Chapter 97: Maid of Misfortune
In the days that followed Edwin's excursion to the graveyard, Ember and her companions learned of several unsettling changes in Athkatla.
Rumour spoke of a war brewing between the Shadow Thieves and a rival guild. Thugs moved in the streets in greater numbers than before, and known thieves kept turning up dead; sometimes, their bodies were completely drained of blood. Strange people were seen in the streets at night; pale and sickly looking, they'd disappear in the mists as if by magic. In addition to all this, a number of priests had vanished without a trace, including at least one of Anomen's acquaintances from the temple of Helm.
And on the fourth day after the group's return to the city, a lynch mob assembled near the Copper Coronet.
Hearing angry shouts from outside, Ember looked out of an open window from the upper floor of the inn. Below, a group of men were parading a bound and gagged woman down the street, and a dozen or so onlookers followed in their wake, all of them clamoring to burn the woman. A man in a crimson robe at the front shouted louder than everyone else, bidding one and all to come witness the destruction of the foulest of evils.
"It seems a dark elf has been caught and is about to be put to the torch," Anomen murmered, looking over Ember's shoulder.
"They... they will not burn the pretty elf?" Minsc said, aghast.
"Certainly, such a fate is no less than the fiend deserves," Anomen said dismissively.
"Is it?" Ember asked. The spectacle outside was an uncomfortable reminder of what might have happened to Cernd or herself in Trademeet.
"In my experience, no good has ever come from public lynchings. Too often, the instigators are misguided... as you all witnessed in my home town," Mazzy said, mirroring Ember's thoughts. "She may be drow, but even she has the right to have her guilt determined by a court of law, not by a frenzied, bloodthirsty gang."
"Unless I am mistaken," Yoshimo said, "they are being led by clerics of Beshaba."
Ember stepped away from the window and picked up her scimitar. "Somehow, I don't really see Beshabans acting as champions of justice. Let's go find out what they're up to."
Edwin refused to budge from his studies of the Nether Scroll, but the rest of Ember's companions followed her, and they caught up with the lynch mob in a small market square, not too far from the inn; the mob had tied the drow woman to a stake and stood in a circle around her, jeering. To her surprise, Ember recognized the drow as the Sharran priestess she and her friends had rescued from bandits a year ago. She's in deeper trouble this time, though. Fear and anger was plainly visible in the drow's dark red eyes.
"Look ye all upon this foul drow that we have bound before ye!" the man in the crimson robe shouted. "A creature of evil and darkness, my brethren! A creature of foulness and deceit, bent only on our destruction! This creature has foolishly come amongst us, thinking that we would be lax in our senses! Tell me what should be done with it!"
"Burn the drow!!"
"Then the drow shall burn! " the robed man cried. "Gather 'round, my brethren, and witness the will of Beshaba triumph over foul evil!"
Elbowing her way through the throng of people, Ember approached the robed man. "What has this drow done?" she asked. "What crime is she accused of?"
The robed man gave her an incredulous glare. "What crime? Look on her, fool! Her skin is black with the stain of her foul soul! She is a drow, and the drow deserve no mercy! Stand aside and watch... or join us, if you wish! Either way, justice will be done!"
"This is not justice!" Minsc bellowed. "There must be no burning if there has been no crime! Boo demands that you release her at once!"
"Never!" a man in a black cloak and crimson tunic cried, raising a lit torch. "The foul creature is receiving only the just punishment that all her kind deserve!! The darkness in her soul will be burned clean, it will!"
The crowd cheered.
"You will not burn her!" Minsc roared. He snatched the torch from the man's grasp and extinguished it with one giant palm, and a stunned gasp went up from the crowd. Ember winced; it was an effective gesture, but even if Minsc didn't notice right away, his hand would almost certainly need attending later.
"How dare ye interfere with the judgement of Beshaba?!" the robed man cried. "Her will must be shown to the people!"
"The drow is free!" someone screamed. Ember turned to see the Sharran priestess standing beside the stake, unbound and ungagged, Mazzy and Anomen beside her with their weapons drawn, and Yoshimo behind her with a small dagger in one hand and the remnants of the drow's gag in the other. The drow shouted a few words of command, and while the robed man merely shuddered, his accomplice collapsed in a stupor. The crowd erupted in a panic as the people who lusted for drow blood a few moments ago suddenly became fearful for their own, and amidst screams, shouts, and sobs, they fled the square.
The robed man glared at Ember, scowling and sputtering with rage. She drew her scimitar from its scabbard, and gave him a questioning look. He stared at her as if he couldn't believe his eyes. "You... you... you! Beshaba provides!" he shrieked, and ran away.
