The Tide of Shadows - Chapter 4

Adventure Date: July 3, 2010

Last Updated: July 27, 2011


Stump-Clump. Stump-Clump, was the sound of Ska'arr's bare feet hitting the hard ground.

Stump-Clump. Stump-Clump, was the sound of Ska'arr's bare feet hitting the hard ground. The big ranger's toughened soles seemly impervious to the stabs of the little stones.

Clump-Stump, Clump-Stump was the painful pounding of Scuro's brain; counter tempo to Ska'arr's steps. Oh, how his head ached! It swelled to bursting and then shrunk to intense pressure. The oscillations hurt.

Too much had happened in too short a time. Too many unanswered questions. Who sent the aboleth? Who knew about him? Arianna waiting for him…someplace cold. Where? Spell memories awakened. Necromantic powers erupting. But oh so painful.

Most frightening of all his alter ego 's personality was separating. Ro-Lund-do, the traveller, and Scuro were having conversations in his head. Was this the first sign of insanity?

Stump-Clump- the sound of the ground kissing Ska'arr's heel.

Clump-Stump-the pain resounding in Scuro's mind.

Then there was the problem of Zandever's revelation. Someone had been raising the dead in this area and suspicion had fallen on him. If only! But why him? It was as if someone knew he had the potential to do so and was attempting to curtail it from ever happening. More mysteries!

To distract the pain, he concentrated on his fellow travelers.

At the front, stomped Ska'arr, the bare foot warrior. Strong, and straight forward, and so, a good tool to cultivate and use. Some sort of escaped slave from some orc tribe or other, who now loathed orcs. Not that Scuro cared. But such knowledge could facilitate in the manipulation of the warrior.

Only a smidgeon shorter than the tall thin and lanky necromancer, Ska' arr exuded strength. Wide shoulders and a broad chest heightened the effect. Where Scuro was silver, Ska'arr was brown. Brown hair, brown eyes and tanned skin. His could-have-been-handsome face marred by a long running huge scar.

Beside him, trotted the aptly-named Beast. The huge war dog was as grizzled, as battle scarred and as ugly as its master. A cross, it inherited its massive size, strength and fearless grit from its mastiff father while its wolf mother donated intelligence, fierceness and agility. A spiked collar around its neck deterred any foe from latching on to its throat

Scuro was fond of the Beast. "The best of this whole bunch". he thought. "Does its job well and doesn't bother anyone. Good dog. Say whatever about Ska'arr but he is an excellent animal trainer. So then, control the master; control the Beast.

The animal brought memories of his own long gone senatorial kennels and favourite hounds.

To Scuro's amusement, every once in awhile, at random, a little ferret head would pop out from Ska'arr's backpack. It would look around at the trailing travellers and then pop down again.

Regular zoo keeper that Ska'arr.

He turned his attention to the youngster walking beside him. Pelias Hadrathus, about to leave his teenage hood. From Thay, apparently; the land of the Red Wizards.

Some sort of cloister cleric. A student of both the divine and the arcane. Dangerous! Scuro knew only too well that knowledge was power. And now showing abilities of sorcery. The death force cleric had noticed Pelias eying him oddly at times. It was as if Scuro's pretence as a priest of Amman-Ra was being scrutinized.

Yes, have to keep a watch on the young pup. Befriend him and stay close to him. Close enough that the young Thayan cannot do any investigating without me being aware of it. Perhaps offer to teach him something?

Pelias was a wonderfully handsome looking lad. His average brown eyes and dark hair blending nicely with his dun coloured breeches and jerkin. The only concession to colour was a shoulder mantle portraying the blue and white seven star symbol of Mystra and his silver holy symbol.

Yes Mystra. The new Lady of Magic. She who succeeded Mystryl as the Goddess of the Weave. Mystryl, who sacrificed herself in order to save magic on Toril after Karsus…damn you Karsus, damn you…may your soul rot forever in the Nine Hells.

So the plan is still to lie, steal, cheat and kill our way to acquiring enough power and materials, as soon as possible, to recast the Spell of Soul Transfer. All this to go back and smother the baby Karsus in his crib or whatever.

What! You again! Get out of my Mind! NOW, ALIEN! He exerted his will to no effect.

The last two words were spoken out loud. Loud enough to cause the others to stop and stare at him. With a sheepish grin and murder in his eye, he waved the others onward, as if to say, `sorry, just thinking out loud.'

Ah, the High Chancellor Scuro Forzar, Imax of Necromancy. Still in the habit of issuing orders and edicts. Look about you. Times have changed. I cannot leave this mind. It happens to be our mind. Do we feel like an alien presence? No, of course not.

Who are you? Want do you want?

We have been through this already. Still in denial? Very well. We are your alter ego. We are Ro-Lund-Do. We are us if we had not regained our memories. We are us who is ruthless and merciless, but only as required to our advantage. We are the cleric of Amman-Ra, who could have been. The one who misses our Dupari family. We are the high Imperial Netherese who can understand the feelings of friendship, camaraderie, and especially love and affection. And use these feelings to forward our goals. We are your newly awakened conscious.

As to want we want? We seek that we understand the consequences of our actions. We wish us to ponder the effects these actions on friends and loved ones. We desire a set of priorities which will include such matters. We mean to keep us honest with our self.

I do not fully understand…

Yes you do. It is just a matter of admitting it. For example, why did we not stop Karsus all those many years ago?

What!? It would have meant devastating civil war inside the Empire.

True. But war never bothered us, and we did not like him anyway. Too conceited for everyone's good. The real reason is that we were using him, as we always use people. We wanted to be certain the Avatar spell would work. If it worked for him, we would have been the next to use it. We wanted the Deific Portfolio of Death and Undeath. Positive and negative. So we did nothing except wait and watch. So we let Karsus be the guinea pig.

Naturally, as always, we had a contingency plan. One that would have let us rule on earth if the heavens proved unassailable. Which they did. And so here we are.

Now listen to us, our alter ego. We are not opposing our plan. It is just that we want to use our new emphatic abilities to aid us. There is no need to rush single-minded into this quest. We must be more subtle, use our family connections, our understanding of these new emotions to aid us. There is no hurry. The Soul spell can be cast at any time. Only we know it. We can always extend our lifespan if need be. Let us expand our wealth and influence first. Let us become a puppet master, a spider at the center of a vast extending web.

Uhmm- there is much wisdom in what you say. But how is this possible? I, We, us…

Of course, since our wisdom is your wisdom. We think it is what makes our Will so potent Who can determine how? A side effect of the Soul spell, perhaps? - it too warrants examination. Now, there are too many mysterious threads waving around that need answers. Ones that should be investigated fully. Ones already on our mind. Such as Brianna, and…

Ah, Brianna. Yes! We must find her. She would be able to supply us with much information. Somehow she is connected to the aboleth and whoever sent it. She could become our link to the elven kingdoms; star elves are rare in these modern times and…

Scuro-you cannot hide the truth from yourself- we know there is also another reason- one that we should acknowledge-for our sanity's sake- so state it.

We want her back! Satisfied? I said it. Knowing she is here in this time has awakened strange feelings. Feelings that only now I seem to grasp.

That's our doing.

I, I miss her. I realize now, after all these years I have been so, so lonely. I want to see her, hear her laugh; see her dance happily, sing love songs to me while playing on the harp.

I want to smell her hair as she lies naked, wrapped all around me. I want to feel her fair, smooth perfect skin under my hands, listen to her soft breathing. I miss the warm, soft, tender wet femaleness of her. I miss her affections. I regret I gave her up, especially gave her up in exchange for this gods' dammed disaster. Now, is that enough or shall I continue?

No need. We know all this, as well, remember. Your heartache is our heartache. The pain has eased somewhat, hasn't it. Proof, it is better to face and share these emotions even if only with yourself, rather than suppress them. Worry not, though. We are here to help guide us.

Then there is the matter of these local necromantic acts. It seems that someone is raising undead, raiding caravans with them and spreading rumours that it our doing. This implies several things which cannot be allowed to continue.

We must find out who they are, how they know we are necromancer and we stop their predations. Imagine, if we take the accolades from the local population of having brought them to a halt while at the same time assuming control of their organization. More progress towards our ultimate goal.

Ah, I was thinking the same…

Of course we were. We are the same thoughts. So Scuro why don't you submerge yourself in our sub- conscious and rest while Ro-Lund-Do bears our pain. The pain caused by the death force energy attempting to manifest itself as wizardly arcane energy.

Yes, our thoughts are the same. Call me should you need immediate Imperial help or advice. Otherwise we shall 'converse' again later.

With that, Ro-Lund-Do felt part of his mind relaxing as the Scuro persona became dormant. His headache lessened, but still pinched.

A cry of "Ahha! Knew it. Gotcha!" snapped him out of his reverie.

The outburst's source was one of the three female members of the group; Katharina "Just Whisper My Name, Dar'lin" Shadowfeet.

Kat was a most pretty gnome, with sky blue eyes and glossy black hair done in a ponytail. A bead of freckles ran across the bridge of her nose, cheek to cheek, giving her a sweet little girl looks. Her body curved and bulged in a most feminine way, while her movements indicated strong and supple muscle. She was lean and tough. Well greased for silence and water- proofing, her dark leather armour and boots accented her contours. Strangely her skin colouration had a greyish overtone to it; one Ro-Lund-Do had not seen before in a gnome, past or present, slave or free.

Regardless, he was an admirer of both her stealthy and fighting skills. Those twin swords of hers were just deadly. A good one to have at your side. Besides she had defended Scuro against "the raising of the dead accusations"- a plus for her.

All during the walk home, Kat had been checking over and prying at the magical item chest. She felt so sure that she had missed something. Like a cat worrying a mouse, she had prodded and poked, knocked and pried at it. The loss of her `trade tools` just prolonged her search. The chest dimensions from the outside did not seem to match the inside. Yet she could not verify the discrepancy until now. She had found and opened the secret drawer.

"Well lookee here. Hey Scarface, these must be for you."

At these words, the troupe stopped and gathered round. Kat had found a pair of small dark brown leather boots in the hidden drawer. Holding them up, she had addressed Ska'arr.

"Don't know if they'll fit though. They don't look wide or long enough for those cloven hooves of yours. Now why anyone would put boots in a secret drawer unless…hey, priest man or cleric boy, do some divine stuff. Check out these boots for us."

Ro-Lund-Do grinned. He truly enjoyed Kat's gnomish attitude to people, places and things. Refreshingly humorous. As usual he had placed himself near the back. By now, being inconspicuous had become habit forming.

And so it was Pelias who muttered an incantation and declared, "Magic- transmutation magic."

"Hear that Ska'arr. Transmutation. Put them on. They may mutate those appendages of yours into something resembling human feet. Maybe even with the correct number of toes." So saying, she tossed them to him.

He deftly caught them, sat on the grass and proceeded to pull them on.

"Well folks, while our barefooted whatever tries on his new footwear, I suggest we all stop and have lunch. Then as we triumphantly enter Triboar, we can go and directly seek our rewards without taking time about dining. Agreed?"

Ro- Lund-Do heartily agreed with this. The sooner his money share was in his hands, the sooner he could get on with his plans. He found himself a tree by the trail, laid his quarter staff and crossbow against it, and then, sitting under it, took out his canteen and trail rations.

As he sat and chewed, the young Bedine girl approached him. So smooth was her movement that she seemed to flow.

Ro- Lund-Do enjoyed Shribryn's company. She was so typical Bedine, a very pretty girl with her dark brown hair and desert sun burned skin. She wore the standard desert robes of a warrior. Her razor sharp and curved double edged jambiya dagger safely sheathed, she too used a quarter staff with great skill. Her chador hung open over her shoulder. It was mostly used to retain oral moisture and to keep the desert dust out. But in battle, she would wrap it about her face, so that only her white glassy eyes showed. A custom of many Bedine warriors.

