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The Night. The Gate. The Never. – Part One

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How have we even gotten here??

Night had fallen gently on the city of Baldur’s Gate. Taverns filled up with workers seeking relief in fermented beverage. Merchants prepared keys, ready to close their shops and join the drunk crowds. They waited. They knew. There is always that one customer who dashes through doorframe at the very last moment.
And indeed, six silhouettes were running in panic, their weapons clashing against their clothes. A lady of the night service pointed to her left, showing them a way to the closest store.
“Our gratitude, sweet woman!,” shouted a voice in Common, panting from weariness.
They sprinted towards Lucky Aello's Discount Store with one more act of effort. Its owner put his keys away as the door whistled and bashed.
So they entered, one by one, into a dim lit room.
First appeared a slim human woman, skilled with traps, locks, and bows. She fixed her hooded cape, which covered her ginger hair and studded armour. That was Imoen of Candlekeep, showing the merchant a sincere grin on her maple wood coloured face.
Next trampled a dwarven beard wearer, wielding a battle axe in one hand and a long rectangular shield in the other. He glanced at a display, already having second thoughts. Being a merchant himself, Kagain of Beregost recognized a scam shop when he saw one.
After him, a human paladin of Helm staggered, eager to take off their chainmail armour and plank themselves to sleep. One garment of theirs stood out: a girdle with a red dazzle that had hexed its owner and transformed their body. Meant to curse a curious adventurer, the belt turned out to bring a blessing. Thus, Ajantis Ilvastarr continued their noble duty as Ajantia.
Then, a bright green ankheg armour rang at the doorstep. Its wearer, a human cleric, rested her shield and hammer on the floor. Long haired, prepared for death, yet anxious upon spotting any stone sculpture, was Branwen of Seawolf.
Behind her swaggered an Ilythiiri in leather armour. While Branwen revered many deities, including Tempus, Viconia of house DeVir devoted herself to Shar. She showed expertise in using a mace, healing wounds, and raising skeletons. She was also the one who suggested that the party flee from Centeol’s spider cave.
Last came a thunder of sheathed short swords carried by an obscured person on their forearms, like a baby they intended to drop onto a fireplace. And indeed, the carrier tripped over a wooden plank and threw the loot at Aello’s desk, stomping and regaining their balance.

The merchant saw a half-elf woman in purpura coloured Knave’s Robe. Her name was Vissenvaib, and Gorion had great hopes for her when she reached maturity in Candlekeep. Unfortunately, Gorion met his death defending her in the woods – as mentors do – leaving her all alone with Imoen as her sole companion. That was when Vissenvaib realized her lifetime knowledge, so praised within Candlekeep walls, meant jack crap when an ogre aims for her head with his club. Relying on her inconsistent wit, she trained herself to induce sleep upon her enemies, produce flames on her palms, and use an improved slingshot. She was also capable of identifying various enchantments on items she found.
She freed Branwen at Nashkel Carnival and asked her to join her party.
She saved Viconia from a prejudiced guard and asked her to join her party.
She found Kagain at his shop and asked him to join her party.
She met Ajantia on her way to Baldur’s Gate and asked them to join her party.
Poor, unaware adventurers quickly regretted that decision as Vissenvaib recruited warriors regardless of their moral point of view. She also wanted them all to wear leather armour, and she stood behind them while casting offensive spells. Injured, angered, confused, even more injured, they wondered how she managed to survive without Gorion. That was her mystery and, surprisingly, her charm.

Vissenvaib gasped, wiped off sweat with a sleeve, and started gesturing with her hands, which were dark brown with warm undertones.
“Those are all for sale,” she explained.
“Splendid! Let me count them,” Aello touched first two swords with his fingers, then another two, and so on, “Fourteen shorts, one hundred and forty Pieces. Anything else?”
“Um… Folks?,” she switched to Chondathan.
“Here’s the Traveler’s Robe,” said Imoen.
“I have a pearl,” followed Viconia in Elven.
“Will you use the potion of Firebreath, Vissie?,” asked Branwen.
“I don’t buy potions,” quickly replied Aello, “But I will accept the robes and the pearl.”
“Really now?,” frowned Kagain, “Then, who provides you with the potions on your display?”
“Only trustworthy distributors, sir.”
“Name one.”
“I assume your suspicion results from the murkiness of my potions. That’s just a natural precipitate.”
“Name one distributor,” insisted Kagain.
“I can sell them for a low price, even lower than it already is. For example, my potion of Healing…”
“Hold on,” Vissenvaib interrupted him, having read a price tag, “At other store, one bottle cost ninety five Pieces.”
“Are you certain?”
“She’s right, for once,” continued Kagain, “Look, swindler, name at least one provider or the last thing you sell will be your head.”
“Oi, krasnyĭ, no need to be brutal,” Vissenvaib turned her head to the dwarf, “We can simply report him to a guard.”
“Now, that’s a deed of which Helm shall approve,” Ajantia voiced their opinion, “Confess now, shopkeeper.”
“Seems like my data on prices in competing stores are no longer valid. It’s just a matter of readjusting my own prices.”
“By Ilmater, are you listening,” exhaled Vissenvaib in clear annoyance, “Where do you get those potions from?”
“I promised discretion...”
“That’s enough. Imoen, find a Flaming Fist.”
“Consider it done.”

