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The Night. The Gate. The Never. – Part Three

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She stopped walking at a decorative square with a thick tree at the centre. The cobblestone had been placed with care, allowing the plant to keep its roots where they chose to be. People were resting on benches around the tree. In fact, there was no free space to sit on. With no hesitation – and not a single concern about other citizens’ reactions – Vissenvaib placed her buttocks on pavement.
She took a look at the cat in the bag, their eyes partially open, their tail swinging slowly.
“How are you, Kitty?”
They mewed softly. The half-elf meowed back and reached her right hand out to pet their head. She glided her fingers, scratched their neck, traced a finger from their nose bridge to forehead, and tickled their cheek, paying attention to whiskers. The purring companion licked her fingertips whenever they had an opportunity.
Vissenvaib giggled, but sadness still showed on her face.
“I hoped I would be more useful today. Instead, I slowed my team down, embarrassed myself, and woke you up.”
“Well. You’re a cat; you’ll forgive me as soon as I give you dinner. Folks are more complex. Their pride gets hurt. Their boundaries are crossed. It’s not easy with people.”
“Candlekeep was something else. Its habitants… seemed to understand my mind processes things differently. Children yelled into pillows. Teenagers never bullied me. Adults apologized for assuming what was obvious to me and what wasn’t. Teachers spent extra time with me when I needed it, and left me alone with a task when they knew I could do it. And everyone praised my singing voice. I wanted to perform for Oghma priests; that was supposed to be my adult career. And no one protested. It was all settled ahead of time, father and I met the priests…”
Her voice broke; she pressed her left hand against her lips. Kitty left their bag and squeezed between mage’s belly and thighs, then stretched with their front paws on her chest and snuggled their head under her chin.
It helped her swallow the bitter feeling and speak again, “I’m wondering, whether Candlekeep has always been like that… or Gorion influenced them all, you know, preached to them. He was a monk; he probably knew how to explain such things. I don’t. I keep trying, like I told Bran once that I treat aduldhood like school tasks. Which it’s not. Whenever I think I know what it means to be an adult outside of Candlekeep, I ruin it all and need Imoen’s help. She has no life of her own because of me. And because of Sarevok. I hate this.”
A noise of a shoe against dust caught the Rashemi off guard; she wasn’t paying attention to her surroundings until Imoen stood right behind her.
“Why’re ya sitting on the pavement, silly?,” she smiled from above.
“Oh-eh-All benches are taken,” she held the feline therapist, “How much have you heard?”
“Nuthin’. I figured it was reserved for Kitty. How much time do ya need before ya return to the tavern?”
“Uuh… Ten minutes? Maybe fewer.”
“Got ya. And please, sit on a bench. Look, this lad over there is leaving.”

Meanwhile, at the tavern, the adventurers finished their first glasses. The Ilythiiri bard had resumed their play.
Ajantia spoke to Branwen, “To be capable of sprinting for that many yards, I would have to shed my armour first. Indeed, the ankheg armour appears to be superior.”
“That’s why it costs so much. Still… what would you have done in my place?”
“Risk it. I didn’t know about the nerve you’ve mentioned. Who taught you about it?”
“I read the newest treatise. I also know how to stop basilisks thanks to it. You know… to avoid petrification.”
They nodded.
Kagain jumped off his stool, “You want seconds?”
The paladin counted their money, “Order a meal. Anything roasted.”
“They serve geese.”
“What about beer, though?”
“I’ve had enough. Branwen?”
“I’d like a keg of Vilhon Cider.”

As Imoen returned to the group, crowds of customers poured in, yelling, slurping, burping, and requesting songs. The change confused Vissenvaib so much that she stood frozen right at the entrance, blocking others. Branwen rushed to her and led her back to the table.
The dark elf moved aside as another bard, a hobgoblin, sat on the stage with a lute in their hands. Stomping rhythmically, they played to an irregular metre; the Ilythiiri sang and separated stanzas with fife solos.

