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Jurian Was Here: An Adventure Diary

Chapter Text

“I am not a superstitious woman,” Jurian said, staring into her tall mug. “Magical incongruities and undead minions of dark gods aside,” she laughed, “the mystical workings of the multiverse have proveable existences and scientific applications, always. If there can’t be a voice , there can’t be any whispers. Simple as that.”

She gripped the iron tankard tighter than was necessary and swirled the last remaining sips of ale around in the bottom of it until she had created a little whirlpool. Flickering firelight cavorted across the amber liquid as it spun and eddied. The tankard’s unyielding firmness felt good in her hand, solid... Real. But, if she was being honest, merely disbelieving in them had not stopped the whispers. They never had any meaning she could understand, no coded messages or accusations, though without a doubt it was her brother’s voice she heard in the night.

“I was so young when he left,” Jurian glanced at her companion without really looking at him, “too young to appreciate how you might be seeing your best friend for the last time.” Jerriod’s insolent grin had showed perfect white teeth as he had mussed her hair, so different than his.

“Jerry emptied out the human bits of our parents’ union,” she said. “Soft ears, almost round, and a bushy head of golden curls. I got the lion’s share of elf parts,” she ran the fingers of her free hand along the edge of one of her long, slanted ears, tracing modest gold piercings with her fingertips. Her hair was black and hung straight down to her hips, though she wore it braided most days, as it was now. While not overly proud of her ears, modesty was an esteemed virtue in her father’s house, she sure as hell was not going to ever be embarrassed of them.

“Our mother was a half-elf,” she steadied her voice by draining the rest of her tankard, and wiped her chin with a shirt sleeve. “Dad was a wood elf druid, if you can believe it,” Jurian laughed. “I inherited father’s dark skin while Jerriod ended up pale enough to almost pass as as a Northman, coupled with those ears. He got most of the affinity for plants and animals though, and I inherited mother's..." she leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered, "...penchant for violence.” She spun the empty mug on the table idly, staring into the fire. “We were an odd pair,” she said, “but inseparable despite the twenty year difference in our ages. Well, right up until the day he left.”

Her memory of Jerriod’s smiling face was replaced momentarily by a cold vision of the last time she saw him, his face broken and bruised; eyes swollen. She shook her head to clear the image from her mind. Sleep had been a problem lately, or the lack of it. And that was before the whispers started. Now it was all she could do to bury her head under a pillow and sing herself to sleep.

“Anyway,” Jurian glanced at Casimir again, “all that is to say sorry if I’m keeping you up with the singing. It helps --” abruptly she realized he was snoring and staring straight ahead in that odd way he had of dozing off in the middle of conversations. Of course.

That book he was always pouring over sat near his elbow. She bit her lip and looked around. Nobody seemed to be paying any mind to either of them. The common room of The Seven Tables was emptier than usual that night. She hemmed and hawed a bit but it was not long before she gave into curiosity and deftly snatched up the book without disturbing the sleeping monk. It was not like he had ever explicitly forbidden her from reading it. Being protective of something personal was normal. But if you left it out in the open you were practically begging to get robbed. So, she was just doing the honorable thing, keeping it safe for him.

Besides, he never had to find out.

The whispers started up again as she thumbed through the book’s contents, turning pages slowly at first but with increasing urgency. Dancing light from the fireplace carved dark shadows across the angles of her face. Her brother’s hollow voice was no more coherent than usual, but behind it a deeper growl stirred as she read. As the final page fluttered past, minutes or hours later -- it could have been either -- the book moved of its own accord and closed itself up tight.

She stared at it for a long moment, a single tear sliding down her left cheek. The fire was burning low, and the Inn’s owner stared at her pointedly from behind the bar. It was just the three of them now. The front door was closed and latched.

Jurian waved her empty tankard at the woman. “One more before bed?” Her voice was hoarse, but already she felt the unsettling grip of Casimir’s weird-ass book fading away.

Crina rolled her eyes. “It costs double after last call.”

“Is that any way to treat your best and most loyal customer?” Jurian strapped on her most charming grin, the one she had learned from her brother. She stood up, the mug in one hand and the monk’s book in the other.

“Fine,” Crina said with a long sigh, and beckoned her forward, “but this is the absolute last time.”

Jurian slid the book under Casimir’s elbow so he would find it when he woke, and patted the monk's shoulder affectionately. He did not stir. Behind her the fire flared up its last dying gasps as she made her way to the bar. Interestingly, her head felt both cloudier and clearer than it had in weeks. She hugged her thick fur cloak tightly around her shoulders and shivered as Mrs. Grelon pulled a final draught. If rumors could be believed, the night was going to be a particularly cold one.

Chapter Text

Jurian Frayle

Her sword blade shimmered wetly as Jurian dragged a weathered rag across its surface. She had survived run-ins with the undead before, and not infrequently, but she always seemed to forget what a chore it was to clean up the congealed blood and viscera when the fight was done. A convenient forgetting, she supposed, as it allowed her to swing her blades at full force gusto without worrying so much about how long it might take to tidy up after. Best to stay focused in battles, even short ones.

The blood on her cloak and pants, however, was not going to come out. That was as disappointing as it had been unavoidable. Fa’their had taught her to plan ahead and choose targets carefully, but even at her sharpest Jurian had always nourished a deliberate weakness for women with dark hair. And sometimes, against your better judgment, you just had to wade into a thriving mass of unpleasantness to protect somebody who could not protect themselves.

Sorina was just a girl, only sixteen, but nevertheless a girl who proved herself more courageous than most grown soldiers Jurian had met over the years. A smile parted her lips as she remembered the raven-haired teenager swinging a serving spoon of all things at one of the horrific creatures, and that had been after bringing herself back from the brink of death by sheer force of will. A formidable woman already. The sleepy village of Oraşnou had a mighty destiny indeed if Sorina would be sticking around to look after things.

Currently, though, the village had significant recovery ahead. Thin lines of smoke split the air above the thatched roofs of some buildings even as townsfolk worked hastily to put out still spreading fires. Great black swathes of ash dotted the snow-covered roads where bodies of undead creatures had burned or melted away. It was not the most gruesome battlefield she had ever beheld, but no one could deny the situation was grim.

You would not know it to hear the villagers, though, laughing and joking with one another as they cleared away the remains of their attackers and saved the last of their homes from burning. Not a soul had been lost; a surprising feat. Strong folk grew in these mountains. It was not often the case when Jurian wandered into a new village that turns of events or happenstance actually improved the morale of the people who lived there. But the men, women, and children of Oraşnou were more resilient than most, and not even a swarm of monsters called out of the night could damage that morale for long.

From her perch on a rickety chair by the window, Jurian spotted the elven wizard, Aya, moving lightly among those who’d been injured, lending her skill where it was needed. Jurian had not said two words to her, but the elf woman’s presence was all over the village. A newcomer as well, Aya Glenmiir had taken quickly to her self-imposed job as purveyor of magical assistance, only shortly before Jurian herself arrived in Oraşnou. She was gorgeous: tall and lithe with hair like onyx glass that tumbled delicately around her radiant green eyes and pale, narrow face.

Of course, there was no point courting romantic rejection from a creature so obviously far above Jurian’s own station, but neither was there any harm in looking. Aya wore dark robes with a fine woven fringe that she had somehow kept from being mired in the dirt and ice of the road as she worked, and a necklace emblazoned with a magical or religious etching, stars over a road of some kind, perhaps, that rested against her throat above the bosom of a low cut dress of deep blue silk. Jurian made a mental note to ask Casimir when she saw him. The wiry monk probably knew all about mystical stuff like that.

Setting the flat of her sword blade across her lap, she glanced down at her calloused hands and rubbed her thumbs and first fingers together. She felt disgusting. Her nails were dirty, her skin had started to dry out from the cold, and she hadn’t found a spot to take a proper bath in weeks. The recent transfer of her lodging from The Hare and Hair to a room at the somewhat less unfortunately named Seven Tables had not allowed for a long hot soak as she had hoped. There just was not enough time.

Well, in truth she spent most of her free time in the inn’s cramped common room drowning her sorrows in the local golden ale. It was brewed by some farmer or other on the outskirts of town, and the balding innkeeper kept a generous supply on tap, though if rumors held the winter was going to get much more intense than it had been in previous years, and Master Gelon had instituted what he called a “Rationing Policy” that limited her... just her... to five tankards a night. To add insult, Jurian suspected he had been watering down the ale a bit too, ever since she arrived.

Outside, a few crisp flakes of snow begin to drift through the air, dancing playfully in the wind when it gusted. The thick glass of her window was cold to the touch. She could already see a thin layer of fog building up on the inside of it, just from the heat of her body. Jurian leaned forward and breathed onto the pane, and the fog quickly spread. She traced a couple letters in the mist with a nimble finger, those strange new symbols that had awakened in her mind after she read her monk friend's strange little book. Its actual contents were like a lost memory or a dream, but the heaviness of her experience reading it remained.

Eventually she became aware of Aya standing quietly in the street, peering up at her window. When she saw Jurian looking, the wizard frowned and reached up to drape a hefty woolen shawl across thin shoulders before beckoning for her to come down.

That was new. Jurian hesitated a moment, overcome briefly by a feeling not unlike when she was a child summoned to confess breaking her brother’s toy soldiers. But when the universe gave you a chance to make conversation with a pretty lady, you did not question it. That’s rule number one , she thought, sliding her now brightly polished sword into the empty scabbard on her back, next to its mate. As she trundled out the door she straightened her cloak absently, pulling the thick fur tight around her neck, and smoothed her ruined leather leggings. No, there was nothing to be done about those bloodstains. She sighed and descended the stairway with no small amount of sullenness.

Aya was upon her the moment Jurian’s boots crunched on icy dirt as she exited the Inn’s front door. “Is that a threat?” Her eyes were emeralds.

“I beg your pardon?” Jurian replied. This was not how she had planned their first meeting. Of course, she had not planned on meeting the wizard at all. Just, you know, admiring her. From afar. Various townsfolk hustled by in the street, paying no mind to either of the women, each one eager to be about the task of repairing their little corner of the world and securing it against further encroachment.

Aya scoffed and raised an elegant hand toward the Inn’s second story behind her. Suddenly troubled, Jurian turned her head to look up where Aya pointed, at the window of her own room. Sure enough, spelled out on the foggy glass in large, bold letters was the word she had written in Primordial, a language she had only recently, and mysteriously, come to fluently speak and comprehend.

It said RUN .

Chapter Text

A brisk wind rustled the leaves as Desmod Gyrans made his way to the clearing. He pulled the stout hempen coat closer around his chest as if it might protect him from what must be done. Above, squirrels chattered aimlessly in the branches. He smiled despite himself. There had been a time when he too fiddled among the trees, as carefree as they were. So long ago.

His daughter followed along at his side, dragging a delicate ebonwood marionette through the grass behind her. He had instructed Jurian on the proper care of the toy, but she was too much like her mother. Another smile cracked his lips and he sighed. He was becoming sentimental, of that there could be no doubt. But one did not marry a Singer and Storyteller Extraordinaire, a half-human one at that, without a certain susceptibility to... fanciful notions.

When Desmod first arrived in the Grove, the rare adopted son among so many women, he had been an outsider. But they had never treated him as such. The love he felt from his Mothers had informed the entirety of his life since, even as it slipped through his hands and into his daughter’s heart. And his loyalty to the Grove was steadfast as a result; reliable, even to the detriment of his marriage... Jarya had left as the tide darkened. The children had stayed with Desmod. It was their choice.

Ahead, the Elder Druids gathered, dressed in their obsequious fineries. Centuries of tradition informed the actions of the elves who gathered for this meeting. But as the Enclave aged, so too did memory, and power and responsibilities were handed down from generation to generation by rote. Meaning was lost. Intent scattered. Which had, in part, brought them all to this moment.

His own musings could wait, though. Must wait. He pushed all thoughts of decisions and strategy deep into his gut, to hide them tightly away from the prying minds which might lurk anywhere. Each year it seemed the rough denizens of the Underdark pursued the magic of the Enclave more doggedly. Each month defending the Grove became more taxing. Soon enough, if something drastic was not done, their way of life would fade forever.

The plans of the Elders were sound on the surface. It was to be the greatest invasion the Enclave’s elite strike force had levied upon the Illithid in three thousand years, and perhaps enough to finally end hostilities for good. But Desmod had joined enough sorties into the Deep to know the difference between strategy and desperation. History should not be cast aside so casually. Taking the fight to them would bring only destruction. No, better to entice them to the surface where their weakness would... He shook his head ruefully. Try as he might, thoughts and plans scaled his insides like spiders. He was surely broadcasting secrets for a thousand yards.

Not for the first time, he wondered if his attempt to use his daughter as a distraction had been a pointless risk. Certainly her mother would not have approved. But if he could not master his thoughts and keep his focus on the girl, as he had planned... well, there was not much point in dwelling on that, either. He looked down at her and suppressed another smile.

Jurian, at least, shared the carelessness of the squirrels, tromping along in the worn, oversized boots she had stolen from her older brother. Despite enduring the occasional blister, she had insisted on wearing them every day while Jerriod was away. It was going on two years now since they had last seen him. The infrequent letters he sent were plastered on the walls by her bed, and Desmod sometimes heard her reading them quietly to herself when she thought he was not listening. She idolized the boy, so Desmod did his best to hide his irritation. Jerriod had left to fight in others’ wars while the safety of his own homeland was at stake.

It was true enough, though, what the boy had said. The Enclave’s safety was always at stake. But something felt different now. They all felt it. A sea change in the magics that guarded the Grove, little cracks in the Barriers and not enough druids to tend them. One at a time, these problems were manageable, even expected. Lately, however, each day seemed to bring with it new struggles, piling mercilessly upon the old, and weakness was growing within the Enclave like a cancer.

But what needed to be done, would be done. He gripped his sword hilt firmly, resolutely. The next few steps would take him past the point of regret. And he could not let the Grove perish from hubris, or foolishness. We fight ourselves, bickering while the enemy grows stronger and more bold , he thought. He would make his objections known today, and whatever their decisions he would begin the work to bring his sisters into agreement with one another on a way forward. United.

Too late, he heard the whisper of a bow, and even as he turned to pluck the arrow from its flight before it struck home in his throat, another was on its way. The girl, his precious daughter, was on the ground suddenly, face down. Not moving. A black shaft had sprouted from her shoulder, and blood was already spreading from the wound to stain her bright lavender dress. He grunted as a similar arrow pierced his left breast, and again as another struck his thigh with enough force to topple him, tearing through an artery. Wet warmth flooded down his leg.

Through blurry eyes he saw cacophony growing among the Elders as they too began to fall one by one. Shouts and screams echoed through the forest. A third arrow pierced him, making its home beside the first. The thrum of his own heartbeat drew colorful, swimming lines across his vision.

In the trees, hidden from sight, he heard the gentle, unmistakable scritch scritch of a Mind Flayer. The ravenous way they had of rubbing those disgusting mouth tentacles together was the music of nightmares. Desmod Gyran’s intention had been, always , to ensure his son and daughter never had to see one of the vile creatures up close.

WE FEED ON YOUR INTENTIONS .

The voice was not his, but it clawed at the inside of his skull, pulling him up off the ground and peeling away layers of his mind like a dark, ripe sunfruit.

YOU THINK TO ENTICE US TO THE SURFACE, BUT WE ARE ALREADY--

Desmod was barely conscious of a loud animalistic squeal, the churning and mucking of a Nemezir springing to life. The Mind Flayer left him abruptly, and he collapsed next to the brightly colored heap of the young girl beside him. Her chest rose and fell softly, almost imperceptibly. She still breathed.

Desmod dragged forward an arm that took far too long to respond properly to his instructions, and laid his hand across the face of his lovely daughter. Regret and shame bounced angrily across the back of his heart, in tune with his slowing pulse. If he had just left her in safety it would not be ending like this. I have been a fool .

His lung filling with blood, he opened his mouth to speak the Healing Word he knew, the one his Mothers had taught him, and it grew inside him harshly, twisting and sliding. When at last he formed the syllables, he knew they would be his last.

The power that coursed through and out of him was stronger than it had been before, unmatched even on the day he had first weaved the Grove’s magic, and certainly never since. Below him the earth heaved, cracking and stretching, howling in pain as he pulled life from the ground and the trees of the Grove, ferrying it into Jurian’s small body. The air crackled around him, and Desmod was overcome by a vision of deep red leaves and late summer grass. The scent of honeysuckle filled his nose and he heard bright, raucous laughter like the sound of golden bells. A warm breeze filtered through his hair in a gentle lover’s caress, and he felt himself spin out silently into darkness.

Beside his body, the girl moaned once, and then lay silent. The grass beneath her had faded to gray, drained of life. Nearby trees reached up sickly, blackened as if they had been burned. The damage spread out around her like a tomb. But she breathed.

She breathed.

Chapter Text

Jurian hurried over as Haula gently pulled the puppeteered man down off the stage steps and arranged him on the floor. His chest rose and fell in ragged gasps. Fumbling around in her leather satchel, the one given to her by the imprisoned raven man, Jurian produced a magical potion of healing and bent down to pour the draught directly into the man’s mouth. This must be Boris. She did not recognize the man, but his short graying beard and thick nose matched the description they had been given.

Boris’s eyes fluttered as she soothed the viscous liquid down his throat. Haula smiled at her and began the grisly task of removing the hooks that tethered him to the ceiling. Not for the first time, Jurian allowed herself a moment to discreetly admire the halfling barbarian’s physique. Haula was as strong as any creature Jurian had met. Stronger, perhaps, and capable of intense feats of power. She had proven to be a valuable companion, if somewhat resistant to Jurian's charms.

Jurian bunched up the satchel and slid it underneath the injured man’s head, after removing the unusual golden key from it. Of all the trinkets she had squirreled away over the past few days, the key was probably the only useful one. Though they hadn’t found a use for it yet. She stuffed it into one of her many pockets and stood up. She had done what she could for the man. Boris’s breathing was steady now and she thought perhaps he would recover. If any of them made it out of this broken down old mansion alive, of course.

The floor of the theater was littered with the remains of toy soldiers. Strange business, that. She and her companions had made short work of them for the most part, but seeing the dolls come to life had been... unsettling. One or two of them resembled a toy she had been given by her father long ago. Or so she had been told. Jurian did not have any true memories of her father. Just the stories her mother and brother had regaled her with over the years. He was a great force in their lives, even from beyond the grave. She had sneaked one of the less animated marionettes into her satchel, almost absentmindedly, as a keepsake. With any luck it would not spring to life and try to stab her with its tiny sword. But the dolls were the least of all their worries now.

