Speaker-to-Customers (speakr2customrs) wrote,

A Plague of Serpents Chapter Seven

Here’s the next chapter of my Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir/Stargate SG-1/BtVS crossover fic ‘A Plague of Serpents’ (Sequel to ‘Debt of Blood’). This chapter is 9,725 words, rating R. Previous chapters can be found HERE. This is the chapter in which Buffy makes her entrance; she’s going under an alias but I think you’ll spot her easily enough.

A Plague of Serpents

Chapter Seven: The Seer

She told me of the famous sons who write their names in peace
Yet be cut down before the time has come for our release
Just as I tell you here
Even now I wait for the coming day
Even now she waits in the dawn
For the tales she tells, for the gifts that she will sell
For the sight she knows, for a vision that still grows
With the dream in her eyes no one's seen

(Big Country, The Seer)

They reached Fort Locke shortly after nightfall. The garrison was a token force, only a fraction of what it had been before the Shadow War, and the living soldiers were outnumbered four to one by the fresh graves in the field outside the palisade.

At least it provided somewhere safe to spend the night. They ate and then took to their beds immediately, with little conversation, and rose before dawn. An early start was essential if they were to reach Crossroad Keep that day.

They marched hard, all day long, eating on the move and barely engaging in conversation. That suited Chantry just fine. She wasn’t in the mood. She didn’t even sing as they walked.

In the whole day they encountered only one merchant caravan, surrounded by double the usual complement of guards, and a single patrol of Greycloaks. A pack of wolves approached them, in the afternoon, but turned away and left without attacking. Other than that the day passed entirely without incident.

“This isn’t right,” Kelleth commented, as the sun dipped below the horizon. “The High Road was busier than this even during the troubled times that preceded the start of the Shadow War. It looks as if the innkeeper was right about the state of the roads. Something is badly wrong in Neverwinter.”

“All the trade could be going by ship, matey,” Lastri suggested.

“Between Neverwinter and Waterdeep, possibly,” Aysgarth said, “but Leilon, for instance, has no port. The inland towns rely on caravans. We should be seeing more of them.”

“Maybe it’s just a slack time,” Chantry suggested.

“Don’t be bloody daft,” Thorpe said. “It’s never this slack.”

Chantry shrugged. “I’m a city girl. I’ve never needed to know how the merchants operate outside Neverwinter.”

“Trade is the lifeblood of the country,” Aysgarth said, stroking his beard. “If it stops the cities will dwindle and die.”

“In that case it’s a good thing Sa’Sani is here,” Chantry said. “Well, assuming she is here and that the malfunctioning portal didn’t dump her in Luskan, or into a volcano, or whatever.”

“We’ll soon find out,” Kelleth said. He pointed ahead to where a tower and a row of battlements loomed on the horizon. “Crossroad Keep.”

“Thanks for pointing it out,” Chantry said. “I’d never have noticed the great big castle on top of a rocky hill if you hadn’t been kind enough to show me.”

“I’m a ranger,” Kelleth said. “Guiding city people through the wilderness is my job.”

Chantry wasn’t sure if Kelleth was being sarcastic or not. She much preferred sarcasm when it was coming from her and so she ignored his comment and trudged on in silence. Eventually, as the sun was dipping below the horizon, they reached the castle gates.

- - - - -

“The merchant house is closed,” the guard told them. His gaze kept flipping between the human party members and the two exotic animal companions. “Out of business. Blokes what ran it buggered off somewhere, didn’t pay their dues, and Khelgar shut the place down.”

“Has Lady Sa’Sani not had it re-opened, then?” Aysgarth asked.

“That foreign bird? Nah, she wanted to, had a right ding-dong with Khelgar about it, but he wasn’t going to get fooled again.” The guard pointed across the courtyard. “She’s staying in the inn.”

“Thanks,” Kelleth said. He led the way toward the Phoenix Tail Inn, sited in the outer castle courtyard, but then something caught his eye and he veered aside. He halted beside a fenced-off area in which were several headstones and a small clump of saplings. “They must have retrieved the bodies,” he said. He took off his feathered headdress and bowed his head.

Chantry read the engraved legends on the gravestones. ‘Elanee of Merdelain. May you hug trees in peace with Mielikki.’ ‘Neeshka. The best back-stabbing tiefling there ever was’. ‘Bishop. He was a bastard but he was our bastard’. ‘Qara. It’s better to burn out than fade away’. ‘Grobnar Gnomehands. Bloody awful bard but a good comrade’. ‘Zhjaeve. Know that she rests in peace.’ “Rather unusual epitaphs,” Chantry commented.

“Khelgar must have chosen them,” Kelleth said. “There is no stone for Casavir. Does that mean he survived?”

“Perhaps,” Aysgarth said. “We will ask later.”

“Were these fallen comrades of yours?” Umoja asked.

“No,” Kelleth replied. “They were heroes of Neverwinter, the companions of the great Knight-Captain, who fell in the final battle against the King of Shadows. I was never in that league. I met them, briefly, and I fought alongside Casavir, against the orc tribes in the mountains around Old Owl Well, but I was only a foot-soldier in his forces. I hope he’s still alive.” He started to raise the headdress and then reconsidered. “I hardly need this here,” he said. “There’s no jungle within a thousand miles.” Instead of donning it again he folded it up carefully and packed it away. “Very well, on to the inn.”

Sa’Sani, accompanied by Nas’Sirin, Volo, and a young woman unknown to Chantry, was sitting at a table in the inn’s main room. She spotted the party as soon as they entered and at once came to her feet.

“Where have you been?” she snapped, pushing away her chair and striding over to meet them. “I expected you two days ago.”

“The portal malfunctioned,” Kelleth told her. “We came out in a crypt down near the southern border. The past two days have been spent in marching hard.”

Sa’Sani dipped her head. “Forgive me my harsh words,” she said. “I have been… anxious. You have the pearls?”

“Of course, my Lady,” Kelleth said. He produced the leather pouch containing the precious items and handed it over.

Sa’Sani looped the pouch’s strings onto her belt without bothering to check the contents. “Thank you,” she said. “Now to thrust these under the nose of that obstinate dwarf!”

- - - - -

“Wow! A real dinosaur!”

Chantry’s attention had been concentrated on the legendary Khelgar Ironfist but she swung her gaze away as she heard the comment. She saw a slim and attractive girl, of around her own height, with long chestnut-brown hair and wide-set eyes. The girl wore black breeches, tucked into high boots, and a jerkin of what looked like black dragon leather over a green silk shirt. She approached Yushai, moving slowly, with a broad smile on her pretty face.

