Tide Of Destiny by Slide


Chapter: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Chapter 1: Enough!

Irenicus appeared to have an expression of something bordering on the edge of intense surprise as he viewed the assorted group of assassins before him, not even noticing the escaping party as they emerged from the rubble behind him, almost instantly and instinctively taking cover.

"You dare to attack me here?" Irenicus demanded, raising his hands threateningly, obviously in no mood for any delays that the assassins could offer him. "Do you even know whom you face?"

The assassins, who had so far ignored the saying ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, at least where the escaping party was concerned, commenced an attack. Two of them danced across the rubble towards the mage with surprising agility, long swords drawn, a flurry of battle cries escaping their mouths as their pair of companions drew forth bows and shot arrows uselessly at Irenicus.

The mage, seemingly almost bored, incinerated the two advancing on him with a quick fireball, and a second spell caught one of the archers, instantly petrifying him solidly in stone. The final archer took one look at his surroundings as his comrades died around him, then turned and fled. The five onlookers considered it quite a wise move.

"You will suffer! You will all suffer!" Irenicus almost shrieked, livid with rage, and a final fire arrow was sent lancing towards the petrified assassin, shattering him into hundreds of shards as if he had never been a living, breathing person.

Finally, the mage calmed down, and looked at his surroundings with a superior air. He spotted his former prisoners, perched high above him in the rubble, some trying to look inconspicuous, like Yoshimo, others, like Minsc and Jaheira, standing tall, defiant, ready for vengeance. "So, God-child, you have escaped," Irenicus declared, almost in a whisper as he looked at them. "You are more resourceful than I thought."

Imoen’s head snapped up, and she glared at the mage with an expression more violent and malicious than any of them had ever seen on her face. "You’re not going to torture us any longer!" she yelled at him, and all could see she intended to make that declaration a promise.

Once again, Irenicus looked surprised. "Torture?" he repeated, one eyebrow raised. Then he laughed as realisation sank in. "Silly girl, you just don’t understand what I’m doing, do you?"

Imoen shook her head. "I don’t care what you’re doing! Let us go!" Slowly, in the front of the archmage’s vicious and unrelenting gaze, her resolve seemed to be slipping a little, in acknowledgement of the fact that they might not walk away from this confrontation.

"I won’t let you leave, not when I’m so close to unlocking your power." Irenicus’s anger was back, as he slowly stalked up and down the rubble, not averting his gaze from the five former prisoners.

"We don’t want anything from you!" And with that final declaration, Imoen let loose a flaming arrow, summoning all of the power she wielded, the power she had just discovered, and sending it all directly at Irenicus.

The mage appeared completely untouched. "Enough! I will no longer listen to the babbling of ignorant children!" he shouted at her, before retaliating with his own flurry of magic weaponry, the spells hitting so fast they could barely see them move.

Imoen’s responses, whilst far from incompetent, were most certainly not enough to beat a mage as powerful as Irenicus, and magic missiles struck her repeatedly. Yet still, the girl held her ground, even though the battle was already lost, as far as they could see.

Then suddenly, all around them, dimension doors swirled into existence, and they were surrounded by almost a horde of cloaked and hooded figures, bearing little more than quarterstaffs as they brought the battle to a halt with their mere presence.

One figure, the tallest, took a step towards Irenicus. "This is an unsanctioned use of magical energy!" he intoned deeply, his voice plain and emotionless, and completely devoid of any distinguishing traits. "All involved will be held! This disturbance is over!"

Irenicus practically sighed as he surveyed them. "Must I be interrupted at every turn?" he demanded furiously. "Enough of this!" With that, he let loose another volley of magic, but this time, the response was far from weak. The hooded figures, with Imoen once again taking up her offensive role, assaulted the mage mercilessly.

Yet it was once more not enough. The magics thudded harmlessly off Irenicus, and his retaliation had all but wiped out the interlopers. This had not been the deliverance it quite appeared, and the situation was once more as dire and dangerous as it had ever been.

But then, yet more dimensional doors opened, and yet as many hooded figures appeared in their midst. "This mage’s power is immense! We must overcome him quickly," one of the new arrivals snapped hurriedly, considerably less self-assured than his predecessor.

Irenicus, whilst far from being done, looked even more bored once more. "Your pathetic magics are useless. Let this end," he offered grimly, folding his arms across his chest, and for a moment looking deceptively vulnerable.

"Even if we fall, our numbers are many. You will be overwhelmed," the same figure insisted, this time more strongly, and his words rang with truth as Irenicus’s steely gaze met his hooded one.

Irenicus sighed once more. "You bore me, mageling," he responded, then slowly, a malicious look crossed his face and he glanced up at his escaped prisoners. "You may take me in, but you will take the girl as well," he declared finally, a look of triumph upon his face.

Shock hit everyone’s faces, but, obviously, Imoen’s most of all. "What?" she asked, in a small yet forceful voice. "No! I’ve done nothing wrong!" The panic that started to overwhelm her became perfectly clear as her position became defensive, and she threw a pleading look in the direction of her friends.

"You have been involved in an illegal use of magic and will come with us!" the leader of the hooded figures decided, waving his quarterstaff at her, and for once, his voice seemed to be one of weariness and anger. He clearly had no desire for another massive confrontation, although he had to know that one with Imoen would be far easier than the battle with Irenicus.

Dimension doors opened, and the hooded figure in the middle of the party grabbed Imoen by her arm, and pulled her towards them before any of her friends could intervene. "I’m not coming with them!" Imoen shrieked. "I’m not! Help me! Please!"

Then they were alone, except for the massive rubble, the corpses, and the few townspeople who were slowly milling towards them. The party leader, already wearied, flopped to the floor, ignoring the jagged rocks on his nearly unprotected skin as he lay back on the ground with despair, the outrage of his fellows washing over him, ignored. For the first time in weeks, his eyes turned skyward, and he could see the endless blue mass that had not been his companion in many, many days.

Even though it was mid-day, bright and clear, it seemed a whole lot darker than it had the last time he’d seen it.


Chapter 2: Reminiscing

Back at Candlekeep, Harrian Corias had always been fond of just finding a quiet place to lie, sitting back, and staring at the sky. Obviously, he had preferred night-time, watching the stars peacefully. They comforted him, calmed him, reminded him that he was merely a part of a big tapestry and that there was, in fact, a world beyond the walls of Candlekeep.

Imoen would have often joined him, and throughout their youth they would sneak out at night, clamber to the top of the haystack, and spend hours up there, sometimes in silence, more often talking – discussing what they planned to do with their lives, who they were going to be, where they wanted to go.

They had been simpler times, obviously. The worst thing they’d had to deal with was getting caught, and Harrian was convinced the those late-night escapades were where he first honed his thievery skills. Though he didn’t like to call it thievery – productive reallocation of goods was a far better, and less criminals-sounding term. It was not uncommon for the two of them to sneak down to the larder and take whatever food they wanted for a midnight feast.

Simpler times.

Corias didn’t miss them, to tell the truth. He was an adventurer at heart, a man who could not settle down for anyone or anything, a man born to wander and explore. People had classed him as a cheat and liar for his profession, much to his consternation, but that was something he’d been able to overcome. Eventually, you learnt that the opinions other people have of you wasn’t as important as the opinion you had of yourself. A little more profound than his usual thoughts, but true, nonetheless.

He constantly maintained that he was not a petty man. Yes, he was a thief, and being a thief meant that he would steal things, obviously, but he would draw the line at mugging a drunk, or stealing some coppers from a poor family. It was irritatingly principled, he knew, and had often interfered with many of the tasks he had undertaken, but he would only steal goods from the rich, and only steal their luxuries – luxuries that would carry a fine price at market, and at worst would mildly inconvenience their former owners.

Gods, he was too soft. He’d probably never have survived out in the world if it hadn’t been for Jaheira, Minsc. Some unscrupulous character would have probably found him, seen his skills, and exploited him. Edwin had attempted to do so the moment they had met him at Nashkell, and if it hadn’t been for some close quizzing from Jaheira, and Minsc’s ensuing burst of outrage, Harrian would most likely have found himself tricked into killing Dynaheir… an action which would have removed him of a valuable ally, and thus left the mage unable to save his life a few hundred times.

That was a mere example. A simple display of how much he needed his companions. Suspicious Jaheira, who stopped him from being overly trusting, taking everything with a pinch of salt; mighty Minsc, the warrior of the group, dealing with matters that nimble fingers and swift movement could not handle; Khalid – Gods, he would miss the man – the one who showed him, ultimately, that you didn’t need to be bold of outlook to be the most courageous man alive….

And Imoen. Much as he valued his companions, past and present, none of them could hold up a torch to his young friend. Well, he called her young… she was technically his elder! Chronologically, anyway. In the mind… most definitely his junior.

