Highharvestide 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
The spacious antechamber was hollow and dark as my reluctant steps ringed across its shadowed expanse, but straight ahead of me, I could see a bright spill of light coming from a half-opened door of the inner sanctum. The hall smelled slightly of burnt cinnamon and other exotic incenses. A low throbbing sound of a bronze gong reverberated at a distance, and was smothered by a slow enchanting melody played on a string instrument. The music was quite lovely, and the fragrance made my head dizzy with its exquisite sensual note. It was an astonishing contrast to the pitiful, debauched party of half-starved derelicts that was going on outside.
I walked forward, feeling my heart beating painfully in my chest. Halfway through the hall I saw two veiled figures of the guards stationed at both sides of the door. These were young native men, dressed in white aba, and carrying short spears and light leather shields of the local nomads. Their faces were haggard and worn, and the same feverish light of rapturous joy burned in their kohled eyes as was imprinted in the twisted features of the sick woman outside. Seeing me approach, did not change their silent disposition but I saw their grip tighten on the shafts of the javelins.
"Welcome, stranger," I whirled around to perceive a small round shape of a halfling, swathed in green silk, that was smiling at me from my knee level. I could not decide if it was a male or female for its face was smooth as that of a baby, same as its bald skull, pale as a giant egg and covered with tiny beads of perspiration. The face itself was a pallid mask covered with many small wrinkles that made an overall impression of a clump of dough left to settle and dry in multitude of uncanny patterns. Yet, this strange apparition was not menacing or threatening in any way. The figure nodded and smiled at me, stretching the edges of its lipless mouth into a smirk befitting a giant lizard. "Welcome to the house of the blessed Zaureen. Our gracious lady was expecting you tonight. I was sent to fetch as soon as you would show up."
I closed my eyelids briefly. So, I was expected. It meant that both of the children were now in the hands of this ‘blessed Zaureen’.
"Lead the way."
A brief nod sent the smiling, simpering creature through the doors. As I entered the brightly lit, scented chambers following the small jiggling figure, my excitement reached its highest peak and ... vanished. My mind became clear, my breathing steadied. I instantly felt embarrassed at the commotion that my hasty decision to come after Mirri had caused here. What was my problem with these people anyway? So, the twins had disappeared. Did they not have minds of their own? Was it really my call to ask what happened to them? After all – we were virtually strangers to each other. They were nothing to me. I owed them no loyalty. As for the appalling orgy outside, was not the woman happy? Why would I bother anybody over something as unimportant as my unsatisfied curiosity? It was too late to turn back but since I was here already, I could at least apologize to the hostess before going on my way!
Fortunately for me, she seemed quite pleased with my boorish intrusion as she half-rose from the silk cushions of her gilded chair, beckoning me to come closer. It was really more of a throne than a seat, placed strategically on the low dais at the very end of the oval room that in the past served as the temple’s main sanctuary. I obliged, smiling politely, and raised my eyes to meet hers. My breath went out in a single slow exhalation, and my heart lurched from sudden joy of simply meeting her sympathetic gaze. Zaureen was a slender human woman in her mid-thirties, with perfect pale complexion smooth as fresh cream, eyes of deep luminous gray, and a wave of dark hair already touched with silver, that was cropped short to her shoulders. And yet, she was the most stunning creature I ever met. She was not beautiful in a conventional way. Not a like a lavish courtesan spending her days inventing new exciting ways to capture man’s imagination, nor like an angel-like fairy maiden of my long-forgotten dreams as a youth. Her forms were not voluptuous or frail, neither were they exposed in the most alluring, pleasing way, or covered "modestly" leaving your mind to do all the titillating work.
She was as simple and gracious as natural phenomena, such as a rainbow over the waterfall, high in the snow-covered mountains, or an emerald depth of ocean water, simmering under the hot sun of summer afternoon. Her face was breathtaking and poignant almost to the point of weeping. One’s mind could hardly bear the intensity of that stare as her velvet gray eyes looked deep into you, perceiving and kindly accepting every ugly detail of your past, and every grave sin pressing heavily on your soul. Her dress was equally natural and elegant. A simple pleated gown of shimmering white material was perfect on her as it was obviously selected to accentuate the exquisite spirituality of her face. Her only pieces of jewelry were a long rope of uncut emeralds, wrapped casually around her pale throat, and a matching set of gold earrings with green stones, swinging teasingly in her delicate round ears. I almost wept at my own inadequacy before this perfection of womanly wisdom and grace.
