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A Plague of Serpents Chapter Five

It’s been a long time since I posted any fic – the World Cup followed by WriterConUK has kept me otherwise occupied – but I’m back in action now. I’m starting with a return to ‘A Plague of Serpents’, the world’s first ‘Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir’ fanfic. It’s the sequel to ‘Debt of Blood’ but, in previous chapters, that hasn’t been obvious. Now it is.

Thanks to those who entered my poll asking for a name for Kelleth’s leopard. I went with woman_of’s suggestion but I’ve referenced some of the others in the story.

This chapter is 9,000 words, rating R. Previous chapters can be found HERE.

A Plague of Serpents

Chapter Five: We’re not in Kansas

Well, Dog! I know we're not in Kansas
The sky's all coloured wrong
I know we're not in Kansas
The nights are all too long
I sure don’t understand this
That's what you're howling for
I know we're not in Kansas
Kansas any more

(Big Country, We’re Not In Kansas)

It wasn’t a village, just a few ramshackle lean-tos crudely put together with branches and skins, and the miserable handful of inhabitants seemed to be waiting for death.

“The snake filth have cursed us,” a man moaned. He swayed on his feet, his limbs were stick-thin and swollen at the joints, and his abdomen was swollen. Ulcers around his nose and mouth disfigured his face. “Are you in league with them, foreigners?”

Chantry studied the man, and his fellows, and quickly reached a diagnosis. “It’s not a curse, you ignorant savage,” she told him. “It’s a disease spread by bloodsucking flies. Don’t you have a healer or a priest in your village?”

“The priest’s spells had no effect,” the villager replied. “He declared that it was a curse and cast us out lest our presence spread our contamination to the others.”

Chantry rolled her eyes. “The total moron. I read up on the local diseases on the voyage here. My texts went to the bottom with the ship but I can remember them well enough. This disease suppresses the immune system. You have to catch it early, when the ulcers are just breaking through and before the spleen starts to enlarge, otherwise you have to cast two cures in succession. Well, priests of other gods do, anyway. I could do it in one.”

“Then you can… cure us?” There was incredulity and hope in the villager’s voice.

“No problem,” Chantry said. “I made up a batch of potions, in advance, just in case any of our party contracted the disease. Not quite enough for all of you but I have a couple of Cure Disease spells prepared. If Umoja also has a couple…”

“I do indeed, Chantry,” Umoja confirmed.

“…Then we can fix you all up in a matter of minutes.”

“And what do you want in return, foreign priestess?” A middle-aged woman glared at Chantry with suspicion written all over her face. “We cannot afford to pay you.”

The poverty of the disease-stricken natives was blatantly obvious. No doubt they had been evicted from their village with little more than the clothes they wore. Chantry would liked to hold out for payment but she couldn’t imagine that they had enough even to cover the potions’ ingredients – more than three hundred gold coins – and Kelleth would be sure to object if she demanded compensation. Oh, well, it wasn’t like she was short of money. The loot from their victories, and the bounties paid on creatures they had slain, had brought in coins by the barrel-load.

“Payment is not required,” Chantry said. “I ask only that you say a prayer of thanks to my goddess, Talona.”

“Talona?” The spokesman recoiled. “Then you seek to poison us. Begone, witch!”

“Suit yourself,” Chantry said, her eyebrows rising unseen behind her full-face helm.

“Don’t be bloody stupid, you daft wazzock,” Thorpe put in. “You’re dying anyway, right? Just how is she going to make it worse?”

The spokesman frowned. “I… suppose that is true,” he said. “Very well. We shall take your curatives.”

“Big of you,” Chantry grunted, under her breath, and she reached into her pack for the potion vials. “We can reduce the scarring from the ulcers with Cure Light Wounds spells,” she advised Umoja, as she handed them out, “but it has to be done quickly, while the potions are still working.”

“I understand,” Umoja said. He tilted his head slightly to one side, looked at Chantry for a moment, and then averted his gaze. Chantry guessed what he was thinking but said nothing.

In the charnel house that Neverwinter had become, during the Wailing Death plague, there had been no chance to think of anything other than life or death. High Priestess Sumia, concentrating on Cure Disease, had run out of Cure Wounds and Regenerate spells long before she reached Chantry… She shuddered, tried to put the memories out of her mind, and set to work in silence except for the words of the spells.

“You wouldn’t have seen this character around, would you?” Thorpe asked the village spokesman, after the cured man had paused from his spiel of thanks. The halfling held up a sketch of Luaire. “Skinny bloke, wizard, stammers when he talks.”

The Samarachan peered at the picture. “I think so,” he said. “The man I saw did not speak but the face looks similar and he wore, indeed, the robes of a wizard.” He showed the drawing to his fellows and was met with general agreement.

“Where, and when?” Kelleth asked.

“Two days ago,” the spokesman said, “passing by on the road. We called out for help, for it was only hours after Gyandoh was dragged off into the jungle by a band of batiri, and perhaps not too late for a wizard and his two tall warriors to have rescued her, but he ignored us and passed on by.”

“In that case,” Chantry said, “you’ll probably be pleased to hear that we’re going to kill the bastard.”

“Two tall warriors?” Kelleth narrowed his eyes. “That explains how he is travelling through the jungle without problems. He has someone to guard him while he rests to regain spells. They’ll need to be neutralized before we can take Luaire out.”

“My present spell selection will serve,” Aysgarth said. “I have sufficient wards to shield us while we slay the warriors.”

“Good.” Kelleth turned back to the Samarachan spokesman. “We’ll have a look for your missing comrade, although I hold out little hope for her survival after two days, and then pursue our foe. Which way did he go?”

“South,” said the man, “toward Nimbre and Rassatan.”

“If he goes to Rassatan Sa Sani’s agents will spot him,” Kelleth said. “I doubt if that was his destination. Nimbre? That’s a mere village, if I recall correctly.”

“A dozen or so houses and some pig farms,” Thorpe agreed.

“What would he be doing there?” Kelleth wondered.

“It is said that a Loremaster resides in Nimbre,” the Samarachan suggested. “A wise man who studies the stars and reads portents in the heavens. It would be no strange thing for a wizard to travel there to consult with him.”

