swords at their belts.
At the table behind the rich merchants is a group of four travelers. One appears to be a moon-elf, perhaps from Evereska. He has black hair that hangs loose down to his shoulders, and is brightly dressed. He is talking loudly to his companions, relating a comical story about a social faux pas he witnessed at a party. The blonde woman sitting beside him is listening intently and laughing along with the story. A red-bearded dwarf across from him is smiling politely and casting covert glances at the other guests when his companion grows overly loud. Next to him sits a dark-haired woman who keeps her eyes averted from the story-teller, and eats her dinner in silence.
Orion and his companions take a table beside the odd group, and they are able to catch the ending of the story which involves a ripped gown, a slapped cheek and an overturned table of food. The elf and his blonde listener dissolve into laughter. A few of the other guests who had been listening to the story laugh along with them. The old man at the table between the companions and the fireplace does not seem amused. "Sir," he addresses the elf, "You should govern your tongue more closely when in the company of children." He gestures at the young boy beside him. Orion watches the exchange with interest, motioning for the barmaid to come to the table.
The elf, somewhat taken aback, glances around at the faces of his companions, then rises to his feet. "I saw no harm in the story, but then elves do not feel the need to protect their young from... the nature of relations between the sexes."
The other guests all turn towards him, their expressions unfriendly. The dwarf coughs. "Still," the elf continues, "I apologize if I have given offense." He bows politely to the old man.
The dwarf rises also, and bows to the old man. "Sir, may we buy you and your--"
"Your son a glass of wine, or ale?"
"I thank you, sir. It would be most welcome, but only if you would allow me to buy you one in return."
The dwarf looks around for the serving girl and sees Fiona approaching Orion's table. "Miss Fiona, could ye get my friend over here another round of whateve he's drinking?"
She smiles and nods, "I'll see to it in a moment, Fjori."
"Thanks, dear. You're a good lass." The dwarf sits back down at his table. The elf takes his seat too, and Orion can overhear the dwarf whispering urgently to him. "Come on, Korellas! You weren't really thinking of starting a fight with an old man, were ye?"
Fiona smiles at Orion and his friends and asks, "Can I get you gentlemen something to drink?"
Orion returns her smile. "I would like a glass of wine, and whatever is being served for dinner tonight..."
"We have roasted venison with sweet potatoes and carrots. It's very good."
"Mmm! It sounds delicious." Father Almorhaz rubs his stomach. "I could eat the whole deer. How about a glass of red wine to go with it?"
The other two order ale, and Fiona turns to go. Orion stops her. "Umm... could you bring me an extra trencher for my cat?"
Fiona notices Nicodemus for the first time. The cat stares up at her balefully with his pale blue eyes. "Oh! Uh, you just want it to put in the floor so that you can feed him scraps?"
"Alright. I'll be right back with your drinks."
Orion turns to the old man and his son, "Good evening, sir. Are you traveling south?"
"The old man looks up, startled at being addressed by a stranger. "I beg your pardon?"
"Are you headed south, or are you on your way to the north?"
"To whom do I have the honor of speaking, sir?"
"My name is Orion, and I was looking for news from the south."
"Ah, I see. You are traveling from Waterdeep?"
"Yes, we left not too long ago."
"My name is Marik, and this is my son, Gherid. We are on our way to Waterdeep from Scornubel with a caravan of wool. I think you will find the road to the south relatively safe for this time of year. It seems that the orcs and goblins of the High Moor are embroiled in a war amongst themselves, and have little time for raiding."
"Well, that didn't stop them from attacking us on the way down, so be careful Marik."
"I will! Thank you. Did your party come through the attack unscathed?"
Orion grins, "We did have a few wounds, though the orcs fared much worse than us."
"Ah! I am glad. I had heard that there was a renegade orc who was still carrying out raids on caravans. He is apparently not associated with the tribes on the High Moor."
"Actually, that's not quite true," chimes in one of the richly dressed merchants. "Sorry to interrupt. My name is Rhudul, Rhudul Arteem. I'm on my way to Waterdeep also from Elturel. We heard there that this renegade of which you speak was once part of the Red Wolf tribe. He attempted to take over, and was expelled from the tribe."
"I wonder if he is the same that attacked me. Hopefully we discouraged him from trying that any time soon."
"Oh! Well, I doubt it is the same one," the merchant replies, amused. "It's said that Kush d'Gar--that is his name--is a great warrior, and infamously vicious. He has wiped out numerous caravans down to the last man. If he had attacked your small party, I am sure we would not be speaking to you tonight."
Orion chuckles, and describes the raiding party, down to the very last detail about him going enraged and blowing his horn and everything. "Does this sound like your guy?"
"Well... really. It sounds like any orc to me. I'm sure plenty of them have horns and wield sabers." The elf at the next has been following the exchange, and suddenly bursts into laughter. The merchant gives him an angry glare.
Anger flashes across Orion's face, though he quickly puts it back in check. "Perhaps it was any orc, perhaps. Though my companion here may beg to differ, having faced him in face to face combat."
Greywolf nods. "He was not just any orc. He fought valiantly and with great skill."
"Valiant? He is a brigand, sir! A cutthroat! You would praise one such as that?"
"I do not praise him, I merely tell you what I saw. He charged our party on horseback head-on. I put two arrows in him, and still he came. He sliced me across the chest, and I put another arrow in him as he went past. Then he turned and charged my companion here," he nods towards Orion, "and was hit again with arrows and magic before deciding that he'd had enough. I shot his horse from under him as he fled, and it appeared he might charge us again in his anger. He mastered himself, though, and took to the woods." Greywolf lapses into silence, irritated at being goaded into such a long speech.
The merchant laughs triumphantly. "There you are! It can't be the same one then, for it is said that Kush d'Gar has never fled a battle!"
"Maybe that explains why he swore to kill me."
"You? It's your friend here who claims to have put so many arrows in him."
"That he did."
"Why would he swear vengeance on you then? It seems like it would have been better spent on your companion."
"He was more than a little up set with me for taking care of the two groups that he had trying to flank us," Orion says this with as much modesty as he can manage.
"Yes, there were a total of 11 orcs that attacked us, in two groups of 5, with the leader sitting arrogantly atop his horse, in the middle of the road. The two groups attempted a pincer like attack, but...we put a stop to that. I'm sure you can all see the spot where the battle took place, if you're headed north."
Rhudul's eyes narrow suspiciously. "I'll be sure to look for it."
"It sounds like you and your friends acquitted yourselves well," Marik observes.
"I killed one of the squad leaders," Marcellus chimes in. "He was going for Orion, and made the mistake of putting his back to me. I opened him up like gutting a fish." He looks up to see Fiona returning with the drinks, and blushes. "Beg your pardon, Miss."
She sets his ale down in front of him and pats him on the cheek. "Don't think on it, dear. I've gutted plenty of fish in my eighteen years." He grins. She serves out the rest of the drinks. "The food will be up in a moment."
Orion smiles, "Thank you."
As she walks away, Father Almorhaz adds, "I am afraid I did not do so well as that. The one I charged ducked my swing and got away clean. Ilmater is not a martial god. His servants know perserverence, patience in the face of suffering, healing the sick... but our warlike qualities are few."
"Warriors need someone to heal their hurts after battle," Marik observes, "and someone to provide them with spiritual guidance, without which they tend to fall into dissolute living: drinking, gambling and consorting with camp followers. Your friends are lucky to have you."
