A Plague of Serpents
Chapter Three: The Buffalo Skinners
Out beyond the river where you and I would ride
We would skin the buffalo
The last ones left alive
But once again it passed me by
I know it always will
That’s why I spend my Sunday standing still
(Big Country, Buffalo Skinners)
Chantry scowled and kicked the severed head of a Batiri warrior. “The saboteur was Luaire,” she said, as the head rolled away across the sand. “I know it. I’ll rip his fucking lungs out.”
“Now that doesn’t sound like the Chantry I’ve come to know and love,” Kelleth said, an amused lilt in his tone and a smile on his lips. The smile faded as Chantry fixed him with a cold glare.
‘If only,’ Chantry thought. ‘If you meant it the way I would mean it. If you could see past this ruined face…’ She scowled all the harder to cover up her feelings. “He tried to kill me,” she said. “Don’t expect me to let it pass. I might not be a Sharran, or a follower of Hoar, but I don’t worship Ilmater either. If somebody hurts me I hurt them right back. Harder.”
Thorpe was examining a stone door set into a low cliff face at the edge of the beach. He broke off and turned to face the others. “That seems fair enough to me. You hold him down and I’ll do the cutting.”
“Hold it, both of you,” Kelleth said. “We’ve confirmed our suspicions that the ship was sabotaged, yes, but we don’t have any proof of who did it.” He crouched down to search a Batiri corpse.
“It wasn’t us,” Chantry said, “it would make no sense for it to be Volo, and why would it be one of the sailors? Several of them perished, the others would have been slain by the Batiri if it had not been for us; I can’t see it. That leaves Luaire.”
“Unless one of the sailors had been replaced by a doppelganger,” Aysgarth put in, “or was under a geas.” He joined Thorpe at the door and ran his hands over the rock slab. “The lock is enchanted,” he said. “I don’t think there is any way to open it from the outside without the missing piece of stone.”
“That would explain why I was getting nowhere,” Thorpe said. “Is the keystone on any of those bodies?”
Kelleth rose from his crouch. “If so, I haven’t found it,” he said. “This one had a small pouch of gemstones. I don’t think they’re particularly valuable, although I’m no expert, but at least we’re in profit.”
“That Zalantar spear is a nice weapon,” Aysgarth remarked. “It’s a pity none of us use a spear but at least it will sell for a good price.”
Chantry tapped her foot, on a dead body, and rolled her eyes. “About Luaire. Can I kill him when we get back to town?”
“We don’t have any proof,” Kelleth said. “I agree he’s the most likely suspect by a long way but that isn’t enough. I don’t think the authorities here will listen to us. They don’t seem very fond of foreigners.”
Chantry snorted. “That’s like saying Shar isn’t very fond of Selûne. Sa’Sani should listen, though. She seems to have her head screwed on the right way.”
“A smart head on a very smart body,” Kelleth said, smiling. Chantry’s glare intensified but he didn’t notice. “She does indeed, but we don’t know how much she trusts Luaire, and she may well regard him highly. He was her envoy to the Sword Coast, after all, which implies that she believes him to be worthy of trust. She might well take his word over ours despite the circumstantial evidence. If she gets annoyed and removes her protection…”
“…Then that bitch Elite Leader will drag us off to the dungeons just for being foreigners,” Chantry finished for him. “By all the gods, this country is a horrible place. Okay, you’re right. We need more evidence.”
“We need to find Captain Lastri and the mate,” Kelleth said, “before we can do anything about Luaire.”
Chantry heaved a sigh. “I suppose so. One or both of them could be the saboteur, or saboteurs, although I don’t believe that for a moment.”
“Neither do I,” Kelleth agreed, “but they’d be easy for Luaire to blame. People who aren’t around to defend themselves make easy scapegoats.”
Aysgarth stroked a finger along his moustache. “If Luaire rigged the sinking then he deliberately stranded himself on this wild piece of coast. He must have expected to get past the Batiri and back to civilization.”
“Well, yes,” Chantry said. “What’s your point?”
“He saw an opportunity to kill you and he took it,” Aysgarth explained, “which means he wasn’t worried about reducing our fighting strength against the Batiri. I didn’t see him cast anything much in the fight. Mage Armor, Burning Hands, and Ray of Frost, that was all I noticed. If he didn’t have anything more than that he’d never have survived without us. I bet he was holding back. Probably keeping most of his best spells in reserve. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was far more powerful than I am.”
Kelleth nodded. “That’s logical,” he said.
“So we all hit him at once,” Chantry proposed. “I put a wrist-lock on him, Thorpe backstabs him, you see if you can saw his head off, and Aysgarth tries to dispel whatever protections he’s got prepared with Contingency and that kick in when we go for him. We don’t make any stupid chivalrous challenge that gives him a chance to get ready. We can take him.”
“Probably,” Kelleth agreed, “unless he’s in the same league as, say, Sand of Crossroads Keep.”
“Or unless he has Tenser’s Transformation, or something similar, as a Contingency spell as well as the standard Stoneskin,” Aysgarth put in, “and he just powers out of the wristlock.”
Kelleth nodded. “A good point, my friend, although somehow I don’t see that as being in accordance with Luaire’s personality. However, Chantry, consider what will happen to us next if we kill him.”
Chantry rolled her eyes. “We’d already agreed we’re not going to jump him when we get back,” she said. “I’m talking about when we have enough evidence.”
“And when we have gained enough influence with Sa’Sani so that she’ll listen to us,” Aysgarth said, “and so that she won’t go straight to Luaire and say ‘The foreigners claim you are the saboteur. What do you have to say for yourself?’ thereby giving him the chance to run – or to eliminate his accusers.”
“Right,” Chantry said. “Okay, we work for Sa’Sani like faithful little dogs until she trusts us.” She sighed. “I suppose it won’t be that much of a hardship. She’s about the only person I’ve met, since we arrived in this shitty little country, who I don’t want to disembowel and feed to the dogs.”
