“Well that was… rather sad and pathetic,” said the wizard from his place towards the back of the caravan, after they’d just exited what he understood to be the boundary of the former troglodyte clan’s home. “Are you alright, Valdasar? I don’t imagine mass slaughter was your overall goal. What the hells happened back there?”
The shield guardian kept pace directly behind him, making noise with every step. Peet walked in front of Loic on his eight stubby legs, looking around freely once again with the help of his fancy new goggles.
Valdasar dusted himself off and shook his head sadly. “It seemed to go to plan – albeit a slightly altered plan – until the spells and arrows began to fly.” His gaze raked the battlefield. “I had intended to reveal myself to the troglodytes, but the hostage’s panic, coupled with the arrival of the riders…” He trailed off before adding, “I was certain the invisibility spell would conceal me until I reached you, giving ample time for the tribe to finish their battle and withdraw. I am truly sorry.”
“I imagine that you are,” he simply responded, understanding that the cleric was not apologizing to him, but rather the sea of the dead behind them. And to himself, perhaps. He thought of Taman then, and mused over how it would have gone, had the human still been by their side. The more time that had passed without him, the more Loic was realizing just how crucial the mantle he’d taken within the group had been.
“Indeed. Physics still apply if you are invisible. Something to keep in mind. If the ground is covered in leaves or fungi, if it’s raining or snowing, if you cross a river or shuffle around in loose dirt with abandon, you will be observed. It surprises me a little, though, that you didn’t expect the female to do anything when you grabbed her. You don’t speak their language, and we established that. I have no idea what you were expecting. Fortunately, they were just troglodytes. Everything I’ve seen and heard of them depicts them as vile, evil little things. Surely they would have done more harm than good if suffered to live.”
Loic did not sincerely believe that. These troglodytes could have been different, and they could even have become additional resources if diplomacy had still been an option, before everybody started panicking. In that regard, he was proud of Lael. She’d stood beside him in equal disdain and half-hearted participation almost the entire time. But, chiding the priest wouldn’t be helping anything. Valdasar needed to keep a clear head, and stay aware and in the moment as much as possible. They all did. It would be better if he was supported into putting the catastrophe far behind.
“Unfortunately,” he replied, “we will never know of the other outcomes. Such is the nature of choice and consequence. Regardless of their nature…this should not have happened. Perhaps I was simply being naïve in thinking I could return the creature to her people, but…” Again, words failed him and he silently turned his back to the others.
Loic sighed heavily. He was doing as much as he could to restrain his fury at the lack of willingness almost everyone in the gang seemed to have towards asking for help, and trusting one-another to be willing to give that help when the time came. He knew there was a purpose to bringing the female back to the safety of the fifty-foot-high cliff, as he thought they had agreed. Many, in fact. They could have spoken to her. They had magical tricks in their arsenals to calm people down, or at least restrain them. The point was that instead, Valdasar falsely assumed his plan was better than anything his multiple comrades could design together, and he’d paid greatly for that lost wager. Now the priest was going to take on all of his grief by himself and openly hold onto it like a child, instead of straightening up because they had a job to do, like Taman would have done.
Perhaps the half-elf’s irritation would be less extreme if others weren’t doing the same: refusing to trust in the greater capabilities of one-another. Eran had designed a plan to take out Karazikar, but only accounted for himself within it. That bothered him for several reasons, and had been lingering in the back of his mind for days. Would Eran always be like that, or was it something he could learn to reject? Would someone have to die in order for him to understand why it was important? Didn’t Loic just go through that as the perfect example? Ah, yes. That was the true reason for his anger. His death hadn’t taught anyone anything.
“Is this going to affect your confidence in the next battle?” he finally asked, very calmly putting a cork on the bottle of anger at his core. It was much easier to control when he understood its source.
Valdasar turned a cold look on Loic, the remorse of moments before completely gone. His tone was hard, far more so than he had used thus far. “If I allowed every mistake, every grievance I have suffered in my life to affect me so then I would not be here.” He looked back out to the field of the dead. “There is nothing more to discuss.”
Ilia Ferrelle Ilia
Ilia looked at the bloody mess of bodies and sighed. It wasn’t in his nature to bring about such wanton destruction – assassination was a selective, surgical and considered craft – but he also knew he didn’t have a group solution that would have produced a better outcome. This disturbed him more than he would care to admit. What would Queen Adrie have done? Could she have found a better solution? It seemed the Underdark was diligently and comprehensively exposing his inadequacies. At this rate he would never return to his village.
He shut his eyes, tried to place himself in the crown of the Shade Tree, surrounded by lunar orchids, their sweet aroma just out of reach.
