Tide Of Destiny by Slide

Chapter: 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20


Chapter 11: New Beginnings


By the next evening, things seemed to have settled down for the party. They had been rather rudely woken up by the city guard in the early hours of the morning, and instructed to get the hell off the streets before they were thrown in prison. Yoshimo, as the person having inflicted the least damage to the inn, had been delegated (leader’s prerogative, according to Harrian) to see if the Copper Coronet would give them a room.

Lehtinan had been disinclined to do so, and Yoshimo had the bruises to prove it.

And so, after spending an hour attempting to rouse the still-sleeping Minsc, Jaheira had taken charge, once again deciding that Harrian was in no suitable frame of mind for a command role. Indeed, the thief had still been barely recovered from the brawl the other day, without a helmet as he had been and hefty as Anomen’s mace was.

So the druid had taken their squire’s advice – for he was the only other in the group with some modicum of having his wits about him at that moment – and gratefully left the Slums district. News of the brawl had not yet reached the Five Flagons, and they had been more than happy to take their coin and give them five rooms indefinitely.

Despite the party’s desperate need for a more solid form of income than the thousand or so gold coins they’d made from selling trinkets taken from Irenicus’s dungeon, and the fact that they’d taken almost two days to do literally nothing to further their quest, it was agreed by all that they take the rest of the day to recover, so as to be on top form for whatever they would next have to deal with.

Consequentially, the party disappeared off to their separate rooms for their separate tasks – sleeping, healing, or thinking – for the duration of the remainder of the day, and it was not until the evening that they met up in the tavern of the Five Flagons for their first real meal together.

Harrian was poring over a piece of paper when the others joined him at a table near the back, but he was studying whatever it was so intently, all he managed was a grunt in reply to their greetings.

Jaheira looked at him for a moment, then reached across and took the paper from his hand. "A ‘good evening’ would not come amiss, you know," she murmured, her spirits a little recovered from the previous night but understandably not fully.

"I was reading that," Corias protested, but made not attempt to retrieve it. "Just making there that there are no discrepancies." The others looked at him, including Jaheira, who had made one attempt at reading the thief’s handwriting then given up. Gorion had often despaired of his studies.

"A plan of action, as I mentioned yesterday," he continued, scratching at the back of his neck idly. "If we’re going to make it anywhere in this city, we’re going to have to be prepared and have planned solidly. Especially with the Shadow Thieves around."

"I doubt they will take kindly to your treatment of Bayle, yes," Yoshimo agreed, pulling the paper towards him once Jaheira had given up in disgust. He squinted at it. "’Get spellcaster, Find job, Talk to Cowled Wizards’?"

"I never said it was a long list," Harrian muttered defensively, the fatigue plain in his voice. "And those are our basic plans. Tomorrow, we need to ask some questions, find some more people who’ll help us." He looked firmly over at Anomen. "I don’t suppose you’d know where the Cowled Wizards can be found, would you?" he asked, not really expecting much of an answer.

Delryn and Yoshimo exchanged looks, before the squire answered, "the Council of Six building, in the Government District." He frowned a little, as if this was the most obvious thing on Toril.

Harrian raised an eyebrow. "So they don’t… hide behind some other dominant power, using them as a front for their operations whilst they operate in secret where nobody can get to them?" he asked, the surprise clear in his voice. He was not used to this sort of thing.

"They are a legitimate power," Anomen shrugged. "You may find it hard to get to talk to somebody of any influence, and even if you do I sincerely doubt they will be disposed towards helping you… but they are easily available. If you want a spellcaster in the party, I highly recommend you get a license from them as well."

"Yoshimo mentioned that," Harrian murmured. "Pay a certain amount of money and they will allow us to have a mage who is legally entitled to cast spells within the walls of Athkatla, correct?"

Anomen winced; it was clear that the thief’s phrasing of the matter did not bode well with him. "In a manner of speaking, I suppose. Officially, you have to apply and then wait until your suitability for such a license can be evaluated… but many spellcasters have been known to offer gold to, ah, speed up the process."

"And bypass an evaluation," Jaheira observed. "Only in the City of Coin."

"The system works," Yoshimo insisted, a little indignantly, although all noted Anomen did not share in the bounty hunter’s assurance.

"For brigands such as yourself," the squire snapped indignantly. "The upstanding citizen in this city is taken advantage of by corrupt merchants doing deals like the Cowled Wizards’ monopoly on magic. Or, at the very least, a criminal injustice is done daily by small-time operators like yourself or vast organisations such as the immoral Shadow Thieves!"

There was a long silence, during which Harrian took his piece of paper back, and Boo leapt from Minsc’s shoulder onto the table. The ranger looked up cheerfully, oblivious to the tension that had settled upon them. "Boo says that everyone needs food." There was a pause, followed by an indignant squeak. "And he wants crackers."

Everyone exchanged looks, and Harrian was about to wave one of the waitresses over when there was a loud banging noise from the staircase on their heading down to the cellar. The barman had informed them that a bard troupe had taken up residence recently, but due to Harrian’s low tolerance for the theatre, they had not investigated it.

A tall, cadaverous man dressed in black erupted up the stairs, a long cloak flapping behind him, and rested on the banister, panting. "I don’t care how much money those plane-hoppers are paying, I did not sign up for that!" he shrieked down the staircase.

He was followed by a dwarf moving at a similarly speedy rate. "By Moradin’s Hammer!" the red-haired man bellowed. "Rescuin’ their tiefling be one thing, but I dinnae agree to fight bloody demons!"

A head popped up at their feet. "Are you warriors or wenches?" This third man was heavily armoured; so heavily armoured they couldn’t see his face as the party watched on numbly. "It’s just the one mephit…"

Just then, he let out a short, sharp yelp of pain, then disappeared from sight. There was an ear-splitting scream which came to a halt surprisingly abruptly. Patrons of the bar glanced in that direction briefly before ignoring them.

"That’s it!" the man in black shrieked again. "To the hells with this city! I shall take my magical arts elsewhere, where I shall not get ripped to pieces at the drop of a hat!" He turned on his heel and swept out haughtily, cloak flapping behind him.

"Aye!" the dwarf agreed, trotting beside him. "If tha beer’s good in tha north, then I be saying on ta Baldur’s Gate for me adventuring!"

The odd duo stepped out, leaving a rather bemused group of adventurers behind them, all waiting for somebody to make the first step after such a veritably bizarre exchange and piece of action. There was no sound from the cellar.

Harrian raised an eyebrow at them all, then shrugged, getting to his feet and ensuring his longsword was fixed correctly to his belt. With sighs, the others joined him, and, as one, they headed down the stairs.

The body of the heavily armoured man was lying at the bottom, and by him, the body of a dust mephit. There were about five other demonic bodies littered around the stage of the playhouse, and four people picking about them desolately.

Corias took a step towards the actors before a thought struck him. He knelt by the armoured body and searched quickly for his pack. From it, he pulled a purse – which he pocketed – and a handful of scrolls. As the others looked on curiously, he shuffled through the pieces of paper, before waving one triumphantly at the others. "Thought so. Magic use license," he declared happily, putting it inside his own purse.

Anomen wore a mask of intense disgust. "You just took the belongings of a dead man," the squire murmured a little numbly.

"I did," Harrian agreed, getting to his feet. "It’s not as if he’s going to be needing it any more… and I doubt his friends will be back for the coin. We have rooms for another four nights from that man’s purse." The thief grinned at him and patted the unhappy cleric on the shoulder before turning to the four actors.

"We heard some of the noise from the, ah… disturbance, and it sounded as if there was a situation here that could use a few extra blades?" Harrian asked brightly, folding his arms across his chest as he surveyed the four rather odd-looking performers.

One of them, a woman, stepped forwards, a broad smile on her face. "If you could help us, we would be most grateful. As you must have seen, the party we originally hired did not quite have the stomach for the situation."

"We’ve faced a considerable number of perils," Corias said dismissively. "Whatever it is you need us to do, I’m sure we can manage it. It seems as if all you’ve had to face are a handful of mephits anyway."

"There may be worse things lurking." The woman shrugged. "My name is Raelis Shae, the leader of this group of troubadours. We travels between the planes, performing our plays wherever we see fit." She pulled a small blue bauble from out of her cloak. "We do so with this portal gem. When we arrived on Toril, Haer’Dalis here –" At this, she nodded in the direction of one of the tieflings, a lanky man with blue hair who nodded sternly at them, "had the gem, but was kidnapped by a mage named Mekrath. We hired the men you saw to rescue him and the gem, which they did, but –"

"You asked them to fend off all manner of monsters that would emerge from the portal as you tried to open another, and they were… unprepared for what did attack them," Jaheira finished, looking inquisitively at the gem held by Shae.

"Precisely." The troubadour leader nodded, smiling again. "You appear to be a capable group of adventurers… could you finish what they did not? Fight off the monsters that may appear through the portal?"

Harrian looked briefly at the others, then smiled at Raelis Shae. "I don’t see why not," he decided at last.


Chapter 12: The Longest Night

Although it was the second time he’d been through it, the portal made Harrian’s insides feel as if they were being liquidated, and the moment he could feel solid ground beneath his feet as he emerged back in the playhouse, his legs buckled and he fell to the floor with a groan. He dearly wished that it wasn’t the role of the leader to take point in these situations.

Minsc was next, and although the ranger staggered a little, looking a bit green, he managed to stay upright. He ignored Harrian totally and leant against the wall, looking as flustered as anyone had ever seen him, before taking a deep breath and proceeding to feed Boo crackers.

Harrian slowly started to peel himself off the floor as Anomen flew through and landed a metre away from the swashbuckler, also falling to the ground, the weight of his armour bringing him crashing down on the boarded floor.

Yoshimo appeared a little better off, though spent a good few seconds hyperventilating against a wall. The tiefling blade Haer’Dalis was next, looking happy and content and not slightly bothered. He would, wouldn’t he, Corias thought sourly. The bugger’s been doing this every other week up until now.

