A/N: Itty-bitty short chapters in diary format tried for experiment. Faerun Calendar reference: meadehall . org/ calendar . shtml (remove spaces).
19 Nightal, 1365 DR
My dear Skie--
For this solstice I send you neither jewels nor frippery, but a gift similar to one my own great-aunt once bestowed upon me. Vain, frivolous and empty-headed you may be, but you do know how to amuse an old woman. The act of keeping a diary over the years has given me great personal satisfaction, and it is my hope you will be inspired to do the same.
With my affection,
Your Aunt Cincilla.
21 Nightal, 1365 DR
Aunt Cincilla gave me this. Solstice party was tedious. I wanted to leap out the window when I had to dance with Bran Gangric. I think he has three left feet. Father gave me a blue garnet ring.
20 Hammer, 1368 DR
I can't believe it's been just over two years since I wrote in this. Poor Aunt Cincilla died not long afterwards. It was so soon after I stayed with her on that long visit; I was so shocked. She left me a pair of embroidered dancing slippers and some jewels. Mummy says they're too old fashioned to wear, so I haven't...where she can see me, anyway.
What I really wanted to write about is how horrible Madam Irene is! I hate her dancing classes. I do the same old exercises over and over again while she hits me with her stick and lectures me about balance. I balance perfectly well when I'm running along the roofpoles to sneak out even when the estate's iced over.
There is an incredibly gorgeous bard who plays in a place called the Three Old Kegs. I think his name is Elrond or something like that. More importantly, I think he winked at me standing there in the audience. I must sneak out again to see him!!
His name is Eldoth! Eldoth Kron to be exact. He's from the island kingdom of Ruathym originally, although he also grew up in Waterdeep. I love the Ruathym accent. I love the way he says my name. We talked after he finished singing and I bought us some wine. He even reached across the table to clasp my hand but I had to run to get back for an early dress fitting. I hope he doesn't think I was too forward. He's so sophisticated and he must have met a lot of women in his travels.
Today I am finally independent! I told Madam Irene exactly what I thought of her and said that I wasn't going to put up with any more of her dancing lessons. She left! I hope Daddy isn't going to be upset. I can pretend to be his proper young daughter, but having to do it in my own time is just so boring. I need to stand on my own! That's what Eldoth says. He thinks I should become my own woman. Tonight he's taking me to an inn called the Helm and Cloak. It is shady, and I think some of his friends are even rogues! It's so exciting.
I've even confessed to him who I really am, and he still likes me even though he doesn't think much of the Grand Dukes. I have to agree that some of Daddy's rules are terrible.
Anyway, I must fly to Eldoth! I have to check my hair and buff my nails one last time.
I can deny it no more. Eldoth Kron has won my heart! I wasn't home until nine this morning and I think Irissa might have realized when she saw ivy leaves in my room as she came to clean it. But I don't care! I want to elope with Eldoth and have great adventures. That's what he said to me last night, while we were kissing (and more!)...I must sneak to a herbalist's so we can have more trysts. I want him to be my first and my last, Eldoth forever.
Irissa's come back. Daddy is calling for me. Must hide this. Tymora help me, what if he knows all? I'm so worried.
It has been an even worse tragedy than I thought. Daddy wasn't alone when I went to see him. It wasn't Eldoth with him, or anything romantic like that--wouldn't it be beautiful if Eldoth rode in and rescued me like an adventure story? But Eldoth said he had more practical plans than that for running away together, so I should listen to him. Daddy was just talking to some boring old mage he met back when he was an adventurer!
But then comes the tragic bit. The old mage wanted me to go back to Candlekeep with him, and Daddy (who must have taken a Potion of Insanity or three) actually let him! I begged him and begged him and even cried, but he packed me off anyway. So here I am with this diary and the few clothes I was able to tell Irissa to grab in the hour I had to pack, on a caravan to a walled fortress in the middle of nowhere.
However will I be able to get in touch with Eldoth again? I used to ask Daddy to have me travel on one of the caravans like my big brother but he never let me, and now he has it's separating me from Eldoth. I think I'm crying for real. Please let Eldoth find out where I am and come to rescue me!
Maybe I'll just sneak out and walk back home. Just watch me!
9 Ches, Hour 12
So the old mage has all sorts of anti-sneaking spells. I hate this caravan and I wish he'd stop treating me like a child already.
9 Ches, Hour 13
All sorts of anti-bandit spells also. I think it best to stay with the caravan.
Welcome to Candlekeep. Our staff consists solely of ancient, wittering monks and blockheaded gatewardens who don't want to let you go anywhere. Your room is a cell seven by seven, and for entertainment, you can hear the cows mooing. Old mage is boring. (Did I say that already?) I want to go home!
There is one other in Candlekeep below the age of eighty. Her name's Imoen and she lives with this old innkeeper man. I thought that he was as boring as everyone else at Candlekeep, but she said that he's a retired thief. I asked him nicely about it and he told me to...well, it involved elven rear ends so I won't repeat it. Imoen is quite nice though and I offered to teach her some dance steps. She also showed me an old secret passage into the library (not really a secret one, but one not every visitor knows about anyway). When Winthrop started yelling at her to do chores I got a book on the history of Shadowdale, and then I went looking for more passages. There's one on the east wall. Daddy's habit of putting magical traps around my room has really given me a good eye!
I think Gorion (that's the old mage's name) noticed though. When I was walking to my room he said something like, 'So you've found it's not so miserable a fate after all'. I ignored him with dignity and went to read my book. It had a lot of detail on Lord Jyordhan and the Black Network that my tutors wouldn't have wanted me to read about. Very interesting.
Today I spoke to Imoen about the passage I'd found, and she told me she spotted it the first day she came here. Then she showed me the quick way out of Winthrop's inn, and when I asked about the roofs we climbed up there and raced along the thatching. She won, but she's been here most of her life. Winthrop and Gorion brought her and the inkeeper's practically her foster father. Her favourite rooftop is to the west and it's a good place to view the ocean. You get up there by jumping from the windowsill and climbing up the oakbranch. In Baldur's Gate we have the port, but Daddy never took me there much, so I find it quite a nice view. We raced each other back as well and I nearly won that time...and then I helped her hide from Winthrop to avoid chores. She's better at finding passages, but I'm slightly better at being sneaky. She also takes things from the monks for fun, putting them back afterwards... Tomorrow I'm going to try for Phylida's inkwell. Five copper pieces ride on it.
I'm still bored here, though I don't want to hurt Imoen's feelings. Reading is fine but I'd rather have interesting places or dances to go to as well. And shopping. If I don't get any more new gowns I might have to wear the same clothing even two days running!
Goodnight, Eldoth. I hope that you feel this same starry night wherever you are.
Gorion is making me do my own laundry. I cannot believe the tyranny of this place. I'd sneak off except he would make me do it later.
Will return once this period of penal servitude is over.
PS. Five copper pieces mine, all mine!
Maybe I should've written more; it's been a while now, and all I've bothered to write have been some book notes. Sylvan is such a beautiful language. There's still hardly anything to do here, and it's so quiet! I don't know why Daddy sent me here, and why in such a hurry either. I got a letter from him (with my allowance--Imoen and I may attempt a shopping spree in the near future) and he says nothing about Eldoth or my nightly adventures, just a polite your-stepmother's-doing-well-and-your-brother's-still-off-with-the-caravans-how-are-you.
Anyway, my lockpicking skills are improving. Imoen and I got into the cellar and abstracted a bottle of Arabellan Dry for a small party on the roof. When I got back half drunk Gorion started interrogating me on my reading.
I think he has some interesting things to say about Khelben Blackstaff. I must ask him again while sober. I thought he looked a little worried as he was talking to me...maybe it was just the wine. His study door's locked now.
The monks here don't celebrate Greengrass properly, so Imoen and I are going to have our own little festival tonight. I nicked some roses off Ulraunt's garden.
This is an A/N to clear up where this story goes AU:
The sage Gorion, a Harper, spent the greater portion of his life upon good deeds of adventure. The prophecies of Alaundo were one of those matters in which he acted, particularly those telling of the Bhaalspawn. Indeed on one occasion he led a raid against an outpost of Bhaal-worshippers seeking to sacrifice the innocent children for the sake of the dead god; but arrived mere instants too late. Years later, on an adventure with his old, rogueish friend Winthrop, Gorion happened across a young girl called Imoen, who found a fate her guardians considered safe as the innkeeper's foster daughter. Gorion, meanwhile, continued to correspond on the subject of Bhaal's prophecy, seeking tales of women harmed by gods. In this alternate universe, he found a prospect...
1 Mirtul, Hour 7
Some gentleman introducing himself as Shank pestered me when I stepped into the priests' hut to see if Parda left his books there. He (Shank, not Parda) tripped over the table and fell into his own knife. That's one of Daddy's sayings, never run around with an open blade. I called for the nearest monk so I wouldn't have to deal with the blood. Must change clothes.
What a boring place.
1 Mirtul, Hour 8
Why did it have to be exterminating rats?
I blame G. for it all.
1 Mirtul, Hour 9
I have to leave?! Not that I don't want to get away, but I want to go back home to Eldoth, not somewhere else altogether! But Gorion said that wasn't where we were going, he said he'd tell me on the way. Am I being kidnapped? Imoen wasn't even allowed to come along (but I'm not so sure that's going to stop her). She said there was a letter from Daddy signed E, but it didn't say exactly why...what is going on?
I have to pack and buy journey stuff this time. Not even one gown...as soon as we get into a city, I'm going on a shopping spree. And then I'm pickpocketing a Bag of Holding so I never have to go without a decent wardrobe.
I'll pack my bow, of course, and a shortsword. If it's just me and Gorion on the road there might be danger!
2 Mirtul, Hour 1
He's dead. I can't believe it. I saw him die...that huge armoured figure with the glowing yellow eyes. Eyes aren't supposed to glow like that. It was horrible. I ran like he told me, and hid, and he died. Gorion...he told me things about the histories I was reading, and he was nice once I got to know him, and Daddy seemed to like him. He was Imoen's foster uncle, and we had a cry on each other's shoulders before we had to leave.
We couldn't even bury him. (At least, I was trying to convince Imoen to bury him. If I knew how to deal with dead people I'd have become a cleric.) There were wolves chasing us and we had to run. Imoen said that the guards from Candlekeep would come for him.
I read the letter on his body. It wasn't my father's handwriting at all. Someone else with the initial E, who knew about me at Candlekeep? Duke Eltan's one of Daddy's friends, but I've only chatted to him a few times. Unfortunately E couldn't possibly be Eldoth.
We can't go back to Candlekeep even with Imoen's life there and the Silvershield name--I checked. And we can't walk all the way to Baldur's Gate, because of all the bandits in the woods they say are only getting worse. Imoen and I may have wanted to leave, but it's not funny any more.
Maybe this diary will be found on my corpse. Please resurrect Imoen and myself if possible.
~Skie Silvershield, daughter of Grand Duke Entar Silvershield of Baldur's Gate
2 Mirtul, Hour 6
Saved! Imoen and I have met some nice adventurers along the road who gave us some healing potions and offered to accompany us as long as we go where they're going, Nashkel. Imoen and I thought of going to the Friendly Arm inn for Gorion's friends E mentioned, but we decided it would be better to make our own paths--as adventurers. Imoen hasn't warmed up to the new adventurers yet, but we still plan to travel with them for a while.
2 Mirtul, Hour 15
I'm so glad our new companions joined us! Shall I write about them a little bit? Montaron is a cute (but he snarls if you say he is) little halfling who picked Imoen's pocket. (I saw him and asked for tips, and returned Imoen's bag to her.) Xzar is a skinny human wizard who acts like a wizard from a story, mystical and interesting. Although I think I'll ask him politely to stand downwind, as some of his spell components don't smell so good. I haven't told them about Daddy. It's nice to be taken for just a normal adventurer.
Killed five gibberlings, three wolves, and an ogre with a belt fetish! Not that it was really me who killed all of them, as Imoen helped me shoot at them while Montaron and Xzar used their weapons and spells, but I think that this was my first full day of being a true adventurer. My hair is mussed and I want a hot bath. Why didn't we just go to the Friendly Arm inn and pick up Gorion's probably-ancient friends? Maybe they'd run me a bath.
Have to go. One of the belts we picked up is having a weird side effect on Xzar and he is yelling about it in a very high voice.
Xzar still a woman. Instead of fussing about it any more, he keeps draping himself (herself) over Montaron. I don't think Montaron likes this very much. Are humans and halflings even compatible? We hope to find a cleric who can remove the curse, but we probably couldn't afford it at the moment anyway. I don't know why his wizarding robes turned skimpier as well.
We stopped in Beregost to pick up supplies, and took a short break to listen to a performance at the Red Sheaf Inn. Silke, thespian extraordinaire, was playing; I remember seeing her when I was younger, with Daddy and Mummy and Eddard. She was truly spectacular. There was also a blond bard who wasn't quite as talented as Eldoth (of course I just said his music was very nice when he asked, and it is). In fact, he wants to hire us as mercenaries for three hundred gold pieces; our job starts tomorrow. I could use some good studded leather armour, Xzar wants spell components, and Imoen needs a new sword. This iron crisis thing is really causing problems.
I can't believe Silke turned out to be an evil witch! We beat her, but Montaron was badly injured and we had to buy him some healing potions. She had a good quarterstaff that Xzar has appropriated. Garrick, who originally hired us, wants to join our group. I recommended that we let him because we could use someone else to help out. Montaron was against it, but I got my way when Imoen agreed with me. Xzar couldn't help us decide as he was telling a long story about dragons with feet like rabbits to someone or something we couldn't see. I think that he must really be a mad wizard.
Tonight I got a bath in Feldepost's inn, so I don't feel adventuring is always so bad. Xzar called me a slanderous harlot when I recommended he do the same.
I have a quest! When I left Feldepost's and started looking for shops, I found a mercenary business run by this dwarf. He asked us if we were looking for work, and I said yes. Then he told us that the job was to look for my brother's caravan! If only Gorion had kept me in Candlekeep just a little longer, I might have received a letter about it myself, and known sooner. Eddard, where are you? Once we find him I'm sure he can escort me and Imoen to Baldur's Gate, and we'll all be safely home.
Montaron and Xzar (still a woman!) have decided to go into the Nashkel mines by themselves because Kagain's quest might take too long. I hate the feeling that they were thinking about my brother as an inconvenience, but I guess I'd rather not go into some scary mines either. Imoen suggested that we meet up later, since she thinks the mines are worth wasting time on, but they refused us. Garrick chose to stay with Imoen and me. Maybe he has a crush on her.
So I'm an adventurer looking for her brother. I think there's a song about that...I must ask Garrick if he knows it. Won't Eddard be surprised when he sees me on an adventure?
Eddard is dead.
My big brother is dead.
It feels so strange to write that. Eddard was six years old when I was born. He used to swing me in the garden after our mother died and helped me learn to shoot a bow. Once he beat up Chal Verras for being rude to me. He was always being trained to be Duke Silvershield, and he would have been good at it too. I wish I had spent more time with him. He was always away at school or learning about Daddy's business, and it seemed as if we had nothing in common...but we did. He was my brother, and he didn't deserve to die.
One thing makes it even worse. He and his caravan were near the Coast Way--not far from where we passed as we headed for Beregost. If we had been more watchful, if we had taken a little longer on the journey, if... we might have saved him from those bandits. He nearly made it into Beregost. That seems more dreadful than falling in the deep wilderness.
Eddard is dead. We can't get him back. It's now vitally important that I get a message to my father.
I don't want to be an adventurer. I can't write any more.
Spent most of our gold on a good messenger to Baldur's Gate. Kagain grumbled like a vulture but I told him I had given my father his name and house to send a reward to. That shut him up. I think I hate him.
Garrick is playing at the Jovial Juggler and Imoen and I are staying there for free (he's kind). I would like to wait until the messenger comes back, but Garrick's contract only lasts another week. Imoen says she's heard news about a bounty for five thousand gold pieces in the Red Canyons. I've worn dresses that cost nearly that much, but I have to admit that right now we are in somewhat exigent circumstances. When I think about Eddard I tear up. My eyes hurt almost too much to cry. Eldoth, can you come and help me?
16 Mirtul, Hour 6
Imoen, Garrick, and I are travelling southwest to find this Bassilus since we were thrown out of the Juggler and nobody else wants to give free lodgings to a bard. I went on a pickpocketing expedition through Beregost and got some gold (thank you, Eldoth and Montaron), but Imoen is dragging us on this adventure in spite of that. She has some vague concept that it's a good idea to hunt down dangerous clerics for public safety. Public safety, when Eddard's already dead?
Just as we left the city, Kagain joined us again because of the bounty. I can't forgive him for what he said about Eddard, but we probably do need someone as tough as him. Garrick, Imoen and I are all much better at bows and crossbows than going one-on-one with an enemy.
16 Mirtul, Hour 9
Someone called Roe wants to let his Mirianne know he's doing well. Kagain says he knows Mirianne and wants to give it to her for the reward. I hope what happened to Eddard and Gorion won't happen to them.
16 Mirtul, Hour 18
As we entered the Red Canyons, we met a talking chicken. Kagain wouldn't stop teasing it and Garrick was egging him on. (Oh no, now I'm doing it too!) I eventually calmed it down and put him in my pack. Once we've found Bassilus and collected the bounty, we'll take the chicken to his master, some powerful wizard just outside Beregost who sells magic items. Kagain hopes Thalantyr is going to be grateful.
We should rest now. Unfortunately I have the dawn watch.
Found Bassilus. He thought I was his mother, which was very embarrassing (travel-stained as I might be, I certainly do not look, what, sixty?), and I got zombie gunk all over my hands. I spun him the story that I was his mother for a little while, and then he remembered that his mother was dead in Zhentil Keep. I tried to distract him for longer by telling him details I've read about the Keep, but he was angry--so I ran and hid until I could get a clear shot. Luckily most of his undead minions were destroyed in the temper tantrum, although when Kagain was done it was just as well we had those healing potions from the cave to the east. Imoen, Garrick and I were all snipers at the skeletons and zombies, and Garrick cast a Magic Missile spell. Eldoth once told me that Larloch's Minor Drain is a better weapon. Not that I know much about magic. I like history and languages but I could never make a spell stick in my mind.
I hate zombie gunk. Five thousand gold isn't that much. I can get by without weapons and armour, really.
18 Mirtul, Hour 7
I hate skeletons!
18 Mirtul, Hour 8
Did I mention that I hate skeletons?
18 Mirtul, Hour 9
What I hate is that there are so many of them, and they all have darts and good bows and things! It's too much for the four of us. Thank Lathander we have Kagain wading in at them. I'd be dead by now.
18 Mirtul, Hour 10
What, the spell component is a human skull? Melicamp, you're going to pay! I don't wanna fight more skeletons!
18 Mirtul, Hour 12
So that's what an Anti-Chickenator spell looks like. Imoen bought a Magic Missile scroll to see if she can study it; Gorion used to teach her cantrips. I thought about pickpocketing the mage but decided against it. Melicamp is still clucking.
Flesh Golems make me shudder.
Met an elven ranger called Kivan who escorted us out of High Hedge when I asked nicely. I wish I could shoot a bow like him. He told us that he wants to hunt bandits and is looking for adventurers to accompany him, but right now we just want the bounty on Bassilus and to finally hear from my father. I don't know why he wants to hunt bandits specifically. They killed my brother but it would be hard to work out which ones did it... I hope he finds better adventurers than us and achieves his goals. He seems quite an imposing gentleman.
Back to Beregost and 5000 gold richer! Kagain immediately made off with two thousand of it. Higher than his fair share, but I guess he was the one who actually killed Bassilus.
Father hasn't gotten a message back to us yet. We could easily live on the money we have until then with these cheap inns, but Imoen wants to look at the mines. Xzar and Montaron didn't come back. It's sad if anything happens to them, but I'm not going there without a cleric. We get hurt too many times.
After days of nagging me about Nashkel, we hear there's a carnival there and Imoen suggests we go. I concur. Perhaps they're selling some nice things. Kagain is coming in case we run across anything else worth a bounty.
Garrick asked me about Eldoth today, so I told him all about our true love forbade by my cruel father. My telling of it mustn't have been very well-done, because Garrick excused himself from the conversation after ten minutes, but of course I don't have the same way with words as either Eldoth or him, being bards. I suppose Imoen must have mentioned Eldoth to him in the first place.
26 Mirtul, Hour 8
A Black Lotus tent! How beyond decadent! I pass over sundry tribulations with kobolds to get here. I feel strangely sleepy...
26 Mirtul, Hour 10
Kagain threw me in a pool to sober up. I am wet and miserable. Purchased weird potions from a very pressing merchant. Garrick says that they do what is advertised, but have such terrible side effects nobody would voluntarily take them. Also bought a pretty (and expensive!) golden necklace with a few magical properties to it.
26 Mirtul, Hour 11
Scary exploding ogre. Scary exploding ogre. Aargh! I have a cold from being so wet. I wanna go home.
26 Mirtul, Hour 14
Rescued stone maiden. Garrick wanted to pay the weird halfling five hundred gold pieces to save the fair damsel, but I told him and Imoen off in my most authoritative voice. It wasn't my fault the pretty necklace cost so much. Then I managed to 'trip' over him and steal the scroll. It wasn't fair for him to profit over her anyway.
Branwen's older than she looked while she was turned to stone. She's all the way from Norheim, petrified by a horrible bandit called Tranzig. I like her, but because she's a cleric Imoen now wants to drag us into the Nashkel Mines. Kagain has also perked up at thoughts of reward.
Rescued a diviner too. At least, Imoen, Kagain, Branwen, and Garrick did. I'd found a booth selling hairbrushes at last and was completing the important task of choosing the best one.
27 Mirtul, Hour 20
Nashkel mayor collared us as we entered the town to beg for help. Three adventurers--Xzar, Montaron, and some other wizard--have already tried and failed, and so the iron crisis is worsening. I suppose I should continue to travel with the others. It's not like I have anything else to do for now and they are my friends (Imoen is; Kagain isn't really, and we haven't known the other two for very long).
Ran into bountygiver who mistook Kagain for someone called Greywolf and wanted to give him gold. I corrected him, which annoyed Kagain, but I pointed out that now he can earn more from collecting real bounties. I hope we don't run into the real Greywolf. Weird guy with allegedly talking hamster also wanted to recruit us for something. Maybe he wanted to sell the hamster.
Am writing this while camping not far from the mines--I wanted to stay in Nashkel Inn, but Imoen thought we should move on. I hate camping but the Nashkel Inn is probably close to it anyway, being such a poor town in the middle of nowhere.
Our sleep has already been interrupted by a scary ghoul. Branwen went after it with her magic hammer. She's almost as good as Kagain.
27 Mirtul, Hour 21
Such strange dreams.
28 Mirtul, Hour 8
Emerson gave us a day but I want out now! There are kobolds everywhere and they keep firing at us. Branwen and Kagain rushing at them help, but sometimes they can't get to the ones at the back in time. Branwen has been healing us but it still hurts when arrows hit you. I got one in my stomach and I thought I was dying. I wished I was because it was so painful.
I hate this place. We're scrambling to rest so Branwen can petition her god to allow her to hold least some healing spells.
28 Mirtul, Hour ?
They have flaming arrows help me
28 Mirtul, Hour ?
It's so dark in here. My cold isn't getting any better.
28 Mirtul, Hour ?
Imoen's magical studies (she's a transmuter now!) seem to have really hurt her trap-detecting skills. I helped her find and disarm four traps, but on the last we had to dodge around it instead. Kagain offered to set it off for us because of his healing abilities. He regenerates. It's not fair.
Fought horrible giant spiders and ghouls and the kobolds with the flaming arrows. I hate them! I hate this place! I'm running out of perfume.
29 Mirtul, Hour 8
Found Montaron's body. The ghouls had been chewing on it. I don't think there was enough to raise and I wasn't going to carry that thing out of here. He and Xzar came close to the centre of the mines.
We found Xzar chained up with another wizard in Mulahey's chambers. He was still a woman and his robe was much more tattered than before. The half-orc was making her serve him drinks.
The big fight was scary. Kagain went after Mulahey himself, while Branwen kept back his creatures and the rest of us shot. The most awful thing happened when Imoen got hit by a kobold arrow. She was screaming, and I think she was dying. I tried to stop the bleeding with my tunic, and something happened--it did suddenly stop and I swear the wound closed over. It felt like a current of energy running from me to her. Maybe I'm just hallucinating. I'm glad she and Garrick are still alive. He ran away halfway through the battle and didn't come back until it was over.
Xan, the elven wizard Mulahey called his other pet, told us about the secret exit. It's so good to see the sun again. Xzar insisted on seeing Montaron's body. I think he cut off a souvenir from it. Ew.
The letters from Mulahey's chest showed he was being given orders by Tranzig. Branwen's eyes lit up like a wild tigress when she read them. We're travelling to Beregost as quickly as possible to kill him. Since he petrified her and is involved with the bandit raids, I think it's a good idea.
I hear someone screaming. It's not me this time.
29 Mirtul, Hour 10
Kagain is dead. The revenant killed him because he wouldn't give the dagger back the first time the revenant asked. He fought hard, but the revenant had a powerful strike against him. Maybe if the rest of us had done something different. I think his last word was some swearword. Then the revenant took the dagger and disappeared. We found a few potions. It's not exactly a replacement for him.
29 Mirtul, Hour 11
29 Mirtul, Hour 12
Death and murder make me want a manicure.
29 Mirtul, Hour 13
The big weird man with the allegedly talking hamster turned up again and saved us from an evil slime-controlling wizard. He's Minsc. He was hit on the head and has no sense of direction. Garrick says that he has heard tales of a gnoll fortress to the west of here--Minsc was going completely the wrong way to find the person he's looking for. I thought he just wanted to sell his magic giant space hamster. When I remarked on that he and the hamster growled at me.
His wychlaran was captured by gnolls who want to eat her. But we have to find Tranzig and defeat the bandits if I ever want to go home (though Daddy's escort is sure to help, Branwen still wants very badly to have her revenge). And do I ever want to go home and have a nice hot meal! I didn't want someone else to die... I'm not very strong, and I'm not smart enough to memorize spells, and I'm only a little better at sneaking around than Imoen...but I can keep going for a long time (Madam Irene was sarcastic at me if I couldn't last four hours on pointe), the boots this hobgoblin was carrying seem to help sneaking, and there's a potion of invisibility in my pack I pickpocketed in Beregost.
Branwen, Garrick, and the two mages if they can do anything after their traumatic experience (Branwen grudgingly promised to turn Xzar back into a man once her god grants her those spells) are going to kill Tranzig before he leaves the inn. Minsc and I are going west. Garrick wanted to join us, but I told him that since the mages are so traumatized Branwen might need him to fight Tranzig. Imoen has all our speed potions and the gold in Mulahey's chest, and she'll buy all the invisibility, speed and healing potions she can afford, and run back to Minsc and me. We can sneak in, turn the witch invisible, sneak out again with her, and meet again in Nashkel...it's probably a terrible plan but it's all we have. Daddy used to tell a story about his old adventuring buddies using invisibility spells and potions to sneak all the way into Menzoberranzan and steal a spellbook belonging to Gromph Baenre.
I am so sick of dirt and dust in my hair!
1 Kythorn, Hour 5
Covered a lot of ground. Brief stop when a boy begged us to find his pet; couldn't bear to disappoint him when he looked at us like that. So we went back to find the dog and quickly noticed him when a bundle of red fur leaped to Minsc. Minsc tripped over what must've been a stray root and fell down. The cute doggie licked him, sniffing at the pouch with the chew toy.
"Rufie!" The dog recognized his name from me. "Aww, who's a nice doggie?" I do like dogs. It would never have been proper for me to have more than an annoying little lapdog like Mummy's; little Albert is a lucky boy to have such a companion. "Who's a fuzzy wuzzy Rufie!" He got off Minsc and came to me, wagging his cute tail. I petted the thick fur of his head. "C'mon, let's get you back to Albert."
"'Tis a big dog. Boo does not like big dogs," Minsc commented, brushing himself and his hamster off.
"He's just a lovely furry baby, aren't you darling?" We had to get him back to the child quickly; he licked my hand with his very warm tongue as we led him through the woods.
A hunting party was walking about; they hailed us, and I thought one of them looked a little familiar. Luckily what she said meant I didn't have to try too hard to remember her face.
"I am Sendai, of the noble merchant house of Argrims, foremost family in Amn. Delgod, Alexander, and I have come out here to hunt game. Though perhaps you would make for better sport. I assume you would have no problem with this?"
"Sendai! How lovely to meet you again," I said. When we met at those boring parties she was one of those tedious girls who can't talk about anything other than horses and hunting, but it would have been rude to say so. "We were first introduced at Baron Ioril's last year...I suppose you do not recognize me incognito." I'm so glad I had my hood on while I talked to her, because my hair is very mussed.
No longer looking at me through her nostrils, she seemed startled.
"I'm Skie," I reminded her. I suppose she doesn't have so good a memory. I nudged Minsc so he would not tell her our full circumstances. "This is Minsc, one of Daddy's, uh...special guards."
Sendai looked at him. It took her some time to look at all of him. "You...have been eating your vegetables, haven't you?" she remarked.
"A vegetarian diet is most honourable for great Rashemi warriors!" Minsc commented. "Boo will only touch grains and leaves and cheese, and Minsc likes to eat the same! Only much, much more."
"Very special," the left-hand henchman said. The other giggled.
"We have, alas, become separated from our other companions," I explained to Sendai. "I have had business here searching for my brother--poor Eddard--" I hurriedly talked about other things, lest I break down. "Now we seek another friend, in a frightful hurry I'm afraid."
"Skie Silvershield!" Sendai said. "I'm sorry to meet you like this, for I too must return shortly. Could I lend you some healing potions or anything of the sort? We simply must catch up together when I am next in Baldur's Gate."
"That would be kind of you," I said. I'll probably have to invite her to a social or two next time we meet. Mummy will probably remark about her father being only junior among the Argrims, and Sendai doesn't have the personality to make her welcome to the good parties, but I can listen to her drone on about horseflesh for some little while. Her left henchman's horse whinnied as his rider looked among the saddlebags for potions, and I had an idea. "Could you lend us a horse as well?"
"A horse?" Sendai glanced at Minsc. "Surely one of our horses...I doubt your companion's size..." Minsc would break the back of any Amnian horses.
"For me, not for Minsc. If..." The gnolls were going to eat the witch. We didn't know when they were going to get hungry, so... It was a very stupid thing for me to do. "We would be most grateful to you. Where shall we stable it once we have completed our mission?"
"Beregost; none in Nashkel is really trustworthy, I find. There is a grubby, but quite reliable, dwarven mercenary who owns a stable I rely upon for these occasions."
"He is..." I sniffled. "I'm sure I'll find someone there. Thank you."
"Delgod, dismount," Sendai ordered the right henchman. "Until we meet again, Lady Silvershield. It would be delightful to hunt together."
"Bye, Rufie," I told the dog. "Minsc will take you back to Albert. Good doggie." Delgod's horse startled, led too close to the dog--finicky animal--and I mounted a safer distance from little Rufie.
"Skie mounts? Boo wants to remind Minsc that he and Minsc will never keep up, even though Minsc is nearly as big as a horse!"
"I'm going to ride to the fortress thing," I said. Honestly I must have been mad, but after Sendai had been so cruel and tactless as to bring up Eddard and Kagain, I thought it was a good idea to get to the fortress before whenever gnoll dinnertime is. "You can wait near the fortress for Imoen and the invisibility potions, and I'll come back to join you. I guess I can scout around--I hope I can scout around--and find out when we need to get her out. I don't want to fight any gnolls. I might, like, break another nail." I'm getting really worried about my nails.
Minsc consulted his hamster. After a little while he turned back to me. "Boo thinks that plan must be followed to save Minsc's witch Dynaheir. But Boo says to be careful. The mighty team of Minsc and Boo have fought many gnolls, and know that they smell like rotting leaves and the corpses they eat! Skie should smell like that as well while she is near them, lest they detect her in the shadows."
I wish he hadn't said anything. That, dear diary, is exactly what I have been doing since I finished my wild ride: rolling myself in rotten leaves until I smell absolutely foul. Even my outfit is being ruined. It was such a nice black for escaping Daddy's estate in, with delicate green embroidery on the sleeves. I used to have a version in pink as well, but I traded it to Imoen for some discreet green-coloured earrings exactly the right colour to match this outfit. I like pink but not as much as she does. If Eldoth could see me now he'd probably want to dump me, and that would be terrible. I need a hot bath.
I'm writing this while I wait with Sendai's horse tethered not too far away. It wasn't too hard to find the gnoll stronghold, as it's quite big. There are large figures guarding what looks like the only bridge to it. I hope they're the sort of large figures who sleep. Gnolls are nocturnal, so since it's almost dawn I hope the large figures sleep soon. I'm tired.
Rufie was such a cute doggie. I expect Minsc gave him back to his young friend hours ago.
A/N: And a slight shift to first-person narration begins...
"My safety is in the hands of a novice adventurer?" Dynaheir said, which wasn't very nice of her. "But I do thank thee for thy aid, and offer my services in the arts magical."
I didn't reply. Too busy helping her shove an old chest to block the narrow cave entrance.
I knew it was a stupid plan...
The large figures guarding the bridge seemed to be resting, and so I crossed over as quietly as I could. The chasm below looked deep enough that it would muss my hair if I fell through it, and the slats were old and wanted to squeak. Only just after I snuck onto solid ground, I saw a gnoll patrol coming, and gulped down the invisibility potion. Maybe I was cowardly to drink it so soon; I didn't want them to catch me. I ran around, hearing their growls to each other.
"We are sstrrrrong! Eat our foesss!"
"Would rrrratherrr eat witch."
The wychlaran was still alive, like that other gnoll had said.
"Chieftain rrrritual. All ssshall conquerrr!"
They cheered at that.
"Golot, you ssmell funny," one said. "Eating human and not sssharrring? Trrraitor!"
"No, I have not conssssumed flesssh. Ssslanderr!"
I left quickly. The fortress is a large place, with many staircases and paths; I wasn't worried at first because I know invisibility potions last a long time as long as you don't attack anyone, but after a few hours I was concerned. Especially after seeing all the xvarts and gnolls all lined up, guarding their fortification.
I climbed to the top of the stronghold, careful not to dislodge any stones. A large group of gnolls slept, with just one posted on watch; I crept past him and past the sleeping ones. One of them was bigger than the others, wearing more ornaments; I did my best to stay away from him. Near him was a sinkhole, and I looked down in shock to see what was inside it: fragments of human corpses and clothing, smelling like...like I am not going to describe it.
I had to... I went down into it, into the darkness that hid me from the sentry. I really didn't want to get caught and killed. Not like--others. I made myself sm...
Anyway. I got out of the sinkhole to keep searching. Near it was a second hole, and there she was, one gnoll guard dozing beside her. I only meant to look; if she wasn't going to be killed soon, I could just wait for Minsc and Imoen. But the way she looked down there--they'd tied her up, of course, so she couldn't use her hands to cast spells. Her purple robes were tattered and torn, and compared to the gnolls she looked so small and frail and starved, but still her expression and demeanour were so regal and dignified somehow (Queen Biancavere, led to the stake to die for her true love Sir Halberdmuch...). I crouched down on the ground above her, and knocked a small pebble to hit the top of her head. She paid it no heed; I released another, and a third. Thankfully no gnolls were waking up and looking in our direction (objects moving by invisible hands can be noticed, Daddy says when he tells his invisibility story).
Dynaheir looked up in my direction. She didn't say anything; I loosed another pebble with my invisible hand, and climbed down next to her.
I stiffened, and waited; the gnoll was still lying next to the sinkhole. Still dozing. I drew my sword, and placed it on Dynaheir's bonds.
"Art thou here for me? From thy subtlety, thou art not Minsc," she whispered.
"Minsc is coming," I whispered back, sawing through the rope, carefully so as not to hurt her further.
"Have thou nought to do with the Red Wizards?"
"Of course not." Was she going to complain about being rescued? "I...I've...it's just me right now, but I have these sneaky boots that I can lend you, and a necklace the merchant said was magical, though I wasn't paying attention to his description. Have you got spells?"
"Without components, and still less sleep, there is very little I can do. I recommend for us to slip out--thou mayst not attack whilst invisible, and I am all but helpless."
I slipped off the sneaky boots, Sendai's healing potion, and the pretty necklace. Away from me, they shimmered into appearance; the ground was rough and I immediately regretted the boots.
"My thanks to thee. I feel much improved." She drank, and examined the other items. "These boots were made for walking, and that's just what they'll do. Though they do pinch rather, as though completely unsuited for those of my nature." She reached for the necklace; she looked surprised as she fingered it. "This...this contains charges of a spell of mine own school, though 'tis one I am yet unable to memorize. Be certain that I shall cast it to full effect."
"Let's try sneaking, all right?" I hissed to her. I hoisted myself out of the pit, waiting for her; lifting her out might have made some gnoll see me. The sentry still drowsed.
She arose from the sinkhole, moving awkwardly; I tried to discreetly steer her into the shadows. We started to walk back to the stairs, but one of the sentries let out a yell. She reached for the necklace; I saw her smile like a last stand.
"I recommend thee to stay back," she warned, brandishing the necklace as though it was a sword; and the day was suddenly bright. A ring of fire spread almost to our faces. Gnolls screamed and died. The bigger one kept moving, coming toward us with his huge halberd; Dynaheir cast the necklace again, and he died.
"'Twas their chieftain. The rest ought to become disorganized, as a chicken headless." She fired a third blast, further away this time; it cleared us a path. "Come!" she commanded.
Down the steps, xvarts rushed at us, and were held off with flames from Dynaheir. Behind them were more gnolls, coming too close. We ran; they had us backed into the fortress wall. Dynaheir thinned out some of their ranks, but still they came. I strung my bow; I wanted to live through this--I might have been marginally better at fighting than her, but neither of us were Minsc or poor Kagain--
"Trust me, child." I don't know why she called me a child. For all she knew I could have been an ancient five-hundred-year-old elf under the potion of invisibility. She grabbed my wrist--some of the gnolls must have realized there was an invisible person, from their yelling--and she threw us over the stronghold wall.
It was quite a long way down. I remember screaming; then I remember feeling the air soften below us, our fall becoming like gliding.
"'Tis one of few spells available to me in this state. From me it cost much to secure in my mind while in this place."
Gnolls above us, throwing rocks and their large weapons; we ran, keeping to the shadows as much as possible.
"I looked down and saw caves near here!" I called to her. "If we find shelter.."
We reached overhanging rock, preventing the gnolls from throwing any more large missiles in our direction.
"One can only maintain a standing against besieging foes for a brief time," she said. "But else we will surely die. 'Tis better to live for a time, and sell our lives dearly." Xvarts, as blue and loud as in all the stories, were ahead of us; her fire vanquished them. My invisibility seemed to be wearing off anyway, so I took down the last few with my bow. We ran into the first cave, but were massed by xvarts and a horrible white creature I don't know the name of; like a giant bloated wyrm, trying to eat us. I hope I won't ever know it.
"There are limited charges in this necklace," Dynaheir said as she fired it. We fled, leaving the burned creature behind us; the cavern next to it was narrower, seeming a better prospect. Our weapons scattered more of the xvarts; we took it for ourselves.
"The chest," Dynaheir said. We shoved it to partly block the entrance, waiting for the gnolls to come.
"Tell me about thyself, child," she said. "Where didst thee encounter my strong companion Minsc?"
"In Nashkel. He was selling his hamster. Or at least, I thought he was." (I thought I heard her mutter, "'tis a shame", but must've imagined it.) "We were with other friends, but they had to go after a bandit. What brought you here?"
"'Tis known as my dajemma," she said. "My acceptance as a witch of my people." She hadn't needed to define it; I've read about Rashemi wychlaran traditions. "Most interesting times have been foreseen for the Sword Coast. Now let us fight."
The gnolls were upon us.
"Hold! We have slain thy leader, and shalt do the same to thee!" Dynaheir's voice rang out. She did not use the pretty necklace yet; they kept coming.
"I have the kobolds' arrows!" I hissed to her. The flame ones, that gave us so much horror in the mines... "Burning ones."
"Fire, and be quick about it!" she whispered in return.
I aimed; I think my hand shook. The arrow came to rest on the ground before them; a miss, but it burst into hot flames. "We will murder you all with fire!" I screamed at them. It was more likely that they'd do some murdering, I was thinking.
They'd all noticed the arrow; it stopped them, briefly. Trying to be more careful, I aimed another shot; it struck one of the gnolls in the lead in his arm. Flames around him singed two next to him.
"I strongly advice thee to duck--now."
It burned close to me as I flung myself to the ground. The gnolls had been massed together; some of them died. I struggled to my feet. Hurry, Skie--keep them away-- I don't know how I did it. I'm sure my hair must have looked terrible. Dynaheir encouraged me to keep shooting, waiting for them to get close enough together for her fireball blasts to be worth it. The kobold arrows ran out, and the pretty necklace melted away in her fingers like water--it was a shame. I'd wanted to wear it again.
I downed a badly-burned gnoll, and made a second falter; they came, though, to the chest that hardly formed a proper barricade, and I drew my shortsword. The first was wounded and easy for me to stab, lunging over the chest; the second, not so.
"Sssslay you...then ssslay the witch."
"Pardon me while I put up a fight!" Dynaheir threw a chunk of rock from the cave walls at it. I don't think it hit. I reached for my bleeding arm. I was hurt, and I knew we didn't have any more healing potions. Its breath stank; I grabbed my sword with my left hand and stabbed up. I shoved its body on top of the chest, but there were more behind it... I was hurt again, fighting. Dynaheir tried with her rocks, but she wasn't very good.
Then of course they came for us.
"GO FOR THE EYES, BOO! GO FOR THE EYES! EVIL MUST TASTE HAMSTER JUSTICE!"
The voice shouting that battlecry. A figure in pink was the first we saw, sparkling into existence to slit a gnoll's throat, melting into thin air only to suddenly appear again, moving at the speed of a typhoon: Imoen.
"Hey kiddo miss me?" she called quickly, downing another invisibility potion in the blink of an eye; behind her, Minsc fought his way through, unstoppable through similar potions.
"DYNAHEIR! YOU WILL BE DEFENDED! EVIL'S BACKSIDE, MEET MY BLADE!"
I think he is at least a little insane, as he found it very hard to stop fighting, but he and Imoen did rescue us and make it into the cave.
"Ph-ew! Did I tell you that you totally stink?" Imoen said. I flushed. This was very embarrassing.
Dynaheir amazed me after all the complaining she'd done about being rescued. "Do not speak to her thus," she said. "The heroine seen before thee saved my life by journeying among the gnolls' poor, former captives. Take thy battle-spoil."
A book, scrolls, some gold, and three potions I was hardly able to trust, from the chest; it was all very nice of her, but I was bleeding to death. Or at the very least felt like it, and that is the important thing.
"I got some healing potions." Imoen distributed one to each of us; I drank, and felt much better. "Plus this old thrown-out spellbook I figured might... Yup, gotcha." Dynaheir quickly took it from her hands. "Now, our last two potions of speed and you're outta here!"
We recaptured Sendai's horse, and as soon as we reached a stream I burned my clothing and bathed while Minsc watched for peeping toms and monsters. Dynaheir also needed to remove the grime of the gnolls, and Imoen joined us as well; even though it was only a stream out in the woods, I began to feel a little human again. The three of us kept watch during Minsc and Boo's turn to bathe--he is almost the size of the three of us combined--and I swear Imoen peeked, as she made a comment about what they say about Rashemi men. (They say the same thing about halfling men, I've heard from Eldoth's rogue associates, but I didn't notice her doing the same to poor Montaron. Then again I'm not sure if he ever bathed.) As for me, I have a true love in Eldoth.
I read the book and it disappeared in my hands. I don't really believe in those theories on how to instantly gain friends and influence others anyway; it all seems so trite and shallow. But I felt a little better about my appearance after tidying my hair.
We walked leisurely back into Nashkel in late afternoon, exactly as planned. Branwen waited for us, her voice carrying far from the bridge on which she stood:
"Hire me to kill a helpless woman? How cowardly, blaggard! Tempus should strike you down for your dishonourable ways!"
"I care not for your barbaric god, northwoman," the red-robed man with whom she was arguing replied. "If you will insult me with your refusal of my generous offer, begone!"
"Not so fast!" Garrick interjected. "This woman, near a gnoll stronghold? Could it be..."
"Do not tell me you have had past dealings with this witch! (It is most unfortunate. Surely she cannot have allies already.)"
"We might, and we might not," Garrick said. "Perhaps you could explain your tale, good sir?"
"We need no explanations from cowards!" Branwen wielded Bassilus' old hammer; lightning crackled ominously about its head.
"Oh please cease your prattle, undereducated barbarian. (Fools, they know not the danger of the witches.)"
I looked across at Dynaheir; she smiled, whispered to Minsc to secure Sendai's horse to a tree, and calmly and quietly crept forward.
"You are a coward and a fool, wizard!" Branwen lectured. "Is the staff you bear for the purpose of resting legs as crippled as your soul?"
"The harbinger of your own destruction. (No, I should not use such syllable-intensive words about these simians.) Me Edwin, me powerful wizard! Dynaheir bad, you kill! Stomp once for yes, twice for no."
"Base villain! Such Lokispawn shame by their mere existence."
"Lackey, prepare to pay for your insolen--er, what?"
Dynaheir tapped him gently on the shoulder. I swear he jumped several feet up in the air, quivering in shock and revealing skinny legs under his red robes.
"W--witch! (Allies. All is precisely as I, renowned wizard Edwin Odesseiron, deduced.) I-I'll not suffer your depravity! Dynaheir is not to be trusted. I urge you to cast her from your party immediately!"
"Crawl back to Thay and refine thy manners, Red Wizard. Thou hast assuredly no place here." She held a dagger Minsc had from the evil slime-controlling wizard; her spells were far deadlier.
"Excuse me," a black-clad man called to them, striding from the rough direction of the town proper. I didn't think we'd seen him before.
"You dare insult me? You only sign your own death warrant, witch!"
"Excuse me." The man in black sighed, glaring at me across Edwin and Dynaheir's locked horns. He was rather fashionably dressed; I liked his look. "Why NIMBUL has been hired to deal with the likes of you I'll never know."
"My power is no less than thine. Dare thou to show it, Thayvian?"
"Heed my words!" The man stamped a foot. "I am NIMBUL. I am Death come for thee."
"Wychlaran, step out from behind your excuses and we shall end this here!"
"I said, I am Death come for thee! Surrender, and thy end shall be...quicker!"
"An unfortunate decision, wizard! Pardon me while I put up a fight!"
"Death?" I asked. NIMBUL flung back his black sleeves theatrically and began incanting something. I did the sensible thing and screamed for the town guards. "Help! Murder! Help!"
"Hold; I see that thou must await my response, Red Wizard," Dynaheir said. She too chanted something; Edwin, distracted, turned to face NIMBUL.
"Now before you kill all these simians, allow me to remind you I am not in the least concerned with any of them!" Edwin said. "Help! Let these fools lose their own lives! I am done! Help!"
"Tempus forgive my cowardice!"
"Brave, brave, Sir Garrick, Sir Garrick ran away!"
A pink burst fizzled briefly from Dynaheir's hands. "These odds are idiocy! Retreat!"
A Horror spell, I knew from Daddy's stories. Since the guards didn't seem to be coming yet, I aimed my bow; Imoen liked to remind me that the one thing to distract a mage was often a well-placed arrow. Beside me, Imoen cast a spell of her own, the Magic Missile. Her favoured pink hit NIMBUL as he muttered. I missed; his feet took him out of the way quickly.
"NIMBUL will taste hamster justice tonight!" Minsc rushed up to the well-dressed wizard, swinging his large sword. I shot again at NIMBUL.
Behind me, a woman's voice spoke. "Be your name Sky?"
"I'm Skie," I said, not paying particular attention. Minsc yelled; NIMBUL's spell had hit him.
"Then it may be a touch unladylike--but I'm going to split your skull, I will!"
I couldn't move, even though a strand of my hair had come loose. Imoen stood frozen the same way.
"Now if you'd been a good girl and come into the Inn, we could have had this over a long time ago!" the woman lectured me. "Seeing as you're all nice and still, let's have a little fun, right?" A glowing hammer appeared in her hands. I'd seen Branwen use them against ghasts and kobold commandos; I knew how much damage it could do. When I just wanted to go home, and have a hot meal and a bath, and...
"Who dares to steal the kills of NIMBUL?" The magician came striding down to us. I'd rather die at the hands of someone with fashion sense any day.
"Ah, Nimbul is it dearie? I am Neira, servant of Mask, and you should see how much I'm getting paid for this job!"
But Daddy could pay you more! I'd have told her if I could speak. Anything to stay alive.
"My name is NIMBUL, N-I-M-B-U-L, private assassin, all contractual offers and proposals of marriage to be directed to the Red Sheaf in Beregost. At least have the decency to speak my name properly."
The hammer hit--it hurt a little less than I'd expected on the scale of blinding, bone-shattering pain. I would have reeled and collapsed but for her hold on me.
"Oh, yes, dearie. Oh yes!"
In the corner of my eye, Xan, safely behind Garrick, moved his hands. Neira attacked NIMBUL; he was graceful, though, and avoided her well enough to cast another blasting spell. She screamed, but recovered in time to hit him--I cringed inwardly at the impact--and then he stabbed her in the back with a shining sword. She fell.
NIMBUL smiled at me and, all businesslike, prepared his spell.
"Thine evil shalt not go unpunished!" Fire lanced from between Dynaheir's hands; the Horror spell had concluded, and she had her revenge.
"Cloud the mind of Edwin Odesseiron? This outrage has not gone without notice." Edwin's own missiles hit NIMBUL; Garrick, too, fired crossbow bolts in the mage's direction with more desperation than accuracy. He was a spellcaster more powerful than any of us (and with great hair and robes!); how could we win?