"I am pleased to meet you, my elven friend."
Listening to that voice was like drinking from a golden chalice brimming over with honeymead. It was rich and sweet, leaving your ears ring with an aftertaste of its melody, like the fruity fragrance that fills your mouth after a first sip.
"The pleasure is all mine, esteemed Zaureen."
"Ah, so you already know my name! I am pleased." the woman smiled her perfect golden smile at me. "I am afraid I am at a disadvantage here. Although the little ones did tell me how they address you, I am afraid it is not what you call yourself, as the name they gave was a human one. Will you share your true name with me, fair one? I would cherish it as a sign of trust and proffered friendship."
I was ready to give the elven mage’s name to her against my deepest aversion to it but something moved at her feet, offering me a momentary distraction that broke the spell of her voice. I turned my head slightly, chuckling at the amusing sight that Mirriam presented in her new outfit of jingling golden chains and flimsy strips of silk. The girl smiled back at me, obviously pleased at my notice. Her bronze skin glistened in the warm glow of many oil lanterns that filled the chamber with flood of amber light. I had to admit that the young thief looked highly provocative in the two-piece costume that did not cover much of her bosom, and offered a perfect view of her shapely thighs when she moved. For some reason it bothered me slightly. Wasn’t Zaureen perfectly right to select this new attire for her young charge?
Mirri’s long braid was undone, and her sable hair spilled down in silken waves, framing her pretty face in the most charming way. I noticed that her lips were touched with carmine, and her eyes kohled to give them more expression. I though it was a bit excessive, for the girl now looked like an expensive toy, or a little concubine of some oriental tyrant. Silly of me to assume she would have disliked to be treated in this manner! Here she was – perfectly happy with her new position at the feet of Zaureen’s cushioned throne. On the other side of it I spotted a pretty human boy, dressed in a male version of the chained outfit. Kessen looked no less content than his sister, smiling with adoration at the radiant woman in white.
"Aren’t they a lovely pair?" Zaureen noticed my distraction and bent over to trail her hand in Mirri’s dark hair. "I am so grateful to you for delivering these two! You must be so proud of them." She looked at me with her knowing, laughing eyes and continued smoothly. "Which one of your little pets did you like better, elf? I still cannot make up my mind - they are both gorgeous!"
"They are not my pets." Again, that strange irritation was rising slowly from the depth of my consciousness. "They are ..."
Friends? Acquaintances? I realized I could not finish. Really, what was my association with the twins? I did not know them well enough to claim friendship, neither did I want that bond, yet some elusive almost insubstantial thread that could serve as a core for the future relationship was already there.
"Companions," I finally found the word that was neutral enough to satisfy my inner sense of security.
"Don’t tell me you did not bed each one of them at least once! The Fair Folk are renowned for their insatiable appetites."
Now the queer amusement and strange hunger in her voice were unmistakable. I cringed in distaste. The look on my face spoke for itself, and she corrected herself swiftly, although an uncertainty that was not there before crept into her sweet voice.
"Never mind that. Ah, but I am forgetting my manners. I asked you too many questions already. Perhaps, I should satisfy your curiosity about myself first?"
"Please, do so, intriguing one."
"Oh, you are flattering me. I am not half as interesting as you are, my pretty elven stoic! Please take a seat, my story may take a while." She pointed to a chair nearby, which I accepted with a nod. It was not nearly as ornate as her own, and it smelled odd but it was the only other seat in the chamber. The twins were reclining on the soft cushions at her feet, like lapdogs. The woman waited until I seated myself, then continued graciously. "Will you introduce yourself properly after all, or shall I call you by your pretend name?" Her eyebrow rose and I stopped my mouth from bubbling out the name that Aluril gave me with almost visible effort.
"Suit yourself, Jon," Zaureen smiled and shook her head, sending the green stones in her earlobes swinging. For a second I was almost sure the emerald band writhed slightly around her sinuous neck, than the impression faded.
