Disclaimer: I do not own 'Baldur's Gate', the 'Forgotten Realms' or any characters therein. Wizards of the Coast do, at my last check. Lucky them.
I do, however, own Fritha and certain other characters and plot points. Basically, if you don't recognise it from the game, it's probably mine.
Thank you to everyone got this far, especially to those of you who took the time to review. And lastly, thanks to my beta, Drew, who put up with the tantrums and my unreasonable demands for literary critic ("Nice? What do you mean it's nice?") with his usual good-humour.
– Blackcross & Taylor
Fritha lay on her back watching high cotton-wisp clouds change overhead. The sea was a dark iron grey that morning, mirroring the sky and her feelings in a way that was almost comforting. That first night on the ship she had been aware of nothing, sobbing in the hold until she had fallen asleep, and the next day or so were spent much the same, lain on her cloak in the gloom, drifting somewhere between sleep and consciousness. But the constant fretting of the others finally drove her from her bed and the last couple of days had seemed timeless, Fritha just spending her days on deck, sometimes crying but mostly just sat, staring out at a world that felt distant and unreal. She turned slightly to catch a glimpse of the land that seemed to grow larger and more defined every time she saw it. They were due in Ulgoth's Beard that evening, would deliver the papers to Mendas and then it would all be over, the whole affair just another memory. Just like so many others.
Was there even a difference anymore, between the ones that she killed and the ones that just died because of her?
She sprang up suddenly, marching smartly to the prow as though to leave those thoughts where she had lain. Just stood there, the ship rolling beneath her, eyes fixed on the dark land of the horizon as the wind whipped her hair about her in a storm of copper.
It would be a mass of knots later when she went to comb it through…
She crumpled down where she stood, suddenly unable to muster the energy to even stand as another wave of misery threatened to engulf her. Pulling her knees to her chest, her eyes fell on the bag that lay next to her on the smooth deck, the stem of belladonna still entwined about the strap, brown and crumbling-
And dead… Just like-
She glanced up, quickly turning away again as she felt the tears fall, Dynaheir just a blur in the cabin hatch.
'Child… would thou like something to eat? Or drink perhaps? Jaheira hath prepared some tea…'
Fritha shook her head; she had not eaten for days and they all knew it, but what was hunger now? Rations had been limited, the ship only carrying the supplies Kaishas had stowed and what they had brought with them, and there had seemed little point in wasting them.
But the mage did not leave at her refusal, walking over to sit gracefully beside her with a sigh. Unconcerned, it seemed, by the rolling of the ship, though she looked a little pale.
'I know how such things can hurt, child. But this will help nothing.'
Fritha said nothing, and after a moment the woman continued, her eyes looking out to the horizon, distant and sad.
'When I was but a girl, before I joined the Wychlaran, there was a boy on the neighbouring farm, Karov, who I did love-'
'I did not love him.'
'Fritha… child…' Dynaheir said softly, turning to her, the woman's full lips pressed into a thin pale line.
But Fritha ignored her, shaking her head. She did not love him, she could not have, and no one was going to convince her otherwise.
'What of you and Karov?'
Dynaheir watched her face a moment longer before sighing, a shadow passing across her eyes.
'He- he went out to gather the herds from the hills one day, to bring them down to lower pastures for the winter, he never returned.'
'I am sorry,' Fritha said finally, and she was too; though she was no less pained by her own grief, she should not forget others had lost too.
Dynaheir smiled slightly, laying a gentle hand upon her knee.
'I know it seems endless, child, as though thou will mourn forever. But time will pass and thy heart shall heal.'
Fritha shrugged indifferently, turning her gaze back to the sea, not sure she much cared if it did or not. One day of happiness had been transformed into something she felt she could easily lament for the rest of time; she didn't think much of the trade.
Imoen pulled her cloak about her more tightly and shifted further back into the hatchway to find shelter from the stiff breeze, watching in the lamplight as Minsc and Jaheira adjusted the sails, Khalid at the rudder. Neither their shouts nor the cool dusk air doing anything to stir the girl stood at the opposite end of the deck, her eyes fixed on the horizon as the boat sailed slowly into Ulgoth's Cove.
Imoen closed her eyes as another gust of wind swept about her, bringing a splash of icy spray with it. Dynaheir had left to speak with Fritha that morning but had returned soon after, alone and discouraged, and the group was still discussing what was to be done an hour later when, out of the blue, Fritha had appeared on the ladder, walking over to causally sit down next to Minsc and ask if anyone had anything she could eat. Imoen had been sure that her appearance was a sign she was feeling better and had tried to speak with her once everyone had stopped offering her food, but it was not the same as it had been.
Fritha had talked readily, had even smiled now and then, and not great false beaming smiles either, but slight ones that came through her sadness rather than tried to mask it. And yet, something still hung between them, something Imoen couldn't quite put her finger on. She watched her friend now, stood gazing out from the prow as usual, barely more than a silhouette in the twilight. They had both seen much during those past few months and grown because of it. But this last episode had aged Fritha beyond her reaching and Imoen knew that their relationship would never quite be the same again.
The girl sighed, letting her gaze drift past her friend to the docks that were now just visible, her eyes catching on a rippling green shape, which grew more defined with every moment until the realisation struck her. It was Mendas.
How he knew they would be arriving then, she could not fathom, but there he was, stood on the wharf, the breeze pulling at his robes as he waited for them to dock. He caught the rope Khalid threw to him, tying it to one of the many rings that lined the quay and waiting anxiously for them to drop and descend the gangplank. He stared about at them all and Imoen could see questions burning behind his eyes though he seemed to master himself at the last moment.
'I see you have returned; I had not expected you back so soon.'
'We have journals and artefacts from the wreck,' began Jaheira, holding out a bound sample of the documents, 'and also an account of Balduran and what became of his final voyage.'
But the man merely stared down at the journals she proffered him, his look unreadable.
