Chapter Five: Healing Fire
Nazim took Shale by the arm and pulled her out of the entrance of the Keep. Shale gestured for the others to follow, and they did so. “We should find a private place to discuss this,” Shale said, looking over the villagers as they, in many stages of shock and grief, mulled around the Keep.
Nazim nodded in agreement and they soon found themselves in the dingy room of a temporarily abandoned home. The thatched roof was pulled down in places and furniture littered the floor. The fireplace still had a few burning coals left in it, tiny curls of smoke belaying remnants of those who dwelt there only the night before. A bloody spear lay cast aside in one corner, the fate of its victim unknown.
Nazim righted a chair and took a seat, gesturing for everyone to follow suit. The young man, whom Shale now noticed was covered in dried blood and streaks of ash, leaned over the table and stared at her intently. His black eyes looked haunted. “How much did Leosin tell you about his travels?”
“Almost nothing,” Shale admitted. “He was a man to himself, and I am not one to press.” She seated herself across from him.
Nazim nodded, wiping his brow. He cleared his throat, then began: “Originally, we travelled from Candlekeep to Beregost, where we met you. In Candlekeep, Leosin was researching an old organization known as the dragon cult, something that has been growing in the region. He intercepted some communications from this cult and was given the notion that there may be attacks to the surrounding towns.”
“You helped your master in this research?” Oszaren asked.
Nazim shrugged. “He was very private about the matter. What little we ascertained was only the information he was willing to part with. We followed him, obeyed his commands, but he kept much of his quest a secret.”
“Why Greenest?” Shale asked. “How did he know the attack would happen here?”
“Indeed,” Reverence paused, gazing around at the group with lazy eyes, “I warned of this— attack. Why did your master say nothing?”
“Greenest was a viable target. It’s a rich town with strong resources. Nothing was certain, as far as I know,” Nazim told them. He put his face in his hands. His distress seemed believable.
“Where is Bram?” Shale asked. Bram was Leosin’s other student. The tall, pale haired boy.
Nazim looked up, lips tightening into a grimace. “He was horribly wounded in the attack last night. I stayed with him when Leosin ran off, but—he died. I ran in search of my master… I didn’t get far before I found his broken staff. Leosin wouldn’t go anywhere without his staff.”
“How do you know your master isn’t dead as well?” Fillip asked, arms folded.
Nazim shook his head grimly. “I found no sign of his body.” He sighed, straightening. “I think Leosin was planning to infiltrate the cult. Perhaps he tried to disguise himself but was found out.”
“Can I see that?” Oszaren asked, holding a hand out for the broken staff. Nazim passed it to him, and the warlock examined it. “It looks as though it was broken by the man carrying it, as if he dealt several blows before it cracked on him.” He set the staff on the table softly.
“Do you know how Leosin learned of this cult? What are his ties to it?” Shale studied the boy’s face, but found only grief.
“We are monks from a sect known as the Avowed, charged with managing the Great Library of Candlekeep. We spend our days studying, and our nights training. Leosin may have taken Bram and I with him on this journey, but he entrusted nothing to us. We are students. Amateurs. Nothing more to him.” He held up his hand. “Don’t get me wrong, we respected him, and he was good to us. But, he did not trust us with his secrets.”
“Can we trust you?” Keelan asked.
“I hope that you do,” Nazim said.
“Even if we were to find him,” Shale whispered, thinking aloud, “what could we do? We don’t know why he is infiltrating this group. We don’t know what he has against them. Or, for them. Leosin could have any number of reasons for doing what he has, and not all of them are well intentioned.”
“You’re right of course,” the young man sighed, pulling something from one of his pockets and holding it out for them to see, “except that I found this.”
It was a silver pendant, molded in the shape of a harp and looped through with a strip of black fabric. The fabric was torn as though it had been ripped off.
“Leosin wore this always. I found it on the ground not far from his staff.”
“Harpers,” Whisper said matter-of-factly.
“What’s that?” they all turned to the tabaxi.
“Your friend is right,” Nazim said, tucking the pendant away. “It’s a symbol for the Harpers, a secretive group that aims to keep power in the right hands.”
“That’s extremely vague,” Oszaren said with a humourless chuckle. “Who decides who the right people to keep in power are?”