Rich red curtains lined the theater walls, though most had been thrown off kilter. They, and the neat rows of chairs, once so orderly, had been scattered by Balren’s quite wonderful wind spell. One of the marionette soldiers had even been blown through the window and out into the snow. The memory of its tiny body smashing through the glass made her grin, despite the macabre display around her.

The wiry monk, Casimir, stood silently near the doorway. He was paging through that book of his. She had read a few pages of it once, but it was boring nonsense. In fact Jurian could not recall a single interesting thing from it, aside from a general sense of fear and dread that was more the memory of a dream than of an actual feeling. And the way she could now, weirdly, speak and read the Primordial language. She did not like to think about how that could have happened, and quickly put the thought out of her mind, as always.

Casimir would produce some stirring proclamation, no doubt, that would turn out to be true or false. It was a coin-flip, really. And the unpredictability of the information he pulled from that book made Jurian wonder why he consulted it at all. But she knew better than to ask him about it. The book held some secret power or significance he was not yet ready to share. Jurian let her gaze linger on the monk's bare abdomen just for a second, unconsciously biting her lower lip. The lantern light pouring into the room from the hallway emphasized the firm outline of his muscles. She did not go for men often, but sharing time with Casimir over the past week had been... illuminating. In many ways.

Shu, Balren’s nightmarish skeletal owl familiar, screeched sullenly from its perch atop of one of the many chairs strewn around the room. Jurian had taken an instant liking to the nasty little creature, but each of her attempts to befriend it so far had gone unreciprocated. Shu only had eyes for its master, apparently. But that would not stop her trying. She just needed to figure out what it liked to eat. Strips of zombie flesh had been her latest attempt, but the owl spurned her advances at each juncture. Perhaps there were some mice in this dilapidated old house. Owls loved mice, right? She made a mental note to keep a lookout for any tiny critters. Balren himself was still in the hallway, kneeling over the pile of toy soldier remains and doing... something.

“We could break through or go around.” Their new dragonborn friend, Flayre, was examining the spot where their ghostly companion, the girl Isabella, had vanished violently through one of the walls. Jurian was certain their quarry, Boris’s daughter Sorina, was also held somewhere in that direction. She walked over to where Flayre stood and dragged her finger through the thin layer of ectoplasm that had been left behind when Isabella was pulled out of the theater.

“I don’t see why we shouldn’t just go around,” Jurian said, wiping the sticky goo on her blood-stained leggings. “I doubt we could surprise them at this point, with the ruckus we’ve made.”

Flayre nodded thoughtfully, tapping a clawed finger against his chin. Jurian had seen the dragonborn perform once, years ago. He had been part of a unique Gladiatorial Extravaganza. Jurian’s mother was an entertainer herself, and had made it a point to ensure they supported the Arts whenever they could. Waterdeep was a large city, and all manner of exciting delights could be found at any given time. None had been so unusually entertaining as the dragonborn Gladiators.

“A monster!” The hoarse whisper came from behind her. She turned to see Boris’s eyes were open, and he looked at each of them wildly in turn. "There is a flesh golem wearing Lucian Falinescu's face!” He settled his gaze on Jurian. “His mind might be gone, but his body is powerful, constructed as it is of the best physical traits of other humans.”

They all stood in silence, staring at him. Except Casimir, who continued to ruminate on his terrible book. The moment passed quickly though, and Boris’s eyes closed again, but the message had been delivered. Whatever waited for them on the other side of the wall was not going to be as easy to defeat as these ridiculous toy soldiers. Jurian fondled the bone hilt of one of her daggers and glanced over at Flayre. The dragonborn man had his sword at the ready.

“Whatever is in there,” Haula squeezed Jurian’s arm briefly, “we’ll face it together.” Jurian smiled down at the halfling and nodded.

Then Casimir screamed, and the horrors began.

Chapter Text

Summer swept through the Dessarin Valley with unbidden vigor in the days it took Jurian Frayle to ride north up the Long Road to the village of Red Larch. She wiped the sweat from her forehead with a gloved hand and dismounted in front of a rather ugly-looking building. Paints of various ages and colors peeled in strips from the neglected walls. The only front-facing window on the ground floor was boarded up. A lovingly painted sign named it The Alabaster Bowl, as if in jest.

Laughter floated down from the upper stories, accompanied by the bright yells of children playing. The slatted boards of the porch roof sifted dirt and dust as muffled footsteps ran back and forth on the second floor above.

Dapper, the bay she had rented in Amphail, pranced anxiously while she tied him to a post a few feet off the road. To her right, west down the street, stood an inviting tavern. The scent of grilled meat and vegetables wafted on the warm breeze. Jurian nodded to herself. This place would do.

She patted Dapper on the neck and eyed her overstuffed saddle bags. She only planned to leave them a moment, and Red Larch had the reputation of a town somewhat insulated from the various causes of any suspicious nature she had cultivated during her years in Waterdeep. With a last look up and down the nearly empty street, she shrugged and made her way up the front steps, pulling her gloves off and stuffing them behind her thick leather belt.

The door opened easily enough, and showed signs of careful tending despite its appearance. Whoever owned the place obviously worried less about form than function. Bronze hinges turned smoothly as she stepped into the foyer. A wizened woman glanced up at her from behind the front desk, sparing a moment for a terse smile before setting her attentions back to a stack of ledgers.

Two fraying couches sat against the far wall, framing a dark wooden staircase that featured a solid-seeming handrail. Clearly, the advice she had been given was correct. Boarding houses like The Alabaster Bowl were meant to shoo away a certain type of customer who only cared about how things looked outside. But inside  --

“Been on the road long, have ya?” said a voice from behind the open door. Jurian turned and let the door shut, revealing a thin old fellow reclining in a high-backed leather chair. He nursed an unlit pipe thoughtfully as he regarded her.

“A few days,” she replied, giving the man a slight nod. He returned the nod enthusiastically, wisps of white hair tumbling over his bald head with each movement.

“Well I reckon you’ll be wanting a place to unwind then,” he said, leaning forward without getting up. The chair creaked as his weight shifted.

“We’re full up!” The woman behind the desk intoned without raising her eyes from her work. “Or did you plan on giving this girl your bed and sleeping on the couch tonight?”

The old fellow snorted. “Now Sissa, she don’t seem the type to take no for an answer,” He winked at Jurian. The sass on this old man!

“We’ve got an expected guest with claim on the last room, Garyn,” said the woman, Sissa. “Unless that’s you,” which she clearly doubted. Sissa stuck her quill behind an ear and waited.

“I was given the name of this place by a friend in Waterdeep,” Jurian took a few steps toward the desk.

Sissa watched her thoughtfully. Jurian noticed the woman’s hands slide out of sight behind the counter. “And what might his name be?” She said. A test.

“Now there’s no need for any...” Garyn began weakly and trailed off. His brimming confidence seemed to have faded as the air in the room tightened. Sissa interrupted him.

“The women are talking.” Her voice was not exactly iron, but near enough.

Her name,” Jurian slowly lifted her hands away from her dagger belt in a gesture of good faith, “is Wynna Maelcot. She runs The Maiden’s Candle?” She phrased it as a question, but was certain Sissa had heard of the place. Wynna had told her to expect a little resistance from the boarding house’s gruff owner. Sure enough the old woman’s eyes, which had never left Jurian’s during the interaction, softened a little, and she pulled empty hands from behind her desk. Jurian wondered what Sissa kept behind there. Hand axes? Dueling wands? She had no intention of finding out.

“Ah, so it is you,” Sissa placed her quill beside a lacquered ink jar and scattered some sand across the open pages with practiced movements. “You’re early.”

“Yes, two days. I’m sorry. The warm weather eased the ride considerably.” Jurian did not mind omitting the real reason she had made the journey so fast. Wynna had warned her The Alabaster Bowl’s owner would be a little... prickly if she knew Jurian was on the run. And if that was not Sissa at her prickliest, she had no desire to achieve the next level. What was she hiding back there? Shuriken throwing stars maybe? It might be worth a peak, actually. Just to know. Anyway, the last thing Jurian wanted to do was bring her trouble to someone else’s doorstep, and she was not planning on staying at the boarding house long enough for anyone, or anything, to catch up. Just one night, two at the most.

Sissa turned around and began looking through the collection of square cubbies set in the wall behind her. Most were empty, but a few contained stacks of papers or letters, some held trinkets of various kinds. Candles, knobs, hinges, tools. And what Jurian thought might be a child’s toy bear lodged in the back of one.

“Ah, here it is,” the old woman said, stretching her arm up to the top row to retrieve a rolled bit of parchment. “We had two owls from Waterdeep this week.” She unfurled the missive and scanned it briefly with her sharp eyes. “What did you say your name was, girl?”

“I didn’t,” Jurian crossed the floor with few long strides and leaned forward to whisper. “Please, call me Harfor.”

“Harfor, yes.” Sissa rolled the name around on her tongue for a moment. “If you say so,” Her eyes narrowed. “But it matches. I do believe we expected some kind of Stature attached to it, the way Wynna describes you. Begging your pardon.”

Jurian returned the woman’s tight smile and tried to make herself seem less... herself. She never felt as rough as she often looked, well not half the time. Quit brooding like a vagrant, she heard her mother’s voice, you look like murder itself. Her hair was dusty from the road, and she had not looked through a mirror in what felt like weeks. In that moment she realized a warm bath was probably the least part of the straightening up she needed. But it would certainly be a good place to start.

Sissa rummaged around a gilded box and produced an assortment of bronze keys. Examining each closely, eventually she chose one and pulled it off the ring with a sharp click. She extended it toward Jurian. “Two gold pieces a week,” she said, pulling back the key as Jurian reached for it. “You have this?”

Jurian nodded and pulled her worn leather purse from one of the many pouches arranged haphazardly around her waist. She counted out the two coins, and sighed at the cobwebs that remained. Enough money for a good meal and a couple drinks, but she was going to need to find work before long. Or a good run with the dice. Perhaps a week in Red Larch would not be the end of the world, since she was already paying for it.

“Is there a discount if I only mean to stay for a couple days?” She asked, pressing the gold onto the counter.

Sissa barked a laugh. “That’s not how it works, child. I’m sure Wynna told you that much, if she told you anything.” The woman scooped up the coins, examining them with a critical eye before plunking them into her own purse. “I’ll write you a receipt.”

Before long Jurian was stuffing a wrinkled piece of parchment into one of her pouches, clutching a key and being led up the stairs by Garyn, who, it turned out, was Sissa’s husband. He had regained his former composure, and seemed to be quite spry for a man of his age. But spry, unfortunately, did not mean fast . She adjusted the heavy saddlebags on her shoulder. Her room fee would cover the cost of boarding Dapper at the local stables too, or so she had been told by the rumpled halfling Sissa had summoned to collect him. So there was that at least.

“This place was built the same year the town was founded,” Garyn was saying. “And it’s been in Sissa’s family since then.” His pipe swung from the top pocket of a well-used pair of overalls. It did not seem to have been lit in quite a while, and Jurian suspected the old fellow kept it around as a matter of habit. As they reached the second floor, she saw four doors in a long hallway. The walls were smartly painted and well maintained compared to downstairs. Each door had a polished brass number on it. Jurian glanced down at her key, upon which was engraved a thin number 6. Rooms 1 through 4 were here. The rest would be on the third floor.

“My friend did not mention that Sissa was married,” she began when Garyn paused. In fact Jurian had been told the owner was a widow and had been for decades. He looked back at her with a broad smile.

“We’ve only just been hitched,” he laughed. “Though I had my eye on her for quite a while.” He leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially. “She’s a tough old bird, let me tell you.”

“That’s enough out of you!” Sissa’s voice rang up from downstairs. Garyn laughed louder, his eyes twinkling.

“Ears like a hawk though!” He turned and made his way up the next flight of stairs. As Jurian made to follow, one of the second floor doors opened, marked as Room 2, and a young tiefling man stepped out. Dark red hair framed the twin horns on top of his head in stark contrast to deep lavender skin. Their eyes met, and his drifted away nervously almost immediately. Had there been a moment of recognition? Jurian was sure she had never seen the man before.

Almost against her will, her eyes drank him in. He was tall and thin. Handsome, after a fashion. Though that was never as important as everyone said. She smiled at the yellow scarf draped around his neck. It clashed against his dark skin, but in a pleasing way. Jurian had always been attracted to dissonance. She could see herself --

“Are you coming, lass?” Garyn called down from the third floor.

Jurian glanced up at the old man leaning over the balcony and nodded. There was a thunk, and when she looked back, the brass number on the tiefling’s closed door was swinging and he was gone. She turned and climbed the two sets of stairs to join Garyn at the top. He motioned to a door with a bright “6” on it. It was the room directly above the tiefling man’s room, she noted.

“There you are, girl,” Garyn said.

“Who’s the purple fellow?” Jurian asked.

“Oh, he arrived a couple days ago, keeps to himself mostly,” Garyn took a step back to give her space to enter the room. “I’ll bring up hot water and some towels for you.”

Jurian nodded. “I do need a bath, don’t I?” She leaned forward and kissed the old fellow on his wrinkled forehead. “Thank you, Garyn.” He beamed.

“Not at all, lass. Not at all.” His hand drifted up to touch the spot her lips had been, and then he ambled off down the stairs looking a little lost. Jurian thumbed the tip of her ear and then pushed her way into the room. She thought she heard Sissa’s voice calling Garyn’s name, but then her door closed and she was alone at last.

The room was adequate. Certainly better than her most recent accommodations. She tossed her overloaded saddlebags and sword belts onto the four-posted bed with a grunt and began unfastening the straps of her leather jacket. There was a single window looking out into a grassy yard. The north-south street bustled with evening activity on the far side of a poorly maintained wooden fence, to her right. Well, it might have once been a fence. Now it looked like a few old boards stacked against some larger, much older boards. None of which had been painted, stained, or repaired in decades.

Below, several young children played in the yard. She did not mind the shrillness of their laughter as much as she might have expected. Weeks on the road had that effect, turning the bustling, and usually irritating, sounds of a city into a welcome reminder of civilization.

To the left, she noted a dilapidated shed leaning against the inside of the fence, and past that other fences and yards and small houses stretching east and away for a good half mile. The Alabaster Bowl was nestled on the edge of Red Larch’s residential district, as far off the Long Road as it could be and still remain accessible to travelers. And directly ahead of her, to the south, more houses, more yards. The neighborhood was immense, though still a trifle compared to a real city. Gradually she became aware of the scent of that roasting meat again, and her stomach rumbled.

Sighing, Jurian struggled out of her dusty jacket and hung it on one of the bed posts. Her cotton shift was caked in dirt and dried sweat. She sniffed her underarm and recoiled. Yes, first a bath. Food would have to wait unless she wanted to empty the place out. Socializing was the best part of coming to a new place, after all.

As she was pulling off her boots, Garyn arrived with a steaming basin of water on a wheeled cart. How had the old fellow managed to lug that upstairs? Gripping the washbowl with two thick towels wrapped around his hands, he slid it with surprising gentleness onto the only other piece of furniture in the room, a weathered table that lurked against the wall under a polished brass mirror, which Jurian had purposefully avoided looking at so far. Garyn scraped a few thick flakes from a large hunk of soap into a porcelain dish, placed it beside the basin, and then made a hasty bow and swept out of the room with his cart.

Jurian flipped the latch on the door as he left, and quickly peeled off her shift, tossing it unceremoniously onto the floor. She stretched her long arms and massaged weary biceps with calloused hands. The scar on her left shoulder throbbed a little, as it always did after a long ride, or when it rained, or after a fight, or on a Tuesday.

Shaking her head, she dipped a corner of one of the fluffy towels into the basin and rubbed a flake of soap into it. The warm water felt sensational on her face, and the towel came away almost black from the filth of her journey. She grimaced. No wonder Sissa had been wary of her.

When she was as clean as she was going to get, Jurian lay naked on the bed, her dark skin glistening in the last rays of fading sunlight peeking through the window. Her clothes were a legitimate wreck. Perhaps even unsalvageable. She would need to get them professionally cleaned, or burn them and buy new ones... but with what money! She hoped Sissa included laundering as part of the room package. If not, she supposed she could always find a pond to jump into.

It felt wrong taking these extra moments to stretch so languidly upon this comfortable mattress, especially after the desperation of her flight from Waterdeep. But she had made such good time... Surely a single night of relaxation was not too much to ask.

Interestingly, the boarding house had magical lamps. Jurian had seen such things before, but never in so humble a dwelling. As the last tendrils of sunshine vanished, two glass lanterns on the wall flickered to life, shedding mystical orange light throughout the room. She dug around in her saddlebags and removed the raggedy spun wool robe she had stolen from her mother’s things, years ago, and wrapped it around her shoulders. Even with summer hatching itself around this half of the world, it was not yet warm enough during the days to keep the nights from descending into unwelcome coolness. And indeed, as the sun set she was already starting to see wisps of her own breath.

She leaned out the window and pulled the heavy shutters closed, fastening them with the provided chain. Raucous laughter echoed in the evening air, and once more she caught that wonderful scent from the tavern. A quick nip could not hurt, and perhaps a dice game or two. Another few minutes rummaging around her bags produced a breezy gray cotton jerkin and dark blue trousers. After shaking them out vigorously to... well, to not affect the wrinkles at all, actually, she dressed quickly and slipped out into the hallway, locking the door behind her. The bronze key, her dice bag, and a couple loose coins went into one of her flowing pockets.

She felt like a new elf. Her close-cropped black hair was still wet, of course, but it dried much faster since she had cut it. Or, rather, since it had been cut for her. The little details were unimportant, though she did miss her braid. Unconsciously her hand moved to clutch it, and she stopped herself. It would grow back. Eventually. For now, she tucked a few loose strands behind her long pointed ears and stepped silently down the steps in bare feet.

The tiefling man was on his way up from the foyer as she began her descent past the second floor. Feeling much more herself now that she was clean, Jurian gave him a quick wink. If he noticed, she could not tell. He seemed a little preoccupied. She frowned.

“Hey,” she said. “Buy me dinner.”

He started as if just realizing she was there, but his eyes were shrewd when he lifted them to meet hers. They were deep blue pools, brimming with secret knowledge. Jurian had been with tieflings before, and getting them to look at you was often the hardest part.

“Oh,” he said, running a hand through his red hair. “I, uh, already ate.”

“I didn't.”

He smiled at that. Excellent. Now they were getting somewhere. He laughed nervously and glanced over toward the closed door of his room. Jurian held out an elbow and fastened her most charming grin to the front of her face. “Don’t try and resist,” she said, “I’m staaarving.” She drew out the word as if making a meal of it. “And broke,” she added under her breath.

He laughed again. “Okay,” he said, taking her offered arm. “Why not?”