'Indeed… no doubt you have much to report, pray come to my home that we may discuss such in peace.'
They followed him along the docks, skirting the outside of the village to come to a small hut just on the edge of the boundary, its windows bright and welcoming and somehow filling Imoen with an even greater sense of dread. If Mendas was a scholar, he was unlike one she had ever met. The sages in Candlekeep would have been falling over themselves to get their hands on anything to do with their line of research and the man's indifference was unnerving. She glanced to Fritha to see if she had noticed too, but the girl was giving no more away than he; her face expressionless beneath her hood.
'Here we are,' a voice ahead called out and Imoen turned back just in time to be ushered inside, the door opening straight onto the main room and she could not help but stop and stare about her. The room was almost bare barring two rickety old sofas and a dusty bookcase against the far wall.
'Move on now, child,' said Dynaheir from the doorway behind her and Imoen remembered herself, following Fritha to pick her way through the mess of papers and cloth that strewed the floor, settling next to her friend on a faded sofa and trying to ignore the musty smell that emanated from it.
'Please forgive the mess,' Mendas began once they had all found a seat, Khalid and Minsc settled on the floor. 'My research leaves me little time to keep house. And as for your findings, perhaps you had better explain from the beginning.'
And so they obliged him, Jaheira taking up the narration and allowing the others comment with only the slightest hint of impatience, though no one saw fit to correct her highly abridged ending.
'I see…' said Mendas finally after a long silence, rising stiffly to place the journals they'd delivered onto the bookcase behind him, these new additions practically the only books on it. 'So you have all been infected with lycanthropy, have you? Interesting, very interesting. They must have thought very highly of you…'
'That may well as be,' said Jaheira brusquely, clearly annoyed that he did not seem to be taking their predicament seriously, 'but have you any idea how we may exact a cure?'
'A cure? Well, by the consumption of a certain plant, atropa belladonna. A hardy perennial of the order Solanaceae, dark indigo flowers… they were rare, but not unheard of where I am from.'
'Just that? Just eat some herb?' cried Imoen, glancing round at them all and Fritha snorted at some private joke.
'You say it so lightly, child,' Mendas continued, turning away from her to absently run a finger along the dusty shelf, 'the plant is poisonous. But that hardly matters in itself, for the other thing that must be done is to kill the head werewolf; an even more dangerous undertaking.'
'Then we shall have to find Kaishas' mate,' Jaheira confirmed with a frown, 'what was his name?'
'Selaad…' a familiar voice ground out next to her and Imoen felt her heart stop as she watched Fritha stand and silently draw her sword. Slowly Imoen returned her gaze to the scholar, now hunched over the bookcase and trembling as he continued, his voice barely more than a growl.
'You killed her… you killed her, but she will be avenged!'
He whirled, already half changed, but Fritha seemed ready for it, leaping up onto the sofa where Imoen was still sat, the girl shifting her weight to tip it backwards, and Imoen watched from the floor as the momentum drove Fritha forward, pushing her sword straight through his chest and pinning him to the bookcase behind. He struggled a moment, trying to claw ineffectually at her with human hands, Fritha holding his face roughly forcing him to look at her, when at last he slumped forward and died.
The room was silent, everyone stunned by the ferocity of her attack and Imoen rising to stand next to her as the girl removed her sword with some difficultly, his body collapsing instantly to the floor.
'Did- did you know he was Selaad?' Imoen breathed, but Fritha just shrugged and said nothing, merely wiping her sword on the fallen sofa before sheathing it to move outside.
They filed out after her in silence, walking the short way across the village to take rooms at the inn, Fritha's request for a bath being ruefully refused.
'I'm sorry, love,' the old inkeep sighed, 'I mean there's a washroom at the end of the hall, but we don't have the staff for carrying the water up from the kitchens. There are a couple of attic rooms plumbed into the catchall on the roof, but they're already booked out by some nobles on their way to Durlag's Tower.'
She had nodded politely and made no more comment, but the girl, miserable as she was, seemed to gain some sympathy with the old couple; the landlord's wife ushering her into the kitchens after they had closed and preparing her the old tin bath in front of the dying hearth as she had done for her boys when they were small. They were all gathered together again now, late though it was, sat about a table in the empty common room talking things over; Fritha alone even when surrounded, ignoring them in favour of rooting silently through her bag.
'We were nothing but couriers,' said Jaheira with a shake of her head, 'they cared nothing for the wreck. Selaad wanted the sea charts taken to Kaishas, that she could navigate back safely with the clan.'
'Kaishas didn't know he'd changed his name though,' Imoen said, grinning humourlessly, 'I bet she could hardly believe her luck when we turned up with a set.'
'So this lycanthropy truly was a gift,' sighed Dynaheir, 'but time, at least, is our ally. The moon will not wax full for another fortnight.'
'And the head werewolf part of it's no longer an issue,' continued Imoen, looking about at them all with tired eyes, 'but where are we going to get some, what was it, atripa-?'
'Atropa belladonna,' corrected Jaheira with a sigh, 'we could try the local apothecary, but…'
She trailed off as Fritha straightened from her rummaging to toss a square of folded parchment onto the table before them.
'It's belladonna tea. Dradeel gave it to me. I'll go and fetch some water.'
And with that, she rose and was gone, Dynaheir standing quickly to follow her as Jaheira reached across the table to take up the yellowing packet.
'So he sent some with us,' she murmured, half to herself as she fingered the parchment, 'he must have worried they would do this.'
'P-Perhaps he was not as addled as he seemed.'
Imoen snorted her dissent; it seemed the blame for her post-potion hangover was still lingering over the mage, but any further comment was cut short as Fritha returned to the table, a large ceramic teapot in hand.
'Is that the water?' asked Imoen, and the girl nodded setting it on the table before them as Dynaheir followed to hand out the cups.