He knew this, he had seen from the moment she had appeared down the road from Candlekeep, right after he’d witnessed Gorion’s death. Corias knew that she had a streak of innocence that he had never had, a naivety that had often outdone him when he had known little of the world, an attitude that everyone, by all rights, should have seen and taken advantage of to the maximum.

But they didn’t. For some reason. Somehow, not even the most vile of creatures could bring themselves to do anything to sully her nature in any way, to bring a black cloud to her clear horizon.

Well, with a few exceptions. And Harrian had proven himself willing to lay down his life, even for something as mundane as his friend’s innocence. He had shielded her from the harshness of the world, taking the full brunt of it on his own back as penance. He had protected her.

Until now. Until Irenicus.

As a single cloud could be spotted creeping over the walls of Waukeen’s Promenade, breaking him of his almost catatonic mood, Corias silently vowed that he would not rest until Imoen was safe, and Irenicus had paid for his actions.

Chapter 3: Social Disorder

A shadow fell over the leader, blocking the bright sun which, despite his mood and predicament, he had been enjoying. "Harrian! Say we will be going after Irenicus, and dealing the righteous butt-kicking he deserves!"

Minsc, without even waiting for a response, leant down and grabbed the thief by his leather armour and yanked him to his feet in a way they were all sure the ranger thought was gentle, yet was enough to jar their leader into full consciousness.

"We cannot let Dynaheir’s murderer escape, not when he has taken little Imoen with him too!" the massive warrior continued, fairly shaking Corias briskly in his overly-earnest need for assurance.

The thief’s eyes snapped open fully, no longer glazed over, and he clutched Minsc’s arms in an attempt to balance himself. It was futile; like trying to rely on the ground for stability during an earthquake, and perhaps less steady.

Finally, the thief was able to prise Minsc’s hands off him, and almost stumbled back to the floor as his knees buckled, hindered as he was by the sudden and deep fatigue that had set upon him. But the ranger had been hardly deterred, and supported his friend easily, seizing his shoulders in an iron grasp to stop him from sliding to the ground.

After a few seconds, Harrian pulled himself together enough for him to stand on his own two feet. "Don’t worry, Minsc," he muttered. "We’ll get Irenicus." The declaration visibly perked up not just his giant friend, but himself, and he straightened up proudly. "Irenicus will learn that whoever crosses us, regrets it. Whoever takes our loved ones from us, regrets it. And this shall be no exception."

The words were spoken with a conviction he forced upon himself, so they rang a little hollow, even to his own ears. But Minsc’s suddenly hearty and delighted expression reassured him somewhat. Lying, if it brought back faith to the others, was a perfectly acceptable thing to do, he reasoned.

"Bold words," Yoshimo spoke from beside Jaheira, not averting his gaze from the rubble below them. His tone was not condescending, but merely that of someone offering a comment. "Where do we go from here?"

Jaheira saw some panic in her friend’s eyes, enhancing her suspicion that he was more shaken up by the whole situation than she had first suspected. Though he had put on a strong face in the dungeon – most likely for Imoen’s benefit – it didn’t take a master to read how deeply the whole experience had affected him.

She could also see that Corias had no idea how to proceed. He was giving them another bold outlook, a brave front, because he knew that there was nothing more demoralising than a panicking leader, but he was holding onto that mask with by a very thin thread. Best to put little stress on him.

"To an inn," she said firmly, in that instant deciding to take control of the party during their leader’s temporary lack of presence of mind. At least, she hoped it was temporary. Either way, she was the wisest person to lead the group during Harrian’s… ‘episode’, for she didn’t trust Yoshimo, and Minsc was far too unbalanced for such a responsibility.

Harrian, damn him, was well enough to throw her a look of betrayed indignation as she took charge for a moment. In any other circumstances she’d have given him a verbal kick and told him to get a more mature view of the group’s leadership, but here realised that it would be a destructive decision.

"We need rest and can decide how to proceed tomorrow," Jaheira added. Anybody else would have rushed the words so as to smooth ruffled feathers faster… but the druid rushed for nobody. Definitely not in matters as inconsequential as these.

Yoshimo nodded, seeing the way the wind was blowing. "I agree," he stated coolly, offering the impression of a democratic decision at work to ease Corias’s mind. A split in the party could be a disastrous thing for all people, all agendas.

The other thief nodded firmly as his eyes covered his three comrades. "Then yes, we should find an inn," he declared, as if they were merely concurring with his own decision and he’d never lost an ounce of control, of either the group or his mind. As he set off away from the rubble, head high, not even checking to see if they were following him, Jaheira rolled her eyes.

The confirmation that they were in Athkatla had not flown over Harrian’s head, and he enjoyed the unusually warm – for a man of the north – sun on his face. For a second, he began to feel alive again, human again, out of that dark, stifling dungeon. Stumbling on a bit of rubble, however, brought crashing back the memory of Irenicus, and Imoen.

He pushed it out of his head for a moment, and looked at the sign of the tavern he had reached. The Mithrest Inn. A glance inside confirmed a clean-looking, brightly decorated establishment. Perfect.

Yoshimo’s eyes widened as Corias entered one of the most up-market inns in Amn wearing scruffy dark clothing – very scruffy dark clothing – battered leather armour, and smelling as if he had just spent three days trapped in a cage in a filth-ridden dungeon.

Harrian pushed the door open, glancing brightly at his friends and gesturing that they enter with him. He stepped into the slightly gloomy room as Minsc caught the door behind him, and blinked, adjusting his eyes to the darker interior.

The quiet hum of conversation came to an abrupt halt as he entered, and Harrian realised his mistake as he narrowed his eyes, spotting the fancy attire of all of the patrons, and coming to the conclusion that he had picked a slightly too refined establishment in his haste.

He was about to discreetly leave and find a slightly more rough and tumble tavern, when he caught the eye of one of the nobles at the bar, giving him an arrogant and very disdainful glare. A clear message that he didn’t want riffraff like the four adventurers in here. And there was a touch of triumph in his eyes as he saw Harrian was about to go.

The swashbuckler came to an abrupt halt. Who was this nob to tell him where he could and couldn’t have a drink? There was no law stopping him from going in (and, as a thief, it probably wouldn’t have stopped him anyway). The only thing disallowing him from getting a room here was the social structure.

Harrian put on an arrogant swagger, considered straightening his clothes, then decided against it and ruffled them. He strolled forwards towards the bar. Minsc, behind him, seemed to be watching the proceedings with curiosity, Jaheira with indifference, and Yoshimo with well-concealed trepidation.

He stepped up to the counter, brushing shoulders with the man at the bar roughly, and sticking his elbows on the surface. He knew that aggravated these people. He was in no mood to be pushed around by these people. In a burst of uncharacteristic vindictiveness, he secretively picked a few gold coins from the noble’s purse, and slid them across the bar towards the well-tailored innkeeper.

"Bartender, if you would happen to have a free room or four tonight which myself and my compatriots could make use of, I would be more grateful," Corias declared smoothly, meeting the portly owner’s eyes.

The other man looked at him with barely controlled disgust, though his gaze lit up a little as he saw the coins the thief was proffering. Still, this was a high class establishment, and they didn’t come much less high class than the party of four he was presented with here. "I suggest you try the Dale next door, sir."

There was an edge to the ‘sir’ that made the bouncers take notice. Yoshimo tightened his grip on his katana as his three companions looked on, oblivious. Well, Minsc was oblivious. Jaheira plainly didn’t care, and Harrian…

Well, their leader was revelling in it. The bounty hunter’s deadpan expression became more grim, and he hoped their dramatic entry to the city wouldn’t then be followed up by a dramatic brawl in an expensive establishment.

"No, I believe I may be fine here," the swashbuckler was saying, somehow managing to swagger in his speech, a feat that impressed Yoshimo no end. It sounded like an amazingly fast route to the prisons.

The nobleman next to him snorted quietly yet derisively, and Harrian turned to face him, eyebrow arched with a face that was doubtless supposed to be imposing but definitely failed to intimidate the other man. "Come now, come now… the man is being reasonable. The lodgings here are far too fine for a rabble such as yourselves to indulge in. Why, the price of breakfast alone is, I’m sure, far beyond your purse."

Harrian Corias didn’t answer at first, merely looked at the three gold coins he had stolen from the noble, before reaching into the purse (kept, Yoshimo noted, in a pocket on the inside of his black jerkin, not on the belt) and emerging, only the hint of a triumphant smile on his face, with a fistful of yet more gold coins, which he placed in the bartender’s stubby fingers.