“A Loremaster,” Aysgarth mused. “If he is legitimate it would be interesting to discuss with him events such as the explosion that destroyed one of the Tears of Selûne. If he is involved with Luaire, an accomplice in the wizard’s schemes, whatever they might be…”

Chantry finished for him. “Then we kill him too.”

- - - - -

The big cat sat in the middle of the forest path, watching them approach, apparently totally unconcerned. There was no fear evident in the gaze of its yellow eyes.

“That is not normal behavior for a leopard,” Umoja remarked. “I sense that there is something unusual about this beast. Enchanted, perhaps.” He couched his spear. “What do you think, Yushai?”

The dinosaur chittered. Umoja’s eyebrows rose and he lowered his spear-point. “He says the leopard is his brother,” Umoja translated.

“Considering that he hatched out of an egg, and the leopard didn’t,” Chantry said, “I take it he’s chittering metaphorically.”

“He is,” Kelleth said. He smiled broadly. “It would seem I have found favor in the eyes of my goddess. She has sent me my animal companion.”

“Oh? Aren’t you supposed to raise your companion from a cub?” Chantry asked.

“That would hardly be feasible,” Kelleth pointed out. “Taking a couple of years out from adventuring to raise a cub to maturity would rather hinder a ranger’s career.” He walked up to the animal, extended a hand, and scratched under its chin. “Hello, you magnificent creature,” he greeted it. “Now, what shall I call you?”

“Spot,” suggested Chantry.

“In my language a leopard is called ‘ingwe’,” Umoja said, “or in the language of Samarach it would be called ‘namir’.”

“Hmm.” Kelleth’s brow furrowed as he considered. “No, I don’t think I’ll call him ‘leopard’,” he decided. “After all, you wouldn’t call a child ‘human’.”

“Call him… Snookums,” said Thorpe. He returned an arrow, which he had nocked at first sight of the leopard, to its quiver. “Or Tiddles. Those are good names for cats, right?”

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Kelleth pointed out, “he’s a little bigger than a house cat. I’d estimate that he weighs at least a hundred and sixty pounds.”

Thorpe shrugged. “Size doesn’t matter, they say.”

The leopard opened his mouth, revealing two-inch long fangs, and uttered a sound like a rasping yowl.

“Ah,” said Kelleth, “that settles it. He says his name is Silent Stalker.”

- - - - -

They heard the clink of metal on metal as they approached the village. At first they assumed it was a blacksmith working at his forge but, on emerging into the village centre, they saw that it was something more sinister.

A patrol of Samarachan guards, eight soldiers plus a wizard, a priest, and an officer in gilded armor, occupied the village square. It seemed that they had rounded up most of the villagers. A cluster of peasants huddled in the square, ringed by guards, and the blacksmith was engaged in hammering pins into shackles clamped around the captives’ ankles. Two guardsmen with spears stood over him and supervised his work.

“I see the benevolent government of Samarach is treating its citizens with its usual care and consideration,” Chantry remarked.

“Indeed so,” Kelleth said. “Try not to antagonize them too much, Chantry, okay? Killing them would get us into far too much trouble.”

“I suppose so,” Chantry said. “Okay, I’ll behave myself.” She peered at the officer. “Isn’t that the twat who was going to throw us in jail when we first arrived in Samargol?”

“It is,” Kelleth agreed.

“Captain Dajos, if I remember correctly,” Aysgarth put in.

“That sounds right,” Kelleth said. “Let me do the talking.” He strode up to the gathering, at the head of the party, with Silent Stalker padding at his heels.

“Move along, foreigners,” the captain said. “There is nothing here to interest you.”

“Very well, Captain Dajos,” Kelleth said. “We don’t want to interfere with your internal affairs. Late with their taxes, were they?”

“Not that it concerns you,” Dajos replied, “but we received reports that these villagers have been collaborating with the snake folk.”

“What’s your proof?” Chantry asked, ignoring the glare that Kelleth shot at her.

“Proof? I have no need of proof,” Dajos said. “I received my orders and I am carrying them out. They will be taken to Samargol and their degree of guilt will be established there by the authorities.”

“The snake folk are into sausages, are they, then?” Thorpe commented. “Can’t see what else they’d get out of this bunch of pig farmers.”

“Bacon,” said Chantry. “Everybody likes bacon.” Silent Stalker licked his lips and Yushai chirruped.

“I presume you have already arrested the Loremaster,” Aysgarth said. “We heard he had tomes of knowledge about the stars and the heavens. If you’ve confiscated them we might be interested in purchasing them.”

“Arrested the Loremaster? Certainly not,” Dajos replied. “He’s a respected citizen in good standing. If you have business with him then go ahead.” He pointed at a house, larger and more solidly constructed than the rest of the village dwellings, just off the square. “Just don’t interfere with our processing of the accused.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Aysgarth said, and headed in the direction indicated.

“I thought I was going to do the talking,” Kelleth complained, as they walked off.

“Yes, you did,” Chantry said. Thorpe sniggered.

“I thought it best to speak up,” said Aysgarth. “Matters of lore and wizardry are, after all, my areas of expertise.” He pursed his lips. “If anyone in this village has indeed been dealing with the yuan-ti, which I doubt, the Loremaster is a far more likely candidate than the simple farmers.”

“Agreed,” Chantry said, “which could mean that Luaire is also involved with the snakes. Then again it might just be the Samarachans being their usual paranoid selves.”

“Somebody saw Luaire sneaking around to visit him,” Thorpe deduced, “and jumped to the conclusion that he was one of the yuan-ti.”

“That sounds logical,” Aysgarth agreed.

“We assume he can’t be trusted until we have proof to the contrary,” Kelleth declared. They reached the Loremaster’s door. “This time, Aysgarth, you can do the talking.”

“Of course.” Aysgarth knocked and, almost immediately, the door was thrown open.

“Well? What do you want?” The eyebrows of the man in the doorway shot up when he saw his visitors. Presumably he had expected the knock to be from one of the soldiers. The eyebrows descended into a frown as he stared at them. “Foreign travelers,” he said. “A rare sight in Samarach.” His bald head, beard, and plain grey robes fitted the stereotype of one who was both an academic and an ascetic.