"The good father sets a very high standard for us," Marcellus replies with a mischievous light in his eyes. "I do my best to live up to it."
The priest gives him a scathing look, drawing an amused chuckle from Orion.
The jest escapes the old man. He continues, "I have often given money to the Church of Ilmater to pray for the soul of my wife. She died when my son was still a babe." He lays a consoling hand upon the boy's back.
Father Almorhaz grows somber as he looks at the child's sad expression. He speaks directly to him, looking into his eyes. "To lose a loved one is a terrible thing. The world can be a dark place at times. There is consolation to be found, though, if one knows where to look. One can find forgetfulness in service to the Church. So Ilmater teaches us..."
"Yes, that is what I have told the boy many times," the old man replies. "It would be a blessing to me if he were to find his calling in the Church. Not necessarily Ilmater, if that is not his wish, but to devote himself to higher things." He looks lovingly at his son and pats him on the shoulder. "It would have made his mother proud. She was such a good and devout woman."
Orion looks at the boy, "How did you lose her?"
The boy's face colors, and both him and the old man seem momentarily at a loss. The boy looks down at his plate, and his father attempts to cover their embarrassment. "She... she died in childbirth." He gives the boy a distressed look. "He only recently found out, and he has taken it very hard. I think he is blaming himself, which he should not. It was no one's fault. It was simply her time. All life is suffering, but she is with Ilmater now and suffers no more."
Continuing to address the boy, Orion softens his voice, "Gherid, I truly understand your loss. I lost both of my parents when I was very young, and I too carry the weight of their death with me. I cannot say that you will ever forget, but I do promise it gets easier with time. Do not blame yourself, it is not what your mother would have wanted. She would want you to be as happy as you can be, and do whatever you can to succeed."
The boy's father listens and nods as Orion speaks. He looks expectantly at the boy, waiting for him to respond. The boy returns Orion's gaze, but when he speaks he looks at Father Almorhaz. "But... if life is suffering--if our purpose in life is to endure suffering--then why should I not blame myself? It makes my mother's death that much more painful, and tests my endurance even more. Wouldn't Ilmater approve of that?"
Orion sits back and waits for the Friar's response.
Father Almorhaz is taken aback. He stammers, "Approve? Uh, no! I- I don't believe he would. You take too much upon yourself. That is, you manufacture suffering instead of waiting upon the will of God. I mean, not that Ilmater himself makes us suffer, but it is blasphemous arrogance to create our own suffering and suppose we are carrying out Ilmater's will!" He ends his speech in a strident tone that sounds rather defensive.
The boy stares at the priest for a moment before lowering his eyes again. The old man seems a bit puzzled. "Father Almorhaz may correct me if I'm wrong," he says hesitantly, "but I believe that Ilmater would say that, while there is going to be suffering in the world, our job is to help alleviate that suffering as much as we can. It's not a duty to suffer, it's just a duty to endure in spite of suffering, and to strive to overcome it." He looks at the priest questioningly, "Would you say that is correct, Father?"
"Oh, yes!" the priest response quickly. "Absolutely. That's what I was trying to say. Ilmater does not wish us to add to our sufferings, of course!"
He adds quickly, "The lad is very intelligent. If you wish to introduce him to relgious thought without pushing him towards a particular Church, there is a man to whom I would recommend you. He is known in Waterdeep as a most pious soul, and he does much to help the different temples of the city. I can write a letter for you, if you wish. He is a moneylender also and he might be able to find the boy a position in his bank."
"Indeed!" the old man smiles, "I would be most gratified by such a favor. Thank you, sir."
"Only too happy," Almorhaz replies. "Ah! Here comes our food, and just in time. I was about to faint."
Fiona comes in carrying a large tray. She places the edge of it on the table and sets out a large platter of broiled venison, a pot of stewed sweet potatoes and carrots, and a large loaf of black bread. She sets a stack of trenchers on the table next to Orion, and says, "Fall to, gentleman. You'll not find better fare between here and the Winding Water, unless you're fond of fried troll."
Marcellus laughs heartily at her jest and watches her as she walks back to the kitchen. "Very nice, that," he whispers to Orion. "I think she likes me too."
Orion smiles,and takes two trenchers from the stack, "You think they all like you don't you Mark..." He then fills one of his trenchers with venision, a nice big hunk of bread and some potatoes. The other he fills with a few smaller cuts of meat. He sets the trencher with meat on the floor, and then takes a drink of his wine before beginning to eat. Nico walks over to the trencher, and begins to eat as well, patiently picking through his food.
The others begin to serve themselves, and a general silence falls over the companions as they assuage their hunger. There's a bit of desultory conversation coming from the other tables. The group of adventurers beside them are quietly discussing their plans once they reach Waterdeep: purchases they intend to make, people they want to visit. The old man is speaking gently to his son about what sort of careers he might pursue. The boy listens in silence. The two well dressed merchants are speaking too low to catch their words, but from his tone of voice, Rhudul is not very pleased about something. The two groups of caravan guards are talking amonst themselves about travel and women, but not getting too rowdy with their masters so near.
After finishing his meal, Orion returns to his room and falls asleep with Nico curled up at his feet. The others stay down in the common room for a while, drinking and conversing. He is awakened when Greywolf enters the room an hour or so later. The ranger is able to find his bed without making too much noise, though, and Orion rolls over and goes right back to sleep.
The inn's guests are all up before sunrise the next morning to break their fast and get an early start. Orion notes a tension between Fiona and Marcellus that wasn't there when he went to bed the night before. After breakfast they are standing in the yard waiting on their horses. Fiona comes outside and she and Marcellus walk off a short distance to talk. Orion cannot hear what is being said, but watches their conversation from a distance. The young girl stands tensely erect with her arms folded across her breast. The thief is trying to explain something to her. He gestures vaguely towards the southeast, then makes a move to put his hands on her arms, but she shrugs him away. He gestures helplessly and tries to plead with her. Orion can see that whatever the thief is saying appears to to be working. The girl's postures relaxes, her arms go down by her sides and her shoulders slump. Marcellus steps closer and puts his hands on her shoulders, and this time she doesn't shrug him away. She looks up at him as he talks to her softly. Finally, they embrace and he kisses her on her cheek. The sound of the horses approaching from the other end of the building interrupts them. Fiona breaks away from him suddenly and goes back into the inn, dabbing at her eyes with her apron as she passes by Orion. Marcellus rejoins the party looking not very happy.
"She wants you to stay here?" Orion asks.
The thief sighs. "Yeah... "
"You sure don't waste any time."
"I don't expect to live long," Marcellus replies grimly. He pulls himself up into the saddle, and takes the reins in his hands. "Let's go clear out a tower."
Orion shrugs, "Cheer up Mark. Soon we will be feasting in the Tower of Ebenfar, after that you can get married or whatever it is you want." Nico yawns, stretching across the saddle, and Orion begins to turn his horse to the road.
Marcellus snorts. "An innkeeper... she said I could be an innkeeper." He kicks his horses flanks, and puts his back to the inn, heading towards the gate at a trot. The other two follow, and soon they are back on the road and in their customary marching order: Greywolf in front, followed by Marcellus, with Orion and Father Almorhaz bringing up the rear and leading the two spare horses.
Orion laughs, "An innkeeper? I can't wait to see that!"
The thief gives Orion a wolfish grin, "I'll put my inn right next to your bookstore so we can drink tea together in the afternoons."
Orion laughs even harder at this, almost doubling over at the thought. "Good to be back on the road."