“Careful, Joy, it’s a velociraptor,” a second female voice warned. “You know, like in Jurassic Park.”

The first girl rolled her eyes, which Chantry could now see were a piercing blue, and replied in scornful tones. “Spielberg got it way wrong, Sis. Velociraptors were much smaller in real life than in the movie. This is a larger species; Deinonychus maybe, or Achillobator.”

“Yushai is indeed of the kind known as Deinonychus by your people,” Umoja confirmed. “You know more about dinosaurs than most Northerners.”

“My sister the dinosaur nerd,” said the second girl, rolling her eyes. She was several inches shorter than her sister, probably no more than five feet tall, and had blonde hair. She wore no armor but was bedecked with weapons; a hammer hung from her belt at the right, a sword was sheathed at the left, and the hilt of a second sword rose above her right shoulder.

The tales of the Shadow War told of three female warriors, other than the Knight-Captain and her companions, based at Crossroad Keep. Kana, Captain of the Guard, was of Shou heritage and therefore hardly likely to be blonde; Katriona had been Casavir’s lieutenant at Old Owl Well and presumably would know Kelleth, whereas this girl had not reacted to him at all; Chantry deduced, by elimination, that the blonde must be the renowned sword-mistress known as Light of Heavens. She who had destroyed the vampire horde at the gates of the Keep.

Umoja continued to talk to the two girls about his favorite subject, dinosaurs, but Chantry switched her attention back to Khelgar and to her employer.

“Master Khelgar,” Sa’Sani was saying, “I insist that you allow me to re-open the trading post.”

Khelgar hooked his thumbs into his belt and drew himself up to his full height of four foot six. “We’ve been through this before, Lady Sa’Sani,” he said. “Your men made a lot of fancy promises and didn’t deliver on any of them. Nobody makes a fool out of Khelgar Ironfist twice.”

“If I make a promise I keep it,” Sa’Sani said. “I told you I will bring prosperity to your castle and I shall do so.”

“Why should I believe you?” Khelgar asked. “What makes you different from them?”

“I am prepared to purchase the buildings outright, if necessary, rather than merely leasing them,” Sa’Sani said. “That way you cannot lose.”

Khelgar shook his head. “I’m not taking any of those fancy trade bars from a foreign country, lady. They could be worthless for all I know.”

“I will pay you in gold,” Sa’Sani said. “I think these will prove I will have no difficulty in raising any amount necessary.” She unhooked the pouch from her belt and held it out.

Khelgar took the pouch, opened it, and peered in. “Pretty stones,” he said, pouring a few out onto his palm and peering at them. “I’ve not seen the like before. Maybe they’re worth a lot, but maybe they’re not. I’m not taking your word for their value. If Neeshka was here… but she’s dead.”

“Joy,” said Light of Heavens, “maybe you should take a look.”

“On it,” said the younger girl, breaking off from petting Yushai. She joined Khelgar and held out a hand. The gruff dwarf raised his eyebrows, tipped the loose pearls back into the bag, and passed it over. Joy walked over to a table, took a square of black velvet from a pouch in her belt, and spread it out. She carefully tipped the contents of the bag out onto the cloth, produced a lens from her pouch, and scrutinized the pearls thoroughly. Her eyes widened and she gave a low whistle.

“Rassatan golden pearls,” she declared. “Finer than the best I ever saw when we were in Athkatla. Amnian merchants would sell their mothers into slavery to get their hands on these.” Her fingers blurred into action, arranging the pearls in lines of ten, and she counted up the lines. “They’re worth a fortune, Khelgar,” she announced. “I could get at least quarter of a million for them in Amn, no question; maybe three hundred thousand in Waterdeep or Baldur’s Gate.”

Khelgar’s eyebrows climbed, almost up to where his hairline would have been had he not been nearly bald, and his eyes widened. “Aye, that changes things,” he said. “With that kind of money to operate with maybe you can live up to your fine words. I’ll not sell you the building, mind, I’ve not the authority, but I’ll grant you the lease. Ten thousand nobles for two years, shall we say?”

“With an option to renew, at the same price, at the end of the period,” Sa’Sani said. “That is acceptable.”

“It’s a deal, then,” said Khelgar. “I’ll have the place opened up for you right away. Give the lady her pearls back, lassie.” He watched as Joy gathered up the pearls. “Mind,” he warned Sa’Sani, “Neverwinter’s not the best place for trading right now. The roads are infested with bandits and the like, more than the Greycloaks can handle, and unless you’ve a tough crew you’re going to be robbed blind. Caravan guards and the like aren’t going to be up to the job.”

“Then it is a good thing my men are no mere caravan guards,” Sa’Sani said. “Kelleth Gill and his comrades have proven themselves to be more than capable of handling whatever they come up against.”

Khelgar turned his attention to Kelleth’s group. “Kelleth Gill, eh? Thought you looked familiar, laddie. One of Casavir’s lads, up in the mountains, right? I remember, now, you killed an orc I had marked out as mine. Aye, lady, he’s a good man. With a wizard, a priestess, a thief, and a…” Khelgar’s brow furrowed as his gaze passed over Umoja, “…shaman with trained fighting beasties. A well-balanced party. If the others are up to Kelleth’s standard they’ll have no problem dealing with the bandits.”

“They are,” Kelleth confirmed.

“Indeed so,” Sa’Sani said. “Formidable and utterly trustworthy. They have proven themselves to be a far greater asset to my business than any mere pouch of pearls.”

“You do us too much honor, Lady Sa Sani,” Kelleth said.

Chantry was highly tempted to ask for a pay rise but held her tongue. She wondered about the value of the pearls. Sa’Sani had told them, when ordering them to collect and transport the precious gems, that they were worth fifty thousand lions. Joy, who seemed to know her business, had valued them at over five times that figure. Was Joy in error, were the pearls so much more expensive on mainland Faerûn than in Samarach, or had Sa’Sani deliberately undervalued them to reduce temptation?

“Sir Khelgar,” Kelleth asked, “is there any word of Casavir’s fate?”

“Don’t call me ‘Sir’, laddie,” Khelgar told him. “I’m no knight. There’s only one Knight-Captain of Crossroad Keep and it’s not me. I’m just keeping the place warm for her. No, there’s no definite word of Casavir. We’ve excavated the mound pretty thoroughly, by now, but there was no sign of him. Nor of Amon Jerro. We found all the other bodies but what happened to those two is a mystery.”

“And the Knight-Captain?”

Khelgar glared at him. “Have you not heard?”