'Take some and pass it along,' Jaheira continued with a nod to the packet she had just handed to Fritha, working her way around the table, steaming filling the air as she poured water in to the cups. The girl made no reply, but complied, carefully unfolding the thick paper to take a large pinch of the dark leaves within and moving to add them to her cup, Khalid's hand catching her wrist just in time.
'Perhaps not so much, eh, dearest?'
She stared down at him, her look unreadable though she let a few leaves flutter through her fingers, replacing the rest to pass the packet on, before taking up her cup and wordlessly leaving the room.
Imoen awoke slowly, peeling her tongue from the roof of her mouth and sitting with some difficulty. She had retired soon after Fritha, not wanting her friend to be alone as the tea took effect and they had lain together in the gloom, suddenly exhausted but unable to sleep as they'd shivered and sweated, Imoen's heart trembling in her chest with frightening speed as waves of nausea passed over her. It must have been past midnight when she'd finally passed out, the only thing awakening her now, the thirst that scored her throat with every breath.
She sighed, glancing to the bed beside her and it was only then she noticed Fritha had gone. Her heart stopped and she was frantically casting about for her friend only to find her a second later, sat on the bench beneath the window in just her slip, so still she could have been made of stone. Moonlight was pouring over her, draining the colour from her form and she looked small and frail as she stared out over the sleeping world.
'Fritha?' she ventured quietly, worried of starting her, but the girl didn't flinch and Imoen sighed. 'Fritha, would you like to talk about it?'
Finally, she turned to her and shrugged mildly, her voice quiet and even as she answered.
'What is there to say? These last few months have been so awful; I just don't think I can stand anymore.'
Imoen pressed her lips together and closed her eyes a moment, the sense of helplessness almost too much to bear.
'Do you miss Durlyle?' she asked finally, dreading the answer, but Fritha merely frowned slightly and shook her head.
'Imoen…' she sighed, turning away from her to rest her head against the window frame. 'I wasn't in love with him, we were hardly together a day. No, it's not that, but…'
She paused, turning back to her to take her hand, frowning again as though she was explaining something Imoen was having trouble understanding.
'He's dead, Imoen… He didn't deserve to die, none of them did, but it came for them… Durlyle, Delthyr, Gorion, and who knows how many others who could have seen another dawn if not for me.'
'You can't be blaming yourself?' she cried angrily, snatching back her hand in her dismay, but Fritha just shrugged.
'Why not? They died because I was there, because something wanted me dead and they decided to intervene.'
'Fritha… I know things seem bad now, with the war and the assassinations, but things will be different after Sarevok is gone.'
Fritha smiled faintly and Imoen felt suddenly cold.
'What do you mean?'
'That perhaps this is something that I carry with me; Sarevok is certainly a part of what has happened since we left Candlekeep, but what if the only reason we are caught up in things is because of what I am.'
Fritha turned back to the window again, though her eyes were looking at something far beyond the sleeping village.
'I can feel it sometimes, inside, pulling me to do things; perhaps it calls to others too, attracts people like Sarevok, ones so bent on murder and destruction. Or perhaps it just pulls at the devastation itself, I don't know.'
'So what will you do?'
'After all this is over?' she confirmed, glancing back to Imoen as though almost surprised to find her there. 'I'll visit Candlekeep and try to make my peace with them. And then… Then, I don't know, just go away for a while, I suppose.'
Imoen just stood staring at her; she was really going to do it, really going to leave them all. Before everything was 'they', no girl more likely to go without the other, than they would leave without their own feet. But things had changed, and Imoen felt her throat tighten as she ventured in barely more than a whisper, 'can I come with you?'
Fritha glanced to her and Imoen could feel her weighing it up, the pain of leaving everyone behind, the fear for her friend and what her blood could bring for them, when suddenly she smiled wryly and shook her head, her teeth bright in the gloom.
'Would I have any choice?'
Imoen laughed wetly, Fritha's unspoken acceptance making her suddenly tearful.
They had sat in the grey morning stillness for another hour or so, just talking quietly of nothing in particular, before crawling back into bed and sleeping until the mid-morning when Jaheira came to get them up. The group buying what replacement supplies the local store held before setting out southwards to Baldur's Gate for that third and final time.
It was late afternoon now, the sun gold on the wheat fields and a sense of hope in the air as they walked, the city only a few hours away after the two-day journey from Ulgoth's beard. It was midsummer in three days time and Fritha felt as though every moment in her life had been building to that moment. No one had slept well the night in the inn; Khalid and Dynaheir still feeling the effects of the poison into the next day as they'd set off for the city, and all were tired.
But as the day wore on, Fritha found herself feeling better. There was some sort of end in sight now; they would reach the city and expose Sarevok, averting the war. Or they would not.
And Fritha would leave with Imoen and they would walk east until Baldur's Gate sounded as distant as Rashemen did now. Her grief was fading too; things growing easier with each day. She had even worried a little that it had all become too painless, but in her heart she doubted it would ever be so, and that in itself was a comfort.
They made camp in the forest north of the city that night, no one really ready for sleep as they sat about a small fire, talking quietly of times past and the cool grey dawn found them walking the last few miles to the city to stop at the forest's edge, alert and ready.
'Right,' began Imoen as they all huddled together in the undergrowth, glimpses of the great stone walls filtering through the trees. 'The guards change shifts at first bell and so we've a short period where we can make it to the moat without being spotted from the walls. We're heading for the old sewer outflow. Niklos told me they think it's welded shut, but the guild's been down since and opened it up again; as long as I can pick the lock, we can get in.'
'Good, once inside we head straight for the Iron Throne. I doubt we will be able to talk our way through this time though, so be prepared for the worst.'
Somewhere far-off a lone bell sounded. Fritha swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry.
They flew half-crouched across the open field, Minsc slipping down the bank to wade into the moat, the filthy water up to his chest as he carried Imoen across on his shoulders.
'Oh Gods, it reeks,' she moaned looking as though she would faint as she clambered from him to cling to the grill, her free hand fumbling over the lock.
