A Plague of Serpents
Chapter Six: The Long Way Home
Underneath your own safe sky
You may never wonder why
Some will never make their peace
Some have never been released
Fires in the L.A. sky
The truth ran out and justice died
You better arm the National Guard
Cause final notice has been served
Searching for the long way home
Searching for the long way home
(Big Country, Long Way Home)
“Lady Sa Sani,” Kelleth said, “we need to speak to you in private.”
“Oh?” Sa’Sani arched an eyebrow. “Anything you have to say to me can be said in front of Nas’Sirin and Osi Tchaluka.”
“No,” said Chantry, “it really can’t.”
“Perhaps so,” Kelleth said, more diplomatically, “but not in the open courtyard. We should go inside.”
“Ideally to somewhere shielded against scrying,” Aysgarth added.
“Very well, then,” Sa’Sani agreed. “Come into my house.” She paused and looked at Chantry, who had set aside her hot and uncomfortable full-face helm in the safety of the plaza, and studied her expression for a moment. Sa’Sani pursed her lips. “No, Nas’Sirin, Osi, stay here,” she said to her two aides, who were moving to accompany her. “I shall grant them the audience in private that they request.”
“Of course, my Lady,” Osi Tchaluka said, and he returned to his seat.
“I protest!” Nas’Sirin exclaimed. “It is not appropriate for you to invite foreign mercenaries into your house. Bad enough that you have permitted Volothamp Geddarm to stay under your roof but at least he is a well-known literary figure. These,” he gestured at Kelleth’s group, “are merely hired killers. And to exclude me from the meeting – ridiculous!”
“Nevertheless,” Sa’Sirin replied, “it is my wish, and you will abide by it. Sit down, Nas’Sirin. Follow me, gentlemen, and lady.” She set off toward the house with the party, minus their animal companions, following in her wake.
Chantry delayed for a moment to speak to Nas’Sirin. “Yes, we’re hired killers,” she said. “Has it occurred to you that pissing us off maybe isn’t a great idea?” She gave him a brief smile and then followed the others.
It was cool and shady inside the building. Much more pleasant, to the Neverwinter natives, than the bright sunshine of the exterior plaza. Sa’Sirin led the way to an office in which were a desk of polished zalantar wood and several chairs.
“Now,” she said, settling herself behind the desk, “what is it that you wished to say that could not be said in front of my trusted associates?”
“We caught up with Luaire,” Kelleth said. “He’s dead.”
“That is good news,” Sa’Sani said. “Was your desire for privacy because you believe that the law would look harshly upon you for slaying a Samarach citizen? Have no fear. Luaire betrayed me, and caused the deaths of people in my employ, and I am perfectly within my rights in taking direct action against him. You were merely my instruments in that action and your deed cannot be held against you.”
“I’m afraid there’s more to it than that, milady,” Aysgarth said. “First, Luaire was a yuan-ti.”
“A yuan-ti? Are you sure?”
“We’re sure,” Kelleth confirmed. “We’d killed an associate of his earlier, a man named Hadric the Loremaster, and he was definitely a yuan-ti. We accused Luaire of being a yuan-ti too and he admitted it.”
“Gods and demons!” Sa’Sani exclaimed. “This is bad. You were indeed wise to reveal this in private. Luaire has been in my employ for years and the authorities would never believe that I was ignorant of his race. I could be subject to confiscation of my business, imprisonment, even execution.”
“That’s not all,” Kelleth said. “In fact you could almost say that was the good news.”
“There is worse?”
“He was… possessed,” Chantry said. “A creature called a Goa’uld, something like an Intellect Devourer, had taken him over. It claimed god-like powers. They didn’t extend to surviving the host getting his head chopped off, luckily, but it was certainly powerful.”
“It intended to have Kelleth and myself taken over by others of its species,” Aysgarth added. “Luaire told us that we would be ‘useful’ when they expanded their operations into the North. This leads us to believe that they, whatever they are, are a threat to Neverwinter.”
“That may well be the case,” Sa’Sani said. “There has as yet been no response to the message I sent to my representatives at Crossroads Keep. Of course there was a substantial delay, due to Luaire’s betrayal, but I will feel a lot easier in my mind when I receive a reply.” She rested her hands on the desktop and looked down at them. Her little finger twitched up and down, her lips were pursed, and her shoulders slumped.
“If you wish to return to Neverwinter,” Sa’Sani said after a moment, raising her head and looking Kelleth in the eye, “I will release you from my service and allow you to use the Lantanese portal. I would prefer you to stay, of course, but I will understand if you decide to depart.”
The party exchanged glances. “What do you think?” Kelleth asked the others.
“It’s all the same to me,” Thorpe said. “I’ll go along with whatever the rest of you decide.”
Umoja shrugged. “Neverwinter is not my homeland. I too shall abide by the majority decision.”
“I am in two minds,” said Aysgarth. “Will we learn more by staying here or by returning home? I would dearly like to consult with sages but, alas, there are none available in the parts of the cities to which we have access. The only one we found turned out to be one of the enemy.”
“I vote for staying,” Chantry declared. “There is yet more to learn here, I am sure, and my goddess must have sent me here for a reason. The clincher, as far as I am concerned, is that,” she looked into Sa’Sani’s eyes, “I respect our employer. I would not want to desert you in a time of need, Lady Sa’Sani.”
“Thank you, Chantry Linton, most sincerely,” Sa’Sani said. She smiled at Chantry, a broad and open smile, and her shoulders straightened.
“It would not sit well with me, either, to leave you in the lurch, milady,” Kelleth said. “We shall stay.”
“Thank you, Kelleth Gill,” Sa’Sani said. “You have lightened my heart when it was heavy indeed. Your loyalty means a lot to me.”
“That’s good to know,” said Kelleth. “We shall stick around and continue to wield our swords in your service.”
“The creature that was controlling Luaire mentioned that it served a god called Zehir,” Aysgarth said. “That name is unknown to me, to Umoja, and to Chantry. Do you know aught of this Zehir, milady?”
Sa’Sani’s brow furrowed. “The yuan-ti worship Sseth, although it is rumored that he slumbers and that prayers to him are answered by Set of the Mulhorandi gods, and the humans of Samarach mainly worship the same gods as do you of the North. I have never heard of a god named Zehir.”