"GO FOR THE EYES BOO, GO FOR THE EYES!"
Minsc. I won't describe how he ran from where he had fallen, ramming NIMBUL with all his considerable strength; suffice it to say--NIMBUL was gone.
"I need aid, lest...my hamster...become an orphan..." Minsc sat on the ground; Branwen went over to him.
"You're at the end of your rope I'll wager."
I tasted mud and blood beneath me. Frozen, dying; I would not even know the killer's face. I would have cried and sniffled if not for the hold upon me and Imoen.
Suddenly, the power stopped--I squirmed aside just before the new fighter's blade hit the ground. He was a dwarf; short and grubby.
"Why? Why are you doing this?" I pleaded.
"Dunno. Don't care," he said. "A price is a price and a head is a head, and here's old Karlat makin' his living. Damn whore Silke threw me out of her tavern and here I am now."
He swung at me again; I only narrowly dodged it.
"I can pay you more! Whatever you're getting from his rivals, my father can pay you much more!"
"And I can't think of anything that shortens the assassin's career faster 'n turning on clients."
It hurt. I--wanted to live; I felt adrenaline that's supposed to happen in these situations, the pain from my grievous wounds lessening. Ducking and weaving, I didn't try to fight; Imoen, nearby, aimed her sling and spells.
"Skie! Hold on!"
Garrick sang. It was something about daring heroes avoiding a vast stone golem; it even helped, a little. Then I tripped over Branwen and Minsc, who were fixed in place, unmoving.
The chant which bound them--there were four women behind the dwarf, all of them staring at Imoen and me!
"Now, now, my good gentle...ladies; please note that I am utterly detached from this bedraggled group. (Perhaps they will kill the witch first? I can only live in hope.)"
Green vines sprouted to trap his legs. He groaned. Dynaheir, her hands glowing, reached for them.
"You see, Telka? I told you that speeding redhead was interesting," one of the women commented. "And now see! Hurry up and answer me truly, girl, for your life depends upon it," she said in my direction. I was busy stumbling away from the axe-wielding dwarf. "Is your name Sky?"
"Help me!" I pleaded.
"That doesn't precisely answer the question," she said.
"I know who they are!" Xzar came out from hiding behind Xan and pointed dramatically. "You're in league with the rabbits! Die!" I saw a flash of white build between him and the woman to the left of the speaker.
"Maneira, kill all the wizards! Zeela, Telka, make ready! As for you, good dwarf, step away if you wish to live. You have weakened our prey enough for our tastes."
Karlat paid attention to them; I ran. "Stealing my kill?" he said. "Why, I'll end you all f'r it..."
A flaming arrow landed in his chest and came out the other side. Imoen and I scrambled away from his burning body.
"Do you know them?" I called to Imoen. 'Speeding redhead' indeed.
"Yeah! They were up above the mine exit. I yelled to 'em to look us up in Nashkel when they hailed me!"
Mental note: familiarize Imoen with concept of stranger danger.
'Maneira' unscrewed the tip of a yellow bottle she held.
"Run you fools run! Oil of Fiery Burning!" Edwin shouted. A wall of flame appeared where the wizards and Garrick had been. We were cut off.
Minsc and Branwen, held. Imoen, who'd already cast some of her spells. Me, wounded.
The two women in heavy armour advanced toward us. "Nowhere to run. You've managed to annoy..."
It went green. Imoen pulled me back; I reeled in nausea at the smell of the cloud of vapours, like the stench of cabbages multiplied hundredfold. Moments later, Dynaheir's pink missiles whistled through its depths.
"Fair ladies!" Garrick, his eyebrows scorched off and face blackened, held up a mage's scroll. "I shall assist you!"
Within the smoke, it looked like three of them were unconscious--and the fourth getting up. I took a deep breath, paused over NIMBUL's horrible corpse, and ran. Dynaheir'd given me back the sneaky boots; I circled around, stabbed blindly at the woman with NIMBUL's shiny sword without daring to breathe, and fell back out of the cloud. She was coming at us; ugly black stuff grew under her feet from Garrick.
"A most incompetently cast Conjuration," Edwin said. "(I could have done far better myself, but my spells are not for wasting--) Eugh!" He'd been hit; Garrick's spell did nothing to slow the long-range weaponry, and the other three had started to wake up.
"A Dart of Wounding. A healing potion for the Red Wizard is urgently required--though of course it is ultimately pointless, since we are all likely to die within the next several minutes," Xan ordered. "Should, of course, we last even that long."
I ran up the bank from the heavy-armoured woman. Moving out of the black field, she came after me; Garrick hit her a couple of times, but she seemed unstoppable. Imoen held out a wand she thieved from Tethtoril, and used it to shoot pink at her. It gave me time enough to...jump up a nearby pine tree. (Like climbing over the estate walls. Very much like climbing the nice trees at home.) A flaming arrow buried itself in the trunk next to my head. Sendai's horse screamed; pulling itself loose, it ran in the direction of the archers, knocking one down.
"Help! Murder!" I called again. There were town guards not far from us; they were bound in vines thanks to the other heavy-armoured woman.
"Zeela, fling me that potion! We'll get you down right enough one way or another," she said. I just kept hiding behind branches.
It's a dance. It's a dance set in the woodlands with pretty fairies and cute gnomes, and all I have to do is spin around that tree! Then Madam Irene won't be sarcastic after all... I could tell myself things were happening that way. Ah, the wychlaran is firing pretty pink missiles! I like pink! Oh, the big lady playing a big ogre has drunk the brown potion! She is grabbing at the tree, and oh!
The tree was a club; I'd fallen awkwardly to the ground as it was ripped up from its roots. She swung it, knocking Imoen off her feet, poor frozen Minsc and Branwen as well. I ran again; Garrick's crossbow bolts and sling bullets from the mages whistled in the direction of the other heavily armoured woman, who had been chanting something. Sendai's horse made a horrible, high-pitched noise, which stopped suddenly.
Dodge the tree. Dodge, dodge the tree, I reminded myself. It was large; it wasn't hard to see it coming and move. I hadn't survived years of dance classes and Bran Gangric for nothing. How long before the enraged, heavily armoured woman lifting trees got sick of this business of dodging? Maybe long enough to--
"Aaargh!" Finally, the second armoured woman fell. Her projectile-wielding companions most certainly had not. I heard Imoen crying out, and Xan chanting something. Was Imoen okay? I couldn't see beyond the tree being waved in my face.
"Yes! Sleep spell!...gimme a healing potion!" Imoen called. It distracted me, and a branch hit me in the side of the head. Blackness danced in front of my face. I fell.
"Wake, wake--the valiant heroes' daybreak--the urgent swing of battle--"
Garrick's singing brought me back to the circumstances. The tree was on top of me so that I could scarcely breathe, my ankle hurt badly, and the assassin's boots were coming rapidly closer. NIMBUL's shiny sword that I'd abstracted was somewhere I couldn't reach.
"Help! I don't want to die!" I'd already attacked her once. Why wouldn't she stop? I could reach my quiver; I stabbed up at her with an arrow. She easily deflected that, pinning my wrist to the ground.
Branwen reached down for me. "My healing spells must be reserved for the berserker warrior," she said, dragging me out from under the branches. She, like me, was bruised and bleeding, especially from where the tree had hit both her and Minsc. "You are likely to live. We received Tempus' favour that she was wounded in the back already."
I didn't want to try and stand; it hurt so much. I only wanted to curl up someplace and cry. I looked across and saw that Sendai's horse was dead next to the two sleeping assassins.
Edwin, pale-faced, forcibly stopped himself from leaning upon Dynaheir. "All that remains for us to do is slit the throats of our drowsing assailants. I recommend the pink-clad stray for the deed. (Really, these lackeys should not require so much dictation.)" I wasn't going to object; but Dynaheir did.
"It is not appropriate to slay the vulnerable. They may be..."
"Turned over to the custody of the town." A guard made his way over to us. Some help they had been. "Come forward, men. Take this fine pair to the garrison."
"Ha! Turned over into a paper-walled prison," Edwin argued. "They will clearly escape only to threaten my life again. (For I may be the most important of these rabble, though I must admit they proved an equal threat to the simians and may not have attempted my life with knowledge of my identity.)"
"All right. Word is that you lot are the Heroes of Nashkel--or at least, the blondes with the hammer and the harp are the ones who turned up for the reward. Young Harman here--" the guard commander gestured to one of his men, a beardless youth--"says the ladies up and attacked you, no reason given. That right? Yep. Brigands after your reward, I suspect. We'll let you know what they say in interrogation."
Our assassins had been hauled away; Edwin looked miserable, but raised no further complaints.
"C'mon, Skie." Imoen dragged me up. I cried out when my weight rested on my left ankle. Imoen herself didn't look good, bruised and with blood on her face; I remembered her screaming during the battle. "Broken, huh?"
I couldn't answer her. It was all too much. Nearby, Branwen was healing Minsc of the worst of his wounds.
"Okay, let's head down to the inn and Branwen can heal the rest of us tomorrow!" Imoen said cheerfully. "Who wants to help me with Skie?"
I had Minsc to one side and Imoen the other, hopping on my undamaged leg; I can't remember thinking much of anything. Please, rest at last. Too many fighters. Poor Sendai's horse. Would the killing never end?
Imoen counted heads. "Room for Skie 'n me, room for Branwen and Dynaheir, room for the guy mages--Mr Red Wizard, this is the bit where you chip in--room for Minsc and Garrick. I guess Xzar can be with us, or go with the other guy mages...er, complicated..." She rummaged in her pocket for change.
At last we would rest.
A brown-haired man tapped me on the shoulder. "Pardon me, friend. You have the look of travellers worn." It was true; Garrick and Minsc had been badly burned by magic, Imoen hurt, each of us wounded. At the end of our rope. Truly.
"Worn certainly, but Boo instructs patience before evil has its next butt-kicking! The nice priestess of Tempus will aid us all!" Minsc said.
"I wasn't talking to you. Might you pair of young ladies have been told to look for friends...after travelling from Candlekeep?"
"We...uh, kinda sorta didn't," Imoen said. "Not us, no siree! Didn't have any foster uncles giving us directions we kinda ignored, no way no how! So, if you wanna go away now, sort of busy here..."
"There were others besides me in the Friendly Arm Inn," the man said. "Quite the fighting couple, her with the temper and he with the heavy armour. I had hoped to meet you at the gates, but finding you here may be better for me. You see, I believe you travelled from Candlekeep."
Suddenly there were four of him weaving through the inn. I blinked.
"EVIL! MORE EVIL WIZARDS TO KILL--"
Minsc dropped me. Our attacker fired a spell, hurting him. Branwen and Imoen tried to fight the real assassin, hacking at false images. Xzar and Garrick hid under the bar.
I don't remember reaching for my bow, but I remember it being in my hands afterwards. I think I tried to shoot from the ground. I don't think it did much good, but Branwen and Imoen made some of the images disappear. Dynaheir fired a spell, Edwin used his staff, and Xan helped out with a sling. Then Bassilus' hammer went into the wizard's real neck.
I do remember hobbling to my foot and letting my bow go slack. The person trying to kill us was dead. We were going to rest, but he'd even attacked in here. How horrible. Branwen was bent over Minsc again, bandaging his wounds.
Edwin flung back his sleeves, in a similar dramatic gesture to NIMBUL. He overacts. "Is there anyone else who desires the opportunity of dying messily (or being taken captive by those incompetent soldiers)?" he called to the tavern at large. "Well, simians, I invite any further attention of that sort to have it over with! (At least, I admit, all these assassins have done us the benefit of publicly announcing their intentions.) Anyone?" I do not think there were many remaining patrons after the disturbance. "This shall be your last chance, bestowed by Edwin Odesseiron himself. The opportunity is disappearing...disappearing...disappeared!"
Edwin turned sharply to face Dynaheir, his robes whipping about his ankles.
"Now it's our long-interrupted turn, witch. I note I have been far more miserly in my spells than you during this battle, and you have no ability to cheat with that hulking though incapable so-called protector; let us have it out--that is to say, allow me to kill you in the most humiliating manner I can design! (Ah, sweet, sweet taste of bat guano and victory.)"
"Wizard, I wouldst duel thee at any..."
Imoen is the person who told me what happened next. I remember only white, blank light.
"Nooooo! No more people trying to kill us!" Edwin was the nearest person to me. I fell over his robes and started crying on his shoulder. "It's enough! I c-can't take any more! I broke nails!"
He sat down with me. Imoen has it on record that she and Branwen glared at him quite forcefully, in a 'You broke it you can jolly well fix it' manner. "Now...now. (Oh, she stains my robes. How dreadfully disappointing.) There...there. (Loviatar's lash administered before the eight Zulkirs would be less humiliating.) The bad people are gone now, chi...young woman. (Will someone make her cease her noise?) Hush now. Please hush now. (Sigh. Many sighs both long-suffering and injured.)"
Interlude: Maneira: Between 5 and 6 Kythorn.
The Amnian cell was small and populated by rats. Maneira's head ached from the magically-induced slumber, and her wrists were already raw from the cuffs wrenching them behind her back. A speedy trial and execution would be their fate upon the morrow. The cold moonlight outside the bars of the window shining on the erect hangman's pole offered no mercy. Lamalha and Zeela were already dead and for their failures she and Telka would follow.
Telka's moaning had not ceased. Trampled by that fucking horse. Maneira had yelled for a healer until her throat was scratched, but they had not seen fit to provide one. What did it matter if an assassin died before righteous citizens could hang her? Blood soaked the thin tunic that was all they had left Telka to wear, stealing her precious armour. Both thieves had been more than thoroughly searched, their hard-stolen armament taken.
Nonetheless they had left Maneira her boots and the skeleton keys hidden in their soles. Was she a capable picklock or was she a capable picklock? She had nearly completed maneuvering upon the ground to spring the lock on the cuffs behind her; her wrists slippery with blood, at last Maneira heard the metal slide free. She sighed softly in release. Telka's keening hid at least that noise.
We serve the Iron Throne and our names were Telka and Maneira, independent thieves, Zeela and Lamalha, clerics of Cyric. The son of our leader is Sarevok and our mission was to murder a young girl he shows interest in for reasons we do not know. Also, we have family deep in Amn and the residence of Maneira's mother is the Street of the Fruitsellers in Athkatla... They could extract that information with ease, if they had the sense to do so.
Maneira bent over her comrade. In the same hiding place on Telka was another lockpick, and more importantly a small but much-sharpened razorblade she knew that Telka kept well concealed. She went to work on the cell-lock, ignoring the pain in her wrist; Telka's noise covered her clinks. It parted for her.
"I am escaping. Can you understand me, Telka?" she whispered; Telka moaned again. Maneira listened again for guards. In this small arse-end of a town, night-shifts would be inattentive. "Then I will give you Cyric's mercy."
No more moaning. Maneira arranged Telka's tunic to cover the new gap in her throat, making that blood seem at first glance as though it was from the horse's wounds. She waited to see if guards should notice the lack of noise; the night was dark and silent as Telka's stilling wounds. Nothing; she had noticed the shift passing outside the building, in front of the window every half an hour or thereabouts. She closed the cell door; concealed herself within the shadows; and walked out of the prison at exactly the right moment between the guard-change.
I woke up at morning in a small room at the inn with a fully dressed Dynaheir touching my wrist.
"I trust thou slept, Skie," she whispered to me. In her hand were several parchments.
"My ankle hurts," I said. It felt sprained, rather than broken; I remembered injuring myself like that from dancing once. Sleep had helped. She placed a finger to her lips.
"I wouldst this conversation in private," she said. "Remember that the walls of this place are thin." Some of Imoen's gear lay next to one of the two other beds, her pink stuffed Tarrasque sitting on a pillow; we were alone.
"All right," I said muzzily. My bruises had not exactly stopped hurting overnight either. Would Branwen come and heal them soon?
"I ensured it was mine eyes to first view these, and made certain to arise at an early hour." Dynaheir gave me a stack of four pieces of parchment. "Thou must read them, Skie. They appear to concern thee most deeply."
I was tired, but I looked at the first of them. The reading kept my attention.
Be it known to all those of evil intent, that a bounty has been placed on the head of a young woman travelling from Candlekeep known as Sky.
Last seen with the sage Gorion, this human is described as small, dark-haired, and possibly in the company of a red-haired human girl.
This offer has been extended to all appropriate guilds. Those returning with proof of the deed shall receive no less than three hundred and fifty coins of gold.
As always, any that reveal these plans to the force of law shall join the target in their fate.
The second parchment was exactly the same, but for six hundred and eighty gold pieces; the third was lower, the reward set to two hundred.
"Why?" I asked. There were only two reasons for a price on my unattached head, one moderately reasonable--to get to Daddy--and the other more tenuous, Mulahey's nasty associates. But since the note talked about Candlekeep, and Imoen only--Imoen! I must warn her!--it must have been sent before we'd killed Mulahey. So, it was to hurt Daddy, like I'd already guessed.
"Thou mayst take some consolation in the fact of the amount incre..."
"I think I know what you were going to say, and bounties aren't funny!" I interrupted Dynaheir. "I have to talk to Imoen about it, she's there too. And..." I looked at the note. "They didn't even spell my name right!"
Saying that--my pulse beat harder and my breaths hastened in fright. Not my name. If they don't know my name...
If they don't know my name it's not about Father. If they don't know my name it's not about Father. For once, they didn't talk about Father when they talked about me. If they don't know my name it's not about...it's about Candlekeep. It's about Gorion and Imoen. About them. Maybe at least the four women and NIMBUL were hired by that rude Ulf from the Counting House or something. The fourth letter seemed more reasonable.
The money you have received from Tranzig should cover your usual fee. (NIMBUL had scribbled in the margins, What money? NIMBUL estimates 890 gold plus 50 gold late fee.) Your assignment may be difficult, but I'm sure you are up to the task. There is a group of mercenaries who should be coming through Nashkel in the next few days. They are led by a human whelp named Sky. Kill her, and all that travel with her. I warn you: they may be dangerous. Good hunting!
Tranzig, who'd given orders to Mulahey. This was about the mines. Naming me and not Imoen or anyone else was strange, since it was Imoen's idea to go there. I mean, in a party with a pink-loving wizard-in-training, a singing bard, a tall battling cleric, and a really tough dwarf, they name (and misspell again) the petite one good at sneaking around? I don't know at all about this leadership thing. Tranzig apparently hadn't paid NIMBUL...because Branwen had caught up to him. Dated 1 Kythorn, not long after we killed Mulahey. Magical scrying, I guessed. We'd have to ask the mages to protect against that.
Dynaheir showed no reaction to the spelling correction. She'd never seen my name written down, and I knew the Thorass alphabet for Rashemi and Thayvian Mulhorandi would both transliterate it phonetically, whichever she used when she was at home. (I'd wager five dances with Bran Gangric that it's the former, from her old-fashioned accent.)
"Another thing thou ought to know of: one of the women imprisoned was found dead on their cell floor this morning. Wounded in the battle, probably at the hooves of that brave horse, she was murdered by her own companion rather than face interrogation. Her companion is no longer present." Dynaheir sighed. "Truly, thou did good in allowing their lives to be spared rather than dishonourably killed--" I was too tired to tell her that dishonourably killed was no great loss as far as I was concerned, disgusting as the actual process would have been--"and yet I must own that the Red Wizard's words proved true in this instance. Nonetheless, good may yet arise from thy noble choice."
"I'll see what Imoen thinks," I said.
"A reasonable decision, I suppose. I, too, must decide upon plans for the future. I do not recommend introducing these matters as knowledge beyond thyself; Imoen must be cautioned to have care." This long advice-giving was her parting remarks. I waited for either Imoen or Branwen to come back for me.
"Heya! Here ya go, we got some more potions when Branwen collected the reward for that mine thing. And Branwen says she'll take a look at your ankle, don't make such a fuss! And, hey...doya remember last night?"
Imoen was delighted to regale me with the whole embarrassing story. I must talk with her about everything.
7 Kythorn, Hour 16
A day of strange partings. I can't wait to finally enter Beregost and meet up with the escort Daddy must have sent by now. I hope the poor soldiers aren't getting too bored waiting for us. When Branwen healed and bound my ankle for me and I came down to join the others, Xzar and Xan were the first.
"Good late-morning, m'dear Skie. I was so hoping to catch you awake before our departure. A change in plans as to my body, you see," Xzar--she--said. Her acid-green robes looked clean for once, and she'd bothered to brush her hair.
"Are you...are you staying that way?"
"No, no, of course not. It's just that I happened to remember that, before our fateful meeting in--wherever it was--Monty and I had been spelunking about a nasty stone tower southeast of here. Or is it southwest? I always forget. Never-eat-slimy-wyverns, or never-wyverns-slimes-eat? I found the most delightful book that has given me a sudden urge to become a priest of Cyric and thereby dispel that spell myself. We unfortunately couldn't get any further in the tower; all those nasty ghasts and succubi and the like. 'Twas fortunate I had a scroll or two of invisibility to keep us safe. I'm mad, not stupid. In any case, innocent Skie, there should be a similar tome remaining there that I strongly advise you to read. You'll need it, little rabbit." She patted me on the head, giving me a rather disturbing glance from green eyes.
"Well, I don't really have plans to..."
"And now--Xan and I are off to Evereska!" she announced. "It should be tremendously exciting. I offered to travel with him so we can look after each other. After all, when I think of all we shared in Mulahey's dungeons-what was it again?"
"I have decided I must make my report to my superiors--" Xan sneezed--"and, since wandering on my own would be completely suicidal, I...well, accept Lady Xzar's companionship. I must be as mad as her, or he." He looked wretched, but he had always done so since we had found him. "I'm sure we shall find our throats slit by bandits in the first few minutes on the road."
"And then my new god Cyric can resurrect you! O happy day," Xzar gloated.
"No laundry service? The sooner departed from this barbaric town the better. (It is still a barbaric hour of the morning, at that.)" Edwin the Red Wizard approached, gesturing to the slightly damp sleeves of his robes as he ranted. "I hold you fully responsible, girl," he said, pointing at me. "Would requesting reparations of you be too much to ask?"
"Uh, I did learn how to do laundry in C...for a little while in this place my father sent me to...but I burned three of my shirts and accidentally flooded the vestry with soapy water," I said.
"Hmm, well, you've obviously found some service in this place," Edwin said, turning to Xzar. "I see you've...freshened up. (It is welcome to meet female wizards more appealing than the Rashemi savage.) Might I ask your name, dear lady?" He straightened the collar of his robes.
Xzar shook back her honey-blonde curls. "It is Xzar. You introduced yourself as Edwin of Thay, I believe?"
"You're perceptive. I admire that in a woman. Perhaps, once my business is concluded, we could retire to somewhere more private...and compare our spellbooks? (By which I mean: overwhelm her with Edwin Odesseiron's mastery of the erotic arts, second only to his wizardry.)"
"Oh, delightful, delightful; divinations and enchantments I adore next to my own beloved school, but conjurations I'll accept. Were we talking about laundry?"
"Indeed--for her crying upon my shoulder half the night, I'd rather the service you appear to have enjoyed. I compliment you again upon an almost Thayvian standard of appearance. (Perhaps if her hair was a good deal shorter.)"
"It's only a matter of skills learnt myself while living rough; travelling the Sword Coast with poor dear Montaron, you see." Xzar patted a spell component pouch that I hoped didn't contain what I thought it contained. "I'm flattered at your questions to little old me."
"(So that's how she acquired that lovely tan.)" Edwin puffed out what chest he had. "Be flattered. I must admit that you pique my interest as both a lady and a wizard; more the former, since after all I am already a master wizard."
Xzar bent across and whispered something in his ear. At first Edwin seemed charmed, and then he blanched and pulled away, almost as shocked as he'd been when Dynaheir had surprised him.
"A...a-hem! I must immediately go! Farewell, sir wizard!"
"Tata, Skie." Xzar's little wave as he dragged Xan with him was their exit.
Edwin sat down rather suddenly. "To business, then I feel we know each other quite well by now."
"Sure." You do feel as though you know someone if you've cried on their shoulders half the night. I joined him at the table. "Please don't attack Dynaheir?"
"For now I decide a brief truce (if only to avoid the noisemaking), and Edwin Odesseiron has a distinct habit of keeping his word. Until crying children no longer hinder me, of course. How did you come to meet her?"
"Minsc saved us from an evil slime-controlling wizard--" talking about my silly mistake when first seeing him in Nashkel would have been really embarrassing--"and then he told us she was in the fortress. We went down there and got her out."
"Out of the goodness of your hearts?" He narrowed his eyes.
"I wouldn't leave Bran Gangric in a place like that. Minsc and Imoen turned up to rescue both of us, and that's how it happened," I told him. "Weren't you talking about that stronghold to Branwen and Garrick? How did you know she was there?"
"(Such pathetic attempts at subtle questioning will not sway me.) Like her, I have my own reasons to travel the Sword Coast. Has she mentioned hers?"
"She and Minsc are on their dajemmas, of course. I guess you're on official business too." Why wear the robes of a Red Wizard so far west?
"Oh, of course the Rashemi fools are on their dajemmas." I wondered if he was a Red Wizard apprentice himself; he looked about Xzar's age, fairly young for a wizard. "Hmm. You say you extracted the witch from the gnoll stronghold, and she and the berserker voluntarily came here with you."
"Yes. Weren't you listening?"
He sighed. "(Ignorant simians. Could the witch possibly be travelling with them simply to entertain herself at their incompetence?...No, Rashemi witches have no sense of humour and I must continue my mission.) You must allow me to join your party. As a renowned wizard, I am sure I will be of far greater service than any other."
"But we don't really need you," I said. "We're just going to Beregost to meet Daddy's escort and go back to Baldur's Gate. Dynaheir, Garrick and Imoen all cast spells, so..."
"The witch is evil! You have already fallen prey to her deceitful guile. Allow me to join you and I shall watch her with the patience of one who understands her ilk!"
"I told you, we don't need you. Not that it's my decision or anything, I could ask Garrick and Imoen, but I think Branwen already doesn't like you, and obviously Minsc and Dynaheir..."
"(I cannot believe it has come to this. Still, the weeping wench seems biddable enough.) I grant you one month of my services as a wizard. So I promise, and Edwin Odesseiron keeps his word. The fine print: claim on any magical treasures pertinent to my profession, the bubbleheaded bard sees to my needs while travelling, the cleric or another imbecile with more muscle than pea-sized brain carries the surplus supplies appropriate to a wizard of my calibre, and my rest to memorize spells must be undisturbed. I'm sure you agree that my guidance as a wizard will prove more valuable than any ransom you could name."
"I can't promise the fine print on their behalf!" I could only imagine what Branwen would say for bargaining away her services...or do. "I don't think..." He looked disappointed enough that I felt sorry for him.
"Accept him, Skie." Dynaheir's rich voice carried well as she poked her head around the door. The inn walls really were thin. Edwin looked furious.
"Um, yes! Yes, I accept. What do you want to do first?"
"What do I...(Ah, yes, though I fear a trap of the Witch, this girl is biddable indeed. Wait! I recall!)" He looked suddenly taken aback. "You will be so kind as to tell me why apparently every hapless assassin on the Sword Coast recently took up residence in Nashkel for the purpose of killing you and the others."
"We helped stop the Nashkel mine poisoning which I suppose made us a few enemies, and...and it's also my father," I said. The most believable lie is one mixed with the truth, Eldoth quoted to me once. "I know it sounds a lot like boasting, when I'm here alone and penniless, but..."
"Yes?" Edwin tapped his fingers impatiently.
"I mentioned the escort we were meeting...The fact is that Daddy is one of the Grand Dukes of Baldur's Gate. His rivals must think he's vulnerable at the moment because...because my brother Eddard recently..." It's still too soon to think about it.
He quickly started patting my hand. "There, there. (Please Mystra don't let it set her off again.) Your father, a provincial nobleman, is already under distressed emotional circumstances and his rivals desire to eliminate you to further destabilize him. (Ah, in Thay I suspect she would be already dead.) Correct?"
"Very well. With this escort of yours and my magical skill, such things will cause no difficulty. (Ah, my intuition that it was nothing serious proved correct. It was perfectly wise of me to refrain from asking this question before offering the girl my under-regarded services.)"
A guard's head at the door was an interruption. "Package for a Lady Skie, tagged, cleaned and labelled as best we could, like the witch said." I looked into the large wooden crate, and recoiled: I recognized the belongings of the dead people.
"Don't be so squeamish, child." Edwin pulled out a blue potion and read the paper tied around its neck. "Potion of Magic Blocking. What a disservice to my skills. Scroll of Magic Missile--infantile--scroll of armour--already know it--scroll of Burning Hands--that will be mine. (The cheating witch will not be the only one aware of it!) Enchanted helmet--the fools couldn't tell what for. Hmm. Oh, that's a very good-looking giant battleaxe. Very nice giant battleaxe..."
"You totally palmed that ring, didn't you?" Imoen joined us, sticking her tongue out at him.
"No I did not I was merely examining it. Not the Ring of Wizardry I dream of someday finding, I fear. I am sure it is mere trash." He threw it carelessly up in the air; Imoen caught it.
"There's a label saying 'unidentified ring' on it, should I get Garrick? Oy, Garrick, over here!" Garrick obeyed the summons, still running a comb through his hair.
"It's a Ring of Infravision, for seeing in the dark like elves," he said--I remembered one of Xzar's comments on the subject, and shuddered--"and this is a helmet that does the same thing. And this enchanted studded leather, Skie, this would probably fit you, or you could wear this twice-enchanted leather..." The second outfit had a dark stain on its midriff the Flaming Fist cleaners had been unable to remove; I fancied the shape of horse's hooves.
"We killed people for these things! I know, I know, we had to go through Mulahey's stuff and everything, and take weapons and things, but--I'm not wearing anything belonging to dead people and I don't see why you're all so excited!"
Garrick dropped the armour he held; Imoen sighed. "Look, be realistic," she said. "Ol' Gorion and Winthrop've told me all about proper adventuring. These people nearly killed us, don't ya think we ought to have some protection? How'd you like it if Garrick here got an arrow through the chest if not for some nice studded leather?"
I paled at the thought of more friends dying. "All right, I'm not saying it's wrong or anything." Garrick did have nothing more than thick cloth protecting him. And Imoen with that kobold's arrow through her down in the mines... I remember just trying to stop the blood; I'd have done anything.
"Wrong? Ha! Looting corpses personally is typically below a Wizard of my position, but it is well known to produce useful results," Edwin said.
Imoen nudged him with a boot. "Havin' you on the side isn't a good thing, y'know."
"I...I would think that you are right, Lady Skie!" Garrick burst out. "We should have what we only buy honestly..."
Garrick with an arrow through the chest if not for some nice studded leather. "No, wear it, Garrick... The studded leather is almost your size. Really, Imoen's right. I've still got the shiny sword I took anyway."
"And a nice ring of infravision for the girl sneakin' through gnoll strongholds. I'm taking these good-looking boots...should be handy dodging arrows if I'm gonna be the greatest transmuter wizard in Toril...."
I did wear the ring.
"Minsc and Boo are overjoyed to see everyone up again, except for the Nasty Red Wizard." He clumped into view, Branwen and Dynaheir beside him. "You have the valiant spoils of battle collected! Minsc's witch has said these are for little Skie, as battle-plunder seized from wicked gnolls." He handed a pair of gauntlets to me. "Boo says they make others as nimble-fingered as little Skie and Imoen the pink witch."
A grey potion half-slipped from Edwin's hands as he did some unintentional, frantic juggling.
"How dare you startle me!" he fumed. Imoen giggled. I passed the gauntlets to Garrick.
"Skie, Imoen: wouldst thou exit with me?" Dynaheir asked. She carried her full pack with her, as did Minsc. "Perhaps we may wander about the town. It astounds me; the streets of Rashemen are empty compared."
"I've been to this town before too," Garrick volunteered.
"'Tis best thou complete thy identifications, good bard. Come, Imoen. We shall discuss a new spell for thee."
Edwin scowled, but did nothing. "(Attempting to hide in the shadows would be beneath my dignity. I suppose I shall extract the truth from the little thieves later.)"
"This scroll is an invocation to create a shield, which I scribed for thee early this morning; dost thou understand the runes?" she explained to Imoen. "Its effect is of a magically crafted shield, best effective against missile weapons, but not useless against others. The necessary component is..."
I couldn't follow them; I trailed along beside them, paying only polite attention.
"Yep, I think I got it! I'll scribe it into my own spellbook tonight," Imoen said, bringing out her tattered collection of pages covered in pink cloth from her hood's lining.
"Take care, for an error in concentration mayst spoil the scroll itself, leaving thee with nothing," Dynaheir warned. "Now, Skie." I jumped as she called me. "Thy plans are to travel to Beregost, and there meet guardians to take thee and Imoen to thy home?"
"Good. Then Minsc and I shall depart. We shall be in Baldur's Gate ourselves ere a month has passed; thou and I must meet again."
Meet again. They were leaving--I was surprised. It hadn't been long since we had known the Rashemis, but she and Minsc had both saved us, in their way. "But..why?" I hoped we would not encounter more assassins or bandits on our journey up to Beregost.
"I am not ungrateful of thy rescue," she said. "The Red Wizard has sworn himself to thee, and once knowing I am no longer present shall depart without anguish. Do not, of course, inform him of this promise. At that time, Minsc and I shall be in thy city. Thou art most welcome to seek us out...and indeed I may do the same. So I bid thee farewell."
"Yup, look us up," Imoen said. "I'll learn more spells 'till I'm the best lockpicking wizard on the Sword Coast, don't ya worry about that! Skie?"
That was of course the cue for Imoen and I to rehearse our Plan we've worked out. The Plan; a cheering reminder even after many assassins. We even have all the special gestures memorized, because sometimes you can't make noise in case guards hear you: "Go to Baldur's Gate, join the Baldur's Gate thieves' guild, and be the greatest thieves and thieving wizard on the Sword Coast!" Our fists bumped together and we did the extravagant handshake signal, dancing in the streets.
Dynaheir looked as if she were stifling a very bad head-cold, her mouth opening and her eyes popping out--"Truly I didst not consider thy specialist class of Transmuter to have been chosen with that aim in mind, Imoen. But thou hast noble souls, I am sure. Farewell."
"Boo will miss his companions in butt-kicking!"
Edwin hasn't talked to anyone all the time we've been walking today. I'm so happy we're nearly to Beregost and Daddy's escort.
Theoretically we briefly rest on our journey, but Branwen is talking about 'fighting drill' and 'my conscience as a priest of Tempus shall not rest if my companions cannot defend themselves in true fighting spirit!', and glaring at Imoen, Garrick, and me in particular. Maybe I can plead my ankle to get out of it; it still feels rather stiff. We're nearly home free.
7 Kythorn, Hour 21
It's sweet! Branwen's gone to join Minsc and Dynaheir. We only had to fight one group of gibberlings on the way here (Edwin helped when one of them got too close to him, and Imoen is pestering him about Conjuration spells), and made it to the town gates. (The assassins...well, I know with an escort and in Baldur's Gate we'll be safe.)
"So we have reached the town in good health," she said. I yawned; we'd been walking for some time, and the forced combat drill...! "If you need my hammer no further, I shall march onward in the hope of slaying more vile bandits of Tranzig's ilk! By Tempus the debt I owe you shall be always remembered, but I have given you some little training, and I should much rather complete fighting deeds than join an escort to that merchants' city!"
"(Your brains shall undoubtedly not be missed)." Edwin muttered something it was difficult to hear.
"Well, thank you," I said to her. "You rescued us and healed us so many times...we'll miss you. There's no debt."
"As well...the fine berserker warrior mentioned his witch intended the direction of the Red Canyons," she said more softly. "After we fought side by side, he did compare me to the strong fighters of his homeland, paying compliment as a fellow warrior...if I were to meet the pair again, do you think that they would welcome my battle-prowess?"
"Yep, definitely," Imoen said. She winked at me. "I think he'll like that."
"He is a fine warrior. A man as large and strong as those in my homeland, but with respect for women..." She touched her cheek.
"Yes, that's really... I think you'll get along nicely," I said. A chance for matchmaking! It's so sweet that Minsc and Branwen can pursue a further connection. And maybe, for the unknown assassins, it's best they all leave.
"Like-minded, evidently," Edwin commented under his breath. I hope he doesn't tease Garrick about Imoen.
"Then farewell, noble companions!" She slapped me on the back so hard it hurt, and set off east.
And when we went into the town, we met Elminster. Actually, it was the second time. Imoen and I ran into him not long after meeting Monty and Xzar, but he just seemed like an ordinary old man then; I'm glad we were polite to him. In Baldur's Gate my stepmother and her friends would do anything to get him at one of their parties.
It was...very strange talking to him. Of course one has to be respectful to mages like him (Edwin was not helpful here), but he carried on about bandits to the northeast above Peldvale. Well, of course I'll tell the escort to avoid veering too far to the northeast--bandits are still less deadly than the Cloakwood--but it's not like we're planning to go bandit hunting. That would be stupid.
Since nobody's found us yet, tonight we rest in the Burning Wizard. (Garrick has said Feldepost's inn got pretty...disturbed...when Branwen went there, and we won't go to the Jovial Juggler again.) Tomorrow we look for either a letter from Daddy or the escort. They'll protect us from any more nasty assassins.
It's a horrible letter left at Kagain's house. I don't know what to think about it. I can't write; the paper is smudged.
The news of my son's death has been received. I enclose 50 gold pieces for the mercenary who performed this service.
When Gorion first contacted me regarding you, he told me only a tale of divinations and a need to send you to Candlekeep in order to protect you. Yesterday, I received two letters that told me the true story: one from Candlekeep, that Gorion was killed; the other from Gorion himself, sent to me in case of his death. It told this: you are not my daughter. Despite Gorion's honeyed words about your mother, I believe that she betrayed me. Perhaps Eddard was also no son of mine. Perhaps the fault was part mine in marrying too young a woman, but an unfaithful spouse is not a crime to be taken lightly.
In view of your partial service to me to inform of Eddard's death, I would send you gold in compassion for your plight, but I have heard other tales of your disgraceful conduct. Were you in fact my daughter, I would disown you for willfully cavorting with such disreputable folk as Kron. With corruption in your inheritance, the only advice I offer is to avoid further trespasses against society and law as best you can. Should you return to Baldur's Gate, the Flaming Fist guards will be warned of your criminal conduct.
Entar Silvershield, Grand Duke of Baldur's Gate.
Not Daddy's daughter? How can I not be my father's daughter? I have his eyes--everyone says so. Hazel, sometimes brown or green under different lights, occasionally yellowish (although that last part is mostly just mine). I know I look a lot like my real mother, at least the formal portrait of her, but Daddy has to be my father. Daddy's fair, my stepmother's fair, my mother was dark, I'm dark-haired and so is Eddard. Eddard--he looked more like me than like Daddy, but he definitely took after him in mind! Why did Gorion tell such a wicked lie? Or mistake. And I thought that my father was being cruel when he locked me away from Eldoth--
Imoen thinks Gorion wouldn't lie. Since he was her foster uncle I suppose it's natural she believes him. Gorion even admitted to lying the first time he talked to my father! At least she's a friend, when I need it most...
I have to get to Baldur's Gate. But how can we do it alone? Maybe Eldoth will come and help us--I know his refined speech could convince anyone the sky is green and grass is blue...
I didn't go on this journey wanting to make anyone want to hurt me. Lately I've just wanted to go somewhere with soft beds, warm water, somewhere close to home.
I've lost everything I used to be.
Sssr'dssnssts: 1364 DR
There was a day on which the Golden One came to conquer the pod of Sssr'dssnssts, the day on which the Golden One conquered each of the eighteen pods the Red Master had held. Sssr'dssnssts remembers the day most brightly.
In the caves of home Sssr'dssnssts wrestled with its podsib Rsssjss'nssts. There was a pleasant darkness and salt-scent of the lapping sea, and the strong smell in their breath of jellyfish-prey the pair had caught and consumed before their game. Of the same nourisher and same birthing and identical in natural appearance, this first of Sssr'dss' sibs was as great a match as any; and Sssr'dss was nearing victory through none but its determined will. Today it was not practicing combat with mind-skimming, where the crucial trick was to breach through to only the opponent's combat-reflexes rather than become overwhelmed by a vastness of mental debris. Today Sssr'dss wished to practice pure fighting only. Sssr'dss falsely aimed to Rsssjss' side to provoke a shielding from its sib; Rsssjss grasped at the shifting. Sssr'dss had considered its following move in its head, dreamed clearly of the motion of right-hand bones extending and the vital cut made at the very point of Rsssjss' distraction. Sssr'dss could taste the pleasant victory even now.
But then on that day different to so many other play-wrestlings, the rumblings of a loud call echoed through the caverns, the summons of a Greater, the very earth shifting under a power that was perhaps even that of the Red Master.
"Hasten, Rsssjss!" Sssr'dss reluctantly lowered its hand to cease the fight. Something attacked the pods.
"It may be monstrous," Rsssjss the more fearful responded.
"Then it will be a shape almost suitable for us!" Sssr'dss said. It had not its gift-stripes yet from either Greater One in its pod, but it was only a season from reaching maturity. Would that the Red Master was less cautious in Its ways. It ran to the pod's meeting-place. The Greater One Wsssstssstsss'nssts had been birthed by the same nourishing parent as the podsibs, and Sssr'dss hoped that Wsssstssstsss would recall that the high blood might well appear in it also, especially in a time of crisis.
Sssr'dss hastened along the narrow passageways. Challenges to the Greater Ones were called in the pod-centre; but today, there was merely chaos. Sssr'dss called to the veteran Lsssrsss, a decrepit old one who told tales of impersonating and consuming thousands of primates in its lifetime, and who was always willing to gossip, though generally Sssr'dss preferred to hear the tales of conquest.
"Lsssrsss!" it called. "Where is--"
Asking the feeble old thing, Sssr'dss realized, had been a waste of time.
MY SERVANTS THOSE TRULY SERVING ME TO HALL TO HALL TO HALL
The Red Master. And Sssr'dss had all but missed this event! It grasped at its podsib's arm, dragging Rsssjss onward.
"I do not feel the compulsion-requirement," Rsssjss protested. "Should we not remain, and later--"
Sssr'dss' pod were all running about like stupid primate-animals flopping about with their heads removed, as Lsssrsss' stories often had it. The Red Master's hold upon them was suddenly weak. Sssr'dss felt as if its footing had been lost on an egg-hunt, that while climbing the cliff the rock had turned to none but air, and Sssr'dss was falling.
Sssr'dss would see this event; perhaps it would be the one to rescue the Red Master and prove it could become a Greater One; perhaps any change could occur. A fall was an avian-flight by the proverbs. Sssr'dss felt faint dark stirrings inside itself; it had never known the Red Master's leash so weak before. It had never guessed that it could feel such...uneasiness. But Sssr'dss told itself that it would try.
"Sssr'dss, please--" Its podsib was too weak. Sssr'dss ran to the hall of the Red Master, the protesting Rsssjss drawn with it.
The Red Master lived in luxury within the centre of the nobles' large warren of caves. The centre of it was a large cavern, floored in pale tiles, where blood in fights was often spilled whilst a magical dome confined the combatants. Sometimes the Master forced two Greater Ones to battle each other for Its amusement, sometimes a Greater One to face a beast It had procured, or sometimes even one of the Master's own race, in ritual challenge against each other. The Red Master Itself was undefeated; it had been Sssr'dss' privilege, only once, to watch It destroy a Greater One of another pod who had displeased It.
It was not one of the Red Master's race who battled under the mage-field today. It was a large primate who wore heavy dark armour; the armour of the elven primates was supposed to be fine, so its classification would probably be a human, Sssr'dss thought. Around its chest were strapped a series of small vials, each containing purple liquid; it paused in the swing of its large sword, and raised one of the vials to the darkness of its helmet. The empty glass fell to the tiles, shattered by a step of the primate's metalled boots. From the glittering shards lying about them upon the tiles, the potion was not the first that had been consumed.
"My mind is empty, Sssr'dss..." Rsssjss wailed. The blows of the sword forced the Red Master back; but these did not prevent It from attacking the strange warrior in return. A blinding headache took Sssr'dss, and the voice was restored.
TO ME MY SERVANTS AID ME NOW
The Red Master's tentacles struck the primate warrior a blow that would have felled any Greater One. The warrior did not falter; its sword struck powerfully, and one of the red-patterned tentacle was almost severed. It hung from the Master by a single thread of flesh. The Red Master's scream was terrible to hear for Its servants.
The command forced Sssr'dss and Rsssjss to the crowd massed about the arena, the Greater Ones at the forefront, the mass of the Master's servants attempting some means of breaking through. The sealing was triggered by battle and prevented escape from the duels of the Red Master; it did not need to prevent the escape of this warrior. Sssr'dss caught the beginnings of a chant of a ritual of dispelling from some of the Greater Ones. It recognized Wsssstssstsss'nssts amongst them, a worried look resting on the Greater One's face. The pain of the Red Master continued to throb in Sssr'dss' head.
"We cannot obey the order! Please, can we not run?" Rsssjss pleaded. They could not do that; the compulsion-requirement was too strong. The Red Master ruled them and they could not abandon It.
The primate gulped another potion; discarded another sparkling vial to be crushed. Sssr'dss saw it as though Sssr'dss itself stood in that arena, the primate's height and strong bulk, the enchanted armour, the sword shining some dark colour--Sssr'dss would never have used that phrase before this moment--the horned helmet, and the glowing yellow eyes Sssr'dss saw, as the Red Master flew to hit the side of the arena's shield and the primate turned to face them. It raised a gauntleted hand that held two tentacles; and dropped them upon the ground like so much waste.
Golden eyes. Sssr'dss could no longer call it only, the primate.
TO ME TO ME TO ME...
The blinding headache took Sssr'dss' vision. It heard Rsssjss crying out, and steeled its own jaw. It could be strong in the defence of the Red Master, it told itself. It could be strong if only...
Sssr'dss found itself able to look up in time to see the arena's shield dissipate. But the golden-eyed one was too fast, too powerful, despite the weight of its armour. It had taken up the Red Master; grasped its neck in one hand; and had slain it. Sssr'dss could see the body hanging, the sword withdrawn from it.
Five Greater Ones were the first to attack the primate. Then the battle-dome appeared again in existence; Sssr'dss, who had been running to do likewise, was cut off from it. It would never tell Rsssjss, but it wished to void its bowels at the possibility of battle with that warrior.
Then the one with the golden eyes spoke for the first time, its voice full and deep, speaking the Common tongue.
"I am your new master. You shall serve me, or die now."
Wsssstssstsss, who was quite old for a Greater One, was amongst the five, and became the first to be sliced in two by that sword. Two Greater Ones used magic to speed themselves, mirror images for protection; yet the quickness and strength of the golden-eyed one overcame them. Another cast a spell to wound, which seemed to fizzle and die at the warrior's flesh and only burned its caster; and the fifth of the Greater Ones was simply wounded deeply, flung aside like so much offal. Blood washed over the tiles like a flood.
The exercise had held scarcely ten breaths of time. The warrior marched to the arena's shielding, which still appeared because the last Greater One was dying rather than dead, and the power of his sword was sufficient to break it.
None other dared challenge it. The remaining Greater Ones, and Sssr'dss and Rsssjss and the other lesser, gave obeisance before it. A new master. Sssr'dss knew the absence of the Red Master, and held the thought of the new.
"Our eighteen pods--all our eighteen pods we pledge to you!" the Greater One of the north-west caves cried out.
"All of you will leave with me and join a caravan," the golden-eyed one said. "You will serve the Iron Throne; and my mortal father."
"It shall be as you say, Golden One," a second Greater One spoke; an older being by the sound of its voice. Golden One would be the name of tthe pods' new master, then. "You are more than mortal..."
It was more than mortal. Sssr'dss, on impulse--a simple thought-skimming found but a fraction of what lay on the surface, to the other it did not even feel as an attack--let its mind reach out, briefly, to the human-appearing golden thing. Sssr'dss' probe was narrowed to a needle's thinness, searching for the merest trickle of what lay within the Golden One's eyes. This smallest of glimpses all but destroyed Sssr'dss.
Power. Naught but that golden power lay behind its eyes, exploding brighter than any astronomical light. Perhaps a single word: murder? A fire ignited in Sssr'dss' head that burnt its thoughts to a fragment of ash; and an instant later it was behind its own skull again, with a howling and dark fear that the Golden One had detected it. With trembling terror Sssr'dss watched ready to beg for mercy. The golden eyes gradually turned to a more somber amber, but it was not possible to doubt the fury that could have been summoned back with the briefest of thoughts. Sssr'dss could not stop itself from shivering.
Orders were given. The pods of Sssr'dss' people would follow the caravans, join the Golden One's people, gain power through serving them. Their own people had not even time to clear their dwellings before the departure; there was no need for material possessions by a noble people, but even so Sssr'dss had once valued fishing-nets it had twisted, cunning traps it had laid in the waters. Sssr'dss followed the Golden One with great willingness, knowing its strength and power. The replacement to the Red Master was a better fate.
Clan-legends told of the pods under a band of the Tentacles conquering a tower to the south crafted by the short-bearded inferiors, and that was greatness and memorial amongst their superior people. This, Sssr'dss hoped for down to its shifting still-shivering soft bones, would be identical.
The Golden One was a god, a god in the form of an inferior primate, a deception that marked it akin to the Noble People. They must also pretend not to serve the Golden One, Sssr'dss and its pod and the other pods learned in some order; instead they must feign that the lowly primate masquerading as the parent of the Golden One was their true master, until the Golden One destroyed it.
(The words that Sssr'dss read in the caravans, plucked out of minds far easier than the Golden One's blinding power, were: Father, Son, Merchant. How Sssr'dss longed to steal these inferior forms and to consume the inferior flesh that smelt sweeter than any other it had devoured. It was a deception that marked the Golden One as their true leader.)