"Yes it is!" Marcellus's good spirits seem to have returned completely now, and the cares of the morning have been placed firmly behind him.
The companions travel through the small area of cultivated lands clustered around the fortified inn, and say goodbye to civilization as they enter a wholly hostile wilderness, more vast and wild than than the lands they have passed through so far. Each one feels the new weight of danger pressing down on him, and becomes more alert, aware that being taken by suprise out here could mean death.
Suddenly, the ground shakes beneath their feet, and an ant-like insect as large as a bull bursts up through the ground beneath Marcellus's horse. Its huge mandibles grab at the horse barely missing. The horse rears up, screaming and Marcellus is thrown from the saddle. He hits the ground on his shoulder and rolls, coming to his feet and drawing his short sword while the horse bolts in terror.
The ankheg rushes towards him, its mandibles grabbing him around the waist and sinking into his flesh. The thief screams in pain and tries to wrench himself free, but the creature lifts him up off his feet.
Father Almorhaz begins to pray loudly, "God help us in our time of need to defeat this hell-spawned creature..."
Seeing his friend in danger, Orion points his hand at the ankheg and utters a single word. Blue bolts of energy fly from his fingertips, and strike the beast in its thorax.
Greywolf spurs his horse forward and draws his sword, putting himself between the giant insect and its burrow.
Marcellus raises his short sword and tries to stab the creature through its head. The blade is turned by its bony exoskeleton, and knocked loose from his hand. It falls to the ground, and the young thief cries out in fear and frustration.
The ankheg squeezes him tighter with its mandibles and begins to move towards its burrow. Greywolf hacks at it with his sword as it tries to pass him, slicing through its abdomen. Green ichor oozes from the wound. Realizing that the creature means to escape with its prey, Father Almorhaz spurs his horse forward to head the creature off, drawing his mace. Greywolf swings at it again, but the blade clangs off of its bony armor.
Marcellus's face is contorted with pain and fear. "Help me, Orion! It's killing me!" He attempts to wriggle out of the creatures mandibles, but it only squeezes him tighter and continues towards its burrow. Father Almorhaz tries to block it, he swings his mace at the creature's head, but the weapon merely bounces off its tough armor. The ankheg backs down into the hole. The last they see of it is Marcellus's terrified face as it drags him in with it. "Nooooooooo!" he screams.
"By the goddess!" Almorhaz shouts, distraught, "What can we do?"
Orion looks at the others, and quickly whispers the words that allow him to fly, wrapping himself in the shadowy wings, he stretches them out and flies from the back of his horse down into the hole at full speed.
Above him, he hears Greywolf shout, "Follow him! He'll need help!" Dirt trickles down into the hole, as the ranger lowers himself down and begins to scale the walls. Below, Orion can see the ankheg's head, and Marcellus's retreating body almost filling the hole.
The creature continues its descent. Orion pulls his dagger and flies down towards it. He stabs at its head, shoving the blade into one of its large, black eyes and pushing the point in towards its insectoid brain. The creature gives an ear-splitting cry and curls inward on itself, sliding down the hole with Marcellus still gripped in its mandibles. It falls about twenty feet before hitting bottom at a place where the tunnel forms a 'T'.
Orion lands next to it. A weak beam of light from the hole above illuminates its body. He stabs the creature again in the thorax just for good measure. Its mandibles are spread open now, and Marcellus lies on the ground next to it. The smell of damp earth is strong, overlayed by another more acrid smell. Nothing more is visible, the darkness byond the intersection is absolute.
"Shirak!" he intones, and light illuminates the tunnel in both directions. One branch slopes downward at a steep angle, the other continues away from him roughly level.
More dirt spills down from above, and Greywolf calls out, "Orion! What's going on?"
Orion calls back, "Get the Father down here, Mark is hurt bad! The creature is dead, but who knows what else is down here.
The voice of the priest comes down to him faintly. "I can't climb down that! I'll fall and break my neck!"
Orion sighs, and bends down to pick Marcellus up. He pulls him up into a sitting position, and kneels down to drape the thief's torso over his shoulder. Standing up under this heavy load, he wills himself to fly upward. He rises slowly off the ground and moves up through the tunnel. He reaches Grewolf still trying to scramble his way down. "The tunnel walls are not very stable. I'm worried they may collapse," the half-elf informs him.
"Well we can either look for it's lair or go back up, your choice. At the bottom the tunnel branches off into two seperate tunnels."
"No point in finding its lair. Let's get out of here and take care of Mark."
Orion shrugs and flies up to the top, gently laying Mark on the ground. Father Almorhaz rings his hands at the sight of Marcellus's wounds. "By Ilmater, this is awful. I don't know if I will be able to save him or not."
"Father, you must do what you can, time is of the essence," Orion tells him before flying off to find the horse that bolted. He finds it easily, grazing among a copse of trees. When he returns, the priest has Marcellus lying comfortably on a blanket in the shade by the road. Greywolf has gathered the horses and is giving them some water. Marcellus is pale and appears to be quite shaken. "Hey," he says to Orion, "they tell me you saved my life. Thanks." He smiles weakly.
Orion shakes his head, "Don't you worry about that. We all would do the same for each other here. Do you think you can ride?"
"I don't know... the father here says I'm healed, but I think he just doesn't want to tell me how bad it is. I-- I still feel very weak." Father Almorhaz catches Orion's eye and motions with his head for them to walk off a little ways.
Orion stands and walks with the priest, "What ails him?"
The father speaks in a low whisper. "By the grace of Ilmater, I have healed his physical wounds," he replies. "He is badly shaken though. It was a very near thing. In short, he is scared. He thinks there is still something wrong with him, but I swear by the Rose of St Stephen that he is perfectly fit now. I don't know how to convince him of that though."
Orion nods, "I have an idea." He walks back to Mark, and kneels beside him. "The good Father has done everything in his power to bring you back to full, but there is still something lingering. It will take my power to get it out."
"I knew there was something he wasn't telling me," Marcellus grumbles bitterly. "Do... do you think you can save me?"
Orion nods, and places his hand on Mark's head, "It isn't a deadly thing, but I do believe I can take it away." He whispers the words of magic, and a shadow version of his hand lifts up from his palm. It snakes around Marcellus, poking and proding him, before seeming to 'disappear' in him, it then comes back out as a closed fist, and Orion says a command word, causing the hand to dissipate. Orion then takes a deep breath, "Ok, that does it. Feel better?"
Marcellus smiles, "Yeah... yeah, that feels a lot better. Is it okay to stand?"
"Yep, you could do a cartwheel if you wanted." Orion stands, preparing to get back on the road, "Thank you Father," He says, giving the Father a knowing wink, but making sure that Mark can't see it. "Everyone ready to go?"
"Gimme just a minute," Marcellus replies. He walks around for a few minutes, drinks a little water and soon the color has returned to his face. "I really thought I was dead that time," he laughs. "By the gods, that was awful! What was that thing?!"
"An ankheg," Greywolf replies. "They're all over the place out on the Fields of the Dead."
"They're well named then, no doubt."
Soon, the thief has recovered enough to sit his horse, and the party sets out again. They take their lunch in a shady spot beside the road where a small creek flows down out of the Misty Forest and winds along beside the road for a ways before flowing under a small stone bridge towards the Trollbark Forest and the coast.
The rest of the day goes by uneventfully. When they stop to camp, they are under the very eaves of the Misty Forest. The forest is a narrow strip along the edge of the High Moor. It's no more than day's ride as the crow flies from the road to the escarpment along the western edge of the moor. They make camp beside a small pond in an area that seems to be frequented by caravans. An armload of deadfall firewood is stacked by a stone ring, and there are signs of recent traffic.