“An interloper deity, I suspect,” said Chantry, “from another world.”
“That is my deduction also,” Aysgarth agreed. “One hostile to our existing gods.”
“The affairs of the gods are beyond me,” Sa’Sani said, “but I would like you to look into it. My prime concern is why my operations have been targeted, of course, but I give you a free hand to investigate as you see fit. No doubt answers to my questions will emerge as you learn more.”
She removed a slim gold chain from around her neck, revealing a small key that had been concealed under her clothing, and used the key to open a locked drawer in the desk. From the drawer she withdrew a leather pouch heavy enough that she needed to use both hands to hand it to Kelleth. “Take this as further payment, and to cover expenses,” she said. “Five thousand. I trust it is enough?”
“Indeed it is, milady, and more,” Kelleth answered. “We cover our expenses with what we take from the bodies of our fallen foes.”
“Ah, yes, an advantage adventurers possess over merchants,” Sa’Sani said. “When I take money from others I have to provide goods or services in return.”
“On the other hand,” Kelleth said, “when your suppliers charge you an arm and a leg, they only do it metaphorically.”
Sa’Sani laughed. “Indeed so. I have no desire to take up the adventuring life. I will leave that to you. Go, then, and carry out your investigation.”
“I thought Volo might know something of Zehir,” Kelleth told the others, over their evening meal, “but no. He’s never heard the name before. He did mention something that might have some relevance. He says he’s heard that Shar has acquired a lot of worshippers on other worlds recently, as many or more than follow her on Toril, and it’s possible she’s made an enemy of some alien god in the process.”
“And he’s come here to strike back at her on her own ground?” Chantry shook her head. “He must either be very powerful or very stupid. Probably both.”
“Indeed so,” Kelleth agreed. “What about you? Was Vadin Ya able to contribute anything?”
“Nothing,” Chantry admitted. “She knows nothing of Zehir. I tried the priest at the Temple of Waukeen but he is a mere novitiate, barely out of training, and doesn’t know anything either.”
“Aysgarth?” Kelleth turned to the wizard.
“I’ve been studying that device we took from Luaire’s hand,” Aysgarth said. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before and I can’t work out how to operate it. There are buttons on the part that goes around the wrist, obviously controls, but nothing happens when I press them. It doesn’t work through Arcane magic but it isn’t Divine either. I thought perhaps it might draw upon the Shadow Weave, but no, that is not the case. Its power, according to a Legend Lore spell, comes from faerzress.”
Kelleth’s brow furrowed. “Faer what?”
“The mystical energy that permeates parts of the Underdark,” Aysgarth explained. “The Drow use it for some of their magic. Darkness, Levitation, and the like.”
“You think, then, that those Intellect Devourer things come from the Underdark?” Kelleth asked.
“Possibly,” Aysgarth said, “but I doubt it. Remember the words on the map? ‘Landing Site’. That would make no sense if they come from below. No, they are from another world and, presumably, have traveled here by magical skyship. A world, I would guess, where the substance that produces faerzress is more common than it is here.”
“There was a drow at the black market,” Chantry said. “Perhaps she could tell us more about the device.”
“I think bringing it to the attention of an unknown drow, in the vicinity of untrustworthy beings who can read minds, would be an extremely bad idea,” Aysgarth said.
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Chantry decided. “Forget I mentioned it.”
“I’m afraid I spent so long on the device that I didn’t do anything about placing additional charms on our weapons,” Aysgarth told Kelleth. “I’ll have to do that tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Kelleth replied. “We…” He broke off as he saw a squad of Samarachan guards entering the inn. “They don’t usually come in here,” he commented. The female officer they knew only as Elite Leader led the squad; she headed for the bar but, before she reached it, she spotted Kelleth’s party.
“Uh-oh,” Chantry said, as Elite Leader and her men headed directly toward them across the dining area. “I don’t think she’s here to take up my offer of a drink. Trouble.”
“Don’t start a fight unless it’s unavoidable,” Kelleth cautioned. There was no time to say anything else before the guards arrived.
“Foreigners,” Elite Leader addressed Kelleth’s group, “you are required immediately to go to the courtyard of Sa’Sani’s Mercantile House.”
Kelleth pushed back his chair and stood up. “Then we shall do so,” he said. Chantry pouted, but made no objection, and Kelleth led them out of the inn behind the guards.
When they arrived at Sa’Sani’s courtyard they found a confrontation in progress. Sa’Sani, clad in looser and more informal robes than the ones she wore during business hours, faced Captain Dajos. Her subordinates Nas’Sirin and Osi Tchaluka, together with Volo, stood at her side. Captain Dajos, resplendent in his gilded armor, had several armed guards at his back.
“This is ridiculous!” Sa’Sani protested. “Luaire betrayed me and sabotaged my operations. As soon as I found out I took action.”
“You had him killed, you mean,” Dajos said.
Sa’Sani folded her arms and glared at him. “As was my right in the circumstances.”
“True,” Dajos conceded, “but the fact remains that he was a yuan-ti and was in your employ for some years. You are suspected of involvement in conspiracy with the snake folk.”
“Any such conspiracy was directed against me,” Sa’Sani pointed out. “I am the victim here.”
“Your objections are futile,” Dajos replied. “The decision has already been made. By order of the Council you are banished from Samargol while this matter is investigated. Care of the mercantile company, in your absence, is to be turned over to your chief accountant Osi Tchaluka.”
“Me? But I am a mere bookkeeper,” Osi protested. “I am not qualified for such a task.”
“Be at ease, Osi,” Sa’Sani addressed him. “I am perfectly content for you to run the company in my – temporary – absence.”
“Surely, if anyone should be appointed to a caretaker management position, it should be me,” said Nas’Sirin.
Captain Dajos turned a cold glare on him. “Your association with Sa’Sani tars you equally with suspicion,” he said. “You are also banished. If you have not departed from the city by sunset tomorrow, at the latest, both of you will be considered guilty and be put to the sword on the spot.”
He ignored further protestations from both Sa’Sani and Nas’Sirin and turned to Kelleth. “I take it you heard the sentence.”
“I did,” Kelleth said.
“Nice simple legal system you have here,” Chantry commented, “uncluttered by considerations such as fair trials and the accused getting a defense.”