Jaheira was last, and, much to the dismay and surprise of the others, seemed perfectly fine, save some ruffling of her clothes. She looked at Harrian, who had managed to get up to his knees, and Anomen, who had only managed to roll over onto his back, with a note of surprise and slight derision before turning to Haer’Dalis.

"You may have stayed on this plane for some time," she said to him, "but I would be correct in assuming you have nowhere to go and no place to stay, would I not?" she asked quietly.

The trip to the outer planes had been bizarre, at the very least. Cambions had been faced by the party before, but not one quite as ferocious as this, and the Balor, the Master of Thralls had been a most powerful foe to vanquish. But they had rescued the Five Flagons troupe, and torn apart the stability of an empire within a plane… which wasn’t bad, seeing as it wasn’t even midnight yet and they’d only left a few hours earlier.

Haer’Dalis smiled broadly at her. "Fair lady, your offer is too generous… but this sparrow is thankful for it and would be more than happy to join you on your journeys." He turned to offer a hand to help Harrian up, and the thief accepted it gratefully, suppressing a smile as he saw the mortified look on Jaheira’s face. He supposed she had only been intending to offer the tiefling some coin and some advice on Athkatla.

"You’re a bard, aren’t you, Haer’Dalis?" Harrian asked, ignoring the druid as she threw her hands in the air in disgust and virtually dragged Anomen to his feet. At the tiefling’s happy nod, the thief grinned. "Then welcome aboard. We have need of a spellcaster such as yourself in our group."

"My raven, any use I can be to you throughout your quest fills me with delight," the tiefling assured him in his slightly sing-song voice. "But come. You mentioned a childhood friend who needed rescuing and an evil mage from whom you required answers?"

"Aye, that is our task," Corias assured him as the party started to stagger up the stairs. "But right now it seems as if we would all settle for a soft bed and some food," he added, looking at the state of the others. "Action will come tomorrow."

* *

For the third night in a row, Jaheira could not sleep, and it was starting to get irritatingly repetitive. It wasn’t that she wasn’t tired – the fatigue followed her throughout the day and it was a miracle she could function – it was just… the thoughts which plagued her mind made rest an impossibility, and on the few occasions sleep did reach her, so filled was it with nightmares that she would be awoken after a few seconds.

The nights were spent reading, so as to keep her mind off the morbid fixation it was so happy in focusing on. It didn’t seem to be working – she’d spent an hour on one page, reading and re-reading it over and over, but the words just washed over her, not sinking in.

She was saved from having to do anything else by a knock on the door. Before she could respond, however, it was opened, and Harrian poked his head through. There was something about being a thief that gave him problems on handling privacy. At least he’d bothered to knock, she supposed.

"Still can’t sleep?" he asked sympathetically by way of greeting, then stepped in, uninvited, and pulled up a stool by the table in her room. At her querying glance he smiled a little. "I’ve been unconscious for the best part of the last forty-eight hours. I don’t need any more sleep." He sighed, his expression softening. "I thought you might want some company," he elaborated quietly.

"If I had wanted some company, I would have sought it," Jaheira said abruptly, glaring at him a little bit. She could smell the upcoming talk, and it was one she wanted to delay for as long as possible.

Harrian didn’t move. "I’ll rephrase that, then. I thought you might need some company," he amended, his voice still low.

"There I things I need to do," the druid responded evasively, gesturing towards the book by her side. "I don’t have time for frivolous discussions."

Corias reached out and took the book. "The ‘History of the North’?" he read dubiously, before tossing it onto the table behind him. "It can wait. History’s not going anywhere and I doubt it is imperative that you learn of it this evening."

"I also doubt it is imperative that we talk this evening," Jaheira responded stubbornly. She didn’t want this discussion. Not here, not now. Not with him.

"I think it is," the thief said, shifting the stool closer to her. "You are hurting inside, Jaheira, it doesn’t take a genius to work it out," he said quietly. "But you’re also bottling it up far too much. You’re not letting yourself grieve like you should."

"Like I should?" she repeated, arching one eyebrow. "You are not the best of people to turn to for help on such matters." The druid sighed, her gaze moving over to the window. "Why did you let yourself be goaded into that idiotic duel?"

Harrian stopped, taken aback by the turn of the discussion, but also knowing he wouldn’t be able to avoid it. "The imbecile insulted you, as I have said. I wouldn’t let him get away with that."

"Why not? I doubt you’d have flown into such a rage had he insulted any of the others." Jaheira shrugged. "And before you give me a sexist answer, I’ll remind you that, had it been Imoen, you would have simply permitted her to turn Amalas into a frog."

Corias shifted uncomfortably, twiddling his thumbs. "If you have theorised this much, I am sure you have established what the reason is. If not, I’d be very surprised." He sighed, then looked at her. "You just want me to say it, don’t you."

She shook her head, looking at him at last. "No." There was a long pause, and she took a deep breath. "You know that it is not necessary for you to do what you did. I am capable of taking care of myself –"

"But that’s not the point, is it?" Harrian answered, a little frustration creeping into his voice. "I owed Khalid so much, the least I can do is save his wife from being insulted by a trio of boorish pigs!"

"I doubt Khalid would have done the same," Jaheira murmured, averting her eyes and closing once again as she took a deep breath, struggling to retain control. There was silence, then a soft thump as Harrian shifted from the stool in front of her to sit on the bed beside her, resting his back against the wall as she was, legs dangling over the side.

"You know he would have done," Corias assured her, gingerly placing a hand on her shoulder. He had come ready for this, but was still unsure of himself – Jaheira had always been strong, had never faltered; he was unused to seeing her like this.

"What happened was… not right," the druid whispered, leaning on him a little, looking at him frankly, the unshed tears clear in her eyes. "We can do everything possible to make Irenicus pay, but… it will not bring Khalid back."

He slowly slipped his arm around her shoulder, drawing her to him, a friend comforting another in time of need. "You can get through this," he assured you quietly. "We’re all here for you to help you get on with your life. It’s what he would have wanted."

Although Harrian couldn’t see it, she smiled wryly. "You fight like he did, you know," she told him.

The thief sighed, closing his eyes and resting his head against the wall. "I know," he whispered. "But not as well as he did."

Nothing more was said that night as the two friends stayed together… but it was there that Jaheira finally managed to sleep.

Chapter 13: The Cowled Ones

The next morning was brighter for all. The party had spent three days floundering pointlessly, drifting even further away from their goal in an attempt to gather themselves, but the events of the previous night seemed to have helped. Journeying to another plane, fighting not inconsiderable foes and, above all, being forced to work as a team had given them a sense of purpose, and a sense of being a group… not a mere assembly of individuals.

Harrian had expected no miracles for Jaheira’s mood, but had hoped that she would draw some strength from the previous evening; be happier and more at ease with herself and the situation because of it. Fortunately, his hopes had been well-founded – the pain in her eyes was still ever-present, but everything else… the stern mask, the overly-controlled tone of her voice… were all gone, and what was left was the druid he had come to know and value.

Haer’Dalis, despite having been thrown into a completely unknown situation with completely unknown people and been expected to settle in easily, appeared to be in his element. He seemed to delight in tormenting Anomen in particular, although all but the squire could see the mostly good-natured point to his gibes.

The standard of his fighting had been seen whilst the party was fending off the demons coming through the plane portals, and later during the rescue. His style was fast – flashy, but efficient and extremely dangerous, and he didn’t skimp on the magic missiles when it became necessary.

Hopefully, that wasn’t something that would become necessary today. With any luck, they wouldn’t need his fighting style to combat foes, his magic to defeat them, or his wit to raise their spirits (or not). For they were in the Government District, and looking to talk to the Cowled Wizards about Imoen.

Harrian would confess that his expectations were exceedingly low. He wasn’t anticipating the wizards to be particularly forthcoming, and was perfectly happy to implement a few… persuasive tactics, if the situation called for it.

Though the old adage crossed his mind as they approached the park… ‘Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger…’

To the hells with them. He was here for Imoen, or, at the very least, he’d settle from some answers and a pointer in the right direction. He didn’t care what these mages had to throw at him; it would take more magic than was on Toril to shift him in his actions.

He looked up at the building of the Council of Six. It was tall, imposing, and perfectly fitting for a mysterious governmental body. The thief part of his mind evaluated its strengths and weaknesses; points of easy penetration and points of high security to be avoided if at all possible. Corias hoped he wouldn’t need them.

"Harrian, are you sure that this is a good idea?" Yoshimo asked cautiously. "You have already made a foe of the Shadow Thieves. It would not bode well if you angered the Cowled Wizards as well. There are only so many major factions you can take on at once," he added wryly, a deep frown on his face.

"Much as it pains me, I must agree," Anomen said quietly, ignoring the mockingly surprised and offended expression Yoshimo threw him. "If you offend them, they will find some rule you have infringed and then we will all find ourselves off to join your Imoen."

The swashbuckler looked slowly and thoughtfully at the building for a long moment, pursing his lips. "Good," he decided at last, before striding forwards and pushing the massive door to the building open.

Minsc leant a little towards Haer’Dalis. "Boo needs to know… do you think we will be needing to lend our butt-kicking skills to Harrian today, or is this a time for… subtlety?" he asked, as conspiratorially as he had ever spoken.

The bard paused contemplatively, frowning. "I am not entirely sure, my hound and hamster," he declared at last. "It seems as if our raven is planning to merely execute the fine art of subtle conversation. Well, that is clearly his intention; whether or not it is to be carried out… we shall see. I suggest that we be prepared to lend our skills at any moment, for this is a perilous place we go to."

Harrian strode through the doors, taking in the sights quickly. A few government officials… a few guards… a few nobles looking authoritative… and a group of mages lurking around the centre of the room suspiciously. Perfect.