Chapter 4: Moonlight Discussion

Yoshimo breathed a sigh of relief as he descended the stairs to enter the main bar of the Mithrest Inn. As he had suspected – or rather, desperately hoped – it was mercifully clear of nobles to gain distastefully upon him.

Not that he cared one jot for their opinions. He just knew that such an open clash of social standings could have disastrous effects. The damage dealt would be as if it had been dealt with a war hammer, and Yoshimo was a stiletto man.

Not for the first time, he wondered what he had done to fall in with this group of madmen. And a druid. It was night time, and slumber did not come easily to one under a powerful geas which forced an honourable man to break his word.

For Yoshimo was an honourable man. He was a Kara-Turan, part of a society built on honour, and to be forced into a deal such as the one he was now in with Irenicus did not bode well for him. He had no idea as to how he would proceed, how he would deal with this situation – if he would abandon his honour to live, or stand by his word and die.

A voice from one of the large chairs behind him saved the bounty hunter from having to answer the question in his head, and he whirled around to see Jaheira lounged in a seat, a steaming cup of something in her hand.

‘Lounged’ was, actually, quite an incorrect word to use. It seemed to suggest that she was at ease, and relaxed. Whilst she might physically be, the slight fidgeting, furrow of her brow and almost frantic drinking of the hot mixture in her cup displayed the lack of such a mental peace.

Finally, he was jerked from his reverie as he realised she had asked him a question. He shook his head to clear it, and gazed openly at her. "I’m sorry?" he asked quietly and a little sheepishly.

"I said that you seem a little lost," Jaheira repeated patiently, gingerly sipping the herbal tea she’d acquired from the bar. One bonus of residing in this expensive establishment meant that it was possible to get a hot drink late at night without being disturbed – the heavy drinking had stopped hours earlier.

"It is hard to sleep," Yoshimo replied warily, edging towards the chair opposite her, then sitting primly on it as she pushed it back towards him with her foot. The wooden leg scraped on the tiled floor with a loud groan that broke the restful silence of the room, and the bartender cocked an eyebrow at them, a vague expression of irritation on his face.

Jaheira took the thief’s unhappiness as reluctance to admit how the recent situation had affected him. "That is why I ordered tea. It is quite soothing. Besides, if we are to stay at this luxurious establishment, we might as well take advantage of it." Twenty-four hours ago she might have smiled as she spoke, he realised with a jolt.

"Harrian and Minsc seem to be saved from our inhibitions," Yoshimo observed, declining the cup she offered him. He would not sleep; of that he was certain, and thus drinking vile substances would serve no purpose.

"Minsc could sleep through a thunderstorm, and has done so before," the druid assured him. "It is his way of dealing with loss. And as for Harrian…" Her voice trailed off, and the bounty hunter noted a crease of concern on her forehead.

"You do not believe he sleeps?" Yoshimo prompted cautiously.

She shook her head. "Harrian is not one to slumber during difficult times. Imoen meant – means – a lot to him. He shall not take her kidnapping lightly."

"The days ahead have the potential to be hard, verily," Yoshimo mused, leaning back in his chair.

"You are under no obligation to travel and fight with us," Jaheira reminded him, not unkindly. "I am sure Harrian would welcome your talents full-time, however, if you wished to stay," she added quickly.

The Kara-Turan pretended to consider this for a moment. "If your leader will have me, I shall follow. I am also curious about Irenicus," he lied. There was a long pause for a moment. "Why is Harrian your leader?" he asked at length, curiosity on his face. "I mean… you are older and more travelled; Minsc is physically superior, if, from what I have seen, not entirely sound in the head. Why do you follow a thief such as he?"

Jaheira contemplated this for a moment, already knowing most of the answer in her head, but unsure of how much to divulge to Yoshimo. He was their new ally, she knew, but she did not fully trust him; neither did she wish to tell him secrets that were not hers to tell. "Harrian is a born leader," she declared at last. "He may not be the fighter Minsc is, and I may be more experienced an adventurer, but that is not all that is needed to lead, especially a party like ours." She sighed. "He can be as stubborn as an ox on occasions, and mind-numbingly naïve when it comes to trusting people, but at the end of the day, he’s intelligent, and a sound leader."

Yoshimo resisted the urge to narrow his eyes at her and throw her a very querying glance. "That is why you follow him," he repeated slowly.

She nodded stiffly. "That is why I follow him."


Chapter 5: Rallying the Troops

The next morning, Jaheira eyed the stairs leading from the Mithrest Inn’s rooms to the tavern section of the inn with intense trepidation. She was certain that sleep would restore some of their leader’s usual vitality and energy, but how much she was eager to see.

Beside her sat Minsc, indifferently feeding Boo crackers. The rodent would nibble at some crumbs, look as smug as was possible for a hamster, then eye Yoshimo with an air of something bordering on wariness.

The bounty hunter was, externally, more at ease than he had been the previous evening, yet his inner turmoil had not been appeased. Talking with Jaheira had merely confirmed his suspicions on how hard it would be to betray these people.

"Boo wonders what is taking Harrian so long to awake on this fine day," Minsc declared suddenly. Jaheira looked on sceptically. To her, it seemed as if Boo was wondering how many crackers he could eat before getting too fat to fit in the pouch on the ranger’s back, and certainly didn’t care about their leader’s internal clock.

"He has earned a rest," Yoshimo interned gravely, saving Jaheira the trouble of pointing this out to the masses.

"I am sure that, once he has slept soundly, he shall be invigorated and ready to lead us onwards. There is much for us to do," Jaheira concurred, though there was a touch of doubt and suspicion in her voice.

"Good morrow friends! I trust you have all rested well?" a familiar voice boomed from behind them as Harrian descended from a staircase different to the one the druid had been stubbornly watching.

In response, the swashbuckler won Minsc’s curious glance, Yoshimo’s surprised look, and Jaheira’s slightly venomous glare. Nobody answered him. "Well?" he asked, far more quietly, pulling up a chair next to the druid with a slightly sheepish expression on his face.

"You are more… animated than we had anticipated," Yoshimo told him cautiously.

"Harrian is back in full butt-kicking form!" Minsc said to the bounty hunter loudly. "Minsc and Boo shall join the hero in mopping the floor with evil’s buttocks this day as we strive to find little Imoen!"

Their leader smiled, albeit a little wanly. "You said it Minsc," he concurred, though Jaheira noted he spoke with less aplomb than was usual for him. At her questioning glance, his face became more serious. "I’ve been doing a lot of thinking," he told her quietly. "Moping won’t get us far. It shall take action to rescue Imoen from the Cowled Wizards."

"Granted, though I am unsure was to what action will get us to our goal," the druid confessed. "We shall need more information before we can safely make any further decisions."

"True, and that shall come," Corias assured her, though a little dismissively. "But first, we must strengthen ourselves. We have need of a skilled spellcaster – now that Imoen’s gone." There was a trace of sadness in his voice.

"Any mage of ours will go the same way as your friend, without a license," Yoshimo protested instantly.

Harrian managed to dilute the withering look he threw the bounty hunter before speaking. "Then we will get a license," he pointed out impatiently.

"It is not a simple case of applying and then having one given to you," Yoshimo insisted, with a little exasperation. "The wizards are very selective… it usually takes a gold contribution before they even consider it."

The swashbuckler rolled his eyes. "This is the City of Coin. I shouldn’t be surprised," he muttered, more to himself than anybody else. "Alright, we’ll work on that," he conceded at last. "But there’s a second thing we’ll need –"

He stopped as a shadow fell over the table, and looked up to see the portly bartender’s form blocking the stream of sunlight from the window. "Here’s your bill," Pugney muttered gruffly, stubby hands pushing paper across the table towards them.

Corias looked blankly at them. "This was settled last night!" he declared indignantly, as he finally read the paper. "You’re charging me that much for tea?" the thief continued, a slight note of panic in his voice. "We don’t have that much!"

He spoke a little too loud, however, and caught the nobleman whose purse he had picked the evening before, who was sitting up by the bar and snickering a little. Corias’s eyes narrowed, and the streak of pride and stubbornness that had got him into much trouble before raised its ugly head. He smiled belligerently at Pugney, and the bartender raised an eyebrow, a slight look of worry in his eyes…


Chapter 6: The Faithful

"Was that really necessary?" Jaheira demanded as the four of them strode very quickly away from the inn, taking care not to run. "The situation could have been resolved in a different way. The man was just doing his job – you did not need to intimidate him like that."

"He was left unharmed," Harrian assured her, then threw a cautious glance over his shoulder and came to a halt, silently enjoying the brightness and warmth of the sun. Waukeen’s Promenade offered a pleasant environment for as fine a day as this, and he thoroughly enjoyed a market, especially in good weather. It almost made him forget his troubles.

