Weaving Wonders - WingedTempest - Baldur's Gate (Video Games) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Tav's Backstory Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 2: The Escape Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 3: Meeting the Wizard Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 4: Meeting the Rogue Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 5: Finding the Fighter Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 6: Within the Grove Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 7: Rescuing the Druid Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 8: The Rogue's Secret Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 9: Meeting the Barbarian Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 10: A Warlock Amongst Us Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 11: A Night of Revelry Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 12: The Dawn Breaks Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 13: The Warlock's Heritage Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 14: Cooking at Camp Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 15: Halsin's Lesson Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 16: Off His Chest Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 17: A Return to the Grove Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 18: Trouble in the Tower Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 19: The Orb's Ire Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 20: A Goddess's Charge Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 21: The Land of Shadow Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 22: Life in Shadow Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 23: Helping a Hero Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 24: The Cleric of the Moon Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 25: The Perfect Night Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 26: The Sleepy Morning Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 27: The General's Power Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 28: Secrets in the Tower Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 29 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: References

Chapter 1: Tav's Backstory

Summary:

This chapter details the backstory of my original Tav and what she was up to before the nautiloid attack on the city.

Chapter Text

One of Tav’s earliest memories includes hiding betwixt the leaves and brush of the lush High Forest and watching the enclave of wood elves practice their magic. She was entranced by their movements as they cast spells, the arcane power flowing through their bodies and grounding itself to the earth through their bare feet. The plant life that surrounded them would blossom and flourish as they cast, the leaves turning greener and the flowers blossoming bigger than Tav had previously thought possible.

She would have to be careful not to spend too much time in the depths of the High Forest, being sure to get back to her home in the civilized high-elf township for her own magic lessons. Her parents would take turns at the head of a class of young high-elves and perform magic of their own, slowly and with the intent to teach the youngest of the enclave. Tav would watch as they cast, their arcane ability seeming more cold and distant to her than the magics cast by the wood elves. The green shimmer that surrounded the wood elves felt warm like the rays of the sun, while the pink aura that surrounded her father as he taught was sickly-sweet like a sugar from another plane.

She would watch her father’s movements carefully as he stood at the head of the class, his hands moving intentionally slowly, and she caught his gaze focusing on her now and then to see if she was catching up. Tav tried to hide a grimace as she raised her arms, moving them in an arch in an attempt to imitate her father’s motions.

“Now, focus on the desired appearance of the illusion while you speak the verbal component…” Her father said. He took a deep breath before chanting the words - “Obtestor illus!”

The class echoed his words, shrill voices of young high elves all attempting to speak the incantation.

A few “oohs” and “aahs” came from the students as their spells succeeded. They had conjured glowing images and illusory effects amongst them. Some took the form of animals, others gave the air around them a glittering and glistening effect. The spells’ effects were entrancing to look at, but Tav remained focused on trying to cast her own Minor Illusion.

“Obtestor illus!” she called out, waving her hands to mimic her father.

She frowned, upset as she looked around the class to see so many magical illusions cast by her classmates. Yet… she knew she hadn’t succeeded herself. She felt nothing when she would chant the spell and perform the physical component. She was supposed to have sorcerer blood in her veins, but casting spells didn’t come naturally to her at all.

She saw her father’s disappointment in his eyes as he turned toward her. This wasn’t the first time she failed a lesson.
The look in his eyes made her feel such shame, it ingrained in her a hatred for magic. It made her feel like an outcast. Her classmates, some of them even younger than her, seemed to be ahead of her within the magic curriculum. But the way they all wielded magic lacked the emotion she so admired from the wood elves in the High Forest. They wielded the magic the same way a carpenter wields a hammer or a soldier wields a sword. It was a tool to them, lacking a certain kind of connection.

For the rest of the class, she watched as her father coached her classmates and encouraged them to keep focus, concentrating on their magic in order to keep it active as long as they could. As the class was drawing to a close, Tav took the opportunity to slip away while her father’s back was turned and he was aiding another student. She ran as quickly as her legs could carry her to the outskirts of the township, towards the depths of the High Forest. She ran into the brush, blinking back tears in her eyes. In her rush, she tripped and tumbled over a mossy rock jutting out from the ground, hidden by the lush greenery on the forest floor. Her small elven frame was thrust deeper into the brush, and she found herself crashed at the feet of a wood elf.
The wood elf looked to be only a bit older than herself, still considered a youngling. Her eyes were wide with curiosity, and her smile was kind as she bent over with an outstretched hand, offering to help Tav from the ground. Tav looked up at her and couldn’t help but smile and take her hand as she got up from the ground.

“Th-thank you.” Tav said in Sylvan, grateful for the kindness the wood elf had shown.
Her parents would often warn her not to go into the woods and associate with the wood elves, that they were “Troublesome” and “Primitive”. Tav never understood their disdain, even less so now.

“I… I’m Tav. What’s your name?” She said, trying not to be rude to her new acquaintance. She found it difficult not to stare, she had never been able to make out the details of the wood elves’ features before now.

The wood elf that stood before her was a young girl like herself, but instead of the golden hued skin Tav was accustomed to seeing amongst high elves, this girl’s skin was an olive green tone. It was lovely, like the color of moss growing on the north side of a tree.

“I’m Francesca.” The wood elf said back in Sylvan. “What… what are you doing here?” She asked curiously.

Tav noticed Francesca staring at her too, likely noting similar differences between their appearances.

“I- I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be here. I just…” Tav hesitated, averting her gaze towards the ground shamefully. “I just wanna do magic like you do.” She muttered under her breath, just barely loud enough for Francesca to hear her.
Francesca chuckled softly, her curious gaze turning soft with empathy.

As Tav stared at the ground before her, she was startled to see a golden light in her peripheral vision. Taking a glance at Francesca’s feet, she could see a glowing yellow beam flow from the ground to the tips of her toes and up through her body. Tav leapt back in surprise, in awe as Francesca began casting a spell before Tav’s very eyes.

Francesca’s hands moved in an arch, a golden light in her palms. The motion reminded Tav of the sun moving across the sky. Francesca’s eyes began to glow with the same golden light that she held in her hands.

“Ductu ad te!” She called.

Tav watched as the golden light throughout her body gathered in her palms, its light shining brighter, when it suddenly disappeared with a glimmer.
A light breeze blew through the forest, carrying with it the buzz of insects and the music of birdsong. Tav felt the breeze carry something else within it, as its cool and calming air enveloped her.

“Silvanus guide you, child. May you find your own place in this world.” Francesca said, gathering her hand into a fist and pressing it to her heart.

“S-Silvanus?” Tav asked, unfamiliar.

“I have to go, my kin are calling for me. But if you wish to meet me again, I am often in this part of the forest. I would be glad to make a friend of you.” Francesca spoke hurriedly, grabbing a quarterstaff from the tall grass and rushing into the brush leading to the deeper part of the forest. In a blink, Francesca had all but disappeared into the green of the woods, leaving Tav alone with her thoughts.

There wasn’t much silence for her to ponder on as the brush behind her rustled and she heard twigs snap beneath the feet of someone approaching.

“Tav!” Called a familiar voice.

“M-mother?”

“Tav Clearwater- what are you doing out here!?” Her father’s voice cried out, as Tav saw the faces of both of her parents amongst the low hanging branches of the forest.

“I… I…” Tav couldn’t find the words. She knew she wasn’t supposed to come to these woods, and this kind of behavior was very unlike her. She did everything she could to be the perfect child for her parents, trying to make up for the fact she couldn't cast spells.
“Is that… magic?” Asked her father, looking her up and down.

“Could it be? Did you cast a spell?” Her mother asked, the excitement in her voice apparent. Before Tav could even begin to explain, she watched her mother mutter something under her breath and move her hands in a precise pattern. As she completed her cast, her excited smile turned to a concerned scowl.

“... Guidance?” She said aloud, realizing that the magic evident around Tav was not the work of a sorcerer.

“Tav, who did you meet with? What were you doing here?” Her father’s rising concern was evident in his tone of voice.

“I- I didn’t meet with anyone. I just… found them. I wasn’t doing anything!” Tav tried to prove her innocence but her parents had already formed their own interpretation of the situation.

“Come, Tav. We mustn’t stay here, it’s not safe.” Her mother called Tav to her side, outstretching a hand to hold.

Tav sulked, seeing she had once again disappointed her parents, and took her mother’s hand to be led out of the forest.

It wasn’t long after that incident that Tav’s parents decided that it would be best if they were to move to an area with less distractions from their daughter’s studies. They considered moving to Waterdeep, but Tav’s father had little faith that she would be accepted into their prestigious Blackstaff Academy. Instead, they opted to move to Baldur’s Gate and enroll Tav in courses at the city’s Citadel of Strategic Militancy. This training center was often the one that the city’s Flaming Fist defense would attend to learn basic fighting techniques. Although Tav was attending primarily for their combat magic classes, her parents agreed that the courses on basic battle maneuvers could be useful for her to know as well.

It was there at that Citadel that Tav spent a large majority of her time in her formative years. She would study and study and continue to be unable to perform magic. She failed so consistently she came to question her own bloodline. However, she did find solace in the fact that she became adept in physical combat. While the magic lessons pained her, the promise of combat training class kept her motivated to attend her courses diligently and routinely for many years. She watched so many members of the Flaming Fist enter the Citadel and graduate to a position in the City’s military during her time there, many of the professors were concerned she had been attending courses for too long.

“Never too old to learn!” was the headmaster’s stance on the situation, and Tav was grateful for him. He would often be the one to spar with her during her battle lessons, as he was one of the few left at the Citadel that could keep up with her in both speed and stamina.

Headmaster Hart Thornblood was a well established knight and general of the Flaming Fist and faithful worshiper of the Red Knight, an exarch of Tempus, god of battle and strategy. He knew his way around a blade, and presented an entertaining challenge for Tav during her training sessions.

Despite years and years of schooling, magic never came naturally to Tav. Her parents made lives for themselves in the city with their magic prowess, but their daughter failed to grow into her “true potential” as a sorceress.

The feeling that she had failed her parents haunted Tav as she grew up in Baldurs Gate and not a spark of magic came from her studies. She lived with that feeling for too long, with the cruel mindset that her desire to be rid of the feeling would drive her ambition even further to become an adept caster. Despite her efforts and her rigorous coursework, it did not. After a while the feeling of failure was numb to her, and that was when she shifted her focus toward battle strategy and maneuvers. Headmaster Thornblood had told her that she would make a fine tactician one day after seeing her advise some classmates on their attack strategy when facing a formation of animated armor in the training ground. She wasn’t a failure in his eyes, despite him signing the paperwork for her failed combat magic course year after year after year. He would still allow her to re-enroll.

During one lesson around noon in Eleasis (Mid-summer), the sun was high in the sky and its rays were beating on the training ground so much to make everyone in armor sweat through their underclothes.

“Alright, trainees! Swords away, and go git yerselves some pints at the Blushin’ Mermaid. No use fightin’ in this mad heat, the trainin’ grounds’ll turn to mud with all the water yer pourin’ out.” Commander Highgold called down from the spectating stand above the training ground. His dwarven accent was thick and commanding, but also warm like a spiced rum.

The entire class sighed with relief as they all yanked their helmets off, revealing steaming hair and damp faces. There were about 6 of them in total, all of them ripping off the armor that was practically baking them in the sunlight.

“Thank the gods. They don’t call Eleasis “Highsun” for nothin’, eh?” chirped one of the trainees, wringing sweat out of her dampened hair.

A few of the other trainees chuckled. Tav was certainly grateful for the break, a cold stein of ale sounded like heaven for her parched throat.

The group of them all headed out of the Citadel together and began walking towards the city docks that the Blushing Mermaid tavern so famously overlooked, all talking amongst themselves.

The Training Grounds Class of 1492:
Cora Aidengrace - Human Female - Dark skin, long black hair, sarcastic, loves cheap ale, can take a hit like a champ. Gets distracted easily.
Edmund Stillfellow - Human Male - Short, Pale skin, short wavy light brown hair, soft spoken but a good fighter when he is focused. Doesn’t know what to do when he is disarmed.
Kilas Fretter - Tiefling Male - Pale orange skin, light brown hair shoulder length but worn tied up, two ivory horns pointed upwards and inwards. Gives a battle his full effort, but fails to recognize weaknesses of an enemy.
Deserae Fretter - Tiefling Female - Pale orange skin, blonde hair long but half shaven on the left. Two ivory horns curled downwards like a ram. Very observant and can pinpoint enemy weaknesses, but sometimes hesitates when making attacks.
Redd Gregorian - Half-orc male, pale green skin, nose ring, blonde quaffed hair. Superior strength, but not proficient in anything except a battleaxe.
Tav Clearwater - High Elf Female - Golden tan skin, Black wavy hair kept out of her face, Hazel eyes. Can recognize weaknesses of enemies easily, is confident when attacking, cannot wield magic and is sometimes frightened of magic enemies.

“Kilas, I can’t believe you haven't noticed that one animated armor never covers his left flank. He leaves it wide open, yet you go for his right every time!” Deserae piped, swinging her arms as if she was wielding a sword, smacking the right flank of an enemy.

“What are you talking about Des, I always hit him on the left!” Kilas exclaimed. You could practically hear the gears turning in his head. “Wait… my left or his left?”
His left!” Deserae explained, exasperation in her voice.

“I think Kilas favors hitting enemies on the right no matter who the opponent. That seems to be the first swing he makes.” Tav chimed in as they all walked down the city street.

“At least I take a swing even without a sword in my hand, Edmund.” Kilas retorted, looking over his shoulder at the soft spoken human.

“H-hey! I just don’t like bruising my fists! At least I can wield practically anything, Re-” Edmund began to redirect the focus to Redd’s shortcomings when Redd whipped around shooting a glare at Edmund that could rival a Beholder.

“N-nevermind…” Edmund backtracked and Redd let out a soft grunt of approval.

“You lollygags are too slow! We’ll never get to the Mermaid at this rate! Come on, T, I need ale!” Cora ran up from the back of the pack, snatching Tav’s wrist and dragging her ahead of the group, straight towards the docks.

“Gah! Okay, okay!” Tav was caught off guard, but quickly caught up to the speed of Cora as they ran towards the tavern ahead of everyone.

As they approached the tavern, Tav found herself gazing out onto the docks. The ships coming in and unloading, the pungent smell of fish and seawater assaulting her. She was used to the rather musty smell of the city, but the docks were on another level. The sun’s blinding light reflected off of the choppy waves of the Sea of Swords. It didn’t smell the cleanest, but it certainly looked refreshing in this heat.

“T?” Cora chimed, trying to get Tav’s attention as she was looking longingly out across the sea. They were stood just outside the Blushing Mermaid now.

“Uh-” she started “Can I catch up with you in a minute?” She asked, turning back to look at Cora. Cora couldn’t quite tell what was going through Tav’s mind, but she nodded despite her suspicions.
“Sure thing, girl. I’ll grab you a pint.” She smiled, and let go of Tav’s wrist as she turned to go inside the Blushing Mermaid.

Tav smiled back gratefully, walking briskly toward the docks.

She weaved her way through fishmongers and sailors, heaving crates and barrels full of who-knows-what. The smell of fish and saltwater only got stronger as she passed through crowds of traders, there to buy and sell the goods that were coming in from overseas. Wine from Thay, cheese from Waterdeep, herbs from Amn. Those more delectable smells were masked by the heavy stink of the city.

As Tav walked down one of the docks and approached the water, she couldn’t help but feel giddy. Gods, what she would give to take a dip in the sea to escape this heat - but Mystra knows what creatures lie below in those murky waters. Instead, she took her shoes off and sat herself down at the edge of the dock, her feet dangling near the water’s surface. The tide was low enough that her toes didn’t get wet, but it wasn’t the lowest she had seen it get.

She closed her eyes as she sat at the dock’s edge, letting all the sounds and sensations of the coastline soak in. She felt the light, salty mist of the ocean on her skin, heard the call of hungry gulls and the splash of waves against the hulls of harbored ships. Her mind felt at peace, despite the chaos of the vendors and seamen that bustled around her. The coastal breeze against her skin caused her mind to wander back to the days of her childhood, when the wind would rustle the treetops in the High Forest and caress her face. She had grown accustomed to her life in Baldur’s Gate and her classmates’ company - but she still found herself missing the more rural lifestyle she had in the High Elf township of the High Forest.

Tav took one more deep breath in, soaking in all the coast had to offer before she knew she had to go and grab the pint of ale that Cora was saving for her. She hoped it was red ale - that is - if Cora hadn’t drank it already.

Tav opened her eyes, greeted by the glistening water before her, seemingly endless in its expanse. She leaned over the edge of the dock, eager to see the waves lapping up against the dock supports.

“Ah!-” She exclaimed softly, shocked by the water below her.

She could see a spiral of water at her toes rising up, reaching to the sky as if it was climbing to the sun itself. She peered at it curiously, tilting her head perplexed at the water’s unnatural behavior. As her head tilted to one side, the water shifted in the same movement. Tav straightened her back, startled by the water’s sudden shift. Slowly and curiously, she waved her head to the opposite side keeping her eyes on the risen water formation. As she moved her head, the water moved as well.

Once again she leaned over the dock, looking into the murky waters expecting to see a siren or a porpoise of some kind playing a trick on her. Alas, there were no creatures to be found. As she peered down into the water, she noticed a faint blue light emanating from the waves, its glow creeping upwards to Tav’s toes. The aura was familiar to Tav, the way it anchored itself to her body…

She recalled the way that the yellow glow from the High Forest traveled through young Francesca’s body as she cast spells. Surely this wasn’t magic. From the ocean? Tav was no merfolk, she was of high elf blood through and through. Tav lifted her hands from the surface of the dock she was leaning on, her eyes widening at the sight of a blue glow in her palms. She was casting a spell on the water… making it move. It was her… wielding magic for the first time in her life.

Her grin was impossible to hide. She jumped to her feet in excitement and felt her lose concentration on the shape water spell, but it didn’t matter. She could finally do it! The thing she harbored so much shame for… she had overcome it. She had to tell the others. She had to tell Cora! She might finally pass Combat Magic this year! She hurriedly pulled on her shoes, when she felt the intensity of the midsummer sun fade. Clouds? The skies had been clear all week, surely some rain would be a welcome respite. Turning her gaze upwards, she felt dread sink through her entire body.

Above the city a gruesome tentacled ship was tearing its way through the sky obstructing the sun. Its appendages shot out in all directions, wreaking havoc on the tallest bell tower in the city. One moment there was one, and in seconds there were many, all entering the airspace of Baldur’s gate in an instant through portals that were dark like the night sky. The city was in panic, people racing through the streets, attempting to escape the grasp of the ships’ menacing tentacles.

Tav felt adrenaline coursing through her, leaping into action as she sprinted across the dock and toward the Blushing Mermaid. She had to find her friends and make sure they got to cover. In her peripheral vision she saw one of the ships’ slimy tentacles wrap itself around a civilian, their body disappearing in a puff of blackened ash. What was this enemy? It was unlike anything she had ever been trained to face off against. She kept sprinting, trying to keep the fear of the unknown from her mind, focusing in on the doors of the Blushing Mermaid. She was close, almost there in fact. Her arm was outstretched toward the door when she felt it- the cold wet embrace of the ship’s tentacles around her leg. One moment the tavern door was within her grasp, and the next she was in an endless darkness…

Chapter 2: The Escape

Summary:

Tav finds herself on an unfamiliar ship, needing to escape by whatever means possible. Thankfully, she finds friendship in another victim, their strength and familiarity with the situation may just be enough to get them out alive.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

A wave of heat, the loud and screeching call of a dragon, the sound of a crash and the roaring of fire, the cacophony was overwhelming as I felt my body stir awake from what felt like a nightmare, but it was all too real. I blinked my eyes open, my temples pulsing with pain and heat. The pain brought back a dream-like memory of a horrifying tentacled creature, extending its spindly fingers towards my eye, a gruesome larvae between his fingernails. Just the thought of it made me nauseous. That monster put a worm in my eye?! What in the Nine Hells did I get wrapped up into?

I pushed the pain in my forehead aside and looked around me. I was in an alien-like pod made of mucus and flesh-like material. Pushing on the glass left a sticky residue on my hands, but the unit opened with little pressure. I hopped out, looking around to see several pods identical to my own. A few of them had the glass shattered, and others sat empty but sealed tight. The entire room was aglow with fire, crackling and threatening to spread further with every passing moment. I had to get out.

I ran to the north of the room, where the wall pulsated with anticipation. The room was alive, and the door reflexed like a muscle as I approached, beckoning me to the adjacent area. I quickly hopped through the opening, fearing it would close it’s tendons around my body if I didn’t move quick enough. I felt my breath catch in my throat as I saw bodies laying dead and bloodied on operating tables scattered throughout the next room. Was this to be my fate if I didn’t escape whatever this nightmare was?

An unnatural wave of heat hit my face, reminiscent of the Eleasis sun but amplified in its intensity. I could practically feel it draining the moisture from my skin and parching my throat with every breath.

On the other side of the room, visions of red, rocky terrain rushed past in a blur. We were… flying? A glimpse of a purple tentacle-like tendril caused my memory to rush back in a haze. I was on… one of those accursed ships that flew into Baldur’s Gate. But we most certainly weren’t over the city anymore.

I ran over to get a closer look, careful to keep my footing secure and not fall off the ship entirely. Below us were pools of molten rock, fire burning across the entire terrain, jagged rock formations levitating in mid-air. The creatures below looked like ants from this high up in the air, but their horns and wings were a dead giveaway to their identity. They were devils, and we were flying over the first layer of hell - Avernus.

“sh*t.” I said aloud, almost startled by my own voice. My head was swimming with thought as I stared out onto the desolate fiery plain below. My thoughts were quickly interrupted by the metallic glint of a blade in the firelight and a gust of air across my skin. I found myself at the wrong end of a longsword in the blink of an eye, a formidable female Githyanki wielding the blade poised at my heart.

“Abomination! This is your end.” She exclaimed, as the ruby vision of a red dragon flew past the ship.
As she let out her battle cry, I felt for some strange reason that I recognized her. Then, I felt like something within me recognized her. Both of us winced at the same moment, holding our head in our hands. It felt like something was slamming against my skull, when all of a sudden I saw visions of myself in the pod racing through my memory. This was… the githyanki’s memory. She too had gotten a worm forced into her skull at the hands of a tentacled monstrosity.

“Agh! My head… what is this?” She asked, as the pain in our heads subsided. I hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on. I knew I had never met her before, Githyanki tended to care only for the company of their own race and did not frequent the major cities of the Sword Coast.

Tsk’va! You are no thrall. Vlaakith blesses me this day. Together, we might survive.” She stowed the blade she was wielding on her back, narrowing her gaze as she looked me up and down.
“Thrall? I- How the hells do we get out of here? Who are you?” I stammered, still reeling from the fact I was inches from imminent death by this Githyanki’s hand not a moment ago.

“I’m your only chance of survival.” She said with a grin, tossing me a shortsword she had on her hip. I caught it before it hit me, grateful to feel the weight of a blade in my hands once again. I felt significantly more at ease with something to defend myself with, just in case this warrior-turned-friend decided to change their allegiances.

“Come, in order to get off this ship, we’ll need to get through those.” She nodded her head toward several imps that were feasting on the corpses of the fallen. The bodies were dressed in plain clothing, they must have been hostages too. How many people did this ship kidnap?

The Githyanki warrior let out a battle cry as she charged toward the imps, raising her longsword high in the air. I hurriedly charged behind her, shortsword in hand, ready to spill some blood and get out of this hellscape.
We were able to tear through the imps with little effort, the Githyanki’s prowess in battle was impressive to say the least.

“This way!” She called, running across the corpses littered on the ground. I spotted a crossbow clutched by the cold hands of one of the fallen civilians. I tried not to think about the fate of the former owner as I snatched it. It would be useful to have a weapon with more range.

“Where are we going? Who even are you?” I called to the githyanki, my trust wavering.

“You can call me Lae’zel of K’liir, and we are going to the helm of this ship - this nautiloid. I mean to take it over from the hands of the ghaik that infected us with these tadpoles.” She spoke quickly as she climbed up to another level of the ship.

Her headstrong attitude and confidence in her actions left me no choice but to trust her intuition. She certainly had more sense of direction as to next steps than I did, who was I to question her? I leapt up onto some platforms seeming to lead to another chamber of the ship, tailing Lae’zel and doing my best to keep up.

Notes:

From here on, we are assuming that Tav does find Shadowheart in the capsule within the ship, rescues her, and the three of them manage to get to the ship's control room and the entire thing crashes. If you are reading this you are likely familiar with how that all goes down - I myself have replayed that scene FAR too many times and the idea of writing it is kind of exhausting, so I have stopped here. If you really think I should re-write it and explain how my Tav might react to all of the events excluded, I may go back and add it. As of right now- I really just wanna write the "Meeting Gale" scene, which will be the next chapter!

Chapter 3: Meeting the Wizard

Summary:

Tav and Shadowheart explore the crash site, coming across a weird magical anomaly on a cliffside. Could it spell danger, or offer salvation?

Chapter Text

I gathered myself, shaking the fear from my mind after slamming my foot into the skull of the dying Mind Flayer. I shuddered as I recalled the grotesque way it invaded my mind and made me want to serve it just now. I could only hope that there was nothing - or nobody- that could further exploit that ability on me. The thought of not being able to control myself fully seemed to be a non-issue up until now, and it created a deep fear within me. Pushing the horror of it aside, I continued to traverse the burning landscape and scattered fragments of the nautiloid, keeping my eyes peeled for any other monsters that may be lurking around the crash-site.

“Dead goblins. Could be useful to look for supplies. Let’s just hope there aren’t more where that came from.” Shadowheart piped up as she followed behind me, nodding her head towards some goblins that appeared to have been killed in the crash.

Kneeling down to the bodies, they didn't have too much that was useful on them, but I stowed one of their scimitars on my hip. If I could find Lae’zel I owed her that shortsword back. I stood from the ground, raising the back of my hand to wipe the sweat from my forehead as I looked out to the choppy water on the coastline. The blazing sun and the burning ship combined didn’t create a very temperate environment. Maybe if I could get to the coastline I could control the water again and cool us off…? How did I even do that before? I most certainly didn’t learn magic like that in class, It wasn’t exactly a “combat” spell.

Interrupting my thoughts as I mindlessly headed towards the coastline was a buzzing sound, getting louder as I approached the water. As I turned a corner, I was startled by the appearance of a swirling purple sigil jutting out from a rocky cliffside, buzzing and crackling with magic energy. It looked unstable to say the least. I approached it with caution, and overheard Shadowheart from behind me as she drew the mace from her back and braced her shield.

“Take caution… this looks dangerous.” She said quietly, but she seemed confident I would know how to address the situation. I guess I earned a lot of trust from her since I was able to unlock that pod she was stuck in. Or…she was too clever to put herself in danger, eager to let me throw myself head first into a harmful environment to save her own skin. She was hard to read.

The sigil swirled and released zaps of energy erratically. I jumped back, out of fear of getting struck with the unstable magic. The jagged streaks of purple light nearly struck me as they were thrown from the center of the magic vortex. I felt my heart nearly leap out of my chest as I was staring at the swirling runes and an arm popped out of the center. I heard the clink of armor behind me as Shadowheart shuffled backwards in surprise as well.

“A hand? Anyone?” a voice called, echoing from the dark center of the sigil.

Without thinking, I jumped into action, taking hold of the outstretched hand and pulling backwards as hard as I could. As I stood close to the sigil, I could sense the volatile swirl of magic that kept the victim trapped, like a vacuum or a whirlpool with a great force preventing their escape. The aura of it was reminiscent of the magic my parents would so often cast, but it felt broken and incomplete.

“What are you doing? We don’t know who is in there!” I heard Shadowheart say, keeping her voice to a whisper, but making her disapproval evident in her tone.

With a final tug, I felt the hold of the magic give way. I and the formerly trapped victim fell backwards, tossed into the dirt at the foot of the cliff. I heard the buzzing and crackling of the sigil quiet as I gathered myself.

I hastened to get back on my feet, brushing the sand and dust from myself as I stood, meeting eyes with the stranger whom I had saved.

He stood from the ground, also dusting his purple robe of any debris, and met my gaze with a grin.

His smile was charming and bright, and the look in his deep brown eyes showed gratitude while remaining astute. He arched his back and puffed out his chest in a stretching motion, wincing as he did so as if his body was a little rattled from the tumble he had taken.
“Hello!” He chimed with an unexpected gleeful tone, holding out his hand towards me for a handshake.

“I’m Gale - of Waterdeep.” He introduced himself formally. “Apologies, I’m usually better at this...”

“At introductions?” I teased, shaking his hand.

I heard him exhale out of his nose sharply, amused at my half-joke.

“At magic.” He half-smiled, the gleam in his eyes recognizing my wit and revealing his own.

He combed his hair back with his fingers so that it wouldn’t cover his face, the shoulder length chocolate brown locks framing his sharp jawline. He appeared remarkably well-groomed for someone who was trapped in such a predicament a moment ago.

“Are you alright?” I asked him, looking him up and down for any signs of injury. The fact that he was a magic user had me on alert- if he was a threat I would have to be ready to dodge his spells while initiating close combat- not an easy thing to achieve. I observed his next movements closely, my fears calmed by his lack of aggression.

“A bit shocked- but friend, it is a relief and a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” as he looked at me with grateful eyes, his face lit up with recognition and he pointed a finger at me.

“Say, but I know you don’t I?” He started.

I looked at him quizzically. I had never met him before as far as I could recall.

“Uh- In a manner of speaking. You were on the nautiloid as well.” He explained himself. I couldn’t say I recalled seeing him on the mind flayer vessel, but I was more curious as to the magic that had entrapped him.

“Never mind the ship, how did you get trapped in that stone?” I inquired, trying to hide my fear of the volatile magic that I had found on the cliffside.

He put his hand to his chin, rubbing his trimmed beard in thought.

“I don’t know what transpired exactly, but the ship broke into pieces and I suddenly found myself in freefall. As I was plummeting to certain death, I spied a glimmer quite near where I estimated my body to impact with- eh…less-than savory propulsion.”

The way he described his encounter made it clear to myself and any other listeners that he was a well-educated man. I found myself stifling a grin as I listened to him speak so eloquently. It was… entertaining. I found it reminiscent of a bard enthralling patrons at a tavern.

“Recognizing this glimmer to be magical in nature, I reached out to it with a Weaving of words and found myself on the other side… as it were.”

This man spoke as if he was rather adept at magic- with the ability to recognize it with such ease. Despite his claims, I questioned his skill considering the result of his “word weaving” leaving him on the inside of a cliff. However, If he really was experienced, being able to observe his abilities closely now that I had discovered my own could prove useful.

“How about you? How did you survive the fall?” He looked at me with a sort of suspicion, also nodding towards Shadowheart who stood behind me. Her shield was lowered, but her mace was still in hand.

I thought back to the memory of being in freefall myself, seeing the coastline and trying to land in the water in order to avoid the impact land would bring. I remember realizing that I wouldn’t be able to land safely in the sea, but I didn’t recall much past that. The next thing I could remember was waking up amongst the rubble of the crash.

“Honestly, I have no idea…” I said to him, exhaling as I spoke with exasperation at my own inability to remember. I put my hand to my head, in part as a reflex when I realized I didn’t know the answer to his question and in part to feel for any injury.

“Fair enough.” He started. “Even so, I have the unfortunate suspicion your survival is still very much in jeopardy.”

I wasn’t exactly looking forward to what he was going to say next with a beginning like that…

“Back on the ship, you too were on the receiving end of a rather unwelcome insertion in the ocular region, were you not?” He asked, pointing a finger to his own eye.

He had a worm in his head too? What a bizarre situation so many people on that ship had found themselves in. Even more bizarre that we had survived long enough to find each other.

Trying not to recall the blood curdling image of the worm squeezing its way into my eye socket, I retorted:

“Couldn’t have phrased it more repellently myself.”

Gale grinned, shrugging his shoulders.

“No use sugarcoating it, is there?”

Before I could get a witty response in, he continued:

“This insertee we speak of, this parasite- are you aware that after a period of excruciating gestation it will turn us into mind flayers? It is a process known as ceremorphosis and let me assure you-”

He furrowed his brow, locking eyes with me to make himself clear-

“- It is to be avoided.” He said in a matter of fact tone, holding up a finger to emphasize his point.

The realization was startling. Become a Mindflayer? I couldn’t imagine the horror of the transformation. Gale’s shift in demeanor told me he could likely see the growing concern and fear in my face.

“You… wouldn’t happen to be a cleric would you? A doctor? Surgeon?” He queried.

With every occupation he named I could feel my stress rise and my expression fail to hide it.

“... Uncannily adroit with a knitting needle?” Gale joked, jabbing at the air as if he was holding a needle, acutely aware of the concern that grew in me and was plastered all over my face.

His playful banter did manage to get a chuckle out of me though, easing my discomfort only slightly. A stern voice came from behind me, Shadowheart making herself known.

“You seem to know enough about our condition to know it's beyond most clerics’ skills.” She pointed out, almost accusatory in her tone.

Gale smirked at her. “Most, no doubt. But I find myself hoping to be in the presence of the few. You don’t… happen to be one of them?” He gestured to the both of us, with little hope in his tone.

I had never heard of an ailment such as this until I found myself a victim of it. I had learned plenty of first aid and survival medicine in my combat training courses, but nothing to resolve something so… alien.

“I can tend to basic wounds and ailments, but I’m afraid something of this caliber is out of my realm of expertise.” I told him, regrettably. Shadowheart nodded with me in agreement. Despite her gods-given gifts of healing and repair, she was unable to cure such a condition either.

Gale sighed. “As we've established, few enough can. It’s not exactly a common affliction.” He said with a bit of defeat in his voice.

“We’re most certainly going to need a healer, and soon too. How about we lend each other a helping hand once more and look for a healer together?” He pitched optimistically.

I was thankful for any company I could get on this endeavor, all three of us in search of the solution to a common goal sounded like it would offer a better chance of success. I turned toward Shadowheart, in an attempt to read how she might feel about the situation.

She looked back at me, her gaze telling that she trusted me to make the final decision, she would go along either way. I appreciated her confidence in me.

“Sounds like a plan to me. You’re welcome to join us.” I smiled and gestured to Shadowheart. She watched Gale’s movements like a panther stalking its prey.

“Most excellent! A parasite shared is a parasite… halved. Or… something to that effect.” He said, fumbling his metaphors, but grinning through it.

I smiled and turned from him, preparing to move forward all together when Gale touched my shoulder in order to get my attention once more.

“Ah-” He began.

“Before you think you’re about to embark on a journey with most ill-mannered a man: thank you for pulling me out of that stone.” He spoke with true earnesty, taking a formal, respectful bow before me. As he straightened himself he looked up so that his eyes met mine, his gaze brimming with confidence.

“It was an act of foresighted kindness, I assure you, for I have the feeling ample opportunities will present themselves for me to return the favor.”

His tone was unwavering and steady, and I appreciated how straightforward he had been. I also appreciated his very deliberate display of manners, something that I wasn't used to hanging around soldiers-in-training all the time. Shadowheart was understandably suspicious of him, but I heard them exchanging introductions in a fairly friendly manner as I continued to lead us all toward the coastline.

“Agh! My head… what is this?” She asked, as the pain in our heads subsided. I hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on. I knew I had never met her before, Githyanki tended to care only for the company of their own race and did not frequent the major cities of the Sword Coast.

Tsk’va! You are no thrall. Vlaakith blesses me this day. Together, we might survive.” She stowed the blade she was wielding on her back, narrowing her gaze as she looked me up and down.

“Thrall? I- How the hells do we get out of here? Who are you?” I stammered, still reeling from the fact I was inches from imminent death by this Githyanki’s hand not a moment ago.

“I’m your only chance of survival.” She said with a grin, tossing me a shortsword she had on her hip. I caught it before it hit me, grateful to feel the weight of a blade in my hands once again. I felt significantly more at ease with something to defend myself with, just in case this warrior-turned-friend decided to change their allegiances.

“Come, in order to get off this ship, we’ll need to get through those.” She nodded her head toward several imps that were feasting on the corpses of the fallen. The bodies were dressed in plain clothing, they must have been hostages too. How many people did this ship kidnap?

The Githyanki warrior let out a battle cry as she charged toward the imps, raising her longsword high in the air. I hurriedly charged behind her, shortsword in hand, ready to spill some blood and get out of this hellscape.

We were able to tear through the imps with little effort, the Githyanki’s prowess in battle was impressive to say the least.

“This way!” She called, running across the corpses littered on the ground. I spotted a crossbow clutched by the cold hands of one of the fallen civilians. I tried not to think about the fate of the former owner as I snatched it. It would be useful to have a weapon with more range.

“Where are we going? Who even are you?” I called to the githyanki, my trust wavering.

“You can call me Lae’zel of K’liir, and we are going to the helm of this ship - this nautiloid. I mean to take it over from the hands of the ghaik that infected us with these tadpoles.” She spoke quickly as she climbed up to another level of the ship.

Her headstrong attitude and confidence in her actions left me no choice but to trust her intuition. She certainly had more sense of direction as to next steps than I did, who was I to question her? I leapt up onto some platforms seeming to lead to another chamber of the ship, tailing Lae’zel and doing my best to keep up.

Chapter 4: Meeting the Rogue

Summary:

Tav, Gale and Shadowheart hear cries for help as they seek relief from the heat of the summer sun. Could it be another victim of the Mind Flayers' villiany?

Chapter Text

While the water was cool and refreshing on our faces as the sun beat down, I found no success in summoning the magic I managed to wield in the Gate’s Grey Harbour. We had taken some time indulging in the sweet relief that the water granted us from the heat of the day when we heard a desperate cry ring out from near the crash. Another of the mind flayers’ victims? Or an unfortunate passer-by caught at the site of the crash at just the wrong time?

“Sounds like that could be worth investigating…” Shadowheart said, turning her ear up to the sky to try to discern the direction the call came from. “This way.” she beckoned before heading off.

The three of us crept through the crash site, stepping over the corpses of intellect devourers and avoiding any strange liquids the ship leaked. As we looked around for the source of the call, we jumped at the sight of a pale, slender elf that was looking off into a nearby brush. His eyes lit up when he saw us, flagging us down desperately.

“You there! You must help me. Over there-” he pointed to the brush, his voice pleading, “I’ve got one of those brain things cornered. You can kill it, can’t you? Like you killed the others?”

I looked the man up and down as I considered his plea. He had wavy hair as white as the mountain tops of Neverwinter, framing the sharp elven features of his face. I had never seen an elf of his pallor, the fair color of his skin even more evident in the Eleasis sun. The distress in his eyes as he looked toward me for help appealed to my better nature, and I drew my shortsword from my belt and agreed to help him.

I snuck toward the brush that he had been peering into when we approached, keeping an eye out for the scurrying of an intellect devourer. My heart leaped into my throat when I saw the bushes jostle in the corner of my eye. I tensed my muscles, priming to strike at anything that came my way- when a frightened boar dashed into view, running to get as far from me as it could. I relaxed my rigid muscles, relieved to see that there was no intellect devourer, when I felt a cold hand grasp at my shirt.

I stumbled backwards, grunting in frustration as I was yanked to the ground, the nimble frame of the pale elf pinning me still. I could feel the cool metal of a dagger against my throat as he threatened to push it further into my skin. His once pleading eyes looked at me with malice and anger, all while maintaining the same faint hint of desperation that they had before. I struggled beneath his grip, wriggling as I attempted to escape him, but his grasp on me was secure.

“Ah ah. Don’t be so difficult. Not if you want to keep that darling neck of yours.” He threatened, pressing the sharp edge of the dagger against my skin. I felt my breathing hasten.

I heard my companions shift as I fell to the ground at the hands of the elf. The rapid clink of Shadowheart’s armor was apparent as she braced her weapon and shield, her eyes darkening towards the elf that held me captive. Gale braced himself for a fight, too, his eyes flickering with intensity as he watched the elf’s every move.

“Keep your distance, you lot. No need for this to get messy.” The elf sneered at the wizard and the cleric who stood nearby.

“Couldn’t agree more. But if you use that knife- I will incinerate you.” Gale taunted, a small flame hovering above his palm as he looked at the elf with a challenge in his glare.

The elf called his bluff. “And your friend, with me? I think not. All you need to do is answer a few questions…” He started, turning back towards me as I squirmed beneath his grip. “I saw you on the ship, didn’t I?”

I gritted my teeth, still trying to escape from his hold on me without success. Seeing little hope in my escape, I nodded in response.

His eyes went alight with satisfaction. “I knew it. You were in league with those-those- GAH!” His thought was interrupted as he pressed a hand to his temple, wincing in agony.

I felt it too. A wretched crawling itch that reverberated inside my skull. It was just like when Lae’zel had recognized me as an ally while on the nautiloid. I pushed through the discomfort and managed to tumble out of his grasp while he was under the tadpole’s influence. In my mind I found myself prowling dark, busy streets looking out of unfamiliar eyes. I only felt it for a moment, before the elf shot his eyes open again with new realization.

“I… saw it all. You were a victim too… just the same as me.” He said. “And to think, I was ready to decorate the ground with your innards. Apologies.” He offered weakly, standing from the ground and offering me a hand.

I heard Gale scoff at the half-hearted remorse for nearly committing murder. It was a little lackluster of an apology to be sure.

“Those tentacled monstrosities absconded with any peace offering I might have given- so I hope an introduction will suffice. My name’s Astarion.” He said in a dignified tone, taking a small bow. “I was in Baldur’s gate when those wretched captors snatched me.”

My ears pricked up at the sound of my home city. I didn’t recognize him, but there were so many people who called the Gate their home I knew it was impossible to know them all.

“Well? Do you know anything about these worms they’ve implanted in us?” He asked, gesturing towards his eye.

“Just that they will turn us into mind flayers.” Shadowheart said, making the exhaustion in her tone clear.

“Turn us into- Ha! Ha ha ha! Of course it’ll turn me into a monster. What else did I expect?” Astarion said, laughing hysterically at the dread of it all.

“I’d suggest you join us in our attempt to find a healer, but I tend not to trust those who resort to violence so… effortlessly” Gale said, his eyebrow raised in suspicion.

“Is that so?” Astarion said in a sing-song tone. “Well, sometimes it’s good to have someone so easily provoked on your side. You never know what threats might befall you out here…”

Gale pursed his lips in thought. I wondered if he was actually being persuaded by the elf’s words or if he feigned his own consideration.

“Hmph. Why not? Feel free to come along- but should you hold a blade to any of us, consider yourself a goner.” I said, looking dead into his eyes as I spoke. He could tell I meant business.

“Of course. I’ll be nothing but a gentleman.” He assured me. The abundance of manner in his voice gave me cause to doubt him, but so long as one of us always kept an eye out I figured all would be well.

As we wandered through the crash site, I noted that Gale and Shadowheart protectively placed themselves between myself and our new elven friend. I smiled to myself, glad to see that there was a semblance of trust built amongst us. I could only hope the budding strength of our bonds could be translated to the power necessary to overcome our unfavorable situation.

Chapter 5: Finding the Fighter

Summary:

After not too much wandering, I came across the familiar face of Lae’zel - looking rather unhappy as she stood in a cage swinging from a tree branch. Two tieflings staled around on the ground below, staring up at her with fear in their eyes.

Chapter Text

After not too much wandering, I came across the familiar face of Lae’zel - looking rather unhappy as she stood in a cage swinging from a tree branch. Two tieflings staled around on the ground below, staring up at her with fear in their eyes. They had every right to be afraid while she wore an expression like that. As we approached, her white hot stare caught mine, triggering an uncomfortable but familiar wriggling in my brain.

“Get rid of them.” Her voice demanded, but her lips didn’t even twitch. Well, when she could perform tricks like that, I certainly wasn’t going to argue.

I overheard the two tieflings bickering with each other about what exactly to do with the githyanki they had swinging above them when I decidedly interjected their conversation.

“I hate to interrupt, but I think you might be better off fleeing. I’ve fought Githyanki before- I can handle this.” I said to them, trying to make them fear Lae’zel just a bit more. Enough to make them want to get as far away as possible.

I held my breath as I feared they would detect the lie I had told them. The only githyanki I had fought were the ones made of wood and straw that the academy occasionally used for training. I was familiar with some of their battle maneuvers, but never had I seen one in the flesh until I found myself on the mind flayer ship.

The tieflings looked at one another, considering my words.

“Thank you, stranger. We’ll be on our way.” They said, deciding it was best if they were to subtract themselves from the battle they anticipated.

Shadowheart braced her mace and shield, preparing for a fight. I looked at her sternly, making sure the tieflings were out of earshot before I scolded her.

“Shadowheart! We aren’t going to actually fight her!” I sneered, and Shadowheart rolled her eyes, stowing her mace and lowering her shield.

“She isn’t to be trusted. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She remarked, eye-ing Lae’zel as her cage swayed back and forth from the light summer breeze.

“Kainyank.” Lae’zel spat, her glare towards Shadowheart intensifying.

“Ah, the sweet sound of two tressyms swatting at one another. How I look forward to hearing this play out during our travels.” Gale remarked, sarcasm lacing his every word. He was already weary of the animosity between the Githyanki and the cleric, and Lae’zel hadn’t even touched the ground yet.

I pulled back on my bowstring, taking a steadying breath as I aimed towards the rope that held the cage in the air. With an exhale, I released an arrow towards my target, hearing a satisfactory shk! resound as the arrow’s sharp edge sliced through the rope’s fibers. The cage fell from above, shattering into oblivion as it crashed to the ground. Lae’zel leapt from the ground as the bars around her were destroyed.

“It seems the tadpole hasn’t yet scrambled all your senses. Auspicious.” Lae’zel remarked, looking me up and down. She glanced at Shadowheart, Astarion and Gale who were in tow behind me, her gaze full of silent judgement.

“The longer we wait- the more it consumes. My people know of a cure for this infection- I must find a creche and you will join me.” Lae’zel snapped, holding her head high.

Her tone of voice made me hesitate to argue, but walking into any space full of githyanki as a high elf truly sounded like a death sentence.

“And why should we trust you, of all people, have a cure? Gith aren’t to be trusted.” Shadowheart sneered.

Lae’zel looked at her disapprovingly, loading her lips like bolts in a crossbow.

“Githyanki protocol is clear. When infected with a ghaik tadpole, report to the nearest creche for purification.” She shot back.

“Are we really going to believe she has a cure for our specific malady? She could very well be luring us to our deaths.” Shadowheart looked to me and our companions.

“Chk! You’ve a sharp tongue on you, elf. Would that your mind proved its equal.” Lae’zel growled towards a suspicious Shadowheart.

“Half-elf.” She corrected. “But I suppose finer details are lost on a creature like you.”

“I say we go with her. There’s less harm having her alongside us than being at the wrong end of her blade.” Astarion remarked, eyeing the longsword Lae’zel had strapped to her back. It was an impressive weapon. Seeing it reminded me:

“This- is yours. I thank you for letting me borrow it.” I pulled the shortsword from my belt and handed it to her. It was hers to begin with. “You’re welcome to travel with us.” I added, trying to offer a friendly smile even as she grimaced at me.

She eyed the weapon I held out to her, then stared at me.

“Keep it. Should your heart truly be as soft as it seems, you’ll be needing it all the more.” She remarked, refusing the blade. “But I could use whatever allies I can get. Come, the horned ones spoke of a camp nearby - someone they call “Zorru” has seen my kin.”

She quickly jumped into action, sprinting in the direction that the tieflings had wandered off towards once I had persuaded them to leave. I hoped we wouldn’t run into them again, lest they discover they’d been played for fools. I stowed the blade I could now call my own, and ran after her, beckoning the rest of the group to follow. It sounded like there was shouting up ahead…

“Keep it. Should your heart truly be as soft as it seems, you’ll be needing it all the more.” She remarked, refusing the blade. “But I could use whatever allies I can get. Come, the horned ones spoke of a camp nearby - someone they call “Zorru” has seen my kin.”
She quickly jumped into action, sprinting in the direction that the tieflings had wandered off towards once I had persuaded them to leave. I hoped we wouldn’t run into them again, lest they discover they’d been played for fools. I stowed the blade I could now call my own, and ran after her, beckoning the rest of the group to follow. It sounded like there was shouting up ahead…

Chapter 6: Within the Grove

Summary:

We come across a grove of druids under attack, housing a group of tieflings trying to make it to the city. As we speak to the locals, Gale finds it in himself to admit that he has an ailment in addition to our parasitic pals. A friendly warrior also offers his blade to us in thanks for defending the lives of so many.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

I heard a collective sigh as the swordsman with the fancy footwork slashed a finishing blow, felling the last of the goblin troupe. He certainly had a talent for battle, his form was impeccable. Although, the dramatic quips as he fought may have been a bit much. “Mess with the blade- and suffer its sting!” he had recited as he swished a rapier towards his foes. “The Blade”, hmm? I would have to find him and ask him where he learned such battle maneuvers, and where he acquired such an apt nickname.

The tieflings that stood on top of the gate shooting arrows stowed their weapons and began to raise the wooden gate to let in all those who fought off the invasion.

“Inside! Quickly! More may follow!” Called a male voice from atop the gate.

I couldn’t quite tell who it was coming from, but didn’t hesitate to lead the group into safety behind the large wooden gate. We dashed inside, and as soon as the gate slammed shut behind us, I was hit with a familiar feeling. A warm tingle, like the comfort of a beam of sunlight on the skin, but it’s effect reaching my core. It wasn’t just a stray sunbeam hitting me, it was something more.

“You COWARD!” I heard a yelling from up ahead.

I jogged toward a mature looking red Tiefling, making his outrage toward a younger human man who stood before him very apparent with his tone.

“Hey now, we just ended one fight. Must we really get into another?” I approached, trying to ease the tension between the two of them.

“Anything to say to the woman who saved your sorry tail out there?” The Tiefling remarked as I approached, the human turning to look at me with disdain in his eyes. His face was flushed with anger.

“I didn’t ask for any godsdamned help.” He muttered under his breath, teeth clenched and brows furrowed.

“You were BEGGING us to open the gate! And you let them take the druid! Unbelievable!” The Tiefling continued to rant at the human, who clearly was at his breaking point.

“Please, this is no time to be picking another fight. We need to band together if there is to be another threat.” I encouraged them to drop their grievances.

“Together? You won’t find me here a moment longer. Good luck, and good riddance.” The human said, clearly still seething. He stormed off without another word, beckoning a few other mercenaries with him.

As he and his band walked away, the Tiefling’s defensive stance shifted and his eyes were filled with gratitude.

“Aradin was never one to admit his own faults. But never mind him, It is you I have to thank for the defense of our grove here. Or- rather- the Druids’ Grove. We are merely “guests”. I’m Zevlor.” The Tiefling introduced himself politely.

“Druids’ Grove? Is there a healer amongst them?” I asked, reminded of our primary goal.

“Halsin was a most gifted healer, but it appears the goblins have him captive. You could ask his apprentice, Nettie, if she could help mend your battle wounds.” He explained. He gestured down a dirt path, suggesting she could be found deeper in the grove.

“But- be wary. The druids won’t be accepting outsiders for much longer. Myself and my own kin are to be thrown out any day now.” He explained, looking down as he spoke, ashamed and saddened by the reality.

“No outsiders? Why is that?” Gale piped up from behind me with curiosity.

“They say we are a danger, that we attract invaders- like those goblins you faced. Our fates don’t matter to them any longer, we are nothing but a pest to their leader, Kagha.”

“Sounds to me like we are in a position to bargain for you. After all, we did save the entire grove from a goblin raid.” Gale raised an eyebrow, turning to me pleased with himself. He sensed an opportunity.

“Chk!” Lae’zel remarked from behind, looking at Gale with disapproval “Use our blades to aid the weak? Those incapable of defending themselves? They are doomed to a future threat if we are to help them. Pointless.”

“These people…” Zevlor began, his voice softening and his eyes wet with sympathy. “They have been through a lot since the fall of Elturel. We didn’t bring much from home, but what we have we can offer in return for your help. We just need to buy some time.” he pleaded.

I didn’t see a need to take any more from these tieflings after they had so much stolen from them, but the promise of a reward did seem to make Lae’zel a little more inclined to assist.

“I will do what I can.” I said with a smile, Zevlor’s sad eyes glimmering with just the smallest hint of hope at my words.

With that promise I moved forward, beckoning the rest of the group further into the grove. The deeper into the grove I walked, the more the warming sensation was apparent. It was nice, calming even. I just wasn’t sure what was causing it.

We walked past many tieflings as we entered. There were several with tents set up, some of them cooking over campfires and others packing trunks with all their belongings. There were a few young tiefling children swinging daggers and shortswords at barrels and haystacks, getting pointers from the talented swordsman I had seen on the battlefield felling goblins.

“I wish to go find this… “Zorru” that I heard tell of. I will converse with these… “teeth-lings” until I speak to him.” Lae’zel said, pushing ahead of the group.

“It’s pronounced: Teef-lings, actually.” Gale piped up, pointing out her mis-pronunciation.

Chk. I know not of the vocabulary of this plane. This… Fay-run. The Astral Plane teaches one to kill or be killed and little else.” Lae’zel glared at the wizard. I saw him gulp down his fear, trying with all his might not to correct her and tell her the plane’s name was pronounced “Fay-roon”. I interjected before he dug himself an early grave with his verbose tendencies.

“Of course, you are free to look for Zorru. Astarion mentioned he had found a great location for a camp nearby. Shall we meet you there at the day’s end?” I suggested to her.

She nodded in agreement and Astarion let her know the spot he had been eye-ing. It had water, level ground, and some berry bushes that were ripe around this time of year. It sounded promising. Lae’zel split from the rest of us when I heard a commotion nearby.

“Let me through, Mragreshem, or I’ll rip your damned throat out!” An angry female voice called from up ahead. I walked swiftly towards the woman’s yell to find her and a handful of other tieflings arguing with three people in druidic garb, embellished with leaves and dyed in earth tones. There was a male half elf, a female human and a male gnome standing firmly in place, preventing the tieflings from passing.

As I approached the tense face-off, the half-elf druid muttered something under his breath and moved his hands with intention. He was casting a spell. A green glow enveloped his form and I could sense his magic. It was fresh like morning dew on a springtime flower, or a breath of newly trimmed grass. In moments, his humanoid body had vanished and in its place was an intimidating and burly brown bear.

I had never seen such a transformation occur before my eyes like that. It was certainly a feat of magical talent, to be able to alter your physical form so dramatically.

Upon the brown bear letting out a roar and baring its fangs, the tieflings backed away from the defensive band of druids. As they walked away, I approached the druids with caution.

“Oi! There is to be no trespassing, this is sacred druidic ground.” The gnome snapped at me as I got closer.

“I’m looking to speak with Kagha? Do you know where I can find her?” I asked, trying to remain cordial.

“She is pre-occupied. Who is askin’ for her?” The human said, eyeing me up and down.
“I’m Tav. I defended the grove from the goblin attack just now.” I crossed my arms as I introduced myself. They were being pretty rude considering they very well might not be standing if it weren't for myself and my compatriots.

The gnome’s ears pricked up as I introduced myself. “Oh! Uh-” he said aloud, and motioned for the human to kneel so that he could whisper in her ear. She did so.

“Hm. As busy as the archdruid is, she did ask for an audience with you if you presented yourself. Go on, she is through that stone door there. But no funny business.” She said sternly, stepping aside and letting myself and my company pass through.

As my feet touched the lush green grass that covered this lower part of the grove, a nostalgic feeling overwhelmed me. I recalled standing in the woods of the High Forest, in awe as Francesca began to cast a spell with a golden ribbon of light coming from her fingertips. The earth felt so familiar to me as I stood upon it. I could feel my entire being ground itself to nature as I stood, a sensation I hadn’t felt since I lived in the High Forest. It nearly felt as if the ground itself recognized my presence.

Soft chanting echoed throughout the mossy colosseum that made up this part of the grove as several druids stood around in a ring and performed magic. In the center of the ring was an idol, of religious origin no doubt, the magic that flowed from the hands of the casters being channeled through it. Their hand movements were very deliberate and intentional, and the light coming from their cast was a bright green. It was strange, because the appearance of the spell was not unlike the glow that came from the half elf as he transformed into a bear. However, the sensation that it gave as I felt it in the air was distinctly different. As the spell was cast by the druids in unison, a metallic taste danced across my tongue and my hands felt numb and tingly as if they had just stroked the back of a porcupine. The leaden sensation gave me a slight headache.

“Are you alright?” Gale asked, placing a hand in the middle of my back as I nearly lost balance. “You look rather pale.”

It was a lot of feeling all at once, emotional and physical all flooding my senses.

I cleared my throat, feeling it catch as I was about to respond. “Yes, fine. Kagha is in there, right?” I pointed to a door covered in runes on the other side of the casting circle.

“Let’s go.” I waved the group forward, the stone door growling as it scraped open.

On the inside was a cave structure, lit only by the flame of torches placed around the space. There were several druids inside of elven or human descent, all observing a taller red-headed woman as she looked down at a young tiefling girl with disdain and disgust in her glare.

The angered hiss of a snake echoed throughout the chamber as I caught the slithering animal baring its fangs behind the trembling young tiefling.

“Please, I’m sorry!” She exclaimed, her voice high pitched and pleading as she trembled before the druid and the snake.

One of the older druids called out, waving his hands fervently as he spoke.

“This is madness, Kagha. She’s just a-”

“A what, Rath? A thief? A poison? A threat?” Kagha interrupted, her voice brimming with anger and malice.

“I will imprison the devil. And I will cast out every stranger.” She spat, glaring at the young trembling girl.

I glanced at the snake, certain its poison would be able to kill the small child in moments if it were to strike. It was acting at its master’s command - Kagha’s command.

“Imprison her? She’s just a child!” I heard Gale exclaim, gesturing towards the tiefling girl. His tone was outraged and frustrated.

Kagha looked at the lot of us with malice in her eyes.

“Child? You mean parasite. She eats our food, drinks our water, then steals our most holy idol in thanks! Rath, lock her up. She remains here until the Rite is complete.” She ordered the older druid who contested her beforehand.

“And keep still, devil. Teela is restless.” Kagha snapped her fingers and the snake hissed loudly, moving closer to the tiefling girl with its mouth open wide. The girl shrieked and shrunk away from the angered reptile.

I was surprised to see a druid with such an intent to end a child’s life should they disobey. It was in a child’s nature to misbehave, the punishment for such an intrinsic impulse shouldn’t be death.

“A young girl is no threat. Jailing her disrupts nature’s balance, she should be alongside her family.” I sneered at Kagha, looking at her with a challenge in my eyes.

Kagha looked up at me, suspiciously. I could tell she was considering my argument against jailing the little tiefling. Even if it wasn’t right- it didn’t stop her from wanting to do it anyway.
“I hear the Treefather’s spirit in your words.” She sighed.

“Ssifisiv.” Kagha’s tongue twisted as she locked eyes with her snake, uttering a command in the viper’s native tongue.

“Teela, to me.” She said as the snake obeyed without hesitation. Kagha looked back at the young tiefling still with disdain in her eyes and reluctance to set her free.

“Out, thief. My grace has its limits.” She snarled, waving the tiefling girl towards the stone door we had walked in through.

As the girl passed by, she looked up at me gratefully mouthing the words “Thank you.” in silence, before dashing past us to the outside.

“Thank you, Kagha. Master Halsin would-” The older druid who had encouraged Kagha to step down began to express his gratitude, but Kagha interrupted.

Halsin isn’t here. Keep his name off your tongue- lest Teela pierce it.” Kagha snapped, the viper at her feet hissing threateningly.

The older druid stepped back, and neglected to speak on the matter any further. As Kagha was walking away, her snake trailing her, I stopped her.

“Kagha. You asked to see me?”

She scoffed. “You still wish to have an audience with me after that scene? Go on. Say it. You think I’m a monster.”

Her eyes seemed to challenge me. Her attitude was really starting to get on my nerves.
I met her challenging gaze. “Only a monster would threaten a child like that.” I retorted.
She practically rolled her eyes at my comment.

“I know your kind from other circles. You see only villains and victims. A viper bares her fangs defending her brood. I call her mother - you call her monster.” She spoke in a condescending tone as if all her words were fact.

“No matter, I took back the Idol of Silvanus and the rite has resumed. We will seal the grove, Free from harm and free from intruders.” She looked me up and down, as if I was unwelcome and my presence hadn’t just saved the entire grove.

It was my turn for the eye roll. Pushing past her holier-than-thou attitude, I pried further into the “rite” she spoke of.

“Is this rite druidic? I have never witnessed such magic.” I said, recalling the headache the casters had caused me as I stood outside. No magic had made me feel that… unsettled before.

“The Rite of Thorns. It is the Treefather’s gift, that none come to harm. When we speak the final prayer, the Great Vine will sprout forth. The grove will be cloaked in bramble and thorn. No one enters, no one leaves. Sanctuary.” She explained, her eyes full of promise. “None of this can happen while outlanders infect us. Silvanus demands that we choke them out.”

Her words were cruel and unforgiving. Choke them out? The refugees? They had been through so much already, to die at the hands of a bigoted druid would be a fate not representative of their sturdiness.

“Zevlor just needs more time. They want to get to Baldurs Gate- they don't want to stay here. But, with the goblins patrolling the area, they won’t make it in one piece.” I tried to explain, but I could tell my words went in one of Kagha’s pointed ears and out the other.

“We don’t have time.” She said sternly. “But you- you showed your battle prowess while defending this place. Why don’t you… escort them to their destination?” She nearly demanded rather than suggested this solution.

I would have been honored to do so, but my heart sank as I felt the tadpole swimming in my brain, sending a shiver down my spine. What happen if… if my companions and I were to transform while traveling with them? I pictured the abhorrent scenario: suddenly the lot of us would morph into mindflayers, the people they trusted to lead them to their new lives now aberrations feasting on their bodies and brains. I couldn’t let that happen, we had to find a way to get these parasites gone.

“I… I’m afraid I can’t do that.” I said, solemnity in my words.

“Well- we have reached an impasse.” Kagha didn’t budge in her position against the tieflings. I didn’t know how else to fix this other than to get these damned worms out, Zevlor did mention a healer.

“Is there a healer around? I believe her name is Nettie?” I asked Kagha, changing the subject.

“Nettie is back there, in the infirmary. Be quick, the rite is underway, you cannot stay long.” Kagha pointed to another cavernous space in the corner where I could see a short dwarven figure moving hastily back and forth.

I nodded in thanks and headed over. As we walked away, Gale nudged me, keeping his voice low as he spoke.

“That woman has more venom in her heart than a snake in its fangs!” He said with exasperation. I couldn’t have agreed more.

“At least the child is safe. What is youth if not a time to be forgiven for one’s transgressions?” He asked rhetorically.

I smiled to myself, thinking what kind of trouble he got into as a young magic user.
“Sounds like you have something to confess.” I remarked slyly, shooting him an expectant look.

He laughed. “ Ha! And you don’t? You’re wholly without vice or sin, or the occasional lapse in judgement? That can’t be - you don’t strike me as quite that boring.” He smirked. I could tell he had plenty of stories from when he was as rambunctious as the tiefling, and given time I’m sure I could recall plenty of my own as well.

“I see you, give me just a moment!” Called the dwarven woman as we walked through the threshold of the infirmary. She wore a crown of leaves on her head, indicative of her healing capabilities. She was currently preoccupied with the treatment of a young, injured blue jay who sat on a stone table in front of her. I waited patiently as she tended to the creature, chanting an incantation as a teal light escaped her fingertips. The bird chirped cheerfully.

“There. It’s up to her now, life or death.” Nettie said, happy with the improved condition of the fragile animal.

“Now, what was it you needed?” She asked, turning towards myself and my companions.

“We- I’ve - been searching for a healer.” I said. I figured I should present myself as the test subject.

Nettie looked at me, squinting her eyes as if to scrutinize my condition. “Lean a little closer? Let me have a look at you.”

I obliged and leaned toward her, kneeling slightly to get closer to her eye level.
“You seem healthy enough- a bit tired around the eyes maybe?” She said, examining me closely.

I had to stifle a smile when she mentioned my eyes. Yes… those technically were the issue I suppose…

“Hmm. Well- I suppose there’s no easy way of saying this, but I did have a tadpole inserted into those tired eyes.” I admitted, holding my breath after I said so in anticipation. I didn’t know how she might react to that fun tidbit.

“A tadpole? A mind flayer tadpole?” She said, her voice lined with shock and fear.

“Are you… familiar with them? I just want it out.” I explained, trying not to sound too desperate. But I was. We all were.

“I- I’ll do what I can. Follow me, I might have a solution in the next room.” Nettie sounded shaken, and unsure, but she offered a potential solution- so I followed her as she went to the back of the infirmary.

With a wave of her hand the back wall shimmered with a blue light and an opening presented itself. Behind the wall was another examination room with stone tables and a bookshelf of what appeared to be research notes and books on anatomy and first aid.

Nettie shuffled inside, grimacing at the cadaver that was on a nearby table.

“This one had the same problem as you. He attacked us while we were in the woods. After he fell, a tadpole crawled out of his head” She gestured to the body of a drow, splayed out on the table with minimal clothing. She then preoccupied herself shifting through bottles and herbs.
“He and I had the same kind of parasite? I didn’t think this was a common experience.” I said, slightly surprised. Then again, myself and my companions were all on that ship together - and that was only one of what must be many nautiloids.

She turned back to me, a plant in her hand.

“They’re rather too common as of late. At least that’s what master Halsin suspected. A pity you got me instead of him, He understands these things - studied them. Still- we have options.” She said, raising the plant in her hand.

“Thank you. I’ll take anything if you think it will help.” I said, optimistic at the idea she may have a solution to all this.

“Of course. Now, can you tell me a bit more about what’s been happening? Any symptoms or strange events?” She asked.

I thought back to the hideous feeling of the worm squirming in my head when I had met Lae’zel on the ship.

I can recognize anyone else who is infected, our brains seem to… communicate.” I tried to explain the sensation the best I could to Nettie. It was a strange feeling to try to convey.

“Victims can identify each other? Curious. How did you pick up the parasite in the first place? Halsin was desperate to find out where they were all coming from.” Nettie asked, prying further into the origins of my predicament.

“I was abducted onto a mind flayer ship, that's where they performed the procedure.” I shuddered recalling it.

“A mind flayer ship?” Surprise was evident in Nettie’s voice. “But Master Halsin was sure…” She spoke softer, as if the statement was intended for herself but her own shock had let it slip. She took a deep breath.

“Look- you’ve been straight with me, so I’ll be straight with you. You are dangerous. If you transform here, the entire grove is dead. But you seem like a good soul- so I can give you a chance to save yourself.” She took out a vial from a leather hide pouch on her hip and held it out to me.

“This is a vial of Wyvern Poison. Swear to me you will swallow it if you feel any symptoms.” She said sternly, holding eye contact with me as she spoke.

“Poison?” I asked, confused. “I thought you could heal me?”

“The thorn?” She asked, holding up the plant once more. Her face shifted to one of shame and guilt. “It’s coated in a fatal toxin. It was a last resort… You never know who you can trust these days.” She tried to justify her actions, but she knew deep down that her mentor wouldn’t have approved of such a grave solution.

“I don’t have a cure… only a way out.” She said, her eyes somber and apologetic. “Now, I will tell you everything I know about these things as soon as you give me your word you will take this vial and use it if necessary.” She held up the vial again, the unnaturally green liquid reflecting in the dim torchlight.

I blinked back the fear that gathered in my throat. “I swear.” I forced myself to agree, and took the bottle from her outstretched palm. Gods, I didn’t want to die. But I suppose a final draught is better than ceremorphosis. “It is to be avoided. Gale’s stern words echoed in my mind.