"I am an artist, a poet and a performer," she continued after the briefest pause. "I used to travel the lands of Faerun with a band of trusty associates, bringing a taste of poetry and dramatic arts into lives of many. However, five years ago the circumstances beyond my control forced our little troupe to abandon our plans, and settle here in peaceful solitude. Since then, many others joined me and my friends in our retreat. Evidently, my fame spread further than I anticipated, for many came here to enjoy my talent, and stayed with us to share the joy of living together in this small colony."
"So, you are an actress, not an oracle?"
"An oracle! Why would you ask? Who would tell you such nonsense?" Anger flashed in her beautiful eyes as her whole face quivered unsightly, and her pale hands gripped the handles of her chair. "Of course I am not a prophetess! I am a poet and an artist, not a puppet of some obnoxious godling! This place was built as a shrine to that ...that lying abomination hiding in the mountains. We tried to eliminate the very presence of her, and yet someone dared to call me thus! They shall be punished severely." She clapped her hands once.
The halfling in green jumped from the shadows to his mistress’ side. I saw a ferocious scowl he gave Mirriam when she was not quick enough to move out of his way, giving him access to Zaureen’s feet. It was a true dedication I decided, musing at the fawning look on his wrinkled face. Zaureen raised her head and graced me with another one of her acute stares.
"And is not the little creature right to adore the glorious beauty on the throne?" I thought immediately. Zaureen was after all the most beautiful woman I ever saw.
Her brow relaxed a little, and she gave me a benign smile. She murmured instructions to her small majordomo (as that was most likely his function in this place). The halfling disappeared behind the green velvet curtain at the back.
"I have ordered some refreshments too. But back to your questions, my suspicious friend," Zaureen caressed me with her gaze. Please tell me what else do you want to know about me?"
"So, you dislike to be called a prophetess," I continued stubbornly, fighting the warm haze that her eyes seemed to instill in me. "And your friends are staying with you to listen to your poetry and see you perform?"
"Is not this enough?" She smiled sweetly nodding at the gilded instrument at her right. It was an elaborate harp of some unusual design. "Shall I play and sing for you to demonstrate?"
"As you wish." She pouted prettily. "I can assure you – you are missing the greatest artistic performance of your life."
"Oh, I trust your word on this. Please continue." The very idea of her touching that harp made me oddly uncomfortable.
"We all live here as one big family, sharing each other’s pleasures, giving each other joy and happiness. And is not happiness the highest ‘good’ that is valued for its own sake? Everything we do after all, we do for the sake ultimately of gaining pleasure for ourselves!"
"Sounds like you a scholar of natural philosophy as well as a bard, Zaureen. Although I did not quite get that last part, about pleasure and the ultimate ‘good’ being one and the same. Can you perhaps elaborate?"
"One immediately perceives that pleasure is ‘good’ and that unhappiness is ‘bad’, in the same way that one immediately perceives that fire is hot; thus no further argument is needed to show the goodness of pleasure. Surely you know that infants, who are free of any ethical beliefs, and not influenced by religion or politics, instinctively pursue pleasure and shun pain?"
"But some of your friends at least, looked gravely sick to me. Is not it ‘bad’ for them?"
"Pleasure is tied closely to satisfying one's desires! Perchance the one that seemed ill, perceives that her greater happiness and thus greater goodness lies in quenching her thirst for self-destruction? Can you blame her for this? After one's desires have been satisfied, the state of satiety, of no longer being in need or want, is itself pleasurable beyond any pain that is endured in process of obtaining it!"
"But what if one fails to alleviate that thirst and dies in futile pursuit?"
"That is a risk one is taking. A risk I am not forcing on anyone of my circle. They are free to chase after what they perceive as their primary needs. I am merely a joyous observer, reveling in their pleasures!"
"Is not it a rather cheap substitute for real happiness, though? Physical pleasures cannot come close to the delights one can gain from revelations of one’s mind."
"Ah, I see I am talking to a real connoisseur here. If you are able to understand this - you are a rare bird indeed!" Zaureen gave me her warm caressing smile. "Of course there is a difference between physical and mental sensations. Physical pleasures and pains concern only the present, whereas mental pleasures and pains also encompass the past - like fond memories of past pleasure or regret over past pain or mistakes, and the future - confidence or fear about what will occur." She threw me a shrewd look as I blanched at this last statement. "The greatest destroyer of happiness is anxiety about the future and regrets about the past. If one can banish fear of the future and refrain from remembering the pains of his past, then one will attain tranquility and through it gain perfect happiness!"