The shuffling and talk of the group brought Ilia back down to the Underdark, their grim surroundings, the putrid smells of a battle. He heard Valdasar and Loic in discussion. He could not hear the particulars but had little doubt about the subject-matter. Such rash action was a problem. The party would not survive if they could not construct and stick to a plan. Ilia had perhaps been too solitary. He saw Eran just ahead and moved aside him. “What the hell was Valdasar thinking?” murmured Ilia, “Gods knows it took us a lifetime to agree on a plan. What’s the bloody point if we disregard it immediately?”
Loic was appreciative of the cleric’s sudden coldness, even if it was directed at him. That was exactly the face he wanted to see on all of them before meeting the Beholder. He joyfully smiled in response with an enthusiastic, “Excellent!” Then, he wandered past the others, glancing side-long at the moving rogue, until he reached the mouth of the tunnel that would lead them west. Here, he sat down against the rock wall and waited for them to decide whether they would continue or take a short rest. Naturally, he was prepared for both. If they continued, then he would use the pearl. If they stayed, then he would cast a minor illusion that would hopefully take care of the smell that was about to get a hundred times worse…
Eran looked over the cavern at the remains of what had been the troglodytes. He didn’t regret his actions, everything died and one had to kill if one’s survival was threatened, it was the nature of things. How the situation had deteriorated and caused him to act had troubled him. They had a semblance of a plan and it all turned to havoc because of the dragonborn’s whim. It was a mistake, one he would hopefully learn from.
He heard the conversation between Loic and the Cleric, and thought it rich that the wizard was lecturing Valdasar on the virtues on sticking to the plan. It had been a little over six days since the half-elf had gone off in what was supposed to be observation that then evolved into a delay tactic and finally turned into some vain attempt at glory seeking. It had ended in many of them having to abandon the defence and protection of the interior to save him. Yet death hadn’t seemed to humble him much. If anything the wizard had come away more sure of himself.
He shook his head at this mess, then looked at Raddan who was examining the sword they had just picked up from the opposing side’s leader. He had been a steady force in all their confrontations so far, him and Ilia seemed like the only two he could comfortably rely on in the coming confrontation. A chill ran down his spine as he thought of the beholder.
His friend moved up beside him and offered the same misgivings about their current situation. “I don’t know my friend,” he said with grave pity in his voice, “it seemed a misguided notion.” He couldn’t fault the Cleric’s good nature, if anything he liked the old goat. If anyone deserved the glory from the battle at the tower it was the dragonborn, he thought. He had vigilantly sustained everyone in the fight and had selflessly tended to Loic at the crucial moments. However this day he had made a naive choice, things were never as black and white as he had wished them to be. “It’s his burden to bear.” A fact the dragonborn seemed to have accepted, judging by the brash end of his conversation with Loic.
He looked around the dark cave once again. A familiar sense of foreboding came to him, a sense of being watched. He looked back at the sword they had just looted, it was of drow design and Eran wondered if they had just picked up another of Lolth’s scrying tools? He was going to pose the idea to Raddan when the thought of dark weapons drew his eyes down to the bloodied dagger at Ilia’s side. They were ushered so quickly out of the tower after the attack he had not fully addressed the issues regarding the weapon with the elf. He looked him in the eyes. “Are you okay?” he asked with heartfelt concern.
Ilia Ferrelle Ilia
Listening to the ranger as they walked side by side, he realised just how much he had missed hearing a friendly voice. He also realised how far away from the group he had been in the last few weeks of travel. He had never felt on less sure footing as in the Underdark, and he knew just how much this had affected him.
“Well, it will be all of our burden to bear if someone dies because of an act of folly like Valdasar’s today.” Ilia sighed, “Let’s hope you’re right. We can’t afford to mess around when we encounter your beholder.”
Ilia was hardly surprised at Eran’s next question. He knew it was coming, yet he still wasn’t quite prepared for it. For a flicker of a moment, he wanted to say, “No, I’m not okay. I’m losing control. I hear the screams of the dying.” He wanted to look earnestly at Eran and confide in him. But, no sooner had he grasped these thoughts, than they slipped from his mind and were replaced by something else.
He responded coolly, “I’m fine. Just feeling the wear and tear of the Underdark.” He made to change the subject, “I’ve been making us some drow disguises. Not much work needed, a few minor adjustments to the drow clothes we found and some appropriate paperwork, should we need it in Menzoberranzan.” He paused, “Should we go over the plan for the beholder?”
The ranger could sympathise with Ilia about that, he couldn’t imagine any surface dweller ever feeling comfortable down here. Perhaps Ilia’s distance of late had been his way of dealing with it, he knew the elf was having issues with his mind being manipulated so often during the start of their journey.
As he continued it was good to hear that the rogue had regained his focus. “Disguises! That’s well considered.” He had not thought about their eventual infiltration of Menzoberranzan as of yet. Truly it was the rogue’s realm of expertise and it seemed like he’d been giving it some forethought. “Have you had any ideas on how to get into House Beanre?”
