Chapter 100: The Mouth of the Beast
As Firkraag had predicted, Ember did indeed know when she'd found the right place.
A scant hour's walk northeast of Garren's cabin, a massive gate jutted out of a cliffside. A pair of imposive stone columns outlined doors that were tall enough to let even a giant enter comfortably; these doors stood wide open like a colossal gaping maw, with a shadowed cavern within. A tongue of a walkway, paved with granite slabs, rolled forth from the gate doors and completed the strange impression that a beast of grey rock was hiding in the hill, waiting for unsuspecting prey to enter its mouth. The beast even had attendants; a pair of dragon sculptures, carved from pale marble and with Firkraag's emblem painted on their chests, sat on top of the stone columns, peering down into the gate as if waiting for a chance to snatch up anything they deemed unworthy of their master's appetite.
"Charming place," Ember murmured as the group crouched down behind a windblown bush that was barely large enough to hide them all. Somehow, the dragon statues seemed to be following her with their eyes.
"Suits its owner perfectly, no? The only question is: what do we do about them?" Yoshimo pointed at the half dozen orc guards that milled around the gate opening.
"I would not hesitate to cut them down, could I but be certain that they are what they appear. Your wizard is useless in this matter..." Sir Cadril said, earning himself a angry, sullen glare and some of Edwin's usual muttered insults. "Delryn," the paladin continued, "surely there must be something you can do to solve this conundrum?"
"Nay," Anomen said sourly. "Nay, there is not."
"Is there any way we could avoid a confrontation?" Mazzy asked. "Could we sneak past them somehow?"
Yoshimo frowned. "If we find a back entrance, perhaps."
"If these are evil orcs, Minsc will not sneak his justice past them!"
The longer we wait, the worse it'll get. "There's really only one way to do this," Ember said, and stood up. Ignoring both Anomen's attempt to make her stop and the knot of nervousness in her belly, she walked up the stone tongue towards the gate, in plain sight of the orcs; they snarled in warning and pointed their swords at her. "I have come to see Firkraag," she called out to them.
One of the orcs, large and brutish and with a scarlet sash around the waist, laughed gutturally at her. "You early! Troop need kick in arse to get ready! Firkraag be warned, though I think he not care! Take her!" The orc headed into the darkness inside the gate, while the rest of the guards advanced on Ember.
Not so fast, she thought wryly. With a few syllables, she coaxed the scant mosses and herbs that grew around the gate into a writhing, entangling mass that twined around the orcs' legs; while they struggled to free themselves from the bespelled plants, Ember's companions caught up with her and more than evened the odds. Before long, every single one of the orc guards lay dead on the ground.
"True orcs, I believe," Sir Cadril said with relief. "Orcish speech patterns, orcish combat styles, and now they yield orc bodies. Our honour has not been stained further."
"Nevertheless, he may deceive us again," Mazzy said, peering into the darkness ahead of them. "We should keep to the shadows, and avoid combat to the greatest extent possible."
"It will not be easy. The entire place probably knows of our arrival by now," Yoshimo said.
"I don't think it'll make any difference," Ember said lightly, trying to keep the anxiety she felt from showing. "I was invited, after all."
Beyond Firkraag's gates lay a giant cavern. The floor and some of the walls had been smoothed, and lit torches had been affixed to the walls every ten feet or so, but other than that, Firkraag had clearly let nature do most of the work for him. The ceiling, studded with stalactites, vaulted far above them, and simple walkways had been built where cracks and crevices made the floor unsound. There were several smaller caves within the main cavern; many of them held deep pools of milky white water, and some were inhabited by mist creatures that did not appreciate being disturbed. The main cavern itself turned downwards on the left side, forming a wide, seemingly bottomless pit with sides far too steep for scaling. Peering into it, it was just barely possible to glimpse a walkway below, about halfway down the visible part of the pit. On the right side of the cavern lay the only human-sized feature in it; a single door of oak and iron.
The group pressed onwards through the door, and entered a veritable maze of rooms and corridors. They had to deal with an orc ambush in the first large chamber, and either hid from or fought with the stone and clay golems that patrolled the larger corridors, but other than that, they encountered surprisingly little opposition as they worked their way downwards. Still, it was a wearying, disorienting task, and with several members of the party in less than full health, it soon became clear that they would not reach Firkraag that night.