“That’s harsh,” Kelleth said. “The innkeeper was perfectly pleasant, and that clothes merchant, and the other one, Mendar, who sold us our gear.”
“Well, okay, but the exchange rate they gave us for our Neverwinter Lords absolutely stank,” Chantry said.
“Neverwinter is bankrupt,” Aysgarth pointed out. “It’s only to be expected that the currency isn’t trusted. Anyway, we only had the few coins in our pouches. We didn’t exactly lose out to any great extent.” He frowned. “In fact you didn’t have any Neverwinter coins at all. The rest of us may have lost out on the exchange rate but it didn’t affect you.”
“It’s the principle of the thing,” Chantry said.
“Mendar gave us a good price,” Thorpe said. “He seems a decent bloke to me.”
“Okay, okay, I was exaggerating,” Chantry said, “but you have to agree that everybody in a uniform in this place is a total bastard.”
“Thus we have found so far,” Kelleth conceded, “but it is premature to condemn an entire country’s authorities on the basis of such slight acquaintance.”
“Oh, shut up,” Chantry said. “So, what do we do now? Go back to Sa’Sani with the evidence?”
“Not yet,” Kelleth replied. “Captain Lastri might still be alive but, even if she is, she won’t be for much longer. We need to find her before the Batiri eat her.”
“You’re the ranger,” Chantry said. “Can you track where they went?”
“The plants here are unfamiliar, and some of the animals are strange to me,” Kelleth mused, “and I do not know the alarm calls of the local birds. We could do with the services of a local guide.”
“Does that mean that you can’t track them?” Chantry raised her eyebrows. “I thought you could track birds in the air, fish in the stream, sunshine on a rainy day, all that kind of thing?”
“Of course I can track a bunch of Batiri dragging a captive,” Kelleth said. “Not as easily as back home, perhaps, but it won’t be all that hard. I’ll just have to be extra alert for ambushes until I learn more about the local conditions.” He frowned and tilted his head to one side. “Track sunshine on a rainy day?”
Chantry tossed her head. “You’ve never heard the Rupert Giles Experience, so you wouldn’t understand. Don’t worry about it. Let’s go hunt Batiri.”
Kelleth pulled his sword from the body of the Batiri chieftain, took a step back, and wiped the back of his left hand across a forehead dripping with moisture. “That was close,” he panted. He caught a glimpse of his hand and his eyes widened as he realized that it was smeared with red. “Closer than I thought, even,” he added, as he touched his fingers to his brow and found a shallow cut running all the way across above his eyes. “I never even felt that one.”
Chantry stepped over a Batiri corpse and knelt down beside Thorpe. “You’ll have to wait,” she told Kelleth. “His need is greater than yours.” The halfling had taken a spear-thrust in the belly and was curled up, groaning, on the floor of the cave.
“Of course,” Kelleth said. He waited as Chantry cast healing spells upon Thorpe and restored him to health.
“The wound was poisoned,” Chantry remarked. The corners of her mouth turned up slightly in a half-smile. “Good thing you have me, isn’t it?”
Kelleth opened his mouth to reply but Aysgarth beat him to it. “I thought Kelleth was crazy to take you into the group,” the wizard said, “but I was wrong. You’re a great asset and without you we’d probably all be dead.”
“Oh, shut up, you’re embarrassing me,” Chantry said. She tried to scowl at Aysgarth but it came out as a smile. “If I hadn’t joined you you’d have just recruited another cleric.”
“Another poisons expert of your skill level? I doubt it,” Kelleth put in, “and the tropical disease angle hadn’t even occurred to us. You pull your weight in the fights, too.”
“I’ve had a lot of practice,” Chantry said. She helped Thorpe to his feet. “Okay, let’s take a look at your wound, and then we can get to the good part. Loot!”
“Help!” a female voice called from a wooden structure in a corner of the cage. “Get me out of here!”
“Oh, yeah, and we can free the prisoner,” Chantry said. She rubbed her hands together. “Didn’t Sa’Sani say something about a reward?”
Sa’Sani received them in the courtyard of her headquarters once more. She was accompanied by Volo, and by a small retinue of her senior employees, but Luaire was absent. She listened to Kelleth’s report and her lips tightened as he went through his account of their findings.
“The evidence seems to point to Luaire,” she said, when he finished. She sighed. “I feared as much. When I thought about it he was the only one, apart from yourselves and the sailors, who had the opportunity. Many of the sailors perished, and you had no conceivable motive, leaving only Luaire. It is hard to believe, for he has been long in my service and has always seemed loyal, but I see no other explanation.”
“Where is he?” Chantry asked. “It was him who pushed me into the sea and nearly drowned me. That gives me a personal interest in seeing Luaire get what’s coming to him.”
“I sent him away on a mission to a logging camp in the jungle,” Sa’Sani replied. “I did not want him to be here when you returned with the results of your investigation. When he returns I shall have him detained and, if we can build a case sufficient to present to the authorities, arrested. If nothing can be proved then, unless he can convince me of his innocence, I shall dismiss him.”
Chantry pouted. She suspected that prosecuting a Samarach citizen on the basis of the testimony of foreigners was a losing proposition. On the other hand if someone was dismissed in disgrace from the service of a respected merchant, and then turned up dead by poisoning, the authorities would probably write it off as a suicide without bothering to carry out much of an investigation… Her pout was replaced by a feral smile. “I can live with that,” she said.
“Sa’Sani, I must protest,” the merchant’s second-in-command spoke up. “You would take the word of these… foreigners against one of your own people?”
Sa’Sani raised her eyebrows and turned to face the speaker. “I applied simple logic, Nas’Sirin,” she told the man. “Motive, means, and opportunity. Luaire is a competent wizard, despite his usual hesitant manner, and he therefore had the means to carry out the sabotage. He had the opportunity. I do not know his motive but it is easy to come up with possibilities. Conversely these foreigners from Neverwinter can have had no such motive to carry out an act that resulted in them losing most of their possessions and being stranded in a foreign land.”