Nazim shrugged. “I know very little of the group myself. I didn’t even know Leosin was in it until I found this.”
“I thought you said he wore it around his neck.” Shale pointed out.
“Yes, but I never saw the pendant.”
“So, what do you expect from us?” She asked, throwing up her hands. Secret groups, warrior monks, dark cults… This was getting out of hand.
“I don’t know, exactly,” he said uncertainly, and Shale was reminded that the boy was hardly more than a teenager. “I just feel that it is my duty to make sure he’s okay.”
“Are you wanting to come with us?” Fillip asked the boy. “We already have plans to follow this supposed cult. Were you hoping to tag along?”
Nazim shook his head a bit too fervently. “No, no, I’m not much of a fighter yet. I thought of going to Berdusk, see if I can get help from the Avowed there.”
Shale nodded and stood, and Nazim did the same, taking her hand and grasping it firmly as she turned to leave. “Please, see if you can find my master. I know he was part of something much larger than you or I, and I have a feeling he must succeed.”
“We will do our best,” Shale promised, giving him a small smile. “Where would you like us to send word, should we have any?”
“I hope to be in Berdusk for a while. If you send word and I am not there, the Avowed will know where to send it. Thank you, Shale. Thanks to all of you.” He nodded at them all in turn, then made for the door. “I must go now and make arrangements for—for Bram’s body.” He exited the small hut, leaving the rest in silence.
“This sucks,” Fillip pointed out, then added, “but, at least we’re getting paid.”
The group left the home and watched the villagers bustle through town as they discussed their next course of action. Whisper began digging a hole ferociously in the front lawn. “Whisper, what are you doing?” Oszaren asked wearily.
“Dig,” the tabaxi said.
“Yes, I know you’re digging,” Oszaren rubbed his eyes, “but the question is why.” Shale couldn’t believe the gods had brought her here, with these people.
Whisper continued to pull up large scoops of dirt, ignoring the warlock. Oszaren shrugged and turned to the rest of them. “If we’re going to follow this cult, we should leave as soon as we can. They already have a half-day’s head start on us.”
“They will be—moving slower with their numbers.” Reverence said.
“The monk is right,” Shale said, “they will be easy to track, too. Our challenge is to either stay well-hidden or find a way to blend in and join the group before they reach their destination. Though, I will most likely be recognized as the person who fought their champion in the ring. I’m not sure how I’ll hide my face.”
“I have a disguise kit,” Fillip offered, “so we could try to mask your appearance.”
“Why don’t we just grab a straggler from the back of their group, interrogate them, and find out where the cult originates?” Keelan posed.
“An army like that will have made its base somewhere,” Oszaren said. “We should follow them and evaluate their stronghold.”
“Know your enemy,” Reverence said, nodding in agreement with Oszaren’s plan.
“We need a map of the area. Does anyone have one?” They all shook their heads. “I will go back to the Keep and see if they have a map of the lands.”
“Let’s split up,” Shale offered. “I will go back to the inn and gather the rest of our possessions. Oszaren will go find a map.”
“I—will look for—more food rations for the journey,” Reverence said with a bored expression, then turned on his heel and left. Whisper bounded after the orange tiefling.
Fillip and Keelan went with Shale to the inn to collect their things. The bottom floor of the inn had been torn through, but luckily their bags had been securely locked away and untouched. Fillip managed to stuff a few bottles of wine into his pack with a wide grin and a shrug. Shale had to admit that a drink wouldn’t be the worst thing in Faerûn after the fight she’d been through.
Shale quickly pulled off her sweat-stained shirt in her room and exchanged it for a clean one. The old shirt had a massive gash in it that she had tied together, but there was no use trying to repair it. She cast it aside and rearranged her pack, then tied back her long cords of lavender hair into a thick braid. She rejoined her companions at the entrance of the inn, and the rest returned soon after, Oszaren holding a rolled-up sheet of parchment.
“The dragon flew toward the Sunset Mountains,” the warlock told them, unfurling the map and pointing eastward at the jagged line of a mountain range. “The army marched here,” he dragged his finger along the inky lines.
“Let us—not delay,” Reverence said, and Shale turned to Keelan.
