Chapter 12: Fate of the Unborn
Elturel was a tall city, built to keep invaders out, but also built to reach as close to divinity as geography would allow. The twin hills were steep and the roads winding. It was a religious city filled with shrines to every god imaginable, and the light that shed a constant glow over the large city was known as The Companion, an orb of ancient magic constructed to keep out the undead.
Six individuals entered the city, all carrying a weight, a story untold. They were strangers, but now they shared a fate. It was as these six mercenaries rode their horses across that wide bridge, the bridge that brought travelers safely across the steep cliffs of the harbor, that Reverence, one of the six, a tiefling monk who had spent a year in solitary meditation, had a vision.
A light rain drizzled from the sky, causing the orb above the city to cast a strange glow. Cold droplets of water ran off the tiefling’s orange skin as he stared down at the hand clutching the reins of his mount. The rain drops turned to ash, smearing his skin with black streaks. He turned his horned head up to the sky. Ash was falling everywhere, covering the city in a blanket of white. And the sky—it was crumbling. There were bodiless screams from within the city, then a flash. The sky seemed to open and there was an earth-shattering roar in the distance.
Then, he blinked, and the vision disappeared.
Fillip looked over at Reverence, patting his horse’s neck. “You alright?” the half-elf asked, noticing the tiefling’s paused expression.
Reverence blinked and looked away, saying nothing.
The group dismounted once they were through the gates and handed their horses off to a few stable hands. “Okay, let’s remember to tell no one of the eggs,” Shale warned as they discussed where they would go for the day.
Shale offered Oszaren his dragon egg back. He held out his pack and Shale quickly slipped the cloak-wrapped egg into it.
Reverence, Keelan and Fillip turned in the direction of the palace atop the first hill, in search of a man named Thavus Kreeg, based on what they were told from the other citizens busying their way through the city. Shale, Whisper and Oszaren began asking around for a library, and were soon directed to a stone structure standing tall amongst the shops. A sign over the door marked it as The Oracle. The wizard and warlock stepped into the tall atrium and immediately set off in opposite directions to sift through the towers and shelves of volumes within. Shale took Trigger and sat outside, watching the crowds mill by. The first guard she noticed, she grabbed to speak with. She asked him and a few others over the passing hours if they had heard of the Red Wizards of Thay moving in or around the city. She received nothing but rumours of the strange people in the red robes, but these were hardly substantial. Truthfully, she hoped that if any Red Wizards were around, they would hear she was searching for them and come find her.
Finally, boredom overtook her as she and Trigger dipped their curious heads into a few of the nearby shops, and eventually the ranger entered The Oracle and found Oszaren, his head buried in a book. Shale didn’t have much time for books. She touched the warlock’s shoulder, pulling him out of his reading. “Nearly done?” she asked. “Have you found what you’re looking for?”
Oszaren set down the book and rubbed his eyes. “I’m not sure.”
“Nothing more about your deity?”
He shrugged. “I’ve found what I can, for now.”
With that, he passed off the volumes to a boy who seemed to work at the library, and they found Whisper a few minutes later. He had made a nest of sorts in the corner of the library, stacking books around him like walls.
“Whisper?” Shale said quietly, “are you ready to leave? It’s past midday and the others will be done speaking with Kreeg by now.”
The Tabaxi drew a book against his chest as though he couldn’t physically part with it. “Books good,” he said.
Shale arched an eyebrow at him. “I guess they’re alright.” Trigger sat on his haunches beside her. A few people walked by and gave them strange looks. It wasn’t often, it seemed, that they saw a cat-person, a half-elf, a black woman with purple hair and a fox, all in close proximity.
Fillip, Keelan and Reverence found the Pontius Unicorn, a highly refined building with silvery unicorns carved into the exterior of the building. Inside, they were able to find lodgings for six with the writ they received from Thavus Kreeg. “I must—go meditate,” Reverence told them wearily. “We have discussed much—with Kreeg—and now, I need to reflect on events.”
