By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 60 - New Mysteries
Berdusk, 1371 DR, Eleint, 11th day (Penultimate Thunder: Hoar), after breakfast
A new dawn of a new day, overnight the persistent mist of the previous day has lifted; a cool autumn breeze now blowing through the streets, and clouds overhead moving steadily across the blue expanse. The early frost and cold weather has increased the coloring of the leaves – more and more green is giving away to shades of yellow, red and brown. The freshness of the day seems to be invigorating though, people throng the streets, street vendors hawking their wares, a town crier shouting some of the latest news; the city once more a bustling hive of activity.
Instilled with the joyfulness and vitality of this early autumn day, Ditalidas makes her way to the Running Stag. The scroll with the strange and mysterious poem tucked in her tunic. The walk to the Stag is only a short one, soon the building comes in sight. When she rounds the corner and enters the inn’s courtyard, she sees Marc playing with his faithful dog. A bright smile appears on the young man’s face as he recognizes Dita. Not only did the young shepherd recognize her, Friend abandons the stick she was playing with and runs to the woman’s side, tail wagging madly and hips shaking, the dog dances around Ditalidas, begging for attention.
Squatting down Dita pats Marc’s companion, receiving several licks of friendship in return. “The others are already inside.” Marc says, his eyes gleaming as he smiles at the antics of his dog, “They should have finished their breakfast by now. Immerine is doing fine again, she was worried very much about her horse, but Lieutenant Aluar had found Qwenta again and took him to the stables here. Portia and Tempest are also inside, she looks much better now she’s clean and wearing her armor.” Marc rattles of the news as he escorts Ditalidas inside, followed on his heels by Friend. “And the Matteo and Jezbodiah and… well, there they are.” As the pair steps inside, the rest of the group is seated in the lush forest like environment of the common room. Remnants of the breakfast are being removed by Elisa, who smiles in greeting when she notices the arrival of Dita.
The others welcome her and Ditalidas takes a seat at the table, smiling at her friends. Pulling the scroll from her tunic, she hands the rolled-up document to Matteo. “The priests at the Inner Chamber have translated the runes you found in the woods. I haven’t read it yet, though according to the priest it contained an ‘interesting little poem’” Unrolling the scroll, the Sembian reads the words once before reading them aloud for the others. Penned in an elegant hand, the runes from the cottage read as follows: A harvest of souls – On the fields of yore. / Warriors and armored knights – A mighty army once more. / The undying legion will march – Their banners will flare. / The eternal kingdom will come – Let all tremble and despair.
Immerine sits quietly at the table her face a blank slate, her green eyes dim and haunted. She is dressed in a simple, woolen gown – open at the throat revealing her holy symbol nestled in the hollow of her neck. Her ebon hair is plied neatly into a taut braid down her back. After the reading of the poem she closes her eyes and whispers softly, “The Destroyer is coming. All life shall be drained and Bhalla will feel his wrath as he rips her children from their beds of eternal slumber to wreak havoc across her bosom…”
Emlyn’s eyes focus sharply on Immerine, but seeing that the young woman’s own eyes are closed, she does not press the matter. It was merely a day ago she saw her pass out from weariness. Her next words are more directed to her worried self than to the group as a whole, as she mutters “If such are the warnings of the Earthmother, then the wounds will be many…”
Portia stands near the table, arms crossed over a relatively new breastplate embossed with Kelemvor’s symbol. The Kelemvorite, in marked contrast to her appearance the night before, is alert and clean. Her hair, its unruliness no longer contained by grime and dirt, has been gathered into two braids running down the back of her head. Unlike her attitude of a few days before, however, her demeanor has taken a grim turn. “Hmm,” Portia says, noncommittally, looking askance at Immerine. Then, she says, “It’s but one more piece of evidence of Velsharoon’s hand in this.”
Shifting her gaze to the Sembian, Lord Matteo, and then the others, Portia says, “My thanks to all of you, for coming for me. I still don’t know precisely what happened. I’m afraid I lost that gem.” Then, to those that don’t know her all that well, she says, “I’m Portia Coldspring. I’m from Baldur’s Gate, and, obviously, a follower of Kelemvor. I was with a party hunting a rumored Velsharan priest, last seen not too far to the west, when I was asked to aid Matteo.” Looking around the table, a slight questioning look appears on her face, “By the way, will Kalil or, ah, Druth be joining us?” There are a number of new faces around the table, but very few familiar ones to the young priestess.
“Ghastly poetry…” The soft spoken half-elf utters. He looks at Immerine and finds the woman a pale, if anemic, woman he once knew only yesterday. Then looking at the priestess of Kelemvor, “As for the rescue, it was nothing my lady. It was I who convinced Immerine to find you, but I admit I was searching for something and someone else. Anyway, she was able to convince some of the others to venture into the sewers. I believe she found some clues that lead us to you. My name is Jezbodiah Wisp, born of Berdusk,” The half-elf says. “And what was this about a gem stone? Is it important?”
Immerine looks sharply over to the half-elf as if to speak to him sharply. Her eyes blaze wide for a moment… and then it is gone and she simply shakes her head and closes her eyes. Glancing at Jez, the corner of Matteo’s mouth curls up in derisive amusement and he gives a slight shake of his head while his hands idly roll the parchment back up. Turning to look at Portia he sighs then says, “It appears that Druth and Grim declined to participate in our investigations and will not be rejoining us in the near future. I think they have left the city, though that is not confirmed.”