“Do you have a prayer for us?” She had said her own and realized it may be good for the others to hear one.
“Yes, hm,” Keelan grunted, raising both hands, “divine Kossuth! Bestow your healing fire! Bless us in our journey, and breathe your holy flames upon us!”
They all nodded, seemingly assured, and Shale took up the front of the troupe as they found the wide trail of trampled earth. “The army is travelling in the same direction they came, but their steps show deeper tracks. Heavy laden with the treasure they’ve stolen,” Shale announced after a moment of examining the path.
“That means they are returning to their base,” Oszaren said. “They’re done attacking.”
For now, Shale thought, but what if there’s more of them? What if other towns are being ransacked as we speak? What if the dragon returns to wreak havoc on more of the land?
Whisper and Oszaren began arguing in draconic, and Shale knew it was time to leave. She pulled her hood up against the growing breeze and, as the half-elf and tabaxi continued their untranslated discussion, the group journeyed southward. Into the maw of the beast, as it were.
They walked for several hours in the cool autumn afternoon over grassy green hills, passing the occasional patch of trees whose leaves had begun to change. Eventually they reached rockier terrain. Browning scrub brush dotted the grey and yellow landscape, fighting to survive between the cracks of dried earth and scattered refuse of long retreated ice. Shale was familiar with this terrain.
I wonder what Kelek would think of me now, wandering through Faerûn, fighting dragons, and trailing around with this strange group of nomads and misfits. He’d probably say I’d lost it. Well, he wouldn’t be far from the truth…
“Hold up,” Shale said, holding her arms in front of the group as they took their first few steps into a wide canyon. The walls of rock rose at a steep incline on both sides. The edges were not so shear as to not see the top, and Shale thought she caught a glimpse of some movement.
“Now!” A voice shouted from above, and a split second later a huge rumbling crash echoed through the canyon as four massive boulders came rolling down the walls toward the party. Everyone dove out of the way, a spray of jagged rocks flying in all directions and cutting a gash across Shale’s arm as she covered her face from the debris. Oszaren was not so lucky, and a larger chunk of boulder struck his leg with a resounding crack. He cried out in pain and dragged himself back.
Shale drew her longbow as she took a few steps back, looking to both sides to count their enemies. There was movement, but large shards of stone stood between her aim and her quarry. An arrow whizzed through the air and grazed her thigh, shooting past her and skittering across the stone. Beside her, Whisper cast a magical shield of armour across his glowing body and sprung up the steep hill. Keelan stepped up and shouted, “Hold on a moment! Who are you? What are your intentions?”
“I think their intentions are to kill us,” Fillip whispered helpfully, sling in hand.
A woman stepped closer to the edge and looked down at them. “I could say the same for you! Why are you following us?” She was clothed in black armour and a long, black cape.
“We’re not following you,” Keelan shouted back.
The woman hesitated for a moment, eyeing her companions, some of whom had stepped up to the edges and were looking down with arrows pointed. “Lay aside your weapons and your belongings.”
Keelan looked around at them and shrugged. “I don’t think my party will agree to that.” He paused. “I have to tell you, you won’t win a fight against us. We’ve all defeated people greater than you, without breaking a sweat. How about you and your friends leave us be, and you survive.”
The woman’s laugh echoed audibly. “We will see,” she said, then motioned to her followers and ran back to cover, whispering to a man dressed in identical black armour.
“Suit yourself,” Keelan growled, drawing the javelin from his back and hoisting it up, waiting for a clear target.
“Attack them!” the woman screamed a moment later, and the battle ensued, arrows and spells streaking through the air like a deadly meteor shower.
Reverence bounded up the steep edges with incredible light-footed speed, Oszaren shot blasts of green energy, hitting the man in the black armour, and Shale raised her longbow, striking the woman in a crack of armour at her breastplate. Fillip ran next to Shale and shot his sling at the woman as she cast a javelin at the druid. He dodged, and the tip of the javelin clipped his side. Just as Shale turned to see if Fillip was hurt, a small bolt struck near her foot. She spun and drew another arrow, spotting a Dwarf leaning over the edge and cursing, having just loosed a shot at her. Reverence had reached the top of the hill and was passing blows against two armed opponents. One of the men cast a spell on his ally. This can’t be good, Shale thought, looking around at the walls to check for purchase. Could she climb as well as a tabaxi, or a monk for that matter? She loosed another arrow, this one narrowly missing the cursing Dwarf as he just managed to duck out of the way. “We need to find cover!” She shouted to no one in particular. They were toads in a puddle if they stayed at the bottom of the canyon for much longer, picked off one by one.