"You make it sound very easy," I chuckled dryly. "But what is the value of existence without worry about future, without memories of the past even tainted with remorse? Is it really worth living?"
"So, you like reveling in your pain, my pretty elf? How amusing!"
"Oh, I can tell you much about living without memories. It is not much of a life."
"I see you have an answer for everything." She sounded a bit angry with me, and instantly I was overwhelmed with guilt over my stubbornness that was upsetting this glorious creature. I forced the feeling away, recognizing it for what it was.
"If you so attached to your pains, would you like to share this precious gift with others? Some find it the most delectable of pleasures," Zaureen smiled sweetly. "Let’s ask my pretty pets here, shall we?" She bent over beckoning the twins closer with her slim white hands. "Tell me Kessen, do you want to leave me and go back to idle wandering in the desert?"
The boy shook his head silently, looking at her with adoration befitting a young pup. I remembered his sly, defiant personality and the contrast between what he was and what he has became in her hands made me wince. I looked at Mirriam. The girl was giggling softly, playing with the gilded chains of her bodice. My head swam. What was I doing here, talking with this ... this woman? I looked at the ‘prophetess’ again, and her image blurred, becoming hazy and washed around the edges. For a moment, I thought I saw another face - that of an old man, hungry and lusting, looking at me sharply through half-closed eyelids.
Zaureen was holding the boy by the chin now, looking into his eyes. "You shall do as I please, would you, my pet?" He muttered his acquiescence. "Then you should obey dear Jon here, and do as he commands. You shall not lift a finger in your own defense, does not matter how much it would hurt. Do you understand?"
"Kiss him," she suddenly snapped at me pushing Kessen into my hands, "and then take that knife you’ve being caressing like a lover and cut him open. I want to see the look on your face when he will bleed."
"Now, why would I want to do such a thing?" I asked softly.
I was quick enough to jump up, and intercept the boy’s limp body catching him with one hand. He sank to his knees at my feet still smiling blissfully, and turned his cheek in expectation. The conversation was quickly turning into one of my macabre dreams. Except I could not wake up.
"Because it will please me," the woman chuckled as I struggled to keep my hand from creeping to the handle of the griffon dagger. "Do it for me, and I may decide to take you as my next Chosen One, instead of making you one of my toys! Do it now, while I am still willing! Why are you hesitating? Maybe I was mistaken after all, and you would prefer the girl?"
Mirriam slowly slipped to her knees at my other side, looking at me with quiet expectation.
"Now, which one would you choose, Jon?" Zaureen’s face was white and covered with perspiration, her eyes glowed with green ardent fire as she rose from her chair pinning me with her stare. "I am very good at it, am I not? I can spot the one like you in a crowd of thousands. You have blood on your hands and lust for it in your heart. Either way one of them would die tonight. But if you resist me for too long, it may be slower rather than quicker!"
"No ... you ... cannot make me do it," I forced the words out through the wave after wave of dizziness that threatened to overwhelm my mind. I knew if I let it happen - I would be lost. A wave of fury, pure and white as hottest flame rose from the deepest recess of my soul. "Nobody...can...control...me!" I screamed in her face, writhing from the effort it took to keep my hands clenched at my sides. "Whatever you are... I am... the stronger."
"I see," the woman hissed taking a step forward. "Tsk, tsk. Who would have expected such a temper under such a sweet face? You cannot be much older than these two in elven count, and yet you resist me. Perhaps, there is more to you than meets the eye. Perhaps I should take a personal interest after all?"
"Looks ...can be ... deceiving ...weak one."
"You will die for this, fool!"
The emerald necklace at her throat uncoiled silently. As if in slowly unfolding nightmare, I saw an ethereal scaly body, crowned with three ugly snakeheads sprang from her neck. It aimed at my face. I shrieked and jumped out of its way, knocking over the chair and rolling over the entangled bodies of half-conscious twins. As if looking over my own shoulder I calmly remembered the hot afternoon, and the cobra beheaded by Mirriam’s nimble hand. My body was quicker than my mind, and her silver-encrusted dagger was already in my hand when I jumped back to my feet. The woman in white was down on her knees, wailing and clawing at her throat. That surprised me a little, since she could not have sustained any damage. She emitted one last terrible shriek, and fell face forward on the stone floor. The writhing worm-like apparition slithered closer and I could see all three of its ugly faces, smirking in anticipation.
