Added on October 22, 1999
Category: Fantasy/Dark Elf
Author: Lledrith RavenWolf

Chronicle of Baldur's Gate

Prologue

Part One: Mulahey
Chapter 1: Friendly Arm Inn
Chapter 2: Beregost
Chapter 3: Thunderhammer Smithy
Chapter 4: Revelation
Chapter 5: Nashkel
Interlude

[next page]

Ok, so Zak isn't the main character, and doesn't come out until chapter 2 or so. It's already known to which spirit his 'token' belongs to, but the rest... you can't guess as yet.

Something I'd like to add to the 'author's introduction' at the beginning of this story :

"Chronicle of Baldur's Gate" is dedicated to my team in the computer game Baldur's Gate, by Black Isle. I've dragged you through wind and hail and snow and sun, through sewers and strongholds and mazes and mines, but you'd never complained, and even though you may have been programmed so, thank you for your dedication that may not have been found in true life. Thank you. :)


Prologue

Rimn hurried up to the entrance of the tavern of Candlekeep. Errands, errands... they never seemed to stop. It was always, "Rimn, could you do this? Rimn, may you get that?" to him, and he was quite sick of it.

Opening the door, the scroll from Tethoril clutched tightly in his hand, he walked into the dim, straw-smelling interior. Winthrop, the innkeeper, nodded absently at him, then continued to polish the many tankards in the tavern cum inn.

Rivendell the mage turned around from where he had been contemplating the fire, and smiled. It was a genuine, cheerful smile that would have warmed the heart of even the darkest scoundrel. Rimn liked Rivendell - the mage believed in giving favors for favors, though they were sometimes rather useless.

"You have the scroll?" Rivendell asked, in his pleasant voice. Everyone knew him as an old, benign mage, who often spoke for hours with Tethoril, the First Reader and priest of Goddess Mystra, about how the world started and how it would end. It was an argument they spoke about when they had exhausted all other possible subjects, like speculations of worlds above the stars.

"Oh yes," Rimn said, handing the item to him. The mage smiled again. "Have you no weapon other than that staff, boy?"

Rimn shook his head. Weapons were not required in Candlekeep, where books were more valuable than lives. The staff was to aid him in walking and also to lean on.

"Winthrop!" Rivendell called at the innkeeper, who looked up. "A boy must wear weapons. Get yourself a crossbow and a sword." Rimn looked at the mage in astonishment.

"But sir," Rimn protested; though secretly hoping the mage would get on with it.

Winthrop smiled, and waddled over into the storeroom, his great bulk nearly covering the doorway, then came back holding a simple sheathed sword and a normal light crossbow, complete with two quarrels of bolts. "One of them bolts are for Fuller in the Guard House. And do not look so downcast, boy... he'd pay you for sure."

Rimn beamed excitedly, strapping on the sword and crossbow, then heading out of the inn at a full gallop. Winthrop glanced at Rivendell. "An excitable lad," he observed.

Rivendell shrugged. "Such is youth," he said wisely, then went back to observing the fire.

***

Rimn deposited the bolts with Fuller, who paid him, in his opinion, a paltry two gold coins, the money used in the Sword Coast and much of the Realms. Rimn wandered up past the walled up inner courtyard, and Phlydia, the blue robed female mage of Candlekeep, looked up from where she seemed to be rummaging in a bush.

"Rimn, dear boy," she hailed, and he obligingly stopped. Another errand, he believed, and his fears were realized when Phlydia charged him with the task of finding a book of hers which she 'had left somewhere around here'.

As he wandered over eastwards, looking in haystacks and in the pens of cows, Rimn wondered what exactly he possessed that kept allowing people to give him all sorts of dirty jobs. He was probably known as the Errand Boy of Candlekeep, he groused.

As he passed yet another house, an unfamiliar stranger beckoned at him. "I believe Phlydia left her book in here," he said.

"How did you know she's looking for it?" Rimn demanded.

"Well, she's been looking up and down for it all day," the stranger recovered magnificently. Rimn shrugged. All the people in Candlekeep were friendly to him, so he went in. The stranger closed the door behind him.

"I have you now," he said.

Rimn looked at him blankly. "Phlydia's book?"

"I will be paid for this job," the man went on obliviously, then drew two daggers and advanced. Rimn, panicking, drew his sword clumsily.

"I warn you..." Rimn said, "The Gatewarden's been giving me lessons."

The man smiled, and jumped in, his daggers raised. Confused, Rimn pushed the sword in front of him, and watched in horror as it sank into the man's chest.

Hastily, Rimn wiped the sword and rammed it back in its sheath. As he technically was not exactly a 'good boy', and thus not concerned about moral scruples, he filched the money bag of the stranger, then walked out of the house, closing the door.

He saw his friend and tutor, Karan, approaching, and stopped dead. "Child," Karan began, then gasped. "What have you been doing, Rimn? There's blood on your jacket!"

"I don't know...the man called to me, I haven't seen him before...then he attacked and I raised the sword," Rimn blurted out, still frightened.

Karan paused, considering. "You had better go to Gorion at the Library. Things are acting faster than I thought... no, do not ask me for an explanation." With that, his tutor walked into the house, closing the door behind him. Rimn looked around wildly then started to run to the inner courtyard, where the Library was.

Gorion was his adopted father. Rimn had no idea who his parents were, and was dimly aware of the fact that it was Gorion's prestige as a high level mage that allowed him to stay in Candlekeep. Visitors had to pay a book of high value to be allowed to even stay for a few weeks in Candlekeep.

On the way, Rimn stopped at an innocuous barrel, and reached inside, pocketing his life savings. It wasn't much, but he thought he'd need it soon.

***

The Library was the tallest and most massive building in Candlekeep. Rimn hurried past the Chanters, four men who always seemed to be, well, chanting, a continuos stream of babble and gibberish that they only seemed to understand. It seemed important, so he always left them alone.

Gorion was waiting at the steps of the Library. As always, his hair was snow white from eld, and he wore a simple brown robe. In his hands was a staff of magic, and his eyes twinkled with mischief.

He looked up, and nodded at Rimn. "We have to set off on a journey of extreme importance," he said, "Do you have preparations to make?"

"No," Rimn replied, guiltily feeling the extra bulge of gold in his pockets, stolen or otherwise.

"Very well," Gorion beamed, then walked down the steps.

***

Chapter 1: Friendly Arm Inn

Rimn looked nervous. It was quickly becoming dark, and Gorion was his only companion against the wilds outside Candlekeep. His eyes darted around, trying to pierce every shadow, and thrice he jumped at the sounds of owls.

Gorion was mumbling something to himself about 'meeting a friend at the Inn', but Rimn was not listening. He had never ventured outside the walls of his home before, and was afflicted with that unfortunately common fear - the fear of the dark. He cursed his imagination, and also the dwarf Revor who kept the warehouses of Candlekeep. Revor enjoyed terrorizing the few youths of the place by regaling them with tales of evil wolves and monstrous ogres to be seen outside the walls.

"Wait," Gorion said abruptly, such that Rimn nearly jumped out of his skin. "There's something wrong."

Rimn looked nervously around him. They were already too far away from his home to be able to call for help, and he saw nothing, the dark appearing to morph into hideous monsters with fangs and claws.

Then he saw them - a human dressed in a helmet that in the day and far away, Rimn would have called absurd. Two large horns curved out from the sides, and the metal mask was set in a grimace that Rimn, in Candlekeep, would have called constipated. Yet here in the night, it was frightening. More frightening yet were the three ogres, holding their race's favorite weapon of a morningstar, standing behind the human. There was a mage next to the warrior, staff at the ready.

"Hand over the child, Gorion, and pass unhurt." The voice that emitted from the metal helmet was chilling and malevolently full of satisfaction.

"Never," Gorion said.

"Then suffer the consequences," The warrior remarked, and the mage pointed the staff at Rimn. Instinctively, he dodged to the side, therefore only catching the 'magic missile', a glowing red orb, on his side, enough to make him cry out in pain.

"Run, boy!" Gorion growled, unleashing missiles and lightning bolts of his own. Rimn hesitated, but one ogre advanced, and he fled.

***

Dawn found Rimn leaning against a tree on the communal road, wild eyed and extremely frightened, clutching his drawn crossbow. He was rather good at that weapon, which calmed him somewhat. He was a complete failure at any pointed, bladed, blunt weapon, except for the staff, which was easy anyway.

You just hit a victim with it, and you didn't cut yourself, something that happened to Rimn when he first tried the sword. He still remembered the long session with the priest of healing, the laughter of the few guards in Candlekeep at the Gatewarden's account, and Gorion's frown and lecture.