Fillip shrugged and handed off a key to the tiefling, who went slowly upstairs, as if already deep in meditation. Fillip ordered a drink from the bartender, a pink tiefling male with extravagant jewels braided around his horns, then found a seat near the window and sipped on a smooth cup of mead. Keelan sat opposite him and said, “I want to go to the main temple of the city, this temple to Helm.”
“Sounds fun,” the druid said
“You’ll come with me, then?”
Fillip drained the rest of his mug and stood, and the two of them returned to the streets.
It was a quarter of an hour before Fillip and Keelan reached the large temple and entered through the main doors. The first carving they saw depicted a large stone paladin cutting down a twisting mass of various monsters. Keelan eyed the sculpture with appreciation, nodding his head. The paladins inside the temple walked around the stone pews, speaking with visitors or praying at the shrine to Helm. All were dressed in ceremonial armour that gleamed silver in the torchlit building. They were greeted immediately by a young priestess with carefully cropped hair and a dark robe wrapped around her ceremonial armour, disguising any notes of femininity.
“Have you come to pay your respects to the mighty Helm?” she asked.
Keelan dipped his head and Fillip handed her a few gold coins. “A token,” the druid said, and the woman quickly tucked away the gold and bowed.
“It is a generous offering,” she said. “Please, worship freely.”
“I was wondering,” Fillip said before she could scurry off, “is there anyone in this temple who knows of the dragon cult?”
The woman nodded and pointed across the room. “The head priest,” she said, “he is knowledgeable in most points of history and religion. His name is Guyliss.”
They thanked her and started across the room to the man, who wore full plate mail and had a finely trimmed silver beard. He was bent in prayer. Fillip whispered over to Keelan as they approached, “you should really take the lead on this one,” he said seriously. “This one seems to have a lot in common with you.”
Keelan nodded and held out a hand to stop Fillip. “Wait,” the paladin said reverently as the man finished his prayers.
“Can I help you?” the priest said when he finally opened his eyes and stood, turning to see them waiting.
“You are Guyliss?” Keelan asked.
“Aye, that is me,” he said.
“We are on a mission of grave importance,” Keelan said, gesturing to himself and Fillip.
“Aren’t we all,” the priest nodded.
“To save the city,” Keelan added.
“Save the city,” the man repeated thoughtfully, “from what, exactly?”
“The dragon cult,” Keelan said seriously.
“Walk with me,” Guyliss told them after a brief pause, and they began to pace slowly around the interior perimeter of the temple, watching as people bowed respectfully to the priest as he passed. “I have not heard much of the cult of the dragon as of late. They are a small sect. They poke their heads out every century or so to steal and raid, but that is all. A group of brigands.”
“The cultists we saw attack Greenest were more than brigands,” Fillip told him. “They are organized, and they’re moving toward something big.”
The priest shook his head. “This news had not reached me.”
“What of the Order of the Gauntlet? Do you know anything of them?” Fillip asked. “We recently spoke with Thavus Kreeg, and he told us they may be of some help.”
“Ah, yes,” Guyless said knowingly, “they may be able to help. In fact, if you find a friend of mine, I believe he may be of more use to you.”
“Who is this friend?” Keelan asked.
“Omthar Frume. Quite a strange personality, but he’s a good man. I suggest you seek him out.”
“What’s he like?” Fillip asked.
The priest shrugged, “he’s good in a fight, and prepared for danger, so long as you have a few drinks with him after.”
The druid smiled and folded his arms. “Where can we find him?”
“He spends most of his time in the Pair of Black Antlers. It’s a tavern in the centre of town, and it’s where he does most of his dealings—and drinking. Look for the loudest man in the room, and that’s bound to be him.”
“And where might I find a shrine to Kossuth?” Keelan asked.
“Kossuth?” The priest stopped walking, giving Fillip and the paladin a long look. “The lord of fire. Well, there are not many fire worshippers that you will find in Elturel. However,” he sighed, “you can find a place for him on the second tier of the holy hill. It is marked with torches on either side of the door, and his emblem is there before you enter.”
Shale finally convinced both wizard and warlock to leave the library. Once they were back out on the street, she searched for another guard and pulled him aside. “Excuse me,” she said, “have you seen an ostentatiously dressed half-elf, an orange tiefling and a human man in heavy armour walking together? They’re our companions.”