“We’ve been away from Neverwinter for three months,” Kelleth explained, “and our time since we returned has been spent in forced march. Pretty much the only news we have heard, since our return, is that the city of Neverwinter has been placed under martial law.”

“Ah, I see. She was carried off, unconscious, by some sort of flying beasties. I gave chase, of course, but they got away.” He sighed deeply. “I’ve posted a reward of ten thousand nobles for any information but we’ve had no response.”

“She’s not dead, I know that much,” Light of Heavens put in. “I’d have felt it if she died. I felt it when…” Her lips set into a tight line, her head drooped, and her eyes glistened with moisture. Joy went to her side and laid a hand upon her shoulder.

The atmosphere of grief and loss in the room was almost tangible. Chantry tried to imagine how she’d feel if Aysgarth, Thorpe, and Umoja had been killed and Kelleth was missing. A cold shiver ran down her back. That, presumably, was how Khelgar and the others in this castle felt all the time.

For a long minute no-one spoke. Sa’Sani was the one to break the silence.

“Master Khelgar,” she said, “my employees have been on the road all day and are, no doubt, hungry and weary. Will the merchant building be ready for us to occupy tonight?”

Khelgar pursed his lips. “Well, it’s been kept clean and dusted,” he said, “but I think the bed-linen and the like is all packed away. And you’ll have to find your own staff. I can maybe lend you a cook for a few days, to get you started, but that’s all.”

“The matter of staff is already in hand,” Sa’Sani replied, “and, as an interim measure, Kelleth and his comrades can eat in the inn.”

“We can lay out our bedrolls in the merchant house, if there is no room in the inn, and if the beds are not ready,” Kelleth said. “It will be better than sleeping under the stars.”

“The inn is indeed full,” Sa’Sani said. “A troupe of entertainers, a company of adventurers, and a band of mercenaries occupy all the available beds. Nas’Sirin has been forced to share a room with Volo, and complains about this incessantly, whereas I am sharing a room with a… somewhat eccentric elven priestess.”

‘Either you’re not sleeping with Volo after all,’ Chantry thought, ‘or else you are but are keeping it from Nas’Sirin. I wonder which?’

“Ah. Sorry about that. I’ll make sure there’s at least one room fit for you tonight.” Khelgar raised his right hand to his beard and tugged on it. “Tell you what, Lady Sa’Sani. Why don’t you and your lads dine with us at the Keep?”

“Khelgar,” Joy put in, “you do remember the diplomats from Sembia and Waterdeep are going to be at dinner tonight, don’t you?”

“Aye, I know,” Khelgar said. “They’ll be boring me stupid with chatter about trade and tariffs and such.” His eyes glittered shrewdly beneath his heavy eyebrows and the corners of his mouth quirked up. “It seems to me that’s the sort of thing that would be much more to Lady Sa’Sani’s taste than mine. If she keeps them occupied maybe I can have a natter with Kelleth, here, about fighting orcs in the mountains.”

Sa’Sani smiled. “A win for both of us, then, for such a conversation could well provide me with opportunities for, shall we say, commercial advantage. We shall, then, join you for the evening meal.”

“Come over at nine,” Khelgar said. “That’ll give your lads time to clean up.” He shot a glance at Yushai and Silent Stalker. “Hope your beasties will behave themselves. We’re used to animals, Elanee had a badger and Bishop had a mangy old wolf, but they were small enough to fit under the table. Yours are a fair bit bigger. Will they be happy to sit in a corner with a haunch of venison each?”

“They’ll be fine,” Kelleth said. “Thank you, Khelgar.”

“Perhaps I should eat at the inn,” Chantry volunteered.

“Don’t be daft, lass,” Khelgar said. “Any friend of Kelleth is a friend of mine. You’re invited.”

On another day Chantry might simply have taken off her helm and made her point through the shock effect. Today she couldn’t be bothered. “My face is badly disfigured,” she said. “Eating wearing a helmet is something of an ordeal and if I don’t wear it I’ll put your other guests off their food.”

“Hmm.” Khelgar’s jaw jutted out and his beard bristled. “I passed the Trial of the Even-Handed, lassie, and I’ve learned not to judge others by their appearance. If the ambassadors haven’t learned the same lesson, well, then they’re not fit to be ambassadors. Take off your helm and let me see for myself.”

Chantry shrugged. “Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She removed her helmet and looked Khelgar in the eye.

He met her gaze without flinching. “I’ll not lie and say you’re a pretty sight, girl,” he said, “but you’ll not put a dwarf off his food.”

“That… has to suck,” Light of Heavens said. “What did that to you? Dragon breath?”

“The Wailing Death plague,” Chantry explained. “And, before you ask, there’s no way of fixing it. The cure came too late and the damage is permanent.”

“I guess you’d know,” Light of Heavens said. “I, uh, suck at saying appropriate things. I guess you’ll have heard them all anyway.” She shot a glance at Khelgar, who nodded, and then turned back to Chantry. “Your invitation to dinner stands.”

- - - - -

“I have an important mission for you,” Sa’Sani said, as they departed from the castle keep. “On the morrow I want you to set out for Neverwinter. Visit the headquarters of the three major trading factions; the Circle of Friends, the Forgotten Lords, and the Fated Winds. Choose one to join; I leave the decision as to which one up to you.”

“Are you sure about that?” asked Thorpe. “We’re not exactly experts in the field of commerce. Our usual way of making money is ‘kill the bad guy, loot the body, and fence the goodies’. That’s as far as our experience goes.”

“You are the local experts,” Sa’Sani said. “You know the way things are done in Neverwinter. That will suffice.”

“Well, actually I’m from Gullykin, near Baldur’s Gate,” Thorpe said, “but I’ve been around Neverwinter for the past three years. Okay, point taken.”

“Ask for news of my missing associates,” Sa’Sani went on. “It is likely that they have had dealings with one or more of the factions.” She paused and looked around, saw that there were several passers-by within hearing range and most of them had halted to stare at the dinosaur, and then continued. “I shall give you more detailed instructions tomorrow, in private.”

“Certainly, my Lady,” said Kelleth.

“Sure thing,” said Thorpe. “You’re paying us so you call the shots.”

They had reached a fork in the path, where the inn lay to their left and the way to the merchant building went off to the right, and Sa’Sani came to a halt. “You’d better come with me,” she said. “Khelgar said you were to clean up, before dinner, but I doubt if there will be hot water at the merchant house. If you want to bathe, and to change, it will have to be at the inn.”