Come to think of it, Gorion tried to lecture the Gatewarden as well, but the warden kept bursting into laughter, so the old man gave up eventually.

The laughter hurt, and Rimn had spent quite a while holed up in the Library at his favorite corner, sulking.

Gorion... Rimn looked up at the rising sun for assurance, then, firmly holding his cocked crossbow, advanced back into the forest. He prayed that nothing had gone wrong.

Thoughtfully, he left a wide berth at the marking of a bear, something he had not noticed in his wild flight the night before. Then he came to a large, burnt circle in the grass. There were the bodies of the ogres and the mage...Rimn's heart stopped. Gorion lay on the grass, still.

He hurried over, and knelt at his foster-father's side. With a heavy heart, he knew the old man was dead, and a cold grief and pain burned in his heart. What was he to do now? He was sure Candlekeep would not accept him, now that his protector was dead. Vaguely, he remembered mention of an inn, and guiltily pawed at the dead man's clothing.

It revealed a purse, that Rimn pocketed and a letter in Gorion's erratic handwriting:

'Dear Kurent,

I hope this letter finds you well. I am traveling with my adopted son, for circumstances that you are well aware of. I hold you to your promise the year before, my friend, as you should no doubt know of. If something or other was to befall me before I reach our meeting place, the Friendly Arm Inn, you are to take care of Rimn. Doubtless you still know what to do, and will look after him well.

Sincerely,
Gorion'

Rimn pocketed it, then looked at the other bodies. The warrior was gone, as if into mid air. Looking around, his conscience gave him a prick, but he rummaged through the bodies of the fallen and pocketed what baubles they had. Then he hastened back to the road.

After he had followed it for a while, he saw a man approaching, whistling a tune rather inexpertly and holding a large bow. The man nodded at Rimn, then paused, as if remembering something.

"Say, lad, have you seen the ogre mage around here?" he inquired.

"No sir," Rimn said, "But do you know the way to 'Friendly Arm Inn'?"

"Every adventurer does," the hunter spread his arms expansively. "Now, just follow this road until you reach the crossroads. Then go north. The road ends at the inn. An adventurer, are you?"

Rimn nodded, thanked the man hastily then started to walk off, in his best 'dignified adventurer' walk. When he was sure he was out of sight, he ran.

***

The crossroads were also set in the midst of a large forest. Rimn glanced around him, then headed north, still holding his crossbow.

His heart nearly stopped when a gibberling leaped out in front of him, purple skin warty and leathery, and black hair dangling over a horrid face, the creature resembling a deformed child. It made hooting noises, and stretched forward its long claws.

Rimn's instincts took over. He raised the crossbow, and shot the bolt. There was a wet sound, like a stone hitting a sack of flour, then the gibberling collapsed.

Rimn leant against a tree for support, then inched over and around the creature, leaving his bolt behind. He started to run again.

***

Friendly Arm Inn was a walled hamlet, the steps leading to the impressive stone entrance sporting two guards. At the sides of the arch with the raised portcullis were two huge banners with the insignia of the Inn, that of an armored hand holding a blue pennant.

The guards nodded at Rimn. "Do you know the rules?" one of them said pleasantly.

Rimn paused, and shook his head.

"No fighting," the other guard said, "Those who do not 'behave', as Bentley Mirrorshade puts it, get thrown out."

"Sure," Rimn said quickly.

"Good lad," one of the guards said approvingly. Rimn winced, and the guards laughed. Haughtily, he marched into the hamlet.

The interior was scrupulously neat, and the people inside consisted mostly of merchants. The walls sheltered a few houses, and Rimn noticed gardens, a horse pond, stables, and caravan wagon sheds.

The inn itself was a large, fortress-like affair. Rimn walked for some while before he neared the steps, and noted that there was a smaller building next to it, that had a gold cross over the two entrances. A temple, he believed, and started to walk up the stairs.

A gaily-dressed man, who had been leaning on the wall, started down. "Are you the one known as Rimn?" he inquired.

"Yes," Rimn said automatically, trained all his life to be honest (more or less).

"Good," The man remarked, then drew his sword with frightening speed. "My name is Tarnesh, and I'd have to kill you, I'm afraid."

"You're afraid?" Rimn muttered, his eyes wide in shock. "Wait! Why are you doing this?"

Tarnesh shrugged. "I'm paid to," he said, and he was upon Rimn. Rimn clumsily blocked the first swing, letting out a shout for help. The man was too good for him, he realized, and even scored a nasty cut on his leg.

Rimn took the most famous strategy of all fighters - he turned and ran towards the guards of the Inn, who had been running towards the fight. Tarnesh bounded over him, and he dodged, but the first guard was already upon them. "Here, what's this?" he demanded, but Tarnesh coolly reversed his stroke and stabbed the man. The guard fell with a groan, but his colleagues were already on the scene.

What ensued was quite predictable and short-lived. The guards formed a tight group for a moment, and then one of them approached him. "What's this?" he asked, his voice ominous.

"Don't scare the lad, Kale," one of the guards remarked, "I saw him. The lad was just going up to the inn, and that fellow attacked him."

"Well then," the guard said, mollified, "That seems well to me." He looked at Rimn's injury.

"The temple to Garl Glittergold has potions," he said, "We're taking Terrence there now, actually. Like to come along?"

Rimn nodded, and followed the bulky guards into the other stone building. It was ornate, and had many beds at one side where patients lay. At the very end was a large altar to the gnomes' chief god. The guards deposited an unconscious Terrence on one bed, and a female gnome looked up.

"And what happened to Terrence?" she said, in a resigned voice.

"A fight," another guard said, "This lad needs a bit of potion too, Gellana."

The female gnome glanced at Terrence, then took out a green vial. She looked pointedly at the guards, and they retreated out of the door with a few stifled laughs. Apparently this was an old feud amongst them, for Rimn noted that many maidens, human or humanoid, served in the Temple.

"Do you have money for the potion?" Gellana asked, "Twenty five pieces of gold."

Rimn nodded, fumbling with one moneybag, and then counting the coins into the palm of the gnome. She handed him a green vial, and he took it, not knowing what to do.

"Well?" Gellana asked.

"Er." He said, "How do you use this?"

"Drink a sip," the gnome said, then went back to looking at Terrence. Rimn nodded, and uncorked the vial.

It tasted foul, and with a numbing feel to his wound, it closed. He gaped at it in astonishment, then looked up to notice Gellana staring at him with amusement.

"Haven't you seen a healing potion before?" she inquired.

"No," Rimn said truthfully.

"Good stuff," the gnome said, "Do you need any other potions? Antidotes, Oil of Speed, I have a large collection."

Rimn shook his head, then also retreated out of the temple after the guards.

He approached the steps, noting that Tarnesh was sprawled in a widening pool of red on its cold steps. Apparently other people did the cleaning up. Rimn looked around again, then filched the money and found yet another letter:

'Bounty offered to any that brings in Rimn, adopted son of Gorion from Candlekeep, a thousand gold coins. [Signed] Mulahey'

Rimn quickly tore up the notice, and hurried up the steps into the cavernous interior. He had no idea who 'Mulahey' was, and had a feeling he did not want to find out.

***

The Inn was clean and not crowded, with round tables evenly spaced out. The sides were hung with shields and tapestries, but Rimn only looked around cautiously for 'Kurent'.

He sighed, then walked as unobtrusively as he could to the counter, past the large staircase that led to the floor above. A man who had been lounging in the shadows sauntered forward, and Rimn tensed.

The man was wearing a white, fur lined, expensive cloak, that looked to Rimn's rather experienced eye as purloined. He had very light flaxen hair, and bright eyes, strangely one green and one blue. His face was thin and aristocratic, and his nose hooked like the beak of a hawk. He was tall and lean, and walked with an easy stride. But what caught Rimn's attention was the armor, which was completely of black leather, with silver studs now and then, obscured mostly by the cloak. You could call it unobtrusively obvious.

"Shadow thief!" Rimn exclaimed.

The gnome innkeeper at the counter turned, then looked at the man and cackled. "Kurent is not a shadow thief, though he's fit enough to be one."

The man, Kurent, paused and bowed gracefully to the gnome. "Why, thank you, dear fellow. Actually," he said, turning to Rimn, "I chanced on the Shadow Armor."

"Chanced, my beard!" Bentley laughed, "You mean you relieved its former owner."

"I was very careful not to mark it," Kurent grinned, "It's normally very useful."

