30 of Eleint 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
My head was pounding with another ghastly headache, and the way in which Mirriam roused me did not elude me for a second for my cheek was still stinging from her slap. I pretended to be still half-asleep yet inwardly I was seething with cold anger.
"Your brother is not as smart as he wanted me to believe," I told her stifling a pretend yawn. "Unfortunate, but hardly a reason to wake me up in this unseemly manner. That ruined temple I passed on my way out looked like a very nasty place. I doubt he will make it past the gates. Did he at least leave you some supplies?"
I looked around noticing for the first time their desert-bred pony, which during the night was tethered further down the gulch they were camping in. Now it was standing next to the cold embers of the campfire. The animal gave me a dirty look, and continued to graze melancholically on whatever meager scraps it could snatch from its closest vicinity. It was a piebald - ruddy brown beast with irregular white spots splashed across its shaggy coat. A few well-stuffed saddlebags and packs lie nearby.
"See," I nodded at the pile. "He left you the horse and plenty of provisions. I don't see a reason to "
I was lucky enough to raise my eyes and have a good look at her expression. Mirri's little fists were clutched in tight balls, and I was positive one or both of them would have landed on my jaw if I did not jump to my feet and make a grab for her hands first.
"Let me go, you, spawn of a viper and a graveyard rat!" She cried in fury, trying to wriggle out of my grasp. That was followed by an explosion of more eloquent curses in animated Alzhedo, half of which I did not even understand.
Coincidentally, my treatment by the water elemental made me much stronger and able-bodied. I was able to restrain her hands with ease that surprised me.
"Now, go easy on your adjectives," I muttered taking a firmer grip on both of her wrists with one of mine, and grabbing for her long, snake-like braid with another. Achieving that later goal, and wrapping part of its thick glossy length around my palm, I smiled coldly at her furious expression. "I will let you go the moment you promise to sit down and count to twenty before doing anything foolish."
My sneer was a little excessive, I realized belatedly, for the fires that burned in her eyes now could have incinerated me into ashes.
"You are lucky I do not have a knife handy!" the girl hissed like a cat. "I would have carved you another smile right across your windpipe!"
"Feisty, aren't we?" I asked mockingly tugging at her hair a little. "Now try to take control of your temper, and tell me exactly what do you want of me?"
Mirriam stared at me fiercely. "You had spent a night at our fire and ate our bread. And you dare ask me what is it I want of you?"
"Oh, I know that the desert law of hospitality works both ways," I answered calmly. Indeed, Chyil was very proud explaining me the basics of nomadic code of honor. "But you can hardly ask me to rescue your brother from something that did not attack us first. He had left on his own volition, because he thought he could do better for himself if he goes there alone. I cannot possibly escort you back to Amkethran, it is too dangerous for both of us, so I suggest we wait for him here and if he does not show up by nightfall, we will make it to the other closest human settlement where you can start looking for help."
I shrugged still holding her gaze, and watching for signs of another explosion. Mirri stirred slightly in my hands and went limp. Satisfied with her reaction, I lightened my grip but stayed alert. I decided she could use a bit of cold logic. "Don't worry he will be back by night time if he would not get lost in the desert. Which I believe he won't, since you are both natives." (I suppose it sounded a bit patronizing but it was true nonetheless.) "There is no way the boy would find his way to the Heart of Water without my help, and I am not going to give it to him - of that you may be sure."
"You don't know him that well," she muttered absently, "he is the best damned tracker this side of the Marching Mountains. Father schooled him to be the heir for his smuggling operation, and made sure he had the best trainers, both as a swordsman, and a ranger. Kes was always a scoundrel, a lazy head, and a rake - that was why Farheed won the father's gang over so easily! But if there is anything he is good at, it is tracking. He can chase an eagle's shadow across the high desert if he puts his mind to it." I noticed that Mirri spoke with a great deal of pride and affection even when berating her wayward sibling.
