10 of Eleint 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
That morning I woke up with reddened eyes and face swollen and stinging from the salty brine of my own tears. In those days it was always the case. My voice was hoarse and rasping like the gabbling of an old whore. When I finally emerged from the infirmary into the kitchen Chyil shoved a pot of freshly brewed herbal tea into my hands, and said casually that his supply of ephedrae's root and sleepgrass was nearly exhausted. Would I be so kind, as to collect more of these plants for him after I broke my fast?
He is very gentle but his kindness is misplaced with me. I am adjusted to my condition. My nights are filled with endless strings of nightmares that never fail to culminate in a paroxysm of hysterical pleas for mercy. I suspect I must have been kept in confinement and tortured, for my dreams when I can remember them are all about sharp knives in the darkness; though sometimes I see myself burning alive or falling into an infinite chasm filled with liquid fire. As a dream progresses, my pleas will always degenerate into shameful fits of weeping - I am mortified at this persistent show of weakness but can do nothing about it short of taking the tincture of black lotus that will give me weird hallucinations and then knock me out into the dreamless, senseless slumber.
The black lotus petals are dirt-cheap here - so close to the mountains passes which are the main route for smuggling the drug further north and west. It comes from the fertile coastal regions of the southern Calimshan and half of the village smokes it in their water pipes without much remorse. But Chyil says I should stop taking the drug or become addicted. And since becoming a lotus junkie on top of my other problems does not sound like a good idea, I am consigned to suffer through the indignity of puffy eyelids in the mornings and through even worse humiliation of curious and pitying glances from the village housewives and wenches. Oh, these smoldering women's eyes! They follow me through the dusty red streets of Amkethran and into the desert like a cloud of stinging mites, each one of them harmless, yet uncomfortable enough to make me flinch. Altogether they make me sick from the slow spreading poison of the unwelcome compassion. Their men at least have the grace to either ignore me, or throw dark, suspicious glances. But the females are dreadful in their unwanted, meddlesome pity.
The village is half-empty now that the danger of the Bhaalspawn invasion of Tethyr has been averted. Most of the refugees had left months ago, following the bands of mercenaries who had dispersed in pursuit of employment more lucrative than cooling their heels in this gods-forsaken hole in the middle of nowhere. There is a war in southern Amn, as the legions of Sythillisian Empire march on the human coastal cities. There are rumors of unrest in the North, and weird weather patterns in the South. This world of Toril is a very dangerous place, or so Chyil teaches me. He is an elderly priest of Waukeen – the goddess of wealth and prosperity. I find the entire setup hilarious, since the village of Amkethran, (probably the dingiest hole in the entire Calimshan), might be about the last place where one would expect to find such a temple. Since the goddess only recently returned to her flock after a long period of imprisonment in some hot and nasty outer Plane, Chyil is full of excited blabber whenever he mentions Waukeen’s story. He can spend hours explaining the particulars of Toril’s religion and afterlife to me, even though I find the subject utterly disgusting. This world has too many deities for my taste, and I don’t share Chyil’s admiration for this diversity. The old man is pathetic in his slavering devotion to his newly restored goddess but kind enough to tolerate me in the temple. In fact, if not for his charity I would starve - but somehow this fact does not bother me at all. Nothing bothers me anymore.
It is remarkable how even the worst calamity will settle into some sort of a boring routine, given time. When I first awoke shaking and screaming at the top of my lungs (that is what Chyil has told me, and I have no reason to distrust him, at least not in this matter) I was raging and raving at somebody who had stolen something from me. I suspect that something was very important, for it has caused my total loss of memory. The first thing I remember about myself is staring into the mirror in complete bewilderment at my eerie face, and weeping like a small child. I said eerie because I look strange even to myself. Sometimes I wonder if it is indeed my real face or my real body - I do not recognize them as such. My strides are longer and my gestures are more powerful than this body cares for. It feels almost like I am pushing at a small but efficient and well-oiled mechanism with a force sufficient to dislodge a heavy boulder. The result is by no means adequate to the effort, and I often stumble at half a step, which only adds to my overall discomfort and embarrassment at the situation. My limbs are pale, thin, and delicate, with a fine bone structure that would better suit a female, although I am definitely a male, and that is one thing I am bloody sure about. But I look odd among the stocky, dark-skinned desert-dwellers that make most of the Amkethran population.
