Chapter Thirteen: Baldur’s Gate
They met again with Leosin and Omthar and were offered the choice of joining the Harpers or the Order of the Gauntlet. The Harpers were for political balance and order in the lands. Shale had very little interest in politics, though Reverence and Oszaren seemed intrigued. The Order of the Gauntlet aimed for justice against evil creatures and factions. Vague, but Shale had much more experience with evil, and when she chose to join them, Omthar nodded appreciatively and handed her a small bronze medallion with the emblem of a silver gauntlet holding a sword by the blade. “You may take this symbol and place it on whatever you wish, so long as you bear it proudly. Your rank is that of Chevall.”
Keelan and Fillip joined the Gauntlet as well, and were each given the medallion and the rank of Chevall. Shale tied her symbol with a leather string and looped it around her neck.
Reverence and Oszaren joined the Harpers and were given the rank of Watcher, but were told to keep their marks hidden.
Whisper did not join either faction and clung tightly to the bag containing his dragon egg. It never left his side. When Shale closed her eyes she could still picture the gasping, final breath of the gray fetus, wings curled about it helplessly as it died beneath Oszaren’s blade.
“Now that you have all chosen your paths,” Leosin said softly, eyes trailing over each of them, “it is time we leave you with one parting gift.”
Omthar motioned for Kazier and she heaved a large crate onto the table. Omthar slid it towards him and laid a heavy hand on its surface. “The Order of the Gauntlet and the Harpers are proud to work against the growing threat of the dragon cult with skilled warriors such as yourselves. This crate,” he thumped it, “is a boat. Throw it into the Chionthar river with a command word of your choosing and it will unfold into either a small boat, or one large enough to fit fifteen passengers comfortably. When you wish, you may shrink it back into its crate form with another command word of your choosing. Keep these commands consistent, and no others will be able to use them unless they too know the words.”
“This is an incredible gift,” Oszaren told them seriously.
Omthar nodded and motioned for Kazier to bring a second item: a scroll of parchment. “Take this as well,” Omthar said, handing the parchment to Oszaren. “This will get you all some disguises. You will want to hide your appearances. The cult has encountered you more than once, and some of you,” his eyes trailed over Shale’s lavender dreadlocks and Reverence’s orange horns, “may be more recognizable than others.”
Shale touched her fingers to her hair self-consciously.
“Thank you, again,” Oszaren said.
With that, they took their leave of Omthar’s room within the tavern and headed out into the streets in search of disguises. Their day was spent purchasing healing potions, navigator’s tools, clothing and, most importantly, according to Fillip, a crate of wine. They sold their horses and headed down the winding path against the steep cliffs to the Chionthar river.
They had spent a few days in the city of Elturel asking about secret lairs beneath the city or Red Wizards passing through. Keelan visited the temple to Kossuth more than once, but there was no sign of the man who had appeared before. Feeling the city was a dead end for both Reverence and Shale’s searches, they all agreed to depart. They had a tenday to get to Baldur’s Gate, and travel by river would take half that time. Once they arrived in the city, Shale’s search would begin anew.
“Pokey!” Fillip and Keelan shouted together as they threw the crate into the river. The boat exploded out of the box in a clatter of wood and a woosh as a large square sail burst from it and immediately caught the breeze and billowed out.
Shale rolled her eyes, arms folded. “I still can’t believe the command word we chose is ‘pokey’.”
“No one else—will think of it,” Reverence shrugged. The ridiculous command words had, surprisingly, been of his invention.
They all clambered onto the newly constructed boat to the envious eyes of the other sailors at the docks. Fillip’s wine was the last thing to be loaded before they set off, Oszaren taking the wheel and guiding them around the various ships moving through port. Whisper crouched at the bow of the ship, his dragon’s egg still tightly clutched in his paws. Shale sat at the stern watching him carefully. Trigger curled up beside her, nuzzling his soft nose into her arm. She scratched his ear and smiled as the glowing orb above Elturel vanished behind them.