“Indeed so,” Aysgarth agreed. “I take it that you are he who is known as the Loremaster? We seek to avail ourselves of your knowledge and wisdom.”

“Oh?” The Loremaster looked Aysgarth up and down. “In what way?”

“A few nights ago we observed a strange event in the sky,” Aysgarth explained. “I believe that we saw one of the Tears of Selûne explode. I seek to discover what may have caused this strange, perhaps unprecedented, event and what it may presage.”

“Hmmph. Something to do with Shar’s war against Selûne, no doubt,” the Loremaster said. “Oh, well, I suppose you’d better come in.”

“Thank you.” Aysgarth led the band into the house.

“I had meant only you, and perhaps your companions, not an entire traveling menagerie,” the Loremaster complained, turning a cold gaze upon Silent Stalker and Yushai.

“We could hardly leave our animal companions out there,” Kelleth said, “where they might come into conflict with the soldiers. I’m afraid I don’t trust the locals not to provoke them.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” the Loremaster conceded. He led the party into the house’s main room, a large study with walls lined from corner to corner with bookcases, and then faced Aysgarth. “Well, young man, you might as well take a seat. Have a glass of wine, perhaps, and tell me of this… cosmic event.”

“If you don’t mind, there’s a question I’d like to ask you first,” Aysgarth said. “Have you seen a wizard named Luaire recently?”

The Loremaster’s frown deepened. “Luaire? I don’t think I know that name.”

“Wrong answer,” Chantry accused. “I cast Detect Lie before we came in,” she claimed, mendaciously, “and you show up as lying through your teeth.”

The Loremaster’s lips curled back in a snarl. His veneer of calm wisdom dissipated in an instant. “Very clever, human,” he said, “but all your cleverness has gained you is your death. Jaffa, to me!”

Kelleth drew his scimitars as the Loremaster was making his ‘villain unmasked’ speech. He struck out with the right-hand blade, bringing it down in a cut aimed at the shoulder area, but the Loremaster swayed aside from the blow and delivered an uppercut to Kelleth’s chin. Kelleth rocked under the impact but his strength, boosted by the Giant Strength belt he wore, enabled him to stay on his feet and strike back. Again the Loremaster dodged. He hit Kelleth with a right-left combination and then an elbow strike that pulped Kelleth’s lips.

Aysgarth cast Improved Mage Armor on himself, Umoja used Magic Fang to enhance Yushai, and Chantry cast Mass Aid on everyone. Thorpe drew his short-sword but, instead of attacking the Loremaster, followed the two animal companions in rushing toward one of the room’s internal doors.

The Loremaster seized Kelleth’s arm, applied a lock, and forced the ranger down and around so that he was unable to strike with his other scimitar. Aysgarth fired off a Magic Missile but achieved nothing except to bring a grunt of pain from the Loremaster’s lips. Chantry stepped forward, mace raised, but was forced to step back when the man lashed out at her with a high kick. Instead she cast another spell. Bull’s Strength, on Kelleth, further augmenting his already enhanced strength.

The inner door flew open and two mail-clad warriors rushed into the room.

Or tried to. One of them ran straight into Yushai. The dinosaur’s claws fastened on the man’s shoulders. Yushai’s ferociously-fanged maw opened wide and then closed on the warrior’s face, ripping away flesh, and splattering the polished teak floor with copious amounts of blood. The man screamed and raised a sword to strike back. Yushai snapped his jaws again, caught the wrist of the raised arm before the blow could be delivered, and mangled the hand into uselessness. He kicked at the warrior’s stomach with a viciously-clawed hind foot, failed to penetrate the chain mail, and then released the trapped arm from his jaws and went for a killing lunge at the neck.

The other man was bowled over by the impact of a charging leopard. The fighter held a bulbous-ended staff, virtually useless at such close quarters, but he used it to fend off Silent Stalker’s attempts to fasten his fangs into the man’s throat. The heavy chain-mail protected the human’s abdomen from the disemboweling strokes of the leopard’s hind claws. The two rolled on the floor, neither doing any damage to the other, but the warrior was totally neutralized as far as intervening in the other fights was concerned.

Thorpe slipped past Yushai and his victim to the combat on the floor. He watched for an opening, nimbly dodging when their rolls threatened to knock him over, and then plunged his sword home into the human’s eye socket.

Kelleth, his already considerable strength now boosted to an inhuman degree, began to power his way out of the arm-lock and straighten up. The Loremaster twisted, stuck out his leg, and threw Kelleth to the ground. Aysgarth fired off a Ray of Frost and Umoja summoned down a lightning strike. Neither had any visible effect but the Loremaster, an expression of panic now showing on his face, dipped a hand into his belt pouch and pulled out an oddly-shaped metal device.

Chantry summoned an undead minion. A hideous ghoul materialized at her side. Before the undead minion could enter the fray the Loremaster did something to his device, causing it to rise up in his hand into the form of a striking snake, and then used it to fire a beam of energy. The blast struck Chantry squarely in the chest, her eyes rolled up, and she toppled to the floor. The ghoul vanished.

A split second later the point of Kelleth’s scimitar burst out through the front of the Loremaster’s chest. He opened his mouth to speak, probably a curse, but all that came forth was a spray of blood. Kelleth withdrew his blade and the Loremaster fell to his knees.

“Damn,” Kelleth exclaimed, as the defeated foe slumped forward and lay still, face down, on the floor. “I had hoped to take him alive. I hope there’s some documentary evidence that he’s up to no good or we could be facing a murder charge.” He touched his lips with his fingers and winced. “I could use a Cure Minor Wounds, Chantry, if you’ve a moment.” It was only then that he realized she was down and not moving. “Chantry? Are you alright?”

Umoja bent over the prone form. “She is merely unconscious,” he declared. “I will bring her round in but a moment.”

“I’ll check the place out for loot,” Thorpe said, coming back into the room, “but you two had better look to your pets before they eat the dead blokes.”

“We must also, as Kelleth said, search for evidence,” Aysgarth said.

“Do that, both of you,” Kelleth said. “Silent Stalker! Put that warrior down. Drop him! Good boy.”