"Your dagger seemed to be threatening his organs unnecessarily," Yoshimo pointed out, suddenly bringing him back to reality. "Fear may have saved us from the payment we couldn’t give, but it could bring the guards upon us, and we don’t need that."

Corias paused a moment, pursing his lips. "Good. It will help me with the second thing we need to deal with. Somebody who knows the city." He sagged as Yoshimo looked veritably dismayed, then made a supreme effort to hide it. "Don’t worry, Yoshimo," he hastily added, "you have links to the underworld we shall find useful. However, a legal link would be helpful."

"You are a thief!" the bounty hunter reminded him incredulously. "The law is not a consideration. Or shouldn’t be," he amended sulkily, aware that he was not fully informed of the situation and the working of his new party leader were not entirely in his knowledge.

"A complete lack of regard for the legal system could land us in more trouble than we need." Harrian shook his head. "Besides, I’m not that kind of thief. We could do with somebody who has links." This was what he did in these situations. He’d look at the scenario objectively, work out what had to be done, how they’d do it, and what they would need to go through with it.

"Boo says we should find a different inn to stay at," Minsc rumbled, uttering his first – and maybe only – words of wisdom of the day.

"Agreed. We also need money." Jaheira raised an eyebrow. "What do we have to sell until we can find some paying work?" she added.

Corias smiled broadly. "Some gemstones, and…" He paused, possibly for dramatic effect, then pulled a bright blue jewel from the purse in his inside pocket under his armour. "…this," he declared with a flourish. "Imoen identified it was the pommel jewel of the Equaliser. It should fetch a pretty nice price at any store worth its salt."

* *

The Adventure Mart was gloomy, yet offered blissful relief from the heat of the outside. A warmer day had not been seen in Athkatla for many days, and Anomen Delryn, squire of the Most Noble Order of the Radiant Heart and warrior-priest of Helm, was only glad he had not had to wear his armour that day.

He had only just returned from the Order’s campaign against the Hillgnasher Giants up north. As great as that had been – both as a victory for the order and his own personal achievements – it had been costly, in life and material. He had his life, so that was not a big concern for him, but his armour had been split right down the middle from a giant’s hammer in a momentary lack of concentration.

Fortunately, in reflection of his performance on the field battle, Sir Ryan Trawl had insisted on funding him for a new suit of armour, a costly investment that he, a simple squire with no support from his family, would have found impossible to deal with by himself. Which was why he was here this morning, feeling quite naked and free in simple clothing without the weight of metal on his back, seeing what that rogue Ribald Barterman had to offer him by way of armour.

"Splint mail," the half-elf was saying as Anomen tuned back into the conversation. "Much like the last suit you were wearing, Squire Delryn, but of far finer craftsmanship. Forged by Cromwell the dwarf no less. It’s not enchanted, but is of very sturdy metal and will serve you well. Decent price too – all I’m asking is one hundred and forty nine gold pieces," the shop owner finished triumphantly.

Anomen nodded, a slightly imperious look on his face. "Interesting, yes, but Sir Ryan Trawl really did suggest that I investigate plate mail – far more befitting of a squire of the Radiant Heart, yes?"

"Indeed, but it’ll definitely cost you a pretty penny. Still, if the Order’s paying for it…" Barterman sighed, but was smiling inside. He knew Delryn – had sold him the mace that hung on his belt – and knew that if he could get the finest, he would take the finest, and that meant a good sale for the Mart.

The shop’s door swung open suddenly and noisily, and bright sunlight spilled through to chase away the shadows of the gloomy interior. Anomen narrowed his eyes against the glare; he had only just grown accustomed to the darkness of the Adventure Mart, and the brightness was blinding.

Fortunately, the sun was blocked by a massive figure filling the doorway, silhouetted against the light. The squire squinted at him in the half-light, trying to make out features of this new arrival as he stepped fully inside, three considerably smaller companions trailing behind him casually.

As he had already noticed, the man was huge – almost seven foot tall, easily; completely bald, and with some ritualistic-looking tattoos on his forehead. The armour he wore, similar in make and condition to Anomen’s last suit, and the massive two-handed sword strapped to his back showed plainly that he was a warrior.

He inspected some shelves intently, a look of supreme concentration on his face, and Delryn tried to hide his surprise as a small brown and white hamster poked its head from out of a pouch strapped to the man’s back. The rodent scurried up the armour and perched on the warrior’s shoulder, and from his stance and the movement of his lips, the man seemed to be talking to the small furry creature. Anomen decided firmly that it was a trick of the darkness.

One of his companions stepped up to the giant, who was staring at potions as if he knew what he was doing, and seemed to be gently coercing him into moving towards the counter. This man was far smaller; average height and build, dark hair, goatee… nothing to make him stand out. The slight prowl of his walk and tense, fight-or-flee stance suggested that he was one of the thieves that misguided adventuring parties were so keen on bringing along with them. He despaired of mankind sometimes.

By Helm; there were two of them! The third one, hooded but with distinct Kara-Turan features, was watching the shop quietly. His cool gaze met Anomen’s, and the squire turned away abruptly, bringing his analysis of the group to an end. He looked blankly at Ribald Barterman, knowing the half-elf had asked him a question but had clearly no idea what it was.

"Excuse me?" he asked at last, blinking so as to accustom his eyes to the darkness once more and grinning almost apologetically. He wanted a good deal with this armour, and insulting Barterman wouldn’t get him far.

The half-elf smiled indulgently. Good; he’d embarrassed the squire to the point where he could make it an easy sail, shame the man into buying rather than admitting he hadn’t listened. It was a low tactic, but times were hard. "I asked if you’d be buying it, Squire Delryn," he said, open and innocent on the outside.

Anomen’s eyes roamed quickly around him. The plate mail Barterman had brought up was nowhere in sight. But for that matter, neither was anything else. Damn that man, all the way to the Nine Hells! This was no way to treat an almost-member of the Most Noble Order of the Radiant Heart!

Help came from unexpected, and quite unwanted territory, as the thief from the party he had watched – the first one, the one who had directed his warrior friend – headed in their direction. "Mr Barterman," he started, completely ignoring Anomen. "I was wondering if you had –"

He was cut off, mercifully by Ribald, for Delryn – not very keen on being interrupted as he was – would have intervened far less politely than the shopkeeper did. The half-elf was looking over the thief’s shoulder at the fourth party member, a woman this time, tapping a staff impatiently on the floor.

"Miss Jaheira!" he exclaimed, though there was a guarded look to him as he greeted her which was not missed by the surprised Anomen and the similarly surprised thief. "I trust all is well?" he stammered at last.

"Not really," the woman replied wryly. "But that is your concern. We are merely here to sell some trinkets, stock up on gear, and then move on. You do not need to worry yourself about my wellbeing." There was a cool look that passed between the two of them, leaving Delryn quite confused.

"Right you are, miss," Barterman answered, suddenly all polite and light. He turned to face the thief, to Anomen’s chagrin. "We have the widest range of goods from here to Baldur’s Gate. You won’t find finer craftsmanship than here. What can I do for you, Mr…?"

Delryn didn’t care to the point of finding out the man’s name. He had been being served, and, damn it, he was going to get served. "Excuse me, I believe I was next in line for service," he butted in coolly, directing at the thief more than Barterman.

The man looked right back at him, and it was then he noticed the depth of his eyes, the warmth in them but at the same time the pain controlled within. It set the squire back a moment, but not long enough to be taken out of the running in the discussion. "What are you buying?" he asked quietly.

Anomen huffed a little. "Not that it’s any of your business, but a suit of armour," he responded, eyes narrowed as he regarded the other.

The thief nodded contemplatively. "I see. That can be a lengthy business," he answered, his voice still irritatingly quite and calculating. His brow was furrowed slightly, as if he was doing calculations inside his head. "This will only take a minute. Can’t you wait?"

Delryn might have conceded to the point and agreed to wait a little, if he hadn’t been interrupted and the man had shown no modicum of courtesy throughout the exchange. "I’d rather not. It will not take all day and I am needed back at the headquarters of the Radiant Heart by noon," he continued.

That had an effect, although not the desired one. The thief looked oddly at him, but there was a hint of pleased surprise and a little respect thrown in. The squire felt himself appeased a little. "You’re a knight of the Radiant Heart?" he asked pleasantly.

"A squire; I hope to pass my test soon," Anomen said levelly, eyes still narrowed in suspicion. "But what this has to with this shopping expedition, I have no idea," he mumbled. Unnoticed to them both, Barterman had moved off, and seemed to be dealing with the woman he had called Jaheira.

"Up to anything good lately?" the thief asked, in a painfully common tongue, a northern accent breaking through, until he cleared his throat before continuing. "I mean, are there any quests or duties that the Order is having you do, or is it as it usually is – you are left to your own devices to find quests that shall find you worthy of knighthood?"