Shribryn was blind. Some kind of encounter with a giant desert scorpion. Yet she seemed to have the uncanny ability to know where everything was- almost like a bat! He found the thought a bit disconcerting. She was always polite and respectful to him, as though he were a wise elder to her. They raised their womenfolk well these Bedine tribes.

In personality she was just the opposite of Kat. Where Kat was racing around, full of energy, investigating all in sight, always chatting and joking, Shribryn moved slowly, cautiously, carefully inspecting before moving on. She spoke only when spoken to and then always calmly.

"May I sit with you, please Ro-Lund-Do?"

"Yes of course."

"Thank you. I offer you water." He knew from his stay that the Bedine offer to share water indicated peace, respect and friendship.

"I thank you, but no need. I have already drunk. Here, I offer you my water." He handed her his canteen.

At his words a huge smile spread across her face. It transformed from pretty to beautiful. "I accept, with gratitude."

When she smiles, she looks so…so lovely and aristocratic. A noble queen He felt a stirring in his loins.. He watched and noticed how delicately she drank, careful not to spill even a drop. Desert discipline.

"You fight well with this", she touched his crossbow.

"Ha! Just luck. I load it and aim in the general direction of my opponent and hope for the best. I'm too weak to do much else."

She tilted her head and stared at him with her pupil less eyes. Then she reached out and touched his hand with roughened fingers," Do not belittle yourself. I sense great power in you, power you seem to be suppressing."

His body jolted at her touch. He could feel a blush racing as he became more aroused. Then her words sunk in. Oh, please no, Shrbryn. Please do not suspect anything. I truly have no wish to have to protect my secrets from you, but if I must….He could sense Scuro awaking

If she suspects then she must be dealt with.

With great will he suppressed Scuro back into slumber. His head started to pound with pain again.. Then just as he was regaining composure a shadow fell across his line of sight. A familiar shadow.

No. Please, not her! Not now!

But it was her. However much he attempted to avoid her, she always seemed to be hovering around him, always keeping him in sight. Especially since the rumours of him performing necromantic acts had surfaced. Just waiting for any indication to accuse him and worse.

Raven Battlestar loomed over him, ever suspicious, ever gorgeous and so ever dangerous.

Her dark, almost black eyes, her raven black hair and fair skin, now tanned by the outdoors, announced her as a native of the Damaran northern reaches.

Raven loomed- no other word could better describe her presence. She gave an impression of giant-taller than even Scuro- but the rest of her not out of proportion. Everything fit together perfectly. Completely feminine and extremely beautiful, she considered her natural beauty an inconsequential fact. Never, did she apply it to promote herself.

The problem for Scuro was that she had for some reason, had become greatly distrustful of him. Not just because he was a male and her disdain for males was well-known, but as if she had an instinctive enmity for him. He was not sure, in her attempt to crush him, how much was due to being mind dominated and how much due to desire.

That she could easily crush him, he had no doubt. Every part of her body could be used as a weapon. He had seen her fist punch crack tough orc ribs and then as it bend over in shock, grab its head and snap its neck. All in one easy motion. He had seen her break a Skum's skull with one kick. Strong enough to pull down a peryton in full flight and wrestle it to the ground. Her thighs, looking so soft and inviting, had muscle enough to snap a tree trunk. Only his magic could protect him and that magic was not ready yet.

"So all's well here, I assume, correct Ro-Lund-Dohhh??" she addressed them, drawing out and exaggerating his name.

"Ah, friend Raven. Come, sit. Share water with us," replied Shribryn.

No Shribryn. Don’t invite her to join us! Too late. Now his head really pounded. Scuro was reawakening in a rage.

Impudent nosy bird bitch! Death touch her! Get her out of our affairs.

He could sense Scuro attempting to lift their hand. The rage was overwhelming their good sense. With intense mental effort he regained control of their body.

You must control your rage around her. Otherwise we may lose all, even before we start.

Lower class man-hater tried to kill us, always watching us following us, taunting us.

She is just uneasy. She is not certain about us. We must not give her any reason to doubt. We must treat her as we treat the others.

Fine then. She is your responsibility. Just ensure she stays out of our way!

All this occurred at the speed of thought. And so even as Raven began to join them, Ro-Lund-Do as much as he wanted to spend more time conversing with Shribryn, smiled and stood.

"Excuse me ladies, but I'm done eating. There is something I must inquire of Kat." Gathering his equipment, he made his way towards the gnome.

Shribryn watched him leave with her sightless eyes, ear cocked to the ground, while Raven's stare pierced his retreating back through narrowed eyes.

Shribryn was the first to break the silence. "He is most uneasy around you, friend Raven."

"Good. As he should be. I do not trust him. Always issuing orders, expecting things to be done for him, never dirtying his hands. He did nothing, nothing, when we fought that peryton. Nothing, except stand and watch. He would sell us out if it suited his purpose."

"But he did fight well for us at other times and helps Pelias mend our wounds."

"Oh yes, he needs us now. Healthy, we can at least protect him. My nature empathy tells me there is something off about him, like he seems out of place here. Like he should be extinct. And the way his silver eyes glow at night as we sit around a campfire, so like a predator."

"Silver? Did you say silver eyes?"

"Yes. Why?"

"We Bedine have ancient legends about beings that angered the gods and were hurled from the sky in flying mountains to form the Anauroch desert. Legends say they had silver eyes. Anyway, I sense a change in Ro-Lund-Do."

"Oh, do tell then."

"Yes, before the aboleth encounter, I would have agreed with your description. But since that encounter, I sense a surge of emotions. He can be more personal in his actions. It is as though there are two of him, one arrogant and impersonal, and the other more presentable. More cunning but more gentle."

And so? Does it matter if he slaughters you with a smile instead of a sneer? At the first sign of treachery, I will take great pleasure in personally pounding him to pulp."

"I think you are over reacting. With our guidance he can be brought over to a more humane aspect."

Raven shrugged. "Perhaps so. Do as you see fit. But I will need more proof. Until then, I will be on guard and watching. Now tell me more of these legends of yours."

Ro- Lund-Do watched as Ska'arr stomped around in his new boots. Unconsciously he reached down and patted the Beast's head as the huge war dog crunched on a beef thigh bone. Beast, on his part, aware of the necromancer's fondness, had warmed to him and so only issued a warning growl as it allowed itself to suffer the indignation. Anyone else, other than its master, would have lost a hand.

Ska'aar was addressing Pelias as the young cleric watched the ranger stomp.

"These boots fit extremely well- as if they conformed to my feet. And so comfortable. You say they are magical- what do they do?"

"I cannot say. I will need to perform a magical exercise on them, but that can only happen now in Triboar. Should you wish, I will do then it then, along with other magical items that we want identified."

Ro-Lund-Do approached Kat. The gnome girl sat with a grin as she watched Ska'arr's antics. "Eh, Kat, a few words, if you please."

She looked up at him and her grin got wider. "Hey, my favourite beanpole. Sure, set a spell-good pun, eh? Getting away from Raven, eh? Always an itch to bitch, that one. Or rather an itchy bitchy. Come on down, the air is breathable here. So what's on your mind? And oh, Whisper, my name dar'lin, Whisper…gently in my ear." She giggled.

Ro-Lund-Do smiled as he sat beside her. "Fine then Whisper. Listen, it may be that I may need to meet with some dangerous characters. Should that be the case, I will need someone to watch my back. So I was wondering if that could be you. Now, I do not have much, but once we get our shares, I should be able to pay you some coins."

"Dangerous? But that's my full name-Whisper Danger." Even as she made light and continued to grin, her eyes squinted and took on seriousness. "Why me, oh priest of the beanpoles? And why would you be meeting with 'dangerous characters'?"

"Because I have seen you fight and I know how good you are and because you are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. And because we do not really know anyone else who can do the job and keep their mouth shut about it. As to why…tell her part of the truth and lower your voice …there are certain spell components which your average magic shop does not carry over the counter. Nuff said."

"Ah, I understand." She stared into his face, as if to read something there. She spoke seriously. "Listen Dupari man or whatever, I too may have to meet with …er…dangerous characters. I should have some muscle and some magic with me, just in case. So, we swap. I will watch your back and you watch mine. Agreed?

Say yes! It saves us coins and we may meet people and learn things that may help us.

And it will put us on her good side, something we may need later. "Yes Whisper. I agree. Done deal then?

Her eyes became all mischievous. Her freckles danced. She began to laugh as if a most humorous idea had come to mind. "Oh yes beanpole, all done here. And since my back is oh so much sexier than yours, you are getting the better part, no?" She laughed again.

Before he could comment, Ska'arr announced, "Time to move on people. Triboar awaits."

"So who died and made him the general?" inquired Kat as she arose and packed up.

"Hey, minor cleric of Amman-Ra, you're the oldest here. Old enough to be all our daddies. But since none of us are silver beanpoles, not actually. But that means you should be the wisest. So why don't you assume command of our little group?"

Ro- Lund-Do was both surprised and suspicious of this request. "Ah, not a good idea."

She must suspect. Find out how first before destroying her.

Scuro! - I am in charge now. I will handle it my way - for our benefit. So kindly, SHUT UP!

"I cannot lead Whisper. I have no experience in leadership. I know nothing about military logistics and strategy, maintaining morale, group cohesion, complementing everyone's abilities and so on. Besides, half the people here would not follow my orders anyway."

At these words Kat once again stared at him through narrowed eyes. Then her mood lightened again.

"Well beanpole, you know yourself better than anyone else. Just a thought. O.K. let's obey Scarface, at least for awhile."

"Interesting choice of words" thought the necromancer.

The group marched on in silence. In time the walls of Triboar became visible. A welcome sight for Scuro. Soon! Money in our pocket; money to begin our mission.

As the group approached the city’s north gate, they could see the guards watching them carefully. Snatches of whispers could also be distinguished.

“It’s them, the first ones to ever return…..freaky bunch…personally chosen by Nighteyes… one is actually blind….. heard they’ve been raising the dead…that’s one large luscious black-haired babe…”

At last comment, Raven turn and glare at the speaker. The glare was enough to make the guard gulp and look away.

Passing through the gate, they soon arrived at the market square. To their surprise, the square held a huge crowd, divided into two clusters. At the center of each cluster was a high crate upon which stood a dishevelled ragged man; each with wild shaggy beards.

They stood about twenty yards apart and were haranguing their respective audiences who seem to be listening intently. The group could make out the following:

Man 1:
Only through the death experience can man fully understand his life experience. Only through the realization that his days on earth are finite can he grasp the importance of living those days with honor, integrity and service to his fellow man.
Man 2:
The fire started long ago
The flames burn down still and embers glow
So charred and black are our souls
There's nothing left to burn
The future isn't set in stone
Decisions of the past won’t leave you alone
We betrayed ourselves with our own selfish greed
This is the reckoning!

Suddenly, the first man noticed the group. His eyes grew wide and intense as he shouted and pointed to them.

“All our times have come, here but now they're gone. Seasons don’t fear death. Nor does the wind, the sun or the rain … Aspire to be like the Shadow Stalkers - the heralds of death!”

At this final outburst both clusters turned to stare.

The second man, desperate to wrench back the attention of the mob, mockingly proclaimed,

“Shadow Stalkers?! You give them too much credit and reverence! More like The Shadow Troupe!”

But by now no one acknowledged his words, as the crowd was riveted by the group.

Voices started to be heard.

“It's them, it’s the …the Shadow stalkers! People stared and pointed. Menacing murmuring could be heard as the mob scrutinized them. Sensing animosity, the beast began to growl deeply.

The Stalkers felt relief as they passed out of the square, away from the mob, without incident.

Before passing out of the square, however, Ro-Lund-Do noticed Belig the dwarf, skulking in the shadows of a vendor's stall. Just the person he wanted to contact. The dwarf's face seemed to be bruised and puffy, as if from a beating. Puzzled and intrigued he hand signaled the dwarf. The fingers shaped meaning that would be known only to the students who took the study of Death seriously. It was a code established even before Netheril.

