The Chronicles of the Seekers of Faerun - Chapter Ten

Adventure Date: February 20, 2009

Last Updated: May 18, 2009

“Ha! That was a good brawl!” Risca thought aloud. “Those drow need to improve their workmanship. How do they expect to win a battle, let alone conquer the surface land, if their weapons break like brittle twigs? Strong armor and weapons, that’s half the battle!” Wiping blood off his face, Risca strolled over to his companions, a wide grin set on his lips. As he approached, he noticed the group huddled together, kneeling.

Okul got to his feet quickly and intercepted Risca. Laying his hand on Risca’s chest, his face was a mosaic of emotions: anger and concern, sorrow and sympathy. “Don’t come any closer, Risca.”

Risca’s good mood evaporated. Fear danced down his spine. “What is it?” Not waiting for an answer, he pushed Okul’s hand aside and rushed forward. Neon clutched Swan’s broken body to his, his red-rimmed eyes streamed tears. “Not again,” he moaned. Gideon tried to comfort Neon as the others watched on, helplessly.

Kilzadi turned to Risca. “I’m sorry. The wounds were too traumatic. There was nothing that could be done. You can take solace that she fought well and died on her feet, fighting.” The words were hazy, muffled. Risca’s face was stony, his eyes full of fury.

“Who did this?” Froth flew unheeded from Risca’s lips. Kilzadi turned and pointed at a drow’s body, pierced with arrows and a hole burned through its chest. “The arrows were hers…” he began, but Risca was no longer listening. Throwing himself onto the fallen drow, Risca’s fists began to pulp the drow’s head.

Suddenly, he was knocked sprawling and a great weight pressed on his body. Throwing punches around, Risca tried to dislodge the mass pinning him down. In his grief, Risca lost all sense of his surroundings. A voice managed to pierce the red haze that permeated his mind. “We can bring her back!” Risca’s eyes focused on Gideon’s bruised face. “You need to calm down. I need to pray to Kossuth so He may intercede on Swan’s behalf, but your actions are not helping. We need to get her to a temple as quickly as possible.”

“Get off of me,” Risca growled. Gideon, Okul and Kilzadi removed themselves and watched Risca wearily. Walking stiff-legged to Neon, his voice was heavy with emotion. “Give her to me. I will carry her to wherever she needs to go.” His voice left no illusion of his intentions if he was refused. Neon looked up and, for a moment, hesitated.

Some semblance of sympathy entered Risca’s voice. He gently laid a hand on Neon’s shoulder. “I know what she means to you, but she was my charge and my responsibility.” His grip tightened. “You will not deny me.” With a final stroke of her hair, Neon gently passed Swan’s body to Risca’s arms. Cradling her still form, she felt weightless. Without looking back, he began walking towards the nearby Abbey of the Sword to have her brought back to him.

The others caught up to him after quickly stripping the bodies of any useful items. “Lolth and her demonic ilk have made a terrible mistake,” Risca’s voice shook with passion. “As long as I live and breathe, I will wage a terrible war on them. My name will be whispered in their nightmares. The scales will be balanced.”

Taken aback by his words, Okul asked, with hesitation in his voice, “But you are one person. Don’t you think you would be throwing your life away needlessly? We can bring her back. How much impact could you really have with your one-man war?”

Risca stopped. “Look at me. I believe that a single individual who has the right heart and the right mind, that is consumed with a single purpose, that individual can win a war. My purpose will be to bring justice to the unjust.” Turning to the others, he looked long and hard into their eyes. “Evil invades our lands and takes what it wants. Innocent lives are taken. They bring oppression and fear. It only takes one person to make a difference. To stand up when others are told to sit down. To speak loudly for those who have no voice. And to fight the good fight.” His voice was filled with cold certainty. “They will learn to fear coming to Faerun.”

Gideon tried to calm Risca. “You are right. They do bring great harm to our realm. They are evil…”

Risca cut him off. “The greater evil is doing nothing when I could be giving everything - of dreaming too small and not fulfilling my purpose.” Turning back towards the Abbey of the Sword, Risca resumed his journey. The others followed in silence.

Half an hour later, a somber troop of adventurers approached the Abbey of the Sword. The abbey was built less like a place of worship and more like a fortress. The area was clear-cut a mile around, and the walls and defenses seemed secure enough to stop an invading army. Okul pressed to the head of the column and halted the group. Risca shot him a deadly glare. Holding up his hand, Okul began to explain. “Before we go any further, you need to understand the history of this holy place and my link to it. It will help us if we better understand the people we will be dealing with. On my journey to Mistledale, I had stopped at the Abbey of the Sword to honour the location where Tempus’ divine form first appeared in Faerun during the Time of Troubles. I learned that Tempus journeyed to Mistledale at Sword Creek, where many valiant and honourable Daleland warriors fought and fell to vanquish a vast horde of enemies, before He once again ascended to the eternal battlefield, taking the bravest of the dead with Him. The purpose of my pilgrimage was to gain a better insight as a warrior, to see and feel what Tempus did during that great and terrible battle.”

Okul paused to take a deep breath. “I came to better understand the doctrine of Tempus. First Sword Jareth Burlisk explained the virtues of valor and honour, and how cowardice can ensnare the bravest hearts. They respect honesty, candidness, and sacrifice. If we wish to help Swan, we need to remember this.”

Sunset had just passed when the party reached the front gates of the abbey. Though the main gate was closed, sounds of combat could be heard within. Having been caught unaware the first time by the drow, the followers of Tempus would not be caught unaware ever again. They trained constantly to maintain their vigilance over the land. The locals who were still about were heading back to their homes for a well-deserved rest. All eyes turned towards them, but the townsfolk shied from approaching. The strange group was led by a grim dwarf on horseback cradling a young woman’s body. Whether she was asleep or dead couldn’t be determined. The townsfolk paused to watch them wearily as they approached the Abbey of Swords. Dismounting, Okul pounded on the gate.

A guard’s head popped out of a large crenel above the gate and addressed the party. “Who goes there? Know that the gates are closed and none may enter once night falls.”

“I am Okul Tarmikos of Gildenglade and these are my companions. I had passed through recently on a pilgrimage to learn of Tempus. First-Sword Jareth Burlisk the Mantled can vouch for me.”

“The First-Sword?” The guard was astounded. The First-Sword Burlisk was a serious man who dedicated himself to Tempus. He rarely met with outsiders. This Okul must be an important person. “The First-Sword Burlisk will be summoned at once.” Sending a runner to inform Jareth, the guard examined Okul and his companions more closely. The name and the face…The face and the name…Dragon-marked. Ah yes. I remember now. Okul had been that troubled but valiant warrior.

The gates suddenly swung open and the companions entered in a silent procession. Shouting erupted inside almost immediately. A short time later, the townsfolk saw the dwarf storm out of the abbey and march to the nearby woods. All the townsfolk stayed well away, not wanting to get involved.

The townsfolk were wise to avoid the abbey. The events that transpired prior to Risca’s sudden exit threatened to break the fellowship binding the Seekers of Faerun.

The moment the Seekers had entered the abbey, Risca began to bellow. “Where are the priests?” Risca roared. “Get out here and tend to my Swan or I will rip apart your abbey with my bare hands!”

A flustered priest of Tempus stopped his prayers and rushed out of his cubby to see what the commotion was. When he spotted the enraged dwarf, he almost turned back to his cubby. Knowing Tempus would not appreciate his moment of doubt, he put on a brave face and greeted these unknown adventurers. “Welcome to the Abbey of the Sword. How…”

“Can you bring back my girl?” Risca interrupted.

“Well, the Priest-General of our order may be…” the priest began to reply.

“Get him or her. Now. You are going to return my friend to me or there will be consequences.” Risca was in a frenzy. The priest scampered off in search of his superiors.

“Calm yourself, Risca!” Kilzadi admonished. “You are not helping Swan by antagonizing the clergy who will be bringing her back.”

“Do not tell me how to talk to others, sorcerer!” Risca retorted. “Swan would still be alive if you could have pulled your own weight back there! Or, maybe you don’t care what happens to us. You hold so many secrets. Maybe you prefer to be with demon-kin. I know you were with that drow, Gwenect.” Kilzadi’s hand dropped to Crimdrac Claw’s hilt. Risca glanced down. “What, sorcerer? You would betray us for her? Where is your loyalty? Where is…”

“Enough, Risca.” Though said calmly, Gideon’s words stopped the tirade. “You know your words ring hollow. Kilzadi’s actions have shown him to be trustworthy. If there were more any of us could have done, it would have been done.”

“You know nothing!” Risca’s temper flared again. “You always make excuses for each other! What good were you? None of you lifted a finger to help! You didn’t save her! I couldn’t save her!” Gently placing Swan down, Risca tenderly brushed back her hair. Standing up, his body shook with anger. “I do not want to see any of you when I return.” Pushing passed everyone, he stormed out and headed to the woods.

“He would dare imply I am a traitor!” Kilzadi raged. “I will burn his eyes out. I will rip him to shreds…” Kilzadi’s tirade continued, but the others ignored it. Looking at each other, the rest of the party wondered if their adventuring days were over. Okul volunteered, “I’ll go after him.”

“Let him be,” Neon advised. “He is more upset than I am and he needs to work out his emotions. He doesn’t like to show them often and they confuse him more than anything else. He’s lashing out and we are the most convenient targets.”

Gideon was impressed by Neon’s insight. “He’s right. Anyway, someone of importance is here and we need to talk to him to address Swan’s immediate needs.” A warrior dressed in full plate mail drew near. Okul recognized First-Sword Burlisk. The hilt of a two-handed sword could be seen above his left shoulder, while a notched battleaxe swung at his hip. His gauntlets appeared to be devastating weapons in their own right, being jagged and spiked. His polished winged helmet reflected the torchlight. Stopping in front of the group, he turned to address Okul.

“Okul, it is good to see you again. I had thought you had learned the teachings of Tempus and were going to spread their virtues to your opponents.” Looking at the drow bodies being dragged by the Seekers’ mounts, he growled. “Drow! Tell me what has happened.”

“First-Sword Burlisk,” Okul spoke in tones of great reverence, “my friends and I were ambushed by the drow and fought a pitched battle not far from here. Though we overcame them, it came at a heavy cost. One of our members fell while defending another.”

Jareth turned to one of his soldiers. “Send out a patrol and ensure there are no other drow lurking about.” Jareth approached Swan’s body and examined it with an experienced eye. “These wounds were caused by a barbed chain.” Okul nodded in agreement. “She fought bravely?” Again, Okul nodded. “What would you have us do? We can bury her with honours, for she deserves that…”

Neon stepped forward. “Greetings, valiant one. You must do more than bury her. We need her. Our comrade Swan is an integral part of our group.” Neon’s voice began to choke a little. “She is dear to all of us and we would ask that you return her to us.”

“We need her strength and skill with the bow,” Okul added. “She felled 2 drow with her arrows before she herself was killed. Without her, our group is incomplete.”

“We can bring her back,” Jareth mused, “but it will require costly resources.” He looked pointedly at the group.

Kilzadi sighed. “We will be willing to donate items for the cause of Tempus in exchange for this service.”

“That is acceptable.” Jareth called over a soldier. “Bring the young woman’s body to the central altar and prepare her. Then inform Priest-General Gorym Brightshield Harndrekker that we require his services to return her soul to her mortal frame.” Several soldiers came forward carrying a stretcher. Placing Swan gently upon it, they carried her from the room. Jareth signaled the party to follow him. “We will take care of Swan, have no fear. In fact, your arrival could not have been better planned.” The companions looked at each other in confusion. Leading them into a larger room, they sat around a large round table. Food and drinks were brought in for them. Waving away the servants, Jareth explained his need.

“As you know, the drow invaded the surface of Faerun by opening mystical portals. The initial portals were opened in the underground caverns found beneath this abbey.” A pained expression crossed his features. “We were caught by surprise. The fodder, kobolds, goblinoids, and ogres, rushed up into the abbey to clear a path for the drow soldiers. We were pushed back by their sheer numbers. They forced themselves past our defenses and began destroying the surrounding countryside. Villages were razed. Townspeople slaughtered. Eventually, we were able to retake the abbey. A small contingent of warriors, led by Priest-General Eldan Ambrose himself, broke through the drow lines and managed to reach their portals.” Jareth’s voice filled with admiration and grief. “The Priest-General called on the blessings of Tempus and slammed the portals shut, but at the cost of his very soul. The drow, cut off from any support, were eventually routed.”

Jareth paused to collect his thoughts. “We are able to return your battle-companion to you because her soul is not caged and the gods favour her return. Priest-General Ambrose’s soul will never know the glory of Warrior’s Rest because his soul has been captured by a powerful drow demon. We are preparing a campaign to engage the drow. We are planning an expedition into the Underdark to avenge the devastation caused by the drow. We will also retrieve Eldan Ambrose’s soul and free it from torment. To succeed, we will need any drow-made equipment you may have collected. We need to learn as much as we can about our enemy before we engage them. It will also help our spies to further infiltrate their domain.” Jareth glanced at Okul’s armor.

Taking the cue, Okul explained. “This is drow-made. We don’t know its full properties, but maybe the abbey might be able to help.”

Jareth sat back in thought. Calling over a squire, he bade her to fetch the wizard quartered in the abbey. “He will be able to identify any magic items you may have for a nominal fee. In fact, he will identify your armor at no cost.”

A short time later, a young non-descript man dressed in loose-fitting garments entered the room. Bowing to Jareth, without a word, he took Okul’s armor.

During the lull in conversation, Neon decided to gather information on the dynamics of the area. “The drow seem more…active…than they have been in the past,” Neon commented. “Why would they attack us so close to this stronghold?”

Jareth eyed Neon before answering. “The drow are split into different factions. The drows loyal to Lolth crawl out of their holes for the purpose of raiding the surface lands for slaves and some rare supplies, and to terrorize its citizens. These drow only attack intermittently. But there are other factions of drow that are more troublesome.” Sipping some wine, he began to lecture. “The drow who follow Vhaeraun, the son of Lolth, continue His campaign to reclaim the surface lands for the drow. Currently, there are an undetermined number of enclaves of Vhaeraun’s followers in the forest. For every one that we find and destroy, two more appear. This is why we need to constantly train and prepare ourselves. Eilistraee, Lolth’s daughter, poses no threat to us. Her and her followers seek peaceful co-existence with all people on the surface lands. Their numbers are the fewest, but the groups that can be found are tightly-knit and very powerful.”

Gideon leaned forward. “First-Sword Burlisk, when we were combating the drow, I noticed the priestess had great difficulty casting her spells. Initially, she seemed surprised her divine powers failed her, and then she became frustrated to the point of madness. Do you know why this happened? Was it due to Tempus’ influence in the area?”

“We are not certain,” Jareth began, “but we have reason to believe that Lolth’s connection to the drow has been strained. Our spies in the Underdark report that it is teeming with unrest. Drow society seems to be in turmoil. Lolth does not appear to be answering the prayers of her priestesses. Without her…guidance…the families are falling upon each other in an orgy of blood and conquest. It is similar to the Time of Troubles, except it doesn’t appear any other deities are being affected. We do not have enough information, but we will keep monitoring this situation. This is another reason we need to strike back at the drow now – they are at their weakest, but we do not know for how long.”

The wizard brought Okul’s armor to Jareth. “First-Sword Burlisk, this armor has several useful enchantments placed on it, specific for drow. On top of its defensive enchantments, it blurs the wearer so that they are more difficult to spot, but this only works in the Underdark. Note the black oil that coats the armor – it is Dark Oil. Dark Oil is meant to preserve special, drow-made magic items from the ravages of the sun. Everyday, the armor must be coated again to ensure the armor does not disintegrate.” Turning to Kilzadi, the wizard asked, “Did you find any vials containing a dark fluid.”

Kilzadi drew forth 10 vials. “Will the armor and these vials of Dark Oil cover the cost of the required materials for Swan’s return?”

Seeing the wizard nod in agreement, Jareth agreed. “Please go rest, and we will finish this ceremony tomorrow. Right now, Priest-General Harndrekker is imploring Tempus to return your friend to you. All we can do now is rest and pray.” Getting up, Jareth left to see to the preparations for his campaign into the Underdark. The companions went to their assigned rooms to rest and wait for Swan to waken.

Kilzadi stopped Gideon. “If this group is at an end, what say you to joining this campaign into the Underdark? We could bring the scalding, purifying light of Kossuth to the drow! We could burn away their evil and help bring them to a higher state! Think of it.”

“You are ambitious Kilzadi, though I can not fault it in this case. We must discuss this further,” Gideon replied. “Also, some of the others have skills that may prove useful if we choose to follow this course.” Gideon and Kilzadi continued walking and discussing their future options.

Neon paced within his room. He was too anxious to rest. “Ah Swan. Come back to me…” Grabbing ink and parchment, he began writing a song glorifying Swan at a frantic pace in preparation for her return. Neon’s voice echoed through the halls, and people passing by marveled at the feeling conveyed by his voice, though they couldn’t clearly hear his words.

Meanwhile, Risca was arguing with himself as he tramped through the forest. He broke through the underbrush, hardly paying attention to where he was going or what he was doing. He knew they were right. There had been nothing else that could have been done. But it just hurt so much. Seeing Swan fall brought back many painful memories, memories he had thought he had lost or at least buried deep enough that they would never return. A hail of arrows, a charge by dirty orcs, his companions – friends, family – falling all around him, and it was all his fault. He didn’t need the Seekers. Swan didn’t need them. They could leave them and continue exploring on their own…

Shaking his head and wiping away a tear, Risca knelt. He felt powerless, something he had never felt before. He always felt he could get out of any situation, no matter how bad it got. Deities seemed to be figureheads, nothing more, and he did not need them to help solve his problems. Never one to pray, he paid homage to the dwarven deities on the holy days, but didn’t give them much thought. But now, he prayed. He bowed his head, closed his eyes, and prayed for guidance and help.

“Marthammor Duin, help your servant. Finder of Trails, help guide me through this dark time. One dear to me has fallen and I seek to balance the scales. What can I do to strike back at the demons and their slaves?” Remembering Okul’s words, Risca began to know despair. What could he do against legions of demons?

A gentle rustle brought Risca’s head up. A handsome dwarf stood before him. Dressed in brown and green, his leather armor seemed to blend into the forest background. The only thing that seemed to stand out about this stranger was his glowing mace that hung from his belt. He seemed familiar, but Risca couldn’t place his face.

“Who am I?” His voice was a breeze between the leaves.

Risca’s eyes opened wider. “Marthammor Duin…”

“I have been following the struggles you and your companions have labored through, and I am worried. These are dark and desperate times. The land I love, the land I love to explore, is in danger. Evil invades and its flow of corruption must be stemmed. You have managed to win your way through the challenges set before you, but by the smallest margins. And you suffer the consequences of your rash actions.” An image of Swan flashed through Risca’s mind.