“Lo, to remember Her lessons and name
Lost in the waters gone salty from tears
Guide and the Matron who Reason endeared
Guard and the Mentor, the sweetest Murdane
Skin like oiled pine and Her hair licorice black
Skill of a diplomat, knowledge on minds
Voice of both practical and abstract kinds
Veil of mere peasant with spindle and rack”

Vissenvaib carefully rose her ears. Despite only one line of description she could see in her imagination messy morning curls surrounding the deity’s golden brown cheeks, dark eyes examining a distaff… And then it hit her: salty waters. The sea. A peasant trained in sewing. The voice. The Voice.
She focused all of her mind on the lyrics, filtering out the noise of mugs, chairs, customers and chatting. Especially so because she knew nothing about Murdane.

“She chose to ascend to enrich gods’ wits
Chose to lift up just above mortal soil
Chose to teach others resolve folks and broils
Chose none but Helm when She needed to sit
But how can a maiden know logic and law?
How can a peasant know craft and debate?
How can disabled one bash and exhale?
Lo, you should use your own brain and not jaw”

The mage blushed, not expecting the ballad to be that explicit. How interesting, though, that the goddess was the one choosing a lover for her own relief.
Still… Why does she have to learn about Murdane from a song and not the very books she read at Candlekeep? Does Ajantia know Murdane? Gotta ask.

“Yet, there are gods that reflect precious words
As did Lathander who thought He knew best
Melting all ice, He did rivers outwrest
Bursting with liquids, they drowned folks and herds
‘Oi,’ spoke Murdane, ‘What’s the vision you see
That makes you them slaughter, my worshippers dear?’
He answered not, only mumbled unclear
Thus forcing Reason to face Umberlee”

“Queen of the Depths craved for new place to nim
Spotted Murdane wearing robes and two combs
Summoned great waves, tall as trees, rich with foams
Spat at Her, ‘What kind of god cannot swim?’
Reason spoke back, ‘Let my people escape
And rescue their culture; then claim your fresh gift’
But Wavemother roared, laughing loud, and with drift
Pushed the Negotiator down deadly waves”

“Six horrid storms stroke Murdane into sea
Dawn rose above Her, the triumph of fools
She lost equanimity, seeing Her doom,
‘A queen of all bitches you’ve proven to be’ ”

The music slowed down and went quiet. The Ilythiiri lowered her head and repeated as if to themselves:
“A queen of all bitches you’ve proven yourself to be.”
Then, the calm melody resumed for one last stanza. The hobgoblin was no longer stomping, and they were playing fewer notes.

“Thus died the Mentor, the wisest Murdane
Mistress and Matron who Reason held dear
Lost in the sea where all stars wept white tears
Now go, and remember Her lessons and name”

The ballad concluded with four notes from the lute. The audience clapped and returned to its drinks.

Meanwhile, at the inn owned by a halfling and an elf, Viconia opened the window in her room and threw herself back onto the bed.
She heard two knocks.
“Who’s there?”
“The keeper,” answered Ennadun, “I brought stew.”
“I don’t like cucumbers. Maybe you could eat it in my stead.”
What a twisted logic.
He didn’t even wait for the Ilythiiri to vocalize her decision; one second and he entered the room. She could smell the meal almost immediately. Damn, it’s been too long since I ate. I can’t neglect it any longer.
Viconia sat up. “How much for it?”
“Nothing. Just eat it. I’ll have more bread for supper. I love bread. What do you like?”
She took his clay bowl, “I don’t really have a preference.”
She drank carefully until there was a half of a portion left. The cucumbers had been grated, so there wasn’t much to chew.
The elf sat on the floor and fixed his glasses.
She wiped her mouth. “Why are you like this? Your brother, you… Other innkeepers only agreed to lend their rooms because I’ve been accompanied by surface dwellers. Now I’m alone. And yet, you let me in.”
He didn’t miss a beat, “My brother says the outcast drow are different from the drow of the Underdark. I should not pay attention to your looks but to your behaviour.”
She counter-attacked, “I could be a spy.”
“You’re not a spy.”
The certainty in his voice made her look at him. Children can tell many things: what kind of behaviour results in praise, and what kind brings punishment; when a parent fakes a smile; when a parent lied about ingredients in the dinner. But to tell apart a spy from a genuine person? Spies are masters of their craft. They befriend targets, even seduce them. How can he tell?
“You’re not buying food. You’re not taking a bath. I heard you cry in your room. You’re not a spy.”
She blinked. “Fair enough. Good stew, by the way. You’re missing out.”
“You think? Then, maybe you do like cucumbers. That’s a… prerefence, right?”
She puffed from amusement. “Ah, sorry, this isn’t funny. Try again.”
“Oh, pref-rence. Preference. I got it now. Preference. You do have a preference. Preference.”
She repressed annoyance inside her, “Mmmaybe practice that word somewhere else.”
“Alright,” Ennadun stood up and left. Walking away, he continued at the hall, “Preference. Madam has a preference. I have a preference.”
Viconia resumed drinking the stew.