They were a few days into their travel down the winding Chionthar river when they encountered a beast familiar to Shale. They moored for the evening and made camp, and Shale and Fillip stood on either ends of the camp keeping first watch, Trigger sniffing the trees in search of rodents.
It was the smell that drew her attention first, and Trigger ran to her side, hackles raised. The wind had turned, sending a pungent smell in their direction. “What is it?” Shale whispered, and Trigger growled.
Shale found Fillip a moment later, and he too looked worried. “Smell that?” the druid frowned, and Shale nodded.
Fillip hunched over and transformed into a large direwolf and began sniffing the ground. Trigger eagerly followed him as the two disappeared into the darkness. These were the Woods of Sharp Teeth. Shale had travelled through them before, and the longer she waited the more familiar the scent became, and she had an itching feeling she knew exactly what caused it.
A few minutes later, Fillip and Trigger returned. The druid grew back into his human form and whispered, “I couldn’t see much, but I could hear it. Some sort of creature crunching on bones by the sounds of it. And I found a footprint. Humanoid, but massive.”
Shale nodded. “I know what this is. We should wake the others.”
They set about shaking everyone awake, and once they were all gathered, Shale told them. “There’s a troll nearby.”
“So that’s what the smell is,” Oszaren said.
“I’ve encountered it before, but I was able to avoid it,” Shale said. “We could do the same, or, we could take it down. With all of us here it shouldn’t be too difficult.”
“If it is evil,” Keelan said, “then we must destroy it.”
“Would it—be better—to kill it?” Reverence asked.
“It is a danger to anyone who travels around here,” Shale nodded. “If you all agree to it, I say we put it down.” Trolls were known for uprooting trees, fouling rivers and clawing innocent travellers to pieces. This troll was no exception, and Shale had a very strong dislike for them.
“Let’s think wisely about this,” Oszaren said, and when Shale was about to protest he held up a hand. “I agree that we destroy it, but we need a plan first.”
“Trap it,” Shale suggested. “But how?”
“I dig hole,” Whisper said, holding up his claws. It was the first time the tabaxi had spoken to them in nearly two days.
“How can we cover it and draw the troll toward it?” Shale wondered.
“Whisper, can you make a hole that quickly? We’re on a bit of a time crunch,” Fillip said, rubbing his smooth jaw and giving Keelan a covert wink when the man looked at him.
“Me cast illusion over hole,” Whisper said, waving his hands. “Use magic to dig hole.”
“Alright,” Oszaren nodded, seemingly satisfied.
“Okay, Whisper,” Shale said quietly, “you sneak ahead and start on that hole. Someone will need to draw it toward the trap—”
“I can do that,” Fillip volunteered.
“I can shoot it full of arrows once it’s distracted,” Shale breathed. “Let’s hope this works.”
“I mean, our plans rarely work. But it’s worth a try,” Keelan smiled, a spark of excitement lighting his brown eyes as he lifted his crossbow.
The booming footsteps of the troll approached through the trees, long clawed hands thrashing through the underbrush as the creature ran toward the shouting druid who backed away behind the hole Whisper had dug. Unfortunately, they hadn’t had the time to cover the hole with Whisper’s illusion. The troll had caught their scent before that could happen. It threw back its slimy black head and roared, swiping at Fillip, who dodged out of the way.
“Whisper,” Shale shouted as the troll caught Keelan in its view, “start the forest on fire!”
The tabaxi didn’t need to be asked twice. He raised his paws and fired three consecutive firebolts at the nearby trees, which caught flame, allowing Shale to see the area better. She drew out her longbow and cast her hunter’s mark on the creature, then released an arrow. The arrow struck it hard in the nose, and the troll bellowed and reached to yank it out, but as it did so, Keelan began shooting his crossbow at it, Fillip shot his sling and Reverence rolled into melee with it, spinning his spear and banging it in the knees, shins, and any other area the tiefling could reach with his leaping strike.
Whisper conjured a massive ball of fire, which slammed into the back of the troll, searing it and causing it to scream inhumanly. “Fire!” Whisper shouted, “fire good!”