“I suppose I cannot fault your logic,” Nas’sirin said, “but I insist on him being given a chance to speak for himself.”
“He shall have that chance, when he returns,” Sa’Sani conceded, “but on my terms. That is a matter for the future, however. Right now I have a task for you. Arrange a party of bearers to gather my cargo from the wrecked ship.” She turned back to Kelleth. “I would like you to escort them there.”
“Certainly, my Lady,” Kelleth agreed. “There’s a hidden door in the cliffs there that we want to take a look at. We couldn’t open it before but I think we have the key now.”
“Then you can assist me and yourselves at the same time,” said Sa’Sani. “You have done well. Not only have you carried out the investigation I requested, and located my cargo, but you have rescued the ship’s captain too. You deserve a reward.” She produced a bag of coin larger and heavier than the one that she had given them the previous day. “Four thousand,” she said. “I trust that is satisfactory?”
“Most generous, Lady Sa Sani,” Kelleth said.
“You will no doubt want to spend it,” Sa’Sani went on. “Sharper and shinier swords, more resilient armor, spell scrolls for your wizard – adventurers are always the same.”
“Actually I was planning on getting a better bow,” Kelleth remarked.
Sa’Sani smiled. “Of course.”
“Lady Sa’Sani,” Chantry said, her tone respectful, “we had thought to recruit a local guide whose knowledge of conditions here would augment Kelleth’s skills. Is there anyone you could recommend?”
Sa’Sani shook her head. “I have little contact with adventuring types as a rule.” Her brows creased. “There is a stallholder in the market who deals primarily with adventurers,” she said. “Vadin’ya.” The crease in her forehead grew deeper. “I would not normally advise you to associate with her,” she went on. “The woman is part fiend, she has the morals of a harlot, and her businesses practices are sharp to say the least, and yet,” Sa’Sani paused and took her bottom lip between her teeth briefly, “at least as far as the matter of hiring a local guide goes, I believe that you could trust her advice.” She paused again. “And she pays her accounts on the dot.”
Vadin’ya was easy to pick out from among the merchants in the Openpalm Bazaar. She was very tall for a woman, slim, and her complexion was as fair as that of a Neverwinter native rather than the olive brown of most inhabitants of Samarach. Her eyes were a blue that matched the long robe that she wore. A pair of short curved horns protruded through her auburn hair and gave away her fiendish ancestry. The barbed tail that extended through her robe gave unneeded confirmation.
“Well, well, you do not look as if you belong here, my hawk,” she addressed Kelleth. “A recent import to the friendly shores of Samarach, are you not? What do you think, Artiuk, my pearl?”
A huge half-orc warrior in lamellar armor, presumably Artiuk, loomed beside the stall. He merely grunted in response to her question.
Vadin’ya’s eyes twinkled. “You must excuse him,” she said. “He always gets a little jealous when I pay attention to other men. So, bird from the North, what makes you fly over to my store? Something catch your eye, perhaps?”
Chantry felt the familiar stirrings of jealousy at the flirtatious tone the tiefling was using towards Kelleth. She fought the emotion back. It was probable that Vadin’ya used the same wiles on all customers, or at least all male ones, and intended only to try to soften Kelleth up for a deal in her favor.
“I am Vadin’ya,” the merchant went on, “a trader well known in this place. Connections I have, and deep pockets, and a stock of both the usual and the unusual. The magnificent jade tiger at my side is Artiuk, my bodyguard. Come, tell me what you require.”
“I’m in the market for weapons and armor,” Kelleth said, “and I have items to trade. My colleague Thorpe, however, tells me that the prices you give for used gear are only two-thirds what we can get from Mencar.”
“Ah, yes, the little sparrow,” Vadin’ya said, directing her gaze at the halfling. “He came, he looked, and he went away. It is true that for the common run of things I pay less than does Mencar, and charge more when I sell them. Yet, eagle of the North, if your friend had brought me items of greater worth he might have returned with a different story to tell. Show me what you have to offer.”
“Perhaps later,” Chantry cut in. If Vadin’ya’s feminine wiles had the desired effect on Kelleth he might trade away their precious loot for a song. “We have been sent to you for advice.”
“Advice, my little…” Vadin’ya began. Her eyes widened as her gaze fell on Chantry’s face. Chantry braced herself for the usual expression of disgust but, instead, Vadin’ya smiled and dipped in a small curtsey. “Reverend Venom,” she said, “it is rare for a priestess of our faith to appear in Samarach. I bid you greetings.”
It was the turn of Chantry’s eyes to widen. “You are a follower of Talona?”
“I give honor to Waukeen in my capacity of trader,” Vadin’ya said, “but I am also an alchemist and, in that role, Talona receives my worship. I am at your service.”
“And I am at yours,” replied Chantry. She smiled broadly. There was only one field of alchemy in which worship of Talona was appropriate. Vadin’ya could turn out to be a very useful contact indeed. “It is good to meet a member of the church in this land, where most people seem to venerate Leira.”
“Something I find odd, seeing as how Leira is dead,” Kelleth put in.
Vadin’ya shrugged. “They claim her death is merely one of her illusions, my falcon,” she said, “and how are we to know who is right?”
“Oh, she’s definitely dead,” Chantry said, “but probably not for much longer. Shar wants to bring her back and the Mistress of Loss usually gets what she wants.” She saw that the conversation was in danger of veering off into a discussion of religion and brought it back on track. “We have come to you for advice, Vadin’ya. Kelleth is a ranger of great skill but is unfamiliar with the beasts and plants of this land. We wish to hire a local guide and were told that you would be able to recommend someone.”
“Of course, Reverend,” Vadin’ya said. “Most who style themselves adventurers are drunkards and fools, as you will know, but there are two here today who are, by all accounts, reliable.” She pointed across the bazaar towards the fountains. “You will find Inshula shar Mashewe over there, in the company of her sister Kwesi the bounty-payer. Inshula is a skilled hunter and ranger.”
