It seemed like a small eternity since last I had bathed. It had not been too terribly long since we had left Telflamm and headed to the Lake of Mists, not compared to the time we had spent on the road since leaving Waterdeep anyway. But the trip there had been rough, and the trip back even rougher. So soaking in the warm water felt like the Heavens to me. I noticed that the healing spells my companions had used on me had left no trace of my wound. There was no scar. I did not know how I felt about that, a scar would have been a reminder. Something that would let me always recall the trip and what had happened on it. I had always thought scars to be unsightly, but now I knew they were important. They are the outward marks of the challenges one overcomes.
After my bath I realized all the clothing I had was now very worn from the road, and none of it smelled all that pleasant any more. Fortunately Maeve and a reluctant Rhia were available to go shopping for new ones with me while the men got new provisions for the next leg of our journey. Of the three of us Maeve was the only one with a healthy knowledge of fashions. I liked pretty colors and soft fabrics, but Maeve often chuckled at the things I picked calling them quaint. Rhia on the other hand was a woodswoman, she chose utilitarian clothing and seemed to not even notice the mismatched colors of the pieces. Maeve became very frustrated very quickly. Before the day was over she mentioned that fighting the Zhents was both easier and more fun than shopping with the two most fashion dead women she had ever met. With the laughter still on my lips I went to bed in a soft and warm bed that night. It was a nice change from sleeping on the ground. Although I had become accustomed to watching the stars as I fell asleep and I found that I struggled to fall asleep without them. It was funny in a way, that the hard, cold ground had become easier for me to sleep on than the soft beds of my youth. The trip was changing me. All in all the day was a very nice and much needed reprieve from the terror of the race from the Zhent army. We would not be safe in Telflamm however. We had enough of a lead that we could afford a day of restocking and relaxing, but we would have to leave in the morning.
The night was an uneventful one. Most of the others enjoyed the nightly activities at the inn we stayed at. Well, not all of them. Rhia, in a lovely dress Maeve had helped her pick out, pulled a blushing Galen away and none of us saw either of them the rest of the night. Maeve played and sang with the musicians employed by the inn while Tralin and Eshrin got way too drunk. I had a drink or two with Nolan but I was not in the mood for celebration and took to bed early.
We left later than we had planned in the morning, Tralin and Eshrin had some difficulty waking up, and no matter how much they pleading they did both Nolan and Galen refused to use their magic to help their ale sickness. Besides, Galen was too busy throwing doe eyed looks at Rhia and blushing madly to cast anything. The artifact piece we needed to find next was in the Moonshae Isles somewhere. We would be sailing out of Telflamm west across the Sea of Fallen Stars to Westgate. Eshrin warned us all of the place. We would have to be careful there, if the ruling party of the city found out about the artifact and the piece we carried, things could go very badly for us.
It was nice to be out on the sea. I had enjoyed our last trip over the water on our first trip to Telflamm. That trip though had been overshadowed by our failure and my own personal demons. That phrase, 'personal demons' seemed so much less metaphor now than it had before. All this time, and all this thinking about it I had done over the time I had been with this group and really I still had not come to terms with it really. My dream of the Fugue Plain was proof enough of that. I had still faltered when confronted by the Dark Man. My denials of his words had sounded weak even to me. I did not break, true, but I had faltered. I had doubted. If I was truly as secure in myself and firm in my beliefs then I would have better handled such things. Maybe I truly was as weak as he had suggested. Maybe. I would find out sooner or later, best not to dwell on it I figured. But my mind could not help returning there at every opportunity. Watching the tiny waves roll passed our vessel, feeling the cool sea breeze on my skin, smelling the salt and brine, and feeling the weight of my amulet on my neck helped. I wonder sometimes now, whether I would have turned out differently without those things. The amulet was such a small and mundane thing, it did not carry any magic at all in it before our visit to the drow in the forest near Hillsfar, but it seemed my most potent possession. I think it saved me from more and more often than any blade has.
Everyone got their sea legs sooner on this trip than on our first crossing, though Nolan did not take any better to sea travel than he had before. The rail became his closest and best friend once again. All of the rest of us had learned we could not help him in this. No helping hand or magic in all the Realms would save Nolan from the illness the sea gave him. I laughed thinking this was Nolans personal demon, he would overcome it by avoiding the sea for the rest of his days once our mission was complete I thought. As I chuckled I brought his a bucket with water so he could rinse his mouth between retches.
The trip was a long one, but soon enough we came to port in Westgate. From the things Eshrin had told us I expected a dirty, dark and dangerous hole, littered with the poor, sick, and evil. But the place was not tiny thatch dwellings, mud, and bodies. It was much like any of the other cities we had passed through. I had grown up in Skullport and somehow I had been expecting Westgate to be worse. It was not. I was sure by now that no place was. Once we had unloaded our gear and horses from the ship we followed Eshrin to an inn he knew. He was an excellent guide. He had visited so many places before his house fell and knew the ports of call in the area well.