“You lack focus. Your anger has no direction. You need to concentrate your fury and you will bring forth your potential. You need to if you wish to have any chance of success. To prove your worth, you will be tested. You wish to strike back at those who have harmed you and yours? You must prove to yourself that you have the desire and drive to do so. You swore to complete your purpose - to bring justice to the unjust. To do so, to bring forth your true abilities, to best use your righteousness, you need to strike down evil not of this world. It may seem impossible - your enemies may appear endless. But that doesn’t matter, because there is no one else.”

Passing His hand over Risca’s eyes, Risca felt disjointed from reality. Suddenly, he could see horror. He could see the ruins of a city. The buildings flattened to rubble, the ground steaming and smoking, the air thick with ash and grit. The city was Mirabar. Its people, his people, all lay dead in the streets and doorways. Shadowy figures picked at the bodies; they were not dwarven, but misshapen and perverse. Just as suddenly, the vision vanished.

“That was the future of the world if nothing is done, if you and your companions are not prepared. And know this - it must be you and your companions. You cannot win through this on your own. If you try, you doom everyone and everything. Even with your companions, there are no guarantees. Remember, to fight out a war, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required is that you should battle as hard as you can. The rest belongs to fate.” Turning away, Marthammor Duin melted into the forest. There remained no sign of his passage.

“I swear I will succeed in fulfilling my purpose!” Risca vowed to himself. Whether what he witnessed was a delusion, a cruel trick, an evil temptation, or truly his deity come to his aid, Risca would follow whatever path he needed to to avenge Swan and prevent the future horror from occurring, no matter the cost.

Returning to the abbey, he was surprised to see the sun cresting the horizon. Though it felt like he had been out for only a short time, it seemed he had been communing for the entire evening with Marthammor Duin. He entered and saw the others knelt in prayer. They were giving thanks because Swan was coming back to them. Walking up to Kilzadi, Risca tried to seek forgiveness for what he had said. Interrupting him, Kilzadi responded coolly, “Do not worry yourself on my account, dwarf. Swan will return to us and, once she is healthy, you will be rid of me and the rest of us.” Looking at the others, he could see that they were sympathetic, but a wall was forming between them.

Risca was dismayed by this turn of events. “No. I was wrong to say what I did. If you wish to punish me, do so. But do not punish the realm.” With that, he relayed what had happened to him in the woods. “I was wrong. I was angry and you were there, an easy target for me to vent my anger. That does not make it right, but there it is. Please, I beg of you, do not let others suffer for my shortsightedness.”

They looked at him incredulously. Risca, apologizing? Admitting he was wrong? This was serious. Finally, Gideon said, “I will commune with Kossuth to seek the proper path.” Kilzadi looked at Gideon with mild disgust.

“What did Marthammor Duin mean when he said 'there is no one else'?” Kilzadi asked.

“This is a war being fought on many fronts,” Gideon explained. “Many realms of existence are at stake and all the other pieces are in play...”

“I am no pawn to be moved around at the whim of the gods!” Kilzadi declared defiantly.

“Pawns or not,” Gideon continued, “we may be the only ones championing the righteous cause of defending our realm. The Abyssal spawn are endless and the just forces are few. We cannot ignore the call.”

They all reflected on Gideon's words.

“It would be a shame to break up such a good team,” stated Okul.

“Let us renew our vow to work together,” Neon put in. “For Swan’s sake.”

Their friendship had been strained, but it had weathered its first big test. A priestess approached. “Your friend wakens.” Turning away, she led them to Swan. Only Kilzadi didn’t follow the priestess. Being more pragmatic, he moved in search of the abbey’s wizard to identify the rest of the magical items. The rest of the party gathered around the bed on which Swan rested and they watched as she stirred. Risca knelt beside the bed and took her hand in his own. Tears streamed down his face. Slowly, painfully, she opened her eyes.

“She’s back,” Risca breathed out. Jumping up, he fiercely hugged Okul. “She’s back!” Dancing a little jig, joy and relief was painted clearly on his face. The others gathered in close to welcome Swan back, but the priestess pushed them back.

“She needs her rest. If you jostle her around too much, you will lengthen her recovery time. She has been through the supreme ordeal – her soul needed to return to its mortal shell and that is a journey very few accomplish. Let her have her rest.” Shooing them out, Neon turned about just before he was pushed out of Swan’s room.

“A quick moment with the lady?” His smile was as charming and disarming as ever. The priestess looked at his rogue’s smile and ruefully shook her head.

“One minute, nothing more,” she said. Stepping aside, she let Neon approach Swan’s bed, and then stepped outside to give them their privacy. A soft song rose from behind the door. Murmuring conversation could then be heard. What was said between the two is unknown, but when Neon exited, he had a look of pure happiness and confusion on his face.

The heroes were all invited to Kilzadi’s room to plan their next moves. “Is Swan doing well?” Kilzadi asked.

“Well, if you had bothered to go to see her, you would know!” Risca snapped. Though they had made amends, there was still tension between them.

Kilzadi ignored Risca; instead, he brought forth the magical items he had had identified that morning. Much discussion occurred, especially over a cloak meant to boost a person’s charisma. In the end, the items were distributed to those who would best use them.

“What now?” Okul asked.

“We still need to collect our rewards from the Red Wizards and the Mistledale Council,” Neon mused. “We should probably head back to Ashabenford.”

“Agreed,” said Kilzadi. “Let us head back there to also collect whatever items we had commissioned previously. Let us make our preparations for the journey.”

A sweet voice piped up at the back of Kilzadi’s room. “You weren’t planning on leaving without me, were you?” Swan stood tall in the doorway, though she leaned heavily on the frame.

“Nah. It’s good you’re on your feet. Yeah, let’s get going.” Risca’s voice beamed with pride. Swan was barely able to stand, but looking at her, you would never know it. She refused to show weakness – almost as stubborn as a dwarf.

The party prepared for their journey back to Ashabenford. In short order, their equipment was packed and stashed on their horses. Kilzadi seemed impatient to go, but no one knew why. As they saddled up, Okul turned to the gate’s guard. “Please send our thanks to First Sword Burlisk.”

“What? You couldn’t wait a single turn of the glass to give your farewells in person?” Jareth’s rare showing of humour surprised the priests and soldiers alike. Turning more somber, he addressed the adventurers. “The patrol returned early this morning and I was occupied with their report. They tracked the path the drow ambushers had followed and found no traces of other vermin. It looks like these drow were an isolated group acting on its own. They weren’t on the surface for long and, thanks to you, they won’t bring harm to anyone else.”

Jareth walked over to Okul. “The path you follow is filled with danger. Any little misstep could doom you all. Face your destiny with honour. Tempus guide your sword.” Gideon’s back stiffened. “Kossuth’s Purifying Flame is all that is needed.” With that, Jareth nodded and turned back towards the courtyard where his soldiers trained.

“Let us go.” A stone-faced Gideon led the heroes out of the Abbey of the Sword. They fell into an easy pace that ate up the miles. Their journey was uneventful, though they kept an ever-vigil eye out for any trouble. Like Tempus’ followers, they would not be caught unaware again. As they traveled through the great forest of Cormanthor, the road wound towards a familiar site. A huge plinth of glossy gray rock could be seen standing proudly in the forest. The elven runes winding around its base, outlining the particulars of a treaty signed between elves and humans, could still be clearly read. The stone was rich in history and was a testament to the alliance between the elves and humans. Though for the Seekers, it seemed to take on a more sinister meaning since their dreams had become so vivid.

The heroes halted their horses in front of the Standing Stone. They all looked around suspiciously at the symbol of unity that seemed to have been corrupted in their dreams. Though there were no signs of the spiraling cavern that wound its way to the Underdark and the drow, they were wary. Gideon turned to the others. “Spread out and search the area.”

Moving out in an orderly fashion, they examined the forest, the earth and rock, and the Standing Stone itself, but found no traces of anything unusual or out of the ordinary. As they were about to begin a wider search of the area, they heard the jingle of armor and the whinny of horses. Drawing weapons, they spun around to face the approaching group. A caravan, several horses drawing 4 covered carts, drew near. Several mounted soldiers and merchants flanked the carts, protecting them from any would-be assailants. As they got closer, the lead horsemen sighted the Seekers and halted the rest. A familiar voice called out. “Risca Foraker, is that you?” the voice queries. “Do I also spy the lovely Swan Battlestar? Are you still slumming with that pesky dwarf?”

Risca recognized the voice and stepped forward, sheathing his sword. “Greetings, Brechtu. I see you still seek your fortune.”

“My fortune seeks me, Risca,” Brechtu replied, a slight edge to his voice. “And it has found me. I have just finished selling bolts of fine silk cloth to Jarwain, a moon-elf tailor to the rich and famous. I now have an exclusive contract to be his sole supplier. And now I travel to Essembia to expand my trading empire. Would you be interested in some more work?” Brechtu gave Risca a quick once-over. “After a change of wardrobe, of course. I see you are still wearing the same outfit when last I saw you.” Several of the soldiers chuckled; one held his nose while not-so-subtly pointing at Risca. “My offer is also to Swan and your other friends. It is good pay for easy work.”

A dark expression crossed Risca’s face. He seemed oblivious to the taunts, though his companions weren’t. “There are dangers on your path. We had an encounter with a group of drow. Though we routed them, their numbers and audacity seem to be on the rise.”

Brechtu seemed shocked. After some thought, he replied, “Thank you for the warning.” His voice was filled with sincerity. “We will be vigilant. Since you have provided us with invaluable information, I am willing to provide you with any information I have.”

“Any news of unusual events in the area or nearby towns?” Neon asked.

“The only nearby town of note would be Hillsfar, and you wouldn’t want to go there Risca,” Brechtu replied.

“And why not?” Risca’s voice was hard.

“The people of Hillsfar are notoriously xenophobic – they do not like outsiders, especially ones who are not human. That would include your half-elven friend there and the golden-scaled one. The moment you were spotted, you would be ‘volunteered’ to participate in the gladiatorial games. These are merely bloodsports to satiate the population, nothing more. No matter what, non-humans are the losers.”

“What of Ashabenford?” Swan asked. “In particular, what about Haresk Malorn?”

“Ashabenford? Haresk Malorn?” Brechtu shook his head. “Nothing changes in Ashabenford. All is calm and normal. Life progresses at a snail’s pace and nothing changes. I would be more shocked if something new occurred in Ashabenford then if the sun rose out of the west.” Swan was disappointed by the response. She knew something was amiss, and it somehow involved the High Councilor, Haresk Malorn.

Brechtu’s expression turned bored. “Is there anything else you want to know?” Seeing there wasn’t, he bid his farewells. Repeating his offer for employment, he was disappointed that Risca and his friends turned him down. “If you change your minds, seek me out in Ashabenford.” With a wave, he led his caravan towards Essembia. Several soldiers, while passing Risca, joked about unpleasant smells and dwarfs slipping into cesspools. Quick as a flash, Swan had nocked an arrow and let fly. A soldier yelled out as he tumbled from his horse, the strap to his saddle having been cleanly severed by Swan’s arrow. Putting on the most innocent expression, she simply said, “Oops. Finger slipped.” The rest of the Seekers closed ranks and seemed ready to unleash their fury.

Collecting their friend, the soldiers eyed them menacingly and left quickly. “Let’s go to Ashabenford,” Kilzadi said. “We’ve delayed long enough. Let us collect our reward for our hard work.” Clicking his heels, his horse trotted towards town.

Arriving at Ashabenford, the soldiers at the gate sent runners to inform the Mistledale Council, the followers of Chauntea at the Abbey of the Golden Sheaf, and Chathi Chathendum's Company of Thayan Traders of the return of the Seekers. People stepped out of their way – word of their exploits had spread, as well as the fact that danger hung around them like a well-worn cloak.

Neon addressed the party. “We need to go to Jhanira Barasstan and let her know that Aleena has been avenged.” He guided his horse towards the Shrine of Chauntea. The shrine was in stark contrast to the Abbey of the Sword – where the Abbey of the Sword gave the impression of being a fortress, it was difficult to tell the shrine from a well-tended garden. A small, stone structure stood in the middle of various plots where numerous crops and flowers grew.

Riding past the beautiful greenery and the people working them, the group dismounted and stabled their horses. Neon called out cheerfully. “Jhanira, my sweet, where are you?” Swan’s expression briefly turned sour. When Jhanira came out to greet them, her expression turned more warm and welcoming. Jhanira was dressed in a simple outfit with a large apron. She seemed to have been in the middle of preparing something in the kitchen.

“Neon, Swan, welcome! Thrice welcome to you all! I hope you bring good tidings.”

Without another word, Neon removed Bareris’ head from his sack. Showing Jhanira the grim trophy, a hard smile touched her lips. “Aleena’s soul rests easier now.” Jhanira eyes teared up. “Thank you, all of you, for upholding justice. Bareris’ reign of terror is over. He could have caused others great harm if he had been allowed the chance. You have saved others from the grief I have suffered. You will always be welcome here.”

Removing a small whistle from her apron, she blew a brief note. A young man ran over from the fields and bowed to Jhanira. In an imperious voice, she addressed the young acolyte. “Brother Johan, please inform the Mistledale Council and the Red Wizards that the Seekers of Faerun have returned successfully from their quest to avenge Watchful Sister of the Earth Aleena after her untimely death at the hands of the rogue wizard, Bareris.”

Turning back to address the heroes, her tone became more friendly. “We shall prepare a victory feast in your honour. Tomorrow night, you will be feted for your success and receive the recognition you deserve. We will show you our gratitude. I look forward to seeing you all there. The most prominent citizens will be there to give thanks to you.”

At this, Swan started to feel a little uncomfortable. “There’ll be royalty there?”

“Of a sort,” Jhanira replied. “The ruling class will definitely be there.” Glancing at their attire, she wrinkled her nose. “Not to go off topic, but do you all have…suitable…attire for such an occasion?”

Everyone turned to look at Risca. “What?” he asked. “I got me a great outfit, and I’m wearing it now!”

“You can not go to a formal affair wearing armor,” Neon admonished. “You need to get something a little more appropriate for the occasion. And you will definitely need to clean up a little.” The last was said with a small smile.

“Hey, I bathed last week!” Risca shot back. “You’re just jealous of my masculine odor.”

Okul joined in on the ribbing. “Walking through the rain does not count as ‘taking a bath’. I’ve got some soap and you can scrub yourself down.”

“Then we can all pick up something nice to wear in town,” Kilzadi offered. “Swan, we can get you a nice dress to accentuate…” Kilzadi’s words trailed off. As each word left his mouth, Swan’s expression had become more and more irate.

“I am not wearing anything frilly, silky, covered in bows, or that will ‘accentuate’!” she growled. “I do not, I will not, dress up for those pompous jack-asses. There is nothing you can do to change my mind. I would rather run through razor brush naked than go to any event where I have to come within bowshot of royalty!”

“Okay then.” Kilzadi was at a loss of words. “Uhhh, let’s sleep on this and make a decision tomorrow.”

“Before you go,” Jhanira interrupted, “would you like to see where Aleena was interred?” She brought the party over to a small, fenced off area that acted as the abbey’s memorial area. Bringing them to a beautiful oak sapling, Jhanira showed where Aleena’s remains had been buried.

“Aleena had planted this sapling herself years ago when she had first arrived at the abbey,” Jhanira explained. “It was the symbol of her dedication to Chauntea and Her teachings.” Jhanira’s eyes watered. “She would be happy knowing that she has become part of the natural cycle of life and that she helps to maintain nature’s balance.”

After a moment, they returned to the small stone shrine. Bidding their farewells and promising to see each other at the celebration, the group headed into town to find a well-deserved rest.

Neon stopped as they rode towards the White Hart Inn. “I’ll catch up to you all later. It’s still a little early and I need to do some…calisthenics. I’ll meet you in the public room of the inn two turns of the hourglass after sunrise.” With that, Neon waltzed towards a group of young ladies who had paused to gaze at the heroes. “Evening ladies…” Neon leaned in to tell the shyest one a private little joke. She blushed fiercely; the rest of the conversation was too hushed to be heard. The rest of the party shrugged their shoulders – Neon would never change. They turned towards the inn, though Swan looked over at Neon and mouthed the word, “Lisserlig.”

Once out of sight of the others, Neon bade the young ladies a good evening, promising to meet up with them the following evening at the celebration. Neon picked up his pace as he strode towards Jhaer Brightsong’s house. It would never do if the others suspected he was going over to just see her – he had a reputation to preserve. Her house was a small abode, very cottage-like, rustic but well-maintained. Knocking on the door, there was no response. Growing impatient, he spied a farmer passing by.

“Good sir,” he greeted him. “Do you know where the fair bard Jhaer Brightsong is?”

Scratching his head, the farmer grinned lewdly. “Aye, I wish she were here too. She is not hard on the eyes. Unfortunately, she went to Shadowdale, but she should be back in a couple of days, at most.”

Neon was downcast; he was hoping for a rousing greeting from his lady fair, but it seemed that this would not be the case. I guess I’ll have to wait. I hate waiting. But I can’t go back yet. I have a reputation to maintain. Let’s see if there are any other ladies who are looking for some fun. Pouting a little, he strode off in search of companionship.

When the others had entered the inn, they were greeted by quite a surprise. As soon as they set foot in the inn, the bartender moved forward to welcome them. “Hail and well met. Welcome to the White Hart Inn. I am Holfast Harpenshield, proprietor of this fine establishment. Are you here for some fine dining or…” His booming voice trailed off. “Cygni? My Little Ugly Duckling? Is that you?”

Swan cringed at the name ‘Ugly Duckling’. She hadn't heard it in years. Her upbringing could be best described as rough-and-tumble. Her family and many ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’ had used to tease her by calling her ‘Ugly Duckling’ – it annoyed her to no end. Looking closer at the bartender, she recognized him immediately. It was hard to forget the broad shoulders and many-scarred face. A look of sheer joy crossed Swan’s face. “Uncle Holdfast!” Swan threw herself into his arms. Planting a very loud kiss on his cheek, she hugged him fiercely around his neck.

“Easy there, Cygni!” he said in a teasing tone. “I’m not as young as I used to be! You’ll end up squeezing my lifeblood out of me if you keep that up.”

“You old fraud,” she replied. “You’ll outlive us all. I didn’t know you ended up here. Last time I saw you, I remember you were going to track some fantastic monsters that were harming a human settlement.”

“Well, I ended up at Peldan’s Helm to hunt some foul beasts that had gotten brave and begun hunting the villagers.” He looked a little misty-eyed as he recalled these happy memories. “Well, the beasties proved to be quite a challenge. I received some new scars, but we helped save the village. By the time we had finished our hunt, I had become quite enamored with the area so I decided to stay. I bought up this inn and planted my roots. The rest is history. How have you been doing? How’s your family? Last time I saw you, you were only this tall.” He reached his hand down to knee level. “What have you been up to? And who are your friends?”

Swan blushed a little in embarrassment. She had completely forgotten about her companions. Introducing them quickly, Holdfast gripped forearms with each of them and greeted them warmly.

When he greeted Risca, there was the shortest of pauses. The moment grew tense. “So you knew her when she was a child?” Risca asked sharply. Swan’s breath caught in her throat.