"What do you know of the Order?" Delryn asked quietly, even more suspicious than ever.

"I ran into a squire also awaiting his test up north some months ago. We dispatched some bandits together; it was a short alliance but I learnt a lot about the Radiant Heart and, if Ajantis was the standard for you squires, I know you are very valuable men, in combat and out." The thief flashed him a smile.

Anomen didn’t know if he was being buttered up or not; the thief seemed quite genuine in his sentiment, but the words were not one he expected a criminal to speak. Most thieves would curse the Radiant Heart and then flee at the first sign of it; not welcome it with outstretched hands and talk of a former alliance.

"Is there a point to this, Mr…?"

"Corias. Harrian Corias," the man said at last, extending his hand. Anomen shook it warily, but he could feel his defences starting to slide down in the face of this unexpectedly open friendliness. "And yes, there is a point. Me and my friends are embarking on quite a dangerous quest, and, as you can see, our numbers are small. We could have need for a paladin of your skills."

Delryn shook his head, the momentary surge of elation fading. He thought he was a paladin! Helm was often cruel to him. "I’m sorry, Mr Corias, but I am no paladin. My name is Anomen Delryn, and I am a warrior-priest of Helm. I am a squire for the Order, yes, but if you seek a paladin, I am sure the Order itself is full of squires eager for quests."

"A warrior priest? Sounds even more useful. Jaheira here’s a druid, but you can’t have too many healers, I say." Harrian chuckled. He had been quite nervous about attempting to recruit this man on the spot, and it was starting to filter through. He didn’t want to know what the aforementioned Jaheira would have to say about this.

"What is the quest?" Anomen asked at length, already knowing he would accept it, whatever it was. To the Nine Hells with this man being a thief; he had shown respect for the Order and was embarking on a dangerous quest, the type Delryn had been looking for. If he was corrupt, then… who better to steer him onto the path of righteousness than himself?

"I’m rescuing an old friend from the Cowled Wizards. They imprisoned her, and a mage called Irenicus from whom I want answers and some of my comrades want vengeance," Corias replied briefly, shrugging. "If you join us, it’ll also mean we can get served here in one go," the thief said cheerfully.

Anomen was not completely sold to the party itself – two thieves and a hamster-carrying warrior, by Torm! – but the quest sounded like just what he needed to prove himself to Sir Ryan Trawl. He extended a hand towards the thief once again. "My services are at your disposal in fighting for righteousness, Mr Corias."

He shook his hand. "It’s Harrian. You’re the squire; you’re the one I should be all respectful to, Squire Delryn. And if you were worried, we are a force for righteousness. This mage is… quite evil"

"If this is an adventuring party, then there should be no need to stand on ceremony. You shall call me Anomen, and I shall call you Harrian. Formality is such a turgid thing between allies, is it not?" the squire asked, as the thief steered him towards where the druid was dealing with Barterman.

"I agree, Anomen," Corias replied implicitly. He seemed a bit arrogant, but he was Radiant Heart – Ajantis had been occasionally unbearable in his overly-pious mood, but had been a valuable ally nevertheless. He had a good feeling about this fellow. "Now, let us go buy you some armour, and us sell some trinkets."


Chapter 7: Unbeaten Paths

Back in the warm sunlight, Anomen was idly wondering just how he’d explain to Sir Ryan Trawl that, after taking the knight’s money and replacing his beaten armour, he would be setting off with an adventuring party to combat evil on what could not be described as more than a whim. Squires were allowed to do so – nay, expected to take up such quests to prove their worthiness – but Anomen had been pencilled in for the next jousting tournament, and so Sir Ryan would have to find somebody to replace him. It was a minor issue, but Anomen did feel as if he had a responsibility to stay with the Order if they needed him.

Besides, he enjoyed the jousts – any open chance to strive for superiority in the face of his superiors and his gods was most welcome. He’d proven himself the last time around. He hadn’t won, but had done well. Politics did not usually come into play in the Order, but being known as a successful participant in the jousts could hold him in good stead throughout the test, might make the prelate more inclined in his favour.

He wasn’t even certain what he was doing with these adventurers. Their quest seemed like a worthy one, one befitting a knight of the Order – rescuing a kidnapped friend, defeating an evil mage – and they had shown no signs of evil, but they were an… odd lot, and he was not quite sure of their place within the realm.

Harrian, the thief working for good – by Helm, he’d only known him a few minutes and the man already did his head in – was a criminal and enemy of society, but plainly something… else by nature. There were depths to him that Anomen could not fathom; some secret level that he could not perceive, and so he was forced to merely have faith in the gods that he was not being lead down a dark path.

The massive warrior Minsc initially appeared to be the most stereotypical adventurer, clearly not a force of evil, and with skill and strength of benefit to any party. What had thrown Anomen initially was that damned hamster, which he had placed as simply a bizarre pet. After brief conversation with Minsc, however, he had no idea what the ranger’s mental state was. Not something he wanted to comprehend, he knew that much.

The druid was by far the most normal of the group. Sarcastic and more than a little suspicious in the short conversation they’d had, she seemed the experienced fighter and adventurer, and clearly the voice of reason within the party. The only thing that betrayed her relatively normal exterior was the overly-controlled tone of her voice, and the pain in her eyes. It was a pain Anomen recognised, having seen it in his mothers’ eyes for many years before her death. He would have to ask one of the others of this situation the first chance he got.

Then there was the second thief, Yoshimo the Kara-Turan. Anomen’s suspicions of the rest were mostly out of self-preservation, a guard until he knew the true depths of his new companions, but he had little regard or trust for the bounty hunter right now, and doubted he ever would. There was a shiftiness to his actions that Delryn would have put down to his being a thief if Harrian (although plainly not being the stereotype) had shown no signs of it, and he was clearly not quite suited to the rest of the party. Anomen guessed that he was an alliance of convenience and situation, rather than similar goals.

Up ahead, Harrian side-stepped from out of the shade the walls around the Promenade offered to walk once more in the bright sunlight he was relishing. The warmth and light made him feel better; made him almost forget the troubles, and any chance of that was one worth taking. Baldur’s Gate had never been this pleasant in climate.

Normally, he would not let himself become this absorbed in the sun, but he was feeling relaxed after a good night’s rest and finally with some coin in his pocket. His quest was not forgotten, the purpose for his being there still in his mind, but… pushed aside for the moment.

Considering just what the situation was, it was a potentially dangerous stance to take, but mercifully the slight lapse in awareness was taken advantage of only by Jaheira as she stepped quietly up beside him. He jerked out of his reverie as he spotted her in the corner of his eye, and flashed her a hopeful yet sheepish smile. "Oh! Uh… yes?"

She raised an eyebrow as they fell into step, leaving the other three trailing behind a few metres. "You seemed lost to the world," she commented dryly, not looking at him, keeping her eyes on all that was around her. Her awareness was countering his own daydreaming.

"I was thinking," he murmured, not defensively, his brow furrowed a little. "Taking advantage of the moment to mull things over."

"You looked like you were taking advantage of the moment to bask in the sun," Jaheira replied, and they finally looked at each other, both wearing slightly wry smiles. "Your mind was clearly elsewhere – far away from here."

"I was trying not to dwell. The occasions are few and far between when I can actually focus on other things, permit myself to think of other matters, other times… so I take advantage of them where I can." He raised his face to the sun once more. "The weather down here is beautiful, isn’t it?"

She ignored his comment about the climate. "It can be good sometimes to take yourself away from the matters; to step out of yourself, so to speak. But do not do it to the extent where you forget where you are or what you are doing," Jaheira warned him.

"I know exactly what I’m doing," Harrian replied, this time getting defensive. "I’m not just going to forget it, just it’s useful to sometimes… step out of myself, like you said. My plans are formed, I know what I’m doing," he repeated.

"Like when you recruited the cleric without consulting any of us on this important matter?" Jaheira retorted. She did not know yet where to place Anomen, and was not instinctively adverse to his being there, but she wished Harrian had not brought him into the party on what had been very much a spur of the moment.

"So now I have to consult you on every thing I do?" the thief responded, narrowing his eyes, smelling how adversarial this was getting but having passed the point of caring. Fed and rested as they may have been, their inner tensions were still taut without any kind of confrontation with each other.

"You know what you can be like when it comes to trusting people. You were ready to swear an oath to Edwin after talking to him for a few minutes," Jaheira pointed out, her voice level and with no trace of emotion.

It was then she got dangerous; Harrian knew to take a step back. "You have a point," he conceded. "But I wouldn’t worry about Anomen. He’s a priest and a squire of the Radiant Heart. Besides…" He glanced over his shoulder at the other three. "He seems to have passed the Boo test."