He felt a hand grasp his shoulder firmly, even as he started forwards, and glanced curiously at Jaheira. "Do not do anything foolish," the druid reminded him sternly, aware of the potential consequences of a stupid move, before letting him proceed.

Tolgerias was quite pleased with himself today. He had managed to find an addled group of adventurers to seek out Corthala and bring him to him. Although the small party of overly-enthusiastic ‘warriors’ had capabilities that placed a serious cloud of doubt over him, they were willing, and a single ranger would probably not present much a problem for them. If they found him.

He sighed. Oh well… it wasn’t as if the clock was ticking. That sphere showed no signs of moving, and he doubted Corthala was going to disappear forever. He would show up. Men like him always did.

He had thus expected it to be a slow day… not many people would approach him for questions. Few people, if they had an issue or query about the Cowled Wizards, would actually carry it through.

Which was why Tolgerias was highly surprised as a rather motley band of people approached him, most looking quite tentative, their leader with a highly determined and focused air about him. The wizard peered curiously at them. This sort of thing, and this sort of people didn’t come to him often.

"I have a few questions for you," Harrian said quietly, not bothering with an introduction or establishing just who the Cowled Wizard was. "And I’d be most indebted to you if you could answer them fully and without any… sneakiness."

Tolgerias smiled falsely. "I shall do my best," he replied, with a decidedly oily air about him. "Please, proceed so I can do my best to enlighten you." The patronising air was one he employed for all such people, although… his curiosity was piqued with this group. They were not of one clear-cut category of the populace.

"A friend of mine was abducted by the Cowled Wizards three days ago," Harrian said, his voice as emotionless as possible. "I would like to know where she has been taken, what will be done with her, and how or when she is going to be returned. And without any… evasive answers, please."

Tolgerias’s false smile faded instantly. He didn’t take kindly to the ‘please’, clearly added as a fake courtesy from the tone of his fellow’s voice. "I believe you are talking about the incident on Waukeen’s Promenade, with the mage Irenicus and the girl Imoen, correct?" he asked cautiously.

"I am," Harrian responded smoothly, his expression as plain as the tone of his voice. It was quite a hard task to appear threatening whilst not being openly hostile, and he was trying to get the sentiment across in a glare.

The wizard shook his head. "They broke the law. I presume it is the girl you are attempting to retrieve, yes?" The thief nodded levelly. Tolgerias’s expression darkened. "She will be kept in Spellhold indefinitely. It is a place for the magically deviant, and until we can positively ascertain that she will not be a danger to anyone, she shall be kept there." At the other man’s questioning look, he smiled toothily. "Some inmates spend the rest of their lives there. Good day," he finished, not unpleasantly, before sweeping off haughtily.

Harrian tried to glare after him, but the sinking feeling in his stomach made it impossible for him to conjure up any anger. All he felt was a sense of loss and despair, and a feeling of inevitability. He would get Imoen back. He had sworn that he would, and he didn’t break the promises he made to himself – they were the ones that mattered the most.

Unfortunately, it looked as if he would have to go against all of his principles, set aside his inhibitions, and go to the Shadow Thieves. It pained him to do so, but considerably less than it would pain him to lose Imoen.

His despaired thoughts faded, and he stopped only to realise that, in his pseudo-anger and dejection, he had stormed out of the building. His five friends and allies were trailing uncertainly behind him, not looking as if they wanted to intrude.

"What action shall we be taking, then?" Jaheira asked quietly, her unwavering gaze fixed on his in a way that, in any other circumstances, would calm him down, comfort him and bring him back into the real world.

But not now. Not faced with what he was. "I don’t know, damn it!" he snapped at her, then forced himself to calm down as a handful of the nobles scattered around the park glared at him, and, consequently, the guards gave him a shifty and suspicious glance.

Yoshimo shook his head. "If we are to rescue Imoen and find Irenicus, it looks to me as if the most obvious course of action will be to return to the Shadow Thieves and accept their offer… for there seem to be no alternatives that present themselves."

Anomen glowered at him, then fixed Harrian with an honest gaze. "I have agreed to join with you on your quest," he said quietly, though there was a burning indignity within him which was plain for all to see. "But if you are to join forces with the Shadow Thieves… that is a course of action which I cannot – and, indeed, will not – support. I am a squire of the Order, and, as such, not willing to lend my services to a group as iniquitous as the Shadow Thieves."

Harrian glared evilly at him. "I don’t like this any more than you do, Anomen," he hissed. "But if joining forces with the Shadow Thieves establishes itself as what will be needed to be done to rescue Imoen, then that is the course of action I will take. As such, you can either stand with me, or find some other adventurers to fulfil a noble quest with."

A flash of anger crossed Delryn’s face, but the cleric controlled it with surprising discipline. "If this is truly to be a path of righteousness that you walk, then the Gods will see to it that you do not need to affiliate yourself with a group as immoral as the Shadow Thieves. Until that time comes, I shall be standing with you and praying that the Vigilant One sees fit to grant you another course to follow on your quest."

Haer’Dalis shook his head firmly. "My raven, often it is required during a perilous quest to choose between the lesser of two evils. Even if you are to ally yourself with the devils of this plane in order to rescue your Imoen, I should consider that a far lesser sacrifice than losing her altogether."

Jaheira looked at him for a moment before reluctantly nodded. "You swore that you would never work with the Shadow Thieves after what happened at Baldur’s Gate," she intoned gravely. "And so it seems as if you will have to make a choice between abandoning your principles or abandoning your sister."

The swashbuckler turned his glare on her for the first time in months. "You know, I wish for once that you could not put everything in morbid terms," he barked, then sagged with fatigue and frustration. "I can’t make this decision," he sighed at last. "There… there has to be another way."

"There is, Mr Corias."

A man, dressed in similar robes to those Tolgerias wore, had sidled up to the group without anyone noticing, engrossed in their argument as they had been. He was human, apparently only in his mid-forties, with long brown hair that was starting to grey at the temples and a short, neat beard. It was clear he was from the Cowled Wizards.

Harrian stared blankly at him for a moment. "What do you want?" he asked, although his surprise took out the menacing tone he had intended to inject into his voice.

"To help you," the man said levelly. "My name is Jeran Mavek, and I know all about your problem, Mr Corias. How you are attempting to rescue this girl, Imoen, who is currently imprisoned at Spellhold with the mage Irenicus you seek. And I saw the small debacle back in there. Tolgerias really isn’t that forthcoming with the confidential information you seek, understandably. He’s already quite out of favour with the heads of the Cowled Wizards after the debacle concerning the sphere in the slums."

Seeing Harrian’s still slightly dumbstruck look, Jaheira stared firmly at Mavek. "Just who exactly are you, and why do you want to help us?" She hesitated a moment before continuing. "And how?"

"I’m with the Cowled Wizards, and Tolgerias is my direct superior." Mavek shrugged, then lowered his voice, becoming more conspiratorial. He didn’t have the same haughty attitude as the aforementioned Tolgerias, but clearly had learnt his evasive skills of the other wizard. "Spellhold is where the Cowled Wizards keep the ‘magically deviant’ like your friend Imoen. I can bring her to you. I can get her released, by applying pressure in the correct places."

"How… and why?" Corias asked at last, the numbness of his brain fading a little as he peered at the Cowled Wizard.

Mavek glanced around hurriedly. "Here is not the place to talk," he told them at last. "If you will meet me outside Delosar’s Inn in the Bridge District at midnight tonight, I will answer all of your questions then." He paused, cast a discreet glance at Yoshimo which only the bounty hunter caught, before turning and disappearing from sight, some magical illusion cast which blocked him from their sight.

Harrian stared at the space the wizard had been standing before turning firmly to face the rest of the party. "And the Vigilant One did see fit to grant us another course to follow on our quest," he declared quietly at last.

Chapter 14: Betrayal at Delosar’s

"I can see your reasoning for aiming to keep a low profile throughout this meeting," Jaheira said quietly as she and Harrian wandered through the dim streets of the Bridge District. "But you must see that there is safety in numbers. I do nut trust Jeran."

"I don’t trust him either," Corias agreed, shrugging. "He is a Cowled Wizard, after all. I have no idea why he’d help us, and I don’t have much of an idea of how he’ll help us. He’s also going to want something in return, and I’m not happy about it." He took a deep breath. "But he’s a path to Imoen, and I’m willing to take that risk.

"Besides," he continued, "We’re right opposite the temple of Helm, so bringing Anomen is not a good idea. Yoshimo is a local face, and I’m sure he’s had dealings with the Shadow Thieves, so he may draw unwanted attention towards us. Haer’Dalis is a tiefling, in Ao’s name, and Minsc…"

"Is far too distinctive," Jaheira finished for him, finally seeing his point, however grudgingly. "As opposed to you and me, who are unknown and have very few distinctive features. And we clearly do not look out of place amongst the denizens of this city," she added, frowning a little as they passed some of the scruffier night-time inhabitants of Athkatla.

"Exactly." They passed the rest of the short journey in silence; it was not a long trip from the Five Flagons to Delosar’s Inn, and the less they drew attention to themselves, the better. Whatever Mavek had planned, it would be safer the less distinctive they were. He doubted a trap – there was no reasoning behind such a scheme, and besides, why such an elaborate set-up when the Cowled Wizards could apprehend them so simply themselves?

As they approached the Inn, they could see a cloaked figure, whose height and lanky frame gave Harrian the initial guess of him being Mavek. His trained senses listened and watched keenly, but there was no sign of anyone else in the vicinity; no scent of a trap or an ambush.

The mage was not adverse to using magic to enhance his own senses; they were barely five metres away, treading silently, before he turned to face them. Mavek smiled, his bright teeth shining in the darkness most disconcertingly. "You’re here. Good. I was starting to worry that you wouldn’t turn up."

"Can we cut the pleasantries and just get down to business?" Harrian cut in abruptly. "I want to get this over and done with, before we draw attention to ourselves and anything… unexpected creeps upon us."