Whisper appeared on the top of the hill and was casting a spell. Moments later, two of the men collapsed, unconscious. Keelan scrabbled up the plateau in his heavy armour, using his javelin to steady himself as he climbed. He drew out his warhammer as he reached the top and, with a mighty howl, sent the hammer crashing down against the stone, pushing a fiery white light through the ground and sending rocks flying in all directions.
Fillip began clambering up the other side of the plateau just as Reverence took a running jump and soared ten feet through the air, landing on the other side of the canyon without skipping a beat, then bashing his fist into the chest of an armoured man, who, taken unawares by this incredible leap, stumbled back and dropped his throwing hammer. When Fillip reached the top, he shot a stone straight into the Dwarf’s eye, dropping him on the spot.
Shale continued to shoot arrows whenever she saw an enemy appear. If I stop shooting and start climbing, they won’t have any more distractions. They’ll cut me down before I get two feet off the ground. She turned just as the woman charged at Fillip with scimitar drawn. He gave her a smoldering look and said, “well, hello—” she swung at him and he dodged the first strike. The second hit him in the temple with the pommel of her sword and sent him sprawled and unmoving. Shale ran and started pulling herself up the rocky edge, swearing all the while. A javelin passed by her ear and two throwing hammers smashed into the stone next to her in two consecutive seconds, nearly crushing all the bones in her hand.
Shale reached Fillip’s body quickly, and looked around for the woman, but she had ducked for cover from some green blasts of energy sent by Oszaren, who had crawled up the edge just behind Shale and was still limping from where the boulder had struck his leg. The warlock drew his blade and charged the woman, and Shale took the opportunity to bend down and reached into her pocket, pulling out a handful of goodberries. She wrenched Fillip’s jaw open and stuffed them in, uncorking her waterskin and forcing both water and berries down his throat. He awoke moments later, coughing and spluttering and looking somewhat abashed. “You’re welcome,” Shale breathed, helping him stand. He gave her a quick nod, then catching the woman in his gaze, drew out his scimitar and, while she was fighting off Oszaren’s blade, sliced metal through flesh and relieved her head from her body. The head went soaring through the air with an arc of blood, and the body dropped heavily to the stone only seconds later, arms twitching. Fillip picked up the headless woman’s scimitar, weighing it against his own bloodied one, then nodded to himself and sheathed the finer blade. Then, he walked over to where the woman’s head had landed and, taking it by the long black hair, shoved it into a bag and tossed it over his shoulder, grinning at her.
“Gross,” Shale said to him and looked around for the rest of her companions.
Reverence was chasing down a fleeing man, shooting darts at him as he ran. Across the chasm, Whisper had clawed the face off a man and was now fighting another with a dagger. Keelan was bashing against the armour of a man’s breastplate with his warhammer, sparks of white light bursting forth. Keelan’s man fell, and Whisper thrust a dagger into his opponent’s stomach, wrenching the blade across exposed flesh and spilling guts and gore over the plated stone.
“Keep one of them alive!” Fillip yelled across to them just as Keelan thrust a javelin into the turned back of a Dwarven woman who was attempting to flee. Oszaren made his way down the steep edges and started climbing up the other side. Shale and Fillip followed, and they saw Reverence again sail over their heads and land with a shoulder roll on the other side. There was one man left, facing off against the group. As Oszaren crested the hill, he shot an eldritch blast at the man, whose armour absorbed the spell. Keelan crashed into him with his warhammer, and as the man stumbled back, Whisper shot a bolt of fire at the man’s chest. The breastplate split open and the man fell back, dead.
Fillip transformed suddenly into the shaggy form of a wolf and howled into the air, then crouched over and began licking himself.
“Oh, really?” Shale said, shaking her head in disgust. The wolf looked up at her, head tilted curiously, then returned to his licking. “That’s just inappropriate, even for a druid.”