The Golden One was the new god of Sssr'dss; and Sssr'dss' only wish became to achieve Greatness and adventure in Its sight.
We're travelling again. Garrick tried to cheer me up about the letter:
"Seemingly half the population of the Sword Coast tried to kill us just a few days ago, and we were victorious! I know you can get back to the city, or...or achieve whatever you want, Skie."
"We killed them. Gorion, Eddard, Bassilus, Mulahey, Montaron, Kagain, Tranzig, NIMBUL, the cleric, that mage, Karlat, those three women, gibberlings and kobolds and gnolls and horrors." That list is too long. Also too melodramatic. "I don't know what to do any more! I don't know where to go!" I don't want to kill anyone else. (Sometimes we have to.) I can't go home now.
"Lady Skie, I promise I'll...I should like to stay by you..."
"You should go." The notes only mentioned Imoen and me; not Garrick, and of course not Edwin. "If there are more assassins, it's not fair on you! Just leave me here. I'll find something."
He said he wouldn't leave. Imoen...I did talk to her. If she likes him back, I won't try to make him go, and she said she didn't think he would leave. I told her about the people trying to kill us, the ones talking about Candlekeep and Gorion.
"There are people trying to kill us who must have spied on Candlekeep. I don't know who the spy was. Anyone who hadn't been there long and heard you talking to me. Maybe that weird man Shank who accidentally fell into his own knife in the priest hut. They only know me as Sky, they know you, and they knew Gorion. The man in the spiky armour, the one who killed Gorion...maybe they were connected. When he said 'hand over the girl and nobody will get hurt' I thought it was just because I'm a young woman and they were bandits... But now I think maybe he was one of those assassins after us. I'm sorry. I know what happened was awful..."
"Yeah, I saw it too," Imoen said fiercely. "Didn't hear it, only saw it.. You running into the bushes and all. Ya really thought they wanted to ravish you?"
"I was also carrying more gear than Gorion! I know I ran away. He told me to, I know I'm a coward. The two ogres he killed, the spiky man, a spellcasting woman with a Kozakuran accent...I couldn't see her face. It was too dark and wet. I think I'd know their voices again...and of course the glowing eyes are a dead giveaway." I didn't mean to pun. "Was he even human? Are there any demons or devils with eyes like that?"
"You'd've been toast with a critter like that there. So'd most of Candlekeep," Imoen said.
"Like that demon Errtu Drizzt defeated twice, who opened a gate to the Abyss, let countless fiends through, teleported instantly, used a lightning sword in a pool of water, and a whip of..." I stopped quoting books. "Yes, I don't want any devils and demons."
"All right, all right. So bad guys are after you and know I exist," Imoen said.
"Yes. The letters don't actually say...kill the red-haired girl. If you left, that might make it harder for them...But I think...I think if I were an assassin, I'd find and kill both the people mentioned...I didn't know I was doing this to you! I'm sorry!"
"If'n you think I'm leaving yer a bufflehead," Imoen said. I'm so glad. Even though it's selfish of me, Imoen's the best friend I have. "So what d' you think Mr G. did?"
Imoen was right; Gorion's magic was probably it. "I don't know. He mostly talked to me about history; obviously you were the one he told about magic. There's certainly no reason for these...people to think I knew his magical secrets. I'm just one of his friends' daughters."
"But they didn't know that," Imoen said. "And of course there was a little gossip about ol' Mr G. bringing a young girl home with him..."
"Ew!" we said at the same time, collapsing into nervous giggles.
Imoen pointed a wavering finger at me. "Foster auntie haha!"
We looked at E's letter again: an elliptically-phrased warning and vaguely-worded suggestion that assassins might find it harder to navigate the wilderness than Candlekeep. Not a very helpful suggestion, I thought bitterly. No sense in seeking the people called Jaheira and Khalid; from the last assassin's taunt, they had gone. It had been so foolish of me to have this journey on our own, when we could have had fighters helping us. Could E be Elminster? He made no reference to the letter when warning us about bandits; indeed he seemed in a hurry to be off, resisting Imoen's questions about him and Gorion. Damn him for underspecificity.
Also: Edwin. "I'm putting you in danger! I shouldn't take your services any more," I tried to explain.
"Surely the danger is decreased thanks to the...news received?" Stop being logical, you idiot. "I have no wish to remain in this squalid town while you drown your various sorrows. Inactive outward, inactive inward; I would I did not suffer these fools."
Maybe I should tell Edwin the truth. He's Thayvian, there's no way he's involved with whatever strange thing wants someone called Sky dead. But Dynaheir said I should keep it quiet, and...can I trust someone who introduced himself by wanting to kill one of our friends? That's an obvious no.
If I dismiss him from the month he promised with a 'we hate you, go away', he'll look for Dynaheir again. She has Minsc and Branwen with her-he's not going to win. That might mean he'll die. Like Kagain, unable to be raised- And getting Edwin killed trying to kill Dynaheir really defeats the purpose of sending him away to protect him. Or if he wins the fight, Dynaheir dying is even worse. On the other hand, if I keep Edwin with us and we make it to Baldur's Gate in a month (Eldoth can help us if he is there!), I can talk to Dynaheir again and figure out some way to settle it without anyone getting hurt. And until then, I have to protect him from assassins. He's a wizard, he's not very strong and he's a little clumsy. But I also have to keep Imoen safe, and I know Garrick's not very good at fighting, and it's not as though I'm any better.
Garrick has a solution for that, though. He's heard gossip that to the east there's a warrior who likes to challenge passers-by for twenty gold pieces. We've got several hundred gold pieces as a result of the people who tried to kill us and a white wolf Minsc killed near the Cloudpeaks. If we can make it there, we should be able to hire her for some time. I was going to leave the gold for Sendai as partial compensation and give her a new horse when we met again, but screw Sendai's horse. (Not literally, thank you Edwin.) I never liked Sendai anyway and now she can have fun telling the story of how Eilma Silvershield's bastard stole from her.
It's making it through the wilderness to hire the fighter that's the problem...but we've taken steps. My hair is a dark green now that Garrick was nice enough to say goes with my eyes, and Imoen's is a lovely, very pale, pink. The cloak Garrick gave her looks wonderful, and I have to admit (but never to anyone else!) that I was partly responsible for helping them out. He showed it to me first, saying it was a treasure he thought I might like when he found it near Tranzig's rooms and that I was nymph-like, but obviously it's pink, so: Imoen! He looked shy and afraid when I said he ought to give it to her, but thankfully he must have gotten over it.
We've also got antidote supplies against spiders, a few good arrows for Imoen and me (she's decided to go back to the bow rather than her mage's sling), magic sling bullets for Edwin, and more provisions. That's all we could afford. If only I were home... Into another painful 'adventure'.
The Temple warned us! They warned us about monsters!
I cannot believe we are still alive. (Still haven't made it to Garrick's fighter either.)
We went out, trying to stay north of the ridges but still south of Larswood, where Elminster and Tranzig's letters said bandits were. Successful...up to a point. There was howling in the distance; Garrick loosened his armour and started reciting a spell. Suddenly there was four of him, like that assassin had created.
"I'll hold them off!" he told us. "The wolves shall have to defeat four of me before harming you fair ladies!"
Wolves racing toward us. Much larger than the ones Imoen and I ran away from outside Candlekeep; two light brown, the third even bigger than either of them with fur stained a dark purple-black. Garrick stood in front of Imoen and me, his shortsword drawn. I shoved him.
"Sense of smell-wolves have a sense of smell, Garrick!" I'm a city girl, but I've read that much. Magical images weren't going to stop him getting hurt. I ran. "Nice doggies! Nice doggies! Please don't chase after the spellcasters!"
Imoen was reciting something, too, throwing blue pebbles around me; a green arrow Eldoth showed me once hit the giant black one, from Edwin. The three wolves turned on me. Their breath smelled of rotten meat. The light-furred ones had unbrokenly black eyes, but red glinted in the stare of the third. I spun away from them. Stupid plan; what choice was there? You need someone racing into the fight, and I couldn't do magic like the others...
"Mystra curse me are dreadwolves hurt by normal weapons..." Edwin was saying. "Spells on the big one! Attempt bows on the others, lackeys! No wasting!"
No useful trees to run away to, here. I lashed out at random with NIMBUL's shiny sword, and heard a growl; cloth across my calf tore open.
Imoen with her throat ripped out. Garrick with a wound in his chest. Edwin pale and killed.
One leaped at me; I ducked, rolled, and got the other light-furred one between me and the black. Unnatural beasts; the smell was as bad as the gnolls' prison. Balloné grand; a three-quarter spin; spells from Edwin and Garrick hit the black one. I swear its howl made my hair stand on end. A green burn spread on its fur where the arrow's acid ate into it.
Three of Imoen's good arrows stuck in one of the light ones chasing me. It still nipped at my heels. Imoen was fiddling with her cloak, letting it billow around her. I kept trying to distract the wolves, which meant trying not to get killed.
"Yes! Bite 'em, doggie!" Imoen gestured; I was left with one chasing me, as the other leaped for the throat of the black. "This cloak is so great!" She's so good at magic.
Just one. I can cope with just one doggie, right? I kept running in circles. Wolves are too fast.
The wolf attacking the black one fell, stiff, to the ground. Then there was a lot of dark blood when its body was ripped open, and the other one kept panting after me.
Edwin's drain came over my head, Imoen's missiles from her wand, Garrick's crossbow bolts; I risked the chance to hit the wolf myself. NIMBUL's sword went into it like butter. Since it was already wounded, it worked.
Then there was the black-coated monster. I didn't want to look at its red eyes; I feinted and ducked around it. Claw-wounds in my leg hurt.
Its teeth went into my thigh. I screamed, struggled away, and tried to stab it. Not much of a try-I just scraped along its cheek. The second time it bit me, I was gone. Frozen again, helpless just like all the other times this happens to me. It was going to kill me. Crossbow bolts from the four Garricks went into it and did absolutely nothing. It knocked me to the ground, aiming for my throat.
It caught on fire. The black fur turned into a smoking mass. It howled and fell. Imoen yelled, hoarse-voiced in victory. She had so much fun learning that spell with Dynaheir, helping her cook dinner with it, those happy days when we were on our way back to Nashkel. I felt light-headed; there were important veins and things where I'd been hurt, I think.
She pulled the disgusting corpse off me. "Ya okay?" she asked. "Guess my shielding spell needs work. Hey, guys! Should I pour a potion down her throat?" Dynaheir had certified the potions from the gnolls' cave were genuine, as weird as that was to believe. I guess magic doesn't discriminate.
"You would drown her, you great fool. (Not that it would be any loss.)," Edwin said. "I would imagine staunching the bleeding might be a good idea?"
I felt very light-headed. The clouds above me were so pretty and fuzzy. I'd never realized that Imoen looked like a small fluffy pink chipmunk before. She tied up my wounds. I hoped they wouldn't scar.
"Is she all right? What did that foul beast do to her?" Garrick said.
"It will wear off (now if I could apply such a thing to his tongue, that would be beneficial indeed). Only the bite of a vampiric wolf, after all, a small thing to a mage of my abilit.."
"Vampiric wolf?" Imoen and Garrick both exclaimed. If I wasn't already held, that might have been a good moment to swoon.
"We beat a vampiric wolf?" Imoen yelped.
"A...a vampiric wolf! I have heard songs but never..." Garrick gasped.
"Indeed. The credit for the defeat of a vampiric wolf and two dreadwolves is mine...by which I mean, you lackeys were of some small assistance to me. (However did a mage of inferior talent memorize a fire spell long used by the Red Wizards and occasionally their barbaric outlands? I believe I have an appointment with her spellbook awaiting me.) Speaking of which, fool of a bard, I informed you your crossbow bolts would be of no use against the creature-necromantic energy is completely suffused throughout their bodies, mundane weapons are worthless (every student in Thay knows this!)-and yet you fired them in defiance of my instructions. Observe your utter ineffectiveness. Still, I suppose your wastage was minimal."
"Excuse me for trying to save Lady Skie's life!" The four Garricks were quite loud. "I think you know nothing of chivalry, Red Wizard!"
"It is the last province of fools, fool. Is the crying little thief recovered yet, apprentice? (Perhaps I ought to leave them...if that damnable witch had not deceived me so...)"
Imoen offered the healing potion; I came out of the hold gasping. Drinking it made me feel better. As long as there weren't scars.
There were more howls coming from the south.
"Uh, guys? I kinda think we should..." Imoen said.
We ran for it. Fortunately the urgency of it made me forget almost everything; I think I pulled Edwin along (mage robes are about as practical as dresses for running) and just concentrated on getting out of there alive. The Temple did not specify vampiric wolves!
We're still breathing. I even dared to check for scars, and it looks like it'll fade in time. I guess I should go help Garrick with dinner.
12 Kython, Hour 5
Wakened too early by a band of gnolls. It was horrible! Nobody had any spells, and Imoen used the last two charges in her wand!
I went forward again (Imoen and I are the best at dodging, so it had to be one of us) and tried to get their attention. There were four of them, so I guess it wasn't quite as bad as the stronghold—why am I thinking these things? I'm not used to this sort of thing!
Dodging halberds is not ideal when all you have is a short sword. Imoen magicked one gnoll with her cloak, and he helped beat the other ones; I found a nice clump of trees to yell mean things at them while dodging around. Unfortunately this meant that one of Garrick's stray bolts grazed my left arm, which hurt. One of them got too close to Imoen and Edwin, and I stabbed it in the back...there was so much blood. It's so cold too. Imoen snapped her useless wand and threw it away.
We keep moving, even though it's not even dawn yet. Where is Garrick's fighter?
12 Kython, Hour 20
We met her. She'd strong plate armour, a giant two-handed sword, a crossbow hanging from her belt, and really scary tattoos.
"Hold, travellers! I am Shar-Teel, and I challenge your best warrior to a duel. I don't fight women, so only men should step forward." Her harsh gaze raked first Garrick, then Edwin. "Though neither of you seem much like men to me!" she taunted. "Which of you weaklings shall be your champion?"
Garrick half-raised a shaking arm. "I could maybe...write you a ballad? About all the adventures you've probably had?"
"And Edwin's a wizard, he can't possibly fight you with a sword," I said before Edwin could say something completely tactless. "We came to ask if we could hire you."
"Hire me? Let me show you the scalps of my last adventuring party. Stupid male leadership did them in." She grinned. I was rather surprised her teeth weren't filed to sharp points. "And the party before that. And the party before that."
I swallowed. "All right then! How does your dueling thing usually work?"
"Twenty gold to me if I win. In the unlikely event I am defeated by a male, my offer has been to pledge my sword to their cause. So far none have met with victory, though sometimes I've had to slay a few cheaters who failed to get the message." She gave her sword-hilt a congratulatory pat.
Good; we'd expected something like that. "Yes, we can pay you twenty gold per enemy defeated." That might've gotten us a lot of the way to Baldur's Gate. "Garrick's said there's this reward out for bandits..."
"Don't you understand, little girl?" Shar-Teel gave me the same kind of contemptuous look she'd given to Edwin and Garrick. "I don't do this for gold. I do it for the pleasure of rubbing the nose of men in their humiliating defeats. I love watching their expressions just before I get the final stroke in...sometimes they piddle themselves like animals. Men are the weaker sex."
"Yes they are!" Imoen said. She winked at me, and tried to look mysterious by swirling her cloak again. "I am Imoen the Pink, a Great and Terrible Wizardess! Please can you join this group of...powerful women?"
"Very well, children, let's leave this foul sh...respectable warrior to her business," Edwin said. "(If nothing else, we can always fling the crying thief to the wolves and flee with alacrity whilst they fight over her body.)"
"Ah, and don't mind our sidekick Edwin," the Great and Terrible Wizardess said.
"Sidekick? How dare they mock me? There is but one Great and Terrible Wizard here, and he is not a pink-obsessed apprentice!" Edwin muttered to himself. "(Or a vacant-brained bard who has failed as yet to mend my robes.)"
Shar-Teel scowled at Imoen. "Do you attempt to manipulate my mind, witch? Woman or no, I will spit you as I would a plump bird!"
"Okay, maybe we shouldn't be, uh, hasty!" I said. "I guess we'll go and...run into bandits...and probably all die horribly..." I felt like Xan.
"Yes, probably," she said. "Point any male fools you wish to the end of my blade, and consider yourselves fortunate I did not gut you here and now."
She turned away; Edwin spoke out loud. I saw a white feather in his left hand, his sling in his right. "Iacceptyourchallenge!" he said quickly; and finished casting a magic spell.
Shar-Teel had her sword ready in her hands, and started toward him; Imoen ducked, trying to pull him back.
"Edwin, yer an idiot! What're you doing?"
"(Call me a sidekick, will they? I will show them my true place! Ha, sidekick. Great and terrible wizard, indeed! We shall see who the great and terrible wizard around here is!)"
Shar-Teel advanced upon him with homicidal intentions; and...stopped.
"Discretion is the better part of valor! I must...I must..." She raised a hand to cover her face, dropping her sword. "How can this be?"
Edwin looked at her in satisfaction. "Get away from me, chit," he ordered Imoen, "and hurry and pass me those gauntlets, you prancing imbecile of a bard!"
Garrick stripped Minsc's gauntlets off without a word and handed them to him.
"Excellent, excellent. (The lackeys are learning. Yes, though slow, they have proven themselves capable of learning.)" Taking careful aim with the sling, he let loose a bullet that we heard impact on Shar-Teel's armour. His second attempt, he missed, but the third grazed her cheek; she ran in first one direction and then another, making her an easy target at close range. Imoen or I could have shot her, but of course we couldn't intervene. She reeled backward, hitting her head on a branch; and then blinked, returning to herself. Her armour was pitted in several places from Edwin's stones. As she glared at him, the rest of us prepared to flee.
And she laughed. "A clever trick, wizard. I own that I am beaten." She advanced; she caught up to him, leaned down, and grasped him by the neck of his robes. "If you ever try that again I will rip out your spine and use it for a belt."
"(So this is my reward. Ah, I expect no less than threats of physical violence from the bestial specimens I am forced to travel with.) Very well. Put me down now; please put me down now."
Shar-Teel turned her attention to the rest of us. "If I'm to lead this party I'll do a better job than any man would. Bandit-hunting, was it? We shall find and slay every male bandit in these woods!"
"And why have you taken it upon yourself to lead?" Edwin said. It was very brave of him.
"Because I don't expect to see you marching in front and risking death with every swing of your blade, wizard! Keep pace or we aband—"
Garrick paled. "There is some creature ahead of us!" He pointed somewhere behind Shar-Teel. I saw a flash of dark orange scales.
"My petsssssss...attack," a voice said near the movement. "I hope you enjoy...the artwork my prettiessss will make of you..."
"Run," Shar-Teel ordered. She screwed open the lid of a bottle she carried on her belt and downed its contents, which made her glow pink and her armour almost painful to look at. "Generous of the last adventurers I fought to leave me this! Girls, don't look at anything with scales. Find that voice and shoot it. Males, follow them. My sword will do the rest."
We obeyed her, hearing her cry 'If it bleeds, I can kill it!'. As we ducked and wove past the trees, we saw pale statues decorating the woods, figures in the exact shape of adventurers, human and halfling and elf. Moving below the raised arm of an half-orc, we stared at each other. None of us needed to say the word, basilisk.
"Has it occurred to anyone that we might follow the woman's first instructions to the letter, and simply run?" Edwin said. "(No, never mind. They are simply not intelligent, and I must bear the yoke of that burden.)"
"Do you have more spells?" I called to him. "You complained this morning you hadn't been able to memorize overnight, but you cast that horror! Can you..."
"I am not a spell-dispensing automaton, brat! I had but one spell reserved for emergency, and it has been used!"
"I'm out too," Imoen said. "So...where is he?"
"Okay, we can get up that tree!" Imoen said. The four of us scrambled up its branches for safety and camouflage. I saw a glimpse of the creatures, fighting the glowing Shar-Teel, and six gnomes. I fumbled in my pack.
'This is no time to indulge your vanity, girl—" Edwin said when he noticed what I had. "Oh, very well, carry on then."
My hand mirror; my hair was a little mussed. I quickly passed it to Imoen.
"I need it held here, in front of my face! I just want to see the gnomes..." Six identical gnomes in blue-and-brown robes. Had to be magic. He was chanting something; I drew my bow and aimed carefully for the gnome on the right. It winked out of existence when I hit it; none of the gnomes turned around. White light sucked at Shar-Teel. How many scaled creatures was she fighting? Two, three? We couldn't risk finding out. A second illusion disappeared. I heard Shar-Teel grunting loudly.
An arrow seemed to glance off the shoulder of one of the images, and fell to the ground in front of the gnome. He saw us—stuttered in his spell—and gestured. "Art in treessss...yesss, get them, my pet...You will be art forever."
I didn't have time to duck. Imoen, her own eyes closed, still held the mirror; there was light green, and a flash that made the ground rush up to hit us. Edwin was the only one who remained on the tree, clinging frantically to a higher branch; Imoen, Garrick and I fell together. Blackened, twisted fragments cascaded out of Imoen's hands. My stepmother had her maid choose it for a gift to me one Midsummer, one of the fashionable mirrors blessed by Sune's shrine for unbreakability and reflectivity, decorated with mother-of-pearl roses. Some time ago, that would have mattered to me.
"SSSSTONE?" The gnome touched his pet: an eight-legged statue. The silver mirror. "YOU HAVE TURNED MY PET TO SSSSTONE!"
Four of him came rushing toward us, wielding his wooden staff. I cringed back. "For yearsss I have sssought appreciatorssss of my art. Become Mutamin'sss bride, fair human, and thisss world ssshall be our gallery..."
"Mr psycho gnome, I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but we are not interested in your rock garden," Imoen said, disentangling herself. "Right, Skie?"
"Yes. Completely disinterested. Will you let us go now?"
"If you refussse my offer of marriage, you musssst burn!" He cast another spell, the acid arrows Eldoth explained were almost as strong as the arrows he makes for himself; I doubled over in pain. When Eldoth showed me, the green fire was pretty. It's not. "Pet? PET?"
"I love bloodshed," Shar-Teel announced, fresh from a victory over the other basilisk, and calmly cut him and his mirror images in half. I still have blood on me. She didn't even stop after that. She just bent down, searched the corpse, and drank two potions he was carrying.
"You've wasted a perfectly good wizarding robe, I hope you realize," Edwin commented from his tree. "Ahem. Would...someone perhaps like to help me down?"
This was another time we've nearly died. It's such a relief antidote potions aren't bad against acid arrows. I've asked Shar-Teel to teach me how to fight better. She'll start tomorrow morning.
We were also approached by an undead monstrosity who cried something about 'Korax'. Shar-Teel cut him down with one shot from her crossbow.
The Silvershields are warriors. I've known the story of how we received the name since I was a baby. My great-great-grandfather Einar was a warrior, and he had a silver shield. It sounds like a frivolous thing for an adventurer, but there was a reason. Once he was a blacksmith's apprentice, and in the well of their village by the River Chionthar there was a trapped basilisk that turned everything that came near into stone. Nobody dared to go near it, but because Einar was in love with the baron's daughter, he made his own shield of dazzling silver. Then, carrying the handkerchief of his true love, he descended the well to the very bottom, just before midday. As the bright noontide sun rose and hit the bottom of the well, he brandished the silver shield. The monster could not help but view its own reflection, and turned itself to stone with a scream heard a thousand leagues away. Since then, Einar bore his silver shield in name and deed, and so have his descendants...
I'm a plagiarist, but I'm not even a Silvershield any more, and not a warrior.
She hit me in the jaw as soon as I woke up (and I did get up at the right time, dawn) and went out to her. Just to show me it was serious, she said.
"You're a spoilt little rich girl and because you asked nicely I'm going to whip you into shape. And I'm going to enjoy it." She pierced the ground with a longsword, just short of spitting me.
I got to my feet and pulled it out of the cold ground.
"I'm only giving you a one-handed blade. Thank me for generosity." She was holding my shortsword instead of her own weapon. "Which hand do you favour?"
"Both." I passed the sword into my right hand. All the weapons-instructors and tutors I've had made me use my right, but I still use my left hand sometimes in practice when I'm not thinking about it.
"Start with your left, then. I suppose we'll have to make use of any small advantages you have."
I started one of the standard exercises for the shortsword; it was different with a longer, heavier blade.
"Sloppy. Try to hit me."
"It's not blunted," I said.
I swear to Torm I tried. I ought to have had the advantage with a longer, sharper blade, but I couldn't so much as graze her. All she did was defend, again and again and again. I dropped to the ground, exhausted, at the point I could not stand any more.
"Call yourself a rogue, don't you..." she said, running her thumb along the edge of my sword, looking hungry for bloodshed. "Try better feints, next time I allow you to duel me." She demonstrated. "Then go in for the kill. If you're not ruthless enough..."
I didn't duck in time. She left a precisely-placed nick in my earlobe, just below Imoen's right earring.
"Stand up, pick up those two rocks over there, and practice lifting them up and down until I'm ready to break my fast."
She ignored me as she ran through her own exercises; she was amazingly fast, for carrying such a large sword. I did not dare disobey...
My feet hurt. So does everything else.
Training again this morning. Shar-Teel made me do the feint she showed me the last session, over and over again. Even after I'm sure I had it right. And still she kept deflecting it...
"Try to fight? It's a surprise you tie your own boots in the morning, ninny!" she taunted. I think that's her general pedagogical strategy. "Again!"
It's a simple enough move. Draw the opponent's blade, shift twenty degrees, and make the strike to their ribcage. The way to a man's heart is a slit to the stomach then up and under his ribs. I bet she took that from somewhere. She had the counter for it, and kept doing it and hitting my shoulder.
"I thought you'd give up sooner or later, spoiled-brat, but not this quickly. Probably would've died fast anyway." She half-lowered her blade.
Contempt on her face. For the incompetent who keeps running away. She was leaving.
"Distracted! You're distracted!" Bring the sword up. Fast-as-possible. Get past her guard for once—
She blocked; I'd come almost a nail's breadth to hitting her. The closest I'd ever made it— I didn't want to start sobbing at how hopeless that was. She threw me off, knocking me back a pace; I tried again to attack her. Quickly.
"Show some spirit, brat! Rogue's tricks if you must!"
"Rrrrraaaaa..." Battle-cries. Hatred. She was Sendai at her most annoying; Kagain wanting payment for Eddard; one of those assassins; the kobold who shot Imoen. If I didn't think about it, I could try to hack away at her for longer.
Rogue tricks. Rogue tricks rogue tricks rogue tricks. Hate this hate this hate this.
She was going to kill me if I gave up. Someone else was going to kill the others if I gave up. The dishonourable throw-dirt-in-the-face trick I'd read about. It wouldn't work with her watching all the time. She was moving even faster than she had at the start.
The trees. A tree-branch. It took time to come up with ideas, six times she would have killed me in a real fight. When she stepped to block the feint again, I ran back instead of finishing the move; I dived under the tree-branch and pulled it back to throw into her face. A bit more daring, and I might have jumped forward and hit her, using the fact I'm shorter to get under the branch...
"Enough for now." She didn't let me do it. Stopping, it felt a great relief; I looked to the side and saw Imoen there, watching. I hadn't noticed her; too busy being angry and fighting. I felt myself breathing heavily, sweating like a horse. (Perspiring like a lady, my stepmother would say; except I couldn't be further from that now.)
"Go move some rocks, weakling. I'll tell you when you're done."
It was such a relief to collapse down when it was finally over. It hurt; but Imoen was smiling at me, and that made it feel better. She even passed me some bread-and-water.
"Hey...nice going there, Skie. 'S good you're working on it."
It was good to rest at last. And to eat something. "Thanks."
"It's like I learned magic to protect you. Now you're trying to protect us."
"Yeah. Imoen...Thank you," I said. That's Imoen: amazing. For her to help me like she did, for so long.
"No big deal," she said. She leaned back in the grass, staring up at the blue sky. "Y'know, when I was all alone in Candlekeep, I used to wonder what it'd be like to have a big sister or brother," she continued. "Someone else to be ol' Puffguts' or Mr G.'s foster kid. Someone to look out for me, cover for me when I got caught nicking stuff, help out with the chores... And then I got you to look after, kiddo."
"I wasn't that bad!...Was I?" There are questions to which one never wishes to know the answer. "Anyway, you don't know I'm not older than you," I said. "When's your birthday?" We could celebrate it; make sure she had a good one.
"Dunno. You know how ol' Puffguts found me?" Imoen had told me the story of how Winthrop caught her picking his pocket while he and Gorion had been journeying, and how she was then adopted by them. "The travellingfolk I was with then, they told me they found me as a baby. Lying by the side of the road crying my head off. They figured I might be bad luck because who abandons a baby, but they were nice enough, even in all that trouble—and then I came to Candlekeep. So I don't know anything like that. About who I really am."
"Maybe your family wanted you to be picked up for some—some good reason," I said.
"Candlekeep's my home. So it doesn't really matter anyway," Imoen said.
"Share my birthday. Then we don't have to argue about who's older," I said. "Third of Marpenoth. A pink cake with candles." It's been a long time since I've wanted a birthday celebration. "Guest of honour?"
"Deal. Big birthday bash—in the Baldur's Gate thieves' guild!" We did the fist-bump again for the sake of the Plan. It was nice, sitting there; almost like Candlekeep, lazing on the rooftops in the sun and gossiping about everything and nothing, or celebrating Greengrass with Ulraunt's roses and Winthrop's fruit muffins. When I was young I used to want a sister, too.
Then of course we had to go on the march again.
After a while—when the pain started to fade a little—I guess I noticed that it was green and lovely. Trees of all sorts, oak and hawthorn and kinds I don't know the names of. We stayed well away from bears and weren't disturbed by anything else that morning, and that was good; nature is dirty and troublesome, but sometimes it's not as bad as usual.
14 Kythorn, Later
I'm such a great trap-spotter.
It was exciting at first. Shar-Teel was walking along in front of our group, in this place she says is the Wood of Sharp Teeth on the way to Larswood, when I saw something and yelled at everyone to stop.
"What is it?" Shar-Teel said. "If it's your feet, your cold, your nails, your headache, or your hair, I am going to chop you into small pieces and feed them to wyverns."
"(Emphatically seconded)," Edwin muttered.
I remembered a little about ettercaps setting traps from a book on Battles of the East. "Just get back. Um, please?" I picked up a stick once the others were clear, aimed carefully, and threw it to meet the thin line of spiderweb.
"See? It's an ettercap trap! Surprisingly complicated for their low-intelligence species," I said. The grey webbing had popped into existence over the grass and my stick, viscous and maybe poisonous. At last I'd noticed something they hadn't.
"Yes, congratulations, it's a trap," Edwin said. "Speaking of which, you brainless nin..."
Those who set the trap.
Two ettercaps and three giant spiders emerged. I didn't know ettercaps had claws so large, or looked so disgusting. But Imoen, Garrick, and Edwin all chanted their spells at the first spider, and it collapsed; Shar-Teel was already in front and ready to fight.
I could only draw my bow. Five good arrows left; I started using them on the first ettercap while the spellcasters concentrated on the spiders. Shar-Teel didn't hesitate to rip through its pale stomach, smiling as dark gunk exploded and spattered her. The second reached her, and its claws sunk deep between her armour, too close for her to swing her large sword properly. I aimed for the stomach she had ripped open—torso shots, easier to hit than head-targets, they say—and sunk the last of the good arrows to bring it down. Imoen's final magic missile sped past me and killed another spider. They still look so horrible when they're dead...
Shar-Teel, yelling wordlessly, took a dagger from her belt, slitting the ettercap's throat to get it off her. It fell; I shot an arrow for good measure.
The last giant spider was coming past Shar-Teel, to us; they're waist-height, those spiders, with fangs and too many eyes and disgusting fur. Imoen and Garrick used their bows on it, and Edwin his draining spells; I was close, and had to stab at it. Better Shar-Teel's longer blade, for enemies as horrible as this... She came, anyway, and finished it off.
"Antidote. Give it to me." She looked surprisingly pale beneath her tattoos; there was red blood on her armour as well as that belonging to spider and ettercap. Imoen gave her one of ours.
"D-do you need it bandaged?" I asked her. I'd been stupid again.
"Spiderweb will staunch it." She pulled some thread out of the head of one of the dead spiders. She glared at me. "Search the ettercaps for treasure and take any arrows you can reuse. From now on, you'll be marching at the front with me. Spot the traps and don't start any stupid bloodshed."
Hadn't she punished me enough after the training? I went and used a stick to poke around the bodies, only touching them when she yelled at me to stop being finicky. One ettercap had two human rings jammed onto its claws. Shar-Teel claimed them, of course.
14 Kython, Evening
Chanting sounded in the woods ahead of us; Shar-Teel ordered me to 'scout ahead and do that shadow-blending rogue's knack', so I hid behind trees and saw them.
"It's four wizards dressed like Red Wizards of Thay," I said. Very odd for them to come so far west, but there was Edwin. "Two men, two women. Are they connect..."
"I hate wizards," Shar-Teel said. "Remember, girl, a wizard always finds it hard to concentrate with a sword in his ribs. First you and I run in and start killing them, then you three pick one target each and fire missile weapons." It wasn't fair; I know I can't be good enough for that.
"I suppose, being Red Wizards, they are evil..." Garrick said.
"If'n the rest of yer're in, I guess I'm in..." Imoen chimed in.
"But what if they're wi..."
"They're probably my supervisors! You are not permitted to kill my supervisors!" Edwin loudly wailed. "(Unless I carefully arrange the assassination. Yes, and attain my own zulkirdom.)"
The chanting abruptly stopped.
"Well, well. One can recognize young Master Odesseiron's dulcet tones from quite some distance. Greetings." A tall man in a red robe stepped down from his stairs to approach us. His colourless eyes rested briefly on each of our group. "I trust you received your updated instructions? I shall not harangue you about the witch's newly-gained renown as a heroine for too long..."
"Yes, Denak. Master Denak. Yes, of course I received your instructions, and that is why I am here in this group," Edwin said. "Naturally I am far, far more successful than the witch thanks to your instructions. Obviously I am following your instructions."
"Good. Zulkir Nevron would be most disappointed if he were to hear that you failed. That is all that really needs to be said."
"As...as a matter of fact, Master Denak..."
"Don't be mean to him, Denny," a matronly-looking wizardess said, her long robes flapping behind her as she approached Edwin. "Now Eddie, these people can't be taking good care of you. Look at those shabby robes!" She dusted him down; Imoen and I exchanged a glance. "Your mother asked me to look in on you, and she would be so disappointed to see you like this. Don't forget to trim that straggling beard of yours now! And not even a hello for your auntie?"
"Hello, Auntie Lasala."
"That's a good boy. Is he eating a proper diet, lots of greens?" she asked me. "Eddie's never been very strong, and his mother and the remainder of his aunts would be so upset if anything happened to the dear boy. Of course cousin Sulia could resurrect him as one of her undead servants, but it just wouldn't be the same." She pinched his cheek. "If I don't see healthy roses on those next time we meet, I'll tell your mother to put you back on the formula she used when you were twelve. Do you remember how you used to try to summon hell-hounds to eat your cabbage?"
Imoen and I giggled.
"Auntie Lasala! I am a mature wizard and...and (And perhaps I ought not to distract myself from the stunning exercise in subterfuge to follow.) Master Denak, your instructions were most...most enlightening. I read them—nay, devoured them—with the greatest of joy. However, I also found them a little...yes, a little subtle. A trifle subtle, as befits your ready wit. Perhaps you could...re-explain them to me in a brief verbal discussion? In private?"
"Humility at last from Master Odesseiron." Denak smiled thinly. "The same Master Odesseiron who swears he can summon Demogorgon from the Abyss and command him to serve his every whim?"
"I was almost completed the summoning circles before grossly interrupted—"
"Master Odesseiron, who widely circulates unflattering sketches and commentary upon the intellectual, sexual and physical inadequacies of his tutors?"
"Many apprenti—fully qualified and widely experienced Red Wizards have the initials E and O."
"Let it be known for the record that I have never overcompensated for anything! Master Odesseiron, so close to 'perfecting a method to preserve my godlike physical form and divine wisdom and intelligence in order to avoid the primitive lichdom of zulkirs I shall replace in due time'?"
"Another project I was most brutally interrupted in—" He looked at us staring at him, and sighed. "Enough! Please, Denak, may we have this private discussion of your oh-so-gracious literary skill?"
"Modesty is praiseworthy. A tragic lack of reading comprehension is not. Come, Edwin. I will explain these...political complexities...as simply as possible."
Edwin obviously didn't want us following; well, antagonizing five Red Wizards might not be a good idea. Stupid bloodshed, probably mine. I asked about Dynaheir:
"Dy—The witch is a heroine? Is she the one Edwin wanted to kill? Was there any mention of a cleric with her?" Hopefully Branwen had caught up to them.
"The witch is a heroine for her alleged redemption of a madman called Brage," the other male wizard said, so soft-voiced that Imoen and I had to strain to hear him. He was the only one of the four who wore the traditional Thayvian tattoos over a shaven head. "I assume that she had the usual bodyguard complement, but we care nothing for that."
A sudden, strong harp-note rang through the clearing; we looked to Garrick. His small harp was in his hands, but it wasn't him playing; the second wizardess, a blonde woman, stood over him. I hadn't seen her move at all.
"I like music," she said. Her large, violet eyes were the only spot of colour in a thin, almost skeletal face. "Please play something."
Garrick grimaced. "I have...I know very few songs of the Red Wizards, and those are not, well, er..."
"Flattering?" she said gently. "But we like those ones best. They signify our potency." She paused, twirling a stray lock of fair hair between two fingers. "Or you can sing about corpses. I like corpses."
"How about...uh..." One of her arms snaked around his shoulder, her red-painted fingernails quite close to his neck. She rested her chin on his shoulder. "How about a nice lullaby? A...another wizard I met used to like those..."
"All right," she said. I would have gone down and tried to help him, but Lasala laid a hand on my arm.
"Ignore Diana," she said firmly. She sounded so much like the housekeeper who came when I was eight—who ruled the stairs unquestioned with an iron fist and hefty knot of keys—that it was clear she had to be obeyed. Garrick's soft harpsong rung about us while Shar-Teel glowered. "Now, you were saying that you and little Eddie met the evil witch? And thus she lives?"
Lie for Edwin, or face the wrath of his aunt?
"Dynaheir is—" Imoen started indignantly. I made a quick decision in favour of the former.
"Dynaheir was tricked!" I said. "I'm still not sure how he did it, but Edwin's a real smart guy. He tricked that witch and sent her to the dangerous forests near Nashkel, so we could travel in peace!"
"Yup. He really tricked that darn evil witch all right," Imoen said, sounding as though she was experiencing a bad case of lockjaw.
"Then I suppose that's something to go favourably in Eddie's apprenticing reports," Lasala said. "He's so close to finishing, with full honours... He's a talented boy really; the family would never turn out anything less. I have some engravings here, if you are interested..."
"Oh yes," Imoen said firmly.
The wizardess produced a long string of miniatures from some extradimensional storage space. "Here's young Eddie's parents together—his mother's one of my sisters, of course; can you see the resemblance?" There wasn't much similarity between the plump wizardess before us and the tall and hook-nosed woman in casual dress, but we nodded politely; "These two he finds quite embarrassing, but it's good for him really, and they are adorable pieces of art..." In one, a naked, chubby baby splashed in a bath; in the second, he appeared engaged in blowing spit bubbles. "Here's another for his apprenticing-start, one his mother sent me. Not the most flattering expression, but we were all very proud of him." A very pimpled young Edwin glared at the artist, wearing red-edged robes that seemed to swamp him; "And here's my own daughter Bellissima next to him." Bellissima in her apprenticing-portrait was a short, roundly built girl with enormous spectacles that seemed to cover her full face. "She's a full-fledged enchantress now; here's a more recent picture..." She still wore large spectacles, but they did not distract from oversized front teeth and very freckled ears. "Like Edwin, she's done so well—why, her zulkir said to her just the other day..."
I knew the word for her tone of voice: family. Talking about the large number of people she loved to anyone showing interest, boasting about offspring and nephew—like one of our nicer cooks, her first son who was a guard and her second son who worked for a merchant and her daughter studying to be a priestess. For me at home, it was mostly tutors and nurses; everyone else always had their own concerns, my stepmother's socials and Daddy and Eddard's soldiering and business, and mostly I was left in the library. Lucky Edwin.
"...actually, there's been talk of matchmaking between them, but it's better to let the young things have their careers first, and the poor boy's never been fortunate with women. Not as confident as my Belle, sadly. He hasn't been embroiled by any foreign seductresses, has he?"
Imoen grinned. "Well, yes actually! An, um, exotic blonde necromancer, probably working for some secret evil organization to solve the iron crisis..." I'd told her about the interplay with Xzar, of course.
"She sounds quite delightful. Is there a chance we'll meet her?"
Imoen shook her head. "Alas, it didn't last too long..."
"What a shame! He even finds it difficult to secure concubines' company...strange. He's a darling, sensitive boy deep down. Are you interested in the wizarding arts yourself, dear?" Lasala asked, switching subjects. "Oh, I knew it! Which specialist school?"
"Transmuter. I wanted to cut out necromancy," Imoen said.
Lasala tut-tutted. "Don't let Diana hear you there, my dear. Though transmutation in itself is no bad choice; a handy school for crafting if you've a dextrous hand. 'Twas the path of another of my sisters, Lerella; the poor thing poisoned herself with powdered acid making a magical blade for her zulkir. It acted so fast that cousin Sulia couldn't do a thing with the body... On happier notes, I am an abjurer—most handy protecting against assassins, not that you'll want to know those joys; Diana practices necromancy (how much, don't ask her); Denak is a conjurer like Eddie, of course; and Brendan..."
"Illusion," Brendan said in his soft voice. He was vanished into thin air before he'd finished speaking; Shar-Teel placed her hand on her sword's hilt while Imoen poked the air in front of her. He reappeared behind us out of a pattern of shimmering lights.
"I can't wait to learn that!" Imoen said. "Useful for...y'know, Skie...our sorta stuff." She managed to look shifty.
"And what is your role?" Brendan asked me quietly.
"Sneak through the shadows and stab things," I answered promptly. If Thayvians have to have muscle or rogue to accompany them, in their traditional proverbs they prefer it of very inferior intelligence. "I like stabbing things. Stab stab stab." I waved encouragingly to Garrick, whose notes were starting to falter thanks to Diana draping herself over him. "Shar-Teel does too."
"A fine figure of a woman," Brendan mused, watching her continue to scowl. It was just as well she probably couldn't hear him.
"I think that you would make a very pretty zombie," Diana said to Garrick.
Edwin and Denak returned to us, the former looking very blackly indeed at Imoen and me, still with Lasala's portrait collection in front of us.
"Children, I think you two must stop bothering my aunt immediately and be gone from here forthwith. (Has she shown them those pictures? Why must the fates treat me so unjustly?)"
"Why, they're quire nice young things, Eddie!" Lasala said. "They're not bothering me at all. Do look us up if you ever get to Thay, my dears. And I think that perhaps you will."
Perhaps we will. This is only the first time I've travelled outside home. If there is a civilized way to get to Thay... I'm sure that my spoken Mulhorandi is very rusty, but it would be interesting to see places I've only read about. I said, until the next, the standard Thayvian farewell, in her language.
But Shar-Teel still thinks we should kill all the bandits before we go back home. So, for now... It's just as well they disentangled the necromancer from Garrick to take her away in a teleport.
"That cousin Bellissima of yours, Edwin..." Imoen started.
"Is very talented at her chosen profession (Despite a generally underpowered specialist school) and happens to never appear well in portraits."
"You were once so very cute, Edwin..." I said.
"Be silent! (When I am zulkir I shall fireball those incriminating pictures with the most extreme prejudice possible.)"
"Really gifted at blowing bubbles," Imoen added.
"That is enough prattle! (Perhaps a torturous death for these children would also satisfy.)"
"Quiet lest I feed you your words on the end of my boot!"
"We lied for you too," I said.
"Lied? W-whoever said I told any lies back there?"
"Lied for you about Dynaheir," Imoen said. "Said you outsmarted her and that was why you haven't killed her. Of course we won't let you kill her anyway."
"You told Denak something like that, right?" I said.
"Obviously, yes," he said, his nose in the air. "The requirements of a Red Wizard...naturally since the Witch is not here and annoying me I must be given some credit."
"Yup, thought so. Wonder how we guessed the kind of lie you'd tell." Imoen and I exchanged a grin.
"What? Am I becoming predictable? Well, lackeys, a certain amount of law and order is all too desirable in a society! (Also when it comes to anticipating my wishes. How could servants possibly anticipate my wishes without some degree of consistency? But if they truly anticipated my wishes, I would not be obliged to clean our crockery in the evenings... Ah, drudgery.) So my supervisors are duly pleased with my acts."
"Can...can we please stop talking about it?" Garrick pleaded. Poor Garrick. His ordeal with Diana the Necromancer must have been tough.
"Oh, very well, since you have done me an unwitting service in the matter, bard (The only type of service I imagine you capable of)," Edwin said. "What I should be announcing is this: I have a new purpose for striding across Faerun, one that has none to do with the Witch. (Though it will be most enjoyable to kill her should she find herself in my way.)"
"That's nice," I said.
"I don't suppose you could accompany me to Beregost and relieve me of the remainder of the month?" he said, carefully examining his nails. "There is some degree of time-sensitivity; and it has occurred to me you have acted out of some inexplicable desire to preserve the Witch's life that no longer happens to apply. (Unless she dares interfere, of course.)"
Ruthless, Shar-Teel said.
"No. We'll need your help with the bandits."
He sighed. "Very well. I suppose I may keep my word for a little time longer (after all, I am a wizard and there is penalty in an untrue vow), but I will have no patience with foolishness."
"Yeah, you should stay, Eddie. I haven't finished copying all the spells from your spellbook yet," Imoen said.
"You—you WHAT? Ignorant little imbecile, a wizard's spellbook is sacred, akin to his very soul, precious beyond your imagining! You moronic simian, you have no right to desecrate my property! You know-nothing, repellent, obstreperous, intolerable, asinine, delinquent, thieving, irritating, pea-brained, meddlesome, merely-apprenticing brat! How dare you!"
"...Hey, just kidding. Heh heh," Imoen said. I wasn't sure if that was the truth or not. "Thanks for letting me know, Master Wizard."
"(Master Wizard is it now?) Then if you've no objection to...sharing spellbooks...I should like that fire spell from yours. I can give you the Horror incantation in exchange. (I am sure you are gullible enough.)"
"Hey, I know that's Necromancy, I'll never be able to cast it! I reckon...maybe one of those acid-arrows instead?"
"(I shall get the better of her yet.) Perhaps a nice Grease, then, also from the most superior school of all."
"Already learnt it from Garrick and it's easy." She stuck out her tongue. "C'mon, acid arrows, they seem pretty powerful. Unless you've got some nice lockpicking spells, which I don't think you do..."
"Which you have no reason to know, brat."
"Just guessing. Y'know, that you're too...classy and all to have nice lockpicking spells. Yeah, too superior."
"It is true I do not concern myself with petty theft. A delightful infliction of Blindness?"
I'm sure they would have continued quarreling, but there was screaming ahead of us.
"Help! Help, thieves! Help me!"
He was grey-haired, and wore a pale and dirt-stained tunic over leather armour. I gave him a hand to get back on his feet.
"Thank you, travellers. A band of tasloi assailed me—they ran east in the direction of the ettercaps' lair, where most likely they have been killed. They took a scroll of wisdom that the ettercaps may have stolen for its aura. I shall be wandering here for the next few days. Were you to return my scroll to me, I feel sure it would increase your karma." He looked hopefully at us.
Shar-Teel scowled. "The bandits we seek to kill are to the west," she said. "Why waste our time?"
"Karma," Imoen said, smiling. "We're adventurers, right? Let's find more ettercaps!"
"Idle delays for obviously incompetent druids I do not consider worth my time, but your idle delays are of no importance to me," Edwin said.
"Yes, we'll help," I said.
Edwin let out a sudden squawk. "It's biting me! Help me! Some giant poisonous creature! Aargh!"
There was an odd lump under his clothing. He danced around like he'd suddenly decided to do a tarantella, pulling up his robes to get it out: a very large squirrel fell, several scraps of light red material in its mouth.
"Foul—foul beast! Get away from me!" He kicked at it with his robes still lifted to his thighs, but failed to connect. It scampered away; Imoen giggled.
"It's so kind of you to aid an incompetent druid like myself," Fahrington said.
We set off east.
Nomorespiders. Nomorespiders. Nomorespidersever.
Ettercap lair. We were going slowly so I had time to spot traps. We found tasloi bodies lying on the ground. When there started being lots and lots of traps we knew we had to be close.
"C-could we stop here for the night?" Garrick pleaded. "A yawn is a sile..."
Shar-Teel gave him one of her glares. "No, male. Do any of your songs tell of the fates of adventurers foolish enough to camp on an entrapped ettercap route?"
He shook his head miserably.
"Go ahead until you see their lair's entrance," she told me. "I think we will rest south of here, knowing where to invade at dawn's light. My blade hungers for blood."
I saw a dark patch within the cliffs and three ettercaps around it. I ran back with a giant spider chasing me and we killed it. The casters got to memorize their spells; Shar-Teel kicked me awake early while she had the last watch. She said she liked exercise before slaughter.
We went in, disabling their web traps along the way.
"Reserve the spells, casters," Shar-Teel ordered. "Missile weapon backup. As for you, brat, guard them and try to learn something."
It was so black inside the cave. Then there were many shining ettercap eyes, and Garrick lit a torch he gave to Edwin. Ettercap upon ettercap, with spiders between them. All pressed and packed in together, webs thickly designed to protect them. As though they had expected an attack..
"Step aside, Eddie. I'm clearing a path right now!" The fire Edwin envied scorched out of Imoen's hands, burning through the sticky strands. Enough space for Shar-Teel to fight.
