After the second attack on the merchant party headed towards Bargewright, smoke still rises from the burned out wagon and merchants whisper to each other over their loss. The Keepers assist the guards with burying the dead and moving the injured. Alatar approaches Commander Haelor, asking to speak privately. They walk over to the other side of the road away from any curious ears. The elf places a finger on his Harpers pin, “I assume you’ve seen this, by all rights I should not even be here. But over the past fifteen days, I have come to respect you all…when the caravan was attacked, I saw your bravery and fighting, perhaps the Zhentarim are not as evil as I had been led to believe.” He pauses and shifts his weight to look the commander in the eyes, “I have reason to believe that this caravan might come under attack.” Haelor inquires about who and how the elf might know these things. Without hesitation, he replies, “Do not ask me to divulge my sources, I am already betraying them enough.” Haelor nods in understanding, “Perhaps you would be able to talk them down.” The two conclude their conversation with words of a shared goal, that the caravan arrive safely at Bargewright. Security around the wagons will be increased for the handful of days that remain, men will go without sleep in favor of vigilance.
Across the camp, the paladin prays to the Maimed God for safety. The dwarf questions her faith in the dead insisting that death changes people. Traelle raises an eyebrow, challenging him, “Death changes the living, not the dead.” Their exchange is brief, but Drakthal does not seem to understand the paladin’s point of view. Alatar returns to their side and asks about the leader of the bandits. Traelle’s face darkens, “That man was there that day in my village, the man on horseback.” The elf nods, “I am sorry we were not able to slay him.” “It is something that she must do…” mumbles Drakthal. A silence falls over them before the dwarf boasts about the size of his tent and Traelle scoffs and returns to her own tent. He remarks to Alatar, “I’m tired of her righteous bullshit.” The elf smiles and pats him on the back as they retire to their own tents. The rest of the evening is quiet for all but the owls in the distance and the wind rustling the trees.
Morning light wakes the camp to continue on, and the travelers pack up. A lone tent remains up nearby where the monk had slept. Drakthal goes in to wake her and finds the bedroll empty, only a note sitting atop the blanket. He unfolds the parchment and takes it to the others to read it aloud:
Dear Friends, Keepers of the Realm,
It is with a heavy heart that I must take my leave. There is not much time for me to explain, but I promise you that matters that I must attend to are not to be taken lightly. I believe the seriousness of this matter will have detrimental effects on our realm and our mission if not attended to as soon as possible. The Grandmaster has called me back to the monastery to perform my sacred duty as part of the Order of the Rose. I must go, take care of one another.
Til we meet again,
The dwarf remains suspicious of the letter and dismisses the monk’s disappearance, “She did not seem to like me much anyways.” Traelle interjects, “Perhaps this carries weight, and they could use her elsewhere.” She looks down at her arm, attempting to flex the injured muscle. Drakthal asks if she’s tried any spells on the wound, she shakes her head. The caravan begins moving forward and they follow. The hours pass slowly with a thick air of paranoia. Alatar sits in a wagon, gloomily writing a letter. Later that evening when all the wagons are parked and the tents are once again raised, Alatar speaks with Traelle about his worries near the campfire. “Rinn has put me in a completely awful position, where I will betray her or betray my faction…and I’m trying to play both sides.” The dwarf sits down beside him, “You know, you could have said noth’n.” Alatar shakes his head, “No, I couldn’t. Because they would know, they would find out.” His eyes reflect the flames as he looks into the campfire, “It would have been worse if they found out and I had said nothing after we so epicly failed at Sacred Stone.” The guilt of their failure in the north still lingers over the Keepers even after weeks passing. Rinn is the only one who has managed to speak to Kline since that day in the throne room, and because of this, it remains a sharp moment in their minds. They go to bed that night under the stars, so close to Bargewright, so close to finishing their mission.