“That is true, foreign priestess, and you would be wise not to forget it,” Dajos said. He directed his gaze at Kelleth. “You are not necessarily subject to the banishment order. Killing yuan-ti is no crime, after all, and the infiltrator in Nimbre would have gone undetected if not for you. If you can find another sponsor, within the next ten-day, your party may stay in Samargol.”
“I will sponsor them,” a female voice called out from just outside the courtyard.
Chantry recognized the speaker immediately. Vadin’ya.
Captain Dajos turned, saw Vadin’ya and her ever-present bodyguard, and raised his eyebrows. “You? But you are also a foreigner.”
“I have a residency permit, my little golden-breasted starling,” Vadin’ya said, “and I pay dues to the Mercantile Association. I should get something back in return for those dues, should I not?”
“Hmm.” Dajos raised a hand and stroked his chin. “I suppose I have no objections in principle. If the Mercantile Association approves then, yes, you may act as their sponsor.”
Vadin’ya smiled at Chantry. “So, my friends, problem solved, no?”
Chantry smiled back. “Indeed so. Thank you, Vadin’ya, you are a true friend.”
“Ta, you’re a pal,” Thorpe chimed in.
Aysgarth’s brow furrowed and he raised a hand to stroke his beard. He restricted himself to a simple, although obviously sincere, “Thank you.”
Kelleth nodded to Vadin’ya and said, almost curtly, “Thanks.” He then bit his lip briefly, smiled, and added, “Sorry. That sounded impolite. I am truly grateful, Vadin Ya, but in fact it does not solve all our problems. It is a help, certainly, but not a complete solution.”
Vadin’ya shrugged. “Even the gods cannot solve all problems. I have done what I can, my eagle of the North, and now I must return to my interrupted meal.”
Captain Dajos watched the tiefling merchant walk away and then turned back to Sa’Sani. “Very well. Your foreign hirelings can stay in Samargol under the auspices of Madame Vadin’ya. You, however, must be gone before sunset tomorrow, as I said, or face execution. Volothamp Geddarm, as your guest rather than an employee, must leave also. You may not return to the city until the Council gives permission.” His lips formed into the shape of a smile but his eyes remained cold. “I do not expect that they will give such permission any time in the foreseeable future. That is all.”
“I shall protest at the highest level,” Sa’Sani said.
“Do so if you wish,” Dajos replied, “but you will only be wasting your time. Farewell.” He led his squad of guards, and the second squad commanded by Elite Leader, out of the courtyard and away toward the gates of the plaza.
“Bastard,” Sa’Sani spat out, and then turned to Kelleth. “This accusation is farcical. My rivals sought an excuse to squeeze me out and the discovery of Luaire’s race gave them a pretext.”
Kelleth nodded. “Undoubtedly. They must have followed us, retrieved his corpse, and examined it. I thought that leaving it, decapitated, in a cave filled with poisonous fungus spores was sufficient. Obviously I was wrong. We should have burned it.”
“Did you notice that a couple of the soldiers he had with him at the village of Nimbre weren’t with him now?” Chantry asked. “I suspect they were the ones who were sent in to fetch the body.” A smirk appeared on her face. “They’re probably dead of Chokemist poisoning.”
“Wouldn’t bet against it,” said Thorpe. “Poor dumb bastards.”
Sa’Sani showed no interest in Chantry’s deduction. “I shall leave first thing in the morning,” she said. “There is no point in hanging on until the last possible minute and then having to travel through the jungle by night.”
“Where to?” Nas’Sirin asked. “Rassatan or Taruin?”
“Neither,” Sa’Sani answered. “I think that it is time for me to take personal control of our operations in the Sword Coast. We shall use the portal of the gnomes and travel to Crossroad Keep.”
Nas’Sirin’s eyes widened. “No, Sa’Sani, you must reconsider! Surely it would be far better to relocate to Rassatan for the time being instead. If we leave the country the Council could interpret it as an admission of guilt and we would be as good as dead.”
“Neither the Council nor the High Phantasmage have any jurisdiction in Neverwinter,” Sa’Sani pointed out. “We could be exiled, yes; executed, no.”
“But…” Nas’Sirin began.
Sa’Sani cut him off short. “Do you really think we would be safe in Rassatan? We have been too successful and made too many enemies who are jealous of our success. Now that this accusation has been made they have a lever they can use against us at any time. There is no safety anywhere within the reach of the Council. No, we must leave Samarach altogether.”
“I suppose so,” Nas’Sirin conceded.
“We have already laid the foundations of a new business empire in Neverwinter,” Sa’Sani went on, “and so that is where we shall go.” She turned to Kelleth. “And now I have loyal and highly competent Neverwinter natives in my service.”
“We would be delighted to accompany you to Neverwinter and continue to work for you there,” Kelleth said. He smiled. “That removes the question of possibly divided loyalties that worried me when Vadin Ya stepped in with her offer.”
“Oh, that was why you weren’t all that enthusiastic about it,” Chantry said. “Right. I get it now.”
“The only down side,” Kelleth went on, “is that it will mean saying goodbye to Umoja, who has been a staunch colleague and a true friend.”
“Not so, friend Kelleth,” Umoja said. “My mission is the same as Chantry’s and I sense that it is the will of great Ubtao that I stay with your party. I shall travel to Neverwinter with you.” He gave a wry smile. “I have never seen snow. It could be interesting.”
“You won’t see snow,” Kelleth told him. “Winter was coming to an end when we set off on the ship. It’ll be spring there now. It won’t be as hot as it is here, of course, but it won’t be cold.”
“So, back to Neverwinter by portal,” Chantry said. “Of course, if we’d known about it before, we could have skipped the whole sea voyage.” She directed her gaze at Sa’Sani. “I take it you didn’t trust Volo not to write about it and give away the secret?”
Sa’Sani shook her head. “I would have authorized Il’foss and Kizu to send Volo here by portal had that been feasible,” she said, “but the portal at Crossroad Keep is not fully functional. I gather it was damaged during the Shadow War. It will receive but not transmit. Anything to be sent here must be carried first to Neverwinter and the merchant cartels who control the portal there charge large sums for its use. Two thousand gold nobles per person, for passenger transport, is the figure I was quoted. I am not willing to pay such fees, except in emergencies, and therefore I told Luaire to bring Volo, and his entourage, by ship.”
