The mage was gone. Again. Deep in the bowels of Faerun we’d dispatched him, only he lingered, Lintral said. We took care of that problem too, leaving him to the winds. My job was done, most likely, since the other spirits who wandered through the jongleur didn’t seem willing to turf him out of his own body.
Of course, it meant Gurns could wear that necklace whenever he felt the urge, and didn’t need me to be on hand with blade poisoned, ready to kill him in case he was usurped. It was a relief to not have to watch him so intently, the little absent-minded caress of his fingertips along the curve of his lyre, the twitch of a smirk at the corner of his lips, the tendency to linger on the balls of his feet – waiting for a sign that it wasn’t him in that body. I’ve grown fond of that body – and mostly of the man within. Now, I don’t have to watch so much, but I also don’t get to be around whenever the spirits murmur something different.
We were sitting quietly, holding hands, while he told me about the meeting of the barbarians. Thanuk, and the spirit with the eager hands, who turns out to be another Thanuk. I wonder if his descendant is as sure of himself as his ancestor…
But then Gurns stood, drawing me to my feet as well. Then he led me out of the city, north to a meeting I hadn’t anticipated. Lingering out of the blinding sunlight, protected by the guest-right conferred by the place, waited the duergar king.
I’d toyed with flirting with him off and on before, but moving to a place underground just didn’t excite me, particularly since he wasn’t interested in sharing me with my husband and my consort. But that gave me the chance to see the lines of weariness at the corners of his eyes, the lack of finery scattered around as was so often the case. He still had attitude, sure – but of the rehearsed kind.
We bantered back and forth, as always. Some folks say howdy, we traded mild taunts full of history and ‘what might have been.’ Another sign, probably. Then the king pulled out a crown, shimmering hues like oil on a puddle, and set it on his head. I’d not seen it before, but its meaning was obvious. Time to be official, no more time for play.
The king wanted to know what Gurns knew about the spirits. While he’s fond of the bottled kind, we didn’t think that’s what he was talking about. Besides, oddly enough, Artikerus didn’t seem to have been drinking in a while. Another bad sign, to go with the relatively simplistic curse he muttered against the prior king of Gloomhaven. Something was definitely troubling the duergar – quite possibly the weight of that crown, for all its apparent lightness.
The guys talked more, technical details of that necklace, so I took a moment to step outside. No one was skulking around, no one was loitering, no metal bugs with black-cowled riders were waiting, so I went back inside. They were posturing at each other again, before the king remembered his ale and passed some around. I didn’t drink any, but I did my own share of posturing, too.
Facing the king, I asked – hypothetically - 'Would it be a loss, if you were indisposed? Looks like you're working against us anyway.'
He muttered about us busy guarding our foul coastal cities, and of course we each spoke up – and of course Gurns supported Waterdeep’s ability to watch itself while I defended the unique atmosphere of the place I think of as a coastal home. He’d baited us nicely, there. Then he complained about a drow wasting our time. Could only mean one – few others seemed to even notice there was a problem with an upcoming invasion, never mind show interest in developing tactics to deal with the issue.
If he’d asked in almost any other way, I’d have agreed with his points. Nilan does talk a lot, and jumps to conclusions. And it was difficult to keep waiting and waiting to begin the final assault – the only assault - on the Vile One. But there was a big problem with rushing that – a few, actually.
Artikerus grumbled in his usual way. 'Well, if yer damned spirits want their blades, go find the bloomin' things…'
That’s a start. Except only one is where it can be found right now – on Evermeet. And then there’s the other details. The monoliths hinted that if we didn’t have dragon mounts, we’d never reach the top of the mountain. The path to the mountain itself wasn’t open, apparently, whatever that meant. We needed copies of the necklace Gurns wore, so we could be protected from the Vile One’s possession – and each copy had to host a spirit, or else it wouldn’t work.
Artikerus retorted, ‘Feh. Well then start assignin' what’s needin' to be done!'
Well, we’re waiting on the silver dragon Tsakchanar to talk to the dragons. That makes sense – they won’t consider HER a light tasty snack. Last I’d heard, the Weaver needed to either kill the priestess we’d gone to so much trouble to rescue, or convince Noloth’e to step into the necklace Gurns wore – except the idea terrified her. I wonder why Arenivar couldn’t do the work, since she’s a moonweaver, but that’s not for me to say. Unlike some of the religious types I’ve heard of lately, I don’t go messing with the chosen ones of other gods – that can come later, after this crisis is done.
So what can we do?
I looked around, literally and just thinking about those I’ve heard of lately who seemed to know about the upcoming attack. There’s so few of us. An elf or two, a drow or two, one troll, one duergar, maybe five or six humans, and Gurns. Not much more than a dozen, against a god. They sent a mob last time and failed.
I answered the question. ‘Getting everyone to understand that this is important and will take a lot of work, effort, patience, and persistence, I'd say.'
There was a meeting months ago. The paladin Karae hosted it, only he’s been off studying. Since then, no one’s stood up to say they were willing to lead our specialized task force against the reborn god. Some say Arex will do the job – except he doesn’t know us, and a general who doesn’t know the troops is as good as a cricket in a brothel. Lots of noise in the dark, but you need more than just noise!
That got me thinking about other generals, other armies. Did the king know yet? Might as well ask. 'You know of the army gathering on the Astral plane?' Oh, he knew. And he wanted to rush into the fray. Sometimes kings make good generals, but not always. Artikerus grumbled and growled about some ‘sniveling pixie’ in charge of his kin, as well as ogres and trolls, and it seems both guys thought that meant Nilan.
