Despite the wind brushing by his ears, Laedrynn heard Dinalqua's moans. The three Elves raced their horses through the dark north to Triboar. They had strapped her securely to the back of her horse, hoping she would survive the trip. Moving his horse closer to Dina's, Laedrynn carefully adjusted the blankets wrapping the Elf. Her condition was rapidly declining. The Wild Elf looked up to the sky; the morning sun was still hours away. Hours he could only hope Dinalqua had.
Camris was enjoying himself immensely in the smoky common room of the Drunken Druid inn in Triboar; he was strumming his favorite instrument, a Shalaquin; he was singing the deliciously romantic ballad known as "The Lost Prince of Cormanthyr," a favorite among Elves and men alike; and he was teasing the proprietor's cat with a Dustbunny cantrip. The cat would widen her eyes as she crouched, the tip of her tail twitching, before she pounced at it and chased the small ball of dust tumbling erratically around the table legs--all of this to the considerable amusement of the audience.
When he finished up the set, he gave a bow and a flourish to the yells and catcalls of his audience. The proprietor, Sander Halt, came over to him with a big smile on his face and carrying a package. "Looks like that package you been waitin' for, Cam" he said.
"At last!" Camris shouted exultantly, grabbing the package.
"Ahem," coughed Sander into his fist, "pardon me for askin' Cam, but what was so all fired important that you sent all the way to Silverymoon for?"
"Only a wedding present for a friend" Camris said with a smile as he lovingly unwrapped the package. Revealed was a crystalline bottle with Elven markings, filled with an iridescent ruby colored liquid flecked with bright gold. "Elverquisst", he said dreamily as they both gazed in awe at the glowing liquid. "420 years old, distilled from sunshine and perfectly ripened fruit; it is very rare, and very good. It will be perfect." He kneeled down and carefully fitted it into his pack as Sander went back to his bar.
The door suddenly crashed open and Randow and Laedrynn entered carrying Dinalqua. Camris quickly ran over and helped carry her over to his table while Sander cleared it off. She hugged herself, shivering and muttering to herself.
"My friend needs a healer, quickly!" Randow called out anxiously.
"Amin 'll go." Laedrynn said. The rustic Elf had been growing increasingly uncomfortable in this confined space, and surrounded by men to boot.
"Take Ande", said Sander, referring to his young son. "He'll guide ye". The two ran off. While they waited, Camris introduce himself, and Randow explained about his, Dinalqua's, and Laedrynn's encounter with the shadows at Red Larch. Randow simply held Dina as she shivered; she couldn't seem to get warm.
When the door opened again both Elves were surprised to see Strongbow Firehand and Tizer!
"Strongbow!" shouted Camris stepping forward, delighted to see his old friend; Randow shut his eyes and hugged Dina, breathing a sigh of relief that help had arrived. Strongbow and Tizer seemed startled for a moment to find Elves among the patrons of the common room. Then they smiled at each other for a moment.
An ugly smile. Camris stopped, suddenly uneasy.
Strongbow called out loudly to them, "Good! You are in position!"
Then Tizer loudly said "Now, Brothers!" and they cast forked lightning bolts into the crowded common room.
Randow and Camris stood stunned as lightning tore through flesh and furniture. "This can't be happening," thought Camris as he saw his friend of thirty years, Sander, go down with the first bolt.
"Nalynn will be pleased!" Tizer said in a loud voice.
"The Grey Company is at last about our true business!" shouted Strongbow.
Dinalqua's head had hit the table as Randow dropped her in jumping up. Jarred, she moaned and opened her eyes to a scene of otherworldly horror: small shadows twisted and danced madly over the walls, ceiling, and floor of the Inn; jagged and evil, she heard them snicker as they seemed to flow in and out of her with each of her breaths, yet no one else seemed to notice!
"Sssshhaddddooowwws," she said, her teeth chattering as she reached for Randow. Still in shock, Camris and Randow cast defensive spells without conscious thought as the attackers filled the air with magic missiles. A few of the others were beginning to fight back with whatever they had. Finally awakening to the fact that the attackers couldn't possibly be their true friends, Camris and Randow shifted to offensive spells only to see, in nightmarish slow motion, their spells somehow missing to hit innocent patrons.
"No!" Camris screamed; his nightmares of his last days as a Bladesinger long ago repeating themselves.
And then, horror upon horror, those fallen amongst the broken tables slowly rose to stand again. Their eyes glassy, they turned toward the Elves.
"There!" one called out, pointing to Randow.
"The Elves are in league with the enemy!" cried a second voice.
"Slay them! Slay them all!" cried another. Those among the living seemed to fall into a glassy eyed stare, and they all turned to the Elves. Dina saw as through a curved mirror the shadows crawling behind the eyes of the dead. The two who had started the killing were long gone, forgotten in the charged atmosphere.