“I pray to Silvanus that it doesn't come to that- but thank you.” A wave of relief was evident on Nettie’s face.

“I’ve spent my life treating folk and never once saw a mind flayer infection. Now, suddenly, there’s dozens of you- maybe more. Master Halsin and I were tracking them, studying them. We were trying to figure out what the hells was going on.” Nettie began to tell all. “You should all be changing! There should be an army of mind flayers crawling around these woods, but weird powers aside, you seem perfectly normal.”

“What else have you found out about these things during your research?” I asked. My companions were dead quiet, all listening to the information Nettie had gathered. Little did she know we were all afflicted.

“For one, that thing in your head is like nothing we have ever seen from mind flayers. It’s definitely one of their worms- but this one gives you powers- telepathic connections and doesn’t turn you into one of them. Not yet, anyhow.” My heart sank at the lack of optimism in her tone.

“So… you think it’s only a matter of time, then?” I clarified, knowing I wouldn’t like the answer.

“Could be. But there’s still a lot we don’t know. Folks afflicted with the tadpoles have been converging on an old temple of Selune-and I’ve no idea why.” She explained. “When Master Halsin heard Aradin and his lot were heading that way, he saw a chance to get answers and joined them on the spot. But… he didn’t make it back.”

She was upset, obviously caring for Halsin quite a lot. He was her mentor, her research partner. I could tell they had been through a lot together.

“Is he alive? Maybe I could… look for him?” I said, trying to offer what bit of optimism I could. If Halsin could help us - of course we would want to find him. He sounded like a wealth of knowledge.

“I think he is alive. I hope he is. I have sent birds to find him but they can’t get close with those damned goblins trying to shoot them down. But you’re one of them. Technically speaking, I mean. They won’t kill someone carrying their own parasite.” Nettie’s eyes were alight with hope at the idea of Halsin returning. “He could save your life.” She added, as if to say ‘Pretty please?

“Alright. I’ll find him.” I said, with a confidence in my voice that even surprised myself.
“Thank you. It would mean everything to the grove. To me.” Her voice was hopeful and desperate at the same time. Halsin was our only hope, now.

Nettie was kind enough to offer some health potions for our journey, and we headed out of the inner sanctum of the grove and back towards the gate where the goblins had raided. As we were walking through, past the tents of the Tiefling refugees, Gale tugged at my sleeve.

I turned towards him, surprised to see his face twisted with anger- he looked like he had been meaning to say something but had held it in this long.

“I frankly, can’t believe we are helping that healer. She nearly poisoned you! She could have put you down like a dying dog- without so much as a whisper of consent!” He spoke quickly, exasperation and frustration in every syllable.

“But she didn’t, Gale. She thought it would have been the right thing to do.” I tried to defend her- she did spare us after all.

“Right?! She had no right!” Gale exclaimed, his anger evident. He was gathering some strange looks from the passing tieflings.

“Gale, there’s really no harm done. I’m fine.” I spoke in quiet tones, trying to calm him from his escalated emotional state.

His voice was still loud, laced with frustration, but quieted as he continued. “I know! I know you are - and yet, a few moments more, a few different words spoken… and had it been me… Had it been…” As Gale spoke I watched his skin grow pale.

His breath quickened and he couldn’t seem to get enough air into his lungs. His gaze was disconnected and lost for a split second before he looked at me directly. He was scared of something.

“Gale are you alright?” I was concerned by the rapid pace at which his state became altered.

“Could we… take a break? I just need…” His voice was strained, sweat beading on his brow. He looked like he was going to be sick. “Just a few moments of rest.” He pleaded.

I grabbed one of his arms, trying to keep him balanced as he swayed with illness. I turned to Shadowheart and Astarion, who looked on in surprise.

“Please, both of you feel free to check the merchants for any supplies we may need. There’s a druid to be found.” I dug some gold from my pocket and handed it to each of them.

“Of course, We’ll be back later.” Shadowheart nodded before heading off. She shot a suspicious glance at Gale before leaving, dragging Astarion behind her.

“Look, don’t touch.” Astarion snapped at Shadowheart, swatting her hand away after she had grabbed him by the arm. They were a handful.

I guided Gale to a nearby rock where he could sit and catch his breath. A few oxen were grazing beside us, their warm, brown eyes were glossy with innocence. Their presence was comforting.

Gale took a moment to regain his composure, straightening his spine and looking at me, a serious tone in his voice and fear in his eyes. “I need to talk to you about something… well something rather important.” He began.

“You’ve demonstrated remarkable guile and courage while we have traveled together. The way you diffused the tension between Zevlor and Aradin. The way you got Kagha to release the girl. In short: I’ve grown to trust you a great deal.” Gale’s tendency to be long-winded didn’t cease even when he was short of breath it seemed.

“Thank you, Gale. That’s very gratifying to hear.” I said, very flattered by his compliment but still unsure where he was going with this… We had only met yesterday.

“The reason I make a point of saying this is that I’ve grown confident enough to tell you something that I’ve yet to tell another living soul. Well- except for my cat.” His voice caught before he began to explain further.

In the split second it took for him to continue, my mind raced with fear and concern. What could he possibly be hiding? The idea he hadn’t come forward with it beforehand stung a little, in all honesty.

“You see, I have this… condition. It’s very different from the parasite we share, but just as deadly.” He explained, a hint of shame in his voice.

“Could I… help you in treatment?” I asked, concerned for his health. I had just seen his well-being deteriorate and recover in a very short amount of time and I was worried for him.

“Thank you for the offer, but the treatment for my condition is rather specific. But suffice it to say that it is a malady that I have learned to live with - though not without some effort. What it comes down to is this: every so often I need to get my hands on a powerful magical item- and absorb the Weave inside.” He explained. Out of all the possibilities that whirled around in my head when he began the conversation, this was not one I had imagined.

“What kind of items, exactly?” I asked, wondering how best to address this “need for Weave”.

“The form doesn’t matter. It could be a Staff, a Tome, a Cowl, so long as it’s brimming with Weave. It’s been days since I last consumed an artifact- since before we were abducted. It’s only a matter of time before my craving returns.” Gale elaborated. “That is why I turn to you. I need you to help me find magic items to consume. It is vital- Dare I say it- critical.”

My mind raced. He needed magic items? I wasn’t even sure where we were right now let alone where we could find the specific artifacts he needed. But at this point, I didn’t think we had much of a choice.

“Of course I’ll help, Gale. Whatever you need - we will find it.” I tried to reassure him. I saw the fear in his eyes slip away, replaced with gratitude and relief.

“If it’s any comfort, I’m sure we won’t have to look very far to find what I need: Faerun overflows with magic-infused treasure. But I hope I can count on you - thank you.” Gale said with an exhale, releasing the tension from his body all at once.

I smiled at him, glad to see the color return to his skin as he stood from the stone where we had been resting. A nervous tightening panged in my stomach. I hoped he could count on me, too.

It wasn’t long before Astarion and Shadowheart had returned, with a few new potions and weapons in hand. They looked prepared for the next battle ahead.

Gale piped up cheerfully, now full of vigor and his usual wit: “Why don’t we find that chap Halsin that little miss “Poison Ivy” mentioned? With a bit of luck maybe he has the means to offer a cure rather than a coffin.”

I let out a soft chuckle, and off we went. My thoughts wandered to Gale’s condition, the origin of which I was curious to know. I had never heard of a need to consume the enchantments of items, but the ailment seemed to affect Gale quite significantly. I found myself hoping I could help him, and hoping I could prove trustworthy enough that he might confide in me how exactly he came to find himself in such a situation.

As the three of us were making our way past the tiefling refugees, a familiar voice called out.

“You, there! The protectors of the grove!” a male voice shouted. I whipped my head around to see the young man I saw earlier, felling goblins with flair.

“I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce myself before you left!” he called out, running over to us as we stopped in our tracks. His voice was proud but his tone was polite and kind as he addressed us.

“I, as well as the rest of the grove, appreciate what you did for us when the goblins attacked. My name is Wyll.” He said, outstretching his palm for a handshake.

I was about to raise my hand to reciprocate his proper introduction, when a familiar itch began in my temple, and I felt a squirming in my skull. I winced, shutting my eyes tight as if it might offer some relief from the hideous sensation, but to no avail.

Suddenly, my thoughts were flooded with memories that were not my own. I recognized them as belonging to Wyll. I momentarily gained his familiarity with a rapier, his skill for defeating various monsters and memorizing their weaknesses. “The Blade of Frontiers” the title echoed in his mind and spilled over into my own. A vision of him racing through the depths of Avernus, speeding towards a diabolical figure with red skin and a single curled horn. Her whole body was ablaze with flame as she held a bloodied greataxe above her, poised to strike at the enemies that flanked her on either side. It was a vivid memory, but I was suddenly yanked out of it as Wyll fought to regain control of his social butterfly of a parasite. We had found yet another victim of the Mind Flayers’ vile plot.

“Hell’s great fires. You were on the ship.” he gasped, his eyes widening. As he looked at me in surprise, I noticed the distinctly unnatural gray color of his right pupil. It was a stark contrast to the rich dark brown of his left eye.

Before I could manage a response, I felt our tadpoles connect once again, our minds intertwining despite any protest either of us might have had. Once again I was presented with a vision of the red-skinned warrior, her entire being ignited with rancor. She is an infernal wardevil - a threat to the living. Evil incarnate.

“sh*t!” Wyll exclaimed, reeling back his tadpole and cursing it’s inability to withhold itself. “... you saw her. Advocatus Diaboli.

“Devil’s Advocate…” Gale said softly, almost in a whisper as he translated the term. I couldn’t tell if he was mumbling the term to himself or translating for the group, but nonetheless I was glad I heard him.

Wyll sighed, no longer seeing the point in remaining quiet about the secrets his tadpole so willingly surrendered.

“Her name is Karlach - an archdevil soldier I swore on my good eye to kill. I tracked her through the hells to the mind flayer ship, but those damned illithids infected me before I could get to her. She’s out there now - preying on the innocent. I don’t kill her - she’ll leave behind nothing but a trail of corpses.” He explained, his tone dead serious and his intention crystal clear. He meant to end this threat at any cost.

“Well, seeing as though you are infected like the lot of us, what say you to traveling together for the time being?” Shadowheart asked him, extending a proverbial hand in friendship. It seemed a little out of character for her, but I didn’t protest. Having someone as skilled in combat as him fighting with us rather than against us was preferable to say the least.

He squinted in suspicion at Shadowheart and the rest of the group, weighing the options set before him.

“Well- I’m oathbound to go after Karlach. She is my first priority. But… it’s an unfortunate truth that this parasite is proving bothersome. I suppose misery loves company.” Wyll said after some consideration, shaking Shadowheart’s hand with a smile.

“Happy to have you aboard, Blade of Frontiers!” Gale said excitedly, reaching out a friendly hand so that he might introduce himself next.

Wyll laughed lightly. “My reputation precedes me, it seems.”

“Why, it is an honor to travel with the fighter so renowned for defending the lives of the innocent. A pleasure to meet you.” Gale said formally. It appeared Wyll was a household name, or at least, his other name was.

“However did you decide upon that name?” Astarion asked, finally showing a bit of interest in our newest companion.

Wyll grinned and took in a breath, preparing to tell the story he had likely told a thousand times before, enthralling us as we all made our way to seek out the missing druid together.

Notes:

Between now and the next chapter, we are going to assume the gang has encountered the mysterious skeleton-man who identifies himself as "Withers". They don't know much about him, he has little to say other than cryptic riddles of olde, smells kinda weird, and won't leave their camp...

Oh well.

Chapter 7: Rescuing the Druid

Summary:

We find ourselves in the depths of a temple infested with goblin cultists. Among them, a powerful healer has been captured and we come to his aid. Gale also exhibits some rather startling symptoms of his ailment. What is he hiding from us?

Chapter Text

I recoiled as the Worg’s pungent breath assaulted my face, saliva dripping from its open maw. It took the opportunity to attack as I turned my head from its grotesque scent, charging at me and knocking me to the ground. It loomed over my body as I hit the cold stone flooring of the prison, snarling at me aggressively and using its massive form to pin me to the ground.

“Free now. You are… snack.” The worg’s deep growl of a voice echoed in my head, startling me. First the bear speaks to me, now the worg? My eyes widened as it raised a clawed limb, primed to slash at my chest and tear open my vital organs.

“Dis Tonitru!” A voice boomed from another side of the room. Suddenly, the Worg was a blur of matted fur that flew across the room, leaving me free to stand on my own two feet once again. As I looked to see the source of the spell, I wasn’t surprised to see Gale, his chest heaving as he held his hands out in front of him. Corpses of felled goblins littered the ground on that side of the room, Shadowheart and Astarion standing over them with their weapons coated in blood.

The Worg was the last enemy standing. I refocused my attention to the beast as it stumbled back to its feet, limping on one leg from the damage done by Gale’s thunderwave. The cast had thrown it into a table and chairs that collapsed under its weight, the wood splintering and impaling a hind leg.

I paused for a moment to assess it’s weaknesses as it moved toward me, gripping my shortsword with white knuckles as I prepared my muscles for a swinging, striking motion. I grimaced as the wounded animal struggled to stand- It deserved a better fate, but the fact that it nearly killed me couldn’t be changed. It threatened our lives as it lived, so we had no choice but to kill it.

I felt a whoosh of air past my pointed ear as an arrow whipped by me. The projectile struck the hind of the worg with a thunk. It yelped, and with two hind legs unable to bear weight, it collapsed onto the ground, now soaking with blood. It was still breathing, wheezing as it inhaled, but its eyes glared with a malice and a bloodthirst that was undeniable. It held no remorse for its actions, or the actions of the goblins that retained it.

I approached the collapsed animal with my sword in hand, closing my eyes as I drove the blade into its chest in one swift motion. It’s wheezing slowed to a stop, and I exhaled, not even realizing I had been holding my breath.

The rest of the party caught their breath too, Shadowheart and Gale looking particularly relieved that the battle was over and had been won. Astarion knelt at the gate of the prison cell, his fingers deftly picking at the lock. The bear that was trapped inside the cell grunted in thanks as Astarion dutifully worked on the door.

“Remind me again why we trust this bear not to attack us like the Worgs did?” Astarion said, hesitating as he continued to rifle through the lock with his set of picks.

“Well, we did prevent any more stones from being thrown at it. And it… well it told me it wouldn’t hurt us if we helped.” I explained, hardly believing my own words. That was the first time I had ever… understood an animal. It was as if the bear had whispered in my ear, their message was so clear.

“Hm, of course. What a very normal thing for a bear to say. And for you to understand his ursine language… what a treat.” Astarion said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. He was suspicious of me.

I felt embarrassment creep up my face. I hadn’t been making up stories like a child! The bear really did communicate with me, but I was the only one who seemed to have heard it’s voice. A deep, gravelly voice it had, too. Before I could defend myself, the lock on the prison door clicked, and the gate opened. Astarion had to dodge out of the way as the heavy iron bars swung towards him. I could see the ears of the bear inside prick up as it heard the lock break. It excitedly barrelled out of it’s confinement as the door opened, beelining towards me. I could see it’s golden eyes look into mine as its massive form stood nearly matching my height. It has stopped at my feet to look right at me. I expected it to speak to me again, but there was silence for a moment. My companions all looked on at the face-off, unsure what to make of it.

Suddenly, a bright green light surrounded the brown bear. The scent of fresh spring grasses and greenery filled the air, masking the metallic scent of blood and the stink of goblins. Before I could even realize what was happening, the bear’s towering form dissolved, leaving in its wake an equally sizable elven druid.

The look on my face must have given away my surprise at the transformation as the elf stood before me. Although, considering I was able to understand its language, it made more sense now that it was an elf in disguise than a wild grizzly. The muscled man that stood before us wore druidic armor, bearing the symbol of Silvanus across his broad chest and leafy pauldrons on his sturdy shoulders. The leather that made up his armor was etched with details of vines and branches. Such elaborate leatherwork translated that he was of rather great importance to his circle.

He cleared his throat, his deep voice thrummed like a drum beat in the echo-ey chamber. He looked down to the goblin corpses that surrounded him, crinkling his nose.

“Pardon the viscera. One should cherish all of Nature’s bounty but goblin guts are far, far down the list.” The druid dusted himself off before looking at me with gratitude in his gaze. “You aided a bear without knowing if it would savage you!” He smiled, laughing whole-heartedly. “A true friend of nature! Or- perhaps a lunatic. Either way, I owe you all my thanks. I am the druid, Halsin.” He introduced himself, placing a hand over his chest formally.

Any nerves I had in his presence settled when he spoke his name. This was the renowned healer that Nettie spoke so highly of.

“The archdruid, Halsin?” I asked, just to be sure.

He laughed again, a resounding joy in the tone of his voice as he did so. It was an infectious sound, warm and inviting like a steaming cup of tea.

“Yes- but just Halsin will suffice. Unbecoming to demand honorifics from the one who saved my hide.” Before I could manage to introduce myself or my companions, He squinted at me quizzically.

“That look in your eyes… I’ve seen it before. Are you feeling alright?” He asked, holding his hand out. His palm glowed with a yellow light, and as it grew in intensity I could feel its warmth like a ray of sunshine. I could taste the faintest flavor of cinnamon and clove grace my tongue as he pointed his palm towards me and closed his eyes to focus on the spell. I winced and closed my eyes, the bright light of the magic he had cast too harsh to look at directly.

Halsin’s body bristled in surprise, his eyes shooting open as the magic in his hands ceased glowing. He looked at me with a fear and a sympathy in his gaze that unsettled me.

“Oak Father preserve you, child. You’re infected, aren’t you? The mind flayer’s spawn… but something’s different. You’re aware of the monster inside you- you don’t bow to the Absolute like the “True Souls” do. How is this possible?” He asked, his astonishment almost leaving him out of breath.

“I suppose we’ve just had good fortune.” Astarion chirped in a mildly sarcastic manner. We had been lucky in some sense, but in others we’ve been rather devoid of Tymora’s grace.

Halsin let out a chuckle. “Perhaps… but I wouldn’t want to place all my faith in blind luck. It’s no coincidence that you found me here I’ll wager? You’re after a cure for this parasite. I’ve been studying these parasites for a while now. Ever since I discovered these so called “True Souls” are infected with them. Someone is using very powerful magic to modify these tadpoles. They are using them to exert control over the infected. I’m sorry to say… I can’t undo that magic- which means I can’t cure you. But that doesn’t mean I can’t help.”

“So you aren’t able to… extract them?” Gale asked from behind me.

“Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to remove the parasites without triggering ceremorphosis. Any attempt risks turning the victim into a mindflayer…” Halsin replied, obviously upset he had little else to offer but bad news on that front. “However, while I didn’t find what I came here for - a way to remove the tadpoles- I did find the next best thing. I found out where they come from. That must be where these enchantments are placed on them and it’s where you’ll find your cure.”

“Well, where are we headed next, then?” Shadowheart asked, eager to learn of out next destination.

“I overheard that the cultists are sending all their captives to Moonrise Towers. Innocents go in, True Souls come out. Given that all of these True Souls are infected, it has to be the source for this magic.”

“Well, you seem to be the closest we’ve come to an expert on this. Would you… be able to accompany us to Moonrise?” I asked him, still processing the plethora of information he provided us.

Halsin grimaced. “I wish I could- but there’s still work I’ve yet to finish. Blood I’ve yet to spill.” His golden eyes darkened as he looked toward the door to the prison. Beyond it stood dozens more goblins infected and with the will to serve the Absolute cult.

“I’ve no right to ask more of you, but if you could help me, I’d be free to join your journey to Moonrise. I cannot allow these butchers to threaten my grove. The natural order must be protected.” He continued, assessing us as to estimate how we’d handle ourselves against such a threat. We had proven capable enough to handle the prison guards- but past that door were much more formidable foes, not to mention a greater number of them.

Astarion twirled a dagger with the tips of his fingers expertly as he looked up at Halsin. “I suppose we could slice up a few more goblins… sounds rather fun, actually.” He said greedily.

I looked to Gale and Shadowheart, who seemed a bit more hesitant.

“Is the only solution really violence? Goblins don’t come by the handfuls- they come by the hundreds. To make an enemy of one is to make an enemy of all.” Gale’s voice was unsure of our next steps.

I took a moment to consider the options. We could go to the towers without Halsin, but we would also be leaving the entire druids grove open to the threat of the goblin camp. Not to mention- we would be absent of Halsin’s directions to the tower, and his extensive knowledge on mind flayer parasites. He was particularly formidable himself, especially for an elf, but to fight all of the camp on his own would be perilous, even if he were to assume his bear form.

“We will help you, Halsin.” I said, my mind made up.

His golden eyes regained their brightness at my words, warm like sunlight. “My thanks. If you prevail, I’ll owe you the debt of a lifetime. Rare is the beast that survives decapitation- help me eliminate the drow Minthara, the hobgoblin Dror Ragzlin, and that perversion of a priestess, Gut. They are the ones holding these parasites together. Remove them and nature will cure itself.” He said, disgust evident on his face as he spoke the leaders names. I recognized them, however. As we snuck into the camp and posed as cult members, they were the three names on everyone’s tongues. The ones to go to for leadership, for instruction, and for purpose. They most certainly held power in their standing if not physically. But I had a feeling they had both.

“Will you be joining us?” Shadowheart asked Halsin, and in the way her tone of voice turned upwards in her question, she had almost sounded… flirtatious.

“If you’ll have me, I’d be happy to lend a hand- or better yet- a claw.” He said with a sly grin. I raised an eyebrow and nodded, eager to have such a powerful ally beside us.

“May Silvanus guide us!” He called, pressing a closed hand over his heart. In moments, a familiar green glow surrounded him as a cave bear with his same golden eyes took his place before us.

“GODS, Spare me!” Gale cried in pain, his voice echoing as he suddenly clutched his chest in agony. He hunched over, stumbling as he tried to make his way towards me but his legs refused to carry him. I rushed to his side, offering a shoulder for him to lean on in order to stand straight.

“By Mystra’s mantle, it came on fast. I hadn’t suspected it would…” He began, too distracted by the pain to finish his thought. He was short of breath, his face slick with sweat as if he had caught a deadly fever in a matter of seconds.

“What’s happening? Are you alright, Gale?” Shadowheart asked as she and Astarion looked on in horror and confusion.

I shook my head, understanding this was the ailment that Gale told me about when we had left Nettie. There wasn’t enough time to explain, but I knew what had to be done.

“Astarion, have you got that… ring from the co*cky goblin in the courtyard? The one who told you to kiss his feet?” I asked him, frantically trying to recall the item in question.

“Hm? Wh- yes. I do. I killed him in front of his colleagues to prove a point and took the ring as a trophy.” He said proudly, rubbing the gold band on his hand.

“Please. Give it to me.” I begged, neglecting to explain why. He furrowed his brow, looking appalled that I would demand such a thing from him. He looked like he was about to decline when I shot him a look of pure desperation. He rolled his eyes and caved. He slid the ring from his finger and placed it in my open palm with a grimace.

I proceeded to give it to Gale, who was able to take a deep breath in and steady himself as soon as he held it in his grasp. The swirling mark that climbed up his neck began to glow a vibrant purple. A faint bitterness scurried across my taste buds as he took the ring and pressed it to his heart. As the artifact brushed against his skin, the faint glowing grew into a bright flash, the light originating from the center of his chest beneath his robe. I instinctively reached out towards the origin of the light, pulling down the tunic he wore beneath his mantle and revealing an extension of the marks that trickled down from his eye and past his jaw. There in the center of his chest was a tattoo of a circle, enveloped in wispy, smoky lines that were strewn out in all directions.

Gale managed to regain his composure after consuming the weave from the ring, quickly tugging back on the tunic I had shifted out of the way and looking at me sternly. I drew my hand back from his chest, my stomach sinking with the feeling I had been scolded like a child who had misbehaved. I had crossed a boundary unintentionally.

“Wha- my ring!” Astarion exclaimed, watching as the band dissolved into the air between Gale’s fingers. “You best have a good explanation for this.” He snapped.

Gale caught his breath and proceeded to recount exactly what he had shared with me at the grove earlier, adding no further detail than he had before. The majority of what concerned his ailment was still held close to his chest, apparently both figuratively and literally. The way the mark on his upper body pulsed with light meant it certainly had something to do with his condition, but how it was related I wasn’t sure. Nobody else among the group had seen it aside from me, amidst all the fuss.

Looking at the marking, I was reminded of the magic tattoos I would often see soldiers at the Academy enroll with. They appeared like normal works of art etched into the skin, but with the right incantation, they were able to unleash the magic of an entire spell that was fused into the ink. It was a useful asset for a non-magic user to have if they were able to control it - allowing a unique edge in battle. For a long time, I considered getting one myself in order to fool my parents that I had finally been able spellcast. However, while looking further into it I learned they weren’t distributed in a “legal” manner, most of them applied in the more unsavory parts of Faerun by individuals whose identities remained secret. That was enough to deter me from investigating the possibility any further.

“Well, a shame we have to lose such valuable artifacts. They could prove useful in our hands against such threats as these.” Shadowheart remarked, gesturing around us to the goblin infested temple.

“I assure you-” Gale started. “Having a wizard in good health amongst you is a far greater asset than any trinket we may come across. I appreciate your sacrifices and will strive to be a valuable magical artifact in my own right.”

Astarion crossed his arms, still longing for the gold band he had earned so flagrantly in battle.

“I will get you another enchanted ring, Astarion. The first one I find will be yours.” I promised him in an attempt to sate his needs. He huffed.

“Fine. But next time you ask me for something, I expect you to borrow it, not consume it!” He said, still aggravated at the loss.

Halsin, still in his bear form, wasn’t able to contribute much to the situation other than look on in curiosity and bewilderment. He called out in an urgent growl, encouraging us to get a move on and strike at the goblins that were just beyond the walls of the prison.

“The sooner we start, the sooner we finish.” I said, drawing my weapon from my back. My companions followed, all of them standing tall now- weapons in hand and magic at the ready. This was going to take a while...

Chapter 8: The Rogue's Secret

Summary:

Astarion exhibits some strange behavior as we all try to get some sleep after a hard fought battle. We also get "assistance" from another victim of the goblins before meeting our new druid friend at the grove.

Chapter Text

The battles were hard fought, leaving us sweaty and exhausted. I could see the light dim from Gale’s eyes as his magic fizzled from his palms. That last spell he cast had really drained him. The five of us looked on at the drow we had just felled in battle, her brow still furrowed with anger, even in death. I shuddered, recalling the cold hand of her tadpole as it caressed my brain upon meeting her. Her voice echoed in my mind, as icy as the grip of death:

“I know you have what I seek, Darthirr. Reveal it to me, lest I extract it from your very cerebrum myself.” She had threatened.

Her intentions were as dark as a Sharran temple, her innermost evil thoughts spilled into my brain when her tadpole took hold of it. She caught wind of my anxieties and could sense I was aware of the artifact’s location… and of the grove’s location. For a moment she had in her chilled fingers the solution to the puzzle she had been dancing around the entire time… until Halsin’s claws rained down on her backside. It was a relief we had been able to defeat her, as her shouts garnered attention from adjacent rooms full of devout goblin cultists. To say it was a challenge was an understatement- but it was over.

We looked around, surveying the crumbling temple to see if we had missed any particularly sneaky enemies in our wake of destruction. It was eerily quiet now, only the crackling of torches and bonfires echoed within the temple walls. No rowdy whoops or hollers from any goblin gangs.

I smelled fresh clover and dandelions as Halsin’s cave bear form glowed with a green light that illuminated us all. His elven form stood tall beside us in a matter of moments, bearing a grin as wide as the Chionthar.

“We did it! We actually did it. The leaders dead. Praise Silvanus.” he said, gasping for breath as he acclimated to his new form. “No- that’s not right- praise you, my friend. The grove owes you a debt beyond measure. Killing’s never my first choice, but those three were too dangerous to leave alive.”

“Can I count on your help now, Halsin?” I asked, optimistic at the thought of him joining our band now that I had seen his proficient combat skills.

“You can. And you will receive it soon enough. Return to the grove, I will make my own way there. I need to see to some matters within and then we can discuss what comes next amidst more… bucolic surroundings than here.” He said with a grin.

I nodded, agreeing to meet him back at the grove. But first- the lot of us could really use a rest. The sun was hanging low in the sky, now. The cracks in the ceiling of the temple let the golden light come through, evidence of the significant time we had spent felling the troops of goblins.

“I will expect you in the morning. And- thank you, again.” Halsin said, seeing the sleepiness take over my body. I gave him a smile, trying hard to keep my eyelids from drooping.

In a flash, Halsin once again cast Wild Shape- this time to assume the small and speedy form of a rat to make his escape unassuming. It was quite a clever getaway plan.

“Alright fearless leader, before you topple over, let's get back to camp.” Shadowheart said, rushing to my side. She took initiative to ensure my unstable footsteps were making proper footfalls as we found an escape from the temple and avoided the rowdy, drunken goblins in the courtyard. It wouldn’t be long before they all fell to the poison that Astarion had snuck into their basin of grog.

Upon reaching the campground, I yearned for nothing more than my own bedroll. Gale had enough energy within him to roast sausage links over the open fire for the camp. As he handed them out to everyone, I accepted the food in a daze, not quite sure of my own hunger. I sat on a log by the campfire, staring into the flame in a haze as I focused on chewing my food thoroughly to avoid choking. I was truly struggling to stay awake.

“Ah! My good fellow!” A far too enthusiastic voice boomed as the familiar visage of Volo plopped himself on the log beside me. He too, snacked on a roasted sausage courtesy of Gale. I had almost forgotten I had given him directions to our camp after I managed to unlock the cage the goblins had him cooped up in. I was glad Lae’zel neglected to slice him to ribbons upon his arrival- I hadn’t told her to expect company.

“Quite the cosy set-up you have here. I’ll make myself comfortable- thank you so much.” He said gratefully, forgetting his manners as he spoke while chewing. He swallowed before continuing, opening up a book filled with scribbles and sketches of his own making.

“I was just settling in and reviewing my latest findings - Mind flayers, cultists, and of course - your esteemed company!” He said, pointing to his crude sketches of tentacled monsters and toothy illithid larvae.

“What do you know of mind flayers?” Lae’zel’s voice came from somewhere nearby, suspicious of the legitimacy of Volo’s studies. Considering the tall tales he had made of our encounter with the goblins at the grove- she had every right to suspect him of falsifying his research.

“Why, I’m practically an expert. They’ve tentacles, you know. Quite shocking. The druid Halsin had some kind of mind flayer specimen in a jar in his quarters. A replica- no doubt, but truly fascinating to see up close.” Volo continued, brimming with the confidence of an established scholar.

I couldn’t hold back my scoff at his assumption that Halsin’s specimen was a replica. Even in my sleepy stupor, I was tempted to pick Volo’s brain about how much he really knew of illithids, considering we had all fought them face to face and been infected.

“Do you know much about their parasites, Volo?” I managed to ask without slurring my words.

“As a matter of fact, I do. But why do you?” He asked, looking at me confused, taking another bite of his sausage.

I laughed at his question. “I’ve got one of their larvae in my brain as we speak.” I said, hardly even thinking about the consequences that may follow admitting to such an ailment. I looked up from the fire to see some of my companions looking on in shock, some of them poised to strike should Volo attack me while I’m vulnerable. I hadn’t considered the fact that the larvae made me a potential threat.

“That- that’s quite impossible. You’d have undergone ceremorphosis by now.” Volo said matter-of-factly. I saw the tension in the eyes of my companions settle at his conclusion.

“Of course. Impossible.” I said, shaking my head and returning my focus to the dancing flames of the campfire.

After a moment of silence, Volo’s innate curiosity got the better of him as he asked:
“Still… there would be no harm in my taking a teensy look, would there? I know all the signs. I would just peer in your eye… may I?”

I took a deep breath, looking to my companions as I considered his offer. They looked on, some of their eyes full of fear and others full of… curiosity.

“What the hells, have at it.” I said with a shrug, taking a final bite of my sausage before lying down on the log so that Volo could have a proper look into my eye.

“Oh… my…dear…sweet…GODS!” He exclaimed, examining my eye socket.

“Can you get rid of it?” I asked, neglecting to sugar coat my words. If he could end this nightmare, by all means, he was welcome to.

“Hmm, if we managed it, we’d have a specimen of incredible rarity on our hands. I’ll need to research the particulars, however. Give me a bit of time and I’ll have this little issue sorted.” Volo said with remarkable assurance.

I sat up as he started scribbling in his journal again, no doubt recording all the “symptoms” I was showing of ceremorphosis. He could write whatever he wanted about me if he managed to get rid of this damned parasite.

I thanked Gale for the meal and waved a polite goodnight to my companions without saying another word. That night I practically tripped to my tent and fell into the warmth of my bedroll. Sleep took me like a devil takes a mortal soul- without remorse. Only the gods know how I managed to awaken to the sound of soft footsteps creeping into my tent.

My eyes fluttered open, and I jolted upright at the feeling of hot breath on my neck and the flash of white hair in the dark. Astarion knelt at my side, leaning in close to me.

“... sh*t.” He said as he met my gaze.

I shuffled away from him, pawing behind me for my dagger. What the hells was he doing in my tent getting so godsdamned close while I was sleeping?

“No, no- It’s not what it looks like, I swear!” He said, holding his hands up in surrender. “I wasn’t going to hurt you or anything! I just… I needed… well I needed blood.” He said, laying it all in the open.

In that moment it was evident he was telling the truth. Even in the black of night, my darkvision allowed me to pick up on the pearliness of his pointed fangs and the deep crimson of his eyes. He was not just a particularly pale elf- he was a vampire. A slave to sanguine hunger. I was grateful I had gotten enough shut eye to gather my senses, my thoughts swimming with questions.

“How… how long has it been? Since you killed someone?” I asked, impulsively reaching a hand to my throat to feel for any puncture wounds. There was nothing.

“I’ve never killed anyone!” Astarion said, sounding as if I had offended him. I scoffed at his remark and he rolled his eyes. “Not for food- I mean!” He clarified- a little annoyed.

“I feed on animals- Bears, deer, kobolds. Whatever I can get. But it’s not enough. Not if I have to fight. I feel so weak- if I just had a little blood, I could think clearer. Fight better. Please.” He begged.

His voice was weak and his body slumped. That last fight had taken a lot out of us all- the goblins just kept coming in droves- refusing us even a moment of respite until there were none left. In a last ditch effort, I felt Astarion’s tadpole tug on my own, his secrets half-revealed and his true identity exposed to the inner workings of my mind. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t believe him- I did- but why hadn’t he told me sooner?

“Why keep it a secret?” I asked him, dropping the dagger I was gripping in one hand. I had no intention of initiating a fight over this.

“At best, I was sure you’d refuse me. More likely, you’d ram a stake through my ribs. I needed you to trust me. And you can trust me.” Astarion clarified, his red eyes looking directly into my own. His words were his oath.

“I do. Trust you.” I exhaled. We all had our secrets, but slowly we were all opening up to one another. It was better to nurture the bonds we had than destroy them over petty white lies brought to light over time.

“Would you… trust me just a little further?” Astarion hesitated to ask, but the desperation in his voice revealed that he felt he had no other choice. He held a hand to his neck, suggesting he might just take a little blood to sustain himself.

“I only need a taste- I swear.” He promised.

I twisted my face in thought, looking him up and down. He did look like he could use the boost in energy. Considering how exhausted I felt after tearing through the waves of goblins, I could only imagine he felt exponentially worse.

“Fine. But not a drop more than you need.” I agreed, questioning myself even the very moment I spoke. Was this really a good idea? I laid my head back onto my bedroll, closing my eyes and praying to whatever entity that would listen that I hadn’t just made a foolish lapse in judgement.

“Really? I- of course. Not one drop more.” Astarion said, surprised at first, but jumping at the opportunity to restore his former strength.

I laid there, squeezing my eyes shut. The anticipation of his bite caused my skin to crawl. I convinced myself it would be just like a trip to the medic- a quick draught of bitter medicinal tonic and then it would be over. Right? Suddenly I felt it- a shard of ice directly into my neck. The cold sensation creeped from my throat and spread throughout my body. There was a quick sharp pain at the source that gradually faded into a throbbing numbness. The rapidfire of sensations caused my pulse to quicken and my breath to catch in my throat. I let him hold his place latched under my chin for a moment before I felt a warm wet drop of blood slide from my neck down to my collarbone. If he could afford to let even a smidge go to waste, he had gotten his fill.

“That’s… enough.” I managed to choke out, struggling to catch my breath as the icy chill filled my lungs.

“Mmh?” I felt Astarion hum against my neck, then pull himself away. “Oh- of course.” He obliged, bringing his hands to his lips and wiping away any mess he had made.

I brought my hand to my neck, which was mostly numb at this point, feeling around for the puncture wounds he had left in his wake. I found them before long, two small, circular little marks that were already beginning to clot as they were exposed to the night air.

“They will be closed by the morning, you shouldn’t lose any more blood.” Astarion said, noticing my concern at the wounds.

“Thank you. My mind is finally clear. I feel strong… I feel… happy!” He said, practically buzzing with newfound vigor. When he smiled, the fangs in the corners of his grin were so obvious to me now. Why hadn’t I seen them before?

“Good. Then you’ll have the energy to tell the rest of the group your secret come morning.” I said, shooting him a challenging look. I practically dared him to oppose me after providing him with my own blood.

He cleared his throat. “Fine. I can manage that.” He agreed, begrudgingly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, you’re invigorating- but I need something more filling.”

He stalked out of my tent, walking off toward the wilderness with a spry lightness in his step. I pitied his prey, they would never hear him coming with agility like that. He looked back for a moment before slipping past the tree line, his gaze piercing through me.

“This is a gift, you know. I won’t forget it.” Were his final words before evaporating into the night.

After making a considerable donation to the Astarion blood-bank, I was left feeling rather spent. I thankfully slept the rest of the night without any interruption. My dreams were surprisingly not too outlandish considering the day’s events. There were no strange protectors telling me secrets of our tadpoles on this particular night. I was thankful for it, too.

In the morning I awoke to breakfast being prepared by a well-rested wizard of Waterdeep. The smell of roasted tomatoes and baked beans beckoned me from my bedroll. It didn’t take long for the mouth-watering smell to call everyone from their tents and gather around the fire for a morning meal.

“Astarion…” I began after everyone had sat down and been served their portion. “Would you like to share what you were up to last night?” I proposed.

He looked sheepish as he held a charred tomato to his face, eye-ing it thoughtfully.

“Well… It went a little something like…” He bared his fangs, the indent of his dimples revealing themselves as he sunk his teeth into the skin of the ripe fruit. It took mere moments for him to suck the juices from it, leaving nothing but the limp outer layer behind.

“Surprise, I’m a vampire.” He said playfully, trying his very best to make light of his confession. The group had… mixed reactions.

“Hah! Well, given our group’s nature, I don’t see much harm. We’re each monsters in the making, after all.” Shadowheart said with a laugh.

“A vampire amongst us?” Lae’zel hissed. “So be it. But should I wake with so much as a drop of blood on my neck- I will end him. My flesh is not so easily tasted. Unless of course- I have offered it.” she quipped.

“Hunting with vampires? I never thought I’d see the day. I take it you found this out the hard way, Tav? Will you be growing a pair of fangs, yourself?” Wyll asked, arching his neck to see if he might get a glance at my own.

I had strategically hidden the marks behind my hair this morning so that I could pick the right time to breach the subject. I scoffed, a little embarrassed to admit Wyll was correct in his assumption and pulled my hair back to reveal the scar on my jugular.

“I knew it!” Gale exclaimed, aghast at the mark I now bore on my neck. He pointed a finger at Astarion accusingly. “I knew you’d try something like this eventually. I guess I can hardly blame a vampire for being true to it’s nature…”

Gale leaned in to get a closer look at the marks that had formed on my skin. I narrowed my eyes at him, my offended gaze getting the point across that I wasn’t to be studied like a tome and he needed to back up. He caught my drift and obliged, surrendering and giving me my personal space once again.

Technically, I’m just a vampire spawn. I can’t turn anyone.” Astarion clarified. “I’ve all of a vampire’s hunger, but few of their powers.”

“Come now, don’t undersell yourself! You may not have the grand lair nor loyal swarm- but a vampire spawn is still part of the vampire family. Technically.” Gale encouraged in a playful tone.

“Is that how you’re walking in the sunlight?” I asked, moving my hair back to cover my scar.

“Oh no, I should be cinders in this light. I hadn’t seen the sun for two hundred years before we crashed on the shoreline. Standing in the sun, wading through a river, wandering into homes without an invitation- they’re all perfectly mundane activities now.” Astarion explained.

“Fascinating! Just fascinating. I do thank you for contributing such riveting details for my next volume on vampirism. These qualities are most unique in nature.” A chipper voice sang from behind.

Unbeknownst to us, Volothamp Geddarm stood not far from the fire with a quill in hand, recording the finer points of our conversation in his journal. We had nearly all but forgotten he still accompanied us after all the excitement over breakfast.

“Ah! But on another note, my friend, my research turned up a rather brilliant technique to solve that parasite of yours. And it seems quite actionable.” Volo continued, his eyes alight.

I swallowed the last bite of my breakfast. What a way to start the day.

“It isn’t too deep. Just behind the orbital socket. I could attempt an extraction. I’ve a needle in my tunic, after all…” Volo pointed to his eye, and drew a long pointed tool from below his breast with the opposite hand.

I began to wish I had a stiff drink to accompany my morning meal.

“Tav, surely you’ve lost enough blood these past few hours. I really don’t think this is the best of ideas…” Gale said, placing a hand on my arm as I stared at Volo’s pointed instrument. The metallic finish of the needle glinted tantalizingly in the morning sun.

“Uncannily adroit with a knitting needle?” Gale’s voice echoed in my mind. A question made in jest what seemed like ages ago, but maybe we had come across someone with such a talent after all.

“Bards are known for performing with word and wit, not for performing complex ocular surgeries.” Gale went on, desperately trying to convince me to pass on Volo’s… “generous” offer. He sounded genuinely concerned that I was considering the bard’s “solution”.

I finally looked towards Gale, his eyebrows turned upward and his mouth twisted in worry. My heart panged to see him distressed, but when my gaze turned towards the delicate strands of the scar that creeped up from his chest and to his eye, my decision was made. The presence of the tadpole complicated whatever condition Gale was plagued with. Although he hadn’t mustered the courage to tell me everything that he knew of his ongoing malaise, he was certain that the tadpole threatened his well being even more. It threatened all of our well beings. If this was an opportunity to be rid of it once and for all, I’d be a fool not to take the risk.

“Do it.” I said, getting up from my seat beside Gale. I could see him out of the corner of my eye as he placed his head in his hands in dismay as I walked toward Volo.

He laid me out on a stretch of stone, the morning sun offering sufficient lighting for him to perform whatever intricate procedure he had read about the night prior. I braced myself as the needle neared my eye socket, and immediately questioned my decision as his movements were far less certain than I had anticipated them being. The entire procedure was uncomfortable, but I pressed on. I held my breath, clenched my fist, and… recalled blacking out temporarily after he gave up on his needle and retrieved an ice pick from his satchel.

“Do you feel that? I believe we have the blighter on the run! Feisty little critter…” Volo had said, before my memory went blank.

Next thing I knew, I was sitting up with my head aching and my vision remarkably… lopsided. Everything was hazy. I tried to focus on Volo as he spoke to me, but it looked like he had cast Mirror Image upon himself as three versions of him all dawning his signature blue tabard danced around me and spoke in riddles.

“There appears to be… an amount of cosmetic damage.” He said. I couldn’t find the strength in me to respond.

“You knocked her bloody eye out!” Gale’s disembodied voice rang out, when suddenly he came into view. Actually, multiple of him came into view, all three of them looking at Volo with unbridled rage.

“I can’t help but feel partly responsible.” Volo said, placing a hand over his heart in earnest. “Perhaps… you can use this?” He dug through his satchel to pull out a glass eye, the iris a vibrant blue with golden accents. “A far superior relic to that old jelly you were chained to.” He said with certainty. Carefully, he pried open my eye socket and with a quick chant under his breath, there were no longer three versions of him standing before me.

“Try that on for size. And um- it was very nice to have met you. Ta ta!” Volo remarked, slinging his satchel over his shoulder and already darting towards the tree line and out into the wilderness.

Gale clicked his tongue in disapproval.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk. Don’t say I didn’t warn you when I said that a bard’s skills lie primarily in their words.” He said, approaching me as I was still orienting myself after being poked and prodded so violently. He held my face in both hands, squinting to get a better look at the new organ that graced my orbital socket. I hadn’t the wherewithal to swat him away, allowing him to embody the doting caretaker he hid within. I could only imagine he was raised with a mother who acted the same.

“Well, it looks as if it is a good fit. With time, you should be able to acclimate to it appropriately. And it appears as if it has some magical qualities to it, as well.” Gale said with satisfaction, patting my cheek with his palm twice before releasing the grip he had on my face and walking away.

“I question your ability to see reason. Zorru has suggested my kin are to the west. We may seek better treatment there, no more of this bardic nonsense.” Lae’zel snapped, looking at my new eye with disdain. Her dour presence was cut by the lively voice of Wyll, who placed an arm around me in celebration.

“Welcome to the League of the Lone Eye, my friend! Not to minimize the pain of Volo’s poking and prodding, but I promise you: you’ll be used to the prosthesis in no time.” He encouraged, inspecting Volo’s handiwork. He seemed impressed, and glad to have a kindred spirit amongst him.

“Besides, I find it gives one an air of mystique. No one’s more intriguing than a woman with one eye. Wouldn’t you agree, Gale?” Wyll suggested, calling Gale’s attention toward me once more. I blinked several times in succession, trying to adjust to my new pupil, unintentionally fluttering my lashes dramatically.

“You’re both marvelously mysterious. Now, we’ve got a druid to meet, haven’t we?” Gale remarked with minimal enthusiasm. He acted indifferent towards my newfound heterochromia. My vision was still blurred, but even so, I could have sworn I caught a blush spread across his face when he glanced over at me. I hoped I hadn’t been seeing things.

Chapter 9: Meeting the Barbarian

Summary:

Returning to the grove, we are thanked profusely for helping the tiefling refugees. While we are there we run into someone Wyll's been on the hunt for...

Chapter Text

Gale, Wyll, Lae’zel and I walked into the grove that morning to see the Tieflings that had been sheltering there packed up and preparing to hit the road. Zevlor was amongst them, flagging us down when he caught us pass through.

“Hold on, there! It’s you we have to thank for returning the druid Halsin. And for eradicating the threat of the goblins on our trip to the city. You were promised a reward.” He said, thoughtfully. He looked happy.

Looking around, he wasn’t the only one. All of the tieflings that had been taking shelter in tents within the grove were smiling amongst their kin, counting heads and buckling backpacks that they had slung over their shoulders.

“You can keep your coin.” I said to him, my heart full at the sight of the tiefling children bouncing impatiently, eager to get on the road to Baldur's Gate.

“Chk!” I heard Lae’zel chirp cynically from behind. I paid no mind to her disapproval.

“You’re too kind. We will not forget the service you have done for us, I only hope one day we might be able to return the favor.” Zevlor said with reverence. “Perhaps we can celebrate before we hit the road? We’d be happy to bring our wine stores to your camp for a night of revelry.”

The mention of wine piqued all of our interests. It had been a while since any of us had our hands on a good drink in this fresh hell of a reality.

“Should you decline this offer, you’ll have a very dissatisfied wizard on your hands.” Gale said, nudging my ribs. I wasn’t about to have that be the case.

“That sounds like a splendid idea. You are all welcome in our camp come nightfall. I hope you will indulge yourselves in an evening to rejoice before making the trek to the city.” I said with a smile. It certainly was something I’d be looking forward to.

The crowd of tieflings chattered jubilantly amongst themselves, all of them riled by the idea of a party after all the hardship they had faced. In the midst of their childlike excitement- there was a commotion by the gate. I bristled, fearing a troupe of goblins had escaped our grasp and found their way to the grove once more.

We all whipped our heads towards the gate, expecting an enemy but seeing… a familiar face. A woman, her skin a vibrant shade of crimson and the look on her face desperate and pleading. I saw the horns on her head first - only - one of them was missing. This was the woman I had seen fighting devils in Wyll’s memory.

Wyll jumped at the sight of her, drawing his blade without hesitation.

“One horn. The stench of Avernus. Karlach.” He growled, approaching her without a hint of hesitation, his knuckles white as he gripped his rapier.

She looked at him, bewildered. “Well, I’ll be godsdamned- the Blade of Frontiers. Thought I'd shaken you for good. That’ll teach me to underestimate you.” She said, crossing her arms.

“Wyll, this woman is your target? I can’t help but think you may have been misinformed.” Gale said as he observed. Wyll ignored his commentary.

“I am the Blade. I chase my prey until death takes me. I know what you are- and who you serve. I refuse to allow you to burn the Sword Coast to ash.” He proclaimed, staring her dead in the eye.

Swiftly, with a flourish of his blade, he had it pointed at Karlach’s throat. She stiffened for a moment in surprise, but relaxed as she spoke.

“You don’t understand, Wyll. I’m running from my past- I have no intention to serve her any longer.” She said, trying to de-escalate the situation. The tieflings looked on at the quarrel, many of them shepherding the children away from the impending brawl and into a safer corner of the grove.

“You think I don’t see how your flesh burns with the flame of a devil from the Hells? I’m not so easily fooled.” He narrowed his eyes, steeling himself as he inched the blade closer to Karlach’s throat.

I could see her flesh pulse with heat, tendrils of flame revealing themselves as they danced on her skin. She was quite literally on fire- but she didn’t react.

“Wyll, if you’d just-” Karlach started, her thought interrupted as she gasped in pain. She balled a fist at her side, squeezing her eyes tight. I saw Wyll stumble back, dropping his rapier, holding his head in his hands.

As soon as I recognized what was happening, I too felt the pull of their tadpoles. All of us were given the vision- a first hand experience of Karlach as she cut through cambions and imps in the first layer of Hell. She was fighting on the front lines of the Blood War - but her eyes darted around her, desperately seeking an escape. The vision dissipated as rapidly as it had come on, leaving us all better informed on the origins of the scarlet-skinned woman Wyll had been enlisted to kill. She was innocent.

When Wyll opened his eyes, the conflict within him was clear.

“By Balduran’s helm… is this a trick?” He called out, snatching his blade from the ground where it had fallen. He once again built his defenses as if Karlach was to strike at him while he was vulnerable.

Her gaze was soft as she observed the paranoia in Wyll’s eyes.

“You know monsters, Wyll. Better than anyone. Look at me- I’m no devil. I was enslaved by them, forced to serve Zariel against my will.” She said. She grimaced as many of the tieflings in the camp drew back from her at the admission she had served the Archduch*ess of Avernus. The very same heartless warmonger that had stolen Elturel from its peaceful place on Faerun and caused them all to be cast from the home that once welcomed them. I could see her heart sink.

Wyll shook his head in disbelief, but understood now that Karlach hadn’t been deceiving him. He sheathed his rapier at his side.

“I’m… I’m sorry Karlach. A thousand apologies will never be enough to express my remorse.” Wyll said, looking somber.

“Listen- Wyll. If you can help me get this godsdamned parasite out of me I’d be more than inclined to forgive you. Hells, if you managed that I’d go as far as to kiss you.” She joked, obviously not harboring any ill-will.

Wyll looked back at me, Gale and Lae’zel. His eyes asked the question without needing to open his mouth. I nodded- of course she could travel with us. She was in need of a cure as much as the rest of us were. We had better chances of survival if we stuck together.

Gale spoke softly as Wyll walked her over, careful not to let Karlach overhear.

“She seems a little rough around the edges… but I suppose I can be smooth enough for two.” He remarked with a wink. I rolled my eyes, hiding the fact I was entertained by his clever quip.

Like a true gentleman, Wyll introduced us to his new non-devil friend.

“Ah, ah- sorry. No handshakes. Not unless you’d like your fingers fried.” She said with a laugh. Even standing near her, the heat from her body was intense.

“Actually- that’s why I’m here in the first place. I caught wind there was a tiefling in the area who knew their way around… infernal machinery.” She said, hesitant to reveal more.

“Infernal?” Gale asked, his curiosity taking precedence over his manners. She didn’t seem comfortable breaching this topic.

“There was a horned one by the name of Dammon- his body reeked of the hells, more so than the other… Teef-lings.” Lae’zel remarked, taking care to pronounce the race’s name correctly this time.

Karlach’s eyes lit up, her expression filled with hope. She whipped her head around, scanning the crowd of tieflings that gathered to leave in the morning.

“Where? Has he left yet? Can I speak to him?” Questions shot like arrows from her mouth as she rapidly scoured the area for the tiefling in question.

Lae’zel sniffed the air. “Hm. My senses tell me he is still at his forge.” She said matter-of-factly.

Gale peered at Lae’zel, his eyes squinting in disbelief and utter confusion.

“How can you… but how is it that…” He pointed to his nose, stammering his words. “Never mind.”

Karlach took off running, not wasting any time. I felt obliged to follow, so I thanked Zevlor and promised to speak to him at the party later before darting off after her with my companions in tow.

Chapter 10: A Warlock Amongst Us

Summary:

We chose to help Karlach in her infernal ailment, We find Halsin at the grove once again, and Wyll gets a visit from a perturbed old flame.

Chapter Text

Lae’zel had no problem showing us where she had met Dammon at his forge. She said that she had spoken to him briefly during her search for Zorru. She hadn’t said much else about the encounter, however.

As we approached the forge, Dammon and Karlach were already in a conversation. As the blacksmith glanced in our direction, his mouth twisted in a nervous grin at the sight of our githyanki companion. Oh, gods. What had she said to the poor chap when they met to leave such an impression? He redirected his focus back to Karlach, her voice dripping with urgency.

“A gift from Zariel. Keeps me burning hot.” She sneered.

“Very hot, by the smell of it. Might be burning out a piston ring- or leaking oil. Mind if I take a listen?” Dammon asked politely.

“Be my guest. But don’t get too close- or your eyes’ll melt shut.” Karlach said, her face stern with seriousness. She made jokes about it, but her touch was dangerous and she knew it.

To my surprise, Dammon leaned in towards Karlach and pressed his pointed ear towards her chest. He was quiet, closing his eyes to focus. I was quiet too, holding my breath so that I might be able to pick up on the subtleties of sound of whatever he was listening to. He spoke about… a piston? In Karlach’s chest? I watched them curiously, unsure what to make of their exchange.

“Ack!” He exclaimed as the tip of his ear hissed with heat, drawing himself back from Karlach’s unnatural warmth. “Phew! You really are burning up. Whoever put that engine together tried to house metallurgised demono-valves inside a ra-gnax alloy casem*nt. Very risky.”

…Engine?

“I might be able to help…” Dammon went on. “But- I’d need infernal iron, and a prayer that my hamer’ll survive the work. That thing isn’t meant to operate outside Avernus. I’m not sure how much longer it will run the way it’s going.” he warned. “And it looks like the troops will be heading out in the morning- I won’t be here come the dawn.”

Karlach clicked her tongue in disappointment, balling her fist in anger.

“Gods dammit.” She said through clenched teeth. She paced in front of Dammon, racking her brain trying to find a solution to the convoluted puzzle she found herself in.

“...You’ve got an engine in your chest?” I asked, trying to speak softly so as not to upset her any further.

“Courtesy of the Archdevil herself. Not only is it in my chest- the cursed thing’s replaced my heart. And it appears as if it’s malfunctioning as we speak…” She confessed, obviously frustrated. “I just want to be able to touch people again! I’m a walking fire hazard!”

My heart sank to hear her so fed up. Dammon mentioned Infernal Iron… I was pretty certain I had found some in the goblin leaders’ hoard. I dug through my pack until I found it, a chunk of weighty metal that smelled distinctly of sulfur. It felt slightly warm to the touch, as if I clutched a mug of tea in my hands as I held it out towards them both.

“You’ve- you’ve got some! This… should be enough.” Dammon said, his eyes widening at the sight of the hellish material.

He took it from me, balancing it in his hands and assessing its weight. With a decisive nod, he turned to the flames of his forge. He began feeding them with all his effort, barely managing to get them to burn hot enough to alter the chunk of iron. He grunted as he worked at the metal with his hammer, sweat beading on his brow. With each strike he made, I feared the hammer’s head might fly clean off with the force he applied.

Kalrach looked on, arching her neck to see if she might get a better look at what the smith was working on. She looked… hopeful. A stark contrast from the rage that was in her eyes only moments ago. Turning towards me, her eyes alight, she mouthed: “Thank you.”

I grinned. I didn’t know what else I was going to do with the heap of metal aside from sell it. It was better off going to a person who needed it, and it made my pack all the lighter for the travels we had ahead of us.

“Now, you’ll have to install it yourself… I don’t think there are any gloves in the realms thick enough to withstand that kind of heat.” Dammon said, carefully handing over a hammered metal piece to Karlach.

I didn’t know what it was for, exactly, but Karlach recognized it from the look in her eyes. She nodded, eagerly taking the part from Dammon’s gloved hands. She hastened to work it into her chest cavity, able to navigate her own inner workings with ease. After a few moments, she took a deep breath of Faerunian air.

“That feels… good!” Karlach exclaimed, taking a moment to assess herself. Her skin still pulsed with flame as she stood. “I’m still burning hot as hell’s hole- but I feel less…changeable. Cheers, mate!” Karlach said, thanking both Dammon and myself for the upgrade.

“Pleasure. As for the heat- I haven’t got any solutions now. But I’m not giving up. Could be… if the combustion chamber had its own insulation, or if we had some sort of enchanted coolant…” Dammon went on, rubbing his chin with a clawed finger in thought. “Find me again in Baldur’s Gate! If I’m worth my salt, I’ll have something figured out by then. Take care, Karlach- oh! And pocket any infernal iron you find along the way- I’ll be needing it.”

“Will do, smithy. Thank you again, and safe travels.” Karlach said with a newfound spring in her step. We left Dammon to pack up the remainder of his forge as he prepared for the long trip on the Risen Road to the city.

Karlach pulled me aside afterwards.

“Soldier, I don’t know what compelled you to give up your treasure to help little old me, but I sincerely thank you for it. I know a friend of Wyll’s is a friend of mine- but you may have just saved me from an early grave back there. I owe you one- or several even.” Karlach said, holding a fist to her heart in earnesty.

“Well- you may have just saved me from a sore back from carrying that hunk of metal around. So I’ll call it even.” I said with a grin. I heard Gale quietly laugh through his nose at my remark.

Karlach grinned wide. “If I could hug you- I would. We’ll say I owe you one of those at least- but not until we see Dammon again.” she said with optimism.

“Halsin said he would be around here, no?” Wyll said, looking around the grove.

“He said he would be here this morning. Might be deeper inside- by the chamber where Kagha was.” I suggested, and waved the group forward. It wasn’t long before I heard Halsin’s bass voice booming, and followed the sound. We found him by the idol of Silvanus that had been the conduit for the chanting of the druids during the Rite.

“You took it upon yourself to undertake the Rite of Thorns?! I ought to exile you from this place. Instead, I will listen to the explanation that you owe me.” Halsin shouted, Kagha’s comparatively frail form standing before him with a furrowed brow.

“I owe you nothing.” She hissed at the archdruid, baring her teeth like she was a viper about to strike.

“Silence!” Halsin yelled, Kagha’s insolence testing his patience. He took a steadying breath before continuing.

“I will allow you to stay- but consider yourself a novice anew. You have forgotten the ways of the druids - our place in the natural order. You shall learn it all once again- right here. Backslide, and nature’s fury will crush you.” There was conviction in his words.

“As you wish- master Halsin.” Kagha retorted, taking a small bow before the Archdruid. Her words were disingenuous, but Halsin didn’t seem to mind. As Kagha walked away, myself and my companions approached him.

“She didn’t seem… remorseful. She tried to imprison a child, Halsin.” I said to the archdruid. His eyes dropped, pursing his lips.

“Unfortunately, the grove can’t afford to lose a promising druid. Even still- I trust that nature will guide her in the right direction- or punish her for taking the wrong path.” He said with confidence. I admired the fact he had such faith in the forces of nature and the will of Silvanus.

As we stood before the archdruid, the familiar face of Rath walked over with a bundle in his hands.

“You requested this, master Halsin?” He said, offering the bundle, and nodding at us politely in greeting.

“Thank you, Rath. I wish to offer this as thanks to our friends here- for their bravery and commitment to protecting the grove.” Halsin said, gesturing us towards the bundle.

I hesitantly stepped forward, taking the long bundle wrapped in cloth and unwrapping it carefully. I peeled back the burlap to reveal an elaborate glaive, the metal finish shining in the light of the morning sun. I gasped at the sight of it, looking to Halsin gratefully. Alongside the glaive there was a small bundle of potions and spell scrolls that I had no doubt would be useful in our adventure to come, and distributed them amongst the group. I did give the scrolls to Gale, however, as the resident wizard.

I drew the glaive from its cloth sheath, shifting it in my hands to feel how it was balanced. It was expertly forged, the etchings of leaves and branches across its shank evident of its masterful craftsmanship. As I gripped the weapon, I was overcome with a melancholy feeling… as if it was born of a loss of many.

Halsin seemed to recognize the sensation, commenting on it.

“That blade has seen the destruction of many. Silvanus cursed it years ago to bear the weight of the wrongdoings of its previous owner. While it is in more trusted hands as you wield it- the horrors of its past haunt it still.” He explained, noting the heaviness in my heart as I gripped the weapon. It was a powerful enchantment that it bore, the solemnity of the sadness that it elicited creating an intense focus within me. It may prove rather useful even with the curse that cleaved to it. I strapped it to my back, feeling the sorrow wash away as my hands broke contact with its shaft.

“Thank you, Halsin. I will do all in my power to use the glaive so that Silvanus may find it redeemable.” I swore.

“I’ve no doubt you will. Now- the way to Moonrise Towers is complicated. There are rumours of an underground stronghold that may offer a clear path, or there is another path along the Risen Road… but it is more complicated than that.” Halsin began, but he held his tongue. “I would elaborate, but we’ve cause for celebration on this night. We can hold the more serious conversation for the morrow.”

I twisted my face. How much time did we have to waste? I feared it wasn’t enough. Could we trust the “protector” of our dreams to really shield us from the transformation of our parasites? How much longer would we be granted its salvation? I took a shaky breath.

“Of course. You are more than welcome to join the tieflings in our camp come the evening, we’ll all indulge in some drink and good conversation.” Gale chimed in, his smile charming and elegant as he addressed the Archdruid. He approached from behind me, putting a comforting hand on the center of my back. He could sense my hesitation.

“That sounds most welcome. I will organize my thoughts about the next steps in your predicament until then. I thank you- for everything.” Halsin said, bowing his head. He excused himself, turning back to matters regarding the grove while the sun still hung high. He and Rath engaged in hushed conversation as they walked away.

“You mean to tell me we are to ignore the hideous squirming in our heads for another night? How can you guarantee we’ll survive to see the dawn?!” Lae’zel said, exasperated.

My chest tightened.

“Calm down, Lae’zel. Taking a single night to enjoy ourselves is something we likely won’t have opportunity to do again. We’re all free of symptoms for the time being- our skin is notably not gray, our faces blessedly free of tentacles… I see no reason for upset.” Gale argued. He had a point.

“We’ve wasted enough time, istik. If the druid will not tell us what he knows, I have ways of loosening his tongue…” Lae’zel sneered, snatching a handaxe from her belt and glaring towards an unsuspecting Halsin.

“Now, now, Lae’zel. It is unbecoming of a host to attack invited party guests.” Gale said calmly, stepping in front of Lae’zel before she got any closer to the druid. “Should any of us feel effects of ceremorphosis, I expect honesty and forthright communication. We can change our plans should the need arise- but I believe a salute to our accomplishments is well earned.”

Lae’zel seemed perturbed by the conclusion, but Karlach and Wyll nodded in agreement with Gale. I was glad to see him able to mediate the disagreement- I myself was unsure if the party was the best decision. Despite my hesitation, I looked forward to it. To leisurely sip on a cup of wine under the stars on a summer night… how I craved that freedom.

I dismissed the group to go about the grove on their own until nightfall. There were still a few tieflings with goods to peddle, and I figured discounts would be increased for the famed goblin killers. Not to mention the traders would have to carry everything to the city if they couldn’t sell it now. A few of them went to converse and make deals amongst the tieflings, while others laid back in the lush grasses of the grove and took time to rest.

Gale went to a secluded shady corner of the grove and propped himself up against a stone carved with druidic runes. He pulled a book from his pack and started reading intently. He looked so contented, I hated to interrupt him- but I had something important to speak to him about. I sat on the ground beside him, curiously peeking at the title he was so engrossed in. ‘A Primer on Mythical Beasts’ the cover read.

“Familiarizing yourself with the local flora and fauna, eh?” I said, trying to get a peek at the chapter he was on.

Gale snickered. “Haha, I wouldn’t say Miniature Giant Space Hamsters are local.” He said. I had certainly never seen one, so I was inclined to believe he spoke the truth.

“Do you have a moment? I wanted to speak with you.” I said, getting to my point.

Gale tucked a small yellow flower between the pages of his book to mark his place, closing it gently and giving me his undivided attention.

“A moment for you? But of course.” He said smiling. I held myself back from blushing as he awaited my next words.

“I saw… the mark on your chest. When you consumed the ring. It’s not… just a tattoo, is it?” I asked, unconsciously rubbing my thumb on my sternum as if I bore the mark myself.

Gale grimaced, breaking his eye contact with me.

“Ah. You uh… you caught that, did you?” He said, letting a silence fall between us for a moment.

“I’m not sure I can speak on it any farther. It’s still a rather… sensitive issue I’m afraid. I’d much appreciate it if you were to grant me some patience and privacy regarding the matter.” He explained, finding the confidence to look back at me as he spoke. He spoke with a seriousness that caught me off guard. Like his voice suddenly didn’t match his face.

It was unlike Gale to hold his tongue the way he was. I had become accustomed to his lengthy monologues as of late, appreciating the way he had a little remark to add in every situation. Seeing him actively hold back from addressing a matter most personal was very… mysterious of him. More like Shadowheart’s expected behavior than his own.

“Alright. I hope… I hope I can still trust you, Gale.” I said, not wanting to press the matter any farther.

He nodded, pursing his lips and returning to his book without saying another word. I got up from the grass and left him to his reading, sighing deeply.

He seemed a little perturbed. I suppose it was unbecoming of me to expose the marking unprovoked like I had. I regretted it, mostly because of how much it upset him, but I also was glad I found it at the same time. There was obviously more he had yet to share, and while fear and curiosity ate away at my thoughts, I had no choice but to be patient with him. We all had demons- that much was made especially clear these past few days. I wasn’t sure why, but I feared Gale’s demons more than I had expected to. He was so quiet, I feared he would get lost in his own inadequacies and let those demons overtake him. He deserved better.

I tried to push my worries about the wizard to the side as I went to go find what the rest of the gang was up to. I saw Wyll saying his goodbyes to the tiefling children, playfully dueling with them as they wielded wooden swords and he feigned injury. Karlach was talking to Zevlor, nodding in understanding as he spoke to her in hushed tones. He was telling her about Elturel- how they escaped. It was a harrowing tale, but Karlach was just as glad to hear they were able to escape Zariel’s clutches - just as she had. Shadowheart was talking to some of the tieflings that were going to be at the party. She had offered to help bring some crates of the wine to our camp to prepare for the evening. The mischievous glint in her eye told me she had an ulterior motive for offering such assistance. Astarion was splayed out on the grass, his eyes looking to the sky as he fiddled with his dagger, twirling it between his fingers. I suppose he had to enjoy the sunlight while he still could.