Finally the grate swung open with a shriek that made Fritha start, glancing fearfully to the walls above before stepping forward onto Minsc's shoulders, allowing Imoen to help her across, Jaheira and Khalid stooping to help Minsc up once they were all inside.
Imoen closed the grate behind them. They had done it. They were in.
Those first few moments were awful, Fritha having to fight the urge to gag, the air close about them, so fetid she could taste it. They had all tied some scarf or cloth about their faces in an effort to fend off the smell, though Fritha had her doubts as to the difference it made. Imoen led them onwards though, wading through the knee-deep sewage, carefully counting her paces and pausing now and then, her eyes closed as she built a mental image of where they were on the surface.
She was checking as such now, clinging to the slimy rung of an access ladder, her head straining up to a narrow grate set in the tunnel roof, glimpses of the world above filtering through.
'I think we've gone too far,' the girl sighed, hopping down to rejoin them, 'I can hear the praying in the temple of Tymora. Come on.'
She started back the way they had come and they followed her, taking the next right turn and walking until they reached another junction.
'Right or straight ahead?' asked Jaheira, peering along each tunnel in turn, but Imoen shook her head with a frown.
'Well, it should just be- what's that?'
Imoen took a tentative step into the right tunnel, pointing up to a circular metal disk set in the curving roof above her. She glanced back to them and shrugged, none the wiser, before climbing up the ladder in the wall beside it to gently lift the edge and put an ear to the gap.
'What do you hear?'
'Nothing,' she said eventually, pushing the cover across and a perfect circle of light split the gloom. 'Shall we?'
Fritha was the first to follow her, crawling through the hole to find herself on a neatly tiled stone floor, the architecture of the room about her eerily familiar.
'Is this…?' came Khalid's voice behind them and Imoen pulled the scarf from her face, grinning.
'The basement of the Iron Throne? I think so. And it seems like we aren't the only ones using the sewers. Or at least they were,' she added, glancing about the empty room, marks on the floor showing where crates and barrels must have once stood, 'the place looks deserted.'
They found the stairs just outside the door, meeting not a soul as they travelled up through the kitchens and on into the entrance hall, retracing their steps from there to the fifth floor, that storey just as every other, empty and abandoned. They fanned out, checking each room in pairs until Dynaheir's call drew them to an office in the back, the desk inside covered in neat stacks of paper.
'It seems Sarevok is careless in his arrogance,' she commented dryly, handing a bounty notice to the newly arrived Fritha with a smile. The girl glanced over it, the words familiar to her by now, though the date was a surprise, Imoen peering over her shoulder to voice her thoughts.
'27th Tarsakh… So it was the Iron Throne after all! They sent the bounty hunters after you from the beginning. But why? Look, there's more.'
That was a slight understatement. The desk was covered in bounty notices and letters detailing iron levels and troop movements. Khalid found evidence that Sarevok had hired assassins to kill one of the Grand Dukes, Entar Silvershield, and poison Eltan, and Imoen was well-rewarded for disarming the complicated trap on his desk drawer.
'Hey,' she breathed, glancing up from the slim volume she'd found within, 'you'll never guess what this is.'
'What have you discovered?' came Jaheira's voice behind them, attention still focused on the parchment in her hands.
'It's only Sarevok's diary!'
'He kept a diary?' Fritha cried, unable to keep the incredulity from her voice as she imagined him hunched over the book on an evening, making note of worries and plans… just as she did.
'Yeah, I know,' Imoen agreed, starting to giggle at the disbelief on her face. 'If Sarevok was going to keep a diary, it should at least be a fake one, to throw people off the scent. Like, "17th Alturiak 1368, I didn't poison an iron mine in Nashkel today, as part of my ongoing plan to incite war between Amn and Baldur's Gate." See, cunning eh?'
But Jaheira clearly didn't think so.
'Stop your foolishness and give it here,' she snapped, snatching it from her to flip to the back, her eyes flying over the last few entries. 'Listen. Entar is dead and Eltan soon to follow-' Imoen held up the relevant letters with a wan smile, '-and yet the fools welcome me in with open arms. I will bide my time with them as I did with father and soon my blood shall have the recognition it deserves…'
Jaheira shook her head, leafing bewilderedly through the rest, 'there is more, all the way through, talk of blood and dreams.'
'He's a child of Bhaal,' said Fritha at last; suddenly very interested in the paper-strewn desk as she felt all eyes turn to her.
'What? How could you-?'
'I just know,' she said with finality, gathering up the papers before her. 'Come, there's only one person we can show these too now.'
Imoen squinted slightly in the glare of the surface, eyes scanning over the tall solid bailey that housed the Flaming Fist headquarters; her gaze passing over the guards that manned the gate before shifting to the shaded alley along the building's right, lingering on the red flutter of curtains at an open window two floors above the street.
'Can you see anyone?' came a voice behind her and Imoen took one last glance about the sunlit square before she lowered the grate and hopped from the ladder back into the gloom of sewer tunnel, her friend's eyes bright in the darkness.
'No, the alley's empty and Eltan's window's definitely open.'
'And I am not surprised,' sighed Dynaheir, leaning against Minsc in the stifling air of the tunnel, clearly wilting, 'it is hot now the sun has risen.'
'What do you think?' continued Fritha, and though Imoen could not see her mouth for the scarf she was wearing, she could tell her lips would be a thin pressed line. She shrugged.
'Well, the drainpipe looks a bit rusty, but it should hold. Have you got the papers?'
Fritha nodded, pushing a hand into her bag to withdraw a sheaf of tightly rolled parchment.
'Here, those should be enough to raise suspicion, we'll keep the rest down here in case…'
She trailed off and Imoen could tell it was torture for her, sending her off alone, but greater things were at stake here.
'I'll be fine.' Imoen reassured and her friend nodded, her voice quiet.
'Yes, I know.'