Rinn is at the castle on this night, wandering the halls out of boredom. Her footsteps make little sound across the stone floors though she has no worries about being stopped by any guards. A faint whisper causes her to stop and look back. The torchlights illuminate the halls well enough to show anyone who could be following her. There is no one there. Before she can take a step, the gruff voice of Drakthal fills her mind.
“Alatar has betrayed you. The Harpers know of the mission. Alatar then betrayed his own faction by telling the leader. More information when we arrive.”
Rinn thinks for a moment before replying, "Betrayal at this point in our mission will do nothing but harm us all. I trusted him as a close friend, I will need to pray about what to do.” She turns on her heel and heads back to Kline’s room. Inside, he still sleeps. This will only make things worse for us all. Faction troubles and in-fighting. She perches on his desk and pulls her legs up to cross them. There is nothing to do but pray now. She knows she is lying to herself about this, as her hand itches for her dagger. It’s easy to be solitary, it is foolish to burn all your bridges.
The next day on the road to Bargewright, there is another attack on the wagons. This time it is by men mounted on large birds much like those of Feathergale Spire. Only one merchant is killed, but it is enough to satisfy the riders as they abandon the caravan. It takes a few more hours before Bargewright comes into view. As the shape of the shanty-walled city rises down the road, Commander Haelor calls the caravan to a halt and goes forward to investigate something. The Keepers remain with the wagons and travelers for a few minutes before Haelor returns with a scroll and hands it to Alatar along with a handful of Harpers pins. His eyes run over the page….
The commander calls to his men to continue on to Bargewright, and the wagons lurch forward once more. Three bloody bodies hang from the bough of a tree with arrows sticking out through the sides of their heads. The corpses swing gently from side to side, lifeless eyes staring out at the Keepers as they pass. Alatar hands the letter over to show Traelle and Drakthal. The elf’s actions have already had repercussions, and there is promise of more. The dwarf appears contemplative, while the paladin keeps her expression stoic. When the caravan easily moves through the gate, the commander thanks them for their time and asks them to inform Rinn that she will not be getting the promotion within the Zhentarim.
Inside the city, the familiar muddy streets seem unchanged. The tower where Inglor was struck down is now locked, the Swords still patrol the streets with Chalaska as their lead. The only noticeable difference is Nalaskar’s inn, which now has a tavern room. Traelle stops by the jail to say hello to Chalaska before joining her companions at the bar. They sip at their ale and discuss where to go next. After finishing a second round of ale, the three request rooms for the night. Behind the desk of the inn, Nalaskar stands beside the ledger. His eyes fall on the dwarf as he asks for payment up-front this time. Before Traelle goes to her room, she tells the others, “We are but a short walk from Summit Hall. I wish to return there.” She gives the two men a stern look, “There are no paladins to make you feel uneasy this time, and I feel like there is something there for me.” Drakthal is uninterested in Summit Hall, noting that there is nothing there for him. Alatar rolls his eyes at the dwarf’s protests, and encourages him to go too. Their exchange is awkward but ends with nods of agreement to set out for the fallen keep at first light.
Earlier that afternoon, Rinn walked through the busy streets towards the Shrine of the Raven Queen. Her mind still turning over the betrayal of a friend. The voice of Drakthal drifts to her ear once again.
“Three Harper's dead when we arrived at Bargewright. The King's doing. A product of Alatar’s betrayal. Speak with the king. More information as we go.”
The Shadar-kai pulls her cloak hood closer to cover the smirk spreading across her face. She feels some satisfaction in this news, but it is still not enough. After all of the time spent together, she questions why she ever trusted the others at all. Hardship after hardship, games and ale at the table. I have never wronged any of them. Any lies I told were for their peace of mind or privacy of another. Every Zhentarim knows the power of secrets. Rinn pauses before approaching the altar at the shrine, and replies to the pirate.
"I will speak with him about it. I hope you are all finding yourselves safe besides this. Know that Kline returned alive. Our merchant friend brought him back to consciousness. There is much to discuss upon your return."