My face is… weird. It is thin, pallid, and alien, although I cannot say that it is ugly or disfigured. It is simply strange. My eyes are slanted, and can be best described as possessing that deep blue color that you can sometimes see on the evening sky, with tiny gold sparks floating in their depth. I have spent hours before the mirror trying to find out if it is a figment of my imagination - but no, the sparks are as real as the color of my hair that is white as bleached desert wood. I had to ask Chyil to crop it short, and hide what remained of it under a coif to make myself look less conspicuous. Somehow wearing the ugly tight-fitting hood makes me feel more comfortable. It completely covers my head, and that alone would be enough to make me keep it on day and night despite the sweaty, itchy scalp that it gives me. I have to hide my ears, which are elongated and have pointy tips like those of a cat or some other animal, although they lack furry tufts at the ends. I wish I could wear a mask to cover my face as well, but this will make me look even stranger. Sometimes I wonder if this unhealthy obsession with my appearance signifies anything of my past. What am I, and more importantly - who am I?
Chyil says my name is Jon. That was how my 'friends' had introduced me when I was left in his care a few months ago - unconscious, and utterly sick. The name sounds like something that was hastily made up, but since I have no other choice, I accept it for now. Chyil also insists I must be an elf. Something inside me cringes at the sound of the word, as if whoever is lurking in the background of my new blank personality is aware of it, and finds it offensive. Thanks to Chyil, I have some basic knowledge of this world, although I lack details about my own place in it. I am aware that elves are the humanoid race, reclusive and mysterious, and often hostile to humans. I speak Common fluently, and there is nothing in my appearance that suggests I may be dangerous to anybody. Pathetic - yes, maybe even comical, but definitely not dangerous. A local wizard, a talkative old refugee from the city of Saradush who went by the name of Lazarus, had tried to practice his Elven with me on a couple of occasions but gave up after receiving my blank stares. I cannot say I understood what he was trying to convey, but it might have only meant that his elven was as dusty and unused as his wares.
Who needs scrolls of magics and arcane supplies in a place like Amkethran? The village is disgustingly poor. Most of the serious money is made on smuggling Tethyran wines and tobacco into Calimshan, and Calimshani silk and spices back into Tethyr. Amkethran other important source of income, the Monastery, stands gutted and forlorn as the younger monks have deserted the enclave after disappearance of their leader. The older ones stayed, but they could not maintain that huge fortress with their bare hands, and all the order’s gold was spent on pacifying the mercenary troops, which the former abbot had amassed in the village for some murky ambition of his own. At the end the remaining monks vacated the fortress, and moved deeper into the mountains into an old cave complex that was the enclave's founding site a few centuries back, before some former Calim Pasha’s generosity extended to paying for a new fortification on the always unstable border with Tethyr.
Now the red empty behemoth of the Monastery has become the nest of the local smugglers and thieves. These can afford anything they want, but they never wanted Lazarus's odd yellow parchments or the funny smelling bags of magical components, as they rely on brute force, and their ever swelling numbers. And so, the old man decided to leave Amkethran with the last caravan of refugees going back to Tethyr. His remaining goods were few enough to fit into the saddlebags of his horse. He came here to say his good-byes to Chyil, and eyed me oddly through the entire conversation but I remained silent. I never understood his interest in me, since his magic left me as cold and indifferent as about any other topic. Before leaving for good Lazarus had left me a small bag as a parting gift, but I never even bothered to open it. Chyil tried to interest me in it gently but after I had rebuffed him for the second time, he put it away.
My days are spent sleeping in the shade in the small garden, or doing minor chores around the temple. These I do with strange reluctance, and Chyil often finds me daydreaming with a broom clutched in my numbed fingers, or a pail of precious water spilling recklessly on the dry and dusty ground as I stand over it staring into space, with tears flowing down my face in an endless slow stream. I can never remember my visions afterwards. The old man used to give me lotus on such occasions, and send me to bed, but lately he has become more aggressive in his therapeutic efforts, and since I do not wish to upset him, (as it will make avoiding him more difficult), I have to humor some of these fancies.