“Here, this one is only asleep,” Oszaren said, moving up to an unconscious but peaceful looking form. “Whisper cast a sleep spell.”
Whisper nodded happily and bounded up to the warlock’s side. Oszaren took out a length of rope and bound the man’s arms and legs. Keelan and Reverence began sorting through the enemy’s belongings. “They have—very few rations,” Reverence told them.
“The army’s not far off, then,” Shale said. Keelan was inspecting some strange pieces with symbols Shale didn’t recognize. He handed them off to Whisper, who pocketed them.
Whisper began waving his hands through the air, and large piles of dirt started pulling from the ground to create a massive hole. “What are you doing?” Oszaren asked.
“Grave,” Whisper said with satisfaction.
“That’s a good idea,” Shale agreed. “Hide the evidence in case scouts come back this way. It should buy us some time, anyways.”
Soon they had dragged the bodies across the canyon and into the massive grave. All except the woman’s head, which dripped blood from the bag next to Fillip’s curled up wolf form. They took the black cloaks and armour for themselves. Once their work was done, Oszaren stepped up and shook their sleeping captor awake. The man opened his eyes with a sharp intake of breath, staring around at the scene of a freshly covered grave and an assortment of six people with weapons raised in his face. “Good morning,” Oszaren said pleasantly, pressing his blade into the man’s throat. “Don’t scream. My friends and I have some questions for you.”
“You’ll learn nothing from me,” he spat back.
Whisper punched the man in the jaw with a large, curled paw. The man grunted as droplets of blood appeared from his newly split lip. He spat again.
“Speak,” Oszaren barked, blade still by the man’s throat.
Still, no response. Whisper raked his claws slowly along the man’s face, leaving four bloody marks from temple to opposite ear. The man cried out in pain as flesh tore and more streaks of blood dribbled into his eyes and mouth.
“We made short work of your people,” Oszaren whispered. “Talk, or you’ll be five feet under with the rest of them.” Whisper began licking the blood from his claws.
“I’ll take the five feet under,” the man said without skipping a beat.
“What do you think you’re dying for, here?” the warlock asked.
“I serve her until the day I die.”
“Tiamat,” Whisper said slowly, putting a paw to the man’s nose. Shale had heard the name before, in her near-death dream. A burst of fire shot from his paw and clung to the man’s face. He screamed in agony, his cries turning to an inhuman pitch of raw horror as skin bubbled and burned. The sickening smell of burning flesh filled the air and Shale gagged, turning her face away and barely keeping herself from being sick. When she looked back, the flesh on his face had melted away and patches of bone and muscle were visible. His lips were nearly gone, and his eyelids had been burned away. He was shuddering and convulsing, but still alive.
Oszaren had stepped back from the heat of the firebolt, but Whisper still stood over the man, watching the horrific scene unfold with malice in those slitted cat eyes. Shale took the spear from her back and, before Oszaren could block it, drove the point into the man’s temple, killing him instantly. With a grimace, she pulled it back out and turned away, wiping the back of her shaking hand against her lips.
“Why did you do that?” Oszaren growled in anger.
Tears in her eyes, Shale shook her head. “He wasn’t going to tell us anything.” She still looked away.
“You don’t know that.”
Shale looked around at all of them. Keelan seemed fascinated by the burns, but Reverence looked stern and Fillip’s wolf tail was hanging. “Are we the sort of people who torture?” She demanded. “Are you? I know nothing about you people!”
Oszaren had the decency to let his eyes drop.
“Tortured people—will tell you whatever you want to hear,” Reverence said with a slow sigh. “It is not effective. At least, not like this.”
Without another word, Shale walked away and started clambering down the plateau, the sight of melting flesh haunting her blurred vision. When she reached the bottom, she could no longer hold the contents of her stomach.
A minute later, she felt Keelan’s hand on her shoulder and he drew her back to the path.
Fillip led the way with his wolf nose, occasionally bounding away to scout ahead. The day soon passed in silence, the sun melting away on the horizon with streaks of oranges and pinks, interspersed with a spattering of soft clouds. There were very few birds passing overhead as the colours faded to black and the chill of night set in.