"Would you continue this foolish game or would you give up like a good little boy? I will be gentler on you if you spare me the trouble!"
I realized with disgust that the ghost was speaking inside my mind.
"Surrender, and I shall spare you the pain. We will live happily together for a very long time. In fact, we will be immortal. I would love you as I never loved that disgusting parody of a bard. You are so much stronger than she."
"I would be a fool indeed to surrender myself to one such as you!" My hands moved smoothly, and the purple bolt of raw magic energy flowed from my fingers like liquid mercury, hitting the left head. Magic missile is not much of an offensive spell but it was all I had in my disposal, as some inner instinct told me the thing would be immune to sleep and charm effects. It looked like I damaged one of its eyes with direct hit.
"You will pay for this elf-boy! You are no match for me. Why continue this hopeless fight?"
"Because unlike most of your victims, I know what it means to have your life stolen, and your memories leaking from your mind like water from a shattered jug. I would rather die the true death than be turned into a senseless instrument of your distorted pleasure."
I parried the next lunge with a knife, scoring a long gush on its ethereal hide that immediately began to bleed bluish, glowing ooze of ectoplasm. The ghost worm hissed and recoiled to the steps of the throne podium.
"Oh, but I will not give you this choice, my dear Jon! You are too precious to me, to be allowed to die and escape that easily. I think you are the perfect vessel for my essence; the body I could only dream of in my real life."
It lunged at me suddenly, and scored a bite. A deadly chill of the grave began to spread through my body from the incorporeal wound. Already my knife-hand turned icy-cold and insensitive. I grabbed the blade with my other hand and deflected its next attack. However, I started to suspect that its boasting was not without merit. I cannot cast spells with only one hand, now it only needed to weaken me enough with its numbing attacks, and then the domination trick could be easily performed on my unconscious form.
"You see – that was so easy! You are no fighter, and your magic is too weak," it cooed.
I was preoccupied with my next move, and completely out of breath to answer. Besides, this exchange of insults started to grind on my nerves, as if I was listening to an old, familiar dialogue in exceptionally bad replay. If the undead thing was trying to distract me with that banter, it was not succeeding.
Subsequently, I felt the strange light-headed detachment that first came over me when Farheed and his thugs tried to ‘teach me a lesson’ in that little gorge near Amkethran. It was almost as if I could see myself from a great height, going through the steps of a complicated and dangerous dance. In that state, my mind worked like perfect clockwork, and my limbs moved with the precision of a well-oiled mechanism. The problem was, I was not trained for that kind of direct combat. Oh, I knew how to wield a knife efficiently, and had an uncanny sense for most vulnerable spots on my potential target. Yet, I knew I could never match a good fighter in quickness and power of my strikes. My real weapon was my arcane magic. But instead of deadly arsenal of well-prepared spells, all I had was a few weak cantrips that were no good against that thing.
The ghost snake pounced at me again, and again I clenched my teeth and jumped out of its way, daring a quick glance around. Zaureen was still sprawled on the floor in a most inconvenient position that seemed to indicate that she was either dead or deeply unconscious. I wondered if she could survive without her parasite. The twins however, showed signs of awakening from their magically induced stupor. Kessen was rocking back and forth, still on his knees, clutching at his head and retching. Mirriam was in no better shape but at least she was not violently sick. I wondered if they would recover quickly enough to flee before it would be too late. I was extremely irritated with the pair, since it was their recklessness that led to my senseless heroics, that were now about to end in my premature death or worse. What was the point in dying ‘honorably’ for the pair of self-centered brats, who did not even had a sense to get out of here while they still could? I had no doubt now that I was finished. The worm continued to play with me like a cat with a mouse but with my paralyzed right hand, it was only a matter of time and my first serious lapse.
"Should I tell you what I am going to do with your body tonight, dear boy? You’ve angered me and now I intend to extract my full retribution!"
This final taunt was a bad mistake on its part. Really bad mistake. Before that, I was calmly detached contemplating my defeat with surprisingly cold and rational despair. But the mere thought of its touch on my skin threw me into a sort of frenzy that I never expected from myself. I slashed at the grinning, scaly faces without care for my own safety. I guess I was lucky to hit some major center (if this terminology is even applicable to the undead apparitions) for the central head suddenly wheezed and went limp.