“We’re a little short of clothes for a formal evening,” Kelleth said, “but it will do no harm to get rid of the dirt from the trail.”

“Indeed so,” Sa’Sani said. “Follow me.”

Once inside the inn Chantry saw Captain Lastri, who had not accompanied them into the keep, sitting on a bar stool and drinking from a tankard. Volo and Nas’Sirin sat at a table, steaming plates of food in front of them, and Volo rose to his feet on seeing Sa’Sani.

“My Lady Sa’Sani,” he said, “we have started our meal without you, for we knew not how long you would be. Forgive us for this discourtesy.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Sa’Sani said. “I will be dining with Master Khelgar at the castle. As will my redoubtable band of warriors.” She gestured at Kelleth’s group. “At last things begin to go well.”

“This is unseemly,” Nas’Sirin grumbled. “To invite mere hired killers to join you at the table of the local Lord is… insulting. You jeopardize everything we are trying to achieve.”

“On the contrary,” Sa’Sani said. “Kelleth is an honored guest. He served under one of Khelgar’s comrades, and fought alongside Khelgar against the orcs, and I suspect that I owe my invitation to his presence rather than the reverse. This is not our homeland. They do things differently here. You would do well to take note.”

Nas’Sirin frowned. “You will do things your own way, as always,” he said, “but I believe we should follow the customs of Samarach.”

“We must respect the local customs if we are to prosper here,” Sa’Sani said.

“When in Waterdeep, do as the Waterdhavians do,” Chantry put in.

“Exactly,” Sa’Sani said. “Take heed, Nas’Sirin.”

“Very well, Lady Sa’Sani, I will obey,” Nas’Sirin said. He glowered at Chantry briefly and then returned to his meal.

“You… it is you!” An exclamation rang out across the dining room. “I have seen you in my dreams.”

The speaker was an elven woman, thin even by the standards of her slender race and with grey hair, who was approaching them with her eyes fixed on Kelleth.

“This,” Sa’Sani said, “is the woman with whom I have been sharing a room. She is, as I said, somewhat eccentric to say the least.”

“Ah, can I help you?” Kelleth asked.

“I came here,” the elf woman said, “all the way from Evermeet, because my goddess – bless the name of Angharradh – sent me. A dire fate awaits the elven race if I did not find you, she said – indeed, all the races.”

“Oh, crap,” Kelleth said. “I’m not part of some stupid prophecy, am I?” He glanced at Chantry. “First you, and now her.”

“No, I do not think so,” the elf replied. “It was not fate that brought you here that I can divine. Nonetheless, the Goddess tells me you are positioned such that your deeds affect factors beyond your ken – and I must be here to aid you.”

“Uh, thanks,” said Kelleth.

“Allow me to travel with you,” the elf went on. “My spear is yours, to aid you as you see fit. That you live, that you do what you feel you must whenever it is that the time comes – if the time does come – that is all I ask.”

“What can you do besides wield a spear?” Kelleth asked.

“I am a skilled healer,” she replied, “and have many spells that can aid you against the enemies that will face you.”

“We already have a healer. Two, in fact,” Kelleth said. “I don’t think we need another. I’ll stick with the ones I know. Thanks, but no thanks.”

The elf turned her head to stare at Chantry. “I have seen you in my dreams too, priestess of Talona,” she said, “screaming in agony as a snake with arms holds a metal rod against the back of your neck.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Chantry said. “I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen.”

“There is no avoiding what fate has in store for you,” the elf warned.

“In that case prophecies would be pointless,” Chantry said. “My goddess sent me to join Kelleth and I got here first. You’re not going to scare me off.”

“That was not my intention,” said the elf woman. “What will be, will be.” She turned back to Kelleth. “I will wait. The time will come when you will turn to me in your need. Farewell.”

“Well, that was… cheerful,” Chantry said, as the elf departed.

“Worrying, rather,” said Kelleth.

“I was being sarcastic,” Chantry said. “Now, about that bath...”

- - - - -

She was clean, she had brushed her hair until it shone like polished gold, and she wore a gorgeous silken gown she had purchased in Samargol. Heads turned as she entered the banqueting hall. The diplomats smiled, briefly, and then their gazes fell on her face and the smiles froze. Chantry was used to that reaction by now and it no longer made her want to kill them. Or at least not much.

Sa’Sani met with an entirely different reaction. The smiles of the diplomatic representatives were warm, genuine, and appreciative. Not surprisingly; she was elegantly and expensively dressed, very attractive in an exotic way (at least for a woman in her thirties, Chantry qualified her assessment), and spoke their language. As soon as Khelgar had completed his (rather cursory) introductions Sa’Sani was immediately engaged in a deep discussion with the two trade delegates.

Light of Heavens wore a figure-hugging black gown, slit up the sides up to mid-thigh level, sleeveless and leaving her shoulders bare. Chantry spotted a tattoo on each shoulder and recognized them as magical wards. One was the symbol for Free Action and the other was Immunity to Mind-Affecting Spells. An indication, perhaps, that Light of Heavens feared being taken prisoner more than she feared death? Or maybe those two designs had been on special offer at the tattoo parlor. An Earth watch, with a slim silver bracelet, adorned her left wrist. At her throat she wore a golden pendant, in the shape of a sunburst with a human face; the symbol of the dead god Amaunator. Despite the peacefulness of the occasion her long-sword rode at her hip.

Her sister Joy wore a blue version of the same gown. She had no visible tattoos, although she could have had some out of sight, and she was unarmed; at least at first sight. Chantry was moderately sure that the girl had at least one dagger under her skirts. Joy, too, wore an Earth watch unlike any Earth watch Chantry had ever seen on sale in Neverwinter. Not that she’d seen all that many, a dozen or so perhaps, but on the basis of that limited sample Joy’s watch seemed noticeably inferior in style and quality. The band was a mere strip of pink cloth and the dial was decorated with a picture that Chantry, over the course of the evening, eventually recognized as a highly stylized representation of a cat’s face.

Khelgar was resplendent in the formal tunic and cloak of a member of the Neverwinter Nine. His beard was neatly gathered into a single plait, held in place by a golden clasp, and around his waist was buckled the fabled Belt of Ironfist. The very image of a dwarven noble, at least on the surface, but it wasn’t long before it was obvious to Chantry that he’d have been far more comfortable in dented armor, and a tabard stained with blood and beer, sitting in a cheap tavern quaffing ale. Although he was still doing the ale-quaffing part. Hardly had the group taken their seats before Khelgar and Kelleth were deep in reminiscence, recounting tales of splitting orcish skulls, and raising tankards to the remembered fallen.

