"He separated heart from body," Garrick narrated, as though he already crafted their journey into a song. The young had to find their own way of living through this madness; Khalid listened to him. "What is a man—a person—without a heart? The seat of emotion and of love true..."
Glancing into Jaheira's eyes, Khalid thought he saw amusement: —What do those young pups know of love! —Dearest, I believe that they are as much in love as you and I...you remember that time past, when we were still learning what we felt for each other...
Delythabelle took her lover's hand in hers. The trees of the Forest of Mir were close together, the ground oddly dry for the amount of reddened foliage; Khalid felt no sense of the warm welcome of nature in this place, and knew that for his wife it was a worse thing. It is not as troublesome as entering man-made cities, dear, he read from her face.
"I wouldn't go without my heart," Imoen said. "Sure, it's just the thing that pumps blood 'round your body, but there's no way I'd sign up for taking it out like some lich or something. Heh, remember the Nether Scroll fiasco?"
Their chatter had an edge of discordance to it in this place, where they walked on in quest of the danger that guarded the heart of Yaga-Shura. Khalid raised a gloved hand to touch a leaf, and felt it stiff as if made of some light metal rather than a natural substance. The colour was of an autumn that should not be at this season, something slightly wrong about the shade: a dark red that hinted at flames.
"It is...affected by that which it holds," Jaheira said. "Pay it no heed, Khalid."
Nyalee welcomes you! Nyalee will tell you all...tell you of fireheart locked in an egg like all the old stories tell of it, tell you in a needle in an egg in a bird in a red fox in a chest in the tree for the dead in the forest of upbringing gone all fire! With nasty things, yes, nasty things Nyalee can't tell, find the fireheart and bring it here... What the woman who called herself a witch had told them had to be right; if this was a false chase then behind them innocents died. But Jaheira believed that the truth was spoken.
"Everyone has weakness, foolishness is one," Safana said in her roughened voice, her throat hoarse and scarred. Jaheira had been unable to heal the old injuries, nor the lines that ran down her face. She was lonely.
"But you should not hide your heart away, Safana," Della said in her thin high voice. She wore ribbons in her hair, even today, sweeping her cherrywood-coloured hair away from her half-pointed ears with pale pink. "You cared about..."
"I never had a heart for that silly elf," Safana said, raising her slim nose in the air in a gesture only an imitation of the arrogant confidence Khalid had seen of her at their first meeting. "I wanted to tell him I never meant half the things I said, that was all. And listen to me, you silly girl, pay more attention." She pointed across at a part of the ground; Della placed a foot cautiously into the leaves—and found only a pit in disguise.
"Trapped on purpose, d' you think?" Imoen said. She cleared the leaves from it with her hands rather than a cantrip, bending down. "These sides are really smooth."
The earth was a dark but dry brown that seemed to easily crumble when touched, as if it was halfway dead. Jaheira frowned at it and shook her head. "Waste no time, children."
A long day. The three youngest grew weary, but travelled on; the trees were ever thicker, the earth on the ground ever more smooth, as if it began to form strange steps below them. Something rustled through the reddened leaves, yet there was no breeze felt upon their faces.
"Mir is the name for the world in the old language of Tethyr," Jaheira said. "It can also mean peace." Khalid searched his wife's features for a trace of wistfulness, but saw only her strong determination for the time being. He stepped closer to her as she marked the trail for them all to follow.
"There is a t-tale I remember from a child," Khalid said, "about a p-people who worshipped giants of living flames. Like f-fire elementals, like the sun. And a p-princess Azar who braved them and the p-power of the israq, the radiance of the sun that turns those who look upon it to black s-stone. She feigned death so they would not see her and came to their palace by night, where there was a t-throne of gold and diamonds the size of ostrich's eggs. While the wicked k-king of them slept at night she took a key and unlocked the egg of his heart, and turned all back to living people again..." It had been a longer story when he was younger. He felt he had spoken too long, tongue-tied as he was; it was the strangeness of this place that made him speak. Azar: the sun was setting, and lit Jaheira's hair to turn it to fire in its own right. She was more than any fabled heroine. "I t-think of her as l-like you, dearest," he said to his wife. She could not have been stronger, or sweeter, though Jaheira hid it behind fierce courage.
"I remember," Safana said, likewise born of the southern lands, and half-smiled lazily. "Did she not save her black stone fiance, the prince of the caliphate, from his durance? And did he not then wish to see her dead in turn, for betrayal?"