“It’s probably an interface problem,” Aysgarth mused, stroking his beard between finger and thumb as he spoke. “I might be able to fix the portal. I’m surprised Aldanon the Sage or Sand haven’t fixed it already.”
“I heard Sand left Neverwinter,” Chantry said.
“Oh?” Aysgarth raised his eyebrows. “I hadn’t heard that. What happened?”
“Well, Sumia told me…” Chantry began.
Kelleth cut her off short. “Later, Chantry,” he said. “Lady Sa Sani, we had better return to the inn. We shall be ready to escort you to the portal in the morning.”
“I thank you, Kelleth, but I have a different task for you,” Sa’Sani replied. “I shall make my own way to the gnomes’ camp.”
“The jungle trail can be dangerous,” Kelleth warned.
“Fear not, ranger,” Sa’Sani replied. “I am by no means defenseless. With Nas’Sirin and Volo at my side I do not anticipate any difficulty in reaching my destination. It would be useful, however, if you could give me some means of identifying myself as your employer. If we encounter the Batiri tribe you befriended – the Shattered Spear tribe, was it not? – we would be able to avoid unnecessary conflict.”
“Of course,” Kelleth said. “I’ve already arranged an identification signal for the gnomes to use so it won’t be a problem. What is the task you want us to do?”
“Go to Rassatan,” Sa’Sani told him, “enter the Temple of Waukeen, and give this note to the resident priest. He will give you a package in return. My emergency reserve, golden pearls to the value of fifty thousand lions, and you are to bring it to me at Crossroad Keep. I shall instruct the gnomes to be ready to transport you as soon as you reach their camp.”
“Certainly, Lady Sa Sani,” Kelleth said.
“You would entrust those… foreigners with your valuables?” Nas’Sirin’s lip curled. “You are being foolish. Better that we should divert to Rassatan to collect them for ourselves.”
“The sooner we are out of the Council’s jurisdiction the safer I will feel,” Sa’Sani stated. “I trust Kelleth and his companions absolutely. They have proven themselves beyond doubt and my mind is made up. Question my decisions no more.”
Nas’Sirin obeyed. He stepped back and folded his arms. He merely observed in silence as Sa’Sani gave Kelleth a few final instructions and was given, in return, the identification signal that would allow her safe passage through the lands of the Shattered Spear Batiri.
With those arrangements made Kelleth and his party left Sa’Sani’s courtyard, crossed the plaza, and returned to the inn and to the cold remnants of their evening meal.
“You know,” Chantry remarked, as they sipped at the fine coffee which was, in her opinion, one of the few plus points of Samarach, “I really, really, don’t like that Nas’Sirin.”
“Me neither,” Thorpe agreed. “Hope a dinosaur eats him on the trip through the jungle.”
“It probably wouldn’t be able to digest him,” Chantry said. She drained her coffee cup and stood up. “I’m going to go say goodbye to Vadin’ya, Kelleth, okay?”
“Of course,” Kelleth said. “Say farewell for me, too, and give her my thanks for her intercession.”
“And mine,” said Aysgarth.
“I will,” Chantry said. “She’ll be about the only person in this country I’ll miss. I hate to leave her but, on the other hand, we’re going back to Neverwinter. That’s ample cause for celebration.”
“You’re going back to Neverwinter?” Captain Lastri, the halfling who had commanded the ill-fated ship on which they had voyaged to Samarach, rose from her nearby seat and rushed over. “Can I come with you, shipmates?”
“We’re not sailing,” Kelleth warned her, and then added, “Well, not directly. It’ll mean a trek through the jungle first.”
“I don’t care,” Lastri said. “Even if you’re walking all the way to Halruaa, and getting a skyship from there, I want to come with you. I can’t take staying in this bloody place any longer. I can’t get a Master’s berth on any ship out of here, I let Nestrul take the only slot for a Mate that came up, and if I sign on as a common seaman, after my last command ended in a shipwreck, I’m finished as a captain. I probably am anyway unless I can prove the Vigilant was sabotaged.”
“And we did the investigation of the wreck,” Kelleth said. “You need our testimony.”
“That’s right,” Lastri said. “Be a damn sight easier to keep in touch if I travel with you.”
Kelleth glanced at Thorpe. The halfling thief was nodding and smiling; not surprisingly, as he had a relationship going with Lastri. Or rather he was shagging Lastri every time she was drunk enough to be in the mood, but not so drunk as to collapse into insensibility, anyway. That probably counted as a relationship as far as the halfling rogue was concerned.
“Very well,” Kelleth said, “you can come. Be warned, though, the path through the jungle might be perilous.”
“I can handle a cutlass better than most,” Lastri assured him. “Just make sure your big pussycat, and that bloody feathered lizard, know that I’m not on the menu, okay?”
“Thanks again for fixing the Interface Widget,” the gnome Dall Nickelplate said to Aysgarth. “We sent to Lantan for a new part, got it installed, and everything’s running smoothly. We’ll have you at Crossroad Keep in a jiffy. As long as the connection at that end is working, that is. We had to dial up three times, with Sa’Sani and her henchman huffing and glaring, before the link was established and she could go through.”
“You’d better get started, then,” Aysgarth said.
Dall took out a scroll with the co-ordinates, peered at it, and pressed the indicated buttons on the control device. The ring around the portal rotated but nothing else happened. “Oh dear,” the gnome said. “I’ll try again.”
This time the ring locked and the portal shimmered into life. “There you are,” Dall said, “we’re in business. You’d better go through straight away.”
“Are you sure this thing’s safe?” Lastri asked.
“Oh, yes, definitely,” Dall answered. “Uh, as long as you don’t have any metal with you, that is.”
“No metal? I have my sword, my money, my buckles…” Lastri began.
“He’s having you on,” Thorpe said. “They brought all those saws and great big iron golems here through it, didn’t they? Bloody gnomes and their so-called sense of humor.”
“Portals have been in use for thousands of years,” Aysgarth said. “Of course it’s safe.”
“Definitely a damn sight safer than walking back to Samargol on your own, anyway,” said Chantry. “Come on, let’s not hang around any longer.”