With a slight nod of acknowledgement to Telsom, he continues to add, “Lord Sillisten contacted us the other day with word of divinations he had received regarding your… ah… predicament, Portia. Telsom and I went to the Crystal Mansion to talk with Lord Sillisten and discovered that his vision was of little more than tunnels and a swirling purple mist containing skulls, one of which wore a crown.” Shrugging, he lets his gaze travel about his companions. “So we are not really any further along in that regard for we knew that either the followers of Velsharoon or those of Cyric in Darkhold are involved.”
Matteo’s finger taps the rolled up parchment in his hands as he looks back at Portia. “Even the tunnels in his vision may not have been the sewer tunnels of this city, though they were our first option to investigate. Lord Sillisten thought that they might also be the caves in the Reaching Wood, those below the Trielta Hills, or even the dungeons of Darkhold itself. The Captain of the Guard suggested that we investigate the caves in the Reaching Wood, for the Zhentarim of Darkhold occasionally use the caves for a base of operations in this area. Zaina was having a map drawn up for us showing the location of the caves.”
Exhaling slowly, the Sembian runs a hand through his dark hair. “Lord Sillisten was going to undertake an investigation of the undead bodies that assaulted Lady Jalarghar, for he thought he might be able to determine the source of the magic that animated them. Whether the rites of animation were performed by followers of Velsharoon or Cyric, I mean. You don’t know whether that investigation has been completed, do you, Portia?”
Grinning wryly, he shakes his head at his own lack of manners and, gesturing towards the others, says, “I am sorry Portia. You know the Lady Jalarghar already and her… ah… squire, Marc. Telsom you know and Jez has made himself known. This is Nik, a bard of no small talent, Emlyn, another priestess like yourself, and the Lady Immerine from far Rashemen.” In a greeting gesture, Emlyn presses both palms together and gives Portia a quick bow. “Emlyn Ashenleaf,” she introduces herself, “a servant of Ilmater.”
Portia shakes her head negatively when asked about Lord Sillisten’s investigations. “I haven’t heard anything.” Then, to the others, she says, “Well met all, and once again, my thanks. I hope I’m able to repay you for the risks you’ve taken for me.” Portia fishes in her pocket for a moment, before pulling out some sort of necklace. “The Death’s Hand did tell us that this,” she holds up a small stone on a cord, etched with some incomprehensible symbol, “is a ward token, allowing the bearer to pass certain magical wards. He mentioned that it might allow entry into the warehouse you were investigating, or possibly further into the lair in the sewers.” She tosses the token onto the table, obviously wanting nothing more to do with it. “I took it from the body of a man that-” Her eyes glaze for a moment, before clearing once more. “He won’t be needing it anymore…” She adds softly. “He was in the room I was held in, just off the sewers.”
“If it comes to a vote between the sewers and the warehouse though, my vote is for the warehouse.” Portia finishes, trying to change the topic away from her experience in that room. Leaning forward Matteo picks up the rough necklace, turning it over in his hands while looking at it. “Might be worth looking into…” He murmurs quietly, “The warehouse, I mean. I wouldn’t mind tying up any loose ends before possibly setting off into the countryside.”
Ditalidas nods at Portia en then turns with a quick smile to Matteo. “I agree. I’m in favor of the warehouse too. Marc saw a man enter that building who used to hang around with Lohgran a lot. I think you remember him; Lohgran was the leader of the group that killed your friend at Memblar’s. There must be some connection between Portia’s kidnapping, the dead of your friend and me being attacked by those undead. But I fail to see it.” A frustrated glance is visible in her eyes. Shortly she shakes her head. “I surely would like some answers that made actually sense. All those bits and pieces start driving me crazy.”
“Aye, neither would I.” Emlyn replies, and after lady Ditalidas’ comments, “I didn’t like what I saw either. Whoever they were, ‘they’ certainly did ‘not’ like to be seen… and if they are indeed murderers, kidnappers and maybe more, they cannot go on harming people as they please.” Portia nods to Emlyn, she looks about the group of serious faces, then up at Matteo. “The warehouse then? How are we going to go about doing this? Should we inform the Watch of what we intend?” Portia’s face remains neutral.
Returning Portia’s gaze, Matteo purses his lips for a moment as he considers her query before taking a small mouthful of his drink. “No…” He replies after a few seconds, “I don’t think there is any need. I would like to get into the warehouse unannounced if possible, and the fewer people that know what we’re up to the more likely that will be. Besides, Zaina is happy with updates of what we’re doing every day or two and for convenience we’ve arranged a way I can deliver short reports without having to wander over to the guard barracks all the time.”
Taking another small mouthful of his drink he swallows before lifting a hand to briefly scratch his nose. “I am also not sure we are not being observed. Certainly there have been indications that some people have known what we’ve been up to before. So, if possible, I’d like to go to the warehouse in an indirect manner.” A wry grin crosses his face and he adds, “Not that I am intending to return to the sewers.” Looking around at the others gathered about he asks, “If we are going to go to the warehouse is everyone more or less ready to leave? Rather than try to shake any possible tail by taking convoluted paths down to the warehouse, I would try something simpler. If Mumadar can quietly get us two covered carriages, I suggest we make it known we are leaving the city to re-visit the scene of the ambush on Lady Jalarghar. Once the carriages are a couple blocks from the Inn we jump out and hop into a shop or building for a short while so that anyone who is following will carry on after the carriages. We should have a small window of time because anyone wishing to follow us will have to suddenly get their own carriage or horse in short order to do so. By the time they then catch up with our carriages which will continue out of the city we should be safely away.” Looking around at his companions he asks, “Does that sound acceptable?”