The companions fall into their pattern of setting up camp, sharing out the chores of gathering more wood, filling water bottles and getting dinner. Father Almorhaz takes the first watch as usual, and the night goes by without incident.
They break camp and continue on through the wilderness. In the early morning, they meet a caravan from Berdusk making its slow way northwards. The caravan guards treat them cautiously at first until they have satisfied themselves that the companions are not brigands. Four men would not seem a great threat to a well-armed caravan, but the right four men could burn it to the ground, and slay the guards and all the merchants. Greywolf has traveled these parts before, though, and is able to reassure the guards through his actions. The party puts itself in plain view of the guards while still a good distance away, and waits for them to approach, making no sudden moves. Once they have have exchanged greetings and news of the road, the atmosphere relaxes and they are able to pass by the caravan.
Not long after, they leave behind the forest that has been stalking the road on their left, and come out onto a wide rolling plain. To their left the ground slopes up towards the highlands of the moor, broken by countless gullies and streams that drain the bogs and fens of that dangerous land.
"The tower we seek is due west of here," Greywolf tells them. "I have heard from those who scout the moor that it sits upon a high crag overlooking a fire marsh to the south, and boglands to the north. Trails criss-cross the moor, but they are treacherous, as often leading into a bog as around one. It will take all my skill to get us through. We can cut straight across country now, and avoid the lands around Dragonspear Castle, or continue south on the road and strike towards the tower where it is closest to the road."
Orion turns to Greywolf, "Wolf, how much time would we save by cutting through now?"
"At least half a day."
"Half a day doesn't really seem like it is worth the dangers of the moor. I would like to see this Dragonspear Castle, if could be useful in the future...so let us take the scenic route."
"The dangers of the moor are on a par with the dangers of the castle itself. How close of a look did you want?"
"I don't want to go inside, not yet, I just want to see it from the outside, from a good distance."
Greywolf ponders that a moment, and then answers, "Yeah. We can do that."
"The name of Dragonspear Castle is ominous," Father Almorhaz says. "During the Godswar, it became home to an army of fell creatures from the Nether Regions of the Beyond--devils of hideous form and unmeasureable evil. It is rumored that they entered this world through a portal located within the castle itself. The portal is supposed to be sealed now. Were it ever reopened..."
Orion ponders this for a bit in silence, "Sounds like a dangerous place."
"It is supposed to be quiet now, but who knows what evil creatures have crept back into it. At least the merchants we met at the Way Inn reported no problems."
Orion nods, "Hopefully not too many have."
The party travels on for the rest of the day and makes camp by the side of the road. The next morning they set out once more, expecting to see the castle by midday. The ground begins to rise and in the distance they see a high hill. As they draw nearer, the shape of a castle appears on its summit. From far away, it looks to be in good repair but at a closer distance the ruined walls and broken towers come into view. It is not the slow destruction of time that has destroyed the castle, though, but the fast and violent destruction of a great battle. The walls are scorched, and broken stones lie scattered about as if dropped from the sky. The few wooden beams of the interior buildings still standing are charred and exposed like blackened bones. White bones of bizarre shape and large dimensions litter the ground for miles around the castle.
Orion surveys the scene. "Wow...this must have been a deadly battle. Glad I wasn't here for it."
"It was just as bad in Waterdeep," Marcellus replies. "That's how my mother died."
Orion looks at Mark with a moment of sorrow, "I'm sorry to hear that Mark. Let us leave this place for now, and get into the Moor."
"It's alright," he says wryly. "She wasn't much of a mother."
Greywolf leads them over the shoulder of the hill, and down into a valley on its far side where a creek snakes its way southward, fed by dozens of rivulets coming down in gullys from the uplands of the moor on its far side. They cross the creek, wading the horses through a shallow ford, and continue uphill climbing towards the moor. As the sun begins to sink behind them, the half-elf locates a likely camping spot in the shelter of a steep-sided ravine. "No fire tonight," he tells them. "We need to stay under cover as much as we can."
"Ok, we also need to keep as quiet as we can, I'm sure sound travels well through the marsh."
The ranger nods. "True. That will be to our advantage also. There will be no moon tonight, so we will need to keep a sharp ear out for intruders." He dismounts and begins to unsaddle his horse.
Orion follows suit, and begins quietly setting up camp.
Father Almorhaz takes the first watch, as usual. Greywolf and Marcellus retire to their tent to sleep after a hard day of travel. Marcellus is still sore from the battle with the ankheg. Orion lingers by the fire to speak to the priest in private about something that has been bothering him. Almorhaz goes off a little ways alone to pray.
Orion creeps closer to eavesdrop on the priest. What he hears surprises him, although not greatly. "Goddess of Shadows," Almorhaz intones, "grant your fathful follower the power to serve you in all things. Forgive me the deception I am forced to practice. Know always that it is you I worship. It is to you that I am devoted..."
Orion chuckles to himself, and allows the Father to finish his prayers.
The priest goes on at some length in this vein. Finally he finishes, "...in the most Holy Name of Shar, I pray these things. If you find me not worthy of them, then my life is yours to take. So be it." Rising, he is startled to find Orion watching him. "What are you doing?!" he asks angrily. "How long have you been standing there? Would you spy on a priests making his devotions?"
Orion laughs quietly, "Father, keep your voice in check, and do not dare talk to me of spying."
The priest blushes. "I don't know what you mean," he says in a quieter tone.
"Drop the charade, you have fooled me long enough, I heard who your devotions were for. I should have known long ago, but only after that conversation in the inn have I truly been questioning your...faith...to Ilmater." A sudden thought occurs to the mage, "Were you there, at the Feast of the Moon?"
A smile plays about the priest's lips, "Oh, yes. I was there. I saw the favor of the goddess bestowed upon you."
"Who was it, who did I kill?"
A low evil laugh comes from deep within the priest's chest. "Did the Goddess take that knowledge from you? Then who am I to give it back? She will reveal it in her own good time."
Orion steps closer to the priest, "There is nothing funny about this. Who sent you to spy on me, Lorelai?"
"I am not here to spy on you, boy. I am here to protect you. We are all here to protect you. You are Her Chosen One, and no harm can come to you, or we must pay with our lives."
"All of us."
"All of us. We serve the Goddess."
"What is your real name?"
"It is Almorhaz, just as I have said. I am not a priest of Ilmater though, obviously. I come from Amn, from the Temple of the Dark Embrace."
"And Mark, my friend from childhood, how is he tied into this?"
"He is a member of the Shadow Thieves... our allies."
"I find it hard to believe that Wolf is a thief, or a priest. What is his connection to you?"
"He also works for the Shadow Thieves, though not as a thief."
Orion sits down, struggling to take this all in. "I thought I could trust Mark...of all of you, I thought I could trust him...Shar...." He looks up, noticing his incoherency, "Nico...come...please tell me you are not a Shadow Cat." He then addresses the priest again, "Then you know of this dagger, you know that it will gain power with each sacrifice?" He slips the dagger from it's sheath.
"No, I do not know of such things. As far as trusting us, have we not done all in our power to keep you safe? How many nights has Marcellus shadowed you home through the streets to make sure nothing happened to you? It is true that he has other motivations besides a devotion to Shar. Not all within the thieves' guild are as spiritual as they ought to be..."
"Were the others there during the festival as well?"