“Right,” said Kelleth. He took hold of Silent Stalker by the scruff of the neck and led the leopard toward the shimmering blue disc. Umoja guided Yushai after him and the rest followed. A few seconds later all had passed through. The portal wavered, blinked, and shut down.
For a second Chantry felt as if she was being simultaneously stretched out and hurled through space. Streaks of light shot past her and she heard a ringing in her ears. Then she was standing on solid ground once more, feeling a mild wave of nausea and dizziness, but it quickly passed. She looked around, surprised to find that they were in the dark, and could barely make out the shapes of her companions. She cast a Light spell to illuminate her surroundings just as Aysgarth did the same thing.
“If this is Crossroad Keep,” Chantry said, “I don’t think much of the décor.” They were in a dank stone-floored chamber, with sarcophagi visible to the sides, and rusted metal gratings over openings in the walls that let in no light whatsoever. Iron railings, visibly corroded, bordered semicircular pools of stagnant water that might, long ago, have been decorative features or even fountains. The ring of magical metal, normally an essential part of any fixed portal, was nowhere to be seen.
“I know the portal was in the basement originally,” Aysgarth said, “but I’m sure I heard they’d moved it out of the keep into one of the other buildings. This, though, seems to be a crypt.”
“What is this? Who are you?” a male voice asked. “You’re not what I summoned. In fact, come to think of it, I hadn’t even finished the invocation.”
The speaker was outside the chamber, beyond a wrought-iron gate, in an equally dimly-lit room. Chantry couldn’t make out much except a vague impression of a short figure in robes with something else, probably several somethings, moving in its vicinity.
“Some sort of dwarf wizard-type,” Thorpe reported, keeping his voice low. “Whatever’s with him doesn’t have any body heat. Probably Undead.”
“And this is not where we expected to arrive,” Kelleth said. “Where are we, and who are you?”
“I asked first,” the dwarf said. “Who are you?”
“Kelleth Gill, ranger of Neverwinter, and party,” Kelleth replied. “Adventurers on the way to Crossroad Keep. Now it is your turn. Answer my questions, if you please.”
“Hah! Fool, now that you have given me your name, you are as much in my power as the demon I intended to summon would have been,” the dwarf gloated. “I shall send you in its stead to destroy my enemy.”
“Oh? And who is your enemy?” Kelleth asked.
“Khulmar, of Clan Ironfist, a miserable Shield Dwarf,” the dwarf wizard replied.
“Isn’t he Khelgar’s cousin or something?” Chantry asked. “Fuck that.”
“You know,” Kelleth told the dwarf, “I don’t feel any impulse at all to obey your orders. Your plan seems to have gone badly wrong.”
“Nevertheless,” said the wizard, “you cannot leave the summoning circle. Unless you consent to a Geas I shall leave you there to starve to death.”
“Summoning circle?” Chantry looked down and saw a trail of powdered metal forming a ring on the flagstones of the floor. She was already outside the circle and she hadn’t even noticed. “Oh. I wonder if there’s some sort of prize for the world’s most incompetent demon summoner. You’re definitely in with a good chance. And I take it you’re standing behind that cold iron gate as a back-up in case there was a fault with the wards on the circle? I’m afraid it does fuck all to hold back humans. You’re in a lot of trouble.”
Thorpe threw something past the bars of the gate. A coin, enchanted with a Continual Light spell, to light up the area. It revealed a bald-headed gray dwarf, clad in robes embroidered with necromancer’s sigils, with a retinue of animated skeletons flanking him on both sides.
Kelleth drew back his bowstring and took aim. “Open the gate, make your skeletons back away, and make no sudden moves.”
“No! I command you! Obey me!” the necromancer yelled, and then he leapt hastily aside as Kelleth loosed his arrow. “You shall suffer for that, adventurers.”
“That lubber’s got a right inflated opinion of himself, ain’t he?” Lastri remarked. She drew her sword.
“That’s just what I was going to say,” Thorpe said, “only I wouldn’t have said ‘lubber’.”
“I don’t want a lubber,” Chantry sang, “but I need a friend.” She saw a ring of uncomprehending stares aimed at her and chopped herself off short. “Okay, okay,” she said. “We’ll just kill him, then.” She cast Bull’s Strength on Kelleth. “You should be able to just rip that gate off its hinges now.”
Kelleth put away his bow, relatively ineffective against skeletons, and advanced to the gate. “Let’s see,” he said, seized the bars, and heaved. Metal groaned and deformed.
The skeletons clustered on the other side of the gate, slashing and jabbing at Kelleth with swords and spears, but they lacked the intelligence to allow for the iron bars of the gate. Most of the blows failed to get through. A few, though, struck Kelleth. His leather armor turned some aside harmlessly but a sword sliced bone-deep into his arm and a spear pierced through the leather and the point drove deep into his belly.
Chantry tried to drive back the skeletons but failed. Undead were outside her specialist areas of expertise and she couldn’t override the necromancer’s control over the animated bones. She gave up, rushed to Kelleth, and hurriedly cast a Heal spell.
Kelleth, his wounds healed, completed his demolition of the gate. He drove forward, smashing the iron frame into the skeletons and felling them, then tossed it aside and drew his scimitars. The others followed behind him as he charged.
The dwarf necromancer cast a Cause Fear spell. It sent Thorpe, Yushai, and Silent Stalker fleeing headlong back into the deeper crypt. The others were unaffected. Kelleth hurled himself at the dwarf, striking a series of blows with his scimitars that stripped away the necromancer’s defensive Stoneskin, and Aysgarth launched a well-timed Magic Missile that disrupted the next spell the dwarf tried to cast. Chantry pulverized the remaining skeletons with her mace. The last layer of the Stoneskin failed and the necromancer fell to simultaneous blows from Umoja’s spear and Lastri’s short-sword.
Chantry and Umoja dispelled the magical fear and the animal companions returned to their masters. Thorpe searched the floor for the sword he had dropped in his panic, sheathed it, and ran his fingers through his hair. “I hate it when that happens,” he said.
“It was not your fault, friend Thorpe,” Umoja said. “No man is braver than Yushai and yet he, too, fled when smitten by the magic.”
“Thanks,” Thorpe said. He scanned his surroundings. “I don’t think this crypt is under Crossroad Keep at all,” he said. “It would be a bloody stupid place to summon a demon to go after Khelgar’s cousin.”
