Bhaalspawn Union – 10
Disclaimer: I don't own Baldur's Gate or the Forgotten Realms. They all belong to Bioware, Wizards of the Coast, etc. I am just playing in the world created by them. As usual, all criticism is welcome.
The Heart of the Woods
"The situation grows serious, my friends." A man of middle height, with greying hair at his temples, was addressing a group of people who had gathered in the Silver Stork inn in Murann. The group addressed by this man was diverse indeed. There were a pair of elves, a ranger and a mage with the insignia of Suldanessellar, several bards, a even few dwarves from the Omlarandin mountains. At first sight, it appeared that there was nothing in common in this assembled group. On closer observation, it transpired that they all had one small unifying factor – a silver pin that they all wore at their throats. All of them, at the moment, were involved in listening carefully to the speaker.
"I would have thought that our position had improved," returned one of the audience, "with Suldanessellar now harmonising its policies with our own."
"That was indeed fortuitous," added another. "Had Queen Ellesime been in command, we would have been in greater trouble than we now are."
The lecturer continued, "As helpful as the latest developments in Suldanessellar have been, there is the problem that Yaga Shura has defeated our Southern Army, south-west of Saradush. The city is now besieged and this represents a crisis we will have to deal with."
"A crisis?!," echoed one of the audience, rising to his feet. The man was dressed in a Tethyran army uniform beneath his cloak. He persisted, "If not immediately dealt with, Yaga Shura's army could simply sweep up north and take Ithmong in a few weeks. We've no reserves and there is no army of any real significance between Saradush and Ithmong. Ithmong's own defences are in a poor state!"
The lecturer bowed, "Aye. What you say is true. And that is why we must deal with this crisis politically, rather than militarily."
"Just what do you mean by that?" returned the army man who had questioned the speaker.
"Tell me, how long do you expect Saradush to last?" murmured the lecturer.
The soldier considered, "Saradush has stocks of food that should last the population a month. The walls are strong and although the army was defeated, they made a coherent retreat back to Saradush, thanks to that mercenary, Gromnir. I would not expect the garrison to surrender, so Yaga Shura's only hope will be to wait it out until its food stocks run out and he can starve them to submission. My fear is that he might just rush past Saradush and head straight for the capital. Therefore, we must immediately raise another army, and occupy the crossings and fords of the Ith. If Yaga Shura ignores Saradush, we can hold him at the Ith, and encourage Gromnir to assault his rear. If, on the other hand, he besieges Saradush, we can strengthen our forces in the next few weeks, perhaps even try to extract the fighting squadrons out of Saradush and come spring, we will be in a position to drive out the fire giants back into their mountain strongholds."
"You overlook three factors," returned the lecturer softly. "For one thing, Yaga Shura will not give up the siege of Saradush under any circumstances."
"Why does your excellency say that?" asked one of the elven rangers
"Yaga Shura is a Child of Bhaal," returned the lecturer quietly. "He is trying to assume the mantle of his divine sire. And Saradush has the highest number of Bhaalspawn now – in fact, most of the lesser Bhaalspawn are concentrated there."
"Why are they there? And how do you know about that?" the army man had snapped.
"Count Santele has been accepting bribes from the Bhaalspawn for their entry into Saradush. I assume that once Bhaalspawn were being hunted by Yaga Shura, they tried to reach safety and Saradush offered the best chance for them. Many of the Bhaalspawn are there now and Yaga Shura needs to kill them to ascend to godhood."
There were collective nods from the audience. Yaga Shura would certainly not give up the siege of Saradush until he had killed the Bhaalspawn. The army man queried, "But why can't we go ahead with our preventive measures?"
"Have you looked at our finances, my friend?" sighed the lecturer. "The civil war and the war with the Sythillisians has depleted the treasury. Our other forces are tied up in the Small Teeth area or in the rebellion at Myratma. We need at least thirty companies of well trained soldiers to occupy the Ith crossings with any hope of stopping Yaga Shura. We simply cannot afford to fight another war on our southern borders."