“Who wants to know?” Holdfast snapped back.

“Her friend and companion,” was all Risca responded. They stared at each other and took stock. After a brief moment, apparently liking what they saw in the other, they grasped each other’s arms in the legionnaire’s salute. Swan’s shoulders visibly relaxed.

“First rounds on me!” Holdfast roared. Signaling over a barmaid, she brought ale and wine for all. Picking up his glass, he proposed a toast. “To Cygni! Her cooking may make you sick, but she will always be there to see you get better!”

Laughter erupted. Glasses clanged together and were drained. “My cooking does not make people sick!” Swan squawked.

“Don’t you remember when you made everyone your famous ‘Mud Pies’?” Holdfast said with a grin.

Swan burst out laughing. “I had thought you were supposed to make them with mud. Hence the name. I was 4 years old.”

The evening passed quickly as Holdfast and Swan reminisced. Holdfast seemed to enjoy talking about his adventuring days with Swan’s mother the most. By the end of the evening, both Swan and Holdfast were grinning and crying, remembering sweet memories. One by one, the others had gone to bed; even Neon, who had walked in sheepishly near midnight. Swan had stayed up to catch up with her ‘Uncle’.

It was one of the most pleasant evenings she had ever had. But eventually, weariness caught up to her and with regret, she had to cut the conversation short. “I’m sorry, Uncle Holdfast. I need to get my beauty rest.” Giving him a quick peck, she got up to go to her room.

“Beauty rest! You don’t need that! Your beauty outshines the most delicate flowers.” His expression turned slightly more serious. “Whenever you wish to stay here, you stay for free,” he told her. “You’re family, and this will give you an incentive to visit here more often. Sleep tight, my Little Ugly Duckling.” Getting to his feet, he went to clean up the bar a little before turning in himself. He also wanted to hide the fact that he had begun to cry. I’m growing soft… he thought to himself.

The next morning, the party woke up to such pleasant scents as to make their mouths water immediately. Washing quickly, they all hurried downstairs to find the source of the alluring aromas. They were greeted by the sight of plates topped with great rings of sausage, smoked fish baked with lemon, freshly baked loaves of bread, and other sumptuous morsels – a veritable feast. Holdfast was fussing with a kettle, wiping sweat from his brow. It looked like he hadn’t slept at all, but his face bore a wide and satisfied grin. “Good morning all!”

Swan rushed down to hug him fiercely. “Uncle,” she admonished, “you didn’t have to go to all this trouble for me or my friends!”

“Speak for yourself, girlie!” Risca retorted. Without another word, he planted himself on a seat, tore off a hunk of bread, and dug in lustily. As if this was a signal, the others joined him and began feasting.

“Trouble? This was no trouble!” Holdfast was exhausted, but it was worth the minor inconvenience to see Swan smile. “Better I should cook than you give your friends food poisoning!”

“Thank you, Uncle,” Swan replied dryly. She knew how much effort went into the feast before them and she was grateful. Giving Holdfast another quick squeeze, Swan joined her friends and enjoyed the meal. Holdfast sat beside her and they chatted about the Seekers’ recent adventures.

“You conquered the Tower of Haptooth Hill?” Holdfast was incredulous.

“Bareris the Rogue Wizard had claimed his old master’s tower as his own,” Kilzadi explained. “We brought him to justice for his crimes against Aleena, slain cleric of Chauntea.”

“You were the ones who slew Bareris?” Holdfast was impressed. “That lair was probably a tough nut to crack. So you are the distinguished individuals who are being feted tonight. I didn’t know I was in the presence of celebrities.” Swan elbowed him in the ribs.

“Enough of that, Uncle,” Swan pleaded. “Bareris was a menace and he slew Aleena in a most heinous fashion. Whatever else he was, he was a cold-blooded murderer and he had to be stopped.”

“I know my dear,” he replied. “You did well. The day progresses and I’m sure you all have important things to do to prepare for the celebration. Come back anytime and we can share a drink and a fine meal.” The party gave their thanks and promised to return soon.

Slapping himself on the forehead, Holdfast shouted out to them. “I almost forgot.” Handing a sealed envelope to Swan, he explained its origins. “This letter was dropped off for you from the High Councilor.” Giving a sly wink. “Try not to lose it, okay?”

Thanking Holdfast again as he left, they huddled around as Swan opened the envelope. “It's an invitation to the celebration tonight at the High Councilor's home.” Swan sniffed in disdain. “It appears many dignitaries from the region will be present to applaud our accomplishments.”

Before any further discussion could occur, Kilzadi addressed the party. “Time to find out our spoils of conquest.” He continued in a reassuring tone. “Give me a moment and I’ll return shortly.” Leaving the others behind, Kilzadi searched out Chathi Chathendum to identify the unknown magic items he held, as well as trade the excess equipment they had acquired.

Finding the Company of Thayan Traders, Kilzadi sought out Chathi. There she is. He found her selling magical wares. Though she had her back turned to him and her hood drawn up over her head, Kilzadi recognized her magical aura almost immediately. Walking up to her, he called her name to draw her attention. “Mistress Chathendum. My companions and I have returned with Bareris, or his head anyway.”

As she turned and drew back her hood, Kilzadi was taken aback by the stark changes that she had gone through since last he saw her. Her head was now shaven and covered in intricate tattoos, denoting her rank and power as a Red Wizard. What was more startling were her eyes: where before they had been hard, there had always been a sense of humanity, though tinted with arrogance. Now her eyes were cold and calculating, with no remnants of any empathy. They were also filled with power. Kilzadi quickly recovered from his shock and reminded himself to be more wary of this wizardess from now on.

“Does my appearance shock you?” she said mockingly.

“I see you have progressed quickly since last we met,” Kilzadi commented. Tilting his head, he continued, “Congratulations on your success.”

“Thank you,” she replied. “By your words, the aberration Bareris is no more?”

“He will trouble you no further,” he said with a smile. With a flourish, he removed the grim trophy of Bareris from his bag as proof to Chathi.

“Well done. I know it must have been quite challenging, but I knew you and your companions were up to the task.” Though her words were full of praise, her eyes showed no emotion.

“I seek your help in identifying these items we recovered from Bareris' lair.” Kilzadi pulled out the various items and laid them before Chathi.

“Give me a moment to collect the necessary components and I will solve this minor mystery for you. Please come inside our tent so you can escape prying eyes and we can have some privacy.” With that, she led Kilzadi into her large tent and nodded towards a guard to keep watch outside. As he stepped out, she tied off the flaps behind him. Gathering spell components, Chathi quickly identified all the items. As she did her work, she chatted up Kilzadi.

“Where did you get this statuette?” Chathi asked.

“We found it in one of Bareris' private rooms,” Kilzadi replied. “We don't know what it does other than sing.”

“It is of elven-make and uncommon. Elves rarely work with stone. This piece is beautifully made and the craftsmanship is almost equal to dwarven-quality, at least in terms of stonework. I can't place the song for certain, but I do believe it is an elven lullaby. Though I have no clientele who would be interested in it, you may wish to seek out Jarwain Half-Elf; he enjoys such baubles.”

Chathi continued her task and asked how the party acquired each one. Kilzadi was a shrewd trader and managed to acquire a fair amount of money for all the items the party didn't want or need.

“Did everyone survive the ordeal?” Chathi asked the question almost innocently.

“It was touch and go for a while, but everyone came out alive, more or less.”

“Tell me everything that happened.”

Thinking she wanted details of Bareris' defeat, Kilzadi quickly recounted the details of their search for Bareris in his stronghold and the final battle that ensued. Chathi listened attentively to the tale and only interrupted a few times to ask probing questions. What interested Kilzadi was that the questions seemed to revolve around Gideon. As he finished his account, Chathi cut him off suddenly.

“Did you know that your ally Gideon Fireforged has a fire elemental lover?” Kilzadi was caught off guard by her tone and her question. “This is why he has a stone cottage, so that she doesn't burn his home to the ground.” The last was said with a nasty grin.

“That is a baseless rumor,” Kilzadi began.

Chathi continued talking over Kilzadi. “You must keep a close eye on him. My brethren and I would pay handsomely for any information you could provide about Gideon.”

Kilzadi now understood the reason for Chathi's previous questions, but not why she was so interested in Gideon. “Why the interest in my companion? What is your intent? Know that we are both brothers of Kossuth and I will not betray him.”

“You call yourself brothers, but do you really know him?” The usually calm Chathi began to pace. “When he found his faith in Kossuth, something happened to him, something...unnatural. I am a mistress of magic and the little I know unsettles me.” Stopping, she faced Kilzadi. “He didn't just find Kossuth that day: Kossuth found him. He was reborn, an avatar for Kossuth's will on this plane, and he was not the same.” She shuddered. “Gideon's exterior may appear human, but he no longer has any traces of humanity since undergoing his rebirth and transformation.”

Kilzadi tried to defend his companion, but Chathi cut him off again. “No! You do not understand the extent of his abilities or the role Kossuth has for him in our world. No one knows.” Her voice trailed off a little. “There have been signs indicating Kossuth's plans, but they were unclear. Nothing is certain. Gideon Fireforged is well named. Kossuth's flame touched him deeply and molded him into the force he is today. His true intentions are unknown and could bring great harm to everyone.”

Chathi visibly calmed herself. “This is why we need your help in gathering information. Though you both are followers of Kossuth, for you, first and foremost, is your magic. You have not given yourself over completely to Kossuth like Gideon has. He trusts you and you can gain insights no one else can. For your help, we will reward you handsomely. Think it over. You know where you can find us.”

Kilzadi gathered the singing statuette and left Chathi's pavilion without another word. Chathi's statements seemed groundless, but it was true that Gideon's powers seemed beyond the normal scope of a cleric. Treating the situation as a mental exercise, Kilzadi pushed the thoughts back until he could spend time to focus on them. With a desire to divest himself of the statuette, he headed towards Jarwain's Imports.

Arriving at a single-story building, it seemed very well-maintained, even a little posh-looking. With large front windows displaying various clothes and textiles, the store seemed too flamboyant for the area. Walking through the front door, Kilzadi was assailed by various perfumes as he entered the store.

“What is that stench?” Holding a handkerchief over his nose, a half-elf approached Kilzadi. Though he looked human, several traits marked his elven heritage: his slim build, the slightly-pointed ears, and his gold-flecked eyes. “I am Jarwain, the proprietor of this establishment. Hurry with your business. You have added a very distinct...scent that I seem to be allergic to.” Already, Kilzadi didn't like the man.

With a mocking bow, Kilzadi introduced himself and pulled out the singing statuette.

“Oooh,” Jarwain cooed. “That is just darling. And that used to be my favorite lullaby when I was growing up!” Placing it on his countertop, he looked at it from various angles. Jarwain put on a bland expression. “But I have one just like it. Why should I purchase this from you? It doesn't add to my collection at all.”

Before he could come up with a reply, Jarwain butted in. “Wait. Are you part of the group who defeated Bareris?” Again, before he could formulate an answer, Jarwain cut him off again. “Of course you are! How else could you have gotten so disheveled and...pungent. You must be going to the fete tonight!” Jarwain's thoughts fluttered around like leaves in a tornado. “You must be at your best and that means you must be in my designs! Oh, but you're a man. How unfortunate. Are there any ladies in your group?”

Am I so heartless that I would put Swan through this? A wicked grin crossed Kilzadi's face. Yes. I suppose I am. “There is one amongst my companions who would be honoured to wear the clothes you designed. Her name is Swan Battlestar. Her beauty could only be magnified ten-fold by your artistry.” I think I'm going to be sick.

“Then this is what I propose,” said Jarwain. “I'll purchase your statuette if your friend Swan will come to my boutique and wear the clothes I have designed to the fete tonight.”

Kilzadi put out his hand. “Deal.” Jarwain looked at the hand as if it was covered in pustules. “I will trust your word. We are civilized beings and verbal agreements are binding. Now shoo and bring your friend Swan to see me!”

Jarwain opened the door for Kilzadi and ushered him out of his store. Closing the door quickly, he picked up a perfume bottle and started spritzing the air.

Weirdo, they both thought.

The other companions were exploring the town and tying up loose ends before they had to go to the celebration in their honour that night. Okul went to go visit Noristuor the Mage in his tower to give his apologies for disturbing his research. Banging on his door, Okul heard a sudden crash. Fearing the worst, Okul prepared to break down the door. Pulling out the broken haft of his spear out of habit, he lunged shoulder-first into the door, or he tried to. Before he could make contact, he was suddenly held by a giant, transparent hand. The door flung open to reveal a grumbling tiefling.

“Can't you just wait a few moments for me to get to the door?” Peering more closely at Okul's face, Noristuor suddenly recognized him. “You again! You disturbed me a second time! What? Can't let a tiefling live in peace? Because of you, I knocked over …” The tirade continued for quite some time. During the entire time, Okul was held suspended inches above the ground by the wizard's spell. Finally, the rant came to an end. “You could learn to knock more politely instead of pounding your fist through the door. But that would entail learning proper manners...” Noristuor's eyes focused on the broken shaft of Okul's spear. “What were you going to do with that? Give them slivers? What did you do to your spear?” Noristuor's expression changed abruptly to a more thoughtful one. “On the other hand, maybe it is a good thing that you showed up. I know you and your friends have a party to go to tonight, but the moment it is over, I want you all to come see me. I have something very important to tell you all. I'll even re-enchant your beloved spear if you show up.” Reaching out, he grabbed Okul's spear out of his hands. With that, he closed the door in Okul's face before he could get a word in edgewise. The spell holding Okul released and he stumbled as he caught himself. Well that was very strange and annoying. Seeing no other reason to be there, Okul left to find a merchant to stock up on supplies and get a new spear.

Walking through the marketplace, Okul could not find the one item he truly thought necessary: Entanglement Bags. After their experience in the Zhentarim Citadel, he thought it would be very important to get something that could stop their opponents dead in their tracks. Makes them easier targets. Asking around, he was directed to go to the druid's grove found outside of town. This could take a while. Although I don't want to go to the festivities tonight, I have an obligation to be there and not abandon the rest of the Seekers. I'll go tomorrow when I have more time. With that, he turned to head back to the White Hart Inn for a quick meal before he continued his practicing with the spear.

Swan had gone into the marketplace herself to stock up on vials of acid. Heading to the shop of Almaes the Alchemist, she was surprised to find the shop closed. Gently knocking on the door, a voice called out. “In a minute. I'll be there shortly.” Hearing quick footsteps inside, the door opened to reveal a young, female gnome.

“How can I help you?” she asked.

“I'm looking for Almaes the Alchemist,” Swan replied. “I wish to purchase some vials of acid.”

At that, the young female gnome looked a little embarrassed. “I'm sorry,” she explained. “My name is Callandra Auldcastle. My husband, Almaes, has gone off gallivanting with his friend Osier Manchineel of Harrowdale. They went to examine the new temple of Mystra.” She frowned a little. “It just seemed to have shown up overnight and they both grew curious. He should be back within 2 weeks or so, but I'm sure I can help you find what you need.” Motioning Swan inside the shop, she led her to a display case. “I hope he gets back soon. I hate handling his concoctions!”

“You said you wanted a vial of acid?” Callandra asked. Reaching into the case, she gingerly removed a small purple vial. “This is the strongest acid we have in stock. It quickly eats through most metals and organic materials. Will this do?”

Swan shook her head in assent and took the vial from Callandra. Handing her the appropriate coins, Swan left the shop. Swan began walking back to the White Hart Inn when she spotted Risca inspecting the jewels being displayed at another shop. Grinning, she went to join him.

Meanwhile, Gideon was purchasing platinum rings for every member of their group. This should help keep us all alive. It won't be pleasant for me, necessarily, but, Kossuth be willing, it won't prove fatal. As he finished his purchase and pocketed the rings, he turned to see Risca and Swan perusing another jewelry display. Walking over, he could clearly hear every word Risca was saying, as well as many patrons and the shop owners.

“Now, you see these jewels, Swan,” Risca said loudly. “They are of very poor quality. You can tell they weren't cut properly by how the light isn't reflected evenly. On top of that, the gems themselves are of inferior quality. You can see the imperfections quite easily. And look at the prices! Whoever buys jewelry here needs to have their heads examined!” Turning to address Swan directly, Risca continued, “If someone ever buys you gems like this, I will personally return them to the sender with my fist!” As he was saying this, several patrons walked away. One of the shop owners angrily rushed over and confronted Risca.

“Are you blind dwarf? You have no sense of the skill and artistry that was put into making each of these works of art!” he yelled.

“Works of art? Don't make me laugh!” Risca retorted. “If these are works of art, then I would hate to see what your pieces of junk look like!” Swan began to laugh uproariously. Gideon shook his head and hid a smile.

“You dare slander our good names!” the shop owner screeched. “I will get the Riders' of Mistledale to run you out of the Dalelands!” He moved to follow through on his threat when he was stopped by Gideon.

“Peace, friend.” Gideon tried to soothe the shop owner. “My friends and I have just returned from a very arduous task. They're just releasing their tension and mean nothing by their words.”

“I don't care what you've gone through!” the shop owner snapped. “You and your friends won't last a day here in Ashabenford!”

“Maybe I should clarify who we are.” Gideon had tried to be reasonable, but he saw that the shop owner was beyond reason at this stage. “We are the Seekers of Faerun. We have returned after avenging Aleena, cleric of Chauntea, at Bareris' keep, the Tower on Haptooth Hill. We are in very good standing with the local rulers, having done them a great service, and they would look favorably upon any who treated us kindly and fairly.”

With each statement, the shop owner was took a step back. Seekers of Faerun! “My apologies for not recognizing you sooner.” Opening up a cabinet, he pulled out a sparkling necklace. Holding it out for Swan, he addressed her. “Please, accept this humble gift in thanks and recognition for your bravery.”

Risca softened his tone. Seeing the fear in the shop owner's eyes, he felt guilty. “There is no need for gifts. We will not speak ill of you or this shop. My friend was right. I was just venting and I should not have spoken so hastily of your wares or your shop.” Fishing around in his money pouch, Risca pulled forth some coins and offered them to the shop owner. “If my friend wishes to have the necklace, then I will pay for it.”

They spent several minutes reassuring the shop owner and Swan walked away with a new necklace. Giving Risca a quick hug, she turned to Gideon. “What brings you out here Gideon? I didn't think you liked jewelry.”

“I was just purchasing some insurance for our group,” he said. When he would provide no further explanation, they let the subject drop.

“Are you two busy?” Gideon asked. “I need to travel to Glen to commission an item from the dwarves. Only they have the workmanship to accomplish the task I need done. Would you like to come with me?”

Swan readily agreed, but Risca hesitated a little before agreeing as well. What harm can come from seeing my brethren?

As Gideon, Risca, and Swan set off for Glen to visit the dwarven craftsman, Neon went to see if he could find clues to Jhaer Brightsong's whereabouts. Returning to her cabin, he glanced around to ensure no one was around to witness what he was about to do. Pulling out two small slivers of metal out of the hem of his sleeve, Neon expertly picked the locks to Jhaer's cabin. Opening the door, he stepped in quickly and quietly closed the door behind him.