When the wood elf asked about Karazikar again another chill ran through his spine. The sense of being watched remained. “Yes… but not out in the open.” He considered their location for a moment. The troglodytes had lived here, food and water must be abundant. It seemed a good location for a base camp. They would have to do something about the bodies however. “We’re getting close, this would be a good camp and fallback position in case things go wrong.” he said calmly to the elf. Considering the possible outcomes, he recalled that he had seen Duon with a number of slaves and that this would also be a good place to bring them if they managed to liberate them. Eran dare not think of the alternative.
Ilia Ferrelle Ilia
Ilia could see the concerned look in Eran’s eyes and for a moment he felt like a prisoner: trapped and screaming out for help, but eliciting no response. And then the thought was gone.
“Not as such. I will speak to Lady Lael, I suspect she will provide a number of valuable insights that will be of use,” he pondered. “It will be tricky getting us all in – but necessary I think. And I suspect there will be little room for error. I could easily adopt the guise of a guard or servant and arouse little suspicion, but I don’t speak the language, which could become a problem. Lael would be best, of course, as a drow and an obvious authority figure but her… principles… may put us all at risk. And don’t forget we must save Lara.”
Ilia turned to look straight at Eran, scanning for any hint of expression. “Well, when you wish to talk about Karazikar, please find me. I am keen – as I’m sure you are – that we make this hunt as efficient as possible,” Ilia hesitated for a second, carefully choosing his words, “It has not passed me by the fresh torment you must have suffered since you discovered the identity of our target and, of course, your father’s existence…“ He looked sincerely at Eran, aware that he had neglected their friendship when Eran quite possibly needed it most, “I should have approached you sooner… I can only imagine how difficult it has all been for you. Forgive me.” He lowered his head in shame.
Lara, the hostage they had agreed to save. With all that was going on he had almost overlooked getting her out of Menzoberranzan. It was a blessing that under the assassin’s dark attire was a truly altruistic person at times. He knew their plans in Menzoberranzan were better left to him and Lael. Eran would keep his focus within his talents, the hunt.
Ilia proved again his good nature with his apology. Eran had not expected it, or required it. He was used to dealing with his inner pains alone. Yet he had asked and it filled him with reassurance that the elf was there regardless. He then felt guilty for not doing the same. “There is nothing to forgive my friend. You’ve had troubles of your own and it is me that should have come to you, I’m sorry. In regards to my father…” He let out a long sigh, the tension he’d been holding for days flushed out of him.
“Honestly Ilia I don’t know what to feel. I’d already accepted his death, grieved for him, became my own man in his absence. To suddenly be told he is alive, it feels like a dream or a lie. A non-reality that could only be broken when we are face to face. Even then should it be joy I feel… or shame?” The hunter was flushed with sadness. The recent conflict had begun to catch up with him. His eyes reddened. “I left him… me and Oz fled and left him, for seven years! He may not even be the same person anymore… he…” Eran stopped. The emotions had taken over but he pulled himself under control. Not here! He could not drop his guard here.
He composed himself and faced his friend once again. “I thank you for you friendship Ilia.” He looked the elf in the eyes. “If I don’t make it out of there… I know you’ll see it done.”
Ilia Ferrelle Ilia
Ilia listened quietly and sympathetically to Eran, it was suddenly clear just how much he had bottled up inside. Ilia had never seen such an outburst from Eran, the hunter who had always been level-headed, always pragmatic. It was obvious just how much he loved and respected this man, that he was desperate to find him and terrified of just what he would find. It was evident he needed to talk this out.
But just as quickly as it had begun, it had ended. Eran composed himself and his stream of questions and concerns were replaced by his familiar, pragmatic demeanour. A door had been shut on this subject for now.
With a heartfelt, reassuring smile Ilia responded, “Of course, friend. I will do everything in my power to end this and get your father out alive. You have my word.” A silence stood between them for a moment. Ilia tried to lighten the mood, “There’s never a secret tavern, hidden from the eyes of Lolth, when you need one, eh?”
He turned to Eran, a hand on his shoulder, “We should speak more later. In the meantime, I have seen your surveyor’s eye assessing this place for a camp. It will need some clearing I suspect,” He turned to the bodies littered around them, “Anyway, I will leave you to your craft. Come get me when you need to clean this place up. In the meantime I will talk to Lady Lael.”
Eran nodded in gratitude. He couldn’t say much more, but as Ilia began to walk away he spoke. “Thank you Ilia. If our roles were reversed, if this was your master, be assured I would do the same."
Standing amidst the fallen bodies of the troglodyte warriors, Raddan cast a glance at the odd longsword one of them had carried, its bearer likely a leader of some kind judging from his posturing before the battle. After a quick scan to satisfy himself that the area was secure, the sorcerer bent to examine the weapon. The design was unusual enough to pique his curiosity and with it, his suspicion. Running his eye over the blade, he quickly noted the similarities with drow design. Having yet to touch the weapon, Raddan sought out the one drow present.