Immediately, I heard a silent cry of pain and fury echoing inside my skull; and at the next moment the undead thing pounced and coiled around my feet raising its two remaining heads for the final strike. I saw its faces twist in grimaces of gleeful rage, and wondered how much it would hurt me after I loose conscience and fell into its power. Quickly I raised the dagger in a last act of defense, clutching at its bejeweled hilt with all of my remaining strength. Later on, when I was shaking with aftereffects of that fight, I was stunned that the notion of suicide never entered my mind even for a second. I suppose when I proclaimed my intent to die rather than live as its thrall, I underestimated my inner desire to live, to cling to the last desperate chance of having a future. As the chill of numbing paralysis spread from my knees up into my body, I clasped the hilt of the weapon and suddenly felt a surge of power running from my fingers into my deadening arm. As if in a strange dream, my hand turned the dagger in midair, so that it was now aiming at the ghost with its hilt rather than the blade. My fingers found and caressed the rune etched into the steel next to the shiny orange stone that adorned the pommel. I read it by touch – anorpilin – the sun bolt. It was on their own volition that my lips whispered a single word of power, unlocking the hidden magic of the elf-wrought weapon.
The sunstone emitted a single beam of light of such brilliance that my eyes instantly went blind. But before I had lost my vision, there was a brief moment when I saw the sickly viridescent coil around my ankles start to disintegrate under the sunray. A terrible shriek filled my stunned mind, driving out every other sound and sensation. I dropped the knife clutching at my eyes, and hearing nothing but the hum of my own blood beating steadily inside my skull. There was a terrifying moment when I was afraid I have lost all my senses. Then I could hear the twins screaming, and suddenly felt their live warm hands on my shoulders. Their embraces were as overzealous and energetic as their personalities, and were accompanied by the cloying smell of rose oil and tinkling of gilded chains.
"It is gone, thanks Gods! Can you open your eyes, Jon-Jon?" and at the same time "That was splendid work, sidi! But by the Nine Hells, why didn’t you use that magic earlier? I thought you were done for!"
"Oh, shut up, you selfish imp! Can’t you see he is hurt?"
"He will be fine if you stop fussing over him like he is your sick cat," then with a sudden concern, "Jon, can you hear me? Let me have a look at your eyes." I believe if was almost the single time, when he actually used my name while addressing me. But I noticed later that he never used his sister’s given name either, as it was a long-standing superstition among the desert tribes that using a person’s true name was dangerous and attracted ‘evil spirits’.
My knees were still weak, but the dreadful chill and numbness induced by the touch of the undead were passing. Kessen grabbed my hands and forced them away from my face. I blinked into the washed-out, white curtain that still covered the world. Gradually, it thinned to a fine veil of pale fog. I could see the outlines of objects and people, albeit my eyes felt like they were full of hot sand. Of the ghost worm there was no other trace but a smear of greenish ectoplasm on the stone floor. I wished sincerely that the spell of sunray, woven into the elven dagger, carried enough energy to blast it out of existence, and praised the powers to be for the Easamon’s blade that so unexpectedly proved to be of more value than it looked. It was my mistake not to cast the read magic on it earlier, even though I had plenty of time.
"Looks fine to me," the boy continued smugly, "a bit of red on the whites ... but don’t worry, sagirah, he still has both of his baby blues."
"No thanks to you," I sneered pulling my hands out of his grasp, "that was some performance from both of you. I swear that was the last time I risked my hide for a pair of incompetent bunglers in chained underwear!"
"That was uncalled for, Jon-Jon," Mirri replied in a trembling voice, flushing like a poppy flower. (I was able to perceive the color of her cheeks, although the finer details, like expression on her face were still fuzzy.) "I ... I need to change quickly! I cannot stand wearing this ... this jingling horror for another moment!"
"Did she rouge your nipples, by chance, or it is your natural color?" Kessen asked with a smirk hidden in his voice. "I had never seen her dressed like this, sidi. Too bad, you are blind as a bat right now. You are missing the experience of a lifetime."
"Shut up, you dolt," she retorted back to him. "Look at yourself, you piece of ... I can see right through your trousers, and you ain’t wearing anything under them, either."