People were milling about the nearby streets, hanging up flowered garlands and doing last minute shopping ready for the midsummer celebrations of the following day, the threat of a coming war seeming to do little to discourage them, and no one noticed the young woman as she clung to the drainpipe two storeys above the city. Imoen paused to draw a deep lungful of clean air, glad to be out of the sewers even with what she would soon be facing. The window was only a few feet above her now and she climbed the rest of the way to step carefully on to the sill, trying to ignore the fact she was smearing both the ledge and the curtains in filth.
Eltan was laid in the bed looking drawn and thin, dark shadows under his eyes and beard unkempt, his armour resting on a stand nearby, a silent testament to the man he had once been. In the chair opposite, a robed man sat, his Calimshite heritage marking him as Rashad, Eltan's healer. He, like his patient, appeared to be dozing, though he started to his feet as she dropped lightly from the sill, his dark eyes flashing beneath a heavy black brow.
'Who are you? What are you doing here?'
'Please, I have to speak with the Duke. I know who poisoned him, it was Sarevok, we've got the evidence,' she cried, almost dropping the papers in her haste to push them into his hands, 'we got the evidence for it all.'
He glanced from her to the letters, astounded, before a smile spread slowly across his face and Imoen felt her heart stop as his dark eyes flashed silver.
'Impressive, truly impressive,' he laughed and she began to edge back towards the open window. 'But it was a mistake to come here. Let us see you escape one who was born an assassin.'
He lunged at her, hands suddenly long and clawed and Imoen screamed, jumping back to pull the armour stand across his path with an almighty crash. Instantly the door flew open, two mercenaries appearing with swords drawn and before she knew it the creature was dead at their feet; a doppelganger.
'Wh- who…' sighed a voice and Imoen glanced to the bed, Eltan woken by the noise and struggling to sit. She flew to his side, pouring him some water and drenching the dresser in her haste. He stared up at her, his brow furrowed when realisation seemed to dawn behind his eyes.
'Angelo… bring me Angelo,' he croaked, only accepting the cup once sure his orders were being carried out, the guards sharing a dark look and disappearing at his word.
She held the water to his lips and Eltan drank thirstily before sinking back with a sigh, his eyes closed even as he spoke to her.
'I am in your debt, child, but there is more I must ask of you. Liia and Belt, the other Grand Dukes, are in danger as I was.'
He grabbed her arm suddenly, making her jump, his eyes watering from the effort.
'You must take the evidence to them! Sarevok is being sworn in as a Grand Duke at this moment. Take my invitation, it is on the dresser behind you, and this,' he added, slipping a ring from his thin finger and pressing it into her hand, 'disrupt the ceremony, you must make them see.' He trailed off with a sigh, sinking back onto the pillows, the grip relaxing on her arm.
Just a moment to push the invitation and ring into her bag and she was off, passing Angelo and the returning guards in the corridor. The captain was pale but defiant, marching with a solider either side of him, his sword, she noted, removed and being carried by one of them. He glanced disdainfully to her as they passed, and she would have liked to shout something after him. But her anger made her tongue-tied, the door shut before she could comment and she was suddenly flying down the stairs, determined to stop Sarevok if it was the last thing she did.
Imoen returned after what felt like hours in that dim stinking tunnel. Everyone crowding about her pale form, fussing until she managed to convince them she was fine, relating her findings with breathless haste.
'Today? They're swearing in him today?' Fritha confirmed, the feeling that someone greater than they wanted this war stopped creeping over her.
'Yeah, that was what he was going on about in his diary, them welcoming him in. They're making him a Grand Duke of all things! Eltan said the ceremony's already started.'
Jaheira nodded her face set.
'Well, lead on then.'
The Ducal palace was at the opposite end of the city, but Imoen was used to the sewers now, barely hesitating at the junctions to decided their path and Fritha could not help but be amazed by her sense of direction even down there.
'Here,' she finally cried, stopping at one of the many sewer grates, the world above them bustling by oblivious. 'This should bring us out by the Blushing Mermaid. Everyone ready?'
A grim nod travelled the group and Imoen nodded too, stepping up on to the first rung and pushing open the grate before disappearing in to the sunlight.
Fritha felt very aware of herself as they crawled from the grate to gather on the kerb. In any other circumstances she would have been mortified, people openly staring, a couple of drunks outside the pub shouting to them as they passed. But she ignored them, all her focus on trying to control the anger that welled in her as she thought of Sarevok, of all he had put them through.
The palace was just around the corner, the architecture impressive even as it was welcoming, a stern father to the city, and they walked up as a group, the guard outside smiling as they approached.
'Afternoon there, you're a touch late; I think they've already started. Can I see your- oh, by Tempus' he suddenly cried, clamping a hand over his nose and staring appalled at the filth that caked their legs, 'what in the Hells have you been wading through?'
'You wish to see our invitation?' cried Fritha impatiently, thrusting the paper at him, 'here!'
He snatched it from her and took a step back, eyes flying over it suspiciously.
'Well, this all looks to be in order, but I can't just-'
'Do you know what this is?' snapped Jaheira, closing the space between them, and holding out her hand. He faltered slightly but made no further retreat as his eyes stared with disbelief at the fat gold signet ring.
'It is the Ducal seal given to us by Eltan,' she supplied, looking commanding and magnificent in her anger, 'we bear a vital message for the Grand Dukes, now let us pass!'
'R-Right away, m'lady.'
They filed in, through the entrance hall and on into one of the adjoining chambers, the room light and long; house banners hanging from the rafters, the nobles milling beneath just as colourful. They moved further into the room, the way clearing before them, many of the guests looking round with clear disgust though they were too polite to say anything as Sarevok appeared on the dais.