"That makes things a little more complicated," I released her, and took a quick step back. The girl glanced at me gloomily, but did not make any move so I relaxed, feeling little more at ease. She looked at her toes obviously in a deep and troubled thought. "If he finds his way to the ruined temple I hope he will have enough sense not to enter. As for the Heart of Water let's just say that I don't believe he will find anything there. When I left the place I had an impression the weird went back to sleep for another decade or so."
"If I know anything about my brother it is that he is persistent as a Calimshite itch," Mirriam cringed. "He won't stop until he upturns every stone of that temple looking for treasure."
She stopped, and gave me a strange look. All of a sudden, I had a curious feeling that she was appraising me as a horse she was about to buy. For a moment, her eyes looked very much like her brother's when he talked about missed opportunities. Then her expression changed dramatically, and she gave me a little sympathetic smile. "I know I cannot blame you, Jon-Jon. Chyil told me all about your condition. If you can not remember your own name "
"What exactly did he tell you?" I suddenly felt a wave of heat rising to my cheeks, and queasiness in my stomach, even as my fingers went cold as icicles. If he by any chance told her about my nightmares, and my shameful fits of uncontrollable weeping - I was lost. I could not live with her knowing about those. "I would probably kill her if she knows," the thought was frightening and yet almost plausible.
"Oh, everything," she sniffed not looking me in the eye. I was grateful at least for this little mercy. "How they left you in his care, barely alive; and how when you woke up you could not even recognize your own face in the mirror. And that you still don't know what your real name is."
"He had no right to talk about these things!" It was my turn to explode. I could feel my hands shaking, and hid them in the sleeves of my green aba.
"But you see, Jon-Jon, he thought you were dead," Mirri pleaded in a small voice, lowering her eyes. Yet, I could not dismiss the feeling that she was watching my reaction from under those long dark lashes. "He was totally devastated when you left, and when I came over he was so glad to have somebody with whom he could speak about you."
I could hear myself growling like a sick dog. The idea of her knowing all these intimate details about me was unbearable. I looked at her hatefully, and noticed to my further horror that she was nodding kindly at my clenched fists, and outraged expression. If she laughed at me, I would have gone insane but this reaction was almost worse. Now I was considered an object of pitying contempt, a patient for a mental asylum or worse.
"I can understand why you cannot help me look for Kes," she continued sorrowfully. "Surely, your own troubles are worse than mine, and I cannot ask you to risk yourself when you don't even know who you are. Your family maybe still looking for you somewhere out there."
That was the last straw that broke the back of the camel.
"Enough of this nonsense!" I realized I was clenching and unclenching my fists inside my sleeves, and dug the nails into the palms of my hands to stop the involuntary twitching.
I could not contain my temper any longer, and the outrage of the situation nearly struck me numb. Similarly, I could not refuse her foolish and dangerous quest, since this would confirm her expressed opinion that I was a worthless nothing, not capable of any decisive action. Call it a stupid masculine pride - but she had me firmly trapped. Worst of all, I knew that she was playing me like a violin, but trying to accuse her of deliberate manipulation would only bring another innocent smile to her face, and a stream of useless reassurances that she 'did not mean it at all'. I did not feel any affection for her, neither I was particularly impressed with her childish crush on me. But the idea of walking away, leaving her looking at my back with that little smile of compassion and gentle understanding was worse than burning alive. Her eyes would follow me to the edge of the desert, and further into the world, and I would never be free of that mild sympathetic gaze.
"You better start packing," I finally snarled through the clenched teeth. "The faster we move the better our chances will be at catching him before he reaches the temple grounds!"
"You, will go with me?" This time the smile that lit up her face was almost worth the effort. Almost, but not quite yet.