I snickered at the thought. Nilan could confuse his way into a ‘wet iron ration bag’, as the duergar would say, and become positive there was no exit without the aid of the elven moonblade and whatever other relic he’d decided was essential to the task. He was great at gathering information, but – Beshaba! - he should never be left alone with it for very long. No, it wasn’t Nilan.
The memory of massive scaly knees at eye level, with a timid doe grazing between two massive clawed front feet, came to mind. She was the only one I knew who had contact with the holy warrior who’d visited Karae’s gathering, bearing the mysterious paladin upon her back. Nilan had been right to be concerned about the demons and shadows he said he saw when wandering in the Astral plane, but not taking the news to those trying to organize things was foolish. I’d talked Gurns and Lintral into visiting the Silver’s lair, and she had me tell Nilan who was gathering the darkside races. I thought Gurns had been there while we’d talked – she liked him a lot more than she liked me, after all – but maybe the unfamiliar name wasn’t memorable.
Artikerus was absolutely certain Nilan wanted to wrest the power for himself – and I suppose that was probably the worst time for said drow to turn up. They started posturing again – rather much like raptors displaying sharp beak and claw in anticipation of a territory battle. But we all had the guest-right in this place, including the newcomer.
Lady, I’m so glad Lintral and Gurns don’t do that kind of stuff. My husband is built like a young barbarian man, tall and sturdy, with the delicious knowledge of dark powers flooding him with confidence and just enough arrogance. My consort, on the other hand, plays a more subtle game, using his hybrid grace and wit to be in the right place at the right time. What a thrilling combination…
But back to the hostel. Maybe it was a darkrace thing they had to work out, but I was impatient. 'We're not going to waste our efforts on the army on Astral.' I shocked Artikerus enough for him to ask who I meant by ‘we’, so I elaborated.
It’s just sound tactics. We’ve heard of dwarves meeting on the Moonshaes, when the stoutest of their warriors will do much to avoid travel across the oceans. We’ve heard of the elven queen siding with the goodside army. And the Silver implied there was a darkside army as well. Two armies working with an awareness of each other, aware of the threat between Astral and that mountain - while we were a much smaller, more specialized strike force. 'We go straight at the god himself.'
Into the startled silence, an unexpected ally spoke. 'The Astral army is clearly a diversion. Even a bard can see that. A helluva big diversion by all accounts, but a diversion.'
I was definitely pleased. It meant I wasn’t the only one watching the stories unfolding in the broken monoliths, watching the movement of the initial assault on the Vile One with a critical eye. I couldn’t remember if the king had seen the images, though, because he was still unconvinced. He demanded to know who would be leading these armies, to deal with the menace on Astral. I told him all I knew. 'A ‘pixie’ and a paladin.'
Again, he retorted. 'A dark pixie or that fool Llandrien?' Sweet Goddess, had it taken that much out of him to get his reclaimed kingdom in order? 'What do you think? You're sounding less a wise king, and more a fool. Who would a bunch of illithid follow?' He mostly conceded the point, although he knows a lot more about the psionicists than I do and was quick to tell me so. That’s fair; I’ve never worked with one. And I suppose he was unimpressed that I didn’t know the name of the drow who led the temple – and the army of the darkside forces – back in the dark elf city. Like I said, I don’t have time right now to meddle with another god’s best followers.
The king had a damned good question after that, though. 'Then who's leadin' the charge on the mountain then?'
That’s the real question. I think Nilan found someone who can handle those on the darker side of things, someone with the ability to marshal those forces well. But on the other side - 'No one's really stepped forward yet.'
Artikerus grumbled self-righteously, 'As I remember, it was yerself that said I was the propheci'sis'ed dwarf on a dragon,' while Nilan talked in circles about the evils’ army. They were degenerating into another pissing contest, and I wasn’t helping matters. I threw back the attempts on Nilan’s life by the king’s agents, probably feeling too self-righteous on my own. After all, if I can swallow my pride enough to help the followers of my Lady’s Enemy, can’t they set this aside until AFTER we save the Realms? I should have just shut up – they really got muttering back and forth after that.
My head was starting to hurt. The king was right about so much – Nilan kept talking around and around, and we still didn’t have dragons or spirits or weapons. And we still didn’t have more than a neat handful of people willing to charge up the mountain, to strike the weakened god before he grew too powerful to stop. Not sure if he got angry because I was leaning against Gurns, trying to come up with something that’d get us closer to the goal, or if maybe the ale he drank wasn’t agreeing with him, but Artikerus started glaring at me, promising harm against even guest-right. I bit my tongue – it’s been known to get the better of me – and Gurns read my mood.
We left the two – enemies? allies? – in the safety of guest-right and met up with Lintral. Sweet Goddess, it was good to go out and wreak havoc after the encounter in the hostel. Many shall cry out to You with our names upon their lips, and my mind is clearer again.
Dark Lady, thank you for helping me with these challenges. I thought it bad enough sitting in Selune’s temple, holding my tongue, guarding her priestesses who are so obviously essential to saving the Realms. Despair sometimes settles in when I wonder – is this all we have? Am I to wander the void for ten thousand years, as did Arex, waiting my turn to try again, knowing all I’ve lost? But Your will be done, my Lady.
Your will is mine.
Teej stood again from within the shadows, knees numb from her extended devotions. Outside, the night rested heavily upon the city. Would it be swept away in a matter of months? It would be a loss that might even mollify the Nightsinger – if even She remained if the gestating god was victorious. The warrior woman crept between two warm, slumbering forms and silently wept.
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