"Cynical fellow, aren’t you?" Mavek commented brightly, stepping out into the illumination of one of the street lamps. "Have patience, Mr Corias. I’ll set things in motion so your Imoen can be retrieved soon enough."

The thief glared at him. "Alright. First things first. How can you help us?"

"I have influence," the mage said vaguely. "It shouldn’t be hard to get the Grandmaster of the Cowled Wizards to overlook one unimportant inmate of Spellhold. She was merely a by-product of the entire incident on the Promenade – it was the mage Irenicus who held an interest for everyone. She can be returned, almost entirely legally, and without repercussions from my people."

Harrian folded his arms. "What do you want in return for this?" he asked at last. Despite his often-dangerous tendency to be too trusting with people, he wasn’t fool enough to think Mavek would stick to his word.

"Not much," the Cowled Wizard assured him, shrugging. "All we need is –"

Suddenly there was the hum of a bowstring vibrating, and an arrow arched out of the darkness to imbed itself in Mavek’s throat. With a gurgle, the mage sank to his knees, Harrian grabbing him before he could keel over entirely.

Corias yanked the arrow out of his throat, and examined the tip. "Poisoned," he hissed, before angrily throwing the mage’s dead body away from him. Even with Jaheira’s magical healing skills, there was nothing to be done for a fast-acting poison injected in a pivotal spot, especially when accompanied by an arrow in the neck.

Footsteps could be heard from behind them, and Jaheira whirled around, quarterstaff at the ready. Beside her, Harrian leapt to his feet, drawing his longsword, ears and eyes straining for any sign of the attacker.

To men dressed in the distinctive black garb of the Shadow Thieves emerged from the shadows, one aiming a bow at Jaheira, the other bearing a vicious-looking scimitar and eyeing Harrian cautiously.

"The Shadowmaster instructed us not to kill you," the archer said quietly and levelly, his aim not wavering. "But he did tell us to advise you to reconsider your decision of shunning our help. You will need it – there is no other way of rescuing your friend."

His companion raised his weapon threateningly. "But do not think you can go against us," he warned. "Be advised, if you interfere with the operations of the Shadow Thieves, we shall not be in the slightest adverse to killing you." The two started to prowl back, not lowering their weapons. "You have been warned!" he hissed as they disappeared into the darkness.

Harrian stared at where they had been standing for a long moment, before whirling around and setting upon Mavek’s body, searching it thoroughly. "Bastards… bastards! They’d kill him, just to get us to go to them? Bastards!" he hissed.

Jaheira tapped the ground with her staff thoughtfully. "It is odd how they are willing to go to such lengths to get you to ask them for their assistance. That they might initially approach you is plausible, but this is far beyond what we have come to expect of the Shadow Thieves."

"I’ve stopped being surprised by the Shadow Thieves," Harrian declared finally. "Aha! What’s this?" he continued, pulling a scrap of paper from one of Mavek’s many pockets. "We may have a clue onto the resources and reasons of our dead magus here," he continued, opening it up and reading it.


Meet me at the Graveyard District tomorrow after dark (of course!) and let me know of how the meeting with Corias went. He should be easy to appease – give him what he wants, and he’ll be putty in your hands.

~ Bodhi

"What is it?" Jaheira asked at last, still scanning the darkness for any signs of danger. Despite what the two assassins had said, you couldn’t trust the Shadow Thieves, and besides… there could be other dangers out in the Bridge District at night.

"A lead," Harrian murmured contemplatively, folding it and placing it in his inside pocket.

Chapter 15: Murderer Most Foul

The rest of the party were a mere few hundred metres away, but for all they knew of what was happening to their comrades it may as well have been a few hundred miles. Anomen felt himself in dire need of some sane or less iniquitous company, as Minsc’s ramblings, Haer’Dalis’s incessant pointed and – from his point of view – cruel jokes, and Yoshimo’s all-round brigand-like behaviour was starting to wear on his patience.

It was odd, he reflected, how this party, which had now spent a good few days together and embarked on a not inconsiderable quest in the Outer Planes, could still function as a group of individuals, rather than a team. Socially, at least. Minsc was a little too addled to form any deep attachments with anyone which weren’t based on amusement, pity or indulgence on their part; Haer’Dalis… well, his wit was not quite appreciated by all, and Yoshimo seemed to go out of his way to avoid too close a connection with the group.

The closest two were clearly Harrian and Jaheira, and not only were they not there right now, the closeness was relative to everyone else. Anomen doubted quite sincerely that the druid was allowing anyone too far into her life, having pieced together everyone’s stories from Yoshimo’s limited knowledge and expansive speculation, not to mention the odd piece of information that tumbled from Minsc’s lips.

The four members of the party left behind for the meeting with Mavek were seated at a table towards the back of the Five Flagons – the same one as last time which had slowly started to become their regular place in the tavern – and all were indulging in some none-too-light drinking whilst they waited for the return of the thief and the druid.

The massive ranger, who had his back to the corner and thus had a good view of the rest of the tavern, abused his onlooker’s position by feeding Boo nuts, quietly listening to the conversation.

Or rather, it was less of a conversation than an argument, as Haer’Dalis returned with his pokes and gibes at Anomen’s fighting style, with Yoshimo taking sides as it amused him, making whatever digs he thought could impact the debate.

The squire was glaring at the bard when Minsc finally tuned into the conversation, sensing that Boo was tiring of the nuts and setting him down on the table. The hamster sniffled around a little, before creeping across the wooden surface and setting about making himself a bed of paper scraps in front of the low candle.

"You may criticise my technique, Tiefling," Delryn was snapping as Minsc looked up, taking a sip of his beer. "But the facts are in my favour. Last summer was the Order’s campaign against the hillgnasher giants, during which I slew twenty of the foul beasts. Not bad for someone who wastes time in combat with fancy moves and abandons opportunities, does it not?"

"Twenty?" Yoshimo echoed, a slight hint of amusement on his face. "I find that quite hard to believe, Anomen. Hillgnasher giants are ferocious beasts indeed."

The squire shifted a little. "Sir Ryan Trawl slew fifty," he added quietly. It had been a very long summer; the enemy horde large and the paladin army small but well-trained. Each knight or squire had achieved a high number of kills – twenty, whilst not inconsiderable, had not been a particularly outstanding total. Hillgnasher giants were incredibly strong, but incredibly slow and stupid. If a warrior was fast enough and smart enough, dispatching them one-on-one was no massive feat.

"Mayhaps, but may I then offer the possibility that your fighting skills have deteriorated greatly over the past few months?" Haer’Dalis asked, his face irritatingly open and frank. "Your performance in fighting the Cambion was not exactly… exemplary."

Anomen raised an eyebrow at the blade, mentally preparing a dozen of vicious retorts, but finding none suiting. This seemed to be his fate, this party, and they would be the death of him yet. Instead of continuing the argument, Delryn just glowered at the other two, ignoring Minsc, then stormed out of the inn.

He was starting to wonder what he had to gain from going along with these immoral fools. Harrian had struck him as a righteous man, but he was a thief, in Helm’s name! Delryn was going on the quest of a thief, following a thief. It was not fitting of a squire of the Order… he was sure the Prelate would frown upon it, and anything the Prelate frowned upon was not to be taken lightly.

There was a campaign to Tethyr soon, to quell the goblin hordes uprising around there. Maybe he should abandon this fool’s errand and join with the Order once again, even though he would probably have to serve under Sir Cadril, and not Sir Ryan as usual. It was a far cry from these blasted petty investigations of the city.

In his anger and deep thoughts, Anomen had stormed into a part of the Bridge District he didn’t recognise, finding himself in quite a dark alleyway. He came to a halt, recognising that he was quite conspicuous in a dangerous place. He had little to fear from petty thieves, but they could still present a problem.

He heard footsteps coming up behind him, and whirled around, mace in hand but not threatening, peering through the darkness to see who was approaching him.

"Looking for a good time, mate?"

Anomen sagged. It was one of the local harlots on her rounds, approaching any low-lifes that might give gold for her company for the night. Not a threat, and generally they didn’t remain in areas where people were liable to be attacked. "Begone, wench, I have no time for you," he snapped, though without the energy to input very little real venom.

The woman – more of a girl, he realised, his heart sinking – looked panicked in the dim light as she realised she wasn’t going to make a sale here. "Please, sir… It’s not safe to remain on the streets at night…"

Delryn frowned. "Then go home!" he exclaimed, turning to go.

She shook her head, rushing around to face him and grabbing his shoulders. "I need the coin, sir! But with the skinner murderer around here… I’m scared to stay out. Usually I can do my rounds once and be done for the night, but… please, sir, even just some coin so I don’t have to go home empty-handed."

"I cannot help you," Anomen insisted. Her pleading face was illuminated by the sole street lamp over his shoulder, but he froze as darkness fell upon them both, and in the dim light could see a look of panic cross her face.

Before she could scream, as she was clearly about to, Anomen whirled around to find himself face to face with a hefty man, his features not clearly distinctive without illumination. But the knife he wielded was very obvious.

Delryn didn’t have time to react as the metal thudded into his chest, and fell to the floor, surprisingly free of pain – his chest merely felt numb. But he could hear the harlot screaming, even above the singing in his ears… then the twang of a bowstring and a grunt, then running footsteps.

Shadows danced over him, then one came to a halt and strong arms gripped him, pulling him to his feet. "Is Anomen alright?" a voice, recognisable as Minsc’s, boomed in his ears as the berserker warrior supported him.

The squire looked down. A knife was sticking in his armour, but as he reached down and plucked it from his chest, it was clear that, although it had pierced the metal most devastatingly – almost certainly it was an enchanted blade – it had not broken the skin. Or not enough to do any real damage.

"I believe I am alright," he managed to croak, quite shaken up. He looked around him. Yoshimo was running towards them from the end of the alleyway, bearing his bow. It was clear that he had been the one to fire the arrow he had heard. Haer’Dalis was nowhere in sight. Anomen presumed the blade had decided to work on his puns whilst the others came to… help him. "What happened?"