The girl was ready in no time, which convinced me she had made most of her preparations before actually waking me up. Was she confident that I would go with her at her first request or was it a risky but clever gamble? Did she think me that easy to manipulate? I did not really wish to know but the thought was disturbing. I kept silent and morose, despite Mirri's obvious effort to lighten the mood by being exceedingly nice to me and making us breakfast. We ate some bread and crumbling salty goat cheese, and finished the half-squashed raisins I remembered to dig out of my belt-pouch, washing it all down with ubiquitous green tea. It did alleviate thirst much better than simple water, and cleared my mind of frustrating morning grogginess. I could clearly see now how easily she tricked me into agreeing to search for her brother, and resented her base feminine cunning. Nonetheless, something inside me made me cling to my given word, as it was one of a few traits I considered fundamental to my nature. I knew I never gave any promises I did not intend to keep, and losing yet another part of myself to the wiles of human female was out of question.
The way back to the rocky hills that hid the legendary oasis was long and aggravating, since I had to search for the landmarks I only saw once and that in the deep of night. Mirriam was not much of a help as her most useful qualities were her quick fingers and lightness of feet - features much appreciated in a good thief but hardly useful in the midst of a wilderness. Yet, even as she trod along leading the pony on a rope, she managed to impress me a few times by spotting a broken limb on a withered tree here, or an upturned stone there, that clearly marked her brother's progress towards his target.
"Either he wanted us to catch up with him quickly," the girl mused after a while, "or he was not sure he could find his way back without these marks, which I don't believe for a moment. Arrogant of him to assume we would follow."
"I sincerely hope you did not plan this together," I snapped back at her. "If I would find out it was indeed the case, you both are going to be very sorry."
"I would have stopped him if I knew!" she cried out in frustration. "Kes never asked for my opinion, even though he knew he could not pull it off alone. I am going to box his ears for this when we find him!"
"Assuming there will be anything left of him to box," I muttered darkly closing the conversation.
Oddly enough, I believed her. Mirri was too impulsive and emotional, and I was sure that Kessen did not rely on her to keep his secret since last night she was so unsettled by my return from the dead. I was puzzled by that, as I perceived her sensitivity as a serious weakness in the girl's character. How can one smart enough to force me into unwilling cooperation nurture any feelings for a virtual stranger with no memories and unclear past, one who was not even of her race? The humans were strange beings, I thought with the deeply buried elven portion of my mind that surfaced without any effort on my part. Ironically, this time I had no trouble separating myself from the humankind. I suppose it was the first time I truly admitted I was not one of them. I wondered if I could exploit Mirriam's strange infatuation with me to my advantage. I could see that on a deeper level the twins shared the quickness of mind and remarkable wiliness. Having her under my control during our quick sojourn sounded like a good idea. Not that I planned to attach myself to the twins for long ... but Aluril's prophesy bothered me more than I was willing to acknowledge. It maybe useful to have some influence over the girl I decided finally, looking at her in a more interested way.
"You are no longer mad at me?" Mirri noticed immediately.
"Why should I be," I answered with a mild attempt at courtesy. "You were only doing what you considered necessary to engage my cooperation in finding your brother. I cannot say I appreciate the way you achieved your goal, but what's done is done. I may as well try to be gracious about it."
"So, are we playing that old game again?" she suddenly giggled like a little girl. "You forgive me - you forgive me not! You know Jon-Jon, for a grown up man, or be it an elf, you behave very childishly, whatever you say about your age! Chyil told me you maybe over a hundred years old, as it is the age when elves enter their adulthood. Is it really so?"
"If he told you that much it maybe right," I answered with a shrug. "As for me I have no idea how old I am, and what does it mean. I have never met another elf in my life. Which is not surprising, since I can only remember myself as an entity for about three or four months."
There was a short silence. Then, "I am sorry, Jon-Jon," she replied in a timid voice. "I guess... I should not have asked."
I cringed but then remembered my new disposition, and swallowed the curt remark. "Make nothing of it. Your curiosity is understandable. But I would rather not talk about it if you excuse me."