“And the other?”
“Umoja, the druid,” Vadin’ya said. “He was purchasing items from me only a minute before you arrived and is no doubt still close by. You will recognize him by his black skin and his dinosaur companion.”
“Dinosaur companion?” Thorpe commented. “Be good to have one of those on our side instead of trying to bite our heads off.”
“Thank you, Vadin’ya,” Chantry said. “We’ll be back later to spend some coin.”
“I shall look forward to it, Reverend Venom,” Vadin’ya said, “and for you I shall have very special prices.”
“Oh, isn’t he beautiful!” Chantry gazed admiringly at the lithe predator. The dinosaur was about fifteen feet from nose to tail tip, stood roughly three and a half feet high at the hips, but was lightly built. Chantry guessed that it would weigh around the same as a large man. Its upper surfaces were feathered but its underside was bare and scaly. “If I stroked him would he bite off my hand?”
The druid had been frowning but his expression changed as he studied Chantry’s expression. A smile spread over his ebony-skinned face. “If you touched him without warning, and startled him, then perhaps he would,” he said. He spoke a few words in an unfamiliar language and the dinosaur chirped in response. “You are safe now, lady,” the druid said. “He will allow you to stroke his nose.”
“I’d ask what sort he is,” Chantry said, as she ran her hand over the dry scaly skin of the beast’s snout, stopping before she reached the feathers that covered the crown of its head, “except that, as it wouldn’t mean anything to me, there isn’t really much point. But he is lovely.”
“Your people call his kind Deinonychus,” the druid told her. “A Chessentan word, I think, meaning ‘terrible claw'. In my tongue they are called T’saagan. His name is Yushai.” He turned away, glanced at Kelleth, and then returned his attention to Chantry. “And I am Umoja, as I think you know. I heard Vadin’ya speak of me to you. You wish me to be your guide.”
“Perhaps,” Kelleth said. “I would like to know more about you before I make a definite offer.”
“You are the leader of the group, I take it?” Umoja looked Kelleth up and down. “Yes, I see that you are. A man of the wilderness, as am I, but from the cold and bleak Northlands.”
“Neverwinter isn’t all that cold,” Kelleth said. “We have warm ocean currents and hot springs. Apart from that you’re correct.” He returned Umoja’s assessing gaze. The Chultan druid was tall, nearly as tall as Kelleth, but less broad of shoulder. His skin was darker than that of any human Kelleth had seen before, a deep rich brown, and his hair was jet black and worn in matted ringlets that seemed almost like wool. He was clad in armor of animal hide, of green mottled with brown, scales and horny nodules showing that it came from a dinosaur. Umoja’s eyes were pale brown, almost yellow, but they returned Kelleth’s gaze steadily.
“I am a follower of Ubtao, the Father of Dinosaurs,” Umoja said. “The jungle is my domain.”
“I thought the worshippers of Ubtao lived in and around the city of Mezro, over to the north-west from here,” Chantry said. “So I have read, anyway.”
“True,” said Umoja. “The great Ubtao appeared to me in a vision, and spread his claws toward the city of Samargol, and so I have made my way here. As to why, I do not yet know.”
“My goddess commanded me to come here, too,” Chantry told him. “I wonder if there’s a connection?”
“Who is your goddess?” Umoja asked.
“Talona,” Chantry replied.
The frown returned to Umoja’s brow. “I thought I recognized the symbol,” he said, “but then I believed I must have been mistaken. You seem too… pleasant to be a Talontar, and Yushai has taken to you. He is usually a good judge of character.”
“I cure diseases, I don’t spread them,” Chantry told him, “and I don’t poison people unless they really piss me off.” She scratched Yushai’s scales between his eyes, turned her head, and smiled at Umoja. Before the plague her smile had been a weapon guaranteed to weaken any male will but those days were long gone. “Come on, join up with us. I don’t bite.”
Umoja’s lips twitched upwards. He looked at Kelleth again, swung his gaze to study Aysgarth and Thorpe, and then turned back to Chantry. “I sense that Ubtao wills it so,” he said. “I will join you, and teach you the ways of the jungle, and fight at your side.”
“Glad to have you with us,” Kelleth said. “Chantry, next time at least let me pretend to myself that I’m in charge of hiring and firing, okay?”
“You’d already made your decision,” Chantry said. “It was pretty obvious. Are we going to bother with the other one, the ranger?”
Kelleth pursed his lips. “We’ll talk to her, at least. It might be useful to have another female in the party.”
Chantry’s eyebrows climbed. “Why?”
“Ah, well, when you, ah, have to go into the bushes,” Kelleth said, “you’re vulnerable by yourself. If there were two girls, and you went as a pair, it would be safer.”
“I suppose you have a point,” Chantry said, reluctantly. “Although… now Yushai can go with me. Problem solved. Modesty issues don’t really apply with a dinosaur.”
“We hunted the great boar Bal-alak, to claim the bounty on its tusks,” Kwesi related. “We peppered it with crossbow bolts but to no avail. It gored my leg and left me crippled. I am mending, but slowly, and I could not make the trip back to Tashalar.”
“Why don’t you just get it healed?” Chantry asked. “I could do it for you, no problem.”
“You?” Inshula curled her lip. “A Talontar? We would not accept aid from such a tainted source.”
“Our custom is to let injuries received in such a manner heal in their own time,” Kwesi said, her tone conciliatory. “I thank you for your kind offer, but it goes against our beliefs. If it was not so I could have purchased healing at the Temple of Waukeen. We are not destitute.”
“She works for the corrupt authorities of this miserable city,” Inshula said, “verifying that bounty claims are genuine before payments are made. And I… I wait.”
“You could join us,” Kelleth suggested. He ignored Chantry’s low hiss of disapproval. Initial prejudice against a priestess of Talona was only to be expected and, Kelleth hoped, Inshula’s attitude would soften if she joined the group and learned Chantry’s value. “We might seek out that wild boar ourselves. You would be a big help.”
