Highharvestide 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
All through his story, Omwo squirmed like a worm on a hook, biting his nails, and shifting the loose folds of skin on his bald forehead. Yet, sometimes he would stop as a spell of quietude took him. Then his eyes looked bright and intelligent, and his homely lipless face acquired a sharp attentive expression. I could not get rid of the feeling that there were two different personalities fighting inside his head - one was quite obviously insane, the other showed occasional glimpses of brilliant, caustic intellect that took full advantage of his appearance to deliver his reprise with most unsettling effect on his public. I thought he might have been quite popular during his career as a comic, even with his disturbing looks.
He continued his macabre but humorous tale of Zaureen’s transformation from a vain and whimsical diva into a perverted monstrosity after she visited the crypt of the temple’s last deceased leader - reverend Adept Addazahr. It turned out the reverend was not quite dead, the fact that the unfortunate actress discovered only too late. The undead essence of the late cleric enslaved her, taking possession of both her body and soul.
“Did Zaureen find the treasure?” Kessen suddenly interrupted the flow of that remarkable recital.
“Oh, yes my avaricious young friend that she did!” the little fiend chuckled. “Much good as that did her! I was just about to tell you that part. The Water Woman is feared and respected among the nomads, even though she had never answered any prayers or granted spells. Thus her temple was well-tended, until one day Adept Addazahr walked into the mountains, and went into a meditating prayer at that pond they call the Heart of Water, refusing to take food or rest until his object of worship would manifest herself to his devoted eyes.” Omwo quivered in silent laughter, his belly jiggling like pudding. Something in his performance bothered me slightly but I could not put my finger on it.
“Oh, but she could not,” I muttered without thinking. “She cannot wake up without the greater need, you know ...” The halfling gave me a sharp look over his unstoppable fit of merriment but did not reply.
“The oracle never showed up,” Omwo finally wheezed between hiccups and fits of giggles that shook his entire body. “So the old geezer cursed her and croaked. People say, he was absolutely nuts at the end. Was raving and calling all the demons of the Abyss to take his soul as a payment for the glimpse into his glorious future. There were even rumors that he turned to worshipping some darker gods before he died. They found his body lying at the edge of the pool, face in the water,” he said confidentially. “Soon after that, the temple was destroyed by the earthquake. Some say the Water Woman was angry and cursed it. Afterwards, everyone ran away, and the place was abandoned. I wish I could compose a little dramatic piece about Addazahr’s last moments! It would be a masterpiece. Maybe I will write the whole adventure into a play one day, who knows.” The former playwright grinned at Kessen, who was listening with his mouth half-opened.
“But back to the treasure chests stuffed with gold. Nobody knew where Addazahr hid the cash, and many precious gifts that he had received on behalf of his mistress in the course of his servitude. Many tried to look for it digging through the ruins, but no one ever came back alive from the accursed place until Zaureen found it in the catacombs, and financed her insane cult with that money. I suspect the late Adept wanted his Chosen One to have all the trinkets she craved, including these outrageous outfits,” he nodded at the jingling golden nets on the twins. “She had some contacts among the local smugglers, and used to order goods from Darromar secretly. They brought back delicacies, best vines, and fancy clothes. You should see her personal chambers - it is a sight to behold. But there is still plenty left in these coffers. Free for the taking!” He stopped his narration and looked at Kessen, stretching his lips into a wide toad-like grin.
“Father must have known about her,” Kessen said incredulously.
“Wait a minute,” I turned to the boy who was staring at the halfling in half-trance. “Didn’t you tell me that nobody was ever able to find the Heart of Water? And now it turns out it is quite a popular place.”
He turned white, mumbling something under his breath.
“What did you just say? I could not hear you?”
“It’s the Curse, sidi,” the boy repeated more audibly. “The Curse of the Water Woman. Nobody who knows about it would try to look for this place, because the Water Woman would place a terrible spell on him, as she did on her renegade priest. It is called the Curse of Malcontent. Something that is not yours you would want so badly - you would die to get it! And yet even when you hold it in your hands you would not be happy, because it would turn out you needed something else altogether. This desire would eat at you from inside until you perish from jealousy and lust for something just out of reach. So the old people say.”
“You never told me anything about it.” It was my turn to blanch, albeit luckily for me it was impossible to discern it on my face, as I was naturally pale as bleached bone.