The inn was not what I expected either. On our travels we had stayed at comfortable and reputable inns all along the way. This was not one such inn. The moment we entered the stench of sweat mixed with drink assaulted my nose. I saw some of the others crinkle their noses as well, only Tralin and Eshrin did not seem to notice the smell. But both were used to this sort of thing. The place was loud too. I could see more than one fight between patrons from the door. None of the other patrons, nor the barkeep or barmaids seemed to notice or care about the fights. As one ended, and the combatants shared a drink another broke out it seemed. Eshrin shoved his way to the bar, the place was packed full, and as he did Tralin turned to the rest of us and told us to keep our hands and eyes on our money pouches. Eshrin returned and we had two rooms, one for the men and another for the women. Galen looked disappointed. We all decided there would be no drink and revelry tonight. We did not want to draw attention to ourselves, and we would wake and leave town as early as possible.
It was Peck that alerted us to the danger. I had not seen the little bird much since we had left the Lake of Mists. He had flown high and fast when we rode through the Zhent lines and he had stayed a safe distance away for that entire journey. Even now I had not known he was in our room. I thought he must have been out sleeping out a tree outside the city. But his desperate chirping and the violent fluttering of his wings woke us in time to see him swooping and pecking at someone in our room.
I could see in the dark so I could see the man well, and I could also see he was not alone. All four were large, larger than any of the men I traveled with. Short tusks jutting up from their lower jaws suggested orcs, or at least orc heritage. One was swatting at poor Peck, who was desperately trying to wake and defend his master. I realized that like an idiot I had not placed my daggers near my bed. Tralin and Eshrin had stressed the necessity of sleeping with weapons near at hand to me. I had been lectured about it from the very beginning and still I had forgotten. They were sheathed on my belt which was in a pile of my clothes against the wall. Maeve was standing, brandishing her sword and shouting an alarm a second after I saw the men. The room erupted all around me.
An ax sailed down towards Rhia on her bed. She was prone but threw herself out of the way and rolled across the floor as her bed was chopped in two. She came up to one knee with her bow already knocked. The arrow fired and crumpled into splinters mere inches from the ax wielding orcs heart. Maeves voice was carrying a tune and I saw three more of her step out of her body, there was a brief blur and all four Maeves spun, like a game of which cup is the bone under, then all four became clear. I did not wait to see what the orcs would do to her but instead threw myself towards my pile of clothes and my weapons. As I scrambled for them I heard a faint whistle behind my head and dove. A puff of air blew my hair as whatever weapon had been swung at me flew over my head. I rolled and came up on my feet swiveling back towards the clothing I had been forced to dive past. Before I was fully back on my feet a hand slammed into my throat and into the wall behind me. The impact knocked the air out of me and I could not breathe. My feet were not touching the ground. I grabbed onto the hand holding my throat with both of my own and gasping for air that would not enter my lungs I tried to pry the hand off. The grip was like iron though and as my vision began to fade I kicked at my attacker desperately. He laughed and I saw out of the corner of my eye his other arm lift a terrifying looking weapon. He held a length of steel, perhaps the length of my arm from elbow to wrist, from the end of that three chains, all equal length to the handle, dangled and each ended with a ball the size of my fist, studded with spikes as long as my fingers. I knew squeezing the air out of me until I died was not how he planned to kill me. My kicking became desperate but no matter how hard I kicked his legs, stomach, and nethers it seemed as though I was kicking a stone wall and he showed no signs of pain. The flail came up ready to strike.
The wall behind me exploded and threw me bodily into my attacker, who toppled backward and lost his grip on me as the momentum threw me over him. My face broke my fall and I heard my nose crunch as a spike of pain stabbed through my head and warmth poured over my lips and chin. I gasped, gulping air. Tears rolled down my face as I drank the air. On all fours, I scrambled for the pile and as soon as my daggers were in hand spun to look for any threat. Eshrin was squirming his way out of a mess of splintered wood and prying his own sword out of his gut where he had landed on it. Fortunately he had landed on it lengthwise instead of being impaled. Turning to look towards the wall I saw the hole Eshrins flight had made in it and beyond that Nolan and Galen both in only nightshirts brandishing their weapons against three more orcs as one, a huge smile plastered on his face, stepped through the gap. My attacker was back on his feet scowling at the newcomer. Galen and Nolan were working together to keep their three assailants at bay and the most absurd though came into my head. I was wearing only the long tunic I sleep in. It only covered me to half way between my thighs and my knees. I had left the V shaped cut at the top mostly unlaced for comfort and even though I was bleeding, in a life threatening situation, and the shirt did in fact protect my modesty, I had the absurd urge to cover up before the orcs or the men saw me.