She's amazing to watch. No, amazingly horrible, I mean. (I want to learn how to protect the others like that.) Swinging as widely as possible; with the creatures so close together, she had to make her strikes account for several at once. Seven-in-one-blow.
They surged forward, past her despite her efforts. Some descended from the roof of the cavern. At first it wasn't so difficult to fight them; every time I stabbed, there was something on the end of it. I had no shield, only my shortsword in my other hand. Shar-Teel probably thinks shields are for weaklings.
One of Imoen's arrows embedded itself into the eye of a spider in front of me. I lunged forward to finish the job; poison poured out of its fangs, merging with its black blood. Everything smelt of carrion. You expect blood you've just shed from spiders to be warm, but it's cold; and you don't know whether that's worse or better. It crawls across your skin like a plague of maggots. Then there was an ettercap's claws, rising in defence of the pet. What was truly wrong was when it spoke.
Words in Common. Ettercaps aren't supposed to speak.
"No!" I stabbed into it. I was lucky to find the vulnerable section on its underbelly. I felt it die; another spider took its place. Fangs pierced my wrist before I could do anything. I fought back; grabbed an antidote and drank, while Imoen fired a spell to save me, desperately snatched up my blade again. We kept killing.
"Not bad. Antidote," Shar-Teel said, breathing heavily. The leathers she wore with her armour were ripped and torn; lighter blood than black appeared on her left arm and shoulder; and deep markings striping her tattoos did not seem to be only dirt.
"Our last," Edwin commented.
"We're going down there." Shar-Teel pointed at a hole in the ground, in the middle of the closely-packed corpses. I tried not to think about the blood and the smells of it. "Probably trapped, so—you're first, rogue."
"We're...right behind you," Imoen said. If she hadn't spoken, I'd probably have broken and ran; it might have been better for all of us if we'd done that.
I knelt down and groped, touching more congealing blood. The light touch of a string of spiderweb; sever it quickly with the shortsword. Further down, in those sharp black rocks that anything could jump out of...
"I c-can't...I can't see anything down there yet, but... Ettercaps see better in the dark than humans, I know I've read that somewhere." I twisted the ring I wore. It must have been even worse for the others. I tried not to speak so loudly. "I think I've found all the traps up here so..."
Shar-Teel pushed me in and jumped down behind me. Webbing sprung up when my feet hit the floor; she escaped, I didn't.
So many more ettercaps. She charged into them.
I hate being frozen. I hate being trapped in my body while other people are free to kill me. I hate breathing and staring being the only things it's possible to do when everything else is horrible.
Imoen, mage-lights floating around her head, lowered herself in after Shar-Teel, climbing over me to escape free of the traps. "Gonna get you outta there. Hurry up, Eddie, Garrick!"
"Sshort oness firsst..."
That voice. It wasn't Shar-Teel or any of us speaking. It was something in the back; deep behind the other ettercaps. A bloated female on a roughly-carved throne.
Imoen. An ettercap darted up and hit her, knocking her into the back wall of the cave. Shar-Teel was trying to rush forward, let the casters and archers have their chance like all the strategy texts say, but—too many— Edwin's missiles came down from the roof, at one of the ettercaps fighting Shar-Teel. Two were coming to me, and I couldn't see Imoen any more—
Ettercaps are considered Aberrations, affected by magical entities outside this plane. Therefore, ettercaps' web traps are closer to the wizard spell of the same name than to the webs of natural, finger-sized spiders. These webs are more magical than physical. Because they are magical, they have a stronger effect on the ettercaps' prey. Also because they are magical, there is a small chance of them breaking.
I was lucky that day. The spell-strands relaxed. I ran to Imoen; she was trying to dash and duck from them long enough to defend herself. She was hurt already across her chest and on her arm.
My instructors at home wouldn't have been at all impressed with my random strike. Just hitting out at the closest one to Imoen. But I didn't have to hold them off for long. Her fire spell warned them back.
Kill the short ones first. Statistically, in the history books, spellcasters often cause more total casualties than ordinary fighters. Smart of them to want to kill Imoen and Edwin first. Smart ofettercaps?
Imoen and I ran for Shar-Teel's protection, dodging the webbing. It caught two of the attackers, but there were spiders around us. Poison-danger. Shar-Teel screamed a loud battle-cry.
"Assistance!" I heard Edwin cry. An ettercap was climbing up after him; I tried to get the spiders away so Imoen could shoot a spell to distract it. That must have given him enough time. The one after him dropped and ran, the same with several more around the room: Horror.
Several Imoens appeared in a row, dancing away from the enemies; they all reached for their cloaks.
"Distracted. Gotcha!" One frightened ettercap broke away and started to fight for us. "Two!" She sent a second into his own spiders. "Hurts." Blood on all of the images, staining her pink clothes.
"Imoen..." One of her images melted out of existence; she fumbled, dropping to one knee and rolling away from the spiders chasing her.
Guard the casters.
I flung myself at her; fell through one intangible image, dived down past another two, and found Imoen's blood on my hands. I couldn't stop her bleeding.
"Tymora..." One of her mirror images collapsed. The ettercaps and spiders were running closer. "Tymora, help—Silvanus—" We were doing this for a druid. "Imoen—" There was a lot of blood.
Her eyes opened. "Hey, lemme work here, kiddo." She sat up, feeling for her spell components. It had felt—well, it had felt like Silvanus had actually taken pity on our group and healed her. Like an electric shock striking me from her wound, feeling it close over—(this doesn't mean we have to join him now, does it?). I fought. It just had to be for a spell's duration, only a spell's duration—
Shar-Teel was nearing the ettercap on the thronelike chair. Method in her bloodshed after all. Imoen's spell released with a very bad smell. An ettercap I was fighting fell unconscious, the spell's border at the very edge of my nose.
Silvanus help us.
"You'll stop this."
Shar-Teel had reached her goal. Her sword was held to the bloated ettercap's chest: the heavily pregnant ettercap.
"Tell them all to walk into that cloud."
"No—not sssurrender—" A spider attacking me fell back as Shar-Teel became still more of a threat to their queen, the sword beginning to open a cut.
Shar-Teel snapped her fingers in my direction. "Skie! Tell the intelligent ettercap exactly what we came for."
"Me...? I...The scroll!" I said. A scroll fitting Fahrington's description had been placed beside the throne, as though in a place of honour. Shar-Teel was trying to negotiate. That was good. "We came for the scroll that was stolen, so if you let everyone be knocked out then we can all get out of here alive. Please?"
"The ssscroll made by one of the massterss...our greatesst treassure..."
"First, order your servants into the cloud. Second, give us the scroll like she said." Shar-Teel can be terrifying. I wouldn't have said no to her under those circumstances. Or indeed anything other than 'help' or 'aieee'.
The ettercap howled. "Hate you...more children will avenge, hagsss. Lie in the foul air, my children. It sshall not be long."
They all...filed out, into Imoen's cloud. Two were still running from Edwin's fear spell; they eventually found their way into the vapours. Most lay down unconscious immediately.
Shar-Teel tossed me the scroll, keeping her sword pressed to the ettercap's stomach.
"Tell me, girls. Have we completed the nice little charitable adventure for that druidic dungheap?"
Imoen's robes were ruined with blood; her face was pale and dirt-streaked, with deep scratches on her arms and cheeks. I could feel my own cuts and bruises, especially now the fighting had stopped; I wanted to drop my sword and hide away somewhere safe. Down here in the dark, when we'd all been hurt. Not worth it, I guess Shar-Teel wanted us to say.
"Guess so," Imoen said.
"Good. A question: what exactly are you?" Shar-Teel asked her prisoner.
"Tell you nothing, beasst." Intelligent defiance. These creatures—abominations? I doubted Shar-Teel could get more information than that, from their queen.
She shrugged. "Kill them all."
"Treach..." The ettercap could not finish her thought. Shar-Teel sliced open her stomach; she had been pregnant. Half-formed ettercaps in translucent shells, a large litter of them, gushing out of her in a torrent of pale liquid. Some of them were making faint noises, like small kittens—Shar-Teel crushed them under her boots.
"We said we wouldn't kill them—they're unconscious—" I said. Imoen had already drawn her bow.
"What would they do to you in the reverse situation, simian?" Edwin, climbing down from his perch in the cave above. He fired a magical missile into one of the ettercaps trying to stand up. An escaped spider was after Shar-Teel; they would show us no mercy now. I took my own bow from my back. "Personally, though, I find the creation of such clouds most unreliable. Horror is both effective against enemies and has the ability to discriminatorily avoid party members." Another two missiles rose from his hands.
"Shut up, Edwin," Imoen said. One ettercap was screaming, running to us out of the cloud in berserker's rage at our betrayal. I had to shoot it; Shar-Teel stabbed it in the back. We killed them all.
Something that sounded like a rockfall came from behind us. "Are you—are you in danger? Do you need help?"
Garrick had his shortsword drawn, and was looking at the enemies we had already killed. A bit late.
"We have to burn this place," Imoen said, closing her eyes. Talking ettercaps. Monsters. We had to.
Shar-Teel kicked at one of the dead ettercap-babies. "Very well. Raid for treasure, scorch the earth outside first, and let nothing escape."
So—there's nothing alive in that cave any more.
"The imbecile ran the moment he could," Edwin murmured to me, glancing ahead of us at Imoen and Garrick. "I suppose it satisfies your ego to drag along the cowardly swain? It certainly fails to improve the competence of this group." I know how Garrick must have felt.
"Garrick's making his own decisions, and I can't tell him to leave unless Imoen says so," I whispered back. It would be wrong to send him away before she has time to make up her mind. "And I would very much appreciate it if you didn't mock either of them about it."
"If—ah, if Imoen says so?" He sighed. "(Once again it is apparent I am misunderstood and talking utterly at cross-purposes. The mentally deficient constantly defeat themselves through their complete lack of sense.)"
Shar-Teel made Garrick study the scroll, and it turned out it had a curse on it. The only thing we could do was to take it back to Fahrington...
He healed us; when he bent over Imoen, I saw Shar-Teel glaring, watching him carefully.
"Talking ettercaps," Edwin said. "Do explain your excuses for your tawdry scroll...good sir," he added, perhaps remembering the rabid squirrel. His right hand made a slight jerk in the direction of his nether anatomy.
"Yes, you may keep the scroll, adventurers. It will no doubt raise your karma after you laboured so hard to recover it." He went to Shar-Teel, frowning as he tapped her scars. "I see you have been in a good many more battles than the children you lead, lady."
"Children? I am several years the senior of those other infants!" Edwin said, quietly. "(I suppose the ugly and ancient druid envies my robust and glorious youth.)"
"I like to murder men who send me on false quests," Shar-Teel said.
"Oh, well, I find violence very personally distasteful, you know," Fahrington said. "That's why I like to travel out here and commune with the bears; lovely creatures." The growl of a lovely creature sounded, apparently not far from him. "I also dislike getting robbed, so I prefer to make these scrolls for some token comeuppance on the thief filching them." He looked at Imoen and me as he said that sentence. "But the story you have of this group of ettercaps—yes, very strange indeed." He finished Shar-Teel and moved on to me.
"Male, my sword aches for more slaughter."
"Patience, patience," Fahrington said. "You do not need to know these things. Events have concerned myself and my order of late. The death of Osmadi and others in his grove from bandits. The testimony of Corsone the Shadow Druid. You have confirmed certain of my fears, adventurers, and removed one band of enemies from the Sword Coast. It is not beautiful, and it is only truthful as far as I have found, but that is all you need to know. Go with good karma." I felt much better as his healing spell finished.
"Payment for our time?" Shar-Teel demanded.
"Surely—the karma scroll? Ettercap loot?" We had found some cheap jewellery and coin: things that sparkled, that ettercaps collected. "My healing time and resources?" He shook his head. "Greedy adventurers. Here, ten gold pieces and my eternal resentment. Good day."
"Thanks for the heal?" Imoen said; but the druid melted into the forest's shadows as smoothly as water soaking into the ground.
I think... I think human bandits will be better than those spiders.
Bandits. Black Talon bandits. Not good. Shar-Teel's wounded.
We marched for most of the night to get up to Larswood, away from the areas with bands of creatures. Shar-Teel killed two giant spiders. Then, Black Talons, in their uniforms. Announcing themselves by shooting arrows of ice. Edwin ran for it. Shar-Teel drew their fire. Her armour blocks most of it, but... I ran around the side, trying to get past trees to come at them from behind. They have better armour than I do. (Too heavy.) Shar-Teel and I made them put down the bows, but they were both much better than me. One of Imoen's arrows got the second one in the end, when I was trying to run away from him.
We had to bandage Shar-Teel with what we had. Tried to rest, for a little while. It was her right arm. Worrying. A deep bruise; her armour stopped the arrow, but the ice still froze her skin. She'd also been hurt with a sword, at her waist. Not deeply, but still bad. Imoen will have to make use of the arrows from their corpses. (More people we've killed. When I bent down to check their quivers, I closed their eyes. One had light brown eyes like my brother, the other baby-blue. Then, of course, there's the—logistical problems—with collecting bounties on bandit scalps. Horrible. Horrible.) I'll have to fight in spite of all this.
Worgs woke us. Could have been worse—could have been vampiric wolves again. Deep tooth-marks in my arm Garrick bandaged for me—my right arm. I can still swing a sword with my left, or so Shar-Teel says. Even grit my teeth enough for my bow. We went up past an old druidic henge—Shar-Teel spat on it—and ran away from bears who chased us after we stumbled across a cub. It's a long, tiring walk to Peldvale, and I hate that we have to do it. We're all exhausted.
We need a useful plan to get past the bandits. We need a safe place to sleep.
Addition to our doomed band. (Shades of poor Xan.)
"Help me! If you don't help me, he'll kill me!"
The cloaked woman ran out of the clump of trees, barreling into Shar-Teel; a dark-skinned hand showed beneath her sleeve. Human-dark, I thought at first; then I saw clearly, drow-dark.
"He who?" Shar-Teel demanded. "Some vile male?"
"They accuse me when I have done nothing to them!" she panted. "I may wish to, but I am no fool and this iblith has not listened—" She made a sweeping gesture behind her; the Flaming Fist officer stepped through the trees, his sword drawn.
"I serve the Flaming Fist! Do you harbour the drow, travellers? She is evil and wanted for mur...!"
"Farcical Fist. My lucky day!" Before any of the rest of us could say anything, Shar-Teel leaped on the attack. She seemed confident until he hit her right arm; I had to shoot him to help her. She was already hurt, from before...so we had to support her. Viconia is incredibly fast; she ran behind the Flaming Fist and brained him with her mace. It really wasn't pretty, and that was before she took the helmet and parts of the armour to wear for a trophy. We dug a shallow grave because Imoen and I wanted to.
The woman folded her arms impatiently. "My name is Viconia. I am a servant of Shar. Keep me from the accursed sun and I am willing to travel with you."
Shar-Teel nodded. "Surface god. Good. Prove yourself with a healing spell or two." She held out her arm.
"I can do more than healing." Viconia chanted something quickly, her eyes on Edwin, and he collapsed to the ground instantly. I suppose that's quite useful... She did show us her healing powers, too, after Edwin woke up and complained.
Other Flaming Fists will assume the man was killed by bandits, not us. Viconia's offered to help us. She must have been through some tough circumstances for her to be here, and it's only fair to believe in her when there's no evidence we know of otherwise. Of course, Shar-Teel did the exact opposite to the Flaming Fist, just because he was male... Well. I'm not proud of killing someone who might have just been doing his job. But we can't undo it; not easily enough to be convenient, anyway.
Viconia is an interesting person. I think I like her.
There were flinds who tried to stop us, a few hours later, and demanded our iron. It was easier with healing. Shar-Teel and her battlecries for blood, cutting through the centre of them; Viconia petitioning her goddess to force one to lie on the grass, his throat bared for Shar-Teel; Garrick spinning an encouragement with his voice; Edwin and Imoen, slings and arrows. I stabbed from the back; they are big, and then they fall. Bright golden strips across their shoulders and dark blue skin. Giant swords I didn't quite avoid. Viconia: we need you.
It started to rain. I want a bath with clean water, a warm drink, something other than sitting on wet ground not daring to light a fire in case of bandits. The trees are hardly any shelter at all, and it is getting dark.
"There is no rain below the earth," Viconia said, sniffling. "Only the deep rivers through the chasms. None of this water from the roof." She sneezed; Shar-Teel flung her a spare cloak from my pack.
"If you've a cold, drow, I'd rather not share it."
"That is the surface word for this?" She wiped a hand across her nose. "How suitable. I have been like this since the first water-day I witnessed in this territory of the surface; when I travelled away from the caravan's sands. A cold. Do not stare, male. Fetch me something to eat," she ordered Garrick.
Wet. Miserable. Deep in Peldvale.
A lot has happened. There's a lot left to happen. Imoen and I discussed this possibility with Shar-Teel and the others, who agreed to it; it's happened.
Bandits attacked while I was on watch that night. Shar-Teel struggled out of the tent to fight; I went to back her up. Imoen's fire crackled in the air; warm and useful. Edwin came out with a battle-cry of 'How dare you disturb the rest of a Red Wizard!', and Garrick and Viconia helped from the back.
The man I was fighting was young, I think.
"Last 'un, I kicked 'im in the head 'till 'e was dead! Give it a go, girlie?"
Shar-Teel likes to fight dirty. I caught him in a parry and kicked him; it seemed to hurt. He kept fighting, though—I could dodge him, but he's stronger than me— A magic missile from Imoen hit him; he cried out.
"'Tis your choice which hits the ground first: your swords or your heads!" The speaker was walking toward me, a man in heavy chainmail and carrying a large warhammer. I saw movement in the trees behind him; only once, but...
He had confidence to talk. We didn't.
I lowered my sword; jumped back from an uncontrolled swing from the bandit still chasing me. Maybe I had already begun to learn something from Shar-Teel. "We'll not fight you. In fact we want to join your group."
Bandits. Join them and—it's safe again? I wasn't being attacked any more; a break in the fighting.
"Now there's a laugh! Why should we take you rattle-pates?"
"'Cause dungeonrobbing's a mug's game!" I said, loud enough for Imoen and Garrick to hear me. "C'n see the flag-wavin' that yer where the bits o' tin are these days." I expected the others would notice the accent. Picking up Baldur's Gate thieves' cant around Eldoth and his friends was much easier than learning Mulhorandi or Alzhedo; rhyming slang, carelessness with dental fricatives, and h-dropping for emphasis.
"Yeah, the boys saw you waste that Flaming Fist," the man said. "What do you call yourselves?"
His hammer was still a threat; and a bowman behind him was showing himself.
Killed your brother.
Killed the young Black Talon with brown eyes.
You are not my daughter. "I'd be Lucrezia the Bastard." I spat on the ground. "Sneaksman and treasure seeker, a dab shot with bow besides. Pink cove back there's no rank rider neither, barmaid's prodder an' master in bells." (Lockpicker and spellcaster, I had to explain afterwards.) "She's—Bathory the Axe. Splits skulls wiv the bells. Shanky 'ere's a bung nipper sure enough alongside 'is pipes and bells—" I pointed to Garrick, who nodded frantically—"an' Eddie's a Red Wizard, fearsome enough they be. Vic the drow be worth 'er price inna moonlit, and the fronting-doxy and her toothpick be Shar-..."
"Shar-Teel the Man-Slayer, we know 'er repute already."
"Yes. Yah, well." Shar-Teel was fighting three bandits at once, wild-seeming strikes that had them all kept cautiously back from her; lost to the fight. Would we have won against all these, if we'd tried? This was easier.
"Asset or liability?" He clarified the phrase for Lucrezia's sake. "If the camp bosses like you, maybe you're in. Or we can fill you and your man-hating friend full of arrows here and now if you can't stick to our orders."
"Thick cullies or thin rogues? Don't think it matters to 'er, we're all for th' patting. Oy, cut it!" I called to her, hoping she'd listen. "Down the toothpick now, new takings fer the rolling!"
"Lay down your weapons, boys," he ordered. "They're new recruits good enough for me. Take them to Tazok."
Shar-Teel reluctantly backed away from the fight. A relief. Infiltrating the bandits solved one problem. Tazok: the name in Tranzig's letters. Perhaps not let on knowing; perhaps, and rather quickly, dispose of the Black Talon scalps in Shar-Teel's pouch.
"From the Gate, aren't you?" he said to me.
"Yep! That Duke Eltan liked me 'ead so much, I'd'a been riding the rope for him to get a hold of it. So I ran and th' bunch of us joined up for pieces together..."
"Hey, mister! What'd you say your name was?" Imoen asked him. "It's so nice of you to let us join! We'll be rich as queens in no time!"
"You're welcome to call me 'Captain Raiken', or 'Commander Raiken'. Let's see how well you keep up."
The bandit camp up beyond Peldvale. My feet hurt; Viconia and Garrick were lagging behind by the time we reached the end of it. There were twelve men besides Raiken; the one I'd fought was called Kerl. They all kept close to us, during that walk. Running away now wouldn't be encouraged. At least we'd all been able to gather our equipment.
"You're sure, Sk...you?" Garrick whispered to me. "All these bandits..."
"Sneaking, Shanky. They tried recruiting us, it's easier like this." Like Imoen's and my grand Plan to be great thieves. Bandits.
"RAIKEN! Who are these ones?"
A large half-ogre. I think his voice was enough to make my hood ripple and fall back.
Our captain stood at attention. "Keeping numbers up, Tazok. We'll not have time to bring more from Iriaebor, and Kerl spotted them murdering a Flaming Fist with the drow here, so I thought..."
"YOU DON'T THINK! I THINK!" Tazok's orange-tinged eyes weren't as bright as those of the one who killed Gorion, but reminded me of him; I cringed back. "WE PAY BLACK TALON TO DO STEALTH HERE, AND YOU RECRUIT THOSE YOU ROB? WHO ARE THESE WEAKLINGS!"
Shar-Teel took a stride forward. I'm scared when she smiles like that. That is, more scared. "I don't take any crap from ogre garbage. Go scare some schoolboys, snaga."
Talk about fighting words. He just rushed at her, roaring, and she rushed back.
I guess she and Tazok have a lot in common. Shar-Teel's probably smarter, but in that fight intelligence didn't count. Just two heavy swords hitting each other, fast and forceful. He was half again her size, large and tall and terrifying. Though she clearly didn't find him so. It was difficult to do anything but watch them, in those first bloodthirsty moments. No sparks flared in the air with each metallic strike as in bards' songs, but the swords moved so quickly as to blur; Tazok's harsh attacks as though to cleave her in two, armour and all, Shar-Teel's quick deflections, somehow bearing up under that power—
Wait. Shar-Teel on the defensive. Shar-Teel breaking a sweat while the ogre laughed; Shar-Teel slipping to the side, like I do when I'm failing to fight her. Shar-Teel in tr... She had been fighting already, and done the long march; maybe he had also come to the fight like that, maybe not. But that was a sequence of slicing blows from him, and there was Shar-Teel, in time to counter them but not to do anything else. Shar-Teel taking a step backwards, even, no longer smiling. No, that was better for her. That was a sudden, fast movement that might make it past his defences. But: he was blocking it. That—sent her down to one knee, if only for a second. She didn't say anything, or try to taunt him; only parried and forced herself to her feet again. Moving with less grace than she had done; favouring, slightly, her left side this time. Probably the half-ogre noticed.
Revenge, if anything happened to her. If anything happened to her, the same to the rest of us. Raiken did nothing as the beginning of spells were muttered; when a hit from Tazok had Shar-Teel in the shoulder, I took from Imoen's quiver the ice-arrows we had gained. I fired; it stopped him, briefly, from another blow. If this was a one-on-one duel, we had cheated and had to not die for it; the spells hit the instant later. Shaken off, from Viconia; some slight damage, from the lesser ambition of the arcanists.
"These odds are more fun. Show me how you fight, pinklings." He was laughing at us. The arrows seemed to hardly hurt his hide, and Shar-Teel—it was a hard hit she received; she was losing despite everything. I heard her grunt in pain blocking a low blow. The metal gauntlets covering her wrists crumpled from the strength of it. Imoen's fire and Edwin's acid seemed to barely distract him.
Shar-Teel went down. Not dead; knocked onto her back with a hit to her left side. Trying to get to her feet again—too slowly—I kept shooting. Tazok stopped to yank the arrow out—Viconia flung bullets in a sling Imoen had twisted for her—Shar-Teel stumbled out of the way. She wasn't giving up, in spite of everything; would never surrender to a male. Stood up, somehow, for the end game.
Maybe her perseverance would win through. No—probably not. No movement, still, from the other bandits. They must have known nothing would work. Shar-Teel, sweating, moving slowly. Block. Parry. Turn. Tazok, smiling as yet another missile turned away from him. He forced her down to her knees, his sword crossing hers and bearing down; all she could do was try to hold a little longer. The way her face looked when she knew she was beaten... I hadn't thought she could be defeated like that. Kneeling to a man.
Tazok ended it.
A strange test.
"Heh! Stop now!" he yelled. "That mean you in the back!" He lowered his blade, and brushed at a trace of acid on his arm. "You fight pretty good. I think you make fine bandits. Go have run of camp. I have business to do but Ardenor and Taurgosz will keep eyes on you! Patrol! Tonight we leave!"
"I won't ask where you got those arrows, eh?" Raiken said quietly. "Go introduce yourselves to Tenhammer. Make yourselves useful or heads'll roll."
Taurgosz 'Tenhammer' Khosann, who once killed ten men with a single blow from his hammer, has no people skills.
"You lead these rivvin, jaluk?"
"Last time I saw the head of a drow bitch I was nailing it to a cliff face."
Relations did not improve.
Credus the second newest recruit showed us around the camp: the Chill hobgoblins, the gnolls, Tazok's special tent with the special papers in it (interesting), better still, Damon formerly of the Baldur's Gate Thieves' Guild, and best yet: Sique of the same previous affiliation.
Sique is the kind of thief that normally one only reads about. His face is perfect, his hair is gorgeous, he's witty and intelligent and bathes regularly, and he was a specialist in locks and traps before he and Damon had to leave the city.
"Best I do here's lift a barmaid's frock once in a while to save the effort of splitting a chest, or take down a bit of ettercap webbing...but a job's a job. Lucky my cousin Vairvon got us this gig."
"Could we see you work?" Imoen asked him, putting on her biggest smile.
"Eh...Tersus keeps the supplies locked up tight, I reckon if there was a reason I could get into 'em. You need the regulation armour?" Suddenly I wished I wasn't wearing armour, like Imoen.
"Nope. Can't cast my spells with it, mucks with the hand gestures," she giggled.
"Wizard, eh? And here I thought they were all old long-bearded coves. Not but that Venkt's not so bad for a wizard," Sique said.
"Venkt?" I said.
"One of 'em who spend quality time in Tazok's tent. Connected to the bosses. 'E's learned his way 'round the throwing darts—walked in on a friendly-like match once, walked off with the pot. Some say, bloody wizards, prob'ly dirty bells somewhere, but I say, best prove yerself a man like the rest of us! Savin' your company, ladies."
"Oo, the bosses!" Imoen said. The bosses: take down the Nashkel mine, have bandits steal iron, and thirdly—profit from their own iron stocks, lead an Amnian or other force to take over the weaponless city, or some third option. That much was obvious.
"Zhentarim this time, Vairvon said to me," Sique whispered, a frown on his cleanly chiseled features. "Heard it from the cheese—Taurgosz Khosann himself. Zhents."
Certainly they're capable of banditry and iron sabotage. But this doesn't suit their style, somehow—like the puppet ruler of Shadowdale, or the seizure of Darkhold.
"Nasty!" Imoen said in an imitation of an approving tone.
"Come on and I'll see you get equipped." Sique said. He briefly flashed the end of a lockpick from his sleeve. "Rank-and-file supplies are under Tersus—none of the real good stuff, 'cause 'e's only a gobbo."
"Seen 'em about. The gnolls too," I said.
"Yeah. No bitter ends, we ain't," Damon said darkly. "Here just for this 'un's marks. Were ye in the stab—or one o' them lone wolves?" Thieves' Guild or no: there were bad rumours about what happened to lone wolves.
"Were but a few hands' lengths," I muttered. "Under the Ravenscar." Thank goodness Eldoth talked about these things sometimes.
"Bungled the swag or worse?" It was hard to avoid the stare of Damon's beetling, sinister eyes. Some gentleman thief!
"Reckon it were the killin's, like. Crashed a few too many an' the guard got all curiouslike." I shrugged modestly. It's not like I haven't killed people; boasting about it's easier, though.
Damon rolled his eyes. "Damn stupid newborn cullies. Okay, Princess Bloodthirsty. Show what'cha can do, iffen you made it into Ravenscar's."
I assembled my collection of picks little by little, from different locksmiths I visited with excuses of lost keys to jewelry boxes. The chest in Tersus's tent looked relatively crude, old and battered; first a hook pick and a torque wrench to get the feel of it. Three pins.
"Rake pick?" Imoen suggested; she's good at using the tools she inherited from Winthrop. Was it trapped? I felt for any unpleasant surprises; no, and it would be better to hurry up with it.
The head of my pick snapped off when the hobgoblin's yell surprised us.
"You!" he repeated. "What you doing in Tersus' stuff? You two with Black Talons, but you not supposed to be here. Tersus keeps all the stuff for the Chill and Black Talons. You can get out!"
"Calm down," Sique said. "These two're new recruits. Checking their weapons."
The hobgoblin stockboy looked suspiciously at Imoen and me. "That pretty good armour. And she has pretty good shortsword, too." My studded leather and NIMBUL's blade.
"She don't." Sique pointed to Imoen; her shortsword had been bought during the iron crisis, and although she hardly used it, the blade was chipped and tarnished.
"I was told to give leather armour. You want leather armour?" Tersus snapped, glaring pugnaciously. "I have couple swords, but nobody told Tersus to give them out."
"No thanks." Imoen rolled her eyes; the armour was torn in several places, and smelled strongly of what I assumed was hobgoblin, for its similarity to Tersus' odour. "Could use a sword."
"NOT TOLD 'BOUT SWORDS!" Tersus snatched up the chest from me, holding it tightly to his body. "NO THEFT! Stop confusing Tersus!"
"Hey, didja know your name'd be Susret spelled backwards..." Imoen commented.
A real bandit camp. Interesting! About seven bigger rough huts beside Tazok's tent, a larger shed, and a few simple tents for the men. Gnoll patrols and hobgoblins march in their routes between the Black Talon clusters. Each building looks very temporary; the bandit camp switches locations every few weeks or so, and gets rebuilt on a location Tazok specifies. Credus says that only a few men Taurgosz Khosann picks out are allowed to carry Tazok's tent and the chests stored in there. The camp's never built too far from Peldvale or Larswood, where most of the raids are based. That leaves the iron-carrying merchants to pass through the Cloakwood if they want to avoid us, which is in the direction Tazok's patrol headed toward. Pass through the Cloakwood to avoid us. Are we proper bandits, yet? Shar-Teel practices with her sword against both Viconia and me at the same time, and says rude things to any bandits watching us. Then we've just had to patrol the camp's border so far, in case of Flaming Fists.
We join the bandits for a meal on the fire—mostly horse, squirrel, and vegetation, with the odd dried supplies the Black Talons imported. It's not wise to inquire what the hobgoblins and gnolls eat.
"Sing a lullaby, prettyboy!" A Black Talon with a large moustache slapped Garrick on the back, nearly pushing him into the fire.
"Ballad of Whorehouse Nell—know that one on yer sweet li'l harp?"
"No—no, I don't know that one—"
"Be a shame if'n anything happened to them bowstrings." A swarthy man next to him, grinning.
"Nell was quick/And Nell was kind/And Nell'd a great big—" came the raucous cry across the fire.
"Er—if you don't mind—I think I'd rather—"
"Shaddup, Shanky." The moustached Black Talon put a meaty hand over Garrick's arm. "You got girly hands, prettyboy. Ever do any real work?"
"If a man is known by the company he keeps, then I shall be known as an illiterate bully."
Brave Sir Garrick—
"I think prettyboy here's insulting us, Smitt! Think you should teach him a lesson?"
"Yeah, Jorm. Too bad those girls ain't here to protect you, Shanky. Hey, why don't ya wear skirts like that wizard of theirs?"
Laughter at this witticism.
"I did not mean—" Garrick tried to escape them.
"Leave 'im alone!" I threw down a knife, into the ground near the fire. It was enough to make the Talon called Smitt jump back. "Shanky's too good with the bells. Knows songs'd drive you mad—mad—"
'Simple' never works, dear Skie. The more outrageous and outré a performance, the more likely to be believed. Eldoth.
"Lu the Bastard, ain't it?" Smitt looked up and down my body in a way men in taverns sometimes used to, when I waited to meet Eldoth.
"Yeah. Shanky's one o' ours." Not too clever a retort.
"What'cha gonna do about it?"
Blood. "Something. There's a saying in the Gate." Stealing from a novel, but the Talons didn't seem especially strong on literacy. "A good rogue, can stab to the kill before you've time to draw your blade." I'd a second throwing knife ready, shining in the fire's blaze; I made sure it caught the reflection for his gaze. "A really good rogue, she's finished the job before you know she's there at all. 'Fore you know it, yer face's beaten in by yer own ribs and blood's fountaining from your—"
He reached for his dagger; his belt whistled above his head and landed in my right hand. Garrick's good with sleight-of-hand. We've all learned each other's skills.
"Come an' get it, boyo." I probably shouldn't have said that. He did stand up and rush for it, and he's a lot bigger than me. I roughly sidestepped—he wasn't armed, so I tried a slash that shallowly touched his shoulder.
"Ye'll pay fer that, ye little—"
"Halt—" Garrick's voice, singing a single pure note. Only distracted Smitt for a second—I kicked him on the shin (blood smell but no killing him—)
"Puny humans no music!" A hobgoblin's yell from their own firepit stopped the action.
"Calm down, Smitt. They've proved 'emselves to Teven," one of the men said. He stood; offered me a handshake. "I'm Knott. You and the boy ain't bad. Enough, Smitty."
"Just testing ya." Smitt muttered. "Get the drow to heal me and we'll say nothin' more about it."
"Get 'er yourself. An' for no hard feelings: Shanky 'ere's a great cook. What's that stuff on the fire, horse?" Silke and the Dale Wind Troubadors both made Garrick serve his apprenticeship doing all the chores; he's the only decent cook in our group. I haven't experience, Imoen likes experimenting too much, Edwin whines, and Shar-Teel and Viconia refuse outright.
"Yeah. Stewed with a few spuds."
"All right. I'll do my best to work on it!" Garrick said.
Yes. With seasoning and some supplies Garrick had in his pack, even horsemeat wasn't bad. Rowdy, interesting conversation; Knott talked about how he joined up, getting himself out of trouble he didn't specify from Nashkel and escaping a life of mining. Sique and his beautiful voice and deep green eyes was there too. Bandits and thieves and they think we're good enough rogues to be one of them. Sique showed us a small chest, and picked it himself in the dark while Imoen and I watched and learned. Rogues need a good sense of touch, and of course Sique has long, delicate fingers. Lovely professional thief.
It's good that Garrick's a great cook. Thanks to Viconia we have drow sleeping poison we can use to deal with the camp. If we want to deal with the camp.
Last time I saw the head of a drow bitch I was nailing it to a cliff face—While the Forgotten Realms article on Taurgosz Khosann doesn't seem entirely reliable, I liked the concept of this little detail.
Summer solstice: a long day.
They called for proper-patrol, not just skulking around guarding the camp. (The Black Talons seem to be paid quite well. Better than the hobgoblins.)
"All right, new-ones. Time to prove your worth. Wizard!" Edwin turned his head to give his attention to Alf, one of the Talon captains. "You're with my patrol. Lucrezia, you too." I tried to look eager to kill people. "Damon, I'll have you fer extra strings. And Greywolf." A tall man in studded leather, his hand already to his swordhilt, grunted an assent.
Greywolf—Greywolf—Greywolf— Where I'd heard the name came to me. The bounty hunter we'd been mistaken for in Beregost; a tough one from the sounds of it. He didn't seem to have any visibly lupine features, although there was something disturbing about his stringy hair and twisted grimace. Lucrezia might know the name, depending on where he'd been. If he was a bounty hunter: was it bandit scalps or iron he wanted here?
"Yer a pig's secretary?" The slang was too derogatory for the bounty hunter. I kept on after his growl. "I mean—yer a good hunter?"
"Yeah, I'm a bounty hunter, off an' on. What's it to you, girl?"
"'S just, the name Greywolf's one on the clockwork. 'Tis on the roses wherever ya go in the Coast Way—want a mowing, hire Greywolf fer the grass; want gullynappers fetched, find Greywolf for the squeakle..."
"Shaddup before I spit ye, brat!" Alf ordered. "Silence on the patrol!"
"If ye want some tips, ye can join me in my tent later," Greywolf whispered with rancid breath, nudging me. I saw Edwin's smirk.
Most merchants had been quite sensibly scared off, I thought. It was why we hadn't wanted to come this way. So we were just—making sure beyond a doubt the iron crisis would last. Just doing that, of course.
We wandered around the forest until my feet hurt; Edwin, too, was starting to fall behind.
"All right, men. We head back to the camp."
"And about time too, simian," Edwin complained. "In this completely unprofitable endeavour my time would have been far better spent, say, counting the hairs in my beard (Which is resplendent, virile, and not in the least 'straggly' as certain undereducated people would have it)."
"Greywolf, silence the bellringer."
A short silence. "I shall ensure there is no need for gratuitous violence. Sir," Edwin said. "(The gross indignities these chimps inflict upon me.)"
Along the Coast Way, back again; then, there were sounds in the distance. Alf gestured for silence.
"Spread out, men! Archers, wizard: make yerselves ready!"
A semicircular formation, well spread out. I quietly waited in the branches of a tree, ready to fire. Let it be nothing.
We waited. The noises grew louder; something, clearly. Then I saw a bright glint of metal. Had to be an armed caravan, hurtling through this forest as though desperate to escape...us. I steadied my bow.
"We have you surrounded!" Alf yelled. That was the cue for spells and arrows. I could see the Merchant League's emblem drawn in bright yellow paint on the first caravan, and the ten guards in escort. My arrow hit the ground in front of a horse ridden by a man in mage's robes; the beast startled. "Your iron or your lives!"
"Kill these brigands!" the finely-dressed mage howled, trying to regain control of his mount. Edwin cried out his spell, a thick black miasma materializing below their horses' hooves. The other archers sent a rain of arrows, with me, against the soldiers' shields. I saw one man, hit—I don't know by me, or no; I'd aimed for the mage's horse—and a flash of blue light.
"Helm protect us!"
A priest. Healing the others, like Branwen used to. The mage had rolled from his wounded horse, and chanted something of his own: six wolf-shaped things appeared out of thin air beyond Edwin's spell, howling and running for the throats of the fighters with us.
The one thing to distract a mage is often a well-placed arrow. The wizard began another chant; I loosed a shaft, and missed, and saw him turn pale grey. Shielded.
"Help—help us—" Edwin's second spell had spread to them; some of the soldiers lost their courage, but Helm's name was cried loud into the air to regather them— No choice but to keep to target.
Fire to my left; Edwin screaming and a smell like burning meat. That wizard—like Dynaheir killing the gnoll chieftain.
If Edwin had his way, he would be safe in Beregost. I didn't want to miss. I wanted the mage to die. He couldn't be allowed to cast more spells. He was moving, casting; I aimed carefully, and that one hit. The spell faltered.
Edwin cried out again, less painfully. White, draining light from his direction, trying to heal himself. Good. The drain of life—no! Good that my team heals— I could not stop.
Greywolf and the others charged on the humans, the wolves nipping at their heels. The wizard gathered some dust in his hand, chanting quickly, and threw.
"Blind!" Alf choked, grabbing at his eyes. I saw the wizard, moving into another spell-posture, that rhythm and incantation for the flames again. I saw one arrow take him despite that ghostly armour; saw him scream, and the fireball spread centred on him, the smell of burning again. His mage robes were on fire and he attempted to beat them out. I saw a second arrow, a hit to the eye, pierce whatever protections had remained after the fire. It was easy to feel rage.
Greywolf and the priest of Helm. Greywolf's sword shone, dramatically gold and dark-bladed, and he shouted a barbaric battle-cry. He and the others butchered the burned caravan's guard one by one, and I helped them.
There was worse than that. A frail League's merchant and his son sitting and shaking within the caravan. The son was not a child.
"Prisoners? These ain't much use to the other lot, idiot! Kill them!"
There were iron stocks, headed south. Some gold. Mundane provisions. A few bolts of rich silk, some expensive Waterdhavian wine to sell. The spell for blindness wore off.
"Is his spellbook remaining, I wonder?" Edwin stood over the wizard's body; what remained of the enemy's robes still smouldered, along with what remained of Edwin's beard. "(Ah, Fireball. If only I may write that spell if only I may write that spell...) Perhaps someone will assist me by searching the corpse."
Damon scraped through the wizard's robes, peeling off a few rings and necklaces and recovering a few blackened pages; and yanked the arrow from the wizard's eye. "I take it this stick be yours?" he interrogated.
"No, as you appear to be indicating, it belongs to the ill-mannered interrupter of a mage's duel I was clearly winning. (In Thay she would be executed for such a thing.)" Edwin held out his hand impatiently. "Keep the baubles, I care for the true power."
"Last time we'd a mage to fight, twasn't good." Damon said. "Ye've proved yerself with us, Lu. 'M keeping a finder's fee though."
Reflexes; catching a single copper-coloured ring. Very warm to the touch.
"Don't seem to me your prissy spells worked much. Up to the lady, ain't it?" I shifted from Greywolf and his yellow and gap-toothed smile. In one of his hands hung a dripping, severed head; my gaze shifted quickly to the symbol of Helm in the other.
"Edwin's right. About everything."
"Ha! It is...about time that my greatness was acknowledged. Yes, the spellbook. (My great powers were instrumental in the defeat of those previous assassins. I am talented in the use of my magic to kill humans and I certainly do not feel nauseated by these particular events.)"
"Good work, men. Return to camp!"
Iron and a tenth reserved for the employers, the rest split amongst us. They begged Viconia to come out from the shade being fanned by a number of younger bandits and heal; she eventually did that, for everything but Edwin's beard.
I was alone, just outside the camp. A large History of the North I'd obtained in Beregost, the first time we were there. I was halfway through the tome, I knew; the words danced on the page, swimming and blurring before my eyes. Illefarn—Nimoar—War Lords—dead—foes—dead— Then movement; Lucrezia stowed away the reading material quickly.
"Leadin' me a bit of a dance? I don't mind, girlie." Greywolf's bulk leaning against a tree. Breath and clothing smelling like singed, rotting meat.
"Ye said yer wanted tips." Tips: etymology from tippen to poke or touch lightly from Uthgardt dialect of old Illuskan, Common meaning to give something originating from historical thieves' cant. He grabbed me. "C'mon. Have some fun."
"N-no thank you. It's very kind but I..." I tried to escape.
"Ya know you want it. Oh Greywolf! Greatest hunter on the Sword Coast!" His voice lingered on a high, cracked falsetto. "No sense in turning shy on me. Not alone in the woods like this. Ye never know what might be lurking in the trees."
A tree root behind me; I fell.
"Ye don't want any violence." He grinned. "Hey, yer not upset at the killing there, are ya? Thought Lu the Bastard was already a murderer. My kind of lady."
"Go away!" I did have a sword. Good women are supposed to fight or die first. Not good; killing gets easier. Not with his magic sword. "Get..."
Inspiration. Eldoth, help.
"You've been in Beregost! You went to the Jovial Juggler!" Bounty hunter. Bounty hunter at least in Nashkel. Guesses, working in my favour for once.
"Yeah," he said. He was smiling; standing over me. He wouldn't have to do much. "And I've seen the real power here, and I've been loyal longer than you. Be nice, and we'll both keep our secrets, won't we?"
A movement, behind him. A flash of pink.
"Oh, no! I thought I was practicing my powerful magic completely alone out here, and I think I'm losing control of the spell! Help! Run!"
Imoen's subtle hand signals. Gonna do the smoke trick. Steal from him!
That small pouch around his waist Greywolf liked to finger, as though reassuring himself it was still there. I couldn't!
You can! Do it!
"Greywolf, look out!" I took one last deep breath; the smoke hit, and I rolled to one side. Greywolf swore; I ducked under a large, swinging arm, severed the pouch with my dagger, and ran back with Imoen for a nice patch of shadows.
"Heeee! We made it! That was great!" Imoen laughed. "C'mon, open it! What'd we get?"
A pair of matched green emeralds. I've never seen a finer cut; the gems in my hands were brilliant and clear, a colour that ran deep and true. I felt the murkiness of our deeds reflected in that sea-like surface, an unblinking eye accepting all in its calm, limpid reflection.
"D'you think they're real emeralds, Skie? We've got to be the best pickpocketing team ever! Can I hold on to them? I love shiny stuff like this!"
"You'd better hold on to them," I said. I looked away from the jewels. "Magically disguise them or something, maybe."
"The old secret pocket in the spell component pouch." She giggled again. "No stinky old waist-bag for these pretty things, nope! It'll be a nice home with Auntie Imoen until we find something good to do with you."
Interlude: Diar...Journal of Edwin Odesseiron, nephew to Tharchion Homen Odesseiron of Thay and Red Wizard: 7 - 18 Kythorn, 3472 Mulhorand Calendar
I know it was wrong to sneak it out of his pack and read it. My spoken Mulhorandi is terrible, he's been absolutely right about that, but I remember my written Mulhorandi quite well, and he doesn't know that. So I looked at Edwin's journal and wanted to find out his and Thay's plans...and found them, to a certain extent. I tried to skip over the bits that weren't about his mission, and I'm pretty sure that would be physically impossible anyway even with demon concubines, not that I got enough time with Eldoth to try much of anything.
7 Kythorn, Painfully Early (circa. Hour 10)
Following yesterday's glorious battle (I think I shall include it in my memoirs sans humiliating aftermath): I declare, the witch has most assuredly found allies. She has attached herself to a seemingly bedraggled group, no doubt from one ulterior motive or another; I must conclude they form part of Rashemen's goals, and will follow they and her until the convenient moment when I shall destroy her in a blinding haze of superior magery.
Descriptions follow. A hulking thing native to Rashemen calling itself a man and the future small rug that keeps it for a pet. An ill-tempered and unnecessarily belligerent cleric. A childish and babbling bard I anticipate may see to my personal needs. A craven elf and a rather devastatingly attractive necromancer. A pink-clad stray with some minor level of talent in the magical arts...and a crying little thief who has stained my robes. She seems easily manipulated and I shall order her to launder my clothing in repayment, though the pink stray has suggested her general incompetence.
I shall interrogate them after breakfasting. (These barbaric hours!) If this line of inquiry proves futile to discern Rashemen's goals, my brilliance will surely find another.
7 Kythorn, Still Painfully Early (circa. Hour 12)
Deceived! Tricked out of my mage's words! Doomed to remain with these strays whilst the witch in fact pursues her true goals!
I was sufficiently prudent that it is a mere month. Surely the witch's inferior talents leaves me plenty of time to catch up to her at some later date. The new lackeys shall not serve me ill during this period; I am sure my magical gifts already awe them.
Grossly betrayed by the attractive necromancer in a manner I do not wish to contemplate.
Condemned to the hole of Beregost for indefinite period. The crying little thief's family appear to have rejected her—somewhere between sixteen and twenty years too late, I should think. The tedium starts to overcome me. Why do I suffer these fools? Oh, yes, breaking a magical promise allegedly leads to negative effects, I daresay some of my more foolish tutors babbled about it. I shall not tolerate this nonsense!
We have met a monster and invited her to join our party. Tall, brutish, short-tempered, red of pelt. I triumphantly defeated her in single combat through superior wit and martial skill (if the world were just, the babbling bard would attempt to pen a song in my glory, but I have never cared for such insipid music, must not encourage his puerile strumming in any way whatsoever). I was hoping we could use her for the purpose of flinging her in the way of passing beasts whilst fleeing, there being more of her to consume than the crying little thief, but she has become a shameless dictator. She comprehends and abuses my allegiances to my Weave-bound words.
Enjoyed moderately intelligent conversation with our crying little thief. (Who refrained from crying at the time, for which I am grateful for the sake of my robes.) While no intellectual peer to myself, she has made some desultory study of Thayvian history and even revealed vague comprehension when I uttered a Mulhorandi proverb, perhaps attempting to hide her meagre light out of ladylike modesty. Naturally I corrected her in many important points in the saga of Thay's greatness and gave her the correct pronunciation of, 'Greetings noble wizard I abase myself before you', the traditional Thayvian salutation. I trust she held me in greater esteem than a mere escape from our terrifying shrew of a leader's attempt at tutoring her.
Fortunately managed to run into Denak and successfully deceived him that I had received his instructions and was following them to the very letter (probably sent to the inn behind us). Received unwitting service from the bard as testimony to said instructions: my quick thinking determined him to be of approximately the correct age and male like the ancestor, therefore close enough to what my supervisors seek that I convinced Denak he was the child and I was travelling with him in order to persuade him to Thay. Naturally my intelligence will discern the true one and then I shall bring him back to Thay whether by verbal convincing, magical force, or otherwise. They will then be so delighted by this they will question no physical or mental metamorphoses from the idiotic bard they briefly glimpsed (and perhaps immediately raise me to zulkir or at the very least graduated from apprenticeship).
Auntie Lasala was accompanying Denak and unfortunately that simian giggling pair interrogated her and viewed Those Pictures. I am prepared to tolerate their insubordination only so far and no further.
Was the witch sent on a similar quest to mine? Well, the madman the crying thief informed me of is clearly not the one. The Rashemi may boast of her useless skills at divination but what is really needed is a keen observational eye such as mine. I shall complete this and return to Thay a hero, in time.