"You're Kurent?" Rimn asked, then felt extremely foolish.

Kurent turned, and bowed again. "Guilty. Yes, I am Kurent, the Thief of the Sword Coast, He who stole the ring of..."

"I've heard it before, Kurent, and you don't need to tell the lad," Bentley said. Kurent looked injured.

Rimn fumbled for the letter then handed it to the blond thief. Kurent opened it and sighed. "The old fellow holds on to his debts with remarkable tenacity. I take it that 'something' has happened to him?"

Rimn nodded miserably. Kurent pocketed the letter, and then looked back at Rimn. "Well, I suppose we have to do as he says."

"But what are we supposed to do?" Rimn burst out.

Kurent shrugged. "Does Nashkel mean anything to you?"

"No," Rimn said.

"No point, then," Kurent said smoothly, "Now, I think we'd stop over at Beregost to see if the smith has finished my little commission, then it's off to Nashkel."

"No stealing," Bentley said. "There's lots of paladins around nowadays that don't like that."

"You take the fun out of everything," Kurent said, in an injured tone, and Rimn, despite himself, started to laugh.

***

Chapter 2: Beregost

Rimn felt immeasurably better with Kurent at his side. Kurent walked with a self-assured, confident gait that was very calming to see, though Rimn speculated that he could probably walk past a man, stab him, and walk away in that gait before the man realized what had happened.

They were back at the crossroads, and Rimn looked around nervously at the forest.

"Something wrong, lad?" Kurent asked.

Rimn ignored the 'lad'. "I met a hunter here when I was coming," he said, "There's an ogre mage around."

Kurent's eyes glittered. "Ogre mage, you say?"

"Yes," Rimn replied, then looked at his companion in horror. "You can't be suggesting..."

"Oh yes," Kurent grinned, "The ogre mage has stolen a famed girdle, which is why many are looking for it."

"But it's an ogre mage!" Rimn exclaimed.

"So it is, lad." Kurent said, "Coming?" the thief walked off the road, into the forest. Rimn paused, his eyes darting around, then helplessly followed.

***

Zaknafein Do'Urden paused when he came in sight of the town. "Right," he said in a tired voice, "Can you explain this to me again?"

It is not certain what he is talking to, for he is alone. He is dressed in a flowing, light cloak and hood, which hides the chain mail underneath. His long mane of white hair is tied into a simple 'tail', and his midnight black skin gleams. In short, Zaknafein is a dark elf, though no ordinary one.

"We have to go to Beregost," a voice said, from the direction of the knob of the long mage staff he is holding. Two swords are buckled on his side.

"And why is that so?" Zak inquired, "I was quite content in the cottage, thank you very much - and the wolf is so too."

"I don't see why you refer to your other... self as the wolf," the staff observed.

"Don't change the subject," Zak interrupted. "So I'm a werewolf. Anything new?"

"No," the staff said sulkily. "Ah yes. We are going to Beregost because we're supposed to aid someone, ostensibly to clean up Nashkel."

"And why are we bothering?" Zak asked, though he already knew the answer.

"This is the hundredth time you're asking me," the staff complained. "Do you have a weak memory?"

"No insults," Zak said.

"All right. We're going because Asur says so," the staff said sulkily. "Anything else?"

"No," Zak sighed, then glared at one of his swords. "And don't you say anything either."

Me? The sentient sword Khazid'hea protested innocently.

Zak sighed again, then wandered down the path, past some grazing cows. A peasant looked up at his staff, then at his robe. "The Burning Wizard Inn's east of the Stone," he said, then looked back to his farming. Zak glanced at the staff, puzzled, then shrugged and walked into the town; eyes fixed on the 'Stone', a giant obelisk in the center of the place.

***

"That wasn't so bad, was it?" Kurent asked. Rimn's eyes were wild.

"Not so bad?" Rimn nearly choked, "He almost got you, and I only had time to fire another into his chest before he cast the spell and another to stop him from casting..."

"Good shooting," Kurent commented. He was weighing a few baubles they had taken from the dead ogre. The thief took out a rather ordinary looking belt before Rimn could build up another retort.

"That's the girdle?" Rimn said sarcastically.

"The girdle, yes. The Girdle of Piercing," Kurent said grandly, "The Elves' Bane, if I'm not wrong."

"So what does it do? A repellent for Elves?" Rimn said sarcastically, "Granted, those I've spoken to in Candlekeep are cold and proud, but..."

"No," Kurent said, "Elves are overly fond of missile weapons. The Girdle sort of 'deflects' them away from its wearer."

"Really," Rimn said, managing to put volumes of sarcasm in a single word.

"Yes," Kurent said, unruffled, then unexpectedly handed it to Rimn.

"I can dodge well enough," he explained, "And I always keep my promise."

"Thieves' honor?" Rimn asked.

"Honor among thieves," Kurent corrected, "I see from how you located all those coins so easily that you're rather experienced."

"No," Rimn said, putting on the girdle, "Just what a boy does in a place where everyone's so tight fisted with money."

Kurent nodded. "Then what are you?"

"Sorry?"

"What class are you? Fighter, mage, ranger..."

"Does it matter?"

"It does to me," Kurent said, "I can't stand some of the types."

"Fighter, I suppose," Rimn said, "I can use the crossbow."

"Though not the sword," Kurent said bluntly, and Rimn flushed. "I can't, either, so I'm not lording it over you. The only sword I can use well is the rapier. The rest are too heavy for a thief who needs nimble fingers."

"How long does it take to get to Beregost?" Rimn asked, trying to change the subject.

Kurent shrugged. "With horses, a day. Without horses, three days."

"Three days!" the idea of camping out in the wilderness for so long a time troubled Rimn immensely.

"Oh yes," Kurent said, "We can't fly, unless you've been hiding magical talents from me...no? We walk, then."

They walked in silence for a while, and then Rimn heard a restless whinnying. He looked at Kurent, but the thief was holding his daggers. "Draw your crossbow, lad," he said, "The roads have had a major bandit problem for the past month or so."

Bandits! Rimn swallowed, trying desperately to forget Revor and his tales, and strung his crossbow.

The trees tapered to a stop soon when they advanced to the sound of the whinny, and then Kurent let out a sigh.

In front of them were several upturned caravans, on blood drenched grass, the bodies lifeless, killed by arrows and precise cuts. "Bandits," Kurent said curtly, then, to Rimn's shock, he walked forward through the scene.

The whinnying came from the horses that were tethered to the wagon, their eyes rolling in fright, but the cries became less insistent when they saw the humans.

Kurent walked over calmly and rummaged around the caravan, extracting two saddles and reins. "Can you ride, lad?"

"You're just going to take them?" Rimn swallowed.

Kurent shrugged. "The people won't be needing them anymore."

***

Rimn's posterior was smarting from all the bumps he had felt on the way into Beregost. When they reached the town, it was dark again, and he barely noticed Kurent arguing with a stable keeper inside the town.

The thief came back out to where Rimn was waiting anxiously, wearing a satisfied smile. "Sold the horses to him for three times their worth," he said smugly, "And he'd take in our two for the night."

"We're staying over?" Rimn said.

"Oh yes. The Thunderhammer Smithy doesn't open at night, and there's no point loitering around. We'd go to Feldepost and make a night of it, although it's expensive it's comfortable." Kurent said, then walked down the street, trailing Rimn.

The Inn was indeed luxurious. Carpets covered the ground, and a magnificent staircase rose upwards from the left. To the right was a long bar, behind it the entrance to the kitchen where many inviting smells emitted. Kurent took a table, and after exchanging a few outrageous flatteries with a blushing waitress, ordered a meal for them, which Rimn devoured hungrily. Kurent ate more fastidiously, occasionally looking at him with interest.

"I haven't eaten for the whole day," Rimn explained, and the thief nodded, leaning back in his chair.

"It wasn't that," Kurent mused, then seemed to snap into another area. "So, tomorrow we go to Thunderhammer, then we go to Nashkel."

"Do you know what we're supposed to do?" Rimn asked.

"Just to go to Nashkel. Someone is supposed to tell us something there," Kurent said vaguely. "I suppose we should look around in the taverns here. Taverns are the best place to pick up gossip, did you know?"

"See that man over there?" Kurent pointed at an old man who was swilling his beer with a grim determination. "There're men like him all over the place, who know lots if you just know how to get them to open their mouths."

Kurent got up, and padded over as if in afterthought. "Hey, friend," he grinned, "I'd seed your reverence in age and was just wondering iffin you knew what was goings in Nashkel."