“You’re in luck,” the soldier said, “I gave directions to those very three not long ago. They were looking for an inn.”
“Do you know where they headed?”
He nodded. “The Pontius Unicorn seemed to draw their interest.”
“The,” Shale sighed, “Pontius Unicorn? Interesting.” She looked over at Oszaren. “Fillip must have chosen that. Thank you,” she let the guard leave.
“You go worship your deity,” Fillip told Keelan with a smile, “and I will worship mine.”
“Your deity?” The paladin asked in surprise.
“The drink,” Fillip winked. “Meet me in the Pair of Black Antlers. I’ll see if I can find this Omthar Frume fellow.” With that, the druid strolled away happily and left Keelan to find his way to the temple of Kossuth.
Shale, Whisper and Oszaren sat in the Pontius Unicorn and ordered supper, and were soon joined by Reverence, who had been upstairs in meditation. He told them of a troubling vision he’d had upon entering the city. In his deep meditation, he was able to see more of the ash strewn city. Screaming came from beneath the city, and the sky had turned to green. “I think—there may be something hidden—within the city.”
“This vision,” Shale said, “is it like the one you had of Greenest?”
“Similar, perhaps,” the monk said, “but much, much worse.”
“What did you gather from Thavus Kreeg?” Oszaren asked.
“He knew very little about the cult. But—he gave us a writ, which is now in the hands—of Fillip,” Reverence told them. “It will help us get through the city without—hindrance.”
Just then, a man pushed open the door to the Unicorn and something small darted through under his feet. The man cursed as it squeaked and disappeared. “Barussa!” The man grumbled to the pink tiefling behind the bar, “I’m afraid I’ve let a rodent into your establishment.”
The tiefling muttered something and ran to the back room.
Suddenly, a small squirrel scurried up Reverence’s legs, causing him to jump as it landed on the table. The squirrel spat out a rolled piece of parchment that was slightly soggy, then bounded for the open window.
Oszaren took the paper and opened it carefully to keep it from tearing. “It’s from Fillip,” he said. “He’s at a place called the Two Black Antlers. It seems they have located Omthar Frume.”
“The man Leosin told us about,” Shale said.
Whisper, in the meantime, had watched the squirrel at the window, and suddenly, he pounced through the open window after it. All seven feet of him.
“Whisper!” Oszaren shouted, drawing the attention of the other patrons. “Oh, forget it,” he muttered, sitting back down.
“Well,” Reverence said slowly, “who wants—to go find a drunk druid?”
They all agreed, and set out at once, Whisper eventually following behind them, a tuft of bushy hair that looked suspiciously of squirrel, hanging from the edge of his mouth.
Omthar Frume was a huge, portly man with a scraggly brown beard and a wide grin. He was flanked by his small, female dwarf compatriot, who introduced herself as Kazier Ambershield, Omthar’s squire. She was the quiet to his bellowing howl of laughter. Shale, Oszaren, Whisper and Reverence all entered the tavern to the sound of Fillip and Omthar singing loudly, and impressively out of tune. They had several empty goblets in front of them and seemed to be thoroughly drunk.
“Sounds like we found Fillip,” Shale told them as they entered the warm room.
“Friends!” Fillip shouted, standing to greet them at the door. “Come, come! I’ve met Omthar here. We’ve been playing a drinking game!” The druid teetered for a moment, then righted himself by gripping a nearby table. He stumbled back to Omthar, introducing them all.
They all sat awkwardly and watched the display.
“Do you guys want to see the greatest party trick,” Fillip slurred, “of the century?”
Before they could object, Fillip stood, roaring, and transformed into a massive brown bear. Then, the drunken bear stumbled away into the kitchens, where they heard the smashing of pots and pans. The dwarven cook ran out, looking frantically over at Omthar and the others. “We’ll pay for that,” Shale assured him, and he scurried away with wringing hands.
Omthar slammed his hand down again and again on the table, laughing heartily. “That is a good trick, indeed!”
“Perhaps we should wait until tomorrow to discuss things,” Oszaren suggested to the table, and Omthar didn’t seem to hear them. “Omthar!” The warlock gestured to him to move in closer, “we have matters to discuss with you. Things Leosin sent us to speak of.”