“Work alongside a Talontar?” Inshula snorted. “I suppose it would be a marginal improvement on hanging around in this city. Very well, but only if I am well paid. Five hundred gold coins in advance.”
“Five hundred? Fuck that,” Chantry exclaimed.
Kelleth shot a mild glare in her direction. He couldn’t really blame Chantry for her reaction, given Inshula’s attitude, but it wasn’t helping. “We lost much in the shipwreck, and we must use those funds we have acquired so far in replacing our equipment and gathering stocks of supplies,” he said. “Five hundred is too much at this time. Perhaps a smaller sum? You would get a full share of our earnings in the future.”
“The cards can decide,” Inshula said. She took a pack of cards out of a pouch, shuffled it briefly, and dealt out five cards onto the low wall that surrounded the fountain pools. She studied the hand. “The cards speak of coin,” she declared. “I will not reduce what I ask.”
“Suit yourself,” Chantry said.
“Perhaps another time,” Kelleth said. “Farewell, then. We may return later, perhaps, to claim some of the bounties you are offering.” The group turned and headed back in the direction of Vadin’ya’s stall.
“Bitch,” Chantry muttered, as soon as they were far enough away from the sisters to be sure of not being overheard.
“She was less than tactful,” Kelleth conceded.
“The wrong sister got injured, that’s what I think,” Thorpe put in. “Kwesi was a damn sight more pleasant. Nice looking lass, too, especially from my level. Those shorts she was wearing were so bloody tight you could…”
“You could what?” Chantry asked, as Thorpe’s voice trailed away without finishing his sentence. She could guess what he had been going to say; Kwesi’s garments had clung so closely that the outline of her pussy lips could be made out through the cloth of her shorts and her nipples had stood out clearly through her skimpy crop-top. This wasn’t something that bothered Chantry at all; in her former role as a priestess of Sûne nudity and sexual matters had been an everyday part of her existence. She was pretty much unshockable. None of her companions realized this, though, and occasionally teasing them could be amusing.
“Uh, get a good look at her bum,” Thorpe amended his intended speech. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Chantry said.
“Adversity can build character,” Umoja said. “Perhaps Kwesi was as arrogant as her sister before the injury. Or, perhaps, it is inaction that has caused Inshula to become arrogant.”
Chantry reflected briefly on her own attitude before the plague had disfigured her. Carefree, cheerful, vain, promiscuous – something not regarded as a sin amongst Sûnites – and flighty, and yet she had found courage and compassion when it was needed. Of course, if she had fled with the others, she would still have been beautiful…
Kelleth was thinking along other lines. “A giant wild boar,” he said. “Not an easy opponent. Crossbows don’t have the stopping power. The right weapon is a spear.”
“We have the Zalantar spear still,” Aysgarth pointed out. “It’s just as well we didn’t sell it. We’d have had to buy it back at a loss. One of the spears that we retrieved from the cave-dwelling Batiri is enchanted, too, and I suspect that it is an even better weapon. I must examine it more thoroughly.”
“I am skilled with a spear,” Umoja said. “Give me an enchanted weapon and I will receive the charge of the boar.”
“Excellent,” Kelleth said. “If Sa’Sani’s duties take us in that direction we might be in business. The bounty on that boar would be a useful addition to our funds.”
They had reached Vadin’ya’s stall by this time and the tiefling shopkeeper heard his speech. “Do you go to seek out Bal-alak the Mighty, my Cock of the North?” she asked.
“We might,” Kelleth said. “It depends on what jobs Sa’Sani has for us, and if Volo has anything he wants us to do, but we will if we get the chance.”
“If you do, bring me his tusks,” Vadin’ya said. “I will pay you more than would Kwesi. There are uses to which I could put the tusks after the bounty is claimed.”
“Handles for enchanted daggers, for instance?” Aysgarth asked.
“You are knowledgeable in the Art,” Vadin’ya said. “Indeed it is so. Now, my birds, do you wish to trade?”
“What use is a captain without a ship?” Lastri gulped from a mug of beer. Her speech was slurred. As far as Chantry could tell the halfling sea-captain had been drowning her sorrows ever since they brought her into town and left her in the inn to recover from her ordeal.
“If there is anything we can do…” Thorpe said.
“Can’t conjure me up a ship, can you?” Lastri took another gulp of beer. “Yeah, there is one thing, maybe. My first mate was eaten, you told me about the bodies you found, and you told me who survived. There’s one name not on either list. Nestrul, my second mate. He’s a tough old bugger. Good swimmer, too. Maybe he made it ashore and got grabbed by another bunch of them Batiri bastards. Ain’t got much gold but, if you can find him, I’d be graceful.”
“I think you mean ‘grateful’,” Chantry corrected her.
“What I said, ain’t it? Do this favor for an old sailor-lass, would you, me hearties?”
“We’ll look for him, of course,” Kelleth said. “We’re heading back that way for Sa’Sani anyway, first thing in the morning. We’ll keep our eyes open.”
The hold of the ship was half empty. “We might have guessed,” said Chantry. “The Batiri have been back.”
“Or the patrol from Samargol sent some of their mates back to nick the cargo,” Thorpe suggested cynically.
“It was the Batiri,” Kelleth said. “They tried to hide their tracks but, on a beach and heavily laden, they can’t fool me.”
“Or me,” said Umoja. “They went into those rocks.”
“Where that stone door was,” Aysgarth said. “Only this time we have the key.”
“Stay here,” Kelleth ordered the bearers. “Start retrieving what’s still in the ship. We’ll call you when we have the rest of it.” He drew an arrow from his quiver. “Let’s go to work.”
It was usually Thorpe’s duty to open doors. He was too short to reach the keystone without assistance, however, and so it was Aysgarth who laid the carved rock in place. The door swung open and they rushed in.