The man eyed Kurent with a lopsided grin, and the thief gestured to the waitress. "A tankard of beer for my friend and I," he called.

"Why, thank you, yer honorship," the man grinned, "Now, Nashkel - the mines ain't working no more, so there's an iron shortage, don't cher know."

"You're a learned man," Kurent said smoothly, pushing the tankard to him, the girl blushing at his wink.

"Why, thankee, Lina," the old man said, drinking. "I'd bin places. They say there're demons in the Mines, which yap and howl and carry swords. Cut many adventurers to pieces, they have."

Kurent nodded, then pushed the other tankard to him. "Thanks, old man. Lina," the girl blushed again, and Kurent put a coin on the table, "Why don't you give him beer until my friend falls under the table?"

The man grinned again. "Why, thankee, yer honorship."

"A pleasure," Kurent smiled, and wandered back to their table where Rimn was sitting with his mouth slightly open. "Are you catching flies?" he inquired.

"You get along with people very well," Rimn said admiringly.

"Oh yes," Kurent laughed, "Call it an instinct."

***

The next morning, Rimn was woken up by the unconventional method of someone yanking him off the bed. He looked up, tangled in the sheets, to see the shaved, thin face of Kurent.

"You could have called," Rimn protested. His head hurt.

"You were tossing and turning like in a nightmare," Kurent said, "This was a last resort. Hurry up and dress and we'd go and explore the town. Place like this, is full of opportunities for adventurers like us."

"Adventurers?" Rimn repeated in disbelief, then laughed at Kurent's outrageous grin.

"Would you have it any other way?" the thief shot back, then skipped out of the door. Rimn grumbled, then staggered out of the sheets to change.

Outside, he looked blearily up in the morning sun. "A friendly rooming, as Feldepost is famed for," Kurent commented.

"And your friendly barmaid?" Rimn replied acidly.

"You're not a nice boy when you talk like that," Kurent said, sounding injured.

Rimn laughed, and they sauntered down the street. The first tavern they reached had a bard standing outside it, recognizable by the hood and the lyre on his shoulder. He looked at them nervously, with black, shifting eyes, then walked towards them.

"Are you adventurers who would like to earn a pretty penny?" the bard inquired.

"Yes," Kurent said immediately. Rimn rolled his eyes.

"Well then, my mistress Silke needs some men to help her kill some evil brutes that want to beat her up for refusing to play at the Feldepost Inn. She's willing to pay three hundred gold coins," the bard said. "You can call me Garrick."

Kurent nodded. "Who would not wish to aid a maiden?" he said expansively, and they followed the bard away from the tavern, to another Inn close to it, the sign reading 'Red Sheaf Inn'.

Silke turned out to be a beautiful woman with silver hair and green eyes. She wore a robe and held a staff. "Are these the warriors, Garrick?" she said, in a pleasant voice.

"Yes, mistress... I told them the payment as you said," Garrick replied.

"I'd raise the money to five hundred," Silke smiled at them, then gasped as five men approached, in the costume of bards.

"Here's the stuff you ordered, Silke," their leader said.

"Lies!" Silke cried, "Kill them!"

"What?" The leader said, astonished.

Rimn glanced at Kurent. "They're obviously innocent. No one can fake shock like that."

Silke glared at them. "Then die!" she cried, and started to weave a spell, muttering under her breath.

In a single bound, Kurent was in front of her, daggers drawn, but she let out the syllable of the spell in triumph and he froze in the air, cursing. Rimn winced, and let fly with a bolt, but the bolt shattered as if on some shield. Silke began to laugh, even as the men behind froze too in a magical hold.

Then there was a wave of unseen energy, and Silke was thrown onto the ground like a rag doll. They were released, and Rimn saw a robed figure, pointing a staff and Silke.

Silke got up, and faced off with the figure, the others backing off. She let fly a lightning bolt, but the figure raised his staff casually, and the bolt flew back at Silke, passing through her. Her body jerked grotesquely, and then she fell to the ground. In a moment, Kurent was at her side, and the crowd that was gathering around dispersed, entertainment gone, and also under Rimn's glower. Garrick gave them a last, frightened look, then darted away.

"Thank you," the leader said, and pressed a few coins into Rimn's hand. "That witch...we never knew she was evil. Thank you once again." Then the men left, and Rimn looked at the figure, which had approached.

"Kurent!" he protested, and the thief got up.

"Yes?" Kurent asked innocently.

"You took her robe!"

"It's a mage robe, and a good price it'd fetch," the thief said defensively.

There was a sound of someone chuckling, and they looked at the figure. Rimn had an uneasy feeling that the staff was the source of the sound.

"Who are you?" Kurent asked suspiciously.

The figure shrugged, then paused, as if listening to something. "Are you warriors who are interested in the happenings at Nashkel?" he inquired.

"Suppose we are," Kurent commented, before Rimn could speak.

"Well, I've been told by a superior to go and try to clean it up," the figure said in a light baritone, "The iron shortage is affecting... us... mages." The last word was said somehow with difficulty.

Kurent was staring hard in the hood. "Dark elf!" he hissed, and Rimn raised his crossbow in shock.

The figure drew back the hood slightly to reveal bone white locks and ebony skin. He raised his free hand wearily. "I know, I know. However, what my... superior says is what I have to...do."

"And how can we trust you?" Kurent asked.

"And why am I trusting a thief?" Rimn put it, looking at Kurent. "Look, I have a feeling we need him, Kurent."

"Kurent, eh?" the dark elf commented, "Doesn't that mean 'trickster god'?"

Kurent bowed, then looked at Rimn. "I'm a friend of Gorion," he said.

"Well, I only have your word and Bentley's that you're 'Kurent', and your word that you're not a shadow thief." Rimn said. Shadow thieves were a notorious guild.

Kurent threw his hands in the air. "Oh, very well. Let's go on then." He stalked off towards the Red Sheaf Inn.

"Excitable, is he?" the dark elf commented.

"Not usually," Rimn said, grinning. "My name is Rimn."

"Mine is Zaknafein," the dark elf said, and they followed Kurent into the inn.

***

Chapter 3: Thunderhammer Smithy

The Red Sheaf Inn was larger yet than that of Beregost. Kurent looked around for prospective people to question, then a woman walked towards them, with a smile.

"Are you the party of Rimn?" she asked, in a silken voice.

"Yes," Rimn said automatically, then yelped as Kurent 'accidentally' stepped on his toe, though too late.

"Good. My name is Karlat. No hard feelings," she said, and drew a sword.

Before Kurent and Rimn could react, there was a clatter and a hiss, and Zaknafein stepped forward to meet her advance. They circled each other, then she lunged forward, the sword twisting and darting, but Zak now held his two swords, and they deflected the attack with such ease that Rimn took a sharp intake of breath.

Quickly growing bored, Zaknafein feinted to the right, then as Karlat deflected the stroke, one sword, the edge glowing red, darted towards her heart. The assassin appeared to have considered that, for she defended quickly, even driving the defending sword back towards the dark elf.

Zak swept his sword upwards, and sliced through Karlat's sword. Rimn heard, dimly, Kurent's gasp.

Then the dark elf's glowing sword flickered forward, and Karlat fell to the ground with a sigh.

The elf wiped his swords, then looked at Kurent, who hastily hurried them out of the Inn. Zak stopped to pick up the discarded staff, who was sulking.

"How did you do that?" Kurent demanded, when they were hurrying away, "You're a mage!"

"I was a weapon master for four centuries or so before that," Zak said, "It is a long story."

"Weapon master?" Rimn asked.

"Or weapon instructor, or whatever you call it here," Zak said. He spoke with an interesting accent, which seemed to spice up the common tongue.

"Ah yes. Rimn, why are there so many assassins around after you?" Zak asked.

"I don't know," Rimn said miserably, "A few of them killed my adopted father."

Zak sighed, as if he understood, then said, "You have my sympathy. So, where are we going?"

"To the smithy," Kurent said, recovering a little of his former attitude. He still looked seriously out of joint.

***

The smithy was a stocky building with a fence around it and another large sign of what resembled a kind of sack. They walked inside, to see a dark, hot interior from the furnaces. There were many apprentices wandering around, and the hammers rang with the song of steel.

"The famous smithy of Taerom 'Thunderhammer' Fuiruim," Kurent said grandly, "What you want, he can make, for an incredibly high price, the master of daylight robbery."

A burly giant turned from where he had been observing the work of one apprentice. In his hand was a huge iron staff, and his chestnut hair and whiskers were shot with white and gray.

"Kurent!" he laughed, "Your 'little job' is finished."