"The streets are a dangerous place to roam at night, my friend," Yoshimo answered, approaching them. Anomen chose to let the ‘friend’ bit roll as the bounty hunter continued. "Especially with the word about the murderer going around. Minsc decided –"

"Boo decided," the ranger interrupted, nodding proudly and displaying the small hamster, who squeaked in a way Anomen would swear was triumphant.

Yoshimo smiled humourlessly. "Ah, Boo decided that it would be best we went after you," he amended. "It seems it was a good idea. That was no simple mugger. No mugger worth his salt attacks a man in armour, and to operate in Athkatla independent of the Shadow Thieves, you need to be worth your salt."

Delryn thought he could hear a note of pride in the Kara-Turan’s voice and resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "My thanks," he declared at last, trying not to let it sound too forced. "Where is the tiefling? Off polishing his swords?" he asked disdainfully.

"This sparrow was off following your attacker," a new voice interrupted, and Haer’Dalis appeared seemingly from nowhere. "He did not detect me, and so proceeded to his hideout. He’s in the tanner shop."

"That explains it!" the harlot, who had been ignored up until now, exclaimed, and they all looked questioningly at her. "This is the second time I’ve been attacked by the Skinner murderer. Last time, I got a whiff of him… stank of something, but I couldn’t place it. Now I know – ‘twas that stuff they use on the leather."

"You think this is the skinner murderer?" Anomen asked, his question not directed to anyone in particular.

"That would make sense," Yoshimo concurred, shrugging a little. "He has been the scourge of the Bridge District for many months, according to the guards. It would be best he were taken care of."

"The crimes he has performed are foul indeed!" Minsc declared. "We must bring this evil to justice, and administer a righteous butt-kicking! So say Minsc, and Boo!" He raised the Sword of Chaos above his head and nodded firmly and proudly.

"I must agree, my hound and hamster," Haer’Dalis’s lyrical voice joined in. "Such a foulness –"

They got no further, for then Anomen interrupted. "Then are we going to do something about this murderer or are we just going to sit here mumbling our consent to the idea?" he demanded irritably. "We should move!"

The harlot’s eyes lit up, and she sidled up beside Anomen. "Ooh, I likes a man who knows when to take charge," she purred.

Delryn’s expression flashed through about twenty emotions, none too kind and one bordering on panic. "Quickly," he added firmly.


Chapter 16: Torm, Tyr and the Vigilant One

Anomen tried the door to the Tanner’s shop. "Locked," he declared at last, and all eyes turned towards Yoshimo. The bounty hunter sighed, moving forwards and pulling his lock-picking tools from out of his pocket before setting to work.

"Is this not a little noisy?" Haer’Dalis asked. "Anyone waiting inside could hear the clicking of our thief’s work, and flee through a different exit?" Everyone stopped and stared at him, including Yoshimo.

Minsc stepped forwards. "Boo agrees. This is a time when a butt-kicking must be administered immediately!" he declared loudly, then charged forward, giving Yoshimo a mere second to get out of the way as he knocked the door down, sword swinging dangerously as he burst into the shop. His comrades came right behind him, Anomen baring his dangerous mace, Haer’Dalis brandishing his two short swords, and Yoshimo taking up the rear, an arrow already on his bow.

The room was small and quite cramped, with bare wooden floors, unstable-looking stone walls, but with at least two doors leading to separate rooms – or rather, Anomen amended after considering the shape of the building from outside, leading to staircases to different floors. It was dim, lit only by two torches on the wall and a candle at a table.

A man recognisable as the local tanner and with a build fitting the silhouette in the alleyway sat at the table, working on something that was most definitely not leather, and looked up in complete amazement. "Who…?"

"Your evil murders are over, villain!" Anomen declared, pointing his mace at him. "You will either surrender, or be prepared to defend yourself against the forces of righteousness, starting with us!"

Incredibly, the tanner smiled. "I don’t think so. You see, I have things very much in hand," he continued, as six ogres burst through the door behind him, brandishing battleaxes and looking very much as they meant business.

Anomen diverted his attention from the tanner immediately, and charged at the first of the monsters, his mace swinging even before he got there. Minsc, bellowing a battle cry, was already in their midst, his sword flashing in the dim light.

Behind them, Yoshimo aimed at one of the ogres, then noticed the tanner limping – for he had already been struck in the leg with an arrow that night – towards a door out of the corner of his eye. He turned, and let the arrow fly. It caught the murderer in the throat, and with a gurgle he fell back, no longer an issue. Yoshimo latched another arrow onto his bow, then let metal and wooden rain fall upon the ogres.

Anomen was beating an ogre already on its knees over the head with all of his strength, pummelling it into unconsciousness or, preferably, until its skull split. Behind him, another monster approached, axe bared, ready to bring it down upon the squire’s unsuspecting back.

Nearby Haer’Dalis saw this, and quickly dispatched one of the ogres with a flashy but highly effective stab, before kicking it away. Leaping up onto the table to get a clearer sight, it was but a moment’s work to cast a magic missile and shoot it at the ogre attacking Anomen.

Delryn had just dispatched his own monster, and turned to face the second, albeit too late. But the magic missile raced across the room and thudded into the ogre’s eye. With a bellow, it staggered back, leaving Anomen open to smash it to the hells and back with his mace.

The squire turned to face Haer’Dalis, grinning his thanks. "You see, tiefling, that is your strength. I am also capable of fending for myself in a battle," he yelled over the screams of the ogres and the clashing of metal as Minsc dealt with some of the remaining ogres, then leapt to join the giant ranger.

The blade rolled his eyes, then thrust Entropy into the chest of an ogre Yoshimo had just shot an arrow into. The remaining two ogres were presently dealt with by Minsc, a quick swing of the Sword of Chaos relieving them of their lives.

Anomen stopped, his chest heaving as he surveyed the carnage they had dealt. The tanner shop looked as if it had been hit by a bomb. Six ogre carcasses littered the floor, and, further off, the body of the tanner lying a little way off. "Did you have to kill him?" he demanded of Yoshimo. "It would have been better were he alive!"

"To bribe a judge and escape ‘justice’?" the bounty hunter mocked. "No, it is best this way. This is the best justice; the only justice denizens of the underworld like him understand." He returned an arrow to his quiver coolly.

"This is murder. This is not justice. He would have faced a life of prison were he alive; now there is no evidence to even support us!" Anomen declared, throwing his arms up in the air in frustration.

"See? The system does not work." Yoshimo shrugged. "He is dead, and there is nothing we can do about it. As for evidence… well, we do not have to come forward, do we? The murderer cannot kill anymore, and we just have to keep our heads down."

"I agree with Yoshimo, Squire Anomen," Haer’Dalis interjected. "It is best to be an unsung hero than a known villain. If we flee, there shall be an investigation, which I am sure shall uncover evidence. If it does not, then… nothing links us to his death. It is not murder… this is a justice, just not the one you sought. Let us fly, my ravens!"

Unhappily, Anomen nodded, and the four of them hurried out of the building, Yoshimo stopping only to pluck the purse of the tanner from his body. It had started to rain, and the light was still as dim outside as it had ever been, and a look at the clock confirmed it was midnight. Harrian and Jaheira would be back soon.

"Boo says we should go back to the inn," Minsc rumbled, slinging his sword over his back and protecting the hamster from the rain with his hands. "It is wet and cold, and no time for righteous heroes to be wandering streets."

"Let us return to the Five Flagons," Haer’Dalis concurred. "And wait the return of our valiant leader on his errand to further his quest. Who knows what information the Cowled One has uncovered?"

They stopped as an armoured man emerged from behind the tanner shop, and weapons were drawn in a second, ready to fight even before they had established whether or not this was a threat.

Finally, light fell upon the new arrival, and Anomen gasped in surprise. "Sir Keldorn?" he queried numbly, then glared at the others. "Put down your weapons! It is Sir Keldorn, of the Order of the Radiant Heart."

Keldorn had not moved a muscle in the display of weaponry, but now moved forwards. "My thanks, Squire Anomen," he replied unsmilingly, arms folded across his chest. "I take it these are your new friends?"

"My new comrades and travelling companions, yes," Anomen responded, nodding courteously. "Our leader is not here at the moment… we were simply…" His voice trailed off as he wondered how to explain a broken door and a collection of bodies to an Inquisitor.

"Dealing with the skinner murderer, yes. I saw." Keldorn nodded briefly. "It was well-handled," he conceded. "Although you should not have allowed yourself to be distracted by the lady of the night as you were." Anomen opened his mouth for an angry retort, then caught the slightly wry smile on Keldorn’s face.

Yoshimo decided to join in the debate at that moment. "You have been following us?" he asked suspiciously, his hand on the hilt of his half-drawn katana, a deep frown on his face, clearly not fully trusting Keldorn as Anomen did.

"I work in Torm’s name," Keldorn started, "for the Order in keeping a close eye on the Bhaalspawn you all travel with. His destiny is undecided, his place in the realm unclear, but he is a potential source of great evil, one that must be watched."

"A Bhaalspawn?" Anomen repeated, and for some reason, everyone except Minsc turned to look questioningly at Yoshimo. There was a brief silence, and the squire shook his head. "It is Harrian, is it not? He is a spawn of Bhaal?"

"You did not know this?" Keldorn queried, genuinely surprised. "Aye, his is a Bhaalspawn, and a most powerful one at that. You are free to travel with him, young Anomen," he added hastily, at the squire’s slightly panicked expression. "But be aware that I am watching you, and him. I have been since his arrival in Athkatla; this is the first time I could talk to his companions without him detecting my presence."

"To what end?" Yoshimo asked suspiciously, still not releasing his blade. "He has shown no signs of evil in all the time we have travelled with him. This is the Order meddling in affairs which are not its concern."