Once the sun had begun to lower in the sky, we all headed to our camp to prepare for a night of hosting. Shadowheart introduced us to a lively white dog that she had come across while transporting the wine.

“His name is Scratch! He’s very sweet. Far from wolf-like. He followed my scent all the way here.” She said, petting him between his ears. His tongue fell out of his mouth with glee and I couldn’t help but giggle at the sight of our newfound furry friend.

We continued to tidy up around the campground, making sure the space was free of tripping hazards. We tried to create a sitting area with logs and tree stumps we had found within the woods. It wasn’t perfect- but it would suffice. No party guests had arrived yet, Zevlor told us to expect them when the stars were out. The sky was still a watercolor of pinks, oranges and purples as the sun set.

Amidst the peaceful admiration of the painted sky, a low whoosh cut through the camp’s silence.

“Hell’s fire. She’s coming.” Wyll said, looking on in fear as a dark portal swirled on the ground near the campfire.

“What? Who?” I said, rushing over to see the anomaly for myself. Wyll didn’t have time to answer as the portal blazed with flame, and a female figure rose from the rift. Her skin was an unnatural shade of grey, almost purple in tone. She had four sharp horns protruding from her scarlet hair, and two formidable bat-like wings sprouting from her back. She was not of this plane.

“Wyll, you’ve been naughty- and you know what happens when you’re naughty.” She called to the blade in a sing-song tone. She sounded as if she was mocking him.

“Gods damn it. Anyone but her.” Karlach said in a growl, glaring at our uninvited guest with inner flames ablaze.

“A Devil?” Gale gasped, looking aghast at the vision that stood in our quaint little refuge.

“Call me Mizora. I’m Wyll’s patron, the fount of his power.” She announced, her voice sweet as a ripe strawberry fresh off the vine. It was clear to me that hidden behind that sweetness was a sickness, a poison that corrupted and controlled.

“My pet’s been unruly- and his leash needs a yank.” Mizora closed her fist and jerked it away from Wyll, as if he had a collar around his neck. Wyll stumbled towards her, his hands to his throat and his knees trembling. She frightened him. The Blade of Frontiers- afraid.

“We had a deal Wyll. But Karlach’s still breathing.” She bared her fangs as she spoke, glancing maliciously at Karlach who stood poised to strike if the opportunity arose.

“I’ve taken more pleasant sh*ts than you, Mizora, and at least those can be buried after.” Karlach spat. Her history with the devil was apparent, and her hatred even more so.

“That’s no kind of talk for a lady. By the way, Karlach- Zariel sends her regards.” Mizora chirped with confidence. She knew how to get under the tiefling’s skin. Karlach gritted her teeth hearing Zariel's name.

“You told me… devils only. She’s a tiefling- not a monster.” Wyll’s voice strained - his throat still being squeezed by the invisible hand of his patron. She looked at him unamused by his retaliation.

“How precious. The little pupster’s found his bark. Clause G, Section Nine: ‘Targets shall be limited to the infernal, the demonic, the heartless and the soulless.’ Kalrach meets the criteria by virtue of having no heart.” She explained, nearly yawning after reciting the terms of her contract.

“You aren’t laying a finger on Karlach.” I said with certainty, drawing the glaive from my back and glaring at Mizora menacingly. I was careful to observe her every move should she try to pull anything.

“You think you can kill me?” Mizora laughed at the sight of me poised to strike at her. “I wouldn’t recommend it. I die, and Wyll turns into a lemure and gets sucked right down to the Hells. Which reminds me…” Her voice seeped with evil as she raised a hand toward Wyll. She closed her eyes, mumbling an incantation in Abyssal, flames hovering around her palm.

Suddenly, Wyll’s body was encased in the flames of Avernus as they rose from his feet. The lightning storms of Dis struck his flesh, trailing marks on his skin as they went. His soul escaped his body and proceeded to pass through each layer of the Hells, gaining their essence and their torment before returning to its vessel. He was changed. As the flames died down and the shadow of Wyll’s body came back into the golden light of the setting sun- we saw him in his new form. Long, pointed horns sprouted from his skull and curved along the contour of his head. His remaining eye, once a warm shade of chocolate brown had been changed to a fiery red with a black sclera. Scars from the heat of the hells branded the sides of his face as he twisted it in confusion, reaching a hand up to feel the horns he’d been cursed with.

Mizora took a breath in satisfaction as she looked her Warlock up and down. “There. That’s more like it.”

“What the hells have you done?” Wyll shouted, his voice cracking.

“A promise broken, a price paid. You know the terms. Get used to the new form, pet. There’s no going back - some magic even I can’t undo.” Mizora snapped, his voice as calm and cool as a mountain spring. She took a leisurely glance at her nails as she spoke, disinterested in the panic that coursed through the changed Blade of Frontiers.

“Karlach, keep an eye on him, would you?” Mizora teased, taking pleasure in seeing Karlach grit her teeth and clench her fists in response.

“Don’t forget, Wyll. Our pact still stands…” Mizora called, her voice haunting as her form dissipated into the portal she had entered in. Within moments, the devil disappeared as quickly as she had arrived. The whole camp was shaken up. I frantically looked to the sky, grateful that there were no stars out just yet. We didn’t need any of the tieflings arriving now- while we were still recovering from the harrowing intrusion of a devil.

“Wyll… I won’t lie I’m reeling after all that- but why would you choose my life over your own? You hardly know me.” Karlach asked, approaching Wyll as he stared at the spot where Mizora sunk back into the hells.

“I did what was right by letting you live, Karlach. I was told I’d be hunting demons and devils, traitors and hypocrites… not Zariel’s victims.” Wyll shook his head in disbelief, his neck wobbling a little as it adjusted to the weight of his new horns.

“Considering you deliberately disobeyed the orders of the devil you are pacted with, I’d consider yourself lucky to be alive. Most Warlock contracts aren’t so forgiving in nature.” Gale remarked, looking at Wyll with amazement.

Wyll clicked his tongue and sighed. “I’m only alive because she still has use for me…”

“So… when you cast spells, the power you are drawing from… is Mizora’s?” I asked, not entirely familiar with the inner machinations of Warlock pacts.

Wyll nodded. “Correct. As Halsin draws from nature, and Gale draws from the Weave… I draw from the Hells. Before I was infected, I could even call on hellbeasts and summon festering clouds- but I swear it, every thrust of my blade and every flame I sparked was for the good of the Coast.”

Despite being intrinsically linked to a being so vile, he used the power he gleaned from the deal for good. It wasn’t hard to believe given the good word that surrounded the name “The Blade of Frontiers”. How would the public view him now, his form so hellishly modified?

“Why did you accept power from her, though? You are a capable fighter, you could have made a name for yourself along the coast without magic.” I remarked, paying him a compliment while he was at his lowest.

“I am forbidden to utter the terms or circ*mstances of the deal. Not unless Mizora permits it. But what I can tell you- is that the moment I pacted myself to Mizora I have not regretted for a heartbeat. It was my proudest deed.” Wyll said, his darkened eyes full of sentiment and honesty.

I sighed, sympathizing with his struggle. When I recognized we all had demons, I didn’t know some of us had them literally.

“Wyll, I can appreciate that you’ve used your power for good up until now- but this is just one of many jobs she will pawn off on you that are not good. You’ve got to get out of this contract.” Karlach warned him. She was intimately familiar with the games of devils at this point, and she wanted to stay as far as she could from their trickery.

“A possibility that's kept me awake countless nights. I don’t even have a clue where to start. She’d have to let me out of my pact willingly if I am to go free. The only way out is to… out-bargain her.” Wyll explained in frustration.

“Easier said than done.” Gale started. “Devil’s are well-practiced in the ways of negotiation… we’ve seen that much when we encountered Raphael on the road. His words were calculated- as were his actions. There’s a reason he dangles the solution in front of us instead of entering into a deal outright… just like there is a reason Mizora lets Wyll breathe another day.”

The camp was silent, processing the reality of it all. I took into account Gale’s observation of the devils, the way their actions were so deliberate. If we could manage to predict what they were up to, we might be able to break Wyll’s contract for good and in his favor.

“We’ll find a way, Wyll. With our heads put together we can find a solution.” I said, trying to reassure him.

“Our heads are as “together” as they’ll ever be.” Shadowheart joked, pointing to her skull where a tadpole swam around inside. The camp laughed softly.

“We’ll find a way, Soldier.” Karlach said to Wyll, without a doubt in her voice.

“Thank you. Thank you all.” Wyll looked around at all of us, smiling gratefully.

Chapter 11: A Night of Revelry

Summary:

We find time to enjoy ourselves for a night amongst the nightmares that have befallen our lives, celebrating with wine and good conversation alongside our tiefling friends. Gale offers to give Tav a spell demonstration, finally fulfilling her innate curiosity of his mastery of magic.

Chapter Text

I took a deep breath of the fresh wilderness air, the earthen scent of the wet ground filling my lungs. It was a beautiful night. The stars seemed to be twinkling brighter than I’d seen in a very long time. As I looked to the sky I could make out a few constellations I remembered learning in my youth. They were strikingly visible, not a cloud in the sky. The entire camp was lit by the clean white rays of the full moon, its reflection shimmering in the nearby lake and in the cups of wine gripped by all of the guests.

“We really made a difference, Soldier. We helped all of these people.” Karlach came up from behind me, beaming at the vision of the party before us.

We both looked out into our camp, full of tieflings from the grove talking amongst themselves and smiling. Some of them sipped on glasses of red wine, while others gulped entire bottles. They were certainly having fun. The excited vision of Scratch could be caught rushing back and forth throughout the camp, greeting all of the guests with a friendly lick or a wag of the tail. He seemed glad to meet new friends.

“Yeah, we did. I’m glad we have the opportunity to celebrate.” I responded, continuing to watch as the tieflings joked with one another, particularly enjoying the banter between the wizard Rolan and his two siblings Cal and Lia. They all took solace in the fact they would no longer be threatened on their journey to Baldur’s Gate. It was still going to be a hard road for them all, but at least they had this night to enjoy before the trek.

“Thank you, Karlach. You really showed those goblins whose boss - not sure I could have done it without you.” I turned to her with a smile.

The heat that was constantly pulsing from her body burned a little hotter as she smiled sheepishly.

“Thank you, Soldier. That means a lot. You’re not so bad yourself.” She quickly tapped my armor playfully with the back of her hand, careful to avoid any contact with my skin.

She and I both laughed gently.

“Now, go out there and mingle. This entire gathering is here to celebrate you, too.” Karlach gestured to the entire campground, full of drunken merrymaking. It made me miss the dirty tables and musty scent of the Blushing Mermaid.

I shot Karlach a grateful look and headed off into the camp to chat a bit. Astarion was complaining about the vinegar-y taste of the wine, but at this point we were familiar with his drink of choice. Shadowheart was quite enjoying the wine, but it looked like she had a choice bottle of her own that she squirreled away. It smelled a lot sweeter than the kind the Tieflings were offering. She asked if I wanted to share a bottle, but I politely declined. I wanted to keep my wits about me in case there were any intruders in the night. I didn’t see Wyll at his tent, and looking around he wasn’t amongst the Tieflings. I wondered where he may have run off to. Lae’zel was sitting comfortably by her tent, sipping wine and seemingly lost in thought. She didn’t look too thrilled, probably thinking about the tadpole and the strange dreams we had been having. It was a lot to take in, especially for a githyanki who are born to dread this very situation of becoming a mind flayer.

The archdruid Halsin stood in a corner, a smile on his face as he watched the tieflings make merry amongst themselves. I was glad he cared about the safety of the refugees, unlike Kagha. I was surprised at how forgiving he was to her after discovering her plan to cut off the grove via the Rite of Thorns. Had they succeeded and he returned, he would have been unable to get inside himself- even as the former archdruid.

“Thank you for your efforts in protecting these people, as well as my own.” Halsin said sincerely. He put a hand to his heart in thanks.

“Of course. I almost feel like there wasn’t a choice to be made- I had to.” I assured him with a smile.

“Our grove would be blessed to have someone of your talents. However, you obviously have some pressing matters to attend to. I will aid you in whatever way I can.” He said, his deep voice resolute and kind.

“What did you learn about the origin of these parasites? Do you think they can be removed?” I asked, letting my curiosity and desperate want for a solution take hold.

“They are unlike parasites I have read about, they have a unique quality about them. I will tell all in the morning - but please- take this time to celebrate. It is well-earned.” He encouraged.

His presence was calming even in the midst of the disaster that we all felt stuck in surrounding these parasites. I could feel his self connect to the ground with a magical anchor, even as he wasn’t performing any magic. He was truly one with nature as an Archdruid, an impressive talent to be sure.

I sighed, understanding Halsin was right of course and I should enjoy myself, but seeing Lae’zel struggle with the reality of the situation caused a pang of guilt in my gut that wouldn’t subside.

“Of course. Thank you, Halsin. We will talk in the morning.” I smiled at him, trying to hide my remorse.

“So, how long have you been archdruid?” I asked, genuinely curious as to how the inner circle of the grove’s hierarchy functioned. I had only ever heard murmurs of how druid circles operated, and ever since I left the High Forest as a child I had never met another organized circle of druids. The urban setting of Baldurs Gate didn’t provide much nature to anchor oneself to.

“Ah, it must be the better part of a hundred years now, give or take a few.” He waved his hand in the air in uncertainty. “It didn’t take me long after reaching adulthood to hear Silvanus calling to me. It is my duty to protect nature, my one true purpose.”

“Wow.” I said in awe of his story. “You are lucky to have found your calling so early in your life.”

He recognized the internal battle I fought within myself, grappling between the passion I had for swordwork and the desire placed within me to wield arcane powers.

“You are of elven blood, no? You have centuries ahead of you. You may find many passions yet.” Halsin said with reassurance.

I looked at him thoughtfully. “How many passions have you had?”

He smiled as if he was entertained by my question, raising an eyebrow suspiciously. I shook my head in embarrassment, realizing the mis-interpretation.

“N-no. I didn’t mean it like-” I stuttered, clamoring to clarify.

Halsin laughed heartily at my clumsy recovery, smiling warmly in understanding.

“Of course. I understand. Nature has always been my one true passion… but I've had many “passions”.” He added with a wink. “After all, when you get to be over 300 years old you realize tethering yourself to one person is very… restricting.”

I felt myself blush at the risque topic. Halsin must have sensed my embarrassment, taking a well-timed gulp from his goblet of wine.

“Ah. Anyhow- I won’t keep you. Please, go indulge yourself in the celebration!” He said, trying to recover from the awkwardness. He was a chatty drunk, I’ll have to make note of that.

“Of course. We will speak tomorrow.” I told him with a smile and a wave as I turned away.

Not far from Halsin stood Zevlor, his chest puffed proudly as he quaffed a goblet of wine.

“Ah! The hero of the hour. Are you enjoying yourself?” He greeted me with enthusiasm.

I smiled and nodded.

“Alfira’s tunes are certainly lending a much needed whimsy to the night, eh?” He said, pointing to the colorfully dressed bard strumming a lute by the campfire.

“She is certainly talented.” I said smiling, turning toward her performance. A few of the tieflings were gathered around her as she played, swaying to the tune of her instrument and the ring of her voice. She sounded lovely.

“Thank you, for all that you’ve done for us.” Zevlor’s drunken happiness dulled to a grateful solemnity.

I turned back toward him to see his eyes welling with water.

“Of course. I wish you all safe travels to Baldur’s Gate.” I said, trying to stay modest and to prevent this drunken soldier from getting all sentimental on me.

Zevlor just smiled, turning his attention back to his wine and going to join the crowd surrounding the singing Alfira. I was glad to see all of the tieflings taking the time to relax and enjoy themselves around the fire.

I looked around, wondering who I might strike up a conversation with next. I laughed to myself to see Karlach dancing her fiery heart out with some of the tieflings, giggling and grinning like a child. So many of the party-goers looked deep in their own conversations and even deeper in their drinks, I hated to interrupt. Out of the corner of my eye I caught Gale, emptying a bottle of wine into a goblet by his tent. His cheeks were flushed, leading me to believe he finished off the bottle all on his own. He looked a little lonely, so I made my way over.

He immediately noticed me as I approached and I saw him quickly swallow the gulp of wine he was holding in his mouth.

“Thank you.” he said earnestly as I stood before him.

I furrowed my brow in confusion.

“For what?” I asked, secretly grateful he seemed more conversational this evening.

“I’m glad you sought me out. Amidst all this merriment I wasn’t sure we’d have a chance to speak this evening.” He explained himself, raising his glass in thanks. “I was hoping you’d spare me a moment. There was something rather magical I wished to show you.”

His words piqued my interest. I did seek to learn as much about magic as I could, both in order to defend myself and to learn how to harness my own power I had only recently discovered was within me.

“Is that so? What did you have in mind?” I asked curiously.

“A lesson! And trust me when I say few have experienced the pleasure I offer to teach. However- it’s something best experienced in more… Intimate surrounds. Once the revelry has ended and the stillness of the night has been restored.” He spoke confidently, the kind of confidence that comes with an abundance of alcohol. He waved his goblet around dramatically as he spoke, it was only a matter of time until he was to spill it.

Despite his vain description of the lesson he had planned, I was intrigued by it nonetheless. I could certainly learn a lot from him, he had been studying magic for a long time from what I could tell. Maybe by the time the tieflings left, he would be more sound of mind.

“Sounds intriguing. I’ll look for you once the celebration has died down, but I don’t want to cut it short. They deserve this.” I said, gesturing to the happy-go-lucky tieflings as they continued to celebrate.

Gale smiled as he watched them, the reality of their situation sobering him just a little. We both watched them in silence for a moment, appreciating the rare opportunity it allowed to appreciate life. Gale cleared his throat and took a drink from his goblet of wine, turning his eyes to the stars.

“A beautiful night, don’t you think? Nothing like a brush with destruction to make you appreciate the beauty of the celestial canvas.” He attempted to change the subject and interrupt the silence between us.

“It’s a view I might have once shared with my companion. Though, definitely unaccompanied by such revelry.” Even with the limited light from the moon, I could see the wistful look in his eyes as he recalled his former company. “She preferred it when we were alone. Curled up before a crackling hearth with some ancient, esoteric tome between us… ink glinting in the firelight…”

I let his words sit with me a moment as I recalled his early days traveling alongside me. I remembered asking him about himself, his words echoed in my mind: “I have a cat, a library, and a weakness for a good glass of wine…” He once said. I chuckled softly as I looked to the empty wine bottle at his feet. He certainly wasn’t lying about that part.

“Are you talking… about your cat?” I asked, imagining he and a fluffy feline curled up beside a fireplace.

“By Alghairons lost nose, no!” He exclaimed, his tone of voice sounding absolutely offended by my assumption.

“She isn’t just any cat! I speak of Tara, my tressym, my assistant, my constant companion through all the ills and tribulations my hubris has thrust upon me.” He was quick to correct me, I nearly feared he was upset with me for making such a mistake in regards to Tara’s exact identity.

To be fair, he did call her a “cat” every so often himself. His eyes went somber as he thought back to his memories with her.

“She’d be most impressed by our efforts saving these tieflings. Proud, even. And I’ve given her little to be proud of recently. After I was afflicted with my condition, I locked myself in my tower for an entire year. I was inconsolable… wallowing in my self-inflicted tragedy. I’d given up on myself. But Tara never did.” A glimmer of gratitude reflected in his half-smile as he spoke of Tara. They certainly shared a special bond.

“It was her encouragement, her research that led me to my treatment. Once we knew that magically infused items were the key, she went out to find them for me. She saved my life. After so long being cared for by someone else, it feels good to have repaid the favor. Not directly to Tara, but to these poor tieflings. I’m sure she would approve.” He looked at me with a soft smile spread across his lips. He was happy to be a part of such a celebration after all his time in solitude, and happier to be the cause.

I was surprised to hear that Tara was able to conduct her own research on Gale’s magical affliction. Animals with such intelligence were hard to come by, in my own experience.

“What is Tara like?” I asked curiously.

Gale pointed a finger towards me, grinning slyly.

“You remind me of her somewhat. There’s a steeliness to you, an unwavering tenacity even in the face of -to be frank- quite dire odds. I wish she were here for me to make a formal introduction, but I would never ask her to undertake such a journey. She is safer at home.” He looked at the ground, disheartened by the truth that Tara couldn’t join us on our journey.

“Besides, she was always telling me I needed to spread my wings, so to speak. Find mortal friends, instead of hanging onto Mystra’s coattails. So that’s what I’m doing. …I hope.”

He fidgeted awkwardly, forgetting his social graces for a moment. The wine that had once sturdied the walls built with the overconfidence of a studied wizard had now begun to crumble them. In that moment, stood before me was an introverted little lamb who needed shepherding. He looked embarrassed, as if he had talked too much or overshared his personal life. It was hard to tell if the pink flush in his cheeks was from the drink or his own self-consciousness.

“She sounds like a fine animal. One I’d be honored to know.” I encouraged him. I was personally flattered he felt comfortable enough to share that much with me. Then again- maybe he wasn’t- and the wine caused him to do so without thinking.

“She would love you!” He exclaimed. “Uh- So long as you don’t rub her belly. She hates it when anyone does that.”

His childlike excitement when talking about his cat was endearing. I don’t know what came over me in the next moment: maybe it was the thought that in his wine-addled daze he may not remember this conversation, or maybe the vulnerability he had shown blossomed an attraction I didn’t know was dormant.

In a playful bout of flirtation I used his words as fuel, “... do you like having your belly rubbed?” I asked, smirking mischievously, baffled by my own confidence to say such a thing. It was silly- stupid even. I almost immediately regretted asking as soon as I opened my mouth.

Gale scoffed, raising an eyebrow. He looked rather mischievous himself as his eyes brimmed with recollection.

“The pleasures I experienced in Mystra’s tutelage go far beyond the thrill of having one’s tummy tickled. I remember once she took the smallest piece of the Weave and made it into- Wait.” He interrupted himself, the memory he was painting a picture of vanishing - his face confused and astounded.

“-Are you saying…?” He asked, squinting his eyes as he looked at me. He was unable to complete his thought.

“You know what, I think I’ve clearly had too much wine. And you’ve had nowhere near enough. I think this is a conversation best held back on - for now. With my condition as volatile as it is, I fear any undue -er- excitement, may tip it over the edge. So to speak.” He collected himself, I could tell it took a bit of effort for him to form coherent thoughts and spin them into words while under the influence.

His failure to reciprocate my impromptu attempt at flirting left me a little crestfallen, but I also wasn’t even entirely sure he was convinced I was expressing romantic interest. As much as he boasted of his magical prowess, his skill for recognizing social cues could use some brushing up on. If I were to say so, I’m sure he would blame the wine, but he even said himself he hadn’t spent time with anyone extensively in at least a year. An experience like that takes a toll on one’s ability to pick up on social subtleties.

“Go, indulge in the frivolities- they’re good for the heart. And mine will be all the lighter, to see you enjoying yourself. If you wish, you can find me when the excitement dies down.” He waved his hand away from himself, clearly embarrassed by the situation. I could see his thoughts spinning rapidly in his head- he looked like he was about to burst trying to keep his composure. I couldn’t bear to torture him with my presence anymore, so I waved goodbye politely. As I walked away I could see him knock down the remainder of the wine in his goblet, grimace at the empty cup, and survey the camp to scope out what vintages were still available.

As I turned away, I saw someone moving by the shore of the nearby lake. It was Wyll! He had secluded himself from the cheer of the party. I approached him quietly as he looked out into the dark, still water. It gave a nearly perfect reflection of the full moon, like a body of liquid mirror. I looked out into the water and listened to the crickets sing, the muffled sounds of the party but background noise to their sweet sound. The chorus of the both of them was comforting.

As I walked closer to the water, the snap of a twig beneath my feet gave away my presence. Wyll jumped, startled, and whipped his head around with his eyes wide, the grey stoney color of his left eye contrasting in his dark surrounds. His surprised face softened when he realized it was just me, but then twisted with mild frustration.

“Agh, Hells. I was hoping you wouldn’t notice I was gone.” He said with a somber-ness in his voice.

“Are you… alright?” I asked, concerned about his anti-social behavior. I had hoped that he would take the time to enjoy himself tonight, especially considering the duty he felt towards these tieflings that let him take refuge with them in the grove. He had contributed toward their ability to travel safely out of the grove and towards Baldurs Gate, that was worth celebrating.

“In truth, I don’t feel in a festive mood, and I didn’t want to cast a grey cloud over the night.” He was silent for a moment, his eyes steering downwards. I could tell he had more to say, but was lost in thought.

“... I’m a devil. I love the people from the grove, but I unsettle them deep down. As I seem to unsettle everyone nowadays.” He looked up from the ground, wheeling his arm back and skipping a stone across the water, avoiding eye contact with me. “You don’t want a devil at your party.” He said with finality in his voice as the stone hopped twice across the water before sinking below. The ripples it created disrupted the perfect reflection of the moon in the water’s surface.

“Are you sure about that? The “Devil” Karlach seems to be the life of the party.” I said jokingly.

Wyll finally stopped avoiding eye contact as he glared at me with an eyebrow raised. “We both know better than to call her a devil, now.” He said, recognizing my playful jab at him.

“But no, actual Devils are unwelcome party guests. Claws will pop the balloons, you see. And the sweetcakes don’t taste half as good as raw eggs with this blasted forked tongue.” He pointed to his mouth, his eyes annoyed and his face grimacing.

“Well just know you don’t unsettle me. These tieflings have some… traumatic history around devils. But know that you are still you- the person who defended them. You aren’t the one who plunged their home into Avernus.” I spoke with a clarity I wanted him to take note of. I spoke factually. Just because he was of the same race as the evil bastards who sank Elturel doesn’t mean he was responsible. I think most of the tieflings recognized that. It would be the same kind of generalization that citizens of Elturel made against the tieflings- the very same reason they were ousted from their home. Just because they were a race related to demons didn’t make them responsible for the tragic fate of their city.

“If only half the world had half the heart you do.” He said, cracking a half-smile at my words.

“Now, off with you. This is your day! Have a dance. Enjoy the music.” He gestured towards Alfira who was gathering more of a crowd now, hopping along to the beat of her tune as she played.

“Alright. I won’t push you to come back to the party. But don’t be a stranger, you are welcome here - devil or otherwise.” I looked at him earnestly, and I could have sworn I saw his cheeks flush as he averted his gaze towards the ground once again.

The Blade of Frontiers - shy? Who would have thought. I just waved at him politely and excused myself as he was left alone with his thoughts. He was still grappling with his whole situation and I didn’t want to interrupt him despite my wishes he would take part in the merriment.

The smile that was on Alfira’s face as she performed for her tiefling friends was irresistible, so I couldn’t help but join the crowd that danced around her as she sang. My dancing was… rusty, but half of the crowd was so drunk on firewine that it didn’t seem to matter. It was all good fun. The music was lively, the night sky was clear and bright, and the company was pleasant. Certainly a night to remember. It made me forget our bleak situation and appreciate the people around me - all of whom I had only met days prior, but had become staples in my life. I wouldn’t forget these moments, even if they were among my last, I would treasure them.

It wasn’t until deep into the hours of the night that the guests had begun to tire, and the effects of the wine began to wane that Zevlor managed to gather the group and herd them back to the grove. They would head out towards the city in the morning, so long as their hangovers didn’t hold them back. I’m sure Zevlor would keep them in line. I watched as he so gently looked after the ones who were particularly influenced by drink, seeing them out of the camp and ensuring they didn’t trip and fall on any stray rocks or tree roots. He smiled at me as he left, gratitude in his eyes. I smiled back and waved as he made his way out of camp.

Looking around, most of my traveling companions were getting cozy in their tents, their bodies radiating with the warmth of several glasses of firewine each. Karlach’s tent was even warmer than normal, just walking by to check on her felt like I was approaching a bonfire.

“Goodnight, Soldier! Get some rest, you partied pretty hard.” Karlach smiled at me as she stretched out on her bedroll.

“Or did I catch you getting friendly with Gale…? Maybe you won’t be sleeping after all…” Karlach sang playfully, winking at me. I felt my already flush face grow warmer with embarrassment.

“Oh- I-” I stuttered, unsure how to respond. “He just- we were-”

Karlach put her hands up as if in surrender. “I’m not judging. He’s charming, no doubt. At least someone is getting some action around here.” Karlach poked fun at her own inability to “get physical”. Past her jokes, I could tell she was happy to have companions who cared about her even if it wasn’t romantic.

I smiled at her awkwardly, unsure how to respond. It was no use protesting, it would only make me seem more guilty in her eyes. “Goodnight, Karlach.” I said, giving her a playful eyeroll. She chuckled and shut her eyes.

Shadowheart wasn’t at her tent, likely enjoying that bottle of wine she had squirreled away. I trusted she would be back by daybreak.

Surprisingly, Astarion was at camp still, asleep soundly. I think he may have even turned in early. I wondered how much longer he would be out for.

Lae’zel was asleep, an empty wine bottle beside her head. She had certainly enjoyed herself.

Wyll had returned to his tent after hearing the excitement die down, his eyes weary with exhaustion.

“Goodnight, Tav.” He said to me as he crawled into his tent.

“G’night.” I said softly in return.

Everybody had turned in for the night. The camp was quiet, apart from the faint chirping of crickets and the soft crackles of smoldering embers on the campfire. My heart sped and my stomach turned as I thought about going to meet Gale for the “magic lesson” he promised. I had anticipated just a teaching moment, a learned wizard sharing his wealth of knowledge with a magic initiate. However, Karlach’s teasing was really getting in my head. Was there something more to Gale and I’s relationship? Romance at a time like this was certainly inopportune. There was the possibility of us becoming monsters overnight, any one of us. Our lives were in serious danger. Then again, that risk left little time for courtship, what other choice was there than to be forward?

I settled my speeding thoughts and made my way to Gale’s tent in the corner of camp. Romantic or otherwise, I was grateful to learn anything he could offer to teach me. Using my own magic was something I didn’t really consider while in battle, I had such little control over it. Even less familiarity with it as a whole. Gale’s back was turned to me as I approached him, his focus fixated on something. I arched my neck to try and see what it was he was doing, and I saw a glowing visage hovering above his outstretched palm. It was a glowing magical bust of a woman, her features striking and elegant. Her beauty was apparent, with powerful looking eyes and her features dripping with femininity. I caught a glance of his face as he stared at the levitating vision he had conjured, his expression filled with longing and regret. He didn’t notice me approach.

“Who is that?” I asked softly, trying not to startle him.

His eyes widened at the sound of my voice, and with a snap of his fingers, the floating visage of the woman disappeared.

“Oh! My, you startled me. I… I was miles away…” He said, shaking his head as to re-situate himself in reality.

“I’m sorry if I was interrupting.” I apologized upon seeing the embarrassed look on Gale’s face.

“No, it’s alright. I was lost in prayer, of all things.” He said, his eyes still resounding with a look of longing.

“Mystra, for indeed it was her image I conjured, commands all magic. Salvation, if such a thing exists, is hers to bestow or withhold. And yet, even now, more than I fear losing my own self and soul, I fear losing my command of her art.” He spoke plainly and with raw emotion, as if his innermost fears and thoughts were bubbling to the surface. Likely a residual effect those last glasses of wine had on him. Although, he was always rather verbose anyways wasn’t he?

I recalled him mentioning Mystra before. I knew she was the goddess of magic, but her likeness was represented differently depending on the temple or the tome. Her goal was to spread magic across the realms, to have all people wield it. My parents used to pray to her when they were desperate, hoping that I would be granted the talent of a mage. I felt my stomach twist at the thought of my parents, of the shame I felt when they would kneel at the statue of Mystra at the Stormshore Tabernacle. I recalled standing there behind them when I was young, staring up at the goddess’s statue in silence. I wasn’t sure what to say to her, whether to beg at her feet or to damn her to the Hells for denying me what I was told was my birthright. Gale’s voice snapped me out of my train of thought.

He stared at his hands, the tools for which he used to channel the Weave, fear in his eyes.

“Magic is… my life. I’ve been in touch with the Weave for as long as I can remember. There’s nothing like it. It’s like music, poetry, physical beauty, all rolled into one and given expression through the senses.”

He waved his hands as if casting a spell, his face alight with joy as he spoke about his one true passion. His love, his life’s dedication - Magic. It was a rare thing to behold, someone with such a devotion who could put it into words in such a picturesque way. He felt strongly about the teachings of Mystra, her will to deliver magic to the realm. He was proud to be able to wield such a talent, and like the goddess he wanted to spread such a gift.

His eyes glittered with passion and excitement as he looked up at me.

“Would you like to experience this?”

The way he asked was almost sultry.

I was unable to help a smile from creeping across my lips as his glittering eyes were locked on me awaiting my answer.

“A lesson from you? Certainly.”

“Then follow my lead.” He said with a half smile and a sly look. He brought his shoulders back and kept his eyes locked on me as he shifted positions to stand beside me. He was making sure I was paying attention.

He straightened his back and raised his hands, still maintaining eye contact. He took a deep breath in and looked forward, moving his left and right hands as if making a snowball out of thin air. As he did so, a sparkle of purple light flickered between his palms, its aura reminiscent of the spells my father used to cast. A sickly-sweet taste teased my tongue as it blinked into and out of existence in a moment.

“Now you.” He pointed an elbow towards me expectantly.

I felt fear creep up my throat. I was so out of my element, his unrelenting gaze watching my every move. Talk about performing under pressure. I took a deep breath, straightened my spine and brought my shoulders back, unable to help myself from looking at him out of the corner of my eye self-consciously. Did I look stupid? What if I couldn’t do it? Ugh, I really didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of him. I just want… to wield magic properly. Screw it, I can do this. Just copy him - pretend like you’re making a snowball. Like you did in the training grounds during Alturiak when amongst classmates.

I steadied myself, hearing my heartbeat pound in my head. Closing my eyes, I tried to copy his movements. I doubted it was a very graceful motion, but my eyes shot open when I felt a spark from my fingertips. The same sickly sweet taste flooded my senses and a purple light sparkled before me. I had done it!

The sickly sweet taste shifted into something sweet but warm and comforting, like a mug of hot cocoa I also recalled enjoying on the snowy days of Alturiak.

“Excellent.” Gale encouraged. “Now repeat after me: Ah-Thran Mystra-Ryl Kantrach-Ao.”
The ancient words rolled off of his tongue with ease, as if he had said them a thousand times over. As he spoke I felt their power, resonating in the air between us like the ripples created by the stones Wyll had skipped across the nearby lake.

I cleared my throat, once again closing my eyes to focus.

“Ah-Thran… Mystra-Ryl… Kantrach-Ao.” I repeated, slowly but deliberately. My heart raced with fear, dreading making a mistake in the delicate process. Magic had the potential to unmake whatever was in its path if not harnessed correctly, or wielded by the wrong soul. It was a lesson that I had always been taught at the Citadel- but it never applied to the likes of me.

As my lips parted, the chant rippled between us, the air glittering as I spoke the final word. The sweet comforting taste that lingered on my tongue was accompanied by the scent of rosewater. I could feel the magic altering my emotions as I felt calm and safe, my fear and anxiety of looking foolish or messing up no longer taking up the forefront of my mind.

“Very good!” Gale said, almost sounding impressed. “Now- I want you to picture in your mind the concept of harmony. As true as you can.” He explained, his focus now split between me and upholding the spell we had begun to cast together.

Harmony? I thought on the request for a moment when the perfect image came to me. I closed my eyes, imagining the peaceful music of the High Forest, the wind whistling a soothing tune and the melody carried out by the songbirds in the highest trees of the deep woods. I would lie there amongst the dew of the sweetgrasses and listen to the song of nature whenever I had a moment out of sight of my parents. I was grateful to escape the bustle of the township and the schoolyard.

As I opened my eyes, hazy purple wisps of magic floated in the air around us, moving through the air slowly and gracefully. I could feel the presence of a woman, as if she were beside us. Closing my eyes, I could see her- the same features as the visage that had hovered over Gale’s palm and the same decorated robes that had graced the statue I stood before as a child. We were nestled in the cup of Mystra’s hand, safe under her watchful eye. Her presence was undeniable, despite the fact she wasn’t physically there. As the spell circled around us, I felt something awaken inside of me. A warm sensation, like a ray of sunlight, started in my toes and slowly crept up my leg, as if I stood before a sunrise - but the sky was dark with night. Before long, my whole body was warmed as if I had been soaking in a hot spring. I was suddenly more acutely aware of the spell that Gale and I were concentrating on, feeling the magic channel itself through my body and escaping through my palms. The magic that came from within me shifted as I concentrated on it, the sugar-y taste gaining an earthen spice, like cinnamon. This was magic of a different type than Gale’s, but it blended with his own power nicely. Like a mixed co*cktail, our magic combined to complete the cast, their auras complementing one another.

The spell itself made it feel like we had walked into a reserved and solitary corner of peace. Within the magical circle, the sound of the crickets was muffled and the cold of the night was shielded. A tingle of excitement shivered through me, like the anticipation of a kiss. It was sprinkled amongst the peace and the calm that the magic provided, as if something else was fated to occur.

Gale laughed as he looked around at the swirling purple haze that encircled us, beaming with pride.

“You did it! You’re channeling the Weave. How does it feel?” He turned towards me, giddy like a child on Shieldmeet.

As he looked towards me, I realized just how close he had been standing. He wasn’t hiding the pride in his expression as he eagerly awaited my response, his eyes scanning my face to try and discern how I felt about dipping my fingers into the Weave.

“Amazing… I-” I began to speak, but I almost had to hold back tears. This is something I had wanted to do all my life. Would I admit that to Gale? Would I share such a vulnerability with this man I still felt like I hardly knew?

“You’re a wonderful teacher.” I said, shifting my train of thought. I concentrated on soaking in the feeling of casting magic. The buzz at my fingertips, the warmth making its way up my forearm, the calm and evenly spaced beats of my heart as it focused itself on the power of the Weave.

“Oh, I know.” Gale said with a grin, letting the pride of the successful lesson fluff his ego just a bit.

I turned towards him, smile wide, feeling the spell connecting the two of us. We had casted it together, both of us cloaked in the peaceful nook of Mystra’s creation. We were in the same space physically and spiritually, closer to one another than we had ever been. I felt my heart selfishly yearn for such an experience never to end. Such safety, such close companionship… such intimacy.

I felt a mental recognition as Gale and I looked into one another’s eyes and I drew closer to him. I felt as if the only place more safe than standing beside him was to be in his arms, protected in his embrace. Did he feel the same? Our bodies and spirits were in the same place… as were our very minds. The Weave was making us one. Anything I could imagine, any image or fantasy I could dream of… would be shared with the person beside me. It was different from the psychic connection of the tadpoles, which felt invasive and tinged with ill-intent. This connection we shared within the Weave was soft and welcoming, like a shared pillow.

I felt my heart quicken as we looked at one another, the beautiful shimmer of the spell creating a magical backdrop against the night sky. His smile was so endearing, full of pride and contentment. I could see flecks of purple light shine in his eyes and reflect off of the silver of his earring. I felt my knees buckle as a light breeze wafted Gale’s scent of berry wine and mahogany towards me. It complemented the rosewater scent of the spell quite well. I suddenly realized Gale’s presence occupied the majority of my senses and found that I couldn’t help myself, the daydreams that I brushed aside during our travels resurfacing without a chance for me to stop them. The thought of Gale’s muscled arm brushing against mine, him lifting his finger below my chin and gazing into my eyes. His look filled with care, with love, with the same passion that glinted in his glare as when he would talk about magic. He would draw me in for a tender kiss, and as our lips met and our bodies drew close, the tender moment would expand into one of passion and devotion.

As soon as my innermost desires were exposed to the forefront of my mind, I felt all the blood in my body rush to my face as I must have blushed as red as an imp.

“I…” Gale began, his voice soft and gentle, yet hesitant. “I didn’t think…”

I kept my gaze locked on him as I saw him experience a range of emotions in a matter of seconds. His face was confused and shocked, but I could feel his embarrassment match my own despite the lack of pink on his cheeks. I felt his trepidation, unsure if my thoughts were intentional or in error.

He looked back at me, searching for an answer with his eyes, with his own mind, to see if what I had imagined was in fact my desire. It only took a moment for my true intentions to reveal themselves - they were plain as day at that point. I was unable to put up such a shield of secrecy as Shadowheart. His trepidation shifted into elation, a childlike smile plastered to Gale’s face.

“Sorry, I wasn’t expecting…” He turned his eyes toward the ground, avoiding eye contact, but still smiling to himself. “But it is a pleasant image- to be sure!” He looked back at me, a little panicked as if he had offended me in some way.

I just smiled in response, still feeling the heat across my face as I blushed like a bard caught without their breeches.

“Most pleasant, in fact. Most welcome.” His panic subsided as he spoke with reassurance and clarity. His hand grazed my arm lightly in a comforting way. He was happy I had been so forward, albeit unintentionally.

My embarrassment only grew as he spoke and his deep brown eyes looked into mine. I felt myself try so hard to maintain eye contact with him, but my own impulsions caused me to look away, turning my gaze toward the ground, unable to face him after feeling a little too exposed.

As our eye contact broke, the floating haze around us fell, the sweet taste on our tongues and the warm safety in our hearts evaporating. The still quiet of the night gripped us in an instant, comparatively cold to the warmth of Mystra’s hand. The chill gave me goosebumps. The spiritual and mental connection I had shared with Gale was wiped away, as were our smiles.

Gale let out a soft sigh as he looked around us.

“There it goes. How easily things slip away from us, no matter how hard they were in the obtaining.” He said somberly. I looked around us, disappointed that it had already ended. I craved to feel the buzz of magic on my palms once more. It was strange, despite the spell ending and the magic dissipating from the camp, I felt the taste of cinnamon linger on my tongue.

“Goodnight. I enjoyed sharing a moment of magic with you.” Gale said, looking at me with a soft smile.

My heart melted at his words, his voice like the smooth tone of a viola. I smiled back, waving shyly, my voice caught somewhere in the ether as I failed to find something to say to him. Gods, how would I face him in the morning?

He walked back to his tent slowly and I turned to my own bedroll. I had thought that I caught him looking back at me out of the corner of my eye, but it may have just been my imagination.

As I sprawled on my bedroll, my eyes were drawn to the night sky. It was beginning to lighten now, the stirring of birds in the trees told me morning would come soon. Thank the gods for my elven genetics, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to function come daybreak. Closing my eyes, I let my mind drift to thoughts of Gale and I, side by side. I imagined we were curled up by a crackling hearth, an ancient, esoteric tome between us…

Chapter 12: The Dawn Breaks

Summary:

The morning following a night of revelry with the tieflings, Gale reveals to Tav what may truly be the cause of her inability to wield magic the way she has wanted all her life.

Halsin also reveals more information on his tadpole research, leading the group in a new direction.

Chapter Text

I awoke to the feeling of a soft warm tongue drag its way across my face, opening my eyes to a vision of white fur and two warm brown eyes peering into my own. Scratch was standing over me, his tail wagging relentlessly and his tongue lolled out.

I sat up from my bedroll, petting him behind his ears.

“Good Morning, boy! You hungry? Didn’t get enough scraps last night?” I said, laughing as his wiggly tail swished back and forth.

I was startled as the taste of cinnamon covered my tongue, leaving a soft tingle in my mouth.

“Yes, please! It smells like breakfast!” An excited male voice echoed, but I didn’t recognize it. It hadn’t been the voice of any of the members in camp.

I looked around frantically, searching for an intruder, a little panicked.

Scratch put a paw on my leg in comfort as I whipped my head around wildly back and forth. There was nobody near my bedroll…

“Is everything alright, master?” The voice arose again. “Master?”

My eyes widened, turning to look at Scratch who was staring at me intently, his paw still sitting on my leg.

“Scratch did you… just call me master?” I spoke quietly, trying not to wake the camp members still getting some rest. I was certain some of them would be hung over from the revelry. Maybe I was still feeling the effects too- I was suddenly convinced a dog was talking to me.

“I… I guess I did. You have come to mean a great deal to me.” Scratch layed down and put his head on my lap, his eyes looking up at me shyly, his tail wagging faster. It was in fact Scratch’s voice that echoed in my head, his muzzle not moving but his voice clear as day.

“I can understand you… much clearer than I could before. It’s as if you speak Sylvan!” I said to him, laughing and petting his head. He panted happily out as he thoroughly enjoyed the affection.

What could have possibly allowed for this ability? Did someone spike the drinks last night with a potion?

My thoughts were interrupted by approaching footsteps. Scratch stood quickly, his ears pricked up and pointed towards the sound. I could see his leg muscles activate, as if he was preparing to lunge at any incoming intruder.

From around the corner came Gale, a frying pan in one hand and a wooden spoon in another. He was dressed in his purple velvet-y nightclothes, the morning sun giving them a regal-looking sheen.

“Ah, you’re awake. Care for some eggs?” He asked, gliding the spoon over the eggs that sizzled in the pan.

Scratch drooled at the scent of the food. It did smell good.

I pushed down the embarrassment that bubbled within me at the sight of him. How ridiculous it was of me to imagine something so frivolous as sharing a kiss last night when we had so much more pressing matters at hand.

”I’d love some.” I managed to respond, grateful for the offer. “Got any spare for Scratch?” I asked as I got up from my sleeping position.

“I think I can let go of some for the little bugger, sure.” Gale said, winking at an excited and salivating Scratch.

“Thank you, Magus!” Scratch said, happily prancing behind us as we both walked towards the campfire.

“Did… did you hear him?” I asked Gale, hesitantly. Did I sound crazy?

“Hear who? Scratch? It’s hard not to hear his bark, I’m surprised the camp is still sleeping.” Gale said with a chuckle. He cracked another egg into the pan that sizzled above the fire.

Hmm. So that disproved the theory about the wine being spiked- Gale had taste tested all the vintages he could find last night- I was sure.

“He called you a “magus”.” I said as I sat on a log by the fire. Gale looked up from his frying pan and stared at me curiously, his furrowed brow clearly showing his confusion.

“You… understand him?” Gale asked for clarification.

“I… Well yes. I suppose I do. As of this morning. Can dogs speak Sylvan?” I asked, half joking but half genuinely curious.

Gale laughed. “Can’t say that they do. But people can speak with animals if they are to utilize magic. Did you do some spellcasting without me?” He feigned offense at the idea. He created banter so effortlessly I wondered if he recalled the awkwardness of last night’s events.

I chuckled at his joke, but was also confused by his answer. I didn’t cast anything, I wouldn’t begin to know how.

“I couldn’t have, I don’t know the incantation.” I said with certainty.

Gale’s eyes lit up with realization. “Well- there is one instance where you wouldn’t need an incantation…” He began. I fixed my focus on him as I saw him scan through the library of his memory.

“It would be the result of an intrinsic Primal Magic. The magic of Druids.” He explained, pointing his wooden spoon at me.

Druids? The only druid at camp was Halsin, and he was still asleep.

“Halsin isn’t awake yet, this couldn’t be his doing.” I said, brushing off Gale’s explanation.

“Tav, I don’t think it’s Halsin, either. I think it must be you. You must be a druid.” Gale looked at me, not a doubt in his gaze. His eyes glinted with the lightest touch of admiration.

“A druid? Me?” I said in disbelief. I had always admired druids, seeing their raw and natural power being used always put me in a state of awe. The druids in the High Forest impressed me to no end, and the druids in the grove only further proved the power one could have when communing with the spirits of the earth.

“Yes, you.” Gale said smiling. “You know- I recognized a twinkle in your touch as we shared that moment in the weave last night. It was an unfamiliar twinkle, however. Not the same as the arcane impression of a Wizard or Sorcerer. It was primal. I’m certain of it.”

I felt my heartbeat resonate through every limb at his mention of our moment of magic, letting his words slowly sink in. I could hardly believe it. All this time I was cursing myself for being unable to cast magic, unable to replicate the spells my parents thrust upon me. When unbeknownst to me… I was meant to be channeling my magic through the beauty of the world around me. Serving nature and protecting it for future generations- as Halsin so nobly did. I sat around the fire in silence, in awe and disbelief. Gale focused on his cooking, letting me sit with my thoughts. Every move he made was calm and composed as I felt like a shaking leaf - pent up with anxious energy.

After a few minutes of quiet, he handed me a spoon and wooden bowl with some fried eggs inside, some herbs sprinkled over the top.

“Food for thought.” He said cleverly, cracking a smile at his own wit.

I looked over at Scratch who was already munching on some scraps that Gale had left in the frying pan and so generously put on the ground for him. Gratefully I took the bowl Gale offered and dug in as he sat beside me.

“Unbelievable.” I said between bites, my brain still racking through the realization of my identity.

“Not so unbelievable. You have great talent, both magical and otherwise. It’s no wonder you’re a druid. They’re known for being quite well-rounded.” Gale said matter-of-factly as he munched on his own breakfast.

He spoke so nonchalantly, but what he said was such a massive compliment I felt my heart skip. He was so learned himself- he said he was once an archmage and he thought I was talented? I had to calm myself before I began to blush.

“I… I thank you.” I said, pausing my meal to look at him sincerely.

He looked back as he was chewing on his breakfast, slight surprise on his face as I had spoken with such sentiment. He quickly swallowed his bite so he could respond properly.

“You’re thanking me? For what?” He asked, baffled. I was stricken with deja-vu as I recalled him thanking me out of the blue after drinking too much wine at the party.

“For teaching me magic last night. I had…” My voice trembled, my words loaded with emotion. I couldn’t cry in front of him- he thinks I’m strong!

“I had been trying to cast magic for years. Last night was one of the few times I had ever succeeded. Not only that- but now you’ve gone and shown me I am likely a druid?!” I scoffed in disbelief at my own words.

“You have no idea how much weight you have lifted from my shoulders - how many doors you have just opened for me.” I said, taking a deep breath of relief.

He smiled at me, humbled by my words and happy to see my tension ease.

“No need to thank me. It was in you all along. You just needed a little push.” He playfully shifted his weight to one side and bumped his shoulder into me.

We both laughed as I wobbled in my seat. He was leaning so close to me, now. My thoughts shifted into the daydream I shared with him, imagining a tender kiss between us. I couldn’t stop myself from taking a quick glance at his lips. As soon as I realized what I was doing I corrected my gaze, looking up at his eyes. This was no time to- wait. Did he… just glance at my lips? His eyelids were lowered, but his eyes weren’t closed. Maybe he was just tired? He didn't have elven blood like me- he needed a full night's rest, which there was not time for after our magic lesson. I was about to assume he was just a little groggy, when he slowly leaned in closer, a rosy glow on his cheeks. My heart raced, a familiar feeling of anticipation rushing through my body, was he… could he be about to…?

“Ah! You’ve started on breakfast!” A warm, deep voice boasted, footsteps sounding on the dirt of the campsite.

Gale and I both tensed at the sound, whipping our heads toward the voice. Approaching the campfire stood a towering Halsin, still in his nightwear. Well… if you could call it nightwear. He wore a pair of brown linen breeches with gold embellishment going up the sides, and was bare-chested. I noticed the scar resembling the slash of a bear’s claws streaked across his chest. It mimicked the smaller scar on his face that spread from his forehead to his cheekbone. He was lucky to still have an eye. His whole body was built like an Orc. I had never seen an Elf with such a figure, he was more muscular than even the strongest Elven warriors I had met during all my training. Halsin was much more brawny compared to the dexterous and lean typical build of male Elves. I must have looked like a fool as I was fixated on his broad shoulders and pronounced chest muscles, but they were certainly hard to miss.

Gale cleared his throat. “Would you like a fried egg, Halsin?” He asked, holding up a wooden spoon in offering.

Halsin smiled wide. “It smells delicious! I’d love one. It’s so nice to be out in the depths of nature again, the grove was getting far too comfortable for me.” He said, taking a seat beside the fire.

Gale got up from beside me to start frying some more eggs, and as soon as he stood I longed for him to be close again. I brushed away the feeling, trying to align my focus elsewhere.

“Too comfortable? You prefer sleeping in the dirt and eating only goodberries to survive?” I asked Halsin playfully.

He let out a low chuckle. “On occasion, I do. I feel that I am being called by the Treefather to explore new paths. It is no coincidence we met during my research of the tadpoles. All of these mindflayer spawn have become far too commonplace- it is disrupting the balance of nature.” Halsin explained.

He was right. The fact that there are so many of us infected- and so many that are infected unconsciously spells real trouble. The false cult of the “Absolute” threatens to overthrow the gods of the realms - the Treefather included. To stop it all from continuing is a good first step towards the ultimate goal - being absolved of the parasite altogether.

“You said the Treefather was calling you to explore more, how long have you heard his voice?” I asked, curious about the druidic religion. I may as well start learning all I could about druids so that I may understand the roots of my magic clearly.

Halsin looked at me quizzically. “Silvanus? Hm, well now I recognize I have known him all my life, but I think that early on I failed to realize it was him. He materializes on this plane in many ways, some of which are less conventional than others.” Halsin went on, staring off somewhere distant as he spoke, obviously being transported into a memory. He shook his head as he found himself back in reality.

“Have you no alignment with a particular deity?” Halsin turned to me curiously.

Gale’s attention was shifted from the frying pan he held over the fire and looked towards me after the question Halsin posed. It seemed he was curious to know the answer too.

I shifted in my seat uncomfortably. I felt a little targeted, both of them were obviously very dedicated to their respective deities.

“Ah, I…” I began, but realized I wasn’t sure how to answer. I had always been brought to the temple to pray to Mystra since I was young, but I never felt her call out to me until just last night with Gale as the conduit.

“I had been raised to worship the goddess Mystra in my childhood… but I’m unsure if she is the goddess that would best steward me.” I explained. I saw Gale purse his lips and avert his attention back to the eggs frying over the campfire. Probably not what he wanted to hear.

“I see.” Halsin said, pondering my response. “Well, if you’d like to know anything more about Silvanus and his teachings, do not hesitate to ask.” He looked at me with a warm smile and an expression of understanding.

“For you, good sir.” Gale said, tipping the frying pan into Halsin’s bowl and serving up two piping hot fried eggs.

“Thank you, Gale. Much appreciated.” Halsin said with a smile, and began to dig in.

“If you’ll both excuse me, I have a few tasks to complete this morning before we head out.” Gale said, nodding at the two of us courteously as he hastened back to his tent.

I hope I hadn’t offended him.

Halsin then turned to me as he continued to eat his breakfast.

“I wonder if he’ll be catching up on some sleep, he did seem a bit tired around his eyes.” Halsin observed once Gale was out of earshot. I smiled to myself, remembering Nettie saying the same thing about me when she had examined my health in the grove’s infirmary. She must have adopted the same verbage as her mentor.

“Could be.” I said wistfully, recalling how late we were up practicing magic.

“Did you enjoy your evening?” Halsin asked politely.

I looked up at him, quickly pushing aside my Gale-ridden daydreams. I don’t need to embarrass myself over being love-struck in front of an archdruid.

“I did, It was a luxury I’m sure we won’t have for a while yet. I'm glad we enjoyed it whilst we could.” I said with a grin.

“There is much to be done, and I promised I would help you however I could. I’m certain a cure can be found for you at Moonrise Towers, but it’s… complicated. The journey specifically- it’s extremely perilous.” Halsin began, setting down his fork. His face wore a serious look and the tone of his voice deepened, making the gravelly vocal fry of his still awakening voice more apparent.

“Perilous how?” I asked. I was glad someone had a direction to point us in to find a solution to our tadpoles, but afraid to find out what we had to go through to get there.

“To get to the Towers, you’ll need to pass through a terrible place - a cursed place. This curse surrounds everything in shadow- you will not find life, light, or anything natural there. Any who linger are twisted by the curse; they become shadow beings- tormented, dangerous souls.”

“How can the forces of the cult survive there?” I asked, confused.

“I don’t know how. You will have to choose your approach carefully. You could go overland- along the Risen Road or through the mountains. Easier at first, but you will run into the shadow curse eventually. You could also go under.” Halsin explained, peaking my curiosity. He must have taken note of my undivided attention as he straightened his spine.

“There is a tunnel- somewhere in that ruined temple of Selune that the goblins desecrated. It leads to Moonrise Towers through the Underdark.” At the mention of the Underdark, I barely detected a hint of discomfort in Halsin’s eyes. Did he not like the Underdark? I had never been there, myself. I had only heard the grim history of the dark elves who lived there that I was taught in elven classrooms.

“Why would a temple of Selune have a tunnel leading down there?” I asked, familiar with followers of Selune and their affinity towards the moon. You couldn’t see the sky from the underdark as far as I knew.

Halsin drew in a deep breath, his eyes wavering as he scanned his mind recalling a history- or could it be a memory?

“Long ago, a man called Ketheric Thorm built a secret stronghold deep down there, before rallying a whole army of Dark Justiciars- Shar worshippers. Aradin and his lot were looking for a way down there too- they were promised riches if they retrieved a relic called the Nightsong. But I believe there’s more. From this stronghold, Ketheric’s forces could access both the temple and Moonrise Towers - but he was defeated before he could launch such an attack. If you can find this place, I’ll wager it will reveal a more direct path to Moonrise Towers and may even bypass the worst of the shadow curse.”

I took a moment to absorb the information he offered. Dark Justiciars? I seemed to recall reading something about them. I paused in thought, the image suddenly making itself known in my mind. There were plaques and tapestries in the Druid’s Grove about the Emerald Enclave druids banding together with another guild to fight off the Justiciar Shar worshippers. It was a recount of history from long ago, at least a century. Could Halsin have been… a part of that battle?

I was tempted to ask him directly, but was unsure if he would want to recount such an experience. Before I could open my mouth- he spoke directly.

“I would like to join your camp, if you’ll allow me. I can offer my skills, my counsel.” He looked at me with unwavering intent.

“What about the Emerald Grove?” I asked, concerned we would be taking the leader of a band that so clearly admired Halsin greatly.

“I’ve already chosen a successor as First Druid. A bird has already been dispatched to summon her.” He smiled with pride.

“A successor? From outside the grove? Who have you chosen?” I was surprised he did not promote someone like Rath, who had so vehemently disapproved of Kagha’s hostility towards young Arabella. He seemed like a good leader.

“The grove needs to move beyond the mistakes of the past. What it needs is an unknown quantity; an outsider who can enforce the Oak Father’s teachings without bias.” explained Halsin. His words were wise.

“That is why I have chosen Francesca of the High Forest. She will restore simplicity and purity to the grove in my absence.”

My eyes widened in disbelief. Memories of the cool breeze and birdsong of the High Forest flooded back, the golden glimmer of a young druid girl’s magic blessing me as I stood before her. It couldn’t possibly be… yet there was no chance it was anyone else. She was
the girl that I had met in the forest as a child.

“Francesca… have you… met her?” I began, trying to regain my composure.

“I have, but only in passing. Before I settled in the Emerald Grove I would find myself in the High Forest often. It is a wondrous place, nature running rampant and free around every corner. It is completely unburdened by the walls of civilization, only the occasional alcove or rural township.” He spoke of the place with wonder in his voice and sparkle in his eyes. It was a place he loved and longed to return to. I suppose I could relate in that sense.

“I haven’t seen her in so long. I wonder if she would remember me…” I said softly, hoping she might recall our fateful encounter. There was no doubt in my mind she knew all along of my druidic abilities.

Halsin looked perplexed. “Remember you?” He asked.

I looked up at him thoughtfully, brimming with happiness at the thought I might see her again. It had been years.

“I met her when we were just children. She had such a grasp on magic even at such a young age- she was someone I looked up to.” I explained, recalling her fiery red hair standing out against the verdant surroundings of the forest.

“I have heard tale of her primal magic prowess.” Halsin said in agreement. “Although, I had no idea you frequented the High Forest. I’m surprised we had never met before as I acquainted myself with the druid circles there. I often visited the gravestones of my family beneath the Grandfather tree.”

I felt a pang in my gut at the thought I might have known I was a druid sooner, and a sadness to hear that Halsin had no family left but those buried in the High Forest. It’s as if I had missed an opportunity my whole life by not crossing paths with someone like Halsin earlier on, and Halsin had missed out on a friend he could have confided in while coping with the passing of his kin. From how he spoke about it, though, he had lost them long ago and he had come to bear the wounds they left in their parting.

“Oh, I wasn’t part of a druidic circle. I was in a small township there, before my family moved to Baldur’s Gate. They wanted me to go to school to hone my sorcery skills.” I said, rolling my eyes at the thought.

Halsin let out a lively laugh. “Sorcery, eh? Were they aware of your Primal gift?” He said matter-of-factly. How could he have known? Gale had only just told me! I hadn’t revealed it to anyone, I hadn’t had time to!

“What? How- how did you-?” I stuttered, flabbergasted at the fact he was able to discern the origins of my abilities so easily.

“Don’t underestimate the discerning eye of an archdruid, Tav. Or, the well trained nose of a Cave Bear for that matter.” He said with a smile, referencing the form I had discovered him in when I had rescued him from the Goblin prison.

“You can smell primal magic?” I asked in disbelief.

“As a being who is intimately familiar with the workings of Primal Magic and who prefers the form of a Cave Bear rather than of an elf, I can sense the gift of Primal Magic on others. They are typically also aware of their abilities, however.” He remarked.

I felt myself shrink, a little ashamed and embarrassed at the fact I was unable to recognize my own abilities sooner. I didn’t like that I had to rely on others to tell me about my own gift. Halsin must have seen the frustration on my face.

“Tav, It is a wonderful gift you have. It doesn’t matter if you are not trained in it, it is never too late to learn to wield it.” Halsin came over and sat on the log beside me, laying a hand on my back in comfort. His massive hand left my whole body feeling warmed.

“If you’d like, I’d be happy to train you to channel your Primal Magic. It is an ability best learned with the aid of a mentor- especially when it comes to Wild Shape-ing.” Halsin said kindly, laughing lightly at his own joke.

I twisted my face in thought. He was so kind as to offer to teach me. I recalled Gale's ability to teach me a spell or two -but he was a master of the arcane- the same field of magic that I had failed to replicate all my life. It was Halsin who had the knowledge necessary for me to really grow in my magical ability.

“Halsin, are you certain you’d like to guide me through this? I am an absolute novice - I’d probably have a skill level akin to your youngest of charges.” I explained. He had to know what he was signing up for.

Halsin laughed again, more heartily and wholesome this time. “Tav, If I have learned anything in my 300 years of life, I have most certainly learned patience. You are far more mature than any of the charges I have taught at the grove- there is no chance you will break my resolve.” He assured me.

I smiled at him cheerfully. I was truly grateful for his offer to tutor me. It made me look forward to our travels together all the more. However, my thoughts returned to the fact that Francesca was coming to the grove in a matter of days.

“Do you think… we could go back to the grove? To see Francesca?” I asked, my voice trembling with hope. To see her again… I wonder if she knew how much influence that day had on the trajectory of my life.

“If I get word of her arrival, I will let you know. It would be my pleasure to initiate such a reunion between the two of you.” Halsin said politely.

I would look forward to the day I could thank her for her kindness after all these years...

Chapter 13: The Warlock's Heritage

Summary:

During a fiery rescue, Wyll's bloodline is revealed to the group and Tav finds a new power within herself.

Chapter Text

Smoke billowed into the sky, all of us breaking into a run as we rushed to see the source. As we walked into the gates of the small town, we were horrified to see it devastated by flame. Soldiers darted left and right, all of them bearing red and orange tabards with the symbol of the Flaming Fist- the mercenaries of Baldur’s Gate. I tried to get a good look at some of them through their helmets, assessing if maybe I knew any of them from my time training at the Citadel. It was hard to make out their faces in the calamity of the situation. They were frantic, calling out names of companions and kneeling beside the fallen. It was gut wrenching.

We stepped carefully into the town square, scanning every window for enemies- but there were none. We were too late, and now we stood in the wake of their destruction.

“You there! A hand?” An armored officer of the Flaming Fist called on me and my companions, beckoning us over to a heavy wooden door.

“Duke Ravengard could be inside!” One of the infantry-men called out, five of them heaving their body weight onto the door. In saying this, it seemed to ignite an urgency within the guards, making them all the more determined to get into the building that seized with flame.

I recognized the name- none other than the Duke of Baldur’s Gate. I hastily joined them, Wyll, Karlach, and even Gale joined in as the captain of the guard counted us down.

“One… Two… THREE!” She shouted, as all of us knocked ourselves into the wooden door in unison.

The door splintered, collapsing under all of our weight, and the Flaming Fist leaped into action.

“Hurry! We don’t have much time!” The captain called, her voice strained from all the shouting she had been doing. The roaring of flames from the upper floor made it hard to hear her.

The guards darted inside, covering their mouth with their red and orange tabards, squinting as smoke and ash obstructed vision within the burning building. It was sweltering-ly hot, the masonry of the structure only insulating it more. As I followed the Flaming Fist, I beckoned my companions to follow. Karlach didn’t mind the heat- keeping close on my tail as I scanned the small peripheral of my vision for any survivors. Wyll scanned the inside of the building too, his movements more frantic and panicked than usual. Gale was full of trepidation as he stepped through the doorway, keeping a spell prepared in his palms that glittered like the sparkle of ice.

In the haze of the smoke I managed to find a staircase, urging my legs onwards and sensing the formidable presence of Karlach right behind me as I went. As we approached the upper floor, the intense heat only got worse. I could feel the sweat pooling beneath my leather armor and cascading down the sides of my face.

“Hello?! Can you hear me!?” A woman’s voice called, barely audible over the roar of flame that raged on the upper floor. Someone had survived.

“Stay where you are!” I shouted, turning my ear towards where I thought the shouting was coming from. Looking around the upper floor, I could see blazes that were like geysers of flame, threatening to devour the building whole. Its hunger was insatiable, sparking and spreading like a plague throughout the wooden interior. Carefully I navigated the area, the light the fire provided giving some visibility through the thick gray smoke clouds that hovered in the air.

“Find her!” I heard one of the Flaming Fist shout through the smoke, but I couldn’t see where they were.

“In here!” She called again, this time the voice significantly louder. I was nearby.

I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, able to see the silhouette of a body through gaps in a collapsing wall.

“Karlach!” I yelled, competing with the sound of the flames as they consumed the building around us. I pointed at the wall, and she nodded in recognition.

Together, her with her greataxe and I with my glaive, swung at the collapsing wall with all of our strength. Its’ stability was so compromised already, it crumbled like chalk as we struck it.

Through the dust of the collapse, a tall, slender female wood elf approached us. She was coughing uncontrollably, unable to offer us thanks, but past her watering eyes was a grateful glance. I wasted no time, grabbing her wrist and guiding her back the way we came, testing the stability of the floorboards that might snap under any pressure. The stairs were even more treacherous now, the wood of the steps blackening and smoldering as the fire threatened to claim them next. The woman couldn’t even open her eyes now, her coughing fit had taken over and the tears in her eyes rendered her blind- especially with the thickness of the smoke only getting worse. There was no chance I could lead her down a staircase without her tripping.

“Grab her, Soldier! I’ll be your eyes!” Karlach shouted at me, taking the lead. I knew what she was telling me to do- although her physical form was more suited for it. If only she didn’t singe people upon touching them.

I relied on the adrenaline of the moment to garner the strength to grab the elf by her legs and hoist her onto my back. Still rendered speechless, she just nodded, understanding my attempt and wrapping her arms around my neck tightly, relieving some of the weight of her body from my back. Karlach carefully tested the stability of the steps as we made our way down, doing so as quickly as we could manage with our victim in tow. Once we hit the bottom floor, we were practically home-free. We both looked toward the door, the white light of the outside beckoning past the blur of smoke.

“Quick, Soldier!” Karlach screamed as she dashed ahead, pointing a clawed finger at a pillar of wood that smoldered with embers, separating it from the frame of the home. It shifted, threatening to collapse.