"No. Please no," Camris whispered in despair as Sander approached with his old mace he kept behind the bar. Randow kicked over a table to block their approach as the Elves slowly retreated. Camris cast a gust of wind to force them back, but they kept on advancing.
"Take Dina! Get out through the back window!" yelled Camris as he slowly retreated, casting a stinking cloud to block the humans advance. The living were forced to stop, but they attacked with hurled knives and mugs. The dead didn't notice it at all.
"No! Not again!" yelled Randow instantly; the memory of Sheilandri dying to cover his last retreat still too fresh in his mind.
"Move!" shouted Camris in a voice of command. He used his cape and Shalaquin like a sword as he engaged the first of the enemies advancing in a shower of missiles. Wood splintered as he parried. When only a stub remained of his once-beautiful instrument, Camris threw that too at the attackers. Tears streaming down his face, Randow picked up Dinalqua and ran to the back. With a voice whispering "coward" in the back of his mind, Randow leapt into the window.
And rebounded off the shutters. "The shutters, they're being held!" Randow cried trying to kick them open. Dina could see the shutters crawling with shadows like hungry maggots. Camris retreated still further towards the back.
Dinalqua reached up toward the shutters as Randow hammered on them.
"L-L-l-l-iiiggghhtttt," she slurred out.
Randow looked around wildly. Camris was being forced back steadily. Out of time and out of spells, he cast the only one remaining to him. One handed (carrying Dina with the other), he thrust his hand towards the shutters and spoke. Light flared, and Dina could see the shadows flee like cockroaches. The dead facing Camris' desparate defense flinched back.
Randow hit the shutters again, and was so surprised when they opened easily that he fell over the sill and leanded in a heap, Dina sprawled on top of him. Camris took advantage of the enemy hesitation to grab his pack and dive out the window, flattening Randow again as he rose. Desperately Camris scrambled to his feet, slammed the shutters closed, and cast a Hold Portal just as something crashed against them with great strength. He helped Randow carry Dinalqua quickly down the road as torches approached in the distance.
Later, well hidden in trees overlooking the road, they dropped exhausted to the ground. Camris realized he was still holding the broken neck of his Shalaquin, and tossed it down.
Randow held Dinalqua, as if to warm her with his own body. Dina was no longer shivering; the darkness pressed down on her like a smothering blanket, and everything had faded to a lifeless gray around her.
"She's not going to last 'till noon", said Randow sadly. "And we can't go back for a healer. They think we tried to kill them." There was silence. Slowly an idea worked it's way through to Camris, and he fumbled open his pack to pull out the bottle of Elverquisst. He just stared in shock at the final blow: the bottle was broken.
It all just hit him then: his failure now and in the past, his friend's murder, the corruption of his body, and just now the ending of Dinalqua's only hope for life. He bowed his head in black despair.
And then, through their bleakness, they all scented something in the air. The smell of grass, ripe fruit, and warm sunlight on a flowing river. Their spirits lifted somewhat, and Camris raised his head to see, in the bottom of his pack, the broken bottom of the bottle still held some of the iridescent ruby liquid. With great care lest he spill any of it he lifted it from his pack. He then took another piece of the bottle and used a cantrip to attract all the glass fragments still in the liquid to it and out of the Elverquisst. He then took it over to where Dina lay in Randow's arms.
"Dina," Camris said. "Here, you must drink this." Carefully avoiding cutting her lips, he got her to swollow a mouthful. Dina convulsed and Randow's heart almost stopped. Then she lay still and hyperventilated; he could feel the warmth spreading through her body. Then she quieted and opened her eyes langourously. She had never before had such a feeling of blissful wellbeing, even though she was too tired to stand. She laughed, reached up, and touseled Randows hair while whispering something quietly. Randow couldn't help but smile, and then blush.
"Thank you," was all Randow could say, investing it with deeper meaning.
"It was my honor," responded Camris, throwing away the now useless glass and collapsing back to the ground. "Even if it isn't a permanent cure, at least we bought her some time."
A rage came over Randow then. He said, "Twice. Twice! I've had to run away today. And this time I let a bard do my fighting for me."
Camris said, flat on his back, "But, I have not always been the mild-mannered bard you see before you. Once, I was a... more." Randow looked at him, but Camris didn't explain further. "But I can't stand aside this time. Those impostors are going to get every Elf this side of the forest lynched."
Then a thought struck Randow, and he looked around. "Where is Laedrynn, anyway?"
In another part of the forest, Strongbow and Tizer walked silently through the forest.
"Well begun, Master K'ellz"? Grinned Strongbow to Tizer.