“It is … workable. But if we are being observed, Lord Ashgale, it may even be through magical means. Perhaps our enemies know your plan already. If they do not, perhaps you have a chance of getting away with it.” Immerine’s voice is cold and blank giving away no emotion. “That is true…” Matteo replies grimly, “…but unless we are prepared to either sit and do nothing or wander off to one of the major temples in town whenever we wish to hold a conversation there is little to be done about the possibility of magical observation. We do not have the resources to cover every eventuality that the enemy may conceive of, so we make do as best we can with what we have.”
Swirling the liquid in his glass he looks into its depths before placing the glass down on the table and looking back up at Immerine. “We know so little that we cannot ignore the warehouse and the possibility that we may find something there. Yet we also know that our enemy is aware we have made investigations on the docks and has likely already taken steps to remove any information that may be there. Consequently, we cannot delay for fear that they will remove all traces of information, yet we must also be aware that the place may be a trap waiting to be sprung.”
“It seems to me you are both right,” Emlyn says, “but that also means that if we are watched, then the only thing we can do is beat them to it.” The glint in her eyes betrays a certain amount of excitement, but she hasn’t ignored Matteo’s remark. “True. We should be careful…” She smiles. “Still, even a mouse, provided it is wary can whisk away the cheese without getting trapped.”
The tall bard has been silent the entire time, fiddling absently with the ring that Ditalidas recognizes as the one she had given Nik the day before. His shadowed eyes are wary and apprehensive, darting from face to face as each person makes their opinion known. Finally he clears his throat nervously and says softly “And the cheese the clever mouse swipes can be poisoned as well.” He looks up from the ring he has been toying with and adds in a more confident tone, “I’m new to this mystery, I know. But I was at that warehouse yesterday, along with Ditalidas, Marc and Emlyn.” Nik gives his companions a fleeting smile and continues “I’m quite sure whoever was at that warehouse would be able to easily identify at least myself, and most likely Marc – at least with Friend – again. Certainly I am rather… distinctive.” With a lop-sided smile at his obvious remark Nik says softly “Why don’t we use that to our advantage? I don’t really want to be bait, mind you, but that will be a far easier and logical job than trying to disguise all six and a half feet of me.” Nik’s smile is clearly forced now, but he continues talking as if a pause for thought might cause his courage to desert him all-together. “I think the carriage misdirection is a fine plan. Why not add to that? Let myself, Marc, and whomever else wants to be bait be seen poking around near the warehouse. Hopefully that can draw off enough… unwanted observers… to allow the rest of you easier access. Divide and conquer is a quite sound military tactic, or so I’ve heard.”
Nik leans back in his chair and awaits the group’s reaction, his face carefully blank but his eyes full of a strange mix of fear and pride. Portia looks at the tall man expressionlessly. “I won’t be bait.” Looking back at the others, she adds, “But it does sound like a plan that’ll work.” Nik’s speech elicits a softening in the witch’s face. “I will assist in this portion. I will be ‘bait’ with Nik. It will be very interesting to see what species of fish we shall catch. I am not at all familiar with what you people are trying to do as I came into this situation rather late. But I do know you to be good and for the most part just…” Her eyes flicker towards Matteo at that word. “If whatever it is you are attempting to do, involves destruction of forces arrayed to raise the resting from their place I will help. I will go with Nik.”
Sitting silent and unseen on Nik’s shoulder throughout the palaver, Puddy listens – as attentively as he can – to the discussion, but becomes alarmed at Nik’s suggestion. Tugging on the tall bard’s ear, Puddy whispers frantically, “A bad thing yesterday was there! Felt it I did, like winter’s ice on my wings. Even the dog saw, just ask him! Protect you I will… if I can, but remember, little am I.”
The half-elf patiently sips apple cider from his goblet. Paying attention to the conversation that is unfolding around him, he remains silent and wonders if anyone will notice him. Marc, having kept silent for a long time looks proudly at the bard. “I’ll go with Nik.” He offers, as he puts a hand on the tall bard’s shoulders, giving it an encouraging squeeze, narrowly missing the invisible faerie. “…And with Emlyn of course.” Saying that, he throws a look in the direction of the small, but brave halfling, giving her a quick boyish wink. “Of course.” Emlyn returns the wink. “It would be far from me to abandon you two. Besides, three is a lucky number.” Stepping over to Friend, she scratches the excited dog’s ears. “And if they don’t recognize your telling coat, they are too dim even to be feared.”
“Alright then…” Matteo replies, a slight grin tugging at the corner of his mouth as he looks at Marc, “…how does this sound as a basic outline? We take two carriages from here for a short distance. Then change carriages for two new ones in order to throw off any pursuit. Those going to the warehouse as decoys in one carriage, the rest of us in the other.” Looking around at the others present, his grey eyes encouraging, he adds, “The decoys, as it were, should not number too many of us, as they are there to act as a diversion so that the rest of us can achieve a greater degree of surprise. I suggest we accept the offers of Nik, Marc, and Immerine to act as decoys, plus one or two others as they wish.”