In the early evening, the dark elf left the inn and found her way to Veteran’s Veracity. The store was illuminated with eight oil lamps standing on wall fixtures.
The orc merchant recognized the cleric, “Aah, welcome. Has your friend succeeded at summoning a cat?”
Viconia lowered her eyes, “She did. She’s got some kind of wild breed; it looks a bit like a tiger… A bit like lynx… Can’t tell what exactly it is, but I wouldn’t really call it a cat. Not that it matters; Vissenvaib adores it the way it is.”
“As long as it’s not aggressive towards your party. So, how can I help you tonight?”
“I remembered that you sell armour. I…,” she pointed to her leather pauldron and gently tapped it twice, “I would need something better to wear. Perhaps a chainmail shirt with sleeves.”
The merchant hummed. “May I take measurements of your limbs?”
They unrolled a linen measuring tape. Effortlessly did they wrap it around Viconia’s arm, forearm, thigh, and calf, despite using one hand. Each measurement was written down in a notebook lying open on the counter.
“Now, I need your assistance when measuring your chest.”
“Will do.”
The Ilythiiri fixed the tape to a correct position.
“Deep inhale. …mhm, thank you.” They noted two measurements for her chest. “Lastly, your neck. Unless you’d like a matching helmet for the set.”
“Er, yeah.”
The merchant nodded. After they gathered all measurements, including Viconia’s head, they hastily drew a horizontal line in the notebook. “Have you ever taken the Test of Six Heroic Abilities?”
She lost her balance and trotted sideways. “Why… do you need it?”
“To match and customize a perfect armour. To prevent your skills from getting hindered, and to shield your weaknesses. I shan’t spread the information; in fact, this page, with your data, will be ripped and given to you to destroy.”
She wiped her forehead. “So, um… I took the drow equivalent, the Eight Trials. But I converted the results, so I know how well I fare on your scale.”
“That makes things easier. Alright. How high is your Strength on the scale?”
The orc turned her eyes to Viconia and examined her arms. “I wouldn’t say so. Only ten?”
They walked to a weapon stand and picked up a two-handed war hammer with a massive head. They allowed the upper part to fall on the floor and turned the handle upwards. “Lift it as high as you can.”
The cleric gripped the handle at the height below her waist and tensed all muscles. With a grotesque frown, she raised the weapon five inches above the floor. She tried to slide her hand lower, to raise the hammer even higher, but the handle slipped and the blunt head bashed.
“See? You’re stronger than Ten. I’d give you twelve.”
She coughed as the merchant put the weapon away. “Thaanks?
“Solid Twelve. That opens more possibilities for your armour. Now, tell me your Dexterity.”
“Great. Gotta take advantage of that. And Constitution?”
“I don’t need all six, madam, just Constitution.”
She forced herself to reveal it, “Eight.
They didn’t write it down. “What is your role in your party?”
“I heal.”
“You heal,” they looked into her eyes, “And you ought to keep on healing, madam. Obviously, nothing is guaranteed in a battle, no matter how many treaties are signed. You’re able to defend yourself, and that’s enough. But never occupy a front line.”
“But…,” she began.
“I know. We all know here in Neverwinter. Trilfae told us.” They stepped closer. “You have done all you were capable of, and even more than you were able to. You survived in the Underdark and on the surface. It took effort, pain, luck; but you’re here. You live. And I say, you don’t have to prove yourself to your old community anymore. You don’t have to cling to your old methods. I shall design the best armour for your abilities. However, I request that you stay a healer, not a battle cleric.”
Viconia covered her mouth with her hands. She sensed something in them, something reassuring, stabilizing, encouraging. A kind of feeling she has never felt, thus couldn’t give it a name.
“I know what I’m saying. While I’m not from the Underdark, there was a time when I lived with wrong people and they made me believe I had to prove myself to them because of my arm. But it wasn’t just one trial; they never stopped, never, ever stopped, and they buried me in my own body. Then, I listened to Trilfae. I dug myself out; ditched those unthankful shitheads; moved here and opened this very store. And for the first time in years, I felt relief. And I wish you that you also find that state of relief in your life.”
She shut her eyes and rushed to the merchant, weeping into their robes.