“Our journey has, indeed, gone astray,” Aysgarth said. “I believe we are probably on a direct line between Samarach and the Keep. The portal there failed to respond to that of the gnomes, again, and then this dwarf opened a summoning circle just as Dall was dialing. It picked up the signal and acted as the destination portal for our journey.”
“If we’re not at Crossroad Keep,” Chantry said, “there’s no reason for us not to loot these tombs.”
“What about respect for the dead?” Kelleth asked.
“Your left-hand scimitar came from a crypt we looted near Taruin,” Chantry reminded him, a touch of acid creeping into her tone. “Aren’t you being a little hypocritical?”
“Oh.” Kelleth looked at his scimitars, frowned, and sheathed them. “I suppose I am.”
“Anyway,” Chantry went on, “where do you think that dwarf got those skeletons? The dead here have already been defiled.”
“Very well, then, you might as well go ahead,” Kelleth said.
“Already started,” Thorpe said. “The dwarf’s got bugger all of value on him.”
“He’s still grey even without the Stoneskin,” Aysgarth observed. “A duergar, it would seem.”
“A dead one now,” Thorpe said. “Whatever his story was it’s over and, frankly, I’m not that interested. That crypt over there doesn’t look to have been disturbed. Aha. It’s trapped. Could be some good stuff inside.”
Five minutes later Thorpe had disabled all traps and recovered a good haul from the crypts.
“Nice armor,” Chantry commented, looking at a set of mail-and-plates that had adorned a corpse in one of the sarcophagi. The shape of the breastplate revealed that it had been made for a woman and the steel gleamed with a blue sheen. “Still in pristine condition after who knows how long in the grave. It has to be magical. Aysgarth, would you Identify it for me?”
“Certainly,” Aysgarth said, and cast the spell. “Armor of Comfort,” he announced. “Self-cleaning, deodorizing, lightweight, and with two levels of protective enchantment. It would be as effective against blows as your existing full plate and yet it’s twenty pounds lighter and much less restrictive.” He stroked his beard. “And very pretty. I wonder if it was made for a priestess of Sune?”
Chantry grimaced, unseen behind her helm, and bent down to examine the armor more closely. “I hope not. I wouldn’t want to wear something that had belonged to a follower of the vile, loathsome, treacherous, cowardly, Slut Goddess.”
“I take it you’re not keen on Sune,” Aysgarth remarked.
“You could say that,” Chantry said. “Ah. I don’t need to worry. I see the maker’s mark. Marrok of Shining Knight Arms and Armor. The Sunites never bought from him.”
“I hadn’t finished recounting what I learned,” Aysgarth went on. “There’s a charm cast upon it to increase the healing skills of whoever wears it.”
“Nice,” Chantry said. “I claim it as my share of the loot.”
“Hardly needed, in your case,” Kelleth commented. “You’re already the finest healer I’ve ever met.”
“True,” said Umoja. “A Cure Light Wounds from Chantry is as effective as a Cure Moderate Wounds spell from me.”
“It’s my specialty,” Chantry said. “Actually Sumia makes me look like an amateur but, well, thanks.”
“I could do with some better armor myself,” Kelleth remarked. “These leathers aren’t quite up to the standard of the set I lost in the shipwreck.”
“I’m sure we’ll be able to purchase a good set at Crossroad Keep,” Aysgarth said, “or, at worst, I could improve the existing enchantment somewhat. Once those holes are patched, that is, of course.”
“Assuming we are within reach of Crossroad Keep,” said Kelleth, “although the fact that this duergar was an enemy of Khelgar’s relative does indicate that we’re somewhere within the realm of Neverwinter, or close by. What else did you find, Thorpe?”
“A light shield which seems to be enchanted, a few potions, and an emerald,” the halfling reported. “The rest is junk. Corroded armor and rusted swords.”
“Well, this diversion has turned a profit for us, it would seem,” Kelleth said, his earlier qualms about grave-robbing seemingly forgotten. “Once Chantry has changed her armor we can leave this crypt and find out where we are.”
“We’re on the southern fringe of the Sword Mountains,” Kelleth announced. “The Mere of Dead Men is over that way,” he said, pointing, “and the mining town of Leilon is to the north-east of where we stand, not more than an hour or two’s walk. I know this area well. I hail from Phandalin, at the northern end of the mountains, but I have visited Leilon often in the past. ”
“Quite a way from Neverwinter City, then,” said Chantry. “I’ve never been in this area before. We must be nearly at the southern border.”
“We are indeed,” Kelleth confirmed. “Neverwinter itself lies a hundred and twenty miles, or thereabouts, to the north. Crossroad Keep would be, oh, seventy, seventy-five miles from here. Luckily the roads are fairly straight.”
Chantry groaned. “Two days hard march at the least,” she said, “assuming we encounter no troubles on the road. We need horses.”
“We can get them at Leilon,” Kelleth said. “I suggest we stay the night there and set off early in the morning.”
Their exit from the stables was hasty enough almost to be called full flight. “Sorry,” Kelleth called to the stableman. “It didn’t occur to us that there’d be a problem. Sorry!”
“Bloody fools,” the stableman shouted back. “You come in here with a bleedin’ leopard and a weird sort of dragon-y thing and you don’t realize you’ll frighten the horses? Call yourself a ranger? You’re an idiot.”
“Sorry,” Kelleth called again, and they beat a retreat along the street. Silent Stalker kept looking over his shoulder, and licking his lips, but he obeyed his master and padded along at Kelleth’s heels.
“So, no horses,” Chantry moaned. “It’s going to be a long hard slog on foot.”
“No further than we often trekked in Samarach,” Kelleth said. “You made no complaint then. It is cooler here, and the roads are better, and surely the trip will be more pleasant.”
“Oh, fuck off,” Chantry said, unable to think of a witty retort.
“I must confess I am not altogether displeased,” Umoja said. “I have never ridden a horse and it did not occur to me that they were so… energetic.”
“They’re not, usually,” Kelleth said. “I’m sure we could have found you a nice, placid, beast that you could have just sat on while we led it along. Unfortunately our animals rather spoiled that plan.” He pointed along a side street. “The inn is just down there. I hope they don’t have a rule against pets…”
“The roads ain’t safe,” the innkeeper told the group, as he dished out their food. “Bandits, bands of orcs, ogres, even packs of huge wolves. Nobody dares to travel except in a large party these days.”