“The rest of us turn up as quickly as possible once the others are in place, using the carriage to get right up to the doors if we can. Then it’s a matter of into the warehouse as fast as possible in order to maintain surprise and overwhelm whatever opposition may exist.” Portia nods in agreement. “Works for me. Who will arrange for the carriages? Can we have the people here…” She indicates an employee of the Inn, “…take care of that for us? That way, one of our own won’t be wandering about risking discovery.” The cleric remains expressionless at the possibility of mayhem.
“I will not ride in a carriage!” Immerine says simply. “Now that my participation has been solved I am going to prepare. I will watch as Nik leaves and Qwenta and I will follow whatever means of conveyance he uses. I will be in my room changing, then the stables.” The witch rises to her feet; her face remains grayed and impassive. Nodding towards Portia, Matteo replies, “Yes, I’ll have a word to Mumadar and I’m pretty sure that we can arrange the carriages.” About to turn towards Immerine to say something he pauses, then adds, “Though it might take a short period before they arrive. After all, we are arranging not one, but four carriages in two different places.”
Rising to his feet, Matteo flexes his leg as though it were stiff then takes a step towards Immerine. “If I might, my lady…” He says quietly, “…may I have a quick word before I speak to Mumadar?” Immerine nods, “If it is your wish, your Lordship. We may speak on my way to my room.” Taking their leave from the rest, the Rashemi witch and the Sembian walk towards the curtain and passing beyond it out of sight. As they head towards the young Rashemi woman’s room, Matteo begins to speak quietly, his eyes fixed on the ground before him. “I don’t want to try and tell you what to do Immerine.” A wry grin crosses his face and his eyes briefly flicker upwards towards, “Not that you would listen anyway.”
“Nonetheless…” He adds softly after a moment, “I would appreciate it if … I know you want to spend time with Qwenta, my lady, but please think on this. The carriages we leave from here with are a diversion for anyone who might be following us to pursue. If you follow those carriages away from here on Qwenta, but don’t follow them to their destination then anyone following us might realize that they are in fact a diversion.”
“I am not your lady, Matteo. I dissolve your oath as it was under duress. Order your carriages and return to your companions. I will do as I have stated. I will follow Nik; therefore you and the others are safe so long as you do not follow us. Whatever conveyance the bard uses, I will follow him. I did not say I was following you.” Immerine falls silent her face an unreadable mask. “No you did not,” Matteo murmurs under his breath, his face still looking down at the floor, “I think it was me that said I would follow you.” Looking up, his grey eyes rinsed clean of emotion, he says in a flat voice, “My word is my own, my lady, you cannot take it away or dissolve it at a whim. You do not have such power and you never will.” Turning on his heel, he goes to walk back towards the common room.
Without a word, Immerine continues to her room. Inside, she changes swiftly into her armor, including a hastily mended face mask. She gathers her few belongings into her pack, and shifts it to her shoulder. Taking up her staff she descends the stairs and walks through the inn’s interior to the stables where she instantly seeks out Qwenta. She relaxes only when she sees the magnificent stallion’s brilliant eyes and soft muzzle. “Qwenta…” her tone indicates relief and great sorrow at the same time. She drops her pack at the stall door and reaches her arms up to her friend. “Qwenta… we are alone… again. I promised the Outlanders our aid. We will help them on this quest of theirs then we will be free.” She buries her face in the neck of her friend.
The warmth of the horse and the familiar smell serve as a wholesome balsam on the young witch’s spirit, and help her relax. Qwenta neighs softly as if to agree with the situation, gently nudging the woman with his nose. Immerine opens the stall door and leads Qwenta to where she can clean and brush his coat, check his hooves and legs and make sure he has been well-tended. While she does this she runs the past few days through her head. “I cannot make sense of it, my Beauty. This world is alien to me, to us. Perhaps I was wrong, but something … something is screaming at me, keeping me here.” Immerine sighs and walks to the stable window to peer into the yard – waiting for the carriages.
“Sounds fine,” Emlyn replies. “I’ll go with Marc and Nik… and if Immerine joins us we have a lucky number plus one.” A grin tugs at the corners of her mouth. “I’d say they can’t miss us.” Portia nods at Matteo’s mention of a delay as the carriages are arranged, and leans back against the wall, crossing her legs at the ankles. She looks like she’s willing to wait. A moment later, she looks at the other Kelemvorite, Tempest, and says, “We haven’t really had much time to talk, Tempest. How did you come to the service of Kelemvor?” Listening to all the conversations around him, Tempest merely nods at each suggestion, willing to go along with whatever the group wants to do. Only when Portia addresses him directly does he speak. “I met a cleric of Kelemvor at Candlekeep when I was young, Portia. He was looking for a boy that had a mark from Kelemvor on the back of his hand. The priests of Ilmater that I was with showed him the mark on my hand.” He shows Portia the birth mark on the back of his hand. It’s shaped like a skeletal hand. “He told me after seeing this that Kelemvor had chosen me as one of his faithful. After being initiated, I was sent to Berdusk to help Lord Sillisten.”