“Lael, you mind taking a look at this?” He gestured to the sword in a manner that bespoke the need for caution, the discussion regarding Ilia’s weapon still fresh in his mind. “Looks to be drow forged, can you make anything of it? I don’t know enough of your kind and your customs, would the weapon have markings, maybe indicating the owner’s House?” Moving a pace away to give the paladin some room, Raddan stared thoughtfully at the corpses surrounding them. “These kinds of creatures don’t usually get their hands on blades as fine as this,” he muttered, almost to himself. “Leavings from the beholder’s lair perhaps?”
Letting Ilia go Eran approached Valdasar and Loic; the wizard had now perched himself apparently awaiting some course of action. As he did he looked around, searching the shadows, expecting to see something watching from within. He spoke to Valdasar first. “I trust you are unharmed?” He saw no point in berating the old dragon any further. He just wanted to be sure he was okay.
Then he addressed the pair of them. “I might just be getting paranoid but I can’t shift the sense of being watched." As he said it, he glanced around once again. “We’re close, probably within his domain already. This location has food, water and can be fortified, it’s also a good distance from the purple worm nest. I suggest we make a hunting outpost here, use it as a fallback position in case things go wrong." He looked around once more. “Obviously we’ll need to clear up the bodies, scout and secure the nearby caves." He looked again at Valdasar.
“Additionally, I saw my father with a number of other slaves.” Eran was being careful not to use his father’s name. “I’m not sure what condition or state of mind they will be in when we find them. Having a location close by where they can be safe and well fed also seems wise to me.” He was sure he didn’t want these half starved slaves tagging along when they encountered the purple worm nest. “However I’m not as practiced in the art of healing as yourself and would value any insights you could give.” He valued the Cleric’s opinions but also thought it would be good to set his mind to task, rather than have him dwell on recent events.
When Eran approached, rattling off a list of things to do, Loic snapped his fingers at his shield giant and pointed at the sea of corpses. The behemoth mechanism began to move, scooping up a pair of troglodytes and walking over to the waterfall pit, where it unceremoniously dropped them down. It proceeded to pick two more up and do the same. If the wizard remembered correctly, there was a small whirlpool down there that could potentially take the dead far away.
Loic inhaled like he was about to speak, but then it seemed like the hunter was onto the next thing, speaking intently to Valdasar. At some point, he would try to ask Eran if it was too late to work on the plan. If they were being watched, they may have to backtrack, just a little, to hold that conversation. He was still confused regarding what his role would be in all of it, and as he continued to think about it, he thought he might just stay out of it completely if his skills were seen as undesired. If Eran did have any ideas about what he could be doing – that wasn’t busy work – then he would surely want to hear it.
When the state of the minds of Karaziker’s slaves came into question, Loic also noted he would have to tell Eran that his ability to meld with other minds could provide some aid for such things as post-traumatic stress. It would have to be a repeated procedure, but he felt that it was possible to help his father sort out again what was real and what were fabrications. He could also help him, in a way, find his true self again by taking him back into the former workings of his brain, very much the same way a body repairs itself by assessing the DNA code and adhering to it in the afflicted spot. Definitely worth a try for a loved one.
But he wasn’t the one being asked at the moment, and he remained bored of everyone telling him that he talked too much. If they disliked his tendency to give them additional options, then they didn’t have to have them. At least, not this very moment. If time passed and they missed their chance, so be it. He’d simply prioritize himself and Lael getting out alive. The rest could do as they pleased.
Loic yawned and absently looked down at Peet, who had made himself comfortable in the wizard’s lap. He ran his hand down the basilisk’s spiny back and slipped into a cozy daydream.
“What a tragic waste…” Lael muttered under her breath. Whether or not it was about her botched attempt to glean lizard meat from the fallen beats, or the senseless slaughter of the privative savages was not clear. Perhaps both, or neither. The paladin sat atop her mount once again and glared beneath her helm. She had not enjoyed witnessing that, the sour taste of their victory made worse by Eran’s partaking of sport with the killing of the last survivor. Gold had exchanged hands for that shot and it was repulsive.
She sat silently affixed in her place for some time as the others moved about, chatting idly to themselves, when the feeling of being watched descended upon her. Being a drow of the surface made one accustomed to such feelings. Lael closed her eyes, trying to gain a sense of where the feeling came from but this was strange, it came from everywhere and yet nowhere.
It was Raddan who disturbed her, with his rude and disrespectful request of her. How was she supposed to present these brutes to her matron grandmother, if they couldn’t even manage the basics of propriety. Perhaps offering safe haven within her house was not the right plan.
Irritably, she stuck out her arm to take the sword.