Joined a mess of uncultured bandit chimps. Oh joy of all joys. Will take further notes once the subnormal children and The She-Brute Whose Name Shall Not Be Mentioned see fit to vacate this barbaric location. It is at least the source of some power, in this region, though I seek another entirely...
That's where all that could be relevant ends.
Other than Dynaheir out of the way, the Thayvians want the child of...some important man. Someone around Garrick's age and male—or only probably male? Most men don't only have male children. Men and women, let's say between fifteen and twenty-five since Garrick's twenty—that's only a somewhat large proportion of the Sword Coast. The implication seems to be that the child should have inherited powers, but...
So Edwin is obviously looking for Elminster's secret son-or-daughter! Actually, that's a completely unsupported hypothesis. I might as well say, Edwin is looking for Gorion's secret child, Edwin is looking for Duke Belt's secret child, Edwin is looking for Drizzt Do'Urden's secret child who was secretly polymorphed into a squirrel... Is Dynaheir really on the same mission? Maybe not; she seems to be chasing after madmen when she could be divining for the person. What is her purpose here?
It...sort of fits. With the assassins; with Dynaheir wanting to get back in touch with me and Imoen; with Elminster dropping in on us.
Imoen said she didn't know who she really was. She's an amazing wizard; she's special. Edwin shouldn't dismiss her like he does. So—I have to keep her safe. She'd still be behind Candlekeep's walls if she hadn't come to find me. (Probably bored like I used to be at home, but now I know what the world can be like bored sounds good.) It's my fault and I have to try... It's best everyone keeps on thinking that the person supposed to be assassinated is someone-called-Sky-Gorion-told-something-to.
There's the alternative, of course, that they didn't mistake me for her after all. That goes with the idea that I'm not really my father's daughter—but that's ridiculous. I won't believe that of my mother without proof; everyone who's ever told me about her says she-was-very-beautiful-and-very-kind. (That seems to be almost all I know about her. She was only a few years older than I am now when she died.) And Shar-Teel thinks I'm completely incompetent, and I am compared to her. Viconia's quite willing to act as her deputy. Edwin calls me a simian or an idiot at least once an hour, although he does that to everyone. Imoen and Garrick are just nice. So it would be...vain and cruel for me to think such a thing.
No more! Must practice traps! Sique is pretty.
The pickpocketing adventure would explain the following complicated chase scene about the bandit camp.
"Thieves! None cross Greywolf and live!"
Magical blade. Shearing an inch above our heads while we dived either side of a barrel. My somersault brought me to familiar, solid boots; we ducked behind Teven the bandit captain for a shield.
"Stand down, cap'n! Gonna show these brats what happens to thieves in Calimshan." It doesn't actually happen to thieves in Calimshan; the idea that they cut off people's hands is an archaic penalty long obsolete. I ducked again out of the lethal path of Greywolf's sword.
Teven passed a hand to his forehead. I guess there was a long trail of debris and ripped tents between here and the originating step of the pursuit. "Let me get it straight for my later amusement. You're complaining about being stolen from in a bandit camp, Mister Greywolf?"
"My emeralds! 'Twas them two sluts all right. Now lemme at their blood."
"Well, I guess I may as well watch the show 'till it's done," Teven said—and stepped, to our doom, aside.
"Yer not—going to help us?"
"Well, gee, Lu, you're complaining about being attacked in a bandit camp." Ah. Yes. We kept running.
Split and cloak! Imoen's hands said. Good idea—a barrel of old stew; I grasped a handful from it and flung it at Greywolf. He managed an inarticulate yell, but must have seen Imoen flicking her magic cloak. He went for her; she ran, and her cloak caught on a spar of wood. It came free from her shoulders at the last instant before Greywolf's sword would have hit her. He trampled it further into the mud.
"Can't—" A few pink sparks flashed in Imoen's hands; that second of delay gave Greywolf a chance to catch up. "Balls! Skie, it's not working!"
Nowhere to run for help—past tents, past bandits laughing at us. I tripped into a table and fell on some glass, a smell like rotting eggs sprouting around us. Edwin and various spell components: red robes waved angrily.
"Uh, Eddie?" Imoen said. "Ed! Really really great wizard! Y'know, I am so sorry about all those small lizards and spiders that mysteriously keep finding themselves in your bedroll. Can't imagine why it happens. So, little help here with the bandit with a big sword?"
"!" We ducked behind him as Greywolf hurtled up. He kicked Edwin's overturned table, letting it hit us; Edwin scattered.
Edwin's tent was behind us. One of Greywolf's mad swings mysteriously ripped through both it, spilling the spare red robes from his pack. I felt guilty about reading his journal.
"Insolent—monkey-brained—whelps—flaming death (flaming death, I say)—(I will show them all how it is done!)—"
Imoen and I tried to fight, avoidance for the most part; suddenly, Greywolf stopped. Edwin smirked.
"And this, children, is a display of true magical talent. The spell to ensnare another, to bind their will to none other than mine: the charm that your foolish cloak attempted to duplicate. (Surely such a magical item should have been entrusted into my safekeeping. Ah, well.) Do feel free to applaud." He paused dramatically; he walked steadily toward the lightly-swaying fighter.
"Y' did need to cast it twice, I heard you," Imoen muttered sotto voce.
"Now, now...what's this simian's name again, simian?" Imoen told him. "Ah, Greywolf. Mr Greywolf. I am your friend, am I not?"
Greywolf's eyes rolled in his head; he drooled slightly as he spoke. "None cross Greywolf and live. But you are my friend, you are. My true friend."
Edwin rubbed his hands together. "And you want to put down your magic sword, don't you, Greywolf?"
"Yes, I suppose so."
"And you want to stop attacking me...and those children, I suppose. The pink one and the weepy other one."
"Yes...They stole my emeralds," Greywolf said. I was shocked to see a tear run down his cheek. "They stole my emeralds I was going to sell. Oubleck was cheating me. I wanted to sell them."
"Yes, yes (I do not care about the simian's petty acquaintanceships). Very well, they did not steal them," Edwin said.
"They did not steal them?"
"Yes, that's right, serf. In fact, you gave your emeralds to the other girl. You gave them to her because for some inexplicable reason you find her attractive—because your second most recent carnal partner was obviously a gangrenous gibberling great-grandmother." Edwin smirked.
"Yes...gave me the Calimshan itch, it did..." Greywolf scratched; Edwin shuddered.
"(I did not want to think about anything of that sort.) You freely gave them to this girl and you will remember doing that."
"I will remember doing that."
"There will be no need to pursue or annoy her, me, or the pink one. (Me and my possessions, in particular. Very especially me.)" Edwin pointed to himself emphatically.
"Yes, friend..." Greywolf repeated, nodding.
"After all, she returned your generous gift with munificent erotic attractions (not in the least comparative to Thayvian concubines, but I imagine you will never meet a Thayvian concubine nor would a concubine ever regard you at even the level of the very lowest scrapings of slime from a weak apprentice's discarded experiments)."
I did not. "Edwin!"
Greywolf was drooling. "Yeah...she was a fun lay...flexible...worth paying the emeralds..."
"And that is all, my friend. Good day before the spell runs out. Worry not, lackeys. You can demonstrate your abject gratitude to me later." Edwin snapped his fingers; elaborately smoothed down his wizard's robes.
"Thanks a lot," I said stiffly.
The next principal recollection from Imoen and I would be a burning pain in our foreheads. Shar-Teel, lifting us both by the collar and slamming our heads together, our legs dangling at least a foot above the ground; worse behind her, the Tenhammer, and even Viconia, cloaked as always in the sun.
"This is the—"
"Kind of stupidity—"
"I expect from—"
"Males, but you—"
"In the Underdark, s'lat'halin, insubordinate young baut'waelen would be beaten with tentacle rods for three days, lashed to posts in the atrium of their Academy," Viconia commented, sidling next to Shar-Teel. A series of flashing stars danced before our eyes.
"We've found ourselves volunteers to feed the gnolls. Or to be food for the gnolls!" Tenhammer yelled.
Cleaned up the camp. Fed the gnolls. Found out exactly what carrion they eat, the degree to which they prefer it uncooked, the enormous iron cauldrons to drag around and clean, and how to dodge. Back hurts.
"Y'know, kiddo, you've really got to stop coming up with all these buffleheaded pickpocketing ideas and getting us into trouble. Specifically, armpit-deep-in-gnoll-food trouble."
"Whatever you say, Imoen."
s'lat'halin - fighter
In the evening I toasted a dead man.
"Vairvon and Arras," Damon said. "Dead not far from the patrol route. Should've seen what those Fist bastards did to their heads."
"To Vairvon and Arras." Our two cups of bad wine met inside the bandit hut. One had been Sique's cousin.
"Turned up on 'is doorstep, Sique and me, an' Vairvon got us this booty. Good bloke. Ever since we were kids.
"'Twas a branch o' the Iriaebor Guild for me an' Sique, th' local guards for Vairvon. The three of us'd still drink off hours, atimes even swap stuff...we'd get rid of nasty blokes from the Guild while 'e'd tell us patrol routes ahead o' time.
"Dragged 'im along in civvies once, t' be the pair-o'-eyes waiting outside this merchant scum's place. I'd grabbed me goblins and prodded 'is basement, forced open a maiden's treasures bustin' wiv apples, green beer and berry wine and more milk than ye've ever seen afore." A trapped chest, emeralds and rubies and pearls. "I started to lift th' swag—then 'e yells the signal from outside, surprise patrol thereabouts.
"So Sique an' me, we featherfall outta there fast, an' see—there's this sewage cart 'twas running through the streets, and what d' we notice but that Vairvon' s upended the thing over them draftsmen! Covered in none but crap, they were, decided not to run chase after that." He laughed. "We lagged it outta there real fast. Only sad thing is, 'e must've been seen by someone or other...'twasn't enough proof fer the shackles, but the guards drummed 'im outta there and 'e was off to find 'is fortune with the Black Talons."
Damon drunk again, heavily.
"A good fighter, Vairvon, too. More 'n worthy of the Talons. 'Twas but one time I ever beat 'im in a fight. Said I saved his life. A caravan running southwards, this young firebrand with a sword atop the regular guards—he'd killed Orrin and Idram already, so's Vairvon stepped in and took him on. I'd been helping with the other coves. A hard enough moonlit night it was, two crossbowmen hidden at the back firing into us an' half a score of guards to fight."
"Sounds a right lay." I drunk again; we'd not known the men, but might as well listen.
"Yep, some Mister Noblebritches on the caravan laying about himself like a pit fiend. Vairvon, three others 'round him, Vairvon was holding 'im back but even four weren't slowing that one."
This story. This story could be familiar.
"Then I heard Vairvon screaming, 'e'd been stabbed bad. That's when I stepped outta the shadows and gave a nice shouldertap right between the armourjoints. Bloody aristo didn't know what hit 'im."
A stab in the back. Of course. Of course.
"'E turned around, stared at me shockedlike with the sword sticking out his back, an' fell atop Vairvon stone dead. Donated a nice healing potion fer our trouble too. So's that's how I beat Vairvon. Got some nice plunder, too."
He rummaged in his pouch. There was, of course, a silver signet ring.
Then the dreams came.
Mulahey dies. It's Kagain; his axe a grey arc whirling up, burying itself in Mulahey's thick neck, piercing and manufacturing a gap between jagged gorget and brown-stained breastplate. The kobolds are screaming. The skeletons' bones are chittering together. Branwen cleaves a skull in two.
Mulahey stays dead long after all depart. The mines become black. It might be a day or a year that has passed. Empty nothingness fills this lonely space. Mulahey is dead in the darkness.
Mulahey's corpse rises in white light. He is as dead as he always was; he spins in the air, his wounds open and decayed. He waits. He may be expecting a blow, or healing, or whichever afterlife calls him. He was a Cyricist. Beside him shimmers a dagger of bone that signals the intention, a death beyond death. The dagger is pale and cool and heavy when held, and rests easily within the curve of a left hand.
In this darkness Branwen's hammer shattered skulls. In this darkness Kagain's axe killed many. In this darkness Garrick wept. In this darkness Imoen bled.
Hands over Imoen's stomach and about the kobold arrow, the remembered power returns. To heal friends.
The dagger falls to the ground and turns to dust. The invader of the mines is gone and dead. He is cold when his soul passes to Cyric. Perhaps his corpse gives half a smile at the last.
Only three words remain in the darkness, and they echo like thunder.
"You will learn."
There is another dream.
A bird flies freely. A sparrow high in the air carols. It is a triumph in thievery, a landslide in larceny. A fortified camp the bird sung its way through. A dance in the air. Barred to all others in the world, yet to pass within was easy.
Then the bird is a bird no longer. A lodestone drawn by the harshest of calls to earth, falling so quickly it begins to burn. It slips within the ground as easily as a hot knife passing through melting butter; like a teardrop dissolving into the centre of the sea, leaving no trace behind.
Below the ground lies a cavern within the core of the world. The lodestone must have some means of seeing, some form of conveyance. Stumbling forth into the hidden depths reveals an object. It is not seen, perhaps, but felt in patterns a uniform shade of grey; intersecting planes in the night, akin to infravision's betrayal of constructed objects.
It is a statue. Smooth stone. A complete likeness, down to each individual strand of hair, entirely unmoving. Bare eyes opened, staring into the distance. There are flaws to it, some hidden and others not. The weakness compared to the strength of fighters. The clumsiness if contrasted with true sophisticates. The inability to bespell. Selfishness and laziness and fear buried alone in a locked and guarded estate. If you only...my little angel, you would be much improved if you troubled to listen to me once in a while. It's not as though your opinion is well-formed, is it? The statue was a hair's breath from shattering.
A mocking voice as smooth as rain.
"I see pride undeserved, great one."
Pride in thievery. Pride in reading history and gabbling in Alzhedo, Shou, attempting Sylvan from a few Candlekeep books, Mulhorandi, memorising old Illuskan verb-tenses. Pride in education, manners. Pride is—wrong, is it not? There are others greater—
"Was there pride in your name, once?"
Familiarity, certainly. The only life she had ever known, for all it had felt like a cage of late.
"Or pride in mere gold?"
One never knew the value of gold until searching an ettercap's dead body for it, hands slippery with darkened blood.
"The pride will be a second revenge, oh conqueror."
The burning wind turned all else to ashes carried in its way. Anything for revenge. Anything to destroy them all. "Death. I want to kill them." He was my brother, and he didn't deserve to die.
I apologise for this dirty bit of business, but I must seek your death— the man in the priests' hut said.
"You will learn to remember. Credit where it is due, and due where payment is demanded. Steal this revenge..."
The bone dagger forms from the blackness. It flies true to the statue's heart. The pain is as though rent asunder.
"You were made as you are. You can also be broken."
There are flashes of a bloodstained knife. Again and again. One. Two. Three. He is dead. The counting does not stop.
The dreams may have ended here.
Imoen Winthrop saw Skie Silvershield walk out of a bandit hut covered in blood.
"I learned who killed my brother," she said to Imoen. "I killed him. I remember something else too. I remember telling that Shank fell into his knife in the priests' hut, just before Gorion left with me. I lied. Shank didn't fall into his knife. He fell into my knife. He fell into my knife forty-seven times."
Imoen was, perhaps, shocked. But Imoen knew what she wanted to do. She pushed Skie Silvershield back into the hut and told her to hide the body and to secure the door. Then she went to tell Garrick to start the bandit camp plan. Then she found Shar-Teel and then she talked to Edwin. When she had given up trying to find Viconia, she went to her part in the plan. She waited for Taurgosz Tenhammer to come out of his hut and with her tattered cloak she told him that Ardenor Crush had said that he was tired of the human orders and wanted to take over the bandit camp. Then Imoen found Viconia and Taurgosz went to hunt the hobgoblins.
Venkt, Britik, Raemon, and Hakt were meeting in Tazok's tent, as usual. It was possible to quietly climb to the roof of it. There were traps and mage's wards protecting it. But the mage's wards were not very different to those outside a bedroom a long time ago. Then it was possible to slit a small hole through the hut's roof. Because it was dark, they saw no sudden light to alert them to it.
The goal was to surprise them. The wizard should be the most dangerous. Skie Silvershield dived from the roof for his throat first. His skin turned pale and hard, but it was important to keep attacking. In the fight, she pulled him back rolling around on the floor with him and the first arrow fired went into his back. The enchanted sword managed to open his throat into a second smile. His body caught two more arrows, and the edge of Raemon's sword. It was important to get away from Raemon. Skie Silvershield skidded back across the floor under the gnoll's legs.
Be broken. Be broken.
Britik the gnoll did not wear much armour. Skie Silvershield's hands turned red and she did to him what other people did to her. It only took a second and then he could not move. She slit open his femoral artery so that he could bleed to death and tried to run away. An arrow hit and she fell.
Then the door finally broke open and Shar-Teel and Viconia rushed in. It was a plan to surprise the bandit leaders. Viconia's hands glowed with dark light as she commanded the hobgoblin archer down. Shar-Teel fenced against Raemon, much stronger than he.
The arrow had only glanced off Skie after all and it was not as bad as it had looked. Or was that simply an excuse for the power? She got up again and attacked the hobgoblin while he was down. Shar-Teel defeated Raemon and then they made sure the frozen gnoll was dead.
Outside of course the camp was wild and in chaos. Edwin the conjurer and Imoen the transmuter cast spells to affect everyone. Green clouds and a lot of running around and screaming. Hobgoblins fought humans and humans fought everyone. It was important to protect the spellcasters, so Shar-Teel charged forward. Skie went to back her up. Viconia called a small cloud of magical fog to confuse everything in Shar's name.
Shar-Teel did most of the fighting. The main duty was to watch her back and stab anyone who got too close. With the fog and the spells helping, it was possible to defeat a few hobgoblins and the lesser bandits. There were hardly any Black Talons yet, as the Black Talons were fighting Ardenor Crush on the west side of the camp. Killing was much easier than expected.
His name was Knott, and he was trying to fight with a torch, against Viconia's fog in the darkness. Skie fought him while he kept calling her 'Lu' and asking, why. The torch fell, and when he overbalanced she was able to kill him. The huts started to burn.
In Tazok's tent there were papers and maps, and the fire was claiming it. Skie hurried to break in and find them. A chest, a trap; Sique and Vairvon had taught a lot about disarming traps. There was smoke everywhere, in her throat and stopping her breath. The entryway was entirely alight. Skie quickly gathered the papers into her pouch and prepared to leave via the window. But there were also the prisoners. She crawled to open the area where they were imprisoned and both bound: a human and an elf. It was important to only free them quickly and let them make their own way out if they could. She cut the elf's bonds first, and he saw her face.
"You!" he said, knowing her. "Dhaeraow; ndenginaer. I have heard your voice outside my prison. Dark-hearted inyahuan."
The elvish meaning for two of those terms, betrayer, murderer, the third unknown. Kivan took up Raemon's sword and attacked, as fiercely as though he was a thing shaped from the flames that surrounded him. Skie ran away from him out the window. She did not attempt to make him understand.
Kivan pursued her. Tazok's hut collapsed behind them in hot ash. The human prisoner was dead and his skeleton lay under there after he was burned. Skie yelled Tazok's name, but Tazok was at the bandits' other site and Kivan might have known it as well. The execution of the prisoners was delayed by Tazok's own instruction; they were his personal prisoners, and it was possible he had gloated to them of their fate.
Kivan's sword swept the darkness; Skie lost a hank of hair and gained a wound across the back of her neck. She ran on, toward where few fights were. The bandits guarding the gnoll punishment cave had left to defend against the others. She had not thought of the plan she enacted until she happened to be running in the right place, but she did it. She ran briefly into the gnolls' cave, and called, "Food's ready for you just outside!" Some of them tried to attack her after being in the cave for so long, but she had had to dodge them before, and she was able to fade into the shadows of the trees and circle back to fight with the others. She did not see what happened to Kivan and the twenty gnolls around him. Ardenor Crush and Taurgosz Tenhammer lay dead together.
Shar-Teel was still fighting, in a clump of blades and movement before lines of poisoned, sleeping bandits. Only the two wizards stood behind her now. Skie did not see Viconia near them, and had not seen Garrick for some time, but she did not think about him at that time.
Greywolf was fighting. Almost as well as Shar-Teel; Imoen's arrows helped her in the battle, but Shar-Teel was amidst the crush of bandits and hobgoblins, surrounded, a stern gate between the bandits and weak wizards. Greywolf's enchanted blade sliced silver ribbons from her platemail.
Skie gathered the shadows about her. There was one hobgoblin archer, smearing what was under his nails upon an arrow, to try to shoot into that crowd; she went for the throat. A young and weak hobgoblin. A quick death. Then there was the battle remaining.
It's easy, Shar-Teel says, to hit one's own (wo)men, if you're a large crowd without discipline. Skie found it simple enough to duck into that fight, weaving amidst the bandits. Perhaps some believed she was one of their own, or perhaps the blood covered her darkly.
That's when I stepped outta the shadows and gave a nice shouldertap right between the armourjoints.
There was no weakness in Greywolf's blade or his sword arm, but there was weakness in Greywolf's armour. The term, 'shouldertap', is a non-literal thieves' euphemism for a backstab, or rather any kind of surreptitious attack. There is no requirement that it must involve either shoulders or back. Greywolf's studded leather was pierced in the groin. A lot of blood.
Shar-Teel charged, free of that magical blade. Skie helped her; struck at bandits attempting to attack Shar-Teel from behind, stabbed out to finish those Shar-Teel no longer wished to dance with. It wasn't hard, that time, to remember the lessons. She was still covered in blood. The two of them danced on.
At some point, the attacks ceased. The ground was welcoming; impossible to go further, necessary to sit amidst the corpses. Smoke stained the air, the fire blazing too close.
Viconia deVir approached, weaving amongst the bodies like a dark and graceful ghoul taking her feast, singing words in the underworld language of her people. Her right hand bore aloft an ebon disc, black and shining as though bathed in wet ink, stealing tendrils of light from its surrounds. In her left she held a dagger, black-hilted, stained in blood upon its dull grey blade.
"Shar," she invoked; the priestess silenced forever the moans of a dying bandit. Her prayer carried upon the wind, shifting to her next sacrifice.
"Where's Garrick?" I said.
Note: Chicago, 'Cell Block Tango': "He was crazy, and he kept on screaming, 'You've been screwing the milkman.' And then he ran into my knife... he ran into my knife ten times."
We had to beat out the fire, first, lest it consume the forest and us, with water from the stream and Shar-Teel wielding shovel and axe as strongly as a sword. Bind wounds and try to stay upright. Then, we searched the bandit camp. Garrick was in the woods, the overturned, poisoned cauldron behind him. He had managed to run some way.
"Garrick!" Imoen and I both rushed to him. His face was green; near him was blood, bodies of bandits; he was half-buried. We both dug to find him. His crossbow had fallen some distance away. He had drawn his sword at some point; it lay near him, broken. Another sword, hobgoblin-coarse, was also too near. "You can't be—you can't! Viconia!"
She bent over him, touching his chest, lowering her face to his. "As good as dead," she said.
"No!" So stupid. I clutched to the idea of Garrick in danger in my head. It was easier to think about (but this too is blood you have shed). "You have to do something!" Imoen joined me. "You have to!"
The priestess of Shar was smiling. "For a useless male, you demand of me...?" She shook back her hood, releasing her light hair, allowing the moment to last: taking pleasure in the power she held. "You have made a poisoner of him; and for that I shall petition my surface goddess to grant me those remedies. Xuil l'mriggan d'Shar."
For what felt like hours, Viconia sung her prayers; coated her hands with charcoal dust, spread it across his skin; opened a slight cut to shed blood from his left arm, mixing it into the dust; covered him darkly and thrust strange herbs down his throat.
Imoen's hand was twisted in mine; I think it was she doing the comforting, strangely enough.
"He'll be fine. He has to—" I heard Imoen say.
"Odd. It was a thankfully short acquaintance, but it seems to me the barbaric Northwoman was a more gifted cleric..." Edwin commented. "Will this never end?"
Viconia paused her ministrations; Imoen and I glared at Edwin. "In the Underdark there was no more devoted acolyte of the Spider Queen than I, jaluk. For centuries I devoted myself and rose to unimaginable heights upon her power, casting transcendent rites it is beyond your ability to envision. Yet Shar has granted me succor in this roofless world." She slapped Garrick's face. "Huertar, jaluk, elg'cahlir. Guuan."
Her grim task continued. We saw Viconia nod her head, once, her hands pressing heavily upon Garrick's chest.
"Funny," Imoen said. "It was my bow on Damon's cousin dead in the woods, Damon killed your brother, you killed him, and then Edwin killed Sique. Ruined his face first. I thought those acid arrows were powerful. Funny ol' world, huh?"
It was all so very clear.
"I'll kill them," I said. Imoen was staring. "I have to kill them. I'll find out who I need to kill—" I released Tazok's scrolls. Three were incomprehensible runes, magic spells; two were not. I opened them and read.
"The Thorass alphabet. Thorass, but it's not right; it's not spelling out any language I've heard of."
"So they have obviously encoded it, brat." Edwin stood over us, impatiently reaching for the papers. "What an unexpected precaution to take for an iron conspiracy. You're smearing blood all over it, befouled wench. Give it to me; my superior intelligence ought to decode it."
"Yes, you're right, Edwin," I whispered back; Garrick and Viconia. Think about the writing, to avoid cold fear. "X-gh-j-l-p. K rr-l-m-sh x-k-gh-x... It's merchants' cipher! Thorass letters to confuse it, but Common merchants' cipher—every house in the Gate uses some variant. I guess anything more complicated would be hard on Tazok. So I can help you..."
"Hinder, more likely. I must remember—what are those two characters, the ones placing that miniscule dot to the top or bottom?"
"The ie'jami? Gha above or—"
"Or the other one below, yes, I was expertly educated in language as all else." The other one below was gim. "(I should like to see this featherbrain attempt to keep a spell in her head. Magic is the most important field.)"
"Lend me a quill, too, Eddie," Imoen said softly. "Let's figure these creeps out."
The messages emerged.
I hope that everything moves along smoothly. I have written to give you instructions from our superiors. I have been told of a certain person who might cause the Iron Throne some trouble in the future. You are to insure that they don't live to upset our operations. Obtain the services of the assassin Nimbul, he should serve you well. Deliver more bounty notices also if you see fit.
I have noticed that your shipments of iron ore have slowed as of late. It is imperative that we receive another tonne of ore. Step up your raids, and get a shipment to our mines in Cloakwood within the next week. We need to stockpile as much ore as possible before our ultimatum is given. Also, Sarevok wants to know what has happened with the band of mercenaries at Nashkel. Have they been killed? You had better insure that they have been, as Sarevok will not take kindly to any other news.
There was a crude sketch, too, upon the back of the letter. Given that it was the Cloakwood, the roughly-drawn path marked was enough for an idea of the iron mines' location, near the Chionthar banks. Their secret supply source to profit from the shortage.
I don't think I know anyone called Davaeorn.
But Sarevok? The Iron Throne?
Not Sarevok Anchev of the Iron Throne?
How many Sarevoks are there in Faerun? How many Sarevoks work for the Iron Throne? How many Sarevoks work for the Iron Throne on the Sword Coast? Sarevok Anchev. Tall, broad, amber-eyed, Rieltar Anchev's foster son. The last time I met him at a ball I think we danced once and conversed about the weather and a ship that had lately come into harbour, above half a year ago now. Eddard used to tell some wild stories about his fighting skills. Possibly every one of those wild stories are true. Or the nasty stories about him, the reason why girls dance with him and nothing else, the thing that happened to Amadia Rossit and the story about that Calishite woman. No wonder he is only danced with. Sarevok: the golden-eyed figure in the darkness murdering Imoen's foster uncle?
Sarevok Anchev. His father and mine might so easily have negotiated something, Iron Throne to Silvershield; or I would have trusted him as an acquaintance, if he'd only offered Imoen and me an escort instead of this complicated business. (And then of course they would have killed us.) His assassins think my name is Sky. Just like the letters describing Imoen and me in Candlekeep.
"I'm going to kill Sarevok Anchev." The words rested easily upon my tongue. "We'll get to the Cloakwood mines, and we'll do it before any other messages can get there. We can find him there and kill him. For everything."
I'd spoken too loudly. "Skie," Garrick croaked, staring up at us, his head lolling back an instant later.
Viconia stood, releasing him. "Your poisoner will live, jalil. Xuil Shar udos te-smur."
"Crisis successfully averted, I suppose. (As though I would not be delighted to end these moronic simians myself!)" Edwin fumbled for his pack, on the ground behind him. "I take it you will continue to abuse my oath for my valuable services? Rational enough, to attack before they slaughter u—I mean, you brats, for...this." He waved a hand weakly at the destruction of the camp. "Brats! You suddenly take it into that pinhead of yours to blatantly murder one of them, dragging the rest of us into this fool's vendetta—fools!"
"It was my fault. Not Imoen's," I said.
Stabbed Damon forty-four times. Three less than Shank. They were already dead—
Sarevok Anchev's fault.
"As you ought to be," Viconia said. "You may grovel, baut'wael."
"Yes, grovel before the drow, lick her boots and such. Especially if you bathe first," Edwin said.
Shar-Teel returned. Possessions she carried fell to the ground, clanking loudly. "Bloodlust is acceptable," she said. She took Greywolf's sword from the pile. "Seems you're not completely weak after all. Should've waited for that snaga to come back. No male beats me twice. Here."
She held the gold-and-black hilt toward me, her gauntlet lightly wrapped around the blade.
"Allow me." Viconia, smooth as silk, took it gently, cradling it between her hands, caressing it as though it was a work of art rather than weapon. She closed her eyes. "I know its nature. The scent of Shar. Shar's creation on the heart of its first owner. She was a warrior, murdering hundreds upon hundreds of betrayers to the faith. At the feast of the Moon Bitch, in darkness, she became the sacrifice. They sheathed the sword in her life's blood, turned her skin to ice, bound her to Shar's altar. They promised her life again, but she was forgotten and left to wait in eternal cold. What insane hatred can you imagine arising from such a thing, giving power to those who accept it? When her tomb was found at last, not a trace of her remained: only this blade, calling for a frozen death.
"I trust you will use this in a manner my goddess would approve."
She handed it to me, a sword as cold as snow on a winter's morning. A strong enough sword to carry in the Cloakwood; to warm its edge in battle.
"Witch, here." Shar-Teel flung a rent, blackened, and bloodstained mage's robe to Imoen; one I recognised.
"...Ew? It's all..."
"It's magic. You're the spellslinger, use it." She stowed away a clinking bag in her own pack, next to a large bow. "Seems enough gold for a while, one of those enchanted bags. Sword for the bard." A short, shining blade, like the one I'd been using. "Carry the potions, girl." She'd gathered a selection of bottles, some blackened from the fire; I picked them up, cringing at the heat. A healing potion among them, for Garrick. Shar-Teel herself now wore parts of Tenhammer's full plate. "Drow: Tenhammer's weapon?"
"It ought to be mine to wield, sargtlsinss." Viconia produced it from somewhere about her person, stretching idly. "Mmm, Tenhammer. Perhaps the man ought to have been called Tentongue...a most interesting time between us. Such antagonism, such passion. The many things that man was willing to do, large and strong as the finest of pleasure-slaves, dextrous enough for my pleasures. I had not expected to meet a rivvil able to perform the position of the sarah hamil five times sequentially, so it was agreeable to me when he..."
Imoen made a disgusted face accompanied by a loud noise.
"Ah, well; one taste of the meat is sufficient. Or rather, seventeen tastes."
"Loot goes to the party, drow. Use it, but bear that in mind."
Imoen's enchanted robe gathered around her, shimmering clean and bright orange-pink the instant she put it on. I hope it protects her enough.
"We have to leave. We can drag Garrick, can't we?"
Xuil l'mriggan d'Shar - with the guidance of Shar
Xuil Shar udos te-smur - with Shar we shall prosper
sargtlsinss - female warrior
sarah hamil - camel
The path is clear before us. South-east to the Friendly Arm inn; east into the Cloakwood; along the map's trail until Sarevok's iron lair is visible.
We planned to use the inn to get the translated letters anonymously to Duke Eltan of the Flaming Fist. They would never believe us under our own names: too young, too disinherited, foreign, a drow, known by the sobriquet Man-Slayer. But, if our fight there attracts attention, if Eltan receives other evidence—then he may believe it.
I didn't think Shar-Teel could get any harder on me in practicing while the others rest, but she is. It feels as though she's after that part of me in the bandit camp, the part that killed everyone, beating me to summon it out again. It hurts so much. But I need it to kill Sarevok Anchev.
It feels strange not to have bathed, done my hair, cleaned my chipped nails. The worst of the blood came off when we forded a stream, and I discarded the stained clothes when we stopped for a brief rest. But we don't have the time; to break into a mine with a band this size seems all but impossible even if we surprise them. (May the wizards' protections against scrying hold.)
Garrick drank enough healing potions to walk again. I'm too secretive, about the healing and the red hands. I may have to make it obvious, if he needs it, but... Imoen looking at me like that is enough. This is the only way I can see how to fix it.
We walked past a small fishing village; a long way, but this time I didn't complain (much). Poor Garrick and Viconia.
"Some party going on." Shar-Teel jerked a thumb in the direction of a gathering of village labourers in the distance, all of them standing about a cleared patch of earth.
A giant green monolith rose out of the ground and spat out a fountain of acid.
"Hit the dirt!" Imoen pulled me down; the acid burned. Shar-Teel was quick to action. The creature was covered in thick green armour, a harsh, ugly shell; a squawking sound came from the clashing of mandibles bigger than my arms. Its gaping maw lashed toward her.
Shar-Teel's blade struck, glancing off the jointed carapace. I reached for Varscona, ducking out of the line of acid. Viconia's bullets, aimed for its vast, multifaceted eyes, had greater effect: the next stream of acid came at her. She fled behind a tree; I heard her chanting a healing spell.
Varscona, the cold sword. Not as weighty as Shar-Teel's strong weapon, but upon the edge of one of the monster's midsection-plates, it drew faint green blood. Then its hooked pincers hit pain.
Garrick, this battle, had chosen striking spells above songs. Pink energy almost grazed my cheek; I swear he sung a deeper casting than before, two missiles leaving black traces upon the shell. Fire from Imoen, glittering dust flung from Edwin; I could hardly see, and the creature seemed to disappear before our very eyes.
Edwin shrieked loudly and high. He came plummeting from the sky, flung away by the monster rising again from the earth; and landed on me in a flurry of caustic spell components.
Really, he could use more exercise.
"My spell disrupted! Does the humiliation never end?" I felt him roll away; he jerked his robes sharply away from their tangle around me. Someone else grabbed me.
"Maiden, do you require assistance?" A roughly dressed man, clinking as he walked, trying to help me up. I can't trust strangers. I pulled away, rising from the dirt. A bright light flashed, near where Shar-Teel fought: Imoen, probably.
The ground shook: I tumbled away from it, having enough warning this time. The stranger raised a battered, patternless shield instead of escaping, drawing a sword and moving cautiously down. The second creature erupted, larger than the first—and with clicking, sharper limbs.
"Edwin!" Needed his spells. "Er...back over here, you thing!" Toward the open ground about the village; then we could at least see the things coming. Shar-Teel—needed to kill the first one quickly. I flung a throwing knife to glance off the carapace. Its vast head turned to me rather than the stranger; I ran back. A stream of acid—I flung myself down, somersaulting away.
"Cry for your lives, they are over!" Edwin—too close to the monster, shouting out Imoen's fire spell, roasting it. I had to dive to him, try to get him out of the way; the stranger did not back down, careful and steadfast.
"Look—draw it back—" I begged the stranger. Varscona made a hit at last. I screamed; a pincer struck me.
"Stay beneath my shield, milady!" he gasped. Another of Edwin's spells launched, pale and cold light. I tried again to fight. I could see the man's strength, despite a sword in as ill condition as his armour. Streams of acid hissed, pouring down his shield. The black chasm between the monster's powerful jaws seemed to enlarge. The stranger wouldn't budge.
The sounds of Shar-Teel's steel grew closer. She, too, drove the creature she fought; ignoring the acid, protected by Tenhammer's armour, she forced it back and back. Imoen's missiles hit their spots.
Two monsters too near. The stranger finally allowed the creature some distance to the clearer ground; Imoen and Garrick emerged from the trees and made further castings. I lunged for a fleshy point between its shieldings—Varscona's cold sunk in. It maddened the creature only; but I heard Shar-Teel's monster fall like a giant oak, her sword in its head, spells upon its thick shell.
Imoen advanced, gleefully firing her bow. "Gotcha good." The monster we fought whirled; an arrow sprouted from its eye. The stranger blocked its flailing pincers, stabbed it; Varscona and Shar-Teel, the same. Violently green blood coated it, staining the white of its armoured underbelly. It screamed loudly.
"It calls—" the stranger said. Imoen shouted another spell, missiles aimed at that screaming mouth. She cried out.
A third creature rising. Imoen down, her head hitting a rock. The stranger and I rushed to it:
"Harl'il'cik!" Viconia's power overcoming it. A moment long enough for us to start to kill it. Shar-Teel came, having killed the other—two down. It raised itself, flailing with pincers at twice the speed as before; acid burned my cheek. I saw the stranger's shield protecting us. He distracted it; Shar-Teel leaped to its neck, balanced herself, and neatly plunged her sword into what passed for its brain. We watched for another earthquake, but this time the ground moved no more.
"Uurgh." Imoen raised her head, patting at a small cut on her forehead. "'S hard to dodge in these stupid robes. Nice one, Vic."
"Bloody ankhegs." Shar-Teel was quick to wipe the acid from her blade, plucking leaves from a tree.
Ankhegs. The farmer's underground friend. I'd imagined them to be...smaller. The three monsters lay still.
I looked at our interloper, noting the detail of his appearance for the first time: as shabby as he had seemed at first glance, a round-cheeked and blond young man with the remnants of pimples on his face. His armour was so badly corroded and damaged that it barely deserved the name, his shield likewise battered and partly melted. He stared at us in return; I remembered that Shar-Teel had replaced several bandit scalps to hang from her belt. Then he saluted.
"Halt! Be you friend or foe!"
"I think we count as 'friend', circumstances and all, and you might've noticed we're kind of already halted." Imoen sat up slowly, passing her arm across her forehead and leaving streaks of blood behind on her robe's sleeves. I thought of healing her, as soon as we had a chance. I rubbed at the acid upon me, allowing a little effort to have the pain and scarring begin to fade.
"(Pardon me? We have just made strategic use of your pathetic unsolicited assistance in our battle. Is this simian fool, madman, or both for the grand prize of my ever-unravelling sanity among these chimps?)"
"Allow me to aid you, maid—" He held out a hand for Imoen, but she stood herself.
"No problem. Who are you?"
He saluted again. "I am Ajantis! Squire-paladin of the Order of the Most Radiant Heart, servant to Helm, crusader against bandits, son of the noble family of do you travel with a drow?" he gasped; Viconia had emerged from the cover of the trees, her hood blown back by the wind.
He was a paladin: a good and noble divine knight. Viconia is also good at her occupation.
"How strange, I don't believe I've heard of that family." Edwin inspected his nails with an expression of deep ennui. "Let me guess, you tatterdemalion tin-can. Shall we move straight toward demonstrating magic's supremacy over your pitiful efforts to punish us for harbouring the epitome of all delightful (and depraved, I'm sure very depraved) evil?"
I entered the conversation quickly. "She abandoned her evil underworld ways and fled to the world above to do good deeds and write pseudo-philosophical journal entries. Haven't you heard of Drizzt Do'Urden?"
"Rivvil, I will whip you bloody." Viconia directed a malevolently red glare at me.
Ajantis stared dubiously at her. "Are you claiming she is Drizzt under the influence of one of those girdles of gender transformation? I don't see any scim—"
"Not really. Just trust us," I said. Viconia hissed, tossing her pale hair. "We've been—crusading—after bandits too. Wrecked their eastern camp and found there's a hive of them in a secret iron mine in the Cloakwood prepared to conclude their plans for an illicit iron monopoly in the Sword Coast."
"It sounds a noble though an unlikely quest." Ajantis looked contemplative. "The people of this village also suffer. The only son of Farmer Brun was today buried." He made a sweeping gesture to the area of cleared earth the villagers had gathered around. "His body was found in the depths of the ankheg lair. Such is the explanation for my disgraceful appearance: the creatures' potent acid.
"The impoverished fishermen have also brought a tale to me of an evil witch visiting persecutions upon them. I seek fellow adventurers with whom to vanquish her and restore prosp..."
We don't have time.
"Ending a mine's bigger than a few fishers," I said. "Your witch will keep. Do you want to come with us?"
He frowned as though in deep thought. "I do not intend to doubt your word, lady, but I would like to know what proofs you..."
"We've their letters. We'll buy you new armour when we drop them with a messenger at the Inn—can we afford that, Shar-Teel?"
She scowled. "Yes." One more warrior; stronger than me. I did not wish, though, to meet his pale eyes.
"I am willing, then," Ajantis said.
Garrick strummed an elaborate chord. "We are surely at the beginning of an epic tale, sir knight! Lead on."
"I may take your head someday, male. Keep up if you can."
Shar-Teel set a punishing pace; a band of hobgoblins, interrupting us. Together—I stood in the back with my bow—we beat them.
I am better than I used to be. It's easier to aim to kill. It had better be enough to kill Anchev.
There is a paradox in the name of hobgoblins: Hearth, Hob, Goblin of the House, Hob Goblin. Yet nothing further from friendly housekeeping could be imagined. A shining red-gold ring rests in Imoen's hands.
We're tired, but we'll make the Friendly Arm. Easily.
We did not even rest in the Inn, camping a few hours out from it once our business was completed, keeping our journey as quick as possible. Horses are useless in the Cloakwood, so I know we have a chance ahead of any surviving bandits as long as we keep the pace. Unless, teleportation magic. (The Mirrorshades do not have anything; we did check.)
It is a vast castle; an old temple of Bhaal. Gorion's friends are certainly no longer there. Ajantis has his plate armour and longsword new; Shar-Teel paid for Tenhammer's full plate to be properly fitted for her, and passed Ajantis Tenhammer's shield to boot. Potions; powerful bullets and arrows; Gellana Mirrorshade's healing for Garrick; on Edwin's initiative, a new set of orange robes (orange? I do not mean just the colour's effect on his complexion) embroidered heavily in gold thread, premade for someone slightly more muscular in build than him. Supplies. As prepared as we can be for murder. (Doubting the practicality of Edwin's sartorial tastes. Then again, I'm not one to talk.)
Garrick sung outside the Inn, gaining a few coppers; he asked Imoen and I to juggle or dance or perform her magic tricks with him, as we've done before. Of course we refused, for no time to spare.
Our first experience of the mighty Cloakwood was a band of predatory tasloi; one dropped a cloak that I now wear, since Garrick divined that it protects against magical detection of unseen movement. A useful item to possess in order to stab Anchev in the back. It matches the description of a cloak an old dwarf in Beregost had stolen; but we are a long way from Beregost.
Then there were three spiders. Viconia screamed about the vengeance of Lloth falling upon her, useless in the battle. A teleporting spider leapt on Imoen and me, my Varscona stabbing desperately at its head. I killed it, the other two falling to Shar-Teel and Ajantis. Viconia still shook after the battle was done, her eyes blank and unseeing, needing to be chased after in her wild, illogical running away. Imoen's comfort may not have been enough, but:
"If profit on a drow head outstrips your use in battle, Sharran, I'll add the first to other bounties." Shar-Teel walked on; Viconia followed her. The next time the spiders attacked, she hit with her sling, a priestess victorious.
We passed near a hunting lodge owned by a man I knew, a little: Aldeth Sashenstar. He recognised me and called me the Grand Duke's daughter; he wore a very tacky diamond ring on his left little finger, a stone the size of an eyeball. He asked Ajantis for help against druids, but I made Sashenstar admit he had killed one of their number; that was enough to allow our paladin to comply with our plans. Not as strong, quick, or even as quick-thinking as Shar-Teel, but the knight is useful. A healer, too.
A diamond the size of an eyeball joins the hidden pocket in Imoen's spell component pouch.
More spiders. We crossed over a bridge—perhaps there was a distant whistling, but no creature emerged to attack us. We were obliged to battle dreadwolves for a place to rest, near to the remains of a wooden hut far older than Sashenstar's. Compared to a vampiric wolf...they were still scary.
Again, Shar-Teel tried with me, while the others rested, when my limbs were so tired I might as well have been boneless, making pitiful attempts at learning to use a sword. I woke black with bruises.
The watcher above—though she would have preferred to be called, The lady, or something similarly respectful—continued the role of her named occupation. The forests thickened; the canopy of trees gave heavy shadows to the ground, the leaves deep green, oak nuts fecund, borne in heavy clusters by high branches.
The group's female leader marched not far from the quick, and quiet, girl in front; that one sometimes looked above her head in case of higher-placed traps, but had naturally failed to observe the observer. The orange-clad young man wrestled yet again with his elaborate and impractical clothing; which was becoming progressively less elaborate. The priestess picked her way slowly through the forest at the group's rear, and the fair-singing boy stood close to his recent-made friend; he did not touch the harp he carried, and nervously twitched upon occasion.
It was the endearingly foolish squire who was the true focus of her attention, and at this time he did not look up. His new plate shone in a way he would surely be proud of, like the jackdaw was proud of collecting silver to its nest. How irritated the boy would be if she told him such a comparison; but she did not seem to be bound by the standards of his Helm, not that such technicalities were of import. The belief at least kept him well behaved and gave him a feeling of usefulness. Nourishing a healthy sense of self-esteem in the young and unsophisticated was so important.
The girl with the pale pink hair lost a tin platter carelessly fastened to her pack, and spent a cantrip to retrieve it from the ground; the lady rather approved of magic in general. A mixed group—marching in the direction of further danger, no doubt, even if they had chosen to leave the man who had helped to kill a druid to his fate—
The watcher sighed.
Spiders and ettercaps! None of them speaking, it is a great relief. The forest grows thicker; I walk ahead to check for the web traps, and run back behind Shar-Teel and Ajantis when the creatures who set the trap inevitably see us coming. I will observe that Edwin's new robes have already met with a series of petty disasters, only one of which could possibly have been Imoen's fault.
I-sense-evil-in-this-party-but-also-some-good, Ajantis rabbits on. Well, he jolly well ought to, at least with Imoen and Garrick. Something in me wants to cheer Edwin on at what he says in return to all that...probably the same reason why I don't wish to think about Ajantis' paladin's nobility.
Paladin's nobility, ha. I swear he attempted to sneakily save bits of our meal last night, shuffling some of the candied nuts Imoen bought (or didn't buy) off into one of his waist-pouches when he thought nobody was looking.
We came to the smell of salt in the air, crossing a stream that fed into the Sea of Swords, the sound of crashing waves not far in the distance.
There was a boy. Shar-Teel had her hand on her sword, although he was only standing there, unconcealed.
"Please, let me speak! Before you attack."
"Of course on my honour as a squire we shall hear you out!" Ajantis said, before any of the rest of us could speak.
"Thank you!" the boy sobbed, the tears easy to hear in his voice. "Thank you so much for listening. It's my brother, you see, he went into the Cloakwood, he said to me to wait for him here...
It sounds foolish, but we found the sword Spider's Bane—we thought we could be heroes of the Cloakwood! the boy's story ran. My brother hasn't returned yet...but it's been more than a sevenday, and...my mother would be so shattered if...
"One less foolish male in the world," Shar-Teel sneered; Viconia stood ready to back her up. "Move on."
"Then I am sorry...I am sorry for troubling you..." the boy sniffed.
"This is morally abhorrent! I will aid you in Helm's name!" Ajantis jumped in. He blocked Shar-Teel's path, standing in front of her:
"I remain because I feel it my responsibility to guard the young ladies from your evil path," he lectured. I took a step away from him. "We will find your brother, lad!"
"Yeah, I'm with the paladin," Imoen said. "Hey, maybe if he killed a druid too, we wouldn't have to feel guilty about abandoning him either..."
Garrick spoke up, his voice pitched forcefully, compelling attention. "Spider's Bane is a legendary weapon originally forged by Yeslan the Anvil of the Orothiar dwarves in the Cloakwood," he recited. "It was presented to the Grand Dukes of Baldur's Gate in a ceremony intended to foster goodwill and was wielded by them for a century. The blade was then ironically lost in a fight against ettercaps and spiders that caused the death of the Grand Duke Arragar Belt, as told in the Baldurian Century Saga. It is a weighty two-handed sword enchanted to strike true, and protects the wielder from all magics that would imprison them against movement."
Shar-Teel and Ajantis glared at each other, neither budging. At last she turned her head and spat upon the ground.
"Very well. Witch."
"Coloured lights. Know that one? When we find the body, send up some. We won't drag it back here."
"My companion means if," Ajantis quickly said to the boy. "If we find him alive, the witch can send white lights...I think that is possible? I know little of magic. Then it shall be my duty to return him."
Imoen stood near the boy. I saw her hand moving; she'd the diamond, releasing it to his cloak. A much better place for it.
"Good luck, lad," she said.
"Please search quickly. His name is Chelak. I saw him going in that direction. Be careful."
"I feel Helm blesses this endeavour." Ajantis laid a hand briefly on the boy's shoulder. "We shall find Chelak."
"Then haste, boy," Shar-Teel said. "And raising false hopes is as foul an action as any," she added quietly. "Skie, start looking."
The light glistened on a trap not a hand's span from Ajantis.
Webbing caught us, and three huge spiders raced in. If it were not for Viconia's drow's-immunity...
"March ahead, halfwit."
There is a marking on the bandits' map that resembles a rough spider; the path illustrated is north-west to reach a stream, avoiding that region. I watched for spider-web traps; the shadows of evening deepened.
"That's three you've managed to disarm in fifty steps," Shar-Teel said. "Hunt for where they're thicker." She tapped a tree; some of its branches seemed torn and ragged, and on closer inspection I saw marks on the wood. "See this, city brat? I'm no ranger, but this was cut by a sword. Stupid use of a decent blade. We're closer."