~ ~ ~

The snug common room of The Helm at Highsun tavern was exactly as wonderful as Jurian had hoped. Games of chance in the corners, wreathed by laughing men and women, all dimly lit by flickering oil lanterns. It was standing room only, but she managed to find space to squeeze the two of them in at the bar. The bartender, a squatty dwarf with a magnificent beard, gave her a nod and hustled over.

“Ale, and the house special to eat,” she shouted over the din of the crowd. Somewhere she heard a flute being played, but there did not seem to be any bards present. As her tiefling companion sidled in next to her, she pointed at him with a thumb. “He’s paying.” The purple-skinned man nodded and leaned over to her.

“What’s your name?”

“Harfor,” she replied. Best to stick to her cover identity, even if she had convinced herself she was safe for at least a few days. He seemed a little taken aback by that, but the reaction passed so quickly she might have imagined it.

“That’s an unusual name for an elf.”

“I’m only mostly elf,” she reached out and retrieved the glass mug of ale the bartender slid her way. “Are you going to get anything?” He took a moment to respond, and seemed to be mouthing the words “Mostly elf?” to himself.

“It’s a long story,” Jurian said, “but I’ll tell you if you’re drinking.”

He nodded, and Jurian motioned for another glass. The dwarf tottered off toward the kitchen. Behind them, she saw a group of three humans standing up from a table. “Grab it,” she yelled, and bolted for the emptying spot.

A cluster of halflings seemed affronted as she slid into place and pushed dirty plates aside. They had been eyeing the table as well. Tough. She spilled a little ale on her forearm, but that was a small price to pay for some privacy. The tiefling followed her after a moment, clutching his own tankard and a smoking plate of roasted beef and vegetables. And, was that a twice-baked potato? Her eyes gleamed.

“I’m Facette.” He set the feast in front of her and sat down.

“Facette I am very pleased to know you,” Jurian tore into the tender meat with a fork and knife she pilfered from one of the plates the humans had left behind.

“Oh, I should’ve...” Facette seemed a little embarrassed, glancing back toward the bar.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said between bites, “I’m just glad to get something warm and juicy into my mouth.” She grinned and chewed, watching his face.

Facette just stared at her with a little lopsided smile. He shook his head subtly, almost with disbelief. Reading tiefling eyes was difficult. They always had so much going on in there, and this one even seemed to be listening to something Jurian could not hear. Whatever it was, the feeling passed quickly, and then his attention was once again on her.

“You’re not what I expected,” he said.

Jurian froze, and her heart began to race. Her grip tightened around the knife. How could --

“I mean, I thought you were a man, when I first saw you coming up the stairs earlier.” He shrugged sheepishly.

She relaxed, and laughed. “Ohhh, yeah. I was a bit of a mess when I arrived.” She arched her back a little. A man, huh? Well, who was she kidding... that was not the first time she had heard that particular misperception. It came in useful sometimes, if she was being honest. “But I clean up nice, yeah?”

“Yeah,” he said. She liked his smile.

They talked for a while, as the night wore on and the room began to empty out. He was guarded about the sort of work he did, and Jurian did not pry. She was lying through her teeth about herself, after all. Let the man have his secrets. Surprisingly though, after the first few drinks he opened up about the peculiar quirk of the multiverse that gave him access to his magic. A group mind of sorts, he called it a hive, made up of various versions of... himself... that existed in other planes. Other Universes. She was fascinated, and interrogated him relentlessly about it, but never quite gained a solid overview of how it worked. Was there another version of him right now, talking to another version of her in some other place? Were they getting along? Did she have her braid? He shook his head.

“That’s not really how it works.” She suspected he did not understand it nearly as well as he thought, either, but kept that observation to herself.

She told him about her family, keeping the details as vague as she could, but saw no real harm in being mostly honest. He expressed surprise at her dedication to hunting down her brother’s murderers. She had not been successful at that, and the clumsy attempt at vengeance had very nearly gotten her killed instead. A stroke of dumb luck and a stranger’s timely intervention had saved Jurian’s life from the beating she took after taking down seven of their members in her attempt to reach their leadership. Facette expressed appropriate concern there, but moved on quickly from the subject as if sensing her shame and frustration. He even asked a few questions about her brother, and it felt nice to tell someone about him, even just for a little while.

When Mezgold, the dwarf bartender, shouted out for last call, Jurian realized she was sitting very close to Facette, with her leg pressed against his. The tiefling had relaxed quite a bit, and so had she. In fact, as she cast her mind back over the details she had been revealing to this person she barely knew, she was a little amazed at her candor. His face was kind though, well not kind... there was a kindness to it. Sort of. But he had laughed at every one of her jokes. That bought you a lot, with her.

And before she knew it she was kissing him. He leaned in and put an arm around her, pulling her close. She reached up and wrapped her fingers around one of his horns. Tieflings liked that, right? She could not remember, and stopped caring as she was swept away by his mouth. It felt good to abandon the tense caution she had carried with her over the past few weeks, to lose herself in soft lips and strong arms.

They laughed as Mezgold shoved them out the door and into the night, and the walk back to The Alabaster Bowl was a blur of grasping hands and hushed words. At one point she wrapped her legs around his waist and let him carry her part of the way. She tugged hungrily at his scarf, her fingers traced the line of his jaw, his lips. Facette was stronger than he looked, all wiry muscle under that loose-fitting robe, and he did not stumble.

Soon she was fumbling for the key to her room, her body up against the wall as his hands roamed her waist, her stomach, her breasts... He kissed her neck and pressed himself against her eagerly. She moaned. They did not bother to close the door behind them once she finally got it open, shoving saddle bags and sword belts to the floor in their haste for one another.

The two magical lamps cast deep shadows across the walls, a vision of devil horns and the tentacles of a many-limbed monster ascending from the depths of a dark tidepool. But laughter and whispered shushings from the two creatures writhing on the bed lessened their grim portent, fierce hands gripping the bedposts gave the shadows warmth, and rhythm.

And then it was over, the two participants panting and sweating and spent.

~ ~ ~

In the morning, Jurian was awakened by those gods-damned children laughing in the rooms below. She groaned. That particular novelty had worn off quickly. She shook her head and immediately regretted it. Her brain felt like someone had used it as a blacksmith’s anvil. Even her eyes bulged painfully.

The door to her room was closed, and she was alone. Sitting up on the side of the bed, she looked over at the pile of her swords and saddlebags. At first glance nothing appeared to be missing, except... her clothes. And she could not see the familiar silhouette of her bone-handled knife. It turned up too quickly for anger to set in, though, having been stabbed into the door frame, where it pinned a curled note to the wood.

She stood slowly and wrapped a blanket around herself. Carefully, she retrieved the dagger and sat back on the bed, unrolling at the parchment. There was ink on both sides. On the inside was a rough sketch of... her face? A poor likeness, done in haste, but it was her, down to the gold studs in her ear and her long braid. Just... the mouth was off. It made her look like a smarmy, grinning idiot. She huffed. Cutting her hair the rest of the way off after Waterdeep had been a good idea after all, she supposed. But how did this missive get here? No one but Wynna had known her destination. Turning the page over, her breath caught. She noted the name at the end before reading the text.

My lady ‘Harfor’ --
I was not quite sure what to do when you accosted me on the stairs.
I decided to see what would happen, and I’m glad I did. I will not be
fulfilling this particular contract, but the Golden Fist will send others.
Good luck, stay alive, get back on the road as soon as you can.
And thank you for a wonderful evening.
Yours,
Facette Quotara

Jurian was certain she had not told him the name of the mercenaries that killed her brother. She never told anyone that detail; doing so was as good as painting a target on her back. She crumpled the slip of paper into a ball and almost tossed it out the window, but thought better of it. Instead, she smoothed it against her bare thigh and stared at the flowing script for a long moment. Facette had said he was an “asset liquidator” or something. She had interpreted that to mean a hired killer, but he had not elaborated. At the time she thought it was kind of sexy.

It was still sexy, she admitted. A timid knock roused her. She pulled the thin blanket around her shoulders and crept over to the doorway, brandishing her dagger. Garyn gave a loud gasp as she flung open the door with a yell.

“Mistress Harfor,” he began, averting his eyes and almost dropping the basket of clothes he carried. Her clothes? “Sorry, you had, uh, stepped out for the evening, we took the liberty...” His voice trailed off as she pushed past him and scrambled down the stairs, the blanket fluttering behind her. “Oh my,” she heard him sigh. “Oh my indeed.”

The door to Room 2 stood open, and the room itself was empty.

“He left very early this morning,” Garyn said, leaning down over the balcony. The old man’s cheeks were bright red. She looked down and yelped, the blanket was barely covering anything! Hustling back up the stairs she flew past the sputtering man with a quick “Thanks!” and slammed the door. She heard some hemming and hawing on the other side of it for a few short moments, then he coughed and made his way back downstairs.

After she was sure he was gone, she cracked the door and pulled the basket of clothes into the room. Even her leather jacket was folded and clean. She held it up to the light. Stains she had thought were permanent had vanished. Her cotton shift looked like new, and smelled wonderful. She rubbed the fabric against her face with delight, then set about dressing herself.

As Jurian finished strapping on her equipment, she heard rumbling below as the children and other guests tramped down the stairs to their morning meals. She still had a few coins in her purse. And... she checked the pockets of her leafy blue leggings, once she located them where they had been flung. Her dice bag was still there. She grabbed the dice and then stuffed the pants and the rest of her belongings into her already overflowing saddlebags. Someday she was going to have to sort through all this stuff. For now, though, she nodded and tied off the last strap. Good enough.

She locked everything up in the room. Within a couple hours she would return for it, and then head back out into the wilderness. Facette’s advice was sound. But first, the tavern was calling. She could already smell scrambled eggs, ham, fried onions and peppers. And was that sausage? Jurian gripped her dice bag tightly as she made her way down the stairs.

She paused for a last glance at Facette’s empty room. It did not matter to her that he had lied. A sin of omission. And she had been no saint in that regard. Or any, really. For a moment she conjured the memory of his hands lifting her hips off the mattress, the press of his horns against her belly and her fingers entwined in red hair -- she shuddered as goose pimples formed over her entire body. Some sins were easily forgiven, with the right supplication.

Out in the street, the villagers of Red Larch began their mornings. Roosters crowed and shop owners hawked their wares along the Long Road, just like they always did. With any luck Jurian would double her money over a few breakfast games, and head back onto the road with a full stomach to go along with some... useful... new memories. Despite herself, she blushed, and then laughed. What else was there to do but laugh, when death and danger dogged you so closely, and slipping through their grasp was just a matter of being hungry, or horny? Or both. Speaking of...

“Hit me with your best, Marigold,” she called as she entered the tavern. “And don’t skimp on the sausages!”

“It’s Mezgold,” the dwarf grumbled, reaching for a mug. The rack was full of dozens of pristine glass tankards. Clean plates and silverware lined the counter behind him. She noticed two freshly tapped kegs. It really was a nice establishment.

“Oh right,” Jurian said, “sorry.” Already a few of the locals were there, and she spied a likely group of breakfasters huddled in the back. Fingering her dice bag, she scooped up the mug of dark ale Mezgold proffered and scampered toward the early risers in the corner.

“Who fancies a game?”

Chapter Text

The Feast of the Moon was a rager this year. Music was everywhere. The streets around the Waterdeep Market were crowded with curios and onlookers, pub crawlers and wandering bards, the entire city was a menagerie. Jurian stepped down off her rented coach and waved to its driver, pulling her rugged duffel from the back as the four wheeled taxi trundled around the corner. Pedestrians hurried out of its way as the driver cursed at them, and the wheels splashed through shallow pools of gathered rainwater, drawing curses in kind from those on the receiving end of wet boots or dresses.

In front of her was a destination she had been traveling toward for quite a while. The Maiden’s Candle was a pert inn and tavern that stood at an awkward angle overlooking the Market district where The Street of Bells emptied into Bazaar Street. The door was off center, allowing room for a large picture window that offered a full view of the first floor restaurant. Painted on the glass was a single candle, aflame, and large bold letters naming the establishment and someone called Wynna Maelcot, its proprietor.

She entered, dragging the heavy duffel behind her. At one point the bag had been adorned with wheels, of gnomish creation supposedly, that allowed her to maneuver it around without having to actually lift the thing. But those were meant for paving stones and wood floors, not the cobbles and muddy streets Jurian had subjected them to for months. So now the thing was more awkward than useful. She would need to replace it with a satchel or something.

The inn’s common room was a-bustle, crowded with a throng of patrons and freeloaders. In the corner was a raised stage upon which performed a merry band of halflings, on lute, fife, and drums. The singer was taller, something exotic. With deep red skin and a certain air of oddity about him. Genasi perhaps? Jurian caught some of the words, but the song was not familiar.

Full, the maiden turned to go.
Out leaped the troll, crying, "So!
My dinner's come, in cap and gown!"
And the knight, unseeing, rode him down.

She sighed and rolled her eyes. At least three servers ferried mugs of ale and plates of absolutely gorgeous looking food to the tables. They dipped nimbly through the standing crowd, earning the extra tips a celebration like this would surely bring. Jurian frowned and eased one of her daggers in its sheath when a drunken, bearded man let out a whistle as one of the servers passed, a human woman in a form-fitting yellow gown of sturdy cotton, crested with an immaculate white bodice, but she skillfully ignored him and he received only a rough elbow in the side from the plump woman sitting next to him for his trouble.

Jurian made her way toward the front to ask about rooms, but spied a large handwritten sign with an arrow indicating the Inn proper was up a flight of rickety stairs just past the bar. She looked down at her bag and groaned. One more mild annoyance to go. The thought of a long soak in a warm bath gave her the strength to carry on, as it so often did.

She lugged the bag up the stairs, which was slow going even on easy terrain, and suppressed a thorny indignation that literally no one offered to help... because of course even if they had it was unlikely she would have accepted. But still, nobody ? A raucous cheer rose as the song finished. Somewhere a metal bowl hit the floor and hoots of laughter followed.

The second floor was a revelation. Thick velvet curtains hung on the walls over a plush red carpet. The stairway continued up around a sharp corner to her right, but as she pushed through the curtains they swung back to cover the entrance and all sounds from the tavern below faded. Like magic. She could hear the creak of leather as she pulled the duffel to a halt and dropped it. Two ornate wooden chairs huddled in the corner beside a round table, but most of the area was claimed by an imposing desk. Behind it sat a regal-looking elf examining her fingernails which were, Jurian squinted, impressively pink.

“I’d like a room,” Jurian began. The other woman looked up and regarded her with an appraising eye. She trailed off under that sharp stare.

“I do not doubt it,” The woman’s long white hair was raised into a neat bun and secured with gold pins, each adorned by half a dozen small, faceted gems that glimmered in the lamplight as she shook her head. She pointed a pink-tipped finger at a sign to her right on the desk. No vacancies.

“Aw gods,” Jurian scoffed, “You could put the sign downstairs, you know!” The other woman smirked faintly and shrugged at her. “And what am I supposed to do with this?” She moaned, kicking the awful luggage limply.

“There is the Princess Suite,” the elf woman said breezily, “but I am not certain you could afford it.”

“You just let me worry about that, sister,” Jurian felt the heat rising, and took a deep breath. At least she would not have to carry the thing back down and gods knew where else in this city. Besides, she had stared into the front window of The Maiden’s Candle as a girl and sword one day she would stay here. And that day was today. Now, coming up with the money to pay for this alleged Princess Suite was another matter. But the first step in her grand homecoming plan was to make some spending coin, so it would all take care of itself. Surely.

“Then,” the innkeeper replied, “you’ll take the suite?”

Jurian nodded.

“Will you be paying up front or with a bank note?”

“Oh you know very well I don’t have a bank note,” she grumbled, reaching for her purse. It sang with satisfying clinks. The dice had been good to her in Thornhold, which had been her last chance to get a small stake together before arriving here. The elf behind the counter raised her eyebrows at the heft of the leather bag. Maybe it was enough. It would be a shame to blow the entire thing just because she was too tired to lug a suitcase down some stairs, but... sometimes life gave you twists and turns and you either followed them and flowed along in the light, or you fought them and fumbled alone in the dark.

On the counter was a long note carefully written on fine parchment. Jurian read it idly as the woman prepared a ridiculously detailed invoice and receipt. It concerned a runaway girl who seemed to be haunting the area around the Inn. The Ghost of the Market. This last bit had been scrawled on there by someone else, perhaps as a joke.

“For the Princess Suite, the daily rate is five dragons, or you can --”

“Five gold?” Jurian sputtered, “For one night? Does it come with a pretty girl to hand feed me chocolate jellies?”

“It does not.” The woman coughed politely. “As I was saying, you can choose to pay the tenday rate of forty dragons, in advance. And I could see,” she murmured, “what we can do about the girl .”

“Well I was just joking about that,” Jurian said, mumbling half to herself. Forty gold would drain her entire stake in one fell swoop. The reward for pulling in Cullen Masters was fifteen, though, and she already had a line on his location. It was possible. Maybe. If she found a few more bounties to collect. You could always go home , she thought, and then shook her head angrily. Not yet.

“The Princess Suite has an array of amenities that will certainly be to your liking,” the woman continued. As she listed them, the annoyance faded from Jurian’s body. Her own bath? Room service including one full meal on the house daily, full laundry, massages, a side bedroom for “extra guests” and unfettered bar access . She melted.

“All right, all right,” she scribbled a name on the presented form and dumped her purse on the counter. One gold lion, a few scattered silver and one nib. That was all she had left after scooping the requisite forty to the side. “I trust the lions will do for your dragons?”

The woman ignored her. “A single tenday, then?”

“Hey there’s plenty more where that came from, lady.”

“Wynna.”

“Wynna,” that name seemed familiar somehow. Old memories. “Fine. There’s plenty more, don’t you worry about it.”

Wynna glanced down at the invoice and then paused for a long moment before looking up with a smile. “Ah. Of course. Miss... Enna, is it?”

Jurian nodded curtly. Of course ? There was no telling with women sometimes. She felt a sudden burst of shame at her poor attitude, now that the transaction was complete... but the more pressing need was a way up to this mighty suite of hers, and into that gods-damned private tub.

Reading her mind, Wynna clapped and a porter swept into the room from a hidden alcove behind one of the curtains. Had he just been waiting there? He was young, human, and wearing flowing trousers and a thin silk vest of a shade she could only describe as periwinkle blue. His smile was pleasant enough, and he picked up Jurian’s duffel bag as if it was no heavier than, well, something light. It did not matter, and she did not care about that smile of his either. Those arms though, did the man have to go around with no sleeves like that?

Wynna directed a knowing look her way, and was that a wink ? Jurian growled. “Whatever, let’s go.”

The porter was already around the first set of stairs and up to the next landing. She caught up with him quickly, and before long she was luxuriating in a warm bath in a porcelain tub. She felt weeks of travel and weariness slide off her like a shedding skin. Soft music played from somewhere she could not discern. There was a chandelier in the room and it floated. In the air . So this is what it was like to live with deep pockets.