“I know things were bad immediately after the war,” Kelleth said, “but we’ve been away three months. I would have thought things would have settled down by now.”
“Aye, you’d’ve thought so,” the innkeeper said, “but it ain’t happened. The Greycloaks do their best, I reckon, but there ain’t as many of them as there used to be. Reckon too many of them got killed in the war. I hear the bandits will lay for them, on purpose like, instead of running away like they used to. Things are bad in these parts and no mistake.” He moved on to answer the call of another patron and left the party to their meal.
“It looks as if our journey to Crossroad Keep might not be as straightforward as we had hoped,” Kelleth remarked.
“Nothing is ever straightforward,” Chantry said. “We should be used to it by now.” She glanced across to the end of the room furthest from the fire, where a pair of bards were performing, and grimaced. They were, at best, mediocre. Old-fashioned balladry with lute accompaniment. Not what she called rock and roll.
A stranger approached their table. A man clad in a tunic of red and gold, with a broad-brimmed hat perched on his head despite it being indoors, whose sharp features and pointed ears indicated that he had elven blood. A lute was slung over his back. He held a brimming goblet of ale in one hand.
“Excuse me,” said the half-elf, “did I hear you say you were traveling to Crossroad Keep?”
“You did,” Kelleth replied.
“What’s it to you?” Thorpe asked bluntly.
“I too am heading north,” said the half-elf, “but the roads are overly perilous for a lone traveler these days. I wonder, might I travel in company with your party?”
Kelleth looked him up and down. “Perhaps,” he said, “but first we must know more of you. And I must point out that we will be walking. Horses do not, it seems, tolerate the company of our animal companions.”
“I have traveled the Realms on foot for many years,” the half-elf said, “and I have no objection to walking some more. I am Finch, a bard by trade, and I am bound for Neverwinter.”
Chantry pricked up her ears. She recognized that name. She slipped her fingers into her pouch and, moving slowly so as not to attract attention, extracted the vial of Chokemist poison. She’d hung onto it, after using it to develop an immunizing agent, and Kelleth had forgotten to renew his request for her to destroy it. By now its potency would have diminished, as the deadly substance degraded, but there should still be more than enough left to kill one man…
“Join us,” Kelleth invited, “and tell us more. Are you traveling to Neverwinter for a particular purpose?”
“I am,” said the bard. “I am to play a concert there, at the end of the month, at the Theater on the Lake, but there are… complications.” He set his drink down on the table, adjusted the position of his lute so that it wouldn’t strike the back of the chair, and sat down. More or less opposite Chantry.
“Complications?” Kelleth probed.
“I was doing a residency stint at the Wailing Wench, making drinking money and building up interest for the concert,” Finch related, “and then a woman happened. A beauty came to see me after a performance and asked for a somewhat… personal encore. Had I known she was married…” He gave a roguish smile. “I did not, however, and things became, shall we say, interesting. And then her husband found out.”
“Ah,” said Kelleth, “the complications.”
“Indeed so,” Finch said. “He is a noble of some influence. I had a similar unfortunate experience in Cormyr, where the husband set bounty hunters after me, and I had to flee for my life. I expected something along the same lines this time and I vacated the city with all speed.”
“Which is why you’re at the far end of the country,” Kelleth said. “I take it, as you’re going back, there isn’t really a bounty on your head this time?”
“No, the husband found a different way of striking at me,” Finch said. “He has accused me of stealing an Earth-made timepiece from him. Ridiculous. I steal hearts, not clockwork. I am confident that, if I am given a chance to speak in my defense, I can clear my name.”
“Oh?” Thorpe raised his eyebrows. “Out of professional interest – how? Hard to prove you didn’t take something, especially now you’ve been way out of the city and had plenty of chances to fence it.”
“He will not have disposed of it, I’m certain,” Finch said. He paused to swig at his beer. “I have a spell that can locate it,” he went on. “If it is still in his house, and I’m sure it will be, then I cannot have stolen it, can I?”
“Unless you’d broken back in to plant it,” Thorpe said, “but, yeah, that would probably get you off the hook.”
“Exactly,” said Finch. He wiped froth away from his upper lip. “There is a snag, of course. My permit to enter Neverwinter has been revoked.”
“Permit? To enter Neverwinter?” Aysgarth’s fingers went to his beard. “What do you mean?”
“You don’t know? Lord Nasher declared martial law a couple of months back. Entry into the city is restricted. Only Neverwinter natives can enter freely. Everyone else, which unfortunately includes me, must apply for an entry pass. As mine has been revoked I won’t even be able to go into the city to plead my case – and I won’t be able to meet my commitment to play at the concert, which will damage my reputation. Unless,” he looked at Kelleth and smiled, “some reputable citizen was to talk Sir Nevalle into reissuing my pass at least temporarily.”
“We’ll see,” Kelleth said. “We’ll certainly be visiting the city eventually. I’ll decide what I do about your pass once I get to know you better.”
“I assure you, once you’ve heard me play you’ll see how important my concert is,” Finch said.
“Oh?” Kelleth gestured toward the other side of the room. “How do you compare with the entertainers at this inn?”
Finch turned in his chair, looked at the singing duo, and laughed.
Chantry put her hand to her mouth and sucked in the contents of the poison phial. She reached across the table, picked up Finch’s beer goblet, and sipped at the drink.
“Those two?” Finch said. “They do their best, I suppose, and they’re able to hold a tune passably, but to compare them to me is like… comparing a first-year Academy student to Khelben Blackstaff.”
Chantry swirled the beer around her mouth and, instead of swallowing, spat it – and the mouthful of poison – back into the goblet. Swiftly she returned the drink to its original position. She didn’t look around to see if anyone had noticed anything; that would be a give-away in itself. Instead she picked up her own beer and took a hearty drink. If someone, probably Thorpe with his sharp thief-trained eyes, had seen her drinking from Finch’s goblet they’d think she’d simply made a mistake and corrected herself immediately. At least she hoped they’d think that.
Finch turned back to the table, too late to see Chantry’s actions, and resumed his conversation with the others. His gaze never rested on Chantry’s face for more than a fraction of a second. Hardly surprising, really, considering his religion…
That suited her just fine. She tucked into her meal, staying out of the conversation, and made no objection when Kelleth agreed that Finch could travel with them as far as Crossroad Keep.