Well, you definitely don't live large. Looking around the spartan cottage, the only accouterments to be seen were a bed, table, couple of chairs, a cabinet, a dresser with a mirror, and a small chest at the foot of the bed. Everything seemed normal and nothing was out of place.

I should take a quick look around. Neon proceeded to search the cottage, pausing only to sniff some underwear. In the bedroom, he did find a note written on parchment hanging from the frame of the mirror. It was written in elvish and had only 2 words: Shadowdale Daemon. That does not bode well. Is she off fighting this thing on her own or is she investigating and gathering information? Assuming that your neighbour was right, you should be back soon, but seeing that note does not reassure me. I wish I knew where you were.

As Neon finished going through Jhaer's personal possessions, Gideon, Risca, and Swan reached Glen. As they approached the stone-and-thatch village, they were greeted at the main gates by several well-armed dwarves.

The dwarven guards addressed the trio. “Identify yourself and state your business in Glen.”

Gideon spoke first. “I am Gideon Fireforged. These are my companions Swan and Risca. We are here seeking the skilled dwarven craftsmen of Glen to create puissant items.” Shaking his sack of coins, Gideon continued. “We have survived many trials and now seek to improve the odds in our favour. Please let us pass.”

The guards looked at each of them closely, and only paused when their eyes fell on Risca. After a quick discussion, a runner was sent into town and they waved the trio through.

Squat stone buildings and a few stone towers sat inside the square stone wall. Everything about the town spoke of efficiency and control – admiral qualities to a dwarf. Streets were straight and the town was separated into sectors based on need. After asking directions, Risca, Gideon, and Swan headed towards the area where the dwarven craftsmen would be found. They had not walked more than a dozen steps when they were intercepted by a soot-covered, apron wearing dwarf. An insignia of a hammer and anvil could barely be seen on his apron underneath all the soot. By the tools he carried at his belt, they guessed he was a smith.

“Stand where you are,” he commanded. “I am Master Smith Thorik. I have a few questions for you.” Poking his finger into Risca's chest, he asked, “Are you Risca Foraker from Mirabar? Risca the outcast?”

Risca bristled and opened his mouth to shout an angry retort. Realizing they were on the precipice of disaster, Swan stepped in. Her voice was calm, but tinged with anger.

“His name is Risca – Risca who saved me from marauding bugbears; Risca who is a valued member of the Seekers of Faerun; Risca who defeated roving bands of bandits and half-orc killers; Risca who braved Galeth's Roost; Risca who obliterated the Zhentarim from their citadel and freed their captives; and Risca who helped avenge Aleena, beloved follower of Chauntea, in the Tower of Haptooth Hill. Yes, his name is Risca, and his deeds, and the good he has done, are well known to all.”

Thorik, his eyes wide, blinked in surprise. He had not expected such a fierce defense from one who was not a dwarf. To a dwarf, the only thing more important than gold and treasure was kin. Loyalty was the most important commodity amongst dwarvenkind. To see a non-dwarf so unwavering in her loyalty for a dwarf was surprising. Shaking his head, he pressed on.

“That may be so, but if he is the ostraka Risca, then he is not welcome here. He put his own desires above those of his kin, and they paid the price with their blood.”

Risca tried to calm himself; he realized that his next words could cause a great deal of trouble, not only for himself, but for his companions. He didn't want to have another incident worse than the one he had caused with the jeweler earlier on. He had to be pragmatic. Though it burned his soul to swallow his pride, he would do so for their sake. Now was not the time to deal with this issue. But the time would soon arrive...

“My friends do not lie: My name is Risca. I and my companions travel the land in hopes of ensuring justice prevails. We have been given an important task by Marthammor Duin himself to combat chaos and evil. We know not where our journey will take us, but we need to be prepared with the best: the best weapons, the best armor. And the best means dwarven.”

Gideon added, “Do not deny us. By Kossuth's Holy Flame, I swear that our cause is just.”

Not fully convinced, Thorik could think of no good argument to deny them entrance. Grudgingly, he let them pass. Continuing on their way to the area where the dwarven craftsmen could be found, they noticed that many eyes followed their every step.

“That was a little unpleasant,” Swan whispered to Risca.

He turned his head and replied, “Thank you.” Blushing a little, Swan looked away to hide her face. Risca spoke up, “Now that we are in, Gideon, what is it you need?”

Gideon stopped peering around and addressed them. “I had a moment of divine inspiration. I know of a Master Trader in Glen who specializes in working with gems and crystals – his name is Master Khondar. I need him to supply me with the materials I need to have something... unique made for me.”

“Khondar?!?” Risca blurted. “We're looking for Khondar? Then we are looking in the wrong place!” Grabbing Swan's and Gideon's arms, Risca led them to a tavern just outside of the craftsmen sector. “Here's where we'll find him.” The tavern was packed full of dwarves unwinding from a hard day of labor.

Looking in, Gideon assessed the situation. The dwarves were in various states of inebriation and seemed very rowdy. “It may be best for you to stay out of the tavern, Risca. You may get recognized again and start a brawl.”

Swan piped up, “I'll stay with him.” With a wink, she said, “I may be new to cities and towns, but I must say that this is one ugly-looking town. Maybe he could tell me more about the beauties of dwarven architecture.”

Risca erupted in response while Swan laughed uncontrollably. Shaking his head again, Gideon left the two to their “discussion” and entered the tavern. He drew all eyes as he walked up to the bar, or at least tried to. Since the building had been made for dwarves, he had to duck his head several times to avoid wooden beams. Reaching the bar, he addressed the barkeep.

“I have been told that Master Trader Khondar could be found here. Do you know where he is?”

The barkeep glanced over at a table where 2 dwarves were sitting and drinking. As Gideon moved to greet them, the barkeep stopped him. “I don't know what your business is, but if you want to get on his good side, you need to keep Khondar's glass full.” Pointing at one of the dwarves' mug, Gideon could see it was empty.

“What does Khondar like to drink?”

“Only the best – Four Mold Mushroom Blended Malt Scotch. It isn't cheap, either.”

With a sigh, Gideon handed over several gold pieces. “I'll buy him his own keg of the stuff.” The barkeep hauled up a keg and plunked it on top of the bar. “And while you're at it, what else do you have to drink?”

“For a human?” The barkeep barked out a laugh. “You tend to like the...fancier drinks and the ones that don't kick you in the groin. You won't find anything like that here!”

“What is your mildest drink?” Gideon knew he was being egged on, but decided to play along.

With a snicker, the barkeep poured him a dark, thick beer. “Here. Blackboot Stout Mildest drink I've got.”

“My thanks.” Hoisting the keg over his shoulder, he took a pull from his mug; Gideon almost choked. The beer was so thick that he almost had to chew on it and it was so bitter that his throat threatened to close up. Gagging a little, he walked over to the table, listening to the barkeep burst out in laughter again.

Approaching the table, Gideon could hear the dwarves were arguing – it seemed to center around determining whose turn it was to buy the next round. “Khondar?”

Turning an angry eye to Gideon, he responded, “Who wants to know? Can't you see I'm trying to enjoy myself here?”

Surprised at his gruff answer (Wasn't he supposed to be a Master Trader?), Gideon introduced himself. “I am Gideon Fireforged. I will cut out the unnecessary banter and get straight to the point. I see your mug is empty. I have purchased a keg of Four Mold Mushroom Blended Malt Scotch for you. I know you are trying to relax, but I need to purchase a large supply of crystals from you to create a very special item.”

Khondar's eyes lit up at the sight of the keg. His voice became more inviting. “Sit, sit.” Knocking another dwarf at an adjacent table out of his stool, Khondar pulled it towards Gideon. Motioning Gideon to sit down, Khondar grasped the keg and put it down gently beside himself. Pointing at his companion, he said, “This is my friend Barundar, the egg farmer.”

“Egg farmer?” Gideon asked in a surprised tone. “You raise chickens?”

Barundar clarified. “Dragon eggs.”

Khondar addressed Gideon again. “How can I be of service?”

As Gideon began to explain, Khondar filled his mug to the brim with scotch and gulped down half its contents. With a contented sigh, he focused on what Gideon had to say.

“You need crystal to make a morningstar?” Khondar said incredulously. “Wouldn't it be easier to make it out of steel?”

Gideon sighed. “As I was telling you earlier, this will be a very unique item. Khossuth's visions have inspired me and His wisdom cannot be doubted.” The last was said with more fervor than Khondar expected.

Khondar glanced at his friend, pointed his finger at his head, and drew a couple of circles. Barundar shrugged his shoulders as he helped himself to Khondar's keg. “It doesn't matter where your idea came from. It's just that what you are proposing will require rare crystal in large amounts. It won't be cheap.”

Now the bargaining begins. “Now I know the crystal I require is found more commonly in this area and won't be that difficult to get the quantity I require.”

Khondar put on a mask of indignation. “Who told you that load of hooey? Even if it were true, mining the crystal and bringing it up to the surface could involve many hours of labor!” As it turned out, Khondar had a large supply of the crystal already on hand. But the human didn't need to know about that.

Khondar and Gideon continued bargaining for many hours. They eventually settled on a fair price – Khondar felt a soft-spot for Gideon since he did buy him a keg of his favorite scotch. Pulling out a piece of parchment, Khondar drew up 2 contracts, one copy for each person, and they sealed the deal with a handshake.

After handing a contract over to Gideon, Khondar asked him, “You do realize that I can supply you with the raw materials to make your morningstar, but you'll need someone else to work it?” Tired from the long negotiations and a little tipsy from the scotch and stout, Gideon only nodded his head.

“I'm assuming you want the best working on your project?” Khondar reasoned. “If you want the best, you had best see Master Smith Thorik.” Gideon's head shot up quickly at those words. Ah crap.

Seeing Gideon's reaction, Khondar offered, “If you want, I can contact Thorik for you and get him to start working on your weapon. I can't guarantee his prices though...”

“Thank you, but that won't be necessary.” Gideon heaved another big sigh. Kossuth, why must you always test me? “I will contact Thorik myself. I have already met him.”

Getting up, he made his way to the door of the tavern. As he walked out, he didn't see any sign of Risca or Swan. I hope they haven't gotten themselves into any trouble. I might as well talk to Thorik first and get that over with.

Moving further into the craftsmen's area, he went in search of Thorik. He hadn't gotten far when he heard Risca's familiar voice. It sounded like he was having another “discussion” with another dwarf. Following the sounds of yelling, Gideon quickly found Risca in the middle of a fist-fight with Thorik.

Risca and Thorik were exchanging sledgehammer-like blows as they yelled incomprehensible words at each other. Gideon pushed past the cheering dwarves and spotted Swan off to the side, her face lined with worry. Stepping between the two dwarves, Gideon finally managed to separate them. The other dwarves booed him; the fight had been most entertaining. The arguing continued unabated.

“Don't deny who you are!” Thorik spat.

“I deny nothing!” Risca yelled back.

“Enough of this!” Gideon had finally lost his patience. Without even knowing it, flames fluttered along his body as his anger boiled over. “Are you children? Are you so full of pride that you cannot function as a normal society?” The crowd stepped back as Gideon's eyes burned with fire.

Turning to shout an angry retort at Gideon, Thorik bit back his words when he saw the fire dancing along Gideon's body. Risca seemed equally shocked by this turn of events.

“Calm yourselves and start acting like adults,” Gideon said in a commanding tone. Heeding his own words, Gideon calmed himself. The flames surrounding his body flickered out. He finally noticed that everyone was staring at him with a mixture of awe and fear. Not realizing what happened, he was equally puzzled by their reaction to him. Not wishing to lose the moment, he pressed on.

“Master Thorik, I require you to craft for me a morningstar made of crystal. Master Khondar will supply you with the needed crystal.” Fishing out the plans he had drawn up, he tossed them to Thorik. “Here are the specifications I need.” Thorik caught the plans mechanically, never taking his eyes off of Gideon. “I will pay you a fair price for the labor, but this needs to be your best work. I will settle for nothing less.”

Thorik, in a daze, could only nod his head. “I'll have it done in two days,” he said, his voice in a stupor.

Gideon nodded his head. Realizing that the time was right to leave, he got Risca's and Swan's attention, and led them out of Glen. Just before getting out of earshot, Risca seemed to get a hold of himself and shouted, “We're not done, Thorik. We'll finish our talk later.”

Once outside, Gideon commented, “I don't think they will ever forget our visit.” Seeing that Swan and Risca were still staring wide-eyed at him, he stopped. “Why are you staring like that?”

“You don't know?” Swan said in a tone of disbelief. “You really don't know?”

“How did you get it so that the flames didn't burn you?” Risca asked. “And your eyes – they literally flared!”

“What are you talking about?” Since it was apparent that Gideon had no idea what had occurred back in Glen, Risca and Swan explained it to him. Gideon was amazed and shocked. Nothing like this had ever occurred to him before! He had to meditate on this, possibly commune with Kossuth. Far from being frightened, Gideon was full of joy. I am truly blessed by Kossuth.

With no explanation for the amazing events, Risca and Swan let the subject drop. What worried them was the elation Gideon seemed to feel. He didn't seemed perturbed or upset over this astounding event. And he didn't seem to have been conscious of it either, which meant he had no control over it. That was what truly worried the pair. It wasn't that they didn't trust Gideon – they both knew he would fight to the death for the group – it was that this new ability seemed wild and untamed, and could flare out of control, possibly harming Gideon himself (though he seemed immune) or those around him. This was definitely something that had to be considered. The rest of the journey back to Ashabenford, the trio traveled in silence, each absorbed in his or her own thoughts.

As they entered Ashabenford, they were greeted by Kilzadi, a wide smile on his face. Ignoring Gideon and Risca, he rushed over to Swan. “It is so good to see you, Swan!” he gushed. “I have great news: I was just in Jarwain's Imports when I happened to run into your friend, Inialos.” Swan's eyes lit up at the mention of Inialos' name and everything else became secondary concerns. Kilzadi felt a twinge of guilt, but continued. “He was admiring the dresses and commenting on how good you would look in them.” He gave a sly wink. “You should rush over right now and try on some dresses so you could...model them for him. Jarwain, himself, is eagerly anticipating your arrival. He is more than willing to create new dresses for the soiree tonight.” At this, Swan paused. But her excitement overcame her moment of doubt and she ran towards Jarwain's boutique.

Swan didn't even break her stride as she reached the door to Jarwain's boutique – it flew open with a crash, startling Jarwain as he was hemming. His face became a mask of red fury at the intrusion. “Who dares?”

Breathlessly, Swan gave her apologies and introduced herself. “I am Swan Battlestar. My friend, Kilzadi Litecaster, told me you were expecting me.” Not wanting to appear completely besotted with Inialos, Swan didn't mention her true reason for being there. It never pays when a girl doesn't play hard to get. Words of advice from her mother and Granmar that Swan wouldn't ignore.

At the mention of her name, Jarwain's expression became excited. “Ah, you are the young lady who follows the Seekers of Faerun. You are one of their fans?”

Swan glared at Jarwain. “You misunderstand. I am a Seeker of Faerun. If you would like, I can give you an up-close-and-personal demonstration of my skill with the bow and sword.”

“No, that will not be necessary,” Jarwain hastily assured her. What a piece of work! “Please, come this way and let me show you the dresses I have prepared in anticipation of your arrival.”

Jarwain was worse than any other instructor Swan had ever encountered. Pushing and prodding her, forcing her to stand up and sit down, try on this dress and that dress, compare different accessories – it was enough to make her go a little crazy. She couldn't even get a word in, he kept nattering on and on. Swan started to zone out to what Jarwain was saying, but then a name caught her attention.

“What did you just say? Did you mention the High Councilor?”

“Yes, yes,” Jarwain hastily replied. “Now stop fidgeting. I was just saying that it was a wonderful thing you did, killing that nasty blue sorcerer...”

“Rogue Red Wizard,” Swan corrected.

“Yes, yes, whatever. But it was amazing you avenged Aleena's death. High Councilor Haresk Malorn was so distraught when Aleena was murdered in such a foul manner.” Jarwain pretended to sniff back a tear. He continued in a whisper. “Did you know that High Councilor Malorn's first wife died of a wasting disease? Killed his son as well. The clerics did all that they could, but their prayers and spells seemed to have no effect. It was so strange. That poor man. That must have been so tragic. Well Aleena...comforted...him after his wife's untimely death. He's actually quite a handsome man, the High Councilor. I had expected him to be a wrinkled old man, but he had come to his position at a relatively young age.”

Jarwain got distracted sewing some more frills on the dress he had made Swan put on. “He was very happy to hear that she had been avenged. He'll be making a speech thanking you. Aleena had eased his sorrow and actually was able to bring a smile back on his face. Then he met his new wife – she's from Sembia, by the way – and they fell madly in love. They married only a month after his first wife had died, which was a little scandalous. Their “daughters” aren't really his – they are her daughters from her previous marriage. He cares for them, but who could really love children if they aren't your own?”

Jarwain had put on the finishing touches on a baby blue dress that he had made Swan put on. “There we go. What do you think? Tell me it's fabulous. I know it is!”

Swan turned around and looked at herself in the mirror. What she saw was a dress full of frills, lace, and flowers! In no uncertain terms, she told Jarwain, “I am not wearing this.”

“What? Is there something wrong? Is the colour off? Are there not enough ribbons to suit your style?” Jarwain seemed genuinely confused. He thought it was one of his most masterful creations, and it truly was.

“I am not going to be dressed up like a princess! I don't care who likes the dress!” Swan began to remove the dress, tearing it in her haste. Not understanding her reference to Inialos, Jarwain took this as a personal affront.

“You are rejecting my work?” Jarwain's face became red once more. “How dare you? I don't care if you did kill that nasty sorcerer! You are definitely not a lady! You cannot appreciate the nuances involved in the work of art I have made! You don't deserve to wear the clothes I make!” Jarwain wiggled his finger and a dagger began to rise up off the counter and point at Swan. “Get out now!”

“Gladly.” Ignoring the dagger, Swan collected her things and left. The door slammed behind her and she heard Jarwain cursing her. Where was Inialos? Jarwain never mentioned him once. Swan's brow furrowed. I think I need to have a word with Kilzadi. Marching off to find him, Swan's thoughts turned to slapping her sorcerer companion around.

Kilzadi stopped suddenly and shivered. What's that chill that went down my spine? Ah, can't be that important. With a desire to glean more arcane knowledge, he had decided to visit the resident magic-users in Ashabenford. He first tried getting an audience with Noristuor the Mage, but no sooner had he began rapping on the door to his small tower than a mouth appeared in front of him.

“Go away.” The magical mouth boomed out the command. “I don't want any.” With that, the magical mouth disappeared. Knocking on the door afterwards proved ineffective. Shrugging his shoulders, Kilzadi then went to see Almaes the Alchemist.

Arriving at his shop, Kilzadi was surprised to find the door barred. Odd. All the other shops seem to be opened. Why is his the only one that's closed? Going over to a neighbouring shop, he asked where Almaes could be found.