“Well,” Kessen squirmed, “you’ve never asked about it, sidi, and besides, she never did you any harm, so I decided ...”
“You decided to give it a try, hoping that your sister and I shall follow!” I realized my voice was trembling with fury, and took a few calming breaths before continuing. “And since I have already met the oracle, you thought that she had already put the curse on me, and would not do it a second time.”
I turned to Mirriam. The girl was visibly shaken. With her natural dark copper complexion it looked odd, for she turned a grayish shade of beige, the color one can visualize by adding a lot of cream to the strong brew of tealeaf. “Did you know about the curse?” I snapped at her.
Her mouth formed a silent ‘no’. Instantly, I believed her. My shoulders relaxed, my anger vanished. The weirdest thing was that although I could not care less for her childish infatuation, finding out that she was as ruthless and conniving as her brother, would have hurt. One’s mind easily gets used to the idea of being appreciated (even in a way you cannot fathom), and having that little illusion taken away (even if you did not ask for it at the first place) is damaging to one’s self-esteem.
“What was the harm in it?” the boy squirmed. “If you’ve got the Curse nothing can make it any worse. But maybe there is no such thing. Why would the Water Woman care about the treasure in the temple if, as you have said, she is the creature of the other Plane and is bound to her pool? On the other hand, why not use it to our advantage?”
“So, you would have made me carry out the loot for you?”
“We would have helped you, sidi.” He grinned sheepishly. Again, the open ‘honest’ stare of his dark eyes reminded me strongly of someone I had known before. Someone, who had tried that particular trick on me numerous times. I wondered if that person got away with it as easily as Kessen just did.
“You are lucky we have no time for this,” I growled staring him down with what I hoped was my usual intimidating gaze. He shifted his eyes first, mumbling something to the matter of ‘damned frozen chips of ice’. “And don’t even think about searching her chambers for treasure!” I continued harshly. “We need to get out of here quick, before the cultists find out about her death. I am surprised no one came to investigate with all the yelling and thumping that was going on.”
“Oh, but the guards are trained to ignore the screams coming from this chamber at night time. Especially when the Blessed One has new toys as young and pretty as you and your friends,” the halfling suddenly guffawed. “Rest assured nobody will enter the place until morning without her call. We have all the time in the world. Yes, all the time! But tell me, fair one, did you really meet the oracle of the Shining Water? ”
I turned to Omwo. The look on his face was startling. Wave after wave of various emotions run across his wrinkled visage, each one more bizarre and frightening than the other. His expression shifted from enforced smile to muted hatred, then to outright fury, tinged with jealousy and deeply rooted hunger. If he could devour me with that gaze, I would have been reduced to a pile of clean picked bones on the spot.
“What is in it for you?” I asked curiously. “And how do you know that name?”
With visible effort he took hold of himself, his features straightened, his burning gaze crept under the heavy eyelids. I realized I could not discern the color of these eyes, only the intense fire of jealous rage burning deep inside.
“This lowly one knows that Aluril means the Brilliance of Water, elf boy.”
“I thought the humans always called her the Water Woman, and she told me that only the People knew that other name. Do you speak elven perchance?”
“So, you’ve spoken to her?” His features gathered into an ugly, livid grimace. “She had welcomed you into her dreams, and showed you the future! You - an adolescent elven brat barely out of his stinking forest. Do you even know how unbelievably lucky you are? What’s more, do you even care? Did you waste your entire life in servitude, always thinking of how would it feel to behold her stunning presence? Did you spend every morning in deep reverence on the bank of that stupid pool, only to discover that when the time of the prophecy came, someone else stole your glory and declared the passing of Waukeen? I knew the next awakening would not happen in my lifetime but I hoped against hope that she would take pity on her devoted servant! But no - she just let me die without ever seeing her face, only to find out that a conceited elf had stolen my prophecy yet again!”
I looked at the halfling in sudden understanding. A swift change came over him yet again.
“So, you’ve recognized me, finally, my dear boy? Do you think you can dispose of me that easy? It takes more than the abominable magic of your kin to destroy me!”