For a while, we traveled in a blessed silence. The only sounds following our progress through the low dunes and fields of red clay were the endless song of the sand, the rhythmic trot of pony's hooves, and the slapping of our sandals on the hard soil. Nonetheless, in less than an hour Mirri recovered enough aplomb to start prying again. I decided that the woman's curiosity was an insatiable beast that needed constant feeding but refused to give up any private information as a fodder to that monster, even for the sake of securing her loyalty. As result, the conversation was limited to an endless flow of her questions, and a string of my evasive answers. By the time we have reached the trail that led into the forest of stone columns, I was eager for any sort of distraction from that continuous nagging. I gathered the events that followed were in part an answer to those imprudent prayers.
The stone grove was silent in the purple twilight, looming over our heads like a memory of a burnt skeletal forest from one of my nastier dreams. We had traveled for the whole day, and now the darkness was falling fast. Black silhouettes of hundreds of stone needles crisscrossed the path at our feet crawling slowly forward to entangle our own shadows in their shifting net. The familiar skull grinned at me from its perch below the carved pillar, and I thought that it must have laughed its eyes out at my return. I had the feeling it knew I would be back, maybe to join it here for eternity.
"Jon-Jon," Mirri's voice was trembling just a little as she pulled at my sleeve, "is this the place?"
"I do believe it serves as a sort of a purgatory," I answered coolly. She had vexed me again with her silly conversation, and now I was in the mood to retaliate. "When we pass through the garden of stone pillars we will find ourselves at the gates of the compound. The question is, should we go ahead and look for Kessen in the dark, or should we wait here until morning? And since you've self-appointed yourself a leader of this expedition I leave the decision to you."
She exhaled deeply and I saw her eyes flash heatedly in the semi-darkness. It was a better reaction than helpless whimpering that I anticipated.
"Fine," she hissed, taking her hand away from mine and tugging at her braid. "Be your arrogant elven self if you like! But if you are giving me the authority you shall follow my commands."
"I sure will," I replied with a sneer. "It may be even amusing. Unless you tell me to go through the front gates and demand return of your foolish brother from whatever is lurking within."
"We have no proof he is even here," Mirriam responded reasonably. "He may have followed your example and tried to loop around the ruins to follow the trail on the other side. But I suspect his goal was not the oracle and its pool but this very place. The legend of the Heart of Water tells of a throne carved of a whole emerald, upon which sits a statue of pure silver that comes alive to answer any of your three questions." She looked at me skeptically. Now I could only see the whites of her eyes gleaming like eggshells in the thickening darkness.
"I saw nothing of a kind," I chuckled dryly. "The elemental was alive, if you need to know. And she is the creature of water, not of hard cold metal. As for her answers to my questions ... I wish I never had to learn these."
"Did you ask her about your true name?" she asked suddenly.
"Why do you wish to know?"
"I would like to call you by your real name, if possible."
"No, she did not." I lied easily. The last thing I wanted was to share the hexed name of the dead mage with her. "She did not know it herself."
"What did she tell you then?"
"That I need to find an elven city called Evereska before the Winter Solstice, or it shall be destroyed, and I will die soon afterwards."
"But the Solstice is barely ten weeks away! How are you ever going to make it?"
"Perhaps she was mistaken ... or perhaps I shall die in three months time. Why would this be a concern of yours?"
"Because ... because it does not feel right that you shall die without even learning who you truly are!"
"Maybe I don't wish to know. Stop this nonsense already. This is no place, nor time for discussing such things. We need to worry about tonight not what may happen in three months time."
"You are right, but don't you think you should at least give it a thought? Father used to bring maps and old travel logs home, and store them in my room. When I was little, I liked to look over his shoulder when he sorted these, and he taught me how to read his charts even before I learned my letters. There is a fat roll of old maps in Henna's saddlebags." She slapped the pony on the side and it whinnied affectionately at her touch. "They cover most of the Faerun. After we find Kes, we shall have a look at these together."
"I doubt it will be of any help, but why not? Still, I suggest that you concentrate on our short-term plan of action for now."