"Meet me at Six Windows before the supper hour." Surprised but not surprised, he watched as Belig Death coded him back "Yes will do."

So, Death Delver, you know the code. Most interesting!

The Stalkers headed for the inn known as the Frost Touched Frog. Everyone just called it the Frosted Frog. Raven had insisted on reporting immediately to her friend Gracecaryn Sandraker. Everyone just called her Grace. She was the Halfling silk merchant whose merchandise was stolen from the raided caravans.

The two had met upon raven's first arrival in Triboar. They had taken an instant likening to each other. Grace liked to do her accounting at the Frosted Frog.

Ska'arr too had business there. The proprietress, one Alatha Riverwood, a retired adventuress, kept trophies on the walls. "Good décor and good for business" she would say. He wanted to sell the peryton antlers.

Kat knew retired adventures frequented the 'Frog'. There they would swap tales and reminisce about the 'good ole days'. Thus it would be the best place to make a 'connection' to see about repairing her 'artistic tools'. Ro-Lund-Do did not care. Anywhere that put coin in his hand as soon as possible was fine by him. And since neither Shribryn nor Pelias expressed any preference, then all headed to the Frosted Frog.

There were only a few patrons present. Alatha was behind the bar, reading plates and mugs for the evening's expected full house.

She was a striking figure. Well into her fifth decade, her skin was wrinkle free, her dark brown eyes still clear and sharp. Only a few streaks of grey marred her short cropped brown hair. Her body was still lean with muscle, flat and tough. Her shoulders were broad, her arms heavily muscular.

"Too many years swinging a bastard sword. Too many years wearing heavy armour" she would comment. "Had to be tough to survive, especially when your male companions relied on you to keep saving their inept butts again and again. Now I just enjoy kicking their inept male butts out of my establishment whenever they get too rowdy." Not that she did often. Evenings at the Frosted Frog tended to be boisterous but under control. To help enforce her rule of no undisciplined behaviour were two massive half-ogres, Rip and Tear. On her last adventure she had found them orphaned toddlers, taken them in and raised them.

Woe to anyone who threatened harm to their 'mother'.

Alatha had first met Raven through Grace .There had been an instant rapport to the younger girl. Raven reminded her of herself at that age. Basically the same attitudes and outlooks. Upon learning of Raven's orphaned status, she took it upon herself to parent the young monk. Not so much as to smother her, but just enough to help guide her. Raven was the daughter she had always wanted but never had.

For her part Raven reciprocated Alatha's feelings. She admired the older adventuress, now a successful inn keeper. Here was proof of the superiority of females. Raven neither encouraged nor discouraged the parental feelings. As it made Alatha feel good, she allowed herself to be mothered.

As the Stalkers entered, Alatha`s first thoughts were "She's back. The Raven girl is safe! Thank all the goddesses!"

"Raven! She cried out. Welcome home!" She came around to grab and hug the tall girl. She tiptoed up to plant a kiss on each cheek.

Raven hugged her back. "Dear friend. Good to see you again. Good to be back."

Only Kat and Shribryn had smiles on their faces. Kat because she could see the affection these two had for each other and Shribryn because she could feel the happy vibes. The other three were agape. Never would they have thought Raven capable of returning affection, let alone feel it.

Raven continued. "Tell me, is Grace about?"

"Yes, she is in her back room. Sit. I will tell of your arrival." She turned to the Stalkers. "Sit friends. Enjoy a snack. My compliments." She signalled a serving girl. "Bring them a mug of ale each, olives, cut up vegetables, hunks of cheese and bread."

Raven looked at the group. "Let us sit and wait." It was not a request.

In a short time Alatha returned. "Raven, Grace is anxious to see you. Please come."

Ska'arr had been admiring the wall trophies. Heads, horns and antlers of various beasts; great elk, moose, woolly rhinos were scattered amongst more exotic prizes. These included the entire gold fur pelt of the six-legged aurumvorax, a giant ice worm stinger, the entire jaw of a northern shark.

He ambled over to the bar. "My thanks for the snacks, Alatha. I am admiring your wall trophies."

She looked up from her polishing, scanning the big ranger up and down. "Yes they are. Hunters and trappers bring them in. Trade them for meals and drinks. Tell me. How do the Shadow Stalkers fare as an adventuring company? Do you mesh well? Watch out for each other? Especially with Raven. She may be difficult to come to terms with."

"We are beginning to as we understand each other better. Especially Raven. She is an integral part of the team and has saved us many times. We now stand for each other." Alatha smiled at these words. Ah, most excellent daughter.

"Now I noticed that you do not have any peryton antlers on your walls."

"Peryton? No they are difficult to obtain undamaged and they would need a special mounting.

"Well then, may I interest you in some pristine undamaged peryton antlers?" Raven's antlers."

"Raven's antlers? Whatever do you mean?"

Ska'arr then proceeded to tell the story of how the Stalkers came by the antlers. "So you see without Raven we would never have obtained these."

"Well now, seeing how Raven played such a large part and the fact that these antlers seem to be in excellent condition then perhaps I will purchase them. Say fifty golds?" She tilted her head at him. You are much smarted than you let on. Why are you hiding yourself?

"Fifty golds? Done and thank you."

While Ska'arr was negotiating, Kat was scanning the few clients. Her fingers worked in the universal code of rogues. Have business to discuss.

At a corner table sat a dignified grey haired gentleman. Dressed impeccably, he signalled back as he quaffed his ale. By the way his fingers shook, Kat could tell he was arthritic.

Li-little o ne hherre. Kknow bus-busniess.

She signalled for two ales to be brought to his table and sauntered over.

"Hello wise one" she greeted and grinned at him, freckles dancing. "I am Kat, Whisper my name darlin'. Drinks on me."

"The old gentleman grinned back. Well little darlin', I am Hordak, the Grey Mouser. Sit and let us drink and talk awhile."

She sat as the pints arrived. She lifted hers up in toast. "To business then." They clanged mugs and took a long drink.

"So little Whisper, how may I aid you?"

Kat found herself warming up to this old man.

"I need my, er, business tools repaired. Are you able? For the right price of course."

"Not I. I am retired and my fingers shake too much for such fine work. But at the Talking Troll, there is who can. Cruain Glimanergaunt."

"How will I know him? How should I approach him?"

"He is always in black. Dark leathers and boots, black gloves, black cloak and hood. Buy him a good stiff one and tell him the Grey Mouser sent you. Understood?"

"Oh yes. Very much. I thank you." Then she had a sudden thought. "What do you know about this rumour circulating? The one where my group is responsible for raising the dead?"

Hordak lit his pipe. Blowing out smoke, he answered. "Not much little Kat. The rumour seemed to emerge out of nothing, as if started purposely. It caught a life of its own and the mob took it in. Luckily the Blackhammer soon put an end to it though it still pops up time to time."

"Well I am done here. A joy to have met you Grey Mouser. Again many thanks. Here have another on me." She flipped him a gold, which despite shaky fingers, he deftly caught and pocketed.

"My thanks to you. Keep tight little Whisper." He winked at her.

She winked back. "Ah, had I known you in your youth, we could have played the games of 'Kat and Mouse'."

He laughed heartily. "Little Whisper, in my youth, the Mouse would have belled the Kat. But together, oh, how the rats and the swine would have trembled. Please do visit an old man again." He lifted his mug in salute.

Raven had opened the backroom door. The middle aged Halfling merchant sat at a table, strewn with the remnants of a lunch. Parchment and tally sheets lay in neat piles. Grace's white skin contrasted her blue silk gown. A gold chain hung between ample breasts. Her pale brown hair was done up and held by an ivory hair clip. Pale brown eyes glanced up at Raven. Full lips broke into a wide smile.

"Raven girl Wonderful! You have returned safely. Come and sit. Eat something. Ouch, your hug hurts my ribs. Here have a sandwich, have two. Let me pour us some wine. Now what news? Did you find the Lost Gold?"

Grace friend. Thank you. No, no treasure but we did recover your silk bales."

"Good news. How many my dear?"

"All of them. All eight bales."

Grace gleamed appreciation at her friend.

"Dear Raven. Such honesty. Such honesty should be rewarded. Well done for the sisterhood, eh? For you, say seventy-five platiniums?"

"More than generous friend Grace. My thanks."

"So, who has been raiding my caravans and the other's?

"As far as we can determine the raiders are undead. We fought orc, human and ogre zombies. They were also carrying away dead bodies as if to raise them later to increase their numbers. It is as if someone is trying to build up an undead army. Rumour has that is that Dupari cleric, Ro-Lund-Do. You know whom I mean. That tall, skinny, slimy silver haired one."

"Uhumm… The undead have been causing all kinds of problems lately. This scourge must be eliminated. Undead cannot be reasoned with. The merchants and their guilds would be very grateful if this undead threat was to end."

"To combat undead, special items would be helpful."

"Yes. For magical items, there are magical shops. For holy items, I recommend the Altar of the Foehammer. Oh, by the way, no one in your group is responsible. Not even (and here she smiled) your friend of slime, Ro-Lund-Do. That rumour somehow started. Mobs will believe anything, especially when they are fearful and looking for a scapegoat. The Blackhammer quickly restored order and put a stop to it."

Raven was thoughtful for a fairly long moment. "Well that is good to know. Where would you like the silk bolts returned?"

"Just leave them with dear Alatha. I'll have Rip and Tear move them. Return tomorrow for your reward. Now let us toast the sisterhood and successful adventures."

Raven returned to join the others. Plans were discussed and made. The decision was to go to the Caravans. This was the fields just outside Triboar's walls, where the incoming caravans would set up camp. On the way, they would turn in the orc ears for their bounty. Then all would meet for breakfast at the Frosted Frog.

Kat declined. "I have an urgent affair to attend to at the Talking Troll. And priest man here has promised to accompany me. Right, Long Tall Silver?" She wiggled her eyebrows at him but her eyes judged him.

Scuro frowned inwardly. He had not expected to keep this bargain so soon. But he knew he had to keep it to allay suspicion and distrust. Besides, he was fond of her. So, outwardly Ro-Lund-Do smiled. "Ah yes. I'm with you Whisper."

She grinned at his words and her eyes shone approval. "Hi, ho, Silver away! Knew I could depend on you my noble steed. Let us be off." On the way out, she whispered into Raven's ear. Raven nodded.

Reaching the Talking Troll, Kat signalled a stop. "So are your spells ready to help me, oh Ro-Lund-Do?"

"Yes. Why are we waiting?"

"Need my muscle to arrive. Remember magic and muscle together. You can't have one, no, you can't have one without the, ah, ah other," she sang. This was followed by a fit of giggling as if a great joke was about to unfold.

Shortly, she looked behind the Death priest. "Ah, here comes my muscle now." This was followed by another round of giggles.

He turned. Striding towards them purposely and magnificently was Raven Battlestar.

Fornicating devils! No, not her! I cannot work with her.

Calm, Scuro, calm! Let me handle this properly.

Raven addressed them. "Well met Whisper. Hello…you."

Kat had another giggling fit. "The look on your faces. Priceless! Oh I'm good. Oh yes, I'm very good." Then she grew serious.

"Listen, magic and muscle. You two have to play nice together. Watch my back. This place is rough. Come help should I scream. Now take a deep breath. Ready?"

"Speaking only for myself, I am ready" answered Raven, coolly and calmly.

The cleric ground his teeth. "The sooner we finish the better."

Entering, the odour assailed them. It was a combination of fresh urine, aged wet dog and vomit combined with disinfectant. A few tough and seedy characters appraised them and then went back to their own affairs.

An over-sized, pock-marked, wiry haired half-orc worked the bar. Porcine eyes narrowed as the trio entered. He appeared to be wiping dirty glasses with a dirty towel, smearing the dirt evenly rather than removing it.