"If this Yaga Shura marches towards Ithmong after he has finished with Saradush, we will need to fight them anyway," replied the soldier heatedly. He turned towards the elves from Suldanessellar and the dwarves from Omlarandin mountains. "What forces can we expect from our allies?"
The ranger and the mage exchanged glances, before the ranger replied quietly, "We can contribute three companies."
"Three companies?!" echoed the soldier incredulously. "That is all we can expect?!"
"The recent war with the drow has left our forces in shambles. There is nothing more we can do." The cold finality in the elven ranger's tone left the others in no doubt that it was useless to press the issue further.
One of the dwarves spoke, "We'll send four companies. Our own king's dead and Fairnholme's on the brink of civil war."
The soldier sat down heavily, his eyes flaming at the thought of getting next to no help from the allies.
The lecturer sighed, "You see the problem now, don't you?" He continued in a sad and weary tone, "Finally, there is the question of trained manpower for the war. It is useless to press new recruits into this battle. The moment they see fire giants, they will squeal and bolt. They simply cannot be expected to stand up to a charge of fire giants. That leaves mercenaries. Unfortunately, we cannot hire them."
"Why not? Money can be found, milord, if that is the issue," rasped the army man.
"No – the problem is not merely money, although that remains a significant one. The problem is that there are no mercenaries left for us to hire. Most of the Tethyran mercenaries have been hired either by Yaga Shura himself or by this Gromnir. But even the remaining ones have simply vanished – we can find no trace of them in Tethyr."
"Where have they gone?" whispered one of the audience, now that the magnitude of the problem was becoming evident.
The lecturer replied dryly, "If I may hazard a guess, they have gone to join the Bhaalspawn wars."
There were perplexed glances exchanged. The lecturer hastened to explain. "Yaga Shura is not the only one gathering forces. There is another Bhaalspawn monk named Balthazar across the border in Calimshan. Word is that he is recruiting mercenaries from all over Tethyr and Calimshan. Many of the mercenaries have gone over to join him."
"So what do we do?" queried one of the bards.
"First and foremost, I want some of you to watch Yaga Shura's army movements from the distance. Next, we need to convince the other Bhaalspawn not to move into Tethyr, but out of Tethyr. Therefore, I have persuaded the Queen to declare all Bhaalspawn hostiles and issue an order to put them down if they are caught. This should make the other Bhaalspawn flee Tethyr. Yaga Shura needs to be the only Bhaalspawn standing to rise to the Throne of Bhaal. Therefore, with all the Bhaalspawn out of Tethyr and Yaga Shura being forced to deal with them, I am reasonably confident that we will be able to divert his attentions elsewhere."
"But Saradush?" demanded the soldier harshly.
"I am sorry," sighed the lecturer. "But there is nothing we can do for them."
The army man furiously rose to his feet. "You, your Excellency, may stay here and wait and watch and think. I, a mere soldier, am willing to do what your Excellency is not! I shall lead my soldiers myself, even if no one else is going to aid me. I have the honour to wish you all a very good evening!"
"Wait ..." began one of the elves, but the soldier had already stormed out and the lecturer silenced the elf. He sighed, "There is nothing we can do, and if he is not willing to see the truth, we can do nothing for him. However, we must carry out our duty." He indicated that the meeting was closed. One by one, the assembled slipped out the inn and disappeared into the night, until only a cloaked and hooded figure and the elven mage from Suldanessellar remained.
The lecturer nodded to the unidentified creature, who spoke for the first time, "Inglor Starym is now in the Tethyran woods, milord."
Whatever it was that the other two expected, it was not that. They gaped in astonishment and a moment later, the lecturer recovered, "What is he doing there?"
"I do not know."
"Don't you know his plans?"
"Not really," returned the creature from beneath the hood. " All I know is that he plans to meet a Saemon Havarian in the Golden Lily in Trailstone in six weeks time."
"Any idea why?"
"I think he means to use this Saemon Havarian as a messenger to Balthazar, but I am not sure."
The lecturer paced around for a few minutes, and finally spoke, "Who has accompanied him into the Wealdath?"