“Just call him ‘Stalker’,” Thorpe said. “His first name is silent. Get it?”

“I’ll treat that pun with the contempt it deserves,” said Kelleth. “Search the bodies. Or what’s left of them.”

“Uuugh,” Chantry moaned, and she sat up. “What hit me?”

“This,” Aysgarth said. He retrieved the weapon from the floor and held it up. “A strange device. I have seen nothing like it before. A creation of the yuan-ti, perhaps? It is certainly patterned after the form of a serpent.”

“I’ve seen something like it before,” Chantry said, “but I can’t place it. It’ll come to me.” She clambered to her feet, with some assistance from Umoja, and took off her helm. “We won, I take it? Looting time?”

“And evidence,” Kelleth said again. “With a Samarachan patrol outside we really don’t want to walk out of here, covered in blood, unless we can find something to prove that the people we killed are the bad guys.”

“Well, the Loremaster must be a yuan-ti,” Aysgarth said, “or he would not have called Chantry ‘human’.”

“There are other things he could be, like a werewolf,” said Thorpe, “but you’re probably right.” He knelt by the Loremaster’s dead body and lifted its head to reveal the face. “His nose has shrunk,” he announced. “Ooh, scales.” He pulled back the corpse’s lips to expose the teeth. “And fangs,” he added. “He must have changed form when he died. Definitely a yuan-ti. We’re in the clear.” He cleaned the blade of his sword on the Loremaster’s robes and stood up.

“That’s a good start,” Kelleth said, “but it would be useful to find something on paper. And something that might lead us to Luaire.”

“He is no doubt also one of the snake folk,” said Umoja.

“That won’t be good for Sa’Sani,” Chantry said. “He’s worked for her for years, apparently loyally until recently, and she’ll be damned by association.”

“Dead yuan-ti tell no tales,” Thorpe said. “Let’s see what else we can find.” He removed a ring from the corpse’s index finger, tossed it to Aysgarth, and then emptied out the Loremaster’s belt pouch. “Nothing but a scroll,” he said, passing the rolled paper over to the wizard, “but, hang on, what’s this?”

He had found a small pocket built into the belt. Inside it was a small glass vial. He held it up to the light and peered at it.

“Let me see that,” Chantry said. She took the vial from the halfling and examined it closely. “I’d need to run some tests to be sure,” she said, “but I strongly suspect that this is Chokemist poison. The same stuff that killed the gnome at the logging camp.”

“Hmm,” said Aysgarth. “Accepting the offered glass of wine might have been a very bad idea.” He unrolled the scroll and looked at it. “Ah. This isn’t a spell scroll. It’s a map of this village with annotations.”

“Annotations saying?” Kelleth prompted.

“I can’t read the language,” Aysgarth admitted. “Umoja, can you read it?”

The druid took the map. “It says, ‘Village to be emptied by 15 Mirtul’,” he read out, “and also ‘suitable landing site’. I know not what it can mean by ‘landing site’. This village is nowhere near the river and the spot marked is on open grassland. Griffon riders, or trained wyverns, perhaps?”

“I think that confirms where the accusation against the villagers came from,” Kelleth said.

“It was pretty obvious anyway, but yes, that proves it,” said Chantry. “We’d better search the rest of the place before we take this to the guards.”

They made a cursory search of the house. The bookshelves were too well stocked to be given a thorough examination, without spending far too long at the task, but they found a few magical scrolls on one of the shelves. A locked chest, in one of the side rooms, held only potions, a few gems, and a Drum of Haunting useful only to bards.

The bodies of the dead produced a more interesting haul. One of the two warriors, the one killed by Yushai, bore a short-sword with a minor enchantment; the other had been carrying a bulbous-ended metal staff of unusual design.

“I’ve seen something like this before, too,” Chantry said. She bent and examined the foreheads of the two dead men, wiping away the blood to reveal the skin, and her eyebrows climbed. “See these tattoos? Teal’c had a tattoo not dissimilar, although his was golden, and he bore a staff like this. A weapon that fired bolts of energy, according to my High Priestess, more powerful than a Wand of Fire and with unlimited charges.”

“Lucky your pets didn’t give him a chance to use it,” Thorpe commented.

“Yushai is no mere ‘pet’,” Umoja protested.

“Tea-yak?” Kelleth asked, stumbling over the pronunciation. “Who’s he?”

“A traveler from another world,” Aysgarth explained, “who helped to save Neverwinter when it was besieged by the Luskans three years ago.”

“Oh, one of that group,” Kelleth said. “But that would make him one of the good guys, surely?”

“I met him twice,” Chantry said. “Well, I was in the Halls of Justice when his party passed through, that is, I didn’t actually speak to him. High Priestess Sumia was with them when they fought Morag and the Old Ones, though, and I’ve listened to her recount the tale. Colonel O’Neill and his companions, amongst whom was Teal’c, were indeed good guys.”

“So what are people from his world doing working with the yuan-ti?” Kelleth wondered.

“It’s no use asking me,” Chantry said. “I don’t know any more than you do. The people who could give you an answer are all two and a half thousand miles north of this shithole.”

“It may become clearer as we continue our investigations,” said Aysgarth, “and we may learn why your goddess has sent you here.”

“And why Ubtao has sent me,” Umoja added.

“Okay, I think we’ve gathered about as much loot and information as we’re going to get,” Kelleth said. “We’d better take this map, and the corpse, to the guards before they march the villagers off to the dungeons.” He took hold of the Loremaster’s body under the arms and dragged it across the floor and out of the house.

By now the villagers were all in shackles. The blacksmith, his task completed, was being bound at the wrists by a pair of guardsmen. A soldier saw Kelleth’s party emerging into the open, and their grisly burden, and gave a shout and pointed with his spear.

“Captain Dajos,” Kelleth called. “Release your prisoners. I have found the real yuan-ti.”

Dajos, flanked by a couple of guardsmen and the patrol’s cleric, hastened over. “What is this? You have slain Hadric the Loremaster!”

“One point for observation,” Chantry commented. “Now, for the bonus point, take a close look at the bloke’s face and identify his species.”