"Did you get Thalantyr to enspell it as I asked?" Kurent inquired, "The old fellow dislikes me, for some reason."

"For some reason!" Taerom snorted, "You stole the large gem of his off him, if I remember."

"I returned it," Kurent protested.

"Only when he threatened to turn you into a frog and throw you into the heron-infested lake of his." Taerom grinned. Kurent whirled at his companion's laughter.

"A frog?" Rimn managed to gasp, before bursting into laughter.

"Aye," Taerom grinned, then retreated into another room. He emerged holding a bejeweled scabbard, with a delicate hilt of a rapier just visible from it. "The word is Tarsakh."

"Not very fitting, but a good job," Kurent said, eagerly taking the scabbard, then drawing the thin sword and examining its gleaming length.

"I wonder where you got so many black opals for its hilt and scabbard?" Taerom asked, with a mischievous gleam in his eye. True enough, a large black stone adorned the hilt, and many smaller ones were fused intricately into the scabbard.

"I've only known Kurent for a few days," Rimn sighed, "But I think I can supply your answer."

"Why, Rimn!" Kurent protested, though his eyes were still fixed on the rapier.

"Looks like a knitting needle," Zak observed.

"An expensive knitting needle," Kurent corrected. "Ah yes. How, exactly, did that sword of yours cut through her sword?"

"Cut through?" Taerom said, interested.

"It's an enchanted sword," Zak said, leaning on his staff, "And sentient. As is this bloody staff of mine."

"I am of wood, so how can I possess bodily fluids?" the staff asked. Rimn and Kurent started, but Taerom began to chuckle.

"My, my. So, your weapons can speak to you, and well, at that," the smith said admiringly, "Very good workmanship."

"Khazid'hea, the sword, can cut through anything," Zak said proudly. "Though he's slightly less irritating than the staff."

"What do you expect?" the staff protested, "Every time there's a hint of battle that you can reach in seconds, you discard me on the ground and use your swords."

"I don't trust you," Zak told it, "Remember when I wanted to light the fire in the cottage?"

"What happened?" Rimn asked.

"That staff loosed a lightning bolt," Zak said, "Really inconvenient, especially if you're standing directly in front of the fire."

Taerom started to laugh helplessly, and Kurent joined in.

"Dark elf," Taerom began, and Zak flinched. "Truly, you are different from the ones that I have known."

Zak shrugged. "I'm not homicidal, I have feelings, and I have conscience, though it's badly abused. It's not difficult."

"That it is," Kurent said.

"Why can you see in the light?" Rimn asked. "A friend of mine said dark elves could only see well in the dark."

Again, Zak shrugged, in a boneless fashion. "I've been living on the surface for a while, and I have this staff."

Kurent looked hard at him, as if to say that the answer was not satisfactory, but kept quiet.

"Now, Kurent, the price of the rapier," Taerom grinned, and Kurent's eyes glittered.

"A hundred gold coins," Kurent began, but Taerom shook his head emphatically.

"I made the sword, as well, and not only the scabbard," the smith grinned.

Rimn and Zaknafein were treated to a loud bargaining match with a high dose of histrionics and quite a bit of triumphant points from both sides about how the iron shortage is affecting business, etc, how the rapier is a cheap weapon, etc.

They settled for a price, shook hands on it, then Taerom offered to let Rimn see his array of weaponry. "Thalantyr sells many enchanted bolts for your crossbow, if you wish," Taerom said, "And he also has the light crossbow of speed, obtained under questionable circumstances."

"Really." Kurent grinned.

"Oh no, thief." Taerom said, "Thalantyr believes that the only way to deal with you now is with a strong blow from one of those golems of his."

"He's a spoilsport," Kurent complained, and Rimn grinned.

"You bargain well," Zak commented, when they stepped out of the hot smithy.

Kurent grumbled under his breath. "I always come away from Thunderhammer wondering who won." He hefted the rapier, sheathed it, and then buckled it on.

They started to walk down, towards the Jovial Juggler Inn 'for more information', as Kurent put it. As they passed a large manor house, a noblewoman in a rich dress swept out regally.

"I am Lady Muriane," she introduced herself as they paused. "Are you going in the way of Nashkel?"

"That we are, lady," Kurent bowed.

"I wonder," she said, "Can you find out news about my husband, Lord Rayn? He is overdue from Ahm, and I am worried. I have been looking for likely people for some days yet, and there is a reward for you if you find out."

"Very well, lady," Kurent bowed again, then they left the anxious looking Lady Muriane behind.

"Does this happen often?" Zak inquired.

"Oh yes, especially now when there are so many bandits and strange happenings around in the Sword Coast," Kurent said, "People pay 'adventurers' to go and do jobs for them. It normally involves great rewards, and I try to do as many as them as possible."

"Errands," Rimn sighed.

"Of course, lad," Kurent grinned. "Something for everyone, however, and that's the way I like it."

"I doubt it," the staff said acidly, "Most probably everything for you, nothing for everyone."

"I agree," Zak said, then quickly added, "For once."

"Why are all of you bent on bullying me?" Kurent said, in an injured tone.

The Jovial Juggler Inn had a huge sign depicting a laughing carnival juggler in jester-like garb. There were sounds of merriment emitting from it, and Kurent's face was beatific.

"The entertainment in this place is almost continuous," he grinned, "And there are usually more people in there with..."

"Errands," Rimn completed for him, with a sour face.

"You have something against that?" Zak asked.

"I've been doing it all my life. Of course I do." Rimn said.

Kurent shrugged, and opened the door. Over a large fire roasted a whole ox, and people inside seemed bent on drinking themselves silly then laughing at everything in particular uproariously.

Then someone holding yet another sword got up from a table, and approached.

"Somehow, I know where this is going," Rimn groaned. "Why me? Why me?"

Zak leant the staff against the wall, but Kurent held up a hand. "I need to test the weapon while I'm still in town," he grinned, and drew the rapier with a hissing sound.

"Knitting needle," Zak said, but took the staff in hand.

The assassin looked at them, then at Rimn. He nodded gravely, and attacked. Kurent met his charge with the grace of a dancer, parrying and feinting.

"Tarsakh," Kurent said suddenly, and the opal burned blue. The rapier connected with the sword of the assassin, and he gave a cry, throwing his sword away from him. As Rimn watched in horror, blue snakes of electricity curled around him for a split second, then he fell on the ground, still.

"A good enchantment," Zak commented.

"The opal stores enough for a few 'shocks' per day," Kurent said gleefully. "And there's more."

"I thought so," Zak said wearily, then looked at Rimn's face. "New to this, is he?"

"I suppose," Kurent said, "His adopted father has always struck me as the sheltering type."

"Don't talk about me as if I'm not here!" Rimn said hotly. The people in the Inn ignored them. Apparently such things were not uncommon.

"Would you rather we went in a corner and talked about you?" Kurent inquired.

"No!" Rimn said vehemently.

"Then we'd do it in front of you." Zak said effortlessly, "No secrets from each other, eh?"

Rimn opened his mouth, then shut it again.

There was the sound of clinking metal, and then a man dressed in full plate armor approached them. Rimn saw that the man was not holding any weapons, and relaxed.

"Paladin," he heard Kurent groan quietly beside him, then a stifled snigger from Zaknafein.

"My name is Bjornin," the paladin said in a clipped voice, "You seem a likely sort of a noble quest."

"What quest, follower of... uh..." Kurent began.

"Torm," Bjornin said proudly.

"Ah yes," Kurent said, "What quest?"

"Errand," Rimn whispered, and heard another stifled laugh behind him. Kurent turned and glared at the both of them.

"South west of Beregost is the Lake House," Bjornin said, "And there is a foul plague of half-ogres." Rimn flinched at the sound of the last word.

"You want us to rid the area of them," Kurent said.

"Yes," Bjornin said, "There is a reward."

Kurent bowed, "Very well," he said, then another armored person walked to them, holding a plumed helmet under her arm.

"You do seem to be very popular," she said, with a smile. "Greetings, paladin. I had not noticed your presence."

Kurent's eyes looked wild, and he backed off a little.

"There's nothing we've found against you as yet, Kurent," the armored woman said with an amused grin, "We merely require a bit of service."

"Of course, Officer Vai," Kurent said, relieved.

Officer Vai nodded. "I need help to lessen the plague of bandits here. For each scalp you bring in, there is a reward of fifty gold pieces," she said.

Kurent's eyes glowed. "Very well, lady."

When they walked back out into the sunshine, Rimn looked at Kurent. "Who is that?" he asked.