Portia nods thoughtfully. “I was raised as a foundling at the Abbey of the Fallen outside of Baldur’s Gate. I was drawn by the way the clerics cared for those that were dying. I even planned to spend my time as care-giver there, but then we started having problems with Velsharan priests in the area. I was part of a group tracking a priest when I was sent to tell Lord Sillisten of our progress. He asked me to stay and aid Lord Matteo.” Portia looks thoughtful as she thinks of those she left in the wilderness to continue the hunt. She reflects that the hunt may have come with her…
“Trouble and un-mended hearts between the merchant and the witch, I often wonder what’s on her mind and what he can’t see about her. Is it plain to see that he will never tame her heart because it will not bring her the serenity and happiness she desires? Or…” Jezbodiah pauses for a heartbeat, “…is there a higher power at work here. Something pushing a principle, like a seamstress sews thread, through her soul? Notions best left for a Sunite, I’d say… – minus the backhand.”
The halfling chuckles, “Maybe you are wrong, master Wisp. Maybe it is he who has trouble being tamed… such things are best left to themselves.” Jez reaches for the fruit basket and retrieves three of the reddest apples he can find. “Hmm, I never considered that. Immerine is a very provocative woman both in the flesh and out of her armor.” Feeling the weight of the fruit carefully, he places two in his right hand, and a single apple in his left. He throws the apples into the air only to catch them and progressively throw them up again. “Ladies and gentlemen!” He says. “Step right up and witness the dexterous display of Jezbodiah Wisp and his marvelous fingers. Aye, I’m a spry young half-elven lad seeking the hearts and good will of any man, or woman willing to donate a single copper, or even a silver coin to the Shrine of Lliira. Donations go to the orphanage of Berdusk. C’mon think of the children. Step up and put the coins on the table.”
Still with a smile on her face, Emlyn shakes her head at the half-elf’s little scheme, but cannot help herself as she delves into her belt pouch and produces a silver piece. Deciding to give the right example she puts it on the table with a mock bow as one might give to a noble. The halfling’s example is followed by a couple of other patrons as well. A pair of woodsmen, on their way out, drop some coppers at the half-elf’s feet, a woman with her small boy does the same, the kid watching the display with awe. From the back of the room someone catcalls, “Apples are for beginners, can ye do it with knives too? And dance to a tune of the minstrel?” The man’s drinking buddies fall in with supporting comments and murmurs.
Matteo, returning to the common room, notices the small crowd which seems to have formed around the table of his friends where Jezbodiah is performing some juggling feat with apples. Catching the last words of the challenge, the Sembian notices an eager, friendly anticipation in the crowd. Shaking his head, a bemused grin accompanies a raised eyebrow as Matteo raises a hand towards his companions in acknowledgement as he crosses the inn floor, threading his way past tables and guests as he makes his way towards Mumadar. A brief scraping sound can be heard as he pulls a stool across the wooden floor towards the bar. Soon he can be seen nibbling on bar snacks while engaging the innkeeper in conversation.
Approaching Mumadar as he works behind the bar, Matteo briefly glances back at his companions before hooking a barstool with his hand and pulling it across the wooden floor to sit down on. Shifting slightly upon the stool to get a little more comfortable he reaches out to snag a half-empty platter of snacks and helps himself to a crust of bread and a morsel of spiced sausage. Swallowing a little of the sausage he beckons for Mumadar to approach him.
Using a rag to clean a mug, the dark-skinned and scar-faced innkeeper moves towards Matteo, “Saer, how can I help you; some more refreshments for you and your friends?” Focusing his attention on the Sembian, Mumadar’s eyes nevertheless keep paying attention to the rest of the establishment as well. “No thank you,” Matteo replies with a smile as he eyes a little more of the spiced sausage. “We were,” he adds, “preparing to leave for the day.” Having barely eaten over the last few days, Matteo’s stomach gives a low, rumbling growl and he relents, taking more of the sausage and bread from the platter.
“Actually,” he adds after a few moments, having swallowed his last mouthful, “it was about leaving that I wanted to talk to you about.” Matteo allows a wry expression to cross his face and makes a deprecating gesture with his hand. “It’s a little complicated you see. We suspect that some rather disreputable fellows have taken an interest in our comings and goings and wish to avoid their notice if at all possible. Could you possibly have one of your staff call two carriages for us and have them waiting outside? We would also like another two carriages arranged to wait for us just down the road and around the corner towards the city gates. Once the second two carriages are in place, we’ll hop in the first two only to transfer to the second two as we pass by.”
Reaching for a little more food Matteo looks up at Mumadar, catching his eye and holding it. “Of course, you need have no fear that we will take advantage of any of the carriage drivers and bring any harm to the reputation of your establishment. All four carriages will be well paid, as will your staff for taking the time to help us.” Out of nowhere a coin appears in Mumadar’s right hand, the tarnished silver item moving fluidly over the scarred innkeeper’s knuckles as he regards Matteo intently. After a while he nods his bald head, “I can arrange that.” With an absentminded looking movement, the coin disappears once more in the man’s apron and he picks up the mug and cleaning rag. “At the next bell the carriages should be here.”
“Thank you…” The half-elf chirps as he continues to display his talents to the on-lookers and customers as they leave their coins before him. “It will all go to the shrine of Lliira and to the orphans, I promise.” However, as quickly as he took the apples, Jez then catches all four apples and places them back into the fruit basket on the table. “Eh, is that a challenge, I hear. Well, I’m up to the task but I’ll sing and juggle if I must. How many knives? Hmmm, let me think, I have two with me. Can anyone else spare a few daggers? Trust me, they will return with no shed blood, at least none of which will be mine.”