Keelan echoed his sentiment with a hearty cry, and they all saw as the flames consumed the trolls flesh horribly. It was bubbling and stinking but still swinging wildly. Shale understood what Whisper meant: the troll was especially pervious to fire, greasy as it was.
Fillip roared as he transformed into the hulking figure of a brown bear and charged at the troll. Keelan exchanged his crossbow for his sword, which began to crackle with lightning energy. Shale shot several more arrows into the creature and was rather impressed that it was still standing, surrounded as it was by her companions. Fillip managed to tear a great strip of meat from one of the troll’s legs. With a second swipe from the bear, the leg was torn free. It landed with a thump in the grass a distance off and began caterpillar-ing away. Fillip sprinted four-legged after the limb and ripped it to shreds in his mouth. Meanwhile, the troll swiped his thick claws into Reverence’s shoulder. The tiefling took a few steps back, eyes turning red, and screamed something in a horrible, encompassing language that shook the ground and exploded in a fiery cloud around the troll. As the burst of fury hit, the troll exploded in a gory mess that splattered the surrounding trees and covered Reverence wholly in melted flesh and rubbery bits of intestine.
With a satisfied grin, the tiefling turned on his heel and bowed to the rest of them. Then, he clapped his hands together and the gore over his person sloughed off, leaving him sparkling clean. Whisper set to incinerating the remaining larger body pieces that tried to wriggle away.
“Well done,” Fillip allowed, no longer in bear form, “though I feel that I did half the work.”
“One leg—of the work,” Reverence smiled and patted the half-elf’s cheek patronizingly.
They wasted their remaining time on the boat with various activities. Shale worked on dying her hair black but, just as when she had tried years ago, the colour melted away, leaving cords of lavender. She decided instead to wrap her hair in a scarf to cover it.
Reverence showed off his new skills of freezing parts of the river. He would send the water exploding upwards, then freeze it, allowing large chunks to float after them. Eventually as he practiced, he was able to carve shapes into the ice, even managing to create an ice sculpture of a tabaxi holding a dragon egg under one arm, hackles raised, and fangs bared.
“Well done,” Fillip praised the tiefling, nodding in approval as he used a dagger to clean his nails.
Whisper stared at the sculpture as it floated away but said nothing. Shale thought Reverence was starting to wake up around them, and she could see parts of him that had always been guarded before.
Careful, she thought, petting Trigger’s belly, there’s danger in the wizard’s eyes.
On the fifth day of travel, nearing midday, the boat followed the river around a winding corner and revealed a massive bridge crossing the mile-wide Chionthar river. Guards patrolled along the bridge in steady formation to each side as they drifted under it. Tiny faces looked down at them as the flag displaying the Order of the Gauntlet emblem fluttered its colours against the mast.
Reverence stood at the bow of the ship, stiff and unmoving, staring at the city with a grave expression. He stood there rigidly for a full minute before shaking himself. Then, the monk sat and began to meditate on deck while Oszaren angled the boat for harbour.
Another vision, Shale thought.
They docked and shrunk the boat back to its original crate shape. The dockmaster ran up to them, impressed by the contraption, and directed them to a place to stay for the evening. They left their belongings at the Elfsong Tavern and went their separate ways, exploring the city and finding new ways to spend time for the next five days. Shale left her name with Omthar’s friend Ackyn at the wagonry and equipage store, telling him of their plans to join the dragon cult’s caravan north. She promised to check back with him every day to ensure everything was in order and purchased a single wagon from the pooled funds of her compatriots, which they would later need to fill with supplies. When that was done, she spent her time wandering the city with Trigger, asking about the wizards in red.
Reverence strolled conspicuously through the streets of Baldur’s Gate asking after the cult of the dragon. He did this for two days. On the second day, a man in a ratty brown cloak slunk from an alley and grabbed his arm. The monk easily twisted out of the man’s grasp and drew a spear, pressing the point under the man’s chin. “H-Heard you was lookin’ for the cult,” the man gasped, showing a sparse amount of teeth. Reverence withdrew the spearpoint a few inches. “I have informations ‘bout them… for a price.” The weaselly man grinned horribly, but he was not a threat.