"Is half done, Master Rimellyn," declared Tizer. Laughing silently they walked away through the trees as an unseen observer watched from the tree branches high above them.
As Brisid had commanded, Taelsin stood outside the inn in Neverwinter an hour before dawn. Taelsin let Brisid lead him around the still-sleeping city. When they stopped, the young Elf saw he was in a dark alley.
Brisid murmured to him, "Keep your blade sheathed, your arms still, and your disposition calm, no matter what." The Elf stared into Taelsin's eyes until he was sure Taelsin understood. "Follow me and stay quiet."
Brisid walked slowly down the alley. He glanced up to his right and noticed four humans tracking him with drawn longbows. Five more archers watched him from the left. Although the humans' aims were probably not nearly as good as an Elf's, the archers did not need to be very skilled in such high positions.
The silence that filled the passage pounded in Taelsin's ears. His breathing quickened--he wasn't used to walking through narrow passages while being targeted by so many bowmen. He forced himself to take a deep breath and concentrated on following Brisid's instructions. His attention was so caught up in maintaining his composure that he almost walked into Brisid, who had stopped at a metal-banded door. The door opened silently, and a young woman invited them in.
"Brisid and Taelsin of The Grey Company, my mistress shall see you now." The woman led them through a long hallway and down flights of stairs. As they walked around a corner, the scent of flowers reached the Elves' noses. They entered a large, brightly-lit room. Dozens of large pots held all varieties of flowers. Some Brisid recognized--some he had previously seen only in books.
"Brisid, welcome!" A middle-aged woman stepped out from behind a group of flowers, a cheerful smile graced her face. "I'm so glad my archers didn't practice on you!" Taelsin watched silently as the woman walked over to Brisid and hugged him.
"Geenah, your archers would not have fired on such as good a friend as I!" the Elf responded.
The woman gazed darkly at Brisid, "One doesn't have friends in this business." A smile once again appeared on Geenah's face, accompanied with a wink. "Just good acquaintances."
To this they chuckled, and Brisid motioned for Taelsin to come nearer. "Geenah, may I introduce a mellon by the name of Taelsin. He promises to be one Tel'Mithrim will be proud to call our own. Taelsin, this is Geenah, the next-to-best information dealer in Neverwinter..."
"Flower stems! I'm the best information dealer in Neverwinter now!" Geenah interrupted.
"Oh?" Brisid asked, "What happened to number one?"
"That, my friend, err.. good acquaintance, is a story I shall tell you later." She said, giving another noticeable wink. "You, however, have come for other things. Now what was that question of yours?" She squinted at Brisid, tapping her finger to her chin.
"You have forgotten my inquiry?" Bewilderment filled Brisid's face.
"Of course not! Oh, that was blossoming--that look on your face! I should try such jokes more often on you!" Brisid chuckled at the woman's remarks.
"Anyway, back to business. Might I see your payment?" Geenah purred. Brisid pulled a large pouch off his belt and gently laid it in the woman's open palm. Taelsin wondered how many jewels the pouch contained. Like an eager child, Geenah reached into the bag. Taelsin blinked in surprise as she pulled out a dried leaf. She held the leaf to her nose and inhaled. She sighed with a great smile. "Perfect, Brisid! Perfect!"
"Now for the information." She pursed her lips and placed the bag and leaf on a table nearby. "Bad tidings have come to Neverwinter. Perhaps you have seen the demonstrations in the streets?"
"Aye. Taelsin bumped into such a prophet."
"They say the world is ending. Rest assured, it is not. Only Neverwinter. The coming disaster, let us call it, has been carefully planned. This is where even my information becomes petal-thin. I don't know who exactly is behind all this, except that one participant is a drider, a very talented and powerful drider. And you know of the terrible deaths that are appearing everywhere? This is not one of my Geenah-guaranteed facts, but rumor has it that the murderer is not mortal."
Brisid digested the information silently. "Do you think all of these facts are related?" Taelsin ventured.
"Nay, I do not think. I know they are related. Now how they are related is another rose-bush altogether." She grinned slightly.
"Well, I thank you for giving so much help for so little payment."
"Flower-buds, you're a friend. I don't need big payments from friends."
"Good acquaintances, you mean."
"Aye, that. Oh, remember that now I'm the best information dealer around? Well, Bostor, the number one guy, is dead. Just this past eve, seems he dealt with some foreign drow and received a bomb in addition to his gems. The bloom though, is that the information transferred, are three words: The Grey Company.
"That's all the information I have, but if this drow gave that Bostor such a payment, I would hate to see what he'd do to you and your Elf-friends. You all be careful!
"You die, and I'll lose my supply of special dried leaves!"
Continue to Chapter 7