After all, it wasn’t going to happen.
They were much later setting off than they had planned. The turmoil in the inn, when Finch was found dead in his bed, had delayed them.
Chantry moaned and complained, of course, but inside she was both delighted and relieved. In the cold light of day she recognized that her impulsive action had been far too risky. She should never have done it, not when there was so little to gain other than personal satisfaction. One less Sunite in the world was a desirable end result, certainly, but if she’d been found out she might have been hanged. As it had turned out, however, no-one had suspected her for a moment. It looked like a natural death, one of the advantages of Chokemist, and those few who did suspect foul play pinned the blame on an assassin hired by the cuckolded Lord.
Finch turned out to have enough more than enough gold in his possessions to pay for a Raise Dead scroll. Luckily, at least from Chantry’s point of view, the fairly junior local priest didn’t think to combine it with a Neutralize Poison and Finch stayed dead. A verdict of Death By Natural Causes was announced and, four hours behind schedule, Kelleth’s party was able to leave for Crossroad Keep.
“I’ve just thought of another disadvantage to traveling with a leopard and a dinosaur,” Chantry remarked, an hour out of Leilon.
Yushai turned his head and looked at her. It was difficult to read the facial expressions of a carnivorous dinosaur, except of course for the one where he opened his jaws and prepared to rend the flesh of his prey, but Chantry thought that he looked somehow reproachful. “There are a lot of advantages, of course, especially when the dinosaur is as cute as Yushai,” she added, “but you can’t deny that there might just be one or two little… snags.”
“You mean besides us not being able to buy horses?” Kelleth said.
“It’s… a related disadvantage,” Chantry said. “If we meet any other travelers on the road, and they’re riding, their horses are going to stampede. We’re not exactly going to win friends and influence people.”
“I’m sure skilled riders will be able to control their horses,” Kelleth said, “as long as we don’t get too close.”
“Yes, well, we’d better keep our eyes open to make sure we don’t turn a corner and bump right into a cavalcade of people on skittish horses,” Chantry said. “Or, just as bad, a merchant caravan.”
“We’ll be watching out for bandits anyway,” Kelleth said. “I don’t want anyone to surprise us. I’ll bear your point in mind, though, and perhaps we might turn aside from the road if we see riders approaching.”
“Yushai has eyes that match those of an eagle,” Umoja said. “In open country he will give us ample warning of any who approach or who lie in wait.”
Half an hour later he proved it.
“I’m gonna be the man who’s coming home with you,” Chantry sang, as they walked.
“And I would walk five hundred miles
And I would walk five hundred more
Just to be–”
“Hush!” Umoja commanded, and held up his hand in an imperative gesture. Chantry chopped her song off short.
“Yushai sees something,” Umoja announced. “That copse of trees, there,” and he pointed into the distance. “Figures move within it. They are keeping the trees between themselves and something that approaches along the road.”
“An ambush in the making,” Kelleth said. “Any idea who the two groups are?”
“Not at this distance,” Umoja replied, “except that Yushai thinks some of those who are hiding are larger than men.”
“Most probably monsters, then,” Kelleth said. “There are no friendly giant-types anywhere remotely near here. And those on the road?”
Umoja shook his head. “Yushai can see only the dust thrown up by their feet,” he said.
“We should quicken our pace,” Kelleth said. “It’s probably a caravan, or a Greycloak patrol, and I don’t want to arrive too late to do anything but bury the dead.” He suited his actions to his words and set off at a quick march. Silent Stalker loped along at his heels and Yushai prowled ahead. The human members of the party kept pace with Kelleth, although Chantry had to work hard, but the two halflings had to break into a trot to keep up.
“Greycloaks,” Kelleth said, a few minutes later. “It’s a Greycloak patrol on the high road and a mixed bunch, orcs or humans with some ogres, waiting for them.” He gritted his teeth. “They’re outnumbered and they’ll be taken by surprise. It’ll be a massacre.”
“We will not arrive in time to intervene,” Umoja judged.
“Oh yes we will,” Kelleth said. “Aysgarth – Haste us.”
“We’ll arrive too tired to fight effectively,” Aysgarth warned.
“I don’t care,” Kelleth said. “I’m not going to just watch them die.”
“I can counter the tiredness,” Chantry said. “Do it, Aysgarth. Those bandits won’t know what hit them. For Neverwinter!”
Kelleth wiped ogre blood off his scimitar, sheathed it, and bent over a fallen Greycloak. “Chantry, over here!” he called. “He’s in a bad way.”
Chantry hastened to the wounded man and cast a spell. It had an immediate effect and the Greycloak stirred. “He’ll be fine,” Chantry said. She turned away from him and rubbed her hands together. “Okay, let’s loot the bandit corpses.”
“Chantry? Chantry Linton?” The Greycloak captain strode toward her. He removed his helm, revealing a smiling face, and looked her up and down. “I haven’t seen you for ages. Why, it might even be years! You’re an adventuring priestess now, I see, and it looks as if you’re doing well. Love the armor, very stylish.”
Chantry stared at him. “Tolbrik?” she said, in a small voice.
“As ever was,” the captain replied. His smile grew wider. “So, Chantry, how is the prettiest girl in Neverwinter these days? Are you married yet, or is there still a chance for me?”
“Oh gods.” Chantry’s shoulders slumped. “Oh, my goddess.”
Tolbrik’s smile faded away. “What’s wrong? You don’t seem pleased to see me. How have I offended you?”
“Prettiest girl in Neverwinter?” Aysgarth said to Kelleth, keeping his voice low. “Chantry?”
Chantry heard him, despite his attempt to speak quietly, and detected the incredulity in his voice. She drew herself up to her full height. “Married yet, you ask, Tolbrik?” she said, her voice rising as she spoke. She snatched off her helmet and shook her hair away from her face. “You think anyone would marry this?”
Disclaimer: ‘Storm of Zehir’ is the property of Atari, Obsidian Entertainment, and Wizards of the Coast Inc. Song lyrics quoted are from ‘I Don’t Want A Lover’ by Texas and ‘500 Miles’ by The Proclaimers; used without permission of the copyright holders.