“Almaes? Thank Shaundakul! He has been traveling for the past week.” The shop owner beamed. “I don't remember the last time I've had peace and quiet. And my customers are not afraid that they will be sprayed with some foul concoction or smell some disgusting scent! I do not wish him ill will, for he is a good person, but I hope his travels continue!”

Kilzadi was amused at the shop owner's reaction. “But where has he gone?”

“Who knows?” The shop owner stopped and suddenly put some thought into what he was saying. He did like Almaes and didn't want to appear to alienate him. “I believe he went to Harrowdale to see his friend Osier Manchineel at the House of Mystra. He never gave a time when he would return, but in the past, when he made these journeys, he was usually gone for 2 weeks, a month at most. I hope that is helpful.”

Kilzadi gave his thanks and left the shop. Well, I guess I have nothing better to do than to get ready for the celebration and meet up with the others. Thinking of other ways to increase his magical strength, he went to prepare himself for the festivities.

Night descended and the Seekers of Faerun arrived at High Councilor Haresk Malorn's house. The High Councilor's dwelling was massive, but adorned in a simple, even spartan, manner. Flowers bloomed all around, their colours highlighting the main building and the many side buildings. Gideon addressed the group. “Let's try to give a good impression tonight and stay out of trouble.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Risca responded. “Don't worry. We'll be on our best behaviour.” They all smiled at that, expecting Risca to be rowdy as usual.

They approached the main doors, where half a dozen guards stood with an equal number of men in green livery. Stepping forward, Gideon proffered their invitation. “I am Gideon Fireforged of the Righteous Vengeance Monastery, Kossuth's faithful servant. These are my companions: Kilzadi Litecaster from Calimshan, another faithful of Kossuth. Neon Wilde of Harrowdale. Okul Tarmikos from Gildengale. Risca Foraker from Mirabar. Swan Battlestar from Deepingdale. We are the Seekers of Faerun.”

The servant who had reached for the invitation with a perfunctory bow gave a little jerk at each additional name; his eyes popped at Okul's appearance. In a strangled voice, he said, “Be welcome in the High Councilor's home.” He waved the other servants to open the doors wide, and bowed Gideon and the others inside, where he hurriedly passed the invitation to another liveried man carrying a decorated staff and whispered in his ear.

“Welcome, Seekers of Faerun.” Bowing to each of them in turn, almost bending his head to his knees, he introduced himself. “I am called Licandor. Please follow me.”

The outer hallway held only servants, but Licandor led them to a great room filled with many noted dignitaries. A quartet of strings was performing in the corner by a large fireplace. The people stood in twos, and threes and fours, sometimes men and women together, sometimes only one or the other, but always with careful space between themselves so no one could overhear what was said. The women had their hair piled high in elaborate curls, dressed in colourful and frilly skirts. The men all wore their hair long, tied back in ponytails; the lace ruffles on their sleeves almost hid their hands.

Licandor rapped his staff and announced the Seekers in a loud voice. They drew every eye. Okul received many looks, even before Licandor spoke his name. Dragon-marked, he heard them whisper. None of them liked being the object of scrutiny. Despite the fact that they had all dressed in their most formal attire, they all felt underdressed for the occasion. Some of the glances they received looked like frowns.

A slim, handsome man approached. He had long, graying hair and carried a black rod, a sign of authority, in the crook of his arm. He was tall, no more than a couple inches shy of Okul's frame, and he had a way of standing that made him seem even taller, with his chin up so he seemed to be looking down at everyone else. His eyes were piercing green gemstones.

“Grace honours me with your presence.” Haresk Malorn's voice was deep and sure. His gaze swept across the others. “Thank you for joining the other distinguished guests who came to hail the heroes of Mistledale.” His bow to each was little more than a nod of the head. His voice dropped and his expression suddenly softened, “And I thank you for what you did for Aleena. I cannot thank you enough for that.” A raven-haired beauty came up and placed her hand on his arm. His voice cooled. “I look forward to speaking with each of you. Be welcome.” Haresk let himself be drawn away by his wife towards the center of the room. That was odd, thought Neon.

As Haresk walked away, Kilzadi surreptitiously scanned him for magic. The magical power emanating from the black rod took his breath away. Signaling Gideon, Kilzadi let him know of his findings.

“Welcome to you all,” Haresk proclaimed. “I am very pleased to host this soiree in honour of the great heroes, the Seekers of Faerun!” With a flourish, his arm swept out to display the party. “Through their brave efforts, the land has become much safer. We owe our increased security to their great crusade!”

Respectful applause broke out. Feeling more than a little embarassed, they didn't know what to do. Risca whispered, “Should we make a speech?”

Haresk continued, “Please enjoy the evening. If there is any way that I, or my family, may add to your enjoyment, do not hesitate to ask.” He signaled to the servants. “Let the feast begin.” Tables and chairs were brought forth, as well as many platters full of food. Servants circulated with glasses of wine and other chilled liquor for the guests' pleasure.

Haresk and his wife glanced at the Seekers and began talking in earnest. Three beautiful, young ladies approached them and greeted them warmly, breaking up their conversation. Each gave Haresk and his wife a chaste kiss. Neon was drawn immediately to them. Must be their daughters. Turning to comment to the others, he was surprised to see Kilzadi staring at them with equal intensity.

The oldest daughter was ravishing. Her black hair shimmered and flowed past her shoulders, and her emerald dress highlighted her crystal blue eyes. She was young, slender, and stylish. She was confident, aware of her own beauty, without being overtly vain or arrogant. She smiled politely to those who addressed her, but kept her distance, both physically and emotionally.

The middle daughter was gorgeous as well, but it was hidden behind her studious tendencies. She was constantly reading from a small book she carried with her. Whether she was uninterested with the whole evening or shy, she seemed withdrawn from the whole affair. Others around her seemed to take no offense from her behaviour; they were long-familiar with her eccentricities. Though she seemed ignorant of her own charms, her red velvet dress pronounced them for all to see.

The youngest daughter seemed to be the most outgoing. She flashed her smiles freely to others and, when she thought her parents weren't looking, winked and waved at her friends. Her laughter was infectious and tinkled like wind chimes. Her mood was playful; more often than not, she would embrace her friends and compliment them on their attire. They in turn would praise her and her satin blue gown.

Though their personalities were very different from each other, it was easy to see that they were closely related – all were heartstoppingly beautiful. Every so often, unspoken messages passed between them as they caught each others' eyes. It was also easy to see that Haresk Malorn was not their father.

Unconsciously, Kilzadi took a step towards them. Neon gently grabbed his arm to get his attention. “Planning on wooing them with your magic tricks?” Neon cocked a grin. “Need any pointers?”

Kilzadi shook himself from Neon's grip. “The one on the left, in the green dress. I must talk with her.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Does this involve the fate of the world? Can she teach you some new magic? Where's all this passion coming from?” Neon teased.

“Enough of this foolishness!” Kilzadi hissed. “Get out of my way so I can introduce myself to this glorious creature.” Stepping around Neon, Kilzadi purposely strode towards the High Councilor's oldest daughter.

You can't have all the fun. With that, Neon made a bee-line for the middle daughter. Neon knelt in front of her and gently grasped her hand, brushing his lips across her fingertips. Giving her a coy look, he whispered, “Come up to my room and I'll show you my...longsword.” Before he could stand, his ears rang as she slapped him on either side of his face.

“Get away from me!” She pushed Neon away. “I don't care if you did rescue people from the Zhentarim, keep your slimy paws off of me!” As he shook his head to clear the stars, Neon saw that the youngest daughter was unsuccessfully trying to hide her giggles behind her gloved hand. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Kilzadi was having better luck. Bowing deeply, Kilzadi lowered his gaze rather than meet her eyes rudely. “My name is Kilzadi Litecaster of Calimshan. If I may be so bold to say so, you are truly a exquisite lady, but I find it puzzling that you seem to be by yourself. Let me provide you with some companionship.” He offered his arm to lead her to her seat.

Her smile was warm; she could tell immediately that he was earnest in his desire to please her, though he was lacking in social skills. “My name is Sinderenna, but you may call me Sindy.”

Kilzadi bowed low again. “You honour me too much,” he murmured in response. Straightening, he noticed Haresk Malorn and his wife watching him closely as he escorted Sindy to her seat. They both wore frowns. Turning away, they walked over to the head table where the Mistledale councilors sat.

Dismissing his wife, Haresk Malorn joined the others at the head of the table and exchanged greetings. Each person at the table was an important member of the community, and brought different talents and viewpoints to the Council. The famed horse breeder Zander Wolcott was dressed in his finest livery. He had a foppish air about him, but upon closer inspection, hard lines could be seen beneath his frilly shirt and his hands were callused and rough. He was friendly to the others and well-respected. To his right, Alena, Watchful Sister of the Earth, was dressed in a beautiful flowing gown that accentuated, rather than hid, her curves. A symbol of Chauntea was embroidered into the front of her dress, over her heart, marking her as a devout follower. She had a classical beauty: some would call it hard or cool, but her expression was warm, softening her features.

Rose Faern was dressed in shirt and pants made of incredibly supple leather. Her clothes were earth-coloured, and she moved gracefully and with assurance. Her body was lean and hard, and old battle-scars could be seen on her face and hands. A platinum pendant, chased with gold and in the shape of a unicorn's head, was her only accessory. She hailed from Peldan's Helm, and she could trace her ancestory to Peldan Faern himself, the founder of her tiny village. She was in a heated conversation with the newest member of the Council, Gannon Durei; an average looking man, perhaps middle aged, he was dressed in simple green robes. When scrutinized, it could be seen that his face seemed ageless except for his eyes – they held a deep wisdom which spoke volumes. His robes, looking to be made of the finest silk, were actually made of woven grass. He was the Oakfather of the Oakengrove abbey, the head of his druidic order.

Ulwen Sharin, landowner, was garbed in an intricately coloured dress, with many silk ribbons. She sat demurely, sipping her wine and making easy conversation with the other councilors. She was an excellent hostess, ensuring everyone was happy and had plenty to drink. She had an aristocratic air about her, an invisible barrier that prevented others from becoming too familiar with her. She owned the Sharin Freehold, a large track of land with many freemen and farmers. Though she kept herself apart, at unexpected moments, her generosity to others – the sick, the bereaved, the disadvantaged – was overwhelming. It seemed that compassion to her was a weakness, a fire that threatened to melt her icy control. Wendell the Herbalist was dressed in long gray robes. Of all the councilors, he seemed uncomfortable to be sitting at the head table; he was respectful but said very little. His eyes constantly darted around, taking a measure of the other councilors, as if weighing their strengths and weaknesses. He had a rather large belly, an indication that he relished his food and drink. His impatience was caused by his desire to come to a quick resolution to their problem and a desire to taste the fine foods being laid out.

The conversation seemed light at first; glasses were drained and pleasantries were exchanged. The discussion seemed to turn more serious as it wore on: leaning in slightly, their voices lowered but the tone became more forced.

“How are we to solve our problem?” Ulwen demanded. “They are getting more and more audacious, and it is getting harder and harder to reassure people that this is just a period of increased raids.”

“You can name our enemies,” Zander replied. “It will not cause them to appear magically: Drow.” As he said it, he did look around to ensure no one nearby overheard him.

“They are disrupting the balance in Cormanthor,” Gannon explained. “They are a dichotomy: they are able to move within the forest without leaving any signs, but when they strike, they despoil the land, and leave a trail of death and destruction.”

“You sound like you admire their ability to walk around undetected!” Rose did not mask her anger. “It is incredibly difficult to track them. I don't even know how they are gaining access to the surface! They just seem to appear!”

Alena was pensive. “That may be a possibility. Think on it: the Zhentarims used portals to travel from their stronghold to Mistledale. Prior to this, there were no indications the Zhentarims had this capability. It is not inconceivable that the drow are using portals themselves, or that they provided the magic to the Zhentarims in the first place. We might not be able to trace the drows' movements or even locate their base of operations.”

This was a sobering thought. Wendell broke the silence. “So then, what do we do? It sounds like we have an enemy that can strike at us with impunity with no way to halt their attacks. Our forces seem impotent. They travel the land trying to find the drow, and they simply slip behind our lines and bring terror. For now, they seem to be targeting individual farms and small holdings, but if they choose to attack us en masse, it doesn't look like we would be able to muster an effective defense.” His tone grew sarcastic. “Should we just roll over and die?”

Haresk Malorn looked each councilor in the eye. “Our first concern is to prevent panic and to show the people of Mistledale that things are under control. The moment panic sets in, we are all undone.” His words were greeted with nods. “Next, we need to find a way to draw out the drow and their allies – there is no way they could function this effectively without allies – so that we can strike at them in a decisive manner.” He paused a moment. “What we need is a tool. And I think I know just where to look.” He glanced over to where the Seekers were seated.

“You cannot mean the Seekers?” Alena asked.

“And why not? They have already shown themselves to be efficient in tracking and defeating their enemies. If we keep providing rewards to them, I'm sure they would be more than willing to deal with this plague of drow. They don't need to know the full extent of the challenge they would be facing; there's no reason to discourage them.”

Zander objected. “I cannot believe you are proposing this! They would not fully understand the scope of what we are asking them to do, or the danger they would face. To trick them into doing this for us seems very unfair, especially after they have done so much for us already! They could be seriously injured or killed!”

“But this is the life they have chosen for themselves,” Ulwen countered. “I know you are sympathetic towards them because they helped return Walter Little and your prized horse to you, but they are adventurers! They seek out danger. We have an immediate problem that they can help us solve. Be sensible, Zander.”

“The drow are using stealth, and retreat after striking,” Rose fumed. “There are no pitched battles; the drow only attack when it is favorable for them and they leave no survivors. We don't even know how many of them there are! I may not like the idea of using the Seekers in this manner, but if they can deal with this plague before any other innocents are killed, then we have no choice but to use them.”

Wendell, the most pragmatic of the group, compromised. “We should not keep them deliberately in the dark, but we need to guide them so that their actions will help our citizens.”

The councilors continued to argue. In the end, it was decided that they would heed Wendell's words and guide the Seekers to accomplish the Council's goals. The Council would not deliberately lie to the Seekers, but they would not necessarily be forthright with their information. Though this was a very difficult pill for some to swallow, it was agreed that the alternative would prove to be worse.

Time to bait the line. Haresk Malorn rose from his seat and addressed the crowd. “The main reason we are here tonight is to show our appreciation to the Seekers and reward them for their tireless work. The path they have chosen is a difficult one, filled with peril, but they have overcome adversity again and again due to their commitment to the community and their dedication to the forces of justice. Commitment are the words that speak boldly of your intentions and the actions which speak louder than words. It is coming through time after time after time. Commitment is the stuff character is made of: the power to change the face of things. For all your hard work and commitment to Mistledale, we, the Council of Mistledale, would like to present you with this reward.”

Signaling Gideon to step forward, Haresk handed him a heavy sack filled with coins. Haresk whispered to him, “This is just the beginning. You spread the glory of Kossuth across the land and show the unbelievers the errors of their ways. All hail mighty Kossuth.”

Gideon gave him a surprised look. Is he a convert to Kossuth? Before he could ask, Haresk addressed the crowd again. “Our land is safer due to your efforts. Though it is a paltry sum, please accept it as a symbol of our appreciation and admiration for all that you have done. May your search for evil be relentless and your swords bring justice to all!”

The crowd broke out into wild cheering. Glasses were raised to toast the Seekers; people crowded to give their thanks. Uncomfortable with the attention, they brushed off the praise as politely as possible. The sole exception was Neon. Basking in the attention, especially of the female kind, Neon was glad to boast of the Seekers' accomplishments and regale any listeners with tales of their glory.

Servants came forward to clear some tables in the center of the room. The quartet began playing again, and Haresk Malorn and his wife led the celebrants in an elegant dance. Soon, more and more couples joined the High Councilor and his wife on the dance floor.

Gideon pulled Risca and Okul aside to discuss Haresk Malorn's whispered message. He was uncertain as to its meaning and needed to talk it through. When several people wanted to get them on the dance floor, Risca dismissed them out of hand. “Can't you see that we're talking right now?”

Okul elbowed him and covered for him quickly. “What he means to say is that we are grateful for your attention, but we need to discuss important matters that may affect Mistledale.” Some left insulted, while the rest were too jubilant or drunk to care.

Several admirers approached Swan to ask her to dance, but she wasn't familiar with the graceful waltz and turned them down. Some were put out, unaware that she felt very self-conscious about dancing in front of so many other people. The dancing she was familiar with was more...boisterous and unrefined, and usually ended with at least half a dozen people getting into fist-fights.

Kilzadi, emboldened by Sindy's smiles, walked over to her and asked her to dance. “I thought you would never ask.” Squeezing his hand, she allowed Kilzadi to lead her to the dance floor, joining in with the others to dance.

Neon made his way towards the High Councilor's youngest daughter. “Are you going to try flattering me to get me into a compromising position?” Her eyes twinkled. Neon grinned – the battle was already won.

Gently kissing the top of her hand, he introduced himself. “I am Neon Wilde and I am a thief.” She seemed taken aback by this bold statement. “I'm here to steal your heart.” She broke out into laughter.

“My name is Mandi. You have already met my sister, Sandi, but I fear she wasn't very welcoming.” She giggled. “She prefers the books to anything else and doesn't know how to...handle men.”

“Oh, she knows how to handle men,” Neon replied. “Trust me. My head is still ringing.” They shared a laugh as he rubbed his head.

Mandi leaned in close. “Does your head still hurt?” Jokingly, Neon nodded. Mandi's voice became more husky. “I know a spot where we can have some privacy. Let me...mend your wound.”

“Won't your father object?” He presented his argument half-heartedly.

“No. Don't you remember what he had said? I am honour-bound to add to your 'enjoyment' in any way I can. I am just fulfilling my father's wishes.” Taking his hand, she led him through the crowd. “Now come on, this party is boring.” Neon's grin spread ear-to-ear as he followed behind this wild little minx.

They left the main room and headed into a hallway near the back of the house. Stopping her, he pulled her close and stole a kiss. As their lips parted, she was breathless. “I have a room at the Ashabenford Arms.”

She had a wild look in her eyes. “It's such a beautiful night. There's a nice pool behind my parents' mansion. Let's head there and get better acquainted.” Skipping along, Neon followed close behind. There goes staying out of trouble. But as long as I'm not caught, it's all good.

Back at the celebration, Swan was miserable. She felt very out of place and unsure of herself. She knew she lacked some social graces, and it bothered her that it was bothering her. The others seemed to be fitting in, talking to the people and mingling with them. After talking with the Gideon and Okul, Risca began belting out drinking songs and kept trying to get people around him to participate in drinking games, with little success. She was about to turn and ask him if he wanted to step out with her to get some fresh air when she heard some giggling behind her. Swan turned to see three young women, dressed elaborately in sleek attire, giggling and pointing at her. They were talking amongst themselves, with their voices deliberately loud enough for her and anyone nearby to hear their comments.

“Do you see what she is wearing?” one of them said. “Are we in a barn?”