Jaheira’s gaze followed him just in time to see Minsc thrust the hamster at the party’s newest addition, and could not help but smile at the squire’s expression. She sobered a little as she faced Harrian once again, however. "That may be a recommendation that works in the past, and I agree that, considering his position, he does not seem to be a threat… but remain careful in the future."

"Me? I’m always careful," Harrian declared firmly, flashing her a grin and turning away to step out of Waukeen’s Promenade before he could spot her rolling her eyes at him.

Chapter 8: Shadowy Deals

They had only just entered the Slums district, on Anomen’s advice that they go to the Copper Coronet for lodgings and maybe some work. The Mithrest was no place for people like them or employers they would need, and whilst Harrian had standards beyond a rat-infested inn like most of those Athkatla boasted, they wanted something a little bit more downmarket. Both Anomen and Yoshimo had assured him the Coronet would suit the party.

Harrian had finally realised that the heat would stay there forever and his slight preoccupation with the weather was, at best, eccentric. He had started to take in more of the sights, become more aware of his surroundings, watching the people as they moved, evaluating their places in the city and situation.

He had clearly not been as attentive as he had thought, because it was Yoshimo who stepped up behind him and commented, his body language and tone of his voice was if he was talking about the weather, that they had a tail.

Corias nodded, and resisted the urge to look around. After trailing plenty of people himself, he knew exactly what would throw their shadow off course. "How far back?" he asked at last. He didn’t want to get rid of whoever it was; he wanted to find out who they were and why they were following him.

"Ten metres. Apparently shopping for… silks," the bounty hunter said, the slightly amused tone of his voice back. "How do you wish for us to proceed?" he continued in the first real deference to Harrian’s position as leader.

"See if you can cut down a side alleyway and get behind him without him noticing," Corias responded, his voice casual and light, smiling as he spoke. "If he runs, he’ll have to run right into you. I want to find out just what this fellow seeks."

"Very well." Yoshimo nodded curtly, then mumbled something that sounded distinctly like "Hiii-ya," under his breath. When Harrian turned to face him, idly wondering if he was being mocked by the bounty hunter, he had already disappeared. Corias smiled happily at his choice of plan.

He lack of attentiveness was proven once more when he turned to see Anomen standing right next to him, and forced himself not to jump. The cleric’s expression was one of idle curiosity, but he wore a knowing smile. "Our Kara-Turan is off to catch our tail, no?" It wasn’t much of a question.

"Did everybody detect him apart from myself?" Harrian asked sheepishly, one eyebrow raised, realising he’d have to get his act together to survive in this city, let alone on this dangerous quest of his.

Anomen shook his head. "Ranger Minsc declared that, ah, Boo detected the man’s presence. He was just about to inform you when Yoshimo disappeared. What is our course of action?"

Harrian came to a stop, the other three around him also halting, now all fully aware of the situation. "Now we do this," he mumbled, grabbing Delryn’s arm and pulling him around as he marched directly at their tail.

He saw a man start, then turn around and stride quickly in the other direction, head low. The time for subtlety was over; the party broke into a run. Their tail was about to do the same just as Yoshimo emerged from an alleyway right in front of him, and the stalker collided heavily with the Kara-Turan bounty hunter.

They both fell to the floor, the tracker having not expected to find someone suddenly in front of him, Yoshimo having not expected to be literally run into, but before the tail could get to his feet, he found a rather vicious-looking long sword pointed at his throat.

"Who are you, and why are you following us?" Harrian asked, his voice low and threatening as Minsc stepped up beside him, blocking out the sun for added effect. It rather diminished Corias’s intimidation rating, but with the massive ranger next to him that didn’t matter too much.

The man raised his hands and slowly stood, the sword not wavering from his throat. "You be the one I’m looking for, if I’m not mistaken. Corias be your name, is it not?" he asked, his voice surprisingly bright for someone literally an inch away from being skewered by his neck.

"You are not the one asking the questions, dog," Anomen interjected, idly swinging his hefty mace back and forth. "I suggest you answer before we make things very unpleasant for you."

"Your point be well made," the tail conceded. "My name is Gaelan Bayle… I wasn’t trailing you, as such, merely taggin’ along until you reached somewhere a little less conspicuous where we could talk."

Yoshimo leant over towards Harrian. "Bayle… I know this man, Harrian. A man of his word, for what it’s worth in this city. He wouldn’t talk to us unless he had something of value to say. It may be advisable to hear him out."

Corias nodded. "Fine. Whatever you have to say, say it quickly," he declared levelly to Bayle, lowering the sword somewhat, but only because a few of the guards had started to look in their direction. He doubted that Bayle would attempt to take them on, outnumbered heavily as he was.

"Coo!" Gaelan straightened his ruffled clothes, and smiled in a way he hoped was winning. "You were involved in that incident on the Promenade yesterday, word has it. The friend of yours, yon lass Imoen kidnapped by the Cowled Wizards, I also heard."

Harrian’s face showed no trace of the immense surprise he felt. "That still doesn’t explain why you’re here. Tell me something I don’t know."

"I know people who can find her for you." Bayle glanced around furtively. "But this isn’t a safe place to talk. Come to my home and I’ll explain all about it, explain what my friends can do and what it’ll cost you."

To the immense surprise of the others, Corias smiled, and nodded. "That sounds good. Show us to your home."

Bayle’s smile broadened with immense relief. "Coo! Come with me then," he declared, setting off down the road in a slightly loping run. He didn’t get a metre before Harrian’s hand fell upon his shoulder.

"Just one thing," the swashbuckler continued, his brow furrowed with honest concern. "Tell us who these friends of yours are before we take another step."

Gaelan sagged. "I… I can’t be telling you that," he admitted unhappily. "Just stay happy in the knowledge that they can help you find your Imoen."

"Not good enough. Who are they?" Corias continued.

Bayle was weighing his options, the pros and cons of telling him, until Yoshimo interjected and removed him of the responsibility. "You work for the Shadow Thieves, do you not?" the bounty hunter commented levelly.

The hand resting on Bayle’s shoulder became a grip that yanked him back, and he found himself looking at Harrian’s furious face. "The Shadow Thieves? You expect me to work with the Shadow Thieves? Do you think I’m crazy or something?"

Yoshimo and Anomen exchanged confused glances, the former quite concerned, the latter simply relieved that his sudden fear at association with such an unsavoury group was unfounded. Jaheira and Minsc seemed to be unsurprised by the reaction, the druid almost sharing in it.

"They… they can help you!" Bayle stuttered, until he was roughly shoved away by Corias.

"To the Nine Hells with that!" he barked in reply, then took a deep breath, visibly trying to calm himself. "I don’t work for, or with the Shadow Thieves. Ever. Not even for Imoen. You’re all a bunch of lying, manipulative bastards, and you’ll probably cheat me before the deal is even made. We’ll find Imoen and Irenicus by ourselves, thank you," he hissed, pushing Bayle once more. "Now go," he continued, his voice level and controlled once more.

Anomen smiled as Bayle ran like hell down the street. "I am pleased with your decision, Harrian. Association with a group as unsavoury and immoral as the Shadow Thieves would not sit well with me, and I am happy it has been averted."

Yoshimo, however, was frowning. "You may have reservations about them, but they could help you. I have no doubt that they would set you on a fast-track to finding Imoen. This may have been a foolhardy decision."

"Foolhardy or not, I don’t associate with the Shadow Thieves." Harrian frowned as Bayle disappeared. "Not after last time," he added cryptically. "But let us go; the Coronet awaits, and we need to decide just what we are going to do with ourselves."


Chapter 9: The Duel

Nashkell Inn, Sword Coast
Three years earlier…

"If you’re g-going to be travelling the realm, you’re going to need to know how to f-fight," Khalid told Harrian, glancing critically around the bare room he had been able to acquire, evaluating its suitability for a fencing lesson.

"I avoid open confrontations. Stick to the shadows, hit ‘em when they’re least expecting it," Corias replied casually. He was perched on a box in the corner, displaying the same dismissive attitude towards Khalid he had all week, idly testing the point of his dagger.

The half-elf fighter sighed. Gorion’s ward was proving to be a far bigger handful than he had expected, but Khalid and Jaheira had promised to watch over him, and by the Gods, Khalid did not go back on his promises. "Maybe, but you s-saw what happened yesterday afternoon. There weren’t many shadows to h-hide in. All you could d-do was stay back and watch," Khalid finished.

"I dragged you from out of harm’s way, didn’t I?" Harrian asked haughtily. "You got your helmet knocked off and would have had your head split if I hadn’t pulled you out of the way," he pointed out.