Dajos glared at her but followed her suggestion. “Yes,” he conceded, “he is indeed yuan-ti. How did you know?”

“A yuan-ti spy wouldn’t be living as a miserable sod of a peasant,” Thorpe pointed out. “Had to be this Loremaster pillock. Bloody obvious.”

“I challenged him and, when he denied it, I claimed to know he was lying,” Chantry said. “He fell for my trick and tried to kill us to shut our mouths.”

“Hmmph. You resorted to lies and violence, you mean,” Dajos said. “Typical of you northern foreigners. Still, it has achieved a desirable end, and I shall take no action against you. I shall free the villagers and take the body of this snake filth to Samargol.”

“He had two men-at-arms guarding him,” Kelleth said. “Their bodies still lie inside.”

“That does not surprise me,” Dajos said. “Death walks with you, foreigner. At least it has struck only deserving targets – thus far. Go now. Leave this village.”

“That does not surprise me,” Chantry said.

Kelleth, guessing that she intended to continue with something deliberately provocative, spoke up hurriedly. “Before we go there is something that we must do. We need to purchase pork, perhaps even a live piglet, from the villagers.”

“To feed your animals? Very well. You may stay long enough to transact that business, once the peasants have been unchained, but that is all. After that you must depart.”

- - - - -

“Where to now, boss?” Thorpe asked, once Nimbre lay behind them.

“We should seek out the source of the Chokemist poison,” Chantry suggested. “Vadin’ya believes Luaire will return there, perhaps even be based there, and she could well be right.”

Kelleth shook his head. “Not yet,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Captain Dajos has us followed, either physically or by scrying, and I don’t think we should lead the Samarachan authorities to Luaire. Not if our deduction that he’s also a yuan-ti is correct, anyway.”

“I suppose not,” Chantry conceded. “So, where do we go instead?”

“We’re not too far from that wizards’ tower that the mind flayers want us to investigate,” Kelleth said. “I’m not wild about working for such creatures but they don’t seem to be doing too much harm at the moment. Getting onto their ‘select clients list’ could be useful.”

“And there could be useful items in the tower itself,” Aysgarth said. He shook the staff weapon that he carried in place of his usual quarterstaff. “What should we do with this? It’s far too unwieldy to carry around for long unless it’s really effective as a weapon.”

“We’ve already seen that it’s useless at close quarters,” Kelleth said, “but perhaps it could be useful at long range. Will you be able to work out how to activate it?”

“Given time, and perhaps the use of a Potion of Lore, undoubtedly,” Aysgarth said.

“Then we shall try it out once we’re in the jungle and screened from prying eyes,” Kelleth decreed. “The small weapon too.”

“The little one is called a ‘zat’,” Chantry informed them. “I remember now. It can render unconscious and also it can kill.”

“It could be useful, I suppose,” Kelleth said, “and it’s much easier to carry.”

“Lord Nasher forbade the people of Earth to sell their weapons in Neverwinter,” Chantry mused.

“Do you think they sought a market here, far from Lord Nasher’s authority, to get past that prohibition?” Kelleth asked.

“I doubt it,” Chantry replied. “Their own laws prohibit them from selling such things, even if Nasher had permitted it, and they offer only harmless goods such as the tinted eyeglasses that protect against the glare of the sun – my own pair of which, alas, was lost in our shipwreck. When their weapons were stolen by the Luskans they strove mightily to recover them and, indeed, to slay all those involved. No, I cannot believe they would willingly part with their weapons to agents of the yuan-ti. It remains a mystery.”

- - - - -

“Powerful, yes,” Kelleth judged, bringing the staff weapon down after firing the last in a series of test shots, “but woefully inaccurate. I can loose arrows faster, too. I deem it too clumsy to be effective in combat except, perhaps, used in massed ranks.”

“Or mounted on a castle wall, or perhaps a wagon,” Aysgarth suggested.

“Tell you what,” said Thorpe, “the Lantanese gnomes would love this thing. We could flog it to them for a small fortune.”

Kelleth shuddered. “I think that letting those mad tinkerers get hold of something like this would be an exceedingly bad idea,” he said. “Selling it through Mendar or Vadin Ya probably wouldn’t be advisable either. No. It’s too clumsy to be useful, too big to fit in our Lesser Magic Bag, and conspicuous enough to draw unwanted attention. We’ll keep the little ‘zat’ but, as for this staff weapon, I say that we should dispose of it in some deep and remote swamp.”

- - - - -

The staff weapon sank out of sight below the scum of green algae that covered the surface of the muddy water. A bubble of swamp gas rose, burst, and gave off a smell like rotting eggs.

“We’ll kick ourselves if a load more of those things turn up and start selling at ten thousand gold apiece,” Thorpe remarked.

“I sincerely hope that won’t happen,” Kelleth said. He narrowed his eyes and looked at Chantry. “This would also be a good place to get rid of that poison. Hand it over.”

Chantry shrugged and took out the vial from her pouch. “Okay,” she said. “It’s not stable, it deteriorates even in a sealed container, and I’ve no immediate use for it.”

“Oh? So you weren’t planning on pouring it into Samargol’s water supply, then?” Kelleth challenged.

“Of course not,” Chantry replied. “Vadin’ya drinks that water and she’s a friend. Anyway, diluted down that much it would be pretty harmless. Samargol’s a big city.” She tilted her head to one side and, under the concealing helm, pursed her lips. “It would be a different story in the well of a little village. I wonder if that’s what Luaire expected the Loremaster to do with it?”

“Quite possibly,” Aysgarth agreed. “Getting the Samarach authorities to remove the villagers was a more… elegant scheme but poisoning might well have been the original plan. It would explain why he had a ring giving resistance to poison. The yuan-ti are fairly poison-resistant anyway, I believe, and with the additional protection he could have drank the water with impunity.”

“With it on I’m totally immune to poison, instead of just mostly so,” Chantry said. “I’ll have to work out how to poison-proof the rest of you before we go to the source of the Chokemist. It’s nasty stuff. Actually, thinking about it, this sample could be very useful on that score. I’d better hang onto it for a while.”

“Very well, Chantry, do that,” Kelleth said. “For now, though, we have a wizards’ tower to loot. A little old school adventuring for a change.”