“I guess when you grow up in the wild, you don't care what you look like,” another replied. “She's called Swan, but I don't think she grew out of her ugly-duckling phase. I'm guessing she smells as badly as she looks since no one will dance with her.” They all burst out laughing.

The last girl piped up, “I'm sure that we could find a suitable suitor for her.” Looking around, she asked, “Where's Frisky? Here Frisky, come here, boy!” Several people gasped as an old, mangy dog rushed in. Sitting in front of the girl who called him, he drooled a little.

“See that girl over there,” she said as she pointed at Swan. “She doesn't have anyone special. You need to go over there and snuggle with her so she's not alone. She can be your bitch.” The girls laughter turned very nasty.

Swan's face turned red. I will not give them the satisfaction of seeing me cry. Turning away, she didn't see the girls waving at Jarwain, who had been standing nearby. Swan didn't notice this, but her companions did.

When Gideon, Okul, and Risca had heard the unpleasant and mocking laughter, they had turned to see its source. What they saw was Swan looking very abashed and uncomfortable. They also saw the girls waving at a laughing Jarwain. Not completely certain as to the nature of the situation, they did know that Jarwain and his sycophants were mistreating Swan, and that was not acceptable. Gideon and Okul strode towards the girls as Risca bore down on Jarwain.

Gideon and Okul addressed the girls as they neared them. Okul comments were straightforward. “You are the most graceless pigs I have ever met. Here's how I picture your lives. You three are popular because you developed early and started spreading your legs when you were twelve. But now you can't stand to see yourselves in the mirror because all you see are whores. So you pick on Swan to avoid the inevitable realization that once your bodies are used up by age nineteen, you'll be worn-out, chalky-skinned, burlap sacks that even a otyugh won't want to touch.. You hang around Jarwain to give someone the adulation you never received because you were never worthy of it. How am I doing, pretty close?” Gideon was shocked at the Okul's bluntness. So were the girls. So were the other people around them. As he finished, all three girls burst into tears.

Meanwhile, as Risca got close to Jarwain, Jarwain began sniffing the air. “What is that smell?” He turned to see Risca approaching and squirted him with perfume. “Better, but not perfect.” This riled Risca even further. Before Jarwain could say or do anything else, Risca grabbed him by the front of his jacket and hoisted him up off his feet.

Jarwain's face was a mixture of shock and pure outrage. “How dare you!” Wriggling his fingers, he summoned his dagger which pricked Risca's chest.

Risca's grin was wolfish. “Would you pit your pig-sticker against me?” His eyes were red with rage. “Will you test your metal against my mettle?” Blood drained from Jarwain's face; he saw Risca would not stand down. In fact, he looked like he welcomed the opportunity to wreak havoc. Shaking his head and gibbering slightly, he dismissed the dagger. Risca's grip tightened on the front of Jarwain's jacket, chocking him. Risca's voice was steel. “If I hear you have said or done anything against my Swan again, you will face dire consequences.” Risca shook Jarwain until he saw stars. “Do you understand?” Jarwain groaned. “Now get out of my sight.” Giving him a final shake, he tossed Jarwain to the side and watched as he scampered away.

The crowd had silently witnessed the whole spectacle and were taken aback. There goes making a good impression. Gideon gently took Swan by the hand and led her to the dance floor. No words were spoken; she gave a grateful smile as they danced and she lost herself in the moment. She began to cry, realizing how wonderful her friends truly were.

Haresk Malorn had also witnessed the whole event and his conviction crystallized: the Seekers were the best choice to deal with the drow. They had been able to read the situation and each other correctly, and had reacted quickly and with no thought to the consequences – only the threat to their comrade had mattered. They had banded together and defended one another with no hesitation. That type of character would be needed to draw out the drow and defeat them.

Neon followed a giggling Mandi down a small path made of stones of flat marble. They escaped the light of the mansion; the moonlight made everything glow preternaturally. As she approached the pool, Mandi began taking off her clothes, flinging them around carelessly. Braziers burned near the eastern side of the large, natural pool, heating the air. As she reached the pool's edge, she dove in. Her head quickly cleared the surface of the water. “The water's warm.”

Neon stripped quickly and joined her in the pool. Swimming over using powerful strokes, he playfully pulled her under and kissed her passionately. They surfaced together, their lips never parting. Their hands roamed each other's bodies, and their kissing became more insistent. Moving over to the shallower water, Neon quickly pulled out a large section of a sheep intestine. “No glove, no love.” was all he said. Rolling it on, he and Mandi began moving rhythmically in the most ancient of dances.

They were not very quiet or subtle in their love-making. Their passion blinded them to everything else and they lost themselves in the moment. “Ahem.” The cough was very out of place and brought them back to reality.

Jarrod Rold stood at pool's edge with a large towel. His eyes were averted as he called to Mandi. “Lady Mandalane, could you please exit the pool? Your parents are wondering where you disappeared to.” Wrapping her in the towel, Jarrod Rold, he signaled to other soldiers to step forward. Neon swam towards the other side. Ducking his head underwater, he hoped that Jarrod Rold would be unable to identify him. He was gliding through the water quickly, when a weed wrapped itself around his ankle. In a panic, Neon thrashed, hoping to free himself. Unfortunately, he only managed to entangle himself even more in the weed. His lungs burned as he fought to free himself. With a mighty kick, he finally broke free and gasped for air. Jarrod Rold had been waiting patiently for Neon to resurface. Before escorting his charge away, he addressed Neon in an icy tone. “Because you have proven yourself useful to Mistledale, I won't have you flayed and hung. But, if you wish to recover your clothes and equipment, Neon Wilde, come to the Riders' barracks tomorrow morning.” Jarrod Rold and the soldiers turned and accompanied Mandi back to the mansion.

Uh oh. Returning to the eastern side of the pool, he got out quickly and made his way back to the backdoor of the mansion. Great, now I have to find clothes. Checking the nearby rooms, they all turned out to be storage rooms or pantries. Getting desperate, Neon started exploring rooms closer to the main hall where the party was being hosted. Maybe I could use table cloths to cover myself. It can't get any worse. As he entered another room, he felt a warm hand on his shoulder.

Startled, Neon jumped and spun around quickly. “Ooh. Very nice.” Jarwain was standing there admiring Neon's acrobatics. “The night just got better. Where did you come from, sweet cheeks?” Jarwain's gaze wandered over Neon's body, pausing from time to time to get a better look at Neon's exposed flesh. “Aren't you a healthy specimen!”

Neon was hoping beyond hope. “Ummmm, you wouldn't happen to have an extra set of clothes, would you?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.” Jarwain seemed very distracted. “Haresk Malorn had commissioned me to make a new ensemble for him. I was going to surprise him with it later on tonight, but I think I can let you have it...for a price.”

“Okay...Name your price.” At this point Neon was desperate and was willing to do anything to get some clothes on.

There are two conflicting accounts of the events surrounding Neon's gaining his new outfit. The first account describes Neon's ruse, tricking his trusting companion Risca into acting as his surrogate with Jarwain. Risca had been led to believe that his companion, Swan, had been in immediate danger and had rushed to aid her in her time of need. Instead, Jarwain had dressed as Swan and replaced her, unbeknown to Risca. Attending to “her” needs, Risca selflessly had given whatever was needed to help his dear friend.

The other account describes the actions performed by Neon with Jarwain, and Jarwain's startling secret. Neon, desperate to clothe himself, initially was conflicted by the demands put upon him by Jarwain, but was, in the end, pleasantly surprised by the turn of events. They both found gratification with each other, and the trade of services seemed fair to both.

Of the two versions, the records of Neon's ruse, found in a papyrus in the library of Elminster the Younger, appear much more legible and self-consistent. While these tales are largely based on the attested facts of the adventures and exploits of the Seekers of Faerun, some stories are inconsistent with others – the contradictions must be reconciled as best they can. But this question may never be settled.

“Thank you for the outfit!” Neon said. “It's almost a perfect fit! And I have no regrets...” Jarwain was examining how the jacket fell on Neon's shoulders.

“Yes, that was fun, wasn't it?” Jarwain agreed. “I could be your personal toy whenever you want...”

Changing the subject quickly, Neon asked, “Out of curiosity, you didn't happen to see Haresk Malorn's youngest daughter, Mandi?”

Jarwain stopped picking at Neon's pants and became immediately jealous. “No I haven't. Why?”

Sensing Jarwain's change in tone, Neon thought it best to be diplomatic. “Oh, no reason. She just seemed to be an...interesting person.”

Going back to his pants, Jarwain began to natter on again. “You are a much better model than your companion, Swan. She has no appreciation for the dress I made for her. What she is wearing now is hardly flattering. She could have been the queen of the party instead of a horse's arse.”

“She's also infatuated with an elf named Inalios,” Neon griped.

Jarwain winked lewdly. “Well, don't you worry. Any time you are looking for a good time, you know where to find me.”

Neon knew it was time to go. Thanking Jarwain profusely, and promising to visit him often, he left to rejoin the rest of the Seekers.

An hour prior to Neon's escapades, Gideon had finished dancing with Swan when a gnarly, old man approached him. Recognizing Grigor, a patron from the Velvet Veil, he expected to be thanked for his endeavours. “How's your fiery girlfriend?”

Gideon was taken aback. “Excuse me?”

“You know, your leman, the fire elemental. How do you do it without getting singed?” Grigor leered.

Gideon's face grew stony. Before he could give an angry retort, Grigor continued. “Don't mean to embarrass you about your private life. I actually came over to tell you something important in private.” Walking away from the dance floor and any possible eavesdroppers, Grigor led Gideon to an empty side room. “You and your friends saved many Mistrans, eliminated a conclave of Zhentarims, and avenged Aleena, and that goes a long way in this region. I just thought you should know what I saw when you left to avenge Aleena. I don't know if you know this, but the night you left, I was enjoying myself at the Velvet Veil. I left two hours after moonrise to walk off the vapors when I saw a strange procession moving through the town. Jarrod Rold was escorting the prisoners that you had captured at the Zhentarim Citadel out of town.” Grigor briefly described the prisoners, and it did seem they were the same ones the Seekers had captured out of the Zhentarim Citadel. “Their legs were shackled together and their arms were tied in front of them, but they seemed unconcerned. It seemed so out of place, I grew curious. I followed them to the edge of town where Jarrod Rold stopped and turned to the prisoners. Without saying a word, he left their arms bound, but he unshackled their legs and let them leave Ashabenford! The prisoners headed east towards Peldan's Helm and Jarrod Rold returned to town by himself.”

Gideon was shocked by this turn of events. Grigor finished his story. “Now, I ain't no saint – my great, great grand-daddy used to run with Galath and his group of bandits – but even I don't think it's right to release those murderous scum.! I don't know what it all means, but after all you and your friends have done for us, I thought you deserved to know.” Grigor bowed and left. What is going on here? thought Gideon.

Gideon returned to his companions and relayed the news. They were equally perplexed. Risca tried to put a positive spin to the events. “I doubt they even made it five miles before they were eaten by beasts. We will never see them again.”

“We have fought them and know how strong they truly are,” Okul responded. “I will not believe they are dead until I have seen them dead.”

“We need to have a word with Jarrod Rold and the rest of the Council of Mistledale.” Gideon's tone was very serious.

Swan spoke up. “We're assuming that the councilors actually know what has occurred. For all we know, Jarrod Rold is a traitor, or, more likely, he was working under orders from Haresk Malorn.”

The others were perplexed by Swan's logic. “What evidence do you have that Haresk Malorn is behind this?” Gideon asked.

“I don't have any; I just have a feeling,” was Swan's response.

“Let us gather the others and discuss this in more detail,” Okul stated. “Kilzadi has been dancing with Haresk Malorn's eldest daughter for the evening, so he is easy to find. Have any of you seen Neon?”

Kilzadi had been having the most glorious time with Sindi. She was so beautiful and she danced so gracefully, he knew everyone else was jealous. They whispered to each other the entire time, at times serious, at times light-heartedly; her mind was sharp and her tongue sharper, for she didn't mince any words. Kilzadi's heart thrummed as he gazed into her eyes – nothing else mattered.

He felt a gentle touch on his shoulder. “Kilzadi, I bring dire news of Gwenect Moondark.” He recognized Kurud's voice immediately. “We must speak alone.”

Without turning, Kilzadi responded. “Can this not wait? I'm dancing with this lovely lady and do not wish to be bothered.” Continuing their dance, Kilzadi and Sindi moved away from Kurud. Kurud was shocked – he couldn't understand Kilzadi's reaction. Searching the crowd, he spotted Okul and walked over to him.

“Is your friend Kilzadi touched in the head?” Kurud snapped. Seeing Okul's expression, he apologized for his comment. “I am very frustrated at this time and wanted to vent my anger. My apologies.”

Okul tried easing the tension. “If you want to vent, we should spar. I do need the practice.”

Kurud gave Okul a thankful look. “Yes, let us train. I will meet you at the Temple of Tyr tomorrow, two turns of the glass after dawn.”

Risca, Swan, and Gideon had been searching fruitlessly trying to find Neon. Giving up, they walked up to Okul and greeted Kurud warmly. “As long as most of you are here, I shall tell you a foul tale involving a friend.” Kurud hesitated. “I had wished to tell Kilzadi first, but he seemed a bit...pre-occupied. Let us move away from the dance floor.”

Finding an empty table, they all sat and Kurud began his story. “I and my troops had escorted Gwenect, Anuth, and Shidul to Deepingdale to find the followers of Eilistraee as I had promised. The journey had been uneventful, and though we had some difficulty finding them, we eventually made contact with Eilistraee's clerics. Lord Theremen Ulath, ruler of Highmoon, had made Eilistraee's followers welcome in Deepingdale. Though they were accepted, they kept to themselves and watched the other human and elven communities closely. They are especially on guard when dealing with other drow, fearing animosity and reprisals. When we found them, they were wary of us, suspecting a trap, but after much convincing, they seemed to believe that Gwenect's, Anuth's, and Shidul's conversions were real.” Kurud took a sip of water. “With the assent of the followers of Eilistraee, I had decided to stay and monitor their progress. Gwenect seemed to take to the teachings of Eilistraee immediately. Within a couple of weeks, she was ready to be initiated as a cleric of Eilistraee.” Kurud's voice beamed with pride. Then his eyes clouded, troubled by a horrid memory. “But then the unthinkable occurred. As Gwenect was being anointed by the other clerics of Eilistraee, Anuth gave a great cry. Shouting that he had been deceived, he pulled a dagger from his sleeve, shoved past the other Eilistraeean drow, and buried the blade deeply into Gwenect's back, piercing her heart. Fleeing, the others pursued, but he managed to elude them. I rushed over and laid healing hands upon her, but the wound was grievous. I managed to staunch the flow of blood, but the dagger had ravaged her heart. The clerics tried to heal her, but were not completely successful. She has stabilized, but her condition is bad.”

Everyone was shocked and were unable to speak. What are we going to tell Kilzadi ? Gideon decided to let Kurud know what he had learned from Grigor. “It seems that our enemies have regained important allies while our allies have fallen victim to betrayal. So, where do we go from here?” They began to discuss the implications of these two events and how they should respond.

Meanwhile, Kilzadi had asked Sindi about her father. She made a moue, and answered in an off-handed manner. “What is there to say? He's a merchant and he's rich. He's not well-suited to battle armies or invaders like you and your friends.” Her voice lowered even more as she continued in a conspiratorial tone. “After you had brought your captives from the Zhentarim Citadel to Ashabenford, instead of making a lesson of them, he contacted the Zhentarim and negotiated a hefty ransom for their return.” Kilzadi was surprised. “No one else knows this but Jarrod Rold. Father got him to release the prisoners one night after receiving the ransom and sent them on their way. He plans on using the money to buy back other family members who had been kidnapped. He has good intentions, but I don't think he is planning well. All he has done is return possible kidnappers to their friends and they, most likely, now have a grudge against Ashabenford.” At this the song ended. A little flushed, Sindi excused herself to get a drink.

Kilzadi spotted the others and walked over to them. “You are not going to believe what I just heard.” Without preamble, he repeated what he had just learned. They seemed a little surprised, but not overtly so. “What? Am I missing something?”

“Sit, Kilzadi.” Gideon pulled a chair out for him. “We have something important to tell you.” As Gideon explained what happened to Gwenect, Kilzadi's expression went from horror to anger. Swan's eyes teared as she saw the anguish on Kilzadi's face. The others were grim as Gideon finished. Strangely, Kurud seemed to be staring at the scimitar at Kilzadi's waist – Crimdrac's Claw.

“I need to see her,” was all Kilzadi said. Getting up to leave, Swan placed a hand on his arm and stopped him.

“You cannot just react.” Swan's voice was full of sympathy and understanding. “I know you are worried and you want to help her, but rushing off may be the worst thing you could do.” Kilzadi looked at her coolly. “Remember what had happened after I had...died? Risca rushed off and the Seekers were almost no more. Maybe someone wants that to occur and has created situations to bring it about. These different events may be linked.” Swan paused. “Do you remember our dreams?” Kurud became more attentive at that statement. “We need to plan well or we could cause greater harm than good if we just fly off the handle.”

“What were your dreams?” Kurud's voice was quiet.

Swan glanced at the others, and seeing no objection, she explained their shared, recurring dreams to Kurud. She described them in detail, leaving nothing out, hoping that he could provide some hidden insight. As she finished, Kurud seemed deep in thought. “Our dreams are not all the same, there is some slight variation, but they seem to convey the same messages. They are so real they are frightening, even though I know I am dreaming. We don't know what they mean, but they almost seem...prophetic. Maybe the gods are trying to warn us, or maybe our enemies are trying to torment us – we don't know. They all convey the same message: the drow are coming.”

Kurud weighed his words carefully. “I do not know what your dreams mean – they seem too convenient. What I do know is that you need to prepare yourselves. Events seem to be moving at a whirlwind's pace, and we are all being left behind. If Risca's encounter with Marthammor Duin is any indication, you will be at the center of the storm. Drow activity seems to be on the rise, but we cannot discern their true purpose. Though with drow, do they need a purpose to slay and conquer?”

Kurud turned abruptly to Kilzadi. “Kilzadi, where did you get your scimitar?”

“Crimdrac's Claw?” He seemed taken aback. “We found it in the dungeon beneath Bareris' Tower at Haptooth Hill. Why?”

“It is a strange blade of murder,” Kurud explained. “Listen and gain wisdom.” Kurud began the incredible tale. “Crimdrac was an avaricious red dragon, reviled even by his own kind. His desire for treasure and power led him down strange and unfamiliar paths. Desiring immortality, the ultimate power of life over death, he explored the realms of undeath. He pillaged and destroyed many in reaching his goal. Eventually, he found the secrets he needed and performed many foul ceremonies on the night of a full moon. That night he attained his goal. As the sun rose the next day, Crimdrac the dracolich was born.” Kurud paused and collected his thoughts. “As I had said, Crimdrac had destroyed many on his quest to achieve immortaility. An army comprising the families and friends of those he had slain assaulted his mountain keep. After a terrible battle, he was defeated, but at an incredible cost: only one person survived the final attack, Bragoras, paladin of Tyr.”