Kat, being gnome, did not need her eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. She immediately spotted Cruain using Hordak's description. He sat alone at a back dark corner table.

"You two take a table. Remember, play nice." Ordering two of the Troll's best liquors, she took them to Cruain's table.

Ro-Lund-Do sat himself such that he could keep Kat in view. Raven joined him, but only after purchasing two thimbles of 'green deaths'. The pale green liquid burned like the lava pits of the Abyss when drunk. She plopped one in front of the necromancer. "Here, sip slowly. Hopefully the high rotgut content has sterilized the container."

Ro-Lund-Do was speechless. Had Raven just bought him a drink?

Careful! She is scheming no-good!

"Oh, don't look so shocked, priest. It gives you a more idiotic than your normal idiotic appearance. It is my way of making amends. Amends for, apparently, falsely accusing you of raising the dead. But know that I still do not trust you. You are hiding something, something that does not bode well for the rest of us. You squirm hither and thither like a snake on the prowl."

He picked up his drink. "Well, you are honest and truthful about your regard for me. At least there is that."

"Of course, priest. I am always honest and truthful. There is no point in being otherwise. I have nothing to hide and truth is truth. So unlike others (here she stared hard at him) I do not lie… ever!"

Silence ensued for awhile. Make conversation. Determine her goals here. He cleared his throat.

"So Raven, I want to tell you that I miss my family. It has been too long since I have seen them. Once we find the Lost Gold, I may just return to Dupari for a visit. Now I realize that you are orphaned, but are there not other kin of yours, somewhere?"

Raven peered unblinking at him. Twelve heartbeats past. Making up her mind, she replied.

"My father's brother, Armando by name, fled Damara years before my birth. Should he still live and should he have a family, then I suppose I would have kin somewhere. An uncle, perhaps an aunt and cousins."

"Are you not interested in finding out?"

"Not now. Matters of more pressing concerns occupy me at the moment."

Ro-Lund-Do fell silent at these words. He considered all this new and recent information in a new way.

Gods- but she really is a beauty and we know our beautiful women, do we not Scuro? She has demonstrated the capability for affection and now she illustrates civility. Imagine if she partook of these traits more often- imagine her as a beautiful bird but of a different kind- say less of a raven but more of a gentile swan-a swan who enjoyed and welcomed the company of men; could banter easily with them- a Swan Battlestar? Really? No such wish- back to the here and now.

"I was never your enemy, Raven."

"Then appear not so ready to sell us out", she answered hotly. "Be less officious, do your share. Show some degree of honour and justice. Demonstrate trustworthiness. Oh, why am I wasting my time on such an obvious dishonest male?"

Before he could respond to these accusations, Kat appeared silently at their table.

"All done here. Time to leave. Did we have fun, boys and girls?" She giggled.

Kat had approached Cruain, flagons in hand. Placing one in front of him, she uttered "the Grey mouser sent me."

Cruain pulled back his hood. Black, shoulder-length, curly hair blossomed out. Between a long, thin nose and long, thin lips grew a handle-bar moustache. Eyes so dark as to be black stared at the gnome.

"Yes, I know. We have been watching and waiting. Have a seat, Katharina Whisper Shadowfeet."

Kat showed no surprise at this knowledge. She had expected it. "You know then my purpose here?"

"Naturally. But tell me, did you and the rest of the Stalkers run into undead? Is so, please relate the encounter to me."

Seeing no harm in the request, she did so. When done, Cruain nodded as if it was what he had anticipated.

"This undead affair, it is bad for our kind of business. If the merchants suffer, then we also suffer. The problem with undead is that they cannot be bribed, threatened, blackmailed or otherwise corrupted. Neither wealth, power or sexual favours will induce them."

He leaned towards her. "For undead we must go to the source, the controlling agent. Find out who is behind all this. Let us know. Then we can take care of it. Agreed?"

"Yes, agreed." They nodded at each other.

"Well then, pass over your tools and return tomorrow to collect them."

And so it was done.

The trio emerged onto the road. Ro-Lund-Do remarked, "Well I'm off to the Six Windows. See you at breakfast."

This caused Whisper to break out into a series of snorting laughs. She linked arms with Raven.

"Oh, did I not mention darlin'? Must have slipped my mind what with these other goin' ons. Raven and I will be sharing a room…at the Six Windows. The sisterhood you know." Another burst of chortles. Raven just stood watching him, silent and serene.

Damn their eyes! Damn them both! Spying on us! Scuro raged.

Calm, calm. We must remain calm. Now more than before.

He forced a smile. "Well, then we shall be house mates in a way. Shall we proceed?"

They walked in silence, broken only by Kat's sporadic snorts.

Arriving at the gateway of the rooming house, he spotted Belig waiting patiently for him.

"Ladies, personal affairs need attending. I must excuse myself."

He motioned the dwarf to follow him to his room.

The two females watched them leave. Kat looked up at Raven.

"Regardless, I can't help but like him. I am of the opinion that he is salvageable."

"We'll see" was the quiet response. "In time, we'll see"

Belig found himself admiring the necromancer's rented room. "Oh sir, what a magnificent…"

"Enough Belig. It is a piss hole. But it serves its purpose. Private and inexpensive. "

"Good. Come sit. Let us sit and converse. Now what happened to your face?" He referred to the dwarf's battered features; he had obviously taken a beating.

"Well, people were talking. Saying it was you to blame for the raising of the dead. For the unleashing of the undead. They wanted to convict you. I stood up for you, argued it was not so. In return for my trouble and to quiet me, the mob turned on me."

Both Ro-Lund-Do and Scuro were roused to great anger That someone should be punished for defending him! It was an insult! And no one insults Imax Scuro Forzar! Not more than once.

"Belig, I promise you this. Help me well and their will be a reckoning. All those who harmed you will be repaid three fold. Help me well and you will be treated with the greatest respect."

"Thank you Sir. I knew I could depend on you."

"Excellent then. It is settled. Please be my eyes and ears when I am gone. But to help me you must not look like a hopeless cause. Here is coin. Purchase fresh, clean attire, take baths, trim your hair and beard. Look respectable. Do not dwarves take pride in such matters? I will rent you a room here, next to mine."

"Oh, you are most kind and excellent. It will be my privilege to help out.…"

Scuro was impatient. "Yes, yes. Fine, fine. Now you claim to be a Death Delver. What exactly does that mean?"

"Well, a Death Delver is a student of the power and mystery of death itself. What does death mean? Why does it exist? How is it related to life? Why and how is resurrection possible? We wish to fathom its secrets, to better understand its universality. Death comes to all, even deities. How and why?"

These words startled Ro-Lund-Do. "Really, well then, would you not rather apprentice to a priest of a death deity? There are several varieties. Pick one."

"Oh no. The ultra energy of death supersedes any one single deity. Death deities tend to specialize in one portfolio; judgement of souls or punishment of the damned or causing calamity or some such. It is the death energy that intrigues us. Its universality, how it sustains both divine and arcane magics. As it was done in ages past. Such is our belief."

This is intriguing. Where is this all coming from?

"But then, why would you wish to help and guide me; a minor cleric of the sun god Amman-Ra?"

Belig looked askance. "Well, please forgive me then. When I first spied you, my soul shivered. You were the 'Awaited One'. The one who would provide the truths we sought. I am still of like mind."

Scuro's will then dominated. He took control. As he did so, his voiced lowered in timbre. His eyes shrunk into silver pinpoints of brilliance. Belig gasped at the sight, but did not seem overly surprised.

The voice spoke in an arrogant imperial tone that brooked no nonsense. "Belig, of the death force, without my permission, you must never speak again. Obey and you will be most richly rewarded. Disobey and your punishment will be beyond imaging. Do you understand completely and clearing?"

"Oh yes. You have just eliminated any doubts I may have had."

"Better. Now you spoke of 'we' and 'us'. Are there more such as you?"

"Yes sir We Death Delvers are scattered throughout the lands. Yet we keep in touch and are in constant communication. One may deem us a cult of the true death force."

Scuro sat back. This was proving to be extremely useful. He foresaw the beginnings of a spy network.

"Excellent. You will please report to me all news obtained from the others. Now there are two matters that I wish you to correspond to the others. Are you willing? Of course. For us to work together, it must be so."

Excellent. Thank you. First, report any rumours, stories, and such regarding the increase undead activity around Triboar. This interests me. At times, one views the forest more clearly from a distance as opposed to being inside it.

Second, report any stories, rumours, legends even; regarding an elf princess that sleeps somewhere in a cold place. Understood?"

"Yes understood.. These matters will be looked into."

Again most excellent, Belig. Prove to me that I have chosen wisely in you. Now there is a most important errand I require. I need your assistance because I am being watched. And because you seem to know the dark underbelly of Triboar."

"Request me."

Allow me. It will help demonstrate our powers.

Ro-Lund-Do's softer voice spoke.

"Here is a list of special items required for an important ritual.

At the different sounding voice Belig's eyes widened. He nodded as if he should have expected this. "Your eyes, they…"

"Have changed back? Uhmm, interesting.

"More proof that you are the 'Awaited One'." I have a good felling about our partnership sir.

"Thank you Belig. As do I. It eases my burden. Now to those items."

The Death Delver scanned the list, muttering to himself.

"Fresh dove heart, coffin wood of a good cleric, iron brazier, steel bowl forged from an executioner's axe, ichors from a beast of the deep, the body of a recent dead bat and the voice of a pious man. Ah, all of these are obtainable within a day for the proper funds except for the voice. I cannot obtain that."

The necromancer sat pondering. "Leave the voice to me. As for funds, tomorrow I expect to come into much coin. Let us meet in the main square after breakfast. Now ensure that the dive heart and bat body are fresh. Kill them yourself if you must. Finally, do you know of an area where a vile deed was committed; the viler, the better?"

The dwarf had listened with wonder. My instinct was correct. Here is a True Death Master. The others must be told of this most fortunate news.

"Yes. A little ways off the market field, where the young archer Terric Harding was foully slain and then mutilated by ravaging orcs and…"

"Enough. I do not need to know the details. Now, off with you. Get cleaned up. When you return, I will have the key for your room."

Night had fallen. At the Caravans all was dark, the silence broken only by the crackling of campfires and the snuffling of the horses. Shribryn sat at the main campfire of the Carnival troupe. As she sipped green tea, across from her, smoking the long straight-stemmed pipe favoured by the steppe nomads, was the troupe leader, Odu Milner.

Odu's slanted eyes and high cheek bones indicated his Shou ancestry. But his tall height and slim build indicated a non-Shou bloodline. Unlike most Shou, he kept his white-grey hair short and his face clean-shaven. He had listened patiently as Shribryn related the latest adventure of the Shadow Stalkers.

"So tell me, Flower of the Desert, tell me how you perceive these companions of yours."

"Well Katarina the gnome is a true scoundrel. She'll happily pick your pocket with a laugh and a grin. Yet at the same time, she will share her last bread crust with you. Ever ready to quip and jest, she uses humour to dispel tension. Yet she is the first into battle, serious to destroy the enemy. I would trust my life to her. What I cannot determine is whether her quest for the Lost Gold is personal or part of some other greater scheme."

"Raven is the opposite in many ways. She is always honest and forthright. One always knows where they stand relative to Raven. Her goal is to improve the cause of the sisterhood. To her, males are the cause of most of the world's woes. Put males in their place and the condition of life everywhere will improve. This she strives to do. But once she accepts you as a friend, then you are. With all that friendship entails."

"Kat is loud and boisterous; Raven is quiet and thoughtful. Yet there are no other two that I would not have beside me in battle or in sharing water."

"Then my male companions. Ska'arr the orc killer. Being enslaved and orc raised has truly toughened him. He puts on an air of simplicity to hide his true intelligence. Why, I do not know. He is a natural leader. We look to him for planning and strategy."