“The dragon eggs,” Reverence whispered, and Omthar’s eyes seemed to clear for a moment as he absorbed those words.
“Very well,” he said, straightening, “we meet here, tomorrow morning.”
“Perhaps—for lunch would be better,” Reverence said, noting how the large man swayed where he stood.
“Indeed!” He clapped his hands together loudly. “It’s settled!”
“Leosin is in the city,” Kazier, the dwarven assistant, said quietly to them all. “I will ask for him to be there.”
“Thank you,” Oszaren said earnestly.
“I guess for now—we wait for Fillip—to pass out,” Reverence said, and not a moment later, they heard a smash, followed by the loud snoring of a bear. The cook again emerged looking anxious but relieved.
At that, Keelan entered the building with a concerned expression on his face. When he spotted them, he walked over and sat down. Omthar had taken to wandering around the room, greeting strangers and asking for drinking challengers, his squire following behind him on short legs. Whisper wandered away and curled up next to the fire.
“I have just been to the temple of Kossuth,” Keelan told them. “I went through the rights, and walked the coals, and now I am the Devoted Blaze.” He smiled. “I burned my legs quite badly, but it was worth it, because I met someone else at the temple. Someone who didn’t belong.”
They all looked at him intently, so he continued.
“I think it was one of the Red Wizards of Thay,” he said, and Shale perked up instantly.
“How do you know?” She demanded.
“He gave his respects to Kossuth but told me he wasn’t a follower. Simply that he had interest in the faith. He wore a black robe, which he held to himself tightly, but I saw a glimpse of red beneath it. Besides that, he told me what area he was from, and when I asked him if he knew of the wizards, he seemed to hesitate and grow uncomfortable. Not only that,” Keelan sighed, “he knew about the ever-burning embers.”
“Like the one you found at the cultist’s camp?” Shale asked.
He nodded, “I can’t know for certain, but I suspect he was one of them. I tried to follow him when he left, but he slipped away.”
Shale nodded in disappointment.
“We should retire for the night,” Oszaren finally said when the last of them had finished their drink. They entered the kitchen to find an unconscious, but thankfully back to half-elf form, Fillip. Oszaren and Reverence brought him to his feet and he slurred a few words, head lulling on one shoulder as they helped him out of the tavern.
When the fresh air hit them all, Fillip seemed to stir and began howling into the air. “Fillip, would you be quiet?” Oszaren demanded.
Whisper started howling in unison with the drunk druid. Fillip, seeming annoyed by the tabaxi’s imitation, transformed into a wolf and started snarling at the cat person. They started chasing each other through the streets, Reverence running to stop them, while the rest of them shook their heads and walked ahead. They returned to the Pontius Unicorn and Shale went straight upstairs to think, paying no mind to the howls and shouts outside.
In the morning, they made their decision about the eggs. It took the better part of an hour for them to decide what they had already decided a week ago. “We must destroy the eggs,” Keelan said firmly.
“Then let us vote,” Shale agreed. “We have discussed it enough. It’s time.”
Everyone but Whisper voted. Yes, destroy the eggs. “It must be done,” Oszaren said, summoning his sword in a flash and placing his egg on the desk in his room. They had chosen to keep the conversation private upstairs.
They all took a breath, Whisper looking especially agitated as Oszaren swung the blade into the egg with a CRACK.
The sword stuck halfway into the egg, breaking it open. Inside the egg lay the curled form of a tiny, grayish fetus. It squirmed and shuttered as the blade lodged itself partially into its flesh. Oszaren wrenched the blade free, then cut down again, splitting the tiny dragon in two. It oozed fluids over the table.
Shale covered her mouth with her hand, tears reaching her eyes unexpectedly as Oszaren reached for her egg next. “Wait!” She gasped, “wait. Let’s just—talk about this for a second.”
“We’ve talked—about it,” Reverence growled.
“I wasn’t expecting this…” Shale whispered, heart thundering in her chest frantically.
Whisper continued to watch but didn’t move, now perched on the edge of his chair.