The tunic on Omwo’s chest bulged and the familiar leery face of iridescent green peaked out of the cleavage. The worm had only one head left now, and it looked like a weak shadow of its former self. At that same instant, the halfling pulled a wicked-looking, serrated knife out of his sleeve, and lunged at me with amazing agility. I never expected his plump body to move with such speed, and barely had time to sidestep and respond with a barrage of magic missiles. To my chagrin, not a single purple spark connected with jahi’s head. Most of them went astray, but one charge hit Omwo in the face, stunning him, and bringing a flood of tears out of his small eyes. It must have been extremely painful for he squealed like a pig, dropping his blade and ducking under the stroke of Kessen’s knife faster than a terrified rabbit. Then he fell on all fours and streaked between Mirri and her brother, heading for the small niche in the southern wall. The twins were fast to respond but the halfling driven by mortal fear and the will of its undead master was faster still. Stopping only for a second, Omwo pushed a hidden lever and the wall swung sidewise silently, opening the hidden dark passage beyond. The former actor squeezed his soft round body into the expanding crack and disappeared.
“Will you dare follow me down there, dear Jon? Or shall I seek you myself when I grew strong enough to come after you?”
I picked up the fading telepathic image of jahi’s last taunt but could not answer for I was busy, down on my knees, puking my guts out on the stone floor. I quickly lost all the contents of my stomach, and now the bloody froth mixed with yellow streaks of bile was coming out with every violent jerk. It felt like a grip of cold and cruel hand that was squeezing my intestines and slowly pulling them out through my mouth. It was worse than the first time, when I had simply fainted face down into the thorn bush. This time the pain was more severe, and I could not loose conscience as my head was very clear, and my senses sharpened to the highest degree. I could hear the scraping of my nails on the dirty flagstones, and feel every hot streak that the stinging rivulets of tears left on my cheeks.
“What the Hell is wrong with you, sidi?” I heard Kessen cry out as the twins rushed to my side but could not answer, as my mouth was busy spitting out the gore. “He did not even touch you with that knife, or did he?”
The girl simply looked at me in abject horror unable to decide what to do. I waved them away, tearing my gaze away from hers and curling into a tight ball on the floor.
“Can... you ... leave me alone?” I was able to plea between the throes of violent retching. “I will be fine... just go away...please...”
Needless to say, they would not. Gods only know where, they found water, and tore the velvet curtain into rugs to clean my face and hands. All the way through these ministrations, I could not stop shuddering and moaning from the sharp pain that was cleaving my insides into shreds. I knew what had happened, and knowing only made it worse. I could disbelieve it the first time around, but now I was sure - it was my use of the offensive spell against the humanoid that caused the seizure. Not only I had lost my magic, I was thoroughly cursed with those ‘safeguards’ that prevented me from ‘abusing’ my talent. It was so unfair I could cry. Except I already shamed myself by doing just that in front of the twins.
Eventually I fainted from pain, and woke up after what felt like hours later, with my head on someone’s lap. My eyes snapped open. Mirri’s face hovered over mine. It was red and puffy, and her huge dark eyes swam with tears, as she looked at me in frightened disbelief. A wet warm splat landed on my nose.
“I am already quite wet, thank you very much,” I muttered stirring up and groping for purchase. “There is absolutely no need to add more water!”
“You are alive, Jon-Jon? I thought ...”
“Don’t worry. I am hard to get rid of. There is no need for all this tragedy either,” I interrupted her sharply, hoping she would have enough sense to stop that performance.
She blinked at me once and nodded, sniffing like a small child. Something about it was very touching, and I felt a small pang of guilt as I carefully removed myself from her embrace. She would not let go of me at once, so I had to disentangle myself cautiously from her hands, and move away noticing for the first time that she was cloaked in soft, dark material, but under it was still wearing her jingling slave-girl outfit. Both of the twins looked haggard and worn. Kessen paced the chamber like a large cat. He was dressed in his ridiculous chain trousers, although his face was clean of paint, and somewhere he acquired a cloak of the same material as his sister’s, to cover his torso. At the sight of my awakening, he growled and stopped his striding. I looked around briefly, noticing with relief that the dark crack of the hidden passage was still open.
The hall stank of burnt oil and the coppery tang of blood, even though the narrow slits of latticed windows under the round ceiling had not been boarded with shutters at this time of year. My head swam, it felt like my skull had been used as an anvil by a band of zealous dwarven smiths, and the taste in my mouth gave the word ‘repugnant’ a new meaning. But the worst of all was the memory of my disgraceful performance, and my fainting spell. Just thinking about it made my teeth ache. I suppose something of it must have showed on my face for Kessen swallowed whatever he was going to say, and stretched his lips into a deceitfully enthusiastic smile.