She moaned as the young porter, whose name she had not bothered to ask, massaged the stress out of her shoulders. His hands were strong, too.

~ ~ ~

Jurian took her meal in the tavern, ate it quickly, and by the time the crowd started thinning she was sipping at a tumbler of dwarven spirits called Molten Mithril. The red pepper garnish gave it a bit of a kick, but she pulled the sprig of mint and stuffed it in a pocket to chew later.

As the revelries slowed, she stepped outside and leaned against a post on the front porch. She bummed a rolled tobacco cigarette from a departing local and lit it on the single oil lamp above the door. Puffing thoughtfully, she watched the comings and goings of the people of Waterdeep. It had been some time since she was last in a proper city. She had to admit she missed the chaos.

“You shouldn’t smoke that,” said a child’s voice from the darkness of the alley to her left, “it’s bad for you.”

“It’s a special occasion,” Jurian replied without looking back. She inhaled the sweet leaf and blew a ring with the smoke... unsuccessfully. A hazy cloud floated somberly as if mocking her attempt, and then spread out into the still night air once its hateful message was delivered. She coughed. East down the street muffled shouts and laughter echoed, and the sound of breaking glass. Then more laughter.

“It’s just the moon feast,” said the voice. “Happens every year.”

Jurian bent down and put the cigarette out on the porch rail. Straightening, she adjusted the sword belts on her back and turned to face the girl in the shadows. “Not that,” she said, “I just found somebody I was looking for, for a long time.”

“Someone you love?”

Jurian grunted a laugh. “No, not quite.” She allowed her darkvision to adjust and began to discern the silhouette of a girl, perhaps 10 or 12 years. Human. Or... she leaned in a bit. The girl stepped backed nervously. A halfling? If so, likely a few years older. “I heard there’s a ghost haunting this part of the city. That you?”

The girl turned, preparing an escape from the follow-up questions she surely expected.

“It’s fine,” Jurian said, lifting her hands away from her belt and holding them palms out. “You don’t have to talk to me. I just thought you might want to earn a little money.” She resisted the urge to pat her dwindling coin purse. There was nothing impressive about the wet slap of a nearly empty leather pouch. But if things went her way she would net that fifteen for Cullen, and more, within a couple days. So much could go wrong with her ridiculous plan though... she did not mind making a few promises she might not be able to keep. Nobody could hold you accountable for anything when you were dead.

The girl hesitated, glancing back over her shoulder. “For what?” She had been on the streets for a while, knew to expect trouble and question everything. Jurian respected the hell out of that.

“I just need somebody to watch a house, let me know who comes and goes through the night. A copper nib each day for your effort, plus expenses.”

The girl laughed, a wide grin splitting her dirty face. “You think you have enough in this to cover my expenses?” She held up a well-worn coin purse and waved it in the air like a trophy.

Jurian cursed and reflexively reached down to her belt, but she recognized the bag immediately. She felt respect elevating itself to admiration. It had been quite a while since a cutpurse had tried to lift a pouch from Jurian Frayle without getting a knee in the ribs for their effort.

Taking a breath, she relaxed. “Not bad.” The girl could have run off without saying anything, though, so she waited for the punchline.

Pulling a strand of dark hair back from her eyes and tucking it behind an ear, the halfling girl huffed a little. “Not bad?” She said, tossing the purse back to Jurian, who caught it deftly and stuffed it back behind her belt without looking at it. Anyone who could successfully pick her pockets deserved what little they managed to get out of the attempt. But even after that performance, the girl still hesitated.

“So,” Jurian said, “I bet we both want something from each other. Your request got something to do with that eye?” The girl drew in a sharp breath. She had guessed right. What looked like dirt was actually a pretty large bruise covering most of the left side of her face. All the street smarts in the world could not protect you from everything, especially at that age. Jurian’s face softened, but the girl’s expression grew sharper.

“You any good with those?” The girl asked, pointing to the sword hilts standing over her left shoulder.

Jurian nodded.

“Why should I believe you?”

“Kid,” Jurian moved closer and made herself a little menacing, just for show. And for all the girl’s bravado, she took another step away. Whether the nervousness was feigned like before was anyone’s guess. “You got nothing to fear from the swordsman who wants to show you all his fancy moves to prove he’s somebody special.” She knelt on one knee and tightened a loose strap on her boot before meeting the girl’s eyes again. “Do I look like I give a shit whether you believe me or not?”

That did it. Maybe too well. The girl’s lip began to tremble and she collapsed to her own knees in a heap. All right, yeah, too much. Dammit. Trying to intimidate a little girl? Her mother’s voice rang in her ears, what’s wrong with you? Jurian rushed over to her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to --”

The girl cut her off. “It’s fine. I just,” she sniffled, “I’ve been looking for someone strong enough to help me for a while.” The truth of it shone in her eyes. “I’m Sulkie,” she said, wiping a tear from her cheek.

“Yeah, I saw the flyer.”

Sulkie looked confused.

“Forget about it. Who’s been bothering you?”

The story was not long or complicated, just your average street thugs trying to capture new territory, throwing their weight around, pushing helpless girls into the mud to gain a little extra for themselves. No, not helpless. Jurian amended the thought as quickly as it arrived. The note on the innkeeper’s desk had mentioned knives, that the “beestinger girl” was armed and dangerous if pushed.

The charity game around Waterdeep was a source of significant wealth for a few. Halfway houses and soup kitchens run by wealthy nobles, mostly for looks. And they turned away the less reputable folks in need to favor the creation of a safe place for them to congratulate themselves for giving back to their community. And hell, the city had so many guilds Jurian would not have been surprised to hear a “Fellowship of Alms” had formed to muscle out unaffiliated homeless and unemployed who would not join. Her knowledge of local politics was spotty at best, though, so she took the girl’s story at face value.

A crew of boys and girls, some as young as Sulkie, but most nearly adults, had been pestering her to leave town. It did not matter to them whether she lived or died, as long as she did it elsewhere. They called themselves The Alley Cats, like a right bunch of mule turds. Jurian did not typically throw in with Causes unless they benefited her directly, but she had never liked bullies. Rousting them was the least she could do... as penance for making the girl cry. She eyed Sulkie sideways. If those had been real tears.

Either way. There was right and there was wrong, and sometimes you could even tell which was which. This was one of those times.

“Take me to them,” she said.

~ ~ ~

Muddy Peterson kicked a rock down the alley toward a gathering of rats. He laughed at the squeals they made as they scampered off into their holes and crevices. He had good reason to be happy. The night’s take had been real wide. These seasonal celebrations were always a good time to crack up for cold nights ahead.

“We got enuff to eat with, Mud?” Squirrel gnawed on a stick of possum meat she had pilfered from one of the street vendors. Muddy grinned and hefted a large coin purse, shaking it back and forth to hear the jingles.

“Enuff and then some,” he said. The alley hid them from most passers-by, but every so often he had to lean back into the shadows as some drunkard or other wandered past. This one stopped for a piss, leaning against the side of The Singing Sword. Muddy hated it when they pissed in his alley. He drew his long knife, the one he had stolen from Husker Skine, the pitiful ex-leader of his crew. His crew, Muddy’s Men now. The Alley Cats, he scoffed. What a name.

As he sidled up behind the drunk and punctured the man’s spleen, Muddy held in a yell of delight. Who knew how killing could give you such power, such strength. Husker’s body was still warm in the sewer, but already he felt things were changing for them. For Muddy’s Men.  Whoever was left. Squirrel and him had planned their big mutiny for weeks. Most of the crew would fall in line when they got their share of tonight’s loot, but some of Musker’s friends would be loyal. Not for long though.

The man he stabbed tumbled to the wet stones, still leaking piss. Muddy felt his eyes bulge with rage as urine sprayed all over his pants and boots. He did scream then, leaping on the man and stabbing him over and over. This city would fall . He felt the anger gurgle up from deep within, where it had always been.

There was a gasp. He looked up and saw that kid from the alleys, Sulkie, the so-called Ghost of the Market. Well, at least now he had a good reason to kill her and nobody left to stop him. Husker’s rules held them back from taking more for too long. More streets, more everything. It was more for Muddy’s Men now, and more for Muddy. He pulled his knife from the dead man’s throat and lunged at the girl.

Light flashed from the shadows and his face went numb. Blood poured from his nose and he was flat on his back somehow. He heard Squirrel’s voice and looked over. She tossed her possum stick into the street and threw down on Sulkie with that curved blade of hers.

“You leave him be!” She yelled. Her face was red, angry. Squirrel was a fighter, better even than Muddy with blades and fists. Him and her had been partners forever. She would settle this quick. Muddy pressed a hand against his face. His nose was broken for sure.

Jurian confronts Muddy and SquirrelThe shadows on the wall turned into a shape. An elf girl in leather, swords and knives and everything. She stepped in front of Sulkie and twisted to face Squirrel. She was lean, skinny, with long pointed ears and black hair tied in a braid. Muddy would grab that braid first. Pull her down. She didn’t look at Muddy though, just planted her feet and... jumped? Squirrel skidded to a halt as the elf kicked off the wall and into a flip over her head. As she passed, she pulled one of her swords and tapped the flat of the blade against Squirrel’s head. Twice.

“Not even a parlay?” The woman asked as she landed. Her sword had already returned to its scabbard on her back, next to another more expensive looking one. Muddy wondered how much more expensive.

Squirrel growled and stabbed at the woman, striking only air. The elf flowed to the side like water and nicked the blade out of Squirrel’s grasp. She was fast. Faster than Squirrel maybe.

“Let’s at least talk,” the elf said, taking a step back to look at the knife.

Muddy saw what she was doing though. Drawing their attention away from the Ghost Girl. He snarled. His long knife was glinting in the moonlight from where it sat half in a puddle, between him and Sulkie.

“This is actually pretty nice,” the stranger was saying, looking the blade over in her hands. Squirrel just stared at her. Muddy did not think he had seen her get disarmed before. It didn’t matter, there was still plenty of time to get on top. “More for close fighting than lunging attacks like how you were using it.” She drew one of the knives on her own belt, a straight blade about 8 inches long, sharp on both edges.

“If you want to lunge,” she said, gripping the knife loosely in her right hand, “you need something like this, or like what your friend had.” Now she looked at Muddy. Now she saw. He sneered at her.

“Don’t need a stick to take you,” Squirrel shouted, and kicked the woman in the shin. Muddy heard a curse and charged. Like before with Husker, he waited and saw his turn. He scrambled up and toward Sulkie, scooping up his knife and closing the distance between him and the girl in a matter of moments.

~ ~ ~

Jurian cursed and lept back, tossing the rat-faced woman’s knife into the darkness of the alley and setting her feet. She needed to rethink her strategy. The woman had not projected the kick at all, and she was so fast! The blade was all for show, this woman was a brawler. Shit . She saw the other one hobble to his feet and make a beeline for Sulkie.

She flipped the dagger in her hand blade first and flung it at the man. These two were not what she had expected. Sulkie had said they were thugs, but this was another thing entirely. The murderous glee in his eyes as he mauled the drunk on the ground had been madness, bordering on sadistic, and she should have noticed. Before she had time to see if her blade hit its mark, the rat woman was on her, fists flying.

~ ~ ~

Sulkie screamed. This man had hung in the back mostly, she had seen him eyeing the leader of The Alley Cats with awe, bordering reverence. Not now. Something had changed about him. As he hurtled toward her, teeth bared, the world slowed. She saw Jurian throw her knife at him, but it was not going to be fast enough. Moonlight blazed on the edge of the man’s knife as it thrust at her, and she saw things differently. Like she sometimes did, the puzzle of movement, and the imaginary lines that allowed her to reach up and into people’s pockets, to climb inside shadows without detection.

She drew her own knife from its hidden sheath on her wrist, and lashed out, following the path she saw in her mind, the trajectory of his movements and hers. She let the strength fade from her legs and rolled, stabbing her blade up through the soft flesh between ribs and into firm muscle, piercing the heart. There was a grunt, and the world sped up again. She hit the alley stones roughly, landing on her back, and the crazed man tumbled out into the street, his eyes wide. Not breathing.

She was not breathing either, had been holding it from the moment he leapt at her. Sulkie steadied herself and took a ragged breath. In, then out. Someone in the night screamed. She lay on her back a while, staring up past the roofs and facades of the buildings around her. Stars winked down from deep blackness, and for a moment she saw their lines too, the paths carved out for them in the universe, farther out and ever away, and spinning too, as the world turned.

Her heart was beating fast, and she could feel her pulse behind her eyes. She had never taken a life before. True enough she had been willing to let the Elf Rogue do it for her, but she had been defending herself for a long time without having to take that step. It felt like a border crossing. She had bathed in a crystal sea and emerged harder, stronger, encased in an invincible diamond shell. Emotions bounded off of her like they meant nothing. They were nothing. Meaningless. She felt only the thrum of her heartbeat and the dizzying, spinning lights in the sky.

“See, you already knew,” said the shadow that suddenly blocked her view of the stars, “The only time you need to show off your fancy moves is when it matters.” Jurian smiled down at her and offered a hand. “I’m sorry I let him get that close to you.” Her hair was a mess and her lip was bleeding.

Sulkie watched her for a moment before sitting up, without accepting the offer of assistance. Numbness cloaked her now, and she would never need help from anyone again. She got to her feet and looked at Jurian, who stood there sheepishly.

“In fairness, you did tell me they were just a bunch of street toughs,” the elf woman said. She looked off deeper into the dark alley and ran a dirty hand through rumpled hair, “That was... something else.”

Sulkie nodded. She bent down and wiped her knife on the sleeve of the drunk the crazy man had killed, and returned it to its sheath. As the blade locked into place with a familiar click she felt the hardness around her shatter, and she dropped to her knees. Tears came at once, a raging river she could no longer resist. It swept her away.

~ ~ ~

Jurian panicked at first, but it was simple instinct to scoop up a crying child, even for her. But this one was particularly light. Sulkie felt brittle in her arms, and her body shuddered with deep sobs. Jurian had no children of her own, and probably never would. Still, she could not help but feel protective of this girl. It had been stupid of her to approach the fight with such arrogance. Fa’Their had taught her that the first day of her training. Never assume you know anything about anyone. Be ready for everything from everyone. She would be regretting this encounter for a while, but you learned the most from failures.

She stood up, holding the girl tight. Sulkie buried her face in Jurian’s shoulder. For once that rich fur cloak of hers was doing somebody some good. It had never been long enough or wide enough to keep her warm. It looked great though, which was equally important. But now it absorbed the girl’s tears and gave some comfort... also a powerful feature.

“There there,” she began lamely, and trailed off. Nothing to say. Her first kill had been just about as harrowing. It was something you had to get through on your own, or not at all. And you either grew stronger from it, developed a taste for it, or collapsed beneath the weight of it. This girl would pull what she needed from the experience, Jurian was certain. For now, though, they would return together to her suite at The Maiden’s Candle and get Sulkie some food and rest. And a bath.

She bent down awkwardly and pulled her knife from the crazy man’s back, wiping already congealing blood on his mangy coat. Her throw had not been enough to stop the maniac, unfortunately, but Sulkie had not hesitated to defend herself when the moment arrived. He still gripped his own dagger in an outstretched fist. Jurian stomped on his fingers a bit to loosen them, and grabbed that too. It was a nice knife. She wondered briefly who he had stolen it from.

Well, it was hers now.

 

Chapter Text

Casimir’s unseeing eyes stared at the monster holding him by the throat. Jurian called his name, but he did not respond... perhaps could not respond. Of all the times to vague out, he had found the worst. As far as she could tell he was still breathing, but would not be for long if they did not put down the hulking mass of poorly assembled flesh that bore Lucian’s rotten face, and quickly.

Jurian considered throwing her dagger at the beast, but there was damage left to do elsewhere, and the dragonborn Flayre was in a far greater position to protect Casimir than she was. Before her sat the rumpled, half-finished corpses of three other flesh golems. Haula, the halfling barbarian, had skewered one of them with her trident; quite impressively, actually. Two others had been separated from their heads before they could even stir, thanks to a well executed sneak attack, but a fourth stumbled to its feet near the far west doorway.

On restless nights in the common room at The Three Tables, as Jurian drank away her sorrows, often Haula had sat down with her for an hour or two and regaled her with tales of gladiator competitions, and the great legends of the arena. One of these ancient heroes always delighted Jurian, the tale of the so-called Woman of Wonders, who bested ten barbarians at once with the might of her sword, among other feats of strength and power.

One of these feats pricked at her memory now, as she watched Haula dominating the malformed creature with both hands on her trident, a brutal snarl on her face. Jurian saw the shield strapped to her back, and beyond it the fourth golem turning in their direction. Lined up perfectly; a trajectory born of destiny.

“Haula,” she yelled, pointing at her shambling target, “shield!”

Haula turned her head and grinned, immediately bracing her legs for the attempt, and Jurian began to run. She planted her left foot on the floor, swung her right onto Haula’s back, and with a cry she allowed herself to be launched through the air at the final golem, her two short swords bared. The thing had no time to react, and she severed its head with deft strikes before rolling to a stop at the edge of the doorway.

The creature dropped to the floor, black ichor spurting from its neck.

Haula laughed maniacally. Her barbarian rage was always glorious to witness, and she began to charge forward with the golem on the end of her trident, shoving it across the room and pinning it directly into the beast that had once been Lucian Falinescu. Both creatures screamed in pain. Lucian lurched to the side, though, one hand gripping Casimir’s throat, and swung the unconscious monk at Flayre.

The dragonborn stepped aside from the attack, pivoting smoothly to stick his sword directly into Lucian’s chest. With a roar, the fleshy monster crumpled, dropping Casimir to the floor. He landed on his feet somehow, still staring off into space. Haula would handle the final golem easily, so Jurian could turn her attention to the next challenge. Casimir, though... he was going to be no good to anyone. Whatever his awful, demonic book had shown the monk, the party would have to confront it without his assistance.

Typical , Jurian thought, shaking her head. For a moment it seemed the deep shadows in the room darkened and shuddered around her, as if shaking with a laughter she could feel but not hear. Shivering, she squeezed her eyes shut and took a long breath. When she opened them, everything was as it had been.

Turning, Jurian slipped forward to open the door into the next room. The chanting had resumed from where it stopped when this most recent fight had begun, and lights spun and flickered beneath the door. Somewhere in there was Sorina, the teenage girl they had come to rescue.

And indeed, as she pushed through the door they beheld Sorina’s captor, the old healer woman Glovia, reading from a magical book. The entire room glowed with eerie light. Beyond her, lying on a table, were two bodies. On the left, easily recognizable, was Sorina. She was unconscious but breathing, and moaning. Next to her was the rotten corpse of what had once, perhaps, been a girl. And to the right of that, against the wall, her voice moving in a silent scream, was the ghost of Isabella.