"Pelias next. A seeker of knowledge. All things interest him. Many hours we have discussed my blindness, my other senses, my Bedine life, descriptions of the desert. I could go on and on. A cleric of Mystra from Thay,, his powers of sorcery are only now manifesting. He runs and hides from something. Something to do with the Red Wizards."

He is brave and most kind. A gentle soul. He happens to be beautiful. I know this because he has allowed my hands to trace out his face. His reactions to my touches also tell me that he desires me. He heats up when I touch him. But he does not know how to respond to this feeling. He is awkward and shy and has no experience in the ways of men and women. We are the same age, both the youngest, about to reach our twentieth year. But I feel so much more experienced than he His life has been too cloistered for such matters. And so he feels great frustration."

"But you also are virgin, Shribryn."

"True, Leader Odu. But as Bedine, such matters are known and natural to me. Bedine women mature quickly. One cannot live in a family group in a tent and not hear or even see what occurs between men and women. I may not have personally experienced it, but I am not embarrassed by it. I would welcome his advances. I am truly fond of him. I signal him only since Bedine women do not openly pursue. As yet he does not know how to respond."

"And so you wish for a virgin lad to take your maiden head. But you do not pursue and he does not respond. Ah youth. What a goal you have set Shribryn."

She ignored his comment as it was a perfect summary. Instead she continued her perceptions.

"Finally, Ro-Lund-Do; the oldest of us by more than a decade. Only Kat has more years but, she being a gnome, is still considered preadolescent. He is a soul in torment. At times, my keen ears hear him whispering arguments with himself, yet in two different voices."

"He claims to be a sun god priest, but his priestly magic has yet to do with light or powers of the sun. I sense power unleashed within him, and that he is arriving at a crossroads."

Then she slowly smiled. "He enjoys my company. He claims it is because I do not pester him with questions and am respectful. This may be true but also am conscious of his arousal when we are close. He fancies slaking his lust with my body. But he is too preoccupied with other matters to take advantage."

"Shribryn, you must be careful here."

"Naturally, Leader Odu. Yet it so happens I enjoy his company as well. He tends to be less alert with me and entertains me with histories of the past. He relates the many interesting wonders he has seen in his travels. We are relaxed together. In all honesty, Leader Odu, I do not know what my reaction would be should he ever decide to press his need onto me."

"Desert Daughter, I must warn you again to be careful. I do not wish for you to be hurt in any manner. At this point in time, be cautious with all the Stalkers. Let the circus continue for awhile longer before commencing to applaud. Continue your training and skill practices. You may gain more power than you think."

Ska'arr was restless. No matter how he tossed and turned, sleep failed to find him. I need a good long walk. Dressing quickly he left the tent. Beast stood, gave a stretch and followed his master. The warrior circled the large expanse of tents and wagons. The night mist thickened and the air grew colder. In a short time, the mist became so thick that visibility was limited to a few feet.

Without warning, the Beast began to growl. The mist in front of them began to congeal into a humanoid shape; the shape of a human female.

Ska'arr, unafraid, could not believe his eyes as the shape took the form of his mother, Tabitha. Her voice spoke inside his head.

"Ska'arr, oh Skar'arr my son! What have you done to yourself? Is this why I birthed you? Pretending to be an uncouth hunter and trapper? You have my legacy. Use it. Use it in remembrance of me."

Tears of joy streamed down his face; biting his cheeks as ice in the cold air. "Mother! I do this to avenge us. To avenge us over and over. In time , your legacy will be part of that vengeance. This I promise you. But why are you here now?"

"Oh, my loving son! I have come through the Veil, that which separates the land of the spirits from the land of mortals. I have come to ask for your aid. We, the spirits cannot advance further through the Veil. We cannot find our peace. There is too much negative energy being used in this area. It is interfering with the workings of the Veil. Son, please stop who or what is doing this. I, we, the spirits implore you."

"I will mother, I will."

Those companions of yours. The Shadow Stalkers. A word of warning. Do not fully trust them. Good- bye my son. Remember, I love you."

With these last words, the form began to dissipate. The mist lightened and the air grew warmer. Ska'arr stood awhile staring at the now empty space.

"Good-bye mother. You will have your rest. I promise you. Come Beast. Time for sleep."

The next morning found the Stalkers at breakfast at the Frosted Frog. Ska'arr was doling out the money shares.

"And this is the bounty for the orc ears. Here is the reward for returning the silk bales, compliments of Grace. And this is your share of the peryton antlers. Thank you Alatha" he called out to her.

She laughed back from behind the bar. "Hurry, buy much to eat and drink and I will get my money back. They look magnificent, do they not?"

She referred to the antlers now hung directly across from the entrance door. They immediately attracted the eyes of anyone entering. In neat eye-catching script, below the antlers and much to Raven's chagrin, were written the words 'Raven's Antlers.'

Now, since all knew that a raven did not have antlers, it made for many questions, story telling and quaffing of ales. In time the story would spread throughout the North lands of how a heroine was able to single-handily wrestle a peryton to the ground. The expression 'does not a raven have antlers?' would come to imply something that seemed too fantastic to be true, yet was the truth.

Ska'arr continued. "There are still all that confiscated armour, shields and weapons to sell. Especially that ogre great club. Alatha tells us, our best prospect would be at the 'Cart and Coin'. The owner, Davgeon Foechuckle, is a gregarious sort, and loves to hear of true tales of adventure.

Now apparently he also has a fondness for beautiful, tall and leggy women."

"Well, that lets me out", interjected Kat. "I'm just beautiful and leggy. And Shribryn is just beautiful and somewhat tall. Besides she is waiting on Pelias." She favoured him with several winks. The young cleric blushed at these words. Shribryn just gave a hint of a smile.

Kat continued. "Then there is our luscious Raven. She is just…uh oh, problem here!" She laughed out.

"If I may continue, please, without any more interruptions", barked the big ranger. Whisper nodded grinningly.

"So Raven, no insult intended, but perhaps to forestall any unpleasantness, may I suggest that you do not accompany us?"

Well this will prove entertaining. For once we are not involved. Hush Scuro. Just listen now.

Raven just stared quietly back and finally spoke. "I see. No insult taken Ska'arr, although I am a bit disappointed in your request. How little you understand me. But then you are a male after all. Because I do not partake in banter does not imply that I cannot distinguish between that which is playful and that which is insulting and demeaning. If he behaves, then I will behave. Now, shall we depart?"

The street of the Long road passed through the main market on its way to the Cart and Coin. Along the way they were entertained by Whisper's newly composed refrain:

		Hi, ho   Hi, ho
		Off to Coin and Cart we go
		Because our Raven has long legs
		We the better bargain makes
		Hi, ho   Hi, ho

There were several more verses. It was after several such refrains that Raven finally snapped at her. "Enough little sister!" With a chortle, the gnome skipped ahead humming.

In the market square, Ro-Lund-Do spied Belig at the assigned spot. Going over, he presented him with a bag of coins.

"Here is the needed coin. Meet me in my room tonight at ten and a half bells."

"Yes Sir. All is going as planned Sir."

"I expected no less from you. Go now. Purchase the items."

He caught up as the others reached the Cart and Coin. The shop building was very large and divided into two sections. One was filled with all sorts of gear for caravanning and adventuring; all manner of clothing, woollen cloaks, sturdy boots, leather bags, pouches, dry goods, torches, lanterns and so on. A door led into the second section. It was filled with all kinds of feed and gear for draft animals and riding animals; harnesses, yokes, saddles, reins only a few examples.

Fenced in behind the shop was an extensive corral and barn. Here various draft animals, tended by holsters and stable boys, were kept and maintained, available for purchasing.

Entering, they were greeted by a booming voice. "Be welcome Will attend to you in a moment." The voice's owner came around the high counter; coming to an abrupt stop as he spotted them.

"My, the famous Shadow Stalkers. Even stranger looking than speak the stories."

Davegeon Foechuckle was an older Halfling, as round as he was tall. Bald, his rotund, red-cheeked, face sported a white goatee. Bright blue eyes sparkled in the light. A protruding pot belly indicated a connoisseur of fine food and a bon vivant.

He took them all in with a sharp, intelligent look. A huge grin, exposing solid white teeth, emerged as his glance alighted on Raven. He hurried over to her.

"And you must be the incredible Raven. I am honoured to finally make your acquaintance." He spoke as he took her hand to bestow a kiss upon it. "May I say how even more magnificent, nay more majestic you are than has been related. How may I be of service, my lady?"

"First, you may start by finally releasing my hand."

"Oh, I forget myself, being blinded by the brilliance of your beauty. I beg you forgive my impudence, my lady."

"Second, address me as Raven. Raven Battlestar is my name."

"But of course. More intimate and friendly. Yes, Raven? Now whatever your pleasure, regardless, I have no doubt I can satisfy you completely. So much so it would most likely spoil you for anything else."

"My pleasure is that you examine these equipment and armaments we bring. Then decide on which you wish to purchase and name an honest price. These items we obtained from undead caravan raiders."

At the word 'undead' Foechuckle lost his joviality and became grim faced.

"These undead are a curse. We outfitters would be most grateful to anyone or any group (here he again eyed the Stalkers) who would remove this curse."

Then his joviality suddenly returned. "Well let us see these goods, Ray-vhen."

Ska'arr soon had them laid out. The Halfling inspected each item. He hefted the great club. It was a solid piece of hard wood, into which spikes had been hammered in laboriously. Their heads had been removed and their shafts filed into sharp points. A deadly weapon in the hands of someone strong enough to wield it.

"Orc made. How did you come upon this? Please relate to me the story." He looked expectantly at Raven. And so she did.

"Oh, most excellent. How brave and fearless you are as well, my dear Raven."

Then, as a side thought, "Oh, the rest of you as well." With such a history, these items should sell well. The first items to be returned by the soon to be even more famous Shadow Stalkers. Now this leather suit is different, no?"

"It is enchanted ", replied Ska'arr.

"Oh goodness. I do not deal in enchanted supplies. Too much trouble, I found. For that I recommend visiting Shortie; I mean Alivyre Soldshort, at Ransor's Open Road. She will be fair. Now for the rest, say a hundred golds?"

"A good price, Foechuckle. Our thanks", spoke up Raven.

"Ah, it makes me happy to make you happy, Raven. In so many ways, I could make you happy. But I will settle for just admiring those incredibly beautiful long legs of yours."

"Admire them but do not touch them."

Foechuckle gave out a hearty laugh. "Ah, Raven, please visit my shop more often. It would warm up this old Halfling's heart."

Upon exiting the Coin and Cart, Kat whispered an aside to Raven. "Foechuckle is sweet on you Raven. Best be careful or you may have a suitor on your hands."

Raven’s response cut off Kat’s snickers and made the gnome raise her eyebrows.

“He is not suitable. Though I find him sweet and gentle, he is too old.”

The money was shared out. Then the Stalkers divided into three groups.

Kat was off to the Talking Troll to meet up with Cruain.

Ska’arr and Raven were to go to Ransor’s Open Road to seek out Shortie and then meet up with Kat at the Foehammer’s Forge foundry.

Shribryn, Pelias and Ro-Lund-Do were off to Edwin’s Emporium shop of magic. Then they would proceed to the temple of Tempus in Triboar; the Altar of Foehammer.

Kat spotted Cruain at his usual table. “Well met Cruain.”

“Well met Whisper. Here these are yours.” He slid the wrapped up bundle of her rogue’s tools to her. She quickly snatched and pocketed them. She had noticed a rope tattoo on his wrist. Most interesting. Must look into that symbol. Later.

Cruain continued. “Tackling undead is no mean feat. Here is something to help you.” He began to hum the ‘Smuggler’s Blues’ as he passed over four packets. Each was filled with a brownish powder.

Kat’s eyes widen as she recognized the gift; the Scoundrel’s Edge. Such a fine gift implicated Cruain’s confidence in her. “For this, many, many thanks, Cruain.”