After a while, Fillip transformed back into his half-elf visage and trotted back to them, “There are voices up ahead, and a couple of makeshift guard towers. It looks like they lead into an army base, but I can’t see much else. The towers are flanking a massive ravine.”
“Let’s make camp off the road,” Oszaren suggested.
“No fire,” Reverence added, and they all agreed, Keelan looking disappointed.
The group made camp a fair distance from the path in a patch of sparse trees, keeping quiet and hearing the occasional sound of drifting voices as groups from the nearby army walked by. Reverence passed out morsels of cold food to everyone except Whisper, who caught a lizard as it skittered by and began eating it raw, pulling apart the stringy bits of flesh with his sharp canines.
Everyone but Shale and Whisper went to sleep. They took first watch and sat in silence for a long while, Shale reflecting on what she knew about this group. She had met Whisper in the woods, and he seemed friendly enough, but what did she really know about the tabaxi wizard? What was he hiding behind his sparse knowledge of the common language?
“Whisper,” Shale said eventually, gazing through the edge of the trees and out at the stars and the rocky plains.
The tabaxi looked over at her curiously. “Yes. Shale.”
“Where are you from?”
“Trees. Big trees. That way,” he pointed his paw.
“The Sharptooth Forest?” She asked, and he nodded.
“Raised by wolves.”
“Wolves?” She said disbelievingly, then mulled it over in her head for a while. Yes, that made sense. Perhaps he was insane. “So, that’s why you like to bark?”
He nodded, ears twitching.
“How did you learn magic, if you were raised by wolves and lived in a forest your entire life?”
“These,” Whisper said and showed two books inside his cloak, where they were buttoned in. They were spell books, written in languages Shale didn’t know.
“But, how did you know how to read them?”
Whisper shrugged, looking at the book covers with a feline smile. “Know,” he said.
Shale sighed and shook her head. “I don’t get it,” she said, then looked the tabaxi over once more. “Come on, let’s wake the next two. I could use a rest.”
With that, she found Fillip and Reverence, shaking them gently awake to take the next watch.
With the morning brought discussions on how they could approach the army.
“We could use the black armour and cloaks we stole from the cultists,” Oszaren said.
“The people walking past were wearing ordinary clothes,” Fillip told them. “Those cloaks might draw more attention than we want.”
“What—do we want to do—if we get into the camp?” Reverence asked.
“That’s a good point,” Shale agreed. “What are we hoping to achieve here? The governor of Greenest wanted us to observe and report back. Not engage directly.”
Oszaren nodded and took out his map. “I say we do just that.”
Reverence agreed immediately. “Let’s—not draw—unneeded attention to ourselves.”
“What about this Leosin fellow?” Keelan asked Shale, and she grimaced.
“I’m not sure about him. Perhaps if we keep an eye on the camp for a few days, we might be able to spo— hold on, where’s Whisper?”
The tabaxi had slunk off. Everyone looked around and Fillip pointed at the tracks leading away from their camp. “He’s headed to the front gate.”
“Great,” Oszaren cursed, “he’s going to get caught.”
“He’s going to be recognized,” Shale added.
“He’s going to get us all killed,” Keelan finished.
“Come on then,” Fillip said. “Let’s go watch what happens.”
Reverence and Shale crept up to the guard’s tower and found adequate places to hide and listen in. The towers were manned by kobolds and human soldiers, and the discussions were, thankfully, mostly in the common tongue. Oszaren, Keelan and Fillip had climbed around the encampment, which was surrounded on all sides by sheer cliffs, with the intention of keeping an eye on Whisper and observing the guard postings and tent placements. Oszaren assured Shale that they would also look out for Leosin, since he had travelled with her and the monk and would recognize him.
Shale leaned her back against a large stone and closed her eyes, listening, while Reverence curled in his legs and forked tail and began to meditate.
Two hours later, Keelan returned, looking perturbed. He caught their attention, and Reverence and Shale snuck around until everyone was out of view before daring to speak.
“What did you find out?” Shale asked. “Did you see Leosin?”
Keelan nodded slowly. He looked stricken.
“What is wrong?” Reverence asked in annoyance.
He took a deep breath, eyeing each of them in turn. “The tabaxi has been arrested,” Keelan whispered.