Goblin warriors and trained dinosaurs met them. Kelleth loosed one arrow and then drew sword and dagger. Yushai faced a Batiri dinosaur and the two beasts clashed in a whirl of fangs and claws. Umoja impaled a shrieking axe-wielder with the enchanted spear. Chantry and Aysgarth stayed at the rear and cast spells. Thorpe threw darts until a goblin slipped past Kelleth and then drew a short sword for close action.
Yushai tore out the throat of his opponent and uttered a deep hiss of victory. He stepped over the body and seized a Batiri with his fanged jaws. Umoja’s spear jammed in the body of a goblin. He released the weapon and pulled out a short razor-sharp sickle. Kelleth thrust, parried, thrust again, and slew two goblins. He made for the Batiri chieftain. Aysgarth hit the goblin with a Ray of Frost. Before the chieftain could recover Kelleth had driven his blade through the Batiri’s chest. The ranger looked around for fresh opponents but found none. The fight was over.
“Well, that was a lot easier than last time,” Chantry commented. She now wore full plate armor, purchased in Samargol with the reward money from Sa’Sani, and she had come through the fight entirely unscathed.
“We have much better gear,” said Kelleth, “and our new recruits made a lot of difference. You fight well, friend,” he said to Umoja, “and your dinosaur quite eclipsed those of the Batiri.”
“Yushai is no ordinary T’saagan,” Umoja said, “but is one of the sacred beasts of Ubtao. The savages have none such. You are a fine warrior too, Kelleth.”
“Thanks,” Kelleth said. “I do my best.”
The missing cargo crates were piled up in plain sight. “Mission accomplished,” Chantry said. “Let’s see what else we can find.”
“This time I have plenty of Identify spells and Lore potions,” Aysgarth said. “We can pick out the good stuff straight away.” He chanted a mystic phrase. “Starting with that chief’s headdress,” he said. “Powerful magic. I’ll check it out.”
“Is that a human tied up back there?” Thorpe said. He moved on to investigate the inner recesses of the cave. “Yes, it is. The missing second mate, I think. He looks in a bad way.”
“I’m on it,” Chantry said. She hastened to the aid of the captive.
“Interesting,” Aysgarth said, as he examined the feathered headdress. “This is enchanted, indeed, and the charms are those of knowledge. The wearer gains insights into the ways of the jungle.” He grinned at Kelleth. “With this on you’d be as skilled here as you are at home, or very nearly, and the only down side is that you’ll look like a complete pillock.”
“Do you think Volo is fucking Sa’Sani?”
Kelleth’s jaw dropped and his eyes widened. He glanced around the dining room to see if any other residents of the inn were within hearing range. “Chantry!” he exclaimed. “That is unkind.”
Chantry rolled her eyes. “They’re both adults,” she said. “Sa’Sani isn’t married, if Volo is married he’s kept it a big secret – hardly likely, as his favorite occupation is telling stories about himself – and I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t screw each other blind. I’m only wondering because, if they are, it would explain why Volo’s sticking to her side like glue.”
“You have a point,” said Aysgarth. “Volo, the great explorer, is staying put in Samargol and relying on us to give him the material for his travelers’ tales. It doesn’t seem in character. Unless, that is, it’s what he’s always done and all the first-hand accounts are just made up.”
“I’ve spoken to people who’ve met Volo in some pretty dangerous places,” Kelleth said. “He exaggerates, certainly, but I’m sure there’s always a core of truth in his tales. This isn’t his usual style, I agree, but I can’t see your explanation as being the correct one.”
“He spent half the voyage moaning about how his publishers wouldn’t touch his Complete Guide to the Behavior of Nymphs because they felt it was ‘too naughty’,” Chantry said. “Sa’Sani is an attractive woman. I bet he’d fuck her if he got the chance.”
“Yeah, you’re right there,” said Thorpe. He drained his goblet of small beer and set the vessel down.
“Sa Sani is too much of a lady for such behavior,” Kelleth said. He laid down his fork on his empty plate and pushed it aside.
“Then why does she let him hang around?” Chantry asked. “Okay, have it your way, she keeps him close by because of his scintillating conversation. She wasn’t a captive audience for two months of sea voyage, unlike us, so I suppose she can put up with him for a while.”
“She’s expanding her trading operations in Neverwinter, I gather,” Kelleth said. “Maybe she wants to learn as much about conditions there as possible.”
“Our economy’s in the privy since the war,” Chantry said. “What more is there to learn?”
“Some people can make money even in the worst of times,” Aysgarth said. “Not me, alas, but she seems to be a very shrewd businesswoman. If anyone can, it will be her.”
“Okay, her interest is purely commercial,” Chantry said, “and she’s taking advantage of Volo drooling over her to pick his brains. And that gives us the chance to make some money doing Volo’s little jobs.” She finished the last morsel from her plate and set it aside. “Right, let’s pick up Umoja, go kill the wild boar, and get double pay by collecting from Vadin’ya and then telling Volo all about it.”
Bal-alak was as mighty and as ferocious as Inshula and Kwesi had described. Almost as high as a horse but far bulkier, a compact mass of hide, muscle, and tusks, an intimidating sight. It charged as soon as it saw the adventurers. It ignored arrows and sling bullets and rushed on with undiminished vigor. Umoja set the undergrowth to entangling the boar’s legs but it just pulled itself free with sheer brute power and momentum.
Kelleth and Umoja met it with braced spears. The monstrous animal impaled itself on the points but kept coming, trying to force itself up the spears to reach the men, chomping its jaws and slashing with its tusks.
Yushai tore at its flanks with claws and teeth. Thorpe tried to hamstring it. Aysgarth hit it with a Ray of Frost. Most of Chantry’s combat spells were geared towards facing humanoid opponents and so she occupied herself with casting charms to strengthen the other party members.
After a few moments of frantic activity the boar at last slumped to the ground. Chantry checked the others for wounds and healed a long gash where the tusks had laid Kelleth’s forearm open to the bone.
“That’s some tough hide,” Kelleth commented. “It would make good armor, I think. We could probably sell it for a good price.”