Walking along an empty street, wearing a barbute, a brigandine with mail sleeves, pauldrons, faulds, chainmail pants, and plate poleyns, holding her long shield, securing her enchanted mace onto her belt, Viconia was pondering how to approach Vissenvaib back at Aribeth’s house. She used to apologize to her superiors at Arach-Tinilith, never to commoners of the surface. Or should she thank her for all the patience?

At the opposite end of the mood axis, the shrieking stuffed squirrel jumped on the counter, as two drunk customers engaged in a brawl.
The half-elf mage rushed to the strangers, “Oi! You two! Sleep!”
They succumbed to the spell. Their companions picked them up from the floor and left the tavern.
Vissenvaib returned to her table and fixed her eyes on Ajantia. The paladin was finishing their meal.
“Tell me… How much do Helmites know about Murdane?”
“Depends on a Helmite. I only know oral stories, while priests study her actions and speeches in great detail.”
“So, there are more stories than that song we’ve heard today?”
“There are seventeen ballads with their authenticity confirmed by the priests. They’re usually shared in Cormyr, Chessenta, Sembia, you know, around the Sea of Fallen Stars.”
“Mmmhm, now, Murdane sewed, right? Or rather, weaved?”
“Not always, but yes, she was a weaver. She started as a rabbit shaver and then became a shearer.”
Her face widened. She raised her hands, with fingers spread, at the level of her shoulders. She shook them and clapped once.
Ajantia tensed their eyebrows, “Wha’?… Vissen?”
She realized her behaviour looked out of place. “Don’t mind me.”

In front of Aribeth’s house, Kagain tripped on a stair.
“Dang it. Maybe that was one mug too much. Mind the stairs, gals!”
Ajantia stopped and waited for Branwen to place her foot on the first step. But the human cleric only kept waving her leg, unable to calculate in her mind where she should move it. Imoen passed the duo, singing a vulgar song she had learned back at Candlekeep, “«I shall, for thou slept around, cast myself into the sea; but nay, I shall not drown, for I can swim fucking perfectly!»”
So did Vissenvaib, although she sang quietly, “«I shall, for thou slept around, throw myself before a cart; but nay, it shan’t run me down, for it’s on a different road, thou twat.»”
As she entered the building, Kagain tapped on her arm, “Look, V! Look who’s back.”
She saw Viconia in the kitchen, still wearing the brigandine, but with the barbute taken off and rested on the table. Her hair was smooth, clearly combed; her pose stoic; her face calm.
The half-elf raised her eyebrows, “Whoa.” Then, she remembered why the dark elf was gone. “Uh. I reckon that you’ve meditated.”
“I should have healed Branwen and let her fight instead of me.”
She nodded and inhaled at the same time. “There we go. Now, the cockatrice is dead, we’ve caught it. But tomorrow we’re meeting Desther and searching for other beasts. It will be a fresh start for you in our party.”
Viconia smiled, “I’m glad.”

In the middle of the night, the mage woke up as humans do; she found her cat atop her chest, being careful not to squish her boob.
“What is it, Kitty?,” she whispered.
The companion rested like a sphinx. Vissenvaib reached for their soft head. When they began purring, she attempted mimicking the sound, but it resulted in “mrrr-rrrrr-mrrrr-mr-rrrrrr,” because she found it difficult to roll the consonant continuously.
And then.
Kitty snickered.
The half-elf stopped. Her thoughts froze.
The feline being muffled themselves with their paw and licked it thrice, pretending to bathe.
Her lips wry, Vissenvaib spoke, “I think there’s more to you than being a Kitty.”