"Only I was there."
"What is going on?" Greywolf's voice comes from behind Orion. The wizard turns to look at him, and sees the ranger staring at him, his eyes narrow slits, his hand on his dagger, menacingly.
"He came upon me during my devotions," Father Almorhaz answers quickly. "It is okay. I have told him everything, and he is naturally gratified to have us here."
"You told him everything?"
"Yes, I told him that you and Marcellus work for the Shadow Thieves."
The half-elf gives Orion a searching look. "Then we have no problem?"
Orion returns Wolf's gaze, "I do not like being lied to. I still have too many unanswered questions, but I doubt any of you can give me the answers I seek."
"Lying is what keeps me alive," the ranger responds.
"Of course not. I understand that you lied to me, and I understand why, that doesn't mean I like it."
Greywolf nods. "As long as it won't be a problem. We still have a job to do."
Orion turns back to the priest, "Tell me, how involved is Maernos with this? He is the one who helped with our contract, he is the one who got me in contact with Lorelai, how deep does he go?"
'Marnos?" the priest replies scornfully. "I only know him as someone who is sympathetic to our church out of a misguided notion of open-mindedness. He is a dilletante. He dabbles in various religions, but does not know what true devotion is."
"And of the other Sharrans, will they respond to my call?"
They do the bidding of the church. So long as you serve Shar, they will serve you."
"Then we have no problems. Let us sleep, we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."
Almorhaz nods, "Yes. In the morning we can discuss our plans in more detail. I am done now with devotionals. Go to sleep, and I will stand my watch."
Orion heads back to bed without a word, but whispers to Nico "Keep an eye out for me tonight, you can sleep during the ride tomorrow."
"Nice friends you have," the cat purrs. "At least you only have to feed me to keep me loyal.
"Which reminds me," he adds, "I'm growing rather tired of smoked meat. Could you send Greywolf out tomorrow for some more rabbit?"
"I just hope I can stay awake all night..."
"Which means what?"
"Oh nothing, just do what you can, I'm going to bed."
The next morning the sun creeps up slowly over the crest of the moor highlands. In the sheltered gully where they camped the sky is pale and hazy. When Orion wakes up Greywolf is preparing to go out alone to scout the area.
"Wolf, if you see any small game, would you try to snag it? This might be the last time in a while that we will be able to eat fresh meat."
"No fires... we don't want to let them know we're here."
"Oh that's fine, it's not for me, Nico has been griping about the smoked meat so I was just trying to get him something fresh"
Greywolf looks at the cat sitting on the ground by Orion's leg, grooming itself. "Yeah, sure. If I can do it without being seen."
Orion nods, "Thanks."
The rest of the companions busy themselves breaking camp. A short time later, as they are saddling up the horses, Greywolf returns. He has an odd looking creature hanging from his belt by a leather thong. He unties it and begins to skin it out. "Here, Nico," he calls. "I've got a nice fat moor rat for you."
The moor rat is as big as a rabbit, but has a long hairless tail and large incisors. Nico wanders over selects a leg quarter that Greywolf has cut away for him, and begins to gnaw on it, growling loudly as he eats. Greywolf laughs. "I thought you would like that." To the others, he says, "There's something going on up on the plateau. I saw a flock of ravens flying that way. They seemed very excited about something."
"Let's go check it out," Orion says.
He nods. "You three head up the gully until you reach the spot where it shallows out about a half mile up. Keep low, and wait for me there. I will bury the remains of Nico's breakfast, and hide our trail."
Marcellus goes first, and the companions follow Greywolf's directions, leading their horses along the bottom of the ravine. They reach a spot where it begins to grow shallow, and the sides flatten out. Orion ties his horse off, and waits patiently for Greywolf, glancing over at Mark and turning over the events of last night in his mind.
The sun has climbed well over the edge of the plateau by the time Greywolf joins them. He leads them out of the ravine and locates a game trail that switches back and forth up the steep ground leading up to the top of the plateau. They continue to lead the horses, in order to be less visible from a distance. Near the top, they come to a cliff. The trail winds along its side, climbing to to the top. Stunted, wind-blasted trees cling to the rocks by the trail, twisted and gnarled. Looking back, they can see the long slope of the hills leading back down to the Trade Way. A smudge of black on a far off hill is all that can be seen of Dragonspear Castle.
Reaching the top of the plateau, they see the moorlands stretching out before them to the east. The land is mostly flat, but broken by rocky outcrops and tors. Atop one of these tors about a half mile away, they see a flock of ravens rise up, crying their hoarse cry. They whirl about and dive back down.
"We should go see what they are picking at... Though there's no telling what other scavengers those birds are attracting."
Greywolf sniffs the air. "The wind is out of the northeast. We can go downwind, and move in from that direction."
Orion nods in agreement, prepared to follow. He pulls a strip of leather from his pouch, wrapping it around his finger as he whispers the words of magic. A soft red glow of force envelopes him, then slowly fades away.
"Let's tie the horses up here by these rocks," the half-elf motions toward a pile of tumbled boulders. The companions leave their mounts, and strike out across the moor, following the ranger. They head southwest until the wind is blowing directly off the tor. It brings the smell of carrion with it. They dart between boulders, and clumps of heather, doing their best to remain unseen. Slowly, they work their way towards the rocky hill. A hundred feet away, they can still see no sign of anything but the ravens.
Orion taps Greywolf on the shoulder to get the ranger's attention. He draws a hump in the sand to represent the tor, and then, pointing to himself and Marcellus, he draws an arrow pointing to the west side of the tor. He draws another arrow to the east side, and points to Greywolf and Father Almorhaz. Greywolf nods in agreement.
As they start to move, Father Almorhaz motions for them to stay a moment. He whispers a quick prayer to Shar, causing Marcellus to look in surprise at Orion. Orion just smirks, shrugging his shoulders. Marcellus grins sheepishly, and shrugs. The priest completes his prayer, and the two friends set off, moving north, and then curving around to approach the tor from the east. Meanwhile, Greywolf and Almorhaz strike east, and then north to approach the tor from the southwest.
As they draw nearer, Orion sees something moving up on top of the tor. It's large, but bent low to the ground as if it's picking something up. When it straightens up he can see that it is a troll, and it appears to be holding a club or something in its hand.
Orion taps Mark on the shoulder, motioning towards the troll, and putting his finger up to his lips. He whispers the words of magic, and a black aura surrounds him in shadows. The troll's head snaps around, as if he senses their presence. Orion holds his breath, and tries to stay as still as possible. The troll seems to relax.
Suddenly, from the other side of the hill comes a loud roar. The troll at the top turns to look. Realizing that Greywolf must have been spotted, Orion takes a deep breath before motioning with his hands and casting another spell. This one sending three bolts of energy into his target. Marcellus quickly nocks an arrow into his bow, and fires at the troll. The arrow falls short, and ricochets off the rocks.
The troll whirls around, sees Orion and Marcellus at the base of the hill, and begins loping down towards them, leaping from rock to rock, the club still in its hand. The sounds of battle echo behind him, and Orion can hear Greywolf yelling in pain. The troll is almost upon them, and the 'club' it has in its hand can now be plainly seen: it is the leg of a humanoid. Marcellus draws back his bow and unleashes an arrow at the troll. The point barely grazes him.
Orion unleashes a fireball at the troll, enveloping it in flames. It cringes in pain, but comes on at them, bearing down on Marcellus who was in the lead. He swings the leg at the thief, and hits him hard with it, almost knocking him over. Marcellus drops his bow and pulls out his shortsword, stabbing at the creature's midsection. He sticks it, but watches in awe as the wound begins to close.