Immediately a couple of knives are volunteered, including a very old – but certainly still serviceable knife from Marc. Jezbodiah takes them up, weighing the mixed assortment of pointy and sharp items briefly before tossing them in the air one by one – and catching them again deftly. A confident smile plays on the half-elf’s lips as slowly he starts to move about, showing the juggling act to the group of the – now silent – boasters near the back of the room.
The bard has been silent, apparently lost in thought once again. He pays no attention to Jez’s performance, absently fiddling with the new ring on his finger. Abruptly he stands up, and says with a wan smile “I’d better go to my room and get changed into something more suitable for being a suicidal idiot.” Ditalidas briefly touches the bard’s hand as he rises, looking him in the eyes; her expression offering some comfort to Nik. As she watches him depart through the curtain, she almost imperceptibly shakes her head, her expression unchanged.
Nik is only gone a few minutes, and when he returns he is dressed in plain, serviceable leather armor and is braiding his wild mane of hair into one thick plait. He ties off the long braid with the thin leather thong that had held it back earlier and returns to his seat, passing by Matteo. Offering the Sembian a wry smile he says “I may not be a bold adventurer, but I can at least look the part.”
The two of them return to the table where the others are still seated. Nik rests one hand possessively on the still-wrapped guitar leaning on the table next to him and sighs. His craggy face is composed and thoughtful, but his muddy-green eyes are worried and shadowed with the fear that always seems just a heartbeat away. “I wonder if Mumadar will keep and eye on Julia while I’m gone.” The bard murmurs to himself. “I can’t bear the thought of risking her… it’s bad enough I’ll be putting myself in harm’s way. Gods, I’m such a fool.” Obviously he is once again unaware he is thinking aloud, his eyes vague as his vivid imagination runs wild. “I can’t believe I’m going to go through with this mad plan… and I can’t believe I suggested being bait…”
Abruptly the bard shakes his head sharply then leans over and reaches into his backpack, drawing out what appears to be the bottle he took to his room the night before. It is more than half-empty, and from the color it is definitely something much harder than wine. He takes a long swig directly from the bottle, then re-corks it and returns it to his backpack. Finally looking at his companions, Nik gives them a twisted, cynical little half-smile and says “NOW I’m ready. Or as ready as I’ll ever be, I just need to see if our esteemed host will watch my beloved Julia while we’re off sticking our heads in the lion’s mouth.”
A round of applause sounds as Jezbodiah finishes his juggling, sending the knives one by one on the table, where they land – point first – quivering in the wood. Taking a couple of bows to the crowd, the young half-elf seats himself again for a drink. Marc, one hand retrieving the old knife, the other holding a mug, toasts to Jez’s display.
Leaning back in his seat, Matteo absently scratches his ribs through the thick cloth of his black doublet and almost knee-length jacket. Worrying at a piece of sausage stuck behind his teeth with his tongue, Matteo pauses then says, “The carriages will be ready within the hour so if anyone has any last preparations they wish to make, I suggest they make them now.” Shrugging and smiling a bit sadly, Portia says, “I’ve pretty much got everything I own with me right now. The last couple days have been hard on my material possessions…” The young cleric nibbles on a bit of sausage as she waits – a blank expression on her face.
Leaning forward in his chair Matteo reaches deep into his over-jacket and extracts several sheets of thick parchment and places them on the table in front of Portia. They are soon followed by three stoppered vials. Taking up a little sausage himself he says, “You might as well look after these for us Portia, unless anyone else wants them. Marc, Emlyn, and I found them at a cottage in the woods and Lord Sillisten identified them for us.” Reaching a hand forward to touch two of the vials he adds, “These two, I am told, will heal light wounds while the other protects the drinker from magical scrying. As for the scrolls, one renders a person invisible to undead, one causes light wounds, and the last enhances physical strength. I don’t know exactly how they work, obviously, but all are holy items.” Making a wry face he adds, “With everything that has happened recently I haven’t had time to collect them before today.”
Portia looks with interest at the items Matteo sets on the table, but winces when he indicates the scroll that causes light wounds. “I’d be happy to take a look.” Then, looking at Tempest, she says, “Like to help?” She sits down and takes each item checking them over carefully and then setting them aside. After a bit she says, “Well, like any potion, these can be used by pretty much anyone. I’m not sure who would be scrying on us, or if someone was, who would be the most likely target, so it’s hard to say who would get the most use out of this one.” She sets the potion that protects against scrying near Matteo. “These…” She says, touching the other two vials, “…are useful, to be sure. We might want to make sure that they go to the ones most likely to be in the thick of a fight.”
