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Small Sacrifices

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Jorlan was perched on the battlements of the portable fortress, watchman against his own thoughts. In the levels below him, his companions slept soundly, untroubled by the events of the Gallery of Angels.

But that wasn't fair. He had seen Lux, pale and shaken after their encounter with one of the stone angels, sharing a wineskin with Umbra, leaning heavily against the sorcerer. Gaulir, reasoning wildly against the hopeless words of prophecy. And Mavash -- wracked with psychic pain from the angels' mental assault.

Something precious must be lost--

A creak, and the hatch to the rest of the fortress opened. He turned eagerly to meet his guest, hoping--

It was the dwarf.

In darkvision, she was a blur of heat armored with dark skin and hair. The look on her face was deadly serious, her lips pale against the warm backdrop of her head.

He straightened, sitting blade-sharp. Ambergris wasn't an enemy any more, but there was still more tension between them than the other party members. Old habits -- he'd been raised on stories of the stuporous rage of the dwarves, and his treatment in Gauntlgrym hadn't much improved his opinion.

But Amber was no witless do-gooder. She served a goddess as darkly canny as the one he had scorned, and yet with none of the cruelty. An enigma, as all his companions were.

He gave a tight nod of recognition. "What brings you out here?" Like him, she had every reason to be troubled by the prophecy -- it had come out of her mouth, after all. Unlike him, she did need to sleep.

She crossed to stand at the battlements beside him, rubbing her arms against the chill that pervaded this part of the labyrinth. "We need to talk."

He raised an eyebrow at that. "I didn't think we had much to discuss." The only reason she'd ever found before to talk to him was to scold him. If she was cross with him now, he couldn't find it in himself to care.

A bitter laugh greeted that. "You're untroubled by my words, I see. Is there another reason you're brooding alone on a parapet like the lovelorn hero of a novel, then?"

"I am not brooding," he protested. "But you've given us a great deal to think about, to be sure. I'm surprised Gaulir isn't still downstairs discussing his plans to temporarily render a lord of the Abyss mortal--"

Something immortal must become mortal.

"I need your help," Amber blurted out. She followed it with a nervous laugh. "By Shar, it pains me to admit that."

Immediately suspicious, he countered, "What sort of help?"

Ambergris looked out into the darkness. Jorlan wondered what she was seeing. Certainly his vision was better than hers in this spectrum, but this place was darker than anywhere he'd ever been in the Underdark. There were few fungi -- certainly not the ones they were searching for -- and vanishingly little faerzress. What light he did see appeared through a veil, as if the whole region was covered in a blanket of frost. No wonder the goblins called it "the Devil's Crack."

After a long silence, Ambergris gripped the stone crenallation and said, "Tomorrow we'll encounter the Maze Engine."

"Our goblin guides say--"

"We will," she insisted. "And that is when the sacrifices must be made. We should... have a plan."

He felt a wave of wordless panic at her certainty. Tomorrow? More time, more time, his mind screamed. They had to have more time.

Mavash had asked Gaulir, amidst all his plotting, as the most lawful among us, do you think we can play these sorts of word games with the forces of order? It was her usual way of asking a question -- never implying someone was wrong, but letting the other person draw their own conclusions. It had surprised the paladin, if nothing else. But he hadn't had an answer for that.

He hadn't had a plan.

Jorlan flicked a pebble into the darkness. "We should? I usually let them make all the decisions." He tapped his foot against the worn boards beneath him, indicating his companions below.

"Yes, you do, don't you? Captain Duskryn, just following orders," she said, with scorn in her voice. "Let me be more specific. I have a plan, and I need your assistance."

He sighed. "All right, Amber. Indulge me. What is your plan?"

"I intend to be one of the sacrifices."

He took a step back, struck by the words, but letting nothing show on his face but a mirthless smile. "I see. And which do you intend to be? I'm fairly certain you're not immortal, so it's either 'living' or 'precious.'"

Something living must be erased.