She kneels to pray, deciding to stay longer than usual. My Lady, there has been more trouble at every turn. How do I maintain faith in my companions? We have made it this far, there is no turning back. Once Rinn concludes her time at the shrine, she heads out to Glassmoor to deal with the trade money that is due to arrive from Westerhold. Taranath and the others keeping the manor in order need to be paid, and the what is left over needs to be hidden somewhere. When she arrives, Taranath divides up the funds and leaves the remaining gold for the rogue. That is too much to carry around the city…. She looks around the house for a clever place to hide it for now. As she glances through Alatar’s door, she spots the piano. She runs her hand along the keys at the right end, causing the hammers to move on the interior of the instrument. Good enough for now. She pours eight hundred gold into the frame of the piano and shuts the lid. We’re going to need that vault sooner than later. For a moment, she considers running her sword along the length of the piano before changing her mind. Too pretty a thing to ruin.
Rinn stays the night in her room on the third floor, but wakes early to return to the city. On her way back to the castle, she stops by Gilmore’s shop briefly. The shopkeeper asks how Kline is doing, apologizing, “I’m sorry I could do nothing for the wing.” Rinn keeps her reply short, “He’s still sleeping. And again, thank you for what you could do.” She promises that they will speak again when the rest of the Keepers return to Wyrmwood, hoping that he will be included in future aid.
Three tendays journey away, the others continue to the ruins of Summit Hall on horseback and celestial steed. It takes four days to reach the bridge that leads to the spot where the red flags of the Knights of Samuelar once stood. Seeing the keep reduced to a hill of rubble weighs heavy on the paladin as the group comes to a stop. Traelle dismounts and begins looking around, “We need to find some entry to the catacombs beneath the ruins…” Dust and fallen walls, stones lay in disarray. They find a hatch that leads down to a door, likely below the room Ushien Stormbanner would have occupied when the walls still stood. Opening the door leads into darkness, Traelle leads Drakthal and Alatar inside. The drift globe hovers above the elf’s hand, lighting their way along the endless rows of skeletal remains. It smells of death, musty from years of only occasional entry to add another body to the tomb. Winding through the corridors, the Keepers come to a door engraved with the name, Samuelar Cardoon.
Some time is spent staring at the door, perhaps in weariness or nerves for lacking their rogue. Alatar backs away from the door as Traelle attempts to unlock it. Drakthal believes that forcing it down will not work out well, “I don’t want to die today.” Alatar hands the Harpers pins to Drakthal to fashion into a lockpick. The sounds of one of the pins snapping off in the door reverberates in the hallway, just before the door creaks open.
Inside sits an ornate sarcophagus at the end of the room, marked by a symbol with antlers. Boxes are arranged around the room without design. Traelle opens the sarcophagus, expecting to find more than dust inside. The lid slides open and sprays the room with an acidic mist. They all cover their mouths trying not to breathe the mist, but there is no way to avoid it in such a small space. After some coughing, and frustrated mutterings, they continue to explore the room. Traelle walks forward and examines one of the boxes, lifting the lid to see what it might hold. A clattering noise bursts behind them as a gate falls to the floor, blocking the only visible exit in the room. The paladin looks down into the box, empty. Drakthal feels for a lever within the sarcophagus, and the stone pulls back across the floor revealing another room below.
Down a set of stairs, another sarcophagus stands, plain and unadorned. Inside lay the body of Samuelar himself, only bones remaining. A book and Renwick’s phylactery sit beside the skeleton of Summit Hall’s founder. Traelle excitedly grabs for the glowing talisman, bringing it out too quickly. It falls to the floor, shattering. A shriek echoes down the corridor as the light fades from the item. A wide-eyed Drakthal looks to Alatar and then Traelle, “Is he dead?” The paladin covers her face in shame and lets out a huff. She resigns herself to begin searching for a way out of the tomb.