Another pulse of adrenaline coursed through me, and suddenly my legs were not my own. I felt my body shift, my muscles contort and my stature change as suddenly my eyes sat lower to the ground. I still felt the elf woman’s arms wrapped tightly around my neck, but my legs suddenly felt less strain on them even with her weight leaning on mine. I felt more flexible- more agile. I could see the pillar start to fall, feeling my legs move more swiftly than I had thought possible, each twitch of my muscles rapid and strong as I leapt forward. I swerved and ducked through the terrain of the bottom floor, dodging the crumbling structure and landing safely at the building’s front steps once more.

I looked around, relieved to see all of my companions all outside the building safely as I heard the structure come crashing down behind me. The Flaming Fist seemed okay too, counting all five of them as they were coughing and sweating profusely. They were consoling one another- offering canteens of water and assessing each other’s conditions. I took a deep breath, thankful everyone had made it out alive.

As I assessed the condition of my companions, I noticed the strange look they were giving me. Eyebrows raised, eyes wide, and mouths agape. I knew my rescue attempt was impressive, but not so much as to stun them in their place like they were.

“Morrissey… you… you’re-” Wyll said as he stared at me. I noticed myself looking up at him as he spoke. Did he get taller?

“You’re a f*cking panther!” Karlach shouted, baring her pointed teeth as she smiled wide, cackling with excitement. “That was incredible!”

I’m a what?

Panic filled me as I looked down at my hands that were… no longer hands. In their place were dark, fur covered digits and menacingly sharp claws. I trembled as I recognized the tingly cinnamon flavor that coated my mouth. It was the familiar taste of my magic that lingered on my tongue. It had gone unnoticed as my senses were overwhelmed with heat, adrenaline and smoke. Upon realizing I had Wild-Shaped, the fear that followed broke my focus, de-stabilizing my form. I felt my spine straighten and my arms return to my side, my head still spinning from the experience.

“That was quite the rescue.” Gale said encouragingly, his eyes gleaming with what looked to be… pride.

I felt the warmth of embarrassment blossom on the tips of my ears, but I hoped it was covert enough to be attributed to the heat of the fire that I had narrowly escaped.

The woman that still hung on my back stirred, her breaths shaky as she gasped for the fresh air outside of the stuffy building. I knelt to let her down onto her feet again, wobbling a little as she gained her footing. She opened her eyes, her lashes wet from the tears that had clung to them.

“Counsellor Florrick- are you all right?” Wyll asked, his voice full of concern.

He knew this woman. She turned towards him, her gaze flickering with recognition.

“Wyll! - By the Maimed God, what’s become of you?” She said, her eyes widening in disbelief. While our merry band had adjusted to his new form quite quickly, I guess he certainly looked different since the last time she saw him.

Wyll gulped back his shame at her reaction, addressing her calmly. “A story best left for calmer days. Now, breathe deeply- are you in pain?” He asked. His genuine concern for her well being was honorable.

“A scorched throat, a few hairs singed off. Nothing a bit of time and fresh air can’t cure.” She said, holding her delicate fingers to her throat as she spoke. It must have stung a little to talk.
She turned to the Flaming Fist officers, all of them recovered and awaiting orders. I looked at them now, all of them carrying their helmets in their hands to reveal hair soaked in sweat, faces glistening from the moisture. I felt my heart skip a beat as I looked them over. The officer among them, the one that had called on us to help knock down the door- it was Cora.

I couldn’t even manage to get a word out before Counsellor Florrick addressed them, my surprise nearly paralyzing me.

“Gauntlet, a new duty calls. Drow have taken Grand Duke Ulder Ravengard - westward, if my eyes and ears can be believed. Report to the manip and send for reinforcements. We must find the Duke.” She stated. Her voice was steady, urgent, and strong.

“On your command, Counsellor.” Cora saluted, her eyes never wavering from the Counsellor’s. What a soldier she had become in this short amount of time.

“No. It can’t be.” Wyll’s voice trembled. The duke going missing spelled trouble for the city- any Baldurian would have a right to be concerned. I was too, but the strain in his voice sounded like he was holding back tears. “They’ve taken m-”

“Yes, Wyll. The drow have your father.” Counsellor Florrick interrupted him, and Wyll’s eyes glazed over at her words.

My eyes snapped from their fixation on Cora over to Wyll, baffled at the realization our companion was of noble blood.

The elf once again addressed the Flaming Fist officers who looked on: “They’ve abducted the great champion of the Council, commander of the Flaming First- the binding force holding Baldur’s Gate together. Without him, the city faces collapse. In fact, I fear that may have been the intention of those who abducted him.” She spoke to inspire their efforts, desperate to find the Duke and return him to his post.

“Wyll, you must hold little love for your father, but please- Find him and return him to the city.” Counsellor Florrick pleaded looking towards Wyll and the rest of us behind him.

“Trust us to see it through, Counsellor.” He said with confidence, grimacing as he coped with this new reality. Life kept throwing curveballs at him and he hadn’t been given a bat to swing with.

“Do you think they’ve gone to Moonrise? Where the cult is headquartered?” Gale suggested, pointing at the bodies of goblins bearing amulets of the symbol of the Absolute around their neck. Could this be the cult’s doing?

“Moonrise towers? Along the old road? That place is cursed- few could survive there. Unless darker forces are at work…” The Counsellor paused in thought. “This is no random attack. The Grand Duke was their target.”

“We will do everything in our power to find him, Counsellor. Wyll alongside us.” I assured her. Her eyes twinkled with gratitude.

“Thank you. When the Grand Duke returns to the city, he will hail his only son- a hero.I will seek reinforcements and join you when I can. Remember, Wyll: ‘Courage is found in the battle against fear, not in the defeat of it.’” Florrick quoted.

“So father said. I won’t soon forget.” Wyll responded, with a somberness in his tone.

“Fist!” Counsellor Florrick shouted at her soldiers. “To work!”

The five that had stormed the burning building turned, ready to gather their forces and prepare for the mission ahead. I sprang forward, grabbing the wrist of Cora before she was able to sprint away towards her fellow mercenaries.

“Cora!” I called out, smiling as I was able to let go of the haunting fear she hadn’t survived. She was right here in front of me.

She whipped her head around, her long hair now neatly braided along the curve of her scalp and not so wild and flowing like it had once been.

She stared at me, slowly recognizing who it was that knew her name. Her lips quivered as the wrist I grasped trembled under my hand.

“T?” She asked. I smiled, feeling a relief wash over me that she recognized me.

We crashed together in a hug, both of us choking back tears.

“Y- you’re a druid?” Cora asked, wiping away salty drops as they fell down her cheek. She grabbed onto my shoulders as if to examine me and my new identity. She had seen me transform into a panther before her very eyes.

I shrugged. “I suppose. That would explain why I kept failing combat magic.” I said with a chuckle.

“Gods damn it, I thought you were dead after the attack. I couldn’t find you anywhere. None of us could.” Cora said, her eyes darkening as she recalled the day the ships descended on the city.

“And the others? Are they alright?” I asked with desperation, their faces flashing in my memory. Edmund, Kilas, Deserae and Redd.

She smiled. “Yes. They’re alright. The lot of us took shelter in the cellar of the Mermaid. As soon as the skies were clear, we rushed to the streets to find survivors.”

My heart swelled. They were all alive! Gods damn it, if only I had joined them for a bloody drink I might have avoided this all. But… maybe it was for the best. I found out who I really am because of this whole sh*t-show, after all.

“I enlisted in the Fist the very same evening. Blast it all if Highgold or Thornblood said I wasn’t ready- the need for soldiers was too great. We all took up arms.” She explained.

The memories of Headmaster Thornblood and Commander Highgold sent a wave of nostalgia through me. It hadn’t even been that long, but to hear their names brought me back to a life that felt so distant from where I stood now.

“The city thanks you. I thank you.” I said, placing a hand on her shoulder. She had matured so much in such short time- I couldn’t help but be proud of her efforts.

“I’m so very glad to see you, Tav. And I’m glad you’re on our side.” She said with a grin. “But- where the HELLS have you been?!” Her serious-ness broke as she playfully shook me back and forth, shouting with frustration.

I giggled as she jostled me. The same old impatient and reckless Cora I knew was still in there- masked by the strict training of a Commander.

“It’s… a long story. Just know that I’ll be fighting alongside you- even without a Flaming Fist tabard.” I assured her.

She nodded, looking over her shoulder to see her fellow soldiers calling her to join them. They were about to head out.

“I’ll see you on the battlefield.” She said with certainty, tapping me on my shoulder and giving me a wink. She sprinted off towards the gathering of Flaming Fist, waving back at me as she went.

Gods, was I glad to see her again. A weight was lifted off of me to know they were all alive and well.

“Glad we have a friend in them, eh? They seem like a good lot.” Gale said as he came up behind me, watching the Flaming Fist as they marched out of the town.

The fires around us had subsided, only smoldering embers left in their place. I was glad to be able to rely on them, too. I had seen them enforce the Duke’s will within the walls of the city, always doing their best to serve justice. I suppose their reach didn’t extend to the towers of Waterdeep.

“You’ve never met any of the Fist before?” I asked Gale curiously.

He shook his head, his long hair swishing lightly. “No, can’t say that I have. I suppose we have something similar in Waterdeep- The Watch. If they are anywhere near as formidable as their counterpart I am glad to have an ally in them.” Gale said happily.

“We also appear to have an ally in a Ravengard…” I said, turning to look at Wyll with a raised eyebrow.

He shrunk, looking sheepish in response to my accusatory tone.

“sh*t…” He said with guilt in his tone. “ ‘You can put distance between you and yesterday, but you’ll never leave it fully behind.’ Father’s words. Hard to argue with them.” Wyll sighed.

“Florrick spoke true- I’m a Grand Duke’s son.” He confirmed.

“Did she also speak true about you holding “little love” for him?” I asked, recalling the Counsellor’s words.

Wyll grimaced. “Father and I were close, once upon a time. Until he disowned me and cast me out of Baldur’s Gate. I can’t tell you more- the pact forbids it. My lips are quite literally sealed. He made me an exile. That said- I’m not about to let him suffer at the hands of his captors.”

“What could they want with him?” I asked him, trying to gleam as much information from his relationship to our victim as I could.

“I’m not so sure. What makes a duke of Baldurs’ Gate so interesting to the drow? Even the houses of Menzoberranzan would have little use for my father. This is no plot of drow alone. These “Absolute” nutters, these “True Souls” are behind his abduction. His absence alone will sow chaos in the city. If they were to infect him- he could lead the entire city to ruin.” The thought sent shivers down Wyll’s spine as he spoke.

“All the more reason to find him. The Absolute has seized not just my father, but the future of the Sword Coast.” He said with finality.

“We’ll get him back, Soldier. Promise.” Karlach said, looking at Wyll with unwavering determination. She didn’t make promises lightly.

“If we are to go after him, we might want to get a move on now. There are only so many hours in the day.” Gale suggested, pointing to the sun that hung in the center of the sky. It was already noon.

I nodded, leading the troop out of the town and towards whatever Faerun decided to throw at us next.

Chapter 14: Cooking at Camp

Summary:

After a long day of fighting, everyone is beat. Gale's succulent slow cook is served to the group while the wizard laments his current situation to Tav while in his sleepy stooper.

Chapter Text

As the sun dipped below the horizon and the moon lit the darkening sky, fatigue was visible on everyone’s faces.

“Sleep beckons, and I would follow.” Gale said, failing to stifle a yawn.

“The wizard looks beat, Soldier.” Karlach said, taking pity on the weary magician. “We best catch up with the others at camp before these wilds get too spooky.”

I turned to Astarion, who didn’t appear as tired as he did peckish.

“Could you go for a quick trance and then a snack, Astarion?” I poked fun at him as he skulked in the back of the group.

“Sounds good to me, darling. The moonlight is well-suited for a late night hunt.” he remarked, his eyes to the sky, dawning a mischievous grin wide enough to bare his fangs.

It was settled. The four of us headed in the direction of camp where our other compatriots were waiting. We could tell we were getting close when we could smell the campfire and the food roasting over it.

“At least we found enough rations to make a meal that smells decent. Let’s hope it tastes just as good, it’s been slow cooking all day.” Gale’s weary eyes regained a fraction of their usual flicker at the idea of a warm meal, going straight for the campfire cook-pot as we all strolled into camp.

He certainly deserved the rest after all the spellcasting he did during our battle against the gnolls. I could scarcely believe he had enough energy in him to eat. I wasn’t able to see his spellcasting too closely as I had to focus on my swordwork, but I could feel the different auras of magic pulse in the air as he cast. He was more skilled than I initially thought.

As Gale kept busy stirring what appeared to be stew over the campfire, I took it upon myself to go around and check in with everyone at their tents. As expected, everybody wanted a bowl except for Astarion, who had other dinner plans. I told them all I’d be happy to bring them their meals if they didn’t want to eat all together. We had some members of the group that were much more comfortable on their own. Shadowheart kept to herself for the most part, and Lae’zel was aloof too- but could be coaxed into being social on occasion. Halsin was often whittling wooden animals as he idled in camp, always willing to teach a lesson in primal magic should I ask. Astarion was a devil for gossip but his diet was rather… specific. Karlach loved to talk and hang with the others, she seemed to thrive in the company of people she could trust, but tonight she said she could do with some time alone with her thoughts. Wyll was a little reserved tonight too, I think he was still a little ashamed he had kept his Warlock-pact a secret from me for so long. I also could tell he wasn’t quite comfortable with his new form, as much as Karlach assured him the horns were a great touch.

After attempting to make small talk with everyone at camp, I made my way to Gale, who was still at the campfire. As I approached, Gale seemed not to take any notice to me, looking into the pot with a vacant stare and stirring slowly and intentionally. Just as I was about to ask him if the food was ready, he spoke first.

“Go to Hell.” He said, his voice stern and steady.

I was… a little caught off guard. I don’t think I could have done anything to upset him, but maybe I had. My heart sank to my stomach as I failed to recall another instance where he sounded so severe. I hesitated, but pushed my immediate worry to the side and chose to respond optimistically.

“Hmph. Hello to you too.” I retorted playfully, raising an eyebrow at his outburst.
His stern face and empty stare broke as he laughed at my reaction, the flicker of the campfire lighting his eyes as he looked up at me.

“Hah! You’re a good sport.” He chuckled, but his face became more serious as he drew up the ladle and offered to fill one of the bowls I was carrying.

Go to Hell. An everyday expression. So trivial it’s almost meaningless. But we’ve seen Hell, and it’s real. It isn’t trivial.” He said as he filled the wooden bowls I held out to him, taking care not to spill any as he moved the ladle from the cauldron. He avoided eye contact with me, lost in his thoughts, his expression failing to hide the fear I knew he was feeling inside. We had all had a harrowing experience on the Nautiloid, it must have only just started to sink in for Gale. I stayed quiet, letting Gale ponder on his own emotions while mindlessly filling bowls of stew.

“Dragons, Mind Flayers… they used to be abstracts. Pictures on a piece of paper… What a difference a tenday makes. Now we have tadpoles slithering through our heads like carnivorous foeti. That’s not abstract.” His tone changed as he went on, from fear to frustration.

“Foeti eh? Not exactly an appetizing image as we are preparing dinner.” I joked, grabbing another empty bowl. He didn’t seem amused.

As he filled the last bowl of stew in silence, his face looked helpless and void of hope. I put a hand on his shoulder trying to comfort him.

“We will find someone who can help us, Gale.” He looked up, his sad eyes almost pleading like a begging dog. I looked at him with a soft smile on my face and confidence in my eyes, trying to reassure him that what I said was truth. There was hope, despite our grim situation.

“Grab yourself a bowl. You’ll need the energy tomorrow if we are to make headway in our… predicament.” I pointed to my head, referencing the tadpole that I had become so uncomfortably aware of these past few days.

Gale nodded, bringing the ladle to his own bowl and taking a seat on a rock nearby the campfire. He desperately needed sleep, that’s for certain.

I took the time to go around the camp and deliver the warm bowls of stew to everyone that was hungry. They thanked me respectively and looked grateful to be eating something that didn’t just consist of discarded fruit and fish heads.

Gale was more than halfway finished with his meal when I finally came back to the campfire to grab myself a bowl, sitting on a rock just across from him. As I brought the bowl to my lips I was pleasantly surprised at how well the meal had come out considering the limited resources we had.

“Don’t look so surprised.” Gale teased, catching my shocked face after taking my first sip of the broth.

I smiled sheepishly. I hadn’t meant to insult him.

“I’m sorry I - It’s really good.” I said, trying to brush my embarrassing reaction under the rug and shoveling a slice of carrot in my mouth.

Gale laughed before taking a final bite of the vegetables at the bottom of his stew bowl.

“I’m glad you like it.” He said with a soft smile, standing upright. “Good night, Morissey.” He tipped his body forward in a slight bow before turning away and walking towards his tent.

I finished my stew alone, but in the warm embrace of the campfire. I kept thinking about what Gale had said, about how quickly everything had changed and how we were in real danger while these tadpoles were in our heads. It was terrifying, but worrying about it wouldn’t help us find a solution. My thoughts were interrupted by a shuffling on the other side of the campfire. I brought my hand to my hip, reaching for my scimitar.

I scanned my surroundings vigilantly, hyper aware and ready to strike at any intruders that might threaten the camp.

“Relax, darling. I’m after a late-night snack.” A familiar voice cooed from the darkness. I saw a flash of white hair and recognized Astarion emerging from his tent looking well rested.

“The benefits of a Fey bloodline, you have half the night all to yourself.” I grinned in recognition, moving my hand away from my blade and back to my spoon.

Astarion was lucky to have the advantage of trance so that he could hunt for a few hours. It was nice being able to have a few hours alone, myself. I would typically wake up either early in the morning or late at night while the rest of the camp was resting and do menial tasks I couldn’t always get to.

“That’s the only reason I was able to hide it from you all for so long in the first place.” He remarked in reference to his vampirism.

“I would sneak about while you were all in a blissful rest.” He said dramatically, waving his fingers to represent the creeping legs of a spider.

“Well, no need to keep secrets from us anymore.” I said reassuringly.

“Ugh. Where’s the fun in that?” He remarked, his blood-red eyes glowing with mischief in the light of the moon.

I shook my head and rolled my eyes, taking a final sip of my stew.

“Good luck out there, come back in one piece please.” I said as I stood, ready to turn in for the night.

“You doubt me, darling? I’ll be back by daybreak.” He said proudly as he strutted out of camp and into the dark wilderness.

Chapter 15: Halsin's Lesson

Summary:

Halsin generously offers Tav a lesson on the ways of the Druid and how to harness Primal Magic.

Chapter Text

“Focus on your breathing. Let the air of nature that surrounds you flow through you with intention. It can lend you its strength.” Halsin’s voice was calm and cool, it’s low octave resonating in my head as I tried to focus my magic.

My eyes were closed as I tried to attune my other senses to my surroundings.

“You can draw from the power of the earth, so long as you do so without greed or malice. Show respect for life and treasure it always, as the Treefather wills.” Halsin’s meditative voice continued to guide me as I focused.

I inhaled deeply, the whisper of wind and rustling of leaves in the treetops calmed my anxious heart. I could smell the damp ground beneath me, the roots of the towering trees still soaking in the water from the rain that had come through overnight. I could sense the trees absorbing the moisture from the dirt, only taking enough to survive so as to allow the other grasses, mushrooms and flora in the forest to sustain themselves on the rainfall as well.

“Draw from them… like the… tree roots and the rain…” I said to Halsin with my eyes still closed, trying to remain focused and also form a coherent thought.

Halsin laughed softly. “Yes, precisely. There is no greed in their desire to survive.”

I tried to mimic the absorption I felt from the nearby tree, trying to borrow the power of forest to sustain my own survival. A faint scent of cinnamon wafted in the air around me and I felt a tingling in the heels of my feet, running up the back of my legs and through my spine. The sensation was most definitely magical, but it only coursed through me as high as my shoulders. I shuddered, shooting my eyes open, filled with excitement but also with fear of the unknown.

I quickly looked around me, searching for Halsin. He was sitting on a stone, a carving knife in one hand and a bit of wood in the other in the rough shape of a frog. It seemed he was enjoying a break from the battles and taking the time to whittle whilst surrounded by nature. He looked up at me as I frantically searched around, observing intently but in silence.

“I…” I began to speak, excited about the power that the forest had lent me, when I realized… it was no longer there. My focus had broken the moment I opened my eyes.

“I felt it… but it’s gone now.” I said somberly, consciously aware of the lack of magic within me.

“I felt it too. You were nearly there. You just had to tap into yourself a bit more, you were a little too focused on the world around you. The point is to create a marriage between your inner self and mother nature.” Halsin explained, putting down his whittling project and standing from the stone.

“Here, maybe it would help if you were able to sense someone else channeling their magic. Druids gather together to learn for a reason.” Halsin offered, putting his hands together and standing beside me.

I watched intently as Halsin closed his eyes, pressing his palms together. A warm wind cascaded through the trees and brushed against our skin softly. The breeze blew Halsin’s auburn locks upwards, his hair flowing behind him gracefully. His expression was calm and centered as a soft green glow emanated from him. I stepped backwards as the glow grew in intensity, becoming so bright I could no longer make out the details of Halsin’s form. The magic that grew within him felt pure and powerful, yet natural. It reminded me of the dominant presence of an ancient redwood tree. In moments, his upright stature was transformed, the intimidating form of a cave bear in his place.

I looked at the bear in awe as it approached me, stepping gently and leaving large paw prints in the soft ground below. The bear looked up at me, and I recognized its hazel eyes to be the very same as Halsin’s. He wild shaped right before me, without even a second thought. I reached out my hand to pat the bear on his head. It seemed the appropriate thing to do, Halsin was very kind to display such a power in order for me to learn from his skill. I scratched the bear right between his ears as a form of thanks.

The bear let out a soft growl, almost akin to a cat’s purr, and its body began to glow green once again. I stepped back, observing as the bear’s quadrupedal shape was moulded to the elven form of Halsin once more.

Halsin stretched, arching his spine backwards and inhaling sharply through his nose.

“Ah, sometimes I find the form of a bear far more comfortable. But teaching as an ursine proves challenging to those who haven’t mastered animal speaking completely.” Halsin said, reacquainting himself with his humanoid physique.

I sighed. “Thank you, Halsin. But I can’t say I really understand how you are able to transform so easily. It’s like breathing air for you, while it’s more like breathing water for me.”

Halsin smiled kindly, the faintest lines of crows feet forming at the corners of his eyes.

“Be patient with yourself, Tav. Nothing in nature blooms all year.” He said.

I couldn’t help but smile at his words. He was right. I can’t expect to master control over my newfound abilities so soon after discovering them.

“How was I able to transform without even thinking back at the site of the fire? It was like I blinked and I suddenly was a different species.” I said, exasperated that I couldn’t replicate the sensation.

“Well… it could have a lot of factors that play into it. You were desperate- that kind of powerful emotion can take hold of a druid’s primal power. You’ve got to be careful, though. The fury of anger can create a dangerous result if you let it take hold of you.” Halsin said. He sounded as if he spoke from experience.

“What was I even drawing from, in that moment? The trees were around us were burning, the whole environment arid and desolate.” I thought back to the town, the flame devouring any signs of life in its path.

“Well, fire is… natural. It is one of the elements. A druid can draw power from fire, it just isn’t always… recommended. While sometimes fire creates balance in nature- it often easily gets out of hand and creates a negative imbalance. If you rely on it too much for your power, it can result in a severe lack of control.” Halsin explained.

It made sense. A wildfire is a natural disaster, and in its wake new species are sometimes able to flourish amongst the ash and embers. However, a fire can so easily transform to one that consumes without restraint, taking more than is reasonably able to be restored.

“You mean to say I could have less control over my magic than I do now?” I asked suspiciously. I felt practically powerless sitting in the woods with him right now, barely able to conjure a glimmer.

Halsin chuckled. “Your lack of control is one that shows your trepidation and care for the natural world. You harbor a fear of making a mistake, of harming the world you care so deeply for.”
His voice shifted to one full of disdain as he went on. “The control that a Druid of Wildfire lacks is the opposite- their blazes care little for the world around them. They seek to reform the plane in their smoldering image, lacking remorse for the damage they do to Silvanus’s creatures and landscapes along the way.”

I let his words sit with me. How could a Druid of Wildfire care so little for the natural world and still call themselves Druids?

“We’ll try again tomorrow. Why don’t you test out your animal speaking with Scratch at camp some more? It may give you more of a feel for the aura of primal magic.” Halsin suggested, grabbing his carving knife and unfinished frog carving from the stone.

“Then, I’m certain that one day, you will be able to breathe water too.” Halsin grinned, alluding to the druidic ability to wild shape into aquatic animals like dolphins or seals.

I nodded in agreement, excited by the idea of taking on such unique new forms. Halsin’s wisdom and patience was exactly what I needed in order to take on the challenge of mastering my druidic powers. It was so far from the haste and impatience I was used to during my arcane schooling. Magic came so naturally to sorcerers because it was in their blood and bursting to escape, all they needed was to control it. Meanwhile, I had difficulty exhibiting any magic at all up until recently. Halsin had told me earlier that it was likely my primal magic was dormant during my years living in the city.

“There is little natural life to be found in such an urban setting. It severs the ties to nature that a druid thrives on. It makes me go stir crazy, frankly.” He had confided in me.

It made sense that I wasn’t able to draw from nature when there was hardly any to be found in Baldur’s Gate. I guess the closest spot to nature would be the docks, where I first found myself able to utilize magic. Despite the grotesque smell and the pollution from the ships in the harbor, the life that lurked below the Grey Harbour was still able to awaken my primal magic once I was close enough to it. I felt my chest tighten as I thought of my home in Baldurs Gate. I thought of my classmates and friends that I had sparred with and my heart ached. It feels like ages ago we were still at school in the city, taking our mundane lives for granted. A tinge of fear laced my thoughts as I wondered if I would ever be able to return there after harnessing my druidic powers. I wouldn’t want to snuff out the flames I worked so hard to foster by moving back to an urban civilization. Maybe I could join Halsin’s old grove? It would be wonderful to practice magic with Francesca again. But I would miss Headmaster Thornblood at the Citadel where I had learned for so many years. I’d miss the training sessions with classmates and taking out my frustrations on the practice dummies until late into the night. It would be a hard decision… If I lived long enough to make it.

I snapped back to reality, recognizing the urgency of my situation. I had to get rid of this parasite, and liberate the infected members of the cult. Otherwise, the entire realm could fall subject to the whims of mind flayer overlords. Being able to harness the ruthless power of nature would prove useful to overcome such challenges. As much as I had to have patience with myself, we didn’t know how much time we had left to break free of the grip the tadpoles held us in. All we could do was hope.

Chapter 16: Off His Chest

Summary:

Gale finally builds the courage to broach the topic surrounding the vision he and Tav shared while channeling the Weave. Are those feelings genuine, or fleeting? And are they reciprocated?

Chapter Text

I sat on my bedroll listening to the crickets chirping wildly in the woods, their sound calming me as I strained to work on my current project. The string of my crossbow had snapped, and trying to replace it had proved more difficult than I had anticipated. I furrowed my brow as I tried to assess the mechanisms of the weapon, my fingers not quite nimble enough to complete the task at hand. As I was so focused on fixing my crossbow, I failed to notice the visitor who had crossed the threshold of my tent.

“Need a hand?” Gale’s voice cut smoothly through the peacefulness of the night.

I gasped as I looked up towards him. He stood at the entrance, crouching slightly, a gentle smile on his face.

“Actually, yes. Have you done this before?” I asked him, showing him the broken crossbow string.

“Hmm… Not quite. But I will offer what I can.” He said, assessing the weapon. With a snap of his fingers, a blue light reflected off of the fabric of the tent, filling the space with a soothing glow, the soft scent of rosewater wafting in the air. The source of the light was a levitating mage hand that hovered in front of me. I chuckled softly, realizing the literal nature of his offer.

“Thank you. Can you hold this part right here, please?” I asked him to direct the mage hand to one corner of the bow, holding it still as I threaded the string in place.

Gale watched quietly as I worked, the tip of my tongue exposed at the corner of my mouth as I focused on the repair. With a satisfying pling! I felt the string slip into place within the bow. I plucked it to be sure of its security before grinning up at the wizard.

“It’s fixed! Thank you!” I said gratefully, stowing the bow alongside my glaive in the corner of the tent.

“My pleasure.” Gale said. “Do you have a moment? I wanted to address some things that have been… on my mind a lot lately.” Gale started, his gaze steering toward the ground as he spoke.

“Sure. Please, sit.” I offered, dragging a pillow from behind for him to sit beside me comfortably. It was a bit awkward to be looking up at him the whole time he spoke.

He obliged, nestling himself on the pillow and taking a deep breath. He looked…sad.

“What’s on your mind?” I inquired, a little worried from the pained look on his face.

“I’ve had a lot of time to think about the night we had our… magic lesson. The moment we shared in the Weave. And think about it, I have - maybe too much.” He started, his eyes distant as he recalled the night of the tiefling party.

I pursed my lips, nervous to hear the next words out of his mouth. I was cursing myself in my head for pushing such thoughts upon him- instigating the idea of a kiss when we had death on our doorstep. At least he was being polite about his rejection. A gentleman even in a situation such as ours. He didn’t need to feign flattery like he had that night - “A pleasant image, to be sure!” I recalled him saying, sounding hasty as if he feared he wounded me with his surprise. The pure shock in his eyes that night was a little hurtful, but nothing I couldn’t take in stride.

“You are… incredible.” Gale said in a breath.

I swallowed, understanding this was the softening of the blow that would be his courteous decline.

“I’ve seen you act as a defender to the defenseless, a friend to the needy, and an ally alongside myself and our fellow traveling companions. And- amongst it all- you’ve been working to harness the magic within you that you’ve only just discovered!” He recounted, finally meeting his gaze with my own.

“It seems like every waking moment you are doing something… remarkable. I could only dream of walking alongside you as something… more than an ally.” Gale seemed to lose his breath as he spoke, the sincerity in his eyes causing my heart to skip.

I wanted to speak but my mouth was dry, my throat caught. What was I even to say?

“But that night… in the vision. Is that… something you really want? Not just a passing daydream born of… temporary closeness?” He asked, his eyes searching my expression for an answer.

I must have just been looking back at him doe-eyed. I hadn’t expected the conversation to go in this direction.

“I…” I managed to squeak out, my body vibrating with emotion. A sprinkling of cinnamon danced across my tongue and I felt my body tense. No. Not now.

Thankfully, I remained in my elven form in the moments that followed. Instead, I blinked in awe as small violet and white flowers sprung from the bare ground beneath us. Their vibrant heads peeking from below, surrounding the pillows we sat on and popping up around my bedroll in the back of the tent.

Gale laughed softly, looking around at the newly summoned flora.

I cleared my throat, re-focusing myself on him as he sat before me. I didn’t want him to feel like I was avoiding his question by casting a distraction. (those flowers had been completely unintentional…)

“Gale… none of the thoughts I shared with you that night were fabricated. They were… fantasies, sure. Ideas far from reality- silly daydreams even. But the emotions behind them weren’t false… or temporary” I said, feeling the blush creep into my face. I could barely believe the words coming from me as I spoke them. I felt dizzy as I looked to him for a reaction.

His eyes glittered in the hazy blue light, his stare not daring to move from mine.

“You mean to say…” His voice halted, the emotion caught in his throat. “You’ve been… thinking of me, still? Like you did in the Weave?” He asked. He searched for clarification in the flurry of emotions that stormed between us, blinding us both as we navigated it.

I couldn’t contain my elation as I let a laugh escape my lips, its ring harmonizing alongside the chirping crickets. I shook my head, hardly believing what was transpiring.

“Trying hard not to… but ultimately failing spectacularly.” I confessed, trying to push past the initial shame and embarrassment I felt admitting to such a thing.

Gods, I looked like a fool. This ally that I was supposed to trust with my life, to face endless dangers and trials alongside, to stand strong with on the frontlines- would he ever take me seriously again? Now that he had seen this tender spot of my heart, the vulnerability of my innermost emotions… I feared he wouldn’t accept me anymore. It was all so different than my sturdy and ever-ready-for-a-battle exterior I presented.

Lost in my own train of thought, I was brought back to reality as I felt the soft brush of a hand against my own. As I glanced up to see his fingers resting on the back of my hand, my breath was stolen from my lungs as he pressed his lips against my own. Taken aback and a little panicked, I squeaked out a short hum as I processed what was happening. Gale immediately pulled back, a look of horror on his face.

“I- I’m so very sorry. I should’ve-” His tongue twisted as he tried to express himself, flustered and disorganized. He shook his head as if to realign his own thoughts. “Is this… alright?” He asked, finally regaining the composure and control I always knew him to have.

I looked at him, eyes wide, heart racing, assessing every minute detail of his face as he leaned so close to me. Even in the dim blue light of the tent I could see the wonder in his dark brown eyes, could make out the wisps of silver hairs cascading down the frame of his face, the dark striations that trickled down his cheek from his left eye. His skin was flushed a vibrant red.

Words swirled in my head, none of them coming together to form a coherent response to his question.

“I… yes.” I managed to say, unable to make the volume of my voice any louder than a whisper.

His eyes lit up, and it didn't take more than a moment for him to lean in to kiss me once more, bringing a hand up to cradle my face as he did so. I closed my eyes and leaned into him, the rough scratch of his beard grazing my skin as if to remind me that this wasn’t a dream.

His touch was so gentle and his kiss was so delicate, as if he was afraid of breaking me. Every movement we made seemed so secret, like we were youths ducking amidst shelves of a library and hiding our love from the world.

I didn’t want to hide it- in fact I wanted to shout it, exclaim it to the world. I could imagine myself on the Nautiloid once more as it soared over Faerun, looking downwards at the plains that whizzed by and shouting ‘Gale of Waterdeep thinks I’m incredible!! Me!!’ . That was what I wanted to do. It didn’t mean that my anxieties allowed me to do so.

We pressed ourselves to one another still, slowly inching into an embrace that made goosebumps raise on my skin. His fingers trailed the length of my arm, drawing me closer to him as our lips danced around one another. His scent of mahogany and plum enveloped me, making me feel warm and welcome in his arms. I combed my fingers into his hair, my nails lightly scratching his scalp as he pressed his soft lips further into my own.

We parted for a moment, his dark eyes looking deeply into mine as his chest rose and fell rhythmically to the chirp of the crickets. He was catching his breath. Once again I was graced with the opportunity to study his features as he gazed at me. I could see the sharp angle of his jaw, framed with the masculine shadow of his beard. His warm brown hair was more tousled now than I had recalled it being when he entered the tent. I supposed that was my doing. My fingers still combed through his chocolate locks as he looked at me and leaned his head towards the palm of my hand. I smiled, letting a little breathy laugh escape me as he seemed to encourage the head scratching with his loving eyes.

I obliged, running my nails through the waves of his hair and watched as he closed his eyes and let the weight of his head fall on my hands rather than his neck. A smile spread its way across his face as he thoroughly enjoyed the attention. I wondered if Tara enjoyed head scratches half as much as Gale seemed to. If he could purr, I suspected he would have been.

“Wow. Is this the kind of attention Scratch gets when you pet him every morning? Never thought I’d be jealous of a dog.” Gale said, his eyes still closed, looking positively content.

“Who says you can’t get morning pets, too? You never answered my question about the belly rubs…” I remarked, laughing lightly. I felt embarrassed even bringing up that ridiculous flirtatious line I threw at him that night. Gods, I hadn’t even had any wine and that was the best attempt at flirting I could muster.

Gale laughed, picking up his head from my hand and opening his eyes to meet mine. Gods, he was beautiful.

“Well, Tara certainly doesn’t like it when I give them. But… maybe someone else does.” He remarked. His eyes twinkled with mischief as he brought a hand to my waist. He drew himself closer to me, keeping his eyes locked on mine. I felt his other hand clasp around me too, his fingers finding their way beneath the fabric of my nightshirt.

“Gale, what’re you-” I began to protest, my pulse going at the rate of a hummingbird’s wings.

I turned my head downwards to try and see what he was doing when he placed a palm on my jaw, pointing my gaze forward.

“Shh-shh. Eyes up here, my heart.” He said softly, cupping my cheek in his hand and rubbing his thumb over my chin.

I felt my heart leap at his words, my stomach flipping to hear him address me ‘my heart’. I lovingly leaned into the warmth of his hand, the comforting caress of his fingers assuring me I was safe in his company.

The hands on my waist were gentle, the fingers tracing small circles on my bare skin over my hips and navel. They never strayed too low or too high, just offering soft strokes on my torso as Gale pressed his forehead to mine and we closed our eyes.

I breathed him in, full of bliss and relief that the weight of my emotions was set free into the open night air. I focused on the warmth of his hand on my face, the light touch of his hands on my waist. Wait- his hands on my waist?

My eyes shot open, observing Gale’s eyelids to be serenely shut as I managed to sneak a glance down to my torso without him catching me.

I scoffed as I saw his hand tracing lines on my right hip, and on my left side the blue aura of his mage hand shone through the white linen of my shirt as it skimmed my stomach. I was surprised at how comfortably warm the mage hand’s touch was, as if it was his own palm against me.

Gale heard my soft laugh and opened his eyes, unable to keep his smile hidden any longer as he recognized he had been found out.

“I was wondering if you’d notice.” He said playfully, taking his real hand from my face and waving it gracefully in the air, causing the mage hand to vanish upon his command.

With the absence of the mage hand’s glow, the tent was considerably darker now than it was. My elven eyes had adjusted to the change quickly, but I doubted Gale’s human vision would fare as well.

“Hmm. Well. That may have been a mistake.” He said as I saw his pupils dilate, darting back and forth aimlessly. The torches of the camp had been blown out by this time of night, the campfire outside nothing but smoldering embers. He really… couldn’t see me.

Time for some payback for his little magic trick.

I slinked back into the darkness of the tent, the gentle caress of his hand on my waist broken as I shifted from his reach.

“Tav?” He said into the darkness. I could see the hint of fear on his face as he realized I was no longer beneath his palm. I felt a string of guilt pull at my heart to see him look so pained.

“Ah- if you’d like to stop that’s quite-” He began politely, but his thought was interrupted as I sneakily pecked at his neck, my kisses landing on the wispy lines that ran along his jugular.

A gasp escaped him as he was caught off guard by my actions. The attention to the sensitive space on his neck had him relishing every moment, closing his eyes to feel each sensation. As I left soft, brief kisses up his neck and along his jaw, his fingers found my head, burying their way between the strands of my hair and combing along my scalp. I hummed delightfully as I pressed my lips to his neck, the vibration of my voice sending shivers through him. I could see why he liked the head scratches- they were magnificent.

I drew back from where I was nestled between his chest and his jaw, catching my breath as I heard the pounding of my heart in my ears. To my surprise, the tent was alight again. I looked around, expecting a mage hand or a dancing lights spell to have been cast while I was pre-occupied, but there was nothing. I furrowed my brow in confusion, but when I realized the source of the light I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

I pressed a hand to Gale’s chest, his mark illuminating the tent in a vibrant purple. As I ran my fingers across the glowing circle, a familiar bitter taste coated my tongue, hanging in the back of my throat. His eyes that were previously closed in a moment of ecstasy blinked open as he felt the absence of my warmth below his jaw. He looked up at me dreamily as my face was shrouded in the purple light. I looked back at him, visibly worried. Startled, his posture shot upright and his eyes widened at the realization the origin of the light was… himself.

He scrambled backwards, withdrawing from my concerned hand and pressing his palm to his chest to try and suppress the light’s glow. I could hear his breathing as it grew heavy and panicked, the beads of sweat gathering on his brow just barely reflecting in the low light.

“Don’t!” He exclaimed, stopping me in my tracks as I cautiously reached a hand towards him. “Don’t come any closer.” He warned, his face as serious as death.

“Gale, I-” I tried to protest, but he spoke with fervent insistence as he interrupted me.

“No- no! I’ve burdened you enough with my ailments, and I must pay the price for my actions alone .” Gale’s words cut me like a serrated blade, each syllable creating a new tear in the flesh of my heart. He sounded feverish- like a man who had lost his wits.

I tried to steady my trembling breaths, trying to push the fear from my thoughts as I worried that he wasn’t of his right mind. I could help him. If he would only let me.

“You’re not a burden.” I said matter-of-factly. I was barely able to get my words out in one shaky breath.

“Y-you don’t know what I’ve d-done. What I could still do. T-to you- to all of you! ” Gale said frantically, holding one palm to his chest and one palm out towards me, as if it would dissuade me from approaching him in this fragile state.

I felt my heart yearn to reach out to him in whatever way it could, desperate to get through to him as he swirled in the darkness of his own deprecating thoughts. The taste of cinnamon swirled in my mouth, coating my tongue as I felt magic curl at my feet. I knew what to do this time. My eyes closed, memories of the High Forest flooding to me as I felt the primal magic pool in the palms of my hand.

“Ductu ad te!” I called out, a golden light cascading towards Gale as he clutched his chest, panting.

His frantic breathing slowed, returning to a normal pace, but the purple glow only became more vibrant as it cast a bright light through his velvet nightshirt.

“Ack!” He cried in pain “The hunger is relentless. It seeks to devour every enchanted thing in its sight. I won’t let it take you down with it.” Gale said, furrowing his brow. The spell had managed to settle his spiraling mind and allow him to speak sensibly- but that didn’t help the arcane ache in his chest.

I glanced around the tent frantically, searching for something that might harbor enough weave to quell the need that burned within him. I glanced at my glaive, wondering if he were to devour a curse if it would make him feel better or worse. I glanced over to see him enduring a wave of agony and decided it wasn’t worth the risk. I snatched my pack from beside my bedroll, digging through it to see if there was something - anything -that might help him be free of this plague. At least for the moment.

I could have jumped with joy when I came across a green amulet I had forgotten I even found. It was hanging on the neck of one of the goblins that guarded Halsin in the prison cell. It pulsed with magic as I saw the glint of its green gemstone reflecting the purple light of the tent from inside my bag. Snatching it from my pack greedily, I hastily approached Gale with the chain dangling from my fingers.

“Please… Tav- stay back…” He said weakly, his voice strained as he fought the pain that coursed through him. It was getting worse with every second.

I ignored his plea, kneeling beside him and taking hold of the hand he clutched over his heart. He was too weak to protest my touch.

Drawing the amulet from my other hand, I carefully peeled back the velvety material of his tunic so I could see the bare part of his chest that was illuminating the tent. I pressed the pendant to the hungering curse, the heat of Gale’s chest warming the cool metal nearly the instant it made contact. It took a moment for the amulet’s magic to be recognized, but as soon as it was identified to be a source of sustenance, the golden trinket was evaporated- chain and all.

The light of his chest dimmed, leaving us in the dark once more. I continued to hold a hand to his chest, and felt his lungs fill with air as he managed to take a deep breath- free of pain.

“... How do you feel?” I asked him after a moment of silence.

He took hold of the hand I had pressed against his chest, gently bringing it to his lips and pressing them to my knuckles.

“Better.” He whispered into my fingers, cradling my hand in his reverently, like it was a religious artifact to be worshipped.

“Please… don’t decline my help.” I said, my voice bobbing in my throat as I processed the fear I had been pushing from my mind. “If we care about one another- more than just friends - then we need to trust each other.”

I could see Gale purse his lips, as if to stop them from quivering. He was blind in this level of darkness, but I think if he could have seen my broken expression he may have shed a tear.

“I know.” He said, his voice low and raspy. “I… I question if this is the best idea.”

A jolt of electricity coursed through me at the interpretation of his words. I snatched my hand away from his, taking offense that he would dare to cradle my heart in his hands before dropping it in the mud.

“You mean to say your feelings are fleeting? Only born of ‘temporary closeness’?” I snapped, sounding a little more rude than I had initially intended.

“No- Tav. Please.” Gale tried to rationalize with me. “I care for you, deeply. Your face is the thing I look forward to greeting each dawn. To fight alongside you gives me a sense of purpose that I haven’t felt in ages. Your presence… completes me.” His voice shook.

“Then why… why toy with me like this? Why hold me close and toss me aside?” I asked, voice cracking.

“I don’t know what I would do with myself if I were to hurt you. I would never do so intentionally but-” I interrupted Gale as he lamented-

“You are hurting me. Your words are bleeding me dry. Just cast your fears aside and choose me, Gale!” I said in frustration.

I heard him take another deep breath and could see his silhouette lie back, stretching out amongst the flowers that I had summoned earlier.

“I choose you, Tav. I’d regret everything if I didn’t.” He said with certainty.

I felt lighter- still healing from the jagged edges of his words being dragged across me- but I felt like there was a sort of understanding between us now.

I laid down beside him, brushing my shoulder against his so he would know I was there.

“You’re welcome to stay the night here. It’ll be much colder without you.” I said, appreciating the warmth that seeped from his arm into mine as we bumped together.

“Thank you.” Gale said simply. I wasn’t sure if he meant for the invitation or for the artifact or for talking some bloody sense into him- but I presumed it was for all three.

“You’re welcome.” Was my only response.

I felt my eyelids grow heavy, my heart mending itself as it soaked in Gale’s warmth. You could blame exhaustion, or you could blame bliss- but I slept more soundly that night than I had in a lifetime.

Chapter 17: A Return to the Grove

Summary:

Halsin encourages the group to return to the grove now that the new Archdruid has arrived. Tav looks forward to re-acquainting herself with an old flame.

Chapter Text

The group gathered around the campfire as the sun rose, the smell of roasted potatoes goading our empty stomachs.

“Should be ready soon. We’re running low on herbs- so I can’t vouch much for the flavour.” Gale said, setting the cast iron pan down so that the fire lapped at the underside.

“I think at this point we would eat them if they were seasoned with dirt, we’re so hungry.” Shadowheart said, putting a hand on her stomach.

Gale chuckled, his voice low and rumbling as sleepiness coated his vocals.

As we sat around the fire, warming our hands around the flame, a lively streak of blue shot across the sky above us. I had only caught it out of the corner of my eye, but I cast my gaze upwards to try and discern what it was.

The blue blur dove towards us, finding purchase on the broad shoulders of the druid Halsin. As I focused, I could see the small silhouette of a blue jay that had landed on him.

“Message!” I heard a high pitched voice call.

Halsin looked pleased as he turned towards the bird, smiling and outstretching a finger for the bird to hop onto. It was a funny thing to see such a frail, petite animal look so comfortable alongside the burly, formidable frame of Halsin.

He chuckled as the birds tiny feet gripped his hand. “You’re looking well. I take it Nettie sent you?” Halsin asked as he peered at the bird.

Now that he mentioned it- I recognized the creature. It was the same bird that Nettie had been treating when we had come to her for a remedy for our tadpole infection. He was flying high and strong, now.

“Francesca! Arrived!” The bird chirped, eager to announce the reason for its visit.

Halsin grinned, delicately pulling a rolled up slip of paper that had been tucked in a leather harness around the blue jay. He pinched it with his thumb and forefinger, careful not to move it in a way that may harm the small creature.

“Thank you for your message. Silvanus guide you safely home.” Halsin said to the bird as it opened its wings, as if to say ‘you’re welcome!’. It flew off gracefully, once again a blue blur as it cast itself into the sky once more.

“What’s that, there?” Karlach asked, pointing to the slip of paper Halsin pinched in his hand.

Her confusion told me it was only Halsin and I who understood the bird when it spoke- it likely just sounded like birdsong to the rest of them.

“It appears as if Francesca of the High Forest arrived at the Emerald Grove this morning. She is to take my place as archdruid.” He explained, his eyes scanning the note of Nettie’s small handwriting.

“Perhaps we could stop there before we make our way into the Underdark?” I suggested, curious to come face to face with Francesca after such a long time apart. Our lives split in entirely different paths, but I wondered what might have been if they hadn’t. If I had stayed in the township in the High Forest and arranged to meet her more regularly.

Alas, that wasn’t what the gods intended.

“I think that is a splendid idea! It will be nice to see the druids at the grove once more. Well- It’ll be nice to see Rath, at least.” Gale said, checking on the progress of the diced potatoes.

He still had some disdain towards Nettie for nearly poisoning me, and certainly wasn’t about to forgive Kagha for her threats against Arabella. Even if Halsin had given her a second chance.

“As long as there are no objections, we can make our way over after breakfast.” Halsin said, folding and tucking the paper into his pack.

“I certainly can’t go anywhere without eating breakfast first.” Shadowheart retorted, eagerly looking towards the cast iron pan Gale was scrutinizing.

“I suppose it’s done enough. Bowls, everyone.” Gale said, beckoning everyone to offer their bowls forward for their fair share of breakfast.

~

After we all finished our meals, Halsin led the way back to the Emerald Grove. I could see a faint aura of relief in his eyes as the gate came into view- blessedly free of thorns. I suppose his trust of Kagha hadn’t been fully restored just yet.

“How long has it been since you’ve seen Francesca?” I asked Halsin as we approached the gate.

“It’s been many years. Since she was still in training. I wasn’t sure if she would even remember me when I sent her the summons.” He said with a laugh.

I was silent as I tried to do math in my head. If Halsin was 300…. And elves reached adulthood at around 100… and he met her when she was in training… How old was Francesca?

As we stood at the gate and I was lost in thought- a familiar voice sneered from above.

“Oh. It’s you. I suppose you are welcome.”

We looked up to the top of the gate, where the rope and pulley system raised and lowered it to allow entry. There, standing watch was the familiar face of Kagha peering down at us. She ducked away as we looked at her, hurrying to raise the gate. I suppose she hadn’t much else to say to us.

We walked into the grove, the fresh smell of flowers and grasses pleasantly filling the air. The sweet and earthy taste of cinnamon and sugar danced on my tongue, faint but presenting itself in response to the druidic magic being practiced all around.

We walked through the grounds, taking note of all the ways the grove had changed since we had visited it last. The rocky cavern where the tieflings took refuge was full of flowering plants and budding vines. There were leafy bedrolls and twiggy canopies set up to provide sleeping quarters. There were worktables and alchemy jars in the communal spaces for inhabitants to practice and hone their craft. The improvements were innumerable, and I could tell Halsin approved of them as well from the look in his eyes alone.

As we walked through we saw the druids bustling about in various corners of the grove, some of them toiling away at a project, others with golden light spilling from them as they practiced magic. What a magnificent place to be able to practice your skills- among ao many of your own kind. I wondered If I might be able to stay for a lesson of my own.

“Ah, Nettie told me to expect you.” A female voice called to us. Her voice was resonant, clear and calm like the rushing of water in a mountain spring.

I turned towards it and was met with the vision of her. She was captivating, her red hair almost glowing as the orange hues hit the light of the sun. She was adorned in a more feminine variation of Halsin’s archdruid armor- the same leafy pauldrons gracing her shoulders and the symbol of Silvanus strapped across her chest. But she had long, flowing white bell sleeves falling from her wrists, gold embroidery adorning them. She looked so… graceful. As she moved, her garments caught the wind and billowed behind her.

“Francesca of the High Forest. A pleasure to see you again after all of these years.” Halsin greeted her, bowing respectfully to the new Archdruid of the grove.

“And you as well, Halsin. I was so very honored to be asked to take your place here in the grove. This site is so unique in its history- a place to be cherished among those of druidic origin.” She said, bowing towards the former archdruid in return.

“And you’ve brought company! Welcome to our humble grove.” She said cheerily as she turned to myself and my companions. As her eyes fell on me, they shimmered with a sense of recognition- gold flecks sparkling in her pupils.

“The young High-Elf. Tav.” She said, bewildered as she stared at me.

I grinned sheepishly, suddenly feeling shy as I was beheld by a druid of such power.

“H-hello again. Francesca.” I said, feeling a little breathless as neither of us could believe our eyes.

“The savior of this very grove. Twice-over, even.” Halsin said, placing a hand on my shoulder proudly.

“I couldn’t have done it without aid…” I said modestly, gesturing to Gale, Wyll and Shadowheart as they looked on at the beautiful archdruid.

“I can see you have finally realized your innermost power. It often takes the company of others to realize one’s true potential. Their true selves.” She said, smiling as she looked over me. How could she tell?

“I had heard rumor you were blessed with such an ability to recognize the gifts of others, Francesca. I had been curious to witness such a rare ability for myself.” Halsin remarked, intrigued.

She smiled warmly. “Please, come into the sanctum and we can speak more. I’d me more than happy to regale you.” She said, beckoning us further into the grove.

We sat in the sanctum, appreciating how much less gloomy, damp and dark it was compared to the last time we found Kagha here. The ceiling had been opened up to let streams of sunlight in, and the murals on the wall had been restored to their former glory. Well- all except for one- where two novice druids stood painting over the lines carefully. The murals recited the history of the grove and its significance in the battle against the Dark Justiciars of Shar, a history that Francesca found to be important enough to preserve.

“I see you’ve put Kagha to work observing the gate.” Halsin said to Francesca.

“Yes. What better way to remove her prejudices than to have her repeatedly allow entry to those she would have denied herself?” Francesca said with a smirk.

She certainly knew how to lead- a method behind each of her actions.

“Quite clever. Tell me, what kind of promise does she show upon your examination?” Halsin asked, curious to know more of Francesca’s ability.

I bent an ear towards her myself, eager to hear just how her magic operated.

“Well, upon my arrival her aura was dark, swirling and bitter. Given some time, it has softened in its tone- gaining more green and earthen qualities. I think she may redeem herself in the eyes of Silvanus, as long as she continues on her current path.” Francesca said, taking a sip of a cup of tea.

I hadn’t noticed she had served some to all of us, small cups and saucers distributed amongst the stone table we sat around. Gratefully, I took a sip myself.

“Why, this is lovely. What kind of tea is it?” Gale asked politely, tactfully sipping from his cup and keeping his back straight- as if he were in the company of nobility.

Well- I suppose he was, if you counted Wyll.

“My own blend, actually. Made of many of the herbs I cultivated while in the High Forest. Some of them have healing properties, while others are just to enhance the flavour.” She said with pride. “I’m happy to share a pouch for you to take on your travels. I’ll ask that Rath get you some to take with you before you part.”

Gale’s eyes lit up at the suggestion. “Oh, that would be most appreciated. While I can manage to cook a decent meal once in a while, I haven't been able to brew a decent cup of tea in the past four tenday at least!”

I laughed softly, his excitement was endearing. I could tell Francesca appreciated his enthusiasm over her tea just as much.

“Francesca, I meant to thank you first and foremost upon meeting you here. The encounter we had as children has been something I kept in my memory and have always thought back on fondly. It was an eye opening experience in many ways.” I said to her.

She looked at me with kindness in her gaze, a smile bright and warm like the Eleasis sun.

“You’ve done most of the eye opening yourself. Back then, I saw only soft waves of gold in your aura, faint as a whisper, but backed by great potential. Now, I see the golden hue has blossomed into a strong current.” Francesca said, looking at me with veneration in her eyes.

“Although-” She added. “I sense a strange prickle of something foreign. Something… sour and raw. Like spoiled meat.” She crinkled her nose at the mention of it, looking a little repulsed.

I was startled at the comment, concerned for the health of my magic for a moment until-

“Actually… that aura is present within all of you, save for Halsin. Are you all… alright?” She asked, genuine concern in her tone.

It was the magic of the tadpoles she was sensing.

“Well, technically speaking, we could be better. But Halsin has joined our cause for a cure- so things are looking up. We’ve all been… infected. By Illithids.” I explained, remaining calm and quiet despite the severity of the situation.

Francesca’s eyes flashed with terror as she placed a hand to cover her gaping mouth.

“Oh, children of Silvanus! May he grant you grace and mercy.” She said in disbelief and horror.

“It is really quite the curious case. They have been free from transformation and its symptoms for much longer than is typical of mind flayer parasites. These tadpoles have been altered with magic- likely the very magic you sense on them now.” Halsin chimed in, his stance on the situation much more scholarly.

Francesca looked at all of us, her pupils shaking slightly as she was lost in thought.

“Can you tell us… what kind of magic this might be?” I asked her, wondering if she could offer any assistance in identifying its origins.

“Hmm…” She began, once again focusing on me as she paused in contemplation. “The aura is stronger in you than the others. The sour aspects… they are reminiscent of the psionic power of mind flayers. And the rest… this… sense of raw flesh… is something I have only ever detected in aspects of necromancy.”

I took in her words, confused by them, unable to discern how exactly those two magical fields could combine into the troublesome hitch hiker we all had in our skulls. But I supposed we were on our way to solving that mystery.

“Well then. The nature of our ordeal only gets curiouser and curiouser.” Gale remarked, taking another sip of his tea.

“How have you come to attribute these auras to schools of magic?” Halsin asked, in awe of Francesca’s ability to identify the magic in our skulls.

“Well, it was an ability I was born with. Ever since I was young I could sense different auras from others. It was only after significant time and pattern recognition that I was able to connect certain aspects of the auras of others to the kind of magic that they harbored within them.” She explained.

I was fascinated, hanging onto her every word. The way she described the magical auras of others reminded me of the many tastes that often bloomed on my tongue when there were casters nearby.

“Granted, not everybody has a magical aura. Not everybody has magic within them, even if they can cast. For instance, none of your companions have any intrinsic magic. Aside from their illithid passengers.” She looked at my companions behind me.

“A cleric- their magic is granted to them when they call upon the power of their god or goddess. As they cast they exude an aura- but otherwise they are non-magical. The same goes for a warlock, who summons magic from their patron, and a wizard who pulls magic from the Weave.” She explained. “It’s mostly druids and sorcerers with magic in their blood.”

She looked worried as she saw the grimaces on the faces of my companions, looking at one another with a faint disappointment in their eyes.

“Oh! I’m so sorry. That is not to diminish your abilities. Having the strength of will and body to channel such power is a remarkable feat indeed!” She clarified, afraid she had offended them. They did perhaps feel a little wounded by her words.

“That’s quite alright, it is fascinating to hear the inner workings of your ability- even at the expense of our pride.” Wyll said, joking as he took it in stride. Shadowheart and Gale laughed alongside him.

“Would these auras ever present themselves… as a taste?” I asked, somewhat embarrassed by the question. It was a strange thing to ask, no doubt.

Francesca’s olive skin took on a rosy tone as she absorbed the meaning of my query. She hesitated, and I caught her gaze shoot over to Halsin briefly before correcting itself back on me. Had… had she and him…?

“Occasionally. The auras present themselves to me visually most often, but sometimes are accompanied by smells or tastes if the aura is potent enough.” She explained, straightening her back and trying to look innocent. There was still a blush visible on the apples of her cheeks.

“Why do you ask?” She asked, the pitch of her voice rising as she inquired further.

“I… I’ve been having strange sensations when there is magic around. It usually presents itself as a taste- but isn’t present among all magic. My own magic tends to taste of cinnamon.” I explained, trying not to sound like I had lost all sense. It was a very strange experience to recount to someone unfamiliar.

Francesca gave her undivided attention as I spoke, engrossed in the explanation of my ability, her rosy glow fading with her focus on me.

“That sounds not unlike my own ability- maybe just in another form- a lesser strength, perhaps.” She remarked, trying to understand the sensations I had and how they compared to her own.

“Seeing magic visually like Francesca is an extremely powerful ability. Magic wielders have a spell of their own specifically for detecting magic in a visual sense- to be able to do it passively is extraordinary!” Gale exclaimed. For him to learn something new regarding the field of magic was unheard of- his excitement was palpable. “To wield even a fraction of that power without having to channel any magic into upholding it… is quite incredible.”

I felt myself blush as Gale looked at me with wonder in his eyes. The way his eyes beheld me like a jewel in a museum- it made my heart soar.

“Incredible, indeed. You would do well to hone that skill. If you were to begin to recognize patterns among the sensations you associate with magic- you could learn to identify them yourself.” Halsin commented.

I felt myself get just as excited as Gale had- to learn that my strange tendency to taste cocoa or sugar when in the presence of a spell could prove useful.

“Thank you sincerely, Francesca. It has been a joy to see you again, not to mention the help you have provided in telling us the origins of the magic we harbor.” I said, looking at Francesca as she drank her tea looking content.

“The pleasure’s been all mine, really. I am so very glad you are doing well, Tav. I wondered about you often since our chance meeting in the forest.” Francesca said, the sincerity in her tone nearly making me choke up.

“Oh, Halsin! Before you go, might you have a moment to spare to speak in private? I had some questions about the operations of the grove before my arrival- just so that I am well-informed?” Francesca proposed, turning towards Halsin as he sipped a final mouthful of tea.

“Certainly, I do not mind at all. May I meet up with the rest of you shortly?” Halsin asked, turning towards me.

“Not a problem. I have been wanting to explore the grove, possibly purchase some potions or tonics for our descent into the Underdark.” I assured him, trying to recall what kinds of brews I had seen for sale when we walked through.

“Splendid! I will find you when we are finished.” Halsin said, following Francesca as she beckoned him into what was the library- but seemed like it had been renovated since we were last here.

As we made our way out of the sanctum, I took careful note of the restored murals and the history they depicted. They were much easier to understand now, with their color revived and their plaques cleaned to be more legible. It gave much more backstory to the curse upon my glaive, and the curse upon the wilds that surrounded Moonrise Towers.

Coming out into the sunlight again, the grove was lively with druids of all ages. There were younger trainees playing, poking at toads with sticks and pretending as if they were bears. I chuckled to see them performing such an act- it wouldn’t be long until there was no need for them to pretend and they would be able to wild shape at will.

“I think there were some vendors nearer to the gate, I thought I saw some alchemists there. If we’re lucky we may even find an armorer.” Shadowheart said, gesturing past the high-spirited children and towards a few craftsmen by the gate.

As we approached, a familiar face lit up to see us.

“Rath! What a pleasure to see you again, my friend. The grove seems to be faring well!” Gale greeted Rath as he poked his face around one of the vendor’s stalls.

“Ah- the saviors of this very grove! To what do we owe the pleasure of your company once more?” Rath asked, rummaging through the goods he was peddling at his humble kiosk.

“We came to visit Francesca before we went off onto our next adventure- doesn’t hurt to check in once in a while.” Wyll responded with a friendly wink.

“Well, always a pleasure to have you here. Have you need of anything particularly powerful for the next obstacle in your quest?” Rath asked, gesturing to his table full of poultices and trinkets.

I surveyed the display for anything that caught my eye, wondering if any of these might be handy to hold into should Gale need to quell his magical hunger. Although, they looked to be rather expensive- one pays dearly for finely crafted items these days. And finely crafted they were.

“Actually- Francesca had mentioned you might be able to spare me a bit of her special tea blend? I’ve grown very weary of drinking the dirt water that I always end up brewing. Her concoction was splendid.” Gale said, arching his neck to see if Rath had anything like he described behind the counter.

“That shouldn’t be a problem. Her reserves are rather full up of the stuff now that the herbs are in season- so a pouch won’t be missed.” Rath said. Within a few moments he procured a small burlap bag, smelling sweet and earthy as he passed it over to an eager Gale.

“Many thanks, kind sir!” He said giddily, carefully tucking it into a particular pocket of his pack.

Shadowheart, Wyll and Gale spoke more with Rath and examined what goods he had to offer for quite a while, exchanging banter and recounting tales. Their laughter was a pleasant noise amongst the chaos we too often found ourselves in. I overheard Shadowheart and Wyll make some purchases of their own- while Gale was much more interested in discerning what herbs exactly were in the blend of tea Francesca favoured.

“Sorry for the wait. Are we about ready to continue on our journey?” A husky voice bellowed from behind. We all turned around towards the familiar sound of Halsin.

As we looked at him, we all stifled our laughter.

He stood before us, tall and proud, the auburn length of his hair undoubtedly more disheveled than when we had left him. It was also hard to miss the pauldron on his shoulder that was indisputably askew from its intended placement. His face was flush, a familiar dampness causing his hair to stick to the edges of his face. He had certainly done more than… advising within the sanctum of the grove.

“I suppose we are. Are… you?” I asked, just ensuring he hadn’t left anything behind in his… haste.

He took notice at the smug faces of myself and my companions, the blush in his cheeks only deepening as he realized he had been less than covert in concealing his actions.

“I…” He began, putting a hand to his hair and smoothing it from its disorganized state. “I am confident the grove is in good hands.” He said, straightening himself and doing his best to regain composure.

“And how good were those hands?” Gale asked smugly, eyebrows raised.

“Gale!” Wyll scolded in a whisper, appalled that he might have asked something with such little tact.

“Apologies. But you walked into that one.” Gale confessed, holding his hands up in surrender.

Shadowheart burst out laughing, unable to hold back any longer.

I couldn’t help but laugh alongside her. “Well, I’m glad this visit was fruitful for all of us.”

Chapter 18: Trouble in the Tower

Summary:

Tav and the gang explore an abandoned wizards tower in the Underdark, Gale notably interested in the secrets it might hold. Amidst his poking around, a familiar feeling plagues him- and he finds it necessary to reveal a secret he had been holding close to his chest until now.

Notes:

This one's a LONG one - I blame Gale being verbose . You've been warned.

Chapter Text

The eerie quiet of the Underdark was palpable as the four of us approached the looming tower before us. We were all still catching our breath from defending against the arcane turrets that lined the staircase leading to the door.

“A Wizard’s tower is his sanctum, a private place for research and respite. But as this wizard’s not home… I say we take a peek.” Gale winked at me as he spoke, a mischievous and excited grin plastered on his face. He was pulled by his own innate curiosity about the inner secrets of this mage’s tower.

I turned to Astarion and Karlach, who looked a bit curious themselves.

“Do you think there’s anything more than dusty old books in there? Gold, perhaps?” Astarion asked, turning towards Gale.

“Ah, hard to say. I am certain there is knowledge to be found, however, and that is by far the more valuable of the two.” Gale said with a grin. Astarion rolled his eyes.

“Careful soldier, we don’t know what else is beyond that door.” Karlach said, drawing her greataxe and gesturing toward the tower’s heavy wooden entryway.

I looked toward the door, taking a deep breath and hearing the shuffle of my companions as they braced themselves.

Heaving my body weight forward, I pushed on the door. It didn’t budge, not an inch. I fiddled with the door handle before realizing the damned thing was locked. I clicked my tongue in frustration.

“Astarioooon.” I said with a whine. “... Can you pick this lock, please?”

He scoffed as he pushed me aside and whipped a lockpicking set from his pocket. His fingers moved quickly and precisely as he crouched to focus on the locking mechanism of the door. A series of rattles and clicks came from the door’s handle before Astarion stood straight, a look of pure satisfaction on his face.

“Easy as that. What would you do without me, darling?” He said proudly, waving the lockpicking tools in the air as if they were a magic wand.
“I would be repeatedly failing at picking the door lock myself.” I responded matter-of-factly. My dry humour earned a soft exhale of a laugh coming from Gale’s direction.

Once again, I braced myself as I heaved my bodyweight into the door, grateful that it budged and proceeded to swing open as the four of us piled into the tower through the arched doorway.

Everything happened so quickly, as all three of my companions shouted, diving behind piled up barrels and crates that were littered throughout the mostly empty room.

I didn’t see what it was that they were hiding from, until it was too late.

I felt a warm sensation grow on my skin, hovering right over my ribcage as I stepped in the entryway. I looked down at my torso to see what was happening and was horrified to see a bright blue beam of light aimed right at me. I followed the beam to see it emanating from another Arcane turret in the corner of the room, armed to defend the tower from intruders. By the time I noticed the turret pointed right at me, a glowing missile had already been fired and was hurtling in my direction.