More of their companions' worried conversation about the prophecy came back to him. Dawnbringer, pledging to give up her life, if it would save Gaulir. And Jorlan's own jibe--I'm not volunteering to be sacrificed--and Mavash's sarcastic reply--your objection is noted.

Amber stood as still as one of those stone angels, the heat of her fingers blurred where she clutched the stone. "I think we know I'm not the precious one around here."

Something precious must be lost for a thousand years.

Lost in his own calculation, Jorlan made no reply.

"That's what I like about you drow," she said, with a mocking laugh. "You're never ones for false flattery."

Oddly eager to prove her wrong, he said, "But you are dear to us. You've healed us from the brink of death countless times, you cured Mavash's petrification that time in Mantol-Derith, and you've cut fiends to pieces with those spirit blades of yours--"

"I'm useful," she snapped. "Reliable in a fight. Maybe even a good friend. But we both know -- I'm not precious. Not like Nehedra is to Lux. Not like Dawn is to Gaulir. Not like you are to Mavash." She poked him square in the chest.

Out of instinct, he grabbed for her hand as if it were a dagger aimed at his heart. "What," he said, his voice a growl, "is that supposed to mean?"

"I think you know," she said, and pulled her hand away.

"I'll tell you what I told... our druid friend." He was suddenly incapable of saying her name; it stuck in his throat like a fish bone. "I'm not going to sacrifice myself. I like living quite a lot, thank you." He was not who he had been in Mantol-Derith, feeling his whole life like a burden. He did not want to be that again.

A heavy silence hung between them for a scant moment, and then Ambergris said, her voice stern, "Cut the bullshit, Jorlan. I don't have time for this. I want to talk to the man behind the mask."

His first idiot thought was, You don't get to talk to him. No one did who still drew breath.

With some temporary, notable exceptions.

He forced himself to take calming breaths. He was not in danger. He was not in Menzoberranzan. He was just having a normal conversation with a dwarf cleric of Shar, goddess of darkness -- who for incomprehensible reason wished to sacrifice herself in the name of goodness and order.

Yes. Perfectly normal.

"Why are you telling me this?" he settled on.

"Do you think if I told our companions, they would let me do it?"

He laughed. Yes, he could easily imagine Gaulir trying to stop her. Sacrificing himself was the paladin's job, and he didn't like anyone stealing his business. "I see you're banking on the fabled enmity between our races."

"Something like that." She gave a crooked grin. "I figured that among our companions, you'd be the most willing to see the back of me."

He crossed his arms, unwilling or unable to deny that. "So what do you need me to do?"

"First of all, I need you not to tell them." Her eyes narrowed, flashing with a dark fire. "If you do, and I live to see it, I promise I'll inflict on you tortures your priestesses could only dream of, and then toss your body into a volcano, and use the ashes to grit the path."

"Charming," he said, gritting his teeth. "But alas for you, I have no reason to tell them."

"No profit in it, eh?"

Of course she would think him mercenary; when had he ever let anyone believe otherwise? "Is that all, then? You need a confidant?"

"I need a conspirator." She took a steadying breath. "Once I've begun working with the Maze Engine, it will become apparent to our companions what I'm doing. What I'm risking. You need to delay them. Keep them from interrupting me. Keep our enemies from stopping me. Just until I... do what needs to be done." She looked away, turning those burning eyes out into the darkness again.

He leaned back against the stone, groaning. "You want me to let you die. To be erased." Even the thought of her sacrifice dried his mouth with fear. He'd been in death's maw himself; had some clue of what she faced.

"Consider it a mercy killing. I will be with--" She wiped a hand across her face. "Well. Never mind. It needs to be done. For your world and ours."

He drummed his fingers against the stone for a few long moments before nodding. "As you wish, Amber," he said, with a gentleness that surprised him. "I-- it's the least I can do." And truly, it was. How many times already had his inaction led to someone's death? And never for such a reason as this...

Ambergris looked satisfied; some heat was returning to her bloodless lips. "There is more."

He chuckled. "I think you are the shrewdest bargainer amongst us, after all. Name it."

