Odus takes a large toke from his pipe. He keeps it in for a few seconds, then exhales slowly until he feels his lungs have completely emptied. Almost as if he were letting go of a long sigh. Good ol’ Rendil, he thought to himself, he really came through. And the seeds…
What a journey it’s been since we left Winter Haven, We’ve seen so much, and to think this is just the beginning. The hell that both Delphina and Eilian went through… No one should ever have to go through that. I’ll keep an eye on them both when we get back. I can only imagine what types of emotional wounds and scars they carry, let alone the physical ones.
I hope Kane is okay. It must be difficult for him, seeing that we aren’t any closer to removing the curse. Poor soul… We must be patient in this matter; i trust a new solution will present itself. It does appear that he’s coping well… And his spirits seems brighter these days.
Garrick is turning out to be quite the leader. I knew he would. He has a great heart… And great timing. I must say, its not a surprise. He always did the right thing for the right reasons ever since we were children. How things were so simple then…
Smiley’s been quiet… But when has he not been? I love going to battle with this man-child! I wonder if Sir Keegan is enjoying the ride. He has a great view of all the action this boy gets into. I’ll never forget how he kept smiling as he was cleaving into the dragon…
Odus‘ thoughts then turn to Rao. All mighty Rao, thank you. All glory to you. May you continue to watch over us, and guide us through these dark times. That we may serve as beacons of light for all to see. I am your servant. I trust in you.
“He said we should go when the time was up. The time is up, Garrick. It’s up. We go. It’s too dangerous to do otherwise.”
Isak‘s simple logic kept rattling around in the swordmage’s head. Garrick knew his friend was right, indisputably so. He also knew he was following Kane‘s instructions to the letter, and that Eilian and Delphina needed to return home as soon as possible. He knew he was making the right decision to order the march back to Winterhaven.
It didn’t matter. Garrick hated leaving a man behind. And while he wasn’t sure how much Kane fit the definition of ‘man,’ he was sure he was a valued comrade-in-arms and didn’t like abandoning him to whatever fate the Mages of Saruun had in mind for him.
The Winter Guard had waited three days, just as Kane had instructed, in one of the hollows ringing the Seven-Pillared Hall. Not fully trusting the Mages of Saruun, but wanting to fulfill their part of the bargain, Kane infiltrated the underground city to meet with Orontor, their contact within the Mages. Orontor had tasked the guard with discovering what was going on with one of their members gone renegade, Paldemar. Coming back with a story that he had come under the influence of Solomon and the Cult of Vecna… they could not predict his reaction. Furthermore, they were concerned about Fatale and her band of shadar-kai hunting them down; while they didn’t fear the combat so much, they feared engaging her forces whilst simultaneously protecting Eilian and Delphina, something they all felt they had not done such a great job of until now.
With that in mind, Kane took on a different form, and, bolstered by the magic of his hat, went into the Seven-Pillared Hall to finish up outstanding business with many of the members there. If he had not returned within three days, it meant something had gone wrong, and the rest of the guard should proceed with all haste back to Winterhaven.
That procession started three days ago. Garrick had wanted to risk staying, and when Odus‘ honeyed words failed to convince him to leave, Isak had laid a big hand on the back of the swordmage’s neck, subtly turning his head to look at Delphina and eilian before speaking the words that haunted Garrick above.
The visual was a nice touch. Garrick might have been willing to put up more of an argument were it not for the two freed prisoners. While Delphina seemed on her way to recovery, the trials she witnessed in the Horned Hold and the Well of Demons were permanently etched on her face. Eilian was the worse off of the two, however. Not a small man by any means, considering he ran a farm virtually by himself despite his advanced age, Eilian was now hunched over, having lost a lot of weight and picking up more than a few scars at the hands of his tormentors.
Now on the surface, and traveling in the company of a merchant caravan that they were protecting, the Winter Guard still kept looking over their shoulders. At this point, Garrick was reasonably certain no animate bronze statues of minotaurs would be appearing on the horizon behind them, it still payed to be cautious. Garrick took the front, while Isak and Odus brought up the rear, both of them bows at the ready. Isak on foot while Odus was usually in one of the wagons with Delphina and eilian.