I was a little confused by the whole conversation. What possessed me to tell her about Evereska? The atmosphere of danger that was palpable like a heavy smoke hanging in the air? The momentary spell of fatalism? The feeling I would not live through the night to tell that wild tale to anyone else? Anyhow, the words were out of my mouth, and now I would have to live with the consequences. I would think about it tomorrow - I decided quickly, if there will be a tomorrow in store for both of us.
We moved like ghosts through the thick garden of stone shadows, leading the pony behind us. Somewhere in the middle of this journey Mirriam stopped to wrap the animal's hooves with rags, and this made our progress even more of a bizarre dream for now I could not hear anything but my uneven breath and quiet sloshing of liquid in the waterskins. The moon rose above the improbable stone grove like a pale lantern of the gods throwing its silvery glamour over the strange landscape of twisted pinnacles.
"You will never make a good thief Jon-Jon, you are too bright for your own good," Mirriam suddenly whispered with a slight giggle. "Take this."
Her hand found mine again, offering a crumbled ball of cloth that upon close inspection proved to be a loose hood of some dark material. I cringed but put it on. She was right - when the moonlight reflected off my hair, it did look like a flash of polished silver. After almost a week without wearing a coif it felt strange to have my head covered again. I realized I felt better without it, and wondered if all these precautions were worth taking. The complex looked abandoned to me on my first passage.
But when we finally reached the last row of the stone pillars, and emerged onto the field that separated the grove from the outer wall of the compound, I realized she was right. Through the yawning gap that was once an opening of the central gate we saw an orange light of a bonfire that was burning brightly in front of the tallest, many-columned building crowned with an onion-shaped dome.
"I think we should leave the horse here," she said quietly. "I shall tether Henna only slightly, so that she can untie herself if we never come back for her."
"Ridiculous plan. What if she wanders off before we return?"
"I do not want to die worrying about her perishing from thirst and hunger in this place of stones."
"Remarkable optimism on your part."
"Better than your cold-blooded, rational callousness!"
"I wish you would leave me outside to keep her company, instead of dragging after you into this mess. But I guess risking my hide for your brother's sake is fine, whereas the horse deserves a few tears."
"Are trying to wiggle out of it in the last moment?"
"Ah, now I am a coward on top of being a callous rationalist. I did not say I am not going to follow you, merely pointed out that your worry about the stupid horse is preposterous."
"She is not stupid. She is mine, and I am going to take care of her as I am going to take care of you in case you will get in trouble."
"I am not your horse."
"Too bad, Jon-Jon. You would have been in much better shape if you were. Now, can you please shut up and watch the building while I take care of Henna?"
That last remark left me speechless at its brazen naiveté. But while I was trying to come up with an answer that would not have a double meaning, she disappeared in the darkness, leaving me standing there with my mouth still open.
As I stood there seething in frustration, the humor of the situation suddenly dawned on me. Here I was, in the middle of the desert, bickering with an eighteen-year-old human girl, and even now trying to contemplate how to best her in the game of insults. It was ridiculous at the least, and surely not worth my time. Yet it was a pleasing activity, even in the face of the looming danger. I shrugged, dismissing the silly thought.
Mirriam was wearing a loose pair of silken trousers and a flimsy vest - her usual attire that she put on this morning. But at least this time it was in soft dark-brown tones that blended nicely with night colors of the desert. In a few minutes, she reappeared like a ghost, carrying an armful of equipment that included weapons, ropes, soft-skin boots and gloves, a hood of brown silk with eye-slits to cover her face, a set of strange instruments that looked like tools of a gnome mechanic, and various other accoutrement of her profession.
"What? Why do you look at me like I suddenly grew a second head or a tail?" She hissed in irritation at my stare. "Do you think I am a swooning, good-for-nothing sissy?"
"Not exactly. But I never thought you would be so..."
"Efficient? Qualified in my trade? Father used to say that a clumsy, inexpert thief is a dead one. I spent a year in training with his best professionals in Memnon. But then the Bhaalspawn war started, and Ma asked him to bring me home. Do you have any weapons?"