Lucky Aello played oblivious despite a guard entering his shop, “Good evening, sir. Now would you look at this: these customers are prolonging my work, and they haven’t even bought anything, yet they are eager to sue me.”
“I don’t know, I would say they are precautious,” answered the Flaming Fist mercenary.
Vissenvaib explained, “I intend to buy a single potion and drink it as you watch, for you will be considered a reliable witness, sir.”
“Good luck to you, then. There have been testimonies in the past of cursed scrolls that petrified its users.”
“Wai’, wha’? Then, why is he still allowed to manage a shop?”
“We couldn’t confirm the crime for we were summoned after a scroll or potion was used. Every single time until tonight, that is.”
“Well, poop. We don’t have any scrolls to treat petrification. I can only hope this specific beverage does something else.”
“Or, I could drink it in your stead,” suggested Ajantia.
Or, we could just leave,” mumbled Branwen.
“Great idea, the paladin should test the potion on themselves,” stated Viconia with vicious intentions.
“I don’t know, Vicky…,” said Vissenvaib, trying to read her face.
“Think about it: if something bad happens to you, the Iron Throne loses a potent enemy.”
“And if Ajax dies, I lose a potent friend!”
“You and your dilemmas. Let me have it,” Kagain grabbed the murky potion from the display, bit its cork off and spat it out, then poured half of the bottle down his throat – all of this before Vissenvaib could react properly. He put the remaining beverage down, exposed a cloth with his injured side by tearing his already damaged armour, and waited. He held down a belch and muffled it with his hand.
“How’re ya feeling, pal?,” asked Imoen.
“A little funny. As I expected, the swill tastes like unfiltered wine.”
“How would you know that?,” Vissenvaib’s curiosity had to wait, however, because the dwarf started glowing aqua blue…

A wave of chill hit our heroes. They quickly realized they have been taken away, with the part of the floor they stood on, as well as a couple of stone bricks from the wall, now lying next to Branwen in no harmony. Aello and the guard were nowhere to be found.
Around them was a forest with no distinctive characteristics that would help them tell it apart from the woods they marched through in the past. Night obscured the view for Ajantia and Branwen; Imoen wore an enchanted ring, so darkness didn’t concern her.
Kagain needed a moment to decide what to say.
“Great. First the ice dungeon, now this. What do we do?”
Vissenvaib looked up. “I can see the Double Daggers, I think. If we keep going west, we’ll reach the sea.”
“And what if the closest sea is to the east?,” wondered Ajantia, “We must recognize this place first; then, we can choose a direction.”
“We might not even be on Faerûn right now,” added Imoen.
“I’d say these trees look very Faerûnish. Do you folks know constellations? I remember only that some of them are visible in winter.”
Something growled quietly. Vissenvaib readied her slingshot with dispatch.
“That’s… just me,” admitted Branwen, “I was really hoping we’d go to tavern and have a steak after the transaction.”
“Oh. Now that you said it, I’m also a bit hungry. Let’s just walk until we find something that tries to attack us. Then, we’ll use those wooden planks to cook it.”
“Even if it’s a person?,” asked Viconia.
“Aaah, maybe not yet. We’re not desperate to eat, right?”
“I don’t know…,” whined Branwen.
“Right, I’ll stay with Bran, and you folks discuss the matter of hunting.”
“I’m still in possession of those shoes, the speedy ones,” started Viconia, “I’ll don them if you don’t want to use them.”
“Should we split or march in one group?,” Kagain stroke his temple.
“I suggest we walk in two: you join DeVir, and I accompany Imoen.”
Viconia acted surprised upon hearing Ajantia’s plan, “And why won’t you go with the hargluk? Do you distrust him?”
“Well, it’s more that I suppose you’d feel more comfortable with Kagain.”
Both he and Viconia choked. And no, it wasn’t a romantic implication; it was a nonverbal “They’re actually more ignorant than Vissenvaib, holy crap” message.
“You know what, I choose the rogue. We’ll be going now. Trust us not,” Viconia left the party, pulling Imoen by her bent elbow.
Ajantia broadened their mouth as if they wanted to make an “eek!” sound.
“Paladina, pal. Read a book,” sighed Kagain.
“I think they meant that you’re both morally ambiguous, so you’d…”
“Whoa, V, you’re not helping,” he frowned, “Yes, I know what she meant. No, I’m not letting her get away with that without visiting a library. Also, I didn’t ask for your input. Ready to go, Ilvastarr?”