She looks toward Telsom, then back to Matteo, quirking one eyebrow. “I would say you and Saer Telsom, though he can heal himself if need be. Another good idea would be to hand them off to Lady Ditalidas, or possibly Immerine. Tempest and I have healing spells available, so I wouldn’t think we’d be the smartest to carry them – what if we were separated?” This last is said wryly. “As for the scrolls…” She shrugs. “They are only useful to those that can cast divinely granted spells. Tempest, Immerine, myself, ah…” She looks at Emlyn for a moment and then, looking back at Matteo, she continues with, “…and Emlyn. In my opinion, Tempest would likely get the most personal use out of the strength scroll, but it can be cast on anyone. The invisibility to undead scroll is useful – I wouldn’t mind carrying that one. I have no desire, however, to carry the one that causes wounds…”
“I trust in the protection of Lady Firehair.” Telsom says, “But thank you for your consideration. Indeed milady here…” The paladin indicates Ditalidas, seated next to him, “…should carry them.” Emlyn shakes her head, a little less sure of herself than normally. “While it could be called a form of poetic justice to inflict harm upon those inflicting it on others, I think I can probably better leave that task to my own limbs instead.” She looks at Portia. “If you and Tempest would not take it, I suggest the Lady Immerine could carry it. If no one else does, I will take it, but probably not use it.”
Nik leans forward as Matteo produces the items, his muddy-green eyes suddenly sharp with curiosity and more than a hint of greed. Just as quickly he leans back, his eyes dull and guarded once again. He fiddles again with the new ring on his right hand in what seems to be a new nervous tic to replace the tugging of the gaudy scarf around his neck. With a low cough of embarrassment, Nik says abruptly “Ehm, I need to speak with our gracious host about a few things before I embark on this madn…” He bites off the end of his sentence, giving the others a cheerful, lunatic grin and instead finishes with “This bold and daring plan.” Standing quickly and avoiding everyone’s eyes, Nik gathers up his precious guitar and scurries over to talk to Mumadar.
Nik leans on the bar, his craggy face full of confidence and good cheer. His eyes betray him, however, they are wild and filled with fear and worry. “Ehm, I need a favor from you, saer.” he asks Mumadar softly. “I’m about to do something really, really stupid, even for me.” Nik clears his throat nervously, and he tugs at the scarf around his neck before continuing in a rush “I need you to keep this.” He lays his leather-wrapped guitar on the bar, ignoring any annoyed looks from patrons near him. “Keep her safe until I come back, please.” He swallows hard and produces a somewhat lumpy folded up piece of paper wrapped with a scrap of twine. “If I… don’t come back this will tell you what to do with her.” All appearances of good humor are gone from the bard’s gaunt face now, he looks desperate and lost. “There should be enough coin in there to do what I ask. If not, I know the difference will be made up by…” he swallows again and finishes faintly “By the one to get her when I’m dead.”
He looks up at Mumadar, eyes pleading. “You’ll do this for me, right?” he asks hoarsely. The dark-skinned and scar-faced innkeeper gives Nik a serious look for a moment, before replacing it with a cheery smile. “I’ll keep it here for you, but…” Leaning slightly over the counter towards the tall bard, Mumadar the smile and look become a bit more conspiring, “The payment you’ll owe me is a performance when you get back.” Taking the precious instrument with care from the bard, the innkeeper places it gently on the floor behind the bar. Turning back to the gaunt man he puts a hand on Nik’s shoulder. “Whatever you do, take care. I like to see my customers come back – alive.”
Jez quickly swipes his daggers from the table and stows the blades in their proper sheaths before handing Marc his own dagger. “Thank you sir,” he says with courtesy. He then slides the copper and silver coins off the table and places them within his new leather satchel. A soft jittering squeak can be heard before he secures the leather container shut. “All in all, the day for the shrine of Lliira is a good one,” he pips.
Puddy watches from his perch thoughtfully as Nik departs, then turns his attention back to the discussion about the magic items, giving in momentarily to his curiosity and fascination with magic, sitting quietly as the others discuss the items. While Nik talks to the innkeeper, Emlyn idly twiddles with some loose objects in her pockets and road-worn trusty backpack, which is lying on the floor in a shapeless heap. Unlike some others, she isn’t nervous about playing bait, suggesting she has done this before – although probably never in the same context. Finally she addresses Jez. “I heard your family has seen many an oddity in these parts… would you know what kind beastie this belongs to?” She places a smooth and neatly cleaned but oddly shaped piece of bone on the table and smiles apologetically. “I found it in the lair of a troll… and I have heard all kind of strange legends about such creatures and the things they keep.”
“Nothing quite so odd as their son in all likelihood.” The paladin says as he rubs at one temple with his fingers. Looking to Ditalidas, Telsom gives her a small smile. “You seem to be in good spirit today Lady, did you sleep well?” Ignoring the paladin’s barb, Jez turns and faces Emlyn when she addresses him. “My family, yes, probably my father or mother. They were adventurers in their earliest years from Aglarond and Rashemen to the Sword Coast.” Jez gently accepts the item for Emlyn and studies it for a moment. “A troll lair you say. What were you doing in a troll lair?” He raises his hand before Emlyn speaks and says, “Never mind, I was in the sewers in yesterday and nearly drowned.”
“Call it short career as a monster’s prize,” Emlyn says thoughtfully, but despite the lighthearted tone her face is sad. “I take it your intention flush it out into the open did not go well?” Jez ponders for a moment to study his words then continues, “…it doesn’t matter.” He studies the bone fragment once more before small halfling fingers carefully retrieve it. “It’s well preserved for a fragment. We’ll see my parents and siblings shortly enough. Maybe they can provide some answers but mind you, not for everyone. I haven’t returned home in a day or two and she’s probably worried, likewise for my father. I miss home already.” The last is spoken with a hint of eagerness.