"A knife." I showed her Ferheed's jambiya strapped to my belt.
"Can you use a bow? I heard elves are proficient with ranged weapons."
"Never held one in my hands as far as I know. But one can always try." I shook my head with a wry smile.
"Hmm, I am afraid we have no time to test your skills in archery. Give me your knife." She took the jambiya and touched the edge with her nail muttering to herself. "Fine steel but only good for cutting cheese. I shall give you something better, Jon-Jon. Here, take this."
She offered me a black leather sheath with a slim straight blade that was too short to be considered a sword but long enough to reach man's heart in a single stroke. As I pulled the dagger out of its scabbard, I saw a faint shimmer of blue fire playing across its blade. The hilt was perfectly balanced and filigreed with silver wire that was pleated intricately and hammered in to form an image of a sleeping griffon. The pommel was decorated with a polished stone of deep amber tone spangled throughout with scales of orange mica. My palm held the dagger in a firm grip, and I found the sense of familiarity with the bladed weapon slightly disturbing. Oh, my hand knew how to wield a knife. Surely, I was an expert in using these.
"It is an unusual blade," I finally broke the spell forcing my eyes away from its sharp edge.
"Yes, it is enchanted," Mirri nodded her confirmation. "It can break through the weaker sorts of magic protections, and even harm creatures that are not fully of this plane. Father had this one hidden in his private stash. Not much of a weapon for me but better than your old knife." She offered me the jambiya back.
"It was not even mine," I answered with a shrug accepting it back, and fastening both of the weapons to my belt, "your prospective husband wanted to trim my ears with it."
"Ah," the heat on her cheeks was tangible even in the clinging darkness. "You've made a fine job of teaching him not to mess with a wizard, even a fledgling one, Jon-Jon. I think he will be twitching at the sight of a mage for the rest of his natural life." The girl giggled softly, and I could not refrain from answering with a chuckle of my own.
"What about your spells?" she continued in a business-like voice. "Can you cast anything useful tonight?"
"A few magic missiles and sleep incantations would not make much of a difference," I answered softly.
The misery that I felt every time when I thought about the loss of my magic was only more profound when it came to walking into unknown danger without it. Now that I learned of my deficiencies, I wondered if I was not better off without this burden of devastating knowledge. The gaping void in my mind matched only that in my heart; and my human soul devoid of its connection to the Elven Spirit was no replacement for my lost elven one, of that I was now certain. I could not say which loss was more painful but it hurt even to think of it.
"Your magic can mean a difference between life and death for us." Mirri said pointedly.
"Let's hope so," I shrugged off the sense of hopelessness. "What is your plan?"
"I shall leave you at the outer wall, and sneak in to investigate the origins of that fire. If it is Kes, I shall come back for you. If it is not him ...I guess I will decide what to do when it comes to it. In any case - do not make any move until I return! The way you walk around with your head in the clouds I can spot you approaching from two miles away, even with your funny hair covered, as you are as stealthy as ... as an elephant in a china shop." She shook her head slightly. I could not see her face in the dark but I could bet she was smiling. "You are not cut out for sneaking around, Jon-Jon."
"So, I am not," I muttered in response. "Not everybody should spend their lives crawling around on their belly like so much of a worm."
"Ah, and I thought for a moment you were sick or something as I have not heard a single insult from your mouth for the whole ten minutes. Now please stay silent and follow."
That lovely exchange was the last words we had for each other. After that, we came too close to the wall to talk, and could only use hand signs. A once magnificent gateway to the temple grounds now lied in shambles, as its grand ornamented arch decorated with sculpture was shattered, and the massive bronze doors were torn from their hinges and smashed into pieces, probably by the past earthquake. The wall itself was in equally ruined state. Mirri gave me a brief smile and a quick squeeze of her hand on mine before lowering the silken mask over her face, and slipping quietly inside the fenced perimeter. I noticed that she had a small sword strapped to her hip and a curved shortbow at her back, and hoped that she can use these weapons as proficiently as she boasted. It was in my best interest to see her return safely after all.