They are quite harmless, although annoying. Last week he invented the need for fresh herbal supplies, (although he can always send any street urchin to do his chores for a couple of coppers and Waukeen's blessing), and I had to oblige. He went out into the desert with me a few times, specifying the plants he would be interested in, and asking if I could recognize any of them. I could not, but since I did not want to displease him I took care to remember every one of the two dozen of various grasses, roots, and seeds that he had pointed out. Afterwards, when he sent me out alone and I brought back everything he wanted at once, he said he was amazed at my memory. I only shrugged. My memory is the subject that I do not wish to discuss with Chyil...
Here ends the third page of my Amkethran journal, or what passed for it at the time when I was writing it. A disordered collection of miscellaneous scraps of paper that Chyil had saved and stored among his own archives, rather than use it to start fire (a far more suitable arrangement on my view). But the old man was always full of strange ideas, and perhaps he foresaw that one day I might return and would want these back. I started these notes at the time when my thoughts were hardly coherent, and kept writing mainly to keep my mind from slipping back into the void that was waiting just behind the surface of my shattered and hastily put back together new personality.
Later, I made footnotes of non-magical nature in the spellbooks, recording the dates and the most important events of the passing day. However all these materials hardly constitute a serious memoir, which fact can be clearly perceived from the first fragment of this text. I shall not bother to introduce my other notes here, opting instead to recreate the sequence of events from memory (not always my own) as I go through with my story. Since I have all the time in the world to finish it, it might be quite long. Hopefully long enough to keep me occupied for decades in this place filled to the rim with other memories, dating back to the first days of creation...
I shall start at this juncture, going back to the momentous afternoon in the desert that can be vaguely ascribed as the beginning of everything, or the end, if my hypothetical reader has a scientific mind and shares my view that every beginning is also an end in a broader sense. But of course, this clearly means that every end is also a beginning – thus only upon reaching the end of the journey can one begin writing its story.
At long last in the afternoon I managed to drag myself away from the flat, warm stone under the dusty acacia tree and depart on Chyil’s errand. My lethargy was not the effect of being sickly or weak, although after spending three months in half-slumber I lacked any serious muscle. My body was revoltingly healthy and young, my limbs flexible and agile. But somehow even thinking about my good physical condition made me terribly angry. I knew nothing of who I was. I was dead inside. I lacked interest in anything, even eating and sleeping, and yet my body was as healthy as ever. Was not it the cruelest joke of all?
I trod along the familiar stony trail swinging Chyil's wicker basket and wallowing in my misery. Yet today the nature refused to cooperate with my mood. The desert has truly come alive in the few short weeks of the early autumn: the long, brutal assault of the summer heat had faded, but the howling of the winter winds bringing dry and dusty hurricane season upon its weary inhabitants was still far away. Though Chyil once told me that the meager autumn gifts were nothing compared to the wild abundance of spring, when patches of red poppy flowers and yellow tulips cover the sands like fields of wild fire. Even so, on that warm day in Eleint the barren, unforgiving land of Calimshan tried its best to appease me. There were fresh outcrops of pale-blue lichen and few paper-thin, delicate flowers under the grey spotted boulders that littered the floor of the small canyon. I was strangely pleased to see these and a small bunch of brownish-red seeds that somehow managed to ripen on the black thorny bush called amargosa, which produced a strong alkaloid that Chyil used in some of his preparations. I collected these and found a small plant of ephedrae that gave me enough bark for Chyil and still left it healthy. The only thing I lacked now was the sleepgrass.
I barely remembered where and when I last saw a clump of silvery grasses with pale-pink flower heads, when a sound both menacing and cold interrupted my slow stream of thoughts. A hissing of a snake is something you must always be ready to identify in the middle of a desert, as Chyil had pointed out to me on many occasions. Although it did not exactly catch me unawares I was a bit slow to react, but react I did. I froze. Cowardly as it sounds, staying still is the best thing to do in situations like these as snakes do not attack anything bigger than they are for the sheer joy of it. Only humanoids engage in such activities. The serpents hunt mice, lizards, and small birds for food, not for pleasure.