Right now, Odus was teaching eilian a surface-world simplified version of the drow hand-speech. Eilian was not exactly an apt pupil, but had picked up certain simple terms. Delphina walked alone, off to the side, though in plain view. Garrick was happy to see she was at least somewhat returning to how she was before all this business, picking flowers and investigating different breeds. She didn’t sing, however; that part seemed to be gone.
Garrick strode up to where Bruno was, halting the caravan. Up ahead, there was a lone stranger on the road. She looked somewhat disheveled; obviously having been on the road a long time. She was reasonably attractive, though it was hard to tell, since she kept her head low, hooded and cloaked.
Garrick patted Bruno on the shoulder. “I’ll handle this.”
Bruno seemed nice enough, if a bit of a nervous-nelly. He was quick to hire the guard to travel with him back to northern Nyrond from the Theocracy of the Pale where they still were. He made a good business selling religious goods of Pholtus, god of the celestial bodies, and trips to The Pale were necessary in that regard. The merchant was overweight but was not obviously aware of that when he dressed in the morning. He counted his gold religiously every evening before retiring and little else seemed to matter to him. He certainly wasn’t a follower of Pholtus as Odus found out early in their trip together when he tried to strike up a conversation with him. All in all, he was not exactly an appealing sort.
Still, a contract was a contract so Garrick walked up to the woman waiting by the roadside. He walked in a casual manner, not wanting to alarm her, confident he could summon his blade should he need it.
“Well met, young lady,” he said. She barely turned her head up, but he could make out a whisper of a smile beneath her hood.
“Well met, sir. I am a lonely woman making her way south and in need of protection along the road. Would you be willing to take on another traveler, perhaps?”
Garrick smiled. “Of course. While you travel with us you shall have our protection, lady…?”
“Neka. I do not have a title, good sir.”
They began walking back towards the caravan, Garrick‘s suspicions quelled, though he wasn’t quite sure why. “And how do you find yourself alone in these parts, Neka?”
The young woman smiled beneath her hood. “Through a series of events I am not entirely sure of, good sir. I awoke in the clearing yonder from what I cannot say. I seemed in good health and looked for the nearest road. I have been traveling along it since, hoping to come across someone such as yourself. My last host was a magician of sorts; I suspect he ensorcelled me and left me to my own devices.”
Garrick was shocked. “How horrible for you! What was this mage’s name?”
“Concern yourself not with it; it is done. But I thank you for your concern,” she said gently.
They had arrived at the caravan, with Bruno looking anxious (as always) and everyone else more or less where Garrick had left them. Delphina was off to the side, her basket of flowers full, but her gaze staring ahead through the trees of a nearby forest. Garrick called out to her, but she didn’t respond. Concerned, he shared a glance with Odus, who also called out to her. She turned to look at the group, but there was no other response; her mind seemed elsewhere. Garrick was about to go get her, when Neka put a hand on his arm. “No, wait a moment.”
He turned to see his new traveling companion lock eyes with the elf maiden. It was an intense couple of moments, but soon Delphina walked back to the caravan and took her seat next to Neka, who smiled at her new companion.
“How…?” Garrick began.
“Shared intuition, Garrick, nothing more,” she responded with a thin smile. Garrick caught a glimpse of raven dark hair beneath the hood, and pale skin, and again felt he needn’t question the mysterious young woman further. He took his position at the front of the caravan and they started on their way again.
It wasn’t until nearly nightfall when he realized he had never told her his name.
Around the campfire that evening, Neka obviously felt more comfortable with her new companions, shedding her hood to reveal long dark hair and highly accentuated features. She was attractive, though there was definitely something sinister about her appearance. For some men, it would make their blood run even hotter, thought Odus, but the bard didn’t feel that way himself and was determined to learn more about the young lady in their presence. He edged over to where Neka and Delphina were speaking in hushed voices.