“Er, it’s nice to see you are back with us, sidi. How are you feeling?”
“I am perfectly fine,” I hid my shaking hands in the wide sleeves of my aba, and scowled indicating that any further questioning would be inappropriate. “It was a nasty spell but it is over now. What have you done, while I was ... recuperating?”
“We were about to try our chances with that alternative exit,” he coughed before continuing. “There was some shouting going outside but nobody tried to force the front door yet.”
I glanced at the entrance leading back to the antechamber - the massive door was now propped with marble benches, vases, and statuary that previously adorned the many niches along the walls. I had to give the boy his due - when his life was threatened, he was very thorough with his work. I mused on how many of these exquisite artifacts would survive the siege, if we were going to have one.
“I had explored the front chamber of the catacombs beyond - there is a lever on the other side that opens and closes the wall.” Kessen offered finally.
I looked at the arched aperture of the window above my head - the gray light of predawn poured through the iron grille, throwing a geometrically perfect shadowy pattern on the white-clad corpse, and the stone floor splattered with dried blood. Judging by the dimness of yellow radiance coming from the wall lanterns, the oil in their bronze bowels was almost gone. I must have been knocked out for the entire night. We did not have much time left before someone would try to enter the sanctuary to find out that the ‘blessed Zaureen’ was dead. I hoped that the spell of domination that the jahi had cast on the bard’s followers was broken with the death of its Chosen One. It was doubtful that the undead leech could renew it in its present state.
Unfortunately, it did not make our situation any less challenging. Left to their own devices, the cultists would descend into chaos. I had no idea how many of them were capable fighters but the young nomadic warriors that made Zaureen’s personal guard looked impressive, and the only magic I could use against them was the sleep charms. In addition, sooner or later someone would remember the infamous chests of gold, and that would be when the real trouble begins. I had no aspiration to stick around in the midst of the upcoming treasure hunt, especially since we were the last people who had seen Zaureen alive.
And then there was a matter of finding the jahi. The last thing I wanted was to wake up one morning and find the three-headed undead worm coiled around my neck. There was of course a chance that Addazahr would loose interest in me, or would not be able to follow in his weakened state, but I was not counting on it. The jealous outrage that I saw in Omwo’s eyes spoke volumes. The challenge was issued, and I knew I would not back off.
I raised my eyes, meeting Kessen’s gaze. “You must realize that the jahi is still out there waiting for us, my boy.”
He sighed but acknowledged the truth of it with a brief nod, and a flash of a smile that showed two rows of even white teeth. “I will take my chances in the catacombs, if you will take the lead, sidi.”
“But of course,” I thought sarcastically, “and the golden glow of Addazahr’s coffers has nothing to do with it.”
“I take it, you understand that we have no other option but to follow the jovial fellow,” I said levelly. “Good. I don’t want to waste my time on discussions. We cannot possibly hope to fight our way out of here through the front door, and there should be a passage leading to the surface from the catacombs - the area is rigged with underground caverns and tunnels.” They both nodded their acquiescence.
“That magic you’ve used on the evil spirit, sidi ... can you do it again?” The boy asked after a brief moment of silence.
“Give me the Fiery Sleeper.”
Kessen raised an eyebrow in confusion.
“Urukaimar - the Fiery Sleeper,” I repeated tiredly. “The dagger has a name, as every enchanted weapon made by elves. The runes are only visible to the trained eye.”
“Is there anything you don’t know?” he muttered with astonishment, then gulped at the look at my face. “Forgive me, sidi. I did not mean it as a joke.” He came closer, offering me the blade. I wondered briefly how much information pertaining to my condition did the girl share with him, and looked at her questioningly. Mirriam frowned, and gave me a defiant stare. I shrugged. At least she was out of her crying mood.
I took the dagger hilt in my palm, caressing the etched runes, rolling my thumb over the outline of the sleeping griffin wrought into the hilt, and finally touching the bright orb of the sunstone. “Yes, I think I will be able to use it again if the need arises. The magic has replenished itself. What else did you find while I was ... resting?”
“A few magical trinkets and potions that you may find interesting,” Kessen shrugged. “Almost all of it was on her corpse. Our weapons and quivers were there too, in the pile of other junk, but no clothes or armor, only these cloaks. I think they are a ceremonial garb or something.”