With Sa’Sani and the diplomats wrapped up in a conversation about trade and tariffs, a subject that didn’t interest Chantry in the slightest, that left the other members of her group to talk among themselves and to Joy and Light of Heavens.

“That elf woman was a bit bloody creepy,” Thorpe remarked. “Seeing us in her dreams – well, seeing Kelleth and Chantry in her dreams – and they didn’t sound nice. Think she was telling the truth?”

“We have told no-one here about our fights against Yuan-ti abominations,” Aysgarth said, “and her description of the creature torturing Chantry matches them perfectly. I suspect she is, indeed a seer.”

“We told Volo,” Chantry pointed out. “He was staying in the inn with her and we know that talking is his favorite occupation. She could have found out from him.”

“True,” Aysgarth said, “yet I still suspect she was genuine and she really was sent by her goddess. You were, after all, and an interloper god would be of interest to more gods than just Talona.”

“Who’s that goddess ‘Angharradh’ she mentioned, anyway?” Thorpe asked. “Thought I knew all the elven gods but I’ve never heard of that one.”

“She was the Triune Goddess of the elves,” Chantry explained. “Sehanine Moonbow, Hanali Celanil, and Aerdrie Faenya merged into one to fight Araushnee – she who became Lolth. But that was more than ten thousand years ago and then they split apart again. I only know about it from my studies for the priesthood. I didn’t know there were any worshippers of Angharradh left.”

“The elf woman was pretty old,” Thorpe said. “I’ve never seen an elf with grey hair before. Ten thousand years has to be pushing it, though, I didn’t think they lived more than a thousand or two.”

“You’re wrong,” Light of Heavens said. “Not about how long elves live, you’re right about that, I mean about Angrybad. You’d better do the explain-y thing, Joy, you’re much better at it than I am.”

“Sure thing,” Joy said. “Okay, it’s a long story, but here’s the short version. Lolth almost killed Hanali Celanil. To stop her dying the three goddesses merged together into one. Then, so that they could go back to being three separate goddesses again, they borrowed power off of the human goddesses most like them. Hanali merged with an aspect of Sune, Aerdrie with Akadi, and Sehanine Moonbow merged with part of Selûne. Angharradh split up again and things went back to pretty much the way they were.”

“I didn’t know that,” Chantry said. “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely certain,” Joy said. Her voice held the ring of conviction. “Anyway, a little more than three years ago, that ended. Selûne needed to be a Greater Goddess again to vote against Shar in the Circle of Greater Gods…”

“Lil jabar elg’caress,” Light of Heavens muttered, vitriol in her tone. Chantry recognized the language as Drow; she knew only a few Drow words but one she did know was elg’caress. ‘Bitch’.

“…so she pulled all her power out of Sehanine,” Joy continued. “That destabilized the whole thing. Sune pulled out too, and then Akadi, and the elven goddesses had to coalesce again to survive. Angharradh’s back. Probably permanently. I can’t see Selûne, or Sune, giving up the power again.”

“Neither can I,” Chantry agreed. She stared directly into Joy’s eyes. It seemed strange that such a young woman, who wasn’t even a priestess, could be privy to the doings of the Circle of Greater Gods. Her account, though, did fit with something that High Priestess Sumia had told Chantry once; back during the Plague War, when Sumia had accompanied the men from Earth and some of Neverwinter’s elite fighters on their strike against the lair of the sarrukh leader Queen Morag, a priestess of Sehanine in the party had summoned a planar ally to fight Morag’s guards. She had received, not one of Sehanine’s planetars, but a Shard of Selûne in its place. And the Shard had attacked Sharwyn Laummyr, one of Shar’s most influential worshippers, instead of Morag. That had been… in the month of Alturiak 1372. And it was Mirtul 1375 now. Three years three months. “Just how do you know all this?” Chantry asked.

“I’m not allowed to say,” Joy said. “My source is trustworthy and in a position to know. That’s all I can reveal.”

Aysgarth stroked his beard between finger and thumb and stared at Joy. “Perhaps,” he said, “you might be able to enlighten us on certain other matters. Do you know anything about an interloper god named Zehir?”

Joy and Light of Heavens exchanged glances and then shrugged in unison. “Not a damn thing,” Joy said. “Should we?”

“In that case, let me enlighten you,” Aysgarth said, and he began to recount the relevant parts of their adventures in Samarach. Chantry, Thorpe, and Umoja made contributions to the tale where appropriate.

Sa’Sani and the two diplomats, however, remained engrossed in mercantile matters. It seemed, from what Chantry caught of their discussion, that that Sa’Sani was proposing an expansion of the trade with Earth and the onward export of Earth goods to Waterdeep, Sembia, and elsewhere.

“Lord Nasher won’t go for it,” Khelgar put in, temporarily breaking off from his conversation with Kelleth. “He’s never been keen on trading with Earth. I’ve no idea why.”

“Oh, I can understand his reasons,” Sa’Sani said. “From what I have heard I gather that Earth goods are better, and cheaper to produce, than anything your artisans and craftsmen can make. He feared that the locals would lose their livelihoods. What the Earth people want in return, potions and magic items, would benefit only the temples and the mages. An understandable cause for concern. However now you have had a plague and two major wars in rapid succession. Neverwinter need not fear unemployment. Skilled workers are in short supply. The situation has changed completely and Nasher should amend his attitude accordingly.”

“Maybe so,” Khelgar said. “Trade and suchlike isn’t something I know anything about. If you could talk to him, and make your case, perhaps he’d change his mind – but he’s not seeing anyone from outside Neverwinter right now.” One of the castle servants was hovering at Khelgar’s shoulder, clearing his throat to attract the dwarf’s attention, and Khelgar at last acknowledged the man’s presence. “Nasty cough you’ve got there, laddie. What do you want?”

“Master Khelgar,” said the servant, “the minstrel band from the inn are at the door. They have heard that you are having an… entertainment and wonder if you might, perhaps, like them to play for your guests.”

Khelgar grimaced. “Can’t say that I’m overly keen on having them caterwauling in the background while we’re trying to talk. I had enough of that with Grobnar. What do the rest of you think?”

“I have no objection,” the Sembian ambassador said, “but neither have I any great desire for musical accompaniment to the meal. The conversation is quite enough to occupy my mind.”

Light of Heavens shuddered. “I’ve heard them,” she said, “and I’m so not impressed. The only good part of their act is the fire-eating.”

“And that’s cheating,” Joy said. “The girl who does it is a Fire Genasi. It’s not like she’s going to get burned if she screws up.”