Khalid sighed again. Maybe he should have let Jaheira deal with Corias, like she had suggested. But no… it wouldn’t be a training session, it would have been a lecture about the balance, which wasn’t quite what he was trying to get across. He loved his wife dearly, but she was more druid than fighter.

To be inclined to learn how to fight with a sword to any appropriate degree, Harrian would really have to be impressed with the skills of his tutor. Khalid was good, he knew that. Despite his stutter and slightly jumpy outlook, he was a skilled swordsman and a fine warrior, but Harrian had seen no sign of it. Maybe he should have let Minsc do this session.

That thought gave him more determination to push on, and he picked up one of the wooden swords on the floor, tossing it towards the thief. It clattered noisily on the stone ground, and Corias looked at it as if it was a snake.

Khalid picked a second sword up, and stared at his friend’s former ward’s face. "Jaheira has all of the g-gold, and if you want to get anywhere, I suggest you p-pick it up and get willing to learn how to f-fight."

"Blackmail," Harrian muttered. It wasn’t that he disliked Khalid, it was just that he didn’t think the man could fight. He personally had no desire to learn how to sword fight; it wasn’t his trade and other members of the party could do it.

"W-watch and learn," Khalid stuttered, the words losing their impact on his speech impediment.

Corias picked up the wooden sword, the expression on his face one the half-elven fighter had seen many times before: ‘I’ll show this bugger a lesson or two’. Khalid smiled inwardly. He could deal with that.

Harrian lunged sloppily at him, but Khalid side-stepped easily, bringing his sword up and giving it a quick flick that knocked it from the thief’s hand, then swung his ‘blade’ around again to hit him on the rump. A short, sharp shock and a touch of embarrassment might work wonders here.

Corias yelped, jumping a foot in the air, then glowered at Khalid. The half-elf smiled. "Now, are you going to learn, or will I have to hit you again?" Gone was the stutter in the face of such a confrontation.

Harrian pouted a little, but ruefully picked up the wooden sword, the glower fading. "Alright," he muttered gruffly. "Let’s get this over and done with."

* *

Copper Coronet
Present Day

Harrian grimaced as the stench of overcooked meat and spilled beer hit his nostrils when he swung the door to the Copper Coronet open. He was looking forward to some lunch and a drink, but he did have some standards for what he ate. Burnt rat did not sit well on his stomach.

Still, the place was relatively clean; no worse than any other tavern he’d seen in his day, and from the throng of people he was sure they’d be able to find some work somewhere. Unsavoury characters galore, and unsavoury characters usually had unsavoury problems that they were willing to pay people like him to fix.

He grinned at the others, then nodded towards the bar, and they started forwards. As they passed a table, however, the man standing at it shifted out a little, and Corias’s shoulder knocked into his.

Harrian ignored it and continued until a heavy hand fell on his arm and yanked him around to bring him face to face with one of the aforementioned unsavoury characters who was about half a foot taller than him and clearly very unhappy. "Watch what you’re doing, mate," the man muttered dangerously.

Corias resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Sorry," he said, as sincerely as he could muster. He really didn’t have the time for this. "I’ll be sure to be more careful in the future," he continued, this time unable to stop the sarcasm from slipping in his voice.

Another man shifted from foot to foot. "I think he’s taking the piss, Amalas," he grunted uncertainly.

The thief sagged. "No, I’m not taking the piss," he answered wearily. "I just want to go and get a drink and some food, and I happened to run into you." He stared at the hand on his shoulder as if it was soiling him, before carefully removing it. "Good day to you, gentlemen," he declared haughtily, before turning on his heel.

Amalas laughed heartily. "Ooh, look at him, all fancy and kitted up. What do you think you are, boy, one of them adventurers?" He guffawed idiotically, and his two lackeys joined in moronically.

"Actually, I am. Now, bugger off," Harrian snapped, his patience wearing thin. He really didn’t want to get into all of this.

"You?" Amalas queried derisively. "You don’t look as if you could face a bloody cabbage, let alone the full evil of Amn."

"I’ve faced things considerably worse than yourself, I’ll tell you that for nothing," Corias muttered.

His skin was leathery and pale, that of someone who hadn’t seen the light for even longer than you; his clothing beaten and worn, and his eyes… dark and burning, stones set into a finely chiselled face that lit up as he laughed in delight at your pain during the experiments…

Harrian blinked, realising he’d missed Amalas’s latest retort, but a warning hand on his arm told him that it was something that would have pissed him off. "I suggest we go," Jaheira murmured, looking at the trio with contempt. "They are not worth the effort."

Corias nodded firmly. "I agree," he said, turning around once more.

"That’s it!" Amalas laughed. "Go running off, you sissy-boy. Too afraid to face a real man. Listen to your whore and stay our of our way next time!" His laughter was joined by that of his two lackeys, in an irritating guffaw.

Harrian came to a halt, not turning around until things became silent. Yoshimo swore under his breath in his native language as the thief slowly faced Amalas, his expression emotionless. "What did you call her?"

Amalas smiled belligerently. "Ooh, so there’s some backbone there after all. Sounds like you’ll be taking me up on that duel, then…?"

Jaheira sighed, placing her hand on her leader’s arm once more. "Look, you really shouldn’t –"

"Damn right I will," Harrian declared to them both.

* *

"It is always better to wait until they attack you, and then counter it," Khalid said, his voice growing increasingly confident as he involved himself in the lesson. "That way you will see their strengths, their patterns; you will know what they are capable of. You will not be charging blindly into an unknown situation like you did earlier."

He raised the sword into an offensive position, and Harrian clumsily copied it. "I’ll be coming at you, this time. Don’t worry; I’ll hold back. All you have to do is knock my attacks aside. We’ll take it from there."

Khalid kept his moves slow, but not patronisingly slow, and Corias seemed quite capable in simple deflection. It was a start; there was talent there to work from. They kept this up for five minutes or so, the half-elf increasing his speed and viciousness as they continued, until Khalid did a lunge forwards, not dissimilar to the one his young friend had done minutes earlier but with a little more grace.

Harrian copied the side-step his tutor had made on that occasion, and clumsily but competently duplicated the twist of the sword that took Khalid’s flying out of his hand and clattering against the wooden floor.

The half-elf didn’t move, merely smiled at him. "Y-you’re not going to hit me on r-rump, now, are you?" he asked cheerfully, the stutter back as the lesson finished, pleased with the progress his student had made – both in skill and psyche.

"The thought had crossed my mind," the thief responded, equally bright as he put his own wooden sword down.

Khalid laughed. "That’s enough f-for today," he assured him. "We’ll continue this t-tomorrow."

* *

Amalas wielded two swords, which didn’t make things easier, but Harrian had been taught well by the best. He might not have been at the forefront of the fighting when it came to a battle, but one-on-one, he was finer than most of his profession. Dual-wielding wasn’t a problem.

The stone arena was perfect for this sort of fight – open and with no hidden surprises that could make things difficult. Which meant that Amalas could only take him by surprise with a vicious yet controlled charge forwards, which he did.

Moving more by instinct than consciously, Harrian took the traditional side-step, but Amalas had anticipated such a move, and a scimitar came sweeping across, aimed at his ribcage. Corias flicked his blade upwards to deflect it, then brought the hilt of his sword down on Amalas’s back before stepping away.

Outside the arena, Anomen frowned. "By Torm, he had an opening there; why didn’t he take it?" he muttered, more to himself than to anybody else, but Jaheira, beside him, overheard the comment and smiled ruefully.

"He is trying not to kill him," she sighed. "And whilst that is a very noble stance to take, it is not so good when his opponent is fully willing to become lethal. It has placed him at an unnecessary disadvantage."

Delryn frowned. "Such benevolence is wasted on a dog like that." There was a silence as they watched the fight. "But he knows how to use a sword, most thankfully."

"He does," Jaheira agreed quietly. "He had a good teacher."

Harrian’s holding back and maintaining a defensive position was more out of deference to Amalas’s two scimitars rather than following a fighting pattern. Khalid may have been good, but he was very much the old-school swordsmanship; an honourable duel, with the one sword on either side, and if you were in a battle facing vicious opponents, you had someone as big as Minsc next to you to take the brunt of the attack.

Corias took a quick change of plan, stepping forward and swinging in an over arm slash that would have split Amalas’s skull had a scimitar not been raised in time. He stepped back in time to parry the blow from the second sword, feeling the effort fighting two blades was taking.

Their blades were locked, and even as his opponent brought his second scimitar up in a slash that would make a mess of his ribs, taking advantage of Harrian’s defenceless left side, the thief curled his fist and punched Amalas solidly in the face.