I slowly moved my eyes without twitching a muscle, and almost jumped - the snake was performing its little war dance just a few inches away from my head, on a big flat boulder hanging precariously from the side of the small canyon. It was a hooded cobra; not the biggest one I saw around Amkethran but big enough to make me sweat seeing it standing on its tail that close to my face. It was one of these occasions when being tall was not a great advantage but rather a serious handicap, and I was a head taller than the loftiest denizen of our desert paradise. I took a deep breath and started counting. My pulse slowly subsided from a frantic race to a slower beat. It was a battle of nerves, and I was not going to give the damned reptile a chance at besting me. Sooner or later, it would tire of its dance and leave me alone. This tactic always worked with Chyil and I did not expect the snake to be more relentless than him.
I was winning in this little game of wills and congratulating myself, as it always pleases me to win, even when competing with a mindless reptile. But just when the cobra was ready to relax and slink away from my mocking gaze something hard and heavy hit me on the side. I heard a loud yelp, and we rolled across the rocky ground in a flurry of tangled limbs and clothes. What complicated the situation was the fact that the terrified snake lunged after us from its perch, flew across the air in a graceful arc, and landed not two steps away from me and my would-be rescuer who turned out to be a young, dark-haired human girl, dressed in leather breaches and a padded silken vest of local design. The girl cried out, and tumbled away from me pulling a small dagger from her belt and making a slash at the snake. The cobra was now determined to finish the job, as we had eloquently proved that we were enemies; it hissed and slithered eagerly in girl's direction. What was I to do? I had no idea how fast the cobra’s poison kills its prey, but was unwilling to take the risk and find out. I might never make it back to the village with unconscious female in my hands, not to mention that it would be extremely melodramatic and conspicuous. I sometimes thought later: why did I not even consider simply strolling away with my basket of plants and leaving her to handle the snake all by herself? I suppose the answer was always there, inside my head, but at that time I did not allow myself to know it.
So, I did one of the stupidest, damnedest things possible, I went after the snake with my bare hands. I knew I was faster and smarter, and I knew how it would feel to hold its writhing muscular body in my tight grasp. The factor I never considered was my lack of strength after many months of near idleness. The cobra had turned around in my failing grip and snapped open its fanged mouth, ready to strike. For a moment, we stared at each other frozen in time and space, the snake's yellow eyes with their black vertical slits of pupils against my cold blue ones. I had a vague feeling that there were thousands of other occasions when I stared my death in the eyes, although it had never been that easy for my opponents. I was weak indeed, too weak to be allowed to live.
Her dagger flashed not a moment too late. The snake's head hit the ground with a wet plop and I sucked at my bloodied fingers, muttering something I could not comprehend, in a language I had not known before. The girl looked at me apologetically, flashing a white-toothed smile.
"Sorry, I had to scratch your fingers, pretty boy. Does it hurt much?"
The sheer impropriety of that question struck me numb. I looked her over, trying to buy time and show my displeasure at her audacity. But I suspect that my bewilderment showed in my eyes, because instead of feeling uncomfortable she grinned and slapped me on the upper arm. I flinched at the unexpected touch. She had to rise on her tiptoes to do it, and that at least gave me a small degree of satisfaction. I glowered, trying to decide what to make of her. Her skin was of the dark copper tone – a characteristic feature of the natives of the Calim desert. She was small, slim, and very agile with a thick braid of shiny dark hair thrown casually over her shoulder. Her huge dark eyes sparkled with amusement at my embarrassment, and her grin showed two rows of perfect teeth and a small pink tongue that curled mischievously to her upper lip.
"Your interference was unnecessary and dangerous," I rasped through clenched teeth, "you angered the snake that was ready to depart, and that put both of us in danger. May I suggest that in the future you think before you jump into action?"
The girl gave me a bewildered stare. "What a pile of rubbish!"
She touched the snake's curled body with a tip of her booted foot. "Boy, I saw you popping your eyeballs at him as if you two were playing who-would-wink-first. You should never look into the snake's eyes. He would have bitten you if I had not pushed you away!"
I deigned it unseemly to answer that, and crouched over my upturned basket of grass, collecting my dispersed wares. My headgear had come loose during the struggle with the cobra and a few strands of white hair escaped from it, spilling all over my face; I puffed it away, thinking that I would need to cut it short soon, and concentrated on my task, ignoring the annoying female. Hopefully she would feel offended and leave me alone.