Reverence spun the spear in his hand and said, “and who—might this information—be from?”
“You’ve been real keen on lookin’, and not too keen on hidin’,” the man said. “There’s been people watchin’ yah. They’s who sent me.”
Reverence raised his chin. “Take me—to them.”
“As I’s said, information has a price.”
In a breath, Reverence had the spear pressed up against the man’s side. “You know what—this is?” the monk said warningly. “It’s your mortality.”
“J-just a small fee,” the man whined, “a messenger’s fee.”
Reverence huffed, again withdrawing the spear and pulling out two silver coins, which he dropped consecutively into the man’s grimy palms. “Many thanks,” the man grumbled. “This way.”
Reverence followed him through the zig-zagged side-streets until they reached a low building with a wooden door built a few steps below the street. They descended, and Reverence turned to the messenger. “Go in first,” he said.
With only a moment’s hesitation, the man opened the door and stepped in, moving to the side so Reverence could enter in after him. The room was dimly lit and small. Inside was a half dozen chairs placed in a semicircle facing him, and each was filled by a hooded figure. The messenger quickly backed out of the room, leaving Reverence alone with the strange group. A spike of fear shot through him. Reverence raised both hands and made the torches flare, using the moment to slam the door behind him and leap up the stairs. The messenger had disappeared, and he ran down the street without looking back, all the way back to the Elfsong Tavern, where he found his companions sitting together.
“I may have found members of the cult,” he said between laboured breaths. “I think they want to recruit me.”
As the orange tiefling fled from the room, a man on the end stood from his chair, quickly raising his hand and shouting, “oh—wait!”
But, the tiefling was gone.
“I told you we shouldn’t have done the cloaks,” a woman’s voice said from behind one of the hoods. She stood and ripped off her hood, blonde hair spilling out around her. “Now what do we do?”
He shrugged and pulled out a piece of blank parchment. “I guess we leave a note,” he said.
Keelan, the Devoted Blaze, the dedicated follower of Kossuth, Lord of the Flames, entered the city of Baldur’s Gate and found the temple dedicated to his Lord. He quickly found the large and notable building made of black stone and ringed with a moat of fire. He entered the large doors, reverently noting every flame and candle within. He touched a hand to the ember at his neck, feeling its warmth.
“Greetings,” a woman’s voice said, and as she stepped into the firelight he saw that her head was shaved and decorated with intricate black tattoos. Her skin was olive toned and her slender body was wrapped in a scarlet robe.
“Hello,” he said in a gruff voice, dipping his head. “I am Keelan, the Devoted Blaze and worshipper of Kossuth, come to pay my respects.”
She smiled, “I am Adanja Jokada. It is rare to see worshippers of Kossuth, but they are welcome indeed.”
“The flame has much to teach us,” Keelan said. “There is wisdom to be gained from its depths.”
“Indeed, it is a powerful thing. Please,” she gestured for him to walk with her. “Is it sacrifice you are here for? To partake in the ritual?”
Keelan nodded as they approached the large brazier at the end of the room. She held out an inviting hand and he quickly pulled up his sleeve, unhooking his gauntlet and dropping it to the ground with a clatter. He thrust his arm into the flickering flames and felt heat as the flames coiled up and around his flesh, licking it like an excited puppy. The fire did not burn his skin as it had before. Instead, it pulled him in and he opened his hand, turning it to allow the flames to bathe the rest of it.
“You are indeed devoted to the Lord of the Flames,” Adanja breathed as Keelan pulled his arm eventually from the flames and bent to pick up his gauntlet.
“I have taken it upon myself to pursue his holiness in every flame and brazier dedicated to his name. I even found this,” Keelan held up the chain around his neck with the iron sphere containing the ember. He unhooked it and opened the sphere for her to see.
She gasped and touched a hand to her chest, moving closer to inspect it. “Incredible. An eternal ember.”