Each of them examine the gate, sensing a magic within its iron. It is unaffected by pushing, pulling, fire and force arrows. The walls give no signs of weakness, and the dirt beneath their feet is too hard packed to dig through. As Alatar and Drakthal continue trying to break down the gate, Traelle reads the tome from the plain sarcophagus. The pages are filled with the history of the Order, druids, and their connections to the Feywild. The darkness of the catacombs blurs the passage of time, and the Keepers soon find themselves exhausted.
It has been four days since Rinn has heard from Drakthal, and she has begun to wonder what is taking them so long to send another message. Perhaps he would let me know when they are on their way back, or at least if they were in trouble. Once again, she sits at the Raven Queen shrine to ponder Alatar’s betrayal. The King did not seem decided on further punishment. Would he really kill the elf? Kline’s threat at the Keepers first meeting comes to her mind, ‘an arrow through your skull.’ Rinn opens her eyes and rises to leave. That was before he knew any of us….yet isn’t that what makes this hurt more? We each have our differences but we were a team, almost a family. This cuts deeper because it is so close to the heart. She returns to the castle, ascending the stairs towards Kline’s room again. When she reaches the door, she stops and places her hand on the wood. This isn’t going to be my decision. I won’t be the one giving his punishment, but I will be there to see it. Quietly, she opens the door and peeks inside before stepping in. Everything is still in the same place and ‘the man in the bed’ as the King called him, is unmoved. Rinn takes off her weapons and armor, as if removing the weight of them would lighten a burden. She plops herself onto the side of the bed and curls against Kline, “What more to tell you when you wake?…more bad news.” Later that night she is awoken by the pirate’s voice once more,
“We have made it to Summit Hall. Traelle destroyed the phylactery and now we are trapped within the catacombs. Please send aid.”
Rinn opens her eyes and sighs, “Send aid….send aid? Do they forget how far away they are?” She rubs her face in frustration before replying,"You all should stop by the shrine of luck on your journey back. I will ask for aid but I don't know if you can survive long enough."
She resolves to go ask for some kind of help in the morning. I could really use good news at some point. She goes back to sleep, praying that her companions can get themselves out of the catacombs.
Beneath the ruins of Summit Hall, the walls feel as though they are creeping in on the Keepers trapped by the gate. Time passes at an unknown pace, and there seems to be no escape. Alatar has become twitchy and continues searching for a way out, while Traelle and Drakthal page through the druid tome. The dwarf is able to conjure food and water for them every evening to sustain them all as they slowly lose hope. The elf shares his tales of the Underdark, stories of fire and terror. They guess that it must be day four or five, but cannot be sure. Dice are rolled, prayers are said, and time continues to pass.
The clinking of chain mail and footsteps wake the Keepers. Traelle approaches the gate as a tall figure moves forward. His face remains in shadow as he speaks, “Grave robbers?” The paladin admits that they have disturbed the grave, but only in hopes of learning more about her oath. The man asks if Traelle knew his mother before Summit Hall fell, and she nods. “Ushien Stormbanner, yes she invited us to stay but…” Her regret is visible as she tells him of the need for the Keepers to leave Summit Hall so quickly, to continue after the missing delegation. He looks to the boxes and the open stairway to the lower tomb before asking about the phylactery. Traelle's expression appears grim as she tells the son of Stormbanner that the item has broken. He places a hand on the gate and lets out a pained sigh, “My great great grandfather….”
