Saradush burned. In Gromnir's throneroom waited his chief warriors and mages and the unnaturally born half-orc himself.
"He is...n-not a fire giant," her Khalid tried to console their ward, "and the s-same as you; you should t-try to at l-least..."
Jaheira, iron-skinned, folded her arms with impatience. Already she had healed her husband from an enchanted arrow-wound in his left arm and a slash to his thigh, as well as the others who had absolutely insisted upon getting themselves injured. Her own wounds, of course, had been gained for definite purpose and 'twas easy to cast healing spells on oneself. The young bard walked with a slight limp; Imoen's purple cloak was ripped and singed; the hem of Delythabelle's robes was soaked by half-orc blood, which the child had complained of several times already in their slow, discreet push from the dungeon entrance to the uppermost rooms of the fortress of Gromnir Il-Khan. (The most natural way to remove bloodstains from cloth was by cold water and the acidic pemmonfruit.)
"All right, Khalid," Della said sweetly, and she and her simulacrum both enchanted their mirror images to invisibility. "Safana should be ready by now...shouldn't she?"
"I cannot doubt it," Garrick said, placing a hand on her elbow, his lute slung across his other arm.
Three skeleton warriors reared up beside them, carrying mage-summoned blades: at Imoen's command the bodies of Il-Khan's guards they had already slain had risen, the flesh sloughing from them by her spells, the bones joining together to make giants. Jaheira disapproved of necromantic spells, but helpful advice seemed to fly from Imoen as a duck cleaning mud from its feathers by a quick dive in the water. And yet Imoen kept something of her old cheer and charm, Jaheira thought; the second child she and Khalid were given duty to watch over, clever in her own way and optimistic. Of course, it was important that Imoen continued to take her very seriously. Khalid, her love though he was, did not always give the stern authority one needed to properly direct others on how to live a fulfilled and natural life.
Jaheira strode forward impatiently to push at the thick doors, but Imoen stepped by her;
"Strength spell!" she gloated, applying the tip of her fourth finger to them, and open they came.
A typical unnatural archmage, Jaheira thought with amused tolerance. She could recall that when she had first met Khalid she had still been in the stage of entangling anyone upon half an excuse to show her appreciation of the abilities Silvanus granted. With Khalid she took care to be first to enter, ready to ward the first attack.
The half-orc appeared a shambling, pathetic creature, one of those who gained mastery over others for simple bulk; in nature the successful leader of a pack was gifted in both cunning for survival and in defending a position. He was large for one of his ilk, sprawled upon a thronelike chair on his dais, the seat roughly carved out of oak. Not merely muscle showed in him, but fat threatened to spill from the armour he wore, his dark green jowls thick and floppy above his metal gorget. A pale blue morningstar was in his hand, and the cloth that showed between the armour was stained in several places. He rose quickly as if they had caught him unawares, the weapon in hand. Jaheira counted four soldiers and two robed figures by Il-Khan, three half-orcs and three human, though at least one of the humans seemed brutal enough of feature to have some of the foul blood within them—such as Madulf of the Umar Hills aside, there was reason to despise orc-kin.
Delythabelle chanted a brief spell, and her high voice rose to allow itself to be heard. "Brother Il-Khan! If you wish I would like to speak with you! We can help you with Saradush! All the little children...they must need our help..." Her young face was drawn in sorrow. Though shallow and frivolous and unlikely to work for balance without the impetus given her, Della was not unfeeling; the suffering on the streets had touched her to the point that Jaheira had used far too many healing incantations at her request.
"We could join together!" Garrick burst in, his tenor voice much richer than Della's tinkling. "We have to drive away the Fire Giants, we don't have to fight each other! You just need to look after this city..."
"Pretty Melissan sent you," the half-orc spoke; Jaheira, glaring at the two mages, readied herself. Dispelling and a true sight to breach illusions were ready upon her lips by Silvanus. "Do you not know how well she lies?"
Jaheira and Khalid shared a glance; the half-orc sounded as insane as a Zhentish necromancer. If the priestess was willing to aid even Bhaalspawn as girlish and frivolous as Della and Imoen, that in itself was something of a sign of good faith, and unlike Gromnir she seemed concerned about saving the city. Perhaps Melissan had been correct in diagnosing his madness.
"Melissan merely wants the best for Saradush and for the Children," Garrick said, his voice gathering a bard's confidence. "Come and listen to us; you and Della can work toget..."