The missile struck me on my left side, the heat of the spell stung my skin and the force of the blast felt like it had definitely broken some ribs. I fell backwards, unable to hold my stance after the blow I had taken. I could feel my armor soaking with blood from my injuries as I writhed on the stone floor, trying to catch my breath and steady myself. I felt stupid for not expecting more defenses within the tower, and even more so for failing to notice the danger that my companions had been able to avoid.

“Tav!” I heard Gale exclaim. He was behind the cover of some crates so that the turret couldn’t sense him, but he must have seen everything.

I didn’t have the strength to respond or call out to him, all of my energy was focused on my injuries. I had to stabilize myself, both my mind and body so that I could avoid the turret’s next missile. It would keep targeting whoever and whatever was within its sights, and I was a sitting duck.

As I tried to calm my swirling mind and push away the growing intensity of the pain, I felt a familiar sensation. The same heat I had felt moments ago began to grow, now pulsing on my chest, nearer to my heart. The turret’s aim was primed for a killing blow. I winced as I attempted to move my mody, but exclaimed in agony, falling backwards once more and negating any progress I had achieved to escape the turret’s offenses. I had no time left. I closed my eyes, dropping my head back onto the cold floor of the tower.

“Gods damn it.” I whispered under my breath, clutching my left side. What a ridiculous way to die.

“Atrox Aura!” A familiar male voice boomed, the words echoing as they bounced off the bricked walls. In that brief moment I felt the heat that was growing on my chest disappear.

I opened my eyes and saw Gale, bracing himself as he stood over me. He looked head on towards the Arcane Turret, it’s beam re-focusing on him as the most threatening target within sight. It looked like it aimed right for the mark on his chest.

Gale’s shadow was cast over me as a bright purple light expelled from his fingertips, its shape jagged and buzzing with electricity. It shot from him at a shocking speed and with a formidable force, striking the turret without difficulty.

A resounding “WHRRRRRrrrrrr” noise echoed throughout the room as the arcane turret shut down and it’s power was lost. Once again we were surrounded by the eerie quiet of the Underdark.

I could hear the rapid pitter patter of boots on stone cut through the silence as my companions all rushed towards me, assessing my condition.

“I thought all elves had darkvision, how did you not see that turret?!” Astarion said, frustration lacing his every word as he knelt beside me.

“Bloody hells, soldier, You really took a beating!” Karlach said, as she made her way towards me. I was in a sorry state, to be sure.

I could just barely make out Gale’s furrowed brow in the dim light of the arcane tower as he dug through his pack frantically, taking quick glances at me as he rifled through his many trinkets.

“Ah! Here! Back away Astarion!” Gale held onto a bottle in his hand tightly as he rather aggressively ordered the vampire away from my frail frame.

Gale took Astarion’s place and knelt beside me, placing one hand behind my head in an attempt to lift it from the ground ever so slightly.

I moaned softly as he forced me to extend my neck and raise it, inhaling sharply as I felt pain reverberate through the left side of my body. I felt my heart rate spike as the crippling sensation ripped through me.

“Easy, now. This should help.” Gale said softly as he pressed a cool glass bottle to my lips and tipped it upwards.

The pain caused my vision to grow hazy, but from the taste of the minty liquid as it coated my mouth I could tell it was a healing potion. One of the stronger ones. I eagerly sipped on it as Gale continued to hold it to my mouth, quickly able to feel its effects as I was able to raise my head higher from the ground without any resounding pain.

After I had emptied the bottle, I could sit completely upright, catching my breath as I felt the cooling menthol-ic sensation travel from my throat downwards, spreading throughout my body. It was a cooling, ticklish sensation that traveled to every tip of every limb.

I pressed my hand to my forehead as I sat on the floor, feeling both utterly stupid and ridiculously grateful.

I could see the purple-clothed figure of Gale stand from his kneeling position beside me, his polished boots reflecting what little light was found within the walls of the tower.

I looked up at my companions, all peering down at me with concern on their faces.

Gale’s hand was extended toward me in an offer to help me get on my feet again.

I took a deep breath as I grasped his hand tightly and he was able to pull me up from my sitting position. I could feel the warm wet blood stain on my leather armor as I moved, but was glad I didn’t feel any more blood coming from the injury.

“You alright now, soldier? Feeling steady on your feet?” Karlach asked as she looked me up and down with concern in her eyes.

I managed to crack a smile.

“I am, now.” I said, still a little exasperated from all that had happened in such a short amount of time.

I looked to Gale who had one hand held on the center of my back to keep me balanced, while the other still firmly gripped my own.

“Thank you.” I said earnestly, looking into the dark brown of his eyes. They looked black in the dim light, and I could almost swear they were glossy with water.

Gale briskly let go of the hand he had such a tight grasp on, as if he had forgotten he was holding it after he had already helped me up.

“Of course, I… What was I to do but help?” He said, seeming a little shaken himself. He gave me a smile that seemed a little forced at first, but it softened as he looked at me as if it became genuine after a moment.

“I’m sure there will be ample opportunity for you to return the favor, wizards aren’t exactly known for their constitution.” Gale commented in an attempt to lighten the mood.

As I let out a soft chuckle in response, my gaze couldn’t help but move down to where the wispy mark streaked across his broad chest. I knew it had something to do with his need for magic. I had been hoping it wasn’t too great an ailment to threaten his life, but combined with the tadpole… everything was so unpredictable. The truth of his own fragility unsettled me, despite me laughing at his joke. I worried for him as much as it appeared he worried for me.

I felt a brush against my back as Gale removed his hand, hesitating for a moment as he observed my stance to ensure I had caught my balance.I felt leagues better than I had, the potion really worked wonders.I cleared my throat, sensing an awkward silence amongst the four of us as everyone worried for my well being.

“Well, we’ve got some mushrooms to find haven’t we? For Omeluum?” I said, keeping my tone of voice chipper and optimistic. My bright voice was a stark contrast from our dusty and dilapidated surroundings. From the cracks and holes in the wall and the gaps in the floor it was evident that the tower had been abandoned for some time now.

Gale exhaled and averted his attention to our surroundings. The Arcane turret in the corner was still smoking after being destroyed by Gale’s spell. There was not much on this level of the tower apart from the crates and barrels littered around. The only other thing was in the center of the room - there stood a large glass tube that resembled an elevator. A familiar symbol was etched onto the floor in its center.

“Mystra.” Gale said, peering at the etching. He instinctively brought a hand up to his right ear, touching his earring.

“Blurg had said the owner of the tower was a cleric of Mystra, right? Lenore was her name?” I wasn’t sure if I was remembering right, but the nods from the rest of the group indicated they recalled something similar.

Gale walked into the elevator, placing his feet square in the center of the eight-pointed star representing his goddess. He looked up to the ceiling, then down to the floor, tapping his foot on a button labeled “Down”. A click echoed in the otherwise silent room, but nothing happened.

“No power...” He said.

“Guys! I think I may have found a way down to another floor.” Karlach called from the other side of the room. She had managed to push open another massive door that led to a balcony on the tower’s left side.

Gale, Astarion and I shuffled over to her to see the balcony’s railing collapsed, and in its place grew massive shelves of colorful mushrooms. The growths scaled the entire left side of the tower, the species varying. I couldn’t identify what kind they were exactly, but I bet Halsin would have been able to if he had come along. I wondered if they normally grew as large as they were.

I climbed onto the mushroom, arching my neck over the edge to see how far the drop was to the one that grew on the lower floor. It was a good few feet until I would hit the next shelf of fungus and I wasn’t certain I’d be able to stick the landing.

“Hmm, we are still pretty high up…” I said hesitantly.

“Say goodbye to your ankles if you jump down from this height. Unless you can manage to wild shape into a cat…?” Astarion asked, raising an eyebrow as he surveyed the drop.

I twisted my face in frustration, knowing I hadn’t mastered Wild Shape-ing just yet. I was able to cast some spells now thanks to Halsin’s guidance, but changing my form proved much more of a challenge. My dejected expression gave Astarion his answer.

“Ah, I know just the thing. Gather ‘round everyone, this should only take a moment.” Gale waved over myself and the rest of the group closer to him as he positioned his feet firmly on the ground.

The three of us surrounded him as he closed his eyes and held his palms out in front of him.

“Pluma ruinam!” The words rolled off of Gale’s tongue as if he had spoken them a thousand times, but their meaning was lost on me.

A pale grey light flashed above his hands, and in that very moment I no longer felt the weight of my armor on my back. It felt as if I was floating on a cloud, despite my feet being very much on the ground.

“That should do it. Follow my lead!” Gale said, walking past us toward the edge of the mushroom that grew out from the shattered balcony.

I looked on as the wizard leaned over the edge and surveyed the distance of the fall. Without so much as a second glance, Gale heaved his body over the edge in a very confident jump.

I gasped audibly as his body slipped from view. “Gale!” I shouted, instinctively reaching out towards where he had fallen.

I raced toward the edge where he had jumped and peered over in horror. Had he broken any bones? “Wizards aren’t known for their constitution…” his words echoed in my head. Was he daft?!

My racing heart was soothed to see a very content looking image of Gale as he was gracefully floating downwards toward the lower level of the tower.

“Surely you didn’t think I was that incompetent, did you? Come now, make haste if you all want to get to the bottom in one piece!” Gale called upwards as he glided down the side of the tower.

I exhaled sharply, in relief that he was okay and in exasperation that he so nonchalantly pulled such a prank on us.

Astarion clicked his tongue, looking annoyed. “Tch. And you all say I’m dramatic.” he snarked.

“Oh, please. You are dramatic. Do you even hear half of the things you say, Astarion?” Karlach snapped, approaching the edge of the balcony and readying herself to jump.

“Says little miss I literally combust to defeat my enemies?” Astarion raised an eyebrow at Karlach.

Karlach half smiled at Astarion’s snarky response, utterly unbothered as she stared right at him and vaulted off the balcony, floating out of view.

“You can’t let them beat you to the bottom, Astarion!” I said, getting a running start as I bolted towards the balcony and leapt over the edge.

I could practically hear Astarion roll his eyes and begrudgingly hop over after me as I drifted ahead of him. I looked ahead to see Gale touch the ground first, wobbling only a little before catching his balance and regaining his land-legs.

The glide down was exhilarating. My body felt lighter than air, like the heavens themselves cradled me to ensure I made a safe landing. I wondered if Aasimar felt this way as they flew through the clouds- I felt like wings could sprout from my back any moment.

Gale looked upwards from the ground as the three of us floated to the bottom. He politely held out an arm for Karlach as she neared the bottom level, and she graciously held onto it as she stuck the landing.

“Thank you, Magic-man.” Karlach nodded towards Gale as she dusted herself off.

He nodded at her with a polite grin, before turning towards me as I hovered near the ground. He extended a hand towards me with a smile so charming it could have brought a Mindflayer to its knees. I felt my heart flutter as he looked at me, feeling even lighter than I had before. As I felt my toes touch the ground, I graciously took hold of his outstretched hand in order to keep balanced. He held onto my hand with a firm grip, keeping me steady as a ship’s anchor as I touched down.

I grinned as Gale tipped his head towards me courteously.

“Thank you, Magic-man.” I teased, winking at him and letting go of his grip as I steadied myself. He chuckled softly, looking back up to see Astarion impatiently floating down with his arms crossed.

“Don’t even think about it, Gale. While I can’t turn into a bat- I can stick a landing.” Astarion snapped. Gale’s hand twitched as if he was about to hold it out to Astarion- but kept it at his side.

Astarion touched the ground with the grace of a stag, effortlessly adjusting to the shift in his footing. He looked utterly unamused by the three of us watching him, all of us expecting and maybe hoping just a little that he would have tripped during his landing.

“Well? Let's go find these mushrooms for our tentacled friend.” Astarion waved his hand with a hint of impatience in his tone.

Suddenly, the echo of a battle cry erupted from nearby, followed by a crash and the sound of splintering wood.

“I found a door! Or… it was a door.” Karlach called from around a corner.

Gale, Astarion and I whipped our heads around towards her to see an entryway to what seemed like the basem*nt of the wizard tower. Shattered pieces of an old wooden door littered the ground.

“... Nice job, Karlach.” I said, impressed by her strength. Kalrach balanced her Greataxe over her shoulder, puffing her chest out proudly.

The four of us cautiously stood outside the open doorway, peering inside, trying to discern whether any more traps were waiting for us on this level.

Gale’s eyes lit up as his gaze caught on something obviously piquing his interest. He shuffled past us, beelining towards a desk littered with books in the far corner.

“Gale!” I whispered, calling out to him as he threw caution to the wind and strode inside. He didn’t pay any mind to me, eagerly snatching the open book from the desk and scanning it.

“Well… seems safe enough.” Karlach shrugged, passing through the door frame and looking all around as she walked through the dusty, damp basem*nt. No traps this time it seemed.

Astarion and I followed suit, looking over the desks and worktables that lined the edges of the room. There were papers all around, most filled with writing that was unintelligible now, the white parchment aged and yellow and the ink faded to time. There were a few crystals and herbs on one table that I put into my satchel, I was pretty certain I would be able to brew something with them down the line.

“It appears our resident wizard was quite the literary type.” Gale called from the corner of the room, his eyes still glued to the leatherbound book in his hands.

“Oh? What have you got?” I asked, walking over to him.

“It appears as if it’s an original. A script for a play.” Gale said, tilting the book towards me so that I might be able to read it better myself. The room was dark, but there was enough glow from the fluorescent fungi outside that I could make out the majority of the page.

“THE ROADS TO DARKNESS: An epic tragedy about power, corruption, and loneliness”” The script appeared unfinished, but the vocabulary was advanced. Obviously written by a well-educated individual.

“Do you think one of you could stop reading fairy tales and tell me what in the HELLS this is?” Astarion said, gesturing towards the center of the room. There stood a glass tube with a strange looking furnace taking up the center of it.

Gale turned his attention from the book, tucking it in his pack.

“Hmm… looks to me like a generator. If my suspicions are correct, getting this running should fix the broken elevator.” he said, rubbing his beard.

“Huh. Not like any infernal machinery I’ve ever seen.” Karlach said, looking the generator up and down.

I curiously approached the machine, carefully opening the small iron door on the front. It looked like any fuel was meant to go in there, but it was far too small a space for a log to set a fire. It had to be powered in another way.

Upon opening the door, a sensation washed over me. It was a draining sensation, making me feel a little tired, but only for a moment. My mouth became dry and cotton-y as I peered inside the small compartment. I reached inside and pulled out a handful of small, wilted blue petals, their edges singed and black.

“Hmm. I don’t recognize the species.” I said, poking at the petals in my hand, trying to discern their origin.

“There might be some out in the back garden. Lenore would have had to have a renewable energy source to stay down here for long.” Kalrach pointed a thumb behind her toward the door she destroyed.

The four of us nodded in agreement as we headed back towards the rear of the building. As I walked around and inspected the flowers, I felt the familiar draining sensation again. I suddenly felt tired, but it wasn’t going away this time. It was like the complete opposite of when I had floated down the building, my armor felt heavy and I felt… weak. I looked around, confused and a little panicked. Where was this feeling coming from?

“Are you alright? You’re looking rather- Oh.” Gale approached me from behind, concerned, then looking disapprovingly at a small tree in the garden beside me.

“That flower isn’t agreeing with you, is it? Doesn’t sit well with me either.” Gale said, gesturing toward the glowing blue flowerbud that was sprouting from the tree. A swirling aura danced around its petals, illuminating our surroundings. For a flower, it certainly had an ominous presence.

“What is it? I feel… weak.” I said, examining my hands and arms for any sign of injury. I didn’t look any different.

“A Sussur flower. It drains magic.” Gale said, raising a hand to show me. For a split second I saw a spark of fire at his fingertips, before the flame was snuffed out and the blue swirling around the flower glowed brighter.

My eyes widened in panic. “Drains magic!? Get away from it, Gale!” I exclaimed, planting myself between him and the flower. I placed a hand firmly on his chest and pushed to get him to step backwards. Why he had even approached the thing, I was unsure.

“No no, not to worry. It’s only temporary. Only while we are within a certain distance of it will it absorb our spells.” Gale explained, politely removing my hand from him.

“However, considering how our backs are much more prone to stabbing without such arcane defenses, I prefer to keep a safe distance.” He went on.

I looked back toward the flower. The petals… they were shaped just like the ones I had pulled out of the furnace.

“Karlach, could you cover me?” I turned toward the tiefling. She smiled, nodding and drawing her axe from her back.

“You got it, Soldier.” She said without a question.

I went over to the flower, feeling it absorb the little magic I was able to cast. It was frightening to think that it was so easily able to take from me something I had worked so hard to obtain. Trusting in the fact it was only temporary, I plucked the blossom from the tree, holding it gingerly in my hands.

“Don’t bring it with us!” Gale exclaimed. “I’m no more than a sitting duck without magic!”

I laughed at his remark. “Just trust me. We won’t be keeping it for long.” I assured him.

I continued to carry it carefully back into the basem*nt of the tower, Karlach keeping an eye and an ear out for any signs of an ambush. Luckily there hadn’t been anything. I softly placed the bloom within the small compartment of the generator in the center of the room. It fit perfectly. Upon closing the small iron door, a flash of blue flame ignited from inside. One by one, each of the sconces on the wall and the chandelier on the ceiling erupted in the same blue light. A soft hum of power reverberated throughout the walls of the building.

“Huh. May it giveth what it taketh away” Gale said, looking around the now gleaming tower in awe of the flower’s capability.

“Ugh, you sound like Withers.” Astarion commented with a groan.

Karlach laughed. “Well… that certainly brings a new meaning to “Flower power”, eh?”

With the furnace’s consumption of the flower, I felt the magic within me restore itself. It was like getting a lungful of fresh mountain air after being stuffed into a sewer.

“And we’re back to normal.” Gale said with satisfaction, snapping his fingers and producing a small flame above his hand.

“Way to go, Soldier!” Karlach said with pride. She gave me a congratulatory smack in the center of my back.

“Agh!” I exclaimed, feeling the heat of her palm singe me. She had only touched me for a moment but I could still feel the unnatural intensity of her body through my light armor.

“Ah! I’m sorry!” She said, recoiling at the realization she had caused me injury. The pain had already subsided, there was no real harm done.

I laughed, causing Astarion and Gale to chuckle alongside me. It was endearing how much Karlach cared, and entertaining how easily she forgot the threat of her own temperature.

“I’m alright, K. Let’s go explore this place!” I said, newly energized and eager to learn more about what lie in the tower. Hopefully there was more than just the mushrooms we were told about.

I hopped into action, sprinting up the rickety wooden staircase in the back of the room, seeing the familiar tubular elevator at the top. The group piled in the center and I excitedly pressed the “Ascend” button with my foot.

There was a quick flash of pale blue light before we found ourselves on the upper floor. There was a distinct scent of soil and a dusty musk. Looking around, I could see there were gardening beds in the corners of the room with various fungus species sprouting from them. You could tell they hadn’t been tended to in a while from the overgrowth that was present. Some of the larger mushrooms had begun to release spores that floated through the air of the whole level, contributing to the distinct scent I picked up on.

“These look to be the right species…” I said, inspecting the garden beds and their faded labels. I could still just barely make out the names “Tongue of Madness” and “Timmask”. I cut some samples of the mushrooms with a dagger, tucking some into my pack to bring to Omeluum.

“Another play, though this one looks like it has seen better days…” Gale said, blowing the dust off of the cover of a book that was practically falling apart in his hands. The fabric of the cover was tattered and worn, the spine only held together by scraps of remaining twine. Opening it up, the pages were illegible and covered in fungal spores, ink spills, tears and age. Flipping through the brittle pages, Gale paused on one page that had a measly two sentences that were still readable. They were circled, and appeared as if the letters were traced over in ink several times in order to prevent fading.

“How can I trust? How will I ever know? How can I show myself, my darkest me?”

I noticed Gale staring at the words on the page, his expression vacant as if his consciousness was on another plane.

“You okay there, Gale?” I asked in a soft tone, trying not to startle him.

“Hmm?” He looked up at me a little confused as if he had just woken up from a nap. “Ah. Yes. Fine.”

He closed the book, placing it back on the shelf amongst the gardening tools where he had found it. I was suspicious of him, something was definitely plaguing his thoughts.

“Oh! Here is a book about those flowers outside!” Karlach called, waving Gale and I over.
“And not a single gold piece. Disappointing.” Astarion said, scanning the room.

“But information holds value as well, Astarion. You’d do well to remember that.” Gale said, waving the book on Sussur flowers at him before tucking it into his bag.

“Gods, this is dull. Can we go to the next floor, now?” Astarion said, feigning a yawn.

“Pile in, everyone!” I said, heading into the elevator again. I tapped the “ascend” button with my foot again, and we flashed into the upper floor.

“What a curious mechanism. Its like the machine casts “Dimension Door” on us all.” Gale said, looking down at his body as it still held a residual glow of the light that the elevator cast.

I looked around the new surroundings. I could tell it was the same level we had walked in on. The dormant Arcane Turret sat in the corner and a pool of my blood was still on the ground by the door. My stomach curdled at the sight of it.

“Let’s go higher.” I said, not wanting to explain any further.

Everyone nodded in silence as I pressed the button again.

“Ooh. Watch your step, gang.” Karlach said as she looked around the new floor. She was right to warn us, a good third of the floor had been wiped away, nothing but stone rubble in its wake.

“Dibs on the chest!” Astarion called, nimbly dashing ahead and cracking open a trunk that sat at the food of the bed in the corner. This must have been the bedroom.

I heard the jingle of coins as Astarion quickly stuffed something in his backpack. He pulled out a book from the chest, looking at it with general disinterest.

“Tired of reading yet, Gale?” Astarion asked, holding up the book so that Gale could see it.

“Most certainly not!” He said, going over to grab the book from the vampire. Gale eagerly cracked the book’s spine and started thumbing through the pages. From the way he buried his nose in it, the text must have been in much better shape than the other tomes we had come across. His eyes widened as he quickly snapped the book shut, turning towards me.

“Well. This isn’t exactly a scholarly publication…” Gale said, looking a little embarrassed.

I tilted my head in confusion, holding out my hand so that I could see the book for myself. I looked at the leather cover and could barely make out a dainty etching reading “L. De Hurst Diary”. It looked like it was once foiled in gold but had since been worn away. I rifled through the pages, looking for the most recent entry. It was dated 10 years ago.

“2 Alturiak, 1481 DR
Who would have thought, three years ago, that I would start a diary - not a research journal, but a real diary. I guess when every soul is more like to kill you than converse with you, talking to a book starts making sense. And who would have thought, three years ago, that I would be called back to Baldur's Gate to confer with the other clerics of Mystra, right at the apex of my studies: I have all the pieces, but I have barely started my treatise. No matter. I will take my ring with me, to show them a glimpse of the possibilities. I will leave you, my dear book, here, together with the rest of my research, waiting to be finished. I should be back before next Ches.”

“Well, Gale… If it makes you feel any better I don’t think she is coming back…” I said in an attempt to make him feel like he hadn’t just read a strange woman’s diary.

“No… I don’t think she is either…” Karlach piped up, tapping a nail on the desk in the corner. She was reading a note that had been left out.

“Dearest Yrre,

I don't know if you're coming back, if you'll even read this message, but if you do come back, could you wait for me? I'll only be gone a few tendays, but the thought of coming back to this empty tower, with nothing but Bernard to fill these halls... I don't know how much longer I can take this. I miss you. I miss you so much.

I can't shake the thought of how different things might have been if only I'd been less stubborn. Working on your lightning inventions, my magic. Eating together. Laughing at your stupid puns. Waking up next to you. Despite everything, I still love you.

So please, if you read this, can you wait? I'll be back. I won't be long.

Forever yours,
Lenore

[A few sentences are penned below, in a different hand.]

I waited. I waited until Tarsahk. I'll always wait for you, but you didn't come.”

I felt my heart ache as I read the note, feeling Gale’s presence behind me as he read over my shoulder. As I read, I was distracted by the shine of metal glinting in the corner of my eye. I leaned over the desk to grab it, bringing it into the light. Between my fingers I pinched a silver ring with a turquoise gem in its center. It pulsed with arcane energy, and as I examined it I saw a small engraving on the inside of the band. “Y + L”. I pursed my lips, trying to hold in the emotion that the half-written story elicited.

“A protective enchantment. Electric shock resistance.” Gale said, looking on at me as I examined the jewelry. I jumped at the sound of his voice, forgetting he was standing so close to me.

“Well, anything protective should probably go to you, Mr. Not-known-for-my-constitution.” I said in a playful tone. I grabbed his hand and placed the ring in his palm, looking at him half expecting a snarky retort.

He raised an eyebrow, keeping eye contact with me as he took the ring and slid it onto his pointer finger.

“While a bit offended, I appreciate the thought.” He said with a half smile.

I grinned with satisfaction as he looked at the ring on his finger. I was glad I was able to give him a bit more defense while taking his ego down a peg. His wizard hubris still needed some taming.

Wrrrrr - clank. Whrrrrr clank clank.

“What in the hells is that?” Astarion asked, tucking his white locks behind his pointed ear as if to listen closer.

I did the same, tilting my ear to the air.

Click click click click CLANK. Whrrrrr

“Hmm. Sounds like machinery. Maybe the elevator is broken?” I said, stepping inside the glass tube again and looking it up and down. I didn’t see anything that looked damaged…

Gale hurriedly glossed over the bookshelves that lined the walls of Lenore’s old bedroom, poking through the piles of titles that now littered the ground after some of the shelves had collapsed over time. His eyes would light up as he would see a subject of interest, snatch the book by its binding and tuck it in his pack. He did so several times.

“Githyanki Tir’su! Oh, Lae’zel will surely want to see this!” He exclaimed giddily, holding up an elaborate stone and glass disc about 12 inches in diameter. It looked quite old. He gingerly tucked it in his bag, wrapping it in his purple velvety camp clothes to keep it from getting damaged.

“Gale, what if I told you I hadn’t read a book since secondary school?” Karlach looked at him, smiling in anticipation of his reaction.

Gale’s mouth was agape as he stared at her in disbelief.

“Secondary school!? That was long before paper combusted at your touch!” He exclaimed, waving his hands in frustration.

Karlach laughed heartily at his dramatic reaction, and I couldn’t help but join her.

“Drama queen.” Astarion mumbled under his breath, just quiet enough that Gale couldn’t hear. His thoughts were too loud- swimming with titles that Karlach never had the pleasure to experience.

“If there are any titles that interest you, I’d happily read them aloud during our meals. You shouldn’t have to be devoid of stories just because you can’t hold a book.” Gale said, his eyes sparkling with excitement at the idea of being able to share his passion for literature with the group.

Astarion groaned, but Karlach paused, pondering his suggestion.

“You know… I might not entirely hate that. You can have the first pick, something action-packed, please.” Karlach said, looking touched by the wizard’s offer.

“You can count on it!’ Gale said, pointing at her and shooting her a wink. He fingered through the books he had in his pack, presumably searching for a title that fit her request.

“Well, we have got one more floor it looks like.” I said, looking up at the cracked ceiling and seeing the eerie glow of the underdark through the gaps.

“Onwards and upwards!” Gale said, closing up his pack and securing it over his shoulders before joining me inside the elevator. Karlach and Astarion piled in too.

I took a deep breath before clicking the “Ascend” button just one more time. A familiar flash of light surrounded us, and then the cool dewy air of the Underdark filled my lungs. A stark contrast from the stuffy, spore-filled dustiness of the tower.

A hazy, mechanical male voice cut through the silence of the Underdark- “New sounds through damp and dark oppression break/ is it the foe, that foul, contemptuous heel?”

The bright flash of light from the elevator subsided, and before us stood a tall, slender construct with a humanoid appearance. Its eyes glowed a bright blue, and its metallic body glinted copper. Its body whrrr-ed and hummed as it moved, replicating the strange mechanical sounds we had heard from the lower floor.

It stood before us expectantly, observing our every move.

“Tav… If I’m not mistaken, that’s the opening stanza from the play we had found on the lower floor…” Gale nudged my ribs and spoke in a hushed tone, keeping one eye on the construct to ensure it didn’t make any sudden movements. I could see the sheen of a polearm mounted to its back, a weapon that we could easily find ourselves on the wrong end of if we weren’t careful.

“...Do you remember what comes next?” I whispered back to Gale, desperately hoping his memory served better than my own. I glanced down to his pack in hopes he may have stowed the book away inside.

“The copy is buried somewhere in here…but…” Gale began in a whisper, but after a short moment to collect his thoughts, he straightened his back and cleared his throat. He strode in front of me to face the construct that loomed over us.

“Ahem. Or art thou friend, a rescue from my lonely wake?” Gale recited eloquently, maintaining his gaze on the construct.

The automaton bowed elegantly, finishing the stanza of the play - “Come out of love for me, not love for blood and steel… Command as you see fit, my lord, my liege.”

I could feel the entire party exhale in relief as there was no aggression in the android’s words.

“Hmm. Don’t get me wrong. I love poetry as much as the next wizard, but using it to command an automaton… seems a bit self indulgent to me.” Gale said as the simulacrum turned its back on the four of us, its legs stiff as it crossed the span of the tower’s roof. Its steps make a click, click, click-ing sound with every step.

“You’re talking about being self indulgent?” Astarion stifled a laugh as he spoke, amused by Gale’s remark.

“Oh, like you’re one to talk. You carry around a mirror when you can’t even see yourself!” Gale retorted back.

“I’m not the one who has to consume magic to carry on like it’s some sort of drug!” Astarion crossed his arms, satisfied with himself and considering the verbal battle won.

I could see that Gale’s ego was bruised. He didn’t have a rebuttal.

“If you both don’t stop arguing, I might have to ask Shadowheart and Wyll to accompany me next time instead. I’m not your babysitter- don’t expect me to mediate your emotions.” I said firmly, crossing my arms and looking at Gale and Astarion with disappointment. Gale directed his eyes downward with a furrowed brow and a pout across his face.

“Wait a moment…” Gale said softly, his grumpy demeanor shifting into one of curiosity, his eyes fixed on the floor of the elevator we had come out of.

“Do you… see this?” He asked aloud, pointing at the elevator’s floor.

“The… “Descent” button?” I said, confused. He was pointing at the space beside the descent button, but there was nothing there.

“Here, everybody get inside the elevator. Let me try something.” Gale said, practically forgetting the entire argument that had just occurred.

Astarion and Karlach both looked towards me, as if I was able to explain Gale’s behavior. I shrugged, and proceeded to step onto the glowing blue symbol of Mystra indicating the elevator. The rest of the gang followed suit.

“Everybody ready? Let’s see what this does…” Gale said, tapping his foot on the ground. A resounding “click” was audible, as if he had pressed a button, but I didn’t see one where his foot touched down. Once again, our surroundings flashed bright light for just a moment and I could tell we were back inside the tower from the dank, dusty air. Stepping out of the elevator, we were on a floor we had definitely not been to before.

“This must be below the basem*nt.” Gale said. “It appears this ring revealed another button on the elevator. This room was only meant for a specific person to access…” He held up his hand, a faint light coming from the green gem on his finger.

I looked around at the new level we had discovered. There was an elaborate desk right by the elevator, an inkwell and a quill sitting on the surface among some open books. There was a worktable with beakers, tubes and other alchemy supplies beside two large bookshelves.

“Ooooh, I spy another chest!” Astarion said in a sing-song voice. He whipped out his lockpicking tools and headed towards the gilded trunk on the other side of the room.

Gale’s attention was caught on something else as he shuffled down some wooden stairs and headed towards a staff that was leaning against one of the bookshelves.

“Could come in handy.” He said, wrapping his fingers around its base. He lifted the staff and felt the balance of its weight in his hands before strapping it to his back.

As he looked up, his eyes caught on something on the shelf. He tugged on a piece of paper that was sticking out between two books, studying it intently.

“Bernard…” He said, reading from the paper in front of him.

“... Who?” I asked, going over to take a look at what he was so enthralled by.

“The construct - his name is Bernard. I have his schematics here. It appears as if he is programmed to be quite well-read… he responds to many quotations found in this very tower.” Gale explained, tapping his hand on his pack full of books.

I looked over the diagram over Gale’s shoulder, amazed by the intricacies of Bernard’s mechanics and the arcane blessings that kept him animated. His existence was the perfect example of technology and magic working in harmony.

I traced my finger over a small note on the margin of the schematic, the handwriting differing from the other notes scattered across the page.

“He will be here when the silence stretches on…”

Gale’s eyes turned somber as he read the note, recognizing what it alluded to. He rifled through his pack, pulling out a piece of paper that had been tucked inside the research book on Sussur Flowers. The parchment was stained with tears, obstructing some of the text, but you could barely make out the final words in a poem:

“The silence stretches on - I'm all alone.
Please, can I hold your hands, for just a while?”

“A scholar lost in their research can often find themselves isolated, whether that be their intention or not. A beloved tower can turn into a wretched prison given enough time spent in solitude…” Gale said, his eyes still scanning and re-reading the poem, his hands trembling ever so slightly as he gripped the page.

I gently placed my hand over his to still his shaking. He looked up at me, the fear in his eyes settling, but still present.

“Apologies. I’m afraid I find myself having more and more in common with our missing resident.” Gale said, tucking the paper back inside the Sussur Flower book.

“Well, you’re both loyal servants to Mystra, maybe- but you’re not alone, Gale. Not anymore.” I said, squeezing his hand lightly. The look he gave me in that moment confused me. It was a mix of gratitude and fear, like he had so much more to say but knew it wasn’t the time to say it.

“AGH!” Gale exclaimed, his face contorting suddenly as he winced in pain. He dug his nails into his chest where a purple glow emanated through his robe. His breaths became labored and heavy, and my heart raced as I feared for his life. How many times could he go through this without it doing irreparable damage to him? Would this be the moment his affliction took him for good?

“P-please… I need…” He started, his voice strained.

“Shh, I understand. Don’t move.” I said, recognizing the arcane hunger overwhelming him. This had happened twice before, and I had held on to a few less-than-useful magical items for this very situation.

I dug through my pack to find the amulet that Arabella’s parents had given us. It was a gift of thanks for saving their daughter from Kagha’s vile snake. It contained a fair bit of Weave that Gale would be able to consume- and we hadn’t needed its magic as of yet. It wouldn’t be missed.

Gale still gripped his chest, his eyes closed tight, rocking back and forth slightly attempting to manage the pain. I slipped the golden chain of the amulet over Gale’s neck, his eyes opening as he felt the cool metal graze his skin. Recognizing the weave within the amulet, he took the pendant in his hands and tried to steady himself as he took a deep, shaky breath inwards. I watched as the magic glow the amulet held was gradually but rapidly dimmed, and the amulet itself vanished leaving nothing but a dusting of Weave particulate.

Gale’s eyes widened. The purple glow of his chest dimmed, but remained, illuminating the dark corner we stood in.

“Good gods. It hardly has any effect. Mystra have mercy on us all.” He said softly. Gale’s distraught face turned urgent, as he called out to the group. “Listen, I need to speak to you, to all of you. It would be unconscionable of me to remain silent.”

My heart panged with fear. Had his condition worsened? Was this a final goodbye? I couldn’t bear to imagine going through this without him by our side - we had been through so much already. Astarion and Karlach looked up from their plundering, coming over to Gale as he gathered his thoughts.

“Go on, Gale. You’re among friends.” Karlach assured him, recognizing the worry on his face.

“I might just be about to remedy that. You have to know who I was. You have to know who I really am.” Gale began. “ What I am is a walking shadow of the promise I once held. I’m what one might call a wizard prodigy, who from an early age could not only control the Weave, but compose it, much like a musician or a poet. Such was my skill that it earned me the attention of the mother of magic herself. The Lady of Mysteries. The goddess Mystra. She revealed herself to me and she became my teacher. In time, she became my muse, and later, even my lover.”

I swallowed down the emotions that bubbled inside me to learn that he had a romantic relationship with his goddess, all of the previous sentiments he shared about her coming into a different light. My head swam with the things he had said about her, the image he had conjured and looked at with such reverence. It was more than just the reverence of a devoted disciple, it was that of a smitten schoolboy. I felt my pulse quicken, and I feared that the bewilderment I felt was too plainly evident. Although, looking at my companions, they were just as surprised by his more intimate connection with Mystra herself.

“Bold of you. Few would dare to reduce a goddess to their ‘muse’.” Astarion said to him, crossing his arms and raising an eyebrow. He was hesitant to believe the narrative the wizard was weaving.

“I am, after all, the villain of the tale. But we enjoyed each other’s company- Body, mind and soul. But even so, I desired more. You see, no matter how powerful a wizard we mortals can become, we never scratch more than the surface of the Weave. Mystra keeps us in check. There are boundaries she doesn’t let us cross. Yet - every time I was with her, I stood on the precipice, gazing into the wonders that lay beyond. I sought to cross those boundaries.” Gale continued. Everything he said was spoken with such deliberate intensity, I couldn’t help but trust that every word was truth.

“How exactly did you try to cross those boundaries?” I asked him, fearing the answer just a little. I felt myself also fearing the wistful look in his eyes as he recalled the presence of his goddess. How was I supposed to eclipse his former lover, an all-powerful goddess?

“I tried to convince her. I pouted, I pleaded, I swore my ambition was only to serve her better. But she only smiled and told me to be contented. As inconceivable as it seems to me now, I shared a bed with a goddess, and yet I wasn’t satisfied. So I sought to prove myself worthy to her instead. We come now to the crux of my folly. Shall I share the story behind it, or would you rather head straight to its sordid finale?” Gale asked, shame evident on his face as he turned to me for an answer.

“Please, tell us everything.” I encouraged him. Gale took a deep breath, preparing himself.

“Very well. Here goes: Once upon a very long time ago, a mighty lord lived in a tower. A flying tower, to be precise. I’ll save his history for another time, but the gist of it is that he sought to usurp the goddess of magic so that he could become a god himself. He almost managed but not quite, and his entire empire - Netheril - came crashing down around him as he turned to stone. The magic that was unleashed that day was phenomenal, roiling like the prime chaos that outdates creation. Even the Weave itself could not withstand the onslaught. It fractured, then shattered, and all magic was lost to the mortal realms- until the day Mystra returned. She restored the Weave, reuniting all its scattered shards. Or so I thought, until in the course of my studies I learned of a book. A Netherese tome in which a piece of the fractured Weave had been sealed beyond her reach. ‘What If…’ I thought ‘What if after all this time, I could return this lost part of herself to the goddess?’.”

“Had you considered a bouquet? A box of chocolates, perhaps?” I asked him playfully, trying to lighten the serious tone of his tale.

He laughed with a sharp exhale through his nose, raising an eyebrow.

“You know me. My gestures can never be grand enough. I was certain that this deed of raw power, draped in romance, would convince Mystra to take me by the hand and welcome me into her hitherto forbidden domains. I was mistaken. I obtained the fabled book and took it into my study. As for what happened next…”

Gale took a knee before me, reaching upwards to offer me his hand.

“Here. Place your hand over my heart. Let me show you.” He said, beckoning me closer. The purple glow on his chest grew in intensity and I could see him wince in response.

After his whole confession, I felt fear in the forefront of my emotions. I knew so little of magic, how was I going to be able to help him in the way he needed - long term? Could he keep this under control on his own? Was he… dangerous? I hesitantly held my hand out towards him, pressing my palm over his heart, my fingertips grazing the wispy lines of the glowing mark that scarred him, reminding him of his failure. As I held my palm against him, I felt the tadpole in my brain quiver, sending shivers down my spine. It was like an itch in my brain. I recognized Gale was the cause- he was letting me witness his memories.

Suddenly, visions filled my brain, experiences recalled through Gale’s eyes. Gale’s chest glowed bright, blinding even. He stifled shouts of pain, taking both of his hands and pressing my palm to his chest firmly, in an attempt to maintain our mental connection. He writhed in agony, but held fast. Being this close to the magic that harbored itself within him, I could sense its malevolence. I tasted the bitter poison that it exuded on my tongue as Gale squirmed beneath its grasp.

In my mind’s eye I could see the book Gale referenced, recalling everything as if it had happened to myself. The tome was bound, then suddenly opened wide. Inside the book there were no pages, only a swirling mass of blackest Weave that pounced at me. It’s teeth, it’s claws, it was unstoppable as it dug through and became a part of me… and gods was it ever hungry…

“How… how are you still alive, Gale?” I asked him, the vision clearing away. He grimaced.

“Thankfully, the moment I absorbed the fragment wasn’t enough to kill me outright. It was only the beginning.” Gale explained. The glowing in his chest subsided, leaving us all standing in a familiar darkness. He stood up from his knelt position, dusting off his robe.

“This… Netherese blight. This orb for lack of a better word, is balled up inside my chest. And it needs to be fed. As long as I absorb traces of the weave from potent enough sources, it remains quiet. Were it ever to fully destabilize, however…” He looked to the ground, shaking his head as if he was struggling to face the reality of it all.

“You would… die?” I asked, desperately hoping that wasn’t the case. Was this really to be his ultimate fate?

“Rather worse, actually. I would erupt.” He said, looking me dead in the eye. My stomach lurched.

“I don’t know the exact magnitude of the eruption, but given my studies of Netherese magic, I’d say even a fragment as small as the one I carry… It’d level a city the size of Waterdeep.” Gale looked at me, shame in his gaze, but his face was as serious as death.

“Gale… I…” I could hardly find words to address his confession. I felt dizzy, nauseous, sad… heartbroken even. “I wish you had told me sooner…” Was all I could mutter.

“I… I know.” Gale nodded, knowingly. “All of this… It must feel like a betrayal. Say the word, and we’ll part ways. I’m nothing but a danger to those around me. A danger to those I truly care about.”

The somber tone of his voice pulled at my heartstrings. Before I could muster a response, Astarion voiced his opinion loud and clear.

“Are you joking?! This Netherese time bomb should be a blip on the horizon by now!” He shouted. Gale shrunk at the rejection, his mouth turned downwards as the words cut him.

“No way. We are all risky in our own ways. We stick together anyway.” Karlach said, shaking her head at Astarion. She looked toward me, searching for my response. Gale and Astarion looked at me expectantly as well.

I nodded toward Karlach in agreement. “We have come this far together, and we’ll continue on together. That’s final.” I said, suppressing the tremble in my voice. I was so afraid. I was afraid of the magic he harbored, I was afraid of dying- potentially at his hand, but most of all… I was afraid of losing him to this scourge he was haunted by. Gale’s somber and shrunken self brightened at my words.

“That is… a great relief. Oh, a great relief indeed!” Gale exclaimed, practically jumping for joy. “You truly are a soul that steels my own. From all my new rallied heart - I thank you - I thank you all! I understand if you stand against me- I’m humbled if you stand with me. Either way, I will do my best not to let you down. I stand at a precipice, but if you do not give up hope, neither shall I. I’ll fight, I’ll resist- as long as I can.” He grinned, waving a fist in the air triumphantly. I was filled with a sense of calm and happiness to see his resolve. He wouldn’t let this get the best of him.

“Now… even I am tired of the sound of my own voice. Let us venture forth.” Gale finished. Next stop, Omeluum at the Myconid Colony.

Chapter 19: The Orb's Ire

Summary:

Another night at camp while the gang is stuck in the Underdark, some feelings are exchanged and some mistakes are made.

Chapter Text

That night at camp, all of us buzzed as the mushroom spores of bliss surrounded our bodies. The Myconids had given us a boon as thanks for avenging the death of their kin at the hands of duergar. The dark dwarves put up a fight, but their blatant disregard for the peaceful races of the Underdark fueled our determination to take them down. Well- maybe it fueled all but Astarion. The mushroom-men creeped him out.

“Ugh. I smell like dirt.” Astarion whined as we all began removing our armor.

“Better than smelling like fish . Shadowheart retorted, referencing the encounter we had with a group of pungent and bloodthirsty Kuo-toa earlier.

“Aww, you didn’t like the scale-y buggers? I thought they were kind of cute.” Karlach remarked, imitating the strange little dance they had been doing in worship of their false god.

“And they have such a way with names. Mahkloompah! What a god to serve.” Gale joked, poking fun at the absurd name the aquatic race had given me after proving their god was a farce.

I laughed heartily hearing the name repeated. “I was unsure if I was suited for godhood at first, but with a name like that , how could I refuse?” I joked.

“You can certainly count me among your worshippers.” Gale said teasingly, but the underlying sincerity of the remark made me blush.

“Karlach! Have you any desire to hear a story this evening?” Gale turned his attention to the tiefling as she emerged from her tent in her sleepwear.

“I could be persuaded, what have you got for me?” She said curiously.

Gale cleared his throat with pride as he held the tome in the air towards Karlach.
“I believe you’ll like this one: The True and Impossible Adventures of Tenebrux Morrow . Volume one of…” He took a moment to count the books he had piled in the corner of his tent. “Four!”

Karlach’s eyes were alight with intrigue. “Sounds up my alley. Sure! I’ll tune in while you prep supper.” She bounced on the balls of her feet, looking forward to the story that was to come.

Gale happily obliged, summoning a Mage Hand with a swish. The mage hand held the book open and levitated it at Gale’s eye level so that he could read it aloud as he roasted fish over the fire.

“His red dragon thus dispatched, the knight had no choice but to leap for my ship, crashing to the New Bride's deck even as his mount was swallowed by the eerie gloom of the Astral Plane's shifting tides…” Gale began, taking pauses in the story to taste test and season the sauce he had prepared to accompany the fish.

After about a half hour of storytelling, it was more than just Karlach who gathered around the campfire’s glow to listen to the enthralling tale. Its portrayal of githyanki and the Astral Plane caught the attention of Lae’zel quite readily, although she seemed disapproving of the accuracy of it all. Shadowheart, Wyll and Astarion sat quietly and listened to Gale recite the literature too, they hadn’t many better things to do as they salivated, awaiting their own serving of fish.

“Ah! The fish is ready. That will conclude our tall-tale for the night.” Gale said, the mage hand closing the book and floating it back to the tower of tomes at the wizard’s tent.

“Aww, I was actually enjoying that. Maybe we can hear more tomorrow?” Karlach asked, sounding disappointed her story time had come to an end.

“Certainly! I’d be happy to further explore the adventures of Miss Morrow.” Gale promised.

He began taking the roasted fish off of their sewers, distributing the meat into everyone’s respective bowls. The plateware was mismatched, some of the bowls made of wood while others were clay or stone. Gale finished off his plating with a smattering of sauce he ladeled from the cauldron before passing out the meal to his hungry audience.

“Thank you, Gale. It smells delicious.” I said, gratefully taking the bowl from him. He had made sure to give me a wooden one - he knew I preferred them to the others.

“Well, it’s no quipperfish with hundur sauce but it’ll do. The Kuo-Toa seemed to like the taste of them well enough considering they had so much in their stores.” Gale said, digging into his own serving of tonight’s special.

All of us happily ate the meal he provided, glad that the fish tasted normal - despite being native to the Underdark. The sauce was surprisingly complimentary as well, mostly made of mushrooms that Gale identified to be edible and benign of any strange or magical effects.

We all retired to our tents after the meal, bellies full and bodies weary from the day’s adventures. As I walked towards my tent, I took note of Gale trailing close behind me.

“Mind if I join you?” He asked permission, his eyes alive and notably not-sleepy.

“Not at all.” I said, allowing him to catch up and walk beside me. He slipped his hand covertly into mine, interlacing our fingers as we strode across camp.

“I quite liked the story you told around the fire today. Karlach seemed to enjoy it, too.” I said. The way he looked at me, you would have thought I was reciting a poem, he seemed so enthralled by my words.

“I’m glad you liked it. I actually know the author- a resident of Waterdeep. I’d see her frequently at the Yawning Portal. In fact, she was there so frequently I have a hard time believing any of these ‘adventures’ of hers actually took place.” He remarked. “Regardless, they make a fine campfire tale.”

We arrived at the space my tent occupied and I stretched, feeling the ache in my muscles as they yearned for sleep. Gale was lost in thought, his gaze blank and disconnected as he stared at the ground in front of my tent.

“Do you need something? You know you can always unburden yourself with me.” I encouraged him, trying to get him to snap back to reality.

He blinked, his eyes connecting with mine once more as if he had regained consciousness.

“I wanted to… apologize. For not being forthcoming with information regarding my condition. We are meant to trust one another- Intrinsically. And I jeopardized that trust.” He confessed, a rosy pink blushing on his neck.

I gulped, swallowing the frustration and turmoil I had felt when he came forward with the true nature of his condition. It would be wrong of me to unleash the ferocity of my emotions onto him now- he was apologizing.

“I can’t lie- It would have been nice to know that your former relationship was a goddess. Mystra isn’t someone I am prepared to be compared to.” I said, doing my best to touch on the less deadly aspects of his confession.

“But you’re incomparable.” Gale said with confidence. My heart fluttered. “I never experienced the compassion you offer while I was in her company. You care for me- truly and infinitely. As I you.”

“I suppose the tragedy within Lenore’s diary entries struck a chord with me. She too, lamented in the loneliness of her tower for what seemed like eons. She too yearned for the embrace of the one she once loved, damning the distance that was between them. Damning their past words and actions that created such a rift in the connection she and Yrre shared.” Gale said, his eyes flickering as he recalled the letters written in Lenore and Yrre’s hand. He pressed a finger over the turquoise gemstone of the ring we had found in the tower.

“I’ll never get back that year I sulked in solitude within my library. I’ll never be able to turn back time to undo the folly that left me in my sorry state. And while Yrre returned to seek out the company of his cleric- I have little faith that an omnipotent goddess will rouse seeking a woeful wizard for companionship.” Gale shook his head shamefully.

“And if she did… would you go to her?” I asked, holding my breath in anticipation of his answer.

He looked at me, recognizing the concern in my gaze. “There was a time when I would have said I would do anything for her.” He said. My heart sank to my stomach.

“But I can’t say that’s the case anymore. Not while I have you.” He said with a smile. I sighed with relief as he leaned in and planted a kiss on the top of my head, rubbing my arms with his palms comfortingly.

I leaned into his chest, pressing my ear to his heart. It was beating, steady and strong, each pulse sending a wave of serotonin through me. He had me, and I had him. Even amongst all this madness we had been thrust into, we had each other. Even in the cold and danger of the Underdark- I felt confident with him at my side. He wrapped his arms around me, both of us silent as we took a moment to appreciate each other’s closeness.

I took a step back from him, looking at him lovingly as he stood there in his nightclothes, the softness of them tempting me to run a hand across the fabric. He smiled at me, crows feet crinkling in the corners of his eyes.

“Do you… want to come in?” I asked, gesturing to the tent.

He pursed his lips, looking troubled and torn. I didn’t want him to feel like he had to.

“It’s okay if you’d rather spend the night in your own tent- I understand.” I said, trying to reassure him I would take no offense.

“Tav… I… I would love nothing more than to join you, I just…” He paused, quiet and contemplative. “It’s the orb. I fear that it is too much of a danger should I allow myself such a joy as to be beside you.”

I felt him pull at my heartstrings with every word. It was as if I was a lute and he was the bard, each lyric from his lips taking hold over my emotions. His own compassion was his downfall, his care so great that it transformed to fear when it was brought to the surface. I wished I could do more to reassure him of his own control over the orb, but the nature of it was still so unknown…

As I looked at him I felt sentiment wash over me. We would find a solution for his illness- we would throw as many magical artifacts at it until we had the time to find something long-term to keep it sated. There was no other option. It wasn’t even that I felt I couldn’t live without him- although I had felt that way- It was more-so that I was so confident that he had more to do with his life- with his magic- with his knowledge. He had so much to contribute to our meager plane of existence, and for him to leave prematurely from a mistake made in (mostly) good faith just wasn’t fair. He deserved to carry out his dreams. His goals, his entire life.

Even as a human with a shorter life span than my own- I felt he had been able to accomplish so much more than I had despite me having been on the plane for decades longer. His ability to track down and locate the book that held his accursed orb was a feat in itself- having only heard about it in legends before getting his hands on it. Then, the extensive research on what caused the orb to grow irritable- that the magic items sated it. It was remarkable that he was able to discern so much in a short amount of time even though it was all foreign and new to him. It was hard to imagine he was only a third of my age- I felt so much less mature than him, more sheltered.

Lost in my own thoughts, I was caught off guard when he suddenly wrapped his hand around my waist, pulling me closer.

“But I don’t think I’d forgive myself if I refused you.” Gale said in a breathy voice, pressing his lips against mine in a passionate kiss.

Instinctively, I reciprocated his kiss, leaning into the softness of his lips and the affectionate way he held me against him. I felt a part of my consciousness slip away as I melted in his arms, his touch a warm and welcome respite from the cold of the Underdark.

He pulled back, giving us both a moment to catch our breaths and let our minds catch up with our racing hearts.

“Is… that a yes?” I asked him as I noted the wonder in his eyes.

Without a word, nothing but a soft smile and a twinkle in his eyes, he held one hand on my upper back. In a swift motion, he slipped his other arm under my knees and swept me off the ground, suddenly carrying me as if I was his bride. I couldn’t help but giggle as I was so caught off guard by his gesture, tightly wrapping my arms around his neck to ensure he wouldn’t drop me.

He laughed as I pressed my head to his chest.

“I don’t plan on dropping you anytime soon, Tav. No need to - agh- squeeze so tight.” He said, his voice straining as he twisted his neck. I loosened the wrap I had on him, making sure he could breathe comfortably.

He smiled as he walked toward my tent with me in his arms, crouching as we entered so that he wouldn’t hit his head. He gently knelt down and laid me in the soft down of my bedroll, his smile so warm it could have banished the chill from my bones all on its own.

I sat up in my bedroll, looking into his eyes dreamily, doubting for a moment that such a vision was a reality. Such a perfect person couldn’t exist, surely. He stared at me lovingly, bringing a hand to my face and tucking a curl of my hair behind my ear. I felt a shiver run through me as his fingers grazed my skin, so delicate that it felt like nothing more than a whisper against me.

“Are you weary? We had a long day.” Gale said, taking a seat alongside my bedroll.

He leaned back on his palms to keep himself sitting upright. He looked so comfortable- notably not nervous or awkward like he had been before when we were in the tent alone. He looked like he was catching up with an old friend as he searched my face for a response to his question. His own comfort eased any nerves of my own, and I felt my anxiety quell as we sat together in the dim light.

“Not terribly so. A lot happened today- I think my memories of it will be swirling in my head for quite a while before I can fall asleep.” I said, thinking back over all that transpired in the day.

“There’s still time for more memories to be made then.” Gale said, leaning closer to me, his eyelids dropping and his gaze falling to my lips. I felt my face flush. What happened to the flustered schoolboy who had sat here only a few days ago? Each action had a boldness that I hadn’t suspected from him.

As he slowly leaned closer, the warmth of his breath drew me in as it taunted me with relief from the cold. I leaned closer to him, the sultry look in his eyes making my heart skip a beat as we collapsed into each other once more. Our lips met, our hands grasping at each other’s hair as if to look for something to hold onto that would prevent us from falling apart. My chest heaved as I felt excitement build within me, the joy from having Gale so near making me lose composure. I gripped at his tunic, tugging on it to encourage him to move closer without having to part from our kiss. He scrambled , shuffling over onto my bedroll and placing a hand on my waist to keep balance. He didn’t dare back from my lips as he inched himself closer, tucking himself in close to me as we both tried to squeeze ourselves onto the comfortable narrow space of the bedroll.

I felt the pressure of his lips on mine soften, a forewarning that he was about to pull away. I hummed in protest, tightening my grip on his tunic and yanking it back against me, his chest pressing against mine sharing its blissful warmth. I felt him smile as he continued to kiss me, the covert dimples on his cheeks revealing themselves even beneath the scratch of his beard. Upon my insistence that he return to my embrace, he pushed further in his advances, the tip of his tongue gliding across my lower lip to request entry. I felt the flush on my face warm, spreading down my neck and up to the tip of my ears. I couldn’t help but allow him to press further, our passionate kiss evolving into something more lustful and wanting.

He flicked up the bottom of my tunic with the hand he had on my waist, grasping me now without the barrier of fabric separating us. The strength of his hands was evident as his grip tightened on me, refusing to allow me to forget his presence. I felt protected under his hand, knowing the powerful magic he could wield with a wave of his fingers. I relished in the attention he gave me, his hand tangled in my hair and his movements careful and loving as we leaned into each other’s warmth.

In the midst of our embrace, I felt a soft tingle in my chest. I had attributed it to a fluttering of my heart or an effect of my own intrinsic magic reacting to my overwhelming emotions. In a short amount of time, the tingle evolved into a vibrating, then quickly to a stinging sensation. I pushed through it, basking in the ever loving attentiveness of the wizard of Waterdeep and putting all thoughts of my magic acting-up aside. I pushed through it- until I couldn’t any longer.

A flash of blue light forced our blissfully closed eyes to open, a searing shock of pain sending its way through my body, centered on my chest.

I cried in agony, clutching my chest as I felt a burn in my insides, the pain spreading through my nerves in an instant. I froze in place, each twitch of my muscles sending a searing pain coursing through me. I didn’t dare try to speak, I just stayed still, paralyzed from the pain that consumed me whole.

I could just barely catch sight of Gale from my paralyzed position, the horror on his face evident as he observed the state I was in. I could only tell from the purple glow on his beard that his orb was no longer dormant, its glow casting a dark shadow beneath his brow. He held a palm to his chest, blinking as he tried to recover from his state of terror, suddenly scrambling to put distance between us.

“Nine Hells, I never should’ve-” Gale muttered under his breath, keeping his eyes fixed on me as he waved his hands in the air , a pink light coming from his fingertips and making sigils in the air.

He bowed his head, speaking softly as I was barely able to hear his voice.

“Shadowheart, please come to Tav’s tent as soon as you can. Something is terribly wrong- bring poultices.” Gale murmured, sending a message to Shadowheart who was likely winding down in her own tent.

“Tav, darling, if you can hear me you must know this was never my intention. I… I was a fool to think I would be able to-” Gale lamented, his words halted by the visage of Shadowheart looming at the tent’s entrance.

“What’s happened?” Shadowheart asked, her voice serious and concerned. She immediately saw my paralyzed state and rushed to my side.

I felt utterly powerless as all I could do was watch and listen to them as my skin felt like it was made of spurs, my entire body being spiked and stabbed with each passing moment.

“I… I never meant it but there was… lightning and she… she hasn’t moved.” Gale said, his voice raspy as his words were hoarse in his throat. He sounded frightened and ashamed.

“It’s alright, Gale. It’s nothing unsolvable. Her pulse is still strong, she is just… hurting.” Shadowheart said, looking me over, grimacing at the realization of the damage done.

She dug through her bag, the sound of glass bottles clinking together as she rummaged through her potions and tonics. She snatched a tall, thin bottle of green liquid from amongst them and popped off the cork, bringing the bottle to my lips. Her hands were gentle and careful not to apply much pressure as she held my face still and coaxed the liquid into my mouth.

As the liquid fell down my throat I felt the pain in my muscles subside, once again allowing my body to shift and move without an echo of pain being sent through me. I took a deep breath and let my muscles relax, realizing the exhaustion that the electric shocks had caused my body.

“Thank the gods above, you’re alright.” Gale said, the tension he held in his body releasing itself all at once, a tear slipping past the gates of his eyelids and falling silently down his face.

He closed the distance he had set between us, eager to look over me and assess whether he had really done irreversible damage to my form. I felt leagues better after downing the potion, but I wasn’t at full capacity just yet- my head spun and my body ached terribly.

“Gale- careful!” Shadowheart scolded him. “Don’t touch her- she is likely very sensitive still. Paralysis like that lingers for a bit, don’t make any sudden movements- you’ll regret it.” she said, warning the both of us.

“Thank you, Shadowheart. For your help, and for coming so quickly.” I said, feeling the tingle of pain that still lingered as I moved my mouth to speak. It was like there were pins and needles stabbing around my lips, but it was bearable.

“It was nothing. I’m glad I had something that could help.” She said, looking me over once more. I was glad to be scrutinized under the discerning eye of an experienced cleric- and even more glad that everything else seemed to be okay according to her.

“Gale, can I speak with you outside a moment?” Shadowheart turned her gaze to the wizard. Her eyes were fixed on the mark on his chest that still glowed ominously. He glanced over at me nervously, before nodding and following Shadowheart outside the tent.

I could hear them whispering outside, unable to make out the bulk of the conversation.

Shadowheart’s scolding tone was evident from what I could catch.

“Reckless…dangerous!....control….leader….responsible!....help….treatment…”

Gale didn’t have much to say in response, but his voice was somber and soft- small compared to Shadowheart’s.

“I know….didn’t…..weave….understand….thank you.”

I only caught a few words from each of them, partially distracted as I slowly flexed each of my muscles to discern which ones were still affected by the paralysis. It was fading slowly, but the stiffness was still evident.

After a moment, Gale returned to the tent- notably glowing a lot less than he had been.

“Gale- are you-” I began, but he stopped me.

“Tav, please. Save your strength and your breath. You will need it come the morrow.” He said, pulling at my bedroll so that it covered my legs, encouraging me to lie back.

“No, Gale. Please can we just-” I said softer, in an attempt to show him I was taking care to not over-exert myself.

“Tav. I can’t stand to hurt you like this. This is… this is exactly what I feared most. The volatility of it… the danger I pose… I should have deserted this band a tenday ago. I am a threat.” He said, holding a hand over his chest.

“Gale- you are an anomaly.” I said, commanding his attention with the certainty of my tone.

He matched my gaze as I leaned back in my bedroll, my head resting on the soft fabric as I looked up at him kneeling beside me.

“As are you. My heart aches to know I’ve caused you pain. Physically or otherwise.” He said softly, caressing my cheek with his calloused hand.

I smiled to feel his touch, grasping his hand and keeping it there, cupping my face.

“I can take it.” I said playfully, making my voice a little deeper as I spoke to sound ‘tough’.

Gale laughed softly at my silly voice, rubbing his thumb across my face.

“You aren’t… glowing anymore.” I said, fighting a yawn that threatened to drag me into a blissful sleep.

“Mm. Yes. Shadowheart so generously offered me the weave that enchanted a pair of boots she had come across. It’s sated me for now.” Gale said calmly, touching his chest in an almost self-conscious way.

“I ought to keep my distance from you a while. You have a rather… adverse affect on me. As much as I yearn to have you near… it poses a danger to us both.” Gale said, practically whispering now. The low hum of his voice was lulling, leaving me little choice but to close my eyes and prepare for sleep.

I heard him exhale a soft chuckle, and the warm hand he had against my cheek shifted, as if he was about to pull away. I quickly grasped it- tightening my grip on him even in my sleepy state.

Eyes still closed, I mumbled “Stay.”

“Tav, I just explained that I-”

“Please.” I begged, snuggling my face against his palm. I didn't have the energy for more than one word sentences.

I felt his body splay on the ground beside me, giving into my sleepy demands.

“Just until you fall asleep.” He compromised.

I could hear his breaths, steady and evenly spaced as he laid beside me. I fell asleep to the consistency of his exhales, the pattern of it like a drumbeat of a song that told me he was still alive and well.

Chapter 20: A Goddess's Charge

Summary:

The gang meets up with a weary traveler- who is keen to speak to Gale. He brings news that Tav is less than pleased about, especially when she can't seem to make the wizard see reason.

Chapter Text

The four of us darted across the dry, rocky landscape as we escaped the abandoned Monastery. It wouldn’t be long before the Githyanki inside would realize the fate of their Inquisitor, and their false queen would demand we be hunted and killed for treason. I leaped across gulleys, moving as swiftly as my legs would carry me. With every leap I crossed my fingers that my companions would be able to make the jump without difficulty.

“Keep up, istik!” Lae’zel called out. I could see the gleam of her silvered armor in the sunlight as she came into my peripheral vision, darting ahead of me.

She leapt high into the air, landing nimbly at the top of a rocky cliff. Growing up on the Astral Plane gave her quite the advantage in the athletics department. I huffed, sure that I wouldn’t be able to make such a jump, and resorted to climbing up the cliff with my own hands and feet. As I managed to get off the ground, I could hear exhausted labored breaths approaching from behind.

“Gale, surely your stamina isn’t this poor.” Astarion said, kicking up a cloud of dust as he screeched to a halt at the foot of the cliff.

Gale’s face was flush, and I couldn’t tell if it was from embarrassment or the workout he was getting in the hot sun.

“Oh, bollocks this.” Gale said, looking up at me climbing the cliff face with disdain. He closed his eyes as he desperately tried to fill his lungs with enough air to sustain himself.

“Caligo Gradus!” He called, holding his hands in front of him methodically. In a puff of mist, Gale’s form disappeared.

“What in the hells-?” Astarion said as his eyes darted around to look for the missing wizard.

“Hmm, Lae’zel tell me - why do you think it is that Astarion is always bringing up the rear?” Gale’s prideful voice came from above me. I looked up to see him atop the rocky cliff beside Lae’zel, taking a good look at his fingernails and smirking.

I pulled myself to the top of the cliff, getting to my feet and dusting my armor. The three of us looked down from the top at Astarion who looked thoroughly unamused standing at the bottom.

“How is it that I’m the vampire but you all suck?” He asked, begrudgingly bringing himself to climb up the rocky cliffside. The three of us couldn't help but laugh as he scaled the cliff, but he managed to get to the top in no time at all.

I squinted as I looked towards the Rosymorn Monastery, its elaborate spires stabbing the clouds like spears. I didn’t see any evidence of the githyanki giving chase, we may be in the clear for a bit.

“Must have been quite the remarkable architectural feat in its day. Shame what’s happened to it now.” Gale said, seeing me stare off towards the dilapidated building.

“Such a shame it has been infested with Gith?” Lae’zel snapped, taking offense. Her eyes narrowed at Gale, who gulped nervously.

“You misunderstand me, Lae’zel. I simply mean it is a shame the building was not given proper upkeep. That is no fault of your kin.” Gale explained himself, and Lae’zel’s challenging stare softened.

“Maybe there is hope for it to be repaired yet. It would take time, but Lathander has loyal clerics and worshippers throughout the realms. With a compiled effort they may be able to restore it to its original purpose.” I said, trying to imagine what the building would look like without the collapsed walls and shattered center spire.

“Hm. If only the sun hadn’t threatened my life for the past 200 years, I might care more about this place. But alas, I don’t. So let’s go.” Astarion said, promptly turning away from the sun god’s temple and working his way deeper into the wilds. The three of us followed, still fearing discovery by the githyanki creche.

We continued running through the wilds, taking cover in the little brush and greenery that was able to thrive in the rocky mountainous environment. Gale kept his pace alongside me, beginning a conversation as he navigated the rocky terrain.

“You know, if that monastery is ever rebuilt… we should probably return the religious artifact we stole from it.” He said, raising an eyebrow at me in disapproval. I gave him a sheepish look.

Stole is a strong word, Gale of Waterdeep. If we return it like you suggest, it will have merely been borrowed.” I said in an attempt to justify my acts. “Besides, if we wield it against the Absolute, Lathander himself will have contributed to the liberation of an entire people caught in a cult. It should be an honor.”

Gale scoffed and rolled his eyes. I made a good point, he just didn’t want to admit it.

“We can return it- one day. But right now it is of more use to us than it is sitting in a basem*nt.” I said, my decision final. I could feel the weight of the sacred mace on my back as I jogged through the wilderness. Its radiant glow left a warm twinkle in Gale’s eye as he looked at me. He had wished I hadn’t taken such an object in the first place, but ultimately submitted to my authority as appointed “leader” and refrained from stopping me.

“Ho, there wanderer! Stay thy course a moment to indulge an old man?” A raspy, older voice called out from ahead. I could see Astarion at the front of the pack, face to face with an elderly man.

The man stood tall, but the pointed wizard’s hat on his head may have made him appear more lofty than he actually was. His long, snowy beard suggested his wisdom, and his crimson wizard robes revealed his talent for magic.