The dwarf returned with a bear, holding its front legs and dragging it along. The paladin carried two honeycombs. Imoen and Viconia brought two hares and a wolf.
They saw a fireplace as tall as the floor planks were, since Branwen arranged them that way. Vissenvaib was playing a tiny drum, relaxing, nodding her head, and overall glowing with joy.
“You know, someone may hear you and sneak up on you,” said Imoen.
“So what? We are warriors. We are skilled. They’ll just strengthen us. Nothing to worry about,” replied the cheerful mage.
“Alright, now the messy part,” Kagain sat and started skinning the bear, “How far’ve you managed to go?”
“Pfffffuh, three miles? Just a guess. Viconia?”
“Perhaps three and a half. By the way, Vissenvaib, you’re screwed.”
She stopped drumming, “Why?”
“We got a clearer view of the sky, where a few trees had been cut. Imoen spotted the Alignment.”
“Oh. Which one?”
The one. The Centaur and the Warrior.”
“Right, that one. So?”
“…We’re in the North.”
“Huh. So, we should go southwest and we’ll be fine.”
“You realize it’ll take weeks.”
“Yeah… It’s still better than wandering in mines.”
“We don’t have to walk all the way to Baldur’s Gate,” said Ajantia, “If we reach the sea, we could get aboard and sail.”
“Nnno, I’ll feel safer on land.”
“Sea is much safer, though. As long as Umberlee cooperates,” noted Branwen.
Imoen nodded, “I agree. We should travel by boat when we can.”
“Folks! Weren’t we supposed to identify this place first?,” complained Vissenvaib.
“We just did,” replied Viconia, “It’s not Anauroch; it’s not the Glacier; it’s still the North.”
“It could have been one of those… those places above the Fallen… Stars… Sea… thing,” she gestured vividly again, “It could have been a different continent even!”
“It doesn’t change the fact we need to go west as you said yourself, if I remember correctly.”
Vissenvaib stomped repeatedly, “We’re not taking a boat!
“Yes, we are. You’ve been overruled.”
“Vicky, Imoen, you traiiiiitors!”

And so the travelers went to sleep; the sleep was pleasant, warm, and deep, except for Vissie the half-elf mage, who tucked herself in with cloak and rage.
Yes, they did eat cooked bear meat before sleep.

As Vissenvaib was falling asleep, she became a viewer, a witness standing on a crimson stone floor in a corner. Two male human beings and a male half-ogre lied in the remaining three corners of a rectangular chamber; she glanced at them one by one from behind a statue. Then, she gazed at the center of the floor, at the symbol she didn’t know. What was it? A skull surrounded by… twelve… drops? Of water? Tears? Blood? Wine? The symbol was golden in its entirety, so she couldn’t tell; besides, it annoyed her that the drops didn’t form a perfect circle, and that was enough to weaken her concentration.
Suddenly, the statue that shielded her howled as cracks started to cut its surface. The half-elf trotted along the wall, but the second statue was also crumbling, and so was the third one… She figured there was no point and just ran towards the center. But! Even the mysterious symbol started to fall apart, leaving an abyss beneath. She jumped back, lost balance, and fell on her bottom.
Then she saw him! A massive muscular human, half the height of now broken statues, his eyes glowing yellow, his skin brown but lighter than hers. He had no helmet anymore, just metal dust on his head and ears. His gauntlets, vambraces, greaves, and cuishes weighed him down, slightly deforming as if melting, but they produced no heat. Instead, they crushed his legs and disjointed his shoulders. His breastplate shattered, humiliating him even more. But his shriek! Hauntingly horrific! The man could hold neither his tears nor his urine.
Vissenvaib coughed and grabbed her own legs just to make sure they are fine.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?!,” the man yelled, “YOU HAVE DEFEATED ME! YOU HAVE MADE IT EASY TO STRIKE A LETHAL WOUND! WHY WON’T YOU KILL ME ALREADY?!”
There was no answer, no laughter, no sign.
Vissenvaib looked around. To her right was a shard of a sword. Maybe she overlooked it; maybe it magically appeared because she needed it. Such are dreams. She didn’t have time to question her senses; she leaped like a panther, grabbed the shard, stood up, and dashed.
“I’ll ruin your scheme, whoever you are,” she thought, “I’ll free this man, so he can meet Naralis.”
One more jump, and she stabbed the tortured man between his ribs. A bruise grew around the wound.
He smiled, “I thank thee, but it’s for naught. It’s just a vision.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I don’t deserve thy compassion… Ngh!,” his face twisted in effort, “I’m the one wh…”
He couldn’t finish. The floor collapsed under him, and the abyss devoured him.