Fritha stared up at him, the man who had made her life nothing short of Hell for the past few months. She had thought this confrontation would awake in her an anger she could barely control, but suddenly she felt nothing for him. He looked the part, the young duke; shaggy black hair combed neatly back, grey eyes surveying the crowd as he stood up there in fine clothes, the ornamental breastplate he wore glinting in the torchlight. He could never have been called handsome, but his presence was striking and she noticed at least a few of the attending nobles probably wouldn't have minded him as a son-in-law. An amusing thought really, since at this moment in time, they would rather see their entire houses fall than take her on as a daughter. The world was an odd place.
Imoen glanced about her quickly, the room lined with guards, both palace and Flaming Fist, and she knew any mistake there and it would all be over. It had seemed so simple when Eltan had told her. Just go and disrupt the ceremony. But now they were there, surrounded by guards, the man who had engineered this plot stood proudly on the dais and talking quietly with the other dukes, the question of how was her main concern.
Imoen glanced across to Fritha, more than worried as she noticed the girl quietly snickering away to herself, but it was too late to speak with her now, a hush falling as Sarevok stepped up to the podium.
'I am honoured to be here among such respected noblemen and accept my new position with full awareness of my responsibilities. The rumours of Amn's mobilisation for war as aided by their Zhentarim allies are, I am sad to report, entirely true, though we ourselves are not unprepared! Beregost is fully fortified with two garrisons of the Flaming Fist and our city has also begun to take measures. Amn's recent attempts at depriving us of the most valuable war resource, iron, may have weakened us, but we are not defeated yet! The Iron Throne has stock piles of iron, more than will be needed, which I now put at the disposal of the city, to use as you see fit.'
He bowed slightly, but the dip of his head could not hide his smile as applause roared though the hall. Imoen felt a fierce anger flare inside her. That they could applaud anything that man said, she almost wished to leave them to their fate. She glanced to Fritha to see her anger too, but the girl was merely smiling mildly, clapping along with everyone else, her eyes never leaving the speaker as the noise died down and he began again.
'Indeed, Amn will rue the day they ever considered taking up arms against our fair city! And I would propose that instead of waiting for the war to come to us, we shall take it to them! Have they forgotten Baldur's Gate boasts the greatest mercenary force in all Faerûn? With the Flaming Fist we shall be able to take Nashkel with ease and have the pass through the Cloud Peaks fortified by winter.'
More applause and behind her Jaheira's voice, low and disdainful.
'Look at them, he offers all they could wish for; a war and one far away from their homes and families as well.'
But hers was not the only voice of dissent.
'Sarevok,' snapped the lady stood behind him, who Imoen assumed was Liia, her eyes flashing dangerously beneath her greying brow, 'this is not the time to be discussing such matters!'
But Sarevok merely smiled.
'Well, when is the time, my esteemed peer? When the Amnian soldiers are battering at our gate? Unfortunately our greatest military commander lies on his death bed, another crime of Amn, but give me command of the Flaming Fist and I swear it shall be the last!'
The applause was almost deafening this time, the surrounding nobles throwing their hands into the air and shouting his name. Imoen turned about to find Fritha in the madness, but she was not longer next to her and it was as she was whirling back that a familiar voice cut clear and ringing through the clamour.
'Your information is a little out of date, Sarevok.'
'What? Who spoke?' cried Liia and the people pulled back like a tide to reveal Fritha walking up to stop before the podium.
'Duke Eltan, my lady, he's not dying.' Fritha smiled broadly. 'He's fine.'
'Fritha!' shouted Sarevok and for the first time real doubt seemed to flash within his eyes. 'That woman is a murderer in the service of Amn, seize her!'
The Flaming Fist stepped forward but Fritha just stood, staring up at Sarevok, the remaining duke, Belt, marching down from the dais angrily.
'Halt! No one move! This child is under my protection,' he shouted fiercely, glaring about at the surrounding guards, his tone more gentle as he turned back to her friend. 'What are you saying, child?'
'Eltan was being poisoned by his healer, who was not his healer but a doppelganger in his form,' she explained calmly, turning slightly as though to include them all as she continued, 'a doppelganger in the employ of not Amn, but someone here in the Gate.'
'Truly?' gasped Liia, stepping forward as well, 'did Eltan tell you who?'
'Indeed he did, though why listen to me, an Amnian murderer, when you can read written testimony of the man himself.'
Imoen watched as she handed over the papers they had recovered from the Iron Throne.
Sarevok grew pale.
'She- they, they are forgeries, anyone could have written them.'
'How do you know of what I read, Sarevok?' said Belt, smiling faintly before his eyes grew hard. 'Guards, seize him!'
Sarevok leapt back, viciously pushing the nearest guard off the dais to throw a small stone to the ground, a shimmering portal springing up at his feet.
'You and I aren't finished yet, Fritha,' he snarled, all pretence dead now, 'I'll kill you, just as I killed Gorion. You'll know no peace while I yet breathe.'
And he was gone.
Belt dropped immediately to his knees and Fritha whirled, almost expecting to find him injured when she realised he was praying.
'Do you have the location?' Liia snapped and he nodded once, the woman closing her eyes and Fritha felt magic prickling in the air as the familiar blue dust of teleportation engulfed her.
'We'll send you after him. Gods' speed, child.'
The magic faded in the air around them and Fritha found herself staring about a dim low-ceilinged passageway, rotting wooden stairs behind them, the stone walls damp and cool.
'I recognise this place…' breathed Imoen at her side, and all turned to the girl, 'this is the basement of the thieves' guild.'
'Why would he come here?'
Imoen shook her head, bewildered
'I'm not sure. There's a maze beneath the guild, it, it leads to the undercity.'
Imoen's explanation mirrored her thoughts.
The ruins of an ancient city, built long before the Gate and destroyed by an earthquake years before Balduran was even born. A dead place. Fritha had read about it back at Candlekeep, in another life.
'Could he have gone there?' questioned Jaheira, frowning slightly.
'There seems little point him going up stairs. Come on, the door's just down here.'
She led them quickly along the hallway past heavy grilled gates, rounding the corner to find a huge stone door at the end of the passage that could have almost blended in with the walls had they not been looking for it.