"Kill all the intruders who lie!" Gromnir screamed—the voice like a wild pig, Jaheira thought, doubling her ability to fight with the right incantations to Silvanus already in her throat; and the battle started—
Safana's shadow jammed the blade of her dagger into Gromnir's neck, the invisibility spell and her own ability to blend to shadows fading away from her. There was dark blood, the half-orc's scream; but he moved to fling the thief away from him. Her body struck the opposite wall with a loud crash. There was no time to tend to her—a comrade, though not Jaheira's preferred company—only to rush to the warriors, take down Gromnir's defences. He bled though he'd the durability of his ilk.
A thick circle of spinning thorns sprung around Jaheira from her calling of the powers of Nature, and then she reached further to Silvanus to command them to be set afire by an elemental spirit, a burning shield. She dashed forth to a warrior bearing a sword, whilst her Khalid—
Her Khalid fought Gromnir himself, his bright blade and firm shield meeting the icy morningstar; she worried for him, but of course his fighting was focused and agile and it was best for her to face greater numbers of opponents. Her quarterstaff clove the head of the first arms-orc, though the two others surrounded her; and an archer's arrow tried to pierce through her thorned barrier. As she struck she sought to force the power of her shielding to harm them. There was time for mercy in Balance, and that was not this hour.
A lightning bolt lanced through her body. She shouted at the pain; iron protected better than bark against most attacks, but lightning was not one of them... There was a lucky strike from the axeman, through her thorns and into her body, though it bruised rather than pierced armour and nature's iron. Two of Imoen's skeletons came beside her, and the third made its shambling way to the archer.
"Della, help me get their protections down!" Imoen called. A long red whip of magical force uncoiled from her hands; she flung it at one of the enemy mages, and a pale sphere he had called about himself faded. Imoen started to chant a new spell, and beside her Garrick's bardsong rose from his voice and granted courage. Della was rushing over to Safana's body, a healing potion in her hands; kneeling, trying to force it down Safana's throat.
Jaheira fought her way once more to her feet. She swung her quarterstaff carefully not in the rhythm of the bard's song, refusing to be influenced by it, obeying the tides and eddies of her own skill. The earth was far below, the stone walls were hauled and shaped away from nature by man, the throne upon the dais was of dead wood: those were still more reasons to fight. Her wooden staff flashed out again, the end firmly into the stomach of the second warrior and taking him down; then the first of Imoen's skeletons brought down its sword through his face.
There was ice on Khalid's shield and left shoulder, but Gromnir bled in one more place. Strong despite his bulk, obviously muscle under the fat; but not nearly so skilled as her Khalid, who avoided the fierce blows with quick, assured footwork. Della was chanting, still standing over Safana's body. The duplicates of her cast missiles.
White light shone from the girl's direction. Jaheira heard her cry out, and glanced back: "Imoen! Behind you!" Della screamed, and Imoen whirled; there was a dark-clad figure near the shadows by her, trying to stab in the back.
The children were trained by now to deal with this, Jaheira reminded herself; grimly she fought on.
One of the enemy mages called out to finish a spell; a flood of hobgoblins came out of a cloud of green smoke, three of them by her and the remainder by Khalid, some aiming their foul arrows at him, the repulsive poison that they drew from under their fingernails...
Jaheira hit to push back the warrior she fought, and reached inside herself for what she knew was there. She felt her body change, her plate moving and shifting and adapting, her bones growing and her hair covering her body entire, her teeth thick and long and almost pushing themselves through her mouth until her jaw shifted to cover them. Her quarterstaff fell from the bear's claws, and Jaheira leapt for their throats.
"I d-did... Dearest, I was in no real d-danger..." She bent over her husband, having cast multiple healing spells. Gromnir Il-Khan lay pierced by Khalid's longsword; hobgoblin bodies began to melt into thin air as summoned creatures. Shattered bones of Imoen's skeleton warriors lay also still.
"Be quiet, Khalid," she thought she said, and stroked his face gently.
"C-could...you perhaps t-turn back into y-yourself, dear? Not that I...disapprove of any shape that you choose..."
Her claws and fur began to retreat from the bear that cradled her husband. That woman Melissan had come, arrived only too late; talking to the children.
"They all lie dead," Garrick said with bitterness. An expression of sadness lingered upon the red-haired woman's features.
"What I feared came to pass. It was too late to save Gromnir from his madness," Melissan said. "But you must go on, if you would aid others..."
"What is there to aid?" Garrick pointed to the empty window set in the wall, the city below like black barren glass suffused by smoke, the shapes of people fleeing like ants.
"Yaga-Shura," Melissan said. "Would that bloodshed had been avoided here; if you journey to the Northern Forests, you may find what is vulnerable of him..."
For the balance, Jaheira thought, and looked into Khalid's eyes, the liquid brown the colour of a still lake by the roots of a willow, the healing sap of the thorns of the joryith plant that flowered for only three days of the year; she could see the reply of his heart. We must do what we can, beloved.