So playful when they saw her last, the apparition now writhed in terror and pain. Sickly green mist flowed from her body to Sorina’s. Jurian could not tell if the spell was just beginning or nearly done, but she knew it had to be stopped. A ritual like this, in her limited experience, required several things. The words, the book, the bodies... perhaps removing one from the equation would do the trick.

She chose the easiest. Leaping forward, she attempted to attack the chanting woman from the shadows, but Glovia’s eyes caught her movement, and she turned as Jurian’s shortsword struck her neck. Blue light flashed as it connected, and though her strike had been true, the elven blade seemed to barely damage the woman. Glovia smirked and spun to face them.

Cursing, Jurian dove back through the doorway, taking cover behind the corpse of the... she counted them up... yes, the third golem she had beheaded. It had been quite a fight. Balren was at her side in an instant. The wizard’s eyes were intent on Glovia, but his words were clearly meant just for Jurian.

“Wanna see something funny?” He whispered, waving his arms at the woman beyond the doorway. Mist arced from his hands and swished through the air around Glovia, who stopped short and gave them both a weird look. Then she began to laugh. Dropping to the floor, Glovia laughed and laughed, holding her sides and gasping for breath.

Jurian looked at Balren, who at least had the decency to shrug innocently. He still looked like Glovia, of course. He had left his disguise intact despite the failure of his opening gambit. The pitiful Lucian creature had seen right through his deception, somehow.

Haula made short work of the final golem, tossing its ruined body aside and spinning her trident to clear it of viscera. With a gesture, the barbarian ordered her new little friend, Isabella’s stuffed skeleton unicorn... monster... to bring the final potion from the table in the corner. “Master Prickles” offered Jurian the vial, which was filled with thick purple liquid.

“What’s this?” She asked nobody in particular. And nobody replied. So she dipped her pinky in the fluid and gave it a little taste. She spit it out immediately. Poison. That would do the trick. She looked back and gave Haula a thumbs up. The barbarian nodded, though only had eyes, apparently, for her new stuffed toy friend. She was grinning like an idiot. The toy was cute, Jurian had to admit. The way it ambled along, and it’s squishy horn. She stuck her tongue out at Master Prickles, and returned her attention to the task at hand.

Glovia still writhed on the floor, laughing hysterically. It was an unsettling display, but the ritual was halted, for now. Creeping forward through the doorway, Jurian poured the poison potion down Glovia’s throat. The former healer turned apparent necromancer choked and screamed between bouts of laughter.

“I think --” Jurian started to say.

“Mother...” Isabella’s voice was soft, confused. “And mother?” The ghost’s tearful eyes moved from Glovia to Balren, whose magical disguise was good enough, apparently, to fool at least one entity.

“Hey,” Haula said from behind them, “We need to get her out of here if we’re going to stop this ritual.”

“Go to your room!” Balren shouted, piling a not insignificant amount of matronly authority into the yell. Isabella screamed and fled.

Then without another word, Balren set Glovia on fire. The woman shrieked and rolled on the floor. The blaze faded quickly, but Glovia was in rough shape. Jurian placed the tip of her sword at the woman’s belly, blue light climbed up and down the blade. That mage armor was strong, but the battle was all but won at this point.

“Sorina was like a daughter to you,” Jurian said, “or near enough. Do not trade one child for the other.”

“Isabella is gone,” Balren leaned over and showed Glovia the ring he had recovered from the ghast in Oraşnou. “Let her go.” Recognition, and then despair bloomed in the necromancer’s eyes as the laughter began to fade. “Your friend is dead,” he said. “Again. Let them all go. You have lost. Surrender.”

Glovia gasped for air and tried to sit up, her wild eyes searching for her daughter’s ghost. Before she could speak, Haula stepped forward and fired the mechanical web shooter she had found, binding the woman in an electrified net. Convulsing erratically, Glovia cried out for her daughter a final time, and fainted.

~ ~ ~

Cradling Sorina in her arms and bracing herself against the sharp winter wind, Jurian turned to look back at the house on the hill. The mansion roared and groaned in protest as flames consumed it. They had placed the rotted body of Isabella in her bedroom. The poor girl deserved a proper memorial at least, a final send off.

Her companions... no, that didn't fit. Her friends stood together, tiny silhouettes against the roaring blaze. Already the snow around them had melted into brown grass and mud. Deep cracks sounded from the pyre as old wood creaked, and smashed, and fell.

Up the fire rose, bright as the sun, spewing black smoke into the night like the dark servant of an avenging god climbing out of the sea, as if it could burn all the evil of the world to ash. The heat was intoxicating.

Boris, Sorina’s father, placed a shaky hand on Jurian’s shoulder. “Let’s get her home,” he said.

“All right,” She nodded. “We’ll see them again soon enough.”

The pair trudged ruggedly through the snow, retracing their footprints back down the long path to Oraşnou. Sorina’s breathing was slow and steady. Her eyes were closed but she seemed more relaxed. Jurian looked up at the stars, the ones she could see. It could be difficult to tell what time of day or even the season in this cursed snowy realm. Aya would be asleep at this hour, regardless. She did not look forward to waking the elf woman up, but surely she would excuse the intrusion in this case.

Sorina was heavy in her arms. The five miles back to town would become excruciating at this rate, but she pushed onward. She was nothing if not stubborn. Gradually, Jurian became aware of a light bouncing behind them, and footsteps in the snow. And then the sound of Balren laughing at something Haula said. They caught up to Boris and her without difficulty. Haula lugging Glovia behind in the net, Balren leading the dazed Casimir.

“How much do you think that amulet will sell for?” Flayre sidled up beside Jurian and motioned for her to let him carry the sleeping girl. Carefully, she passed Sorina over, and then stretched her already weary arms. Boris struggled, but was keeping pace well enough. She gave the old man a reassuring smile.

“Thanks,” she said, ignoring Flayre’s question. She had been certain nobody saw her pocket that amulet. It was worth two hundred gold at least! Gods, but she hated sharing. Perhaps they had earned a piece of the pie though. This time. Jurian patted the dragonborn man on the... hmm... very firm arm. She gave his bicep a squeeze. “Did I tell you I saw you perform once?”

“Yeah?” He grunted, gently hefting Sorina so her head rested against his shoulder.

“Flayre the Gigantic versus The Minotaur Bellows.”

“Ohhhh,” He laughed. “The early years!”

“My mother took me to all the shows whenever a new one came to Waterdeep. Most I don’t remember,” Jurian grinned, “but I’ll never forget yours.”

“You know, that wasn’t a real minotaur,” Flayre said, his voice lowering to a whisper.

“Oh no?” It was cute that he thought there was any way the makeshift costume worn by his opponent had fooled anybody, ever.

“It’s true,” he said. “The minotaur head was a real bison skull...”

Their voices echoed into the empty wood, misty breath mingling with the thin blanket of fog that perpetually lay over the mystical realm of Barovia. The light from Balren’s lantern spread out before them like a golden road, glittering merrily across the snowy hill. Somewhere to the east a wolf howled, and as if on cue a red line split the horizon, brilliantly infinite and new. Sunrise.

Chapter Text

The city was quiet. Jurian squatted on a rooftop, listening. Her restless fingers fiddled with frayed bootstraps as she waited. She had been glad to learn her quarry still roosted here; Cullen Masters had minor warrants out for his capture in every major city in Faerun except Waterdeep. It amazed her that nobody else had found him yet. Then again, it had taken a significant amount of work to even get close to obtaining this measly fifteen gold reward. And the tip that led her to this house has cost her ten!

But that was old money; it was gone. The fifteen would fix her up for expenses in the here and now, and lead to more money down the line. She looked at the sky. The Double Daggers were low in the west... Almost midnight. The house had been quiet for hours. For a supposedly cunning smuggler and thief, Masters did not seem to place much importance on securing his own safety. Perhaps the years of relative obscurity here in Waterdeep had relaxed his guard.

Sulkie, the halfling girl in her employ, had confirmed a half-orc matching his description coming and going from the house over the past two days. So it was just a matter of finding his room, slipping in undetected, and fitting the Domination Band over his wrist before he woke. A simple enough plan.

Jurian tried not to think about the last time she had relied on the magical bracelet. The will of a half-orc brawler would not be as strong as that of a gnomish sorcerer, would it? That had been an interesting day. But she had emerged mostly triumphant then, and she would now. Everything would be fine. She gripped the harness around her waist and thrummed the thick hempen rope that secured her to the roof. This was a great plan.

It would work.

Easing herself backward over the edge of the roof, Jurian held the rope slack in one hand and tried to keep her balance with the other. As the harness caught her weight, and held, she grinned. Of course it worked. She crouched against the side of the three story house and kicked, pulling slack through the harness and dropping a few feet. She landed silently against the wall again, eye level with the top floor window. The only sounds were inside her body, the terse pounding of her heartbeat, and the quiet rumble of her mutton stew digesting.

While not exactly uncomfortable, the leather straps of the harness seemed to be tightening against her in unexpected ways. She stifled a belch. Typically she would never need such a complicated apparatus to scale the side of a building and slip in through the window, but when you anticipated maybe having to lug a three hundred pound bounty down from the third floor? Every bit helped. Below, in the shadows of the alley, a rented cart waited. Her backup plan.

A thin howl rose in the east past the rooftops. Coyote. Wolf, maybe... Distant. It was echoed by a few dogs elsewhere in the city, but even dogs preferred to sleep at this hour. Jurian flipped the switch that locked the rope in place and released the slack. It held firm. She slipped her thieves tools from the hidden pocket in her jacket sleeve, but the hallway window creaked open without resistance. Loudly. She held her breath, shifted as far out of sight of the window as she could, and froze.

Nothing.

Stowing the unneeded lockpicks, she cranked the iron gear on her harness that would lower her an inch at a time, and was soon perched on the window’s edge. Unbuckling the stiff leather belt, she angled her head to listen, but the only sound was the wind. Odd.

She slipped into the hall and pressed herself up into the shadows. Three doors lined the wall opposite a staircase heading down. She could see light flickering under the door nearest the stairs.

Easing one of her daggers in its sheath, Jurian stepped lightly across the matted rug covering the floor. Despite the anxiety an infiltration like this produced, she found herself enjoying it more often than not. There was something invigorating about treading where you were not invited. And as ineptly as this particular house was protected, even the usual jitters had been reduced to a mild simmer.

The door was unlocked. She pushed it open and peeked in. Rich tapestries hung on the walls around a single open window. A large, comfortable-looking bed claimed most of the space. It was covered by thick fur blankets and... she counted fifteen pillows before giving up the effort. A cool night breeze sputtered the lone candle in the room. Nothing and no one. But as the door creaked gently closed, she heard voices below.

Jurian turned and made her way down the staircase. Despite appearances from the outside, the dining area and kitchen were immaculate. Another staircase continued down into the basement. At the bottom of that was a thick wooden door reinforced by metal bands. She could hear the voices distinctly now, if not clearly. A hushed argument.

She crept down the stairs and pressed her ear against the door.

“If he was coming he would be here,” one voice was saying, thin and shrill.

“He comes when he comes,” replied the other, “like always.” It was gruff; beastly enough to be Half-orcish. “Just count us out a portion before he shows up and keep your mouth shut about it.”

Jurian’s heel kicked a something metal on the floor as she stepped back. Shit .

“See,” said the second voice, “there he is now. Go let him in.”

In the moments before the door opened, she formulated a fiendish plan, calculated and clever. And like so many times before in her life when it came down to rolling the dice, it would take skill and precision. Jurian readied herself, and when the face of a gangly young human peered out at her from the doorway, mouth agape, she screamed and kicked him in the testicles. He went down hard to the floor.

“What are you doing in my house!” She yelled, stomping on his face. This was a fantastic plan.

The half-orc Cullen Masters -- it had to be him -- stood in front of a tall crate that was covered in a ratty wool blanket and secured with rope. He turned slowly, staring at her in confusion. She watched as thoughts floated across his eyes. First, wondering if perhaps he had ended up in the wrong house by accident, the sweet boy, then registering the plight of his companion, and by the time the third thought worked its way into his brain she was on him and had slapped the Domination Band around his wrist. So, instead of whatever it would have been, the third thought became “How can I help you?” and he said so.

Jurian exhaled slowly; he was hers now. The telepathic link between them shuddered with his fear and confusion, but outwardly the half-orc gave no signs that anything was wrong. She reached up to straighten his shirt collar. On her own wrist was the twin to the bracelet she had placed on him, but hers had a thin, sinuous line along it to indicate it was the controller. Cullen Masters’ face was rugged and youthful. She wondered how someone so young could have the cunning to avoid capture so long. He looked at her expectantly.

“Oh, of course.” She said, patting his cheek. “Tell your friend here we’re old buddies, yeah? And then tie him up.” She nodded to a stack of old ropes on the table.

Cullen grunted, but followed her instructions. She felt a small surge of resistance along the bond they now shared, but it faded quickly as he set about his task. The smaller fellow sputtered and complained, but was powerless in the half-orc’s grip.

“Now,” she said as Cullen tightened the knots on his companion’s wrists, “haven’t you boys heard the phrase don’t bring business into your own backyard?”

The half-orc just shrugged and stood there, his task finished, awaiting further instructions.

“I don’t think...” the small man hesitated, looking around for help that was not coming, “Uh, is that a thing people say?” He grinned at her.

I say it,” she growled, leaning forward and baring her teeth. This one was kind of funny. A little thin, perhaps. But a good sense of humor was a rare treasure in her experience. “What’s your name?”

He gulped and eyed his boss nervously, but Jurian could tell he sensed that Cullen would be no help. She was not entirely aware of the magical mechanics of the Domination Band, but she knew it required a significant force of will to overcome as long as she focused her concentration on maintaining the telepathic bond.

“Steve,” he said, shifting on the floor until he found a comfortable spot. “Fantasy Steve.” He was cool as an iced wine.

“Well, Fantasy Steve,” Jurian said. She put a hand on his shoulder, which he tried to shrug off unsuccessfully. “I suggest it’s time for you to find a new career.” Through the bond she felt Cullen’s anger rise. She looked over at him. “Stifle it, Masters.”

The half-orc seemed startled by that, but his emotions quieted. Mostly. A rumble of frustration still roiled beneath the surface. Jurian took a deep breath. Focusing her mind, she tried to... push... against it. The telepathic link tightened, and she felt Cullen’s confusion, and then calm. What a marvelous trinket.

Speaking of trinkets, she pointed at the crate. “What’s in that thing anyway?”

“It’s a sacred statue, stolen from a Grung tribe in Chult,” said a voice behind her. Cursing her carelessness, Jurian pulled a dagger and swiveled smoothly, preparing to dodge or parry. But she recognized the newcomer immediately. Small even for a dwarf, Woad-Ur Stonedrinker twittered excitedly in the doorway, his eyes locked on the blanketed crate. “It’s said to contain the soul of a great chieftain!” The excitement in his voice was infectious, but she remained wary.

“Of course,” Jurian rolled her eyes and slid the dagger back into its sheath with a practiced authority.  “What are you doing here, Brunch Boy ?” Woad-Ur was a leader of sorts… well, perhaps cheerleader was the better term. In any case, he held a leadership position in a certain shadowy organization whose favor she had needed to curry at one time or another over the years.

“Don’t call me that!” He swung his gaze over to her, face red in horror, “it’s my secret name!”

“Oh, what does it matter if they hear it?” She winked. “They’ll be dead in a minute anyway.” Cullen moaned, his eyes wide, unable to move. Terror burbled across the bond. Fantasy Steve fainted into a heap. Not so cool now. Jurian hid a smile behind her glove as she tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. She liked it when a bounty had no idea whether they were worth more dead or alive. Strange that Cullen was so oblivious, though. From the tales, she had expected more from him.

“I would ask you the same,” Woad-Ur replied, recovering some of his composure, “but I suspect it’s easy enough to guess.” He nodded at Cullen and Steve. “I can’t imagine either is worth much dead.”

Jurian shook her head. The bond carried a palpable relief from Cullen. She ignored him.

“Good, I’d hate to find myself at odds with you,” Woad-Ur said with a hint of an edge in his voice. He wandered over to the crate and, using a knife he pulled from some secret nook in his robes, cut the ropes and tugged the canvas down. Beneath the cloud of dust that arose, Jurian could see the crate was old, scratched and dinged from years of improper storage. But its structure was sound. She recognized a few of the glyphs painted onto it. Primordial. Her mind flashed back to an old book and an old friend, and a deep darkness that twisted in the pit of her stomach. She pushed the memory down and it faded quickly. Dwell too long on the past and you’ll fast lose grip on the present. Fa’Their’s voice. She focused on the writing.

“Working the idea… longer than necessary?” She translated. But that was not quite it.

“Indeed,” Woad-Ur said, glancing her way. His gaze lingered on her face for a moment, with curiosity, but eventually he shrugged and leaned in close to press his ear against the crate. “As a literal translation anyway. But colloquially,” he stepped back and opened his arms as if to embrace it, “Overwrought Thought.”

~ ~ ~

The statue was warm to the touch. Jurian traced her fingers along its smooth lines. The figure it depicted was huddled and low, almost ashamed. She felt no chieftain vibe from it. Only a sense of great loss, and fear. The emotions it projected at her mingled with the ones she felt through the Domination Band’s bond. With an effort, she was able to keep the two separate.

She mouthed the name Woad-Ur had given it. Overwrought Thought . Something about the words, about the way the folds of the statue’s cloak pooled around its feet and the face was hidden and blank... a memory, old. Very old, almost beyond her grasp. Jurian saw her father’s empty eyes in the rain, worms like tentacles wrapped around his face. She shuddered, and the moment passed.

“Is this thing safe?” She turned the bracelet on her wrist anxiously with one hand. The other clutched a dagger.

“Yes yes. Perfectly harmless.” Woad-Ur looked at her.

“Are you sure it’s what you think it is?”

“Of course I’m sure,” Woad-Ur nodded enthusiastically. “You think I would part with two thousand gold dragons for a hope and a prayer?”

“Two thousand!” Jurian’s dagger hit the stone floor with a bracing clatter that echoed throughout the basement. She looked askance at the statue. Some people just did not know what to do with their money. But then again, it might be worth far more than that, to the right collector. “How old is it?”

“Oh he’s old, very old,” the dwarf replied, “some texts even refer to him as an Archfey.”

“Archfey? But he’s not,” She eyed him cautiously. He did not reply. She snapped her fingers at him. “Woad-Ur. He’s not an Archfey, though, right?”

“Well there’s only one way to find out.”