"But Azar was n-not guilty," Khalid corrected her. "She did no harm."
"Only to go to what ought to have been left alone," Safana said. "One runs out of new things to try, after a while." There was nothing he could do for her but to watch with sympathy; she was of the group. His wife moved to stand on his other side, her fingers brushing briefly hot across his arm.
"I think we should go that way." Della pointed petulantly to the west, lifting a small foot as if she wanted to stamp it. "It's supposed to be ground of Bhaal. It's getting dark and I'm tired. How are you?"
"I'd be gettin' a little sleepy if it weren't so creepy," Imoen said. "No animal attacks or humanoids: what's up with that, Jah?"
"Unnatural, of course," his wife said in clipped tones. "Let us follow where the Bhaalspawn lead, if we must."
They wandered; even after darkness had fallen they did not wish to stop, the unspoken decision of all to refuse to camp in this strange forest. Della did not find the temple as easily as she hoped, nor Imoen; but when it drew close it was unmistakable. Glowing a soft gold even at night, the same colour as the feverish look in Della's or Imoen's eyes when they were angered or using a greatly powerful ability, replacing one sister's dark blue and the other's light green. A domelike structure, and marked by steps of that same dry dead earth smoothed to flatness, though here it shone the same yellow. A temple.
"A blight on the landscape," Jaheira said slowly. "I would see it destroyed."
"Do you s-sense much of it?" Khalid said. Clouds of silvery fog had drifted upon them, almost without their notice, surrounding the branches of the thick trees and lit by the yellow moon above. It was like an open eye that stared down upon them; Khalid shivered. He still much preferred the daylight.
"The same unnature. Ready your weapons," Jaheira ordered. "Foul undead, perhaps. I smell little but we must be prepared."
Nothing stirred upon the yellow steps. Safana drew her twin shortswords with unobtrusive swiftness, the Cutthroat and the Drinker; Garrick his roseblade, Imoen and Della spell components. Khalid readied his hand on his own longsword, one with a light of its own to cast against enemies they must put to death a second time. Jaheira began a casting for Silvanus' blessings, her tone low and sober. Khalid felt the familiar joy of her giftings rush into him.
They set foot to the yellow steps, and at first nothing at all happened. The fog drifted around them, yellowing in the weird half-light. Garrick's and Imoen's eyes were white with the spell for night vision; Safana too stepped easily enough in the twilight.
"Dead monsters to guard a dead heart," she whispered, "such a relief if life and fairytale are one."
Khalid held the green thread of Jaheira's spell within his heart, as if if could preserve against all ills: it did so for ills that mattered. What is sent to guard the heart of a fire giant? And to guard the joys of our own hearts...
He could never be sure of the moment when the fog first began to drift into shapes recognisable. When he and Jaheira had travelled through Cormyr's forests for the first time, there was a day they walked through heavy mist and could not resist pointing out shapes to each other in still-newlywed amusement: A deer is in the top of that tree, a squirrel the size of a horse is by the stream, a turbaned merchant is by the path; over there I see a...it looks like a... Laughter, then. My heart is not hidden but stands courageous beside me. Jaheira stepped evenly through tendrils that seemed to linger by her face much longer than he would have liked. Nothing stirred within the yellow dome that stood as the temple's centre. It felt as if the number of steps had somehow increased since they had begun to set foot upon them, yet they had not seen the landscape change and alter itself. There seemed as great a distance to the dome as before. Khalid glanced quickly behind and saw the steps still in their sickly yellow, plain earth smooth and unmarked by their footfalls.
Something moved, perhaps. Della gave a start; he looked quickly at the mist, but saw nothing but the moonlit streams of it, formless and void. She bit her lip; "I'm probably just scared," she whispered to herself. An understandable concern, and he placed a friendly hand briefly on their ward's shoulder.
Again a movement in the mist that caught the eye—a shape, a hand, a sleeved hand reaching? It was Khalid's turn to jump, but again it was only the fog. Anticipation, he knew; the old Bhaal temple probably was designed to make anyone uneasy. They would at some point meet a physical force that guarded the heart, and that he could try to fight against.
Imoen muttered a spell to herself, carefully watching, her eyes narrowed. "'S just depressing," she said, more or less to herself; "why didn't ol' Bhaal like to put his temples nicer places?"
He'd looked across at Imoen when he had spoken. Naturally, he told himself, he simply hadn't seen in the right direction. There it was at last, as if it had stood there all along waiting for their appearance: and it spoke.