'There, I- ' but Imoen stopped dead as a shape stepped out from the shadows before her, Fritha ready to pull her back when the girl suddenly flung herself forward with a cry of 'Niklos!'
The youth caught her and they embraced tenderly, Imoen unworried, it seemed, by the presence of the rest of them.
'What are you doing here?' she cried as they finally parted, staring up at him with a clear amazement, before she recovered herself. 'Never mind, quick, help me with this door.'
'I can't, Imoen.'
'How do you know?' she laughed, tugging his sleeve for him to follow her, 'we haven't even had a look at it yet.'
But Niklos didn't move.
'I mean, I won't, Imoen. I have orders to, to stop…'
He trailed off at the look of dawning realisation on her face, Imoen staring up at him, hurt plain on her features.
'Niklos?' she breathed, before a sudden fury caught her and smacked away the arm that lingered near her. 'You knew! You knew all along he'd put a bounty on us, on my friends, and you were working for him!'
'It wasn't like that, Imoen,' he cried, taking a step back, his hands held up to placate her, 'I didn't betray you. I was already working for Sarevok when we met, he has the whole guild in his service, though half of them don't know it. That's why we approached you. But I didn't tell them anything, I swear. I didn't make a move on the bounty.'
'How noble of you.'
Niklos drew back, stung.
'I- There is honour among thieves, Imoen.'
Imoen ignored him though, glaring up at him with her hands on her hips.
'We need to get by.'
'I cannot allow that.'
'Move aside, boy!' snapped Jaheira, stepping up to shove him out the way as she and Dynaheir moved forward to examine the door.
'There is no point,' he called after them, though there was a slight doubt in his tone. 'The door is sealed with locks devised the best smiths in the guild, it would take an experienced thief hours to pick them.'
'I don't think that'll be too much of a problem,' said Imoen with a cold smile, drawing a large bunch of keys from her bag, his eyes growing wide with alarm.
'You stole from him?'
She didn't want to say any more in front of the others, but she could think of only one occasion where the opportunity for that could have occurred.
Imoen grinned, her eyes hard
'It's like he said, honour among thieves.'
She tossed them to Jaheira, the druid catching the keys easily, fumbling through them until finding the correct one, the door swinging open as soon as the lock was turned.
'Please, Imoen,' he pleaded, gripping her shoulders as she went to move past him, 'you have no idea who he is, of what he can do.'
She just shook her head though, staring up at him, her eyes sad.
'No, I do… and that is why I'm going, and if you had the slightest clue you'd be coming with us.'
She shook him off, Fritha moving to walk beside her, slipping an arm through hers as they followed the others under the dark stone doorway, Niklos' cries drifting after them.
'Imoen, you can't- he'll kill you all…'
They walked in silence for a long while after, the smooth stone walls of the maze quite a contrast to the damp cellar of before, progress slow as Jaheira checked each step for traps.
Fritha glanced to the face of her friend, unmarked by tears, though her eyes still remained sad.
'Are you okay?'
Imoen shrugged, turning to give her a slight smile.
'Yeah, I'm fine. It wasn't like you and…' she trailed off, shaking herself before continuing briskly, 'well, it wasn't like I was in love with him or anything. It was just, you know, fun. I had planned to give the keys back to him before we left the Gate. He was a laugh, but a bit patronising sometimes. I thought it might knock him down a peg or two, to find out I had hold of them so easily.'
'Well, you certainly did that!' exclaimed Fritha, as impressed as she was astounded by Imoen's cheek.
'Yeah,' Imoen agreed, smiling faintly and they walked on in silence, the murmur of the others ahead of them the only sound, before Imoen turned to her again, unusually serious.
'Look, I'm sorry about how things got. It was like he was there and I couldn't even see anyone else.'
'Yes, and I was so understanding about the whole thing,' Fritha shook her head, smiling ruefully, 'it's okay.'
'No, it wasn't. I was all wrapped up in it and I let it get in the way of more important things.'
'Well, it turned out investigating the Iron Throne wasn't all that important in the long run.'
'I didn't mean that, you idiot!' Imoen laughed, giving her a shove before continuing, her voice softer, 'I meant us, our friendship.'
Fritha stood a moment smiling at her before they rushed together, embracing fiercely just as a voice called up ahead.
'You two, I think we've found the exit.'
The end of the maze was merely a hole in the tunnel wall where the stones had come loose and Fritha stepped out onto an uneven rock plateau, the cavern about them so high she wondered how deep the maze had led them. Before her, the ruins of the city lay, all broken walls and fallen pillars in the same dead shade of grey, the air still and stale.
Fritha let her eyes drift over the ruins before they came to rest in the furthest corner and she knew in that instant where she would find him. Stood next to the cavern wall, tall and imposing and the only building she could see that had managed to remain mostly intact, a great stone skull leering out from the entablature; a temple of Bhaal.
It took no time at all to cross the ruins, the temple never out of sight as they walked the hatching of grey streets, the dust that swirled about them the only sign of life in that dead place. Fritha stared up at the huge stone doors before her. This was it; there was no thought now of leaving, of hiding or fleeing. He would find her. All she could do was enter and meet her fate.
She turned back to the others, the only colour she could see, and she smiled tentatively.
The door moved silently before her hand, and she slipped through as quietly as she could, though she knew there was little need for stealth now. Inside, the walls were the same grey stone and swathed in shadows, a contrast to the blood red tiles that patterned the ground. Columns lined the walls, each a robed man holding a scythe, the skull of Bhaal emblazoned on their chests, though none of this could hold her attention long, for on the dais before the crumbling altar, Sarevok was stood.
No more the fine clothes and ornamental armour; this was the man she remembered from that first night, months ago now, the one who had felled Gorion so easily. She walked up to him, without hesitation, without fear and she could see him smile through the curving teeth of his helmet, almost proudly, as though pleased to see her resolve.