- - - - -

Chantry sipped water from a flask, swilled it around her mouth, and spat a reddish stream out onto the stone floor. “I hate the taste of blood,” she said, “especially when it’s mine.”

“It was a tough fight, indeed,” Kelleth remarked, “but we prevailed.”

“And we picked up some decent loot,” Thorpe added, rubbing his hands together, “including a Ring of Djinni Summoning. Should come in useful.”

“A psychotic djinni who slew his last masters,” Aysgarth pointed out. “I would be wary of using it. Shamal would, undoubtedly, seize any possible opportunity to slay us also. If he turned against us when we were battling another foe it would be… bad.”

“So we sell it to the Mind Flayers,” Thorpe suggested. “Would any of us give a toss if the djinni turned on them?”

“Their mental powers would make that unlikely,” Aysgarth said, “but I would certainly be in favor of selling the ring rather than using it ourselves.”

“We’ll see what they offer,” Kelleth said. “If it’s not enough we can offer it to Vadin Ya; although we would, of course, warn her of the potential dangers.”

“Another powerful item which turns out to be useless to us,” Chantry sighed.

“At least we’re making money,” said Thorpe. “We’ve made up everything we lost in the shipwreck, and more, even without counting this haul.”

“True, and I’m not complaining,” Chantry said, “but it’s not why we’re here. We just keep coming up with questions when what I really want is answers.”

- - - - -

“Only one thousand?” Thorpe glared at the mind flayer. “For a Ring of Djinni Summoning? You have to be kidding.”

“My species does not jest, human,” the illithid replied. “One thousand coins and no more.”

“Human, indeed,” Thorpe said, snorting. “Forget it. We’ll just keep the ring. I’ll take the bottle of Deepwine, I know where I can make a decent profit on it, but there’s nothing else that interests me.” He turned to Kelleth. “Anything here you want to buy, boss?”

“Surprisingly little,” Kelleth said. “I’ll stock up on enchanted arrows but, other than that, there isn’t anything better than the weaponry we already possess.”

“Yes, getting onto the select clients list has been a bit of a disappointment,” Chantry said.

The mind flayer’s facial tentacles drooped. It was impossible to read the facial expressions of the creature but, if Chantry had had to guess, she would have said that it looked crestfallen.

“You are not impressed by our goods?” the mind flayer said.

“Frankly, no,” Chantry said. “Sorry. If we’d come across this place straight after the shipwreck then we’d have been delighted with your stock but by now we’ve acquired better stuff elsewhere.”

The mind flayer’s tentacles rose and fell. “This is… unsatisfactory,” it said. “Our reputation will be sullied. I must rectify this.”

Kelleth moved his hands to the hilts of his scimitars. The creature might intend to safeguard the reputation of its shop by disposing of the unimpressed customers…

“We have a few more items set aside,” the mind flayer went on, “intended for regular customers, but we have decided to allow you access in the interests of customer relations.”

Chantry’s eyebrows rose. “Now that’s a phrase I never thought I’d hear – well, telepathically receive – from a mind flayer,” she remarked. “You haven’t converted to the worship of Waukeen, have you?”

“No,” the mind flayer replied. Its tentacles rippled. The brain-damaged mind flayer minion, presumably in response to a telepathic order, crossed the cavern floor and returned bearing an extremely long but narrow case. The mind flayer opened it and displayed the contents. “Perhaps you will find something more to your desire in here,” he (or she) said.

A two-handed sword stretched the length of the chest. Beside it lay a bowstave, unstrung, and a leather belt.

“A great-sword is of no interest to us,” Kelleth said, “but I’ll take a look at the bow.” The bowstring was coiled beside the stave; he uncoiled it, strung the bow, and made a practice draw.

Chantry watched him, noting the way his leather armor moved to accommodate the play of muscles, and was glad of her face-concealing helm when she realized that she was drooling. Suddenly she was very conscious of the fact that it was over three years since she had last had sex. ‘Down, girl,’ she chided herself silently. ‘He is not for you.’

“Nice draw weight,” Kelleth commented. “I should be able to shoot a good twenty yards further with this, and achieve much better penetration, than with my present bow. What enchantment does it have, Aysgarth?”

Aysgarth cast an Identify spell and examined the weapon. “Plus two on the Modified Xander Scale,” he reported. “Twice the enchantment of the one you possess.”

“Okay, I’m interested,” Kelleth told the mind flayer. “How much?”

“Fifteen thousand golden lions,” the mind flayer answered.

Fifteen thousand? That’s an awful lot for a bow,” Kelleth said, “especially after we’ve done you a service by recovering those research notes which would otherwise have been lost to you. Surely you can drop the price a bit?”

“I have rounded the price down to the nearest thousand,” the mind flayer said, “and I will reduce it no further.” Its tentacles rose slightly and curved at the tips. “I can sense that you are willing to pay my price. Attempting to haggle merely wastes both our time.”

“I suppose it is pretty pointless trying to get the better of a merchant who can read minds,” Kelleth conceded. “Very well, I’ll take it.”

- - - - -

“Lions,” Chantry mused, once they had left the underground market and were walking under the sun once more. “I’d expected to see lions in Chult but the only ones I’ve seen have been on the faces of coins.”

“I have never seen a lion,” Umoja said, “for there are none in my country. There are some to the east, in Thingol, but I do not think there are any in Samarach.”

Kelleth nodded. “It makes sense, I suppose,” he said. “Lions probably can’t compete with the carnivorous dinosaurs.”

“And yet there are leopards,” Chantry pointed out, “and, with all due respect to Silent Stalker, he’s not as tough as a lion.”

“Leopards can climb trees,” Kelleth answered, “and dinosaurs, at least the ones we’ve seen so far, can’t.” Silent Stalker uttered one of his rasping yowls and cocked his head to one side. His expression was, unmistakably, smug.

“That reminds me,” Thorpe said, “why don’t they have horses in this land? They’d be no bloody good in the thick jungle, of course, but they’d be useful on the roads and the open grassland. Yet there aren’t any at all. Even the carts are pulled by oxen. It can’t be because the dinosaurs eat them; after all, horses can run away a lot faster than oxen can.”