“Use it well, little Whisper. Use it well.”

Raven and Ska’arr arrived at Ransor’s Open Road. It was a caravan outfitter’s set-up very similar to the Coin and Cart. They entered and were greeted.

“Welcome Stalkers. I am Shortie. How may I be of service?”

They were approached by an elderly female Halfling. It was evident that she had been a beauty in her youth. Full, long white hair fell to her shoulders. She still stood straight and slender, eyes still bright. Only slight wrinkling of her skin gave away her age.

“How does everyone seem to know who we are?” mused Ska’arr rhetorically.

Shortie answered him directly. “Who else returned from searching the Lost Gold? Who else was the subject of baseless rumours that Blackhammer himself had to end? Triboar is small enough that comings and goings are watched by all. From your appearance you must be that ranger, Ska’arr. And this tall beauty beside you can only be Raven Battlestar.”

“You are correct”, answered Raven. We have enchanted leather for sale. Foechuckle recommended you.”

“Foechuckle?” rumpled Shortie. But there was warmth in her voice. “That dried-up old letch. Tell me, my dear, did he attempt to touch your body?”

“No. He is intelligent. Touching me without permission is not worth the price of crushed fingers. Besides he is the gentle sort. His reputation must be greatly exaggerated.”

The Halfling gave out a belly laugh. “Raven! I admire your matter of fact attitude. So refreshing. And you have a keen perception as well. Most would not have discovered that. The old coot is still of mind that no woman can resist him. So he plays the part and truthfully we allow some bantering."

"Battlestar, Battlestar? I almost remember. Whenever the caravans stop here, the workers swap stories from places they have been and from other caravans met along the way. There was one recently about a Battlestar. I thought they were discussing a weapon. Something in the Dalelands, I think. Something to do with the revenge of a murdered priestess. I am not sure. Well no matter now. Let us examine this enchanted item."

Upon inspection, Shortie declared it to be flawless and of fine workmanship.

"Since it is also enchanted, I can purchase it for 580 golds. Final offer."

"Gladly taken. With thanks, Alivyre."

"Done then. In truth, Raven, both Grace and Alatha spoke highly of you. But meeting you in person just proves that all they mentioned was an underestimation. I am extending an open invitation to you for social visits. Bring the other two. They both work too much. Who knows? We may form a ladies' good luck club. No?"

"Again, thank you. In time, Alivyre, perhaps in time."

Whisper caught up to them at the approach to the foundry of Ghelryn 'Goldhand' Foehammer. "So how did we do?' she asked.

"Roughly 96 golds each", reported Ska'arr, "and Raven made one new friend. Yourself?"

She patted her vest pocket. "Back in business, darlin'. Back in business."

All the doors and windows to the smithy were opened. The heat could be felt from thirty paces away. Sounds of metal pounding on metal, the hissing of water quenching hot metal and the cries of men calling for more coal, raw iron and faster bellows could be heard distinctly.

Entering, the trio felt themselves in a steam bath. Brawny, perspiring smiths, each with several apprentices, manned individual complete forges.

At the master forge stood a stout, muscular dwarf. Bare-chested, wearing leather breeches and a full leather apron, he pounded away with a massive hammer, using arms as thick as trunks.

A halo of white hair encircles a shiny bare head. Overly bushy eyebrows grew wildly along his forehead. Most of his facial features was hidden behind a full forestry brown beard. The beard itself showed streaks of grey and was twisted into two braids below the chin. The braids were tied by leather ribbons.

This was the Goldhand; master smith renowned throughout the North.

It was said that he had forged the weapons and armours of many notables, including the dwarf king of Mithral Hall, Bruenor Battlehammer himself. It was also hinted that he was forced to turn away, the famous drow ranger, Drizzt DoUrden.

Catching sight of the visitors, he motioned to an apprentice to finish.

"Welcome to the Foehammer's Forge, Stalkers."

"Why is it that everyone seems to know who we are?" whispered Kat?

"Later, Whisper, later. Thank you for your welcome Goldhand. We are interested in requesting the manufacture of certain items" replied Ska'arr.

The dwarf eyed them carefully while rubbing at his chin. He then seem to come to some sort of decision.

"Listen Shadow Stalkers. There is a lost dwarven tome. The tome of Moradin Soulforger. It is rumoured to lie in a crypt; the crypt Garden Forest. The location of this crypt is unknown but a clue to its location is to be found at the Old Owl Well."

"Now I was going to hire adventures, but you are here now. Should you agree to attempt your best to locate and retrieve this tome; then I will forge for you any one special weapon or armour of any material at half price. What say you?"

The trio looked at each other. "No brainer, smither" spoke up Kat. "We agree." The others nodded.

Goldhand's beard parted as he smiled. “My hand on it then." Four hands touched. "I feel good about this agreement. So good in fact, that I am willing to give an additional discount for today's orders. So do tell.”

Quickly Kat unsheathed one of her swords. "A blade like this, oh wonderful master smith. “Forged with the coldest of iron, masterfully done. And if no problem, good smith, a pouching cat on the pommel.”

The dwarf laughed deep. "Not a problem little one. Why not a pommel shaped as a pouncing cat? You agree. Done then. And for you" He looked at Ska'arr.

"For me a chain, strong and spiked and of course masterfully done."

"Naturally. And for you, lady? What do you wished forged?"

"I desire special shurikens. Those of cold iron and a work of wonder, oh a dozen or so."

"Done, with extra sharpened edges. Return in a week or so Stalkers. Tell your other companions. The bargain of half price still holds for them."

Edwin's Emporium was a cottage outside of the town proper. It was the only shop that sold implements of magical goods. Ro-Lund-Do walked a few steps behind Pelias and Shribryn. He wanted to be alone with his thoughts. As he followed, he admired the lithe form of the Bedine girl. He appreciated the sight of the swaying of her firm hips.

A delicious little morsel, no? We both know that her reception to our advances will be high. Just as we both know that we do not need complications at this moment. Should your needs become too pressing, hie thee to a brothel.

All you say is true. It is just that we have been long without the feel of soft, warm woman flesh; one not paid for. But you are correct. It would cause many unwanted complications. Remember how it was? Beautiful women at our beck and call. Dozens of bed slaves, all expertly trained in the art of satisfying male desires in countless ways.

Of course I remember. But all that stopped, nay ended, once we obtained Brianna.

At the thought of the lovely star elf, a pang passed through their heart. Their collective memory turned towards Brianna. They remembered the proud, disdainful princess. Even as her father's kingdom lay in ruins, devastated by Scuro's armies, she bargained for the lives of her family. How she promised to obey him utterly and gratify his every whim willingly. How beautiful and delicate she was; the most beautiful he had ever laid eyes on. The noble ladies of Netheril, even with their magic, were as dim candles to the noonday sun in comparison.

And how he had put her to the test; demanding the most degrading of acts from her. She performed with no hesitation or complaints. Her honour had shamed him. In time he had come to love her and she him. Yet, to save Netheril, he gave her up.

Was it worth it Scuro? This is what we got in return. Netheril is still gone and so is she. We lost both. We cling to the idea that we can still reverse fate. We know that she has survived somehow.

We do as we must. There is naught else. So keep your mind focussed on our goal. Tonight is the beginning; our Ritual. When we return she will be there.

You speak true. Look at them. She invites, but he does not respond. Yet it is obvious he wants to. And… we just had the same thought, did we not?

Yes. Let us guide him in these manners. Teach him how to woo. He will be grateful. Consider us a friend. As such, we can call on him to return it as we need it.

“So tell me again of Mystra” Shribryn asked as her hand brushed against Pelias, seemly by accident.

“Mystra controls the Weave. As such she controls all the magic in Toril.She is not a harsh or demanding goddess. She only asks for magic to be researched and used wisely. Her clerics have access to divine magic. In return we observe her holy days and rites. She is the patron of wizards and sorcerers, such as myself. Her greatest rival is Shar of the Shadow Weave, the Shadow goddess.”

As they talked, their hands and hips kept brushing up against each other. “tell me of the desert, Shribryn. Tell me of the Bedine people.”

“There is not much to say. We are a proud nomadic people. We keep to ourselves, tending our flocks and herds. We keep our history alive by the tales of our heroes and the exploits of the past. We have no natural enemies, as the desert isolates us. Oh, we do kill the Zhent intruders, whenever we find them.”

“And you, do you have someone special waiting?”

“I?” She gave out a short laugh. “No. My blindness makes me flawed. No respectable Bedine man would take me as wife.”

“I do not think you are flawed at all. Quite the opposite.”

“How kind of you to say so.”

The cottage came into view. Ro-Lund-Do interrupted Pelias’ response. “It is huge” he exclaimed.

The thatched-roof shop was as large as an inn. Two open-shuttered large bay windows lay on either side of a thick wooden door. A sign hung on a post in the front yard. It read ‘Edwin’s Emporium of the Wondrous’ in gold etched lettering. Then after the word wondrous, someone had painted in ugly red letters, the word ‘Things’.

Entering, a bell on the door clanged. They were astonished to see a half-elf, on his hands and knees, crawling about on the dusty floor. He had a black pencil thin moustache and a matching small goatee. His hair was hidden under a black top hat. He wore a neck buttoned white shirt, black and white stripped trousers. Over all this was a black formal suit jacket with tails.

The shop itself was full of shelving and countertops, each overflowing with all manners of magical supplies, ranging from components of all sorts to bottles, jars and urns filled with various fluids, pastes and liquids. A black cat crouched in a corner watching them suspiciously.

The half-elf was muttering to himself as he crawled. “Glasses, spectacles, where are you? Touch but don't look, Now is not the time to play. Look but do not touch. Glasses, spectacles.”

Pelias spoke up. “Sir, do you need assistance?” At the sound of his voice, the half-elf turned and crawled towards the young priest and bumped into his legs.

"Feet and legs? Feet and legs talking to me? Don't need feet and legs. Need spectacles."

Pelias spotted a pair on the counter. The lenses were thick as a brick, and just as heavy. He passed them down to the half-elf. "Are these them?"

"Yes. Oh joy! Look but do not touch." Arising, he came face to face with Pelias' symbol. His magnified eyes blinked rapidly. "Mystra? Goddess, you grace my shop. And here I always imagined your voice would sound more feminine." Then he came face to face with Pelias. "And that you would appear more feminine. Silly me. Please forgive my ignorance."

"I am not Mystra, my good sir" laughed the priest.

"Oh, then why are you pretending to be? Do you not know it is dangerous to go impersonating deities? It may cost you your life. You may be damned."

Before he could give a reply, the half-elf walked up to Shribryn and began to flap his hands wildly in front of her face. The wind generated swayed her robes.

"Why are you doing that good sir? She asked, plainly puzzled at this antic.

"Ah, ha. Just testing. I want to see like you. No need of spectacles. No hunting them down every day. Oh glorious freedom. Oh, most fortunate girl."

"Are you Edwin, good sir?"

"I?" Edwin?" Oh no. There are many, many Edwins; my uncle is Edwin; as are my cousins, my parents and grandparents are Edwins. My brother is Edwin as is my cat. Many strangers are named Edwin. But, I; all-seeing one, am Horster Silverkin, esquire. At your service. He bowed to her.

Then he finally seemed to notice Ro-Lund-Do. His jawed dropped in surprise.

"Cousin!" he screamed. He ran to the Death Priest to hug him tightly. You finally visited. How wonderful! Edwin, tell me, how is Auntie keeping?"

He is totally deranged! Scuro whispered.

Ro-Lund-Do slowly disengaged himself. “I am not your cousin.”

“No? But you must be. You are silver. Your hair, your eyes, even your skin has a silvery tone. And I, I am Silverkin; cousin to all the Silvers.”

“I assure you that we are not related. Now unhand me! The last was spoken as an order, from one used to obedience.