"Brigand, if he were to turn to the path of evil, he would be a force more powerful than any of us could imagine! He is a Bhaalspawn! The power and potential for evil that is within him is immeasurable!" Keldorn exclaimed. "If he is a man of good, then I shall watch him passively, and maybe even lend my sword to his cause if the Gods will it. But if he is a force of evil, then the Order must be informed."

Anomen glared at him a little. "Why was I not informed? I travel with him. I am a squire of the Order. Even if I was not to watch him, I believe I should have been told of the situation!" he barked.

"That is not the issue here, Squire Anomen," Keldorn sighed. "I am here to tell you that you are being watched, and to warn you. If Harrian Corias turns to the path of evil, you will have a choice – you can flee and leave him for the Order to deal with; you can stand with the Order to eradicate his evil… or you can stand with the Bhaalspawn and be eradicated with him." He straightened up. "It does not matter if you tell him or not. It may even be beneficial that he knows he is being watched."

Anomen glowered at the experienced paladin. "We bid you good day, Sir Keldorn," he barked, before whirling on his heel and storming off, his three companions tagging along absently, not quite sure of what to make of the encounter.

"Anomen!" Keldorn called after him. "If you care for your test, then watch the path you take. Tyr is not the most forgiving of Gods – an alliance with a force for evil, even a latent force for evil may doom your soul!"

The squire stopped, and looked at the inquisitor for a moment. "I thank you for your advice, Sir Keldorn, but I can deal with this myself. The Vigilant One guides my hand and my actions; if I am true to Him, if I remain His Watcher, then my soul shall never have a need to be redeemed," he intoned, before carrying on through the rain, into the night.

Chapter 17: Grave Matters

"I don’t get why," Harrian murmured the following night as they approached the Graveyard District, "we’re stuck in a bloody graveyard late at night – one where vampires are rumoured to roam, mind – simply by putting faith in a note carried by a dead man."

Anomen looked at him in total surprise. "You wish to rescue your sister, do you not?" he asked frankly, one eyebrow raised. "This seems to be the most logical and direct path… or at least, the most logical and direct lead," he amended.

Jaheira rolled her eyes. Ironically, she had been the sole member of the party acting ‘normally’. Harrian had been in a foul mood all day, and the rest… well, they had been completely on edge and furtive, having not told the others of the encounter with Keldorn. Anomen had declared it as information unnecessary to divulge. If Harrian did take a path of evil, then the Order would be better having the element of surprise in an offensive. If Harrian remained a force for good, then… well, he would never need to know, would he?

"I do not like this," Yoshimo muttered, his eyes flicking across the darkened streets. He, at least, would be happier once they were in the Graveyard. This was a thief for whom rumours of vampires held little weight. "We could be being set up for a trap."

"If it were a trap, they would have surely executed it last night at Delosar’s," Jaheira offered, but all noted that the grip on her quarterstaff remained firm, her eyes taking in all potential sites from which to launch an ambush.

"Besides, I don’t think Mavek was intending to get murdered by the Shadow Thieves," Harrian pointed out. "Whoever this Bodhi is, however, they should have answers for us – answers on how our Cowled friend was supposed to get Imoen back, and why they’re inclined to help us."

"The graveyard… hardly the place for a force of good to meet us," Anomen murmured. "Does darkness always find itself drawn to you, or is it just coincidence that the two factions inclined to help us consisted of a guild of iniquitous thieves and suspicious fellows hiding in graveyards."

Yoshimo threw him a warning glance, but Harrian saw it as a perfectly legitimate question and took it all in stride. "These things just seem to happen," he mused as they reached the archway at the threshold to the graveyard. The place well and truly gave him the creeps, most especially at night, and he tightened his grip on the hilt of his longsword. "When you’ve seen as much as we have of darkness, little things like this just stop surprising –"

In direct contrast to his words, the swashbuckler fairly leapt out of his skin as a woman sidled out from behind a pillar right next to him. Her skin was far too pale to be natural, though he attributed it to the darkness, and she was dressed entirely in black. "You must be Harrian Corias," she greeted them, her voice so silvery and smooth to the extent that shivers ran down everyone’s spines and the grips on their weapons tightened.

The thief took a deep breath, controlling his racing heart, then turned to face her. "I am. You must be… Bodhi?" he hazarded a guess, one hand still on the hilt of his weapon. "I have a lot of questions to ask you."

The woman nodded sternly, then smiled a smile that both warmed and terrified him. "I’m sure you do," she confirmed. "And I believe I have answers to those questions. First, if you please… am I right in assuming my friend Jeran was murdered by the Shadow Thieves?"

"You are. We were to meet him by Delosar’s Inn last night, but he was intercepted by the rogues and slain." Harrian evaluated her gaze coolly. "We found the note in his robes telling him to meet you here. We hope you can help us where he intended to."

Bodhi regarded him for a moment. "Come. Let us walk a while," she said quietly, gesturing towards the paths of the graveyard. The six of them stepped forwards, and she raised a hand. "Just Harrian," she amended in her silky-smooth voice.

The other five voiced their disapproval of the idea noisily, until Corias looked briefly at them. "It’s alright. If you hear an ear-piercing scream, then just come running," he joked, smiling far more than the situation was due.

Jaheira raised an eyebrow at him. "That," she declared at length, "is most certainly not amusing."

His next smile was more reassuring than humorous. "I’ll be fine," he reassured her, then turned to Bodhi. "Fine. Let’s walk and talk," he murmured, then followed her along a path that took them behind a crypt and out of sight.

"This is most certainly not acceptable," Anomen insisted, the moment he was sure they were out of hearing range. "There is something about that woman that does not sit well… she is too… too…" He stopped, unable to find the right word.

"Minsc agrees," the giant ranger rumbled. "Never have I seen Boo tremble so! See his little whiskers twitch?" He raised Boo to Haer’Dalis’s eye level, and, indeed, the rodent was most certainly not a happy little hamster.

"It seems our raven is quite content in walking through the jaws of death itself," the bard mused. "This lady of the night is no normal mortal… I would go so far as to presume she is a fiend!"

Yoshimo sighed. "I will concur that she is not quite the most normal of people we have yet encountered, but presuming her to be a fiend is an extreme speculation at best. Harrian knows to be on his guard."

"Harrian has the worst instincts I have ever seen when it comes to trusting suspicious people such as this Bodhi," Jaheira murmured. "His approval of her is not quite solid – indeed, I believe she should be trusted less because he has approved her."

"That is a touch cynical," the Kara-Turan retorted. "It seems to me that she is just –"

"A vampire."

All whirled around to see Keldorn emerging from behind one of the monuments, no longer as casual as he had been at the tanner shop the previous night, but on guard, his double handed sword already in his hand, helmet on his head. "This Bodhi is a creature most foul indeed."

"Sir Keldorn!" Anomen gasped once again, before recovering equilibrium and looking haughtily at the Inquisitor. "You may have a mission here, but if you could refrain from such dramatic entrances…"

Keldorn threw the squire a look which brought his tirade to an end, and his gaze settled on Jaheira, deciding her to be the leader in Harrian’s absence. "You have been tricked into allowing your leader to wander off with a creature of the night."

Jaheira raised a hand, her brow furrowed. "Forgive me, but… who are you?" she demanded, then threw a glare at the others as they shifted uncomfortably, clearly knowing something she didn’t.

Keldorn looked surprised. "They did not tell you?" He sighed. "I will explain in further detail later. For now, simply know that I am Sir Keldorn Firecam of the Most Noble Order of the Radiant Heart, here to alert you that your leader may need rescuing…"

* *

"Jeran Mavek came to me outside the Council Building and informed me that he could possibly help me in retrieving Imoen," Harrian told Bodhi quietly as they wandered along the path between the graves. "We organised a meeting at Delosar’s Inn last night, but when we went there, before he could help us the Shadow Thieves murdered him. We found the note from you telling him to meet you here and report on how the meeting with me had gone, and so we came."

The vampire nodded briefly. "I can help you get Imoen back, although not in the same way Jeran could, and it will take considerably more time. He was my voice in the Cowled Wizards, and now, with that voice gone… I don’t have the same influence with your problem I did."

"But you can help me?" Corias asked. "I mean… it doesn’t have to be Imoen’s legal release – if you can direct me to where she is, I can go on my own and rescue her myself… that’s all I need."

"I can get you there," Bodhi assured him. "And it won’t take much. If you perform one task for me that will make it possible for me to get you there… it will give me back the inside track I need with the Cowled Wizards."

Harrian nodded sternly, a note of inquisitiveness on his face. "Anything that can help," he offered generously.

"There’s a scroll, kept inside the Council building by the Cowled Wizards," Bodhi explained briefly. "It has powers which, when unlocked, would bring us a suitable step closer to finding your Imoen. If Jeran had not been killed, I would have asked him to acquire it for us… but you are our best bet."

"How… how does it help?" Corias asked, brow furrowed. "Teleportation? Highly powerful locating spell? Charm the wizards into agreeing to hand over Imoen?"

Bodhi sighed, seeing she’d have to give an explanation – however deceitful and evasive – before Harrian would comply. Damn it, she needed this… and not just because Jeran was dead. A shame; he had been a most useful ally, not to mention with a brightness and vitality which was all the more attractive in its rarity. "It’s –"

Most irritatingly on cue a crossbow bolt, free of metal tip, thudded through Bodhi’s chest, imbedding itself there. She looked down for a moment and froze, then yanked the bolt out of her body.

"Damn it! Missed!" Keldorn exclaimed, already cranking his crossbow for a second shot as Bodhi stared at him, let out an inhuman hiss that chilled Harrian to the bone, then suddenly and inexplicably morphed into a bat, flitting off in between the gravestones.

Corias gaped for a moment, before turning to face the Inquisitor. "Just who in the hells are you, and what in the hells was that?" he shrieked as his party members hurtled around to stand with the paladin.