"Imoen and an elven woman he picked up in Zazesspur."
"Who is this elven woman?" queried the mage, her ears perking up.
"I have no idea," returned the camouflaged creature. "All I know is that she was picked up in Zazesspur, when she was looking for him. He's been careful to keep her face hidden from everyone."
The mage jumped up almost as if she had been stung, but said nothing. The lecturer spoke, "Apart from his researches about the Bhaalspawn, which you informed me about in your previous report, is there anything else you need to add?"
"No, milord," returned the creature.
"Very well," answered the lecturer. "Return to your post. You shall receive your orders soon."
The hooded figure bowed and retired.
The mage from Suldanessellar waited until the other had retired, her eyes following the retreating outline of the other out the door. Then she spoke, "I have some grave news, milord. Ellesime is not dead!"
The elven mage nodded, "As you know, we never found her body, even when we found the bodies of the othrs. Further, a mage of my calibre can link to the mythal of Suldanessellar. The mythal still bears the signature of Ellesime. Were she dead, this would be impossible. Somehow or the other, she has escaped."
"This complicates matters. We need to find her," mused the lecturer slowly.
"I think we have already found her. That elven woman with Inglor," returned the mage grimly.
"You think so?" whispered the lecturer.
"It is very likely. He is probably the only ally she has now. It also explains why he has been keeping her hidden. He would want to hide her identity to avoid complications."
"And now he is in the Wealdath," muttered the lecturer, catching up with the reasoning of his ally.
"Do you think he is moving towards Suldanessellar?" queried the mage, her worry and fear apparent in her voice.
"It is possible," returned the lecturer. "But I don't think so. Had he been going to Suldanessellar, he would not have gone there with just the queen and his sister. He must know that the odds are stacked against him there and he does not even know who his enemies in Suldanessellar are. If he goes there, both he and Ellesime are completely at our mercy, since we can choose our moment to strike. No, no – I cannot picture him doing anything as rash as marching on Suldanessellar with only two allies. Also, he has avoided all elven settlements or we would have heard of his exact whereabouts by now. If he were rallying people against you, would he not go to elven settlements that the queen is sure of? Nevertheless, I think we should not give him an opportunity to carry out his schemes. It is best if he is intercepted at once."
"I can go, milord. And I have a few capable allies with me ...."
"No," returned the lecturer sharply. "This is a matter on which I would prefer not to endanger either you, or our other allies in Suldanessellar. This is best left to .... our enemies."
"I beg your pardon?" returned the mage in surprise.
"Yes, it is best to remove a thorn with a thorn. I shall have one of my agents inform Illasera – another Bhaalspawn who specialises in hunting down other Bhaalspawn – that Inglor is in the Wealdath. Whether Inglor kills Illasera or Illasera kills Inglor, we shall be the net beneficiaries. If Illasera kills Inglor and his allies, we shall have solved one problem. If, on the other hand, he prevails, he will be too wary of moving close to Suldanessellar in the near future. We shall be rid of his presence for the time being."
"But this Bhaalspawn war ..."
"We must manage it carefully that it does not destroy our countries," answered the lecturer sharply. "That is our task. For that, the children of Bhaal must kill each other without taking everyone else with them!"
In the heart of the Wealdath is a grove of oak and elm trees of surpassing beauty. Or more accurately, it is a small clearing surrounded by old, and majestic oak and elm trees. In that clearing at the moment stood two elves and a human mage, all three of them looking travel stained. Inglor breathed the cold morning air with relish. Ellesime saw the effect the place was having on her elven companion and smiled in understanding, "It is truly inspiring, is it not?"
Inglor nodded, his elven spirit delighting in the peace of the place. For a moment, his eyes had lost their weariness and the lines on his face vanished, making him look curiously young, "How ..", he began.
"It is thought that this was the place where the elves of the Keltormir empire came to pass on to Arvandor, before their bodies were buried at Myth Rhynn," replied the daughter of Rillifane, answering her companion's incomplete question.
"Myth Rhynn is close?" asked Imoen.