Orion holds out his hands and flames leap forth from them, scorching the troll. Its skin blackens and crinkles. The troll screams in pain, and, stepping towards Orion, he brings the leg down in a high arc, almost knocking the mage to his knees. Black flames seem to envelope the troll when he strikes, causing him to grunt in pain. Marcellus steps behind the troll with a glint in his eyes, and buries his sword in its back up to the hilt. The creature shrieks with rage, and drops the leg it was holding.
Orion spreads his hands again, spewing flames at the troll. Caught within the cone of fire, Marcellus ducks down to escape the flames. The troll screams in agony and falls backwards. Marcellus rolls forward beneath its legs to escape being crushed, and comes up in front of Orion. The troll lies on the ground, still smouldering, but as they watch, the wound in its back begins to close.
Orion tells Marcellus, "Keep stabbing it!" He reaches in his pack for a pint of oil to light the corpse on fire. The creature begins to stand, and Marcellus stabs at it again, but misses. It rises up, clawing at the thief. Marcellus ducks under the swing, and stabs it again, causing it to fall. "Hurry with that fire!" he shouts. Orion digs a pint of oil out of his pouch and begins pouring it on the troll.
Marcellus puts the point of his sword against the creatures chest, and tries to stab it through the heart. The blade is turned by one of the creature's ribs and sticks out through its side. Orion pulls flint and steel from his pouch and begins trying to strike a flame. Finally, he is able to set the creature on fire, and the two step back to watch it burn. Black smoke rolls up from the body, climbing up into the sky.
From the other side of the tor, they hear Father Almorhaz shout, "Ha! At last! Take that, damn you!" Wizard and thief sprint forward to assist their companions. Rounding the base of the tor, they see Greywolf and Almorhaz in combat with the other troll. Father Almorhaz is casting a healing spell on the ranger, who looks terribly hurt. As they join the fray, the troll rakes Greywolf with one of its claws, causing him to cry out in pain. He seems on the point of collapsing. Marcellus steps in behind the troll to flank it. His stab misses and he curses. Greywolf slices at the troll, but his swing is weak and he barely injures it.
Orion hurries forward to surround the troll, cutting off any hope of escape. Enraged, the troll grabs Greywolf by the shoulders, digging its claws in deep. Greywolf's eyes widen in horror, and his face turns pale. The creature's muscles strain, as it digs his claws into the ranger and rips through skin and muscle. There's a sickening sound of tearing flesh, and the half-elf falls to the ground in a swoon with the troll crouched over him.
"Damn you!" Marcellus shouts, burying his sword into the creature's back. The troll cries out in pain, and arches his back. Orion screams, "This is my Moor!" and leaps forward. His dagger glints for a moment in the morning light before he drives it into the troll's side. He twists the blade, and as he rips it out greenish-black ichor sprays across his face. The troll wrenches its body away from him and falls to the ground quivering. The wizard smiles in satisfaction.
Quickly, he and Marcellus set fire to the troll, as the terrible wounds on its body begin to close before their eyes. It twists and rolls in the flames, slowly shriveling. Meanwhile, Father Almorhaz rushes to Greywolf's side, and begins to dress his wounds as best he can. He manages to stop the bleeding, but the half-elf is still unconscious.
After setting the troll alight, Orion steps back to watch it burn. A trail of black, greasy smoke climbs lazily up into the sky. The wizard frowns and glances towards where he and Marcellus left the other troll burning on the other side of the hill. Above the stunted trees, he sees a billowing cloud of gray smoke. The fire must have caught the grass on fire, and now a signal pyre is calling all creatures of the Moor to their location. "Damn it!" the mage thinks. He scans the horizon, looking for signs of trouble. Nothing catches his eye until he sees, far away, up in the sky a large bird flying in a long, looping circle. He watches it for a moment, and sees its path straighten out and turn towards them. Marcellus follows his gaze, and shifts uncomfortably. "Maybe we'd better get moving, he mutters."
Orion responds, not taking his gaze away from the creature. "Perhaps we should, I don't think that's the welcoming party. But Greywolf is in no condition to move, I think our best bet might be to try and hide...."
Marcellus scans the broken landscape uncertainly. "Look for a hole, or go for the tor?"
"Let's make for the tor, Almoraz, get Wolf into some cover quick, keep him quiet."
Almorhaz gives Orion an irritated look. "He'll be quiet, alright. If I don't get some help moving him, he'll be the quietest ranger in the Nine Hells."
Orion grumbles, trying to gauge the amount of time they have before the creature makes the tor. Whatever it is, it has gotten quite a bit bigger just in the time since he first spotted it. It is still a good ways off though.
"Mark, give him a hand, I will find a spot." With that Orion turns and begins looking for somewhere that they would be shielded from the view of the creature.
Almorhaz lifts Greywolf by the shoulders, and directs Marcellus to get his feet. Together they carry the unconcscious half-elf clumsily across the uneven ground, following Orion towards a tumble of boulders at the base of the tor. They find a sheltered spot between two of the granite stones, and lie their injured companion gently on the ground. Marcellus ducks back out to take another look at the approaching creature, and when he comes back his face is pale. "It's a dragon. A big one. If it finds us, we're dead."
Orion gives a resigned sigh, "Shar will hide us in these shadows, or we will be found, it is in her hands now, I have no magic that can stand up to a dragon right now, and the priest is out of spells....let us be quiet and hope it scares off any other creatures that might be thinking of coming here."
"I still have a few spells," Almorhaz replies, "but nothing that will help us with a dragon."
Huddled in the shadow of the rocks, the three companions await the coming of the dragon with trepidation. After a few minutes they hear a sound like a great bellows pumping. A wind rushes over the high grass, laying it flat, and they feel a tremor run through the great boulders as something heavy sets down on top of the tor. They hear the heavy tread of clawed feet, and the scraping of a scaled body crawling over the rocks above. A voice that sounds like steam issuing from a fissure in the earth muses, "Signs of battle here... dead orcs... dead trolls... they did not kill each other... adventurers hunting the moors? They cannot have gone far..."
Orion instictively presses his back against the rock, whispering a prayer to Shar under his breath.
Marcellus closes his eyes in fear, and seems almost on the point of tears. "I should have stayed in Waterdeep," he mutters under his breath. His hands are shaking and he seems dangerously close to panicking. Father Almorhaz reaches over and places a hand on the young thief's shoulder. "If you give us away," he whispers, "I shall kill you myself in the most painful way you can imagine." Marcellus shrugs away the priest's hand, but masters his courage and wipes the tears away from his eyes.
Orion gives Mark a reassuring look, thinking to himself, "If he gives us away, we will all die in the most painful way imaginable." Then with a shock, he wonders where Nico has gone since the battle, and hopes that he had sense enough to hide. He then clutches the pendant around his neck, finding comfort in the thoughts of his parents.
"Come out of your hole, trespassers," the dragon hisses. "I cannot reach you with my claws, but my breath can penetrate every crack in these rocks, and melt the flesh from your bones. Come out and speak with me, or I will kill you cowering in your holes, and make this tor your grave."
Orion looks at the others, motioning for them to stay while whispering, "Well, looks like we don't have much of a choice." He then crawls out of the rock, and smoothes his robes over. He then folds his hands into the sleeves of his robes, to hide his shaking, and tries to face the dragon with a scrap of Bravery. "Will of the shadows," He grumbles.