“It’s because of nagana,” Chantry explained. “A disease carried by biting insects, to which horses are particularly susceptible,” she elaborated, as the others, apart from Umoja, looked at her with puzzled expressions on their faces. “It’s endemic and immunosuppressive, like the sickness those villagers we met had contracted, and requires multiple spells to cure. Otherwise they die, rather nastily, in under three weeks. Owning horses here simply isn’t cost-effective.”

“When the men of Baldur’s Gate tried to conquer Chult,” Umoja said, “they thought to use cavalry to win their battles. Their horses died and their conquest failed.”

Aysgarth brought the conversation onto a new track. “I’ve been considering those odd weapons we took from the Loremaster,” he said. “I suspect that Luaire may have more of them.”

“Quite probably,” Kelleth agreed. “And?”

“We need to work out counter-measures,” Aysgarth said. “I have some ideas along those lines but I’d like some time to experiment.”

“You’re not experimenting on me,” Chantry warned.

“Of course not,” Aysgarth said. He bit his lip and turned to face Kelleth. “I’m afraid it will have to be animals,” he said.

“I suppose it cannot be helped,” Kelleth said, “but cause no unnecessary suffering.”

“I shall try to avoid that,” Aysgarth promised. “It means a delay to our mission, I’m afraid.”

“And I still need some laboratory time to work on protecting you from Chokemist poison,” Chantry said.

“In that case let’s loop round by Taruin,” Thorpe suggested. “I can sell the wine there for a whacking great profit. Not enough to make up for what Kelleth spent on his new toy, of course, but a couple of thousand anyway.”

“Agreed,” said Kelleth, “but no side trips. I want to get this over with as soon as possible.”

- - - - -

“Finally you arrive,” Luaire greeted them. There was no trace of his previous stammer or hesitant manner. “It took you long enough to get here.”

“You expected us to find you?” Kelleth raised his eyebrows.

“Why else would one such as I spend time in such lugubrious surroundings as this dank cave?” Luaire waved an arm in a gesture encompassing his surroundings. “I am the bait, this is the trap, and you have fallen into it.”

“Luaire used himself as a lure,” Chantry remarked to Thorpe. “That’s almost a pun.” She had summoned a ghoul as an additional fighter for their party, completely immune to the toxic vapors of the cavern, and it bared its teeth as if amused by her comment.

“You thought this was the best place to fight, among your pointless poisons?” Kelleth curled his lip in a sneer. “And I thought yuan-ti were supposed to be superior.”

“Indeed they are superior hosts,” Luaire replied, “but only compared to you pitiful humans of Tau’ri descent.”

“They? Then you’re not a yuan-ti?” Kelleth’s eyebrows climbed higher.

“The host is,” Luaire said, “but the mind is… far greater. You will learn when you, yourself, become a host. You have been… lured here for that purpose. Not Chantry, of course, no Goa’uld would lower himself to inhabit such a damaged vessel, and not the pigmy one, but you and Aysgarth will be useful when we expand our operations into the North. You might as well submit without resistance. Your doom was sealed when you entered this cave and inhaled the lethal spores. You either become hosts or perish.”

“Wrong,” said Chantry. “Did you forget what I am? I’ve taken precautions. We could stay here for a month and the only danger we’d be in would be from boredom. What are you talking about? Hosts?” A thought took shape in her mind and she glanced at Aysgarth, wondering if the same possibility had occurred to him, but saw nothing in his expression to give her a clue. “Uh-oh. Don’t tell me you’re an Intellect Devourer.”

“I have heard that term before,” Luaire said. “Primitive relatives of the true Goa’uld, I believe, but it is of no importance. I offer two of you the chance to join the ranks of the Goa’uld. The rest of you will become servants of my lord. Refusal is not an option.” His eyes lit up, literally, emitting a flash of bright silvery light, and his voice became deeper and resonated with an oddly metallic echo. “Jaffa, kree!”

From the depths of the cave two tall warriors emerged. One carried two jar-like containers suspended below a metal rod. The other held a zat and pointed it at Kelleth.

“Throw down your weapons, humans,” Luaire boomed, still in his altered voice, “and submit to your fate.”

“I think we’ve learned about as much as he’s going to tell us,” Chantry said. “Let’s kill him now, okay?”

“Wait,” said Kelleth. “You mentioned your lord. Who is that?”

“On this world he has taken the name Zehir,” Luaire replied. “You will serve him, as he rises to supreme power, and your pathetic so-called gods fall before him. Throw down your primitive weapons and remove your armor. This is your last chance before I punish you with unbearable pain. Obey me now!”

“Fuck you,” Chantry retorted.

“Kill him,” Kelleth ordered, and he loosed an arrow from his new bow. Aysgarth sent a Melf’s Acid Arrow streaking through the air, Umoja called upon the lightning, and Chantry sent the ghoul forward while boosting herself up with Divine Power. Yushai and Silent Stalker sprang to the attack. Thorpe had been sidling off during the confrontation and now he disappeared from view entirely.

The warrior with the zat fired it and hit Silent Stalker. Nothing happened. The man had time only to open his mouth in astonishment before a hundred and sixty pounds of leaping leopard struck him squarely in the chest and knocked him from his feet. The other man’s first act was to set down his burden on the floor. He straightened up just in time to be seized by Yushai.

The magical attacks from Aysgarth and Umoja bounced harmlessly from some invisible shield protecting Luaire. Kelleth’s arrow halted in mid-air and fell to the ground.

“Fools!” Luaire boomed. “Resistance is futile.” He raised a hand, on which he wore a skeletal gauntlet of metal rings and struts, and from it a wave of energy radiated. It struck Umoja and hurled him back to smash into the rock wall of the cave. Chantry’s ghoul was brought up short, two paces before its claws would have made contact, and thrown back with such force that the collision with the rocks shattered its bones and destroyed the undead being utterly.

“Surrender now, pitiful fools,” Luaire went on. “I can call upon the magic of the host as well as the technology of the Goa’uld. You stand no chance against me.”

“Oh? Feel the power of my goddess, asshole.” Chantry chanted an invocation to Talona and fired a beam of Searing Light at Luaire; it, too, was defeated by his shield.