"Indeed. It is about a day's march from here," answered the elven queen.
Inglor shook himself out of his reverie with an effort. "I think it is best if we begin our preparations for the ritual. It is too close to Suldanessellar, and it is not safe to dally."
All three of them immediately began preparations for the ritual. Inglor was a trifle worried about it - the amount of spells they needed for the ritual meant that they would be expending the majority of their magical power in this ritual. If they were attacked by anyone, it would mean that they would all be forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. However, there was naught to be done about it and all of them were forced to acquiesce in the situation.
One of the Black Reavers, not more than a few hundred yards away raised his bow. Ere he could draw the bowstring, Illasera slapped his hand forcing him to drop the arrow. "No, you fool! I want to see what that bastard does! What's he doing here anyway?"
There were no answers to this. Illasera hissed, "I'm the one who's going to take that dog's head off. If anyone takes a shot at him before me, he's gonna have his guts sliced open! Understand?!"
They all nodded mutely. "Okay, we'll move in after we know what he's doing here. I'll give the signal."
Inglor was carefully drawing the last of the runes for the ritual on the ground, finishing the soft chant under his breath, when he heard a noise – the noise of a twig snapping under a bootheel. His eyes swiftly scanned the forest for the source of the sound – indeed, Inglor had perfected the art of locating a sound with extraordinary precision. With trepidation, he noticed an arrow nocked and pointing in his direction. He observed with even greater alarm that the arrowhead was completely immobile – the precise instant before it is fired. Unhesitatingly, he flung himself face down and heard the whiz of the arrow above him. In his quiet, crisp voice, he announced almost matter-of-factly to his two comrades, "We're being attacked. Prepare yourselves!"
To his surprise, the mysterious archer, casually walked toward him from her hiding place. Walking around as if she were sizing him up, she remarked, "You're not too bad! When they sent me after yet another Bhaalspawn, I had hoped you'd be more of a challenge than the other fools I've hunted." She smiled with sinister relish, more like a little girl delighted at getting a new toy, "Looks like I'm gonna get my wish."
"Be careful what you might wish for," murmured Inglor softly, "for you might just get what you wish. Is there a reason you're here?"
"Isn't it obvious, my little elf?" mocked the woman. "I hunt Bhaalspawn."
Inglor had learnt enough about the essence of Bhaal to recognise it in another soul, particularly when the creature was a powerful Bhaalspawn. He sighed, "What is it about Bhaalspawn that makes them hunt their own kind? I don't suppose I could talk you out of fighting?"
"Nope," returned the woman cheerfully. "Not all of us are witless cattle like you and this pathetic Imoen. I would have killed you before now, but I was keen on seeing what ritual you were performing. Thanks for making all the arrangements. I'll make use of it. After I've killed you, of course."
Inglor all but rolled his eyes, "You can try, I suppose. You're not the first to try and you won't be the last!" From the corner of his eye, he had noted that Imoen and Ellesime had taken up safe defensive positions around the wannabe assassin. Illasera however, chuckled on seeing their movements and cried, "Attack!" Swiftly from the woods, came two large warriors, one wielding a halberd and the other, a two handed sword. From behind him, still concealed by the bushes, Inglor heard the furious chant of a mage – the horrid wilting spell, Inglor recognised. A Cyrician priest, from well beyond the reach of the trio was casting defensive enchantments on the two fighters and the archer woman. None of this boded well.
All three of the defenders raised their own arcane shields, with Ellesime adding a spell of harmony that would allow the trio to coordinate their movements. The Bhaalspawn-hunter released another arrow at Inglor. The latter wordlessly raised an anti-arrow shield, but for once, he was surprised. The arrow flew right through the shield, vanishing it and Inglor was forced to dive beneath it with an uncharacteristic curse. However, he swiftly regained his footing and sent a spell of disintegration towards the archer. She was forced to dodge it, and jump to the side, ruining the aim of the next shot.