The time began to drag slowly after that. I settled into my favorite meditation pose, sitting cross-legged on the ground, and tried to concentrate on the small things like shifting of the moon shadows on the field littered with shards of stone and mortar. These served me as improvised chronometers, though one can hardly imagine measuring time reliably using unstable pattern of Selune's travel across the night skies of Faerun. It had to be attuned every hundred miles or so, I thought musingly, beginning to assemble in my mind a matrix of adjustments that can be applied to the shadow's lengths in different time zones. Then the futility of that task overwhelmed my interest, and all of a sudden I realized that I knew exactly what numbers should be used for the speed of Toril's and Selune's rotation, and the lengths of their respective equators.
This knowledge bothered me deeply. I knew these obscure facts with startling certainty but I could not recall anything of my past, or of the magic that I used to drain the lifeforce of the Tree. The ease with which I now accepted the responsibility for that act was remarkable, and I decided the weird was right - I knew it all along. Yet, I could not feel any guilt for that past 'crime', only curiosity mixed with disappointment at my failure. It was frightening, yet it made me feel complete in a sense, as it explained the void in my soul and the drainage of my mind. I remembered my other dream, the one about the young elf speaking with dying elven woman. The implications of that nightmare were so horrendous that I quickly shut off the whole experience. Mine was a fitting punishment, I thought absently as if of someone else. Whoever did it was a subtle genius of prolonged torture, yet did it bring any closure to them? And why would the gods bother giving me a human soul, and dumping me in the middle of nowhere to fend for myself? What was more important - what had happened in-between? There should have been something... Aluril mentioned almost a century of that soulless existence.
Questions, questions. I chuckled at the thought of their futility in the face of tonight's adventure. Hopefully the girl would find her twin and bring him back soon. If not ... I was not sure what to do. I thought of my current pitiful magic capacity, going over the few spells I could rely on, turning them over in my mind and caressing them like wayward children or beloved pets that were lost but now found their way home. By the time I was done with that, the shadows indicated that almost three hours had passed since Mirri's departure. The fire in front of the domed building went off some time ago but I did not hear any commotion caused by her possible encounter with the complex inhabitants, though at one time I could swear I heard something like distant chanting accompanied by music. I suddenly grew restless and angry at her procrastination. What was she doing out there? I did not expect her reconnaissance mission to take so long. I rose to my feet, making a few quick strides to restore the circulation, and looked at the sky. The silver fish of the moon had swum into the thick curtain of clouds, throwing me completely off track in my time count. That made me even angrier. Mirriam has been away for too long now for it to be treated as natural delay.
"What would you expect from a foolhardy human child with overdeveloped imagination?" I thought grimly. She had probably lost her way, and is stumbling around in the dark without purpose, or felt into a hidden hole and broke a leg. Thinking about it made me strangely uncomfortable. What was I supposed to do - stay out here until sunrise, or follow her inside with my handful of weak spells and cantrips? The later choice was madness incarnate, and yet I knew I would have to do it for it was the only way I could continue to cling to the remains of my identity. Whatever I was in my past - I was never a coward. And what was more important, I could never allow anybody to suspect me of being one. That left me with a very few options to consider. I could not possibly hope to approach the place undetected. Mirri was right - my sneaking skill was non-existent for any practical purpose. Therefore, I would have to gamble, and relay on my skill of persuasion if the encounter would turn violent. I still had no idea what I faced, but the presence of fire made me somewhat less troubled. After all, insentient creatures or the undead would not have started one.