"—Daddy—" Della almost shrieked, her hands over her mouth;
"Ol' Mr G.—" Imoen was more irreverent, but no less shocked. Their old friend: with Jaheira he saw him, the familiar height and grey cloak, beard and deep-set eyes; and wounded exactly as he had been by that sword on that night as they had gone with the children to see the body properly buried, his face stiff as it had been, marks of the predators that had been first to find the body. The Harper pin on his breast as he and Jaheira had placed him for burial.
The rescue of pasha Nazir's slaves out of the hold of the Golden Storm, the time we went through Waterdeep with him, the time we battled the great red dragon and his spellshield saved us both, a hundred old adventures with our true friend—
"Gorion? Gorion! How..." Khalid stammered out, unable to help himself.
The wraith's cold eyes affixed them all. Jaheira said nothing, but stepped back in her shock. It spoke, and its voice had the timbre of what they remembered in life, though an undefinable coldness clung to it. "So you remember me."
"You are unnatural!" Jaheira said swiftly; but she did not attack, her quarterstaff remaining at her side.
"I am surprised to know that. Have you forgotten all that I taught you...my ward?"
"Daddy," Della repeated the affectionate nickname, pale-faced. "I haven't forgotten! I love you..."
The form of Gorion smiled, gauntly, with none of the friendship Khalid could remember from his life. "Have you forgotten what your love did to me?" it said, and gestured to the vast wound in its side.
"No! Yes, but no! It wasn't my fault!" Della held her hands to her face in guilt. "I was frightened! I didn't do anything!"
"That is why you have failed to learn," the wraith continued, implacably. "I tried to guide you from your destiny. But instead you do nothing, and blood is left in your wake."
"You died. And Garrick was in a cage..." Della said, floundering. "We just wanted to travel and find pretty things and enjoy ourselves. I never asked for anything!"
A second figure: a tall elf with bold face-paint in purple, his hair fair and his pose easily confident, a bow slung over his back. "You killed me," he said, and this time it was Safana to take a chilled step back, her light brown face turned pale. His name had been Coran, Khalid knew, another of Della's and Imoen's old companions. He had died at the hands of that sorcerer. His body was marked as if he had been cut to pieces and stitched together again with black thread; Khalid had known something of the ordeal the companions had come through... "I lie dead because of you. And not even a word of kindness from your lips to sustain me upon the journey." The wraith drifted close to Safana, whose eyes were wide as lamplights. "Was I ever in your heart, woman?"
There was nowhere for Safana to go, the steps broad and an open space; she stumbled when she stepped back again. "You...have all the appeal of a rutting owlbear," she whispered, as if it were a line memorised. "No! No, I didn't mean it, I meant none of it."
"You slay me," the ghost repeated, and Della drew away from it also. "A kiss to send me on my way?" It floated—no, it walked as a living person—closer to her; Khalid drew his sword, but a moment later Safana's own blades were hooked in its flesh, dissecting it on the same lines Irenicus had cut...
"Safana, I killed him once," Della said, despairingly high. Khalid could not think clearly: Jaheira stood still and stared at Gorion's form, Imoen and Garrick quiet and watching, himself panicked and feverish at the dead.
"You did," the shade of Gorion snapped even as the elf fell to the ground. "Jaheira, old friend, what happened to your responsibility? She is a helpless fool, you let her wander alone, without you she and her friends were taken by this sorcerer, now she leaves ever more bodies in her wake..."
"We could not have stopped Irenicus by ourselves," his wife hissed at the form of their old friend, trying to defend their actions. "She refused our guidance, we could do nothing..."
"And what my wards are now shows the power of your guidance!" Gorion's voice spoke. "You despise their weakness yourself!"
"G-gorion would never have said such things!" Khalid stepped forward, and rammed bright Daystar to the wraith's form. "H-her father and our f-friend! Never!"
The sword ripped into the wraith's grey mantle; Khalid could feel something parting before him, some form of strange flesh this creature owned. And Imoen speaking softly:
"Maybe he's right. I did fail to learn magic in time..."
The form of a half-elven woman materialised next in the fog; clad in brown leathers, the loose dark tail of her hair behind her like a fox's bristling brush, her broad pleasant face scarred by battle. "Traitors," she spoke to him. "False Harpers. Murderers."
Reviane. Jaheira's handmaid at our wedding under Gulthmere trees in the spring. We did not seek her death, Khalid thought, the blood freezing in his veins; but that was only an excuse, they had caused the death of her and Dermin and Galvarey and all the others. Harpers who slew Harpers.