“Bragoras and his allies had managed to identify Crimdrac's phylactery prior to engaging the dracolich. After defeating Crimdrac physically, Bragoras was able to send Crimdrac's soul to the netherworld by destroying his phylactery. Bragoras had suffered fearsome wounds and collapsed after completing his task. When he regained consciousness, Crimdrac's remains had vanished. Knowing that this was an ill omen, but unable to solve the mystery immediately, Bragoras returned to his temple to recuperate and pray for guidance.”

“The first night, a vision was visited upon him as he slept. He saw inhuman smiths working at a massive forge creating a weapon made from the remains of Crimdrac's body. In the forging of this weapon, the essences of six masters of the sword were trapped within the steel which had been mixed with Crimdrac's remains. Finally, a blade, of the finest workmanship and the foulest evil, was forged. Great power had been required for its making, power beyond the ken of mortal minds. In their desire to meld Crimdrac's power with the blade, the smiths had done their job too well: part of Crimdrac had been reborn within the steel.”

“When wielded, the sword seems to become an extension of the owner's arm; no, an extension of the owner's mind. It is a mighty weapon and powerful, but Crimdrac's soul sleeps within. The sword is evil and needs to be destroyed.”

Kilzadi glanced down at Crimdrac's Claw. Returning his gaze to Kurud, he asked, “Has anyone been possessed by the blade?”

“All the previous wielders were evil, through and through,” Kurud replied.

“But not necessarily due to the influence of the blade,” Kilzadi retorted.

Kurud hesitated. “True. The previous wielders may have been evil before they had claimed Crimdrac's Claw, but its history is stained with the blood of the men, women, and children it has butchered.”

“A sword is a sword, no more,” Kilzadi reasoned. “Steel has no guilt, no matter its source. There is no evidence that Crimdrac's Claw has had any undue or evil influence on its prior owners.”

Kurud cut him off. “The blade is tainted. It has slain innocents. It has slain women and children.”

“But under the direction of wielders who were evil and corrupted to begin with. I am not either of these things. If the blade has such a foul history, I will use it to balance the wrongs associated with it. It is powerful. Power is neither good nor evil – it depends upon how it is used. I will not rid myself of power that could be used for good.”

Kurud's expression showed his sorrow and disappointment. “The sword is evil. I have tried to clarify the importance of destroying this vile weapon, but I see my words fell on deaf ears. I pray that the sword has not corrupted you.” His face became dark, as dark as that beneath an executioner's hood. “If it has, then I will show you no mercy. I want nothing to do with it or with you.” Without saying another word, Kurud stood and walked away.

Swan shook her head. “Well, there goes another ally.” Before she could continue, Neon approached and sat down.

Risca whistled. “Nice clothes. Weren't you wearing something different before?”

“I don't want to talk about it,” Neon responded.

“Where have you been?” Gideon asked. “Much has transpired and we need to decide our next move.”

“I don't want to talk about where I've been either,” Neon answered. “Let's just head back to our rooms and discuss it all tomorrow.” The others wore perplexed expressions. Getting up, they left the party, their mood far from joyous.

The next day, they met in the main room of the White Hart Inn a little after dawn. There were few patrons present – they had either gone to do their business before dawn or they were still asleep. Holfast Harpenshield had wished to ask how the celebrations went the night before, but he could see something was wrong. Preparing a simple repast for the Seekers, he pulled Swan aside.

“Before you say anything, I know something is up,” he began. He kept going, not giving Swan a chance to respond. “I just want you to know that, whatever else happens, I will be here to support you and to help your friends. That's all. Now get back to them, because it looks like you need to do some serious planning.”

Holfast tried to walk away, but Swan threw her arms around his neck and gave him a fierce hug. “Thank you, Uncle.” Releasing her hold on his neck, Holfast strode to the front door and barred it. He then moved the other patrons further from the Seekers' tables. There were a few grumbles, but Holfast quieted them with a quick growl.

Swan joined her companions at their table and they began to talk as they ate. Gideon led off the discussion. “Let's consolidate the information that we have and go from there.” He summarized all that they had learned the night before, with the others periodically piping in with whatever they thought he had missed or didn't emphasize enough. Ideas and opinions were tossed about, but nothing conclusive was drawn. Eventually, the talking became circular; they stopped as they tried to muddle their way through the morass of ideas.

During the pause, Okul spoke up. “We have another important meeting to attend: Noristuor the Mage has requested our presence. He has something crucial to tell us and he wants us to go to his tower.”

“This might be another piece to this confusing puzzle,” Swan said optimistically.

“Or it could be a wild goose chase,” grumbled Risca. “Whatever it is, let us get it over with.” He and the others began to rise.

“Wait. I can't go yet,” Okul cut in. “I am meeting with Kurud shortly. I will see you all within the hour.”

Kilzadi, his voice caustic, asked, “What does the paladin of Tyr want?”

Okul seemed a little embarassed. “I go to spar with him. But I may be able to get more information about our current problems and more detail on Gwenect's condition.” Mollified, Kilzadi waved Okul off.

“I too have an errand,” Neon stated. He had been surprisingly quiet during the entire discussion. “I need to go to the barracks of the Riders of Mistledale.”

“Why?” Gideon asked.

Embarassed, Neon replied. “I need to get my...clothes and equipment.” He briefly explained what had occurred, omitting his encounter with Jarwain. The others wore smiles on their faces except for Swan.

“So that's why you had a change in clothes.” Swan's voice held little sympathy. “Where did you get them?”

“A friendly and generous person who had an extra set of clothes gave them to me,” was all Neon replied.

Kilzadi got up. “Okay. Let's get going. Okul, you go meet with Kurud, while Neon and the rest of us go and get his things from the Riders. We'll meet at Noristuor's Tower in an hour or so.” The others nodded their agreement and they went on their way.

Okul walked to the Temple of Tyr. Though it had been raised only three years ago, it had become an important cornerstone of the region. The temple was well designed and built strongly. High Priest Nerval Watchwill had chosen the temple's site wisely; it was built on a small rise, so it was easy to observe the comings and goings of anyone who drew near, it figures prominently in the town – it was in sight of the High Councilor's mansion, as well as most other buildings – and it was located near the road that leads to Battledale. Though High Priest Watchwill doesn't like adventurers – he doubts anyone who is unwilling to swear loyalty to a single cause – he has developed quite a network of informants among adventurers who keep him well-informed of the events in the Dalelands.

Okul was halted at the main gate by a sentry. “State your business.”

“I am Okul Tarmikos. I have been invited here by Kurud, paladin of Tyr.”

“We will send for Kurud right away.” A runner was sent off to fetch Kurud. “Please enter and be welcome within our temple.” A door opened and Okul entered the courtyard of the temple. It was similar in design to the Abbey of Swords – the courtyard doubled as a training area and housed supplies and livestock in case of a siege. As Okul admired the design of the temple, Kurud walked up to him.

Bowing, Kurud greeted him. “Welcome to the Temple of Tyr. I hope I didn't keep you waiting long.”

“Thank you for having me. No, the wait was not long. In fact, I was admiring the design of your temple. It is shows the glories of Tyr, yet it is also quite serviceable in times of conflict.”

“It was designed for both purposes. Now, more than ever, it is important that we are prepared for conflict.”

Excellent. This is what we need. “Conflict comes, as it always does. As champions for law and justice, we are always on our guard against tyranny and evil. How is it different now?”

“The drow attacks are more focused. Usually, we deal with minor skirmishes. After they taste our steel, they tend to run back to their dark pits. But this time, it is different. They seem to be more tenacious. They give ground, but only reluctantly. There doesn't seem to be any discernible pattern, but they must be after some goal – we just don't know what. High Priest Watchwill has ordered us to bolster the ranks of the Riders of Mistledale. Their lines are stretched thin and they need reinforcing.”

Motioning Okul to follow him, Kurud guided him to a small building near the main temple. Opening the door, Okul was greeted by a wondrous sight. The most magnificent weapons rack he had ever seen. Polearms of many sorts, swords, axes, hammers, and every other kind of weapon he could imagine – and a whole bunch he'd never imagined – sat in elaborate array. “Examine them,” Kurud told him. “Take your time and your pleasure.”

Okul circled the room, his eyes wide. Turning to Kurud, he asked, “Are you master of all these weapons?”

Kurud chuckled. “I am familiar with each of them and their uses, but the weapon I favor is the longsword.” He patted the sword at his side lovingly. “Let us step out and test our mettle.”

They went to a marked-off area and prepared themselves. Other acolytes were present, but they stopped their training to observe Okul and Kurud. Strapping down sheaths onto their weapons to prevent any serious harm, their dance began. Kurud lunged quickly and stabbed three times in quick succession. Okul's spear became a blur as he spun it to block the attacks. This was just the preliminaries - they were probing each other's skills. Okul suddenly leaped forward, slapping with the butt of his weapon, then spinning it over full in a brutal thrust designed for a quick kill, a strong move perfectly executed. Kurud's sword spun counterclockwise in front of him, striking the thrusting spear and driving the weapon's tip harmlessly above the striking line of Okul's shoulder.

Kurud's counter flashed forward as he drove his longsword towards Okul's chest. Impossibly fast, the butt of Okul's spear lashed down and deflected the thrust just wide of his body – the sword tip passed just beneath the pit of his right arm. Kurud leaped back, disengaging himself. He had expected an easy victory once Okul was in close quarters, but he saw that he was mistaken. The spear moved as an extension of Okul's body: he shifted grips effortlessly and was able to engage enemies up close or at a distance. Kurud gave a grudging nod.

Okul had rarely been tested to this extent by an opponent. Kurud's movements were fluid and he switched from stance to stance in continuous motion. His sword struck swift as the wind and he was always balanced, ready to defend or attack. Okul returned the nod.

A crowd had gathered to observe the sparring match. Initially, they had cheered both combatants on, but as the battle continued, a hush fell over them. They held their collective breaths, in awe of the display being shown to them. The contest went on for minutes and seemed that it would never end. Each gambit was countered perfectly and neither weapon seemed to quite reach its mark. Suddenly, there was a slight shift in the rhythm and everyone sensed it. It was a subtle change, but it was enough. Okul leaped, feinted a stab with his spear and, spinning in mid-air, he slammed Kurud in the side, sending him sprawling. Kurud got up and nursed his bruises, but he wore a broad smile.

“Well played, Okul.” He held out his hand in congratulations. Okul grasped it firmly and thanked him in turn.

“I have never seen anyone wield the longsword as you have,” Okul said in an impressed voice. “You hold it as lightly as a riding crop and wield it with almost equal ease.”

“Thank you,” Kurud replied. “Your mastery of the spear is astounding. Your ability to shift grips so quickly makes you a very dangerous opponent. We could truly use your skill maintaining the peace in the Dalelands.”

The offer stood out and hung in the air. Okul gave it serious thought, but his sense of duty towards the other Seekers would not let him abandon them. “Maybe once this is all over, I will join you for a time. But what my friends and I do, we do to drive the evil out of the Dalelands and the rest of the realm.”

Okul wiped the sweat from his brow and accepted the drink proffered to him by an acolyte. “Do you have any further news on Gwenect?”

Kurud's voice was sympathetic. “No, I'm sorry. Her condition hasn't changed.” He voice hardened. “All these occurrences seem to be pulling us in many different directions, keeping us off-balance. I don't know where the threat will come next, but we must be ready.”

“What you said about Kilzadi's blade, Crimdrac's Claw, could it truly bring disaster to us?”

“'For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind'. Crimdrac's Claw radiates evil and malevolence. It must be destroyed.”

Kurud's response worried Okul. Thanking him for the sparring match, he went to rejoin the others. As he was leaving, Kurud called out to him. “Let us have a rematch!” His voice was more jovial. “Best two out of three, perhaps?” Okul nodded his consent and waved in goodbye.

Neon and the others had arrived at the Riders' barracks on the eastern side of town. They were a group of squat buildings with stables and work sheds found on the perimeter. A short wall marked the border of the barracks. The Seekers followed the path to the front gates of the barracks and Neon banged on them loudly. The gatekeepers had watched them approach but had ignored them. Jarrod Rold had told them to expect them, but word of Neon's escapades with the young Lady Mandalane had spread and none of the Riders were happy with Neon's behaviour. Neon banged again on the outer gates and finally, one of the gatekeepers responded.

“State your business. State your name,” came a curt instruction from the guard.

“My business is with Jarrod Rold and with him alone,” Neon replied coolly.

“You will answer the appointed gate guard, visitor,” he demanded.

Before Neon could retort, Swan stepped forward. “You do not have to let us in. We just need to speak with Jarrod Rold.” The guard eyed Swan carefully. A moment later, he produced a small horn from his belt and blew a series of short, sharp notes. A few moments later, a barrack door banged open and Jarrod Rold strode to the gate.

“So you have finally arrived,” his voice was like ice. “And with your friends. State your business and let us return to ours.”

Forget diplomacy. “Return to me my clothing and my equipment,” Neon demanded.

Jarrod ignored Neon and addressed the rest of the Seekers. “He is an embarrassment. Why do you stay with someone who is so careless and reckless and self-centered?”

“You are calling me reckless?” Neon countered angrily. “You don't have the right to call me that! Who was it who released the prisoners we captured from the Zhentarim Citadel?” The guards gave each other uneasy looks.

Jarrod stormed forward, his face inches from Neon's. “What filth are you spreading now, wastrel?” his voice was a deadly whisper.

“You heard me,” Neon was unrelenting. “Where do you get off releasing known murderers and kidnappers back to their friends? You call me reckless? You are a hypocrite.”

Jarrod's hands balled into fists. Everyone braced themselves for a brawl. “There are thirty-seven people who have disappeared in the past month. We know they were all kidnapped. All hope for their return was given up. Under orders from High Councilor Haresk Malorn, we have freed twelve of them using the ransom we received for releasing those scum. We haven't found the rest yet, but we will, and when we do, we can buy back their freedom as well. Don't you dare judge me.”

“All you have done is delay, the inevitable. By returning the Zhentarims, you have just added to the threat, not reduced it. Do you think that since they were returned unharmed, that they will look kindly upon you and stop raiding your land? That's a foolish hope! Thank the gods someone else is in charge of the Riders!”

Jarrod gripped the hilt of his dagger, but didn't draw it. His voice quivered in rage. “So what if they have returned to their network of thieves and murderers. We will finish the job that you failed to do – wipe them out of existence. They are no threat to us!”

Signaling a guard, Jarrod continued. “You have been well-rewarded for a minimal amount of effort. You have defeated some of the scum, but you have not solved the problem. You dare to pass judgment on us? You don't have the right!” The guard returned with a bundle of clothes. “Take your things and leave. I only hope that you will learn some honour before we meet again. More likely, you will die in a ditch for your disrespectful behaviour. I pray that your friends do not pay the consequences for your thoughtless actions.” Turning on his heel, Jarrod marched away. The gate slammed shut in the faces of the Seekers.

Neon turned to the others. “Well, that went better than expected,” he said in a cheerful voice.

“How's that again?” Risca asked. “I'm not the most tactful person, far from it, but that did not go well.”

“We confirmed some of the things we learned last night,” Neon explained, “and without resorting to bribery or sneaking about. I call that a good thing.”

Kilzadi nodded. “He's right. We now know that the Zhentarims were released at the order of Haresk Malorn and that the ransom is being used to buy back captured Mistrans.”

Gideon did not look pleased. “Let's meet with Okul at Noristuor's Tower.”

Okul was waiting for the others just outside of the tower. “How did it go?” Gideon gave him a sharp glance. “How about you fill me in later? Let's go meet Noristuor the Mage.”

Okul led the way to the front door. Having learned from his previous experience, he knocked gently on the door. Even before he finished, the door was flung wide open and they were greeted by the sight of the tiefling, out of breath. Wordlessly, he passed Okul his spear.

The moment he grasped it, Okul could sense its renewed power. He tried to thank Noristuor, but the wizard would hear nothing of it. “There is much potential in your spear, Okul. Come see me when you wish to bring out its true power.”

Kilzadi stepped up to the fore. “Oh great Noristuor. Please help us by increasing the puissance of this magical cloak.” He presented the cloak he found on Bareris to the tiefling.

Noristuor took one look at the cloak and snorted. “You idiot. This cloak has no magical potential. You've been played for a fool. Have you heard of Nystul's Magic Aura? This cloak is worthless, except as a snappy accessory. Now enough of this. You need to meet my friend and hear his story.”

He led them up a set of spiraling stairs to the next level. There, a tall, thin human sat in a padded chair, sipping a cup of tea. He was dressed in a blue robe, flecked with stars, with a skullcap adorning his head. A dark cloak hung from his shoulders and his fingers were bejeweled with rings. His beard was neatly trimmed and snow-white. He turned as he heard the group climb the stairs.

“I see you made yourself at home.” Noristuor bowed to the human. “May I introduce Tunaster Danik, wandering cleric of Mystra, and one of the biggest moochers in all the realm.”

Tunaster rose from his seat. “Please, call me TD. Oh, Noristuor, by the way, you are out of fennel tea.”

“What? I was saving that for dinner tonight!” Noristuor was incensed. “You are going to get me some more, now!”

The Seekers enjoyed the playful repartee; it was a good change of pace from what they had experienced recently. Kilzadi scanned Tunaster as he and Noristuor argued over replenishing Noristuor's dwindling food supplies. Tunaster's robe, cloak, and two of his rings radiated magic of various strengths.

Tunaster, ignoring Noristuor's complaints, bowed deeply towards the Seekers. “Thank you so much for coming here at my behest. I have a serious request and a mystery to solve, and I can not do it alone.”

“As Noristuor has said, I am a devout follower of Mystra. Since I became one of the faithful, I have traveled the land seeking new magic. Mystra is the conduit that allows spellcasters to safely access the raw force that is magic. She also exemplifies the possibilities that magic can bring about. We, who are her faithful, are encouraged to explore magical theory and new spells and magic items. Our goal is to preserve magical lore so that, should the worst befall the realm, magic would continue and flourish in the future even if the dominant races of Faerun were to fall.”

“I had been returning from a journey to Tasseldale where I had been following rumors of hidden elven magic within the Sharburg's walls. I had ended up being empty-handed but new clues had come to light indicating a powerful, now-forgotten spell. I had begun a trek to Shadowdale to consult with Elminster, when I heard stories of a newly-built temple dedicated to Mystra in Harrowdale. Since there are no other temples dedicated to the Lady of Mysteries in the Dalelands, I thought I should go and pay my respects.”

Tunaster paused and took a sip of his tea. “How did you not know of this temple's existence?” Kilzadi asked.

“I wander a lot, and I focus on finding magic, not on pomp and circumstance. I pay my respects to Mystra and focus on a personal style of worship, as do many other faithful. There are very few established temples or abbeys glorifying Mystra. We worship Her each in our own way, especially through our love of magic.”