As Gale looked ahead, I heard a soft gasp escape from his lips, picking up his pace to catch up to Astarion.

“Elminster?” Gale asked, his eyes wide as he looked at the traveling wizard, just getting close enough to enter into his view.

Elminster’s eyes settled on Gale, a look of recognition and seriousness in his gaze.
“The very same, Gale- and a fair bit miffed he is, too. Finding himself forced to expose his best pair of boots to so many miles of country road on your behalf.”

Gale shook his head in confusion, still baffled to see the famed wizard in the wilds of a mountain of all places.

“I… don’t understand. How so, on my behalf?” Gale asked.

Elminster’s face crumpled in frustration, the wrinkles on his aged skin and dark circles under his eyes becoming more evident. I was even more confused than Gale was.

“Gale, would you like to introduce us to your acquaintance?” I suggested, a little hesitant to interrupt.

Gale nodded his head, still looking for an answer to his question to Elminster, but recognizing his lack of decorum and wanting to correct it.

“Of course. Meet Elminster Aumar. A good friend of mine, but rather more significantly, he’s the most famed and respected wizard in the realms.” Gale said, holding his hands out toward the man as if presenting an award winning show pony to a crowd.

Elminster scoffed a little at the dramatic introduction.

“Am I, indeed? Most famed and respected errand boy more like.” He retorted.”I was bid to spare neither time nor my own self to find you. She sent me, Gale. You know of whom I speak.” An intensity grew in Elminster’s eyes as he looked towards the wizard of Waterdeep. Gale’s face went pale, his eyes tinting with fear and growing confusion.

“But - why? Out with it, Elminster, please!” Gale’s voice grew desperate, worries piling up in his head. Worst case-scenarios playing out in his mind to bitter ends.

“Young man- has your sojourn away from Waterdeep washed away your decorum as well as your patience?” Elminster jabbed at Gale’s behavior. The stern way in which he spoke stung me, even just to hear. I imagined it was a worse feeling for whom it was directed.

“Nigh a tenday I’ve gone without honest fare- worthy of the name! Drank naught but what the sky entitled my thirst. Why, some bread, cheese and a cup of wine would appear unto me a feast. Surely you won’t begrudge me a mite of rest and repast before I get ‘out with it’?” The man spoke in long winded stanzas, his words as ornate as the architecture of the monastery we had escaped.

Gale looked towards me, as if to ask permission to offer out camp’s reserved to the weary, hungry old man. I wasn’t going to say no. What kind of monster did he think me?

“You are welcome to take part in our own camp’s supply of food and drink. And should you need sleep, we can prepare a bedroll for your use.” I offered, making it clear we didn’t plan on hoarding our goods from Gale’s colleague. Gale nodded, agreeing with my offer and grateful for the suggestion. Elminster looked grateful as well, albeit not surprised. He seemed to expect such a response.

“And a great kindness that would be! See, Gale? Even in these barren parts, the art of hospitality begets inspired new works, if one only keeps up the practice.” Elminster looked at Gale with disdain after taking a short bow toward me for my offer.

Gale had had enough. He rolled his eyes, cursing under his breath.

I suggested we make our way to camp right away, offering a shoulder for Elminster to lean on should he need to keep his balance amongst the rocky and tree-root ridden path back to our camp. To my surprise, his body was quite capable for a man of his age… he could have been… ninety or so? He obliged my kindness and leaned on my frame for a short while as the group walked, but after a bit he felt comfortable navigating on his own and even began to briskly stride ahead of me.

Gale slinked back to walk alongside me as I took up the rear, keeping his eyes on Elminster as he tried to make conversation with Astarion leading the way. Gale nudged my ribs with his elbow, speaking in hushed tones as we walked.

“Nigh on thirteen centuries old and he still thinks with his stomach…” He grumbled in my ear, just low enough that Elminster couldn’t hear him.

I choked on my own saliva at Gale’s remark. I began coughing, unable to stop myself until tears formed at the corners of my eyes. Thirteen centuries?! How the hells- he was only human! Wasn’t he? Gale pursed his lips to prevent from bursting into laughter at the coughing fit he induced, smiling mischievously. Lae’zel turned around and looked at me suspiciously, her stare seeming to ask “Are you alright?”. I nodded, still clearing my throat and unable to respond verbally. I waved my hand at her in an attempt to tell her I was fine and to return her attention to the road. She did so, but her suspicion remained. Gale put an apologetic hand on my shoulder, still grinning sheepishly as I continued to clear my throat.. I gasped for breath when the itch in my throat subsided, finally regaining my voice.

“You ought to be careful who you tell that to. I might have needed revivify if that had gone south.” I said, my voice still raspy after recovering.

Gale laughed, rubbing the hand on my shoulder to the center of my back.

“There are other ways to resuscitate apart from magic, you know.” Gale said, looking a little smug.

I thought back to my combat healing classes in the militant academy, recalling the lesson on cardiopulmonary resuscitation. It was a very… intimate form of first aid. I felt my face flush with warmth at the thought. The camp came into view before the conversation could go any further. At the sight of it, I rushed ahead in order to get to the food stores and prepare a rustic charcuterie-like arrangement for our guest.

After he satisfied himself on our store of bread, cheese and wine he finally seemed a bit more willing to open up about why he had sought out Gale in the first place. Gale’s anxiety was apparent, the anticipation had built the entire time Elminster was snacking.

“Hmm, yes, what a delightful wedge of Old Elturian that was. Doesn’t do to parley on an empty stomach, you know. Makes one’s words frivolous when they should be grave.” Elminster boasted, stretching his arms outward. “Plenty to digest, after all. A good deal to stew over, if you will. Words ladled with import should be savoured so as to better absorb their meaning, wouldn’t you-”

“Elminster.” Gale’s voice urged the wizard to get to his point. He looked as if he was about to burst, his eyes narrowed and brow furrowed in impatience.

Elminster looked shaken, and a bit nervous. “Right, erm…You see…I..- er, that is to say…” He fidgeted uncomfortably, glancing side to side and avoiding direct eye contact. What was he playing at?

He took a sigh, his eyes finally looking at Gale with a resonant somberness. “Gale. my boy. I’ve come to address a most pressing matter. I’ll speak as plainly as I can, forswearing the accustomed frills that decorate my speech. I’m here on behalf of Mystra.”

Gale nodded, keeping his eyes locked on Elminster. I could see him dig his feet into the dirt, as if he was steeling himself for a physical blow in addition to a verbal one. His goddess was not happy with him, that much he understood. But, how upset was she?

“The message and the charge I bring are hers. You know where you went wrong, Gale. We needn’t dwell on that here and now. But, even so, you’re to be given a chance of redemption.” Elminster went on. Gale’s steely stare turned to one of surprise.

“Mystra would consider… forgiveness?” He asked, making sure he understood what Elminster meant when he offered “redemption”. The tone of Gale’s voice took on the soft whine of a lost puppy as he spoke. My stomach sank to hear the yearning when he spoke Mystra’s name.

Elminster scrunched his nose, in partial disagreement. “She would consider… what she considers to be forgiveness. Mystra is aware of what has befallen you all. She knows of your strife with the Absolute- that most insidious of evils.”

I felt a modicum of anger boil inside me, not sure the cause was frustration or jealousy, but I lashed out before I could moderate myself.

“If the gods know about the threats we are facing, why are we facing them alone?” I asked, my voice stern and demanding. Gale looked at me, surprised I took such a stance, but seeing the reason in my words. He nodded, turning to Elminster expectantly.

“They choose the instruments of their will with great precision. Sometimes the single drops we think we are do not realize what waves we are building up to be.” Elminster said, his voice calm and steady. I wasn’t far from rolling my eyes at his defense of the gods, he must have nearly been one himself considering his age and the legends that surrounded him.

“Do not discount yourself. And by the same equation, do not discount your enemy.” He went on.

Our merry band was quite capable. However, with the aid of a god or goddess, we could be much more of a threat. The fact they were so reserved in their sharing of power was disappointing to say the least.

Elminster looked at me, recognizing my disdain towards the gods. They had never aided me. Mystra never encouraged my wielding of the weave. Silvanus had never spoken to me about my true identity. For years I was abandoned by the gods that I was always told would shepherd me and lead me into the life I was destined to live. It wasn’t gods that brought me to where I was, it was people. Friends.

“You must know that the Absolute is more dangerous than you could possibly conceive. It threatens all who live - even those who are undying. It threatens the gods, the Weave, the very fabric of the universe itself.” Elminster turned to Gale after giving me what seemed like a lecture.

“That is why I have come here to charge you, Gale, with its destruction. It is Mystra’s belief that only you can.”

Gale alone? How was he to defeat the entire cult as one person? Surely the fact we had all gathered together to face the threat gave us more of an advantage. And further, if the cult was such a threat to the gods themselves why were we left to protect them? Wasn’t their job to protect us? If this was all true, why did we pray to beings that cared so little for us in the grand scheme of it all?

To my surprise, Gale nodded in recognition at Elminster’s words. He understood what he was being told, but I could tell he wasn’t taking it well. His face paled, his irises vibrating as he tried to blink back the fear that welled behind the mask of solemnity he wore. He did a decent enough job of concealing his true emotions, but I could tell he was having an internal struggle.

“The orb.” Were the only two words out of Gale’s mouth as he looked at Elminster.

“Precisely.”

I felt my stomach churn hearing Elminster confirm Gale’s suspicion. This couldn’t seriously be the message Elminster had come so far to deliver. Was Mystra…petty? Did she harbor ill-will towards Gale and that’s why she would propose he do something so absolutely reckless? All he tried to do, in his self-admitted hubris, was impress her. How could she…punish him like this? I choked on my words, wanting to say so much but feeling too ill as I processed the reality of Gale’s charge.

“Mystra has granted me the power to - er - ’stop the clock’, as it were, on the orb’s rush to overpower you. Instead, you will be able to unleash its lethal combustion at will”

I felt a dizziness in my head as Elminster spoke the word lethal.

“You must find the Heart of the Absolute, whatever that may be, and use yourself as the catalyst that will burn it from this world.” Elminster concluded.

My head was spinning and I felt the heat of anger spread through my every limb. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears.

“That’s monstrous! You’re tasking him to kill himself! You can’t force him to go through with this!” I shouted, all of the emotions I had pent up during the sage’s speech releasing themselves at once. My words dissipated without echo, fading into the ether, further proving my voice held no power when it came to the whims of gods.

“No, indeed…” Gale said softly. My heart stilled with hope as I anticipated his next words. He turned to look at me before he continued “But… I think she trusts me to.”

I felt an aching in my throat to hear him fail to preserve his life. It felt like I had swallowed a dagger.

“It brings me no pleasure saying this, my friend, but such is Mystra’s will. Yours must be the sacrifice that will undo the Absolute. And for your sacrifice, you will be redeemed- such is Mystra’s promise.” Elminster said, a sadness in his eyes.

Redemption only in willingly giving up his own life. His own mortal existence on this plane, surrendered to an all-knowing goddess of magic. I was sick to my stomach at the thought this was the solution decided on by an entity of such insurmountable power. Did immortal beings really take their own lives for granted so much that the lives of others meant so little?

“With that, I’ve said my sorry piece. I need only bestow unto thee the charm I was bid.” Elminster finished, holding out his hand and beginning an incantation directed towards Gale.

“My’Nahastra Mystra’Ryl E’Deelion Thras’Anas’Tthra” The words fell from his lips like rain onto a forest canopy, a rumbling thunder echoing around the camp as he cast. The light from his fingertips glowed a deep blue as it engulfed Gale’s chest in a familiar shape. The eight-pointed star of Mystra. After a moment, the light settled and Elminster spoke again.

“It is done. Both charge and charm committed into your care.” Elminster said with a finality that ate at me like the strongest of acids.

“We will find another way. If it is the last thing I do… I will find an alternative.” I said, balling a fist in determination. My eyes challenged Elminster’s, unyielding to his stare as I addressed him.

He responded in a manner befitting a scholar of his status- with a metaphor.

“Like moons make swell and wane the nescient seas, so too the sky strewn gods ordain the tidal fates of mortal days. And yet- a notion born in lonely hours- come ebb, come flow, come all that is beyond the breadth of our dominion: be a moon unto yourself. Even the waves of fate can break upon the shores of will… Farewell, my friend.” were Elminster’s last words.

“Farewell, Elminster. I’m glad she chose you.” Gale said, nodding towards the wizard as he made his way out of our camp.

I had so many emotions about everything that had just happened, but found few words able to express them properly. It had all happened so quickly. Even with Elminster’s ability to draw out a conversation- it happened too fast.

“So, you’ve met the famed Elminster Aumar.” Gale turned towards me, far too chipper considering the events that just transpired. “I’d hoped to introduce you to him in less dire circ*mstances, but it appears those are rather hard to come by these days.

“Dire circ*mstances is putting it lightly. Has this famed wizard anything better to do than sentence his former colleagues to their own death ?!” I erupted, barely able to contain the true rage that was brewing. I wondered if this rattling of my insides was the same way Karlach felt when she was in the heat of rage on the battlefield.

“Tav- He is the most formidable wizard in the realms - perhaps in existence. For Mystra to have sent him, the severity of her bidding could not be clearer. Or weigh more heavily on me.” Gale said, his eyes falling on me with sadness as I flared with anger.

“Gale- to consider enacting her will is akin to laying with her as far as I am concerned. It is a betrayal- a complete disregard for those who really care for you.” I said sternly.

I saw Gale’s eyes lose their signature spark, his muscles dropping, his face twisting in confusion and dejection.

“She offers the clearest solution to our problem. All I have to do is… find the right place and time, close my eyes…. And let go.” He said, as if he thought I didn’t understand. “Then the slate will be clean. Wrongs will be righted, the Absolute will be gone… and I along with it.”

“She offers nothing.” I said, desperately trying to get Gale to open his damned eyes.

“She offers me control. Anything else- well, Ao would not look kindly on her meddling in mortal affairs. Divine intervention has the tendency to make things worse- not better. As for Elminster… he’s saved the realms more times than legend can recount. But to take on a god is no easy feat, even for him. My orb is the best chance we have. And only I can wield it.” He defended the goddess and her messenger fervently, only further igniting my ire.

“Gale- if you truly think that this solution is our best option at overcoming this - this hellscape- I question whether your feelings towards me are as strong as you claim. For this goddess’s will to have such a grip over your autonomy tells me she takes up more space in your heart than you’re willing to admit.” I spat, choking back tears.

As we quarreled, I suddenly felt the hot stares of our camp companions as they looked on in shock. I couldn’t face them in the state I was in.

“I’ve got to sharpen my glaive.” I made up an excuse to leave this wretched conversation. “Please- don’t disturb me.” I added, storming off to the privacy of my tent.

Hiding away from the others, I did sharpen my glaive, rubbing the edge with a scrap of flint as I sat in my tent and tried to quell my seething. All the while I was imagining vaulting the weapon into this “Heart of the Absolute” we had been charged to find. Hells know what it looked like- whether it took the form of a Drow or another Mind Flayer or some kind of omnipotent monster. It didn’t matter. I would be the one to end its existence- its looming threat. Not Gale.

In the midst of my violent musings, a soft voice called at the entryway to my tent.

“Tav? Are you in there?” They called. It was Shadowheart.

“I am. Come in.” I called in response.

Shadowheart ducked inside the tent. When she pulled the fabric aside I could see the sun had started to set now. It wouldn’t be long before the group would gather for tonight’s meal.

“Some of us left camp to look around for a path to Moonrise Towers…” She began. Immediately I looked up at her from my focus on my glaive.

“...And I think you’ll want to see it.”

Chapter 21: The Land of Shadow

Summary:

The gang enters the Shadowlands for the first time and face some unexpected consequences.

Chapter Text

We made our way out of camp that morning, the haunting images of the cursed woods we had come across last night plaguing our minds. We were about to walk into the maw of the beast.

“Have you all got torches?” Shadowheart asked, looking over at me and our companions.

“I’m pretty glowy already, Soldier. But I’ve got a backup in case things get dicey.” Karlach said, bumping a fist on her chest where it shone brightest.

“I’ve got one. Do you think it’ll be enough to drive back all those shadows?” Astarion asked, drawing the torch from his back.

“No way to know for sure- we’ve just got to try.” I said, gripping my own torch.
The four of us stood at the edge of the cursed woods, the towering black trees and swirling green smoke preventing us from seeing past the tree line.

“Gods, what kind of a hellish place is this?” Astarion said, kicking his feet at the thorny vines that spilled out from the forest.

“Halsin said it’s been like this for… a hundred years?” Shadowheart said in disbelief, eyes wide as she stared into the darkness between the trees.

“Get close, soldiers. Let me light those torches.” Karlach said, beckoning us over to her. One by one she touched the tip of our torches and they caught fire, blaze crackling.

“Alright. Are we ready?” I asked, swallowing my fear as the whispers of the forest made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

“As we’ll ever be…” Shadowheart said, holding her torch up high.

“In we go!” Karlach took the initiative to dive into the tree line ahead of us. We followed close behind, careful not to lose sight of her.

Once past the edge of the forest, the light we had formerly stood in was decidedly absent. Turning around, we didn’t see the place from where we had once come- but a mirrored expanse of trees without escape.

“Where!?- Where the hells did the entrance go?!” Astarion said, the panic in his voice rising.

“Shh! Astarion! Don’t be so loud! We don’t know what kind of predators are lurking around here!” Shadowheart scolded, keeping her voice to a whisper.

“But- how the devil are we supposed to get back to camp without an exit!?” Astarion exclaimed, fear and frustration echoed in his voice.

Suddenly, all of us jumped as we heard motion from nearby. We couldn’t see anything, but there was rustling in the trees.

“sh*t. We’ve got company.” Karlach said, drawing her greataxe and turning towards where the sound originated.

Shadowheart armed herself as well, sticking her torch into the dirt so that it stood straight. She gripped her shield in one hand, mace in the other. I dropped my torch, its light extinguishing and in its place I gripped the staff of my glaive tightly. What the hells were we about to face?

I saw motion blur from behind Astarion as he looked around frantically, a tall, looming shadow growing from the ground, its glowing eyes looking down on him from above.

“Astarion! Get away!” I yelled, drawing my glaive upwards, poised to strike at the monster.

Wrooooooaaaaaaahhhh!!

The sound the shadow made was raspy and empty, the haunting noise tearing through the air like a hook horror’s claw. It was angry. We were all scared stiff to hear the echoed responses to the monster’s call crop up all around us. They were everywhere.

Astarion ducked towards me, tucking and rolling into a somersault on the ground, facing the monster that had loomed over his back.

“Gods!” He exclaimed, his eyes widening in horror as he laid eyes on the thing.

I lunged toward the shadow, swinging my glaive without hesitation. I felt the edge of the blade slice through the air, not catching on anything as I swung. Had I hit it? I couldn’t even tell. As I stood close to it, I could see the thing was entirely made of shadow- devoid of light and semi-transparent.

Another cry came from the being- this time one of agony and anguish. I had struck it.

Shadowheart murmured something quietly, a sudden radiant light surrounding her, creating golden rings in the air. The extra light was helpful, letting us catch a glimpse of more of our surroundings. The creature recoiled as the light burst forth, shrieking in agony once again. They were weak to light…

“Karlach! Light it up!” I called to her. A little flame should do us good.

She nodded, a wild grin plastered on her face. A clink! sound could barely be heard as Karlach sunk a soul coin into her engine. This was sure to be quite the battle.

In a matter of seconds, the flames that hovered on Karlach’s skin grew, eclipsing her height and reaching upwards towards the tree tops.

“Come at me, f*ckers!” Karlach taunted the shadows, drawing the ire of 2 more as they leapt from the brush towards her.

In a frenzy, Karlach twirled her greataxe in a circle, the heft of the blade gaining momentum as it spun. Right as the shadows came into melee range of her, the sharp edge of the axe grazed their forms and they erupted in a screech. In the place of their towering forms, a small round orb swirling with black and green mist plopped to the forest floor.

“Look out!” The panicked voice of Astarion shouted, calling my attention from Karlach and back towards the shadow fiend. It loomed over me, it’s spindly claws primed to slash at me and the empty glow of its green eyes freezing me in my place.

I tensed my muscles, preparing to brace for a blow, when I felt a puff of hot air on the side of my face as a flaming arrow whizzed by my ear.

Wreeeeeeeeeeeeech!!

The creature shrieked in torment, and I saw the visage shrink before me seconds before it would have struck me.

The four of us huffed, our heart rates lowering back to normal as we processed what kind of monstrosities awaited us in this terrain.

“Thank you, Astarion.” I said, turning to him as he stowed his crossbow. “I owe you one.”

“No, darling. That was thanks for what I owed you. Now we’re even.” He said with a smirk. Fair enough.

“Not sure if I prefer this place or Avernus. And I f*cking hate Avernus.” Karlach said, looking around as the flames that engulfed her settled down.

“This darkness… it’s familiar.” Shadowheart said, waving a hand in the air as if she could feel the curse slipping through her fingers.

Familiar? Hart, If this is the kind of place you hang out your bravery may rival my own.” Karlach said, her eyes wide as she looked at Shadowheart.

“Look, how the curse affects me as I stand outside the light.” Shadowheart said, passing her torch over to me and standing in the darkness.

My heart lurched at the realization of what she was doing.

“Gods, what are you doing? Get back here!” Astarion exclaimed, flabbergasted that she would attempt something so stupid.

But as I watched her, I could see what exactly she meant. The shadowy tendrils of the curse, while they wrapped around and absorbed the life from the trees and the brush, they parted for Shadowheart. They would doge her where she walked, repelled by her.

“She protects me. She favours me!” Shadowheart exclaimed, looking at her hands as the darkness bounced off of them.

“I’m sorry… who? Have I missed something?” I asked, tilting my head in confusion.

She scoffed at my question. “I’m surprised you haven’t figured it out by yourself already… I worship Shar, the Dark Lady- Mistress of the Night. I believe these are the effects given to me by her blessing.”

I took a moment to absorb all the things she had just confessed. Shar… the goddess of darkness. I was always told to avoid her and her followers as a child- followers of Mystra regarded Shar as an enemy to wielders of the Weave. Considering Shar’s strained relationship with her sister Selune I imagined she was a difficult personality to befriend.

“Then is this… shadow magic? Shar’s magic?” I asked, holding a hand in the air to see if I might grasp it somehow as it clung to the environment around us. No such luck, I had no power over this particular strain of spell.

“Must be. Can you… taste it?” Shadowheart asked, looking a little awkward as she asked such a question. It was a strange concept to be sure.

I took a moment to breathe in my surroundings. I felt dust and decay enter my lungs, coughing softly but muffling it into the crook of my elbow to avoid any more unwanted attention. As I recovered from my hacking, I did taste something strange. It was bitter- similar to the sensation I would get when around Gale’s orb - but it was much more sour. It was like someone had taken a lime and coated my throat in its juice, but the citrusy freshness that would typically accompany the flavor was absent. In its wake it tasted rotten and dusty.

I stuck out my tongue in disgust, twisting my face as I was repulsed by the taste stuck in my mouth.

“Oh, surely it can’t be that bad. Shar works with such grace. The beauty of darkness must have a flavour just as elegant.” Shadowheart said, sounding offended at my blatant repulsion.

I snickered. “I wish I had a way to relay to you the flavour, but elegant is not an adjective that comes to mind.”

Shadowheart pouted, an eyebrow raised in suspicion as there was a tone of disapproval in my voice. It was true I didn’t entirely approve of her god of choice, but there was little I could do about it. Especially now that her healing had become so critical to the party’s survival thus far. I suppressed my personal feelings on the matter and vowed to be more professional from here on out. Just because I was raised to oppose those who opposed Mystra, didn’t mean I still had to. It was still an instinct I had within me- but there was no reason for me to act on it any longer. Considering the loathsome ways Mystra had affected the lot of us as of late, a goddess like Shar and her promises might even be compelling.

“I do hope that my devotion will not be an issue.” Shadowheart remarked, crossing her arms in my direction.

“I’ve no commentary on the matter.” I assured her, swallowing the beliefs I had been surrounded by in my youth and pushing onwards.

“Any chance that goddess of yours can show us a way out of here?” Astarion chimed in, all too eager to escape the swirling curse that hung heavy in the air.

Shadowheart grimaced. “Have you ever heard the term, ‘Count your blessings’, Astarion? We are lucky to have my lady’s attention at all. Let us appreciate the fact I won’t need to carry a torch while we traverse the woods for the time being.”

Astarion rolled his eyes. Karlach scanned the horizon, desperate to catch any approaching enemies despite our limited range of vision.

The four of us walked slowly as we searched through the dark woods. We came across a lot of abandoned supplies littered throughout the landscape. Carts, crates and barrels turned over and emptied- abandoned in a hurry and left there for an indiscernible amount of time. An eerie silence hung over the forest, the only sound we heard was the crunching of the dirt beneath our feet and the occasional call of a crow. I wondered if the curse had an effect on how sound traveled- surely we weren’t the only ones trying to make our way through this curse? But I couldn’t hear any evidence of others.

“Gods- step back.” Karlach’s voice came from her position at the front of the group. Her eyes were fixed on something ahead on the ground.

I ignored her command, coming up behind her, one hand on my shortsword. Her face was twisted with fear and disgust as she looked upon the corpses of tieflings littered across the path ahead. Their bodies were gray and void of their typical warm colors, their skin rough as if they had been turned to stone. They were all wounded gravely, blood on their clothes and slices on their limbs evident of a struggle. A green and black aura hovered around their corpses, tracing the curse that undoubtedly stole any life that might have remained in them following the tieflings’ injuries.

“No…” Karlach’s voice was shaking, her palms trembling as she looked upon the corpses. “They… They’re from the grove.” She said, kneeling beside one of them, trying to discern their facial features.

“That can’t be- they said they were going to Baldurs Gate. There’s no reason to come towards the towers to get to the city–” I tried to make sense of it, refusing to believe that the people we worked so hard to save had met such a terrible fate.

“The githyanki. They destroyed the bridge to the city- remember? This… may have been the only path left.” Karlach said, clenching her fist.

I did recall Kith’rak Voss’s dragon reigning fire on the bridge nearby to Waukeen’s Rest. I hadn’t suspected that was the trail that the Tieflings intended to use to get to the city, or that it was the only option other than facing the famed curse Halsin warned about.

I looked over at the tieflings’ faces, their expressions frozen in horror and anguish. My heart ached and my stomach turned, desperate to think that there was another explanation. There were about 5 corpses, and they did look upsettingly familiar as I examined them.

“What about the others? Are we to assume they met the same fate?” Shadowheart asked, looking around to see if there were any others that met an unfortunate end.

“Gods, I should hope not. Dammon…” Karlach said aloud, her voice trailing off with her train of thought. “No. ‘ve got to stay positive. We will find Dammon in the city and he will help fix me- and the rest of the tieflings will be there too!”

I looked at Karlach, sympathy in my eyes. Her forced optimism was just like her- finding the best in bleak situations. Despite it all- I hoped she was right.

“... We should give them a proper burial.” Karlach said after a long moment of silence.

Astarion and Shadowheart looked at each other, then to me. It was clear to me that Astarion wasn’t a fan of the idea- ever looking to avoid getting his hands dirty. However- I knew how much it would mean to Karlach. It wouldn’t take all that long with the four of us.

“Sure, Karlach. Let’s work on that.” I said, kneeling next to her and looking in her direction. A tear fell down her cheek for a millisecond before it evaporated from the heat of her skin, leaving a puff of steam and a soft sizzle in the air.

She jumped from her kneeling position, looking around for a flat lot of ground to begin digging. There was one not too far, a space that looked like it may have once been used for a vegetable garden. The roots of the plants formerly grown here had withered from the darkness of the curse, leaving nothing but crumbling leaves in their place.

Karlach passed out shovels, managing to encourage even Astarion to start digging plots for the tieflings to lay their final rest. Karlach’s enthusiasm to complete the task even led her to being able to complete two plots by the time I had managed to finish one. Although, that may just be attributed to her unmatched physical form.

It took a while to get them all into their respective places, wrapped carefully in tarps and discarded fabric we had found in some of the abandoned carts still laying around. After digging, Astarion got to use his flair for the arts as he carved names into some planks of wood we had gotten from the abandoned crates. Luckily, Karlach’s memory was extremely vivid and she was able to recall the Teiflings’ names from the short conversations she had shared with them before they left and while at the party at our camp. I was filled with sadness as I recalled Karlach dancing amongst the tieflings at camp that night- those same people that had brought her so much joy now being buried by her very hands.

By the time we had finished, we were pretty exhausted. It was impossible to tell what time it was from the darkness all around us, but I was pretty certain it had to be close to nightfall.

“Should we… try and find a place to camp for the night? We won’t be able to find our way back to the others, it seems.” I said, fear sinking into my pores as I wondered if we might ever find them. Or if they might ever find us.

“I suppose there’s not much of a choice.” Shadowheart said, looking over at Karlach who stared somberly at the gravesites.

Karlach pulled some half-melted candlesticks from her pack, tucking them alongside the buried plots and lighting them with a snap of her fingers. They were at peace, now.

“Alright. Let’s set up camp. And… thank you all for helping me to do this. It means a lot.” Karlach said, looking gratefully to Astarion, Shadowheart and myself.

“Sure thing, K. They deserved this much.” I said, giving her a soft smile. The corners of her eyes crinkled as she smiled back, not saying a word.

“Maybe we can put our bedrolls in one of those abandoned carts? The ground is so… damp. It’s unsettling.” Astarion suggested, pointing to one of the spaces littered with the abandoned supplies.

“Not the worst idea you’ve had Astarion. Let’s see if we can get some proper light set up so that none of us are ambushed in our sleep.” Shadowheart said with a smirk.

We stood tall sticks in the ground surrounding the area to mark it, a rushed Astarion whizzing by us to claim the spot inside the broken down wagon. It’s wheel was cracked and half buried in the ground after sitting for so long. He laid out his bedroll and eagerly pulled a book from his pack, plopping it down for him to read once he was settled. Karlach went around and wrapped the sticks we had placed in scraps of fabric coated in cheap wine to make standing torches. She double checked them after lighting them up with her hands, ensuring they would be able to burn throughout the night and wouldn’t go out with a simple gust of wind. It was surprisingly cozy in the warm orange firelight, much preferred to the cool, gray darkness that haunted the rest of the area.

“That should do the trick, I think.” Shadowheart said, laying out her bedroll with pride as she looked at the torches we had set up.

“Some grub would really do the trick for me.” Karlach said, holding a hand to her stomach as it let out a low grumble.

I laughed, shuffling through my pack to see if I had come across anything that might sate her hunger. I pulled out some cured meat, some rolls that were mostly stale, and some wine that had been in one of the abandoned barrels we had found while in the forest-gods know how old it was.

“Hmm. I haven’t got much, but you’re free to take some. You too, Shadowheart.” I said, gesturing to her to pick at the scraps I found in my bag. She was digging through her own pack, finding an apple and some cheese wrapped in linen. She added it to the pile, the three of us pecking at the food like chickens.

“Nobody thought to ask if I was peckish?” Astarion’s voice sang, his bright red eyes peeking over the pages of his book.

“I don’t think this kind of food would satiate you, darling.” I said, poking fun at his pet name of choice.

He rolled his eyes. “Have you… anything else to offer?” He asked, his voice laced with hope and proposition.

Hm. I suppose I did need him at full strength while we were stuck in these dangerous wilds. Just one bite wouldn’t drain me too much, I suppose.

“Ugh. If you must, you are welcome to a bite. Just be sure to-”

“I know, I know. Not a drop more than I need.” Astarion said, finishing my sentence for me.

“And let me finish my meal, please.” I said, my eyes warning him to hold off as he closed his book.

“Not sure I'd call that a meal, but as you command.” He retorted, returning his nose to his book.

Once the scraps we had procured from our inventory were eaten through, Karlach and Shadowheart returned to their bedrolls, sleep taking them soon after. Astarion was wide awake, his eyes devouring the pages of his book as I imagined he wished he could devour a wild animal right about now.

I approached his cozy set up inside the bed of the wagon, knocking on the wood as if to request entry despite it being laid in the open air.

“Yeeees?” He responded in a sing-song tone, as if he didn’t know who had approached.

“Delivery, for a Sir Astarion. One serving of fresh plasma.” I played along.

He chuckled softly as he sat up in his bedroll. “Must I leave a tip for the delivery-woman?” He asked, continuing the bit.

“Tips are appreciated.” I said holding out an empty palm with an expectation of gold.

“Hmm. Well… shouldn’t there be a taste-test first?” He said, his eyelids lowering in a suave and seductive way.

I rolled my eyes, sitting on the edge of the wagon, moving my dark hair to one shoulder and exposing my neck to the vampire. I balled my fingers in a fist, anticipating the cold sting of his bite again. I tensed myself in preparation.

His movement was swift, like a viper striking to kill. His teeth sunk into my neck, aligning well with the scar that he had left the last time. The familiar chilling cold rushed through my limbs, my neck numb and throbbing. I felt my pulse quicken, as if my body was sure I was dying- but I knew I was not. This time, there was no need for me to encourage him to stop. He pulled away, not a drop escaping him, and gently pressed a cloth to my neck to prevent any further bleeding.

“Just a bit of pressure for a moment and it should heal.” Astarion said after swallowing the liquid he held in his mouth.

I didn’t even realize he had held a cloth at the ready. It was uncharacteristically considerate of him to do so.

“Thank you. Feeling better?” I asked, trying to look over to see whether his energy was restored.

“Much. Thank you.” He said as he peeled the cloth away from my neck. The holes he had pierced in my skin were closed now.

We sat there together in silence, finding comfort in one another’s closeness for just a moment. I looked to the sky, the stars hidden from view through the smoky wisps of the curse in the treetops. I wondered if Gale could see the stars. If he might look to them and hope I would see the same constellations. I wished I could see them. I wished I could see him. Yes, I was still mad at him for his stupidity in actually considering Mystra’s quest of death- but that made me want to see him all the more. How many more times would I be permitted to look into his eyes- so full of light and vigor whenever he would talk about the Weave or his tressym.

“I’d offer a copper for your thoughts, but I can basically tell without even using the tadpole. You’re dreaming of your wizard.” Astarion said guilefully, putting on a mocking wistful voice when he said the last few words.

I rolled my eyes at his taunt, it was just like him to poke fun at me when I was under such stress.

“Oh, please. You jest as if you aren’t worried we might never see them again when I know you’d miss Gale’s banter just as much as I would.” I retorted, placing the fear that lingered in my brain to the backburner so that I might be able to deflect his verbal scorns.

“I suppose I’d be disappointed to never see the sculpted artwork that is Halsin again. To know an elf can look like that even makes me envious. And I adore myself.” Astarion cooed, pushing his hair back dramatically.

I laughed, imagining him ogling over Halsin as his back was turned. I wasn’t sure it was that far from reality considering the way Astarion talked about him- he was likely to have snuck a peek or two at the druid while he was dressing. Or… undressing.

“It sounds as if you only care for the physical rather than the linguisitical.” I observed, noting he made no mention of the stimulating conversation the group offered.

“The art of conversation is lost on many of our companions, it seems.” He said, refusing to elaborate any further.

“A shame we’ve no bards in our group, their charisma might rival your own.” I said playfully.

He scoffed, shaking his head. “I’m grateful for the silence- a bard is the last thing we need. Gale’s endless driveling about magic is enough noise in camp.”

“... I rather like his ramblings. I find it… comforting.” I said softly, thinking back on his most recent storytelling session around the campfire. I wished he were here to continue reading “The True and Impossible Adventures of Tenebrux Morrow”.

“If it makes you feel any better, I’m sure he is just as miserable to not have you in camp tonight.” Astarion said, his voice less joking this time.

“I take no comfort in his misery, but in the hope that it might motivate him to seek me out.” I said.

I looked up to the sky again, frustrated that it blocked the stars from view, blocked us from view. It would be a challenge to track us, but all I could do was hold out hope that they could put their tadpoles together and manage it.

“Get some rest. I’ll stay up the first half of the night and trance once you wake up. We can take turns keeping watch.” Astarion suggested, once again picking up his book. I could see the title now: ”Out of the Sausage Tube Into The Shadow”

“Alright. Thank you, Astarion. If you get weary, feel free to wake me. I’m not sure I’ll be able to get much sleep anyways.” I said, slipping myself off of the edge of the wagon and back onto the ground.

“Goodnight, Tav.”

I crawled into my bedroll, a hurt in my heart that threatened to draw tears. I was dizzy with thoughts of the rest of our troupe, hoping they weren’t sick with worry like I was. I worried for all of them, but the person that took the forefront of my mind was, of course, Gale. Was his orb still stable? What if Elminster’s charm wore out, or malfunctioned? Would the others know how to treat him and nurse his condition? So many questions swirled in my mind, I could hardly believe there was room for the tadpole. As I laid on my bedroll, I twisted and turned uncomfortably with thoughts of Gale’s sweet smile being erased upon learning I hadn’t returned to camp. I traced a finger idly into the gray dirt of the woods, absent-mindedly drawing the symbol of Mystra that hung on his ear. Gods, what I wouldn’t do for his warmth in this place. The chill of the air ate away at me physically and mentally.

It seemed like no time at all before Astarion whispered my name as he approached my bedroll.

“Tav, I’m due for some beauty rest. Would you mind keeping an eye out?” He asked.

I rubbed my temples, baffled that it had already been a few hours since I tried to sleep. I hadn’t gotten more than a wink of rest.

“Yeah… yep. I can manage.” I said groggilly, trying to wipe the exhaustion from my eyes.

“Gods, you look terrible. Are you sure you’ll be alright?” He asked, taken aback by the dark circles around my eyes.

“Mmmhm. It’ll be fine.” I practically slurred.

There was no hope of me falling asleep anyways, it felt like I had been cursed with perpetual worry. I almost wanted to blame the shadow curse- but the rest of my companions slept soundly, the exhaustion in their bodies escaping with each deep slumbering breath.

“Alright. If you’re sure. Goodnight.” He said with a bit of reluctance. He kept a keen eye on me as he walked away, probably making sure I didn’t topple over.

Once he was comfortably nestled in the wagon, I plopped backwards on my bedroll in frustration. The troupe could handle themselves- surely. Why was I so worried? They had a huge burly tree-trunk of a druid that could defend them. I had seen Halsin in his bear form- tearing apart enemies with his claws with unmatched ferocity. They were all safe with him. And they all were capable in and of themselves, as well! Lae’zel would frankly be offended that I worried for her safety- her masterful swordsmanship was something I aspired to attain in my own study of the blade. The Blade- Wyll was with them too! He was renowned across the sword coast for defending others- plus he had the powers gained through his pact. My daunting thoughts began to dissipate finally as I imagined all of them wielding their weapons and utilizing their honed skills to defend against the shadow monsters we had fought earlier. They could cut their way through these woods just as we had. It was all going to be fine… wasn’t it? I felt the seeds of doubt plant themselves in my thoughts again, and try as I might to prevent them from taking root, they grew like weeds. Worst case-scenario situations continued to play in my head until I heard the stirring of my companions as they awoke.

“You alright, Soldier? You don’t look very… well rested.” Karlach said, wiping the sleep from her eyes.

I was sat up in my bedroll, my head in my hands, lost in thought. A contented yawn came from the wagon where Astarion was stirring- at least one of us got some sleep.

“I would have offered you a sleeping potion if I had known you were having trouble.” Shadowheart said, bottles clinking as she tapped on her bag.

“It wouldn’t have helped. Fae blood- a blessing and a curse.” I said, flicking my pointed ear.

Shadowheart nodded in understanding, clicking her tongue as she remembered how fae can’t be put to sleep with charms or potions. She was only a half-elf, so she didn’t have the same resistance.

“You were up all night fretting about your little wizard? How sweet.” Astarion mocked, folding up his bedroll to put it in his pack.

I was worrying about Gale, of course. But I was also worried about us. We had no food left. We didn’t know how long we would have to survive out here without our camp rations. There were no animals to hunt, no herbs to gather. How were we to last any longer? I felt panic building in my chest as my companions peacefully gathered their belongings. The lack of sleep was surely affecting me in more ways than one.

”You musn’t give up - When faced with a storm you must learn to sail the ship rather than let it sink.” The wise words of Gale echoed in my mind. The quote was comforting, especially when it resonated with the sound of his smooth voice. It was almost as if he was beside me - comforting my weary body with his words of encouragement.

”We cannot be far. Follow the scent of rosewater- the aura of my magic as it wards enemies from the grounds. Be careful.” Gale’s voice rang in my ears again, and my eyes shot open wide.

The sleepiness that plagued me was erased as I sprang up, whipping my head around in all directions in hopes to see a flash of purple in the dark, a comforting face amongst the horror. But there was nothing- not a sight nor a sound more.

But they were safe.

“What’s gotten into you now?” Astarion said, looking at me quizzically as my groggy visage was so quickly transformed to a sprightly and eager one.

“I- they’re here! I heard them!” I said frantically, still glancing around in hopes I might catch them in my view- but the forest was still critically dark.

“Maybe you really ought to get some more rest, soldier. This place is as quiet as the dead.” Karlach said, looking a little concerned at my heightened state.

“No.. no. A sending spell. It was Gale- his voice! They are here- within the curse, within the forest! We just need to follow the scent of rosewater.” I said, shaking my head and trying to form coherent sentences in my haste. I felt like I was buzzing, vibrating with anticipation to move forward and reunite with the camp.

“Really?” Shadowheart gasped, the light of hope dancing in her eyes. “Then we must go. Quickly. The sooner we can reunite the sooner we can go toward the towers together.”

I didn’t have to speak my agreement, I just snatched a torch that bordered our sleeping space and headed into the darkness. I heard my companions behind me as I tried to focus on my senses. There was so much pitch black around us, the thick fog of the curse masking any hint of a scent or taste that might carry out from a spell. I could hardly sense anything apart from the spine-shivering eeriness of the woods.

Rosewater? I can barely smell anything but death. Are we certain our Netherese Jack-in-the-box isn’t a Necromancer?” Astarion remarked after some time wandering in the dark.

“This curse is no mere feat of necromancy. It is a plague beset by the Dark Lady herself, her will enacted on a stretch of land where so many of her own worshippers fell.” Shadowheart corrected him, a reverence in her tone.

The way she spoke so wistfully of the goddess while the ghosts of her actions hunted us in the dark concerned me. It frustrated me to know that divine intervention like that was permitted to do such harm to the world- to people - to nature- but was denied when asked to save a life like Gale’s. It was so… backwards. Corrupt.

“Is that… a bird?” Karlach asked from behind. She pointed a sharp nail up into a treetop, squinting her eyes.

I followed her gaze upwards, seeing the familiar shape of a raven perched in a tree. That was the first sign of life we had seen in the forest up until now, it certainly was curious we hadn’t heard any bird calls.

“Oh, thank the Gods! Maybe I can get a pint of blood for later. I imagine they must taste like chicken over a campfire, eh?” Astarion suggested, looking to a hungry Shadowheart who stared up at the bird. I could almost swear her mouth watered.

Astarion pulled back on his bowstring, raising his arms to aim squarely at the avian in the treetop. I looked on, feeling a pang of hunger in my own stomach as the bird’s head co*cked and turned with sharp movements.

It wasn’t until Astarion released his fingers from the arrow he had loaded that I saw a strange glow in the treetop. A green smoke swirled around the raven’s wings, it’s beady eyes glowing unnaturally. This was no ordinary bird.

“Wait!” I called, my cry resounding far too late to change anything.

The arrow flew through the air, carving a path through the thick swirls of the curse and landing squarely in the breast of the raven, its corpse falling from the treetop with a thunk!. As its feathered body hit the ground, its form dissipated- nothing but a puff of gray dust and a few small feathers remaining in its wake. The pile of ash taunted us as our stomachs growled in unison.

Eclipsing the sounds of our agonizing hunger was a soft rumbling amongst the silence, growing in intensity. Suddenly, a massive flock of ravens swooped from the trees, ducking and weaving through tangling twigs and coursing towards us like missiles. The flap of their wings created small gusts of wind that disoriented us, the sudden rush of enemies overwhelming. I tasted the faintest hint of cinnamon on my tongue as magic welled in my palms, its power weak and strained from the absence of life in the forest. There was no chance there was enough force backing my magic to drive away the swarm that surrounded us.

The cacophony of feathered wings flapping around us and the cries and shouts of my companions filled my ears. They frantically swatted at the birds, ducking and covering their heads to avoid the sharp points of their beaks and the angled tips of their talons. None of us could manage to draw our weapons or sling a spell without looking up and risking our eyeballs- not like they were of much use in this perpetual darkness. The four of us struggled against the onslaught of birds for a few moments, my magic fizzling in my palms rendering me defenseless. I saw Shadowheart fail to keep focus as she gathered her own magic, its glow fading as she grappled against the attacks of the ravens.

I felt a shower of feathers fall on my back as I crouched to avoid the dive-bombing birds, a sprinkle of dust brushing against my skin. I braced my arms in front of my face as I peeked to the sky, seeing one bird fall, then another, then another. A faint red glow streaked across the sky as each of the birds fell one by one, the air dusting with the remains of the raven’s as they perished. The familiar sickly sweet taste of arcane magic danced on my tongue as the flock’s numbers dwindled.

”Spiculum Augur!” a voice called from beyond the fog.

Another red glow streaked across the sky, striking and felling the birds as they swooped down towards us. The airspace was clear now, not a bird left in the flock that had rushed us. We rushed to straighten ourselves, preparing for more to arrive as we drew our weapons and kept our eyes in the trees. My eyes left the sky as I saw movement in the brush, a warm glow of a torch just barely visible through the fog.

“Tav?!” The voice called. It was muffled and contorted, but I recognized it.

My heart leapt into my throat as I instinctively went toward the light, desperate to see the face I thought to be just a few steps away.

“Careful, Tav! We obviously can’t trust everything in these woods.” Astarion called after me, his cold fingers grasping at my wrist.

I turned toward him, shaking my wrist free from his grasp, challenging the fear in his eyes.

“No, but you can trust me.” I said matter of factly, my confidence in my own senses evident to a fault.

I saw Shadowheart and Karlach glance at each other, a look of concern on their faces. Had my desperation to see my former companions overcome any good sense I might have had? My exhaustion could count toward the likelihood of poor judgement. But I trusted this voice- and I refused to let the opportunity to see our friends again pass us by because of a little paranoia.

“Gale!” I shouted into the darkness, the slow swaying of the torch’s glow moving more rapidly as my voice echoed through the trees.

The glow became brighter as it approached, the anticipation of whether its wielder was friend or foe eating away at us as we stood still and awaited its arrival. Our knuckles went white as we gripped our weapons of choice, keeping a keen eye on the orange orb that neared us. I was struck with fear as it got closer, realizing too late that the height at which the light hovered meant it was wielded by a figure much taller than the wizard I was familiar with.

I attacked the figure as it came into view, lurching towards a towering silhouette with vigor and determination.

“Woah, there! I appreciate the ambition- but you can’t expect to defeat your mentor just yet!” A comforting, booming bass voice chuckled as my glaive struck a thick wooden shield with a thud!

“By the Nine! Halsin!” Karlach exclaimed, rushing over to the druid and the light he cascaded with both Astarion and Shadowheart close behind.

I staggered backwards, taking a deep breath as I gathered my senses and the adrenaline coursing through me subsided. My brain knew I was no longer in danger, but I had to convince my body the same. I looked at Halsin and how much more formidable he looked with a shield in one hand- certainly not someone you’d like to find yourself in a bar fight with. His warm smile was lit by the torch he carried in his other hand, holding it high to light a larger area around us. As if on cue, I saw a familiar flash of purple emerge behind the druid’s burly stature. Gale stepped out from behind him, looking at me as if I was the only one there.

“Gale!” I gasped, dropping my glaive to the ground and speeding towards him.

He opened his arms, eager to pull me to his chest as I rushed into his embrace. Any former resentment that I had harbored for his stubborn-ness was pushed far from my mind- I was just relieved to see him again.

“Gods, I’m so relieved you’re okay. I wasn’t able to cast the sending spell until we were under the shroud of the curse- it was like a mirror, reflecting any attempts at magic we threw at it.” Gale said, brushing my hair with his hands hesitantly, as if he was unsure if I was really there or I was just a figment of his own mind.

“I got it! I heard you. Did you… defeat those birds?” I asked, turning towards the piles of ash and feathers that littered the ground.

“When in doubt- go for the Magic Missile and fire away. Never Fails.” He said with a confident wink.

My heart swelled. Gods, he was brilliant even when he was stupid.

“Quickly, we should get back to camp. There very well could be more where that came from.” Halsin said, beckoning away from the remains of the shadow ravens.

We all nodded in agreement, hurrying to follow Halsin as he cut a path through the woods. It was miraculous how invisible the camp was until you really stood inside it. The only thing giving away the camp’s location before you had your feet planted within it was the smell of rosewater from Gale’s warding ritual. The curse’s effect was confounding- defying all laws of permanence. But I supposed the gods subvert these laws as they see fit.

I could have kissed the ground as I walked into the safe-haven of our camp. The relieved and contented faces of all of our companions was a welcoming sight. Gale walked close behind me,his hand hovering close-by, sometimes finding a place on my back and other times just ensuring I kept my balance on the root-ridden terrain of the shadow cursed lands.

“You look spent. I can imagine these woods didn’t offer you much respite- they are haunting.” Gale observed, looking concerned as he examined my face.

Haunting? I found myself cradled in the peace of Shar’s darkness as I slept. Like a baby in a bassinet.” Shadowheart said, crossing her arms as if offended by Gale’s remark.

“You mean to say you’re comforted by the embrace of the Lady of Loss?” He looked astonished by Shadowheart’s dedication to such a malevolent goddess. “I can’t say I can relate- even just a thought of losing you was enough to make me curse Ao and all his creation. These past hours- not knowing if you were safe- it was… insufferable.” Gale said, his gaze darting from Shadowheart to me, caressing my cheek with care as he was grateful I was near him once again.

I was surprised to hear him express disdain towards the God of all Creation- had his feelings towards the greater powers of the deities changed since my absence?

“You’d curse Ao, but you’d obey Mystra?” I said softly, trying to incite a conversation rather than another argument.

His eyes softened, a warm glow in his cheeks as he looked at me.

“I’d throw the lot of them to the wayside if it meant I’d have you beside me.” Gale said, his voice dripping with romance and sentiment as he looked in my eyes.

It was like a magnetic pull the way I brought my lips to his, holding him against me as if it would be the last time we touched. But this time- I knew it wouldn’t be.

Chapter 22: Life in Shadow

Summary:

The gang prepare properly for a trek through the shadow lands. They come across a group of people- but are they friend or foe?

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

“Hold it! All of you- stay still a moment.” Gale’s voice commanded as we began to don our adventuring gear and throw our packs over our shoulders.

He muttered something under his breath, holding his hands out toward us with intense focus. With a twinkle of magic, each of our weapons began to glow with a bright light, effectively driving the curse away from us.

“Neat trick, Gale. Should come in handy.” Karlach said, looking at her twinkling Greataxe with wonder.

“I did say It would be beneficial to have me on your next outing.” Gale said with pride, looking over at my glowing glaive as it was strapped to my back securely.

“Quite the novelty for someone with Shar’s blessing, but useful nonetheless.” Shadowheart said, considerably less impressed than the others and very boastful about the favor her goddess had for her.

Gale rolled his eyes a little, and I chuckled to myself. It hadn’t been long since he would have been just as chuffed to be able to show off any attention he received from Mystra. Although the attention she provided so far was… unwanted.

He charmed his staff to glow with the same light, allowing us to travel without torches for the time being and freeing our hands in case of an attack. I was grateful to be able to use my bow again, especially if we encountered any more ravens in the shadows.

“Please, be wary out in these wilds. The curse is relentless- it will not hesitate to consume you should you find yourself in the absence of light.” Halsin warned.

The four of us looked at one another, nodding in agreement. We planned to travel close together- that way if one of our lights were to go out we might be able to take solace in another’s. We hoped to come across the towers at some point as we traveled, or at least something telling us they were nearby.

“Thank you, Halsin. Your knowledge of this curse has proven most useful.” I said to the druid, looking up to meet his gaze.

“You’re most welcome. One can only hope that while we are here we might discover the source of this plague upon the land. I hope to correct my past wrongdoings and clear it from this valley forever.” He proclaimed, a stern determination in his eye.

“An admirable goal. I will do all that is in my power to ensure you achieve it.” I promised. Halsin looked touched by my dedication to his cause, a glimmer in his eye I had never seen before that moment. He didn’t say anything, he just smiled and nodded.

Karlach jumped up and down excitedly, shaking her palms with anticipation.

“Ah, After that hearty meal Gale had waiting for us, I’ve got energy galore! I’m ready to kick some arse!” She exclaimed, hopping from one foot to the next.

“We’d best get going before she bursts into flame.” I said with a giggle, waving to Halsin and the rest of the camp that stayed behind.

Gale had practically insisted he come with us this time, and Astarion was all too happy to stay back at camp after having a near death experience with one of those shadow demons. I was glad to have Gale beside us, his arcane problem solving skills never ceased to surprise me. Despite his prowess, I worried that the dangers of the curse may prove too much of a threat for him. I suppose it was just my nature- I was bound to worry whether he was beside me or not it seemed.

The four of us walked on into the darkness, the light of our camp slipping from view as we hopped over tangled roots and vines that littered the forest floor. I noticed Gale’s hand hovering near to my back, like it had been when he had found me and led me back to camp after being separated. It was comforting to know he kept a close eye on me as we traveled.

I turned around abruptly to face Gale behind me, walking backwards through the forest now.

“Would this work just as well?” I asked, intertwining my fingers with the hand he was still holding upright in the air.

I saw his face flush red as I held his hand, and just as he opened his mouth to speak I felt the back of my heel kick something and knock me off balance. Both of my feet lost their anchor to the ground and I felt myself tilt backwards, my body tensing with fear as I fell.

I squeezed my eyes shut and braced myself to crash to the ground, but I felt my body stop with a jolt. I took a steadying breath, fluttering my eyes open to see Gale holding me. His hand held mine with white knuckles, his arm held firmly around my back holding me upright. The position was graceful despite the circ*mstances- it was as if he had cradled me to dip me into a romantic kiss. His face was dangerously close to my own, dark brown eyes reflecting the glow of the glaive on my back. The flush of red that bloomed on his cheeks when I grasped his hand had spread to the tips of his ears now. Even in his flustered state he managed to say something witty.

“If I always held you this close I might not find the need to hover so much.” He said with a grin, his face still red from embarrassment.

I felt my own face flush, too. I couldn’t believe I had managed to trip and fall backwards so carelessly in front of him- I must have looked like a dunce.

“Would you two lovebirds quit your ballroom dancing and get moving? We’ve got a tower to find.” Karlach said, raising an eyebrow and balancing her greataxe on her shoulder.

Gale pulled me upright, making sure I had both my feet planted on the ground before letting me go. I dusted myself off as I regained my balance, swallowing my embarrassment and avoiding eye contact with the wizard. We both jogged ahead to catch up with Karlach and Shadowheart as they cut a path through the brush.

“Stay low, I think I hear shouting up ahead.” Shadowheart turned around toward us as she crouched in the brush. She positioned herself so that the leaves shielded the glow of her weapon. Gale, Karlach and I followed suit, keeping our eyes peeled for any signs of life as we ducked into the bushes.

“Keep to the light!” A strange voice called out.

We all turned toward the sound, a faint orange glow of a torch coming into view, and the soft metallic clink of armor and footfalls barely audible. There were people approaching- several of them. Gradually we got a better view of them through the fog of the curse. There were five of them with diverse statures and builds, all clad in armor and wielding various weapons. We looked on in silence, trying to discern whether these travelers were friend or foe, but it was hard to tell from a distance. They could be working with the cult- but they might lead us to Moonrise Towers if we were able to follow them undetected. As Karlach looked on, I noticed the warmth from her body intensify, the glow of her chest getting brighter as she narrowed her gaze and furrowed her brow. She was furious at the sight of them.

“Stop!” A strong woman leading the group and wielding a torch called out, and the troupe that tailed behind her came to a halt. She turned towards where we were hiding, squinting into the darkness.

“Who goes there? Show yourself!” She called out. Karlach’s glowing chest must have been visible through the fog.

“Hells.” She murmured, her voice the most quiet I had ever heard it. “Stay down.” She added, turning towards the rest of us with a stern look.

I nodded in understanding. We would step in should anything go south.

Karlach bravely stood from her crouched position, making sure the glowing greataxe on her back was visible to the travelers as she did so. She wasn’t to be tangled with. She puffed her chest and made heavy footfalls as she approached them, her gaze unyielding and flames licking the surface of her skin.

Members of the troupe closed in on her, pointing their crossbows and gripping their longswords menacingly. Nobody made a move to strike- not yet.

“Yonas! Look out!” One of the members shouted, pointing at a mustachioed man wielding a crossbow to Karlach’s right. He had stepped outside of the light of the torch. An easy target.

Yonas hadn’t any time to sprint back toward the torchlight before he was knocked to the ground- a familiar eerie roar echoing from the woods. I could see the outline of a shadow as dark claws yanked his ankles and dragged him deeper into the darkness. It all happened in a blink. The troupe scrambled, all of them diverting their attention from Karlach and into the woods, arching their necks to see if they might catch a glimpse of the soldier they’d lost.

“Yonas?! Can you hear me?” One of the soldiers shouted into the darkness.

I noticed Karlach draw her greataxe from her back, gripping it with both hands and preparing herself for a fight. She had a bad feeling about this.

“I’m- I’m here! Where are you?!” A frightened voice called out. It must have been Yonas, but he was nowhere to be seen.

“Look for our torches!” The leader said, waving the flame higher above her head. The other members of the troupe did the same.

“I… I can’t see anything! Something’s wrong…” He said, his voice trembling.

“Can you follow my voice? You must get back to the light!” She called out, sounding a bit more desperate in her tone.

“...Meg? Is that- Gyaaaaaaaagh!!” Yonas shrieked in agony, the travelers he was alongside all flinching at the sound.

They all look on in horror as a body hobbled out of the woods, its chest swirling with black and green tendrils of the curse. Its voice was broken, strained and hollow.

“There you are… come… join me.” It croaked. It was nothing but a shell of their former companion, Yonas. He was no longer himself- his life absorbed by the malice of Shar’s curse.

“Harpers, to arms!!” The leader shouted, all the rest of them grimacing as they raised their weapons against the shadow of their old friend.

“Harpers?” Gale said, his eyes alight as he stood from his place in the brush.

I looked at him aghast that he would give away our position, shaking my head and waving him back downward towards the ground.

“They’re allies. Come, we must defend their troupe!” He said, whipping out the staff he carried on his back. He ran towards Karlach and the gang of Harpers as they defended against the cursed body of Yonas.

I looked to Shadowheart who was still crouched in the brush with me. She seemed unsure, gesturing to me to suggest I make the final call. I suppose if Gale trusted them, that was good enough. I stood from my hiding spot and rushed towards them all, hearing Shadowheart shuffle behind me.

We threw ourselves into the heat of battle, some of the Harpers’ movements wavering as they hesitated to strike their fallen ally.

“Gods, damn it, Yonas!” The leader of the troupe, Meg, yelled in frustration, driving her handaxe through his shoulder and knocking him to the ground.

The shadow cursed corpse let out an echoing roar, several beady glowing green eyes revealing themselves and pouncing from the dark toward us. More shadow demons. I opted to attack from a distance, drawing my crossbow and taking aim at one of the enemies that flanked us while the Harpers focused on Yonas.

Gale took a similar approach, muttering a spell under his breath and shooting fire from his fingertips towards the shadows. An aptly cast fireball struck several of them at once, a haunting harmony of their shrieks hanging in the air as some of them perished. Karlach swung her greataxe with vigor, the glowing blade slicing through the darkness and disintegrating the shadows that still lingered after Gale’s explosive magic. I could hear Shadowheart casting loudly, throwing healing spells at some of the Harpers who were caught off guard by the ambush. I took aim at the enemies that remained, exhaling sharply with each release of my bow.

With the help of the swinging swords of the Harpers, the shadows were driven away in short time. Even so, the sudden battle left the lot of us breathless and heaving as we were careful to stay within the light of a torch or spell- lest we end up like Yonas.

“Gods… Yonas…” Meg mourned. The rest of the Harpers looked on at the corpse in sorrow, some of them blinking back tears.

“Thank you. For helping us back there.” Meg added, looking us all over as we regained our composure.

“You’re all Harpers? What are you doing all the way out here?” Gale took the opportunity to ask- his curiosity taking hold as it often did.

The group looked at him suspiciously, Meg raising an eyebrow. The Harpers were a secret organization. Their entire existence was only known by their members and some very learned people- Gale was getting pretty nosy poking around in their business.

“Who’s asking?” Meg sneered, the gratitude she had shown before much less evident in her tone.

“We are adventurers in search of Moonrise towers. We have reason to believe there is an evil brewing there and we intend to put an end to it.” I took initiative to speak up and explain our intention.

Meg eyes me up and down. I wasn’t sure if she was sizing me up for battle or assessing my body language, but whatever her conclusion, she let her guard down.

“You might just find allies in us, then. Here- follow this path to the West, but don’t stray from it. You’ll meet a gnarly end.” Meg pointed down a well trodden walkway through the woods where the Harpers had come from.

“I’ll send a scout back with you so that you aren’t killed on sight. But we’ve got to press on- there’s a mission to complete.” Meg said, gesturing to one of her party members to hit the road and head back.

“Who’s them?” I asked, unsure exactly where we were to head next.

“They’re your best chance at survival.”

Notes:

Thanks so much for reading! As of this post- all of the backlog of writing I had is uploaded! This means updates will become less regular, but I will still be working diligently on the story and the next things that happen. I still have to write the Gale romance scene from act 2! Looking forward to that :) Thanks so much for the Kudos, I super appreciate it. <3

Chapter 23: Helping a Hero

Summary:

The gang finds their way to a refuge within the cursed woodlands, and meets someone that Karlach recognizes almost immediately. But, they haven't met before...

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

“Quite the arcane accomplishment.” Gale said, gazing up at the glowing dome that encased the area before us.

It was a massive silvery bubble that hovered over an expanse of the cursed land. The shadows drew back from its light- retreating from the areas the spell lingered back into the black safety of the woods. It was protecting everything within its range- overcoming even the dark will of the goddess Shar. An impressive spell to uphold, indeed.

“A perversion against the delicate work of the Lady of Loss, if you ask me.” Shadowheart said with disdain.

“Do you not realize the creatures in these woods will kill us and absorb our life force?” Karlach asked her, fed up with her vehement defense of the curse and its “elegance”.

“Kill you maybe.” Shadowheart corrected her.

That was the last straw for me. “Enough. I’ve already told Halsin we intend to lift this curse from the land once and for all. I care little for the will of your goddess- the plague on this area disrupts the balance of nature. It takes the lives of innocents and the homes of wildlife. It is not elegant or beautiful. It is a blight.”

Shadowheart looked on at me in shock, that shock quickly turning to anger.

“When you had said you had little opinion on my devotion, I didn’t hesitate to believe you. Evidently, not every word from your lips is truth.” She turned her nose up at me and sneered. “I’ll see you back at camp.”

She stormed off without another glance at us, practically steaming.

“Shadowheart- I didn’t-” I started, but Gale put a hand on my shoulder and spoke in hushed tones.

“Let her be.” He dissuaded me. “Not to worry- she will come around. Halsin told many a tale about his experience with this curse when he led us to find you all. Given the opportunity to hear his personal account- I have hope she might change her mind about it.”

I sighed, watching Shadowheart as she strode back into the woods, the curse skittering away from her and allowing her to pass freely. I hoped Gale was right.

“We ought to check this place out, Soldier. Cleric or no.” Karlach encouraged, pointing a thumb at the silvery cloak ahead.
I nodded, following behind the scout that accompanied us and beckoning my companions to walk through the shimmering veil. We hadn’t had the chance to take more than a few steps in the curse-free expanse before we were halted by a commanding voice.

“You! Hands off your weapons!” An armored soldier stood in our path, the point of her rapier aimed for our throats.

“Easy now, they’re with me.” The scout said, holding up a silver bauble that glinted in the low light of the encampment.

The soldier recognized the object and nodded. “Come.” was the only word from the soldier's mouth as she led us further inside the safety of the spell.

A stern looking woman approached us, two scimitars mounted on her back and her brow furrowed as she looked us over. Her piercing gaze shot to the scout that escorted us, the soldier shrinking back and away from myself and my companions. Without a moment’s notice, the woman with the piercing eyes wielded a familiar magic in her palms, a dash of cinnamon lingering in my throat.

Up from the ground sprouted a tangle of thorns and vines, wrapping me and my companions' ankles and keeping us anchored to the spots where we stood. I wrestled with the growth trying to break free, but to no avail.

“J-Jaheira?! The Jaheira?” Karlach gasped, the loss of her breath audible as she stared at the druid before us.

The woman stared at us, the braids framing her face swaying as she co*cked her head curiously. She remained no less stern as she spoke, a thick accent flavouring her every word.

“Heard of me through the grapevine, have you?” She asked, looking at the fiery Tiefling.

“Care to explain why we’ve been met with such a discourteous greeting after rescuing your people?” Gale piped up, the octave of his voice raising as he posed the question. He struggled against the wrap of the vines himself, squirming beneath their force on his leg.

“Absolutely.” Jaheira said, pulling a bottle from her pack so that we could all see it clearly. It was… a tadpole. The same kind that slept peacefully in all three of our brains. I felt my heart rate quicken.

“This is why we are all here, you see. It is a curious creature… hiding all manner of secrets. But if there’s one thing that we do know-” She held the jar close to me, looking me dead in the eyes. “it's that it knows its own kind.”

The tadpole in the jar squirmed, spinning circles in the glass vessel, a small squeak barely audible through the muffling of the glass. I felt a pulse in my skull, a hideous invasive sensation that was sent down my spine as I winced.

“You should never have come here, True Soul.” Jaheira said, tucking the bottle back into her bag and drawing her scimitars from her back, their sharpened blades reflecting the silver of the spell that doused the space around us.

Her movements were determined and deliberate, giving me little hope that anything I might say to convince her that we were not a threat would be fruitless. She took a step towards me, blades raised.

“Stop! She’s the one that saved us!” A young girl’s voice cried out. The pitter patter of small footfalls racing towards us could be heard as a familiar scarlet vision ran up to Jaheira. It was Mol- the rambunctious leader of the band of tiefling children from the grove. I recalled that Arabella spoke highly of her, as did the rest of the kids we had met. She was certainly headstrong, with the mind of a businesswoman even at her ripe young age.

This is the savior of the Emerald Grove?” Jaheira said, gesturing to me in disbelief and looking toward Mol.

Mol nodded confidently. “That’s right. Didn’t leave a goblin standing! She saved a few of my friends too!”

Jaheira raised an eyebrow, looking over at the three of us as my nerves heightened. I could only hope that she trusted the word of the clever tiefling, otherwise we were a prime target for the bloodthirst of her blades. None of us managed to escape the tangle of vines that entrapped us.

“I’d trust her with my life.” Mol said with finality.

With that, Jaheira lowered her blades, mounting them to her back once more, finally convinced of our intentions.

“A True Soul with a mind of their own? How is this possible?” She asked, looking over us curiously and paying careful attention to my eyes- as if she could discern something from the tadpole’s entry point.

I glanced over at Gale, my thoughts whizzing in my brain. His eyes met mine and he knew what I was thinking- even without using the tadpole. I had Shadowheart’s artifact in my pack and that was what was protecting us from being no more than slaves to the cult. We both knew the cleric would not approve of us revealing it, but she wasn’t here to object anymore. Gale nodded in my direction, as if permitting me to proceed with my crazy plan. We needed allies- and honesty was the best way to gain them and keep them around.