Imoen, in the meantime, had raised a couple of magical swords, while Ellesime had barely managed to shield herself from the horrid wilting spell of the mage. The two fighters had now closed in on Imoen, and even with her swords, she was having difficulty in defending herself. Ellesime, in the meantime, was engaging both the mage and the priest on her own. The mage, seeing that his spell had not had much effect was now conjuring animals and elementals and sending them against the elven queen. The priest, in the meantime, used a spell that sent a bolt of power against her.
Ellesime had seen what the two were doing. The mage would keep her busy with summoned fodder, all the while peppering her with offensive spells, while the priest strengthened his comrades. A sound strategy if she let it work. Letting him think it worked, she quietly raised a few creatures of her own. A dire bear appeared, followed by a few wolves. As the mage finished summoning the last of his elementals, the queen, who had been placing her hands on the ground, shouted a long elven incantation. The grass and the bushes in the area around were animated and they swiftly wrapped themselves around the limbs of the mage and the priest, who were still trying to make use of their cover. Naturally, this had the effect she desired. The two trapped humans fought and struggled to free themselves, giving Ellesime the moment of free time she needed. A soft burst of necromantic energy flew from her fingers and all the beings summoned by her foes disappeared in a flash of energy. Utilising the opportunity granted her, she sent a spell of destruction towards the priest, who was the most exposed at the moment. He had just freed himself from the entanglements when he saw the queen's spell speeding toward him. He hastily flung himself sideways to avoid it, but Ellesime had chosen her spell well. It caught him a glancing blow, sending him reeling to the ground, the fire and the brimstone of the spell burning him as they passed. He shrieked in agony and grabbed his ruined left side, still holding up his shield to protect himself from the queen's summoned minions. But he need not have bothered. The queen was ruthlessly pressing her advantage. Ellesime directed her remaining minions against the mage, while she herself moved against the priest. Another spell of ruin flew from her fingertips towards the fallen priest, who struggling to his feet, caught it full in the face. The Cyrician priest shrieked as the acid of the spell ate into his skin, and was still screaming when he heard the queen murmur, "May the Seldarine forgive you the desecration of this holy place!" before sending the final spell that put an end to his misery.
Imoen, in the meantime, was being slowly but steadily pressed back by the two burly fighters. Even with the two swords and her magical aegis defending her, she was being hard put to it to keep off the two fighters. If she left it that way, it would only be a matter of time before her magical shield wore out or a lucky hit got her. Leaving her shield to hold for itself for a moment, she gathered all her power for a powerful Comet spell. Even as she completed the spell, she felt aegis give out and was forced to jump awkwardly backward to avoid the fighter's halberd. She was only partly successful – the blade caught her a glancing blow just below the knee, making her grunt in pain. Her injured leg gave out and she landed unceremoniously on her back. However, her own spell had already been completed and a terrible ball of fire landed at her feet, magically encasing her frame in a fire-shield while exploding with deafening force. The effect for the two fighters was disastrous. The first one, directly in the path of the fireball, was blasted to pieces and roasted to a crisp in a matter of seconds, his flesh cooked inside the battered parts of his armour, his shattered body scattering across the clearing. The second, partly shielded by the body of his colleague, was flung back with irresistible force against the bole of a massive oak and lay stunned and unable to move. Imoen ungraciously picked herself up, and hobbled forward, her movement slow, ponderous and all but impossible, given her wounded leg. As she saw the other fighter lying stunned, she chanted something under her breath, her lips drawn back in a snarl to keep off the pain. A sickly green bolt of energy flew from her fingertips and with a grunt, the stunned warrior yielded up his soul.
Inglor, in the meantime, had been having the worst of it. Only one type of shield – a special spell designed to keep off arrows that dispelled magic – worked against Illasera's bow and to make matters worse, Inglor could not retaliate effectively against the archer. She could make herself incorporeal at will, and all but impervious to the elf's attacks. Given the broad daylight and the open ground, he could not simply disappear into the shadows and fight from the darkness as was his won't to do, and he was being worn down. He had a brutal cut just below his left shoulder, an arrow had caught him just on the instep badly reducing his mobility, while a gash was clearly visible across his forehead. Inglor would have died rather than ask for help, but his eyes, watchful and grim as they were, bespoke of his helplessness and need for any assistance. His left hand hung uselessly at his side. Even as Imoen watched, Illasera toyed once more with Inglor, her immaterial form mocking his helplessness to harm her, while he desperately struggled to avoid her arrows. With a taunting chuckle, she materialised herself just out of his reach, and nocked another arrow to her bow.