"It's not enough for me to pledge this. I'm aware that I could fail. Our enemies will oppose what we do, and I may succumb to them. I don't think it will happen that way, and yet--" She swallowed hard. "I will require... a second. Someone to take my place if I am unable to continue."

He had raised his hands in protest before she even finished. "No. This, I won't do. You may ask much of me, Amber"--and that was not a lie--"but I am not like the lot of you. You can't trust me for heroics." He would always choose to live, not even knowing he made the choice.

"And who would you ask to take your place? Which living being in our party would you ask to be erased? Perhaps our bloodthirsty hunter of demons? Our fearless paladin? The shadar-kai your people tortured for a century? Or your beloved Mav--"

He struck, fast as a viper. In a heartbeat, he had the dwarf pinned to the battlements. With his shortsword at her neck, his voice was a threatening whisper at her ear. "Say that again. I dare you."

Amber only laughed, damn her. "By all means, end me now, and be left with your own conscience. When the Lords of the Abyss shatter the cavern of your world, when she falls at your feet--"

He pressed the blade closer, making a thin line that glowed with the heat of the dwarf's blood. "You wanted to see the man behind the mask? Well, this is him," he growled. "A trained killer with two hundred years of suppressed rage and Very. Bad. Manners."

But she was right, and he had already lost.

He dropped his hand, and let his short sword clatter to the weathered boards. "Fine." He ran his free hand through his hair, dampening with sweat. "I will second you." He spat out the last words, the Undercommon translation of a Drow curse. "Darkness take you."

Ambergris wiped blood from the shallow cut on her neck. "Oh, it will," she said, at a whisper.

"And so that will be one," Jorlan said, after a long moment. "What of the other sacrifices?"

"I... am unsure," she said, looking uneasy. "My vision wasn't clear. I may have some ability to influence them. I may not. I have some idea what the Maze Engine is willing to accept, though." Her eyes rested significantly on Jorlan. "But truly, I suspect some of it is up to you."

Something precious must be lost for a thousand years.

Rage flared in him again, heating his face. He had just agreed to give everything. Must he promise his life twice over?

He wanted to protest. He was tired of protesting.

A thousand years. A long life, for a drow, but not impossibly so -- especially away from the depredations of Menzoberranzan. Vizeran had already lived nearly that. If only Jorlan hadn't already already wasted two hundred of his! But of course this mythical "lost" might be some limbo that would preserve him--

It didn't matter. He wasn't doing it.

Finding his voice, he said, "My life is worth nothing, now or in a thousand years. But you know it would break her heart." That short-lived clock of her heart, wound with dangerous hope, that would run down before a century was out-- "More even than... the other option, I think," he finished at a whisper.

He was shaking. Light blind him, he was shaking. He felt as helpless as he had at age thirteen, watching his sister bound to an altar, submitting with infuriating peace to the sacrifice that would end her life.

Amber studied him, as if deciding if he was finally being earnest. Softly, she replied, "It will break someone's heart, no matter what sacrifice is made. That is what it means to be precious. That is what it means to sacrifice."

He remembered what he had counseled himself in Mantol-Derith. Do this, before you become someone worth missing.

It was too late for that now.

"Are we to decide who can best bear the pain, then?" he asked. "You know that's not a game I would play fair."

"I expect nothing less from you," Amber said, with a chuckle that turned into a deep sigh. "We need decide nothing now. I suspect the circumstances will make the choice clear."

A long silence. Somewhere in the tower below them, something dropped to the floor with a loud thunk.

"Whatever happens," she continued, "take care of them for me." Her fingers reached out, as if seeking comfort, or bestowing a blessing. "For as long as you can."

The pain in her voice made something catch in his own chest, and he stepped away to straighten the mask he had let fall askew. He only looked up when the door to the tower clattered closed behind Ambergris.

Jorlan bit his already-bloodied lip. In departing the Gallery of Angels, one of the doomed ones had told Mavash, You must not lose hope. The secret to the prophecy is: you must not lose hope.

He tried to comfort himself with those words, but found his hope too threadbare to protect him.