I drew the artifact from my bag, it’s jagged edges resting on my palms as it pulsed with warm light. Jaheira looked at it curiously, raising a blade as if to deflect it.

“This is what gives us freedom from the cult’s influence.” I told her, letting her examine the artifact.

“What in the hells is that thing?” She asked, eyes wide.

My face twisted. We weren’t entirely sure of its inner workings quite yet, but we knew it was too important to let fall into the hands of the githyanki or anyone else that might be searching for it.

“A githyanki artifact. There’s little more we know of its history apart from that.” Gale said matter-of-factly.

Jaheira’s bag rattled on her hip. She grabbed the bottle with the tadpole inside, seeing it squirm and swell uncomfortably from the presence of the artifact.

She scoffed, almost looking impressed, but burying the evidence behind her steely glare.

“Congratulations.” She said in an almost sarcastic tone. “You’ve earned yourself the benefit of the doubt.” The vines around our ankles shrunk back into the ground, the tensed muscles in our legs finally able to relax and move freely.

“Hear me, Harpers! All clear- at ease.” The harpers around us stowed their weapons at her command, looking at us all with curiosity and optimism in their eyes.

“I’ll not pretend to understand what that artifact is, but I’m old and wise enough to recognize a sliver of hope when it crawls out of the dark. Tell me- why have you come here?” Jaheira asked.

“We’re here to find a cure. Our only lead is Moonrise Towers.” Karlach piped up, still starry eyed as she looked at the druid.

“Then we may just have a common goal.” Jaheira looked at us approvingly. “There is food in the inn over there. Beds too if you require rest. Aloe oil in the cupboard- in case the vines gave you a rash.” The druid looked over at Gale who was grimacing as he examined his ankles.

I smiled to myself. A sensitive one, he was.

“Settle in- then come find me for a drink. You may just be the godsend we’ve been praying for.” The druid said, heading towards the Inn in the center of the shadow veil. It was quite the setup they had.

Karlach ran up to me, giddy with excitement. “Tav! Do you know who that is?” She asked me.

I shrugged. Karlach’s chest glowed bright as she balled her fists and jumped up and down. Gale approached to hear what she was so thrilled about.

“Oh my gods, soldier! Years ago- over a century- Jaheira was part of a group that saved Baldurs Gate from Sarevok, A Bhaalspawn trying to plunge the city into war. My mum used to tell us stories about them- the legends who protected the city from evil. She said Jaheira was a powerful druid. Adamant. Tough.” Karlach flexed a bicep as she spoke of Jaheira’s strength.

“I’ve told myself those stories a thousand times since. I never thought I’d meet Jaheira- She was always a hero and I was always… some Outer City kid. I can’t believe she wants to talk to us about working together. What a day!.” Karlach exclaimed.

A warm smile crept across Gale’s face as he listened to Karlach’s childlike excitement. I couldn’t help but grin alongside them.

“Maybe I ought to introduce you to Ms. Tenebrux Morrow too- then you can meet the legends in all your stories.” Gale suggested earnestly.

“I don’t think anyone could impress me as much as The Jaheira.” Karlach said, looking wistfully towards the Inn where Jaheira waited for us. “Ms. Morrow is a lovely person, I’m sure, but from all we’ve read I’ve come to realize she is likely… stretching the truth as they say.”

Gale laughed softly at her astute interpretation of the stories he had been reading her.

Karlach took a deep breath. “Jaheira is living, breathing proof that normal people- ones who age, who make mistakes… mortals. They can be heroes too. No matter their circ*mstances.”

Her words rang true. Here we all were, the only thing in common amongst us was the tadpole in our brains and our determination to be free of its grip on our lives. We came from different cities, different planes, different family situations… and despite our mundane lives we were trying to rescue the entirety of the Sword Coast. It is something Wyll spoke about often around the campfire, reflecting on the coincidences that led us together and invigorating us with an inspirational monologue or two.

“Anyways- If Mol is here the other tieflings should be too. You don’t know how relieved I was to see her turn the corner. Let’s go catch up with them.” Karlach said, eagerly heading further into the encampment.

There were a few tieflings around, their clothes exceedingly less protective than the glinting armor and polished leather gambesons of the Harpers. I recognized some of their faces, recalling their smiling and bubbly visions as they sipped on wine at our camp. Even the memory of it was hazy now, it seemed so long ago.

“Whatever I expected to find lurking in this cursed gloom, it certainly wasn’t this. A glimmer of hope amidst the darkness.” Gale said, his eyes full of wonder as he looked around the curse-free inn and outbuildings.

There were people all around, working together to prepare and to help one another survive. Reinforcing barricades, putting up tents, sharpening weapons. There were some who were injured and being nursed back to health and others who were peddling goods and armor to fellow Harpers. It was a sight to behold after all the conflict we witnessed up until now.

“Karlach!” A familiar male voice called.

I looked over to it, seeing a friendly orange tiefling waving at us frantically. He held a hammer in his hand and had a toothy grin across his face.

“Dammon!” Karlach called back, breaking into a run towards the blacksmith.

“I thought you’d be in the city by now!” Dammon exclaimed as we all approached him.

I felt the heat of the forge behind him pulsing. He must have been working hard considering the sweat that stained the neckline of his tunic.

“I had hoped the same for you. How did you get here?” Karlach asked him.

“We were ambushed by cultists. Whoever managed to escape found refuge here.”

Karlach’s eyes flickered.

“Ah. I believe we found some of the fallen on the road here. We… we managed to bury them properly.” She said with a sorrowful tone.

Dammon’s eyes were warm, small crows feet crinkling at their corners. “That’s very honorable of you, Karlach. You’re a treasure to have looked after our people like that.”

Karlach’s scarlet skin took on a rosy tone at the soft thoughtfulness in Dammon’s voice.

“Before you run off into the belly of the beast- there’s something I need to tell you.” the blacksmith started. “Well… two things. Good news and bad news.”

“Bad news first, so it can be washed down with the good.” Gale chimed, only to have Karlach vigorously shake her head in disagreement.

“Ew, no! The good news, please, my good man.” She said, ignoring the wizard entirely.

“Well- I only need one more piece of infernal iron to craft an insulating chamber that could make it possible for Karlach to-”

“TOUCH people?!” Karlach exclaimed, interrupting Dammon’s good news.

Her hair and skin surged with fire that responded to her excitement.

Dammon grinned. “Exactly!”

“Oh my gods. It’s really happening. It’s been so long. We’ve got the iron, haven’t we? Let’s do this thing!” She bounced in place.

I dug through my pack, pulling out the hefty chunk of metal. I had suggested we leave it at camp after I had Gale rub a nasty knot out of my back, but there was no use arguing with a Tiefling on fire.

“Hang on! What about the bad news?” Gale said, raising a finger in question.

“Sure, whatever. But fix me first. Please.” She practically begged.

“Karlach, I really ought to tell you-” Dammon started, but Karlach was persistent in her avoidance of the “bad news”.

The worry in Dammon’s eyes sent a chill through me, and I knew it was important.

“Maybe let the man speak just this once, eh?” I suggested, gesturing to Dammon and giving him the floor.

Karlach crossed her arms, but kept quiet and let the blacksmith continue.

“I don’t enjoy saying this, Karlach. But there’s no two ways about it. Your engine is going to blow, and I can’t fix it. I’m not sure anyone can. It’s simply too hot to exist here in the material plane. Unless you return to Avernus for good, this thing is going to blow. Sooner rather than later.”

“But… but still y-you can give me something that will let me touch again, right? Safely?” Karlach’s voice trembled, unable to hide the fear that rose but in her usual way- focusing on the positive.

“Yes, but…”

“That’s all I need to know. Do it. Please.” she begged.

“Well… alright. This shouldn’t take long.” Dammon took the iron from me with a wink, and turned over to his forge.

He hammered away at the metal and stoked the flames below. Sweat beaded on his brow and trickled down his angled face as he made precise strikes onto the metal. In no time at all, he turned to Karlach with a metal gadget in his palm.

“Same as last time. You’ll need to install it yourself, but this should do the trick.” He said with confidence.

Karlach eagerly took the small metal piece, holding it up to the light to get a good look at the piece, turning it curiously in her fingers. She clasped it in her palms and held it over her heart, her voice soft and reverent as if she were saying a prayer.

“Please, let this work.”

She fiddled with the engine inside her chest, an unnatural warmth spilling from the cavity she tinkered with. After a few clinks and clanks coming from her torso, she stood up straight, inhaling deeply.

“So… did it… work?” She asked, reigning in the excitement that was boiling within her.

“Only one way to find out!” Dammon exclaimed.

“My lady… may I?” Gale said in a gentlemanly tone, doing slight bow and holding out a hand as if to offer a dance in a royal court.

I giggled at the sight, to which he smiled at my amusem*nt.

Karlach smiled wide. “Why, of course.” She took a slight bow herself, hesitating as she carefully took the wizard’s hand in her own.

There was no reaction from him. He didn’t wince or pull back, didn’t cry out in pain, his skin didn’t sizzle beneath her palm.

With that, Karlach eagerly proceeded to dance with Gale, laughing joyously as Gale led her in a simple waltz. They danced in small circles, their chests pressing against one another and Karlach glancing to her feet more often than Gale. He looked up at her, as she was a bit taller, a resounding relief in his eyes to see her smiling and having fun as they swayed together. His serene appreciation of her joy was changed when Karlach took the lead, her practiced biceps pulling the smaller frame of the wizard to and fro, the rhythm of the dance interrupted by her giddy gallivanting. Gale laughed heartily as he was yanked back and forth by her playfully, the two of them eventually tripping over one another and falling to the ground in a hysterical heap.

She caught her breath after a moment, her laughter subsiding and a tear at the corner of her eyes.

“Thank you.” She whimpered, looking up at Dammon as she sat on the ground. “All of you.” She turned to me and Gale as well, sentiment welling in her voice.

“It’s the least I could do. But before you go- I’ve got to stress that… that engine of yours- it’s contained for the moment, but it’s just too hot to exist in the material plane indefinitely. I know you know that but… the thing is there’s a cure.” Dammon went on.

The tears that welled in the corners of Karlach’s eyes fell, trickling down her cheek instead of evaporating into steam as they had before. She touched a hand to her face, rolling the droplet between her fingers as Dammon spoke.

“I wasn’t making any headway with the mechanics… The environment here is just too cold to sustain metals like the ones inside you. You have to return to Avernus for good. Or this thing is going to burn you up from the inside out.”

Karlach stood to get to Dammon’s eye level, even achieving a few inches above him when her back was straight.

“The minute I set foot back in Avernus, Zariel will force me back into service. I’m not doing her bidding again- I’d rather die.” She said without hesitation.

“I… I get that. But… don’t rule it out. The world might just be better with you in it- even in Avernus.” Dammon said, his eyes unwavering from Karlach’s. “I won’t stop trying to figure out a cure, but… at this point I think we all have to face the inevitable.”

Karlach looked at Dammon as his face dropped, a sadness washing over him as he noted that this may be the last time he sees Karlach - the Helion’s Heart, the escapee of Zariel’s Blood War. She pulled him into a hug, her voice soft and sweet.

“Thank you, Dammon. Really. You’ve given me more than I could ever repay.”

Dammon squeezed her back tightly, his calloused hands curling into fists as he did so.

“It’s been my pleasure.” He said as their embrace broke and they stepped back from one another.

“Good luck- all of you. Look after yourselves, alright?”

We all nodded, looking at each other and absorbing the joy that hung in the air to know Karlach was happy despite the solemn situation. We said our goodbyes to the blacksmith, and Karlach was practically skipping around the encampment swinging her arms around like a little girl at recess.

“This is the best day. The BEST day!” She exclaimed, looking around at the other Harpers and Tieflings around.

There was a commotion at the entrance, Harpers shouting with bows drawn. I sprinted over, wondering if they could use another sword against an enemy invading. When I approached though, I saw an unexpected familiar face.

“Stay back, druid! State your purpose!” One of the Harpers shouted.

“I am in search of my companions. A druid, wizard and barbarian who traveled this path.” The warm, deep voice of Halsin could be heard easily amongst the commotion.

I jumped up and down, trying to make myself seen as the Harpers blocked Halsin’s view of me. I could see him easily, his towering height eclipsing even Karlach’s.

“He’s with me!” I shouted, waving my hands in the air in hopes to quell any hostility.

“Ah! Tav!” He bellowed, gesturing to me as I bounced in the back of the Harper herd.

The Harpers parted, allowing Hasin and I to meet face to face.

“Have you any other companions that may intrude on our safe-haven?” one of the Harpers sneered.

“Any of the others will arrive alongside me, I assure you.” I clarified. “Do not assume any other lone travelers are companions of my own. I respect your “strike first” mentality.”

The Harpers murmured amongst themselves, disbursing and returning back to their prior taks. They seemed a little perturbed about the interruption, but I was grateful to see a familiar face had made it to the encampment safely.

“What brings you here, Halsin?” Gale asked him.

“Shadowheart told me of the veil that shrouded this place. To know there is a form of magic that can quiet the noise of the curse- I just had to see it for myself. Perhaps I might study its qualities and be able to get rid of the blight once and for all.” He explained.

“Did you… tell Shadowheart of your intentions?” I asked, trying not to pry but also curious to know if she had been as defensive with him and she had been with me.

“I… did. She was a tough nut to crack, but I have experience as a squirrel.” He said with a smirk. “I believe I left her with a lot to think on.”

I was glad to hear that they had spoken with one another about the curse. Gale had good intuition, it seemed.

“The center of the spell seems to be coming from inside the Inn. perhaps we should may our way over?” Gale proposed, looking to the sky at the silvery spell that coated the clouds.

Walking towards the inn, I noticed a wooden sign hanging above the doorway. 'Last Light Inn' it read in a bold script. The sign looked hand-carved, as if one of the Harpers with a particular skill for woodcraft had made it themselves to mark their safe-haven. As we headed inside, sitting in the vestibule was a table with three corked bottles of Aloe Oil, a small note on them reading:

”For the magus’s ache.”

I laughed softly as I read the note, practically hearing Jaheira’s accent recite it in my head. Gale saw it and flushed red with embarrassment, quickly crumpling the parchment and snatching a bottle from the table for himself.

“Could come in handy. Good thinking, Gale.” Halsin said, grabbing a bottle for himself. He hadn’t noticed the embarrassing note, nor did he have context for it, both facts for which Gale was relieved.

Karlach’s face brightened as she saw more familiar tieflings inside the Inn, Alfira the bard strumming on her lute softly as she gazed into the hearth. A disgruntled looking Rolan sat in the back, palming a bottle of wine. Others were walking around the inn too, glad for the warmth and comfort provided to them compared to the environments they found themselves previously.

“I see you’ve brought a friend. Must I interrogate them, too?” Jaheira’s voice rose from within the Inn, her eyes narrowed as she came into view walking towards us.

“I travel with these warriors seeking a solution to the curse on these lands. After my actions in centuries past, there is a guilt within me that will only be quelled by its banishment.” Halsin said nobly, bowing his head at Jaheira.

“Centuries, eh? Might I have seen you on the battlefield against Ketheric Thorm and his accursed Justiciars?” Jaheira asked, assessing Halsin.

“I gave myself to that very cause. The results of which I have regretted ever since. It is an honor to finally be face to face with the legendary Friend of the Forest.” He remarked, recognizing Jaheira’s druidic title.

“A name I haven’t been called in quite some time.” She recalled fondly, letting a smile slip through her stern guise. “Glad to have a veteran in our ranks. It seems our efforts to put Thorm in the ground for good have been thwarted.”

All of our attention was peaked, listening intently to the druid as she handed us each a goblet of wine. Gale was delighted, swirling the dark red liquid under his nose and savoring the aroma. I smirked at his action, figuring I may as well do the same. But as I inhaled the sweet scent of the wine- I detected a familiar note.

I looked at Jaheira with a raised eyebrow. She looked back knowingly, smiling and realizing I had picked up on her secret ingredient. It was Klauthgrass, an herb said to elicit the truth.

“It doesn’t spoil the taste if that’s what you’re wondering. Your wizard can attest.” Jaheira said, gesturing to Gale who eagerly sipped at his goblet.

“Hmm?” He hummed, swallowing the wine he held in his mouth and looking up at us, completely unaware of what had just transpired.

A weakness for a good glass of wine…

“It does spoil my trust.” I said, drawing the goblet away from my face.

Gale’s eyes widened, looking into the goblet he had drunk from with horror.

“You don’t know what you’re missing.” Jaheira said, taking the initiative to take a sip of her own goblet.

I appreciated her being so genuine as to take a draught of the altered wine herself, vowing to be honest with her own intentions via the effects of the herb. I was unsure of the drink, myself.

“Halsin, what have I just drank?” Gale said in a hushed tone, his voice frantic.

“That would be a Sembian Red Wine, a vintage you don’t find often nowadays.” Halsin said, knowing what the wizard truly wanted to know but toying with him a bit. He swirled the goblet of wine in his palm, feigning incognizance.

“I know that. What else was in it?” He sneered, exceedingly annoyed that Halsin suggested he was unable to identify the wine. Gods forbid he look so foolish.

“That would be the essence of Klauthgrass. Let’s just say you’ll have trouble lying for a while after this draught. Not like an upstanding individual like yourself would have any secrets to hide.” Halsin’s words dripped with sarcasm, further igniting Gale’s ire.

“Gods, has nobody a lick of common decency around here? We must lace the rarest of wines with esoteric flora?” He exclaimed, looking at Jaheira with disdain and anger.

“Not to worry, magus. I haven’t tainted the bottle’s potency with my witchcraft- It is well over a century old and hasn’t lost a hint of its flavor. Still not quite so sure about you, though. People tend to lose more than just flavor when illithids get their hands on them. I speak from experience.” I watched as Jaheira’s eyes flickered with recollection for just a second before they were steeled behind walls of self-preservation.

“You have an air about you. Something… alien. Answer me true and do not lie. The parasite is changing you, isn’t it?” She spoke firmly and with accusation in her tone, sneering as if she would slice us to ribbons if she detected a lie- or any illithid influence.

“Aside from crippling paranoia, we haven’t had any of the typical symptoms of ceremorphosis. I assure you, we are on your side.” Gale said, his lips almost unable to restrain themselves as he spoke honestly and truly.

He glanced at me with pursed lips, looking as if he felt bad for spilling the truth to the druid, as if he shouldn’t have. I gestured to him with an open palm, giving him the floor. I had no issue with being honest and up upfront with the druid- although I’d rather not have done so under the influence of her drink. I suspected that’s why Gale looked so uncomfortable himself. He was a man who valued his privacy quite highly.

“I find that decidedly hard to believe. Despite your eager gulp of my concoction.” Jaheira raised her palm, a golden glow encasing it, cinnamon and cardamom dissolving on my tongue as she summoned her magic.

“Look around you: good men, good women, stranded here- two feet in the grave. If we are to survive, I have no choice but to trust you. Can I?” She eyed Gale, and then each of us, her lips sealed tight as her brain wracked with thought. It was a risky decision for her to allow us refuge here. To allow us insight into their plans.

“You….” Gale started, his gaze darting from Jaheira to the goblet. He furrowed his brow and tipped the cup back into his mouth, taking a sizable swig. “You can.” he kept eye contact with her as his voice was stern and steady, eyebrows still furrowed with determination.

I felt my heart skip a beat.

“Good. I will cross your heart myself if you break it.” She said, her suspicion lessened, but her words still heavy. “I have every reason to be cautious. I’ve traced people like you- with parasites in their brains. I’ve followed them all the way here from Baldur’s Gate. The cult is spreading through the city, quickly and with unsettling deliberation. We tracked them to this very village only to be faced with a man we killed and buried over a century ago.”

“Ketheric Thorm.” Halsin said, knowingly.

General Ketheric Thorm.” Jaheira corrected. “Now the leader of the Absolutists. Remember his name. He was a Sharran once- took to building an army of Dark Justiciars beneath this very village. Alongside the local druids, we made it our business to see him deposed, dead and buried. But he’s returned. Not only does General Thorm live again, it seems he is lo longer mortal. He has become, in fact, invincible.”

“How do you know he has returned? It should be impossible. It’s been a hundred years.” Halsin shook his head in disbelief.

“We saw him on the road here. Commanding an army of the Absolute, intent on destroying Baldur’s Gate.” Jaheira pointed a finger at her eye as she told her story. “I put an arrow through his eye myself, only to see him pluck it out like a splinter. He healed right in front of me and chased us into the shadows. Things looked hopeless, but experience has taught me that no matter how bleak things look, there’s always hope. You are that hope, now.”

“What can we do to aid you?” I asked, taking initiative.

“Protected by your artifact, you can infiltrate his forces at Moonrise Towers posing a True Soul. Find out what it is that makes him invincible so we can strip him of his advantage. Once Ketheric is without his shield. The sword: together we assault his tower, and put an end to his blight.” Jaheira laid out a clever plan for the general’s demise. From the eager listening ears of my companions, I could tell they were decidedly on board with the proposal.

“Once again, Thorm’s days are numbered. We will ensure he stays in the ground this time.” Halsin said, the gravelly tone of his voice adding an intimidating rough-ness to his promise.

“Your days are all numbered too, without a cure for your infection. Yet you selflessly offer to spend them fighting alongside us. I like you. If only we had known each other a century ago.” Jaheira said, looking to Halsin with a half smile. “ I promise I will do everything I can to make sure you survive this. Any cure starts with understanding the disease. Whatever magic Ketheric is using to control these tadpoles- it must be at Moonrise. Until then, we keep drinking wine when we meet.” she winked slyly.

“I’m happy to report I am free of any illithid parasite, but my dedication to delivering this land of evil still rings true. Ketheric walking this plane again is an imbalance of nature- striking him down once more is an objective I will gladly take part in.” Halsin explained himself to the fellow druid.

“Before you march into the eye of the storm- there is someone else you should meet. You’re not our only secret weapon. Isobel- a faithful cleric of Selune and a light in the darkness. She cast the moon shield around the inn. It’s the only reason we’re still alive. She’s upstairs in her chambers. Tell her I sent you and she will see you through the shadows safely.” Jaheira pointed behind her to a wide staircase.

Halsin and Gale both looked to the staircase with intrigue, their curiosity of the magic behind the moon shield evident from the twinkle in their eyes.

“Shall we?” Halsin looked to Gale, knowing just as well how interested the wizard was in the cleric’s abilities.

“After you.” Gale said, mocking polite-ness as he took a bow and suggested Halsin take the lead.

Halsin happily took the lead, stepping ahead of us as he made his way up the stairs. Gale was close behind and just as eager to speak to Isobel. He quickly realized his mistake in letting Halsin take the lead as the towering elf’s long strides brought him closer and closer to the cleric’s chambers while Gale had to sprint to keep up. Karlach and I followed behind leisurely, drawing entertainment from the competitive nature of the two of them.

“What do you suppose the poor girl’s reaction will be to two strange men barging into her quarters?” Karlach asked with a tut of her tongue.

“Let’s just hope she hasn’t cast any glyphs on the doorway, hm?” I replied, rolling my eyes at the tomfoolery of them both as they practically wrestled each other down the hall.

Notes:

When you say updates are going to be more spread out but then you write this in an afternoon...

(to be fair when there is dialogue from the game it makes it a lot longer than the original stuff.)

Enjoy!

Chapter 24: The Cleric of the Moon

Summary:

The gang meets a cleric responsible for the safety of the entire Inn, but it seems her value is known by more than just the Harpers.

Chapter Text

When Karlach and I approached the doorway, Halsin and Gale stood inside looking around looking lost. No glyphs had been set, thank the gods. But there was nobody here. There was a bed in the corner, a prayer book and a silver locket on the pillow. There were a few bookshelves, a dresser… but no cleric.

“She isn’t here.” Gale said, sounding confused and a little disappointed.

In the back of the room was another door. From our position it may have appeared to be just a closet or a restroom, but the silver light spilling into the chambers from beneath told otherwise. I approached the door, turning the handle slowly so as to ensure I wasn’t interrupting anything private, and peeked in on the other side.

There stood a young woman on a balcony, her short pearly hair bristling in the cool night breeze as she looked to the sky and wove strings of silver between her fingers. I was in awe as she glowed within the light of the full moon, the lunar visage a wonder to behold after all the time the sky had been shielded from view by the curse. The magic she cast allowed her a clear view to the night sky, her powers becoming all the more powerful for it, then strengthening the magic veil she cast in turn. It was a symbiosis of a goddess and her devoted worshiper.

She spoke softly as she waved her hands, holding white light in her palms and disbursing it into the shield around the inn. It was a wonder to behold her work, I could understand the keen interest Halsin and Gale had in her ability.

Their curiosity got the better of them as they pulled on the door, trying to pry it open farther so that they might be able to see what lay beyond it. I tried to dissuade them, but Halsin’s iron grip and formidable biceps pulled the door with ease even as I pressed on it, trying to keep the opening to no more than a sliver. The cleric startled from the sudden opening of the door, caught off guard by the interruption as she whipped her head around to see us all in the doorway.

I tried to approach her with courtesy and apologies for interrupting, but Gale and Halsin’s wild eyes must have been evidence to the contrary.

“I didn’t realize I had an audience.” She said as she crossed her arms, eyeing us.

I was too embarrassed by the behavior of my companions that I didn't dare say anything. She approached us, suspicion in her eyes.

“You must be the ‘True Soul who’s going to save us all’. I’m Isobel. Pleased to meet you.” She said, little emotion in her tone. She sounded suspicious of us, notably of the fact we were fated to ‘save’ everyone.

“The pleasure is all ours. Might I ask how exactly you are able to banish the shadows around this place?” Gale blurted, the eager tone in his voice unable to be hidden by his charm.

“Myself and our Lady are doing what we can to hold the line. Her moon magic is the antithesis of her sister’s shadow weave. They repel each other- like magnets facing backwards.”

The white light of the full moon that hung in the sky reflected into Gale’s pupils, blown wide with curiosity and wonder. He looked like a bewildered kitten.

“As a druid of the Circle of the Moon, I am familiar with the blessings the Lady Selune provides in the dark of night. She is even so kind as to lend her power to our kind as we take on other forms, similar to how she shifts in her form with each tenday.” Halsin looked at Isobel with great respect, even taking a small bow in her presence. “Your Lady must hold you in high regard.”

Isobel smiled, but still raised an eyebrow at Halsin’s overt flattery.

“Did you… need something? While I can appreciate the compliments I’ve no interest in courting.” Isobel explained, walking past us and back into her chambers.

Halsin’s face flushed for just a moment, if you blinked you may have missed it. He regained his composure quickly and seamlessly, all of us following the cleric back inside.

“My apologies. I am merely looking to study your magic to see if it might offer a solution for the curse as a whole. I’m thrilled to learn my connection with Selune may even provide me with the tools necessary to spread her will across these lands. I will do anything to preserve the nature that once thrived here.” He said.

“A noble cause. Is your intention still to infiltrate the towers, as well? Your situation seems far too good to be true all things considered. Infected with an illithid tadpole, but with complete control over your own actions-your own mind.” She paced around us, examining us with as much curiosity as Gale examined her spellcasting.

“I suppose I’d be a poor cleric indeed not to avail of a blessing when I see one. Let me guess: Jaheira’s sent you to beg a protection spell off her favorite cleric?” She co*cked her head and smiled, her guard lowered- but still present.

I smiled and nodded. “Precisely. Would you be so kind?” I asked politely.

She grinned, raising her hands in the air, her arms swirling with silver light and starry visions. In a flick of her wrist, the four of us were encased in a lunar glow, a serenity beginning in my chest and spreading to my limbs. It was a blessing unlike I had known before.

“It will make you immune to the lesser effects of the shadow curse, which will get you closer to the Towers. But there are places it won’t help. Places where the curse is stronger. Darker. The cultists are able to traverse even these deepest of shadows. We don’t know how- but we’re trying to figure it out.”

“The curse worsens? A troublesome reality. I suppose after all these years it was likely for it to have grown darker.” Halsin looked disappointed and frustrated at the news.

“Need you inform us of any other dangers in these wilds?” I asked, grateful for her knowledge so easily shared.

“Ketheric Thorm is a dangerous man. But you- you have something he doesn’t. Allies worth having.. While you’re busy in the towers I will be sure to-” Isobel’s advice was interrupted, a whooshing sound like a great wind whistling through the windows of her chambers.

All of our ears perked up at the sound, when suddenly a crash rang out from the balcony where Isobel had been casting under the stars. A dark, looming figure stood there- bearing the symbol of the Flaming Fist on his chest. It was a young man- a soldier. But his eyes were filled to the brim with malice and evil, boney and sparsely feathered black wings protruding from his back unnaturally. He had flown here.

“Hello, Isobel.” His voice gravelled. He didn’t sound empty or void of life like Yonas had after taken by the shadows. This man was affected by another kind of blight.

“M-Marcus? Is that you? What’s happened to you?” The cleric started, holding a hand over her heart as she looked at her former friend.

“I’ve been blessed.” He explained, a cruel grin spreading on his lips. “And you can be, too. Come with me and you can hear it all from Ketheric himself.”

Me and my companions shifted our weight, seeing all the signs of a threat from the man’s movements and words. A hand hovered over the staff of my glaive as I watched the winged soldier carefully.

“Isobel… do you know this man?” I asked warily.

“He is a Flaming Fist- or he was. He came with the other when we setup this safe-haven.” She explained, still aghast at the changed man before her.

“And I thank you for your hospitality.” He said, his attempt at charm too laced in ill-intent to be genuine.

As he looked over at me and my companions, I felt a pulsing in my skull. I gritted my teeth as the tadpole in my brain writhed and sent a grotesque sensation through my body.

”True Soul. My instructions are clear: take the girl to Ketheric. Alive.” Marcus’s gravelly voice echoed in my skull. He believed we were on the same side- how unfortunate for him.

I took the opportunity to take advantage of his trust in me, urging our telepathic connection to multiply in strength, probing deeper into the recesses of his mind. I feared what effects there might be to me wielding such Illithid power- if I might lose a part of myself- but any information we could gleam of the enemy could be used to our advantage.

A haunting face swam into my mind's eye. The instructions vivid - nothing is more important than to bring the cleric back alive.

“If you’ve got something to say, say it.” Isobel snapped, gritting her teeth as she balled a fist at her side. She glared at Marcus, fed up with the eerie silence of his presence- as she wasn’t infected she could not hear his commands.

“He means to kidnap you. Strike him down! I exclaimed, twirling my glaive from my back into my hands and waving my companions to do the same.

“Your treachery against the Absolute will be punished!” Marcus exclaimed in an angry roar, unsheathing a greatsword from his back that was neatly tucked between his wings.

Isobel sneered at the former Flaming Fist. “You can’t be saying you believe them, Marcus. Ketheric will never give you whatever it is that you’ve been promised.”

“He already has.” Marcus said with a sneer, roaring with an echo that shook the walls of the Inn. A cacophony of demonic cries and shrieks echoed as the Inn was overcome with flying horrors.

Everything happened so quickly as Marcus snatched Isobel by her robes, spreading his wings wide as he prepared to fly off with her in hand.

Halsin reacted fast, his fist encased in golden light as he summoned tangling vines from the floorboards and wrapped Marcus’s legs in them, preventing his escape. Now that he was such an easy target, Karlach grinned with satisfaction as she raised her greataxe against him, taking pleasure as she felt the weapon break through his armor and pierce his skin.

Gale ran to the entrance of the room, fearing for the lives of the tieflings and Harpers now under attack by the cultist gargoyles that Marcus had summoned. He closed his eyes as his hands moved frantically, muscle memory taking over as he cast with vigor and urgency.

Spiculum Augur!” He shouted, magic missiles shooting from his fingertips and striking several of the monstrosities, turning their attention to him rather than the defenseless tieflings.

Jaheira leapt into action on the lower floor of the inn, her scimitars swinging wildly at the intruders, doing critical damage as she aimed for their vital organs. She had the intuition of an experienced hunter to go for their weaknesses like that.

Isobel wriggled free of the grip Marcus had on her, casting blessings on us as we fought to protect her. Marcus struggled against the vines Halsin summoned, only causing them to climb higher and higher up his leg, thorns drawing blood as they tightened around him.

It was a whirlwind of swords and claws and spells slung back and forth across the inn. A nightmare-ish situation as some of the gargoyle-like creatures attempted to snatch Isobel themselves and carry her off. Thankfully, Karlach kept near to the cleric and swatted away any attempts with a swing of her axe. She managed to cut some of their talons clean off if they dared get close enough.

I heard Gale shout for assistance as he was flanked by several of the winged horrors, his magic missile spell drawing the ire of several of them at once. I reacted quickly, spinning my glaive in a circle, slicing at three of them in one fell swing, the momentum of my glaive leaving bleeding gashes in their grey flesh. He nodded in thanks before raising his hands to cast another spell. I could taste the sickly-sweet flavor of his magic as I stood this close to him.

Radius Rapidus!” He exclaimed, rays of fire flaming from his palms and engulfing the three monsters and bringing them to their end.

I leaned over the railing of the top floor, casting healing spells on the wounded, struggling to keep focus on who was in the most danger and who was capable of holding their own.

“Gaahhh!!” I heard an agonizing cry from Isobel’s chambers. My heart raced to hear the gravelly tone of voice- fearing for Halsin’s life.

Whipping my head around, I was relieved to see Halsin standing tall, his polearm driven into the chest of Marcus who lay motionless on the floor. His wings were soaked in his own blood, the feathers thinned and sparse as they sprawled across the floorboards.

The commotion of the battle was settling, the shing! of swords and the buzz of magic in the air dissipating as the enemies fell and the threat was overcome. Our foreheads beaded with sweat, all of us gasping to take air into our lungs as if we had been holding our breaths the whole time. Isobel was trembling.

Racing footfalls were heard as they thumped up the staircase and sprinted to Isobel’s quarters.

“Isobel! Are you alright?” She called out, her eyes scanning the room for her ‘favorite cleric’.

“I’m fine.” Isobel said, stepping into the druid’s view. She coughed lightly, a rasp in her throat like she had inhaled too much dust.

“Marcus has been with us since the start. They’ve been tracking us this whole time. That attack was not random. You were the target, Isobel. They know how important you are.” Jaheira looked into the cleric’s eyes, her hands gripping her shoulders desperately as if to keep her planted on the ground.

“But they don’t know about you.” Jaheira turned to me and my companions. “Ketheric will strike again- but you need to strike first. Discover the source of his invulnerability and make him mortal. So we can make him bleed.”

“Understood. I won’t let him get away with this.” I said confidently, doing what I could to reassure the both of them that there would be vengeance for this attack. Isobel’s hands still shook as Jaheira looked her over for any injuries that needed tending, and I waved my companions to leave them in peace as they recovered from the heat of battle.

Gale strode ahead, eager to catch up with me as we walked down the hall of the inn and down the stairs.

“It’s quite thrilling, to fight off such grim creatures as this region throws at us. Especially being at your side.” Gale started, still sounding a little out of breath as he gathered his thoughts. I felt my face grow warm as he spoke.

His voice trembled a little as he went on. “I - ah - I once read a book that explained in some detail the effect a brush with danger has on the desire for… other forms of stimulation.” The warmth of my face only grew as he continued. I had no doubt I was blushing now, likely through to the points of my ears.

Gale spoke quietly enough that I didn’t think our companions could overhear. Halsin and Karlach were deep in conversation about each other’s ‘impressive blade-work’ and ‘training regimens’.

“Have you… ever read anything on that subject?” Gale asked, his eyes meeting mine after a moment of hesitation.

My brain went completely blank as he looked to me for an answer. In that very moment I don’t think I could have named a single book I had ever read. I might not have been able to recall my own name.

“Uh- I…” I started, my mouth moving on its own as there was not a single thought propelling my words. I blinked in disbelief that he was being so forward with his thoughts and feelings. Then I remembered: the Klauthgrass.

“You’re still… drawn to me? Even in a place like this?” I managed to ask, not certain how I gathered my senses to ask a coherent question.

His face burned as he spoke- his bold words contrasting his coy appearance.

“I can’t imagine anywhere that could turn my heart from you. Cursed or otherwise. You’d always be as beautiful… and as impressive. You never look so beautiful as at the end of a stirring battle, your cheeks flushed, gaze bright, muscles glistening…”

I felt my heart swell and my stomach flip as Gale spoke so sweetly. I felt a little lightheaded as his words wrapped themselves around me and threatened to carry me away like an aasimar sent from the heavens. I leaned on the stair railing as my knees threatened to buckle beneath me, taking each step carefully, fearing I might melt into a puddle at his feet.

”Perhaps it’s just the thrill of our many near death experiences talking, but standing at your side through such darkness and disrepair… it only makes me want you more.” Gale said, noticing me struggling to balance on the staircase.

My own body was betraying me- exposing him as it’s weakness. He grabbed my hand and held it with his own, offering his sturdy form as an anchor as I descended the last few stairs. My thoughts were swirling, his words piercing through me like an arrow shot from Sune herself. I felt in my bones how hopelessly I had fallen for him- and I was all the more thrilled to hear the unbridled truth from his own mouth that he felt so strongly.

I opened my mouth to speak, despite being completely unaware how I might respond. Gale’s grip on my hand loosened as I touched down on the bottom floor, but his unwavering eye contact still threatened to turn me to liquid. He looked at me as he raised my hand to his lips, kissing my knuckles reverently. I felt all breath in my lungs escape as I stammered.

“Gale- I…”

“This is… unfortunately neither the time nor the place to indulge such feelings.” Gale interrupted, a sadness in his voice. “So, we must be patient…and push all such thoughts aside. For now.” He added with a wink, giving my hand one last squeeze before letting it go.

I smiled at him, praying to the gods that my eyes revealed all the words that were caught in my throat and refused to escape. He held my stare for a moment, his dimples creasing the corners of his mouth as it turned into a grin. He could read me like a book- and I was glad he was so literate.

We reluctantly turned our attention from each other, looking around to see where our companions had gone. Halsin and Karlach had passed us on the stairs, engrossed in their own conversation, leaving them oblivious to Gale and I. I could spot their muscled builds as they had made their way to the opposite side of the room. They were standing near a doorway on the lower floor of the Inn, Halsin leaning his pointed ear against the wooden door.

“No need to eavesdrop, druid. You may go inside if you’re so curious.”Jaheira said, her accent announcing her presence. She crossed her arms as she looked up at him.

Halsin looked a little embarrassed, like a child caught misbehaving by his mother.

“Of course, Jaheira. Thank you.” He said, nodding to her politely. Jaheira walked away without saying another word, rolling her eyes just a little.

“Oooh, you just got in trouuuubleeee…” Karlach mocked him in a sing-song tone. She sounded like a schoolgirl whose friend was just reprimanded by the teacher.

“Oh, hush. We should go inside- I thought I heard something familiar.” Halsin said, grasping the door handle and slowly creeping inside.

Gale and I crossed the room to follow him, curious as to what they were getting into.

Stepping inside we saw the familiar face of Counsellor Florrick, gathered with a few Flaming Fist soldiers at a long table. Behind her were a few beds, one of them occupied with a man who looked gravely ill.

Counsellor Florrick addressed the members of the Fist with a commanding tone, not taking any notice to us as we walked into their meeting.

“If you have an alternative in mind, please do propose it.” the Counsellor said to one of the soldiers.

“He still won’t speak- just keeps going with the bloody song.” A Flaming Fist spoke up.

My eyes darted to the voice- I recognized it.

“Nothing of use on his person?” Counsellor Florrick asked in a frustrated tone.

“His original writ of duty- signed by Eltan himself. Fella’s got to be one of the very first Flaming Fist.” The response came from an orange skinned tiefling- it was Kilas.

“He must know something. Let’s not give up on him yet.” Counsellor Florrick said decidedly.

“Nice to see you again, Counsellor. Despite the dire straits we find ourselves in.” Gale greeted Florrick in a gentlemanly tone.

She flicked her eyes over to us.

“Where’s Wyll? Please tell me he is alright.” The panic in her voice was evident as she arched her neck to see if Wyll was perhaps hiding behind Halsin.

“He’s quite alright. He is taking refuge in the safety of our camp for the time being.” I assured her, speaking softly as if it would calm her frantic movements.

“Thank the gods. I don’t suppose any of you have found a way to the Towers?” She asked.

“We plan to head there shortly, perhaps after a well deserved rest.” Halsin boomed, rolling his shoulder in its socket and wincing as he felt the bruises of battle in his bones.

“Merciful Tymora. That’s the first piece of good news I’ve heard since Elturel, but I’m not pinning all my hopes on you. I trust you will do everything you can to free the Duke- but in case you don’t find a way, I’ll be heading to Baldur’s Gate to seek reinforcements. I received a sending spell with news that the city has been dealing with Absolutist attacks. The Steel Watch is holding strong. I’ll request that Lord Gortash send some of them to aid in the fight against Moonrise. The curse won’t harm them.”

Gortash?! Holy sh*t. That’s my old boss- the one who sold me to Zariel!”

I had heard that name before- first name Enver. His name appeared sparsely in a few Baldur’s Mouth articles here and there, but I had never known him to hold the title of ‘Lord’.

“Enver Gortash? I didn’t think he had much of a say in city affairs. He commands reinforcements?”

“A lot has changed since the Duke’s absence- and Gortash’s actions have earned him considerable influence within city walls. He is responsible for the very creation of the Steel Watch- Gondian Automatons that protect the city without risking the lives of citizens.”

A memory resurfaced- hearing Headmaster Thornblood curse the suggestion of having droids enact justice in place of the soldiers trained at the Citadel. The creation of the Steel Watch threatened to pull the entire Citadel under. I vaguely recalled him offering an extracurricular course on ‘The Weaknesses of Constructs and how to Exploit Them’ upon the breaking of the news.

I looked at her suspiciously. I wasn’t too keen on trusting a band of steel simulacrums to fight such a critical battle. From what I learned in the extracurricular course- their weaknesses were many.

Florrick seemed to notice my doubtful gaze and doubled down on her defense.

“With the Steel watch at our backs, we could storm the tower whatever Ketheric throws at us, I am sure of it. I’ll do my best- but there’s every chance I’ll fall to the curse or the cult before I reach the city. Don’t count on me and assume no aid is coming. Work with Jaheira. That Harper’s mind is as sharp as her blade.”

I pursed my lips as I absorbed Florrick’s words. She had a plan of her own, should it come to play out was another thing entirely.

“Good luck and farewell. We’ll meet again, Gods willing.” Florrick said with a final goodbye, waving to two of the Flaming Fist to accompany her as she headed toward Jaheira.

I turned to Karlach as she pondered her thoughts in silence. Her eyes flicked back and forth as she searched through her memory.

“I can’t believe it… after all this time in Avernus I wasn’t even sure the damned guy was alive. But… a Lord?” She said quietly.

She was obviously having great difficulty grappling with the fact she might actually have to face her old boss again after the betrayal he committed.

I put a hand on her back to comfort her. I was particularly grateful in this moment that I was able to touch her without being singed.

“Soldier… I don’t know whether I should cry or… or rage.” The glow in her chest surged at her last word, an internal conflict beginning to bubble within.

“Well, we can decide that once we’re face to face with him. Maybe by then you’ll have had enough time to consider your options.” I suggested.

Karlach cleared her throat, straightening her back and puffing her chest.

“You’re right. We’ve got bigger fish to fry. We’ve got to cut down an undead general before we move onto the city.”

‘Atta girl.

“I’m here if you need to talk, but we’ve got this. We’re in it together.” I ensured her, landing a playful punch to her shoulder.

Her solemn face turned into a smile, nodding and knowing my support was there if needed.

I looked over to where Kilas sat, slumped on a chair and staring at the ill man in one of the infirmary beds.

“Kilas Fretter? Still always striking on the right?” I said playfully as I approached him.

His gaze snapped towards me, a toothy grin escaping him as he stood to greet me.

“Tav? Tav Clearwater? Surely mine eyes deceive me!” He exclaimed, grabbing my wrist to shake hands and pulling me into a celebratory hug.

“I’d have bet my coin purse you were a goner if Cora hadn’t told me otherwise.” He retorted in a mocking tone.

“I’d have done the same for you. But it seems even with your shortcomings in battle the Fist are glad to have you as one of their own.” I gestured to the tabard on his chest.

“I ‘spose they were in need of someone with my particular level of charm. Battle isn’t all blades and bows y’know.” He said with a wink.

“Hmm. I think I like this gentleman. But I’m not sure. Might I ask how you know each other?” Gale piped up, his mouth twisted in indecision.

“This is Kilas Fretter- an old schoolmate of mine. Now turned Flaming Fist!” I said, tapping his shoulder firmly in congratulations.

“A pleasure to meet you, good sir. Gale of Waterdeep.” Gale said with a courteous bow.

Karlach and Halsin introduced themselves as well.

“What’s your current post like?” I asked, turning towards the sickly man. He tossed and turned lightly as he laid in bed, but his eyes were shut tight, his voice mumbling and humming something incoherent.

“This lad here hasn’t been responsive to any of our attempts to wake him. His sleep… it’s not any normal sort of rest. He is… trapped in it.” Kilas explained, his eyes wandering over to the man.

“What’s he saying?” I asked, turning my ear towards him, trying to make sense out of the soft whisperings.

The others did the same.

His words were barely audible, and repeated on a loop. It was the same few verses over and over. It almost sounded melodic…was it… a song? Halsin became particularly intrigued upon hearing him, kneeling beside the bed to get a better listen.

“We are safe.. ‘Til the end. Thaniel and me are climb, climb, climbing up a tree…”

I heard a breath escape Halsin as he leaned his elven ear in close.

“Thaniel…” He whispered, his eyes flashing back and forth in thought. “There’s no other way he’d know that name…”

“You… you recognize his song?” I asked Halsin as he stared at the mumbling man.

He looked up at me after a moment of silence, lost in his own thoughts.

“He sings… of a boy called Thaniel. A boy I’m very familiar with.” Halsin started. “But Thaniel is no ordinary child- he is the very spirit of this land. If this Flaming Fist knows where he is, then perhaps we can save him… save everything.”

Halsin’s head whipped toward Kilas, his eyes desperate.

“Have you any way to wake him from this sleep? What have you tried? How- how long has he been in this state>” The questions shot from Halsin’s lips like bolts out of a crossbow/

Kilas shrunk back at Halsin’s growing intensity, looking a little overwhelmed by the barrage of queries pointed towards him.

“I - We haven’t found a way to wake him. Tried potions, poultices, tonics… the lot. None of it does a lick of good. Even had a few spells cast on him- our very best clerics have done their damndest and still… nothing.” Kilas explained, his eyes somber as he looked over the body of the sickly soldier.

“In regards to how long it’s been… I reckon its been longer than we could even know since he has fallen to this slumber.” Kilas shook his head in disbelief as he handed a slip of paper to Halsin. I shuffled over to him, arching my neck to try and read the document for myself past his bulging forearm.

’ASSIGNEE: Art Cullagh
RANK: Flame
OBJECTIVE: To obtain INFORMATION about current activities in MOONRISE TOWERS and its environs, headed by KETHERIC THORM of the region's ancestral THORM FAMILY.
ORDERS: Take lodging in the Last Light Inn and begin investigation in the local HOUSE OF HEALING. Reports indicate CORRUPTION but no corroboration has yet been obtained.
NOTE: The region's Thorm family are long-standing devotees of SELÛNE but rumours indicate a SHARRAN enclave might be gaining momentum. Investigate and report.

SIGNED: GRAND DUKE ELTAN
THE 25TH OF CHES 1392’

Halsin’s eyes blew wide open seeing the date at the bottom of the page.
“A century ago… That doesn’t make any sense. This man looks like a fresh recruit, still glowing with youth and vigor. He surely can’t be…” Halsin’s voice trailed off and he didn’t complete his thought.
“We’ve got to wake him. There is a reason he wasn’t taken by the curse after all this time. He may have a connection to Thaniel- he may know where to find him!” Halsin exclaimed, unable to restrain his thoughts as they poured from his lips.
“How do you suppose we wake him? No magic nor medicine seems to do any good.” I said, unsure where to begin.
“If Shar’s curse hasn’t consumed all of his spirit as it seems, we need to unlock whatever’s left of him- inside his head. There must be something to trigger him. A word, a memory, an item… we just need to find it.” He encouraged, his breathing quickening and becoming slightly frantic.

I turned to Kilas, my eyes seeking more information. He pursed his lips and shrugged.

“I’ve not nothing, T. All I know about him is that he is a Fist, and he knows this song well enough to recite it in his sleep.” The tiefling said.

“It’s strange- he knows it so well, but I’ve never heard it myself. I thought myself well versed on all the popular bardic tunes from my time at the Yawning Portal, but this one eludes me…” Gale turned an ear towards Art Cullagh, two fingers stroking his beard in thought.

“Could it be that it’s an original? A musician, perhaps?” I asked, trying to listen closer to the lyrics. “...could not only control the Weave, but compose it, much like a musician or a poet…” Gale’s voice replayed in my memory, speaking of his abilities in comparison to the skills of artists and lyricists.

As I lost myself in thought, my eyes focused on Gale as he stroked his beard. I could see a rough patch on the pad of his thumb as he ran it across his face, a burn left from a hasty cast of one of his fiery spells. My gaze shot over to Art Cullagh, and gingerly I took his hand in mine.

“We are living… they are dead…” He whimpered, carrying a tune with his words. His eyes remained shut tight despite my touch.

I carefully examined his hands, the palm calloused in a familiar pattern from gripping the hilt of a sword. But something of note- his fingertips were calloused as well. Not in a way that was evident of weapon wielding, but of instrument playing. There was a mark left on his fingertips like the well worn indent of a lute’s string.

“It seems you were correct. Those are the well practiced hands of a lutist if my eyes can be believed.” Gale remarked as he looked at the man’s hands over my shoulder. He sounded impressed.

“None of you would happen to have such an instrument on you, by chance?” Halsin asked, looking over everyone who hovered over the mumbling Flaming Fist. We all shook our heads regretfully.

Halsin sighed deeply. “There’s a chance his lute is somewhere in the wilds. Where did you find him?” Halsin asked Kilas.

“We found him in this bed when we arrived. We’ve no clue where he came from, but it can’t have been far.” Kilas said.

“Let’s go. We must see if we can find his belongings and stir him- he could have the answer to the end of this curse.” Halsin stood from his position at Art Cullagh’s bedside, determined and ready to go.

“Halsin- wait.” I held a hand to his chest as if my small frame presented an obstacle. “We aren’t in a state to travel right now. Not after that battle with Marcus. We have to rest.” I urged him.

His face twisted in frustration and disappointment. His brow furrowed as he looked toward the sleeping Flaming Fist.

“Alright.” he begrudgingly agreed.

“Do not fret, Halsin. I understand your haste, but in order to give ourselves the best chance against this curse we musn’t neglect ourselves. A good night’s sleep would do us well.” Gale said, noting Halsin’s hesitance.

“Alright. If we are all in agreement, we must go back towards camp. We can figure out next steps come the morning.” I said, encouraging everyone to gather their belongings and prepare to trek back through the curse.

I turned to Kilas, a sentiment in my eye. Gods, it was nice to see him doing well.

“Thank you, Kilas. You’re serving a noble cause here. I know I can trust you to keep an eye on Fist Cullagh. His well being could prove more valuable than you even know.”

“Only doing my job, T. But I’m glad to see you fighting the good fight. I don’t doubt I’ll see you on the battlefield sometime.” Kilas said with a wink.

I smirked. “Hopefully you’ll be used to striking on the left by then.”

He rolled his eyes. “You ought to scram before I draw a sword against you. I’ve been itching for a duel.” He said in a playful threat.

Gale looked over at me, a little concerned that Kilas’s threat might hold more truth to it than he would have liked.

“Once this is all over- challenge accepted.” I said with a grin as I walked away with my group.

“Goodnight, T.”

“Goodnight, Kilas. Take care. At least ‘til morning.”

Chapter 25: The Perfect Night

Summary:

Gale has a heart-to-heart with Tav about his feelings.

(we love a man with emotional intelligence)

Chapter Text

As the four of us stepped back into the light of camp, it felt as if a weight was lifted from our hearts. The curse that plagued the path from Last Light Inn weighed heavy on our hearts, minds, and bodies. It truly was an embodiment of the will of the Lady of Loss.

“Ah! There you are. We were getting worried.” Wyll said as he saw us stroll into camp. He was stood over the campfire, poking and prodding it with a stick as a rack of Rothe ribs roasted on a spit above the flame.

“Oh, that smells divine. Is it ready?” Gale said, holding a hand to his stomach and practically salivating at the sight of the meal.

“It certainly is. I’ll grab the dinnerware.” Wyll said with a grin, running off into the camp in a light jog.

Halsin and Karlach took a seat by the fire, eager for a bite of the delicious meal the camp prepared.

“Looks like Wyll has taken a liking to cooking. Did I overhear you giving him pointers the other night?” I gently nudged an elbow in Gale’s ribs playfully.

“That I did. He had asked about the herbs I favored when making my stews, and I lent him a book I found with some recipes. He seems to have been inspired in my absence.” Gale said, inhaling the sweet scent of the roasting meat. It did smell delectable.

He and I went towards the fire, taking a seat nearby to Halsin and Karlach. Slowly, the rest of the camp were signaled by the scent of the meal and joined us around the fire.

Wyll returned with the dinnerware and excitedly served the ribs to everyone, grinning wildly as he anticipated everyone’s reactions to his cooking skills. To his glee, the reactions were all positive.

“Good gods, Wyll.” Karlach said, her words muffled by the food she held in her mouth. She swallowed hastily before continuing. “I can’t believe you’ve been holding out on us like this.”

Gale straightened his back as he ate, taking slight offense at Karlach’s favor of Wyll’s meal. It was delicious, and Gale agreed considering how he took such eager bites. But he was sensitive to these things.

I gasped audibly as I remembered- his ankle!

“Gale’s food is good too! I don’t intend to hurt your lover’s pride.” Karlach said, believing my gasp to be directed at her.

“No, no. It’s alright Karlach. I just remembered, your ankle, Gale.” I turned to the wizard.

“Oh. No need to fuss over me. It’s nothing serious.” Gale said, brushing it off.

I suspected otherwise. I leaned over towards him, grasping at the hem of his slacks. Gale cleared his throat, his face flushing.

“T-Tav! Really- there’s no need for-” he protested.

I flicked his pant leg upwards to take a look at his ankle. It was very clearly in need of attention.

“Gale! Once you finish your meal, go to your tent immediately. I will tend to this.” I commanded.

The flush on his cheeks was persistent as he took another bite of his meal.

“F-fine. If it would bring you comfort.” He hesitantly agreed, avoiding my eye contact.

“Does anyone else have wounds in need of mending? I’ve got time this evening to impart some healing if necessary.” Shadowheart chimed in, attempting to alleviate the attention everyone was giving to Gale- who looked quite embarrassed.”

“I wouldn’t mind a ‘Cure Wounds’ ritual, if it’s not too much trouble. As the curse draws from nature, I feel it draining my strength with it.” Halsin said, stretching his arm behind his head.

I took pause to see Shadowheart’s reaction as Halsin made mention of the curse. She hadn’t rushed to Shar’s defense, didn’t make mention of the ‘beauty’ of it or how it invigorated her. She just nodded silently. I thought it best not to pry into her thoughts, she was likely still absorbing the reality of Halsin’s experience back when the curse was first brought over the land.

Gradually we all finished our meals and retired to our tents for the night. I saw Halsin follow Shadowheart for some healing, and Gale had told me he would be waiting for me.

I went to my tent first, grabbing a healing potion just in case it was necessary. I knew Gale still had the Aloe Oil from the Inn, that would hopefully be enough to clear up the abrasion in a few days.

As I approached Gale’s tent- I was caught off guard to see him standing outside with an unnatural smile on his face and a vacant stare.

“Good Evening! I’m here on behalf of Gale of Waterdeep. He wishes to extend you an invitation for a private conversation in a more suitable locale.” The energetic voice of Gale echoed in the darkness of the night, the enthusiasm in his tone infectious.

Evidently, the image before me that looked so much like the wizard I cared for was in fact not him in the flesh. It was a mirror image of him- eyes alight with a magical glow, and notably missing some key features. Absent were the streaks of gray hair and the crows feet in the corners of his eyes when he smiled - signs of aging I guessed Gale didn’t want to replicate in this mirrored form.

“Oh, Gale…” I said softly, shaking my head at the wizard’s antics. What was he up to now? He had an ankle that needed tending to, and he seemed to want to do everything to avoid it.

“Would you care to join him? From what little I could gleam from the portion of his mind that is open to me, it is a matter most urgent.” The mirror image pressed.

“Certainly. Might you direct me to him?” I caved, engaging in conversation with the apparition of Gale.

“Gladly! Simply follow yonder path and soon you will find him.” He gestured down a dark pathway, outside of the light of the camp’s safety.

I sighed, a little worried that he had gone into the curse on his own. I grabbed a torch for myself before heading out in search of him.

Just like his image had promised, I did find him before long. I stumbled backwards a little when I came across him. He was sitting cross legged in a field of grass, his eyes pinned to the sky as he conjured stars in the palm of his hand and cast them into the heavens. It reminded me of the moon magic that Isobel wielded to uphold the shield around the Inn. It was even more apparent to me that his magic was all around him - around us as the sky was clear and free of the smog of the curse. The grass he sat in was littered with flowers of various types, their colors peeking through like hidden gems. Life like this wasn’t capable of thriving in the curse’s blight- but he had offered them a refuge within his magical capabilities. If only for a night.

I walked toward him slowly, cherishing the feeling of soft grass beneath my feet with every step. His focus on the sky was broken when he noticed me, a joy in his eyes to see me there. I sat beside him, keeping quiet, but also looking toward his ankle as if to question ’May I?’.

Gale nodded, pulling out a bottle of Aloe Oil from behind him and handing it to me. I took it from him graciously and leaned toward his ankle, pouring the oil on my fingertips before massaging it into his skin.

“Thank you.” He said sheepishly. “You didn’t have to do that, I could have managed myself.”

“I’m not sure you would have elected to do so without my pestering- but you’re welcome, nonetheless.” I said, feeling the heat of the healing wound as I worked my fingers into it.

Gale took a deep breath of the fresh night air. It was so fresh here, so clean. I could only hope the wild would be restored to this kind of glory should we find a way to reverse the curse.

“I love this time of night. There is an almost reverent silence that accompanies the peak of darkness, when you’d almost believe the dawn will never break.” His admiration of the sky caused me to turn my head upwards, appreciating the stars he had hung there.

They glittered like jewels, reflecting the light of the moon.

Gale’s poetry of the night continued as he waved his hand above him, almost reaching toward the moon. “The cradle of eternity. The timelessness of lovers. That most beautiful of fantasies.”

“It seems like something is troubling you apart from this wound. Are you alright, Gale?” I asked, turning towards him to find his eyes locked on me with intense sentiment.

“I will be, soon. I am perhaps just one hard day away from being without any troubles at all. This may be my last night alive.I wanted it to be under a canopy of beauty and wonder… and with company to match.” My heart leaped in my chest, set aflame to hear his compliment, but also crushed to hear him make mention of the charge bid unto him my Mystra. The thought of his self-sacrifice still plagued him despite his silence on it.

“The curse still lingers, just veiled and at an arm’s length for now. I thought this place might bring me peace. I thought it might make the weight of what I must do feel a little lighter… but I am not so sure. Time seems so infinite when you’re young… a month is an age, a year is a lifetime… it is a strange feeling, to realize how little of it one might have left.” He grimaced, water welling in his eyes as he turned his gaze from me and towards his fidgeting hands.

“Gale, is this truly what you want? To die for the promise of Mystra’s forgiveness? You keep… returning to this idea and as much as I wish for you to live- to stay- I dare not deny your own desires.” I said, putting a cork back on the Aloe Oil and sitting back to bring myself closer to his face. He looked so solemn as he spoke.

“Babe or crone, coward or hero, death is assured. Mystra’s forgiveness is not. If you knew the end was near, would you not want to ensure it had… meaning?” He turned to me, his eyes searching me as if I had an answer to such a question.

“While a noble death may have meaning, a life may have more. You’ve more to do on this plane. That is meaningful…to me if not anyone else.” I searched his face, trying to gather some semblance of an idea whether his goddess or his life was his priority. I couldn’t gleam anything but… hesitance in his body language.

“I… am terrified. I will not claim otherwise. My face could scarcely conceal it even if my words sought to deny it. There is no point in running from the inevitable. Better to meet it, on my own terms.” He furrowed his brow, his fingers curling into a fist and his eyes glinting with determination.

Did he… want this?

“Nothing is inevitable. We are the captains of our own ships, and you mustn't let yours sink. You don’t have to die.” I said, referencing his own words of wisdom he had imparted on me while I was stuck in the shadowlands.

He laughed lightly with a short breath through his nose, recognizing the words that mimicked his own. He looked to the sky again, the rainbow of stars twinkling in amongst the wisps of the clouds.

“One moment with you, Tav… it could sate me for a lifetime, and prise the fear from my heart. I’m so very glad you came, to share this with me. I know this is all unreal- but I created it for you. You must know that you’re… you’re very special to me.” Gale’s voice was soft and yearning as he spoke.

I felt my face flush and my body warm from the sound of his voice alone. Every word he spoke was like a lyric of a ballad, and to know he sung each verse for my ears was a comfort incomparable to anything else.

Gale looked a little frustrated as he went on. “If things were different, if we were home, I’d have taken the time to do things properly. To say it all better. But time is short.”

A moment of silence passed between us, the rhythm of our breathing aligned harmoniously with the humm of the night.

“I’m in love with you.”

His words coursed through me like a jolt of electricity, the surface of my skin buzzing with anticipation and elation. Even after all our playful banter and longing looks, stolen kisses and loving touches- this was the first time he confessed so purely.

I couldn’t help but smile, my stern gaze softening as my heart warmed to his words. “I’m in love with you, too.”

Gale chuckled softly, nodding as he grinned. “That’s a relief. It would be a shame to spend my final hours making an ass of myself.”

I took his hand in mine and squeezed it, the pressure a punishment for saying such a thing as ’my final hours’.

"This definitely isn't the Klauthgrass talking, right? You brought up quite the risque topic back there, considering we were in an inn full of people." I joked.

"The effects have worn off, thankfully. Otherwise I might have just blurted out such a sentiment during dinner. I'm glad I am able to make a more romantic gesture... you deserve that much. You deserve more." Gale looked into my eyes, the stars he created giving sparkle to his pupils.

He held my hand tight and leaned in towards me, our faces drawing dangerously close before we embraced one another in a kiss. It was the kind of kiss that brings you to another world in your mind. Any danger that was present is washed away, only us two and our connection existing in a world free of worry. That is- until our lips part a moment later.

“I hope that wasn’t a parting kiss.” I say, unconsciously allowing my inner thoughts become audible.

“Not if I have any say in the matter.” Gale said confidently. I was relieved to hear such a proud tone in his voice when he spoke. I knew he didn’t want to sacrifice himself, but he had a way of making me question it whenever he brought it up.

He stood from the ground, a lightness in his step that reminded me of a fae. He was happy, excited… optimistic. He looked down at me as I sat, offering a hand to help bring me to my feet - which I graciously took.

“I want it to be perfect.” He started. I grinned, not in the least bit surprised of the high expectations he held himself to.

“To bond with you in the way that gods do. Intertwining our spirits in visions of the Weave.” He spoke in breathy tones, as if he was in awe of even the concept of taking part in such a ritual.

I shook my head, placing a palm on Gale’s cheek as I tried to ground him.

“I don’t need any illusions, Gale. All I need is the man right in front of me.” I assured him, looking deep into his brown eyes.

I knew he recognized that my words held nothing but truth. But the flicker of mischief in his gaze revealed his excitement to show me his magic. To show me what he was really capable of.

“Are you sure…?” He proposed with an eyebrow raised. “I could conjure up any sight that you could dream of, and a few you could not. I could use the Weave to make us feel sensations beyond reckoning. I could do more than woo you, I could wow you.” He grinned cleverly, not bothering to hide the excitement and pride that bubbled within him at the prospect of what was to come.

I couldn't help but giggle at how adorable he looked, giddy as a schoolboy under the light of the moon. I couldn’t deny him any further.

“All right, then. Wow me.” I said with a wink.

He shot me a toothy smile and grabbed me by the hand eagerly.

“How about the perfect night in Waterdeep? Yes… let’s imagine how it would be.” He said, waving a hand and casting a glowing light from his palms.

The lush green field and glittering stars faded away into the background as Gale conjured a new setting for us both. He narrated as he cast, each of his fingers working to craft the likeness of his beloved tower around us. Mahogany bookshelves line every wall, tomes of all shapes, sizes and colors filling them to the brim. There was a desk- or maybe two desks? Was there a third in that corner? I could hardly tell. But the ones I saw were wide and made of a glossy brown wood, the drawers underneath adorned with ornate bronze handles. The top was littered with open books and loose parchment. The papers were packed with research and notes, the occasional sketch thrown in for good measure. There were many pieces of art adorning the room- paintings, sketches, I thought I even glanced a full set of historical Waterdhavian Watch armor on display. He certainly held an appreciation for artwork and history, his humble abode was akin to his own personal museum. It was… perfect. It was a room that was so intrinsically Gale that there was no denying this was where you would find him ninety percent of the time.

“The scene is this: you and I stand in the room that is the centre of my universe. The sculptures, the paintings, the walls livened by the spines of a thousand books. The grand piano plays the Lliirian Suites all by itself, and as we look out beyond the arches that lead to the terrace, we see the weary sun take its daily dive into the sea.”

I smiled as he pointed to the piano, I hadn’t even noticed it in the corner until the keys on it began to dance and play a soft romantic melody. Gale pressed open a set of heavy wooden doors, revealing a balcony that overlooked the Sea of Swords. I was met with the cries of gulls and a brush of warm wind on my skin. It was sundown and the warm hues in the sky shimmered like a priceless jewel. The gold of the sun reflected in the deep blue waves, the water moving gracefully as it carried small sailboats across its length. The smell of saltwater filled my lungs, its essence fresh and representative of the nautical surroundings. The waters here were a far cry from the grunge and salt of the Grey Harbour in Baldur’s Gate.

He lead me out onto the terrace, visibly thrilled to see how I marveled at the vision of the ocean beyond the tower. I took a seat on one of the benches that looked out onto the waves, taking a moment to appreciate the feeling of sun and salt on my skin. How he could fabricate such realism with an incantation was beyond me. His promises of ‘sensations beyond wonder’ had to hold truth.

“Ah, my favorite spot.” Gale remarked, seeing me sitting comfortably on the bench. “Many times, evening turned to night and back to daybreak once more while I sat here, lost in words.” He sat beside me, the warmth of his body near me reassuring me that this wasn’t all a dream.

“Staying up all night reading? I never thought you such a rebel.” I joked, glad to get a laugh out of him.

“Allow me to live dangerously while I still can.” He played along. He reached over to a pile of tomes sitting beside the bench, taking an elaborate looking one off of the top of the pile.

“This one here is called “The Art of the Night”. It details the first thousand nights of a newlywed king and queen. They turned everything they did into an art. The art of conversation. The art of taste, time honored and newly acquired. The art of the body. The exploration and acceptance of the self and the other. The art of the night itself.” He brought the tome between us, looking up at me expectantly.

“I say we take a page from their book.” He proposed.

I looked at the tome, dark blue leather binding it together with gold accents in the corners and leafing on the cover. It was a beautiful book- though I’m not sure it was necessary for us to bond in the ways it detailed.