“Gods in hell there is,” she jumped back. “You’re just going to crack it open?” The dwarf was insane! He had always been a little cracked, but this was too far. Never one to fully trust the mystics of the world, Jurian still nourished a healthy respect for them. And the things they could do. Her gaze drifted toward the Domination Band keeping Cullen under control. Even that. She felt a ripple of fear drift over their link, mixing with her own feelings in the moment, amplifying them. That was one of the side effects of the bracelet.

“No no, child,” Woad-Ur laughed into his beard. “But imagine… just imagine if we did.”

“Thanks but no,” she said, sheathing the sword she had instinctively drawn. Child? She was twenty years older than him at least. She bent down to retrieve her dagger where it lay on the floor. He was just trying to get under her skin now, paying her back for crashing his little smuggling party.

“How were you planning to get this thing back to your rooms undetected?” She asked, sliding the dagger into its scabbard on her belt.

“It is no big thing to receive shipments into the College,” Woad-Ur waved dismissively.

“Then why smuggle it at all?”

“There are organizations who prefer to steer clear of paper trails, yes?” He said. Of course. An artifact like this would have come from a museum or conclave. Or another school. Guessing her thoughts, he protested. “I only mean to study him, er, it. Just for a few days, and then return it.”

Two thousand gold for two days studying time? She scoffed. Whatever. The old dwarf could keep his secrets. “I’ll just be taking these two boys then,” she said, kicking Fantasy Steve awake. The little guy moaned.

“I need them,” Woad-Ur said.

“I thought you didn’t want to...” she searched for his words, “ be at odds with me over this?”

“Of course not, but the fact remains, I need them to complete this transaction.”

“They’re worth fifty to me,” She lied, flashing him her most charming smile. “Each. Can you match that?”

He stared at her for a long moment, considering, but finally nodded.

Jurian grinned and slapped the old dwarf on the back. “Well all right then, pleasure doing business with you.”

“I’ll want that too,” Woad-Ur said, pointing at the Domination Band on Cullen’s wrist. “And yours.”

Jurian clutched her bracelet. “What?”

“Fifteen for Cullen,” he replied. His eyes were stones. “That’s what he’s worth to you, right?”

She stuck her tongue out at him.

“And eighty-five for the Domination Band,” he continued. “A fair deal, I suspect?”

He had always been a shrewd negotiator. And Jurian had never bothered to get the bracelets appraised, so it was likely he was offering significantly less than they were worth. They were certainly worth more than that to her, at any rate.

“Gods! Twenty for Cullen,” she said ruefully, and held up her wrist. The gold band shimmered in the torchlight, giving the silvery line around it the illusion of moving and writhing.  “But these aren’t for sale.”

“We have a deal,” The dwarf nodded sagely. He would have expected as much, of course. Gods. She should have said thirty.

Jurian rounded on Cullen and shoved a finger in his face. “Obviously this is a short term respite, buddy. I suggest you and your son get out of town.”

“I’m not his son!” Fantasy Steve’s indignance was adorable, and was he blushing? She halfway hoped they decided to stick around so she could snatch the two of them up again, properly.

Cullen nodded. She could feel his acquiescence through the link, but any promises he made with the bracelet on would be worthless when she removed it.

“And you’ll behave if I take this thing off you?”

The nodding continued. Sometimes you just had to trust people. Woad-Ur was paying them very well, too, which increased the likelihood that all this could end without violence. Well, further violence. She glanced at Fantasy Steve, who still sat in a heap with his hands tied. If his eyes could shoot lasers Jurian would be missing a few limbs by now.

She unclasped the bracelet from Cullen’s wrist. The ball of emotions vanished from the back of her mind. For a moment she almost missed them.

Cullen rubbed his wrist angrily.

“I’ll be coming back,” she said, letting one hand rest on the hilt of her dagger. “You’ve got one day to --”

“Ah, two days please?” Woad-Ur interrupted.

She scowled at him, then shrugged. “Two days to get out of town, or I’ll get the chance to double my money.” Being paid twice for the same bounty would set her up quite well for a restful couple weeks at The Maiden’s Candle. Already she could feel the silk sheets against her skin. She stifled a yawn.

Well, it certainly seemed as if the events of the night were drawing to a close. Making sure she had all her gear, Jurian glanced one more time at the unusual statue. The creature it depicted was humanoid, but ethereal. Its figure was mostly hidden by the ornately carved folds of a cloak. She sensed no more emotion from it. Perhaps the link from the Domination Band had increased those effects as well.

Cullen was untying Fantasy Steve, and Woad-Ur began to hustle her toward the doorway. She paused on the stairs and held a hand out, shaking her nearly empty leather purse.

Rolling his eyes, the dwarf rummaged around the folds of his robe and produced a heavy pouch. He counted out twenty dragons and dropped them one by one from his into hers.

“By the way, Mistress Frayle,” he said as she turned to go, “you think I forgot, don’t you?”

“Forgot what?” She waited.

“I’ll be seeing ya, Hot Goat ,” Woad-Ur Stonedrinker’s eyes twinkled behind his thick glasses. Turning, he kicked the door with his boot and started back to his precious statue.

“That is not my name!” She screamed as it slammed shut in her face.

Chapter Text

The great city of Neverwinter was disgusting. A layer of greasy film rose on the fingers of an early spring gale; it swirled and eddied around the half dead half-elf lying on her back in the street. Raindrops pounded the paving stones roughly, as if trying to reinforce a lesson. Jurian Frayle stared up at the stormclouds and shielded her eyes from the downpour with a broken hand. A lesson.

Her entire face throbbed. A trickle of blood dripped from her temple to the pointed tip of her right ear, which might have tickled if she was not aching all over. Jurian’s belly moaned in particular, having received quite a few angry kicks after the fight ended. The fight she could barely remember starting. Weeks... years really, of careful planning came to a tragic head on the fists and blades of a drunken street brawl. An avalanche of shame roiled inside her, and she felt tears mixing with the blood and rain on her face.

Hugging bruised ribs with her undamaged arm, Jurian struggled to her feet. The alley was empty, and aside from the storm the streets were quiet. She had been unconscious for a little while, then. Even a bustling hub of trade and hubris like Neverwinter slept for a few hours each night.

At first assessment, she seemed whole. No obvious open wounds or missing fingers, though it seemed her left eye was starting to swell shut. And something twinged in her abdomen. Steel toed boots, no doubt. Her cloak was soaked with grit and blood. She detected the scent of vomit as well. Luckily, or otherwise, she had left all her weapons and bags in her room at The Bored Horse. If she had been carrying even a dagger there was a chance the night would have ended far differently. With her in jail, or dead. Or both.

But being merely alive had not been enough for a while. Her brother’s face always floated just beyond reach, out of sight but ever present. Laughing eyes covered in blood; a deep boyish grin filled with shattered teeth. Jurian coughed, and then groaned as her body protested. She limped to the closest wall and leaned up against it, carefully. Tenderly. Above, a narrow overhang shielded her from the bulk of the worsening storm. Still her belly clenched, sharp and deep. She felt warmth seeping down her leg.

Jurian rested the back of her head against cold stone bricks and focused on breathing. Air came in ragged gasps; each inhalation a new torture. She just needed to stand for a few minutes, to clear her head and catch her breath. Thick drops of water plunked heavily against her chest, rapping a sullen rhythm that dipped and rose and stumbled to echo her heartbeat as she swayed. Abruptly, something hard smashed against her face and the full force of the storm came down on her back. Her left knee wrenched sharply in the wrong direction, but it did not hurt so much as it might have.

Everything was numb and black, though, and she could taste the grime of the street flowing into her mouth. Jurian coughed, and lightning split her insides. She doubled up on the ground and screamed. The fingertips of a dark goddess pressed against her intestines, as if digging them out. She saw the face of her father covered in thick tendrils of gray flesh, lit briefly by the flash and then gone. Her mother’s voice followed, singing and laughter floating above the clunk of knives in wood targets. Next, her brother, his eyeless gaze grinding deep into her heart. Dark flames licked out hungrily from those empty sockets. Was he speaking? His lips moved soundlessly, but she could hear the words.

“You betray us,” he said, angry and embarrassed by her failure. Jerriod had always been so proud of his little sister. This was the worst of it. Jurian banished the vision and pushed limply against the darkness as her stomach emptied itself again into infinite puddles of brackish water. A lesson . She laughed as bright fire ate and grew and burned hope into ashes. And that was the end of her.

~ ~ ~

Ten thousand years passed before the pain receded. The girl who had been Jurian opened her eyes without a word as she slowly regained herself. She did not recognize the ceiling above, nor the pungent smells wafting into her nostrils. A fire crackled somewhere, popping and hissing some dripping liquid into steam. Her body felt broken, weak. Empty. She tried to lift a hand, but the effort it required was immense, and she gave up quickly.

“You are awake!” Said a surprised voice.

Jurian grunted, but even that was too much; it came out a low moan.

“Honestly, truly, I did not expect that to work,” the voice continued, surprise fading into wonder. “It shouldn’t have worked.” A shadow loomed over her, childlike and fair. “At all.”

A small hand pressed itself against Jurian’s forehead, almost motherly.

“And it didn’t, really... Not all the way,” the strange person said. “But you’re warm again!” The world pulsed red around Jurian suddenly, and she felt strength flowing back into her body; sharp tingles like blood returning to numb legs. “Marvelous!”

Jurian shoved the girl’s hand off and sat up, clenching and unclenching the fingers of her broken hand. Formerly broken. Her head was swimming, but everything else seemed okay. Except, of course, that she was one hundred percent naked.

“Where are my clothes?” She stretched her back to full height and stared down at the girl. A halfling, now that Jurian had a good look.

“They’ll have to be replaced,” firelight flickered off the young halfling’s face as she pointed to a pile of filthy garments in the corner. “You were in quite a state. I think I’ve fixed most of it, though.”

Jurian shook her head, ignoring the way it made her vision swell and spin. She would replace that gear when the sun turned black. “And who in the gods-damned hell are you?”

“I heard a scream,” the girl said, “in the alley.”

Jurian slid down from the table and walked over to the pile of her clothes. Atop the mound was her brother’s leather jacket. Its midsection was crusty with dry blood, and there was a new slice in it around the spot she had felt that pain in her abdomen. She lifted the jacket and peered intently at the hole. Someone had brought a knife. Her flesh was whole, of course; like new as always after magical healing. She ran a hand down the dark skin of her belly. “That’s not a name,” she said without looking at the halfling.

“No, but... See, you were dead.”

“I’ve had worse,” Jurian tugged the damp jacket over her bare shoulders. She had a clean blouse back in her room. The smell was indeed a bit much, but not wholly unrecoverable. Maybe.

“I find that very unlikely,” the stranger scoffed.

“That’s not a name either,” Jurian eyed her sideways and tied the straps across her chest with practiced ease.

“Oh,” the halfling scrubbed at her face with a sleeve, “it’s Portia. I’m a wizard... Well, I want to be.”

“And what did you do to me, Portia?”

“Just a little, you know,” Portia adjusted her headband nervously, “experimental necromancy?”

Jurian stared. Experimental. Necromancy. She could not suppress a full body shudder.

“You would have died for real otherwise!” Portia pointed at the hole in Jurian’s jacket. “Someone stabbed you with a poisoned dagger.”

“Poison?” Jurian paused and looked down at herself. That required forethought, planning. Had they known all along? An icy hand gripped her spine.

“A particularly nasty one, too. It was melting you from the inside,” Portia said, making a face.

“Gross.” Jurian pulled her grimy pants on and fastened her belt. She had left most of her pouches behind, but her coinpurse was gone. And her flask. She sighed. Clearly she had entered into the whole enterprise under a veil of naivete.  “Well kid, thanks,” she said, “for the care. What do I owe you?”

“Just a favor someday, maybe?”

“I don’t like owing people favors,” Jurian let a little hardness seep into her voice. “Put a number on it.”

“Oh! Well,” Portia replied, seemingly unconcerned. “How about... one copper piece? Do you have that?”

Jurian reflexively reached for the coin purse that was not there, and then growled. “Fine,” she said, “but nothing weird.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it!” Portia seemed scandalized, but Jurian could not tell if it was genuine.

“I bet,” Jurian said, gathering up the rest of her soggy belongings. The cloak was fully ruined, but she was not about to admit that in front of her supposed savior. She draped it over her back sloppily, and turned toward the room’s single door.

“You never told me your name, traveler,” Portia’s voice was low, different than it had been.

“Jurian,” the half-elf stated. “Jurian Frayle.”

Portia’s merriment seemed to return instantly, and the halfling stifled a laugh. “Of course it is! A fitting name, then.” Portia paused, adjusting her headband again. She seemed awfully preoccupied with that bright cloth. “I’ll be in touch, Ms. Frayle,” the halfling intoned with a wry smile.

Jurian rolled her eyes and pulled open the door. Bright sunshine poured in through the open air balcony. A balcony, and a view, that she recognized immediately. The Bored Horse, the very same inn she was staying at. She burst out laughing.

“What?” Portia stepped forward anxiously.

“Nothing,” Jurian said, looking back at the confused halfling. She nodded and stepped out into the early Spring air, inhaling deeply. The healed wound in her abdomen burned a little with the effort, and she pressed a hand against her belly. Something told her she would be seeing quite a lot of this tiny necromancer. Jurian  glanced at the painted number on the room’s door, and grinned. Her own room was two doors down. “Nothing at all.”

Chapter Text

Galrik Thormstone was a pushover. He had overbroad shoulders and skinnier than average legs for a dwarf, and was missing his right eye, which made him awkward and slow. Jurian watched him warily as he struggled to find a comfortable position near the fire, his arms and legs still tied. He worked at the gag in his mouth relentlessly, if ineffectually. He was persistent, she had to give him that. Almost, when she had been a bit too careless with the ropes that bound him, he had made a break for it. The effort of subduing him still ached her shoulders. What with the jumping from a goblin footbridge to tackle him.

Jurian shook her head ruefully. He would fetch a handsome bounty in Phandelin, if they all managed to arrive in one piece. Her companions slept nearby. A fine company they made, thrown together at the last minute as a favor for a friend -- a friend who might at this very moment be dead or dying somewhere deeper in the cave. She had not known Gundren Rockseeker long. Enough to say hello to. But the job seemed easy enough, if not for the detour. There would be no payment for the transport job if they could not find and recover Gundren. Alive.

This dwarf had been extra, her own little bonus. Jurian had hidden his existence as long as she could, but the others eventually discovered him after she was unwilling to leave the cart behind to trudge up into the hills after Gundren. So she had to promise to share the bounty with them. Well, some of it anyway. Abruptly she noticed Galrik’s plan with all that wiggling; the ropes around his boots were smoking. If he scooted any closer to the fire, though, he was gonna go up in flames.

“Give up the struggle,” she said, kicking at the dwarf half-heartedly. Galrik grunted but settled down and rolled away from the fire pit. Not for the first time, Jurian wondered what a couple surface maps and some ledgers could be worth to him, but so far Galrik was not talking. It had to be something though, or why steal them?

“Tell you what,” she rolled a couple bone dice in her hand. Perhaps a little more carrot, a little less stick? “If you behave yourself, I can take off that gag and maybe we can spend our time on watch having some fun.”

Galrik’s eye widened. In her mind, she went back over her words, and made a face.

“Not that kind of fun, you cretin,” she threw a handful of dirt at him. The dwarf just shrugged. “I’m talking dice,” she said, holding up the little cubes. “Meaning, I’ll play you for it. I win, you tell me where you stashed the stuff you stole.”

He made some noise behind the gag that sounded like a question.

“Well,” she guessed his intent, “if you win, I’ll give you a couple extra rations and whatever is left in my flask.”

Galrik’s gaze fell. Surely he had not expected her to set him free. Portia snored lightly to Jurian’s left. The halfling had taken a bit of a tumble when Galrik pushed her down to make his escape, but she would be okay with rest. That was not something Jurian was likely to forgive though, even if there was no payday at the end of the road.

But there was a payday. And someone named... she pulled the crumpled up wanted poster from one of her pockets and glanced at it... Halia Thornton seemed pretty intent on recovering this thief for the Phandelin Miner Exchange. Whatever that was.

Jurian reached over and loosened the gag around Galrik’s mouth. He sputtered a bit and spat something into the dirt.

“That rag tastes like a pig’s ass,” he coughed at her.

“Well you’d know,” she smirked.

“Aye,” he said, “it’s a delicacy in the Barrows. But you gotta cook it just right.”

“So, how about it?” Jurian held up the dice again.

“Doesn’t seem like much is in it for me, girl,” Galrik worked his jaw back and forth between sentences. “Not that I’m admitting to stealing anything, mind you.”

“Of course.”

“I tell you what, though. If I win, you feed me proper,” he said, “ and keep me out of that gods damned trunk for the rest of the ride?”

Jurian leaned forward. “Now you’re talking! Ever played Pickpocket?” She fished a couple more polyhedrons from one of her pouches.

Galrik held up his hands as best he could with them bound to his legs.

“Oh I’ll roll for you,” she said with a shrug, carefully selecting the appropriately weighted dice.

The dwarf snorted. “Seems fair.”

Jurian grinned. Sometimes it was nice to know where you stood with somebody. She was not going to let him win, and he was never going to tell her the truth about his stash. But there were far worse ways to spend an evening.

Chapter Text

The lukewarm bath shed dust and grime from her skin like a rind as Jurian stepped into the cast iron tub. She slid below the water’s surface with a sigh, until only her head floated above it. Wholly embarrassed, Sildar Hallwinter averted his eyes and shifted on his feet awkwardly. She grinned and let her eyes take him in. The man had a gorgeously thick shock of white hair on his head, and grizzled features that had probably only grown more handsome as the years passed.

“I’ve been waiting a thousand years for this,” she said, working a flake of soap into a lather on her arms and face. Sildar grunted. He was a knight of some order or other, Jurian had heard, and she suddenly realized there might be... oaths involved here. But surely he would not have invited her in if that were the case. And he certainly would not have eyed her up and down when he thought she was looking elsewhere.

Standing there at his door, though, she had felt a complete fool... but only for a moment. To his credit, Sildar ignored her impropriety and even smiled a little as she pleaded her case. His room was the only one with a private bath, that was all. And what two consenting adults got up to in a room with a private bath, well... that was nobody’s business but theirs.

No, he was no sworn monk.

With nimble fingers, Jurian undid her braid and let the tepid water soak into her long dark hair. A small table near the tub held a few remaining bits of soap and a porcelain bowl filled with lavender stalks. Lavish, for an inn of this size. She lifted a sprig of the flower and sniffed at it, then crushed the petals in her hand and let them fall into the water. She loved lavender.