The dragon, who at that moment was looking at a different section of the tor, glances up and sees Orion emerge from the rocks. "Ah! There you are! A wise choice." It stalks towards him quickly, curling back its lips in what might be a grimmace or a smile, and showing rows of sabre-like teeth, glistening white in its green, scaly skin. Its neck arches as it peers down at the wizard from about twenty feet away. "What is your business on the moor? Tell me quickly, and speak the truth, or I shall eat you where you stand." It makes a motion with one of its hands, and speaks a few words in a language Orion doesn't recognize.
Orion looks up at the dragon in awe, then tries to gather himself. "Well, before you start casting spells on people, shouldn't we at least introduce ourselves to each other?"
"I have no objection to you telling me who you are, but proceed quickly to telling me why you are here." While speaking to him, the dragon glances up at the sky and gives it a quick scan.
With a flourish he bows, "I am Orion Khelstar, heir to the kingdom of Ebenfar. That would be the answer to both of your questions I believe."
A long hiss, like steam from a giant, boiling pot of water comes from the dragon's mouth, breaking up at the end as if it were chuckling. "You must be deranged. What delusion makes you imagine yourself the heir to the Shadowking?"
Orion shakes his head, "My ancestor, whom I have spoken with, Balen Calendir, the Shadow Lord. Blood of my Blood." Orion displays the token he received from the lich, holding it high, "This is his blessing for me to return to his tower, and reclaim the glory that the Shadow King once had."
"You are insane! Balen Calendir has been dead for centuries."
"He speaks the truth!" Father Almorhaz steps out of the cavern to stand beside Orion. As you ought to know, Mornauguth." He holds up a flat disk of silver, enameled black with a purple ring around its edge. "I am Father Almorhaz of the Temple of the Dark Embrace. We met many years ago..."
The dragon seems taken aback. "Yesssss.... I remember you. You were but a young acolyte."
"I remember you as well," Father Almorhaz replies. He lets that statement hang in the air for a moment before continuing. "Orion has the blessing of Shar. She supports his ascendancy to the throne of Ebenfar. To help us would be a service to Shar, and we are greatly in need of help."
"No doubt you are..." the dragon replies, thoughtfully. She turns to Orion. "Do you serve the Dark Goddess? Or is it your own ambition that you follow in coming to this place?"
Orion shrugs, "I have given myself to her, but even that has served my ambition. We seem to have struck a fair bargain," he adds with a wry smile.
The dragon's eyes narrow. "Truthfully spoken, but heed my advice: Service to Shar is rewarded, while personal ambition can have... unintended consequences."
"The voice of experience?" asks the mage.
The dragon gives Orion a long and intimidating glare. Thin tendrils of green gas waft up from the corners of her mouth. He meets her look without flinching, and after a few moments she relaxes and says, "Come, we must leave quickly. I am not the only hunter on the moor who might be attracted by this mess you two have made. Climb onto my back and let us leave here."
Orion chuckles at the mention of "two", "We have others with us, one is wounded. Mark, bring Wolf out here, Father help him load Wolf on his back."
"Her," the priest replies as he turns toward the cave with a backward glace at the dragon.
Orion looks at the dragon for a long moment. "My apologies, the smoke coming out of your mouth hides those beautiful eyes." With that, he gives her a wink, and walks up to her, ready to mount her.
The dragon reaches out with one muscular foreleg and grabs him with her claws. He struggles with all his might, but is locked in her grasp. She presses her snout close to his face, and he can smell the acrid odor of her breath. "Do not ever mock me again, or I will break you in half with my claws! Is that understood?"
"Let him go, Morna!" Father Almorhaz shouts from the cave mouth. "Shar will be upset if you kill him," he adds in a more calm voice.
Orion says, "Hold Father...we are just getting to know one another."
"I am Morna Auguth, a high priestesses of the Dark Goddess, and I will be treated with respect! This would not be the first servant of Shar I have killed, and yet still she favors me."
Wheezing for breath, Orion looks up at the dragon and gives her a peck on the lower lip, "Morna, that's a sweet name to go with such a sour attitutude. I am Orion Khelstar, Blood of Shadows, Master of Shadows. Did you not think that one day Shar would need this moor reclaimed for her own? Perhaps your favor led you here, in this state, to help me in this endeavour. Now, unless you like yelling your whereabouts, I suggest you let me up so we can continue this conversation in a more romantic light than the burning corpses of trolls."
Enraged, the dragon squeezes the wizard in her claw, forcing the air out of his lungs. "I will kill you for that!" The pressure is so great that Orion cannot breathe. Becoming alarmed, he struggles to free himself to no avail. He reaches for his dagger, but the dragon's clutch is so tight, he cannot move his arms. Dimly, he hears Father Almorhaz yelling, but the sound fades as darkness closes in about him. From far away, and growing closer, he hears a woman's cold laughter. She does not sound amused.
When Orion awakes, he is lying on a bed of furs in a dimly lit cavern. Nicodemus, curled beside him, stirs and rubs his head against the wizard's side before going back to sleep. There is no sign of the dragon, but Father Almorhaz, dozing beside him, wakes up when he stirs, and smiles grimly. "Well, so you are still alive then. If you would stay that way, listen to me carefully. It was only with great difficulty that I was able to convince her not to rip your head off with her teeth. I don't know what possessed you to take such a tone with her, but I urge you to exercise some restraint in your speech with her. She brought us to her lair, and healed Greywolf. She would do nothing for you, so I have tended you as best I could with what little skill I have. I am no healer, but I suspect that some of your ribs were broken when she squeezed you. If you will not deal with her more diplomatically, our position here will become very uncomfortable. As a priest of Shar, I might be spared, but the other two would certainly be killed for having seen the location of her lair. We will live through this only if you can win her to your cause, and that won't be accomplished by clumsy attempts at seduction--by the Goddess, I've seen watermen in Dock Ward who were smoother."
Orion attempts to interrupt, but Father Almorhaz cuts him off. "No. It will do no good for us to argue. Let me explain who she is, and perhaps you will understand better what you have done. Morna Auguth, as you seem to have guessed, is, or was, a human, a priestess of Shar in the Temple of the Dark Embrace. Through various machinations, which we need not go into, she was able to rise to the position of prioress of Moondown House--a monastery in Amn. She was brilliant, ruthless and very beautiful. She slew many a Sharran in her rise to power, and slew many more to stay on top. When Moondown House was attacked and destroyed by followers of Selune--Shar curse her--Morna showed her resourcefulness again and again during a period of exile and open warfare with the Selunites. Nonetheless, she was betrayed by a group of our priests, who lured her into a dragon's cave, bound her with spells and transformed her into her current shape, expecting the dragon to kill her on his return. To their great misfortune, she slew the other dragon, and then came hunting them. She has not found all of them yet, but I don't doubt that she will. The spell they cast on her was a cooperative spell. Each one must dispel his part of the enchantment to undo the transformation. When she tracks one down, she forces him to do so, and then kills him slowly, and painfully. This is what you must understand: though it gives her great power, she does not like being a dragon. She seeks to be returned to her human form. It is her one consuming passion. In making light of it, you put your blade into a very sore spot. In the name of your own ambitions, I beg you to leave off. We have a mission to accomplish here, and we need her own our side."