"She was a vampire, Harrian," Anomen declared, visibly shaken as the thief walked up to them. "Sir Keldorn here is from the Order and is probably the greatest Inquisitor to ever serve the Radiant Heart. He warned us about Bodhi."

Harrian smiled humourlessly, folding his arms across his chest and glowering at Keldorn. "Explain," he snapped briefly, less than amused or impressed at how the situation had developed, shaken though he was at the news that he had almost been manipulated into a liaison with a vampire.

"I’ll explain, Bhaalspawn," Keldorn responded evenly. At the thief’s startled expression, he nodded impassively. "Yes, I know what you are! I have been sent by the Order to watch you. A great potential evil runs through your veins, one which, if fully achieved, could bring the lands of Toril to its knees. Know that, if you stray from a path of righteousness, the Order will not hesitate to remove Faerun of the threat you present."

Harrian raised an eyebrow. "Well, that was suitably morbid and threatening. Why don’t you just cut my head off right here?" he demanded, understandably irritated by the intervention. "And how long have you been following me?"

"Do not toy with me, Bhaalspawn," the Inquisitor warned. "I have no hostile intentions towards you; I am merely here to watch and evaluate. If you prove yourself to be a force for good, you shall receive no interference from me." He eyed them all carefully, his gaze meeting Anomen’s for a second longer, before turning and striding off.

Harrian glared at them all. "You knew, didn’t you," he insisted. "You knew, and you didn’t tell me!"

Yoshimo looked him straight in the face. "That’s not important right now," the bounty hunter assured him as Anomen and Haer’Dalis shifted uncomfortably under their leader’s piercing gaze. "What did you find out?"

Corias paused sulkily. "Other than that I almost sold our souls to a vampire?" At their astonished looks, he rolled his eyes. "Figuratively speaking," he amended, before continuing. "Bodhi told me that there’s this scroll, in the Council building. It may just be what we need to find Imoen, but I don’t know what it does or where it is, or even how to use it…"


Chapter 18: One Step Closer

Harrian had wanted to go straight to the Government Building, but Jaheira had pointed out how they were all tired. Tactfully, she had failed to bring into account how shaken up he was after his encounter with Bodhi. Nothing had happened, but Corias was only comfortable dealing with the undead in one way: violence.

He had slept deeply, and rose bright and rested, albeit in the early afternoon. Upon making an appearance in the Five Flagons’ tavern area, he realised that, in his slumber, he had missed out on a large part of the day.

The other five members of the party seemed to be settling down for lunch, which reminded Harrian of how hungry he was (for he had not eaten in over twelve hours). His attention was distracted from food as he noticed the sixth person sitting at the table, a small, mousy-looking man with a dark receding hairline and casting furtive glances around the tavern. Corias sighed. What other pathetic denizen of this city had they come across?

Yoshimo spotted him first, which was just as well seeing as he was the only one who seemed to be fully aware of what was going on. The Bounty Hunter waved Harrian over to a seat opposite their mousy visitor, ignoring everyone else’s wary glances.

There was a long silence, during which everyone turned questioning glances towards Yoshimo and the visitor. Eventually, the latter gave a slow sigh, and took a deep breath. "My name is Tellis," he started slowly. At the raised eyebrows, he continued, nodding a little more furtively than necessary. "Yes, just Tellis. That’s all you’ll need to know of me. Heh heh."

Harrian sighed deeply. "Alright," he muttered, resignation heavy in his voice. "I take it you’re another person who wants to help us for reasons unknown and probably just wants us to give you a favour in return?"

Tellis and Yoshimo frowned, and the bounty hunter shook his head. "No… this is an informant I know. He knows about this mysterious scroll, and can help us." The Kara-Turan shifted a little. "For a price."

"This is the City of Coin," Corias muttered under his breath. "How much do you want for your information?"

Tellis didn’t get a chance to reply as Anomen butted into the conversation. "What… you’re just going to pay this man for information where the only verification as to how correct it is will be his word?" He threw the informant a distasteful glance. "As if that is enough," he added in a mutter.

Harrian evaluated them both coolly. Despite Delryn’s reservations that had probably sparked up the comment, their squire spoke the truth indeed. He wasn’t too happy about the idea of handing money over to someone who was almost certainly working for the Shadow Thieves, at least part time.

"How much money do you want for the information?" the swashbuckler continued, ignoring Anomen’s disgusted expression. He knew that worms like this informant worked solely on money and greed. He could use that against him.

"Five thousand gold pieces." Tellis smiled toothily, a smile that lit up his mousy expressions and made him appear most sinister. "All in advance. Heh heh."

Anomen started to scoff, but Harrian silenced him with a look and a small wink. "We pay you three thousand now," he said levelly. Tellis grimaced, and was about to protest as Corias continued. "Then another three thousand when the scroll is in our hands."

A hushed silence fell across the table, and the informant gave a look which amused Harrian when he imagined Tellis was trying to work out the maths in his head. "Six thousand?" the mousy man finished at last, his expression one of awe. "That’s a lot of gold, heh heh…"

"If you tell us where this scroll is," Corias nodded evenly. "We shall acquire it as soon as possible, then all you need to do is find us and we’ll pay you the rest." At Tellis’s hesitant expression, the thief smiled belligerently. "We’ll be here in the Five Flagons. If not, you can get your Shadow Thief contacts to find us."

"Heh." The informant nodded furtively again. "I like that," he decided at last. "Okay, okay… I tell you, then you go give me the money… okay?" They nodded, and the small man grinned and chuckled a little. "Heh heh…The scroll, right. The Cowled Wizards have it. I don’t know what it is or what it does – nobody does, I’m not even sure they do. Heh, fancy that… the Cowled Ones not knowing what this big magic thingummy is…"

He grinned hopefully at Harrian, and the thief indulged him by smiling, albeit a little tightly. "We need this scroll."

Tellis nodded rapidly. "Heh, right, okay. It’s in the office of the Grandmaster of the Cowled Wizards. I don’t know what tricks or traps he’ll have in place, but I doubt many… to get there, you have to get through all of the mages hanging around the building. And who’d steal from a wizard? Heh heh." He passed them a small scroll. "Here’s a plan of the building. It’ll direct you to where you want to go. Now… money? Heh…"

The informant was clearly desperate to get out of there. Harrian assumed that the Shadow Thieves wouldn’t take kindly to his giving them information which discouraged them from going to Gaelan Bayle for the help he had offered.

Corias nodded briefly, and dug in his purse from out of his jerkin. He stuck his hand in, fished out a few coins, did some brief counting, then threw the purse to the informant. "Come back this time tomorrow, and we should be ready for you," he told Tellis.

The informant nodded, and started for the door. Yoshimo also stood and walked with him towards the Five Flagon’s exit. They spoke in hushed tones, the other unable to make out what they were saying, then Tellis nodded nervously and fairly ran out.

All threw the bounty hunter questioning glances as he returned to the table. "I simply told him that if he had lied to us, he would be left unable to enjoy the three thousand he has in hand. He seemed to get the point."

Anomen muttered something that sounded distinctly like ‘scum’, then eyed the Kara-Turan. "Honestly, Yoshimo, where do you find these dregs of society? Why do we have to keep associating with such unsavoury characters?"

Yoshimo shrugged. "Tellis has a reputation for reliability. He’s an independent operator, which I thought might be better for us. He can’t afford to give incorrect information, not if he wants to stay alive."

Haer’Dalis glanced over at Harrian, who was scrutinising the scroll. "Your thoughts, my raven?" he asked brightly.

Corias looked up, a little blankly. "Hmm? Oh… ah, yes. This. I don’t see it being much of a challenge to get this scroll. I believe the Cowled Wizards were relying on people not knowing about the scroll as a defence."

"Or not being stupid enough to openly defy the Cowled Wizards," Jaheira murmured dryly, and ignored the looks everyone threw her. She smiled wryly. "Well, fearless leader, what thoughts do you have on the matter?"

Harrian grinned at her, taking her manner all in stride. "This is very possible. I know we’re turning into creatures of the night, but if this works… then it’ll all be over in a few days. We get this scroll, and see what it does… see if it has any power we can use. If it doesn’t, we do an exchange with the Cowled Wizards – the scroll for Imoen."

Chapter 19: Heist Almighty

Time seemed to be going by so quickly now activity was picking up. Harrian had all but lost track of what day it was and how long they’d been in the city on their search. He hoped that this was the end – or at least, the beginning of the end. However long all of this had lasted, it was long enough. He’d had enough of double-crossings, mysterious powers and hidden secrets.

There was no telling what this scroll Bodhi wanted and the Cowled Wizards had was. The only way to find out was to get it. Ridiculous. The only reason he wanted it was because his enemies – and yes, he was quick to put the vampire on an ‘enemy’ list – wanted it. If it could aid him on his quest and be detrimental to the undead, then he was more than happy to follow the trend.

Right then, he was lurking around the Government Building with Yoshimo and Haer’Dalis, scrutinising the scroll Tellis had given him. As bad luck would have it, it was pouring with rain, and his cloak was already soaked through. Still, he lifted it further up over him, protecting the piece of paper which was all they had to go by on this quest.

“Some might consider it an omen, my raven, that the heavens have decided to open upon us prior to our endeavour,” Haer’Dalis murmured, peering over his shoulder to read the scroll. They were in an alleyway around the back of the building, Yoshimo out by the entranceway keeping an eye on the Council Building’s doors.

Corias had decided only to take those two on him for this theft. He was planning to do this quietly, rather than storming the building rashly. Minsc was far too conspicuous, and not really suited to such subterfuge. Jaheira, whilst more level of head than anyone else in the party, was similarly unsuitable, without the required skills. Anomen had refused point blank to be directly involved in thieving from a governmental body.

So it was just him, Yoshimo and Haer’Dalis. The Bounty Hunter was clearly invaluable, more suited to subterfuge and sneaking around than Corias, but Harrian felt a pang as he looked at the tiefling. He had magical skills which could be of use inside a mage’s stronghold, but Corias would have given anything to have Imoen in his place for this task.