“If it’s not Rock music I’m not interested,” Chantry said.

“No way is what they play Rock,” Joy said. “Trust me on this.”

Khelgar glanced around the other guests, pursed his lips, and turned back to the servant. “Tell them no thanks,” he said. “Still, I feel a bit sorry for them. They can eat in the kitchens, if they like, to make up for not getting tips. If they’ve already eaten give them a free drink or two.”

“Of course, Master Khelgar,” the servant said, and departed.

“Now, where were we?” Khelgar said.

“We were talking about trading with Earth,” Sa’Sani reminded him.

“That we were,” said Khelgar. “I think I’ve said about all I can say about that. If it’s all the same to you, Lady Sa’Sani, I’ll go back to talking about battles with your laddie Kelleth.”

Sa’Sani quirked an eyebrow upwards. “As you wish, Master Khelgar.”

“One thing we totally should import from Earth,” Light of Heavens said, “is coffee.”

“And chocolate,” Joy added.

“Well, yeah, that too,” Light of Heavens said, “but it’s more than five years since we’ve had Earth chocolate and I’ve gotten used to doing without. We only ran out of coffee a month ago and I’m still dealing with going cold turkey.”

“Is Neverwinter out of coffee?” Chantry asked, horrified. She wondered, briefly, what turkey had to do with anything.

“They might have some in the city, maybe,” Light of Heavens said, “but none of it is getting through to Crossroad Keep.”

Chantry grimaced. “I have half a pound in my pack but that’s all. If I’d known I’d have brought a lot more.”

Sa’Sani smiled. “I did not know of the coffee shortage until I arrived, but I was aware that it is more expensive here than in Samargol, and consequently I brought a supply of coffee with me.” She reached under her seat and picked up her reticule. “Now that we are, in a sense, partners I am willing to share. Allow me to provide a pound of coffee as my contribution to the evening.”

Light of Heavens grinned broadly. “This,” she said, “could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

- - - - -

Chantry sipped at her breakfast coffee. Kelleth and Umoja had snatched a quick bite and gone out to walk their animal companions. The others, not having to cope with the demands of leopards and dinosaurs, were dining in a more leisurely fashion.

“This place is quite impressive,” Chantry remarked to Sa’Sani. “It should be very comfortable, once the dust-sheets are off the furniture, and it looks as if it contains everything we need. Even an alchemy lab.”

“And one suitable for a mage,” said Aysgarth. “I haven’t had time to carry out a proper inventory but at first glance it appears to have everything needed for enchanting weapons.” He paused to sip at his coffee. “Is that a portal in the room along the corridor?”

“Indeed it is,” Sa’Sani confirmed. “One thing that my subordinates Ilfoss and Kizu achieved, before they absconded, was to persuade Khelgar to move the Crossroad Keep portal from the keep itself to this building.”

“Ah,” said Aysgarth. “I suspect that the move is at the heart of the portal’s malfunctioning.”

“I’m surprised Khelgar went along with it,” Chantry said.

“Probably he was uncomfortable with the idea of strangers being able to arrive in the keep without needing to pass the gates and guards,” Aysgarth suggested. “This building might be inside the curtain wall but it’s not exactly a vital part of the defenses.”

“No doubt you are correct,” Sa’Sani said. “Anyway, since it was moved here it has almost fallen out of use. Out of sight, out of mind. When I arrived here I found myself, and Nas’Sirin and Volo, in a deserted building with the doors locked. We had to hammer on the doors for some twenty minutes before we attracted attention and were let out.”

“Unfortunate,” Chantry said, “although probably better than our experience of ending up sharing a crypt with a mad dwarf necromancer.”

“At least you could slay the mad dwarf,” Sa’Sani said. “I had to put up with Nas’Sirin’s complaints without being able to avail myself of such a means of silencing him.”

Chantry laughed. “On the other hand he wasn’t trying to kill you,” she said, “and Volo was undoubtedly better company than the zombies.”

“Certainly more talkative,” Sa’Sani conceded, “and better looking.”

“And with fewer bits falling off,” Chantry said. She exchanged smiles with Sa’Sani. The Samarachan woman seemed to be much more approachable, and to be showing signs of a sense of humor, now that she was away from the restrictive atmosphere of Samarach and the coldly disapproving presence of Nas’Sirin. Chantry already respected her as an employer but now she felt that she might well like Sa’Sani as a person given a little more time to get to know her.

“Indeed so,” Sa’Sani agreed. “It would be a shame if Volo’s… bits fell off.”

Aha! So Sa’Sani was sleeping with Volo. Or, if she wasn’t, at least she’d thought about it. Probing further on the subject, however, might not be a good idea as yet. It wouldn’t do to jeopardize this new, friendlier, relationship by pushing things too quickly. Instead Chantry changed the subject.

“Lady Sa’Sani,” she said, “when you sent us to collect the pearls, you told us that they were worth some fifty thousand gold coins. Joy, however, valued them at more than quarter of a million. She seemed to know her business and I am well aware that you know yours. Why was there such a discrepancy?”

“Her valuation was accurate,” Sa’Sani confirmed. “I understated their value because I did not wish Nas’Sirin to hear just how much trust I was placing in you. He was bad enough when he thought they were worth fifty thousand. If he had known their true worth his moaning would have been quite unbearable. I did not wish to put up with it during our trek through the jungle.”

“I see,” Chantry said. She put down her coffee cup and sat up straight. “I thank you for the trust you have shown in us, Lady Sa’Sani,” she said formally. “It shall not be misplaced.”

“I also thank you, Lady Sa’Sani,” Aysgarth said.

Thorpe, who had been too busy with the traditional halfling pastime of stuffing himself with enough food for two full-sized people to have taken any previous part in the conversation, swallowed his current mouthful and paused in his gorging long enough to add “That goes for me, too.”

“Ah.” Sa’Sani set down her cup and fidgeted with the sleeves of her gown for a moment. “Thank you,” she said. “Really, it wasn’t much of a leap of faith. It is obvious even on a brief acquaintance that your group adheres to a code of honor which, different as it may be from the mores of Samarach, makes you utterly trustworthy… in most circumstances. I would not, for instance, trust you, Chantry, to be alone in a room with Nas’Sirin for an hour without killing him. Nor would I leave Thorpe alone with an unguarded plate of grilled bacon. Or expect Kelleth to pronounce my name properly.”

Chantry laughed out loud. “You know us too well, my Lady,” she said. Thorpe almost choked on his food and had to take a hasty gulp of his coffee.