Back outside, Jaheira raised an eyebrow. "Now that, my husband did not teach him," she informed Anomen. The squire nodded, then did a double-take at the word ‘husband’. He quietly decided to leave that little note of information for later.

Amalas fell back, through the barrier around the duelling ring and into the main tavern of the Copper Coronet, dropping one of his scimitars as his left hand shot out to grab a table to stop himself from falling entirely.

Harrian leapt out at him, playing time clearly over, and stabbed at the staggering man, who just managed to twist to the side in time to avoid getting skewered on his opponent’s blade. Amalas straightened up, recovering balance, then took his scimitar in a two-handed grip before swinging at Corias.

The thief blocked it easily, but the strength of the blow pushed him back and knocked him over a table. He was able to turn it into a roll that got him on his feet quickly, but he had been knocked off balance and Amalas, now going for a strong offence, took advantage of his hurried defensive posture.

He backed off under the blows raining down upon him, until instinct took over and he kicked a stool to the floor. Amalas got his legs tangled up in it, giving Harrian a second’s breathing space. Which was enough for him to smash his opponent in the face with his fist once more, knocking him to the floor.

Harrian stood over his prostrate opponent, sword levelled at him. "That… that’ll teach you to learn some manners," he panted, getting his breath back, his vision swimming a little from oxygen deprivation.

He was so tired, he didn’t respond in time to Anomen’s bark of warning. "Behind you!" the cleric yelled as one of Amalas’s lackeys stepped up with a short sword, and he leapt over a table, mace upraised, ready to bring it down on the treacherous barfly’s head.

The bar exploded into uproar long before he got there.


Chapter 10: Rough Respite

Harrian rolled over to face the night sky, and gingerly raised a hand to his face. It was wet, and examination of his fingers merely showed a dark liquid, unidentifiable in the half-light. He tasted it gingerly, before grimacing and spitting it out. Mud. Better than blood.

He sat up, rubbing his head ruefully. The last thing he remembered was Anomen shouting at him, then he’d been clobbered over the head by… someone. Oh yes, and he’d been just about to make Amalas beg. It wasn’t a particularly noble wish, but nobody insulted his friends and got away with it.

The thief looked around. He had been lying on a wooden surface, but was clearly outside, which had confused him until now. They appeared to be on the roof of a building, and a quick examination of their surroundings confirmed it was the top of the Copper Coronet. Great. Nine hours or more of his life had disappeared, and he’d only moved a few metres in that time.

Finally, he took in his immediate environment. There was a fire going on the rooftop, and Jaheira was crouched by it, cooking… something. Gods, they were camping on a rooftop. The guards would go spare if they actually cared.

By his feet, something shifted, and he looked down to see Minsc’s slumbering – or unconscious – form. Boo slept on his stomach, rising and falling with the ranger’s breathing, and they both looked as if they were getting some much-needed rest.

Anomen was huddled by the fire, his armour in a pile beside him, a blanket over his shoulders, clearly wondering just what he was doing with the group. Yoshimo slept beside him, katana within arm’s reach, seemingly attentive even whilst asleep.

Jaheira stepped up to him, holding a steaming cup. "You’re awake," she observed flatly, passing the cup to him. He nodded, his throat too dry to speak, and sipped the drink tentatively, then smiled gratefully to her.

She shook her head, sitting down next to him, a slightly wry smile on her face. It was a common expression for her. "That was not the smartest action you have ever taken," she told him bluntly.

"He was asking for it," Harrian answered honestly. "You know what I’m like when people insult the ones I care about." He looked blankly at her, his expression unreadable. It was not a face she wanted to dwell on either.

She cuffed him lightly, playfully, around the head. "Just get some sleep. You’ll be needing it; I guarantee you you’ll be feeling ten times worse in the morning. And if you don’t… well, I’ll have to do something about it."

Whatever the drink was, it helped him carry out her orders fast. He was asleep – real sleep, not unconsciousness this time – before she had returned to the fire as Anomen blew on his own drink (tea this time, not a sleep-aid) to cool it down.

They sat in silence for a moment, Jaheira perched on a box, Anomen curled under his blanket. The squire finally looked over at her, feeling a little sheepish. "Art thou cold, my lady?" he asked respectfully in the end.

"Keep the blanket," she responded firmly. "You look as if you need it far more than I could. I have camped in far rougher conditions." Jaheira didn’t look at him, merely kept her eyes on the surroundings, ready for any more unexpected surprises.

He nodded gratefully. "I must confess, I am a creature who enjoys his comforts," he murmured, sipping the tea and sighing. If someone had told him twenty-four hours ago that he’d be involved in a bar-room brawl and be forced to sleep on a rooftop, he’d have told them to go to the hells. All nine of them.

"Regretting your decision to join the group yet?" Jaheira asked casually, a slow and unwilling smile pulling across her face.

He shook his head, also smiling ruefully. "Not yet. I am sleeping on the roof of one of the seediest bars in Athkatla, drinking poor-quality tea heated on a fire that could probably set the city ablaze after having been one of the causes of a most destructive brawl which got me banned from the inn I have been staying for the past few weeks… and yet I would laugh about it, were I not so damned tired."

He glanced over at Harrian’s sleeping form. "Do you think he knows it was I who hit him, Lady Jaheira?" Anomen asked quietly, frowning, his expression altogether very sheepish. It had been a mistake – Amalas’s lackey had stepped aside and pulled Corias back at the last moment, and Anomen had been unable to stop the massive swing of his mace.

"He would have leapt at you the moment he awoke if that was the case," the druid answered, managing her first half-joke of the past two days. "But do not dwell on it. It is probably for the best that he did not get even more involved in the fight. Minsc did enough damage for the five of us."

"Aye, and he is sleeping like a baby after bringing about such chaos," Delryn chuckled, then looked at the clouds in the night sky. "It will probably rain," he commented bleakly. "Just to bring the day to a shining end."

Jaheira looked up at the night sky. "It will not," she decided promptly and idly, as if it did not matter either way. "It is a shame Minsc has a need to sleep after his rage takes hold, or we might have been able to make it to another inn. As it is, even if Harrian had been awake we would not have been able to take him there."

Anomen shrugged. "There are no inns within a distance we could carry him anyway," he pointed out. "I believe the closest is Delosar’s, or the Five Flagons, and they are in the Bridge District. Other than the Sea’s Bounty in the Docks District and the Mithrest, those are the only other inns of any note in Athkatla. And, ah, the Docks District is Shadow Thief territory."

Neither of them spoke for a short while, and it was not until Anomen’s mug was empty that he considered asking the question preying on his mind. Or, at least, one of many, because there was nothing about this group which was clear-cut. He cleared his throat tentatively. "If it isn’t too much to ask," he mumbled, before coughing again and forcing himself to speak louder. "You mentioned, during the duel, that you have a husband?"

He cringed inwardly as she faced him, and he caught the controlled mask she usually wore flicker a little, a small flash of pain clear in her eyes, the same one he’d seen outside the Adventure Mart that morning. Was it only that morning? Gods, it seemed like a lifetime away.

"Had," she responded shortly, and Anomen felt his stomach sink. He really should have listened to his gut instinct and kept quiet. Keeping quiet – he never seemed to be able to do that, and with his lack of eloquence he could rarely get away with a misspoken word. "He was murdered," Jaheira continued, taking a faltering breath. "By Irenicus."

Delryn looked down, trying not to frown and mentally kicking himself for speaking out of turn. "I’m sorry," he murmured, then set the mug aside shortly. "Forgive me for asking, I did not mean to…"

"Do not worry yourself about it," Jaheira assured him, her voice emotionless. There was another uncomfortable silence. "You must be tired, with all of the drunkards you hit with your mace today," she said pointedly, and had there been a different run-up to the end of the conversation, he might have smiled.

"Yes… yes." Anomen nodded, before rolling over, pulling the blanket up over his shoulders. He paused, still mentally kicking himself. "Good night, my lady," he murmured, as loud as he dared.

Jaheira looked over at him, then up at the night sky. She knew she would get as much sleep this night as she had the night before. Idly, the druid wondered which of her travelling companions would stay up with her the next evening to help her through this.

Her eyes slowly wandered over to where Harrian was sleeping, looking deceptively harmless and boyish in his slumber. One could only fathom his thoughts, where his mind was now, what he was going through… but from everything she’d seen, he’d been well-taught, well prepared for what was ahead.

Lucky. She’d seen everything Toril had to throw at her; had a lifetime’s experience, and nothing could have prepared her for that loss. Somehow, watching Harrian’s duel had made Khalid’s death sink in that much more… watching it, the way he fought, the style so like that of her dead husband…

Jaheira sighed, grabbing a broken board from the box and throwing it onto the fire to keep the flames alight for longer, so she did not have to see this night alone and in perpetual darkness.