“Leave it to you to seduce someone with a book.” I teased, truly enraptured by every word he used to describe the volume.

“Then let us set the book aside- and be blank slates on blank sheets. What do you say?”

I pondered for a moment, looking into his eyes and the pure admiration within them. I wanted to give him everything he ever wanted in that very moment, but what I wanted more was for him to realize everything he truly deserved. He had been so conditioned to admire the mystery and magicka of bonding like a god, I feared he might not be so inclined to partake in other displays of passion. I might not live up to the expectations that were set so unfathomably high by his former flame. But maybe- just maybe- a change of pace would be a pleasant surprise.

“I want to be with the real you, Gale. Not the fantasy.” I said, so soft it was almost a whisper.

He smiled, folding his hand at his side, and in a snap of his fingers the Illusion of his beloved home vanished. We had returned to the peaceful verdant space of the field in the forest.

“The old ways then, if that is what you wish.” He said, taking my hand in his.

He pulled me in close, pressing a kiss to my forehead.

“A gesture towards your comfort.” He said, waving his hand with a glimmer.

A beautiful four poster bed appeared in the middle of the field. It looked rather out of place, its hand carved wood banisters more appropriate for the home of a noble, but it was ours for the night. I stepped toward the bed, running my hand over the sheets to ensure it was tangible and not something my hand would just pass through. I felt the silken sheets of the mattress, the comfort of the duvet beckoning me. Gods, how long had it been since I slept in a proper bed? On a mattress? I dove into the bed, the pillows bouncing and shifting out of place. I stretched myself out, embracing the comfort of the bed at my back and letting the warmth of the sheets melt away the goosebumps on my skin from the night’s chill. I sat up slightly, looking toward Gale who stood smiling nearby, just watching me enjoy the luxury of a bed once more. I lowered my eyelids suggestively, shifting myself over to one side and patting the blanket, suggesting there was room enough for two.

He chuckled and walked toward the bed slowly, savoring every moment that he was able to look at me as I eagerly awaited his companionship, committing the image to memory. As he climbed into the bed I felt the mattress shift beneath me, accommodating the pressure of us both. He lay down next to me, his eyes never leaving mine as he gently put a hand around my waist and pulled me close. He leaned in close to me until I could feel the head of his breath on my cheek. The tantalizing closeness of his lips was intoxicating, I wondered if he was withholding his kiss on purpose.

“Is this real?” I whispered, cradling his jaw with my hand.

“Hm? The bed? I mean… not technically.” He said with a half smile, looking down at the sheets for a second before returning his attention to me.

“No.” I laughed softly. “Not the bed. This. You. Us.” I leaned in close to him and poked him on the nose playfully with my finger.

He chuckled. “I left my mirror image back at camp, I assure you. The only illusion here is the serenity of our surrounds.” He put a hand over the palm I was holding to his face. “I’m here.” he assured me.

The warmth of his hand brought me comfort, as if it was evidence he wasn’t a figment of my imagination.

“Prove it.” I said teasingly, coaxing him closer.

He raised an eyebrow slyly, but his eyes were full of intrigue. He leaned over me, his face hovering close to my own, once again withholding the kiss I so desperately craved. I looked up at him, my eyes pleading, and he finally obliged and pressed his lips to mine. I lost myself in his kiss, my head a wash of vibrant color and dreamy imagery as I relished the feeling of his closeness. I felt like I was floating on a cloud for no more than a moment before he pulled away, leaving me feeling cold despite the hot flush on my cheeks.

“Proof enough?” He asked with a flash of a co*cky grin.

I didn’t dignify the question with a verbal response. In place of words, I took a fistful of his velvet tunic in my hands and yanked him downwards, slamming our lips together in a fit of passion. He reciprocated the kiss, understanding now that any interruptions to our night together were wholly unwelcome. I felt his hands wrap around me, the broadness of his chest shielding me from the outside world. I buried myself in his neck and we melted together, savoring the rare opportunity to lavish each other with affection in private.

Chapter 26: The Sleepy Morning

Summary:

Gale and Tav wake up before the rest of camp, and Halsin regales them with tales of his connection with Thaniel.

Chapter Text

“Tav? It’s almost morning, dearest. The camp will be looking for us.” Gale’s voice was soft and sweet in my ear as my mind began churning awake.

I felt his masculine hand on my shoulder, gently rocking me back and forth in an attempt to stir me. What I would have given to sleep in for just one morning.

“Mmhmm.” I groaned, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and gathering my thoughts. Where was I again? I felt the tickle of grass and the moisture of dewdrops on my skin. Fluttering my eyes open I recognized the field Gale had cleared the curse from, the wild of nature taking hold in the space that was ravaged by shadow. Notably, we were no longer in the bed we had fallen asleep in.

“The spell will wear off soon, I’d rather not be caught in the curse. Especially not in this state.” He joked.

That comment made me open my eyes wider, my curiosity taking over as I was eager to determine what state he was in, exactly. Looking over at him, I could see he was lying in the grass without his tunic, his bare chest exposed to the early morning air. I could see the wispy lines left by the orb as they trailed along his collarbone. I caught my eyes drifting to the patterns of soft hair that trailed its way down his abdomen and tantalizingly continued out of sight behind his trousers. His muscles were remarkably well defined considering he was much more of a bookish type. He smirked as he noticed me staring.

“Come on, don’t dawdle. Even though I don’t mind the attention.” He said with a wink, standing from the ground and offering me a hand.

I scrunched my face in protest, far too comfortable amongst the tall grass for my own good. He waved the fingers of his outstretched hand, encouraging me to take it so he could help me up. Begrudgingly, I did so.

When I stood, my legs were chilled by the moist morning air. I flinched, suddenly hyper-aware of how underdressed I was. Looking down, I saw purple velvet falling down to just above my knees, silver embroidery on the hem. It was Gale’s tunic.

“You looked cold.” He said, noticing my confusion. “… it suits you.”

Any chill I might have felt was gone as heat rose to my face. In that moment I thought if I had the choice I might never take the tunic off.

“Come, now.” He said, casting a light in his hands to lead the way. “I’ve got everything. Let’s go before they realize we’ve been gone.”

It wasn’t a long walk through the shadows back to camp, but I felt woefully underprepared for the trek considering my attire. Despite the shortsword in my hand, I was not prepared for any battle that might have come my way. Gale seemed more confident though- but it may have just been that he was more awake and alert than I was. Sleep still beckoned me, promising dreams of Gale and I living out fantasies that seemed impossible given our current situation. I don’t think I managed to get my 4 hours of trance sleep, and I was baffled that Gale was even standing with so little rest. Despite my groggy-ness, Gale was hyper aware as his eyes darted around us, a furrowed brow twitching as he focused on our surroundings.

“Almost there.” I said in an attempt to calm his heightened nerves.

“Mmm.” He hummed in agreement, still scanning the trees for any movement.

A rustling came from the brush and I immediately pointed my sword towards it, planting my feet firmly in the ground.

“sh*t.” I whispered, still worried over my severe lack of armor.

Gale’s eyes glared over to where the noise came from as the orb of light that hovered in his palm shifted into a roaring flame. His breathing was heavy and deep as he stared into the darkness, anticipating attack. I was mesmerized by the expanse of his bare chest rising and falling rhythmically with his breaths.

“Stay behind me.” Gale directed, his voice low and quiet. He stepped towards the sound, positioning himself to block me from any oncoming attack.

The both of us flinched as the brush rustled and a creature emerged. There was a flash of white against the black backdrop of the woods, startling us both as we poised to strike together.

“Not the face! Not the face!” A familiar voice pleaded- and as we focused on our enemy we realized it was no enemy at all.

“Astarion!?” Gale exclaimed, staring at the vampire in disbelief.

“Yes, darling. It seems your human eyes work alright in the dark after all.” He teased the wizard. “Do mine deceive me? You both look as if you’ve indulged in the throes of passion…” His eyes glossed over us, no doubt noticing how I adorned Gale’s tunic like a nightgown.

Gale cleared his throat, ignoring Astarion’s astute assumption.

“What are you doing out here?” He asked, the flame in his hands returning to a soft blue glow.

“I’m desperate for a snack. I thought I saw a squirrel scurrying about and leapt at the opportunity. Seeing as my trusted blood donor was nowhere to be found…” Astarion lowered his eyelids towards me. I tugged at the hem of Gale’s tunic, paranoid that Astarion could see far too much of my bare skin for my liking.

“I do hope that arrangement of ours will not be an issue considering your… attachment.” Astarion looked towards Gale expectantly.

Gale’s face was flushed- but I couldn’t tell if it was from embarrassment or anger. Astarion was intentionally getting under his skin the way he talked about me, and I wasn’t about to let it slide.

“Enough, both of you. I’m not about to hear you suggest you’d like to ’share me’ like I’m a loaf of bread to be divvied up at supper time.” I spoke up, my voice stern. “My job is to ensure you are all fit for the battlefield. If that requires a blood donation- so be it. That is for me to decide.”

Astarion smiled with satisfaction- but I wasn’t about to let him off easily.

“And if I hear you spreading any gossip about any aforementioned ’throes of passion’ you’ll be on dish duty for good.” I crossed my arms, firm in my decision.

He had found every excuse to be too preoccupied to clean the camp’s dishes when it was his turn, usually pawning it off on someone else with a sob story. Granted, he didn’t use the dishes often- meals didn’t satisfy his hunger- but tasks like that were supposed to be shared among us all. He despised the very concept.

Astarion’s grin turned to a scowl as he rolled his eyes.

“Ugh. Fine. I’ll hold my tongue… even though I’d love for the others to hear what you did with yours...” He mocked.

“Stop! Not another word.” Gale interrupted him. “We expect you back at camp come sunrise. We’ve quite the day ahead of us.”

I smiled at Gale’s assertive tone and proud stance as he addressed the taunting vampire. He looked so regal as his chestnut hair fell upon his shoulders, his eyes stern and commanding as he watched Astarion with careful attention.

“Of course, darling. I won’t be more than an hour or two.” Astarion assured us. “Now, go on- before something more… unsavory presents itself in these woods.” He waved us away.

Gale was more than happy to leave him to his devices. He grabbed my hand in his, sweeping me back on the path towards camp. His face was thoughtful, his eyes avoiding my own as I could tell his own ideas spun like a whirlwind within his brilliant mind.

“I… I wanted to talk to you about our night together…” He started.

“Of course. I- I hope you know that just because I give Astarion blood, it doesn’t-” I was compelled to explain myself, but Gale interrupted.

“No, no. It’s just as you said. Your job is to keep us… alive.” He took a deep breath. “And you do a fine job at it.”

He was silent for a moment, but as I looked at him it was easy to tell he had more to say. We had reached the edge of camp now, ducking within the light of the torches and peeking around to see if anyone was awake. It was quiet, thankfully.

I waved Gale towards my tent wordlessly, trying to prevent from waking anyone. He looked a little surprised at first, until I pointed to the pack over his shoulder. He had my clothes in there. He blushed and nodded, following me to my tent.

Once within the fabric walls, he handed me his pack and I proceeded to dig through it to find my sleepwear. It was folded up neatly inside, the care he took to preserve it evident in the way he tucked it into his bag. I took it and handed the bag of his remaining belongings back over to him.

“Do… do you mind if I…?” I asked in a soft voice, keeping quiet out of courtesy for the rest of the camp.

“Oh! I- I can leave if you wish to-” He said, flustered.

I giggled at the blush that crept over him. “No, no. Stay. I’ll just be a moment. Turn away if you’re… uncomfortable.”

He sat down and turned his head to the side as I faced away from him and removed his tunic in favor of my own garb. I was curious to know if he peeked over at me, but restrained my compulsion to glance over at him and see.

I cleared my throat after I was fully dressed, taking his tunic in my hands.

“Here, I presume you’ll be needing this.” I said to him, his head turning back to face me.

His eyes sparkled as he looked into mine, scanning each of my features as I stood above him.

“Please. Keep it.” He said, almost begging. “I think purple suits you well.”

My heart fluttered in my chest as I took the tunic and folded it carefully, tucking it beside my bedroll so that I might wear it to bed later.

“Have you… ever walked to the edge of a great precipice, and shuddered at how easy it would be to… step into the void?” Gale began, his voice calm and clear like he was reciting a poem.

I sat beside him, listening intently as my eyes urged him to continue his train of thought.

“Ever since Elminster told me of Mystra’s… expectations of me, I have felt like I’ve been walking along such a cliff face, with a great drop to nothingness never out of my sight.” He paused a moment. “But you… you led me away from the edge. Without your words, your touch… I fear I would have sought purpose and solace in that void. You reminded me what living can feel like.”

I smiled at him thoughtfully, recalling the united beating of our hearts and the safety I felt in his arms.

“I could say the very same about you. The time we spent together… it has been magical in more ways than one. You were most magnanimous in your affections…” I said with a half smile and an eyebrow raised.

He laughed at my jest, shrugging his shoulders with a smile.

“Well, generosity is always a noble virtue- whether it be in the streets, at the charity box… or betwixt the sheets. Besides, given my propensity towards verbosity, it surely can’t be a surprise that I have a practised tongue.” He winked and I felt like I had been struck by lightning, paralyzed in place by the intensity of his gaze.

“I hope the end is much farther away than I had suspected. I hope that night meant as much to you as it did to me. And I hope we will have more time together. Together… alone.” Gale said softly, his intense gaze turning to one of yearning and reverence.

“It was… extraordinary. I hope we might find more moments to steal away from the others as well.” I said, grinning slyly and conjuring up a myriad of ways we might sneak off alone and have some time together in solitude.

“I’ll see that there is - woe betide anyone who tries to stop me.” He said, shaking a fist in determination, his voice low and promising.

Gods, every sentence that spilled from him could have been a line in a sonnet. His ’verbosity’ as he called it had the power to make me swoon with the smallest effort.

As if to seal his vow to pursue more private instances for the two of us, he took my hand in his and pressed it to his lips.

“Do you… need a new nightshirt?” I asked, trying not to be too distracted by his athletic build as he sat cross-legged in my tent.

He chuckled, looking down at his bare chest as if he had forgotten his state of undress.

“Ah- no I should have something. We’ve come across enough spare garments in our travels that I’ve no doubt something else will fit.” He said, brushing off the suggestion. “I’ll go take a look now, actually. But- thank you. For… for keeping me alive.” He said, his eyes alight as he looked at me.

I was dumbstruck, unable to speak as I nodded and waved politely as he left the privacy of my tent. Once he was gone I exhaled deeply, like I had been holding my breath the entire time he was within my reach. I sprawled out within my tent, my mind racing with thoughts of him, his smile, his voice, his gorgeous dark eyes… I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to function for the remainder of the day.

—-------

It wasn’t long before I could hear the rest of the camp stirring, the savory smell of sausage wafting through the air and coaxing them from their bedrolls. Stepping out into the torchlight I was surprised to see Wyll standing over the fire and preparing breakfast.

“Morning, Tav! Sleep well?” He asked politely as he split his attention between me and the meal that was roasting.

“Well enough.” I said, going over to take a seat around the fire.

“Say, you haven’t seen Astarion have you? His tent looks rather empty.” Wyll nodded his head over to the vampire’s sleeping quarters.

“I believe he said he wanted to try his luck at hunting early this morning.” I explained, avoiding providing any details of what circ*mstances I came to learn of his whereabouts.

“I doubt he will have any luck finding provisions in these woods.” The booming voice of Halsin came from nearby, as he strode toward the fire still rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“Halsin!” I exclaimed, happy to see him. He looked exhausted, though.

“Trouble getting some shut-eye?” Karlach’s voice piped up as she approached the fire, looking at Halsin.

“Mmm.” He grunted. “I suppose my worrying over the curse and Thaniel have been so persistent they plague me even at rest.” He plopped himself on one of the logs by the fire as his eyes looked over the sizzling sausages hungrily.

“You mentioned Thaniel was the spirit of this land… but how do you know him?” I asked. Some others that gathered nodded and expressed their own curiosity surrounding our Archdruid companion.

“Thaniel is a friend. A companion I knew in my childhood, who played with me and showed me the wonders that nature has to offer our world. I have known him all my life- but as I aged and matured, he stayed the same.” Halsin explained, his eyes looking off into the distance as he recalled memories from his past. “He is one of the reasons I chose my path as Archdruid… and he was taken from me a century ago alongside this curse’s onslaught.”

I glanced around at the audience Halsin had gathered whilst he told his story. Most everyone had awoken now and was nibbling at breakfast. Shadowheart was among them, hanging onto Halsin’s every word as she focused intently. I noted Gale hadn’t come to breakfast yet. I hoped he was alright.

“Long ago Druids and Harpers joined together to put a stop to Ketheric Thorm. Me marched on Moonrise and, after much fighting, we prevailed. Even in defeat, though, Ketheric turned to Shar. Not long after we sealed him away in his tomb, the shadow curse took hold. No one had seen the liked of it before- no one knew how to react… and then it started to claim all those within reach. Those who had survived the battles now fell to the shadows- became part of the shadows. And worst of all… I lost contact with Thaniel. Our connection… severed. I wanted to try and find him but… we couldn’t stay. It was too great a risk”

“How did you escape the shadow curse back then?” Shadowheart asked, her voice commanding Halsin’s attention.

“Well… not all of us did. The Archdruid of the grove- my predecessor- fell to one of the shadow demons that day. It was me who had to lead the others to safety. That was my first day as Archdruid… An inauspicious beginning. It was only due to the tracking skills the former Archdruid had taught me that we were able to find the exit at all.”

“I don’t suppose those tracking skills would prevail and find us an escape now, would they? I’m ravaged.” Astarion’s voice interrupted Halsin’s story- a hand clutched over his stomach.

Halsin scoffed. “Afraid not. The curse has only grown in strength since then, concealing exits and trapping those inside much more effectively than before.”

“A shame.” Astarion said with disappointment. “Would anyone care to take pity on a poor, hungry rogue?” He proposed, his eyes landing on me.

I rolled my eyes. “Gods, you’re persistent. Not this morning- I need all the strength I can get if we are going to Moonrise. Can you hold off until nightfall?”

“I suppose…” He said begrudgingly, pouting like a schoolboy who had been scolded.

“Shadowheart and Karlach, I’d like you both to accompany me to the towers today. No doubt we will need healing and muscle.” I turned to them both as they were finishing breakfast.

They nodded enthusiastically, both of them rushing back to their tents to grab their armor and weapons.

I turned to our resident Warlock, keeping my voice low so that the others wouldn’t hear. “Wyll, please watch over Astarion. Make sure he keeps his fangs to himself. And please… encourage Halsin to get some rest.”

Wyll smiled and nodded, appreciating the care I took over the group despite not always being present beside them.

Ensured I could trust Wyll to hold down the fort, I sought out to find our fourth party member.

I strode towards Gale’s tent, peeling back a corner of the entryway to see if he was inside. There he lay, eyes shut tight and breathing steady. Fast asleep despite his typical early riser attitude. I ducked inside the tent and knelt beside him.

“Gaaale. We’re leaving. Are you… hungry?” I asked quietly, unsure if he could hear me or not. I timidly reached out to try and shake him awake - when his arms sprang to life and wrapped themselves around me. He swung me over him, tucking me in his arms and laying me down beside him as I let out a small shriek and a parade of giggling followed.

“Gale! It’s time to get up!” I encouraged, desperately trying to break free of the grip he had on me. He wasn’t letting go.

“Five more minutes.” He groaned, a playful grin on his face as he kept his eyes closed.

“Hmmm, I wonder if Moonrise towers has any books? It is a hundred year old building, after all… think of the history.” I playfully thought out loud, expecting my observation to pique his interest.

He opened one eye, peeking at me.

“Caught’cha!” I said, pointing at his eyes and finally squirming free of his grip.

Gale groaned and sat up in his bedroll. “Ugh. Fine. But if we don’t find any good reading material you’ll be sorry for waking me. A grumpy wizard is a miserable traveling companion.”

I snuck a kiss on his cheek, grinning as the scruff of his beard brushed against my chin.

“I don’t know. I’ve become rather fond of this wizard, grumpy or no. Now- get your boots on. We’ve got some towers to scope out.”

Chapter 27: The General's Power

Summary:

The gang take their first steps into Moonrise Towers, witnessing first hand the power that the highest members of the cult are bestowed.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

The four of us stepped carefully through the forest, grateful for the protection from the curse that Isobel’s blessing granted us. It was one less threat, though we were prepared for the many others that lurked within the darkness. We had escaped the forest now, finding ourselves in the abandoned town that was once Reithwin. Every dilapidated building and abandoned letter that we came across pulled at my heartstrings, only reminding me how the lives that thrived here had to uproot their entire existence to survive.

“That must be the place. Just looking at it makes my skin crawl.” Karlach said, pointing to a stone tower that eclipsed any of the other buildings in town.

If the light of the moon could have penetrated the darkness of the curse, it may have looked serene. Peaceful,even. But the swirls of green and black that encircled the building made it foreboding, the silhouettes of soldiers pacing around the base.

We beelined towards the tower, trying to close in on it quickly when we overheard some commotion.

“Stay back!” We heard someone shout.

I tasted an artificial sweetness on my tongue. I whipped my head toward Gale, expecting to see him wielding a spell in his palms- but his arms were at his side. He saw me staring at him and looked at me quizzically.

I turned back toward the sound and waved everyone to follow and investigate further. We stepped carefully toward the shouting and I heard the whoosh and crackle of flame erupt from nearby. My careful footsteps quickened, eager to see what exactly was transpiring around the corner.

“Is that… Rolan!?” Karlach exclaimed, looking ahead at a wizard spitting fire from their fingertips.

The curve of his horns gave away his identity- it was in fact the tiefling Rolan defending himself against several shadow demons. He looked like he was exhausted, struggling to cast as the demons swiped at him from either side.

I planted my feet on the ground not far from where they skirmished, the urgency of the situation fueling the magic within me.

“Peruro Vultur!” I called out, raising my arms to the sky as vibrant bolts of lightning rained down and struck the attacking shadow demons, a loud crack! resounding as they touched the ground.

They perished as the electricity struck them, the light of it piercing their dark visages. Rolan looked aghast, confused as to where such a powerful magic had come from. He looked to his own hands for a moment in amazement before seeing me and my companions approaching him.

He scoffed, his look of bewilderment quickly turning to a scowl. “Gods DAMMIT! I can do nothing right! Not a damned thing!” He exclaimed.

“Easy there, wizard. What’s got your robes in a twist, eh?” Gale said, taking sympathy with the fellow magician.

“I’m trying to find Cal and Lia! But instead I found myself cornered by shadow fiends and in need of rescue. From you of all bloody people!” He gestured towards us and shook his head in despair.

I felt sorry for him, the desperation in his voice when he called out his siblings’ names was painful to hear. He needed them back, he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself if he wasn’t able to rescue them.

“The tieflings of the grove speak highly of your prowess- how you saved the orphans. But a truly good wizard knows when to ask for help.” Gale said to him.

“But what good am I at all if I can’t even accomplish this one task!? To save my own family. I’ve failed Cal and Lia again.” His voice trembled now, partially from exhaustion and partially from frustration.

“They are in the towers, yes? We intend to make our own way there. We will not leave any innocents behind in our quest.” Gale reassured him, trying his best not to damage Rolan’s ego at the suggestion that we would be able to accomplish what he could not.

Rolan sneered. “Yes,yes of course you will. Be on your way. I’ll go back to Last Light.” He waved us off, looking defeated and begrudgingly storming his way back to the inn.

“Awh. Poor guy.” Karlach said once Rolan was out of earshot.

“To know that your loved ones are in danger and you are powerless to save them… a nightmarish situation to be sure.” Gale said, his voice somber.

“We will be the power he needs. Let’s go.” I said, all the more determined to get to the towers and rescue the prisoners it held.

The gang all followed me as we approached the towers, the guards that paced the grounds given faces as we got close enough to see them.

“By the Weave… what is that?” Gale gasped, recoiling slightly as a monstrous vision emerged from the doors of the tower.

The four of us ducked into some brush, avoiding any attention from the cult members.

“A Drider. The result of Lolth’s curse placed upon an unworthy drow.” Karlach said, looking at the eight legged creature as it skittered out of the tower.

Its form was grotesque, the body and legs of a giant spider but with a drow’s torso rising from where the head would be. The drider’s face was littered with at least a dozen black pearly eyes, all blinking in different intervals.

“What is that in his hand? It’s remarkably bright.” Shadowheart observed, squinting to try and get a better look at it as we peeked over through the brush.

“A… lantern? It looks remarkably like the one we found on Nere’s body.” Gale remarked.

He was right. The one that Nere had was broken, however. This one looked like it cut through the shadow like a hot knife through butter.

The Drider hastily creeped away from the towers with a few goblins in tow. It was hard to tell exactly where they were headed, but I immediately feared for the safety of Last Light Inn as I saw them venture into the woods.

“Gale, could you cast a sending spell to Jaheira? Tell her of the drider and the lantern- they ought to know to be prepared for a fight.” I requested of the wizard.

He gave a determined nod, waving his fingers in a sigil in the air and mumbling to himself as a glow formed in his palms.

I addressed everyone while we were hiding in the brush after Gale concluded his spellcasting.

“Okay, so when we approach the guards we must feign dedication to the Absolute.” I directed. “Do your very best not to act suspicious. We are True Souls. We hold very high ranking in this cult- don’t let anyone forget it.”

The three of them nodded, and I saw Gale gulp nervously. Lying wasn’t his forte, but if he kept quiet that would be good enough.

We emerged from the brush and I confidently walked across the bridge towards the Tower entrance. Two of the guards flanking the heavy wooden door crossed their greataxes in front of me in an attempt to prevent access.

“Halt! What’s your business in the towers, elf?” One of them barked at me, but his lips didn’t move. He addressed me in my head, assessing that I too had a tadpole of my own. His brow furrowed, glaring at me as he awaited a response.

I reached out to him mentally: “You will address me as True Soul. I bring news from the road.” I said confidently, hoping my mighty attitude would provide enough legitimacy to my request.

The other guard spoke up, speaking aloud this time but having heard our mental conversation. “You’ll find Disciple Z’rell in the audience chamber, True Soul. She’ll be wanting to hear from you.”

I nodded, straightening my back in a proud stance. “In Her name.” I saluted the guards as they moved their axes away from the doorway.

“Praise the Absolute.” They responded in unison. The way their voices aligned made me shudder as I passed by them and into the tower, waving my companions to follow.

As we walked down the staircase into the main hall of the tower, there were several warriors and cultists talking amongst themselves. Some of them sharpened weapons or wailed on training dummies, and a few Zhentarim traders could be seen peddling their wares in the back corner.

“Quite the melting pot they have under their influence, haven’t they?” Gale murmured, looking around at the variety of people all worshiping the Absolute within Moonrise Towers.

I nodded, taking note of the various races and weapons wielded by the Absolutists. We would certainly have to be well rounded in our ranks to face the varying expertises of our enemies.

Approaching the tall door at the other end of the room, the guards flanking the archway nodded as I approached. My head tingled again as they confirmed my status as “True Soul” and they opened the doors to the audience chamber without a word.

As we crossed the threshold, the presence in the room was dark and looming. My breath caught in my throat as I recognized the kingly looking old elf sitting on the throne at the head of the room. It was the very same silhouette that was forced into my mind when the Absolute’s voice called out to us the first time. Ketheric Thorm.

I wanted to eject my tongue from my mouth as it picked up on the bitingly sour tasting magic that surrounded the True Soul. It was overwhelming. Saliva built in my mouth as I ached to be rid of the taste, but as he sat there the taste only grew stronger. I forced myself to swallow back the flavor and push it from my mind, trying to focus on the shouting that echoed in the chamber.

“We did as we was told, General! Followed every order-” A male goblin shouted as he cowered before Ketheric and the powerful looking female Orc that stood at his side. They both looked down at him with disapproval.

“The facts suggest otherwise. You were ordered to retrieve the artifact- you failed to do so.” The female Orc said matter-of-factly, her voice lacking any sympathy that might have been extended toward the pleading goblin and the band behind him.

“Us? No- no. It was Minthara. She got the orders, she-”

“Enough!” The orc interrupted the Goblin’s pleadings.

As she shouted, a wash of psychic energy pulsed through the room. Myself and my companions folded under its power, its influence urging us to obey. I saw the goblins bend to the will of it as well, save for one who looked around confused as everyone pressed hands to their temples and winced in pain.

“You failed to retrieve the artifact. You failed to protect your True Soul. You do not deserve to live.” The orc shouted, her dominance and authority within the cult evident in her words.

“Mercy, General! Please!” The goblin cowered.

The orc turned to Thorm as he looked at the goblins indifferently, disinterested in whether they lived or died.

“General Thorm?” The orc asked him for his input.

The general’s eyes darted to me, his dark pupils piercing my own as I continued to swallow back the sour taste that coated the inside of my mouth. The disinterest in his eyes dissipated and shifted into a glimmer of curiosity.

“Let our newest arrival speak.” He said, the voice that escaped his lips low and darker than I could have imagined.

I shuddered to hear it in my ears, but held his stare so as to prove my false loyalty.

“You have seen what these creatures are capable of, and you have seen their inadequacies- isn’t that so? What is your judgement?” He asked me, nodding his head towards the cowering goblins.

The male that did most of the speaking turned around to see me and my companions standing near the entryway. His eyes lit with recognition.

“You know I’m loyal! Tell ‘im!” He pleaded.

I did recognize him as I saw the blue warpaint that stained his face. He was the one who had hung the poor gnome from the windmill just outside the goblin camp. We had challenged him to a battle to free the poor chap, but they retreated before we could finish them off. I chose to spare them, then. I always questioned if that was a choice made in error since I had seen the destruction they caused relating to the grove.

“Enough! True Soul- tell the general how the goblins served our cause.” The orc commanded, her eyes settling on me.

I balled a fist at my side, urging the words from my lips to express themselves calmly and without fear.

“I saw the horrors they committed in the Absolute’s name.” I said, images of their carnage flashing across my memory.

“Thank you. Glad someone noticed.” The goblin nodded, half smiling at me even as I glared at him with hatred and malice.

Ketheric clicked his tongue as he glanced over at the goblins.

“I’m sure they were very enthusiastic. But zeal without efficacy is for children. Not servants” He stated. “We are too close to the ending- and the new beginning. I can coddle failure no longer. Kill them. Quickly.”

His words were a demand as the Orc drew her Greataxe from her back, ready and willing to act upon his every command.

“What? No!” The male goblin shouted in protest, aghast that they would be punished despite their loyal servitude.

It was then that one of the smaller female goblins spoke up, rage in her voice as she bolted towards the Orc and shouted.

“You creaking old bag of sh*t!” She cried, snatching the axe from the Orc with both her hands and hurling it straight at the General.

The sharp edge of the weapon pierced through the General’s armor and carved a hole in the center of his chest, blood like black ichor spurting from his body eratically. I suppressed a gasp as I looked onward, wondering if the measly little goblin had achieved the murder of the tyrant the entirety of Last Light had been preparing to commit.

“Hmm.” The General hummed, looking down at the weapon that sunk into his chest with a look of disappointment. As if it was nothing more than an inconvenience.

“I’m so sorry, my lord. She’s an unbeliever- outside my control.” The orc woman’s voice trembled, fearing the wrath of her master as he plucked the axe from his body like a flower being plucked from a field.

He stood from his throne, heavy footfalls echoing as his armor rattled and clanked alongside his steps. He approached the goblin that had attacked him, looking her dead in the eyes as he dropped the axe in front of her.

“Try again.” He encouraged, the inky black wound that she had made on his chest fading away in moments as he stood before her.

The goblin blinked in disbelief, but her hesitation was short lived. Quickly, she took the axe in both hands and swung it at him with vigor. She landed blow after blow, one of the swings letting the sharp axe edge to find purchase in the base of Ketheric’s neck. The swing cut through the majority of his throat, his head co*cking to one side as he was nearly decapitated from her strike.

He stood his ground as he tanked each blow, his black blood streaming from the wounds for only seconds before they were mended without him lifting a finger. Even his near decapitation was healed in moments as he realigned his head on his shoulders, furrowing a brow and glaring at the goblin who foolishly thought she could best him.

“No- No!” The female goblin shouted, frustration lacing her cries as she huffed from exhaustion after her flurry of blows toward Thorm.

Ketheric smirked to see her weak from her attempts, wordlessly lifting his plate boot high and stomping on her breathless body as if she was nothing more than a bug to be squashed.

I felt my stomach curdle, disgusted to see the power wielded by our enemy and the unnatural way he bled and healed without the touch of a healer or the relief of a potion. He made his power well known in order to command his authority. In the same sense, he kept his weaknesses concealed.

“Dispose of the rest as you see fit.” He commanded, turning from the goblins and waving in dismissal.

His eyes caught on my as he turned as an idea sparked in his eyes.

“Or- better yet, put that True Soul to use. You have far more important matters to attend to, Disciple Z’rell. Or have you forgotten?” His words resonated deeply as Disciple Z’rell nodded at him obediently.

“Of course not, my lord. Thank you.” The orc nodded to the General as he left, heading up a staircase to a higher part of the tower.

“You heard the General. The goblins are yours- deal with them however you wish.” Z’rell commanded.

I nodded curtly, still trying to calm my anxieties from the display of power we had all witnessed.

“Here, in the seat of the Absolute’s power, your authority over them is complete, True Soul. They will obey any command. Report to me upstairs once you’ve finished.” Z’rell added, pushing subtle imagery in my mind suggesting the various ways of torture and murder and torment I might impose on the goblin troupe.

I shuddered, re-adjusting my stance in an attempt to conceal my fear and hesitation. Disciple Z’rell failed to notice my reaction, turning to the staircase and following in Thorm’s footsteps to the upper floor.

I turned to the goblins, my companions doing the same as I contemplated how to handle them. The male looked at me desperately, his eyes pleading.

“Please, you gotta help me. For old times’ sake?” He asked.

I felt anger swell within me, thinking back to the threat of the goblins striking fear into the hearts of the tieflings that now took shelter in the safety of Last Light Inn. I recalled the desperate plea of Halsin to destroy the goblins in order to preserve the safety of his grove and all the druids that lived there. It was time to finish what we had started.

I turned to my companions, a menacing glare in my eye as I surveyed their reactions. Gale met my gaze, his eyebrows raising as he recognized what I intended to do, but eventually nodding in agreement. Karlach and Shadowheart nodded in understanding as well. In unison we all drew our weapons and summoned magic in our palms respectively, striking to end the lives of the goblins that so recklessly threatened the lives of our friends and allies back in the Emerald Grove. It was finished now.

We all caught our breath after our effort in exterminating the goblins, Gale turning toward me as he recalled the words of Z’rell.

“This is the seat of the Absolute’s power. Whatever the ‘Heart’ is, it’s connected to this place somehow. We must find out.” He urged, still seeking the destruction of the heart despite his promise to preserve the explosive orb within his chest.

I nodded at him wordlessly, knowing we had to destroy the source of the cult’s power, but still unsure as to how we would do so. I beckoned Gale and the rest of my companions up the stairs in search of Z’rell. She worked so closely with the General, I wondered if she might know what weaknesses he might harbor after spending so much time at his side.

Notes:

Thanks so much for reading! I took a little bit of a break as I went on vacation, but I am back to writing again! This chapter is a lot of in-game dialogue that has been paralleled, but its propelling upcoming important plot points for future chapters. I will try and post more consistently now that I am back!

Chapter 28: Secrets in the Tower

Summary:

The gang lies through their teeth as they try to fit in amongst the cult in Moonrise Towers.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

As the four of us approached the top of the stairs, we could hear Z’rell’s commanding voice instructing the other cultists on the upper floor.

“General Thorm’s prayers and preparations must not be disturbed. The rooftop is off limits to everyone. Keep watch and ensure that nobody passes.”

As we landed on the upper floor, there were various cultists scurrying about and returning to their assigned tasks as Z’rell ordered.

“Ah, excellent timing, True Soul.” She waved to approach her as she saw us.

She stood beside the door that led to the tower’s rooftop, the intimidating figure of an ogre standing nearby, also keeping watch for anyone who might dare interrupt the General’s meditations.

“The goblins. Tell me how they suffered. Or-better yet- show me.” Without warning she infiltrated my mind with the probing power of her tadpole.

My face scrunched in discomfort as I felt her flicking through my memories with hasty excitement. The psychic pulses of her parasite devoured the memories of the goblins dying at the hands of me and my companions, absorbing them with an intangible lust and desire.

She dropped the connection suddenly, the rapid change leaving me a bit dizzy, but grateful my mind was my own again. At least, as much as it could be with the worm still swimming within it.

“I see you like to handle underlings physically? Hmm, so do I.” She said, her voice low and full of approval.

I gathered my senses, masking my fear with the assertiveness I knew the True Soul’s of the cult were so privy to.

“A waste of my time. I didn’t come here to clean up other people’s mistakes.” I said, narrowing my gaze at the orc.

She smirked. “Your confidence is delicious. I can see why the Absolute might be hungry to dig deeper into that mind of yours… I certainly am.”

Once again I felt the sharp sting of her tadpole jab its way into my thoughts, even more aggressively than the last time. I felt my body reject the sensation, nausea at the forefront of my mind for a moment before I managed to get a hold on myself. She could feel the sensations I felt, she was aware of my thoughts and wants and hopes… she was searching the deepest parts of me. She wanted to be sure of my faith.

I refused to allow myself to panic, it would be too much of a dead giveaway. Instead, I flooded my thoughts with matters unrelated to that of the Absolute. A distraction. One of my favorite distractions when in turmoil, in fact. My mind drifted to memories of Gale, holding me close as we slept under the starlight. I recalled the warmth of his hands as they grazed my skin, the softness in his eyes as he woke me from sleep as the day broke to reveal the dawn. I took a deep breath as the comfort of the memories quelled any panic that threatened to rise while under the disciple’s scrutinizing glare.

She withdrew her mind from my own, severing the connection and co*cking her head to the side, considering the memories she had gleaned from my mind.

“Hm. You’ve used the wizard well.” She glanced in Gale’s direction, her eyes surveying him as if he was meat hanging in a butcher’s window.

I swallowed my rage in seeing her objectify him with her glare, stepping to the side to obstruct her view of him.

She scoffed to see me act in such defense of him. “But the desperate one who would love such a pathetic man must hunger for greater delights, deep down.” She taunted.

I balled a fist at my side to hear her spit insults at Gale, knowing he heard the way she spoke of him. I felt him place his hand in the center of my back, reminding me he was there. Saying without words that her snarky remarks did little to damage his self-worth.

“You know… with the Absolute, your fantasies can become more real than flesh. The pleasures of the mind can surpass those of the body. I have already been blessed to stand in Her presence. It was bliss. She gave me everything I wanted.” Z’rell said, pacing back and forth as she lectured on the wonders her god granted.

I questioned how much a false god could grant someone gifts or power… but then again the abilities of Ketheric were remarkable and startling to see first hand.

“Everything, you say? What is it that you want?” I probed further into her claims, the comfort of Gale’s hand on my back giving me the necessary confidence to uphold my ruse of faith.

Z’rell’s eyes locked onto mine as her pupils widened with desire.

“To take without asking. To feel without doubting. To kill without consequence. In a word… freedom.”

I had to hold back the urge to laugh, to cackle at her claims of freedom as she was nothing but a thrall. She was oblivious to the fact she was but a pawn to be played in a much larger game, likely to be used as a sacrifice in the long term to propel the whims and desires of those who held authority over her.

“Care to show me the raw power you wield?” I proposed, curious to know what exactly we would be up against once we inevitably turned our blades on the entirety of the tower.

She flashed her pointed teeth in a grin. “Why not? What’s the point in power if you don’t get to have a little fun every now and again? She gave me the power to cut the threat of life… with a thought.”

As she spoke the final word, the ogre that stood behind her collapsed to the ground in a heap of lifeless flesh. I suppressed the disgust and horror that filled me to realize the real power she was gifted despite the falsehoods of her religion.

“But I can caress as well as cut. That’s why you should stay on my good side.” She said proudly, not batting an eye at the corpse that lay behind her. “The best way to do that is to serve General Thorm. I have a mission for you.”

I straightened my posture, feigning interest in the task she prepared to assign me.

“Ah yes, the General. He has… remarkable healing capabilities. Is it true he is invulnerable?” I asked. I didn’t consider how suspicious such a question might have been, but Z’rell paid no mind. She reveled in the opportunity to lavish her master with praise and spread the word of his power.

“Indeed- the Absolute’s love for him has made him more than mortal. He is… unstoppable.”

I doubted that mere love for a “god” could grant immortality. If that were true, I’m sure there would be many more immortal beings walking the tower considering the way they served so dutifully. There had to be more to his power than just his servitude.

“How would you have me serve our immortal master?” I questioned.

“There is a relic that the General requires. He sent his most trusted advisor, Disciple Balthazar, to retrieve it. The relic is beneath the Thorm family Mausoleum. We have lost contact with Balthazar, but if you go there I expect you will find him. Aid him if you can, and bring the relic home.” She ordered.

I nodded, accepting the charge she bid onto me and my companions, upholding my mask of loyalty to the Absolute.

“The shadows around the Mausoleum are deep and hungry- you will need a Moonlantern to survive them. Take one from Balthazar’s chambers.” She said, tossing me a weighty iron key.

“As you command, Disciple Z’rell.” I gripped the key in my hand tightly, giving a small bow of respect before taking my leave.

“A Moonlantern, huh? That must have been what that monstrosity had in its clutches as it left the tower earlier. Seems like quite the powerful artifact to wield in these wilds.” Gale said, his curiosity apparent.

I turned the key in the heavy wooden door of Balthazar’s chambers, and as it swung open I had to shield my face from the putrid conditions inside. The wood floors were stained with blood, the desk littered with organs and various human parts. Once again a taste like acid crawled down my throat as I walked through the doorway, careful not to step on any of the human remains that were scattered around.

“Gods, what kind of a bedchamber is this?” Shadowheart looked around in disgust, shielding her face in an attempt to suppress the strong scent of blood and rot.

Gale winced, bringing his robe up to cover his nose and mouth, his eyes watering in the corners. He didn’t speak, just nodded in agreement with the cleric.

“I s’pose I’ve seen worse in the hells. But this comes close.” Karlach said, looking around.

Gale’s disgust was put on the backburner when his eyes caught on a bookshelf built into one of the walls of Balthazar’s room. He carefully walked closer to it, being sure not to step in any pools of blood. His eyes scanned the spines of the tomes, hungry for knowledge.

“Careful, Gale! That shelf is trapped.” Shadowheart pointed to the floor beneath Gale’s feet. The boards beneath him were marked with tiny pinholes, hiding sharp spike traps that would reveal themselves if Gale moved a tome out of place.

“Ugh. Surely there must be a way to circumvent it. Books are meant to be read. Not to sit on a shelf for all eternity!” Gale exclaimed in frustration. “It only further proves the knowledge in these tomes is valuable to protect them with such obstacles...”

I watched Gale a few paces back as he stood before the shelf, grateful he kept his hands at his side as he continued scanning the titles available. A flash of red ink caught my eye as a notice was posted in an open journal sitting near the doorway.

” A reminder: Acolytes are permitted entry to my chambers for the SOLE purpose of collecting Moonlanterns. My library is NOT to be tampered with. While the Absolute appreciates your eagerness to learn, my bookshelves do not. Any requests to borrow from them must be given to me in advance, and are like to be refused.
Should you desire information on poisons, do NOT think to read any tome on the subject here. They are inclined to grant more knowledge than the written word could provide.

Remember- the Absolute’s purpose is better served by a beating heart than a poisoned mind. Though if you choose death, I will ensure you serve her still.

-B. “

“Gale, it seems more than one of the owners of these organs was a curious bookworm like yourself. I advise you to be cautious when choosing your next nighttime read.” I warned, the bloodstains on the page heightening my anxieties.

He looked back at me, his face frighteningly smug. “Oh, you doubt my taste in literature?” He asked, feigning offense.

“No- It’s just that-” I tried to defend myself, but before a point could be made Gale reached up to a higher shelf and confidently plucked a book from the shelf.

I gasped, leaping towards him in a hopeful attempt that I might be able to move him from harm’s way before any traps could be set off. I felt a rumble from beneath the floorboards as I moved and feared the worst. I confidently wrapped an arm around Gale and utilized the momentum of my sprint to drag him from the bookshelf as we both toppled to the ground.

Shadowheart and Karlach looked on with eyes wide as there was an apparent absence of traps. No spikes protruding from the ground, no poison gas leaking from the air vents… but a pedestal rose from the ground, it’s stone surface smooth apart from an apparent crimson stain in its’ center.

Gale groaned as his back was so suddenly acquainted with the ground, his arm extended to keep his book of choice from falling in any of the pools of blood on the ground. His robes weren’t so lucky.

“I suppose these were in need of a good laundering anyway…” He said, wincing as he sat up. I scrambled as I realized I was still positioned on top of him, quickly getting to my feet and offering him a hand in getting up.

“I- I’m so sorry, Gale. I thought that you were-” I said, profoundly embarrassed by my premature reaction.

“You thought my actions reckless and uncalculated?” He asked, the upset in his voice teasing and smug. “Well, had you ever faced me in a game of lanceboard you’d know that I never make such moves.” He winked as he gripped my hand and pulled himself back on his feet.

I sighed with relief he wasn’t seriously injured and remained unphased by my unnecessary defensive actions.

“Karlach, be a dear and pass me one of those hearts that are littered about the room. Balthazar’s writings reveal more meaning than he intended us to find.” Gale outstretched a hand toward Karlach and shot me a wink.

I squinted at him suspiciously, unsure quite what he was up to.

“A book on poisons.” He waved the tome he was clutching in front of me. “More knowledge than the written word could provide I believe he wrote. Served by a beating heart...” Gale quoted the crude note Balthazar had scribbled by the door as Karlach plopped the cardiac organ in his palm, her face scrunched in disgust.

Gale nodded in thanks as he gracefully plopped the heart on the small stone pedestal, as if it was an offering on an altar.

The walls of the room trembled again, my muscles reflexing in preparation for fight or flight, when I saw movement in the corner of my eye.

The bookshelf rumbled as it tucked itself into a pocket in the wall and revealed a dark secret room hidden behind.

“Now, I’m more curious as to what exactly Balthazar had hiding behind his book collection…” Gale said, craning his neck over my shoulder to see inside the dark room.

I was thoroughly impressed. I tried my best not to show it too much to avoid inflating the wizard’s ego any more, but I doubted it was very well concealed.

“Gods, please be careful. We’ve no idea what a madman like this could have to hide from cultists.” Karlach scoffed, grimacing as she wiped her hands onto her trousers to rid them of the blood from the heart she handled.

Gale eagerly peaked around the corner of the doorway, his nose scrunching in disgust. As I followed in behind him, the already sickeningly sour aura of magic in the room only became thicker and more potent. I felt my lip twitch as my body revolted from the sensation.

“Ugh, Mystra’s mercy that is foul.” I muttered, sticking my tongue out of my mouth as if it would stop the taste from dripping down my throat.

“Mystra’s mercy, indeed…” Gale said, his eyes transfixed on a bench in the corner of the room.

I surveyed the bench, appalled at what littered the wooden surface. Scattered about the desk were the corpses of what appeared to be fairies or pixies. Several of their frail frames lie lifelessly still, their flowery clothing stained with crimson. There was a crude pile of wings in a bowl as well, some of them still shimmering with tell-tale fae magic. The sweet aura that would have accompanied the fae magic was overwhelmed, however, by the nefarious carving that was engraved into the bench itself. An ominous green glow emanated from it, the magic laced with decay. It was faded, the darkness within it flickering like a candle in the wind. But even so, the necrotic power it held was evident. Gale looked at it with a peculiar familiarity.

“A ritual circle… and a complex one, at that. I’ve seen such a construction before, in the writings of the Weavepasha of Almraiven, though his vision was not so… tainted.”

Shadowheart and Karlach stepped through the bookcase door, their faces evidently just as distraught as ours.

“What in Shar’s name was it meant for?” Shadowheart asked, looking at the sigil with a curiosity in her eyes.

I looked around at the shelves lining the walls of the tiny space. There were several sharp and precise tools, like those of a surgeon, as well as several lantern casings. A few were in good shape while some had shattered glass or dented metal shells. That's when it clicked.

“Oh my gods. This is to make those Moonlanterns… and they use fairies as… fuel.” I gasped.

Gale raised his eyebrows, catching my interpretation of the workbench before us.

“By the Weave… you’re right. Considering the machinations of the ritual circle, when altered to serve a more corrupt purpose it would be capable of harvesting the light of the fae…” Gale explained the circle’s functionality to himself aloud, as if he was working through it as he babbled.

“Where in the hells have they sourced fairies for their experimenting? I’ve never even seen a fairy! Then again… I guess it’s been a while since I was on this plane.” Karlach exclaimed, her eyes wide as she looked at the fairy wings littering the workbench.

“You’ve got a point, K. Even in the cover of the High Forest fairies and pixies scarcely allowed themselves to be discovered as they passed through our plane. They are much more prevalent - and safe - in the Fae Realm.” I recalled, past lessons on the Fae resurfacing in my mind.

“The Realm of the Fae is notoriously hard to get into… and even more challenging to escape for those unfamiliar. Curious how they’d be able to sustain a ‘fuel’ so difficult in the obtaining.” Gale added, narrowing his gaze on the pile of wings as they faintly glimmered in the low light. They still had a bit of magic left within, despite being separated from the hosts.

“By Shar’s grace - You won’t believe what I’ve found.” Shadowheart interrupted, her eyes alight as she scanned a journal that had been sitting on one of the shelves. Once she had our attention, she read a part of it aloud:

The temple below the mausoleum will not surrender the Nightsong easily- and the General’s invulnerability depends on it.” She looked at us, almost bouncing with recognition. “This- this must be the artifact Balthazar went to retrieve. The source of Ketheric’s immortality!”

“And by the luck of Tymora we were sent to retrieve it as well. How serendipitous.” Gale said with a sly grin.

“The Nightsong… it sounds familiar, but I can’t quite recall why.” Shadowheart said, her eyes lost in thought.

“Those mercenaries back in the grove were on the hunt for it I believe- could that be why it's familiar?” I asked her, recalling Aradin’s reckless endangerment of Halsin in the hopes of finding the legendary weapon.

Shadowheart’s eyes looked doubtful, but she nodded slowly as she was lost in thought. “Could be.”

Gale’s attention returned to the dark sigil carved into the workbench, his hunger for knowledge trumping any urgency to retrieve the Nightsong for Jaheira’s Harpers.

“Curious… the sigils are in a mix of tongues. Ancient Calish*te, Netherese… and something else I can’t quite make out.” he remarked, studying the carving with care. “The magic that remains, despite it having been mostly used up, still holds great power. It is that of the Shadow Weave.”

Shadowheart’s ears perked up at the mention of her goddess’s magic and she craned her neck over Karlach’s towering frame to try and get a better look at the sigil.

“Hmm… with the remaining enchantment, and the scraps of essence left in these pixie corpses… and one of these lantern casings-!” Gale snatched one of the in-tact empty lanterns from the shelf beside him. “Yes! I think I’d be able to craft one more lantern. With a slight modification of the casting gesture, it may be capable of wielding the shadows instead of repelling them…”

Shadowheart’s eyes brimmed with intrigue at the prospect, while I was a bit more suspicious of trusting we could have any power over the shadows that haunted us.

Gale clicked his tongue and shook his head in doubt. “Agh. Mystra’s eyes may be upon me, and she’d forbid me dabbling with such magic. She’d want it destroyed. Wasted, arguably.”

Shadowheart piped up at the suggestion. “To waste such dark potential would only put us at a greater disadvantage. Do it, Gale. Embrace Shar’s shadow.”

Gale’s eyes flickered with consideration, his pupils darting back and forth across the components necessary for the incantation. As he scanned the unrealized magic that sat before him, his gaze darted over to me, a questioning look in his eye.

“I…” I started, his expectant look causing a tightening in my chest. “You’re the expert here, Gale. I trust you to do whatever you think best.” I said with certainty.

He pursed his lips in thought. “Very well.” Gale said, closing his eyes and raising his hands in front of him in preparation to cast. A soft blue glow hovered over his palm as he waved it above the sigil. He murmured something intangible to my elven ears as he made very intentional motions with his hands.
Just as his palm passed over the bench, as if he was wiping it clean, the green glow of the ritual circle faded.

“Gods, I should have known better than to expect you to actually make use of such a gift.” Shadowheart sneered, rolling her eyes.

Gale scoffed. “Considering I slept through my Calish*te lessons, I’m just glad the damned thing didn’t explode.”

I laughed softly, the tightness in my chest fading. I was grateful he chose to destroy it. It was surely sinister magic. Despite how useful it may have been, it would have been unwieldy and difficult to predict. We already had enough uncertainty within our group as we all waited to be transformed with every passing night- we didn’t need anything else potentially turning on us.

“Right, then. Let’s grab the working lantern and then rescue Rolan’s family. Then we’re off to the mausoleum.” Karlach encouraged, pointing back into the bedchamber where the working Moonlanterns were.

As we looked at one of the glowing Moonlanterns by the bed, my stomach turned. “K, I don’t think I can stomach torturing a pixie in order to survive this curse. Look at how… convoluted these lanterns are.” I pointed to the casing, the chamber at the bottom covered in spikes and needles meant to poke and prod at any fae trapped within.

Karlach’s eyebrows furrowed and her mouth turned downwards. “That’s bloody awful.” She said, looking it over. “But… what choice do we have? The mausoleum’s too thick with the curse for us to make it there with Selune’s blessing alone.”

“Hey! You there! In here!” A muffled voice with a high pitch rang in my ears.

“Oh please, oh golly, me-oh-my, you must release me or I’ll die! This lantern only lights the way when I am hurting night and day!” A sing-song voice came from inside the lantern.

I squinted, trying to peer through the glass and past the blinding light to make out an image of the fae that chirped from within.

“This construction is… twisted. I’m so sorry you’ve been put through this.” I said, my eyes catching on the vibrant purple color of the pixie at she struggled to avoid getting jabbed by the sharp metal protruding inside the lantern.

“Dolly thanks you for your sympathy; now, druid kind, please set me free!” She begged, every sentence a rhyme.

I hated the idea that we would have to torture this creature furing our entire trek to find the Nightsong. There had to be a better solution than that. I turned to the rest of the party. Karlach looked inside the lantern with the same pity and concern that I had. Gale looked inside the lantern as well, his curiosity about its construction at the forefront of his mind, but visibly upset that it was made with such torture as its purpose. Shadowheart seemed rather indifferent to the whole issue- Shar’s blessing did give her immunity to the curse after all. She was seemingly lost in thought, not paying attention to the fae in need of rescuing.

“Dolly- We are seeking protection from this curse. If we release you, might you be able to help us travel through the shadows?” I asked her, earning an approving nod from Karlach as she smiled with hope we might be able to save the struggling pixie.

“It would be my pleasure- truly! Once I’m freed I’ll help you duly.” She swore.

I took a deep breath. I had always been told not to make deals with the fae. Not to trust them, not to give them your name… But thinking back I couldn’t recall ever encountering one so closely until now. I guess today was as good a time as ever to see if the rumors held true.

I delicately reached up to the lantern, turning the glass door and swinging it open to free the source of the light within.

The pixie burst outward, a trail of shimmering purple dust flowing behind her as she shot into the sky.

“Finally!” She exclaimed, her voice less muffled now that it was out from behind the glass. “Been trapped in that coffin with no one but a mad necromancer and my own farts for company! Did me a good turn there, didn’t you. What do I owe you?” She asked, stretching out her arms as her wings flapped vigorously.

“You said you could help shield us from the shadow curse?” I asked, a bit fearful we had made a mistake in taking the pixie at her word.

She crossed her arms, looking down at us with an eyebrow raised. “Hmm… I could help… but will I?” She remarked.

I swallowed, my eyes pleading as I looked up at the pixie as it hovered above us.

She clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes. “Fine. I may as well.” She caved, conjuring a small silver bell in her hands and chucking it at me. I scrambled to catch it, a soft jingle ringing out from it as it hit my palm.

“Give this bell a shake and you’ll get what you’ve earned.” She said with a smirk. “Toodles!” She called out, swiftly taking her leave and flying off into the darkness without another word.

“... Did we just make a grave error in judgement?” Gale asked, peering at the small silver bell in my hands.

I looked back at him sheepishly. “I guess there is only one way to find out…?” I proposed, holding the bell with my forefinger and thumb ready to give it a ring.

“I was always told not to trust the Fae… are you sure this is a good idea?” Gale asked, snatching my wrist to prevent me from moving the bell.

“... No. But what choice do we have?” I asked, my eyes meeting his. He held my gaze for a moment, searching my eyes as they glimmered with desperation.

He sighed and released my wrist, nodding.

I took a deep breath and shook the small silver bell, the sound clear as crystal, like glasses clinking at a noble feast. I felt a cold shiver rush through me as a cool bright light encapsulated all of us.

“It worked! I was afraid we’d have to hunt down a pixie…” Karlach said, taking a few steps and rejoicing when the light followed her movement.

“Remarkable! To study magic in the Fae Realm would be a wonder, indeed.” Gale said, looking over himself and how the glow repelled the shadows with ease.

“Now, we’ve got some tieflings to save, don’t we?” I said, eager to move forward with our new blessing in tow.

The four of us scrambled down the stairs of the tower, finding our way to the prison below.

Notes:

Okay, this is a lot of recap of dialogue and minor details- so I am going to skip detailing the saving of the prisoners. I will mention it in the next chapter with the assumption we succeed in saving them all, and Gale casts misty step to travel on the boat with them alone while the rest of us battle our way through the prison guards.

Chapter 29

Summary:

The gang return to Last Light Inn with the prisoners of the tower in tow. Some have a happy reunion - while other's don't.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

“Remind me why we haven’t gone directly to the Mausoleum? We are still trying to defeat Ketheric, are we not?” Shadowheart asked, her tone impatient and annoyed as we raced through the woods towards Last Light Inn.

“Because we are missing a party member. One that is both rather useful and cared for in particular by me.” I responded, keeping my eyes on the road ahead. We were almost there.

“Did you believe him when he assured us he was ’versed in the ways of nautical navigation’ before sailing off onto the lake with the prisoners?” Kalrach asked, imitating Gale’s voice as she mimicked his words.

I chuckled softly at her impersonation.

“He lives on the coast, sure, but I find it hard to believe a man so well manicured and repulsed by gore has spent any length of time at sea.” I remarked, my mind flooded with dreamy images of his pristinely clean robes and groomed appearance. I couldn’t picture him a sailor- not in a million years. Too well dressed, well learned and well mannered.

I regretted not going with him when he cast Misty Step through the bars of the tower jail. I had watched helplessly as he gathered both the tieflings and the Ironhand Gnomes under his wing and piled them in a small rowboat behind the stone walls of the prison. Karlach, Shadowheart and I fought back the advances of the tower’s Jailers, all of them witnessing our sneaky break-out and recognizing us as traitors. We had no choice but to fell them all to keep our cover from being blown. Despite Gale’s confidence as he set out on the boat towards Last Light Inn, I feared for the safety of them all.

As the Inn’s lunar glow came into view past the shade of the trees, I felt a surge of energy pulse through me as my legs picked up speed and I coursed forward. I so desperately wanted to lay eyes on the well-groomed man who haunted my thoughts. I had to know he was alright.

I dashed through the encampment, Shadowheart and Karlach struggling to keep up with my pace. I saw some of the members of the camp stare and look over at us curiously as we sped past, but I paid little mind to them as I rushed towards the lake.

Shuffling below the Inn to the docks, I was relieved to see the boat floating on the dark water not far from the landing. The violet robes of Gale were easily visible as he stood at the boat’s helm and kept a keen eye on the water ahead. I heard the heavy footfalls and labored breaths of Karlach and Shadowheart behind me as they finally caught up to my pace. One of the tieflings who was monitoring the dock gawked at us.

“What in the hells- Ma’am, is this your panther?” He guffawed, pointing a clawed finger at… me?

“Heh- you could say that, sure. Why, has she gone and raised a ruckus?” Karlach said stifling a laugh.

“No I just- well I didn’t know we permitted such animals in the dock.” The tiefling said, busying himself with a crate of supplies that was to be brought upstairs to the Inn’s lobby.

I gathered my senses, realizing how heightened my smell and sight were compared to what I was used to. I glanced down at my hands- now replaced with large black paws tipped with claws primed for attack if necessary. I had Wild-Shaped unintentionally in my haste to locate Gale.

“We’ll be sure to keep an eye on her. Not to worry.” Shadowheart said smugly, kneeling down to meet my eye level.

Karlach looked out onto the water as the boat had nearly docked now.

“Soldier, he won’t recognize you in this state, you know. You want to uh… change back about now?” She kept her voice low as she addressed me.

I wasn’t entirely sure how I was meant to change back. I didn’t even know how I had gotten into this form. Halsin was so wrapped up with the curse that he couldn’t spare time for lessons lately, otherwise I might have been more well-versed in this by now.

I inhaled deeply, the tendrils of my magic reaching out into my surrounds in an attempt to seek out any life that remained through the decay of the shadow curse. I sensed some- the climbing vines of ivy that clung to the brick of the Inn, the crackling hearth beside Art Cullagh as he mumbled in his sleep, the tangled stems of kelp that danced below the surface of the lake. It was enough to draw from.

I felt my legs lengthen as a familiar herbal scent overwhelmed me, a green glowing light encasing my silhouette. I shifted my weight on my feet carefully as I adjusted to my elven body once again. I was more grateful than I thought I would be to see my normal hands at the end of my arms. I craned my fingers in an attempt to harness my magic, grateful to see a pool of golden light gather at my palms upon my focus.

“See? Wasn’t so hard, eh?” Karlach said playfully, jabbing an elbow into my ribcage.

“Tav!” A familiar voice laced with relief called out to me.

I looked up as Gale hopped off of the rowboat, his leather boots knocking on the wood of the dock as he rushed over to me. He gently brought a hand to my face as he tucked a lock of my hair behind my pointed ear, his eyes pinned on mine in a grateful look of calm. I felt my breath catch in my throat as he stared at me, a stirring in my heart that urged every muscle to pull him closer.

I hastily wrapped my arms around him in a hug, burying my face against him and taking in his scent. Thank the gods he was alright. He chuckled, stumbling backwards just a bit in surprise at my sudden grip on him. His hand tangled its way into my hair as he held my head against him, just as relieved we had found each other again.

“Oi! What do you lot think you’re doing? Who are all these people?” The tiefling that had been lugging crates up and down the stairs looked at the boat full of people as they climbed onto the dock.

“No need to worry, friend. These are allies, we’ve just rescued them from the towers.” Gale reassured the tiefling, laying the charm on thick as he spoke with confidence.

“The towers? How do you know they aren’t already infected? We can’t allow the camp to be compromised! They cannot stay here!” The tiefling exclaimed, his voice now rising with anger.

“You can’t kick us out! Some of us have family here! We aren’t infected!” One of the prisoners exclaimed, and I recognized it to be Rolan’s sister Lia, just as headstrong and hot tempered as ever.

“Oh yeah? If you’re not infected then you won’t object to an inspection. Grab me Jaheira’s tadpole!” The tiefling called out to another dock hand, who rushed upstairs to retrieve the parasite in a jar that Jaheira had used to identify infected members of the cult.

“You can’t inspect us like we are rats in a lab! We’ve just been imprisoned and barely managed to escape, the least you could do is-” Lia shouted in frustration, but Cal cut her off in the midst of her rant.

“Lia, It’s alright. They need to keep their people safe. The sooner they start, the sooner it will be over with and we can find Rolan.” He assured her. He was much more level-headed considering he was the younger of the two of them.

The other tieflings complained, but agreed to the inspection as the tiefling dock worker approached them one by one with the parasite jar in hand. The Ironhand Gnomes looked increasingly annoyed to have to undergo such a process as well, but obliged despite their annoyed looks and upset grumbling. Thankfully, the tadpole in the jar slept peacefully and didn’t stir an inch as the prisoners were all inspected. Blissfully parasite free.

After the inspection all of them scurried up the stairs and the four of us followed. I smiled to myself as I heard their arrival met with shouts of glee and laughter. As I broached the top floor, I could see Rolan bringing his siblings in a bear hug, his brows furrowed together. It looked a little like he might be angry with them, but I could tell it was his only way to mask the fact he was on the verge of tears after seeing them again.

The other tieflings reunited with Alfira, who’s laughter was a song in and of itself as it rang through the lobby of the Inn. She fingered at the strings of her lute carefully, a few joyous notes threatening to erupt into a ballad within a moment’s notice.

The Ironhand Gnomes gathered at a round table, their voices hushed and their heads lowered as they talked amongst each other. I was surprised Barcus hadn’t heard them arrive, he had been searching for Wulbren since the moment I pulled him from the Windmill.

“Ooh! I’ll go tell the little gnome. He ought to be thrilled to bits.” Karlach volunteered, running off to the next room where Barcus was studying.

Jaheira approached us then, her typical scowl not as prevalent as she saw the tieflings reuniting with one another so jovially in the foyer.

“I suppose this touching reunion was your doing?” She asked, her arms folded across her chest.

“A united effort, not mine alone.” I clarified, gesturing to Shadowheart and Gale who were stood alongside me.

“An effort that was well worth the outcome. Thank you, soldier.” She said gratefully. “Did your time at the towers provide anything else of note?”

I knew what she was looking for. “The location of an artifact - the Nightsong. We believe this is providing Ketheric with his immortality.”

“An artifact? Strange I have never heard of it until now with a power so formidable. I trust you have the resources necessary to retrieve it? Should you need anything from our stores - they are open to you. And your companions.” Jaheira offered, her voice eager to move forward with the next part of her ultimate battle plan.

“Thank you, Jaheira. From what I can tell the artifact is in the far corner of Reithwin, where the shadows are the thickest. We want to head there as soon as we can.” I informed her.

“Understood. Silvanus walk with you.” Jaheira saluted us before returning to checking in on the tieflings, making sure everyone was fed and watered after their escape.

“Aww. They ignored the poor chap who was so keen to save them.” Karlach said, her voice sad and full of pity as she rejoined the group.

“How do you mean?” I asked, not quite sure what she meant.

“Little Barcus, they told him off. Wulbren Bung-hole or whatever didn’t give a lick what he had gone through to find them all.” Karlach said, jutting out her lower lip as she looked at a crestfallen Barcus ordering a drink from the bar in the back of the Inn.

“What? He said Wulbren was his best friend!” I said, still utterly confused.

“Seems like a right old sh*t-bag if you ask me.” Karlach sneered, glaring in the direction of the table of conspiring gnomes.

“Maybe they’ve had a falling out. Nothing a bit of time and introspection can’t correct, hmm?” Gale suggested.

I supposed he could be right. Best to leave the matter to solve itself for now.

“How is everyone feeling? Gale? Have you enough magic left in you for a jaunt through a cursed township?” I surveyed the group, hoping there was enough energy amongst them for another adventure into the shadow curse.

“I suppose I can manage what magicka I have left for a bit more adventuring.” He said with a smile.

“Let’s go kick some arse!” Karlach said, invigorated by the idea.

“Right behind you!” Shadowheart chimed in.

And off we went to explore the abandoned town of Reithwin.

Notes:

This one is a bit of a shorter chapter, but I thought it was important to include nonetheless! I have a SUPER fun original filler-ish chapter I already wrote that I can't wait to post but it won't be until Chapter 31. I can't wait to share it with you guys, but I have to write Chapter 30 first! Thanks for reading! I'll try to post again as soon as I can.

Weaving Wonders - WingedTempest - Baldur's Gate (Video Games) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

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