The flail sailing towards me jerked me out of my ridiculous reverie however and I dropped into a lunging crouch. Down and forward at once, inside of the flails arc. I slashed at the orcs stomach, but he did knew his weapon and let its momentum guide and pull him in a twirl away from my attack. But it was not simply an evasion, it was also an attack, as the twirl flowed with the weapon and brought it back towards. This was a dance I realized. I fell into a defensive routine, ducking inside the flails arc when I could and simple dodging it when I could not. This allowed me to watch his routine, to follow and learn his steps. I had seen people like Eshrin fight and I had been impressed with their speed and the finesse with which they handled their blades. But it took this man, and his weapon for me to realize how much dance this style of combat really was. The synergy he had with the flail, and the way the two moved reminded me of sash dancers I had seen at parties in Waterdeep. Soon I had fallen into step with the dance and was able to begin adding attacks of my own. We fluttered around the room, a blur of feet and blades. I could not spare any attention to my companions, I had to keep my eyes on the mans waist, to see where his body would go. In the end I may have been the better dancer, but he was the better warrior. I came in close to strike and landed the first blood, cutting him open across his chest. The slash had been meant for his throat but he had avoided. The blooding cost me though. Before I could rejoin the flow his flail found my side just on my back. The spikes on the balls pierced into me and the weight and momentum of the balls crushed hard, throwing me forward into an oncoming offhand fist. My already throbbing face exploded in new pain and flashes of light danced all across my vision.
I hit the ground hard and instinctually rolled. The flail shattered floorboards. As the orc pried his weapon out of the wood I put all my weight, leveraged by the floor under me, behind a kick to the mans knee. I was rewarded with a satisfying crunch and his howl as he dropped to the floor. When he hit the ground I flung out my arm in a backhand blow and buried a dagger in his back. He screamed and I threw myself over and to him to finish him off. But he was not done. He twisted to face me jerking the dagger in his back out of my hand and pulling me towards him, throwing my balance off. His hand shot out and my throat was in his iron grip again. This time, however, I was armed. I slammed my remaining dagger into his arm and he let go and pulled it away from me. This time I kept my grip on my blade and he opened his own arm. Screaming and codling his damaged limb he tried to roll away but I shoved on top of him and drew my weapon over his throat. It opened violently and blood fountained out, painting my chest and face a dark red. His violent spasms threw me off him. He was dead before I got to my feet.
Only one other orc survived and he was surrounded by Eshrin, Rhia, and Nolan. One downed orc smoked and I could tell from the large burns in his chest that he had encountered Tralins magic bolts. The others made short work of the last orc as I recovered my other dagger. Nolan ran over to me to pour a handful of his healing spells into me. I was relieved to feel my nose mend itself. Everyone was bloodied, we had won the combat but only just. We did not have time to tend our wounds though, the orcs were undoubtedly Zhents and there would be more coming soon. We had to leave town now. I bolted out of our room on the second floor and up to the third and highest floor. I was able to pick the lock on the first empty room I could find and climbed out the window. I managed to lower myself to the ground and did my best to blend into the nights darkness. It did not take me long to find two more orcs watching up towards our rooms. Neither heard nor saw me and I dispatched both quickly. I had to wonder at how I had changed, I never could have taken a life before I had left the temple. But now I did it to quickly and easily, without a seconds thought. How sad a realization that was. I had hardened and I thought that a bad thing, I was becoming the demon I hated through the necessity of my situation.
After ensuring there were no more watchers I gave the signal and my companions all lowered themselves down from our rooms window. In a heartbeat we had collected our horses and were on our way to the city gates. They would be closed for the night and a watch would be on them, so we were not sure how we would leave the city, but we did not have time to stop, think, and debate. The gate grew into sight but there were no guards. We came right up to it and dismounted to open it. On the other side was a single man, he wore jet black plate mail. In his hands was a huge, cruel looking hammer. I could not see his face. He wore a mask, it looked like a skull. Galen sneered and grasped his holy symbol, "Vampire!" Both he an Nolan presented their symbols and commanded the creature to be gone. It did not flinch. Their symbols flared brightly then went dark. Nolan stepped back and I saw true fear in his eyes, "This foe is beyond us..." Galens eyes flashed hatred, "We will put it down." He said it with such certainty that for a moment I believed we could. Then Galen was shoving a bundle into my arms. It was the artifact pieces. He whispered fast and quiet, "That dagger you carry, it wont allow the vampire to charm you. The rest of us have no such protection. Take it to safety."
I accepted the bundle but before I could do anything Eshrin was facing me, sword at the ready, murder in his eyes. I took a step back then Rhia knocked an arrow. Maeve glared daggers at me. Nolan was gripping his head, tears rolling down his face. Galen was confronting the vampire who hardly seemed to notice. I heard Tralins voice and those bolts he was so fond of slammed into Eshrin, knocking him aside. Then Train shouted, "Run! Run and don’t stop!" So I did. I leaped over Eshrin, who was rising to his feet. Tralins voice was chanting again and I heard the whistle of Rhias arrows. I heard the wood splintered. I did not know what they hit but I did not turn to see. Galen turned away from the vampire who had mastered him as well. I slammed into him with my full weight and he toppled back into the vampire. I kept my feet and bolted for all I was worth out into the open. I did not know where to go, I knew nothing of this land.
Tears rolled down my cheek as I left my friends behind to torture and death.
But I did not stop running.
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