“I found it being kept for the perverted use of the dragon cult,” Keelan said. “The filth who worship Tiamat.”
“May I hold it?” Adanja asked after a moment, still staring enraptured at the thing.
Reluctantly, Keelan took the chain from his neck and handed it to her, muscled coiled for an attack, should it come.
“Might I try something with it?” She asked, and seeing Keelan’s expression assured him, “it is for you. I will not take it from you.”
Keelan finally nodded, tight lipped, and she put a hand on his arm.
“Come with me.” With that, the tattooed woman with the shaved head led him around the brazier and down a flight of winding stairs.
The stairs were lit with flickering torches, and soon they found themselves in a stone landing with a closed iron door. Adanja passed the ember back to Keelan as she drew out a heavy set of keys and unlocked the door, pushing it open. Then, she led him into a room lined with glass shelves that seemed to move in the firelight. Dusty rolls of parchment and other oddments were stacked haphazardly on the shelves. Adanja went to a shelf and took down a small box. She unhooked it and withdrew a black iron gauntlet, turning it in her hands.
“This is the gauntlet of the Fire Lord himself,” she said seriously, holding it in both hands. “It has not been used since Kossuth walked this earth. But, perhaps…” She moved to stand in front of Keelan, who still held the necklace open, and plucked the ember from within.
“Careful,” Keelan started to warn, but it didn’t seem to burn the woman.
She raised the gauntlet in one hand and the ember in the other. The gauntlet began to stir and shake, rattling closer to the ember. The light in the ember grew brighter, pulsing. “It is time to awaken the gauntlet once more,” Adanja announced, and with an echoing boom that didn’t fit the size of the objects, the ember flew into a space in the gauntlet, merging with it. Gauntlet and ember flashed with light, then continued to pulse like a beating heart. She placed them on a table and the two of them watched as the black gauntlet turned to red, then began to shift and spin on the surface of the table until the fist was pointed away from Keelan.
“You are the chosen one,” Adanja said. “Quick, put it on!”
Keelan didn’t need her to tell him. He could feel the gauntlet calling to him. He slipped his hand into it quickly and raised it, feeling the heat wash over him. Suddenly, a wave of excruciating pain covered him, curling back his spine and forcing a scream from his lungs. His vision went red like the gauntlet and he felt his flesh, his muscle, his bones turn to ash.
Then, the light dimmed. His eyes worked again, and the pain was gone. Keelan looked down in surprise as the gauntlet faded to black. His hand throbbed, but he could open and close his fingers.
“Kossuth has chosen you as his warrior,” she said, “just as I suspected.”
Keelan nodded, unable to speak. The fire was inside him.
“I can see the righteous fury burns in your eyes,” Adanja said softly, touching his shoulder with a light hand, “but may I offer you some advice? Do not be so rash in your judgement. I see that you have fought alongside fire, so it is wise to remember that fire may be used in many ways, both for good and evil purposes.”
Keelan thought on that for a moment. “So, you’re saying dragons could be good?”
“Perhaps,” Adanja smiled. “The Fire Lord uses many things to his purposes.”
“I think,” Keelan said after a time, finally setting down the necklace, “that I understand. Now I just need to figure out if cats are okay, too.”
The day after Reverence had fled from his secret meeting, they decided to return to the place to search for the hooded figures. All except Reverence wore their disguises and stood a way off from the building Reverence had told them about, while the tiefling entered the room. It was completely abandoned except for a note written on parchment and stabbed through with a dagger on the inside wall. It read:
You should know there are powers both high and low wanting to rid this world of the dragon cult. We have such interests that align with yours. We want to help you.
I regret that our first meeting ended so abruptly—meet us again in the room beneath the Gnome Quarters, where we may discuss things further.
An Interested Party
Reverence ripped the parchment free from the blade and stuffed it into a pocket, then went to find his friends.
Fillip accompanied Shale across town to visit Ackyn. They purchased crates filled with various spices and loaded them into the wagon.
“Well,” Shale said in satisfaction when they were finally done filling the cart, “this should convince the caravan that we’re one of them.”
