TWO YEARS LATER
Meliantha felt the incoming attack, more than heard or saw, and rolled forwards from her kneeling position, letting the kick go over her head, then used to roll to get to her feet. Spinning as she rose, she turned to greet the elderly man who she had been staying with.
Everyone -- Loran, her father, even old Sleepless Teeth, had encouraged her to travel, regain her mental balance, after what had happened in the swamp.
Her travels had brought her to the other side of the continent, where few seemed to fear her, many seemed intrigued by her, and no one understood her. Thankfully she'd always been good at languages and picked up theirs quickly enough, and then the elderly man had come into the town she was staying at for a few days, and joined her at her table at the small inn she was eating in. Despite his apparent age, he had no problems sitting down on the floor with her. He ordered a meal, and after eating it, looked up and into her eyes. After a moment looking for something, he nodded. "I am Shen Gao. You are a warrior. As am I. I wish to trade lessons in how you fight for lessons in how I fight."
Understanding what he was offering and asking - and recognizing the shock of others in the town at the offer, recognizing it as being a considerable honor, she did, staying with Shen Gao in his small cabin halfway up the mountain, learning and teaching. Her sword skills surpassed his, and his ability to fight without weapons was far greater than hers, and so they both learned and taught, and slowly, respect grew and friendship blossomed until what they did was almost as much play and fun as it was the deadly arts of war.
He had insisted she learn some of his customs, saying that the philosophy and lifestyle gave meaning to the martial style, so she'd picked up the language. He'd taught her skills of meditation and insight she had lacked - skills not usually part of her training - as she taught him about the tactics and history of battle from where she was from. About a year after she'd come to stay with Shen Gao, a press gang from a local lord had come to forcibly enlist her as an exotic bodyguard for their lord. Those that hadn't run had lived, but most sported an assortment of broken bones and overstrained joints. Then she and Shen Gao visited that lord, named Xi Gua, and, as Shen Gao stated, "explained with parental kindness the errors in his behavior". Xi Gua's son, Xi Tsien, now ruled, and the people were much happier with their new lord, who recognized he did not want the same kind of 'parental kindness' that resulted in his father's death. (if Xi Gua hadn't chosen to fight to the death, he'd have been all right...)
"How may I assist you, Master Shen?" she asked, bowing in the way of Tien Wa.
"No need, Master Mera," he replied in the name he'd dubbed her with (his language not really having the "L" sound). "Just testing. Oh, and there was someone in the village looking for you. Asking by name." He gave her a meaningful glance. "Whatever brought you here, it may be time to go back."
She frowned. "Did the person asking give a name?"
He shook his head. "No. But she was alone, and from the west, by her features and dress."
"Then I should go see her," she said after a moment's thought. "Prepared."
"Of course," he said, with a small smile.
In a corner of the small, yet neat, hut that they shared, was a haversack and a long blade. She touched the sword, which made noises very similar to a man disturbed from the depths of a good read.
"Someone's come. We're going to meet them," she explained to Chainbreaker.
"And the scrolls were just getting interesting," the sword protested. "Do you think I could stay here and finish?"
"The village is too far," she said, shaking her head. "If there's no problem, we come back and you finish reading. Otherwise, I might need you."
The sword's voice was smug as it said, "Your new skills not quite good enough?"
"Don't get snarky," she replied, but it was joking, not mean. Then she turned to the haversack. A brief moment with a small white stone left her with her clothes -- and form -- clean as if she'd just bathed. The clothes went into the haversack, and her gear came out: clothing, cloak, belt, the bracers she'd taken from the bard, boots, gloves, and then the carry-strap for Chainbreaker. Arranging it just so, she also took down her bow, and slung it over one shoulder.
Wearing her old clothes, she walked down into the village and into the inn. It was much different from the ones she was used to back where she came from; They sat on reed mats on the floor, they served a different beer, the wine was made from rice instead of grapes, and the food was very different. But the one thing that was always the same was that the nosy watched it to see who was doing what there.
And so it was with some surprise, and no little anger, that Meliantha saw the apple-cheeked form of Mistress Danhiela, who had set in motion her ill-advised liason with Caelan. She took a step forwards...
...and then everything stopped. She did, the pouring beer, the carts, the birds, the breeze.