“The meat’s probably even tougher,” said Chantry. “I like roast pork but I won’t be eating that.”
“Yushai will feed well,” Umoja said, “once we have skinned the beast.”
“He has the teeth for it,” Chantry said, “but I haven’t. I’ll stick to our packed rations.” She sighed. “I’ve never skinned a boar before, but I’ll help, if you show me what to do.”
“I take it you’re not a farm girl, then,” said Kelleth.
“Neverwinter City born and bred,” Chantry said. “We have slaughter-men to do that sort of thing.”
“In the jungle all must be their own slaughter-men,” said Umoja. “I am accustomed to such tasks. It will not take long for Kelleth and me to skin the beast. There is no need for you to assist.”
“Yes,” said Kelleth, “we’ll do it. You keep your hands clean in case we get into another fight and you have more wounds to treat. Leave this to the professionals.”
The clash of steel on steel, cries of pain, and shouted orders. Unmistakable signs that there was a battle ahead. Kelleth led them in a cautious advance towards the sounds of combat.
A patrol of Samarachan soldiers, half a dozen in number, was hotly engaged in a fight against a score of reptilian humanoids. It appeared that the humans were losing. One went down, struck by a volley of javelins, and lay still.
“Firenewts,” Umoja said. “They can breathe out gouts of fire. They take small harm from fire and so, Aysgarth, a Fireball would have little effect.”
“They’re too close to the soldiers anyway,” said Aysgarth. He cast Mage Armor on himself.
“There’s a colony in Neverwinter Wood,” Kelleth said. “I’ve fought them before. It’s a pity I have no Ice Arrows.”
“I have some Ice Bullets,” Chantry said.
“Excellent,” Kelleth said. “Buff up and we’ll hit them.”
The firenewts responded at once when Kelleth began to loose arrows. Half of them kept on fighting the Samarachans and the rest charged the newcomers. They hurled burning darts as they came. Five of the reptilians fell to arrows, sling bullets, and to a Ray of Frost from Aysgarth. The survivors drew swords and axes as they came to close quarters.
The firenewts were ferocious, and reasonably skilled with their weapons, but they had taken too many losses in their charge. Without the advantage of numbers they could not prevail. They were dead in moments and Kelleth’s party turned their attention to those still attacking the Samarach patrol.
When the fighting ended all the firenewts were dead. Two of the Samarachans lay motionless alongside them. The other soldiers were all wounded and one, his leg shattered and bone splinters protruding through the skin, was screaming in agony. Other than Thorpe, who had a minor burn on his forehead, none of Kelleth’s group had suffered injury.
Chantry rushed to the man with the compound fracture and cast the most powerful healing spell in her repertoire. His screaming stopped. “You might need to get that looked at by another healer later,” Chantry told the soldier. “I can’t guarantee the bone will have set straight.”
“Foreigners,” one of the soldiers grunted. A plume on his helmet indicated that he was an officer or sergeant. “We didn’t need your help.”
“In another minute you’d all have been dead,” Kelleth pointed out.
“We would have overcome our foes,” another soldier claimed. He bore mace rather than sword and his shield was emblazoned with the fiery sword emblem of Tempus instead of the arms of Samarach. His first action after the fighting ended had been to cast a healing spell on himself. He sneered at Chantry. “We needed no aid from filthy foreigners and their incompetent priests.”
“Incompetent priests?” Chantry bared her teeth. “You left a man screaming on the ground while you healed yourself of minor cuts. You are a disgrace.”
“Hold your tongue, foreign scum,” the patrol cleric growled. “Tempus will not be mocked.”
Chantry drew in a deep breath. Aysgarth hastily put his hand over her mouth.
“Go away, foreigners,” another soldier said. Blood was dripping from a gash that ran all the way along his arm. “We’ll not let you loot our fallen.”
“O-kay,” Kelleth said. “We’ll leave you to the aftermath of your glorious victory. Come on, people, we’ll go.”
Chantry forced herself to relax, choked back the tirade that had been ready to spill forth, and exhaled. Aysgarth took his hand away from her mouth. She allowed him to lead her away after Kelleth.
They followed the trail of dead firenewts back the way they had come, pausing to loot the corpses, and re-entered the jungle. As soon as they were out of sight of the soldiers Chantry drew breath and let loose with a stream of vituperation.
“I won’t argue,” said Kelleth. “That was unbelievable. I’ve encountered ingratitude before but that sets new records.”
“Paranoid bastards,” said Thorpe. “Got a moment to patch up my face, Chantry? One of those bloody newts caught me with a fire belch.”
“Sure thing,” Chantry said. She healed Thorpe’s burns and then returned to the topic of the Samarachans. “What is it with the locals, anyway? Do they get taught xenophobia at their mothers’ knees? Or do they just like going out of their way to be unpleasant?”
“They fear the yuan-ti,” Umoja explained. “They see them in every shadow. Anyone unfamiliar they suspect may be a yuan-ti spy.”
“I don’t get it,” Chantry said. “What’s the big deal with the snake people? Why so paranoid? The sarrukh fucked us over pretty badly in Neverwinter but we didn’t… oh. Yeah. Fenthick and Aribeth. Ignore what I just said. Although we tend to welcome foreigners. Unless they’re Luskans. Uh, I think I’ll stop digging.”
“The pure-blood yuan-ti can pass for humans,” Umoja went on. “The people of Samarach are convinced that the snake-men walk amongst them, plotting to seize power, and that they will enslave the humans if they are not kept at bay with constant vigilance.”
“Huh. The people at the top probably are the frigging yuan-ti,” Chantry said. “Or they just keep the paranoia whipped up good to make sure no-one can threaten their hold on power.”
“Indeed,” said Umoja. “There are good people in this country but, in my experience, they are a minority.”
“Well, I vote that, if we see any more Samarachan soldiers getting their heads kicked in, we just leave them to it,” Chantry said. “Why put our lives on the line just to get abused?”
“Seems fair enough to me,” Thorpe agreed.