Luaire used his hand weapon to drive back Kelleth, who had drawn scimitars and charged, and then directed the force beam at Chantry. He achieved only limited success. Both of them wore strength belts, both were further enhanced by spells, and both were able to resist to some extent. Instead of being picked up and thrown through the air they were merely sent stumbling backward.

“I tire of this,” Luaire snarled. He used a conventional magic spell to summon up a group of giant spiders. The creatures scuttled to the attack. Aysgarth dropped an Ice Storm on Luaire and his summoned allies. Again Luaire’s shield protected him but the spiders were battered and wounded by the magical hailstones. Kelleth slashed a spider in half. Chantry called down Hammer of the Gods. The resultant radiance of divine energy finished off the remaining spiders.

And, for the first time, Luaire cried out in pain as the radiation penetrated his shield.

“Insolent bitch!” he snarled. “For that you will suffer!” He focused his force beam on Chantry, increasing the intensity, and managed to knock her from her feet. She slid across the cave floor and collided with the rock wall. Kelleth growled, charged again, and was halted in his tracks as Luaire redirected his weapon.

Suddenly Luaire screamed, a high-pitched yell of agony, and clutched at his groin. He straightened and spun around, lashing out a fist in a blow aimed at his unseen attacker, but missed completely. Thorpe didn’t even need to duck. He grinned and stabbed again.

Kelleth, no longer facing a beam of force, rushed forward and swung his scimitars. One drove deep into Luaire’s side; the other connected with his neck and sheared through flesh. It didn’t quite separate the head from the shoulders but it was close. Luaire, killed instantly, toppled to the ground.

“And the moral of this story,” Thorpe said, grinning, “is ‘never let a halfling get behind you with a sharp knife’. Or, in this case, a short-sword.”

Chantry picked herself up and went, immediately, to where Umoja lay motionless. Yushai, his muzzle red with blood almost to the level of his eyes, joined her and chirruped anxiously.

“His skull is fractured,” Chantry reported. Kelleth broke off from examining Luaire’s corpse and, concern evident on his face, came over at once.

“He would have been in real danger even a couple of days ago,” Chantry went on, “but luckily our recent actions seem to have pleased my goddess and I’ve been granted more powerful spells. Including,” she touched her fingers to Umoja’s head and her tone changed, “Heal!”

Immediately Umoja’s eyes opened and he sat up. “Thank you, Chantry,” he said. “I take it that Luaire is dead?”

“If not, he’s doing a very good impression,” Chantry said. “Kelleth pretty near cut his head off.”

“Don’t forget my little contribution,” Thorpe reminded her. “I don’t know if I actually castrated him, or if I just got his thigh, but I certainly made his eyes water.”

“He spoke most strangely,” Umoja said. “What manner of being was he?”

“We’ll find out when we examine the body,” Kelleth said, “or, at least, I think we will.”

The two bodyguards, as expected, had perished under the teeth and claws of the animal companions. “Tattooed foreheads again,” Chantry said. “Well, I’m not completely sure about this one, there isn’t much of his face left, but the other one definitely has that same symbol. I would have taken it to be the markings of a cult, probably snake worshippers or something of that ilk, but the link to Teal’c is puzzling.”

“The zat-thing confirms the link,” Aysgarth said. “And we now have proof in actual battle that Freedom of Movement does, indeed, neutralize the weapon’s effects. We must bear this in mind lest we have further confrontations with foes using zats.”

“I wonder what was in those jars?” Chantry said. One of them had been shattered during the fight, and whatever had been inside had been stamped flat by Yushai, but the other was still intact. Chantry opened the other, cautiously, while the others watched.

As soon as the lid was removed a creature reared up and tried to escape. Chantry seized it in her gauntleted hand, held it tight, and looked at it closely. “What the fuck is it?”

It resembled a snake, or perhaps an eel, but its mouth was strange; almost insectile, with four parts to the jaw. A small fin rose from the creature’s back and a pair of fins protruded, in the manner of arms or a fish’s pectoral fins, from the body just behind the head.

“I have seen nothing like it before,” Aysgarth said. “Have you, Umoja?”

“I have not,” Umoja replied. “I do not think it is native to the lands of Chult.”

“Putting the way they were carrying them together with the stuff Luaire was spouting,” Chantry said, “I would deduce that they’re parasites in the same way as Intellect Devourers. Luaire probably had one inside him. Controlling him. We were speaking to the parasite and not to the real Luaire.”

“I wonder how long it’s been there,” Kelleth said. “It might explain why he turned against Sa Sani after long and loyal service. He didn’t; the thing inside him did.”

“Something called a Goa’uld,” Aysgarth mused. “Servant to one named ‘Zehir’ who seeks, it would seem, to overthrow the very gods.”

“He mentioned something about them expanding their operations to the North,” Chantry said. “Does this mean Neverwinter is in danger? Sa’Sani does have a trading operation there.”

“I strongly suspect that Neverwinter is, indeed, in danger,” Kelleth said. “Perhaps all of Faerûn.”

“And at last I’m beginning to see why my goddess sent me here,” Chantry said. She looked at the creature squirming in her grasp. “I’m getting bored of holding this thing,” she said, “and the Divine Power has expired so I’m not strong enough to squash it to death. Would someone do me a favor and cut its head off?”

Thorpe obliged. The head fell away and Chantry dropped the body, still thrashing in its death throes, back into the jar. “I wonder how many more of them there are?” she said.

“A disturbing thought,” Kelleth said.

“I’ve had another disturbing thought,” Aysgarth said. “I wonder if Sa’Sani is, herself, a yuan-ti?”

Chantry shrugged. “She pays well and, unlike most of the people in this country, she’s always been pleasant and courteous,” she said. “It’s certainly possible that she might be a yuan-ti but, to be honest, I don’t give a damn.”

Continued in Chapter Six: The Long Way Home

Disclaimer: ‘Storm of Zehir’ is the property of Atari, Obsidian Entertainment, and Wizards of the Coast Inc. Song lyrics quoted are used without permission.

Tags: a plague of serpents, fic, tabula_avatar
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