She twitched under her cloak. The dream was over.
Vissenvaib sat up. Ash was glowing, blinking slowly and peacefully, where the fireplace stood bright that evening. She watched it to calm down.
“I remembered Naralis,” her thoughts wandered, “I usually refer to Jergal or Myrkul. Because Gorion revered Jergal. I know Naralis only from books. Why would I remember him now? That man’s voice… was similar… except it wasn’t distorted by magic or helmet. Was it him? Was that what he meant? «I’m the one who killed Gorion.» And I tried to help him… He claimed it was a vision. Who sent it, then? Why?”
Too many whos and whys made her hide her head between her knees.

At pink dawn, the party started marching west – at least they thought so. Natural obstacles such as exposed roots or long cavities forced the adventurers to slightly change their path again and again.
They walked with few breaks, eating the bear meat as they passed mushrooms and dwarf trees.
Three hours later, Viconia doffed her armour.
“What’s wrong?,” asked Vissenvaib.
“Sseren…”
“Usstan xuat zhaun nindil…,” she spoke back in Drow, “I don’t know that word.”
“It’s warm here.”
Later, everyone in the party agreed that it was rather warm in the forest.
“Good thing I still had salt on me; the hares would have been wasted at this temperature,” commented Kagain.
Before midday, a storm stroke and rain poured for two hours, but the air felt dry afterwards. The party collected the water falling from tree leaves in their waterskins, and continued their walk.

Thus, our heroes reached a village with sixteen buildings and crooked, almost sinuous pathways. They passed a house to their left, entered a path, walked between two houses, turned right, passed two more houses and looked around. A statue greeted them, and a standalone tower with a rectangular arsenal attached to it winked at them with a light reflected by metal.
Vissenvaib examined a house behind the statue, “Does it look like an inn to you, folks?”
“If anything, this whole place looks like it suffered a massacre and got repopulated in haste,” said Viconia.
“Um… How can you tell?”
“Listen to people around us. They’re speaking Common. Not the Northern Chondathan, not Illuskan, not Commani. Common. Sentences like, «Is our child old enough to go to forest with us?,» in Common. Speaking of children, how many can you see or hear?”
Vissenvaib focused. Her ears moved in various directions. “Maybe nine.”
“So, at least seventy people here have no children.”
“No underage children, that is. Some of them could be an adult offspring.”
“Still.”
“Yeah. And the children speak Common, too. That just sucks. So. That house. I’m gonna ask for some directions.”
Ajantia stepped forward, “No offense, Vissenvaib, but maybe I should do the talking.”
“Full offense, Ship Captain. I can handle asking one question to a stranger.”

The room they entered was decreased in size with two additional walls, which created a separate room. A corridor to their right resulted from that makeover. The space was filled up with a throng of traders. Deep in the distance, a woman with round tip of her nose was measuring ale in a glass mug.
Vissenvaib approached, moving smoothly, “Greetings. We are travelers, and we’ve suffered an unfortunate loss of our maps. They soaked in rain, so the ink is illegible. Where are we?”
“Thundertree, dear lady. We’re full here, no beds. Anything to drink?”
“Definitely something strong for our dwarf; he risked his life for justice.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Well, the justice for our wallets, that is.”
“I can offer Fire Wine, Westgate Ruby, or Old One Eye.”
Shyoo,” whistled Kagain, “One of each, please.”
“Vicky?”
“Westgate and Shadowdark if you serve it.”
“We do.”
“Captain Ajax?”
“Saerloonian Glowfire, please. I assume you have the full Catalogue.”
“Not really, but we do sell the Glowfire. Noted down.”
“Bran?”
“Can I have Special Vat?”
“Yes, madam.”
“Imoen?”
“Two mugs of Suzale.”
“Then, I’ll have the Purple Hills Cider.”

The party stood, pressing their backs against a wall, sipping and gulping.
Viconia broke the silence, “By. Shar. What have you brought upon us?”
The mage took a careful step away from the Ilythiiri, “So, you know where Thundertree is, I reckon?”
“I happen to have heard about it. And my assumption about the massacre makes sense now, since this village was, indeed, slaughtered in the past by orcs.”
“Ah.”
“And the warmth… It comes from the Neverwinter River. And that means we are far away from Baldur’s Gate. Too far to bother traveling by foot.”
“Grrreat,” Vissenvaib expressed her disapproval.
“So, we follow the river to Neverwinter and get to the port?,” asked Branwen.
Viconia didn’t have to answer. Vissenvaib hit her head against the wall, repeatedly, murmuring in Rashemi:
“Why, oh why did I run to that cursed shop? Bladg! Sûkin! Shoot me!”