“It needs to be done. We already voted,” Oszaren said firmly, and in a blink, he had slammed his sword into the other egg. There was a gasping breath as the second fetus died.
Shale felt a wrenching feeling in her stomach. Had they done the right thing? After all their discussions on it, she hadn’t really thought about the execution. Now, it hit her as though the blade had struck her instead. “I—I can’t,” Shale said, wiping her eyes and pushing out of the door before she had to witness the third.
Fillip came out just after her. “It’s not for me,” he said, then tramped down the stairs past her. “I’m getting a drink!” He declared.
Shale leaned against the wall, the closed door next to her, and pressed her head back, blinking away the tears. A moment later, she heard Oszaren shout “Whisper, STOP! We can talk about this,” and a loud BANG. Reverence was swearing.
Shale quickly opened the door again. “What happened?” She demanded, looking around the room.
Whisper was gone, and so was his egg. Everyone else was standing, except for Keelan, who had burned the two fetuses and was now collecting the egg shells. He looked up as she entered.
“Whisper flashed out of the room,” Oszaren explained, rubbing his forehead. He retracted his blade. “He ran with his egg. He refused to destroy it.”
“Do we go after him?” Shale asked uncertainly.
Reverence shook his head. “Leave him—he will come back.”
Shale nodded and left to tell Fillip what had happened. Fillip was unsurprised, as were the rest of them, by Whisper’s sudden flight.
It was a few hours later that they finally returned to the Two Black Antlers, after passing through a few shops where Keelan had a large necklace forged to hold his ever-burning ember and replaced his burned cloak. When they arrived at the Antlers, Kazier greeted them and brought them upstairs into a private room. Whisper was already seated, straight-backed, inside the room across the table from the large figure of Omthar Frume. As they stepped in, they also saw Leosin sitting beside Omthar. The monk looked exhausted, but healthier than last they saw him. He stood and greeted them all, gesturing for them to sit.
Whisper made no motion but to cling more tightly to his bag on his lap. The rest of them ignored him and sat. “Friends, welcome,” Leosin said in his soft voice, “it is good to see you again so soon.”
“We have done what you asked,” Reverence said slowly. “We have—destroyed the eggs.” The tension in the room was palpable as they all tried their best not to look at Whisper.
“Well,” Omthar said, bleary eyed, “this is where I take my leave.”
“Same,” Fillip said, standing, “mind if I join you for a drink?”
“Best cure for a hangover,” Omthar smiled and gestured for the druid as he opened the door. “Leosin, send Kazier when it’s time.” The dwarf girl stayed behind in the room.
“What is this tension I sense?” Leosin asked once the two had shut the door behind them.
Reverence sighed and said finally, “two of the three eggs—have been destroyed.”
“And why not the third?” The Harper asked quickly.
“Whisper—does not want to give it up.”
Leosin nodded carefully. “I see. Well,” he touched his fingers together, “I have trusted this matter into your hands. I believe you will all,” he looked at each of them in turn, “choose rightly. Though I warn you again, a world with a black dragon, even a small hatchling, is a very dangerous world to live in.”
Reverence nodded. “We will take care of it.” He glanced over, meeting Whisper’s one eye.
Oszaren turned to Whisper and started speaking to him in elvish, which surprised Shale, since she thought he only spoke draconic. Though she didn’t understand elvish, the language was much softer to the ear than draconic. They discussed something, Oszaren looking at the tabaxi pleadingly, and Whisper looking back at him with hostility.
“Don’t worry,” Keelan said, leaning toward Leosin, “this happens all the time.”
The monk creased his forehead and nodded, watching the exchange. Perhaps he was rethinking the trust he had placed in them. Shale gave him an apologetic look.
Seeming unsatisfied, Oszaren turned to Leosin and said in common, “speak plainly with us, Leosin. What must be done with the cult? What have you learned of it?”
“I will tell you what the Harpers have learned,” he said, leaning back and beginning the story. “It started with a wizard named Sammaster, who was obsessed with the power of dragons. He wrote an ancient text claiming if the dragons were to be killed and resurrected, they would become immortal.”