“Even as a child,” she said, not looking at Sildar, “when I was skipping along with my father through the forests of his Grove, I refused to wear anything that wasn’t some shade of purple.” She sensed him glance over, but continued to fold water into her hair. Holding her silence was difficult, but she had learned to give a man time to find his voice after showing him a little interest. And anyway, as far as he knew she was just talking to herself, but she could not stop herself from biting her lip.

“You had expensive tastes,” Sildar said finally.

“I did indeed,” she met his eyes and smiled. “My brother always called me ‘Lady’ Jurian.” That was an unexpected diversion. You don’t bring up your dead brother when you’re trying to seduce someone , she thought angrily. But the feelings welled up inside her anyway. She allowed them to come; they always did when Jerriod entered her thoughts. Lately she had tried embracing them, to dull the pain of her loss. She could not tell if it was helping, but it was something different at least.

Sildar seemed to notice the sudden shift in her emotional state. He approached the tub and knelt down beside it. Jurian marveled at how quickly his early timidity and aloofness had evaporated. His eyes were still hard, a soldier’s eyes, but kindness glistened in them. And sorrow.

“I lost a brother too,” he said, looking over toward the room’s single window as if he could see across the continent. “He was a complete asshole,” he laughed bitterly, shaking his head and gripping the edge of the tub with both hands for balance, “but we were as close as any brothers I’ve known.”

He talked for a little while about his family, about wars he had fought in, places he had visited. Sildar’s brother had been a prankster, and Jurian found herself laughing more than once at his stories of their antics. Her sadness floated away, buoyed by these private confessions. She had been right, thinking the two of them had a connection, and it went deeper than she realized. She placed a hand on one of his.

His voice trailed off at her touch.

“Sorry,” she said, pulling her hand back. “I guess I kind of killed the moo--”

He kissed her mid-sentence, leaning awkwardly over the side of the bath, and Jurian melted. Reaching up, she wrapped her wet arm around his shoulder and pulled him closer. Water sloshed out of the tub onto the floor. And then, of course, inexorably, came a brisk knock at the door: three pops in quick succession. Sildar pulled hastily away and Jurian groaned. She sank back into the water with a huff.

Sildar stepped over to the doorway and opened it a crack. Jurian could see Portia’s anxious face peering in.

“Is everything all right in here?” her halfing friend pushed against the door, and Sildar widened it meekly, though he could probably have stood firm again Portia’s strength all night.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Jurian said, pasting a bright smile on her face. “We were just talking about how famished we are.” She heard Sildar chuckle. “Can you be a dear and bring us up two plates of dinner?”

Portia rolled her eyes, looking first to the pile of clothes and bags Jurian had dumped in the corner of the room, and then to Sildar standing there in damp shirt sleeves.

“Yes, well,” the halfling said, “as long as you’re okay.”

“I can take care of myself,” Jurian replied, a little too haughtily if she was being honest. But things were just warming up between her and Sildar, and the interruption made her realize how cold the water had gotten. She shivered involuntarily, goose bumps rising on her skin.

“I wasn’t talking to you ,” Portia swiveled and gave Sildar a pointed look. “I can get rid of her if you want.”

The warrior’s grin split his face in half and softened the hard lines and angles of his jaw, which only increased his attractiveness. “We’re fine, thanks,” he said.

Portia nodded as if she did not quite believe him, but stepped away from the door anyway.

“Oh,” Jurian called after her, “also!”

The halfling paused, her curly hair bouncing around her pink headband as she turned back. She fiddled absently with the white flower tucked inside it.

“Can you heat this up?” Jurian splashed the water a bit.

Portia sighed and waved her hands around in that wizardly way. The water felt warmer almost immediately. Jurian blew her friend a kiss as the door closed.

“She cares quite a lot about you,” Sildar said, making his way back to Jurian’s side.

“If you say so,” she was doubtful, but saw his point. She and Portia had been friends a long time, and the halfling had saved her life more than once. But for someone nearly sixty years younger than Jurian, Portia sure did embrace the hell out of the motherly role she had assumed when they met.

“She visibly relaxed when she saw you were all right,” he replied, “though she purports to keep me safe from you, I can see through the ruse.” He leaned over the bath and kissed her again. Jurian stretched out of the water to meet him. Sildar slid an arm behind the small of her back and lifted her up. He was so strong! She could not suppress a delighted giggle.

“Well,” Jurian kissed his cheek as he carried her effortlessly over to the bed, “I think we both know you haven’t been safe from me since the moment I poured that potion of healing down your throat in that awful goblin cave.”

“Yeah, I guess not,” he said, dropping her down onto the stuffed wool mattress, soaking wet. “Did I ever thank you for that?”

Biting her lip again, Jurian reached up and tugged Sildar’s shirt over his head. “Thank me now.”

Chapter Text

“What is that you’re making?” Jurian set a mug of warm ale on the table in front of Portia, who was busy fiddling with odds and ends of leather and cloth.

“A harness,” the halfling said without looking up from her work. “For you.”

Jurian snorted. “You need to learn to give up control once and a while.”

Portia sniffed loudly and paused long enough to take a long sip from the mug before returning her attention to the project.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but you’re not responsible for protecting me from my bad decisions,” Jurian lowered herself into the chair beside Portia with a languid sigh. “And besides, this time it was a good decision.”

Portia glanced up at her suddenly, poorly disguised curiosity plastered all over her sweet halfling face.

Jurian leaned in close. “I saw my father, Portia,” she whispered, “and not like in some godsdamned illusion either. It was him, and I was there. Back home.”

“In your Grove?”

“Yeah,” Jurian felt the wind in her hair again, just for a moment. The sun’s light had been so bright when she stepped through that mirror and into her long-dead father’s arms. It had to be real. His embrace had been warm, as strong and steady as the sunrise; a reminder of what she had convinced herself was gone forever. She jumped when Portia’s cool finger wiped a tear from her cheek.

“You don’t talk about him,” her friend said softly.

Jurian shook her head. “It’s not that I don’t want to, I just barely knew him. He died when I was ten.” She counted on her fingers. “That’s like eighty years ago.”

“Seventy-one,” Portia intoned.

“Seventy- seven actually,” Jurian said. Portia cocked her head to the side, but patiently waited for her to continue. The sunset painted orange stripes across the halfling’s shoulders as it filtered through the wood slats of the western-facing window. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Jurian searched for the right way to say it, “I was there . Like, for a while.”

“I know, it was fifteen or twenty minutes easily. We were very worried.”

“No, a while ,” Jurian reached over and squeezed her friend’s arm for emphasis. “Years.”

“I believe it felt like years to you,” Portia patted Jurian’s hand and then began stacking up the bits of cloth she had assembled. “But I’m not so sure--”

“I had time with him, Portia!” Jurian emptied her own mug and wiped a wrist across her lips. “When I first saw him in the mirror it was him and me, like we were just before he was killed. I was wearing my lavender dress and clomping around in those ridiculous boots of my brother’s that were way too big for me.” She pointed at her feet. “These boots!”

Portia glanced down at them and nodded. “They look the same to me.”

“Well yeah, they are. I’m not explaining this right.”

“No no,” Portia smiled sympathetically, “I understand. You felt like you were sent to another time and place, and remained there for six years.”

“Exactly.”

“But you were only gone for minutes, Jurian!” Portia had a way of saying Jurian’s name that usually delighted her, dropping the hard J and slipping it down to a milder “yur” sound. But right now she found it highly irritating.

Portia was obviously going to need proof. Some way to show her. They could go back to Pale Eyed Mora’s hut, she supposed, if the damn mirror would even work again. Mora had claimed it worked “sometimes” -- whatever that meant.

“It was a Mirror of Fate,” Portia was saying, “I’ve seen them... well, read about them. It shows you the past, or the future, nothing more.”

When the swamp witch had pulled her roughly out of the Grove, bony fingers gripping her shoulder tightly, Jurian had not been prepared. She had not been ready to go. Her father was probably still there waiting for her to return to that place beyond time. She felt herself panicking a little.  The younger version of herself had vanished when Jurian had arrived, dropping the delicate marionette she had been carrying into the grass. He would be alone and -- Of course!

She fished around in her pouch and retrieved the broken and tarnished version of that same marionette she always carried with her. It was missing a few pieces, including its head. Jurian placed it down on the table in front of Portia.

“Yes, that old thing?” Portia glanced at it briefly before meeting Jurian’s intense gaze. “You had that before,” her voice trailed off as Jurian produced something else from the pouch, a smooth, intricately detailed round object. Clean and almost new. She placed it next to the remains of the marionette and then used both hands to affix it gently onto the neck joint.

Portia gasped, pressing her hand to her mouth.

“My father carved this for me when I was very young, it was my favorite thing in the world,” Jurian said, tracing the contours of the toy with a thin finger. A dim memory flitted through her mind, stumbling through muddy darkness, and a hooded stranger. Fear and doubt blanketed her mind like a moon shadow, but the feeling passed quickly as if consumed.

“We have to go back there,” Portia eyes glistened wetly in the fading light.

Jurian nodded and lifted the marionette affectionately. Still missing an arm and a leg, of course, the battered old toy now had its head again. A perfect fit.

Chapter Text

It was a spider that killed her this time, ten feet tall and covered in barbarous hairs. She could feel it laughing too, as paralysis lurched through her body and stopped her heart. But she was not afraid. This was an old lesson.

The dirt was soft beneath her feet, and the sturdy Jacaranda trees swayed and sang to Jurian as she walked beside her father along the path north of Tampico’s Gnoll. The wind plucked at her dress and whipped her shoulder-length hair like black flames in its wake. Thin shafts of afternoon sunlight poked holes in the leafy roof through a thousand blue summer flowers, as if the sapphire eyes of Mielikki gazed down upon them. Jurian’s feet felt light inside her brother’s boots; she loved the sound they made tromping through the dirt, and the way it felt to sneak them from under his bed without permission. She never considered that Jerriod had left the boots for her on purpose.

To her it was a grand scheme. She returned the stolen footwear each night, and each morning stealthily captured them again to wear. Just until he came home, of course. And she would have them broken in and comfortable for him by then.

Abruptly she realized her father had stopped walking, and turned back to face him. Desmod was staring at a dead tree, its bows broken and misshapen. Gray leaves littered the forest floor around it, as if their color had been drained. Her father looked at her and smiled; it was a sad smile, and regret overflowed from the edges of it. Jurian’s heart swelled with something resembling sympathy. Not a feeling she had entertained for many years.

Her hands ached like fire. She looked down at them. Deep furrows in her arms bled relentlessly, a torrent of life pooling in the dust at her feet. She was gripping her sword hilts so tightly, but despite her strain she could not lift them, could not move. Her father’s sadness drained every ounce of her strength, and she saw the color was gone from her own body as well as the tree. Black lightning pulsed behind her eyes, and still he smiled at her from across half a century of loss. He spoke, and though she could not hear him, she knew the words.

The tree groaned and shook, and as Jurian looked upon it she saw the face of a unicorn carved in its bark, golden mane writhing. There was a great rumbling sound as a thousand hooves beat against her chest and the sudden weight of it burst her ribcage open like a rotten wineskin.

She woke with a start, power crackling in her fingertips. Her friend Spark was pouring some concoction down her throat, and Jurian could feel her body again. The stone room swayed and bucked like a wild stallion around her.

Pressing her knees through the stone floor, she rose to her feet somehow. Anger filled her as she beheld her friends, battered and bruised, and the smirking face of this godsforsaken wizard gleaming at her over the destroyed body of his giant spider. He lifted a hand in bold defiance while she approached, as if willing her back into death’s embrace. But then she was on him, screaming. Her rage pulsed within her like a thunderstorm, and was expunged as her sword bit into his flesh. Jurian felt the power explode out of her even as her blade pierced his heart.

The wizard’s body was flung limply against the wall, his eyes rolling back into his head as death took him. And then she too collapsed, falling into blackness and a heap on the floor.

Arranaseera ,” a voice said, familiar and strange. Be brave . “This is the beginning.”

Chapter Text

Jarya Frayle was tired. She stepped into the guise of her grandfather as usual, her unseen servant Beauregard eagerly stuffing each piece of the costume into her hands when she reached for it. Eben Belwether’s bearded face in the mirror reminded her of simpler times. Below her feet, the raucous common room of The Yawning Portal thrummed with stomping feet as the fiddle player, a local boy she had placed an ad to find, drew his act to a close.

“It’s showtime,” she whispered into the mirror, her lopsided grin looking out of place astride the old man’s missing teeth. She nodded, and smoothed the wreath of white hair that rode his rounded human ears. Beauregard mimed his enthusiasm and began the long process of escorting her downstairs and on to the stage.

Hoots and yells greeted her as the hot, sweaty air of the tavern pulled her close-braided yellow hair into an immediate frizz behind the magical disguise. Jarya sighed, adjusting the mithral breastplate under her robes. Once you had a stray dagger thrown at you by a drunken lout for singing a song that reminded him of his lost somebody or other, you learned to play prepared. She brandished her war lute defensively, but with a hardy flourish, and strummed a few chords to quiet the sodden masses.

Her grandfather’s voice was deep, and resonant, and she always enjoyed the way he commanded the attention of the audience, something age and quite frankly maleness seemed to have an edge on.

Well ,” she began, plucking a few strings,
this is a song for drinking,
and for a drink it will be sung ...”

Someone tossed a bottle toward the stage. Jarya plucked it out of the air and took a long, deep pull. Laughter erupted from the audience, and she had them. Her grandfather’s voice rose as her own:

And I’ll sing it right,
then I’ll say goodnight, ” she grinned and winked.
“Unless they’re serving another one!”

And the crowd exploded.

The night passed quickly, the first hour disguised as Grandad Eben went off a success as always, and her sudden quickchange into the tall, athletic half-elf she usually saw in the mirror brought down the house. Beauregard vanished around then, too, as always. She would see that sweet boy again later, the ten minute ritual to summon him being the best way to wind down after a performance she had yet learned.

Drinks flowed, and she ran through songs and stories and the occasional naughty limerick until the bartender rang last call and the townsfolk began shuffling home to their beds. In all she cleared sixty gold in tips for a couple hours work, plus whatever her ten percent of the house take would end up being in the morning.

For now, though, Jarya stared out a window and massaged sore muscles. Age was catching up to her. She laughed softly and shook her head. It was not the grand life she had always dreamed of, growing up, but it was enough. Coarse laughter echoed up from the street below, and she smiled. Waterdeep was a fine town, all told. The people were nice, the taverns paid their debts, and hell...

It was home.

Chapter Text

The calloused pads of her feet splashed through lurid pools of rainwater as she raced down the cobblestone alleys of Castle Ward. Scents rippled like curtains around her, a map of the entire world; at once enticing and overwhelming. Fresh bread to the west down a twisted alleyway, rats writhing in the sewer just east. Most of the city was a jumble though, overlapping routes and traces of filth and fortune. Two-legs were untidy at best, a plague at worst.

They were not Jurian’s feelings. It was a layer on top of her own awareness, a Cowl; always present in these wolf dreams. But that distaste did not outweigh the exhilaration she felt weaving among carts and horses like a ghost. Frequently she would attract the attention of city guards, whose struggles to find and contain her proved most delightful.

She bounded effortlessly onto a stack of crates, and then off again immediately to a nearby house. Her claws slipped on the clay tiles, but the momentum of her jump brought her to the roof’s apex, where she skidded to a halt. Waterdeep was a maze of rooftops and towers. Flickering lights reflecting the vast starscape above. The moon was full, and the Cowl shifted in her awareness. Wolf blood heated half-elf to a boil, and she howled.

There were answers in the distance, far beyond the city walls, an echo of mournful sadness. Why do you sleep among the filth and chaos , they seemed to say... voices tight like memories. Because this is my home , she replied, pushing the full weight of her affection for the city into a final bellow.

In the street, a commotion arose as the two-legs took notice, and Jurian grinned. Her tongue lolled from her mouth and she sniffed at the air. The familiar scent of Palphry Lane lie to the south. Not far. Shoulders tensing, she leaped from her perch and into the shadows. Her paws struck the cobblestones with a sound like a beating heart, and then she was gone.

Chapter Text

The world was quiet as Jerimiah Darkmagic, of the New Hamp Shire Darkmagics, rocked and swayed in the center of his mystic circle. Jurian watched him with half-lidded eyes, bored and ready to get on with it. But he would not be rushed. She had learned that the hard way, if a gaunt stare and sharp “hush!” could be considered hard. He mustered what gravitas he could, though, and she felt a little pity for him in that regard. The payday was big enough that she could let a little impertinence slide.

The wizard’s bony shoulders undulated awkwardly as he danced, accompanied by a gentle swish-swish as his robes smeared the chalky residue of runes and geometric shapes. It did nothing to diminish the glow, of course; whatever the magic was, it was already working.

Jurian hefted the sword belt on her hips and lamented the ten or so pounds she had lost over the past few months. Her appetite had been the first thing to go, after her return to Faerun. The details were hazy still, and likely always would be, but something meaningful had been lost in the trip back from Barovia. Emotionally, physically, and -- if she paid heed to such things -- even spiritually.

But she was loathe to bore additional holes into the belt. It had been a gift, and the longsword that hung from it was a memory of better times. She squeezed the hilt affectionately.

“It’s ready,” Darkmagic said, his voice tight. He was panting; covered in sweat.

“All right,” Jurian pushed herself up off the wall, adjusting the color-shifting cloak on her shoulders. It had once been a fine garment, but now was so patched, mended, and worn that it had lost most of what made it special. It still fit, though, and it was warm enough. “Me first, then?”

The wizard nodded. He stood before a glowing portal that shifted and flowed like frigid water under thin ice. Gritting her teeth, Jurian stepped past him and pressed a gloved hand onto the portal’s surface. There was no resistance. Pulling her hand back, she looked at it, and whispered quiet words to comfort Beauregard, who stirred in the back of her mind. The pendant that called the unseen servant had long since tarnished into disrepair, but she still carried it in a pouch. A last reminder of her mother, though at this point the entity had been with Jurian twice as long as he was ever with her mother.

“Go on, we haven’t much time,” Darkmagic hissed. Jurian ignored him, a skill she was developing a proficiency in rather quickly. But, she reminded herself for the twentieth time, he was paying her enough that a little deference was in order. So, she took a deep breath, and stepped into the circle.

Briefly, as light enveloped her, she felt a memory: winter rains and cool wind through fur. The splash of icy puddles as she loped down miles and miles of cobblestone, tongue lolling. And then it was gone, pulled from her like a child’s iron wrought puzzle.

Stepping out into the world again, the first thing she noticed was her sword belt was missing, and most of her pouches. Panicking, she reached back for her two short swords and found them in their sheathes over her left shoulder, as was proper.

“Well isn’t this a surprise?” said a voice. Jerimiah Darkmagic emerged from the portal looking quite different. Taller, younger. His shoulders were broad, and an easy grin split his handsome face. His beard was neat and short; his tattered robes were like new. Behind him, the shimmering circle popped and vanished even as he exited.