“I am beginning to, yes,” Sa’Sani said. “Returning to the topic of the pearls, I have a further task for you involving them. When you go to Neverwinter, to affiliate my company with one of the merchant organizations, take the pearls with you. Deposit them with the financial authorities as backing for my trade bars and obtain the necessary certification for House Sa’Sani bars to be traded in the Sword Coast area.”

Chantry raised her eyebrows. “I don’t even know who the financial authorities are. If Lord Nasher handles that sort of thing himself we’re out of luck, seeing as how he isn’t seeing anyone these days, and if it isn’t him I’ve no idea who it would be.”

“Part of the Council, perhaps?” Aysgarth suggested. “Thorpe, do you know?”

“Not a clue, mate,” Thorpe replied. “I don’t even understand how trade bars work. I’d have thought it would be easier just to use coin.”

“Perhaps we are the wrong people for this job, my Lady,” Aysgarth said.

“Don’t worry, I have hired a local equivalent of Osi,” Sa’Sani told them, “and she will give you detailed instructions when she arrives. I expect her to be here shortly. She…” The sound of the merchant house front door opening came just as she spoke. “That will be her now,” Sa’Sani said, and then she raised an eyebrow as her words were proved wrong. “Or not.”

Instead of the expected accountant it was Kelleth and Umoja, with their animals following behind, who entered. They were accompanied by Light of Heavens and, seemingly, were in the middle of a conversation.

“Thanks a lot,” Kelleth was saying. “I’ll remember that move and practice it every day.”

“Until it becomes second nature,” said Light of Heavens. She turned away from him and faced Sa’Sani. “My Lady,” she said, “if it’s okay with you, Khelgar would like to borrow Kelleth for a while. And his companions, too, if you can spare them.”

“I take it you mean for more than a few minutes,” Sa’Sani said. “I wouldn’t send the others to Neverwinter without Kelleth and therefore, if you take him, you might as well take the whole group. Depending, of course, on what it is that you want them for.”

“You remember the minstrels from the inn?” Light of Heavens said. “It turns out they’re not just minstrels. Last night, while we were eating, they stole the Gauntlets of Ironfist from Khelgar’s room. He wears them most of the time but, well, not when he’s dining. It gets expensive in crushed tankards otherwise.”

Sa’Sani’s brows lowered and she cocked her head to one side. “The… Gauntlets of Ironfist?”

“Heirlooms of the Clan Ironfist dwarves,” Aysgarth explained, slipping into lecture mode. “Valuable because of the augmentation they give to the wearer’s physical might, as great as that from a Girdle of Hill Giant Strength, but even more valuable because of their long history and association with the ancient dwarven kings.”

“That’s right,” Light of Heavens confirmed. “Khelgar’s tearing his hair out. Well, he would be if he had any. The minstrels left at first light, hours before Khelgar even knew the gauntlets were missing, and headed north-east. We sent a mounted patrol after them but they had too much of a start. The Greycloaks have just come back to say that they lost the trail at the edge of Neverwinter Wood.”

“And you want Kelleth to track them down, I take it,” Sa’Sani deduced.

Light of Heavens nodded. “That’s right. We don’t have any Rangers in the Keep any longer since the Knight-Captain’s dad took off looking for her and Bishop… died. Khelgar’s not bad in the woods but Nasher has strictly forbidden him to leave the castle for any reason. He’ll go anyway, if he has to, but your guys could save him from getting, whatchacallit, cashiered for deserting his post. And me… I’m more your city girl.”

“I can certainly spare them for a few days, in the circumstances,” Sa’Sani said, “if they are willing. I can see that Kelleth is eager to go.”

“Khelgar was sword-brother to my old commander,” Kelleth said, “and one of Neverwinter’s greatest heroes. Of course I want to help.”

“Count me in,” Aysgarth said, just beating Chantry to it.

“Thieves passing as bards, or bards moonlighting as thieves,” Thorpe mused. “Either way, they’ll have some good gear I could use. I’m in.”

“I will accompany my comrades on this worthy mission,” Umoja said. “And with me, of course, will come the mighty Yushai.”

“To sniff them out, right?” asked Light of Heavens.

“No, Yushai and his breed hunt by sight, not by scent,” Umoja said.

“It’s the same with Silent Stalker,” Kelleth said. “Our animals won’t be able to sniff them out and we’ll have to do it the hard way. But don’t worry, we’re good at it. We’ll get the gloves back.”

“We never met the minstrels,” Chantry said, “which could be handy when we catch up with them, but we’ll need to know what they look like.”

“There are four of them,” Light of Heavens answered. “The lead singer, who does the fire-eating act too, is a Fire Genasi girl. About your height, brown skin, orange eyes, and her hair is kinda white-blonde with flames flickering in it. Usually wears a long yellow dress. You can’t mistake her.”

“Her name is Azahr,” Sa’Sani put in. “I spoke to them, on occasion, in the inn.”

Light of Heavens nodded. “That’s right. Anyway, there’s another girl, a wood elf, about my height, dark hair, green eyes, pouts pretty much all the time, wears green leathers. No visible weapons but from the way she stands I’d say she’s a fencer. Rapier, maybe short-sword, or maybe a knife-fighter. Her name’s Lilo.”

“Lila,” Sa’Sani corrected her.

“I guess that would be right,” Light of Heavens acknowledged. “The lute player is a guy called Venn, a half-elf, pretty short for a guy, and he’s bald. Maybe he shaves his head, he seems too young to have gone bald, but then again he always wears a hat with a feather in it, so, maybe it is baldness. And the drummer, well tantan player, is a human guy, dark hair, with a beard clipped real short. His name’s William.”

“With that to go on we’ll have no problem identifying them,” said Kelleth. “It shouldn’t take us long to prepare and then we shall be off in pursuit.”

Aysgarth pursed his lips and tweaked his beard between finger and thumb. “We should expect fire spells,” he said. “I shall prepare suitable wards. And Cold spells for offensive use.”

“Do that,” said Kelleth.

“You’d better be ready for a hard fight,” Light of Heavens warned. “Bards can be freaking dangerous.”

“That’s not a problem,” said Kelleth. “So can we.”

- - - - -

“Well, that’s not what I was expecting,” Kelleth said.

“Nor me,” Chantry agreed. The trail had led them to a log cabin in the forest. Not a little crude hut, the dwelling of a woodcutter or charcoal-burner, but a large structure that was more like a mini-mansion. The light that shone forth from the windows, into the gloom of the forest at dusk, was the steady glow of Light spells rather than the flickering illumination from candles or firelight. “Who in the Hells lives here? It’s like… the summer retreat for some Lord or merchant prince. The kind of place he’d come for a ten-day break, to hunt wild boar by day, and to shag floozies by night.”