"I had an eyeful of both of you, alright," I refused to be distracted by their abashed blabber. "Let’s just say that I will have nightmares involving rouge and gilded chain mail for the rest of my natural life. Foolish children, how did you get yourself into this mess? And how do you suggest we get out of here? I am surprised her guards are not here yet."
"Now that you are your nasty self again I believe that you are indeed fully recovered," Mirri muttered with feeling. "Do you know Jon-Jon, when you are angry your ears twitch like cat’s? There is no need to be rude ..."
"And we are not children," The boy interrupted her smoothly. "I realize we are indebted to you but don’t push your luck, sidi."
At that exact moment the figure in white, which stayed silent and motionless all that time, stirred slightly and emitted a feeble moan. Kessen swore like a drunken pirate, and grabbed the knife that I dropped on the floor after invoking its magic. In two fluid jumps, he was at Zaureen’s side, bending over her with a feral growl.
"Wait! Kessen, don’t!"
But my yells were to no avail. He raised his slender brown hand and slashed her throat ear to ear. The unfortunate bard gurgled and expired in a gush of dark blood.
"Curse you, boy!" I rushed to his side, straining my eyes to see if anything could be done for her. But she was irrevocably dead, her head almost severed from her body. "How wonderfully mad of you. You’ve just lost us a valuable hostage. And it was not like she was even dangerous without her parasite."
Kessen didn’t flinch an eye, but continued to search the corpse removing an ornate amulet, a bundle of keys, and a slim sheath with a wand of polished rosewood that was fastened to her belt.
"What?" Mirriam’s voice shook with strong emotion. "Are you saying she was as much a victim of that thing as we were? Does it mean Kes just killed an innocent?"
"It hardly matters to us if she was cooperating or serving as an unwilling host, though I suspect the later. Still, we could have negotiated our release ..."
"Are you both mad?" She said with feeling. "Kes just killed an innocent woman, and all you can care about is that she could have been used as a hostage!"
"Silly girl, we have no time for sentiments!" I snapped back at her. "And don’t stand here staring at me like I am a demon incarnate. Go find yourself a weapon and something to cover this obscenity." She scowled at me darkly but held her tongue. "Good," I thought briefly, "maybe I can teach her to behave with time and proper guidance."
"You need to grow up, sagirah." Kessen responded in his turn. "There is no such thing as innocence in this world, except in your mind, and I love you for this. But I’ve been here longer than you, and she did things to me ... nasty things. It was far worse than a clean death by the sharp blade." He turned back to me. "My life is yours, sidi. I shall stay at your side until I can repay the debt."
"Oh, forget it," I growled in distress, "if you cannot keep your lust for vengeance at bay for long enough to think of the consequences, what kind of an ally can you make? I seriously doubt I want you to follow me, if it means I would have to spend my brainpower to rectify your blunders at every step. And besides, this would mean taking care of not just you but of this little wimp you call your sister."
"Modest, aren’t we?" Kessen smirked. "Think about it. I saw you with the blade – it was a pitiful performance, sidi, plain pitiful. I am surprised you have made it through. A wizard, even as ‘mighty’ as you are," he chuckled heartily, "always needs protection."
I blushed in anger at his implication. I knew that my magic was weak but to hear it from his mouth was unbearable. "At least I was not sitting there like an idiot, half-naked and drooling!"
I avoided his angry eyes, looking instead at the dead woman on the floor. Her features were now plain and haggard, almost pathetic. I wondered why the unearthly beauty that she radiated while alive reminded me so glaringly of something painful, yet desirable beyond belief. Something awfully close to the surface of my memory that was moving back into the unreachable depths as soon as I tried to grasp it.
"Oh, but you were attracted to this piece of carrion, sidi! You cannot fool me." Kessen spat on Zaureen’s corpse. "You still look a bit unsettled. By the way, was she right when she said those things about elves?"
"What?" I looked at him in puzzlement. "You mean that they go around the Realms making love to anything that moves? I have no idea, but I suspect it to be false. If you are wondering if I am about to start courting you, rest assured – you are not my type!"
"I wonder if anything is your type, sidi. Except your own reflection in the mirror," Kessen grinned. "But that is why we love you so."
"Look, I am not the one here wearing nothing but pajamas of golden lace and the eye paint!"
"Would you please stop this inane argument, and do something useful for a change?" Mirri scolded us from the other side of the room.