"We shall, as the poor young boy so attempted, find the foul lair of the creatures and purge this evil before we dare rest," Ajantis declared. Edwin glared, but a trailing gold thread of his was caught upon a tree branch; cursing under his breath, he untangled the costume.
Viconia sniffed the air. "I note the stench of surface-orbben, even stronger to the east. Praise Shar's might in sparing us from the spider queen's vengeance."
"Grant praise instead to Helm," Ajantis said. "His justice and goodness are to the foul Shar as potent midday to withering dusk—"
"Silence, ust'dan! The divine Shar has governed the party since the day I joined. She is a goddess of conviction and purpose." Viconia said.
"Your evil temptation may have weakened the vulnerable of this party, but it is clear Helm has sent me to place it upon the right path and redeem it of all that is dark!"
"Darkness comes to all things. Yield to her, and Shar shall spare you countless torments!"
"The stench of evil clings to you in the most vile manner. Helm give me strength against this vile heretic!" Ajantis was not trying to conceal his yelling; Viconia's voice had also risen high.
"In the Underdark you would be fodder for the Kuo Toa, iblith!"
"In the name of Helm you would be purged, evil one!"
"If you wish to die, surface scum, I am pleased to assist!"
"By Helm, I sm—!"
Shar-Teel had suddenly turned; punched Viconia to the ground; elbowed Ajantis tightly against a tree with her other hand, and prisoned him there.
"...smite...you..." he wheezed.
"The day I meet a god who gives a crap is the day I pick up knitting needles," she said. "Your impudence will get you killed, boy."
"Don't kill him!" Garrick and I joined Imoen in chorus. Edwin rolled his eyes.
"You are ilharess, matron to this party," Viconia breathed, nursing a bleeding nose. "We shall obey."
Shar-Teel's evil scowl only deepened. "Don't plaster your lips to my arse and pretend you wouldn't stab us in the back."
"One does what lies in one's own interests." Viconia smiled, I thought, beneath her hand.
"I—do—not accept your leadership." Ajantis struggled to say.
She released him. "Asking for my sword ticking your innards, boy?" She left her back open, her head turned from him; Ajantis could have attacked then, gained the advantage he'd need by stabbing her in the back. But her contempt was right. "Waste of my time. Get ahead with those traps, Skie."
Faint whispers continued from the rear of the party:
"...someone's headed to the Wall of the Permanently Cranky...Helm...saved from the Underdark...Shar...sponsored a squire...vile unbeliever...crude freethinker..."
"I think they're really starting to bond," I whispered to Imoen.
There were, of course, spiders. Including the ones with swords for legs. Anchev is probably worse.
Spider blood and fluid coated us; Imoen least thanks to quick tree-climbing, Shar-Teel's and Ajantis' armour utterly black with the substance. A teleporting spider tried to tear through the spellcasters. So many antidotes needed.
Seven more web-traps; we saw the structure, covered with grey webs, slightly too regular in shape to be natural. Rotting wood and vegetation were moulded together into a rough, thick dome. The only visible entrance to it was a small, dark hole set on low ground. It would have been easy to miss if not for the rough path that seemed to lead to it, turned-over dirt and faint brown-coloured stains, as though many things had been dragged along it and inside that waiting mouth.
"Widen it with that blade of yours, girl."
"The stench of evil clings to that sword in a most vile manner," Ajantis said.
Varscona's enchantment; I stood back from the webbing and let the sword cut through the thin strands. Aberration-web; Shar's-sword. When it was wide enough for Shar-Teel and Ajantis to get through we were ready.
"Got antidote potions, everyone?" Imoen said determinedly. "Let's squash us some bugs."
"Arachnids. (And I know she's plagiarising from somewhere.) Curse these damned robes!" Edwin called in place of a battlecry.
It was dark; my ring could not disguise that fact. Shar-Teel burst through, Ajantis not far behind:
"Helm, give me strength!"
That certainly got the enemies' attention. Sword spiders, from ceiling and walls, leaping for us. A swarming mass. In the centre of that gloom was a bloated pile of...something. It spoke, a horrible cracking half-noise from the middle of all that distorted flesh:
"...ssspiders...kill them all..."
I stood with the casters; an ettercap, breaking past Shar-Teel, rushed for them.
"Darn stupid torn-up cloak—" I heard Imoen muttering; Edwin and Garrick hit the ettercap at the same time, their spells flaring bright red on its hide. I stabbed at it:
(Shar-Teel Sarevok Damon kill)
It moved. Heavy claws swung my way, the creature's nails coated in grime; I twisted back.
"Shar—" My ettercap cringed, but did not fall at Viconia's cry. A brief enough distraction; Varscona opened its shoulder, blood that iced into a hundred crystals at the very point the blade struck. A giant spider joined it.
Of course Imoen and the paladin would never leave the prospect of a missing brother. The ettercap's claws raced down my shoulder, and the pain was almost enough to run from. The wound burned; and that is the sign of poison, a thousand green darts striking in the bloodstream. With my right hand I took the flask from my belt, a practiced move, and gulped desperately; the poison continues to hurt, and you wonder if the antidote has failed and you will die after all.
The ettercap slashed again; I ducked away. Just an ettercap. Just one ettercap. Viconia laughed softly, and behind the spider she brought down a reddened hand on it, a reversal of healing. It lashed out its legs in pain. Then she darted behind me; the spider's sharp legs caught on my sleeve, though did not pierce.
...my sspiders—to my prissson— The bloated thing had, perhaps, once been female. Its skin was underground-pale in its folds of flesh; its features sunk into its face like unformed clay.
I parried the next strike of the ettercap's claws. Its hands moved up; that was an opening, and I stabbed into its chest. It squealed; bled that dark stuff. Only an ettercap. Bleeding badly; it fell. Varscona swept to the spiders around it.
Shar-Teel and Ajantis fought a row of the spiders with metallic-coloured legs, vicious swords. Edwin cast again, a longer spell this time. Spiders—all their limbs—Varscona's ice across them hurt them. Kill them to pass. Edwin's spell swept over me, equally cold; and one fled. That gave Varscona a chance to put down one spider, slashing across its eight black eyes and down. Imoen cast, missiles that burned a sword spider; and then there was only one standing between Shar-Teel and that bloated figure in the centre of the cave. Ajantis caught sword-legs on his shield.
One more spider; block it. I spun away from the fangs. Shar-Teel was nearly... Her sword swept through the sword spider's body.
The figure spoke directly to her. "Beware, human...I warned...you cannot sslay—"
A sense of something in the air like a trap set by magic; Ajantis crying something. I'd my own chance to bring the sword's point under the thorax of the spider I fought—try to kill it—
Shar-Teel didn't hesitate. She moved, and that heavy blade would have bisected the thing. But everything went white. It all happened at once: pale bars that came into existence around the bloated woman; Shar-Teel's body flying backwards; the clang, her armour hitting the wall, the second noise when she fell to the ground and didn't move. There was white fog that crossed the ground of the cavern, encompassing our calves and feet, and the dead creatures within it began to twitch.
The ettercap I had killed rose. Its eyes glowed white and its body was coated with the fog's paleness. Dead sword spiders slowly returned to their legs around Shar-Teel's body. Ajantis went to her, and his shield forced one away from biting her; but they came even though he slashed at them.
Varscona sliced through the bodies, and iced with cold they came ever onward. Already dead.
"...My prissson, foolsss. Jon thought it mercy to be ssso easssy, you sssee..."
The white bars were rooted around the prisoner, from ground to roof of the cavern. They spared her from death at our hands, and in the cage she waited for us to die.
Edwin cast; missiles from his hands burned the flesh of the dead ettercap before me, and did nothing at all. Garrick's song was a dirge, the mourning for us— The ettercap's cold claws, the spider's carved fangs, lurched slowly to my skin. I moved aside, but sooner or later they would find. The fog lay steady over the ground.
"It's a lock," she repeated. "It's a lock. It's a lock. And I'm going to pick it."
Varscona left lines of ice over the ettercap's dead flesh. I spun away from the spiders once more. Imoen chanted: she summoned a large pink hand.
"(A simple cantrip! —I would strategically retreat—)" Edwin muttered. Ajantis cried out, defending Shar-Teel, blood on his leg below an armour-joint. The dead could easily make alive things bleed.
Imoen's mage's hand reached to the ceiling of the cave. It shook the roof; just above the bars.
"'S changed, y'see, since the casting," she whispered. "Anchored to where the ground used to be. I'm picking it." Her hand moved the ceiling; the bars of the prison shook—
I could only try to defend against the spiders. The pink hand set rocks shaking, the cave ceiling unstable. Edwin also cast:
"(A pathetic apprentice's cantrip! My own are far more effective—)"
His mage hand was reddish, and slightly larger than Imoen's. It did the same: above and shaking the white bars, and then the rocks came crashing to the ground—
Ajantis braced himself against the wall and by Shar-Teel. The casters were near the entrance of the cave, away from the worst of it; rocks fell and smashed into the creatures. I stepped back; a pointed stone fell to crush the skull of the ettercap I fought, which still stood. It was moving still; the fog held—
There was no clear shot, but we held magical arrows—sheathe Varscona, draw bow. She had to be killed.
Three arrows through the falling rocks, seeking aim; on the third the body began to convulse, an arrow spread with poison in its own right.
"That's it," Imoen said. "Keys to the spell—"
I saw the fog melt like mist. Only dead in here with us, and we lived. Ajantis bent down and methodically cast upon Shar-Teel, healing her by paladin's hands.
Imoen stepped over the fallen rocks, nimble as a fox; I heard her pained cry.
"He's...I think he's here..."
A large two-handed sword that shimmered with enchantment. A heavy silver ring engraved by elaborate runic design. An opal-studded bracelet. Four copper pieces. The body of a boy with green-coloured lips, spiderweb covering it...
For a moment, unbidden, a sight half a dream rose before the eyes; blue hands that drained poison instead of red hands that froze enemies as the dead. But that was gone. Tiber's brother was dead.
Blood-red light rose high into the air outside the spider cave, Imoen's voice hoarse and low.
Almost halfway. The map shows the line of a river to follow, shows a bridge to bypass, sketched out between cave-like markings of landscape. To the north-west to circuit thick forest and deeper gorge; to the east along the river and another bridge. Then further to the east as the Chionthar continues; and there the Cloakwood Mines are marked. We have traversed the land from the west of the Friendly Arm, up to the rocky promontory to the sea; have reached the river where once more the trees grow thickly and horses cannot pass for that reason rather than the harsh pebbles of the cliffs of the Sea of Swords. It is easy to decipher the route; we have killed four spiders today. It will not be long before we reach the mines of Sarevok Anchev.
We walked, following the stream; the forest thickened, further north, and Viconia lowered her hood to walk in the shade, her pale hair free to blow in the wind. A hostile brown bear Shar-Teel and Ajantis fought; many arrows and spells. We rested when we could, and hurried on:
A man sat below a tree in dappled sunlight, wearing fine brown and green cloth that did not quite blend into the forest. A second man, armoured, beside him; who was much less important. Next to the man on the grass glittered a silver flute, and a knife flashed between his hands, an arrow forming slowly out of the shape of a stick. It was as though we had entered into a romance tale.
I do not need to say I ran to him; flung myself into his arms.
"Oh, Eldoth, I just knew you'd come to find me!"
"Indeed. I assure you I've hardly slept since your...unfortunate abduction." Thankfully he looked well enough; he had scarcely changed from the last time we had bid each other farewell, little knowing so much would happen. "What in all the planes have you done to yourself? You resemble a deranged druid." I remembered, ashamed, the changes in my own appearance: the hair-dye gradually growing out, dirty, bloodstained, foul-smelling. I drew back.
"I had to—Eldoth, so much has happened—Gorion and iron mine and killing Sarevok Anchev and..."
"Skie, do attempt to be comprehensible. Women," he remarked aside to the man beside him. "While you gather your thoughts: this humble woodsman names himself Peter the North."
"Swallowed a magical compass as a lad. M' stomach hurts when I'm facing the wrong direction." He burped. "I investigate subterranean trees, all right? If you don't mind I'll be going now."
A clang: Shar-Teel, drawing upon Eldoth and his friend? Just because she hates most (all) men—
"I have never seen a subterranean tree, and I ought to know," Viconia said, standing beside her.
"You're no druid. Nice armour," Shar-Teel said to the man. "What do you know about—"
"Help me!" Peter the North called quickly to Eldoth. "I gave you that wyvern poison, I—"
"Allow us to work this out," Eldoth said, placing an arm about the man's shoulders. "Peter; have you seen these gentlemen and gentlewomen before?"
"No. There's no sense in attempting the ruse any more is there? I was already ready to avenge myself upon your blackmail. I am training wyverns to serve as guards for the Iron Throne and I look forward to placating them with meat. Yours!" He scrambled with a whistle he held about his neck. "My pets—" He brought it to his mouth. A dull thump sounded an instant after the instrument's shrill noise.
"That wyvern poison is terribly efficient, really." Eldoth withdrew his arrow from the back of Peter the North's neck as the subterranean woodsman crumpled to the grass.
"You killed him! Just like that—" Imoen cried. Peter the North had been Iron Throne; had admitted it. Eldoth had to.
"Perhaps the tedious recriminations for aiding you may wait, my dear young girl? His so-called pets—"
Three wyverns broke through the trees. Wyverns in stories are five times or more the size of a human; these were only Imoen's height, slightly taller than me.
I drew Varscona and rushed into fighting them, Shar-Teel in front of me.
Eldoth, chanting something. His magic would help; he sung his words for some time, his low voice casting its spell.
The middle wyvern turned into a small toad. Shar-Teel crushed it with the heel of her boot; she turned to the second wyvern, and I fought beside her.
("Magic tricks from a mere musician! I may better—")
Edwin's acid arrow hit the wyvern's head, narrowly missing its eye; it howled. Garrick, almost at the same time, released his own spell, two pink bolts striking quickly. Ajantis shielded Shar-Teel and me; a pattern we'd fought before, melee and casters. Good for confronting the Iron Throne. Imoen ran close to the fight; her fire spell burned from her hands, and then she raced back quickly in case of reprisal. Shar-Teel finally felled the wyvern with a thick wound to its neck.
One wyvern left; its tail lashed out at me, and I did not have time to duck. The poisoned spike sunk in; the last antidote potion on my belt. Eldoth helped to save us again—like Edwin, the acid arrow spell, eating into the wyvern's crumbling flesh; a few more spells and it also fell.
I reached back for Eldoth's hand. "Thanks, everyone! I'd like you all to meet my fiancé Eldoth." As if formal introductions would work in such a setting. Well, the wyverns were gone; for a moment we weren't being attacked, cleaning up after the battle. Ajantis' hand glowed a faint blue, healing himself. "Eldoth, I know this is all so sudden, I promise I'll explain properly—I'd like you to meet my friends," I said.
"I shall be delighted."
"This is Imoen. She's my best friend—and, of course, a Great and Terrible Pink Wizardess." Imoen smiled back at both Eldoth and me. "This is Garrick; he's a bard, like you. This is Edwin-the-greatest-wizard-on-Faerun."
"(She finally realises my true place!—Wait, Faerun only? There are other continents—) Good day, bard," Edwin commented.
"This is our party leader, Shar-Teel."
"I dislike still more the turn our gender ratio takes. Annoy me and you're likely to find a sword in your guts." Shar-Teel bared her teeth at him.
"And—and here's Ajantis the paladin!" Ajantis can be trusted to be more polite. "And this is Viconia, a healer. She's very nice and very kind."
Viconia hissed. "The warnings I have given you of speaking of me so weakly involve the concepts 'flaying', 'to the bone', and 'extreme pain'." But she probably wouldn't really; I can run for longer than her anyway. I'd been worried that Eldoth might take some time to understand about Viconia, but I needn't have doubted him:
"Charmed to meet a woman of your dusky beauty," he told her.
"This male is not worth my breaking." Viconia sniffed.
We kept on—"Druids to the west; barking mad, if you'll pardon the lowest form of humour, much better to avoid them," Eldoth explained, and as we walked I told him everything.
"Yes, Skie, I abandoned the city not long after you, a trifling matter between gentlemen; your father cutting you off—I remain unable to believe, by the way, that you heard no previous rumours; a secret, concealed iron mine...that you and this—motley band—" Edwin, especially, glowered at that—"wish to raid."
"With you with us—Oh, Eldoth, it's so wonderful to see you again." He's told stories about fighting armies of gnolls, here in the Cloakwood forest on his own. He'll aid us easily.
"Or are you too weak, jaluk?" Viconia had wandered near to us, almost whispering her taunt to him. The ends of her hair blew into his face; in the shadow under the closely-grown trees.
He watched her, his eyes half-lidded. "I find nothing more tedious than idle contests of strength. Perhaps we shall talk over my Aluryath wine upon our rest, dark maiden. I've never met a lady such as you; I am desirous to know you better."
"Must I accept such arrogance from a male? On your knees," Viconia bantered.
"It surely has not escaped your notice, oh thorn of blackest jet, that such roles are reversed upon the surface?" Eldoth said.
"I thought so when I first fled the caverns of the Underdark. But Shar-Teel is proof that you surface dwellers alter the rightful order, and that traces of it remain," Viconia said.
"One wild boar does not make a herd," Eldoth said, somewhat softly.
"Boar? I have not heard that surface word," Viconia said.
"A hunted animal. Large, foul-smelling, tusked, and entirely uncouth." He doesn't know Shar-Teel properly yet.
"Ah; you intend to insult her. I quite prefer breaking men with some pretense to a spine." Viconia seemed to eye his back.
Eldoth lifted his muscled shoulders, posing for strength. "You would find my spine sufficiently erect for any eventuality."
"Perhaps you both have good points?" I tried.
"Skie, don't bother us right now," he said. Some more of Viconia's white hair fell into his face; he pushed it away. "You would possess charming hair if you'd a chance to brush it once in a while, coal-wench."
"That shadow on your face would make you appear virile—for a human—if only you'd the masculinity to enlarge it."
"I see your wit is sharp as your war-hammer, priestess."
"I see your tongue would be better exercised elsewhere...musician."
"Quiet," Shar-Teel ordered.
"And do stop monopolizing the time of our cleric," Edwin said coldly.
Eldoth had the good wine he promised, and although under the circumstances we could only sample it, it was a nice evening meal. Ajantis would not touch either of the two squirrels Shar-Teel had from her crossbow—there's a reason why squirrel meat isn't sold in the city, I admit—and did his trick of surreptitiously-shuffle-leftover-fruit-into-a-pouch yet again. Kleptomania does run in some noble families, although I haven't heard of it afflicting the Ilvastarrs. (I can give it up any time I want.) It must be such a trial for a paladin to have.
We rested; Eldoth shared Viconia's time at watch. I suppose the two of us would have been too distracted. Only a short distance to the Iron Throne. Eldoth, Eldoth, Eldoth, I should have been thinking; and yet I still longed for Sarevok's death.
"This forest has a sense of evil about it."
Giant wyverns burst out of the wood in front of us that morning, one with a cow still in its claws. Not babies. Huge. There wasn't even time to be afraid of them.
"Get back!" Shar-Teel stepped under cover of the trees; not out of fear, it was easy to tell—but because of delay. Eldoth, though, was still in the open; he looked up, started running—and they swooped down. Shar-Teel cursed.
"Bows!" she ordered. I need to save most of my good arrows for Anchev; having Eldoth to help us doesn't stop that fact. I aimed a flaming arrow, which blazed into its burning oil of impact in the wyvern's black flesh. The beady eyes of the giant beast started to turn on me.
Shar-Teel's crossbow and Viconia's bullets were next to hit. Eldoth was singing a spell; and then Edwin cast.
A fireball scorched the clearing. I was on the edge, able to roll away, only a part of my hair singed; poor Eldoth cried out.
"Ha! Take that! Your worthless lives end at my power!" Edwin cried jubilantly. Garrick and Imoen, too, had used spells; but neither seemed powerful next to that one. Eldoth was burned, I saw—and the wounded wyvern was almost upon him.
"I don't know how much longer I can bear the company of so many fools!" I was trying to help him; he sung, and a pale light gathered about his right hand. For an instant he lurched forward, thrust his hand toward the wyvern's side; and suddenly his skin was its normal light tan again. The creature howled. He ran for cover as the wyvern snapped at him, its flesh torn and the curve of its neck beginning to sink down.
"Gotcha!" It was an acid arrow from Imoen; the first wyvern finally collapsed. "What? I totally picked it up from a dead ettercap! And you should've given it to me anyway!"
The second. Ajantis fought it: knight against wyvern, his shield raised again, Shar-Teel's crossbow peppering it. It ripped into his armour with a claw, knocking him back. Shar-Teel swore again.
"Pathetic, boy," she was sneering, drawing her sword. She attacked, darting free of its claws; I used my bow, Imoen her fire spell. The wyvern kept screaming while we took it down; its barbed tail turned a tree into so much stray bark and leaves. Ajantis healed himself, rose, brought his sword against it again; Imoen sent two quick acid-arrows in a row, and it fell like a giant oak.
Edwin stepped forward to examine his handiwork. "Splendid," he said. He plucked a burned leaf from its branch to admire. "(Ah, now just wait until they're sleeping peacefully...then BOOM.)"
"Wizard, any nearby mine-guard would have seen that spell's light," Shar-Teel said.
"And need I remind you that injuring one's allies is hardly a display of competence?" Eldoth said. "Why, if it was not for the lovely..."
"Silence, male, my healing's reserved for our leader this day," Viconia said.
"Watch and learn, child. Watch and envy." Edwin gloated, quietly, to Imoen.
"Just wait 'till you see the one I got from the bandit camp, I bet it's even better," Imoen said serenely. "Y'know, Eddie, all this running around casting spells in the middle of battles, all the deadly danger and the assassins after Skie's head on a platter...it really makes you better at it, doesn't it? Sort of fixes the spells right into your brain."
"I don't take advice from tavern maids pretending to be hedgewizards."
"See, you've gone to casting the Fireball-which-you-should-really-share-because-sharing-is-nice, and I've gotten so much better you're afraid I'll catch up soon, and I reckon it's all the fighting that did it."
"As if—I have been tutored in the art of manipulating the Weave since before I could walk! I was sung lullabies listing spell components! (Eye of newt and toe of frogge, wool of bat and tongue of dogge...) Practiced the standard somatic movements since I could understand verbal instruction! Educated at the greatest academies of Thayvian magics! (It is a mild technicality preventing my long-awaited graduation.) You're deep in denial, child."
"And still: I'm definitely catching up. Or go look at the bard over there, he's got turn-wyverns-into-toads spells..."
"...Be quiet you insufferable simian!"
I was trying to read the map, while walking, I think. We should have been nearing the bridge; the forest was quiet around us. Green surrounded us in every direction, a mass of dark and bright leaves, each delicate and individual as the trees from whence they came and precious and alive. A line of a Sylvan poem flew to my lips: Green-mother, green-circle, all that is will be—Growth-mother, the tree-home, badmen come with iron and stone— Those were not the words I deciphered at Candlekeep.
There was nobody around. Only the trees, the grass, the water that fed them. Not only each leaf, each blade of grass impinged itself upon awareness: each growth-pattern, each root-path below the earth, each play of dappled light and shadow upon its thin stalk...
The giving of life. This was where life began; in the rich soil, clays and fragments of iron and packed roots and bodies, not dead but still-living, giving strength to all planted within, teeming with squirming, vital worms and ants and beetles travelling through, offering their services and nourishment. If only I had given more thought to these questions before.
Home. True-home, the acorns holding the life; defend the forest from all encroaching. It would be safe, here. Alone in the peaceful clearing, the awareness of the green constantly beating like a single heartbeat; alone, except for Oak-mother. I walked through the trees.
Further into the clearing waited a woman. A painted woman, not quite a real woman (but she was very real), brush-strokes capturing the lines of her hair, her face the image come to life, the marks of the paint-brush and even the painter's thumb visible on her body. Her canvas. I knew her; I used to see it almost every day of my life before Brilla had it moved to a dark corner of the attics, and even then I went up sometimes to look at it. Her painted black hair flew long and alive in the wind; and her slender arms moved from her side to beckon. She looked out of eyes as green as grass, sparkling by a dot of pale white paint in their centre.
'Mother' was her name. Her arms were not insubstantial, made three-dimensional. The same lines of paint covered both sides, the underside of her fingers identical to their surface.
Do you miss me, Skie, she sung.
The familiar portrait; living and breathing as she must have been, once. At least two heads taller than me, large enough to completely embrace—though I was told once that she was small like me in build. That was not thought of.
I never knew y/Of course I do.
In the forest where nobody could hurt anyone. In the arms of a mother, not one of several nurses. The trees were slowly singing, holding notes that could last a hundred years, creating steady and flawless harmonies with each other.
Do you want to know of your father?
Then a squirrel bit my rear.
"Ow!" Scampering off into the trees again, it was, a vivid red streak on the ground. There wasn't anyone here any more—yet my bow was drawn and ready. I'd dropped my pack. Something strange.
I hadn't looked behind, and there were those in the party who walked with natural silence. "Lil'alurl!" Viconia's hammer hit me. Disorientating, horribly aching; I turned to face her and she kept attacking. She did not know me; I ran.
Edwin was wandering about the trees.
"Yes, my fine beauty," he muttered to himself. "Observe my perfect form and immense prow—"
"Skie! Look out!"
An acid arrow flew narrowly above my head. Ajantis ran from the trees, a gauntleted hand raised.
"Red Wizard, if I must hurt you thus, learn the penalty of evil!" Magic missiles promptly flew into him; he gasped and punched Edwin in the face nonetheless. "For the glory of Helm!"
Edwin fell, bleeding. "Nottheface(nottheface)(nottthheee..." He slumped to the grass, seemingly unconscious. Ajantis had probably enjoyed that rather too much.
"What do you think you're doing?" I cried.
"That you ask demonstrates your freedom from it," Ajantis said. "It is a vile and frightening illusion of this evil creature of the forest! Aid me in this battle!"
"I too saw visions," he said quickly. "Through Helm's grace we are freed!"
Viconia had found us. Her sling began to whistle through the air; I leapt behind a tree, and Ajantis covered himself with his shield.
Garrick's voice commanded a storm of magic missiles.
"Ilharess? Ilharess, usstan—" Viconia had used the first word to refer to Shar-Teel; Matron, Matron I, if usstan was a corrupted amin— "Iblith! Uk zhah ussta'dalninuk!" Her body scorched, she began casting something, calling Shar's name.
"Friends!" Garrick called to us.
"Garrick? Garrick, we—" Viconia's command bound me to the ground. Ajantis was coming, too late; a slingshot hit me in the side of my head. There were stars.
"A charming knight; his lady's ribbon; a fair lance in the wood—" Garrick sung. I found myself able to raise my head; a stream of blood ran from my scalp.
"Abbil," she declared, looking at Garrick with the closest to a soft expression we had ever seen in her scarlet eyes. Then she shook her head as though to clear it. "Iblith! You deceive me! Tell me now, male, who must be executed for this?"
"A...hamadryad." Ajantis pronounced the word carefully. "I cannot see her now."
"The opposite direction from which she sent us! Once more unto the breach dear friends!" Garrick panted. Brave of him. We dashed into the trees beside him, Ajantis slow in his armour. A sense of unease grew around us, as though the forest had become suddenly dark, and yet it was still perfect daylight.
Garrick hummed a half-song, coarse but a melody of sorts. Focusing on that, the call of the forest was less apparent; he aided us, the song preserving our selves.
There was a clearing. A woman, all we could see within it at that distance, standing with arms raised, crying out—a green-haired woman with skin the colour of bark, not-the-mother-not-really, incredibly beautiful. She gestured before herself, shrieking incomprehensibly. An arrow whistled past her head; she raised her right hand, and a yell I recognized from Imoen sounded out. I ran to it.
Eldoth was covered in vines. Suspended between two trees, caught about the arms and legs, one wide strand winding ever thicker at his neck, most of his body already smothered by harsh green. Worse, Shar-Teel was advancing jerkily toward him, her sword ready.
Shouting, he struggled against the bonds and a pale beam came from his hands; the green woman howled in pain, and for another moment Shar-Teel's dreadful progress was delayed.
The painted woman's visage was suddenly laid over the green face, rippling, gradually solidifying.
A harsh, harped discord. The woman wavered, and was the hamadryad once again. Garrick. Varscona struck; the hamadryad's skin was as tough as wood. Some sap oozed from her.
"Help—" Imoen was being pulled into a muddy stream by the vines binding her. Her head barely remained above the water and thick dirt. "Teeth!" Magic seemed to crackle about her pink head. She screamed again. I saw Ajantis, rushing to her.
Fighting the hamadryad. Shar-Teel, turning back to defend her. I could not win there; a second stab to the attacker, and I ran as Shar-Teel's tutoring prescribed. Viconia's sling aimed behind us.
The spell holding Eldoth was finite. He was working himself free enough to cast again, labouring against being strangled. Eventually an acid arrow hit the hamadryad, just as Shar-Teel's sword stuck for an instant on a branch slightly above my head. Garrick's song seemed to grow louder, and Viconia had the hamadryad cry out again. Then she disappeared.
"Reveal yourself foul creature!" Ajantis fiercely scanned the horizon for the hamadryad; Imoen, gasping and muddy, was pulling herself up on the bank. I ran away from Shar-Teel.
The hamadryad was there. Ajantis' sword hit the riverbank; Imoen rolled out of its way. She called for help again.
A stroke of fortune. The path of Shar-Teel's blade paused; she lowered it, and shook her head. "Useless male dungheap!" she yelled, and went for Ajantis and Imoen.
I saw the hamadryad teleporting again to the far side of the clearing, her face and hands moving. A good arrow, to disrupt her spell. Again, Garrick's song guiding the aim. Eldoth's magic. It was some time before we could defeat her.
She teleported a last time, and fell prone to the grass. Dark sap flowed from her body.
Shar-Teel held Ajantis face-down in the mud, his sword discarded some distance away. Imoen slowly drew herself up, brushing dirt from her mage's robe, running a hand across her face and hair and smearing them dark brown.
"I think—I am myself once more—by Helm I cannot breathe—" Ajantis' armoured feet kicked frantically. Shar-Teel finally let him up.
"The fish had teeth the fish had teeth—" There was blood on Imoen's ankles.
"It's all right—" I said.
"No it's not, I lost the cloak—" She scrabbled back in the mud. "Really big teeth—"
"More likely some fragment of a thornbush," Ajantis scoffed.
"I know teeth when I see them! Feel them. I—" She tugged at the cloak's fabric, beginning to lift it from the mire. "Ha. So at least I—"
Two black, spiderlike pincers rose from the mud; and glowing white teeth shone not far below the water. It snapped upward and grasped half the cloak in the jagged pincers. A tearing sound seemed to echo between all the trees. Imoen stumbled back from the stream with a few ragged threads left in her hand. The thing with teeth disappeared once more.
Ajantis closed his mouth.
"Let us not speak of this again."
Viconia summoned us to the hamadryad's body; with some effort, she turned it over.
"It is not the first time she has been wounded." There were the dark marks of oozing sap where we had hurt her; but older, jagged marks also lined the dryad's brown skin. She looked like an old patchwork doll, shorn of life.
"I have heard sung that a dryad feels each stroke of the axe to her tree," Garrick said.
"How weak," Viconia said. "Your surface so-called 'forests' disgust me."
"She may bear the evil of the Iron Throne upon her body," Garrick said; and there was a large, dark scar to her lower back, a deep and roughly circular stain. A broken path led to it. "Perchance she would only that all humans would leave her alone..."
"And perchance she didn't bother to mention that!" I said. "She regenerated from those, let's make sure she's finally dead!" One dismembers things, and throws the parts into fire, in the stories.
She seemed almost like a human woman lying there, and we cut her to splinters. The broken parts of a person are so hard to tell apart after a certain point. Fingers, bits of arm, bits of leg, strands of grass-hair falling, dark sap everywhere. A fairly quick wood-chopping job, with all of us.
"Viconia, you saw your...matron in that illusion?" I said.
"The Matron Mother, yes. Ask me further of the Underdark only if you do not cherish your life."
"...What about you, Edwin?"
"(What? Ah!)" He jumped slightly; he had held a handkerchief over his face all day, hiding the marks of Ajantis' fist. "Oh, four expensive concubines, a deep marble bath filled with milk and rosepetals, three large jars of honey, and a sponge or two. What did you expect?"
"There speaks a virgin," Eldoth said.
"Women of my rank are difficult to find!" Edwin protested. "Watch your words when addressing me, you squalid little social climber, lest they be fed to you with the aid of a Fireball."
"My, my. A single Fireball marks a wizard of your rank? I have known lady wizards inclined to enchant themselves threefold with resistance to the element, and then to bathe in multiple castings...sometimes with a companion."
"That's nothing compared to the erotic uses of...Of a Shocking Grasp spell," Edwin said sulkily. "(Necessity is the mother of invention!)"
"No doubt that spares you from hirsute palms, considering all they say of apprentice wizards."
"Many Eltabban concubines would say otherwise. Once I met one who, well, if you understand what I mean..." Edwin's accompanying gesture, I suspect, would have been incomprehensible to anyone.
"How tedious. I was once—acquainted with a lord's daughter; half a paladin, and without her armour very f..."
Ajantis looked back; his cheeks and ears had turned bright pink. "You pair of degenerates shall watch your mouths around the fairer sex!"
"What did the dryad do to you?" I asked him.
He sighed. "A beautiful maiden of the forest trapped within the very mine we seek awaiting our rescue. With gentle purity," he added over a crass comment from Edwin.
"Males, I hear something," Viconia said. "Something that resembles humanoids in armour, marching as gracelessly as our own pimpled specimen."
"Back to the trees. Separate yourselves," Shar-Teel ordered. She drew Spider's Bane. "Boy, get ready."
I saw the six guards before they saw us where we waited in the shadows of the trees. They wore rather good chainmail, with a red and grey design on their sleeves and tabards that at a distance resembled Black Talon banners. All were armed equally with longswords and shields.
Then three sets of magical missiles hit the tall man in the lead, and Shar-Teel ran toward the band. One raised a bow, but Viconia dealt with him; for a moment, Shar-Teel fought the four, and then one was already dead and Ajantis and I had reached her.
I faced a strong man with iron-grey hair beneath his helmet. He struck quickly; blocking it almost winded me. Shar-Teel killed her second man; brushed his sword aside with her own, and stabbed into the flesh near his shoulder and down.
The man I fought let down his guard—or did not do so, for he showed loyalty to his masters. "Tam! Bear news!" he cried, and left his upper-right open. He did not block the left-handed blow with his shield, and Varscona sliced partway into his neck.
Tam ran—quite young, he was, I suppose younger than Eddard, hair the colour of Garrick's under lamplight; and I gave chase. Imoen's bow shot after him, but the trees were too close for a reliable target. I am equal to Imoen in swiftness of foot, and I do not wear either robes or plate. Tam ran as prey—his comrades died behind him; their last cries were audible—and I pursued. I heard him panting like a dog. Perhaps he felt horror at what was happening to his companions; or perhaps he was afraid only for himself. I gained on him until scarce three feet remained between us. Then he turned. His choices were to kill me quickly or risk a stab in the back; if he could achieve the first, he could make the message reach Sarevok.
He half-growled, half-snarled when he abruptly turned to attack; he surprised me though I understood what he had meant to do. I stepped back, quickly; and his wild swing made no connection.
That was the key, perhaps. In Shar-Teel's lessons and fights such as this. A rogue does not have to be as strong at her; a rogue dodges, a rogue waits for the opening, and it's that chance to—
He was slow and unwieldy, and about to bolt again. Lean out of his way; feint to his right; he cut me, but that was necessary. Varscona found the opening he left. His breath smelled like onions, and he looked surprised. He was already dead when a storm of magic crashed into his chest and burned a deep hole in his chainmail. Edwin. There was blood on my arm, but I could still move it; it hurt.
"The rest of them gone, Edwin?"
"Such gratitude!" he sneered. "Why, Edwin, thank you ever so much for saving my worthl...I mean, somewhat pathetic life," he mocked. "Why Edwin, now I see the true value of your magic aiding me upon this childish venture..."
"I killed him." Human eyes could still see nothing beyond the thick trees, but it was time to scout. After Viconia's healing. "Come on, let's go bury the bodies." The men would, at some point, be missed; we would attack soon, and there were many things in the Cloakwood. I was supposed to find out exactly what.
The forest was thickly grown here, and sometimes there was even the howl of distant wolves. The rest of the party was back-east-under-the-tall-reddish-tree, I could tell myself; but, unable to see them, it felt as if I was completely alone in the wood.
Which was good, since not meeting any guards was the idea of scouting. Shar-Teel had tried to teach me some things about forest battles. The wind rustled through the trees; where had Tam been running to? I searched for human-made noises.
There was a lake; or would it be more properly called a stream of the Chionthar? The water was wide and ran further than I could see, but the isle in its centre seemed even wider. The woods grew even more densely upon it; I could see nothing but green and brown wrapped tightly together.
The sounds of someone walking. I clambered up a tree, and hid; Damon used to say many things about hiding. Shadows are the canter's best friend. The sounds of metal came from a northward direction, though I could hardly see the guards through the trees; when they passed, I travelled there.
A wooden bridge stretched over the lake. The ropes holding it in place were thick and dark-coloured, and its planks stretched tautly; it looked, even, relatively new, as far as I could tell at that distance. Something of a hint. The thick trees blocked the view of the islet beyond it. Then there was a guard walking near it on the other side, and I fled for the shadows.
The guard was from the isle. There had to be some way to get a closer look, without walking up to that guarded bridge in the open. I followed the line of the lake. Looking carefully at the trees, I thought I could see the neat lines of fenceposts here and there between the leaves, a high shield against prying eyes. A second man-made bridge joined together two separate islets.
At last I found a part of the lake that seemed relatively narrow; and, better, a depression on the opposite side of the water, a crack to hide in. I could hear nothing. The studded leather armour was relatively light, and besides it I carried only Varscona; no born Baldurian does not know how to swim. Without splashing, I stepped into the cold and muddy water; nothing with teeth touched my ankles.
A few human voices were louder upon the other side. The depression took me close to Sarevok's walls; I found a crack to peer through, and tried to find what Shar-Teel needed to know.
The shadows are a canter's friend. It's not real magic, our ability to hide; but to melt into areas of obscurity and darkness is a trick of the mind as well as the body, dancing one's self into that dark weave of threads. It's the strongest shield of all. I waited; listened; and found just enough.
"The mine entrance is probably somewhere on the eastern side. Heavily fenced all the way around; one bridge; soldiers' barracks, I saw about twenty guards and a man in wizard's robes, there's probably more that that; some buildings that are probably for storage, there were sacks being carried out of them; and there are the slaves, of course," I said.
"Is it possible to bring down the fences?" Shar-Teel said.
"Fireball!" Edwin said happily.
"I think it would take a lot of those; they're large," I said. "And the water is quite deep; swimming with heavy armour could be..."
"I have trained for that," Ajantis said.
"Fireballs from the riverbank, then swim in, bring the rest of the fencing down, and attack... Might take too long," Shar-Teel said. "Better to rush the bridge if we have to."
Fire... That was a rogue's idea. Successful military attacks in history books can use stealth.
"Ajantis could put on a guard's armour," I said hesitantly. All I had seen were male, and he was the one in our group who looked most like the guards. "If he goes in, gets quickly into the fortification, leaves the gates open, sets something on fire as a distraction, and then we..."
"What about the slaves? We can't hurt them," Imoen said.
"Slavery is morally wrong and economically inefficient," I recited. "Also extremely illegal. The Iron Throne's slaves are more valuable than the slaves themselves might realise; Ajantis can fire one of the evil guards' buildings or whatever, and they'll probably evacuate the slaves themselves."
"I strongly dispute that," Edwin said. "One slave matters little, and the Iron Throne makes a sane decision to use such manual labour. (What else are slaves for?)"
"They have to use a lot of their resources kidnapping the slaves and keeping their operations a secret," I said, "and even when that's not necessary, paying guards to prevent slaves from escaping or rebellion and healers to ensure their ability to work is a huge expense..."
"Yes, but you ultimately save on gold since you don't have to pay slaves because they're slaves; you're missing the point yet again, my dear child. They're an untapped source of useful labour and items for trade that has given Thay some of its greatness."
"Shut up, Edwin," Imoen said.
"They also stop Thay and other nations from achieving things—they stifle innovation," I quoted. "Because with slaves it's easy to use 'buy more slaves' as the solution to a problem—"
"It's a solution that works," Edwin interjected. "Perhaps after a whipping or two."
"You will be silent about your abhorrent nation, Red Wizard," Ajantis said.
"But with freemen, the solution to the problem becomes, 'innovate the methods'. So you're less efficient," I said.
"And morally wrong, Skie," Imoen said.
"We are wizards and we craft new magics all the time. You are wrong; own your inferiority. Even a few slaves can be traded for wealth most of you westerners could hardly dream of; and looking at allocative efficiency, our system wherein they carry out labour wizards would scorn..."
"Close your mouth or I shall give the righteous smiting you richly deserve."
"Do be quiet, dunce; I am trying to give the girl a lesson in basic economics..."
"Very well; plans. I agree. Let us set something on fire, I purchased an Oil of Fiery Burning myself that I shall very generously lend you. I would suggest adding a slight fuse to it to escape the vicinity beforehand (these simians never manage to grasp the simplest of safety instructions)."
"Get area-effect spells and spells against enemy casters," Shar-Teel ordered. "We strike as soon as it is dark."
"Our destruction of this evil mine shall be just and noble. Despite the means."
"Right." Imoen dropped down to sit cross-legged under a wide-leaved tree. "Spellbooks!" She stared at her muddied, pink-bound pages, bringing her eyebrows close together above her eyes and screwing up her face in deep concentration. "I'll take magic missiles, Grease, that Stinking Cloud, a Mirror Image just in case..."
"Magic missiles? Larloch's (Which your inferior talents will never manage to cast) is a far better disruption to an enemy caster...and very enriching to oneself," Edwin corrected.
"I am in agreement," Eldoth said smoothly; white light played about his right hand.
Edwin seemed to gape at that.
"On second thoughts Magic Missile really becomes quite an effective spell for a wizard as gifted as myself; multiple projectiles and that sort of thing," he added. "Larloch's was really designed with the apprentice or dabbler in mind."
"You forget Charms," Garrick said rather loudly. "Charms to ensnare a person, to make them follow you out of love and gain despair..."
"Yes, yes, prepare your little cantrips, I require peace and quiet," Edwin said. "Innk nitre nab..."
"My goddess grants me precisely what I shall need," Viconia said. She laid a hand on my left arm; the one which usually wielded Varscona. "Xal oloth plynn mina. Let darkness prevail."
? —Flamerule, probably
This is a long tale; let it begin with a small squirrel. Any unexpected help is better than none...
Ajantis is a very silly boy, who could make much better use of the intelligence he has; he spends too much time polishing his sword (in a purely literal sense, of course) and too little time thinking for himself; and he sees evil everywhere he looks for it, which is to say everywhere he looks at all. But he is my silly boy, and fairly often a good boy; and it was long past time he stopped feeding her candied nuts on the sly and letting her watch from a distance and finally introduced her to his friends, Aquerna his companion squirrel thought. Before they did something very silly to him without her guidance. (They might also give her more candied nuts, but Aquerna preferred to think of matters beyond simple instinct.)
Pardon me; but what exactly are you strange people planning to do to my boy? she spoke out at last, aiming the projection of her words to all of their heads. (A squirrel's vocal cords were most limited.) Ajantis, dear, I told you that you simply must not keep me hidden any longer; one would almost think you were ashamed of your holy steed.
The orange—formerly red—lad had clearly abandoned all his defenses, openly prepared for hilarity; but the magical pink girl began to smile at Aquerna. She was quite good company for Aquerna's boy, a nice young lady really. The cruel lady who killed non-talking squirrels was glaring; she'd practical sense and battlefield experience that Ajantis could learn from, although no ethics at all. And then there was the bard of the pretty music and the bard of the depressing music, that green-haired girl who thought of killing, and the priestess.
"A squirrel! It is a squirrel!" the orange lad chortled. "(Perfect ammunition against the armour-brained ass!) Oh, paladin, do not tell me that your holy steed is forest vermin? Now I think of it, I do see the resemblance; it's somewhere in the vacant, animalistic expression and overly prominent teeth—"
"Aquerna is my...holy steed, yes," her boy admitted. "As it were. Or rather my due punishment for arrogance; I requested a noble warhorse that listened to my commands from my Lord Helm, at a time I see now that I was not worthy of the honour, and Aquerna... Mock, wizard, if you truly must."
"Shar would never treat her followers so," said the poor dark elf. She had terrible sorrow in her past, Aquerna mused in her presumptions; and despite her goddess, or perhaps because of her open avowal of that goddess, was no danger to her boy.
"Yes, my dear boy wasn't enthused at the prospect of you people meeting a squirrel for his holy steed," Aquerna said. "But I have my strengths even though I'm not technically a steed. Or even always holy. See, Ajantis, I've already made the orange lad completely defenceless with the way he's laughing at you. I like the pink girl; she's nice and she's magic."
"Yep, talking squirrel, that's some kind of magic all right," the pink girl said. "Awww! She's so cute!" Aquerna did not boast, but she knew she was still a young and smooth-furred squirrel; she was a little older than she looked, but humans had every right to notice her good grooming. It came from being a talking, intelligent squirrel steed-substitute. (Regrettably, the talking was her only unusual ability; but intelligent talking was a very useful ability.)
"As I have told you, Aquerna, we must face this Iron Throne and their evil mine..." Ajantis said.
"Not without my open help you will not," Aquerna said with all the telepathic firmness she could muster, and added an emphatic squeak in squirrel-talk. "Believe me, you'll need it. Remember that poor angry hamadryad?"
Ajantis' lips set thinly together. "I told you she must have been evil!" He succumbed to Aquerna, though; she had never known herself to be wrong before, after all. "I must do this—we must reach the Iron Throne somehow," he said. "You can hide in Imoen's pack, if you have to..."
Her boy was a terrible actor; although in his borrowed armour he did have some basic resemblance to the other guards Aquerna had seen from her forest perch, as much as most humans looked the same to her if she did not take careful stock of the colouring of their pelts. (She probably knew more about the Iron Throne's layout than even the spying girl; leaping from tree to tree and climbing fences was a much faster way to learn everything.) "Then do not say anything to them, Ajantis. The password to the gate guard is, Ravage. Say that your captain said to go straight to—Davvyorn, I believe the name is, probably a most horrid person. But keep your mouth shut unless you absolutely must speak." The boy sounded like the Waterdhavian noble he was born; it was a respectable accent, but he had no dramatic ability to disguise it in the least.
"Then I must do this; and I shall," Ajantis said.
Aquerna could not help but feel doom approaching, as she had before most of the previous important battles Ajantis had been previously involved in, such as his final squire's examination before his mission to the Sword Coast, or the horror of his ankheg quest. Yet she knew the boy wished to do his duties, and she could give him helpful advice. "I will be near, kit."
"And someday I will tell all of you the whole story about how I became the boy's favourite holy steed he's ever had..."
"The only holy steed I have ever had..."
"Yep, come into my pack! You're adorable!"
The warmth of the squirrel's tail brushed the back of her neck; that heat was welcome in the cold night, waiting for Ajantis. Skie was holding onto that fancy sword and staring unfixedly at the bridge looking horribly grim, as far as Imoen could make out in the dark. Those bandits—Skie wanted to kill the bloke in charge, Sarevok-whatever-he-was-like, and he'd done all those things trying to kill them and probably deserved it. But seeing Skie covered in all that blood back at the camp, and then watching her go all this way without complaining once, marching through all the tiredness and spiders and hamadryads wanting to murder him, wanting to ignore that nobleman and that boy... Made her almost miss the complain-all-the-time Skie. The thing with bows and spells, Imoen thought, was that you didn't have to get too close with 'em. You didn't have to stab people ridiculous numbers of times and walk out of bandit huts covered in torrents of blood dripping all over the place so's your best friends couldn't hardly recognise you.
But it was still Skie; the friend who'd come to Candlekeep and helped her nick Ulraunt's roses and run across every rooftop in the place and drink stolen wine. Splatting a few kobolds and bandits'd come easier to Imoen than to Skie, at first—hadn't ol' Puffguts and Mr G. told her all those adventuring tips? Skie'd taken to it too, yep, and they were just gonna splatter a few more evil-bandit-mine-poisoning types here. Never let a best friend down, no siree.
Imoen reached across, and touched Skie's hand where it held that sword; and her friend did acknowledge it, turning to meet Imoen's eyes, though she didn't smile back. The thing was, Imoen noticed, was that Skie's fingers above the hilt felt as cold as something dead.
Then there was an explosion of flaming death and Imoen's hand went free; she'd a spell to cast. It filled her mind and left no time for any other thought. Rotten egg, hand gesture, words, concentrate; she reached out into the air for the threads she needed and there they were, green things she had to plait together like they were strands of hair. She practiced cantrips every night even when she was so exhausted she could hardly see, and each time it was easier and easier to scoop out what she'd need to change the world. Heh, prob'ly Edwin the conjurer even felt the same, magic filaments that turned red-orange for him somewhere aboutwise, though when he reached into the woven threads his hand always went deeper. Never tell him though, he was still running scared of her.
Imoen's green cloud hit the other side of the bridge an instant after Edwin's fireball. Then Shar-Teel the Bloody charged across the bridge, and just when she reached the other side two guards had dodged the spells and attacked. There were screams from men:
"...damned fire! Hurry—"
Skie'd sheathed that sword and drawn her bow in a few quick movements (why take the sword out first, anyway?); her arrow hit and there was a cry. Imoen didn't like the light here, dark night and confusing fires; she chanted a second quick spell to put white light behind her eyes, and drew her bow as well. She could see perfectly as though it was day, and aimed quite well.