Just then the cat meowed. Horster stood back. “Oh, customers. But why then are you pretending to be my cousin? No matter. How may I be of service?”

Pelias spoke first. “I have items that need identification.”

Then Shribryn. “I desire to purchase potions of armour, good sir.”

Finally Ro-Lund-Do. “I have a list of items. I wish to browse and then purchase.”

“Well then. Let us proceed.” In time it was all done.

“This potion, Mystra, will cure all manners of injury and this one will make you grouchy like a bear. For you, my all-seeing blind one, for these six armour potions, half-price. Half-price also, those lovely flash pellet buttons. They look fine on you.”

The necromancer had gathered spell components of various types and a pouch, soft but durable leather, to carry them. To this he had added a black leather spell book, pages of the finest vellum, a well of the finest, non-blotting, black ink, pens of goose feathers and unblemished sheets of scroll paper.

But best of all, he found, beside a genie lamp, gathering dust, a voice capturing bottle.

Having paid for their items, and having promised to give their regards to Auntie, the Stalkers left.

“Well he was a most interesting person” observed Shribryn. “Sand stripped, we Bedine would say.”

Interesting term for the insane.

“Pardon, Ro-Lund-Do” interjected Pelias. “I noticed that you bought items that would only interest a wizard.”

“True my young friend, true.”

“May I ask if they are for you or for someone else?”

“You may ask. They are for me.”

“That would mean…”

“That I partake in wizardly arcane arts. Yes. A gift bestowed upon me by Amman-Ra”

Well done, my alter ego. Now they will think us open and honest. Yes, honesty is a tool to be used as well.

And so we further protect our secrets by telling half-truths.

Shribryn then joined in. “A wizard also. Truly you keep on surprising us. Full of mysteries you seem.”

“No mystery. There was never a need to announce it. Besides, a wizard without his written spells is as useless as…as antlers on a raven.” He laughed heartily.

Pelias spoke up again. “I noticed you purchased scroll sheets. You inscribe spells also?”

“Yes. I was planning to write and inscribe spells later today and tomorrow.”

“Then, I am wondering, would it be possible to scribe me three firebolt spells. That of the mage sage Kelgore. Of course, I will pay the full amount for your time and for the materials. Do you know the spell?”

An opening. Take it. But do not let on that we knew that old eccentric Kelgore personally.

He placed an arm around the young priest’s shoulders. “My friend. Yes I know that spell and yes I will scribe it for you.” Then he placed his other arm around Shribryn’s shoulders. He drew her in close so he could relish her floral scent.

“This has been a good day so far and I think that, for us three at least, this is the beginning of strong friendship. Yes indeed.”

The shear stone walls of the Altar of Foehammer, Temple of Tempus of Triboar came into sight. Ever watchful soldier clerics patrolled the catwalks. The giant gate doors, decorated with Tempus, symbol of a silver sword on a blood red shield were open, but ready to close at a moment’s notice.

There was some traffic present; farmers with carts, pilgrims, local worshippers.

“Pelias, you be our spokesperson” requested Ro-Lund-Do. Good. The more in the background we stay, the better. “Your studies have prepared you for the formalities of these inter church bargainings.”

Trained in the temples of the Mulhorandi pantheon, Ro-Lund-Do knew of the Faerun deities. But he had nor wanted any trek with deities, past or present.

They entered the grounds unchallenged. A junior cleric stood in front of the temple door.

“Good sir…” began Pelias. The cleric interrupted him.

“Stalkers, welcome. You have been expected. Please enter for refreshment. The Sword of Tempus will attend to shortly.”

He led them to a reception room and then left. Coffee, tea and biscuits had been laid out.

Shribryn sat and began to pour. “Share water with me my friends. Come Pelias, Ro-Lund-Do, sit. Drink with me.”

They had barely finished their first cup when the head of the order, Belros Strongsteel strode in. His long blond hair, sky blue eyes and fair features declared him a true Northerner, one from Icewind Dale.

Tall and muscular, his plate mail burnished, burgundy war cloak about his shoulders and back, he looked resplendent, as if an avatar of Tempus himself.

“Please, no, do not rise. And forgive my tardiness. I was preparing to go on patrol. Tempus told me in a dream to expect the Stalkers, but not which ones. You must be the Bedine girl and you priest of Mystra, you speak for the Stalkers.”

Then he stared at the necromancer. “Cleric of Amman-Ra, you travel far from home. Yes, your home is very far away, is it not?”

Is he being ironic? Does he suspect? If so he too must be dealt with.

Hush. He does not. All is well.

“Be welcome to the temple of Tempus. You are here to procure healing wands. So I have a proposition for you. We, here at the temple are stretched to the limit; what with the orc raids, the undead predations, and the water contamination at the Old Owl Well. We have divined that the undead rising and the water contamination may be linked.”

“So, I propose the following. To ease the pressure on us, we ask that the Stalkers hunt down the source of undead and water pollution. In return, the temple will donate a wand of moderate cures and only sell you lesser wands of healing at base price. What say you?”

All the while that Belros was talking, Ro-Lund-Do had unstoppered the bottle and held it under the table. Then just as quickly stoppered it when the head cleric had finished. He tucked it into his pouch, hoping that no one would notice.

No one did except for Shribryn. She sensed the moving air vibrations and realized what occurred. She wondered why he held an empty bottle under the table and then tucked it away. What possible purpose could it serve? She decided to save her curiosity for another time.

Pelias spoke up. “Well it seems we have common cause, good sir. We will hunt down these sources as best we can. I swear by Mystra’s magic.”

“Excellent young priest. We have an agreement then. I must take my leave now. My aide will bring the wands. Good hunting and Tempus bless.”

The Stalkers returned to Triboar. There they separated. Shribryn was to return to the Caravans while the two clerics were headed to the Six Windows. Pelias had decided to inspect the rooms in case he decided to rent there.

Jaundra should give us a discount for all this business we are bringing her.

The two clerics stood and watched as Shribryn made her way to the Caravans. The Death Priest watched Pelias staring after the desert maid, noting the longing in his eyes.

“Very pretty, is she not? Pelias, it is obvious that you care for her. Why do you not press your suit?”

The young man sighed. “Yes, I do care much. She makes me feel all funny inside. But I feel so awkward near her. I am afraid to do or say anything which in my ignorance might upset her or worse turn her away.”

“Humm. Come walk with me. I will attempt to guide you in such manners. Now women’s affections are not difficult to determine. One just has to look for the signs. Now, she cares for you in return. And we know this how?”

“She does? he asked excitedly.

Fornicating devils! Just how cloistered was he?

“We know this by her actions. Have you not noticed that she always seeks your company, how she dotes on all you say, even if it is uninteresting? Which most of the time it is. Also she does not draw back whenever you enter her personal space. Most importantly how she continuously makes contact with you, touches that linger? These are the most obvious signs.”

“Now you must also know the customs by which the ladies react. Being Bedine, she will not be overt or aggressive. You must approach her. Bedine women are taught to that the men make their intentions public, not they. So, demonstrate your affections. Take her somewhere to share a meal, put her at ease and tell her of your affection. She will appreciate this and then take the lead. Follow it. You are your own worst enemy here. You must take the first step in the dance.”

“This will work? She will not be angered? She will not disapprove of me?”

Are we wasting our time here? We have so much else to do.

Let me lead in this Scuro. It may return large dividends for us.

“Pelias, I am just a poor, simple cleric, but being much older than you, I have had more experiences with women. Oh you have no idea how much more my young innocent friend. Believe me, this will work.”

“Then, thank you. When we have time, she and I, I will do as you suggest. I cannot repay you for your advice and guidance.”

“No need. I am a friend doing a favour for a friend. Perhaps one day, I will come and ask you for a favour as repayment. Good then.”

Arrived at the six windows, he pointed out Jaundra’s little office. “See you later at supper my young friend.”

At Pelias’ knock a voice bade him enter. As he opened the door and passed in, a dizziness overcame him and for a moment all went gray. When his sight returned, he found himself not in a small office, but in a large shop. Glowing bladed weapons hung on walls, with matching bows and quivers. Shields and armour pieces glistened with arcane light. All manner of wands and staffs abounded and shelves overflowed with magical items.

In the middle of the shop stood a female gnome. With her brown hair double braided, intelligent chocolate coloured eyes appraised him. Her white skin, arms bare, was covered by a royal purple wizardly robe. She leaned on a staff, covered in arcane runes. Most intriguing was the small red pseudodragon perched on one shoulder. It spread out its wings, hoisted its stinger tail and hissed at the priest.

“Hush Rossal” commanded the enchantress. “He is not Okul. This one has no desire to behead you. Welcome Pelias, priest of Mystra. Welcome to the Wandering Magic Shoppe. Be at ease. No harm will come to you. I am known as Brenys Silentall. Know that the forces of good have taken an interest in you and your companions. We wish to know more about them and how they happen to be here.”

Strangely Pelias felt no compulsion to ask questions. Instead, he found it oddly satisfying to answer truthfully and honestly. So he proceeded to describe his fellow Stalkers and how they came to be together and what they hoped to accomplish regarding the orc raids and the undead rising..

“Most interesting, priest of Mystra. I thank you for your words. Your actions and those of your companions will determine if we help. The Blackhammer will be calling for you. Heed well his offering. Fare you well.”

Pelias felt himself compelled to leave. Wordlessly he opened the door and stepped out. He found himself at the Six Windows, but the shadows indicated that several hours had passed. He heard Ro-Lund-Do descending the stairway.

“Pelias, you are still here? You must have inspected every single available room minutely. Or did Jaundra talk to you continuously? Just as well. It saves me from carrying these firebolt scrolls. Here, these are for you. That will be eighty golds.”

Pelias was still in a daze as he began to speak. “Ro-Lund-Do, something most amazing has just occurred. I must tell you…”

Just then the door opened. Jaundra stepped out accompanied by a soldier of the ‘Twelve’ wearing a herald’s sash.

“Ah, there you are man of Dupari. We were on our way to see you. That’s him, one of the Stalkers.” The last remark was directed to the herald.

The soldier stepped up to address the necromancer.” Sir, greetings from the Lord Protector, Faurel Blackhammer. He wishes for you and the other Stalkers to break your fast with him tomorrow at the High Tower. He wishes to discuss a mutually beneficial proposition. Your response, sir?”

The Lord Protector? Most interesting. Something is afoot.

Yes. And we shall see what.

“Please tell his Excellency that we will be honoured to join him.”

“Thank you sir. I shall so report.” With a short nod, he left them.

“Well, well” chimed Jaundra. “Breakfast at the High Tower. Moving up in the world are we? And who is this handsome young man?”

Ro-Lund-Do was puzzled. How could she not know Pelias after spending so much time with him. But Pelias answered first.

“I am Pelias Hadrathus, good lady.” He gave a little bow. “Another Stalker. I was wishing to inspect the rooms here.”

“Well, well. I already have three Stalkers staying in my humble establishment. Two fine ladies and him. But none seem to be as well-mannered and respectful of their elders as you. You will find the Six Windows plain but warm and dry. But now is my closing time. Return tomorrow. I can be found here. Farewell now.”

Pelias found Ro-Lund-Do staring at him strangely. Almost as if two different sets of eyes were upon him. “Come or we will be late to meet the others” he stated. “I will explain along the way.” And so he did.

This Wandering Magic Shoppe intrigues us does it not’ As well as this Brenys Silentall.

Oh most definitely. We must find out more about both. Something else for Belig to do.

Shribryn decided to take a short cut through the alley ways of the main market. Passing through one, her sharp ears detected a muffled, faint cry for help. She hastened towards the sound, which originated in a side passage.

Her blindsense made out two struggling figures. A larger one, dagger in hand, stood over a small prone one who was being pummelled. It was the smaller one calling for help.

“Stop you. Let him up” she shouted.

“Back off slut” snarled the larger person. “Leave or I’ll slice you up as well.”