"The paladin? Just another armored fellow, I suppose, with too much time on his hands. Officer Vai belongs to the Flaming Fist, the most tenacious of the self appointed law keepers," Kurent said sourly, "They'd been observing me for some time."

"Why were you laughing?" Rimn asked Zak.

Zak grinned. "Can you imagine how much time that walking ironworks of a paladin takes to dress, get on a poor horse, and move a sword?"

"Walking ironworks. Good one," Kurent said.

"I have a way with words," Zak replied modestly, as they walked south out of the town.

***

Chapter 4: Revelation

"The horses!" Kurent slapped his head.

"What horses?" Zak asked.

"Left them in Beregost," Rimn explained, and smiled.

Kurent glared accusingly at Zak. "I'd had a lot on my mind," he said.

"Well, then?" Zak asked, ignoring him.

"We'd go on Bjornin's errand, then back to Beregost to collect the horses," Kurent said, "Or we'd do Lady Muriane's."

"I think we have company," Zak observed, as a dark shadow moved out from a tree, to show an ogrillion, a foul half ogre due to the unnatural union of an ogre and an orc. It certainly resembled one. However, the skin of ogrillions is covered in small horn plates, a very effective armor.

Zak paused, as if sniffing the air. "And a victim already, I believe," he said, wrinkling his nose. The ogrillion paced out, blocking the road, and his companion emerged, another of the creatures.

"I wonder," Rimn said nervously, "If we could run?"

"Run?" Zak said, incredulously.

"The elf's right, Rimn. If you don't fight, you don't improve," Kurent grinned, and drew his rapier. "On guard!"

"All the time, thief." Zak said, "Especially with you around."

"You see?" the staff wailed, as it was discarded when the ogrillions attacked. Rimn hit one with a bolt, and it staggered but did not stop. Kurent took care of it by a smooth pierce of the rapier, then turned to regard Zaknafein.

"Show off," he muttered. Zak was darting merrily around the ogrillion, his swords an unidentifiable blur of adamantite. Khazid'hea's edge glowed a brilliant red when it drew blood. The ogrillion roared in frustration, as its heavy swings met nothing but thin air.

"He's good," Rimn said enviously.

"Four centuries, remember?" Kurent said.

"Elves live long," Rimn agreed.

"Too long for my taste," Kurent said acidly, as Zak, apparently tiring of the game, ran the creature through, then wiped his blades on the grass callously.

Rimn cautiously approached the corpse on the ground. It was a halfling, and it clutched a letter in his hand, as well as a bag of what looked like lynx gems. Rimn opened the letter:

'Dearest Muriane,

I am returning by sea, as the roads are crawling with bandits and therefore totally unsafe. I hope this message would have spared you undue worry.

Love,
Lord Rayn'

"Succinct," Zak commented, then raised an eyebrow at Kurent, who hastily pocketed a few coins from the dead ogrillions.

"Waste to leave the coins with them," he said defensively, and Rimn sighed, tossing the letter to the thief.

"Back to Beregost, then," he observed.

***

Lady Muriane was suitably gratified to receive the letter, and gave them a ring. "This is a ring of protection," she said, "The Ring of the Princes. It merely makes one harder to hit in combat, but I would not rely heavily on it."

They left with thanks, and Kurent looked carefully at the ring. "It's genuine, at least," he said cautiously.

"Of course!" Rimn said, "Lady Muriane is a lady."

"You're naive, Rimn," Zak said bluntly, for no reason at all flicking a stone away, hard, with his staff. "Hopelessly so."

Rimn looked abashed, and Kurent gave Zak a hard look. Zak shrugged, biting his lip.

They passed the Red Sheaf Inn in silence, and then Zak spoke up. "I'm sorry, Rimn," he said, awkwardly.

"S'okay." Rimn said quietly. "I had a sheltered life. I'd never seen someone get killed, until an assassin got to me in Candlekeep."

Kurent nodded, and patted his shoulder.

"I suppose you'd all have to come with me," Kurent said, "Zak, you need a horse."

"Horses don't like me," Zak said quickly, too quickly, it seemed, as Kurent shot him a penetrating glance.

"Then how are you going to keep up?" Kurent inquired.

"I have ways," Zak said mysteriously. Kurent rolled his eyes, then walked into the stables, leaving the two of them outside.

"All horses don't like you?" Rimn inquired.

"Yes," Zak sighed, "It's a trait. You'd see."

Kurent emerged after a while holding the two horses they had salvaged from the wrecked caravans. The horses took one look at Zak, then their eyes rolled, and they reared and plunged. Kurent found himself being dragged backwards, until Rimn darted forward and helped him. Even this did not work until Zak retreated under the dark shade of a nearby tree. The horses calmed slightly, though their nostrils were dilated and their ears were flat against their heads.

Rimn shrugged, and mounted his horse, the weight of a rider apparently calming the beast somewhat.

"Now, I wonder why..." Kurent mused, then looked in one of the saddlebags. Rimn noted that those bags had definitely not been that...bulging, before.

Then Kurent, holding something, darted forward. A flash of light nearly too blinding to the eye emerged from the object, and the overcast early evening sky enhanced the effect. With a startled yell, Rimn fell off the horse, landing ignominiously on his posterior.

When the bright spots cleared, Rimn stood up cautiously, holding his crossbow. Zak emerged slowly from the tree, such as not to further startle the horses.

"You're an intelligent man," Zak told Kurent, with a hint of admiration.

"Who... no, what in the Nine Hells are you?" Kurent demanded, "You're not a dark elf. Light don't reflect off their eyes, same as us humans."

"It's not only that," Rimn said slowly, "Your eyes. They turned amber, like that of a wolf."

Zak looked pointedly around the street, and Kurent abruptly mounted his horse. "I suppose you'd tell us later," he said, loudly, "Probably some trick of this light."

With Zak carefully hiding in the shadows, they went out quickly from Beregost. When they were safely on the road again, Kurent reined in the horse. "Well?" he demanded, though his hand was on his rapier.

"Many years ago," said Zak, "I was bitten by a werewolf. It was necessary then, though now it is just highly inconvenient."

"A werewolf!" Rimn gasped.

"What's your real purpose with us?" Kurent demanded.

"The same as I've said," Zak replied, "I was commanded to join your party."

"By who?" Rimn asked.

"Open and honest session?" Zak sighed, "Very well. I was commanded by Asur."

"You're Asur's Guardian?" Kurent said, in astonishment. "I see. That explains your staff...and that leather thing on your wrist."

Zak glanced down. "I picked the wrong 'necklace'." He admitted.

"Which is why you can fight with the sword?" Rimn asked.

"Which is why he discards me whenever he can," the staff commented sourly, "He hates magic."

"Especially when it's so unreliable," Zak shot back.

"Well then..." Kurent began, but Rimn cut him off.

"I suppose you could continue to come with us," Rimn said, with uncommon calm. "So long as you warn us before you...uh..."

"Change my shape." Zak suggested.

"You're mad!" Kurent exploded.

"Not mad," Rimn protested, "Merely being sensible. Look, Kurent, if Zaknafein..."

"Zak," Zak murmured.

"Zak here wanted to come with us, do you think you could stop him?" Rimn challenged.

Kurent looked down at his half-drawn rapier, then thought better of it. He sighed in defeat. "I suppose if you wanted to, you'd have cut my throat before I'd even started pointing the rapier at you."

Zak grinned, showing even white teeth. Kurent shuddered.

"So... is this how you're going to 'keep up'?" Rimn asked.

"Oh yes," Zak said, "Although one of you has to help me carry my chain mail, and strap the staff to one of your horses. It will behave itself."

The staff glowed red indignantly, then apparently thought better of it when Zak gave it a casual glance.

"Oh, very well!" Kurent threw up his hands. "I don't care! Turn into a frog! Turn into a bat! Turn into a... a..."

"Wolf?" Zak inquired.

"Bird?" Rimn offered, with an absolutely straight face.

Kurent glared at the both of them, opened his mouth to form a retort, then burst out laughing.

***

Rimn paused, and looked around them. The ground beneath each bandit was stained red, and he bit his lip. Kurent glanced at him, after wiping his rapier on one dead bandit.

"I suppose we had better get on with it," he remarked. "Rimn, hand me your sword."

Rimn automatically gave it to Kurent. "What are you going to do?"

"Officer Vai's reward," Kurent winked, then took hold of the head of one bandit. Rimn's eyes widened in horror.