Upset at my reprimand the girl had abandoned us to our conversation, and was scouting the place for useful items. At the moment, she just emerged from the small alcove on the left side from the throne, carrying an armful of various weapons. I noticed there were several small niches in the walls, and she went through them methodically, investigating one after another. It looked like she had tried to remove her cosmetics while inside, which resulted in it being smeared all over her face. I chuckled at the sight.
"You sound like two little boys who are too ashamed to admit they were tricked, and insult each other to come back at their offender," Mirri continued, scowling at me. "She had bested both of you with her magic. Admit it and be done with it! Still, it was no reason to kill her, if she was not acting on her own free will," she added after a brief pause.
"She did not best me, her pet worm did," Kessen mumbled stubbornly. But I could see that his heart was not in it. He sighed and walked over to his sister to see what she was carrying in her hands.
"I cannot find our clothes," she complained loudly, "but all your weapons and some of my stuff was there, where the bloody halfling took it. I still cannot understand how they got me. It was like she had a second pair of eyes on the back of her head."
"Oh, she did," I replied stirring from my uneasy thoughts. "That thing ... Did you have a good look at what I was fighting? Though considering the state you were in, I hardly expect you to remember much."
"I did," Mirri shivered from head to toe, making her absurd outfit jingle like a bag of coins. "It was not that I could not see everything clearly. I just had that strange idea that she was my mother and I had to do as she told. But then I saw the snake lunge at you ... Our nurse once told me a tale about the three-headed worm that would come out of the mirror, suck out your brain, and live in your head making you do crazy things. I think she called it jahi – the demon of vanity. But I always thought it was just a tale to scare children."
"It did not eat her brains exactly," I cringed at the disgusting image, "but it sure did make her do ‘things’, as you so eloquently put it. Maybe she could have told us how it all started."
"I can tell you how it started," a shrill voice suddenly responded from nowhere in particular.
We stirred like a flock of birds each groping for the closest weapon at hand, and I mused at the classic victim’s syndrome we had so easily acquired. The figure that crept out of the curtained niche behind Mirri’s back was the familiar halfling steward. I wondered if he had spent all that time hiding, and finally decided to get out. He now looked thoroughly disheveled, though a strange glint in his eyes gave his distorted features certain crazy glamour. Even his voice sounded different, as if breaking Zaureen’s spell on his mind freed some hidden reservoir of artistic prowess.
"I was a playwright and a second comic in the troupe where Zaureen was a prima donna," he grinned wiggling his plump fingers. "Name is Omwo by the way, Omwo Freagar, not that you are interested. But naturally they called me Omwo the Freak and Omwo the Friggin Egghead," he giggled as if inviting us to join in the fun. "She was always crazy, that one. Her and her idiot lover, who was supposedly our director. But of course, everybody knew that she was the real brains behind all of his decisions. Zaureen found out about this place from some nutcase in Fort Qian, and bought a map from him. She was smitten with the idea of getting the treasure."
The halfling laughed almost chocking on his saliva that was bubbling from the corners of his mouth. The wrinkles of his bald skull played a little dance of their own, like shifting patterns on quicksand. It was a frightening and yet fascinatingly bizarre sight.
"You see – she wanted the money to build her own theater in some posh merchant city, maybe even in Darromar itself. Guess, who would have gotten all the prime parts, eh? We had found the place by chance, after loosing half of our numbers, her paramour included, in the sand storm. Sometimes I wonder if he did not get a better deal." The halfling twitched, and gave me surprisingly sharp, mocking stare. "But Zaureen had lived, as well as few others. She always had Bane’s own luck! So, we’ve came across this temple complex. There was a well in the courtyard that had water, and the trees in the garden still bore fruit, so we stuck around. It was on our second week here, in this place, when she decided to check the catacombs under the sanctuary."
Jahi - Made of unfulfilled desires, these undead monsters
attack by magically dominating their prey. They appear as a ghostly image of
a serpentine, scaled worm with three elongated faces. Normally wrapped around
the throat or chest of a creature it has selected to be its "Chosen one."
Once it has a "Chosen one" a monster begins to accumulate a group
of dominated followers, who form a nucleus of a debauched cult dedicated to
jahi's worship. The creature feeds off the Charisma of these followers, all
the while encouraging them to greater heights of hedonistic excess.