But she obviously had other ideas on the matter. I heard a yelp of a sheer joy, and one small hand moved faster than a snake cutting the strings of my coif with a dagger, while at the same time the other one pulled it away in a lightening quick motion. I swore, trying to grab at her but both of my hands were occupied with Chyil's plants and she jumped out of my reach, giggling at my sweaty disheveled head. I sensed a wave of heat rising from my stomach, spilling into my neck and cheeks, filling my head with dizzying, thrilling spell of anger. It felt ... ugly and familiar, and I knew my temper would flare at her, dreading and anticipating the moment of release.
Perhaps she had noticed something in my eyes as I rose to my feet, for her smile disappeared, and her mouth made a silent 'o' as her hand offered me my crumpled headgear. Her lips trembled, and instantly she looked like a small child who was about to cry. My anger dissipated as swiftly as it had built, and I felt hollow like an empty water skin; something that was gathering inside me, looking for a way out was gone. I accepted the thing back, unclenching my fists and praising the forces there are for stopping whatever was coming. There was an awkward moment.
"Why are you wearing this nasty hood?" she finally asked in a small voice. "Your hair is very beautiful... as is your face."
I looked at her in complete bewilderment checking for signs of mockery. She was absolutely serious, and her eyes looked sad and wistful. A shiver ran down my spine. I knew that nobody had looked at me in this way for a very long time. It was foolish and plain dangerous.
"What were you doing here, anyway?" I snapped at her, letting the coif drop from my bloodied fingers into the basket of grass.
I would have to wash it later. Chyil made it for me on my insistence out of some discarded old garment. I was wearing his old robes too, and her shiny stare suddenly made me aware of how badly it fitted me.
"Did you spy on me on purpose? Who sent you?"
"I...I was not spying!"
My accusation made her angry. Good. She may let something slip from her pretty pink mouth in this agitated state. I looked at her coldly, imposing my mental superiority and kept my silence.
"I was following you because I though it maybe fun!" She cried out angrily. "But you speak like you are a border-guard or a bounty hunter. I did nothing wrong. I saved your dim-witted head from the cobra, how dare you!"
"You shall answer my questions, girl," I said in my most compelling tone. "I do not wish to repeat myself. Who sent you to spy on me and why? And what is your name?"
"You did not tell me yours!" she snapped back. "And don't speak to me like you own me or something. You are only Chyil's errand-boy, and I am betrothed to Farheed the Thunder!"
Farheed Aslami was the local thug, who had inherited Easamon's smuggling empire after the pirate's sudden disappearance. I could not but know his name, for he was something of a local celebrity. Chyil's visitors had mentioned him on many occasions, and although I paid little heed to the village gossip my memory worked like a steel trap - once a fact was brought up I could never forget it. The abrupt loss of my entire life prior to my arrival at Amkethran was even more peculiar in view of this detail.
I lost all interest in my audacious rescuer. She was only a little thief spying for her lover, who has happened to be the leader of the local smuggler's gang. It was boring and predictable. Of course they would be interested in anybody new in town, and I was different enough to attract their attention. It was certainly strange that Farheed would deem to notice me after many months of ignoring my existence, but perhaps that was because I only recently started to appear outside the temple? The thieves will soon realize that I am quite harmless and useless to them, and leave me alone. It will take a little patience - that was all. I bent over, picked the basket from the ground, and walked away from the girl without sparing her another glance.
"You know this is rude!" She yelled at my back.
I ignored her and continued walking down the path.
"And I know your name," she added quickly. "Chyil calls you Jon, so I can give you mine. I am Mirriam, but everybody just calls me Mirri!"
I did not even turn my head and she fell silent staring attentively at my back. I could still sense her gaze on me, when I took the left fork of the trail and headed towards the village.