Ignoring his words, she covered her lower face with her chador and rushed him, drawing her jambiya as she did so. Tumbling underneath his slash, her curved dagger sliced across his thigh.

“Aie! For that I will skin you, bitch dog!” He rushed her, dagger in each hand. He was fast and nimble, despite his size. She was barely able to dodge his assaults. He feinted high spun and came in low. She bowed back as the dagger barley missed her jugular. The low dagger caught her across the midriff, cutting through her robe and skin. She bled.

“Got you now, goat licker” he panted.

Trained to ignore taunting words, she counterattacked. She had to end this quickly before he could wear her down.

He blocked her thrust, spun and kicked out. She turned to her side to take the kick on her leg. This exposed her to his second dagger. It sunk deep into her shoulder.

But she was expecting this. Shutting off her mind to the pain, and even before he could remove his dagger, she called upon her power. By stabbing her, he had put himself in range.

Black tentacles streamed out from her jambiya. As the desert dagger stabbed deep into his chest, the tendrils penetrated into his heart. With a gasp of surprise, he fell lifeless at her feet.

Shribryn was now bleeding profusely The smaller figure had risen to his feet and approached her. An elderly voice spoke.

“Here, quickly my dear saviour, drink this. It will help.”

From the vial he held out, she could smell a cure potion. She drank, draining all of it. The bleeding stopped and the wounds began to close.

“I thank you good sir.”

“No, thank you, my dear. Without your help, I fear he would have slain me.”

“Are you injured? Was he robbing you?”

“I am fine, young one. Just a few scratches when I was knocked over. Robbing me? No. Just a low life trying to make a name for himself, by slaying the once great Grey Mouser, old and arthritic as I am. Not that he would have survived long, once my friends caught up to him. But that would not have helped me now, would it. It was fortunate you arrived when you did. Why did you stay to help an old fool?”

“Elders should be respected, not set upon. I warned him to leave you alone.”

“Yes, so you did. He is dead by his choice. Come; let us retire to the Frog for some drinks to settle my nerves. Will you share water with me, girl of the Bedine? Yes, excellent. Now I noticed your fighting style, good for desert combat, but for city brawling, you need a bit of tightening up. I used to be not too bad a street fighter in my time. This old fool is still capable of teaching a few tricks or two. Should you wish, I could help supplement your training?”

They kept up the discussion on their way to the frosted frog. The body of the thug lay on the street for any scavengers and the morning clean up crew.

The two clerics arrived at the Frosted Frog. They had barely saluted Alatha, when Ska’arr, Raven, preceded by Kat, entered.

Kat’s voice rang out through the entire tavern. “Look, silver skinny and pretty boy beat us here. Interesting day you two? Good things to report over a good supper? Hey, what goes!” she exclaimed, spotting Shribryn at Hordack’s table. She sauntered over.

“Hey, sand girl, it's not nice to steal away a Kat’s mouse. We tend to show our claws.”

The Grey Mouser laughed heartily. “Well met little Whisper. Worry not. She is not trying to steal me. I am still your mouse. I owe her. She will tell you about it. Join for friends for supper Shribryn. We can discuss practice times at a later date.”

So it was that over dinner, all the events of the day were related and discussed.

“It is agreed then” finished up Ska’arr. “We meet the Blackhammer for breakfast tomorrow. It also seems that several parties want us to investigate and end this undead surge and the Old Owl Well water contamination. We are all resolved to do this. So be it.”

At this point the group split up. Pelias and Shribryn to return to the caravans, Kat to chat with Horvack, and Raven and Ska’arr to converse with Alatha. Ro-Lund-Do of course had need to return to the Six Windows.

At the appointed time, Belig was admitted, bearing a sack. “Sir, I have the items you requested.”

Relinquish control. I am more adept at this. Silver eyes shrunk into brilliant points.

“You are doing the eye trick again. There are two of you in one body are there not?”

“Your powers of deduction is working well. Yes to your question. But I am always here, faithful Belig. We both are. Now let us examine these items. Good. Good. Where did you obtain them? Hopefully I was not mentioned?”

“No. At the Everwyveryn House, they think me a simpleton, a fool or both. So I play the part. They thought the items were for me. Are you pleased?”

“Yes, well pleased. Keep playing the part, Belig. Tongues tend to wag more freely in front of fools. The Everwyveryn House. Is that not the inn that caters to nobility or to those who have noble aspirations?”

Wise words necromancer. Yes, this partnership will prove to be fruitful. “Truly. But the backdoors and back rooms cater to depraved tastes and to banned goods. Almost anything can be bought for the right price, drugs, women, slaves. Recently there has been a rash of necromantic items.”

“Do tell. Then we must certainly pay a visit to this place. The ways of nobility are well known to me. I will obtain proper attire. Belig, I charge you with two more chores. One, learn who frequents this House whom I can befriend to sponsor me to the establishment and two, find out all you can about the Wandering Magic Shoppe and a certain gnome, by name, Brenys Silentall. Get the other Delvers to help.”

“Yes As you wish.” This will also concern the Delvers.

“Now let us be off. The midnight hour approaches.”

The dwarf led Scuro to a dark narrow cobbled side street. The street opened up to a little square, surrounded on three sides by warehouses.

“It was here that young Terric Harding was vilely slain and his corpse abused.”

“Yes, I can sense the foul energy of dark death. This is perfect. Let us commence. Place the ichors in the brazier and light it. As the oil caught fire, he incanted a simple spell in High Netherese. The oil burned slowly releasing a thick black smoke a an offensive odour. He then added the wood piece from the coffin of a holy man. The smoke disappeared as did the odour. The brazier burned with cold black flames.

Belig did not hesitate in carrying out his instructions. This was a moment he had hoped for many years. As did all the Death Stalkers. That he would be the first, would lend him much prestige and leadership. Most satisfying. To actually be part of an undead familiar summoning ceremony.

Cutting his palm, Scuro let his blood drip into the iron bowl. Taking the dove heart, he sliced it in two. From one half, he took a bite and then placed it into the bowl, to mix with his blood. From the second half, he took a bite and placed it into the mouth of the dead bat. He then placed the bath in the bowl. Then unstoppering the voice catching bottle, he mimicked drinking. From his mouth then issued the voice of the high cleric, Belros Strongsteel as he incanted the following:

Oscurità scende sulla terra                       La mezzanotte è vicina 
Animale strisciano in cerca di sangue        E chiunque verrà trovato
 Dovrà affrontare i cani dell'Inferno          E si decomporrà dentro il cadavere di un guscio
 Il più fetida puzza è in aria                       E vampiri grigio da ogni tomba
 Sono in chiusura per sigillare il tuo morte


Darkness falls across the land                   The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood            And whosoever shall be found 
Must stand and face the hounds of hell      And rot inside a corpse’s shell
The foulest stench is in the air                    And grizzly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom

The flames died out. The bat’s eyes fluttered open, glowing blood red. Scuro picked up the mouse sized body and placed its mouth on his cut palm. A tongue came out to lap and drink. It then emitted a happy squeal and flew to land on Scuro,s head. The necromancer gave out a laugh. Holding out his hand the bat flew down to drink again. The wizard fondly rubbed a finger along its little body.

“Welcome back, little Dra-Koo-La. It has been too long. Welcome back little friend.” Oh, well done Scuro, well done.

“Sir, to have me witness this ritual… I, I am forever in your debt.”

The wizard then brought the bat eye to eye with the dwarf. Its mouth gaped, showing over-sized fangs.

“Conosenza” announced Scuro. “Know friend.” The bat then put its tongue to the dwarf’s cheek. It felt ice cold to Belig.

“He knows you now and accepts you. Unless he senses otherwise from me.”

“Thank you. Welcome to Triboar little Drac. We shall be good friends.”

“Well then. We are done here. Let us disassemble the apparatus, clean up and return to our rooms. Tomorrow, I leave with the Stalkers. Remember, when I return, we wish a full accounting of the items you have been tasked with.”

"Hopefully there will be much to relate.”

The next morning found the Stalkers at the front entrance to the High Tower. They were led to a small dining area. There at the head of the table, upright and straight-backed, stood the High Protector. Official robes of his status covered shiny chainmail. A wide black belt held the infamous black hammer. Faurel Blackhammer presented an image of power and valour. Black hair and beard, both streaked with grey, lent him an air of wisdom.

“Greetings Stalkers. We meet again, but under much better social circumstances, agreed? Come, sit and breakfast with me.”

He gestured them to sit. As servants brought in foodstuffs, he continued.

“Nighteyes sends his apologies, but also sends this message: ‘the clues to the location of the Lost Guide Gold are to be found at the Old Owl Well in an orc camp.’ I too wish for you to travel to the well, but for a different purpose; that being to locate and remove the source of the water pollution. Solving this would enhance your reputation here in Triboar and ease the pressure on me in keeping that damned rumour from resurfacing as it apt to do. You know the one,. It claims you are the responsible party and should be done away with. Well, what is your response?”

Ska’arr spoke for them. “Your Excellency, it appears our goals and those of many other parties are one and the same. We have all already agreed to do this.”

“Good news. My aides will provide you with maps. I suggest you make a halfway stop at the inn in the village of Wickaninnish. Good fortune be with you Stalkers and may this all be resolved as quickly as possible. Now let us not waste this good food. Let us eat.”

After breakfast, they converged at the Tower gate. Ska’arr spoke to the group.

I suggest we return to our rooms and prepare ourselves. Then we all meet at the west gate.”

“Sounds like a good plan except for one teeny matter” interjected Pelias. “I thought, after our last experiences, that we needed more healing. I met an elf at the Frosted Frog, one Jamin Clover Arborsho who apparently is a student and lover of puzzles. We made a deal for a healing belt. He would not sell it but instead set up a puzzle with the belt as the prize. He said if I, that is, we, could manage to get the belt, then we could keep it. We are to meet him at the north end this morning.”

A bit of silence ensued. “I will go with Pelias” Shribryn spoke up.

“Hey, puzzles, I’m good with puzzles, especially if there is a reward. I’ll go as well” announced Kat.

Ska’arr remembered his words to Alatha that the Stalkers stand up for each other. “I will go as well.”

Raven shrugged. “You will need my help and it will be good to have another source of healing. I will go.” They all stared at Ro-Lund-Do. More silly games. Yes, but we are in no hurry. Let us go watch them play games. “We, I mean I, will go as well.”

(The full lyrics to the song that Cruian Glimmergaunt was singing as he repaired Kat’s thieves tools are as follows (by Glenn, “the Eagle”, Fryer)):

There's trouble on the street tonight, I can feel it in my bones
I had a premonition that he should not go alone
I knew the crossbow was loaded, but I didn't think he'd kill
Everything exploded, and the blood began to spill
So darling, here's your things, and the backpack in your hand
Here's a little gold, now we'll do it just the way we planned
I'm sorry it went down like this, but someone had to lose
It's the nature of the business, it's the smugglers' blues

The sailors and the mercenaries, the priests and the Twelve
The payoffs and the ripoffs and protecting no one but yourselves
Don't matter if it's Baccaran, Devilweed or The Mist,
You've got to carry weapons 'cause you always can be hit
There's lots of shady characters and lots of dirty deals
Every name's an alias in case somebody squeals
It's the lure of easy treasure, it's got a very strong appeal
Perhaps you'd understand it better standing in my shoes
It's the ultimate enticement, it's the smugglers' blues
You hear it in the bards tales, you hear it every day
They say they're gonna stop it, but it doesn't go away
They move it through Yartar and sell it in Thay
They hide it up in Misty Forest, I mean it's here to stay
It's propping up the governments in Calimport they say
You ask any of the Twelve, they'll say there's nothing we can do
From Blackhammer right down to me and you
It's a losing proposition, but one you can't refuse
It's the politics of contraband, it's the smugglers' blues

Return to The Tide of Shadows
Return to My Dungeons & Dragons page