"Boo did not think this house would be so large," Minsc said wearily as the group settled down in what appeared to be a seldom used storage chamber.
"Come now, good Minsc," Yoshimo said, sitting down on a musty-smelling grain sack, "wasn't the size of his front door an indicator?"
"I wonder how Lord Firkraag came to live here," Mazzy said quietly. "Surely he did not build this maze by himself; the corridors show several signs of age, and even if they did not, how could he have had the time and resources for such a project?"
"It would appear he is accustomed to taking possession of that which belongs to others," Anomen grumbled.
After sharing a cold meal of bread, dried meat and fruits, and water, most of the group settled into their bedrolls. They slept in shifts, with two people on watch duty at all times, but their precautions were for nothing; the night passed without incident. Not as much as a single orc moved in the hallway that passed the storage chamber; even if the group might, as they reasoned, be in a disused part of the complex, the complete absence of Firkraag's minions was troubling.
Ember's watch was in the hours before dawn. She spent the first half with Mazzy, who made many calming observations about their situation and talked with her about the loss of friends; the second half she spent with Sir Cadril, who barely said a word more than necessary to her, and instead gave her strange, scrutinizing looks. It made her feel very uncomfortable, and by the time Anomen relieved her for the final watch of the night, all the calmness that talking with Mazzy had instilled in her was gone. Knowing she was too agitated to sleep, she settled down in a corner of the storage chamber and entered a meditative trance, letting herself draw strength from the scant whispers of life that existed within the caves and tunnels around her.
She completed her meditations to find that Anomen and Sir Cadril were arguing; their voices were low and calm, and barely audible where she was sitting, but they were very clearly agitated.
"You cannot blame me for being concerned, Delryn," the paladin said. "You've always been too eager in your quest for honour and glory, you know. The Order would not want to see you turn mercenary in your pursuit of those qualities."
"Our cause is just!" Anomen snapped. "And rest assured, I will endeavour to keep it that way."
"You travel with a Kozakuran scoundrel, an addled man, a Thayvian Red Wizard, and one who has drawn the ire of what is clearly a madman-"
"Do not speak of her so! Garren Windspear has been subject to similar favours; do you deny that he is honourable?"
"There is something odd about her, Delryn. What do you know of her, truly?"
"I do know that she is a force of righteousness," Anomen said. "If you will forgive me, Sir Cadril, I believe it is time for my morning prayers."
The sound of heavy boots against stone followed the cleric as he stomped out of the watch chamber and away from the paladin. Sir Cadril sighed and muttered something about Helm.
Ember remained silent. Something odd about her, indeed! She badly wanted to know what the paladin meant by that, but she didn't dare ask him; the way he'd looked at her told her more than clearly enough that whatever he sensed about her, it was not positive. I could have asked Ajantis, if only... She closed her eyes and sat back against the rocky wall, and didn't move until Anomen returned to the camp a short while later. He still looked very upset.
"Anomen, what's wrong?" she asked quietly as the cleric walked past her.
"My lady!" He gave her a startled look that soon turned wary. "You overheard," he said.
"I did, but just a little," she admitted. "Thank you for defending me."
"He had no right to speak of you in such terms!" Anomen said, a little too loud. "Sir Cadril has never approved of me," he grumbled in a much lower voice. "He is not much older than I, but because he has attained his knighthood, he believes he has the right to lecture me about the path I choose towards my own! Bah!"
"I'm sorry," she said, and waited for him to continue, but he did not. Instead, he opened his mouth as if to speak, closed it again, looked at her, looked uncomfortably away, fidgeted slightly with his hands, and started to turn red.
"Will you walk with me, my lady?" he finally said. She agreed, and followed him down a short corridor into another chamber, which was piled to the ceiling with slightly damp firewood.
"So... what's really the matter?" she asked.
"Yesterday morning, after the ...incident, I prayed to Helm, asking that he would grant me the ability to see through such a deception... that I might never again be helpless in the face of such subterfuge. The only response I received was silence. I repeated my request this morning, with the same result. Angered and dismayed, I asked why I was denied so; in that, I was answered." He laughed bitterly. "How could I be granted the gift of True Seeing while my own vision remains clouded?"