Then a rushing wind blew past them. Skie was down but rolling aside, bleeding a little over her armour—it was a man-shaped blur, running at inhuman speed—Imoen tried to shoot at him, aim for that moving target. His weapon glittered golden. Edwin screamed.
"If I must." Skie's evil boyfriend of evil; sounding resigned and even bored if anything, casting something himself. The instant Skie'd let slip he made her pay for drinks when they snuck out to meet with each other, Imoen'd known he'd be bad news. Well, maybe not quite known 'till she'd met the guy, Skie did make out like he was better-looking than Lathander and fought armies of gnolls for fun. Okay magician, but completely sleazy in the way he eyeballed Vic right in front of Skie—
The blur slowed to a normal fighter's pace. A brown-haired man, raising his gold-coloured morningstar above Edwin's head for a second hit. Imoen's arrow slammed into his left shoulder, and he twisted; he met Skie coming at him with her sword. The girl'd really tried hard with Shar-Teel, Imoen thought. She was blocking him, meeting every blow, and he was bleeding out from that arrowhole. Imoen aimed a second time.
"Cross the bridge now!" Skie screamed, and they ran for it—Garrick and Skie just ahead of Imoen, one arm-of-Edwin apiece..
Chanted spells in the air. Imoen darted back; suddenly there were more blurred men, Skie in the thick of three of 'em, Garrick stumbling aside with two more waiting for him, Edwin down. Another Cloud, Imoen tried; if she could aim like she'd done before, she'd...
No, not quite; it'd saved Garrick, not quite Skie, Imoen thought in despair; then—
Edwin, casting; "Drow! I...do not feel so well; heal me—" he called from the ground.
"You are well enough to cast, male!" Viconia struck out wildly with her mace, dancing through the battle; she'd not so much casting favour from her goddess as Branwen used to have.
Thank you Mystra, Lady of Magic— Imoen tried to think of the pretty goddess, the seven stars bound into her Weave.
"Viconia!" Skie nagged the dark elf, taking her place in the fight. Her dance might have been slightly stronger, if not so graceful—
Garrick was kneeling by the dead man with the morningstar, pulling off his boots. Imoen didn't have time to stare at that; "Speed—" she thought she heard his voice, crying into the smoke-seized wind behind the path of her bow. Shar-Teel fought beyond, and Imoen thought that she looked content. A uniformed guard that could only be Ajantis was fighting other guards, nearing her.
"Take the weapon too, jaluk—" Viconia's voice sounded. More chanting.
Skie cried out, clawing at her neck; acid-arrow. Yet the girl began to make the wound disappear almost as soon as it had appeared. Imoen searched beyond the fire for the casters, looking between ashes. She ran from a beam falling in a shower of sparks and thick smoke; it was hard to breathe.
Skie must've been working on her rogue's eye, Imoen thought hazily; she and Viconia attacked something invisible together, and when Imoen looked down she could see footprints in the ash after all. There was too much smoke blowing around them. Viconia held the gold morningstar in hand. Time to aim more arrows; magic-invisibility was invisibility-to-magic, the reasoning came to Imoen and made sense for the first time, so instead she aimed her bow—
Edwin finished the final syllable of a spell and five kobolds erupted out of thin air, chittering and jumping around, spreading out in front of them. One of them was butchered in seconds, and Imoen tried not to think about how hard the mine kobolds'd been for them to fight.
"Move!" Shar-Teel stood over a second body dressed in mage's robes; Ajantis swung his shield wildly against a swift-moving, brightly-dressed warrior. Then Shar-Teel moved herself, and decapitated the enemy; Spider's Bane was bright below the blood, and Imoen thought she could sense the magic of it in that moment. The head rolled along the ground. Imoen ran.
A narrow bridge joined the two isles, like Skie'd said. Viconia summoned a thin fog about them; Imoen could see the fire was keeping the guards busy. She saw one man in a shift who might have been a slave, struggling with a bucket of water. She felt guilt strike her; but that could be later, best she helped the kid now. When they got to the other side, Skie added a flaming arrow to her bow and stopped a few pursuers; four more guards waited. Three men, one woman, Imoen noticed hazily, and conjured (invoked) a magic missile at the woman in the lead. Skie's fiance took a green-tipped arrow and used that, out of the fancy bandit bow Shar-Teel hadn't said he could have...
They'd made it across. Garrick had run much too quickly, dancing from one foot to the other in the dead man's boots. Ajantis and Skie held off the guards, and Shar-Teel hacked through the bridge's ropes. There was a giant wooden structure, Imoen saw, with several large doors into it; she went back to using her bow, and the outnumbered guards were beaten. Gorion and Winthrop had both hated slavers.
The doors were locked from the inside. Imoen pointed to the one with the most well-trodden ground near it, and Skie went deep with her tools to twist it open. It led to a small and cramped area that could barely fit the group, with a large shelf taking up the entirety of the space on one of its walls.
...Kit? Do tell me you haven't stranded yourself— the voice echoed from behind Imoen. She reached up to pet the squirrel, reassuring herself that Aquerna was still there. Holy animal, yeah.
Ajantis looked momentarily confused; then came that particular look in his eyes, as though he too cast something not unlike infravision upon himself; the one that made Skie and Eldoth shy away. "I sense evil and corruption beyond that!"
Imoen helped Skie lever the shelf open, and there was the lift within the long shaft leading below. Guards ahead, and coughing and the clink of iron upon stone.
His side ached horrendously; the priestess was failing to look after him properly. Was it not necessary to protect his spellcasting talent? And if that weeping brat was right about her Sarevok to be found here, then he would be obliged to keep up with her. So irritating, the way she and the apprentice could run so quickly.
Edwin knew himself a great Red Wizard to be, and was proud of that noble station; he sought the power in this region. His researches now suggested Anchev was the one for him to return to Thay a hero. Skie would not kill the man (as if it were particularly likely a fool like her could kill...one of Those, if Sarevok Anchev was indeed one, but Edwin's intelligence was too great to leap to unwarranted conclusions from her descriptions); but since the bandit camp Edwin had rejoiced that the inferior band were serving his goals once again. (After taking advantage of his word against his will and stranding him with those unclean peasant bandits instead of escorting him to the nearest town as he had requested at the time, but Edwin Odesseiron had the power to repay their slights in a manner deserved.) Deny this Sarevok his goals in the guise of an Orange Wizard, and he would willingly accompany Edwin the Red Wizard to Thay. The lackeys were subconsciously learning at last.
Narrow mine walls, and groaning and scarred slaves. Edwin's rank in his homeland placed him far above the task of slave-supervising in the Odesseirons' various holdings in farming and crude crafting, and he was learning one of the reasons for this; the passageways were disgustingly narrow and the air had begun to smell foul. Edwin did not want to think about the probable descent.
"Guards! Andarsson's speaking ill of Davaeorn... You're not the guards! Guards! Guards!" It was only natural for a slave to be faithful to his betters, despite the present inconvenience to their group. However, the thickheaded tincan took offence:
"A slave who betrays his fellows? Evil!" he cried. This indeed caused further guards to attack following the raised voice. Edwin let a stream of magical missiles flow easily from his hands.
"No, Skie, you'll hit the slaves!" The apprentice tried to discourage her friend from her bow; the passage was becoming very crowded.
"Go find the way down!" Shar-Teel yelled. She and the paladin blocked the narrow passageway, fighting the guards before them with some effect; Edwin fled backwards along the warren, watching Skie's grey cloak fly behind her and trying very hard not to trip over his robes.
A blur of curly hair, old boots tied around the waist, and a flopping bumblebee-yellow doublet hit him from behind.
"Oh, gosh, I'm sorry, didn't see you!" that foolish bard said. "I found a slave who said there's a guarded plughole up there, if we find the key ... Do you think these boots are a bit much?" he said, inflicting a fast-paced version of his generally irritating voice upon Edwin's ears. "...Ohandthere'reguardschasingmehurryupEdwin!"
Cursing, Edwin ran on.
Help me, dear sir...save me— slaves cried to him; Get me out of this hell hole—
"New mercenaries, huh? Hey, lemme ask you a question. M' wife, she's been complaining about our latenight activities, the starch's gone out of me maypole if you catch my meaning—"
How dare they ask him such questions. "Be silent you fools!" Edwin shouted, and lashed out with his quarterstaff; it was very important to have the substance of a long piece of oak between him and a well-armed simian.
"Oh, you ain't mercenaries. You're that group causing all the trouble!" The simian made the (naturally obvious, these people were fools each one of them!) deduction. The end of Edwin's staff had met the simian's breastplate; Edwin waved the weapon about to try and stop the man from moving. But suddenly, quickly, the guard had drawn his sword, and the quarterstaff was no longer that great distance between them.
"Die as you should!" Edwin howled. He ought to have cast a quick spell; but the walls were pressing and the simian too close. With rapidity and entirely too much efficiency, the sword swept toward his wounded body that suddenly felt clumsy indeed.
"Into the breach—into the breach—" The bard and his pretty little shortsword. Edwin watched him blur with the guard, a complex scuffle and what seemed to be quite a lot of blood— A scream from Garrick and a grunt from the guard. A bleeding wound moving at that speed looked like something much less lethal, like red-coloured sand laid out for a spell component.
Bracing himself against the wall, Edwin started to mutter a spell; if he did not have the mental fortitude to cast simple missiles then he did not deserve the name of Odesseiron. Or the mental fortitude for a spell he was still more familiar with, even if he was not the only one to prefer it—
He felt slightly healed of his (many, grievous, and pathetically ignored) wounds. The guard grappling with Garrick cried out and fell back; the bard's short sword must have finally done its job (Simians! Incompetent the lot of them!). Garrick too flopped to the ground beside the dead man.
"My...goodness. I think I..."
"Spare me your whimpering and swallow your healing potion, imbecile," Edwin said. He had no intention of dirtying his own hands by attempting to patch that wound.
"Er. I'll...I will try..." The boy, with one hand, slowly twisted the cap from the bottle and raised it to his lips. Edwin waited for the results. Then he extended a hand to the bard, hoping that it would be used by the least dirtied of the simian's limbs.
"We have to find Skie, do we not?" he said coldly. The bard's stare met his own; the boy rose to his feet again.
"Yes," Garrick said. "I know I must." He suddenly grabbed Edwin's arm. "C'monifIcanImust—"
Pulled along in the frantic bolting run, Edwin had no choice but to complain.
Surface dwellers. Cha'kohk mina jal: a curse on all kivvin. These mines were a mere mockery of the glories of the Underdark. It was difficult to rank the surface-dwellers by degree of her despisal. The arrogant servant of the vile Helm was certainly lowest in her estimation, a slave not fit to clean her boots with his tongue; Shar-Teel she detested the least; but the subtle gradations between Edwin's nasal whine, Imoen's foolish optimism, Garrick's simple foolishness, were quite difficult. Her drow senses had begun to die, she thought, sniffing the air; had she entirely lost her ability to feel the underground? Home welcomed her no longer.
She searched the tunnels, moving quietly and quickly beneath her cloak. She could see clearly in this familiar darkness. The rivvin slaves did not dare approach her, and the grace of her form was sufficient to preserve her silence in motion. For guards she would run to the safety of the group, however much it was beneath her dignity after the power she had once wielded.
The patterns of cave-draughts hit her skin. She slowly blinked her eyes, concentrating. Down to the presumed inner sanctum. A drow would design a stronghold to avoid the possibility of becoming trapped like an animal in the bowels of one's own domain; but if the rivvil master of these mines believed it safe enough, it was perhaps wiser for him to wait at the very bottom rather than risk falling in the first attack. Humans could not be credited with excessive sensibility. Viconia opened herself to the caresses of the dank air, and felt the stiller, mustier strain within. She travelled through a down-running trail—past several, in fact, because the design was clearly foolishly done by the surface scum—and saw a large door set below a series of steps, heralded by a long slope.
She reached out like the quick-striking snakes of the surface deserts, her hand curving about a lone slave's neck, her nails ready to slit its throat.
"Down there," she hissed in the slave's common tongue. "That is where your master hides, is it not?"
"A drow—!" Her grip tightened; she glared into the male's shocked face, praying for a small degree of Shar's holy power to illuminate her own presence. "Davaeorn—yes, below the prisoners—please, I know nothing, I beg—"
She released him. Their leader Shar-Teel would not object to her killing a male, but he would perhaps be the enemy of his master given sufficient incentive; Viconia preferred her bloodshed with a touch of meaning and purpose. "Go and tell that the Drow—and the Man-Slayer, if that has any meaning—seek to destroy your master," she ordered.
She returned to the scene of fighting, following her ears; there cacophony, there a large knot of those clumsy guards. When she was near, Skie grabbed her wrist and pulled her into a side-tunnel.
"You're back. Good. We flank them—"
"Our path is there, surfacer," Viconia said.
"And the others are cut off back there," the ligrr, girl-child, whispered in the tunnel. The male wizard and the infant bard she had also with her; and, of course, the sword of Viconia's goddess. "I try fighting, you cast, we can reach them."
Over a pile of dead rivvin bodies. Viconia quite approved.
"Now." In another circumstance, Viconia would have told the little craz that she could not presume any kind of command and punctuated it with suitable expression of her power; but Skie was hastening toward the battle, half-cloaked in shadows, and Viconia readied her sling. Behind the gathered foes Viconia could hear the sounds of Shar-Teel and the Helmite in battle.
Skie reached the hindmost guard, and stabbed him in a way...that would have shamed a novice drow assassin, but did some duty on the human before her. Turning, he attacked her; but Viconia's own excellent aim with a sling cut through the narrow space and her stone hit soundly to his forehead, below his helmet. Unwisely enough the bard neared the area of battle, aiming his crossbow at close range; it took some time for Viconia to recall the weak vision of humans. Skie slashed wildly and broadly enough, but the fear of attack on both sides was itself sufficient to panic the guards. When Edwin at last finished reading a scroll, panic truly spread. Viconia saw Skie stab downward, through the neck of a fallen guard attempting to flee; the little human was improving in ability. There was something in her that could be compared to the sharp, quick teeth of a rat trapped in a corner, perhaps.
The guards had possessed the same idea of surrounding, Viconia thought, striking out with the shining morningstar gifted by the fallen male. A fine-crafted weapon with a feeling of some slight power to it, easier in her hands than Tenhammer's weapon of strict strength. Shar-Teel and Ajantis killed their way through, pursued; the boy attempted to guard their commander's back, while she left a trail of corpses they stepped through. Imoen and the bard Skie believed was her male, inconsequential compared to Shar-Teel's blood-soaked glory, hastened between the fighters. From somewhere Eldoth had taken a spear; a useful weapon in the confined space. He fought another guard grasping a similar weapon, quite well; and a spell from his fingers had the killing blow. Imoen flung herself to the ground, shrieking; an arrow whistled over her head, one of many-more-than-one. Viconia felt piercing pain bloom in the flesh of her right arm. She fell to the slight shelter of the tunnel wall.
Shar— She had faced far worse in the Underdark. She forced herself to dig out the shaft with her left hand, ignoring the flow of blood that gushed freely. Her goddess would heal her; she was careful to conserve her calls upon Shar's favour as yet. Her lips formed the chant; there would be loss and suffering in this place, and let it redound to the goddess. The pain drew softly into the air, and she was released to flee with the others to break past that door. She ran from human pursuers.
Stone stairs twisted below them. She and the children with magical aid could see more easily than others, it appeared; Ajantis hardly kept his balance in that improvised armour. She could smell blood here older than the fresh slaughter they had committed, and the distant stench of undead.
"Comefriends." Garrick panted, leaning against the door closed behind them; he nervously shifted from foot to foot at an incredible pace. "Wherearewenowwhat'rewedoing?"
"Their little prison," Viconia said; and suddenly a bolt of lightning lanced through the air.
Their little trap. Viconia flung herself to the ground in time; the screams of male wizard and bards were almost indistinguishable. The ricochet caught the edge of Shar-Teel's armour, though the Helmite male was fortunate; the young harp-player, the foolish infant, did not stop screaming whilst the tide of bright blue whistled about the room even after it had passed by him.
Then the guards were upon them. A faint taste of alcohol hung in the air alongside roasted meat and fouler fare, and the spellcaster's laugh was not completely steady; but nonetheless the battle was no simple matter. No drow with the least wit could ever make that assumption; at any moment a single piece of luck from an enemy—or betrayal of an ally—could kill. Viconia wove between the guards to Shar-Teel, prepared to heal their leader as necessary. Arrows from the young females, fired from the stairs behind, whistled above her head in the general direction of the caster, who gathered a bright shield about herself. Her chants grew still louder.
Shar-Teel charged; Viconia found herself flanking alongside the Helmite. Her drow grace was supreme above the surface-dwellers; they would not dare to hit her. The enchanted weapon struck true in one or two cases; and yet—pain followed her. Bleeding, Viconia dedicated it to her goddess.
At last the spellcaster cried out; Shar-Teel's spider-blade had found its way through. Viconia could not spare a moment for thoughts of others; she sweated, she a proud drow, she struggled against the enemies; guards defending their caster encircled the three of them, spilling nearly to the steps of Viconia's own temporarily-allied wizards. Fire cut a temporary path before Viconia; she used the opening as any drow would. The paladin gasped and panted no less than she; and Shar-Teel trampled a richly embroidered wizard's robe underfoot.
The number of surfacers remaining to stand against them was marginally improved, Viconia thought. She faced a male—not a boy by a surfacer's lights, beginning to age in the way of drow slaves in the Underdark, coarse-faced and spewing futile speech at her. Besides his sword he wore a bow strapped over his shoulders. A strong male; he blocked her with comparative ease, and she was obliged to sidestep rather than parry his attack. She called quickly for a dark blessing from Shar. Centuries ago she had learned combat from the best mistresses Menzoberranzan offered; Viconia DeVir would not fall to this human filth.
(However little, granted, that she had need to personally practice combat in the intervening centuries, when males would cross lava to kiss a dog that had licked her hand.)
The morningstar made its hit, though Edwin stole victory from her with violently coloured acid. Viconia did not care. She sheltered behind Shar-Teel's back, and began the casting of a healing spell whilst the last of the surfacers were dealt with.
"As entirely tedious as this all is; as useless and shallow as his assistance proved to be—Garrick ran using boots of speed. The first to be lost," Eldoth said; the spear he carried was heavily bloodied. Skie stood beside him, a body near her feet.
"Then go find him," Shar-Teel said. "Slave dungeons here, isn't it?"
"Yes." Viconia finished her casting; it closed the more important of the warrior's wounds. Shar-Teel took a healing potion from her belt.
"One of this lot might have the keys. Well done volunteering yourself, male. Don't bother coming back without the stripling."
You're a funny man, that's why I'm going to kill you last had apparently given their leader a better impression than Shar-Teel, your lot in life is to bake cookies and bear children. Eldoth looked somewhat stunned.
"She's right. Make the slaves fight back," Skie said; she didn't even trouble to look at the male, the sharpness of a trapped rat's teeth still bound to her slight human frame.
Viconia gave Eldoth a ravishing, confident smile that lasted until she and the others had rushed into the next narrow passage.
For the Lady of Loss.
Coward. The stone blurred horribly around him and he couldn't stop running. He burned—his stomach, his arms, charred black if he looked down, which he wouldn't dare to do—
Some clinking behind him runrunrun—!
Thick door slamrunescape—
Foot after foot after foot after foot echoesrunningawayaway—
Run for hoursminutes fast tearlegsapart—
Ricocheting against stone wall. Bump the size of an egg crack your skull open like an eggshell it hurts everywhere
Stone door swung shut behind alone in rotting straw
Failing alone down abandon away skin scraping
Garrick curled around himself and sobbed.
Tears and snot soaked through his breeches, his knees moist. He could not stifle his wails. His body would not move, his legs jelly. The rock was harsh against his flesh. The blue lightning whirling—the guard stabbing into him—couldn't stop it— However long the screamed whimpers came from him, it was impossible to make it end.
There was a sound of knocking on the stone behind him. He continued to weep loudly.
"Laddie?" A voice. They had come for him at last. He did not cry for mercy. Grief; shame; the end of it all. He had no will left to restrict the sobs tearing through his throat.
The knock on the wall repeated itself.
"Ye'd be new here, I'd imagine." The voice was low and gentle, a man. It reminded him, strangely, of his mother. Singing a lullaby. She would never know what had happened to him here—
His tears did not stop.
Two calm, steady, taps.
"They'll hear ye, lad, and silence ye," the voice said. Garrick took in a sobbing breath, between cries. The howls and sniffs forcing themselves from his mouth and nose had become hoarser. His voice was taken from him.
"Hush, laddie, I canna hear meself think. Can ye speak of what they did?" the voice from the wall said.
Only an incoherent cry came from Garrick's mouth. He tasted salt and blood, pain from where he had bitten his tongue at some point. He still whimpered in the dark.
"Breathe, lad," his voice in the wall told him. It was quiet and calming; kind. "Easy now. Ye've all the time ye need. One breath at a time now."
The air Garrick drew into his mouth was cold, and came out in a series of sniffles. He quietened slightly, but that was because his body was losing the strength even to weep.
"In and out, lad. Take it one by one," the gentle voice said. "Here ye'll be safe enough—for now."
Another ragged breath seared into his throat. His friends—how long had it been since he'd left them? What would have—
"There be no dank holes Clangeddin's might and mercy can't find its way to. I'd heal ye if I could, but there be no way between us."
There was a broken bottle on the floor next to Garrick; sharp fragments had cut into his elbow. A waste of what could have helped him. He found himself gasping for more air between his teeth, his nose blocked.
"What's your name, laddie? I be Yeslick, once of clan Orothiar."
The ability to form words hardly made it out of Garrick's mouth. But at last it came from him in a series of hoarse sobs. "'S Gar..garrha...rick. Garharick."
"Garrick, then?" The voice did not quite say it as he normally did, but Garrick managed a faint syllable that sounded like yes. "And what be causing you to take up the cell behind mine, eh, Garrick?"
Hearing his name—having someone kind to talk to—it started spilling out of Garrick, alongside his damp tears. "L—lightning bolt. Lightning bolt and before, they—they stabbed me, Edwin—I went with them then—and then I came here."
"A lightning bolt at ye? Aye, they've mages with that gift, curse the bastards. 'Tis Clangeddin's blessing ye live tae tell of it."
Clangeddin was not a human deity, some of Garrick's mind returned to him. "Are you a...dwarf?" he asked slowly.
"That I be, Yeslick Orothiar. Ye'd be a longlimb, I've no doubt," the voice said.
"That I be...am," Garrick said, sniffling.
"Merchantfolk, are you? 'Tis where most of their slaves are gained from. I won't be lying and saying it won't be bad as ye think, for 'tis more so; but it is Clangeddin's word to face with strength such times," the dwarf called Yeslick said.
Garrick slowly took another breath of the dank air. "No. I'm...I didn't come here like that. We didn't come here like that. We thought—we thought we could do... I was running away from them because they hurt me. I left the others." He still felt too weak to move; he didn't know if he was dying or not. The shards of the potion bottles were the strongest pain he could feel.
Yeslick's voice suddenly took on an urgency rather than its previous kindliness. "Ye mean you're no slave, lad? Ye came with others seeking to end the Throne?"
"Yes," Garrick said simply. He remembered Edwin helping him to his feet, urging him to carry on; and then he had run away again. That horrible moment—the mage-lightning sparking against the rock bouncing straight for him—how it had hurt him— "I ran for...s-somewhere safe—"
"And are ye even locked in there?" Yeslick asked fiercely. "By Clangeddin's twin axes, lad, answer me now!"
"...n-no. I don't think it's locked. Just shut..." Stone between him and the people who were going to hurt him. He despised himself, but could do nothing about it.
"Then it's up and at 'em, Garrick!" Yeslick shouted. "No layin' about here when there's battle tae be done! Return right to your friends and give the blaggards an axe in the face from me! Ye'll not stand by why this happens!"
Yelling at him; as the others would do for his cowardice. Though Skie and Imoen didn't yell. He wanted to cry again at the hopelessness of it all.
"I can't," he said resignedly.
"Ye shameful—ye longlimbed worm—" Yeslick cried, telling Garrick only the truth about himself. "Nay—'" Yeslick said more softly, as though speaking to himself—"Come now, we'll see a chance yet—"
"No," Garrick whispered.
"Yes, tell me about those friends o' yours, young lad; say what brought ye here; I'll give it my ear. Speak of it, Garrick."
It came spilling out in Garrick's misery, almost without thought from him. "Skie's beautiful—she was beautiful, but in the troubles—we're all dirty and exhausted. She's a friend, I followed her—she's been my friend." Perhaps that was all that mattered, in the end. "Imoen—she's funny and she's clever with magic, she's Skie's best friend. Then there was Edwin, he calls us all monkeys. But sometimes he needs help." A long cough tore its way out of Garrick. "And Shar-Teel, she's scary and only laughs when I'm not trying to sing comedy. Viconia can heal people when she wants to. Ajantis is a knight, and Eldoth is horrible and he treats Skie like she's nothing. They...I..."
"These friends o' yours, lad, the beautiful longlimb," Yeslick said. "Ye care for them as much as all that?"
"S-sure," Garrick said. "But I—they maybe don't even need me—I'm useless—"
"Lad, listen to me; and I'll tell you one thing at a time. Ye'll help them all and your beautiful lass. Ye must stand, boy, open your door first. Take—thirty paces, it'd be, to a longlimb—to your right, 'till ye've made it from the cells. Five more paces to your left and it's a guards' storeroom ye'll come to; an' up on the door to the right is a hidden alcove near the second brick, which is where the bastards keep a set of keys. I haven't been there meself, but Rill was sure. 'Twill no be guarded if the mines are under attack. Then all ye must do is find your way back down to me in the hole behind this cell, unlock the door—and I'll heal ye. Think you can manage that, lad? A few steps to open your door again, that's all ye must do, ye saw no lock there."
"The magic boots," Garrick said. "They'll make me run too fast. I feel it'll rip me apart again—"
There might have been a sigh from the other cell. "Right, laddie, then take off the boots. Laces first, good and slow and steady. One thing at a time and ye'll be safe."
When Garrick rose to his feet at last the pain of the lightning bolt hit him again. His clothes were stuck to his flesh, blackened; and he tottered, sickened, feeling ready to collapse again at any moment. He ran a hand across his wet eyes, the dark cell blurry before him.
"But a few paces there; slow and steady, like I say," Yeslick said quietly.
One bare foot in front of the other. Garrick staggered, once; fell to his knees; only a few steps away, he told himself. Crawl forward; open that door. It hurt. Yeslick's gentle encouragement reached him. One painful movement at a time. Three paces to the door. Two paces. One, and he was pulling himself up against its weight, using it to labour to his feet again. It was heavy, and he feared that his strength would fail at the task of moving it.
"Easy, now, lad. It'll come open," Yeslick said quietly. "Then all ye must do is walk down the hall; lay hands on the keys; and down the second passage. Soon we'll have you iron-sided as ever you were, fit to take on the blaggards. The door, lad."
The door. Garrick felt each breath he took, his burns and spilled blood crying for him to stop. Pull. Open the door and that's all you have to do, he told himself. Open the cursed door, Garrick.
He heard a small scraping of stone. It wasn't fastened. That slight noise meant it was budging after all.
"Bit by bit, if it's heavy for ye," Yeslick said.
He pulled back; leaned against the frame near it. You don't even have to push it all the way, Garrick told himself. Just enough to fall through.
His knees shook, and he fell into the narrow distance he had opened. He touched, at his fingertips, the cold of the opposite wall.
"Up and at it," Yeslick told him; and halfway to his feet, Garrick moved into the first pace down the corridor, clutching his wounds.
A long passageway. He thrust his left hand against the cell doors, hardly propping himself up on the long stumble. There were other prisoners in there that he had failed to hear on that wrenching run; someone moaning; someone begging for water; someone calling for help for a fellow prisoner—
He stumbled further on his way. Thirty paces, Yeslick had said; three hundred and he might have felt the same. Only one further each time.
Faint images seemed to float before him, as if he was drowning in something. Perhaps his own body.
You are a poisoner now, cruel Viconia taunted him, floating in the air, her dance inhumanly graceful.
Garrick, we have to kill Sarevok, Skie told him; slender as an assassin's blade, blood staining her deft hands, her sharp cheekbones like the set of a skull. He had seen her troubled, had known nothing to do to help her from that ruthless pit.
I thought you a man of honour and integrity, but your cowardice betrays what you truly are. Ajantis the noble knight stared at him, his pink face rippling into the darkness.
Garrick took a final step, collapsed against the door sealing the guards' storeroom, and put up a hand to the right as it let him through. A brick and a ring of keys fell on him.
He continued to almost fall to the floor; his shambling steps seemed slower and more laboured than ever. This passage was near to but not quite where he had come from. In the far distance he thought he heard someone screaming, or perhaps it was memory. Something sharp cut into his bare feet, though the pains in his body had stopped being so strong. Instead it was almost as if he cast some spell of oblivion, singing himself above and away from this. The stone was numb and blurred.
Somewhere there was a keyhole, at the very end; a narrow door, narrower keyhole. Once in the Duke of Hlath's Beloved, he had played a manservant, a small part, unlocking an intricate chest of drawers on the stage as part of a magical trick—the memory made him all the more light-headed—and then he fell forward into a muddy, confined pit.
A whispering voice not far away, Clangeddin. Blue-tinged hands were near him; not far from the blue of the lightning, and at first he wanted to cringe back. Not that his body cared much to obey him.
"Near squashed me flat, ye did!" That was...slightly better. He could feel his chest now, but everything was coming back to him. It hurt. "Now, this'll cause pain; but lie still and it'll be over. Bite this."
It hurt. He tried to scream over the thick, muddy bit of cloth in his mouth. Someone was digging into his body, scraping away flesh—burned flesh, the clothing that stuck to it—scraping—it wasn't his will to lie still under this—
This is the fourth time you've made that mistake in the chords, Garrick. Really, darling, try harder, Silke told him, tapping her long fingers impatiently, her silver hair a fine, loose cloud about her head. Some days I don't know why I trouble at all with apprentices. Allen-of-the-Dales turned quickly and kicked a wall in temper, his scowl dark and his black eyes flashing: Arrogant puppy! It's a living we make here, how dare you threaten to give us up to the guards— This was probably the part where his life flashed before his eyes, Garrick thought.
"By Clangeddin's might!" As if—as if a catapult thread had suddenly snapped, flinging him back to this world. He looked down at himself, and saw dirt and ragged clothing rather than torn flesh as the reminder of what they had done to him. He lay in mud, near a grey-bearded dwarf with him in the small—it would be called a hole, rather than a cell; behind him was the stone wall. The earth was damp underneath them.
"Give me a hand up, lad, it's a prison for longlimbs they made here. I'll fetch the other prisoners out. Rill's sure-and-certain to be amongst them, though I've not heard from him in a tenday—and you get those magic boots. Seems we'll need all help we can muster."
"Y...yes sir!" Garrick managed, dizzy.
Six prisoners of the Iron Throne; all somewhat wounded, gathered about a small alcove, where perhaps they would not be seen. Garrick suddenly felt as if he were flaunting himself among them, his thick clothing and weapons, the fact that despite their exhausted chase after the Iron Throne he had neither starved nor been whipped. (Flippant comments about Viconia would be entire planes from appropriate.)
"My name is Rill," the man in the centre of them said; he was as emaciated and sickly-looking as the others, and things crawled in his beard. He stood alone in their small circle, and something in his feverish stare reminded Garrick of a priest of Cyric he had once seen in the streets: piercing, burning. "For now, I speak for the others. There is a price on the head of a woman named Sky; do you travel with her?" Garrick nodded. "We don't have much time. There is a captain on the first floor not known for his loyalty. I can bribe him to look the other way while I escape, and the other forces will be preoccupied with you. I need a hundred gold. Will you do it?"
"I have fourteen gold and some coppers," Garrick said blankly. Deeply inadequate. Shar-Teel carried several hundred gold pieces in that enchanted bag—gold was heavy—and to fail because of that—
"Perhaps you could bribe the captain with fourteen gold and a magical object someone smuggled in," he said. Garrick rummaged for the heavy, ornate silver ring lodged halfway to the bottom of his pouch, and held it carefully in the palm of his hand. It might have been the cause of the death of that boy, in the spiders' nest... "You've no idea how difficult it was for me to convince the wizard not to wear it." Edwin refused to believe it wasn't a ring of great power that Garrick was keeping for himself, and it certainly had a strong enough enchantment to it...of folly. "Also, we set a fire on the surface—and we took down the bridge, or rather Shar-Teel did—and our passage through the first part of the mines wasn't exactly secret—so there's going to be enough going on to slip away in but something might've happened to your first captain—"
"I'll offer the bribe to the first captain coming my way, then," Rill said, "and if he won't take it one way he'll take it another."
"I can follow. I know spells to charm people, I can help—" Garrick said.
"And I've black-hearted rats to drown and heads to bust," Yeslick said.
"Drown?" Garrick asked Rill, travelling with him up to the mine—the slaves were kept near where they worked, Rill said, and many guards would also be.
"There is an enchanted plug holding back the river. The dwarf thinks if it's released, the entire mine will be flooded—and I've no reason to doubt his word. Far better we bring an end to this whole stinking operation," Rill said. "Into the back with you now, there's a squad of them coming this way. Hurry, or they'll suspect something."
Garrick could not see where he crouched; but he heard the voices.
"Good cap'n." Rill spoke softly; then there was a sound of metal hitting flesh.
"Don't you know orders are to get to your quarters, slave? Dangerous mercenaries running about, as if we didn't have problems enough!"
There was pain in Rill's voice. "Sorry, s...sir. It's m' legs, sir, not what they used to be, slow as a snail they are, might be all that pushing carts, sir—"
"Silence!" Garrick ran the syllables he'd use to cast spells in his mind. Silke had taught him the chords and soft melody of a charm; it had actually worked once, to bring Viconia from the hamadryad. Perhaps if he tried he could reach for raw magical missiles as well, or even a song potent enough for the same horror he had felt fleeing from the bandits, when they had forced his own concoction down his throat— His throat still felt hoarse, blocked by his fear.
"As you say, sir. Just, m'lord, I've information might be better for your ears only, m'lord—" Rill's tone became more servile and ingratiating.
"Sir!" Another guard. "I know this one. Troublemaker named Rill. Can't trust him, sir!"
Could he cast the spell in stifled whispers? Wrap his hood about his face, sing only to himself, and make the magic work?—and make them obedient to Rill their leading rebel, at that?
Hums began low in his throat, ragged and soft; he felt the glimmerings of a spell start to sparkle through his fingertips. It wasn't that the sound did not exist, just that he was too soft for their ears to know—so a powerful spell would fail, of course, he suddenly thought, let it be something subtle enough to change them—
They would kill him if they caught him, Garrick thought. But is this not the second time they have nigh done so? He let the brightness of the melody begin to flow into the back of his mouth, surprised at himself.
"Yeah, I've seen this one around."
Garrick slipped his head briefly around the passageway and cast carefully. Thou art tempted for green-eyed jealousy, lest the captain raised to a lion—
"I'll make sure he doesn't run off on the way back to the pits, sir, if you wish," the guard said. Garrick wasn't sure if that meant his spell had worked or not.
"Please, sirs, please not the whip," Rill pleaded. It was wrong that he should have to grovel in such a way; Garrick hated listening to it, and enduring it was no doubt worse. "I'll tell you everything, I will—"
There was a very faint clink; and Garrick peeked around the corner just in time to see the captain place a boot over a fallen copper piece.
"No need, Nahal. Get back in place. I'll deal with the troublemaker myself. Follow to your posts. Move!"
Where the guard captain was taking Rill—was in the way where Garrick would be seen by the remainder of the patrol. How to follow? The mine passages confused him; Garrick tried to think—if he went to the left, perhaps that would lead him up and around—
"So this is the home for lost lapdogs. I'm shocked to find you other than deceased," Eldoth's voice said near him.
Garrick stared at...nothing but a bare passageway. "What? Where are?—Is this?—"
"Not all of us quite plumb the depths of your tedious lack of wit, boy. It's a simple invisibility spell."
He hated the man and how he treated Skie. "Rill—a Ring of Folly, a guard—what are you doing? Are you running away from her—" As Garrick himself had done.
"Raising up a slave rebellion to serve the purposes of a distraction," Eldoth said.
"Come on, Eldoth, we need to go left, I think, need to catch up to Rill," Garrick whispered back. He couldn't tell whether Eldoth was following, but made his way as quietly as he could. If Rill was harmed—
"A slave? There's enough of the fools loosed already; I acquired keys from the bitch of a mage. Now I may as well see what wealth lies free at the bottom of the mine."
"No. We have to save the people," Garrick said, "so you can help me—"
"Spare me from brainless ideals, boy," Eldoth interrupted. "So let us..."
It was Rill, and the guard captain. Drool ran down his chin and he stared vacantly at Garrick, the ring on his hand.
"It's done," Rill said. "Can you charm him to speak well?"
"That I can," said Garrick, not certain but willing to try. He started softly—
"Delightful. All the appeal of an unbroken adolescent's voice—" Eldoth muttered. Garrick continued nonetheless. The song built; the person for which it was designed turned to stare at him with mesmerised gaze.
"Your orders are," he said as firmly as he could, "...Ah, Rill...?"
"To release all he can find, tell them to go to the surface, and order the guards to protect the iron stores on the second level," Rill said.
"Stop drooling and repeat exactly as I say all the orders from—-Davaeorn," Garrick said. He felt the magic running through his voice; and some beginnings of what might be called hope stirred inside him. "Davaeorn has commanded you to take all the slaves to the surface—"
Evil; true evil; wherever he set his clear gaze as granted by Helm. Still further through this vile and fetid place. Many spells had bound guards unconscious and horrified; the drow's dark magic had commanded obedience to some of their enemies; and still their foes outnumbered them.
Hastening through the twisted passageways, they had clambered down another set of long stone stairs to a chamber, where human and hobgoblin guards faced them alongside a vast ogre-mage and a second wizardess. The deception he had practiced for the cause of destroying this sorry nest wore on him, in a manner most tangible: the chainmail was weak compared to plate, and abraded away some parts of his body even below his clothing where the fit of it was narrow. Not that that discomfort ought to be compared to the wounds he had received. The Iron Throne tabard was at least principally torn from him so that he no longer masqueraded under its evil.
"Helm!" he prayed. The divine power came to him, rushing through his wounds; he began to believe he would have strength enough to end this fight. At least the sword he carried was his own, strong within his hands. The men he fought and shielded against—evil in each one of them, and yet still not quite as foul as the ogre chanting some abominable spell behind them, too far a distance for him to strike holy and true.
Dark magic flared from the Red Wizard; an answering chant grew from the evil witch. Send evil to battle evil if they must, but Ajantis had ensured the Red Wizard knew that his influence would not be tolerated to spread within the party.
"Kit, behind you!" Aquerna frantically called, and he turned in time to parry a villain's attack. He saw the squirrel, briefly, her red-brown fur behind Imoen's neck, the witch casting bright fire from her hands. There were many times he regretted the companion given as a penance and the meddling approach she invariably took to what ought to have been his business—but he felt concern for her, in this dark and evil place.
"Simians! Back to me!" Edwin called out; he seemed in no immediate danger, the drow and Skie near to the two spellcasters, fighting with the bright-coloured morningstar and the evil sword—
Ajantis carefully smote at his foes with all the strength his knight's training had granted him. One man hammered against his shield, the other he used his sword against—he must succeed in this battle, do duty as a squire and purge evil wherever he found it—
Shar-Teel was stepping back from her fight with a soldier almost as tall and strong as she—less 'stepping back', really, Ajantis saw from the corner of his eye, as 'allowing him to overreach and running him through', but others were surrounding her, and acid from the ogre-mage burned one side of her helm—
There were four of the female wizard, though Imoen had already reduced that number considerably, and she was chanting again.
Then around him was fire, and it burned him deeply even as he called for Helm's aid.
"Die here and now!" Edwin cried, though he might have been panting. "(Yessss. And now I should like to lie down and be tended by half-naked concubines.)" Ajantis was half-blind, in pain—his prayers were weak, he had exhausted himself—
"You—you horrible rat of a wizard! Look at what you've done to him!" Aquerna screamed.
And still the battle was not done. Like him, the men he had fought were roasted in their armour, but the ogre mage yet stood—Ajantis half-saw it, in his blindness, the walls blackened, what was probably the female wizard on the ground. The ogre, shielded in a blue bright enough for even him to see, readied its sword for him. It faltered, slightly, when more untrustworthy magic whirled through the air.
A tall figure aiding him; matching a sword against the ogre—matching its strength, perhaps. Shar-Teel. Ajantis had sunken to his knees—the burning—
"Come on!" Skie's voice. A hand on his seared neck he did not know was a hand until after the feeling began to return to him, as though she had cast a spell of healing—
"Potion off some guard. I need you to drink." She took a place at Shar-Teel's flank, aiding her perhaps—
Potion bottle; smelling right. Ajantis placed it to his lips; forced himself to swallow. The magic acted and his vision and wits started to return to him, though he knew he still bore the marks of the wizard's shameful spell. He stumbled to his feet; he sensed evil intent in the still-moving female wizard, merging with Shar-Teel's own corruption when the warrior drove Spider's Bane through her. There were few of the depraved guards breathing still.
The Red Wizard was seated on the foul ground, slumped, his back against the wall. "Be grateful I instructed the inbred imbecile to move! (I ought not to argue with a squirrel, of all things. Let me alone.)"
"No," Aquerna said, as fiercely to Ajantis' recollections as her voice had ever been. "You tried to murder my boy! Your disgusting spells—"
"Hey, come back!" Imoen reached down for his animal; she was away and racing across the ground.
"—Are more important; or did you somehow fail to see I won the battle? (It no longer matters whether the chimps behave or not—)"
"Are not more important than his life!" She leaped to his face and...clawed; the wizard struggled clumsily.
"Gah! Get it off—get it off!" Edwin bled; the scratches were deep-clawed. Imoen grabbed Aquerna by the scruff of the neck and tried to hold her away.
"Ha. It...hurts." Edwin tapped at a cheek, torn open. "I want to rest here. Catch my breath; plead for healing from you fools."
"You deserve nothing, you bastard!" Aquerna screamed within his head. She could be impulsive like this, at times; hurried conduct that was not what Helm demanded of proper holy steeds. Even though the wizard had goaded her to it.
"Quiet," Ajantis bade her.
"I am exhausted; I do not think I could heal without rest and prayer," Viconia said.
"Find the door," Shar-Teel ordered tersely. "Viconia, with me. Skie, Imoen: take the other direction. Boy, go with them. Wizard—do as you wish."
The hidden door to the chamber of the master of the mines was somewhere near, though only a few of this place were permitted to know of it. Viconia had interrogated a guard trying to run from them; the sight of the drow using her vile power against the will of the human had been utterly repulsive. Ajantis took the northward passage behind the young girls. There was much evil to be fought here.
"Sarevok isn't here," Skie said irrelevantly; it seemed that the man called Davaeorn was the principal figure of this dark place.
Imoen jiggled the handle of a rough door set in the passage they traversed.
"Nobody here either," she announced. She and Skie bent down together over what passed for a lock, and sprung it open; thieving was evil, but to explore an area in the service of good acceptable. An empty room, luxurious by standards of a place such as this, a plain bed and two locked chests.
"D' you think there'll be anything useful in them?" Imoen pointed.
"It's not worth our time," Skie said softly. "Im? How would you kill a powerful wizard?"
"I would smite him, of course. Helm would grant me the strength to rid the land of his evil," Ajantis said. This Davaeorn was a more powerful wizard than the Red Wizard, quite probably; but it was his duty to meet such foes.
"That's very clever, boy, and I mean that in the most sarcastic way possible!" Aquerna said. "Stop rushing into things!"
"Edwin's face, for example?" Ajantis supplied, wanting an end to her pestering.
"My brain's startin' to run a bit empty now, it's hurting just to think of magic," Imoen said. "Arrows, arrows're easier, s' long as he doesn't have missile-dodging boots like mine. Then we're in more trouble."
The young women pried open the second lock; this room was less tidy than the first, but similarly unoccupied.
"What about wizard protections? They always stop if you hit them enough, don't they?" Skie pressed.
"Yeah. Yeah, reckon they do," Imoen said. "Sometimes these things called triggers, contingencies, I can't do 'em and not even Edwin can, Mr. G mentioned them a couple times. Lots and lots of spells go off at once."
"But if you hit a wizard the right way he dies," Skie said. "Before he's much of a chance to cast."
"Yeah. I guess. But—calm down, all right? Let's just get out of here."
"When we're finished," Skie said; and Ajantis found himself saying almost the identical phrase.
A high-pitched scream broke through the air; a trifle north of them, it seemed.
"A damsel in distress!" Ajantis said almost instinctively, and ran toward the sharp sound.
"Yes, and it may well be your other friends causing that distress!" Aquerna lectured him.
Two rooms further up the passageway, was a door ajar; and just within was a stiff booted foot almost protruding from it. Skie and Imoen raced after Ajantis, but he was first to reach the scene. He saw the body of the man lying on the ground; the victim wore a guard's armour, and would have been tall and muscular in life. His mouth was frozen open in his final scream; his eyes gaped in horror; and his throat and a good portion of his chest were a gaping mess of blood and trailing organs. The cause was immediate: an undead wolf stood over the corpse and lapped at its meal. Its eyes glowed a bright red; its yellow teeth dripped a darker colour; and there was a dreadful macabre cracking noise as it began to crunch at a bone, extracting the marrow from it.
"Silvanus has sent you to me," a female voice said; and Ajantis took one step further into the room to see a young maiden clad only in a bedsheet.
"I—ah—er," he said. Seemingly unconcerned for her modesty, the damsel crossed the room toward him; her brown hair hung loosely down her shoulders, and her deep-set eyes gazed up at him.
"And you are not with him?" She pointed down at the corpse; her wrists were marked, as though she had been recently bound. The armour he wore; Ajantis stepped back, trying not to appear as a threat.
"No, he's not Iron Throne, just dressed that way," Imoen said helpfully, appearing behind him.
"Then my visions from Silvanus were correct that assistance would come to me," the maiden said. "I am Faldorn; I was sent by the druidic henge west of here; and I shall put an end to these men of the Iron Throne who defile sacred woodlands." She put two fingers to her lips, and called softly through them; the wolf bounded away from its prey to join her, submitting to her petting of it. A druid's summons, then.
"I...er—I am Ajantis, a paladin...squire paladin...of the Order of the Most Radiant Heart, servant to Lord Helm, and a son of the noble family of Ilvastarr." Ajantis gave the words of his introduction; as a squire, he had practiced introducing himself in full formality...
"Yeah, that's important right now." Imoen softly kicked him in the leg. "You all right there, Falwhatsit?"
"Nature will rejoice at the moment we finish destroying this evil mine." Faldorn knelt by a chest-of-drawers, roughly opened it, and began throwing clothing to the floor; when she located a brown-coloured jerkin and breeches that seemed the smallest available, she flung away the sheet. Ajantis closed his eyes as a gentleman.
"Er." He kept his eyes clasped tightly shut. "How did...how did you come to this foul place, miss? That man on the ground—"
"He was the chief bodyguard to Davaeorn, the leader of these abominable despoilers of Nature," Faldorn said. "The druids arranged that one from our order drawn by lot should travel to this place, and with blessings bestowed by Silvanus dismantle these. I was the one fortunate to be assigned to the task. They felled me not far from the entrance and took my weaponry, and there I briefly felt I was lost. But then this man ordered me taken to his dwelling, and thus Nature works for the destruction of the mine."
"The man—he defiled you, then?" Ajantis said. Curse that such foul evil existed.
"Not a tactful question!" Imoen hissed.
"No," Faldorn said levelly, an answer that relieved him. "My wolf is never far from me. It is a sign that Silvanus favours our efforts."
"You can open your eyes now," Aquerna told him.
"A companion animal," Faldorn said, now more decently clothed. She raised her fist and uttered a few words; several glowing blue berries appeared in her hand. "Would you like some?" She made several squirrelly noises.
"Trying bribery? I think I'll have to like you." Aquerna scuttled up to her; willingly took the berries.
"One more's useful," Skie said. "Do you have any idea where Davaeorn is, Faldorn?"
"No, but we shall find his lair." Faldorn declared calmly. Her dedication to their just and noble cause was deeply admirable; so many Ajantis had met fell short of such ardent purity of mind. "I shall heal you. Follow with me, friends."
She led them past the long corridor, past a room bearing a table covered in a red cloth; and then a dark and bolted door proved to be a torture cellar. Someone had committed acts abominable beyond imagination. Ajantis would have offered his responsibility to enter that place smelling of blood and worse, but Skie had darted in—none still lived, she said, and he did not look himself. A further reminder of the necessary destruction of the mine.
It seemed they had walked lower through the earth; the passageways turned and wove further, and Ajantis prayed they would shortly discover the secrets of the lair. A broad passage led to the right, illuminated by closely placed bright torches, the brackets which held them carefully engraved.
"Are you mercenaries come for my temple?" demanded the deep bass of a man's voice. He wore black, Ajantis saw, and to his belt was bound a twisted figure that resembled a darkened sun.
"Yes, Sarevok hired us from the Gate, all hail Cyric," Skie lied. She ought not to commit these sins—a due reprimand and the holy smiting of a Cyricist was shortly to follow, by Ajantis' vows. Even to briefly feign the worship of a god as evil as Cyric—
"You must come to the shrine. I have something for you," the cleric said; Ajantis stepped forth.
"My god told me that already," said the priest. "Do follow anyway."
"By Helm—!" Ajantis lunged forward; Imoen had her bow, and loosed an arrow pointlessly into the walls; but the image of the Cyricist had seemed to dissolve in the slight shadows between the torches—
"A trap," Skie said. "Literally, Ajantis; so stop moving, or you really will. Forever." She half-laughed to herself; he felt the nonchalance of it disturbing. He allowed her to bend down to a flagstone near him that seemed indistinguishable to others around it. Skie pushed it up slightly with a dagger, and did something to the ground beneath.