Meanwhile, the drow priestess had taken advantage of the chaos around her. While those around her fled in terror, she'd snatched the black cloak from the back of the unconscious man; Ember spotted the woman as she wrapped herself in the cloak, concealing her face and hands. Unnoticed by everyone but Ember, the Sharran moved towards a dark, narrow alley. She glanced warily around before entering it, and for a moment, her eyes met Ember's. Pushing the hood of her cloak back just enough to show her face, the drow gazed proudly at Ember and gave her a slight nod of acknowledgment, possibly even gratitude; then, she pulled the hood over her face again and disappeared into the shadowed alley.
"Excellent work, friend Minsc," Yoshimo said as the square emptied. "I could not have asked for a better diversion." The giant ranger beamed with pride.
"May I see your hand, Minsc?" Mazzy asked. He obediently held out his hand to the halfling, who checked it thoroughly; thankfully, the skin of his palms was too thick to be easily burned, and other than some soot and the lingering scent of burnt hair, he had little to show for what he had done other than a faint redness.
"I had not thought the drow could be so... striking," Anomen said thoughtfully.
"I thought it was common knowledge that drow women are stunning to look upon," Ember said, a bit more testily than she'd intended, but Anomen didn't seem to notice.
"Aye, it is a known fact, but I have never before witnessed the truth of it," he said. "As I always heard it, they are beautiful creatures, but utterly devoid of compassion. One can only wonder what evils might lurk behind such a fair visage."
"Well, what I can tell you is that this particular visage belongs to a priestess of Shar."
"Minsc and I have encountered her before," Ember started to explain, but was interrupted by the sound of slow, theatrical clapping. A man dressed in a bright red cloak with gold accents stood at the edge of the square, applauding them.
"Well done!" the man called out. "You are an adventuring group, are you not?"
"Adventurers? Yes!" Minsc cried. "Adventurers and heroes and champions of goodness, that is what we are!"
"In other words: yes, we are an adventuring group," Ember said with a smile.
"And you can handle more than these ragtag fanatics?"
"We are most capable, sir," Mazzy said.
"If there is anything that Yoshimo and his allies cannot handle," the Kara-Turan grinned, "we have not found it yet!"
"Good, good," the man said. He smiled, showing a lot of teeth. "I have an offer for you. If you are interested, follow me to the Copper Coronet; I do not care to discuss my business on the street."
The man left, and after exchanging a few shrugs and glances, the group followed him, leaving the square just as the man in the crimson tunic started to wake up.
A short while later, as Ember and her companions seated themselves around a table in the least noisy corner of the Copper Coronet, the man in the bright red cloak presented his offer.
"I am called Lord Jierdan Firkraag," the man said, "and I am the ruler of a community outside Athkatla, in the Windspear Hills. While I provide for my people as best that I can, there are some things I cannot do. Battle is not my strong point."
"One should always leave heroing to heroes! That's what Boo says."
"Quite," Lord Firkraag said, sounding a bit annoyed at the interruption. "There are marauders in my lands, and I need a firm hand to push them back. I offer a grand sum - four thousand gold - if you can free my land of their scourge. It is a fortune, you will agree."
"Four thousand? That is an astounding sum for simple bandit hunting," Mazzy said.
"But these marauders of yours aren't simple bandits, are they?" Ember asked.
"No. We are not talking about common scum here. We are talking about werewolves," the lord said. "A pack of them has taken a liking to my countryside. I will not stand for it. A few thousand is a small price for safety, and I believe in paying for quality. You will be wealthy in my service, rest assured."
"We need a few minutes to confer," Ember said.
"Take all the time you need," Lord Firkraag said, and headed towards the bar.
Ember looked around at her friends. "What do you think?"
"Well... I've heard of this Lord Jierdan, if it's any help," Yoshimo said. "He has the coin to back up his offer. He's not reputed to be the nicest noble in Amn, but then who is?"
"There is something unsavoury about him," Anomen said, "but the salary he offers would lessen the distance to our goal considerably."
"And we should be able to handle a pack of werewolves," Ember said. Six of us instead of three, and all with decent gear and decent health. Yes, it shouldn't be like last time at all.
"I have fought werewolves before," Mazzy said, "and I would be honoured to do so again."
"We shall crush these werewolves," Minsc cried, "and rangers and hamsters everywhere shall rejoice!"
"We'll do it, then. Edwin won't be happy about having to study on the road again, but I know he won't complain about the pay," Ember said with a grin, and stood up from the table. She headed for the bar, where Lord Firkraag was eyeing the inn's admittedly meager collection of foreign wine bottles with disdain, and told him their decision.
"I have no doubt your service will be exemplary," the lord said, showing his teeth in a smile again. "If all goes well, we shall all receive exactly what we deserve."