The Kara-Turan looked around irritably. “Are we ready?” he asked, water streaming down his face as he grimaced. Why he had refused to take his cloak, Harrian had absolutely no idea. If he wanted to be wet, though, that wasn’t the swashbuckler’s problem.

Corias nodded grimly. “As we’ll ever be. Let’s get this done,” he murmured, then he and Haer’Dalis stepped out towards the entranceway of the Council of Six building. Fortunately, the two guards outside had not noticed them.

Harrian nodded to the tiefling, who bowed his head, murmuring some arcane words under his breath. The bright blue light of an incantation rose from Haer’Dalis’s fingers, then shot out and split into three forks, surrounding the trio.

“Invisibility,” the blade declared with satisfaction as they faded, visible only to themselves and each other. Harrian really didn’t understand the particulars of the spell – he was a thief, not a wizard, but he just went along with it.

“It won’t last forever, however,” Haer’Dalis continued as they hurried through the building’s open doors. “We shall have enough time to get through the main entranceway and to the first level, if we are speedy.”

They were speedy. Tolgerias seemed a little surprised as they stepped near him, and Harrian feared for a moment that they had been heard, but the Cowled Wizard merely shook his head, seemingly dismissing it.

Corias nodded towards the great staircase, leading up to the offices of the building, the grand chamber for the Council of Six, and, more importantly, the East Wing, the Cowled Wizards’ section of the building. Tellis’s report had told him where the Grandmaster’s office was. As long as they had invisibility on, they should be alright, but as Haer’Dalis had pointed out, the magical change was only temporary. And he doubted the Cowled Wizards would allow someone to merely make themselves invisible, stroll into a room and steal something as valuable as this scroll seemed to be.

They were in the corridors of the east wing before the invisibility started to wear off, but thankfully, there was nobody in sight. The government building seemed to have the same motif all over – stone structure, the odd carpet on the ground and decoration on the wall – but the Cowled Wizards’ part was clearly less adorned than the rest. What use did mages have for such adornment?

Harrian looked at the other two. “This shouldn’t be too hard,” he said, his voice low. “But the important thing is that we don’t get identified. If the Cowled Wizards know we have the scroll, then it’ll all be over. I don’t think we can go directly against a force as legitimate power like them, not openly. Our defence will be in our secrecy.”

Yoshimo’s expression was emotionless. “Then we had best be careful, and move quickly.” He looked over Corias’ shoulder as the thief opened the scroll Tellis had given him. “For all we know, the Cowled Ones may already know of our presence.”

Harrian resisted the urge to shiver at the bounty hunter’s excessively morbid declaration, and the trio hurried down the corridor towards where Tellis had directed the scroll would be. Speed and time were of the essence, he was sure of it.

The swashbuckler kept his senses open to any traps, magical or otherwise, that could have been set up by the Cowled Wizards. This was starting to be far too easy… they had made it to the Grandmaster’s office without a hitch, without running into anyone, and without traps.

Corias inspected the door suspiciously, his brow deeply furrowed. “Door’s unlocked,” he declared happily, and, before anyone could stop him, he pushed it open and stepped inside, into the officer.

A high-pitched alarm that had to be magically produced sounded in their ears, and several clicks could be heard that were recognised by the trained ears as a variety of traps setting in motion. The Cowled Wizards had not let them meander in… they seemed to have just given them a chance to meander out before they got themselves into too much trouble.

Chapter 20: What goes around…

At the precise moment Harrian and the others were tripping the alarms of the Cowled Wizards and bringing all hell down upon their heads, Jaheira, Anomen and Minsc were engaging in the closest thing to a drinking match a teetotal druid, a cleric who had seen first hand the effects of alcoholism, and a large warrior who forgot what they were doing halfway through could manage.

Suffice to say, it struck onlookers as more like a civilised dinner which simply had a lot of drinking of tea, some cautious sipping of a fine wine – not for quaffing – and the random downing of mugs of beer. Between three very ill-suited people.

Jaheira’s tea-drinking seemed more out of anxiety than hydration. Corias and the others had been taking far longer than her calculations – and even their optimistic planning – had allowed. Anomen had advised that they wait a little longer, pointing out that delays were not uncommon for the sort of job they were undertaking. However, the druid was quite unconvinced. If something had gone wrong, the Cowled Wizards would not exactly send them a note telling them of their capture. They’d just disappear and never be heard of again…

This rather morbid thought jerked her into action and she stood up quickly. The movement jostled the table, almost upending her salad and sending Anomen and Minsc’s steaks to the floor. They looked at her reproachfully.

“We are going,” she said in response to their expressions. “We shall go and find them… if they are alright, the worst we will have to bear will be Harrian’s moans, and I assure you, I shall receive the brunt of them. That I can handle.

“But if things have taken a twist for the worst, then they will require our assistance, and the sooner we can lend it, the better. Now, are you going to join me, or are you going to allow a lady to wander the streets of Amn by herself?” This last part was directed at Anomen, for Minsc’s face already showed resolve. The cleric muttered something under his breath and nodded reluctantly.

* *

Harrian tensed himself as he flew through the air, preparing for a landing. He was falling from quite a height, and thus mismanaging the alighting could end very badly. He needed to be in one piece at the end of this so he could run.

Things had not gone too well. They’d made it into the office, and he’d grabbed the scroll before the magical traps could kick in, though his hair was singed from a low-flying fireball. The wizards had stormed the room within seconds, and thus the swashbuckler had employed the better part of valour and fled. By jumping out the window.

He bounced off the top of a market stall, the kind which were always positioned to break a fall, then fell to the ground, managing to roll as he hit the floor to minimise the impact. He lay, stunned for a moment, then clambered to his feet just in time to break Yoshimo’s fall as the bounty hunter followed him.

The two men grappled for a moment, both struggling to get to their feet, then pulled apart just as Haer’Dalis, light as a feather, landed cat-like next to them. “My raven, I would suggest we move… for the wizards seem unlikely to let the matter drop.”

Corias nodded grimly. “Aye… the bastards just don’t seem willing to give up,” he mumbled, then looked up in surprise as a black shape started to descend from the window they had leapt from, albeit far more sedately than their helter-skelter falls had been. “Bloody levitation!” Harrian continued, then turned and ran, sticking the scroll inside his jerkin, his two companions hot on his heels.

The thief was sure that they hadn’t been identified, which they could easily use in their own defence. The Cowled Wizards would search the city for this scroll, whatever it was, but that would take time. Enough time for the party to decide just what it was they were going to do with this magical artefact.

There was no order to their fleeing. They simply ran, heading for the small alleyways that were popular in Athkatla, planning to use the darkness to their advantage. For these were three who knew how to make the most of the shade, veritable masters of the shadows.

They ran in grim silence for many minutes, until Harrian, who had been slowing for the past two blocks, came to an unsteady halt, resting on a barrel for support. “I… I think we’ve lost them,” he gasped.

Yoshimo grabbed him, pulling him onwards. “You hope,” he amended. “Veritably, I have seen no sign of them, but these are wizards…” They paused for a long moment before the bounty hunter nodded. “I think we can return to the main streets,” he conceded.

There was a surprising number of people in the alleyways as they headed down to the main road of the Bridge District – for that was how far they’d run. They were a stone’s throw away from the Five Flagons, and silently anticipating the turn of events for the better.

They could not have been more wrong. In hindsight, Harrian supposed he should have paid more attention to the suspicious characters lurking around them, but he was physically exhausted after their mad dash and emotionally stimulated at the apparent success of their mission. They had stolen from the Cowled Wizards… and got away with it!

So it was Yoshimo who noted that they had been subtly surrounded as dark figures blocked the route ahead and behind. The bounty hunter spoke quietly, but with a note of fear in his voice – if these were the Cowled Wizards, then leniency and mercy towards those who had wronged them were unheard of.

Harrian drew his sword, his expression grim, resisting the urge to go for the scroll and physically protect it. This was his only link to Imoen, however distant. He would not abandon it without a fight. And a damn good one at that.

Their followers, or attackers, or whatever they were, must have known they’d been detected as the trio drew to a halt, for a single, black-cloaked figure emerged from the group, striding across the few metres in between them.

They quickly found two short swords, a long sword and the tip of an arrow pointed at their throat. The black-clad figure, whose features were impossible to see, paused for a moment, but the body language did not suggest fear or trepidation.

A hand reached up to push the cloak back, revealing the coarse and confident face of the man who seemed to be their opponents’ leader. “I really wouldn’t do that,” he assured them, his voice surprisingly devoid of accent or identifying inflection.

Yoshimo visibly started at the sight of him, then grimaced. “Oh, Gods,” he murmured, then swore in Kara-Turan under his breath.

The man grinned, though the expression was, like his entire face, devoid of any emotion. “Yoshimo-san of course, knows me. I’ll let him fill you in later… if you’re both around, that is,” he continued, shrugging. Then the smile became a little more playful. “Someone wants a word with you…”

It would be nice, Harrian reflected, if this damn city wasn’t filled with mysterious people, none of whom we know, who are out to make our lives harder. A familiar face would be more than welcome.

Instead, he said, “we’re not going anywhere.”

The man shrugged, his smile still chillingly devoid of pleasure or humour. “Have it your way, then. We’ll just take the scroll.” This time, a tone did slip into his voice. One of menace.

Harrian’s expression darkened. “You know how damn hard I’ve had to work to get this scroll?” he demanded rhetorically. “No bloody way am I handing it over to anyone. You know how much this means?”

The man shrugged. “No, not really,” he confessed, without much consideration in his voice. “I don’t think you know how much it’s worth, or what it truly does. I only know one person who does… and he wants it.”

“Well, you’re not getting –“

That was the last thing Harrian remembered of that encounter, for at that moment someone struck him over the head from surprise. He remembered seeing stars, seeing the mysterious man’s face, with a degree of satisfaction on it, then everything went black.