"A deterrent for them," Kurent explained. Rimn averted his eyes, and found the amber ones of what had been Zaknafein. The wolf gave him a curious glance, then at Kurent, then sat down to lick its paw. Rimn shuddered.

Zak's armor was with him, as was the staff. Zaknafein, to Kurent's protests of innocence, had proclaimed that the thief had the 'morals of a squirrel before winter'. Kurent had sulked for most of the journey until they 'chanced upon' an ambush by bandits.

It had been quick and horrifying. The wolf had warned them first, then promptly reacted by killing the first bandit, while the second one, who raised his bow to shoot, was in turn shot down by Rimn. A small dagger that appeared to leap out of Kurent's hand had felled the third behind them, and the fourth one, eyes wide in astonishment, was dispatched by the thief's rapier. By then, the fifth was kicking in the dust and the wolf worrying over the last.

Kurent finished his grim business, and climbed back on his horse. "Now we only have the half-ogre problem," he said, "Then we can go to Nashkel."

"You haven't told me what we are going to Nashkel for," Rimn complained. The wolf ran out in front of them, scouting, leading the way.

Kurent sighed. "Didn't Gorion tell you?"

"No," Rimn said.

"I suppose you'd have found out after a while." Kurent commented. "We have to 'check out' the iron shortage in Nashkel, and the supposed 'demons' found in the mines. Though," The thief added hastily, seeing Rimn's horrified expression, "They're probably kobolds, from the descriptions."

"Why would Gorion concern himself with that?" Rimn asked.

"I know not, really," Kurent said, "But I gave him my word, damn that day. Apparently the iron shortage is affecting the region, and there's something devious happening that should be involving the Iron Throne."

Rimn quailed at the name. The Iron Throne was one of the most secretive and least known of the powers in the Realms. An organization of merchants, its activities were well known, and rumors were that it worked through common thugs and other lowlifes, denying connection with them and holding a thin veneer of respectability. Rumors about their 'master' were rampant, some believing it to be Cyric, some a long-dead deity, some a great sea monster... people do talk, especially in taverns.

"Are we going against them, then?" Rimn asked.

"Perhaps," Kurent said indifferently, "Perhaps not."

"You've dealt with them before?" Rimn said shrewdly.

"Oh yes," Kurent said, "Tight-fisted blackguards, all of them. A truly evil bunch - some of them make my skin crawl."

"You?" Rimn tried and failed to adopt a jokingly incredulous tone.

"Yes," Kurent said, seriously.

Both Kurent and Rimn were subdued that night when they camped off one the road. The wolf had gone off prior to them setting up the flames, and returned dragging a fawn, obviously dead.

"You've eaten already?" Rimn asked. The wolf seemed to pause, as if considering instructions from some unseen place, then nodded stiffly.

"I don't even want to know what," Kurent sighed, and took out another dagger, busily carving up the carcass.

"Can you change back now?" Rimn said hopefully. Wolves unnerved him.

The wolf again paused, then shook its head firmly. It looked up pointedly at the bright moon.

"I thought you only had to change at full moon," Rimn said.

The wolf shook its head.

"Oh no. Some can change all the time, and some only at night. Some have to change at night." Kurent said, not looking up.

"How did you know that much?" Rimn challenged.

"I've been around, my lad, and seen much," Kurent said pompously.

"Really," Rimn said.

"Ok, ok. I had a run in with a bit of nobility quite a while ago, involving a bit from their treasury," Kurent said.

"What does that have to do with werewolves?" Rimn pressed. Even the wolf looked interested, looking up from where it had been inspecting the fire.

"The entire noble house was werewolf," Kurent said, "They'd better be careful. The baron's not a bad person, but the peasantry are very superstitious, and might just rebel, when their loyalty and fascination is overwhelmed by their fear."

***

It so happened that, even tens of miles away, Kurent's prediction came true.

The mansion of the noble house was beautiful - rebuilt from a ruin from long ago. The marble steps looked out to a soft variety of matching plants, the calm night weaving its dark velvet into black shadows at the ancient trees. The scent of lavender was in the air, and the fountain, that of a standing wolf, spat pure water in a continuous, sparkling stream.

Inside the manor were sounds of revelry, the laughter, songs, and the sound of goblets clinking. Here was a rich family indeed, reflected by the brass statues of former ancestors also in the garden, and frozen forever in expressions of noble resolve.

The shadows started to move, and through the sound of the feast inside the manor was the soft, nearly inaudible sound of footsteps. Hundreds of cautious footsteps advanced closer and closer yet, to the manor. The guards at the great doors died quietly and without fuss, as arrows do tend to have stopping power.

***

Chapter 5: Nashkel

The half ogres had been easy. Rimn found he only had to shoot one before Kurent either cut down the rest or had they had their throats torn out by the wolf. The half ogres wandered in indiscriminate groups around a wide area, wearing crude armor and cruder weapons, roaring and charging when they sighted Rimn and his friends.

It was rather pitiful; really, Rimn sighed, as he unlatched the safety catch, sending yet another bolt into a half ogre, which had attacked them by lumbering out of a copse of trees. Its companion was dead at Kurent's feet, the thief arguing with the self-satisfied wolf that had killed the ogre before the thief reached it with his rapier.

Killing, killing - it was necessary, was it not? The ogres would have killed any other innocent passer-by. Still, he wished that the grass wasn't stained deep red, and his hands didn't feel tainted - tainted with the memory of bloodshed.

Kurent returned after shooting a last, dirty look at the wolf, then casually looting the bodies on the way. "We'd make one more circuit of this place," Kurent said calmly, "Then we go back to Beregost.

The wolf seemed to shrug. It turned its inquisitive nose towards the trees, which were coated with the soft yet bright sunlight of the evening, that formed long shadows stretching like a stroke of a painter's brush away and beyond from the roots of each tree.

They made a slow, wary circle of the area, with the wolf carrying on confidently. It shot imperious glances at the occasional squirrel, which would stand stock still from its foraging on the ground to shoot it a look of horror and astonishment, then squeak and run for the nearest tree, its large, incongruous bushy tail waving frantically from side to side. From its safety it would gibber and shriek at the wolf until it passed. Rimn thought this was funny.

They reached the lake again, its water rippling like dark silk in the slight breeze. The dark green rushes waved, the blade of their leaves edged delicately in fur like linings. On the lake herons moved like silent sentinels, the dark feather on their head rakishly behind them, their still, thoughtful eyes looking dreamily into the air, until it would spot something in the water. Then its head would dart in faster than the eye, and emerge holding a victim. Then it would stalk on in its strange walk, the head stabbing forward at the air, before the body, after a slight pause, would follow, feet taking a delicate pace through the water.

There were two black swans, their bright red-orange beaks striking against their raven feathers. They floated ethereally on the water, occasionally looking reproachfully at the noisy, uncouth ducks. The snipe stood in the shallows, as well as the occasional strange, black feathered bird with bright green, bamboo like legs.

"Beautiful," Rimn commented.

"Dinner," Kurent corrected, rummaging inside his bag, and located a light crossbow.

Rimn looked at him in horror. Kurent turned a curious eye at him, "Yes, lad?"

"How can you?" Rim asked, looking revolted.

Kurent appeared to consider this. "Any reason why not?"

They had duck for dinner. Sitting with the back of the camp to the lake, Kurent built up the fire, its orange yellow flickering comforting and warm. The wolf looked at them for a moment, cocking its head to the side, then padded off into the night.

Rimn looked after its back. "Why do you think Zak did not change back when he could in the day?"

"Who knows a dark elf?" Kurent was busily settling down, "But I think he enjoys being with the 'wolf', as he calls his other side."

"He does?" Rimn continued, curling up under the rough traveler's blanket and listening to the triumphant song of cicadas, "I thought he hated it."

"He acts like he does," Kurent agreed, "But you'd notice he's always more than ready to change. One day he'd be tempted to be a wolf - forever."

"Why?" Rimn asked, startled.

"Most werewolves do so," Kurent continued, "It's certainly freer that way. And werewolves live forever. The wolf side shields them from pains of losing everyone around you slowly to the cold scythe of Death."

There was a short pause. "You have a poetic streak to you," Rimn accused, feeling out of sorts.

"It's my only fault," Kurent smiled.

***

More bandits on the way to Beregost attacked them, but this time there were worg allies as well as a few gnolls.

"You know," Kurent commented, wiping his rapier, "This could be irritating." Then he took out his dagger again. Rimn shuddered, turning his back, to meet the cool, calm gaze of the wolf. It seemed to hesitate, as if arguing with something then pointed its nose towards Rimn's saddlebag.