Whisper quickly drew out a book from within his pack and held it up to Leosin, eyes alight with excitement. “Dracoliches,” the tabaxi said.
“Yes,” Leosin said. “Sammaster has been gone for thousands of years, and it seemed his cult had all but died out… until recently. About a month ago, we started receiving reports of these raids on towns and villages. Except it seems their motives have changed over time. Rather than try to resurrect dead dragons, the cult appears to be trying to garner the respect of the living dragons. They are recruiting them to their cult. I, alongside another member of the Harpers, Carlon Ammofell, have discovered reports that a new leader has been elected into the ranks of the cult.”
“Rezmir?” Whisper asked.
“Someone higher than Rezmir. A man called Sevrin.” He paused. “It seems he has changed the doctrine of the cult.”
“What is their motive?” Keelan asked.
Leosin called for Kazier and asked her to bring up Omthar. “Their motive is the return of Tiamat to the mortal plane. We don’t know how they will do this, but we do know one thing, thanks to Carlon’s infiltration of the cult. They seek relic artefacts known as Dragon Masks. They have already found a blue dragon mask in the north, and now they are seeking out the others.”
“Is that why they’re raiding the towns?” Shale asked as Omthar reentered the low room, looking slightly more awake than he had when he left.
“They rip through towns, amassing treasure as offerings to the dragons, but also, yes, possibly to search for the masks,” Leosin said. “That is why Omthar is here. He is part of the Order of the Gauntlet.”
Omthar sat. “The Harpers and the Order of the Gauntlet are working together to investigate the cult. Our priority has been to find out where the treasure is being taken so we can intercept one of the cult’s caravans.”
“And have you found it?” Oszaren asked.
Omthar smiled, “our scouts have seen their plan to meet in Baldur’s gate. They are taking the long road, giving us the time we require to plan an infiltration.”
He looked over at Leosin, who said, “if you are still with us, we would pay you to do this task. Disguise yourselves as merchants, take over the caravan, pass through Baldur’s gate and take it up north. By our estimates, the caravan will reach Baldur’s gate in fifteen day’s time.” He handed them a map of the river leading from Elturel westwards to Baldur’s gate.
They all nodded their agreement. “I fear there may still be danger—in Elturel,” Reverence said, looking up from the map on the table. “I have had—a vision—of an attack on the city. Screams were coming—from beneath the city. Do you know of anything—beneath Elturel?”
Leosin shook his head. “I have no knowledge of that. I don’t think there is anything below the city.”
“Reverence, perhaps your vision was a metaphor?” Shale asked.
“It’s very possible,” the tiefling answered.
“Leosin, Keelan ran into an interesting character worshipping in the shrine to Kossuth,” Shale told him. “A Red Wizard of Thay, we suspect. Do you know if they have anything to do with the cult?”
“I saw one of their wizards when I was prisoner to the cult,” he said thoughtfully, “and I have heard of one travelling through here, but as for what they have to do with the cult, I have no idea.”
“There are many ministries within their magic,” Oszaren looked at Shale. “One of those ministries is necromancy.”
“What if they were working with the cult to resurrect more dragons?” She said quietly.
“That is—a fear,” Reverence said.
“There are few wizards in this world more powerful than those of Thay,” Leosin told them. “One thing I did learn while captured was the name of the wizard in the camp: Azbarra. But, he held no love for his home or the rulers of Thay. He seemed to have business with a fellow wizard in the north, which is why he left before the rest of the cult.”
“Very well,” Oszaren said, leaning back, “you have given us much to think about. Thank you.”
“You accept the task, then?” Omthar asked, scratching his rough beard.
They all looked around at each other, and Reverence said, “we do.”
“Excellent!” Omthar boomed, suddenly lively again. “You will meet with my contact in Baldur’s gate, then! He owns the wagonry and equipage shop there. Name’s Ackyn.”
“We will give you everything you need before you go,” Leosin assured them.
Leosin and Omthar bid their farewells and the group left, grabbing Fillip where he drank alone downstairs. They filled him in on their plans as they walked.
“I’m not ready to leave just yet,” Shale said, thinking again of the Red Wizard.
“Nor am I,” Reverence agreed.