The tension in the catacombs is alleviated as the man speaks an incantation to raise the gate, “You are very lucky that I came down here when I noticed the hatch was open. There is a miasma that flows through every ten days to protect the dead from vermin and robbers. Tomorrow would have been the tenth day of the cycle.” The three Keepers follow the man out and into the bright daylight. Filling their lungs with fresh air for the first time in days, feeling greatly relieved to be alive. They tell him that they must journey back to Wyrmwood if there is nothing left here within Summit Hall’s chambers. Traelle turns to ask the man for his name, and he replies, “When you return to Wyrmwood, tell the King you met Jarill the Dragoon.” A platinum dragon rises up beside them and he steps over to mount the beast. His face remains serious, he nods and rises into the sky to fly away. The three Keepers watch Jarill disappear into the clouds, Traelle looking a little flushed. Drakthal looks over for his warhorse and grabs its reins. Alatar nods to the dwarf, “Let Rinn know that we’ve made it out and are headed back to Wyrmwood.” A few minutes later, Drakthal receives a short reply from the Shadar-kai,"Hurry back, we have much to discuss. Glad to hear that some of you aren't dead."
As Traelle, Drakthal, and Alatar make their way back to the city, Rinn is at Glassmoor dealing with an incident on the road. A disheveled-looking human arrives at the door, “I g’t robbed long the way—but there’s still quite a bit ‘er.” Taranath takes the gold inside and divides it into different stacks across the dining table. Rinn watches as he clinks the coins together, “We need two thousand gold aside to finance the roads…that should improve the presence of bandits, right? What’s left after you and your workers have been paid?” The elf finishes his count and hands her a sack of two hundred gold. Feeling insecure about her placement of the existing eight hundred gold in Alatar’s room, Rinn dashes up the stairs to be sure that it is still undisturbed. Same as before…perhaps I’ll keep this bag on me for now. Her thoughts are interrupted by Drakthal’s voice once more, informing her that they have reached the edge of the city and to meet at the castle.
She makes her way into the city, passing the busy marketplaces and taverns of early evening. What do I say? Welcome back… Her pace quickens as she thinks it over, finally arriving at the throne room where the King looks over a handful of documents. He looks up over his papers as she removes her hood. “They’ve made it back to the city. We are to meet here.” Bronzehammer glances to his guards on either side of the room, then down to Rinn, “Stay here.” She complies without a word as they wait for the others to arrive.
It’s been at least an hour and I’m growing more impatient for their return. This trip should not have taken so much time. Damned catacombs are bad luck. I hear the door creak open and glance over my shoulder to see each of their faces. Traelle looks somewhat defeated, likely because of whatever occurred at Summit Hall. The pirate looks satisfied as ever, eye-patch scuffed and beard hanging over his belly. The elf… I turn away. But wait, where is Thorun? What happened while I stayed behind?
The King notices Thorun’s absence as well, “You’re missing one. One of you kill her?” Traelle is quick to answer no, she had been summoned away by the Grandmaster of Flowers. I remember the old man’s stern face, the way he looked at Thorun like an insect. For her to be recalled now must be serious. My mind returns to the present, the tone in Bronzehammer’s voice says something is coming. Will he kill Alatar? He never gave me a real answer when we spoke days before. I stay on the far side of the room, standing closest to Traelle.
The King points to Alatar, “Do you all wish to have him continue with you? Do you know what he did?” The paladin nods, and Drakthal interjects, “He betrayed us. Came to his senses and betrayed his own faction.” I can feel the King’s eyes traveling across each of us, and I don’t want to speak. This is not a situation I expected to be in. The paladin agrees with the pirate, “He has saved my skin more than once in battle, I trust him.” It is true, he has been reliable in battle. There were many nights of darts, dice, and ale. Of the others, he was my closest friend. I carried his letters of secrets he wished to burn away. I prayed to bring him back from death….and I warned him that to be reborn was a gift not to be wasted. Did he awake from his death changed?
Bronzehammer looks me in the eyes, “And you? You suffered the most?” I do not even hear myself as I speak, “Perhaps I will cut his tongue out lest he do it again.” I can’t look back at them now. The King tilts his head, “Funny you should say that.” I watch him rise from the throne and walk over to one of the braziers to pick up a rod. This is his punishment. Two guards hold Alatar’s arm back as the King moves forward, “Stick out your tongue.” He complies and the room echoes with his screams. I should feel more satisfied, but I don’t. These are the screams of someone I cared for, my friend. In this moment I resolve to push it away and be cold. Perhaps he will try to explain himself, perhaps death changed him…..