When Puddy absently looks at the piece of bone passing from Emlyn to Jezbodiah, he notices something odd. Something seems to be tugging at his brain, as if he somehow knows there’s something special about it. Jez can’t make anything special out of the items; the piece of bone looks worn, but well preserved. The simple cloth bag holds a couple of small stones resembling ammunition fro a sling-type of weapon.
Reaching out and putting her hand on Telsom’s, Ditalidas looks into his eyes. “I slept very well last night. Thank you. No disturbing dreams for a change.” Giving the paladin a gentle smile, she continues, “I must have been more tired then I thought, but I definitely feel rested today.” Letting go of Telsom’s hand, she reaches out for the two potions put before her. “I’ll carry these, if anyone should need them, just call for me.”
“Do we have time to let Jez’s parents check on Emlyn’s items?” The young Lady Jalarghar asks, looking at Matteo. “I believe they live close by, and the coach could even pick some of us up there if needed…” She looks back at the items on the table before Jezbodiah and comments softly to no one in particular, “We might need all the advantages we can get. We have no idea what we’re up against.”
Sighing softly, Matteo looks up at Ditalidas and gives a small shake of his head. “I am sorry, my lady,” he replies, “but I do not think we have the time at present. The carriages could well be here within minutes and our scheduled route doesn’t pass near where the Wisps live.”
“If we change our route,” the Sembian adds, “then we miss our connecting carriages that Mumadar has arranged and possibly alert anyone who might be observing us of our true destination. While I also would like to know more of these items, I am not prepared to alert those that we are hoping to surprise to our imminent arrival. Speaking for myself, I think it would be better to drop in to see Master and Mistress Wisp after we have been to the warehouse and before we leave for the forest.”
“I agree,” Portia adds, looking thoughtful. “I don’t think we should delay our raid on the warehouse any longer than needful.” The young priestess tucks the parchment containing the invisibility to undead spell away, settles her gear, and looks to Matteo, nodding her readiness. “As soon as Mumadar lets us know the carriages have arrived,” Matteo murmurs in acknowledgement of her desire to leave.
The halfling nods. “There is no rush. The important things, like not letting this killer get away, should come first of all.” She tucks the piece of bone back into her pocket, where it makes a softly jingling noise between the other trinkets. Then she leans back and awaits the carriage. Portia rises from where she’d looked over the items, slapping Tempest on the shoulder in a comradely fashion – seemingly without a thought – and stretches slightly, shifting her armor in an effort to ease some slight discomfort. It’s obvious that the armor is new.
Whispering softly to the halfling in his invisible state, Puddy says, “Upon the bone, closer you should examine. Like a feather under the nose, tickles my brain does the magic.” The fairy’s words accompanied by the faintest buzz of his gossamer wings. “You’re not going to yank my hair again, are you?” Emlyn whispers from the corner of her mouth. “Nevermind. Well, I don’t think I can make anything more out of it. Can you?”
Sighing softly, Matteo looks directly at Puddy and in a tired voice murmurs, “You know, we have unseen enemies all around us. It is possible that we don’t need those who purport to be our friends continuing to work unseen and keeping everything they say and do hidden from the group as a whole.” Telsom smiles at Matteo’s words, the look he gives in the direction Matteo is gazing in gives the impression that he agrees with the Sembian. Running a hand through his hair, Telsom brings it down to rest on the hilt of his blade as he turns his head slowly this way and that searching for the telltale signs of evil that have seemed to plague this group of mixed individuals over the past few days.
The half-elf tilts his head and a puzzle look mixed with curiosity springs onto his face. “Is there someone watching us? Here, at this moment?” A small sniggering sound emerges from the paladin’s lips, “Oh of course now Wisp. People who juggle daggers and sit amongst a group of people who are trying to discuss matters quietly never attract attention.”
“But attention is what I live for. Besides, I’m not much of a planner and I know little about you comrades and much less about yourself.” As quickly as he sheathed his dagger, Jezbodiah retrieves one slender blade and twirls between his fingers. Portia cocks her head curiously at Matteo’s statement, following his look to the general area about Emlyn. “Huh?” Her hand drifts to the handle of her mace without thought. “At ease,” Jezbodiah says with a smile. “It was only a jest and a poor one at that.”
“Ah,” the Kelemvorite priestess glares at the man, annoyed. “Ha ha.” Sniffing, Portia shifts again, trying to seat her armor a bit more comfortingly. Tucking a stray lock of fiery copper hair up and away, she looks once more to Matteo. “Matteo? How much longer?”
“It should not be long,” Matteo replies wearily, “Mumadar is a man of surprising resource and, in this, I have every confidence in him.” Glancing away from the unseen being he previously addressed and towards Portia, Matteo gives a tired grin and adds, “Not long at all, I think.”
The Sembian’s timing proves to be correct, within only a couple of moments after his words, one of the lads from the stables appears ate the table, giving a boyish grin in Marc’s direction before addressing Matteo, “Saer, your carriages have arrived and are ready saer.”
“Thank you,” Matteo replies to the stableboy, rising to his feet and adjusting his sword belt. “Time to go then,” he adds to his companions.
Ditalidas rises from her seat. She tosses her hair backward over her shoulder and reaches for her crossbow. With a few gestures she straps it on her back. She tosses her cape over it, making the crossbow almost invisible to the not observing eye. Then she picks up her quarterstaff. She straightens herself and sighs. “Alright. I guess I’m ready.”
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