"The guilt remains with the Spawn." Reviane's finger pointed at Della and Imoen. "They are the cause of all bloodshed."
Della's defence was a hysterical and repeated I never meant, I never meant. Khalid knew what Jaheira would think of that, little enough, but they both protected the girl and Imoen, willing to fight to save their lives...
"G-go, Reviane," he said, and raised the weapon. Jaheira's face was stone, refusing to shed tears.
Safana finished her task, cutting more than she should have to the wraith. "You were heartless after all, Coran!" she spoke in her hoarse voice. "As heartless as I who dealt with you! Let them all come!"
And as if in response to her cry—three figures who stood together. Elven, half-elf, and a human woman with long silvery hair.
"Khalid, I would never have wanted you to fight and kill."
"Jaheira, daughter, I wished you to be raised better than this."
"My little Garrick, did you ever think of me after you saw me die?"
His mother he remembered from long ago, singing the songs of her people to him rather than the Calishite lullabies of the other concubines of his father. Even the lily fragrance of her seemed to linger in the mists, the smooth burnished curtain of her hair falling behind her, her dark blue eyes kind and sad as he remembered them. He did not recognise the half-elf man in rich clothing; he was dead, Jaheira's family had perished a long time before, as she had once told him he wore a thick golden chain around his neck with an elaborate statuette of a wolf hanging from it that a little girl had liked to play with... The white-haired woman was only half a memory to him, not a strong recollection. It was too great a burden not to look upon the mother he had lost.
"Otets," Jaheira said limply, a Tethyrian word; Khalid did not trust himself to speak to his mother—the image of her, it must be. She had gone to the elven jannah almost a human lifetime ago, Arvandor she had spoken of, someone as kind and beautiful as her could not have failed to reach that place...
"I do not believe you were right," Jaheira said in Safana's direction, her voice not quite steady. "We must steel ourselves against apparitions. For unnatural apparitions they are."
"You know I tell the truth, little wolflingmine," Jaheira's father said, and her face drew more adamantine at the endearment, though she made no move against the shade. His face was hers, his hair the alike shade; undoubtedly her kin. "The life of a wandering druid is below you. Act as if you have the noble life we sought to give you. Nobler than Bhaalspawn and slaves' get!"
"Khalid—" Jaheira looked to him; he could only hope that his wishes could aid her pain. "I was druid when we met, I have no family left." It mattered not, of course; these were ghosts. But if he could go to his mother one last time; so long ago but too young dead of heartbreak...
Garrick spoke. "You were an evil witch, Silke," he said, though his voice faltered.
"'Tis very easy to call people evil witches and murder them for it," the human woman said; her voice was full and well-trained. "Or is it worse not to be strong enough? You betrayed your new companion many times; brave Sir Garrick runs away. Always runs away."
Khalid could hear no responses to that. They had to act; they were paralysed by the words of the spirits. He wanted to hear more of what his mother spoke—words in elvish, darling Khalid come to me again and stop doing wrong—and yet—
"Fight them, moghaffal, fool," Safana said, charging first to Garrick's shade, that which was least connected to those who drew it.
Imoen was chanting and missiles flew through the air; Khalid felt his eyes close as he lunged forward with his sword, not willing to see for the last time. Something inside him died as he lunged to place his sword through his mother.
A tree red as flame grew with a cypress-wood chest in its branches. It was Della who walked to it, pried open the lock with her hands though splinters passed through her soft fingers; and inside the chest waited a fox with bright fur. He saw Della raise a mage's dagger and bring it down, slitting through the fur. And where the fox's heart should have been lay a golden bird, singing. The bird laid an egg; the egg held a long black needle with an eye that beat; and the beating eye was the beating heart of Yaga-Shura. The tree was in a yellow place of light below a dome, and the walls could not be seen.
They were far from the temple once more when they began to speak again.
"Who but wraiths could guard this?" Della said, her hand upon the container in which she had sealed the object. "I feel pain in my chest." It lay heavy, like a stone weight upon all of them. Garrick moved to Della, who allowed him to place his arm around her; and Jaheira stood more closely to her husband. Imoen came close to her sister's other side.
"Weakness," Jaheira said; and oddly her disdain seemed turned upon herself.
"S-strength," Khalid corrected. "Will you be s-summoning water elementals now, Jaheira?"
"He will be drenched until death," promised Jaheira, and they went on the path to Yaga-Shura the Fire Giant.