He smiled the smile he always started difficult conversations with. “I couldn’t help overhearing the two of you singing… mind if I join in?”
Delphina smiled, the first smile in days. Neka looked up. “We weren’t singing, Odus. I was speaking with Delphina in her native tongue.”
“Ah, I should have recognized it, from when I have heard Garrick speak it.”
Both ladies shared a secret chuckle. “I have heard Garrick speak it before,” said Delphina in a quiet voice. “He speaks it well for a human, but…”
Odus laughed. “Say no more. It’s the same when I hear someone cover one of my songs: the lyrics may be right, but…”
Neka spoke up. “Delphina tells me you were originally four, not three.”
Odus lowered his eyes. “Yes, she speaks truly. We left behind one of our companions, our… scout. For the good of everyone involved, we had to leave, though I assure you it was with heavy hearts.”
“He was a friend of yours, I take it?”
Odus reflected on the recent events in his life. “Honestly, he didn’t start off that way. He was a lost soul who found himself entangled in the plots of one we thought a friend. We saw him more as a responsibility. Over time, however, I would say a real friendship formed. Real enough that I miss him today, and worry about his fate. We all do.”
“Surely you didn’t abandon him the way you make it out; you don’t seem the type.”
Odus smiled a rueful smile. “My thanks, Neka, but that does little to assuage our guilt.”
Delphina let out a short laugh, obviously in on the joke. The rest of the Guard were surprised, and after they recovered, gathered around their friend.
“Thank Rao you’re all right!” said Odus.
“I’m not certain Rao had anything to do with it, but I’ll try to keep an open mind,” responded Kane sardonically. “In any event, yes, I am fine, and am glad to rejoin you all.” That was true enough, but the changeling had seriously entertained striking out on his own after ensuring his companions in the Winter Guard were safe from reprisal… the encounter with Fatale and the disappointing revelation from it was still fresh in his mind.
Isak clapped him on the back. “We are as well, we are as well. But tell me: what happened?”
Kane went on to explain his journey of the last several days. He had infiltrated the city easily enough and gotten word to Orontor. He met with the Mage of Saruun and explained in detail what had happened. When Isak and Garrick exchanged concerned glances at Kane‘s apparent level of forthrightness with Orontor, the vampire assured them he left out mention of Solomon, but otherwise felt his words were being magically monitored for truth. He went on to explain how he had to lead Orontor to the site itself and surrender the Silver Key to it. In exchange, Orontor kept his end of the bargain and gifted them with several ritual formulae.
“I don’t trust them,” Kane said, speaking of the Mages of Saruun. “But, ultimately, they are opportunists, and I am now certain they see more value in us as potential pawns then as threats. We needn’t fear them.”
“And the shadar-kai?” asked Isak.
Kane grimaced. “I heard a story while snooping around. Apparently, they arrived while we were out confronting Paldemar. When she didn’t receive the answers she wanted concerning our presence, Fatale threw a bit of a fit… and there are remains of two bronze warders to show for it, it would seem. That one, we should definitely watch out for.” The rest of the Guard grimly agreed.
“How in blazes did you end up out here, though?” queried Garrick.
Kane frowned. “A teleportation ritual enacted by Orontor. He neglected to tell me when and where it would put me. I was… ill-prepared… to arrive at the time of day it was above the surface. I remained incapacitated for about a day, then set off to find you lot. The less I speak of that experience, the better.”
Garrick nodded grimly. He still wasn’t quite used to Kane‘s supernatural nature and the ups and downs of it. “Let’s take some rest then. We should be hitting the Nyrond/Pale border tomorrow.” They agreed and set about their preparations when Kane tossed a drawstring sack into Odus‘ lap.
Odus looked surprised. “From what?”
“All the coins you had to spend to prevent that thuggish ogre from causing us trouble.”
Odus laughed. “Isn’t he going to be missing it?”
Kane smiled evilly, and his companions couldn’t tell if his eyes glowed red or if it was a trick of the firelight.
“I doubt that. I doubt that very much…”