Rimn nodded, walking over quickly and unearthing Zak's chain mail, then at the wolf's direction, depositing it behind some thicker bush.

The wolf demurely padded there, and Zak stepped out after a while, to wordlessly take his swords and buckle them on. Rimn was staring at him.

"Yes?" Zak inquired, taking the staff.

"Er. Your mouth... I thought...I mean, the wolf bit that gnoll..." Rimn started hesitantly. Zak's hand flew to the offending part, then he looked at his palm critically.

"There's nothing," Zak said.

"That's what I mean," Rimn said weakly, "Does the blood go somewhere else?"

"The wolf licked it off," Zak shrugged, and Rimn shuddered.

Kurent walked over, and deposited the gruesome trophies in a special bag. He looked at Zak, nodded absently, then caught the reigns of his skittish horse. "You are going to run the rest of the way?" he asked.

"I might as well," Zak said, "There isn't much distance left." His eyes had a determined glint to them.

"The wolf's fighting you, ain't it?" Kurent said casually. Zak looked up in surprise. "There's no mystery," Kurent continued, "The werewolf family I spent some time with suffered from the same thing."

"I suppose so," Zak sighed, as Rimn mounted his horse successfully, the frightened animal flattening its ears at Zak, "What do we do now?"

"We go to Beregost, then to Nashkel, then to the Nashkel mines." Kurent said succinctly.

Zak nodded approval, and they set off to Beregost.

***

Kurent hefted the bag of money from Officer Vai as they set off from Beregost. "Fifty coins a scalp is handsome pay," he remarked.

Rimn was watching Zaknafein, who ran easily beside them. The horses seemed less frightened now, though they occasionally shot wary glances at him. "Hm? Yes, I suppose. How do you do that?"

"Me?" Zak inquired, not even out of breath. Rimn nodded. "I am... was a weapon master," Zak said, "And I'm also 'borrowing' strength from the wolf."

"How's your other side like?" Rimn burst out. Zak exchanged a smile with Kurent.

"Obstinate," Zak said, "Irritable and irritating, strong, independent, very definite beliefs, knowledgeable and ignorant at the same time."

"You like it." Kurent stated.

Zak nodded. "I suppose I do," he smiled, "Though it took me some doing. I'd like to say it likes me as well. I wouldn't mind it at all if it didn't keep asking... no, telling me to get a mate."

"Oh my," Kurent grinned a positively evil grin. Zak glared at him, and Rimn started to laugh.

***

"It's very heavily patrolled," Rimn observed.

They were on the bridge to Nashkel. The entire small town was swarming with neat ranks of the soldiers of Amn, readily identifiable by their armor. Occasionally there would be a peasant or so walking about his or her business, as if unconcerned about the veritable army within.

Kurent shrugged. "There's been a lot of tension so far." He said cryptically, as they rode over the bridge. A patrol that had been idling in the shade of tall trees on the other side snapped to attention, and their commander led them forth. Zak pulled his hood over his head.

"What is your business in Nashkel?" he asked politely.

"The mines," Kurent said easily, "We're adventurers looking for adventurin' work, captain."

"The gods know we need you," the captain said, "Good luck there, but don't start any trouble in town."

"We won't," Kurent said, "Do you know who we should apply to for information?"

"You'd probably want to see the mayor, Gherrum Ghastkill. He's usually around the large temple of Helm." The captain said.

"Thank you," Kurent said, and they trotted down the bridge, their horse's hooves beating a quick staccato on the weathered stones of the pavement. Along the wide road were subdued looking shops with hopeful signs and drooping thatched roofs. Wisps of smoke rose from the chimneys, and children played on the roadsides.

Then the shops stopped abruptly to a cemetery, the gravestones in all sorts of shapes. At the end was a solemn looking temple with off-white walls and two blue signs with a gold cross at the entrance, along with a lot of flags. The building towered over the shops, and looked extremely solid.

On the path to it was an armed man. His eyes darted around anxiously, and his hair was shot with gray, though his ease of movements showed him up to be a warrior. That, and the sword at his belt.

He walked quickly to them, standing in their path. "Greetings," he said slowly, "I am Gherrum Ghastkill, mayor of this town. May I ask a favor of you?"

"Is it about the mines?" Kurent inquired.

"Why, yes," Gherrum said, "Are you to go there?"

"If we may," Kurent said.

"Why then," Gherrum said, his nose twitching with excitement, "You can start right away."

"Is there a reward?" Kurent continued.

"Yes," Gherrum said after a pause. Kurent nodded to him, and smiled. "I thank you," he said.

"Priest Nalin of the temple of Helm might want to see you," Gherrum offered, "He has a job for adventurers, that pays well."

"I thank you again," Kurent said easily, and turned his horse up to the temple. They tied the bridles to the rail designed for this purpose, and walked in.

"Are you sure of this?" Zak asked, "Priests don't like dark elves."

"Keep your hood down then," Rimn said carelessly. Zak sighed. "How amazingly obvious," he said sarcastically, "It's strange I did not think of it before."

"Don't taunt the boy," Kurent admonished, as they entered the bright interior. On the sides were tall statues of paladins, and the floor was polished until it shone. There were bright stained glass on the top sides of the walls, and an impressive statue of Helm in the center of the temple. A man walked out from under it, towards them. He was tall and held a staff, and wore dark priestly robes, with a blue eyed, friendly smile.

"Greetings travelers," he rumbled, "No doubt the inestimable Gherrum has directed you to this holy temple. May I ask a job of you?"

"As long as it pays," Kurent said. Rimn rolled his eyes, and Zak stifled a laugh.

"A thousand gold pieces, no more, no less," the man said, "I am Nalin, priest of this temple, and I would like you to return a man known as Brage here. He was captain of the guard, and never a more promising man have I seen, but weeks earlier he has been possessed by some evil spirit and has taken to running wild in the forest, killing anyone that neared him."

Kurent nodded. "And you will cure him here?"

Nalin nodded, "But if it may come to more than that, I may have to request your service in that matter again." He said sadly. Kurent nodded curtly again. "Where was this Brage last seen?"

"Near the Firewine bridge ruins," Nalin said. "You might also wish to see my good friend Keldath Ormlyr. I have heard he has yet another quest for the taking."

"Priest of the Temple of the Morning?" Kurent smiled, "Why do priests always have quests?"

"Because we have duties," Nalin returned the smile with amusement.

"Because you cannot soil your hands," Kurent bantered, and Nalin laughed. "There is that, yes. Brage is a dangerous man now, and I beg you to be careful."

Kurent nodded, thanked the priest, and herded them out of the temple.

"Well?" Zak asked, "The mines, or this Brage?"

"Firewine ruins is quite a while from here," Kurent commented, "And we might as well do the mines first."

"Temple of the Morning?" Rimn asked, "I've never heard of such a god."

"Morning is not a god," Kurent laughed, "The Temple of the Morning is to Lathander. I wonder what Keldath wants that he cannot bully Thunderhammer to do for him."

Zak shrugged, and they carried on down the road.

***

Interlude

"Aren't you going to arm your character?" GrayWolf asked in a curious voice.

"He has to roll the dice," Morikan said, tossing two complicated sets of dice to Belnarath, who caught them with ease, then flicked his wrist over the board.

The dice bounced once, twice, then rolled to a stop. There was a pause.

"A good throw," Shoshuna commented, and Belnarath smiled a little shyly.

"Sister, art thou not about to introduce thy last character?" he smiled, "And GrayWolf as well?"

"Speak for yourself," N'avsh grinned.

"Mine will come in soon," Rykvaz said, taking up the dice as Belnarath selected a few strange-shaped tokens, placing them carefully on the living board.

Morikan nodded, looking at a particular point on the board. "Destroying that was a good move," he said grudgingly, "You'd be able to bring them together."

"Of course, brother," GrayWolf said in an offhand voice, "I am intelligent, after all."

"Sometimes I doubt that," Hat'yet muttered.

"I second that motion," Belnarath grinned. GrayWolf looked injured.

"Let us, brethren..." he started.

There was a cough from N'avsh.

"And sistern," he said graciously.

"Thank you." Shoshuna smiled.

"Continue this wondrous game of Morikan's, our inestimable leader..."

"Flatterer," Rykvaz accused with a grin.

"I like it," Morikan put in.

"Of course thou dost," Belnarath said.

"Can we get on with this?" GrayWolf asked plaintively.

"Easy for you to say, since it's your turn," Hat'yet said.

"We'd get on with it," Morikan said firmly, handing the dice over to GrayWolf.

[next page]

Lledrith RavenWolf



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