“Now how would you know about things like that?” Kelleth said.

Chantry managed, barely, to restrain herself from spitting out ‘Before the Plague I’d have been one of the fucking floozies, you obtuse twat!’ Instead she contented herself with saying “I read the scandal columns in the broadsheets.”

Kelleth wasn’t listening. “We can’t just burst in and put the occupants to the sword. It might be exactly what you described and the bards be playing for the Lord’s entertainment.”

“A legitimate gig booked for the night after they get the chance to steal the gauntlets?” Chantry shook her head. “That’s pushing the bounds of coincidence a little far, don’t you think?”

“I mean turning up and offering to play, not having an advance booking,” Kelleth said. “Although they came straight here. They knew about this place and so, presumably, know the owner.”

“Or they are the owners,” Thorpe suggested.

“Why would any bard live out in the wilds, so far from any audience,” Aysgarth wondered, “or thieves so far from anything to steal? I think not. However speculation will get us nowhere. We need to go inside to investigate.”

“And immediately get our throats cut,” Chantry said pessimistically.

“The bards don’t know us,” Kelleth reminded her. “We could be anyone.”

“So, what, we walk up and knock on the door?”

Kelleth shrugged. “I can hear music coming from inside. It sounds as if they’re having a party. Let’s – what’s the expression? – gatecrash it. We’d better leave the animals outside, though, they’re a little too exotic for these parts.”

“I shall stay and look after them,” Umoja volunteered, “and come to the rescue if necessary.”

“Good thinking,” said Kelleth. “Aysgarth, Chantry, buff us up with things that don’t show. No Stoneskins, or anything like that, just blessings and Bull’s Strength and so on.”

“Will do,” said Chantry. “Okay, tonight we’re going to party like it’s thirteen ninety-nine.”

- - - - -

The door was opened by a muscle-bound thug whose features showed distinct signs of orcish ancestry. “Who the fuck are you?” he grunted. “Thought all the guests were already here.”

“We’re a late addition to the guest list,” Chantry said, in her most sensuous voice. Her face was invisible under her helm and her figure, even under the armor, was still as spectacular as ever. The guard sucked in his stomach, stood up straight, and smiled. Before he could ask any more questions Aysgarth had cast a Charm Person spell on him.

“Tell me, my friend,” the wizard said, “who owns this cabin and what is the occasion being celebrated?”

“Guildmaster Axel Devrie owns this place, Master,” the guard answered, his tone now obsequious, “but he is not here tonight.”

“Thank the gods,” Thorpe muttered.

“The bard Azahr is having a party to celebrate her nicking the Gauntlets of Ironfist,” the guard went on, “and at the end she’ll auction them off. Bidders are here from all over.”

“Including us,” said Aysgarth.

“Who should I announce, Master?” asked the guard.

Aysgarth hesitated and exchanged glances with Kelleth. Before either could answer Chantry pre-empted them.

“The representatives of Her Most Debilitating Holiness Sumia, High Priestess of Talona,” she said, dropping the seductive voice and adopting an imperious tone, and took off her helm.

“Good thinking,” Thorpe murmured. “She could have found out through an Augury.”

Whether because of his orcish blood, or because he was beguiled by the spell, the guard showed no signs of being repulsed by Chantry’s face. “Of course, Mistress,” he said.

“Don’t bother announcing us, we’ll introduce ourselves,” Chantry went on. “Just stay at your post.”

“Yes, do that,” Aysgarth confirmed.

“Very well, Master,” said the guard. He stood aside and let them walk past.

“Who’s this Axel character?” Kelleth asked Thorpe under his breath.

“Boss of the Neverwinter Thieves’ Guild,” the rogue replied, equally quietly. “Respectable businessman as far as the Watch knows, cultured bloke with manners like a gentleman, but not somebody you want to cross. Now shut your mouth and follow Chantry’s lead. She’s hit the right note and it looks like we’ll pull this off okay.”

The first room they came to was a dining room, with trestle tables and benches, and a sumptuous buffet was laid out for the guests. Only a couple of people were there, busily tucking in, and they paid little attention to Kelleth’s party. Presumably they believed that, as the guard had let them pass, the group must be legitimate. Beyond the eating area was the main hall. Eight richly-clad men, and one hard-faced woman in a silken gown, sat around the edges of the room. Burly bodyguards stood beside their bosses. The center of the room was clear of furniture, apparently for dancing, and that was where Chantry saw the girl who could only have been Azahr.

She was dancing, without a partner, either for her own enjoyment or to entertain the guests. Two men fitting the descriptions of Venn and William provided the music, a simple tune with a repetitive beat, and Azahr swayed and gyrated in the middle of the floor. She had discarded her usual long dress in favor of an abbreviated halter top and a skirt that barely reached her knees. Few of the male guests even glanced away from her for a second to register the presence of the new arrivals.

Azahr was more alert, not being a distraction to herself, and halted her dance. “Newcomers?” she greeted them. “I expected no-one who is not already here. Least of all a priestess of Talona.”

“Word reached Her Most Debilitating Holiness Sumia of your auction,” Chantry claimed, “and she sent me to bid on her behalf.”

“Oh?” The brown-skinned girl arched an eyebrow, flames flickering along the line of white, and she smiled. “What is your name, Talontar?”

“Chantry Linton,” Chantry replied. She saw little point in lying; her connection with Crossroad Keep was too recent for word to have spread, whereas her identity as a Priestess of Talona, and thus a logical person to represent Sumia, was no secret.

“I suspected as much,” Azahr said. “I believe I could probably name your companions too. Your friend Volo was rather talkative.” Her smile turned into a snarl. “Kill them.”

‘Damn Volo to the Hells!’ Chantry thought, and began to speak the words of a spell. She saw, from the corner of her eye, Kelleth’s scimitars coming out and him turning to face an onrushing thug. Then, before her spell was complete, her hair was seized and tugged hard. Her head jerked back. She caught a fleeting glimpse of a slim female hand, holding a gleaming dagger, and then felt a burning pain in her throat. ‘Lila!’ she thought, and then her limbs lost their strength and her vision dimmed. The last thing she saw in this life was a spray of her own arterial blood.

The next thing she saw was the City of the Dead.

Continued in Chapter Eight: Made In Heaven

Tags: a plague of serpents, fic, tabula_avatar
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