"I see," she said. No wonder he's upset! "It's probably just that you're not ready for such magic."
"Not ready... or not worthy."
"What would make you think that?!"
"Joining the Order of the Radiant Heart was always my heart's desire, but... I wished to serve as a paladin. I spent my youth preparing and waiting for the day when I would finally receive my Calling... but that day never came. I was not worthy of such an honour. On my mother's encouragement, I eventually offered to pledge myself to the Church, that I might still be able to enter the Order; I must confess that my astonishment was as great as my joy when I was accepted. My Lord Helm cannot have forgotten that serving Him as a priest was never my first choice, nor my ulterior goal; it should not surprise me that such a cleric is not permitted the usage of His greater gifts."
"I speak and think much of my Test of Knighthood, but even as I look forward to it, I also dread it. And... I dare not test the depth of my faith by performing a Vigil at the Temple. I... I fear I would fail." He sighed. "Sir Cadril is right to doubt me; even Mazzy Fentan is more deserving of knighthood than I."
"Anomen," she said, determined to not let him interrupt her a second time, "maybe it's just that you were not meant to be a paladin?"
"I thought that much was obvious."
"Yes, yes," she said impatiently, "but not necessarily the way you see it. I've never told you how I became a druid, have I?"
"Nay, my lady. Indeed, I know very few things about your past," he said, and looked at her with curiosity.
"Well, know that when I decided to pursue this path, I turned first to Eldath."
"Eldath?" Anomen's eyes widened with surprise. "You, my lady, an Eldathrin?"
"Doesn't quite fit, does it?" she said with a small grin. "I prayed to her with all my heart, but it was Mielikki that answered, and it was Mielikki that accepted my pledge. I was not meant to be a Peacewoman."
"Indeed, I cannot imagine you in such a role," he said thoughtfully. "But I must ask: how did it feel to be given such an alternate offer?"
"More wonderful than I could have imagined," she said quietly. "I was denied what I wanted, and given what I needed... and I was given to understand that, that very night. I've never regretted how things turned out - not on that account, at least. Anomen, what if you were no more meant to be a paladin than I was to be an Eldathrin? In my experience, the gods do not grant their favours lightly; Helm would not have accepted you if he did not wish you to serve him."
A hint of a wry smile crossed the cleric's face. "Your point is duly taken."
"And don't worry about that spell; I really think that it's just because you're not ready yet. Once you understand your place - when your vision is no longer clouded - I am certain you'll be granted it."
"That may never happen," he sighed, then smiled at her. "But... you are most kind to say so, my lady."
They sat together in silence for a while; the peace was eventually broken, but not by one of their companions. Instead, it was a small orc that scurried into the chamber, made a frightened squeal at the sight of the two humans, and, in an attempt to flee, stumbled over a few scattered pieces of wood and fell flat on its face. Moments later, Anomen fell upon the creature, grabbing it by the shoulder and pinning it to the floor.
"Pleeze, mercy on me!" the orc wheezed. "Me sorry. No kill! I beg! I beg! Let me go live!"
"I defy you to give me a reason why I should let you live!" the cleric growled.
"I tell you secrets! Things about place you not know! You get good secret here, I tell you!"
"Then cease your whining and speak!"
"Firkraag run the place! He hidey-hide in special place with Garren child. He wait in dere for yous to comes."
"We know that much already," Ember said.
"Tell us what defenses Lord Firkraag has!" Anomen demanded.
"Defenses? Lord Firkraag no need defenses. You silly to think so! We hunt the feed and guard the home, but he not need us protect him!"
"Sure of himself, isn't he?" Ember muttered.
"He sure you gonna die," the orc said. "Me sure too. Me sure I run other way so I not killed too by accident. He get mad, bad things happen. I go now. I go fast!" With a quick twist, the orc managed to kick Anomen's arm just hard enough that the cleric let go. Before he could catch the orc again, it was on its feet and running away as fast as its legs could carry it.
"Run then, cowardly creature," Anomen grumbled in disgust.
Ember sighed. "We should get moving, too."