'You have arrived, Fritha,' he confirmed with a nod, 'I was a fool to believe anyone else could have killed you, that this could end in any other way than you and I, here.'
Fritha stared back, impassive, feeling as though she was watching the whole thing from very far away as she heard herself answer.
'I have come, as you knew I would, you left me little choice. But before we fight, I must ask you why?'
'Why?' he repeated, an edge of incredulity creeping into his voice, 'why I sought your death? Why I engineered a war with Amn?'
Fritha nodded calmly and Sarevok shook his head.
'For power you could only dream of. It would have been foolish to let you live once I realised you were as I. Be proud, Fritha, your death will herald a new age for Faerûn.'
'With you as its warlord?'
'With me as its god!' he roared, trembling with the anticipation of it. 'You understand what we are, do you not? Well, I knew long before you and whereas you are happy enough to wander with these lesser mortals, I will accept no less than the divinity I deserve. This war with Amn will provide bloodshed on such as scale as to raise Bhaal's dead powers from the ashes and with the divine blood that flows through my veins, I shall assume control of that which he so carelessly lost! I shall become him, become the Lord of Murder!'
'You- you're mad!' she cried, almost laughing, as amused as she was horrified by the audacity of his plans. 'What sort of god would allow another to take his place so easily?'
Sarevok frowned and drew his sword.
'A dead one! If you find him in the afterlife Fritha, give him my regards!'
He leapt from the dais with such speed she had only just enough time to draw her own blade to parry the blow, explosions of light and cries echoing about her as others appeared from nowhere to engage her friends.
Sarevok was circling her hungrily and she kept her sword in a low guard taking a moment to glance over at her friends. She couldn't see Minsc, though she could hear his battle cry even above the clamour. Dynaheir was hidden behind a pillar, eyes unfocused as she chanted while Jaheira and Khalid were as one, fighting through the warriors to reach the enemy mage behind them, Imoen hanging back, trying to get a clear shot at him through the chaos. But they were too late, a shockwave rippling out from him as his spell closed; Jaheira and Khalid stumbling from the force of it, and she felt herself wince as Imoen was thrown to the ground.
But her concern was short-lived, the man before her suddenly roaring, using her moment of distraction to lunge at her, sword held high. Blow upon blow he rained upon her, so heavy they made her hands sting, her arms aching with the force of parrying them and with each one she took another step back, retreating until her shoulders met the temple wall. The man brought his sword up as she did and they locked blades, pinning her there, their swords held across her and poised above her throat.
She tried to see past him to the others, to call for help, but all she could see was his face, so close she felt the spittle fleck her cheek as he ground out, 'I will see the light leave your eyes, Fritha!'
He was pressing down on her, her arms trembling as she struggled to hold him back, her life racing through behind her eyes, everything playing out before her. From her first memories in the Keep, until that point there and the snarling beast of a face that was pressed so close to hers.
Just give up… let it end… her mind coaxed and the temptation just to leave it all was overwhelming. She would see Gorion again, and Durlyle…
But what of Imoen and Beth? Jaheira, Khalid, Dynaheir, Minsc? And she had to get over her fear of singing and learn more magic and fall in love. Her mind swimming with the vast potential of it all, of life; every unread book, every boy she'd never kiss.
A sudden strength surged through her arms and she pushed him back with a jolt, her legs buckling beneath her as she slid down the wall to her knees. Sarevok roared, his blade held above his head, ready to cleave her in two and it was suddenly so simple, the slightest movement to raise her sword and slip it beneath his breastplate. He screamed, spitting up a mouthful of blood that spattered down on her like rain, his sword hitting the ground with a clang and he followed soon after, armour clattering against the stone tiles as he crumpled. And then silence.
She sat, panting, his body lifeless beside her as her friends gathered slowly round, tired and bloody.
'It's done. It's over.'
The city was alive with colour. Flags and house banners hung from every window whilst streamers fluttered through the air, clear against the blue summer sky. The bells of the temples peeled out, barely audible over the roar from the crowded streets, packed with people celebrating midsummer and the newfound peace with Amn. Fritha stood at her window in the Elfsong, looking out on the scene. Everyone so happy and safe, unaware of how close they'd come to disaster. How she and her friends had fought and struggled for months to avert it and most of them didn't even know.
She smiled gently. It had been worth it.
She watched a group of young woman wander under her window, clothed in their best and giggling shyly as they passed a Flaming Fist patrol, the men's armour shining in the sunlight. Angelo had been ordered arrested as soon as Eltan had recovered, readily confessing everything once he realised he had been discovered and laying all the blame squarely on Sarevok. Perhaps Angelo thought his cooperation would save him; he was wrong.
He was due to be hanged a few days from now, along with others who had been accomplices in the plot. But she would be well away from the city by then and Fritha would not have attended had she even been there, despite words to the contrary she had screamed at him in their last meeting. It was one thing to kill your enemy in the heat of passion, but it was entirely another to stand and watch him die. She shivered slightly, turning from the window to push the flask she'd been holding into her pack and give her room a final glance over to be sure she had everything.
'Are you ready to leave?' asked Jaheira as she walked in with Imoen at her heels, glancing about to check on the young woman's progress and Fritha nodded.
'I don't know why we're in such a hurry,' Imoen whined, easily ignoring the scowl she was getting from Jaheira. 'In case you haven't noticed, there's a party going on outside.'
'I'm sorry, Imoen,' Fritha sighed, avoiding her friend's eyes, 'I know most people aren't aware of our part in all this yet, but some are and they're going to have questions, ones that I'm not quite ready to answer.'
'Ah, it's all right, I understand… still,' she continued brightly, as she turned to leave, 'there's nothing stopping us having our own party, once we're outside the city, right?'
Jaheira rolled her eyes, her lips twitching, before turning to follow the irrepressible girl out.
Fritha smiled as she watched them go, then shouldered her pack and with one last look to the window, she left too, closing the door behind her.