And then she felt it, the fullness of thighs stuffed into leather pants that were never made for her to wear. The familiar heft of her mother’s Mithral breastplate on her chest. Ages ago, she had given that away. She grabbed her braid and examined it. The gray was gone, hair black as midnight and tied with a lavender cord.

“How is,” she sputtered, “what have you done?”

Jerimiah Darkmagic held his arms out innocently, and his smile was more impertinent than ever. “Welcome,” he said, “to the rest of your life.”

Chapter Text

Jurian tightened the lavender cord at the end of her braid and turned around. This so-called blight was an infestation, nothing more. She had dealt with creatures like these a hundred times. Never with fireballs though. That had been a surprise. Flames licked the edges of the cart path as the grass fire tried to resist the wind. This Wren reminded her of someone from her childhood. Taliesin had been a beloved mentor and friend; a talented fighter, if not quite so casually destructive.

But Wren’s easy demeanor and masculine charisma drew her to him immediately. The business with the stable master had been enjoyable. Pulling a simple con like that was always more fun than it had any right to be. And if she was being honest, it felt good to have a co-conspirator again.

The kobold was another story. Jurian sheathed her short swords on her back and regarded Greywin for a moment. The little dragon man knew how to fight at least. She had never seen a kobold throw a kick like that. Greywin did not seem anywhere near as unintelligent as other kobold’s she had known, either. Something to consider.

Over by the cart, the tiefling warlock dusted off her robes regally, regarding Jurian with those flat, violet eyes. Devana noticed her watching and frowned, but not in an unfriendly way. Something in her face, though, indicated disapproval. Again. Jurian fastened an insolent grin onto her face and winked. Devana looked away. It would take some doing, Jurian thought, to wriggle into that one’s good graces. Probably worth the effort though.

Revuel was an enigma. Human, as far as Jurian could tell, but lacking the simple charm most humans had. He was not unfriendly, at least not yet, but he did not seem as interested as the rest in proving himself useful. Though he undoubtedly was; when the vine creature had snared him, it burst into flames. That was a hell of a trick. She made a note to talk to him about it. There were stories about those kinds of powers, and Jurian was always excited to learn about things she did not yet understand.

She understood Big Steve, though. Somehow drunk and hungover at once, he had acquitted himself admirably in the fight, facing down three of the twig creatures on his own. Jurian caught herself biting her lower lip as she watched him spin that long polearm around. Ever since she was a child she had nurtured a fondness for broad shoulders. A little portly around the midsection, but that had never mattered to her. Looking past the beard, she thought there was perhaps something of Sildar in his face, and then searched her memories in surprise. She had not thought about Sildar Hallwinter in a while, despite naming one of her swords after the man. Long dead, but never forgotten.

The group piled back into the cart. What remained of the obstruction in their path was ashes and char. Jurian clung to the back of the wagon and watched the flames flicker in the distance as they drove away. Something in the pit of her stomach lurched, and she belched loudly into the wind. The night’s festivities sat with her still. She shifted to a more comfortable position, adjusting her mother’s breastplate on her chest with her free hand.

This Torchbearers initiative was intriguing, and she longed to get out into the wilds to the north. She would show the Axbearers what they were missing, and this motley crew of twerps was going to help her do it. As the cart trundled down into the valley toward Oakhurst, destruction in its wake, she laughed. The Godsmote Lands were not ready.

 

Chapter Text

The girl with the barely healed wound in her shoulder moaned as if dreaming. Her skin was wet and cold. Jarya Frayle pressed a towel against her daughter’s forehead, mopping it tenderly. The girl had arrived on her doorstep days ago, out of nowhere, and it was perhaps too much to hope that her husband was still alive.

Desmod would not have let Jurian leave his side while he still breathed. Dead, or captured. But which was worse? Again she cursed her naive refusal to stay in the grove. Not that her presence could have stopped anything that happened. Her own mother had left, too, and not for the first time Jarya allowed herself to empathize a little more strongly with the woman she barely knew. It was just current circumstances that kept her away from Jerriod and Jurian. That was what she told herself.

Perhaps in reality it was selfishness. She had never desired to settle down, and despite the allure of Desmod Gyrans and his... family... she could not feel differently now. But she would deal with those emotions later. Now, she had a sick daughter. Jurian’s face was pale, and whatever ailed her resisted the healing words Jarya knew. Madam Wynna said she just needed time to recover. That did not assuage Jarya’s fear.

She had a letter from Jerriod within the past year, but nothing from Jurian. She knew the girl was angry with her; resented her mother for leaving, but children never took a long view of things. Jarya had been no different, of course. And that was the primary source of her regret. Certainly, if this tragedy had not occurred, she would have made the trip to the Grove soon. That little lie did not help, but it prevented her from feeling worse.

Jurian’s brown eyes fluttered, and she seemed to frown. Jarya pressed a hand to the girl’s cheek and wiped away a tear from her own with the other. Feeling worse was the least of her troubles. Tiny invisible hands clutched at her leg, and she patted Beauregard on the head affectionately, and then handed him the damp towel. The unseen servant scampered away, making himself as useful as he could, which in this case meant trading wet rags for dry. He soon returned, looking for everything like a stack of wool floating through the air. She spared a brief smile for the little ghost boy.

With a sigh, Jarya lifted her lute from where it leaned on the wall, and propped it up on one knee. Music was a healer too, of a different kind. And often in her saddest moments it helped to play. So she did, her fingers strummed the braided steel strings gently as she lifted her voice not to Tymora, but Mielikki -- the goddess of the Enclave Panax Anima, Jurian’s home:

A chain of gold around your throat,
a braid to bind your hair,
my mottled wolf come home to grow,
on Palfrey fresh and fair.

She smiled here, and paused to wipe another teardrop away. Palfrey Lane was many things, but no one would ever call it fresh or fair. The girl stirred but did not wake. Jarya continued:

And you, the fairest of them all
shall meet the forest queen
and she will cleanse the tears that fall
upon the fields of green.

Jurian’s breathing slowed a little, and she seemed a little more comfortable. Jarya set the lute down and pulled a blanket across the bed to cover the girl’s shoulders. Those long ears stuck up over the edge of it like weeds. Jarya wondered if she would ever grow into them.

Outside, the night deepened as winter pressed long fingers against the little room she rented on a small alley in the south of Waterdeep’s Castle Ward. She could feel the building creaking. But it was warm enough inside, and the house had stood for centuries.

Abruptly, a realization took shape. Jarya had no idea what was next. You could not just tour the world trying to scrape a living from your talents with a ten year old girl in tow. Perhaps she would set her sights on the City of Splendors. The Yawning Portal had local performer nights once a tenday, and she had been meaning to stop by and take her chances.

Beauregard climbed up onto the bed and curled up with the girl. Usually the unseen servant hid from strangers, despite being fully invisible. But he recognized their kinship, maybe, even though she and Jarya looked nothing alike. Jarya smiled again, noticing at last that Jurian seemed to be sleeping in earnest now. The girl’s face was peaceful, at least.

Standing, Jarya moved over to the open window and pulled the shutters closed. A brisk whistle sounded, that she had long ago learned to ignore, as wind hurried through the gaps. One day for one day , her own mother’s voice echoed inside her heart. Look ahead and do not look back. Chase happiness .

“Sorry, mother,” Jarya glanced over her shoulder at the two still forms on the bed. “I think maybe it’s time to grow up.” The joy that filled hear heart at that moment was immense, and etched with a simple sadness for the life she would not live. But making this choice felt right. For the first time in a long while, she felt no shame.

Chapter Text

Nine Hels but the wand’s power was intoxicating. Jurian watched fire bellow through the cavern beneath her. It resembled nothing so much as a wicked, humped beast slouching through the dirt to find prey. For whatever reason, Wren had felt like the wand was too much for him. And while she understood his desire to give it up, Jurian could not imagine doing so herself. She would guard this powerful tool with her life.

Currently, she was hanging from a rope, in a hole, thirty feet below the temple floor. The faces ringing the entrance above watched her warily. She stuck the wand in her mouth and waved up at them.

“It’s okay,” she said through clenched teeth, “all clear!”

Dropping the last ten feet to the bottom with an acrobatic flair, Jurian steadied herself and looked around, stuffing the fireball wand into one of her pouches. Surprisingly, she was standing in a room, not a cavern. There was a corridor of some kind on the far wall, but little else. She would have to get a closer look, but at this point there were no so-called great trees to be found.

One by one her companions flumped to the ground behind her. Erky was last. Jurian was amazed he had agreed to come. She would not have been so easy to persuade, in his shoes, but invoking the name of his dear wife had done the trick. Relationships had a way of softening resolve, she supposed. But, a cleric would be very useful in the depths of this place, so her attempt had been a sincere one, if a little manipulative. Regardless, it worked. She could apologize later, if necessary, when they all made it out safely.

Speaking of... Jurian grabbed the end of her rope and gave it a little tug. Still secure. They would need it to make their way out of this tomb, so she left it there, making a mental note to come back for it if they found another exit. Good rope was a valuable commodity.

Devana caught her eye. The tiefling was busy adjusting her robes, dark grays with splashes of autumn colors. She cut a striking figure, her deep violet hair, nearly black in this light, framed on the right by a lock of white. Jurian was reminded of Facette, the bounty hunter who had confronted her at The Alabaster Bowl in Red Larch so many years ago. Well, ‘confronted’ was one way to put it. Not that Devana resembled him in the slightest, but she had only been with a few tieflings, and the experience tended toward the robust.

She grinned, one hand absently touching a pocket that still held the note Facette had written her, though it was faded away and falling apart, but just remembering the scent of it brought her a vision of bodies and limbs entwined on a rich feather bed, dark shadows moving on the wall like great serpents.

Abruptly she realized he was humming to herself, and shook her head to clear the memory away. Now was not the time for reflection.

“You ready for this, Erky Timbers?” she said, adjusting her breastplate. It was chafing again. At some point she would need to cough up the gold to get it adjusted to fit her. Of course, Jurian had been telling herself that for quite a while. One day.

The gnome looked at her nervously, and Jurian was suddenly struck by an overwhelming sense of responsibility. He could likely hold his own in a fight, at least she assumed so, but getting captured by goblins was amateur hour. Perhaps convincing the little guy to come with them had been a mistake. They would find out soon enough. She decided to ignore his innocent little eyes, and stared at him solemnly until he gave her a slow nod.

“All right then,” she clapped him on the back, “let’s go fight some skeletons!”

He gulped, and nodded again. It would have to do.

Chapter Text

Alydna Sturmsiege was bored. The wait between jobs was growing longer every day as more and more so-called 'travelers' arrived through the Mists. Wherever they were from, it had to be better than Barovia, and so Alydna found herself increasingly annoyed at the unending influx of newcomers. This valley was no tourist trap. Just the regular sort of trap, a death one, and not the kind you could disarm. She would give anything to find a way to travel past the deadly fog. The Vistani were no help, refusing to even entertain the notion, though rumor said they came and went as they pleased. "See Madam Eva," they said. But Eva was nowhere to be found. Not by her, at least. Asking around, Alydna had determined the old woman showed up when and where she wanted, and never predictably.

The forge groaned as she scraped a vinegar-soaked cleaning brush through the iron vent. Bits of melted ore and scale crumbled out into the basin below. She had neglected it for far too long. Keep a clean forge, keep a clean life. Her father's voice echoed in the back of her mind as she worked. Smithing did not cover the cost of food these days, as much as she wanted it to. Alydna had no real use for complicated things, and crafting was simple.  Envision a tool, a weapon, a puzzle, anything you wanted, and then create it. Easy steps. Dragging a shirtsleeve across her sweaty face, she became aware of the missing weight of the greatsword on her back. She had grown too accustomed to wearing it lately. Perhaps the break was good, giving her time to think and plan for the future. Whatever future could be eeked out in this miserable place.

She pressed a boot against the bellows, and it protested rustily. Alydna sighed. A cold breeze grifted lazily through the open air shop, spinning dry leaves and a dusting of snow down the empty street. Her hope had been that she could at least discover some added income with weapon and armor repairs, the single upside to all these new faces, but so far Oraşnou was the same ghost town clutched to the side of a mountain as always. In fairness, that was why her parents had settled here. It was out of the way; mostly unnoticed by the denizens of Castle Ravenloft. Certainly not a peaceful place, but among the safer strongholds in this dark valley. Even so, the travelers came from nowhere, ferried by the mists, and they left as quickly as they arrived. On to greater things, she supposed. But what here could be considered great?

Stories told of bustling cities and expansive forests, out beyond. She could almost see them sometimes, like remembering a dream. Her calloused hand closed around the silver unicorn pendant hanging from her neck. As always, it felt warm to her touch. A comforting constant. Alydna smiled and stretched her aching shoulders, rolling her head back and forth as the wind tousled her hair. It felt amazing just to stop and relax with a concrete task, despite what she told herself. She could never stay pensive for long, the Lady assured her of that. It was a simmering hope inside her breast. You are meant for something more, her mother's voice said.

Fighting was simple too. Clear, focused work, and always someone above her to order everyone about. Not a lot of thinking required for mercenaries. And good pay if you were skilled. Even after years apprenticing to her parents, she had never quite managed more than a passing ability at smithing. Fighting, though? She was good at fighting. She spent more time training than anything else, and the muscles of her arms and back reflected the effort. But was it 'more'? Was it the life her mother said she was destined for? And was it, in the end, what Alydna even wanted? She knelt down and started scrubbing again, taking up an iron chisel with her free hand for a few particularly stubborn dregs. She always told herself the future could wait, but it never seemed to stick. And lately the thought died half-formed. Something more was out there.

She dropped the brush and chisel on the floor and stood. Abruptly, she saw life laid out in front of her like a cobblestone highway, straight and unwavering. Simple.

Boring.

"No!" Her voice surprised her with its hoarseness. Alydna pulled the thick leather smithing apron over her head and folded it neatly on one of her father's anvils. She placed a hand on it for a long moment, breathing in familiar scents as if for the last time. Then, in two long strides she was at the front of the shop, where her sword and armor were stacked in a slim pile. Buckling them on, she checked the straps with practiced vigor, and turned back to look at the life her parents had given her. The ties of her apron bustled lazily in the winter wind, as if beckoning her to return. A wave of dizziness washed over her, and she pressed a hand to one of the sturdy wooden posts holding up the roof trusses. "No," she said again, softer this time. The feeling passed.

Without another word, Alydna Sturmsiege stepped into the street, nervously adjusting her armor straps one more time. She turned left, then headed south into the forest. And beyond.

Chapter Text

A cool breeze ruffled the pages of Jurian’s notebook as she sat curled up in the window seat, staring down at the stodgy courtyard of Peaksmeet. This late at night, only a few guards patrolled the streets, and from the second floor of the Bloodied Hammer Inn she could see the entire fortress. Torchlight glittered here and there, and banners whipped lazily on the walls.

Jurian sighed contentedly and returned her attention to the page. Half a poem down. She grinned like a school girl and glanced over at the bed where Mina sat. There was just enough moonlight to paint her meditating form in gentle blues and grays. Jurian watched her for a long minute, counting as the wool blanket rose up and down on Mina’s thin shoulders. Ten. Eleven. Twelve.

“How do I know you’re not dead?” She had asked Alydna, toward the end, when the cleric was old and frail but still alert enough to smile and laugh.

“Count my breaths,” the girl had replied. Girl! Jurian smirked. Age had never dulled Alydna’s bright blue eyes. Closing her own, Jurian could see them reflecting the firelight after slow evening meals, framed by that gray hair and wrinkled face she had loved for more than sixty years. Sometimes the long history of Jurian’s life felt hazy as she reached back into it to remember. But never Alydna.

Mina stirred, but did not awaken. Jurian turned back to her writing.

Wood Elf

So, I knew a girl
Once,
broad shouldered,
strong as a summer oak,
and soft.

If I see her in you
Once,
brown skinned and
lithe like an autumn elm,
be kind.

 

~  ~  ~

 

“Why’s he skulking about, I wonder?” Jurian said into her mug, watching an unfamiliar face emerge from upstairs and slink down through the common room carrying a single bag over his shoulder. It had to be Wren. The Wild Stallions had booked the entire place up, including the room she was sharing with Mina now, apparently. She shook her head and shrugged, taking another sip of her coffee. The morning air was brisk through the open windows, but it would  warm up soon enough and she wanted to finish it before the chill was gone. There was something special about the ritual of a hot drink in the early hours.

“Who?” Mina’s voice was curious but not overly so. Making conversation. She seemed more relaxed today, at least. Jurian suspected the elf had been working out some of her anxieties in the night, and she had been more than willing to accommodate. But as much as she would like to trust that sweet face, innocent despite a century or so of living in the world, Jurian had learned ages ago that trust was to be earned, not given freely.

“Nobody,” she said, looking up at the other woman. Mina was pretty, if a bit thin. A few decades spent in bed with a blacksmith had cycled her interests somewhat, but a warm body was a warm blanket, among other things. Jurian felt her cheeks color, and chided herself. Poetry, and now blushing? She was positively out of sorts . “So,” she drained the last of her coffee, a stout, bitter brew the innkeeper seemed particularly enamored of, though she had tasted better. Often. “Shopping today?”

Mina nodded. A trip to the market would be just the thing. Perhaps Jurian could find some doodad to take her mind off losing that ridiculously powerful fireball wand. She had tried to keep it, but along with his overwhelming personality, Gendrik appeared to be quite a mage as well. Supposedly she would get it back after the so-called trial, but she was not going to hold out hope for that. Something shiny, perhaps, suitable for a gift.

Jurian hefted one of the purses on her belt absently, glad to feel something in there for once. If she was right, though, they would be out beyond the gates for some time, and her money might be better spent on a few potions. Or repairing the pendant. Without realizing it, she reached a hand to her chest and pressed two fingers against the nape of her neck, where Beauregard had rested. The little ghost was gone now, probably forever. One of the many things Jerimiah Darkmagic had stolen when he brought her to this place.

She was grateful for the years though. Centuries had melted away like slough in a warm bath. She had not felt this vibrant in a long time. But all the youth and vitality in the world, she felt, were not quite reward enough for a half dozen missing trinkets, a magic sword, a sexy color shifting cloak, and her best friend. Abruptly, she realised Mina was talking. Idle chit-chat. The weather, the elders of the Gladedancer clan, betrothal dances... wait.

Then Mina was laughing. “The face you just made!” She said. “At least I know you were listening.” Her voice was rich and full, like mountain chimes. Jurian guffawed, a deep belly laugh that ended in a stony belch. The wood elf made a face of her own, and laughed even harder.

Something shiny, for sure, Jurian thought. She wondered what Mina’s favorite stone was.