At twilight I sat on my favorite stone in Chyil's garden, sorting through the plants that I had brought from the desert. They were all tangled and messy, and for the first time in months it made me frown. I felt distress at my failing to deliver what was asked from me. That was as strange as my sudden desire to clean myself earlier. When Chyil had spotted me in my smallclothes, sluicing water over my sweaty self, and carefully washing away the red dust of the desert he did not say anything, but left a clean pair of breaches and his old shirt (both neatly mended and washed) on my bed. I was now wearing these, although the garments were too short for my longer limbs, and too tight at the shoulder seams. My head was clean for the first time in months, and as the evening breeze combed through the white strands of my hair, which had grown down to my shoulders over the weeks that have passed since I last touched them, I thought lazily that I had to cut them shorter, but decided it can wait.
The night was coming, and with it my usual caravan of horrors. I shivered at the thought of being down on my knees again, screaming, and begging my unseen tormentor - it was always humiliating, and always in vain. There was never a night when I was spared that particular nightmare but today it felt more demeaning than ever. I thought about asking Chyil for some lotus but then decided against it. If I had to go through this every night, the least I could do was to face it like a man.
My coif was at the very bottom of the basket, crumpled into a tight bloody ball of fabric. I pulled it out, looking at it in disgust and wondering if it still could be salvaged. The cords that had laced it at the front were slashed irreparably, but I could ask Chyil for more string. The blood had already crusted into ugly, dark-brown stains.
Earlier that day, Chyil had healed my cut fingers with a minor enchantment, so there was nothing left to remind me of my midday adventure except this dirty piece of cloth. I thought about cleaning it, and something odd had happened as my fingers moved of their own accord and my lips whispered a string of strange syllables. There was a brief flash of pale light. I jumped to my feet looking at the discarded coif as if it was a black scorpion. Nothing moved in the little garden, but a gust of wind suddenly rushed through the gnarled tree branches, bringing a shower of dry leaves and empty seed skins on my head. I picked up the hood and carefully straightened it in my hands - the stains were gone. Old grayed cambric was as clean and neat as it would ever be.
Somebody coughed behind my back. I spun around crumbling the cloth into a ball again. Chyil was standing there smiling, looking pleased with himself.
"So, you've finally started to remember things," he nodded at the coif in my hands. "I saw you do it, there is no need to deny that you can cast magic cantrips. Ever since Lazarus told me about the enormous arcane potential that he sensed in you, I was wondering when it was going to manifest. It is dangerous to deny these things in yourself, you know," he added mildly. "You cannot foresee what will happen next. It maybe innocent enough like this minor cleaning spell, or you may bring the house down on our heads in your sleep."
"Does it mean you want me to leave this place?" I mumbled looking at him in distress. "Do you believe I am some sort of a sorcerer with no control over my abilities?"
"There is no way of telling what you are, Jon." Chyil answered after a short pause, "or what you had been before. I see you as a tormented soul that needs my help, and you can stay here as long as you wish. All I ask is that you make a conscious effort to remember. And the best way to start is to try restoring your magic abilities."
"So, what do you want of me?" I asked defiantly. "I have no idea how I did that," I pointed at the cloth in my fingers. "And if you asked me to repeat it, I would not even know were to start."
"Oh, this is easy enough," the old man smiled. "Wait here. I want you to have a look at something."
He disappeared into the temple, and came back a few moments later carrying a small sack of cloth that I recognized as Lazarus's parting gift. Chyil pulled the strings open and produced a small leather-bound book and a few scrolls, neatly tied together with a red woolen thread. I accepted the book hesitantly, briefly shaking my head at the offered scrolls. It was almost empty – a black, leather-bound octavo of pearly-white paper, with a few front pages filled in Lazarus's spider-like script. I looked at the handwriting and it blurred before my eyes, as I recognized it for what it was - neatly written incantations of many minor cantrips.
Something snapped inside me then, and a spell of darkness fell over my eyes. The book dropped out of my numb fingers. "No," I whispered, "you cannot ask me to do this, no please, no. Leave me alone, don't make me go through this again I beg you!"
When I regained consciousness I was curled into a tight ball of quivering flesh, and Chyil was pouring another one of his concoctions down my throat. For a cleric of a major deity like Waukeen, he was strangely attached to those herbal remedies, as if he thought that his goddess should not be bothered when the herbs would do.
"I apologize for my persistence, Jon," he said timidly. "It was only because you were making such good progress today... I forgot how bad it could be. If you don't feel ready for this, than you probably are not."