“Now, as I was saying, I went to Harrowdale to pay my respects to Mystra at her temple. When I arrived, I was amazed at its beauty and splendor. I asked the locals about the church and apparently, Lady Arthas, one of Mystra's clergy, had had the temple built. It had been built over an old citadel in Harrowdale that had gone to ruin.”

Tunaster paused again to collect his thoughts. “I entered the temple grounds and admired the motifs in the outer courtyard. But when I tried to enter the inner sanctum, I was halted by some guards.” Tunasters brow furrowed. “I explained who I was and even was willing to be tested with spells to prove my identity, when a female wearing the garb of a cleric of Mystra approached. She introduced herself as Llewyn Aspenwold and asked me what my purpose was. I explained to her that I just wished to enter the temple-proper to give thanks to Mystra. She gave some thought to my request, which seemed odd at the time, and then directed me to go the the middle court.”

“At this point, I knew something was not right. A tingling sensation moved down my back. Now, I don't know if that was Mystra watching over one of her faithful or not, but I thank the Lady for the warning. I bolted for the exit. Llewyn Aspenwold shouted at me to stop, but I never looked back. Arrows and other projectiles almost struck me as I fled. I slipped behind a pillar and cast a quick spell to teleport me outside of the temple. I felt an antimagic field begin to form around me and my spell almost failed. Almost. I escaped, but by the smallest of margins.”

“I returned later that night to meet with Ellarian Dawnhorn, the Chief Constable of Harrowdale, and described what happened.” At the name of his mother, Neon perked up. “She listened to me and promised to investigate the temple. She bade me to return in two days. I met with her again two days later after doing some investigating of my own. Harrowdale is ruled by the seven richest burghers in the area. As long as they receive their taxes on time, they do not ask any questions. When I met with her, she assured me that, after performing a very thorough investigation, nothing was amiss. She eyed me a little suspiciously at this point. I realized I was again treading in dangerous waters. I gave my thanks and departed, while I still could. Since I didn't know where my other brethren were located, I made my way to Ashabenford to consult with Noristuor because I didn't know what else to do.”

Tunaster looked each Seeker in the eye. “There is definitely something wrong at this temple. I need you to investigate it for me.”

“Where will you be?” Risca asked bluntly.

“I need to go to Saerloon to report my suspicions to my superiors in Mystra's faithful. I am willing to offer you 2000 pieces of gold for you to penetrate the temple and solve this mystery. If anything profane is committed in Mystra's name, I need you to eliminate it and any blasphemers. Once you are done, report to Noristuor. He will know how to contact me.”

Okul groaned. “Another piece to a puzzle we don't understand.”

Gideon looked at the others, his eyes questioning. Should we go or not? Each nodded their head in consent. “Tunaster, we will be happy to investigate the temple in Harrowdale. We shall leave once we collect our equipment and make our way as quickly as possible. Is there any further information you could provide?”

“Everything that I told you is all I know,” he said as he stood. “I will begin my journey immediately for Saerloon. I will await your signal, Noristuor.” Chanting, he began moving his hands in a perplexing pattern. Suddenly, he began to fade and finally he vanished.

“Thank you for taking this on,” Noristuor said. “Tunaster is a good friend and he was in a frenzy over this incident. I hope it is nothing, but it doesn't sound like it is.” Noristuor escorted the Seekers out of his tower and bade them a good day.

As they entered the street, Neon felt a gentle tug on his pant leg. Looking down, he noted a scrap of paper hanging from his pocket. Opening up the note, he read it quickly. White Hart Inn. Jhaer. Telling the others he had to collect some items he purchased, Neon left the group, promising to meet with them later.

Neon's step was light as he reached the White Hart Inn. Walking in, he immediately sighted Jhaer sitting at a table. She was as ravishing as he remembered. Sitting beside her was a skinny fellow dressed in black. Who's this?

Jhaer stood as soon as she saw Neon walk into the inn. Neon glided forward and gave her a big hug and kissed her soundly. She moaned her approval, but soon broke the kiss.

“Neon,” she said, “I want you to meet a friend of mine. This is Dameon from Shadowdale.” He nodded his head. “Dameon has skills you want to learn and need to learn. He has agreed, out of friendship to me, to mentor you in developing these skills.”

They all sat down at the table. Suddenly, a cup shot out at Neon. Trying to dodge it and catch it at the same time, Neon fell over. Brushing himself off, Neon sarcastically said, “Nice one, Dameon. I wasn't expecting you to throw something at me since we've just met. Do you always do that?”

“I'll make sure you will expect it next time.” Dameon turned to Jhaer. “Are you sure he's what we're looking for?” That's a puzzling question thought Neon.

“Yes, he is,” Jhaer replied emphatically. Addressing Neon, she said, “Dameon has agreed to train you. He owes me a favour. And now you owe me a favour.”

“Tell me a little about yourself, Neon,” Dameon asked.

Neon proceeded to tell Dameon and Jhaer all of his recent exploits. He omitted anything that was embarrassing for him, but otherwise, he wove a colourful tale. He also explained that he would be traveling to Harrowdale for several days on an important mission.

“I'd be worried about your friend, Kilzadi,” Dameon cautioned. “I wouldn't trust anyone who consorts so easily with Red Wizards and drow sluts. Watch him carefully.” There was an awkward pause.

Jhaer spoke up to Dameon. “Have you met the owner of the White Hart Inn? His name is Holdfast Harpenshield. He is an old campaigner and a friend.” Calling Holdfast over, Jhaer introduced him to Dameon.

“Do you know him?” Dameon asked Holdfast, pointing at Neon.

Holdfast took stock of Dameon. Dangerous. “Yeah. I know him. Why?”

“I've been asked to train him. Is it worth my time?”

Holdfast sat back and stared at both Neon and Dameon. “I've heard of his exploits and someone close to me has described his courage and quick thinking. He has potential, a lot of it.” Staring hard at Dameon, he continued. “I'm a pretty good judge of character, and I'll say this: he may look and act like a fool, but his core is made of the finest steel. He is worth your time.”

Dameon nodded his head. “Okay Neon. Let's go.”

Neon was confused. “Go where?”

“We're going to start your training. Jhaer, you'll need to tend his bruises, because he will have a lot of them by the time I'm done with him.”

Dameon and Neon left the White Hart Inn and headed to the Velvet Veil. Now this is my kind of training. Once inside, Dameon pulled up a chair. Neon was about to sit on it when he pulled it back, causing Neon to land on the floor, hard. “Hey!”

“You won't be sitting while we're here. The reason we're here is to see if you can maintain your focus. If your focus ever breaks, then you will most likely die. First thing I want you to do is do a handstand on the chair.” Neon stepped up and did as he asked. Dameon watched his form. “Not bad. Now I want you to maintain your handstand as I do this.” With that, Dameon kicked the front legs of the chair, sweeping them upwards. Suddenly, Neon was balanced precariously on two legs of the chair. To his credit, he maintained the handstand, though his face was covered in sweat. “You're doing pretty well. Let's see how you handle this.” Again, Dameon kicked a leg of the chair. Neon was now balanced on only one chair leg. “Good. Now see that you maintain that position for the next hour.”

Calling two girls over, Dameon gave them a challenge. “If you can distract him so that he falls over in the next hour, I will give you 25 pieces of gold. You can do whatever you want, you just can't touch him. Be creative.” The girls' eyes lit up. Neon's field of view became hampered with flesh and his ears were filled with the most sensual suggestions. The sweat on his brow was not only due to the physical effort of holding himself up.

Suddenly, a hand slapped Neon on the back, and he sprawled on the floor. He began to utter a threat to his tormentor. “Dameon...” Neon's voice died. It wasn't Dameon who had knocked him over.

“Remember us, river rat?” Heldo and Parvus Ubler, the miller's sons, stood over him, mocking him. Dameon stood in the shadows, watching. “Where's the money you owe us?” Without waiting for a response, they jumped on Neon, hoping to pummel him. Bouncers rushed forward to break up the fight, but Dameon stopped them. Whispering in their ear, he placed several coins in their palms. They stood back and watched the show.

Neon had immediately tried to tumble away from the two. He tripped up on the chair he had been balancing on, but that turned out to be a blessing. Both brothers had leaped towards where they had expected Neon to end up, and, instead, missed their mark completely. Ducking and weaving, Neon again tried to somersault and dodge his way towards the door, but Parvus managed to get a hold of his shoulder.

“Gotcha!” Parvus' head snapped back as Neon's foot landed squarely on his jaw. Twisting free, he had a clear path towards the door and freedom. Turning back to mock the brothers was a grievous error on his part. When he tried to leap over a table blocking his path, his hand slipped on some spilled beer. He fell over and twisted his ankle as he tried to gain his feet. The pain was acute and he fell over, knocking a stripper on top of himself.

Heldo and Parvus suddenly tripped and fell. Dameon's fists lashed out, and they both were put out of the fight. He shook his head. “This training is going to be troublesome. After this, Jhaer and I are even!”

Helping Neon to his feet, Dameon said with disgust, “Training's over for today. Come back to me once you've returned from Harrowdale, if you live that long.” He then stormed angrily out of the Velvet Veil.

What a grouch! Neon limped off to find Jhaer at her cottage. She greeted him at the door with a kiss. “Don't be discouraged, Neon. It will all be worthwhile in the end. Let me ease your pain.” Closing the door behind them, she proceeded to nurse his bruises and his pride. Could be worse.

After meeting with Tunaster and Noristuor, Risca went to deal with one of his own problems. Since going to Glen, it had been bothering him that he had been forced to swallow his pride. Outcast! I will straighten out Thorik! Leaving the others behind, he headed back to Glen without telling anyone.

He arrived at the main gate and shouted, “Thorik! Come out! You and I have some unfinished business! It's me, Risca Foraker from Mirabar!” The town started to buzz. The gate opened wide as Thorik stormed out.

“Where's your fiery friend?” he asked rhetorically. “Don't you think you'll need him to save you again?”

“I don't need anyone to pound some respect into you!” With that, Risca threw himself on Thorik. The brawl soon got out of hand – many dwarves had assembled around the combatants and cheered Thorik on. Finally, Risca managed to grab Thorik around the waist and he squeezed.

Thorik pounded on his back and his head, but Risca took the grueling punishment without crying out. Tightening his grip, Thorik's movements became less certain, and his eyes started to roll back. Thorik's head lolled to the side – he had passed out. The other dwarves separated them and held Risca back. Thorik awoke shortly after water was dumped on his head.

“You judged me on my history and you thought me weak, both in mind and in spirit,” Risca raged. “But you were wrong!”

“You put your own needs above those of your brethren, above dwarvenkind,” Thorik yelled back. “How else did you expect to be judged?”

“If you are going to judge me, then judge me on what I've done since then, not on what has already passed. Don't you think it tears me up everyday that my friends, my family died because of me?” Tears streamed unheeded down Risca's face. “I pay for my past every moment of my life! But I have changed! You call me traitor! I am no traitor!”

Thorik stared at him. “We will be watching.” He turned and went back inside the village. Risca shook the other dwarves' hands off himself. It was not much, but he had begun to redeem himself in his brethren's eyes. Nursing his bruises, he went to a nearby stream to clean out his cuts.

Meanwhile, Swan had gone to the White Hart Inn searching for Uncle Holdfast. Gripping the rapier and hiding it beneath her cloak, she was amazed at its balance and style. When she had first recovered it, she had recognized the crest on its hilt: it was the family crest of the Eluarshee, a royal elven family of Cormanthor.

She had also recognized the insignia beneath the Eluarshee family crest; it was the personal sigil of Princess Imryll Eluarshee, Mother of Deepingdale, legendary for having turned away from her royal heritage and marrying a human against her family's wishes. Though unwelcome in the elven community in Cormanthor, it was through her leadership and guidance that Deepingdale was founded. It was her many children who helped promote racial tolerance within the community. Though many in Deepingdale claimed a link, no matter how faint, to her royal lineage, this rapier was of utmost importance to Swan. It provided a connection, both physical and emotional, to this important personage, but it wasn't safe with her at this time.

She wished to send a letter to her mother, as well as the rapier, and needed her Uncle Holdfast's help again. Finding no sign of him, she grabbed some parchment and wrote him a message. Uncle, when you get this, I will be on my way on another adventure. I just wanted to thank you for all you have done for myself and my friends. I have one last request: please send this rapier and this letter to my mother. They are both very important to me. She will know what to do with them. I will see you soon. Ugly Duckling. Wrapping both notes around the hilt of the rapier, she tied them in place with ribbon. Placing the rapier out of sight beneath the bar, she made her way to meet with the others.

She had just left the inn when she ran into Gideon. “Have you seen Risca?” he asked a little nervously.

“No,” she replied. “In fact, I haven't seen him for some time. I hope he hasn't gotten himself into any trouble.”

Gideon sighed heavily. “No matter. He is an adult. We can't baby him, even though he is pig-headed most of the time.” Swan flashed a quick smile. “Would you like to go to Glen with me? I need to collect my new weapon.” Swan, having nothing better to do, agreed, and they set off.

When they arrived, they were surprised to see Risca binding fresh wounds at a nearby river. “I don't even want to know,” was all Swan said. Risca grinned sheepishly.

“Let's just get my commission,” Gideon said.

Walking into Glen, dwarves stared at Risca, but didn't approach. Reaching Thorik's smith, Gideon called in. “Master Thorik. It is I, Gideon. Have you finished the project I asked for?” The hammering within stopped. Heavy footsteps approached and Thorik came into view. Without saying a word, he presented a crystal mace to Gideon. It was made of a clear and colourless crystal, its lines were beautiful and it seemed indestructible. Gideon marveled at the craftsmanship. He passed Thorik a pouch of gold which he accepted promptly. Silently, Thorik returned to his smith and the sound of hammering resumed.

That was easy thought Swan. “Boys, I think it's time to leave for Harrowdale.”

Gideon seemed to be ignoring her. His eyes had glazed over and he appeared to fall into a trance-like state. He began to sway side to side, crooning in an unknown language. Runes appeared on the surface of the morningstar, igniting. Amazingly, the flames seemed to flick inwards, towards the heart of the weapon, instead of flaring outwards. Swan and Risca watched on in awe and with concern as Gideon threw his head back in exultation and shouted out words of power. The burning runes vanished, leaving the crystal of the morning star a reddish hue.

Gideon slumped over, clutching the weapon to his chest. He shook his head, seeming to finally become aware of his surroundings. Looking around, he saw Risca and Swan staring at him, as well as a clump of dwarves. They all seemed to be on edge, especially the dwarves – many had their hands on weapons, ready to jump into action. It happened again Gideon thought. Kossuth's blessing has touched me again. I am not worthy of this honour, but I will strive to earn it. Gideon did not seem aware of the fear he was generating – or he did not care. Only Kossuth mattered to him at that moment. “Tell me exactly what happened.”

As Risca and Swan described what had happened, they were again concerned over Gideon's display of raw power – not the power itself, but that it seemed out of his conscious control. Without being aware of it, Gideon seemed to have infused his crystal morningstar with new and unknown abilities – at least, unknown to them. Questions swirled around in their minds: Did Gideon know what magic he had performed? He didn't seem aware, but that may not mean anything. His unconscious mind may hold the key, but how do we access it? If he doesn't know, then that means Kossuth is using him. If we are no longer of use to Kossuth, will He have us removed? A disturbing thought. This will need to be discussed further.

Back in Ashabenford, Okul had headed back to the Temple of Tyr to spar with Kurud again. Kilzadi, strangely, had asked to accompany him. As they arrived, Kurud immediately addresed Kilzadi. “You need to get rid of that scimitar.”

“I came to explain. We do not want to lose your friendship nor any future help. But I will only say this once: I will use Crimdrac's Claw to rid the world of evil. I will not destroy a powerful weapon based solely on your opinion.”

Kurud looked sad. “Your decision may bring you grief and come back to haunt you.” Kilzadi simply shrugged his shoulders and departed. Kurud watched as he left.

“Kurud, I came for your rematch. Let us lose ourselves in our dance.” Kurud looked over and nodded.

Returning to the training ground, they began their sparring again. Time seemed to pass slowly for them, but morning grew into the afternoon and began to fade into evening by the time they finished their contest. As they began to spar, Okul fell into an easy rhythm – he was confident, even though Kurud was the more experienced of the two. Spirit and vision are always superior to skill. Okul's spear hummed as it moved through the air. Teasingly, he called out to Kurud, “You have become too dependent on your armor to protect you. You slash and rend air where you move. A tortoise would challenge you! I ride your breeze – with you and through you and around you like a fluttering leaf, swirling, and twirling like...” Okul's rhythm proved his undoing. Faster than he had expected, Kurud adapted to his movements. Sidestepping a thrust, his sword swung out – Okul groaned and pulled himself from the ground. His left eye was swollen shut from a blow that, had the blade been bare, would have sheared off the top of his head.

Kurud rushed over, apologizing profusely. Okul brushed him off. “It was my own fault. There was a barrier before me, pride, a barrier of my own making, but you have swept it away for me. And I thank you.” Bowing deeply, Okul gave his thanks.

Kurud was impressed by Okul's character. “I will have a cleric heal your wound,” Kurud offered. Again, Okul brushed him off.

“No. We wanted to test each other and we shall. We cannot stop combat on the account of a minor injury! Plus, we need to determine the winner.” Kurud and Okul prepared themselves for their last contest. “And don't hold back!” Okul admonished.

The sun was dipping down to the horizon as both warriors engaged for the third and final time. When you attack, by necessity, you become off-balance. He will use that, he will use it to win. But I must win. To win, I need to make him attack. Okul's spear spun and slashed on either side of Kurud, giving Kurud one narrow path and Okul stood in its center. Both were fighting to break through to the next stage, to evolve into greater warriors. There were no wasted movements. Years of conditioned motion and power, timed and focused directly on precise targets, allowed them to move without thought. Each block, each contact, molded the body into a shape and position to better receive or deliver a strike. Each strike would have killed or rendered useless, if it had landed. If. There was equality in this contest. Kurud was shorter, thicker; Okul had twisting thinness. Okul's sight was dimmed; Kurud's sight was blinded by the setting sun. Kurud had experience; Okul had reflexes.

In the end, Okul's spear won out. Kurud's focus broke, just for a moment, but Okul was ready. His spear jabbed forward and caught Kurud's wrist, knocking his sword out of his hand. Okul's follow-through had his spear stop a hair's-breadth from Kurud's face. With that, it was over. Both men were covered in sweat and were exhausted, but they both wore satisfied smiles. It had been very close the entire time, but Okul had won out: two victories to one in his favor.

“Thank you, Okul, for the exercise. Through this, I have become a better warrior.”

“As have I, Kurud.” Gripping his arm in the legionnaire's salute, he said, “Tempus guide your sword.”

“Tyr's judgment upon you,” Kurud replied. Clerics rushed forward and lay healing hands on both combatants. Okul shivered as holy energy coursed through his body, washing away his fatigue and injuries, leaving behind a sense of purpose and strong conviction. Bowing his thanks, Okul, his spirit soaring, left the temple to regroup with the others and prepare for their journey to Harrowdale.

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