Seeing her brother nearly dying on his feet shattered something in Imoen. A dark fury. deep inside the daughter of Bhaal burst forth, something she never knew she possessed. Ere she herself realised what she was doing, her lips were chanting a spell of life stealing. It was a foul spell and all but forbidden among mages, who considered it too brutal, perilous to the caster and cruel. However, Imoen had no such compunction at the moment. Illasera realised what was happening at the last moment, and tried to turn towards this new foe, but it was too late. Imoen's spell struck her squarely in the chest, reaving the life from the Bhaalspawn hunter's body, the archer's eyes still showing her surprise as life was drained out of her body. A few seconds later, her body crumbled before the eyes of the surprised onlookers. Drained from the effort of the curse, Imoen slumped to the ground.
Seeing the death of the archer, the mage decided that the battle was lost. He flung a blast of energy at Ellesime, and turned and fled into the forest. For a moment, the queen debated chasing the fleeing mage, but decided against it. Both Inglor and Imoen were badly wounded, and might suffer unpleasant consequences if their injuries were not treated in time. She rushed at Imoen and murmured, "Let me see your wounds, child"
"Inglor – see to him," gritted Imoen. "He needs ..."
"All in good time, child." The queen's mellow voice was ethereal and soothing. "But you are losing blood too fast. Let me see ..." She pushed back the mage robes and began working on the wounds.
Half an hour later, Ellesime had patched up both Inglor and Imoen to the best of her abilities. Both of them were seriously wounded, but there was nothing more she could do. Inglor struggled to his feet, "I think, your Majesty, we should complete the ritual immediately."
"You are mad, Inglor. You have expended too much of your energy. You could kill yourself by exerting even more!"
"Perhaps, but consider the situation," returned Inglor grimly. "That mage has fled, and it is quite likely that he may have reinforcements. Also, this battle here will not have gone unnoticed in Suldanessellar – the changing energies in this place will have been noted by Yssinel. Any moment now, we will be seeing soldiers from Suldanessellar here to investigate. In our state, we can neither flee, nor fight. If they catch us, we are dead!"
"But we don't know what lies on the other side ...," objected Imoen.
"Don't you think I know that? But this is our only chance. We must complete the ritual and take our chance with Bhaal's domain. Completing the ritual may possibly kill us, but staying here is definite suicide!"
Ellesime and Imoen considered his statement and slowly nodded. Yes, what Inglor said made sense. They nodded. As all the preparations had been completed before the battle, it took only a few minutes to complete the ritual. As Inglor finished sprinkling the last few drops of holy water on the runes, they all felt an irresistible force carry them out of the plane.
Inglor felt his feet slam into something hard and it was all he could do to stop from crying out in agony as his weight rested on his injured foot. He tottered back and fell on the brazen floor, and a few feet away, he saw Ellesime painfully rising to her feet. Swiftly, from his recumbent position on the ground, he looked around. There was no sign of his sister. His voice full of anxious fear, he queried, "Where's Imoen?" Ellesime and Inglor exchanged a worried glance as they realised that neither had the answer!
Okay folks – that brings us to the next part, where I am going to differ considerably from canon. Do guess what has happened to Imoen and who were the ones plotting. Coming up next – Sarevok in Gehanna (Bhaal's plane is in Gehanna, not the Abyss), some more negotiations between Bhaalspawn and some painful soul-searching!
 - The Ith is a river that runs diagonally across Tethyr, from north-east to the south-west. It is the only natural barrier in the rolling plain between Saradush and Ithmong, and consequently the best – and only – possible hopeful position for any defensive army to hold.
 - The Tethyran governor of Saradush.