"Finished. But we ought to try another way," she said.
The stone walls wound yet further underground. The air was foul to Ajantis' nose; naturally as foul as this place. Any deeper and they... Ajantis fortified his resolve; it would not be long. He did not know how great a time he had already been promising himself that. Skie's grey cloak had disappeared yet again in the darkness before them.
"I feel we near the unnatural wizard," Faldorn said quietly. "This place presses upon me; we must be close to the source of this foulness."
"It is good that you are with us," Ajantis said. He could distinguish no particular evil amongst the remainder that spread itself within this place. Within this group, he counted only Garrick and Imoen with truly noble intentions, and Imoen committed acts of petty theft; he admired Faldorn's apparent moral clarity. Aquerna, stained with blue, seemed to admire her berries.
"It is Nature's will," Faldorn agreed; and they continued to set themselves to the path.
Skie returned between the dark shadows. Her hood had blown back from her face. "There are five men in that room over there," she said; Ajantis saw her smiling as she did so, and did not like that expression in a place such as this. "With very good armour; standing in front of a wall that only looks like a wall; they've got a black-and-red stripe at their shoulders."
"The remainder of Davaeorn's personal bodyguards," Faldorn said firmly.
"At last," Imoen said. "Then we're gonna get out of here!"
Skie ran a hand through her hair, spreading blood into it; she didn't seem to notice. "Waiting there, because if we don't kill him, it's only a matter of time while we're lost down here. Distracting the guards; that's easy. But being invisible, moving behind them and into the wizard's chamber before he's a chance to start casting his spells, to kill him—"
"Your boyfriend says he knows invisibility spells, I don't," Imoen said. "'S too bad he's not the sharing type."
"Let's find the others," Skie said.
Not far, apparently, from the temple of Cyric. There were more hobgobins than Ajantis had before seen in one place. They swarmed him; any attempt to build a line against them, to give Faldorn and Imoen freedom to cast, was utterly futile. Shar-Teel's battle cries sounded distantly jubilant, but she and Viconia were thoroughly encircled; the accursed Edwin was shielded by some stonelike magic, but seemed nearly overcome. A dwarf Ajantis did not know fought near to them, a battleaxe against hobgoblin knees. The priest of Cyric appeared to direct the foes; he stood upon blue carpet some distance in front of the altar to the evil god, gesturing into the air, and Ajantis began his duties.
Faldorn had barely uttered a syllable when two of the goblins fell upon her; her wolf dived to the attack, but her spell was broken. Ajantis struck against the closest of them, praying she would be spared. The wolf's attack hamstrung the hobgoblin it fought, bringing it fallen to the ground, but there were more and still more. An illusionary Imoen thrust a frantic arm through Ajantis' chest; Skie fought, but she had allowed herself to step away, following the angle of a slice to a hobgoblin's neck, becoming separated from him and surrounded. They stood alone, and though one hobgoblin was no threat to a true knight a great array of them most certainly was—
Faldorn. She screamed when her wolf howled; two hobgoblin blades cut through it. Valiant as its mistress, it tried a final bite; fell to the ground truly dead and shimmered into some oblivion—
The maid herself flung her body upon them in vengeance; her form shifted to that of a young bear, and with claws and teeth she aimed for the flesh of her foes. Ajantis fought to defend her; he shielded against two who attacked his left, striving to reach her. The beasts stood in his path. He saw the bear, too many hobgoblins to quickly count surrounding it, more of them falling upon Ajantis himself— An arrow hit his left side, scraping through his chainmail, the impact almost taking his footing. He stumbled, and a sword opened the mail across his right forearm before he could defend. Skie was backed into the wall, blood spreading across her face, and the images of Imoen died one by one. Aquerna fled to the roof, crouched hidden and able to do nothing.
Three hobgoblins had fallen about the bear; far more opened wounds in its flank. Ajantis shouted his intent to aid Faldorn, fought onward despite his wounds; more arrows flew about him, deflected by his shield. The bear's howl was desperate.
He reached her at the moment the wounded body of a young girl appeared between their swords. Faldorn was smaller than the bear had been, and fell with a space about her; Ajantis flung himself near, defending her.
"My wolf—they..." she breathed; she seemed to try to struggle to her feet, but she was injured badly. The need for a holy vengeance filled his mind; each drop of hobgoblin blood he spilled was necessity, and the will to fight these evil creatures erupted within him. But there were too many. They came; and they came; and they came. Faldorn could not heal herself whilst they attacked her, lying vulnerable on the temple's bloodstained carpeting, and he could not kill them all. There was none he could do but fight whilst breath remained in him. The next arrow struck his thigh.
Warning: This is the highest rated out of the three Cloakwood chapters, and indeed as high-rated as this fic gets. Please take caution if you have triggers.
If there was one thing he loathed above all, it was tedium. The slaves were sheep; herding them was dull work.
And they milled about him precisely like sheep. Perhaps if even one of them were a moderately attractive and terribly grateful woman he could forgive, but this he could not. (The cook certainly failed to fall under the description.) His invisibility had dissipated, though its restoration was but a simple melody from him. He hummed three low notes and at least gained vision in the darkness, the layers of darkened planes and the more vivid colours of the living. The air was still filled with smoke and caused both the slaves and the mooncalf boy to cough. Obviously not jaded sufferers of black lotus.
On the opposite bank, ashes lay on the ground, and armed figures trampled the wreckage; two ropes had been stretched across in place of a proper bridge, such that the crossing was possible though no easy affair. Simple enough to swim, if it came to it.
He watched and waited for the guards across the way to notice something wrong; to see and disbelieve that their orders were so foolish when they saw the hordes gathered here. He hefted his flute ready in his hand; better a coward than a dead man, and better yet a prepared man.
Yet Garrick the mooncalf was already trying something highly counterproductive.
"Davaorn's orders!" the foolish boy called across at them; at the least he had completed some slight cantrip beforehand to give him more than a female adolescent's voice.
"Yeah? So they got those bastards?"
"Yeah!" There was a rather excessive dose of the party paladin in Garrick's yell. "You get to patrol and look for their friends, Davaeorn says!"
"—Hey, that you, Frias?"
"Nope—hey, wait—the slaves up here? Come—Calban—"
They were not quite yet in the position he would have wanted them, but with the potential of a mob at his direction it was simple enough. These odds certainly favoured him; and as in any gamble, favourable odds dictated an action.
The melody Eldoth cast from his flute was a variation upon an old dance tune, a rill of high notes that were crafted to make anyone wish for hornpipe or tarantella. When combined with one or two low notes that could force anyone to cease all motion: it was a satisfying spell to cast on enemies. The four guards were close enough that its effect spread against all of them, and each became immediately paralyzed; it could have been one, none. He allowed himself a slight sigh of relief.
"Go ahead and take your righteous vengeance," he inflamed the mob.
"To—kill—" Garrick stared. Some of the former slaves were already clambering across the ropes as best they could; his darkvision showed him one more in the patrol, racing to the defence of his fellows. Eldoth wasted an allotment of magic-forged missiles at him. "What's that spell?" Garrick burst out.
"An unpleasant little number trying to replicate a trifle of divine power. Entertainingly sadistic if coupled with a herd of summoned monsters; but these slaves will have to do for now." The guards were falling easily to the slaves' improvised weapons—a rock here, ripped timber there, even a dropped dagger or two. With the infravision he could see the amusing look of popeyed terror in the eyes of the frozen guard in the forefront just before he was dragged down.
"What they're doing—" Taking a bloody revenge on their erstwhile owners, of course. The true tragedy in it was that the pest had probably not been dropped on his head as a child as an explanation for his mind. "I'm not sure. It's—"
"You've no idea how those bastards treated us," said a slave, standing away from the massacre. "Ilmater may not condone such things, but I'll not stop them." Whip marks ran down his back; he looked at Garrick. "The way's clear for us to leave. A blessing to you and your friend."
"The Cloakwood's dangerous," Garrick said, again stating the obvious. "I'll—I have to find Yeslick, don't I?" he said, nervously, looking again briefly to what the slaves had done to their erstwhile masters; and back to the slave leader. "And...and I have to come back. You need help."
"We waste enough time," Eldoth sneered. Skie's little revelation of bastadry had denied his plans; at least this mine had sounded to be a venture of some potential profit. The note to recall his invisibility was simple, quick, and high. He snapped a prepared eyelash between his fingers, and remained unseen.
The mines were emptier now; and Garrick and his bright clothing, in as dreadful condition as it was, would divert attention away from Eldoth himself. It was easy enough to follow the trail of bloodshed to where that boar of a woman et al had forced themselves to.
"Eldoth, why do you treat Skie so badly?" the boy attempted in conversation with his better.
"Why did Skie lead me to believe that she was her father's trueborn daughter?" Eldoth said. This was the room where they had killed the mage bitch and the others with her; a guard's slit throat grinned red at him. He'd already taken what was worth thieving from their corpses, and the mage's robes still gaped open across her bare breasts. Garrick looked carefully aside from the scene.
"Because it's some mistake. Because she thought you could sort it out for her." Some vestige of immature chivalry; how quaint. They stepped through the large kitchen area; Eldoth had done enough wandering to search for slaves to incite that he knew the way to this point, at least. The long tunnels were cursed confusing, and if Garrick the simpleton continued to gasp every time he ran into something in the dark, he might even have to teach him to cast infravision. Softly and repeatedly calling out directions past the invisibility was another irritant.
"Daddy dearest would hardly listen to the likes of me," Eldoth said. Build enough of a habit of wives and daughters opening their legs to one, and jealous and wealthy men started to become...mildly peeved. It was also, of course, that to them he was nothing: a Ruathym northlander, a bard schooled in New Olamn and the son of fishers and poisoners. Skie had thought it terribly exciting that he knew how to steal.
"She deserves better than you! You keep telling her, be quiet, your opinion's not worth anything, you're not worth anything—and you're wrong."
It was the boy's poor taste that flashed sheep's eyes at the insipid brat; particularly when there was such a charming drow also in the party. Bodies fell at the end of this particular passage, marking their way clearly. "Speaking frankly, Skie is a particularly feather-brained female talented at spending her father's gold."
Bodies in here, also. One guard appeared to have fallen some distance from his fellows, and the number of wounds upon him seemed slightly more than necessary to have killed him. Scorching spellmarks also marked the path before them; the young wizards had been busy, it seemed.
"That's horrible, and you're wrong," the boy fiercely lectured. Another realm of rough stairs further into the Cloakwood's hidden secret; more marks of their delightful companions' passage about them. Eldoth impatiently waited for Garrick to slip upon them; if he was lucky, the boy might even break his jaw in the course of the fall. "She's—once she ran into a vampiric wolf to save me. She's stronger than you think."
A stone door swung open on hinges almost destroyed. "You praise women for their strength? I'm afraid I always imagined your clumsy flirting to consist of boasting to a lady that you are now enough of a man to shave each Shieldmeet, and perhaps soon you may even start to drink ale," Eldoth said.
More bodies lay beyond. The boy's cowardice showed itself again in his pale face and trembling step. Eldoth rifled through the corpses in case of valuables missed, not heeding Garrick's distress.
"It—doesn't matter what you think," the boy said, when they had passed by that scene. "I know what I have to do now. You only wanted to use her. But Shar-Teel hates you even more than I do, Imoen sees right through you—and Skie is strong. Stronger than either of us; than you. In some ways."
Ridiculous. Eldoth was a strong man, Skie a weak girl; and though he would freely admit his studies in the Art did not transcend dabbling—spells were useful enough, but he'd no care to bury himself in books for long years and small returns—he was still beyond the younger Thayvian and the childish Imoen when he deigned to cast, knowing more powerful ways and turns within the Weave by song's instinct.
There were the sounds of battle, audible now; "Hurry, whelp," he ordered. They passed through; down; and looked over a small army of hobgoblins making easy work of their fellow adventurers within a place marked by the Dark Sun.
Were the odds more favourable to retreat? No, Eldoth thought; they had come so far, and the rewards might be considerable. Garrick gasped, loudly; it was an intimidating enough sight—only Shar-Teel's height and, partly, Viconia shielded by her goddess were visible amidst the attack; all others presumably far within the thick groupings of hobgoblins. From Garrick's white face, Eldoth did not trust the boy's courage to hold; but instead of running, or of futilely charging in and having himself killed—he stood his ground. For the time being.
"Perhaps you know what we have to do," he told Eldoth, who wearied of cryptic pronouncements; "—have to, together, because—" So it was that particular song the hapless child wished to attempt.
"Phrygian mode on the third key," Eldoth ordered. He gave Garrick a soft tuning note, repeated it once more; they could afford no mistakes. As little as the boy's voice was to his own musical tastes—slovenly technique, thin, overly sweet—it found the Weave as well as any other bard's. And two combined could attempt to be exponential in effect.
Garrick began to sing the melody. Eldoth held the counterpoint, depth, strength, and careful fingerings, the elaborate and complicated harmony that progressed from discord to resolution in half a breath. Enthrallment, this; he reflected briefly that hobgoblins had small minds, and that tactical reassurance alone cost him effort he should not have spent. Songs were usually a means to an end for him; but in the sheer physicality of it—breathing sparingly in the few times permitted him, air hastening to his lungs; mouth and teeth and tongue and spit calling the notes; fingers precise and careful and beginning to sweat—beyond the palpability of it lay the power. He piped the notes demanded of him such that the cantors would become transmuted by the canticle, seared by its inferno into faded and falling ashes tossed to the wind. Crescendo, Garrick's voice still clear enough, Eldoth's counterpoint labyrinthine in its details and flawless in execution—
The hobgoblins began to look to them. Supple-limbed Viconia drove her dagger through the neck of one that had flagged its attention to watch. It was the goblins, not their acquaintances, that they sought to subdue, and Garrick's voice sharpened to direct the spell in such a manner. A quick arpeggio flashed across Eldoth's fingers; a hobgoblin had started to advance towards them. Fortunately the boy adapted to it, indeed singing well enough to halt it temporarily in place.
Potent enough music to briefly capture all of them; Eldoth felt a prickling of fear at all the yellowish eyes turning their direction. He played steadily even as an arrow was loosed and fell inches above their heads. A single falter in the song and they would both be lost. Subdue the archer. A bloodstained Imoen, perhaps weeping, stabbed a hobgoblin near to her in its spine. She thieved its sword to replace hers and attacked; near to her were two fallen figures, an unknown girl and the paladin.
The web he and Garrick cast trembled like rain-soaked goassamer, filling this Cyric-marked domain. Fragile and intricate, in the sight of the Weave the dull silver strands of his flute entwining the pattern against sunny yellow. Flimsy as the slightest disruption or discord would break it; a thing of complex allure in its way, deadly as the strands became soaked in blood. As much as he generally believed Shar-Teel should shut up and off herself as a service to all humanoids, her battle-cries blended into the song as a counterpoint again to his and Garrick's careful timing. (If playing at an exhibition of animal tricks: the music is matched to the pace at which the horses dance, not the horses to the music.) The web bound the hobgoblins; a sputtering cantrip spilt from Edwin's hand, a bloodied Skie seemed to fade from vision behind the shadows of her enemies, a dwarf's body jerked slightly upon the ground. All tremulous portions of one spellbinding.
And the black-clad priest sought to utterly destroy it. He stood on his altar, a prayer raised against the song's influence. In Eldoth's manipulation of the Weave he felt it as a nauseating darkness, the spreading control of a blackened sun. Garrick's voice wavered, and the Cyricist's power spread; arrows flew about Shar-Teel and Viconia.
The girl Imoen cut and run, gathering her wizard's robe about her. Eldoth knew he'd no such luxury of turning back. Garrick's voice deepened; Eldoth lowered his flute's tones to imitate it, and would have cursed his growing-ever-more slippery fingers if he'd either thought or breath to spare. Many hobgoblins yet lived, and the priest's directions worked against the spellsong.
Cease; must hate and death return; cease! must men kill and die; cease! drain not to its dregs The urn of bitter prophecy— Garrick's words sounded; not at all the lyrics Eldoth would have chosen. The frail web faltered, the hobgoblins within it almost ready to attack its creators. Eldoth could detect a note of hoarseness, now, in the boy's voice; he sweetened his flutesong as best he could. If they chose, they could control these array of brutal servants.
A brighter Toril rears its mountains, from waves serener far; a new Chionthar rolls its fountains against the morning star—
Cruelly and pathetically optimistic. Yet that much, Eldoth supposed, was somewhat antithetical to the Dark Sun. For himself, let it be the negative beauty of the Maid of Misrule, as she had no doubt turned her eye to him from birth—but there was no time. Soon the hobgoblins would end the music in the simplest possible manner. While it bound the creatures, let those who could murder as many as possible do so. The unknown girl raised herself slowly from the ground, making as if to cast a healing upon herself.
The Cyricist's chanting stammered for a bare second; and for that moment many hobgoblins stopped under the song's power. The exertion of it had begun to pain him; Eldoth would swear that it was drops of blood and not water running from his forehead. Such joined spells exhausted. He and Garrick would transform to ash indeed, desiccated dust upon the wind. Many of his songs ran so, for man's cold grasp at these matters could never last for any great time.
Someone was loosing arrows at the Cyricist, and a third found its way to the priest's neck: Imoen the wizard. These noble-minded fools could be relied upon to risk their lives, after all. The song flowered; the hobgoblins were arrested to his will; and Garrick sung between the flute's subtleties. Shar-Teel behaved as expected.
'Twas Garrick first to slump silent and hoarse to the ground when the need for the song was ended; but Eldoth would have admitted truly that he also was an exhausted man. He wiped an arm across his forehead and found it damp; he crouched leaning against the wall and let others plunder for the time being, if they would. They had bound a force of goblins in place long enough for them to be slain; perhaps he would place that within an epic chant at some time. Leave out, probably, Shar-Teel's credit; dark elves, though, were ever a fascinating subject to the fantasies of a small-minded audience.
"Yeslick!" cried Garrick, and Eldoth would have taken the word for simple brain-damaged nonsense, but the boy's path took him to kneel beside the fallen dwarf. A name, come to think of it, that some of the slaves had muttered, of little importance as that had been.
"Knight! Silvanus bids you to rise!" the girl's harsh voice commanded; the paladin was in the position of a pincushion amidst dead hobgoblins, and Eldoth dared to hope the tedious imbecile had met a deserved end.
She began to chant something, pulling the arrows free and laying her hands where blood gushed. "No. I shall not allow Nature's despoilers to—"
"Viconia!—It's Yeslick, he needs—" There were tears upon Garrick's stained face.
"Force a healing potion down his throat, rivvil," she throatily commanded. She devoured one herself, her fine body smeared by offal and blood. With Shar-Teel, she leaned against the wall; both, it seemed, taken to their limits.
"But I don't have one, I—"
"I think there's a trap." Imoen pointed to the Dark Sun's altar; three potion bottles stood above it upon a shelf. "Magic. I can't, it feels all...I don't think I...Edwin, you?"
The wizard, pale and moving slowly, had himself swallowed one such potion. "Subtle. (Probably harmless.) If I truly must—"
"Yes. You should," Imoen said.
Ajantis coughed and spluttered, the girl's hands upon him. (Likely he would cough and splutter at any female's hands upon him, given paladins' acclaimed prudishness.) "Hurts—" The pathetic squirrel companion leaped from the roof to his side.
"I shall cast more blessings upon you shortly, I promise. Shall I next heal the dwarf?" the girl said.
"Hurry," Garrick begged.
"Simple, simple, little magic traps," Edwin muttered to himself. He stepped gingerly to the altar to Cyric. "(Do I need to understand its pathetic intent? I think not!) Scarce above cantrip level, I imagine. Easy to avoid—(There is not much to it, is there?)—easy to lay hands upon. (I think I see...half of a conditional rune; perhaps leading to further beneath?—But it is inactive, apparently wizardly might is not the intruder designed— Enough. As if I were a useless diviner to care.) Several potions of healing among other things. Behold." He gathered the bottles into his hands and backed away from the altar. "Very useful, indeed." He immediately drained one himself, and was met by various glares from most of the others.
"Give them to me, iblith," Viconia hissed, the wall at her back supporting her upright.
"Hush, dear, don't fuss." Nevertheless he yielded to the drow; no wonder she had no respect for Edwin as a man. Viconia and Shar-Teel passed the flask between themselves as if it were wine.
Skie rested quietly on the ground; she was draped upon a hobgoblin's large corpse as if it were some silken divan within her father's mansion, the enchanted sword fallen beside her. She said nothing. Her pale skin was crossed with blood and dark bruising; not all of the blood was hers. Give anyone a sword of that nature and even emptyheaded noblewomen like her could...
"You're old," the healer girl announced, bent over the dwarf still.
"Mock if ye must—but I'll swing an axe as well as any of ye pipsqueaks, I'll see this mine beaten back to the watery tomb it belongs—"
"Age and experience are a part of Nature's cycle, I intended no insult," the girl said. "It is only that you must rest; I cannot fully heal you of the damage—"
"Yeslick, she might be right; don't hurt yourself—" Garrick said.
"Nay, give me a breath to catch and I'll cast the healing myself, I will. I must—"
"Heal Shar-Teel whilst your power remains, jalil," Viconia ordered the girl. "She is the strongest of us."
"Of course." Fortunate that they had found such a stray, Eldoth thought; soon he would have to stand once more. He'd still the spear he had gained, even if the threads of his music hung tattered and torn about him and his body exhausted.
"Then Skie," Viconia continued. "She's no caster to need rest."
"(That is because masters of arcane knowledge are simply more powerful—)"
Skie. The drow indeed hated men, to choose her. But the girl showed enough healing talent to cross to each of them in turn, ending with Eldoth.
"This will grant you vitality," she said; her light touch restored some potency to Eldoth's limbs, though his ability to cast yet scarcely flickered inside him. One of those deranged forest druids, from her speeches; this Faldorn was quite a pretty girl below the battlestains. In two or three years and cleansed of dirt she might make an attractive woman. He stood.
"Kill the mage quickly," Shar-Teel said. His chambers stood behind a secret door; protected by guards.
"I'll kill the bastard; I'll see to it the rats don't—" Garrick tried to plead with the ranting fool of a geriatric dwarf again. Eldoth took out the scroll he had plundered; he should have sold it for a pretty enough sum upon abandoning this place, but it was not the only scroll he had obtained, and ought to aid them in their escape.
"Murdering wizards works best quickly, doesn't it," Skie chattered.
"Indeed." Shar-Teel watched her.
"I could be invisible enough; I might even be fast enough. Varscona isn't even the only weapon I can use on him," she said; and yet again Eldoth doubted her mental stability. Then again, her foolishness was precisely what he had counted on within his now-ruined schemes.
"Quiet; fast; and you've seen magical traps," Shar-Teel said. "Then why not send you first?" Eldoth had heard her whining about Daddy's leaving of magical traps around her bedroom: to be more specific, non-lethal magical traps around her bedroom. She'll probably die, Eldoth thought, and believed the same idea rested in Shar-Teel's eye; but a distraction for the wizard was worth a trifle of sacrifice.
"I'll enchant you if I must, Skie dear. And cast a spell of hasting at that," he said aloud.
"A scroll? That's mine by rights. Hand it to those of arcane superiority!" Edwin said; Eldoth was gratified that the fool would perform the labour for him. The blindly egotistical were so easy to manipulate.
"I wish you wouldn't, Skie," Garrick said. "But—if you are—the boots of speed, they'll fit anyone..."
"Cast without meaningless chatter, rothen." Viconia moved more closely, for the spell of haste to spread properly across the group.
"Kill the chief of this unnature." The druid girl smiled with slightly crooked teeth. "Power remains to me to fight his bodyguards whilst his door is opened, for the woods themselves cry for the destruction of the mine. A blade of flame to slay them." Blazing fire appeared between her hands, and Eldoth leaned away from it. "The strength of the bear." Her chant wrapped a pale light about her short frame, and her stance shifted into one implying greater mastery of a sword. "The agility of...the squirrel, perhaps, good lady." She took the paladin's animal to her shoulders. "It will last long e—"
The spell of hasting ran through him; Eldoth took in his grasp a poisoned arrow and held it ready.
If you could have asked of Shar-Teel her exact feelings at that time, she would have said that she could scarcely remember being happier.
Certainly there had been other battles that had equally excited and challenged her; but this was the most recent in time. And it had been too long, a part of her exulted.
A pair of unnatural warriors wielding swords glowing the colour of blood, in addition to all others she had fought. The world was filled with males to slay. She almost appreciated that incompetent boy's heavy footfall which had set this merry couple upon her path, nearly tearing him to pieces. She could hear noises of the battle with the wizard ahead. Any half-decent woman or man with a sword could slay a mage if they were close enough to them; grant her these undead horrors.
Davaeorn's human bodyguards, behind the door, had proven to have another cleric amongst their number. The numbers were not ill, but given weak casters against strong metal— The girl Faldorn's blade from its sounds set them afire.
To think that two nondescript girls and a couple of scrawny males wandering near basilisk country had brought her to this point. The lair of the mad ettercaps; that snaga of a half-ogre she'd yet to kill and his camp; the spiders and various repellent creatures; a few mages, a large number of pathetic hobgoblins; and this.
Behind their helmets was the same red light that shone from their blades. Their black armour fit man-sized about what a rational guess would have placed as empty space, or cracked old bones; bulky, it gave no impression of mere nothingness beneath, and she would rather fight than idly calculate. Shar-Teel kicked at a table, overturning it between herself and them. Delicately filigreed crockery smashed to pieces on the stones. Her sword first blocked the attack of the one nearest to her, and then slid to score a hit across its metalled chest. The deep scratch she left was bright silver, briefly; and then it reddened and turned to black as if it had never been made.
She looked again at what they were: the armour that appeared to move on its own; the swords; a blood-coloured substance that was not fire, greatly different to the druid girl's efforts. As if from something in those other planes—well, male wizards had the worthless ego to try to play with things that would happily destroy them.
Her sword met the red blades again; for a moment she saw her own face reflected in the light gathered about them. Tazok—forcing her to kneel to a male—
She yelled a battlecry. These probably-male things would—
Ten years ago. The damned Red Falcon lot—led by a woman, avatar's light shining from her eyes, routing the mercenary forces arrayed against—
The time when gods set foot on mortal planes and made work for the likes of her. The reflection filled her vision; as if time had ceased to run. Tethyr, that invasion. She'd hired with a band mostly of useless males, half-orcs and half-ogres besides the humans. Tear up the country, seize the loot, set a few villages on fire. The promises of pay and carnage had been good enough for her.
They were destroyed by the Bloodhawk. Shar-Teel remembered the red-armoured woman upon her warhorse at some distance from her, the standard of her Knight flapping against the sky—the glow of a deity's power behind her face. Avatar of the Red Knight, goddess of strategic warfare. Her company of the bird-blazoned, red cloth with bloodstained beaks and claws, not faltering regardless of what was done to them. The Order of the Red Falcon. There were times Shar-Teel would have enjoyed such odds, and at that time at the least she had been older than the girls with her now, but on that battlefield she had known discretion was the better part. She'd tripped over a corpse opened from head to groin whilst running for cover, stumbling over wastes of males lying dead on the ground. That long-distance sight of a part-god had been enough for her. Now she was a greater warrior than she had been, but yet these extraplanar scum brought back to her such failures and fears—
The ground shook below her. She moved again; the air was cold, and that long moment was the work of sorcery—
Her weakness was allowing them too close to her. A blow touched her armour, and searingly melted it to her skin. She continued to watch those swords. There were other fears waiting there, she knew of herself, and her strike to get the horrors away from her was not as powerful as it ought to have been.
Perhaps she could call for a spellcaster's dispelling of their powers, as if she needed any kind of help. No. She was a stronger warrior than that, she would swear, lacking in male weakness; she would defeat these—
"If it bleeds, I—" Her sword sunk into a joint in the shoulders of the left-hand horror; the unnatural red light trickled from it, and again the armour merged whole across the wound. These did not bleed. And there was fear within them.
She did not fear males. She had never feared males. She would not see within the substance of those swords.
No time to yell a grim battlecry. She felt herself backed against a shelf, stocked with strange components in jars; her elbow sent eyeballs marinated in liquid scattering across the flagstones. The swords swept close to her and she blocked with her enchanted steel.
Fear gripped her. If this pathetic witchcraft spared her those memories, that would be enough.
She stepped forward. The attack of one seared her armour again; her sleeve below it was caught on fire. Her arm burned. They were close to her. She raised her sword, and aimed for a clean slice across the neck.
Cut off the head, store under running water, light a holy candle in the mouth? Almost anything dies that way.
A helmet clattered to the floor. She kicked it far from the body; red gathered at the neckjoint, over empty space. That one's headless frame flailed at her still, but the fear in its blade was dead. It fell slowly, the armour unravelling into dust.
"Feeling—lucky, are you, scum?" She faced only one now. It gave no sign of hearing her. In its sword remained—nothing worth the noticing. It tried a sudden attack, its strength weaker than hers. She forced it back, step by step. It fought in ways that nothing in the mortal planes would, the armourjoints contorting into shapes none could imitate, its battle carried with no concern for its wounds. A dark shape; she gave her mind to the movement of its gauntlets more than the blade.
She had it into its corner, triumphant. Cut off the head— The second black helmet fell to her. Whilst it crumbled into dirt, she beat out the fires upon her arm. She had paid no attention to the battles extending beyond these horrors; now it had ended, and she heard.
Somewhere behind her, Ajantis' voice was loud.
"He is evil. Kill him," the paladin said.
We had passed by the torture chambers. There were parts of men fixed to the walls; various devices hung upon a mounted display; two braziers filled with burning coals. The owner, I supposed, had left abruptly to fight us. The metal devices in the flickering light were pincers; long claws; knives strangely shaped such that they would cut in interesting ways; spiked objects the shape of pears; iron boots with screws hanging from them; bridle-like instruments sized for humans. I didn't really know the names of many of them. Partly it smelt of roasted meat, above the taste of blood. It doesn't seem that a person smells too differently from an ordinary roast.
There were two arms mounted on the left side of the wall. They seemed to have belonged to different people, one bulkier than its neighbour. Next to them was a torso, maybe once female, but hard to tell. It was just the torso, skinned, with breasts and all else removed from it. Next there was a bent leg tied to a shield. Male genitalia. Female, splayed out and nailed to the wall; difficult to tell what that was. A hobgoblin head, spikes passed through its eyes and tongue. A left leg fastened to the right of the wall.
"Just a dungeon in here, Ajantis," I said. "Don't bother coming in." One's voice seemed to coldly echo in here. It was a relatively small room. Screams, probably, would be suppressed and confined within this place, turning back upon themselves.
A table with thick straps attached to it stood near the centre of the room. Next to it was a wooden frame, manacles bound to it. Dark fluids patterned those fastenings. There were also four stakes driven to stand tall between the stones of the floor, one shorter than its siblings.
There was faint moaning, actually, in the corner of the room, that scarcely gave an echo at all. It used to be a man. They had taken his limbs from him and left black marks upon the four stumps. Burning so as to stop the blood loss from killing him too quickly. There were branded marks on its chest across whip's wounds. Dark emptiness at its groin. A small portion of what smelled like flesh seemed to be burning in the brazier next to it. No ears. A red wound in the centre of its face that snuffled a bit. Bloodstains to the corners of its mouth; it seemed to lack a tongue to speak past its moans. And its eyes could not close any more. It would have taken a fine dagger to slice through eyelids and leave those staring eyes unable to look away from what was being done; that might have been the first step.
"There is—nobody we can aid, then?" Ajantis called, in his place outside the doorway.
I stabbed down at it. Ice gathered around its heart. The man stopped trying to move.
"No. There's nobody alive in here."
Murdering wizards works best quickly, doesn't it?—Invisible enough; fast enough; and not only Varscona to fight with—
It was one mistake, I swear.
The others were attacking Davaeorn's guards, who separated from the secret door. I could open it, the lock not beyond me, its intricacies bending away from its secrets. Inside the master of the mines' chambers was not dark, but a gold-coloured space well-illuminated by magelight in crystal spheres and torchlights bright against the wall. Eldoth's invisibility spell held, and there was no time. I could feel the redness gathered in my hands that froze other people stiff as if they were dead.
There were traps on the ground, small tripwires, a space upon the edge of a rich red carpet that did not quite look right. I ran forward; jumped over. The boots had me flying faster than ever before in a dance, a quick twist in the air for a quieter landing. A soft and graceful landing is part of every good ballet leap. Running further, there was something in the air that smelled like death; the eyes of a floating skull seemed to follow behind me.
The heavy footfalls behind me were probably Ajantis bursting through to help as he had planned, and the mage himself walked to find us.
He did not see me; he looked about himself, his hands reaching for the components he wore attached to his belt. I was close; had only to find my way behind him. He reached out an arm whilst I passed by; I spun out of its path, and he did not touch me. Ajantis was making noise far behind.
"I can hear you. Why have you come? To steal my riches; or seek to righteously punish me for my affront to your morality? In any case; —I have little desire to become acquainted with the dead." He blinked into thin air, beginning to chant.
I reached for the back of his neck. My hands were cold. The grave's touch in my hands failed to hurt him; and then his contingency of protections came around him. Eight—or nine?—of him, moving back and forth, plucking spell ingredients from his belt; a shining cylinder of purple about him; pale blue light over his form with its sharp glowing shield. I skidded back when his protections expanded into being, the invisibility vanishing from me; he cast his spell and disappeared into a glistening silver door in the air.
A race to find him, then. Shar-Teel saying, Bloodlust is acceptable; a voice in the dreams. Why think at all about it when one could kill?
The boots carried me quickly, running into his tapestried rooms. He chanted beyond; suddenly a lightning bolt flowed from his hands, and I somersaulted below its luminous blue. It burned, ricocheting and sizzling at the edge of my waist. My chin hit the carpet; the glow of red in my hands was no more. Pain, but not death. Ajantis' voice cried out in greater shock.
Chanting. I flung myself to my feet; the sound was near enough. Quickness of feet could find a clear shot. An iced arrow to the bow, flying; I did not know if it could hit the real wizard, but it pierced at least one shield of purple. The second arrow, perhaps, distracted him enough to make him flee again through his magic.
Ajantis ran past the passages; as I sped to the wizard I saw three figures fighting at the back. Two of them bore blades the colour of dark blood—
Another arrow. The wizard stood in front of a shrine, before the symbol of a skull blazoned upon the wall. The images of him flickered and died simply enough, even if enough were preserved to temporarily shield him. Three arrows of magic remained; I had wanted to kill Sarevok, but now it was the mage of the mines. Killing wizards. He deserved his death. Sinking a shaft to his heart would be fun. Piercing the tortured thing had been stronger than backstabbing hobgoblins, and this the more so—
He chanted. The protections of his images replaced those that had fallen. The final ice arrow seemed to meet something, for this time he squawked while disappearing. I ran searching for the mage's door; Ajantis hit the skull suspended in the air.
An explosion shook the chambers and fragments of bone erupted about the room. I rolled out of the way of the debris; the knight's steps shuddered back.
The wizard's voice grew in strength. I lowered the bow, took Varscona to hand; stabbed forward, carried by the magic in the boots. Danced forward, prepared to finish the ballet's steps.
Curse wizards' disappearances. "There!" Ajantis pointed; I overtook him in chasing Davaeorn, and then a forest of ogrillons appeared out of thin air. Hefty fists, frames scraping the ceiling. Surrounded—
Ajantis, caught up. His shield opened enough of a path for me to dodge away from the vast fists; he faced the monsters efficiently enough, blocking and striking. I heard him yell about evil, that the wizard had to die— Davaeorn was ahead of us. I ran after the wizard; Ajantis held back the summoned creatures.
The spell he cast was complex, in a language I knew nothing of. Its flow seemed to fill the air of his halls.
Wanting to kill—
The spell finished before I could lunge forward. We were all frozen; not simply me. The torches and magelights did not flicker or lower in their blaze, and yet the air was cold. The images of the wizard first appeared to still, and then faded from sight. I could hear nothing but the wizard himself.
"Are you the one the Iron Thone seeks?" he said aloud; he was the only thing I could hear or see that still possessed power to move. The chambers had become still, no overheard battles or screams remaining; feeling the coldness seep through my body, one could not imagine that it had no effect upon the others—
There was a brightly polished dagger in his hands, and I saw him walk slowly closer. If it had frozen everything, then perhaps it was no ordinary holding but a binding elsewhere, compelling over—
"I don't expect you to answer, dead one. Either way, I can find uses for you as a spell component," he said; and the dagger fell closer.
But there was a sound, behind; made by a creature large enough that his walk on the stones was easy to hear. And a roar overheard; but its attack was not for me, the wizard—
"You mess with me, you make us cold—"
Davaeorn called the words of another spell; red light spilled from his hand that I knew had the power to hold the ogrillon in place. Iron dust crumbled from his fingers.
"Fascinating. Summoned creatures must take offence to that," he said; and then the ground shook again below us. The master of the mines looked almost startled, turning his head quickly from one side to another. "You, however, have no more time—" The dagger slid forward.
The ground shaking—Things started to move again, and that was the end of it. The dagger reached my neck, but slid shallowly to the edge of it; I slipped to the side and forward. Ajantis ran with me. Ogrillons chased him, but his sword was reaching the wizard. We beat at his protections. Davaeorn chanted; there were two blades on him, and that distracted the spells. There were images—one or two—remaining; the purple shielding fell, and to fight searching to hurt the real wizard was not impossible. It might have been Ajantis' anger to bloody and destroy him at the last, or it might have been Varscona and my hand—some lines of red iced over, some marks of Ajantis' fury. When the last image faded, Davaeorn fell to the ground; cuts at his thigh, his arm, his face, a deep wound on his side that finished him. His eyes were open, and frozen. The ogrillons disappeared at the moment he must have died.
There was a broad stain of blood on my left hand, and both of our blades showed what we had done.
"He is dead," Ajantis said; and the pale light behind his eyes was uncompromising. "But—that, over—"
i'd heard the movement. The boots carried me easily to the evil henchman trying to run—a boy. Several years younger than Faldorn or me. He tried to gasp out a spell while I caught up to him; but it failed when I found him, had him pinned to the wall. I held Varscona to his neck.
He pleaded, and cried. "I'm just Davaeorn's apprentice! Stephan Capetri. Please—"
"Tell us more about the plan," I said. A slim line of blood already ran down the boy's neck, since I had pressed a little too hard to simply threaten him. I passed a hand over my own; the cut the wizard had left slowed in its bleeding, so that I could concentrate upon this.
"I'm just the apprentice! I don't know anything—I—I know just a little! Please!" Snot and tears ran down his face.
"Who are the leaders?" Ajantis said.
"—I don't know! I swear it! The Iron Throne—there are three I think, three leaders but I don't know their names—one's a wizard and I don't know the others—"
"Sarevok. What does he have to do with this?" I said.
"I tell you true, I've never heard the name but there was someone besides the three giving Davaeorn orders—south west of the city's the Iron Throne building! I've never been there but you can—"
"We know where it is."
"What was your evil purpose?" Ajantis demanded. He faced the boy, standing over him far taller and broader; even without the sword pinning him back, Stephan could not have run past him—
"Please—um—in war! If there was war—they could ride in and pretend—raise iron prices and get rid of the competition—but that's all I know—"
"War with Amn?" I said.
"Yes, with Amn—if an Amnish attack, all those rumours—raise the prices to sell the weapons—"
"And the bandits?" Ajantis pushed.
"Bandit raids—" Stephan gasped, crying still. "Raiding the iron for the shortage—Nashkel too—he was called Mulahey and a half-ogre I don't know—if you killed him—I never met—all I know—"
"All you know?" The cold sword had turned the line of blood to red ice. It must have given him pain.
"Only Davaeorn's apprentice—only that—" he begged.
"Then you have told us all?" Ajantis said. "I do not sense a falsehood—"
Stephan Capetri knew what we knew; he had not been lying.
"All true! Please don't kill me! You said—please let me go!"
"Should I kill you?" Fear of death reigned over the boy's wide eyes; and I held it there, on purpose. I spun it as a piece of ribbon, unravelled it for amusement's sake. "Ajantis, do you think I should kill him?" The sword remained at his throat; beads of thick sweat ran down the boy's face. I could feel his desperation, and at that time it was sweet to me. "What do you see when you look at him, paladin?" I said, and Ajantis turned those pale eyes at the boy Stephan. Probably not on me, at that time.
"He is evil. Kill him."
It was Ajantis who screamed. Not the apprentice, who had died quickly. I looked back; I saw Ajantis upon his knees, staring with blue eyes at us, at the body and its slit throat falling to the floor.
One mistake. That's all it was, for Ajantis. It wasn't even him to do the killing. And yet he was on the ground crying to a god that didn't seem to hear him at all.
"I can't see." He could see me well enough; it wasn't that form of vision he had been talking about. "Helm—Skie! I can feel him no longer—I know it has happened—separated—"
He raised his right hand; no twists of bright blue came around it, as it did when he healed us.
"I—asked you to kill an evildoer; I told you that boy was evil and he was; but what have I done that I should lose—"
"Ajantis, it was me—"
I murdered a boy. I sat beside Ajantis. The crime shared between us, both of us doing the act— But if he had said nothing, it could have been done nonetheless; or if I had only ignored him—
"Get some sleep," was all I could say. "Maybe once you've had some rest—Viconia needs to rest and pray about her spells, I don't know anything about it really but maybe if you calm down like her and wait—"
"You dare to say—I am no evil Sharran! Or—but I know this; Helm does not heed me—I am F—"
"Don't say it!" As if saying it or not saying it would make any difference as to the cold reality of it.
"Fallen; I still hardly understand—but a child is dead—but he was evil—I beg forgiveness—I ought to be dead myself rather than this—"
Shar-Teel came; the dwarf and Garrick weren't far behind.
"Get up—" I heard her say; Ajantis appeared not to hear her. "Find that key; take what you can— That includes you, bard—"
"Fallen—I am Fallen—" Ajantis muttered, still staring at his hands, as if some vanished power still remained with him. I remained next to him.
"There's some jellies—help!" Garrick said; Shar-Teel and the dwarf, it seemed, quickly fought them with him. The others had started to find their way.
"Then I'll smash it open if you can't pry it—"
"Protection spells; and scrolls, here—"
"The key. Find the key."
"A glorious robe—a spell in here, perhaps, that halts time— (Spells! Even if I must wade through—)"
"I'm keepin' an eye on you—that spell, I felt it, very bad—"
"Well, I am studying this book myself; so kindly go finger a lock or whatever it is you—"
"I don't care about you being a jerk, I care about gettin' out alive—"
Ajantis and I waited. I think he wept; there was something in his eye. I looked at the boy, made myself do it; brown hair, a mostly-smooth face, very young. I can remember Eddard being that age. Stephan Capetri. A child with a slit throat.
"I believe I do sense it." Viconia came to stand above Ajantis; and she placed a hand upon his chin without much resistance from him, looking scarlet-eyed into his face. "You no longer belong to your god, nau? I feel your despair, your loss; remember that I—"
"Stay away from him!" The commanding tone was the squirrel. The druid had come to us; she stood straight as an oak despite the absence of her flame blade and the bruises and cuts she bore. Aquerna rested at the back of her neck.
"Ajantis," Faldorn called his name; the squirrel left her neck, proving that she was no illusion. She rushed to Ajantis, scuttling across the floor; and seemed to leap into his arms.
"As if I did not feel what has happened—I know what you helped her do!" Aquerna stayed with him nonetheless.
He stammered. "You—then if I am truly fallen, then you must—"
"No. Don't you dare banish me to the planes—" she told him. "You wouldn't get on without me—If you do that, I shan't be able to fight my way back through Helm and the other troglodytes who'd take a companion away from a boy when he's in trouble—as if you don't need me more than ever! That was wrong—you know you made my boy do it—" she snapped in my direction.
"And what do I do? What can I do against it?" he pleaded; Viconia made as if to speak.
"You can get out of the mine," Aquerna instructed; that seemed enough to make Viconia reconsider.
"Someone speaking sense at last. Rothen, I command you to get up," she ordered.
There was Imoen, I remember. Skie? What have you done—
Stumbling into a rough lift; Edwin firing a cantrip to make it go. Eldoth was alive; he'd found Garrick, they were here again—all of us. If only we had not—
Ghouls wrapped in rags lurched toward us, crudely, while we searched for the gate of the flood. Dressed like the slaves—
"That one used to be Joryval," Yeslick said, grey-faced, "and the other has Karan's eyes—" People. But we still had to kill them.
Imoen's voice sounded bright and clear, and an arrow of fire materialised in her hand; she flung it, and the first ghoul burned and collapsed. Shar-Teel finished them.
"I told you my fire spell was better," Imoen said in Edwin's direction, "and can we get out of here now already?"
"Turn the key to loose the flood," Yeslick said. "For Clan Orothiar. Best start running, friends."
"So you need magic to pull the plug and speed to run away?" Imoen said. "Skie, I don't want to know what you've been stepping in, but hand the boots over. I bet I can fix this and escape fast—"
"'Tis my clan—"
"I might be lacking a bit on spells right now, but sure as the Nine Hells I'm a lot lacking in patience here, Mr. Dwarf." There was little more resolute one could see than Imoen's scratched, dirt-stained face at that moment; she stared at the lock as if another flame arrow were about to burst from her eyes. "So that's how this key fits. I got it. Get to the surface!"
The dwarf looked at her, then slowly nodded. The mines were dark; we left them behind, and at the surface the time was at a dawn.
There were people waiting for us; for Yeslick. Former slaves, ragged, hungry. Imoen was last, running quickly from a tide of rushing waters; I waited near the ladder and gave her a hand to help her up, and the waters came crashing behind and over us as we fell to the clean grass. That marked some sort of boundary. It was cold; below us, the dark waters rose high. Darker shapes whirled within them.
"We've been waiting for you," a bearded man said to Yeslick; the group of people milled around him, above the flood.
"Ye fool. Then we'll travel together," Yeslick returned gruffly. "There's much to be done—we'll all march, ye hear? To that rat bastard Rieltar; tell the Grand Dukes what he's done—"
They were free. I saw that something like a bridge had been restrung between the isles, that the burned buildings had stores piled in front of them, brown sacks and boxes. That there were armour-clad bodies on the ground.
"It was time itself that Davaeorn stopped," Edwin pronounced gravely, "(and curse him for illegible spellbooks—) and for us down there it won't have been alike to here—"
"'Twas nothing my clan's knack couldn't end; for these folks, it's not been so long as all that, and for you adventurers, a little younger than ye ought to be makes no difference—"
I had seen the mage-lights freezing against the walls; Davaorn moving within his suspension to speak. It was a dawn here; and which dawn I didn't know.
Garrick came with spare cloaks from the packs we'd left stored behind; Imoen and I were shivering and wet, soaked by the flood. I did not feel cleansed by it.
"Skie, I wanted to talk to you—I don't know what happened down there and—" We hugged; he was warm. "Do you need me? I mean, here with you?"
"No." Garrick's innocence—from the view of cold kill things cold, it was useless runs away not very strong however much that was false because his songs were beautiful and his spells helped us and his crossbow was quite good; and from the view of friend, it's best they all leave. "What do you want to do?"
"I'll go with Yeslick. Help him make sure these men are safe," Garrick said. "This I can take care of; I've thought that I might be better at writing songs than living them, but Yeslick helped me—and I want to do this, because I think I can."
"That's good, Garrick. Take care of them." He could save people; Garrick always was a kind and gentle person.
"If Eldoth tells you that you're worthless, he's wrong," Garrick said, strangely enough, "and you're braver than I am, I think—you're a good friend, and no matter what, I think you're a beautiful person—"
I murdered a child. In other times, I might have also said that Garrick was only being kind, especially with Imoen and Viconia in the party. "Good luck. You should go."
A final hug. Garrick—everyone—we could hardly think clearly, exhausted. Dirty. Finding places to rest, taking the slavers' buildings that were not flooded. I had Eldoth there with me.
"I ought to congratulate you, dear," he said; we were alone, in a small room of the guards' lodgings, near to a fire made with stray pieces of wood. "Success in battle."
"It wasn't anything like success. I don't want to tell you."
"You don't need to, my angel. I know such things must upset your feminine temperament. But don't you feel just the least little excitement at a victorious conquest?" He crossed the floor in a smooth movement, and took me in his arms; I clung to him, closing my eyes. It was Eldoth, and in him was the comforting familiarity of the days before everything happened.
"It must have been interesting for you, watching the knight kill the master of the mines," he continued. "The inevitable physical excitement. One feels at first, that the scheme is highly impractical; but after exerting oneself, and seizing the day..."
He kissed me; somewhere near my ear, working down slowly to my mouth. As intensely as if each one left a bleeding wound, a burning brand rising between us. It was true that I had felt something when I had killed—guards of the mine. Killed guards and bandits.
"Keep doing that—" I asked of him. Eldoth was right; there was an—exhilaration about it.
Not the comforting familiarity of the old days at all, really. It was Eldoth carrying the spear, Eldoth fighting the guards, that was behind this. My wet clothes slipped from me. There was the smell of smoke in the air, the thick taste of drying blood; and through it all I wanted Eldoth as much as I had wanted to kill. Fighting stains your body, and that too was the choices rooted in flesh—
He pulled me down; we were on top of his cloak, near to the flames. Naked. I felt his teeth on me, his forceful movement; tasted his skin in return. Called his name.
We were together; there was pain like the pain of a fight at first, but it faded. Sweat and fluid between us, blood warm in our veins, his strength holding me under him. Using our bodies almost to the extent we fought in the mines. At some point, entangled with him, I fell exhausted into darkness...
It was cold when I woke.
A/N: Garrick quotes from Shelley's poem Hellas, slightly baldurised. The time-stopping spell mentioned is not standard.