“And we can make some money once we sell all of these spices at a markup,” Fillip smirked, wiping sweat from his brow.
“I can’t say it wouldn’t help,” Shale sighed. Her efforts in finding out more about the Red Wizards of Thay had been unsuccessful, and she was more than ready to leave Baldur’s Gate. Money might help her dig up more information, but only where there was information to be had.
“Since that’s done,” the half-elf grinned even wider, “I’m going to go see a man about a companion.”
“And just when I thought we were getting along.” Shale rolled her eyes, though she did envy the druid’s ability to leave his burdens behind.
Reverence entered the Gnome Quarters and was greeted by a small, wizened gray gnome with hair sprouting from his ears. “Hello, tall sir, how might I help you?”
The tiefling leaned down until his horns were almost touching the gnome’s small head. “I’m looking for—the basement,” he gave the gnome a meaningful look.
“Ah, yes,” the gnome said gravely, ushering him forward, “this way, sir.”
Reverence descended the stairs alone and was surprised by how quickly the noise from upstairs vanished. More confidently this time, he threw open a wooden door and entered the dingy basement. The room was small like the other, but this time the robed figures were standing, and they were wearing masks made of bone.
“The masks,” Reverence said slowly as he entered, folding his arms and leaning against the wall, “don’t help me—to trust you.”
One of the figures turned to the other, holding out their hands as if to make a point. The other figure shrugged and spoke up with a man’s voice. “Reverence. I hope this meeting is better than the first.”
“Let’s hear—what you have to say,” the monk said seriously.
“We are not here to harm you, but understand that we must work in the utmost secrecy.” The figure motioned to the group.
“Then you can certainly understand—that I do not want to draw—the wrong attention in meeting you.”
“Can we trust your friends? The ones you travel with?”
“Yes—you can trust them. Though,” he paused, “I’m not too sure—about the cat one—but that is something—we will sort out for ourselves.”
“Very well,” the man nodded, his haunting bone mask showing nothing of the person beneath. “We have a message from our lord, one who does not wish to make himself known as yet. He is a man of great power with interest in what you’ve been working toward. He would like for you to know that he is one of many who support the complete elimination of the dragon cult. Our lord is pleased with what you’ve accomplished and wishes to support you in the rest of your endeavours.” He gestured to another one of the figures. “That is why we have a gift for you, but the gift is for you to decide. Would you like a boon in combat, or something that will help you solve this mystery?”
“Unraveling this mystery—is my first priority,” Reverence finally said.
“Very well,” the man said, and the other figure passed a chain to him, which he handed to Reverence.
On the chain was a small skull inlaid with deep-set ruby eyes. Reverence turned it over in his palm, the six cloaked figures watching him carefully.
“We hope this will give you the answers you seek.”
Reverence closed his hand around the necklace and looked up at them. This was a secret he would keep to himself.
It seemed the meeting that took place beneath the Gnome Quarters was a simple discussion of the cult of the dragon. Reverence told the others there were some people interested in what the cult was up to, and he gave them some vague information before leaving them.
“Do you think you’ll see them again?” Shale asked, thinking the meeting very odd.
“Unlikely,” Reverence shook his head. “I told them—very little—and they had—even less to provide.”
They all sat together at the Elfsong Tavern eating breakfast. It was the morning of the fifth day since arriving at Baldur’s Gate. As they stood to collect their things and head out to Ackyn’s for their wagon, a gruff voice shouted from the door of the tavern, “Whisper! Is that you?”
Whisper looked up in surprise, ears twitching at the small dwarven man. He perked up and began speaking to the dwarf in draconic, drawing the eyes of everyone near.
“What is this about?” Shale whispered to Oszaren, who was listening intently to the conversation.
“It seems Whisper has met this dwarf before,” Oszaren told her. “His name is Baror. He washed dishes with our tabaxi friend back at the cult camp.”
“The place where we ‘rescued’ him?” Shale demanded.
“The very same,” the warlock said. “It seems the cult has arrived at Baldur’s Gate, right on schedule.”