The others look pained at the branding, and I wonder how they can still hold such trust for the elf. I am glad that I had not told him more. Traelle tries to go to support him as he falls forward on the floor before guards bar her way. Bronzehammer speaks again, “There is no magic that will remove that. I’m going to tell you one last time. If you divulge any information that puts these Keepers in any harm again, if I find out that you talk about this mission…send a letter, anything. I will kill you myself and it will be agonizing.” His eyes darken as he continues, “Worse than this, worse than any pain you’ve ever felt, worse than anything a Drow could ever do to you. You understand?” The elf makes a muffled noise and nods. The King looks over us, “These three don’t have the final say anyways, the man in the bed does.” I remember that they don’t know how long Kline has been asleep, only that he returned alive. My mind swims with mixed emotions, not knowing what he will say when he wakes. Have we not already disappointed him enough? Traelle says something to the King about a dragoon, but I do not pay enough attention to see his reaction. The guards show us out into the hall moments later.
Traelle is visibly shaken by Alatar’s punishment and mumbles something about going to pray at her shrine, so I follow. Perhaps we can talk on the way there, or not. Drakthal wanders off to the docks for the Keepers’ Oath as we depart for the Shrine of Tyr. The sky is dark now, as I wait for her outside. When she is done I inform her of the courier robbery, and the hiding place of our leftover gold. I implore her about our need for a vault. Our conversation quiets, then she brings up what I expected. “The Zhentarim will not be giving you a promotion…” I nod, this is no surprise. The questions spill out of me as I push the disaster of a caravan away. What of Thorun? How did you all escape the catacombs of Summit Hall? Was there anything there? How in the hell did you accidentally kill the lich? Anything to stop thinking about the branding, the screams.
Drakthal rejoins us and I tell them about Kline’s return through the portal, the rock creature, and Gilmore’s assistance. Alatar follows behind us but I do not acknowledge him. The day has been long and I try to keep my voice steady, “He has been asleep the entire time you have been gone…whatever he encountered, ripped one of his wings off.” The words leave my mouth like a knife, “So the good news is that everyone is alive, and the bad news is Alatar’s a fucking traitor.” I can feel his eyes on my back as we walk. Traelle tries to calm me by bringing up how reliable the ranger has been, how he has protected us time and again. I remember the too-tight armor in the north and almost smile. The redhead continues to place her faith in Alatar’s actions rather than his words. She must not understand how words can change things. I don’t want to discuss it any further on this night, “I expect more from my friends. I thought we were close.” Drakthal asks if I will kill the elf, and I think back to my apologies to the Raven Queen for raising him. “It is better to remind him what he has done…” I can’t believe that they are dismissing his actions so easily. I won’t kill him. I will let his actions eat him from the inside for now.
Traelle speaks again, “All beings are entitled to the redemption of the light, I am sure that Alatar will continue to lend us his aid.” I wonder how many times she will say this. He’s going to have to prove himself over and over again to earn back my trust.” That is all I can give. We all separate to our faction houses to check in, or in my case, apologize for the indiscretion. We agreed to meet at Eastgate before leaving the city for the manor. There is enough time to stop by to pray again. I ask the Raven Queen if she wishes the elf dead. My dagger glows a purple hue, an unclear answer from what I know of her. I leave to meet everyone at Eastgate, finding only Traelle. She curses their time in the catacombs blurring her memory. We make our way towards Northgate to leave for Glassmoor. There is no sign of Drakthal or the elf as we mount the paladin’s celestial axebeak and ride forward. Not thirty minutes pass before Alatar comes into view riding with a smoking body slung across the back of Drakthal’s warhorse. It takes me a second to realize that the body is Drakthal, and he looks badly burned. More worries in a sea of trouble, we turn and follow the elf back into the city in hopes of anything going our way.