I'm sorry about this, but we must talk, and we must not be disturbed.
In a disorienting, twisting burst, everything around her changed, and Meliantha suddenly found herself sitting in a comfortable chair, in a very nice sitting-room, with some pleasant-smelling sweets and a cup of tea on a table at her elbow, and Mistress Danhiela sitting across from her in a similar chair holding knitting she was working on. Chainbreaker was nearby, within reach, on an excellently-crafted sword stand.
"Now," the fortune-teller said, "I think we need to talk. First, I do believe I owe you a sincere apology, miss. While I meant no harm, that doesn't mean I caused you no harm, and that pains me. So, I apologize for what I did -- I did not influence your mind, just made it more receptive to some ideas, and in doing so opened you to harm I did not forsee. But, if you will let me continue, I did it for the best of reasons. That makes the results my actions even worse."
Before Meliantha could react, there was sound like a door-ringer. "Oh, good, our other guest is here. I need a moment, miss, please excuse!" And she put down her knitting and bustled off -- she seemed to be a very good bustler -- and when she returned, the person who entered with her was wearing a suit of armor that covered him from head to toe. At the sight of him, Meliantha was out of her chair and on one knee, for she recognized immediately that this was a manifestation of her god, Helm. She did not immediately notice that another chair had appeared, apparently for him.
"Rise," his voice intoned, "and be recognized, Meliantha Demonblood." She rose, but kept her eyes lowered.
Mistress Danielha cleared her throat. "Perhaps we could sit?" She said, a bit archly, as if she felt that some bit of etiquette had been transgressed. With an almost embarassed air, the manifestation of Helm moved towards the chair.
As they took their seats, Meliantha suddenly felt oddly calm at the situation.
"Wait, one more thing, I'm very sorry," said Mistress Danielha, and suddenly her appearance was different: mostly the same, but instead of the simple skirt and blouse and headscarf of an itinerent fortuneteller, she was in dancer's silks (in the violet around her eyes and on her lips), and seemed almost to be dancing even as she sat down.
"Now, you know Helm, of course, and I am Lliira. We have some important things to tell you." Something in Meliantha's mind gibbered at the revelation that she was being addressed by not one but two gods directly.
"You are the crux of a plan of a demon lord," Helm stated, flatly. "He has other options, but you are the core of the plan closest to completion. To stop this, I sent your stepfather to keep you from being seized from the place you were born. In a rage, the ones who were sent to bring you back razed the place. But you being taken away and brought to safety was far more important."
"Why?" The question had been lurking in her mind for years. Why her?
"Because," the stern-faced god said, "with your blood and death as a sacrifice, he could pull much of Faerun into the Abyss. He has planted a number of magical devices, using cultists and pawns, and his goal is to rip Faerun -- indeed, all of Toril if he can -- into his realm to be part of it, and increase his power more. This cannot be allowed."
"But part of that," Lliira said, "involves you not falling to his blandishments -- which are, I would note, are considerable, as befits the demon lord of corrupted pleasures."
The knowledge thundered into her mind as she half-rose. "I'm descended from GRAZ'ZT?" she cried out, falling backwards into the chair.
"Yes," they both said, then glanced at each other as if that was a surprise. Then Lliira took up the tale again.
"And my failing was to send you an avatar to try to help you connect with others, not knowing that bard was there and about to cause so much trouble for you, and for that, I beg forgiveness. I'm a goddess, but I don't know everything, and some of the worse sides aren't things I really can know much about by my very nature. But please believe me, my intentions were for the best, even if I did fail at them in the end."
"No, no, I believe you, it's just... this is hard to take in."
Helm returned to his lecture. "Your father is Malaq'zar, a cambion, a direct child of Graz'zt and a fallen paladin who turned to his service centuries ago. He comes at times to Toril, seeking naïve women to seduce and to bear his offspring. You are his most recent child, and born at an auspicious time in an auspicious place. Your rearing in my temple made you useless as a direct agent, but you could still be a sacrifice to power the transition. All of Faerun, transported to the Abyss and made a land of horrors, where not even death is an ending." The armored figure leaned forwards. "But I chose to bring you in, to make a guardian out of a key. You were blameless, and did not deserve to die, even if it would make things safer for the world. The chance you would be the key to stopping this plot was one I needed to take."