I contemplated my next move for a minute or so, then shrugged and removed the hood that covered my head, dropping it to the ground under my feet. It won't matter if they see me a little earlier but the night breeze in my loose hair made me feel a free man, not a puppet of my strange destiny. I could hear the echo of my steps on the dusty tiles of the pavement as I approached the central building in a slow steady pace. The giant multi-pillared structure loomed above my head like skeletal remains of a dead leviathan marooned amid the dry sands by some unlucky turn of fate. The ambers of the bonfire still glowed slightly on the tall marble steps. In the failing light of the moon, I could discern the statues of feminine-shaped elementals and bizarre water creatures on both sides of the staircase. Most of the statuary was missing limbs, heads, or other important parts of their anatomy.
Upon coming closer, I saw a few dark figures sprawled around the remains of the fire that looked vaguely human, and smelled the reek of cheap alcohol in the air. The man closest to me tried to open his heavy lids at my approach, and mumbled something hardly comprehensible, then fell back waving me through. I noticed that his companion was a skinny female, half-naked and badly used by the sight of her. They all looked starved and neglected, their clothes in tatters, their limbs dried and covered in bleeding sores. Yet, the expression on all of the faces was that of a blissful ecstasy. I wondered at the case for their celebration, and if their strange party was going on all night.
"Who comes here? I ask thee by the holy name of the blessed Zaureen?" A dry whisper from the cracked lips of a woman. She grinned at me with her skeletal face, showing two rows of black, rotting teeth.
"Who are you?" I replied cautiously, trying to sound casual. "I am a stranger to this place. And who is the blessed Zaureen?"
"I am Chloe," the woman whispered feebly. "But my name is of no importance to you. I see you have not yet been touched by her hallowed hand, stranger! Welcome to the holy enclave dedicated to her glory. Blessed Zaureen is our beloved leader, the shining star of our lives, the holy prophetess of spiritual delights and sacred pleasures of flesh, the one of the enthralling touch, the joy-bringer, who can grant us the paradise of her glorious presence on this plane without need to travel to the remote and chilly fields of Elysium!"
"Sounds like a fantastic perspective to me, my good woman." I hoped that the heavy sarcasm dripping from my voice was not too obvious, but the pathetic creature could not recognize the irony in her delirium, even if it was pointed to her.
She giggled and waved her bird-like hand at me. Her dry whisper ended in a long, terrible spell of coughing, but she seemed to be oblivious to her condition, even though the glob that she spat on the pale marble was dark congealed blood.
"Hurry stranger. Hurry to join the blessed Zaureen at her palace of heavenly delights!"
I inspected her closely, trying not to gag at the terrible stench emanating from her body. The woman was dying from dehydration, hunger, and a bouquet of various deadly diseases. Still, she looked happy and content with her fate, though I wondered briefly if the 'blessed Zaureen' was draining her followers of their mental capacity as well as of their health. Were they under a permanent feeblemind enchantment? I knew it was possible to put a subject under all sorts of Geas but it was a very difficult and time-consuming spell, hardly practical to use on the group of followers. I shrugged, dismissing sudden chill that run down my spine. Could I be as easily reduced to the state of mindless servitude? This Zaureen sounded like a very ingenious person. Was she a mage or a priest of some obscure deity?
"Tell me, Chloe, the blessed Zaureen, is she a servant of some god?"
"The blessed Zaureen serves nobody! She was brought into this world to be the bright beacon that enlightens and guides our lives! Hurry stranger. Don't waste your time on this lowly one, but hasten to partake of the pleasures that only her divine presence can bring to your soul. Join in the sweet chorus that sings adulations to the blessed Zaureen!"
I wondered briefly, what had happened to the twins. Were they both prisoners
of the strange cult or were they forced to join it? The implication was clear
- in order to find out I had to go inside and talk to the 'prophetess'. I ground
my teeth, and mounted the steps with a speed of a lame tortoise, forcing my
feet to move over the doorstep with pure force of will. Thousands of unasked
questions buzzed in my mind, filling it with murmur of anxiety, and other feeling
that I refused to recognize for what it was. For the first time since I remembered
myself, I was sickeningly afraid of what awaited inside.