Orion chuckles softy, then winces at the pain. "I made the point I was trying to make. She knows now that not even threats to kill will not intimidate me. Now when we talk and can be on a more...level playing field. I did not know it was so serious as that. Let's hope one of those people doesn't die of old age before she can find him. I am famished...." Orion moves to get up from the bed but grimaces in pain. "Maybe not..." He lays back down and absentmindedly strokes Nicodemus's fur, "Father would you bring my pack over here, so I may retrieve a book?"
"Sure." Almorhaz gets up and retrieves the desired pack, and drops it beside Orion. "I'll be back in a moment." He disappears into the shadows to Orion's right, his footsteps crunching on the sandy floor. Orion removes his spellbook, and tries to read in the dim light cast by a lone torch on the opposite wall, but it's too dark. Lighting a candle would be too strenuous, so he sits back and waits for the priest to return.
Several minutes go by before Almorhaz comes back into the room, carrying a wooden bowl with steam rising from it. He leans over carefully, and hands the bowl to the young mage. "Greywolf made this earlier. It is just beef broth, but you might find it easier to consume than the smoked meat we brought. He lowers himself to the ground with a grunt, and sits cross-legged on the floor by Orion's pallet. "As far as level playing fields go, she may know that you are willing to die, but I don't see how that gives you any leverage with her since she's not at all unwilling that you should do so."
Orion begins to sip the broth, avoiding the subject, "Where is Nicodemus? Did we leave the horses?"
"Greywolf, Marcellus and Morna have gone to retrieve them. It is nighttime, and they are using the cover of darkness to bring them back here."
Orion finishes his soup with a slurping noise, then tries to sit up on the bed, feeling better with something in his belly. "How long have they been gone?"
"Perhaps two hours. She said it would probably take them all night. She's not sure she can retrieve the horses alive, but at least we can get our gear."
"Father, you say you met Morna a while ago, how?"
"We were both very young. I was an acolyte, and she was the slave girl of one of the priests in the Temple of the Dark Embrace. He was later suspected of plotting against the high priest of the temple, and tortured to death. She then became the slave girl of the high priest himself. He was later poisoned by the priests of Moondown House while he was visiting that monastery. He was there to convince the monks to place their monastery under the protection of his Temple. Apparently, they did not wish to be subjugated to his rule. Morna stayed on at Moondown House. She was made a member of the monastery and rose through the ranks over time. People who got in her way in those days had a habit of dying under mysterious circumstances."
Orion listens with interest, "Do you know how many people remain to be found in order to break her enchantment?"
"No, I do not. And as you say, some of them may die before she gets to them. In addition to hunting them down, she also does her best to be of service to the Church of Shar. I believe she hopes that the Dark Goddess may someday reverse her transformation as a reward for her services. That is the only leverage we have with her. We must convince her that to help you is to help the Church."
Orion nods, "If only I knew the magic of the Netherese, we could break any enchantment modern wizards could put on her."
"It is said that many Netherese ruins are buried beneath the Moor..."
"If I could find any relics from that day I might be able to craft a spell that would help her...then we would have a powerful bargaining chip indeed. But that is not something we have, so we will have to go with your way for now."
"Yes... without knowledge of a specific item, we would not be able to make any guarantees to her that it would work... Besides, I believe she is more useful to us in her current form, though don't tell her I said that."
Orion laughs heartily before the pain in his ribs stops him, "I am going to have to agree with you there." Orion lays back down on the cot, "I hate all of this waiting."
"Get some sleep," the priest tells him, rising to his feet. "I am going to perform my devotions, and then go to sleep also. You will have need of my healing in the morning."
"I will... after I read a bit. Could you light a candle for me, and set it beside the bed before you go?"
The priest digs a taper out of Orion's backpack, and lights it using the torch. He drips some wax on a rock shelf just above Orion's head, and sets the candle in it, then walks from the room. Orion flips open his book, and begins to read. Nico stands up, stretches and then steps up into the wizard's lap and curls himself into a circle, purring.
An hour later, the priest returns to find Orion asleep with the book lying next to him and Nico on his chest. The priest blows out the candle, and crawls into his own pallet. Within a few minutes he is snoring.
A vibration in the rock beneath him awakens Orion to the heavy tread of clawed feet, and the scraping of scales over rock. Morna has returned. The torch in its sconce burned out long ago, and darkness surrounds him. "Shirak," he murmurs, to evoke a magical light. The spell does not function though. He repeats the incantation, forming the word carefully and summoning all his magical might. Still the light does not come. Blocked from the magic coursing through his veins for the first time, Orion shudders, an uneasy emptiness filling his stomach. Straining his eyes in the darkness, he takes a deep breath and tries to reign in the panic on his face before feeling for his boots on the ground. He slips the boots on over his hose, and then slides his hand underneath the fur blankets to retrieve his dagger.
In the blackness near him, he hears Father Almorhaz roll over and yawn. "Our hostess has returned. Let's hope our friends were successful." A flicker of light appears on the cavern wall near the exit, and Orion hears the low murmur of voices. Marcellus and Greywolf enter, the latter carrying a torch. Orion blinks in the sudden glare. The two men enter quietly, nodding a greeting, their shoulders sagging with fatigue and their faces showing the strain of a long night. Marcellus slumps to the ground against the far wall, and leans his head back to stretch the muscles in his neck.
"Well," he says, looking at Orion, "we got the gear. It seems that Morna has a taste for horseflesh, though. By Shar, that's not an experience I ever want to repeat." He rubs his eyes with both hands as if to wipe the sight from them. "What a horror!"
Orion chuckles nervously and looks around, "Where is our hostess?"
"I think she went to lie down," Greywolf mutters. "Going to sleep off her meal, I guess."
Orion shrugs and nods to the doorway, "Through there?"
"Through the passageway, and somewhere to the right. I wouldn't disturb her now, though. She might be tired. I certainly am. It was a long night, and a harrowing ride for the two of us."
Orion ponders this for a second, and then rubs his ribs, "I'm not up for that again so soon. Apparantly something about this cave, or her return to it has cut off my connection with magic....it's like an itch on my back that I can't scratch."
"Really?" Father Almorhaz looks at him quizzically. He passes a hand in front of him, and looks about. "I am able to detect magic, but I sense nothing magical about the cave."
Orion's calm facade drops for an instant of pure horror, which he quickly tries to recover from with an evil smirk, "Maybe she just doesn't trust me while she's sleeping."
"What spell did you try to cast?"
Orion shrugs, "A spell for light."
"Try another one..."
Orion makes a motion with his hand and speaks a word to reveal the magical auras around him. The armor and weapons of his allies glow softly with a pale green dweomer.
"Did it work?" the priest asks him.
Orion furrows his brow in puzzlement, "Yes...it did... Perhaps Shar doesn't want me to be able to see any longer."
"You serve the Mistress of the Night now. You are cut off from the light forever."
Orion chuckles, "Well if I serve the MIstress of the Night, maybe there should be a way for me to make sure I don't trip and fall off a cliff in the dark..."
"So long as you follow her, she will guide your feet," the priest intones, and then adds in a wry voice, "but if you get up in the middle of the night to piss, take a torch."
Orion laughes, and then winces again, "By the Shadows I need to stop doing that."
"Rest some more," he says, easing Orion back onto his bed. "You too," he says to Marcellus and Greywolf. "We'll need our strength later." Turning back to Orion, he tells him, "I will wake you when Morna wakes."
Orion nods and tries to sleep but cannot get comfortable. He mutters under his breath, and Nico perks up at the sound of his voices. The cat curls up next to him, purring loudly. Orion closes his eyes and does his best to doze while he awaits for Morna to awake.