"And ? Where was this protection when I needed it?"
"Oh, child," Llira said, "blame me. I thought you needed joy in your life and I failed you. For that, I offer you a boon within my power."
"Besides," Helm said, the booming voice hushed, "a protector is best when they know what they protect. While this pain was not intended, now you know it and what it is in others. You can see it and know how to fight those that inflict it."
The dawning realization of Helm's words struck deep into Meliantha's heart. "I... I do see."
"I bring you this boon, Meliantha Demonblood. Your heart is true and strong, your spirit strong as if bruised. This will put the cat amongst the pigeons, but perhaps the time has come for one who is believes in a strong offense as a proper guardian's position. I Choose you." He seemed to swell, as if his full godly power was here, then reached out and laid a gauntlet with surprising gentleness on her head. White fire flashed through her, and she gasped as it left power behind. She felt Lliira's power reach out as well, to Chainbreaker, and infuse the blade.
Helm's voice thundered in her mind. "When you return, prepare! You must be ready!"
Her vision went white.
When it cleared, she was lying on her back, with the townsfolk gathered around her, chatting and trying to determine what had happened. She took a deep breath and stood up, then looked around.
"What happened?" she asked.
"You spoke to the woman, who disappeared, and then you collapsed," Shen Gao said. "Did you receive news?"
"I did, Master Shen, and you were right. Thank you for your instruction, but I think it is time for me to return." She gave him the deep bow of respect she'd learned from him, and to the surprise of the townfolk, he returned it equally.
"Good luck and good journey, Master Mera, and thank you for your instruction. I found it... most edifying. As did Xi Gua."
She dropped the pretense, and hugged the old man, who hugged her back. "Go if you must, send word if you can, for this old man will wonder where you have wandered, Master Mera," he whispered in her ear in Chondathan.
"Call if you need, and I'll come when I can," she replied, and let him go.
Her medallion suddenly began to glow, and she looked down at it. "And it begins," she said. Then she grabbed it, and before she could say anything, she heard Loran's voice in her head:
All hands to Arabel! Speak the king's name when ready for a teleport.
"Azoun!" she called out, and in a swirl of light, she was gone.
Master Shen Gao smiled, a little sadly. The past year had been most interesting, and he had realized the loneliness he felt up on the mountain when it was relieved by the strange woman. Perhaps, he thought, he should move down the mountain and find another student.
She emerged from the teleport in the middle of a street next to what had been the city garrison. As she moved, two more adventurers appeared, and the three were engulfed in the flame of a fireball spell. Meliantha was surprised momentarily to find herself unharmed, but the other two weren't so lucky, collapsing nearly dead from the blast of flame. Barely thinking, she dropped Chainbreaker, drew her bow, spotted the wizard, and send a burning arrow into his face, returning the agonizing flames. She bent down to the two adventurers, touching them, and a flow of white energy came from her hands as she prayed they were alive... and suddenly, it was as if they hadn't been hurt at all.
"You're a cleric?" one of them said, gasping at the lack of pain.
"I'm not, but I'm surprised too! The mage is dead." As the two - a man and an elven woman - stood, she surveyed the area.
Purple Dragons lay in the street, dead and dying, as orcs rifled through nearby shops. Her eyes narrowed as she saw they wore the sigil of Zhentil Keep. Lips pulled thinly from teeth, and the orcs died as Meliantha and the two adventurers cut them down like sheafs of wheat. The man used a pair of short knives to deadly effect, and the woman howled at the top of her lungs, applying an axe a large as she was tall to orcs with what seemed a strength that far outstripped her frame. They worked together like they had a long acquaintance, with one sometimes distracting a target and the other killing it.
Meliantha noticed as she slew the orcs that the few that had the chance to hit her actually left no mark at all, as if their weapons couldn't penetrate her flesh, and wondered if it was the result of what Helm had granted her.
When the street was cleared, she grabbed her Gold Dragon pendant again. Loran! Where do we muster? I'm by the garrison, for whatever reason the teleport brought me there! she sent through it.
The Lady's palace! Good to have you, lass! came word back.
"Lady's palace," Meliantha shouted at the other two adventurers, and then, blade in hand, she ran, as ever, towards the danger.