“And me,” Aysgarth said.
“It goes against all my training as a ranger,” Kelleth said, “but I see your point. Perhaps, though, that patrol was a group of malcontents, a punishment detail or similar, and their behavior may not be typical.”
“The bunch that met us on the beach were a right lot of bastards,” Chantry pointed out. “That Elite Leader bitch, for instance.”
“I know, I know,” Kelleth said, “but the circumstances are different. We will give them another chance. If we happen upon another group in a like situation we shall help them out again. If we meet with similar ingratitude, however, then they can fend for themselves in the future.”
“Fair enough,” said Chantry. “That cleric of Tempus was an absolute shit, wasn’t he? Not exactly a shining advertisement for the service of the god of War.”
“As a worshipper of the goddess of Peace I’m no fan of Tempus anyway,” Kelleth said.
“Yeah,” Chantry said. A wide grin spread over her face and she began to sing.
“War! Huh! Yeah!
What is it good for?
Uh ha hah ha.
War! Huh! Yeah!
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing… say it again…”
“So, my birds, you fought firenewts?” Vadin’ya beamed as the adventurers, happy with the payment she had given them, examined her stock. “Perhaps you would be interested in another task for me, yes?”
“If it pays as well as this one, and doesn’t conflict with anything Sa Sani wants of us, certainly,” said Kelleth. “What is it that you wish, Vadin Ya?”
“The weapons of the common firenewts bear flame for only moments,” the merchant said, “but their chieftains wield great axes that keep their fires for years. I desire such a weapon for Artiuk. Bring me one and I will pay you well.”
“Such an axe would be of great use to us too,” Kelleth pointed out.
“You are a sword-wielder, my falcon,” Vadin’ya riposted, “and a great-axe is not your weapon of choice. Perhaps, though, if you bring me the axe I could find you a sword of equivalent abilities.”
Kelleth nodded. “It’s a deal.”
They staggered out of the salt mines of Smergol battered, burned, and blood-spattered. Chantry and Umoja were totally out of healing spells and had been forced to fall back on bandages.
“Next time,” Chantry croaked out, “let’s take them by surprise when they’re fighting Samarach soldiers. It’s so much easier.”
“We won,” Kelleth said, “and we have the fire-axe. I just hope your friend Vadin Ya is sufficiently grateful.”
“We might get a reward from the locals,” Aysgarth said, “seeing as how we’ve cleared the mine for them. On past form, though, I’m not that hopeful.”
“We’re getting some good stuff anyway,” said Thorpe. He was treading carefully, unwilling to risk even a slight fall, as he had been killed during the fight in the mines and Chantry had Raised him with the aid of a scroll. The experience had left him fragile, vulnerable to a second death at the least injury, until the healers regained some spells and could restore his health. “Like that scimitar we picked up in the crypt yesterday. Decent bit of kit, that is.”
“Indeed,” Kelleth agreed, “and without it I don’t think I could have defeated the firenewt chieftain.”
“I hadn’t realized you could use a scimitar,” Chantry commented. “It’s not a usual weapon for a Neverwinter ranger.”
“You’d be surprised,” Kelleth said. “I wasn’t the only one who heard about Drizzt as a lad and wanted to be like him. I learnt with a scimitar first, before the long-sword, and only switched over when I gained an enchanted sword. I haven’t used a scimitar since before the war but it all came back to me.”
“Lucky for us,” Chantry said. “If Vadin’ya can enchant it with a flame charm it will be better than the axe.”
“Or ice,” said Kelleth, “for the firenewts. Although fire is always useful for killing trolls.”
Chantry glanced over her shoulder at the mine exit. “We’re doing well here,” she commented. “Making good money, getting some good kit, and if this place wasn’t so fucking paranoid we’d be getting a good reputation too. The thing is, this is all the standard stuff. Looting crypts, fighting humanoids, getting treasure. Nothing we couldn’t be doing back home. Why was this so important to my goddess? Why was I commanded to come here?”
“And important to Ubtao,” Umoja said. “There must be more to it, yes. No doubt we shall learn the purpose of the gods later. You have been in this land how long?”
“A tenday plus two or three days,” Kelleth said.
“Do not be so impatient, then, friend Chantry,” Umoja advised her. “The gods move in their own time. You will find out soon enough.”
“That fucking settles it,” Chantry said. Once more the party had intervened to save a Samarachan patrol getting the worst of a battle with monsters, this time a Batiri warband, and once more their aid had been met with hostility and even threats of arrest. “The next time we see those bastards getting eaten we cheer on the other side.”
Kelleth sighed. “I must, reluctantly, agree with you,” he said. “If the Greycloaks behaved like that Lord Nasher would have them flogged. The Samarachan soldiers are, as you say, not worth saving. I have encountered Luskans who have behaved with more honor and courtesy.”
“If the yuan-ti did take the place over it would probably be an improvement,” Chantry said.
“Do not say such things, even in jest,” Umoja cautioned her. “It would bring your instant arrest if you were overheard.”
Chantry rolled her eyes. “Which rather proves my point,” she said. “The whole country is a – what the fuck was that?”
A flash of light had lit up the evening sky. The party stared upwards. The sun had only just set, the sky was still light over in the west, and usually the Tears of Selûne, the asteroids that orbited trailing behind the moon, could not be seen until it was fully dark. Not tonight. One of them was glowing bright enough to outshine the moon. The others were illuminated by its radiance and were clearly visible. The glowing point of light grew bigger, faded, and then went out.
“I don’t know,” Kelleth said, “but I don’t think it’s good.”
Aysgarth stared at the heavens and his brow furrowed. “I think,” he said slowly, “that one of the Tears of Selûne just exploded.”
Disclaimer: ‘Storm of Zehir’ is the property of Atari, Obsidian Entertainment, and Wizards of the Coast Inc. Song lyrics quoted are from ‘Buffalo Skinners’ by Big Country and ‘War’ by Edwin Starr. Lyrics used without permission.