I looked at him closer, suddenly finding the strength to laugh. With the thick velvet mantle of rather feminine design draped over the richness of his golden trousers, the boy looked like an expensive gigolo on a prowl. I tried not to look at his sister in her similar outfit, but the wicked smile was tugging at the corners of my mouth.
“How are you going to move silently in these ... pants?” I asked innocently. “Aren’t they making a lot of noise?”
“Don’t mock me, sidi,” the boy scowled ferociously, “or I will be tempted to force you to switch clothes, and sagirah may even help me do it!” he nodded at his sister.
“It will be the last act of your short wretched life,” I retorted coldly.
“You are joking, right?” But the doubt in his voice was unmistakable.
“Not at the slightest, and I should probably warn you in advance. If we are to travel together for a time -
do not try any of your usual tricks with me, sidi.” I made an emphasis on the title. “Or you are going to be very sorry indeed.”
“Are you about done insulting and threatening each other?” Mirri’s eyes flashed with annoyance. All that time she was simmering quietly, watching us much like an angry hawk or a falcon would watch a pair of bats in flight, trying to contemplate how these two furred, clawed critters can share the ether with it. “We have no time for this comedy, as you well know yourself, Jon-Jon! Are you strong enough to walk? No, I am not going to ask what caused your sickness.”
“I told you he had cast the spell on me!”
“Really?” the girl raised an eyebrow, much in the same manner as her twin. “I have not seen him doing anything of a kind but if you say so…”
I stared back at her vehemently. Mirri blinked and averted her eyes. “You are a very bad liar, Jon-Jon. But I guess I should let the matter rest. I was only wondering in case it may happen again.”
She blushed angrily, and wrapped the tip of her long braid around her fingers, as was her custom, and I noted with strange satisfaction that her hair was neatly pleated once more. I remembered the feel of that silky rope in my hand, and almost smiled seeing her tugging at it viciously.
“It will not happen again,” I answered defiantly. “If you need to worry about something - worry about how we are going to get out. I am healthy enough.”
To prove my point I pushed myself up carefully, first raising to my knees, and then forcing my body upright. My feet were wobbly but I managed it without help from either of the twins, staring them down to prevent any intervention. Indeed, I felt much better already, and my headache was subsiding rapidly. The few hours of rest that I snatched in my blackout helped to restore the clarity of my mind that was lost after almost two days of marching through the desert, with only a short period of sleep at the twin’s campsite.
Luckily, they had enough sense to leave me some clean water in the bronze carafe that was sitting on the small table by Zaureen’s ostentatious throne. I pretended that I did not care for their indiscretion, as I dampened my face and run fingers through the tangled mane of my hair. Taking care of myself under their direct stares irked me to no end. I suppose, they were only worried about me fainting again, but I was fuming inwardly at this unwarranted attention.
“Is it how you are going to behave from now on?” I snapped after finishing my ablutions. “Will you follow me to the privy as well, to make sure I am all right?”
“Now, there is no need for that, sidi.” Kessen chortled. “Although my sister may have other ideas. You can use one of the smaller anterooms, by the way. But you’ve scared us witless with that latest stunt. I have to admit - I had no idea what to do with your lifeless carcass, and Mir almost clawed my eyes out when I only hinted on leaving you behind.”
I looked them both over appraisingly. I never had any doubt that the boy would desert me at first opportunity if I were left unconscious in his care. I did not blame him for this - it was in the nature of mortals. If not for his sister’s cunning tactics, I may have done the same thing to him. But finding out that Mirriam went into a direct confrontation with her twin over me was surprising. Maybe I underestimated the strength of her character, or her affection. This required further exploration, I decided swiftly, remembering my idea of influencing her using her amorous attraction to me. Perhaps, maintaining this fantasy was in my prime interest in case I would have another seizure. And if it could gain me some degree of control over her brother as well ... I concluded that I would survive a little game of dalliance. The girl was not particularly ugly or stupid for a human. In fact, she was quite attractive, and her short-lived fancy may be the very thing that will keep me alive until I find the way to counteract the geas. She will get over it eventually with no harm to herself, as I would be in control and will never allow the things to develop too far. Yes, staying coolheaded and controlling your emotions were the most important things when dealing with affection. And worthless as my life has become, I still had desire to live, if only to find out what had happened to me after the desecration of the Tree of Life, and if restoration of my former self was still possible.
Sorting out Kessen’s horde of small magical treasures proved to be more fruitful than I’ve anticipated. There were minor healing potions in the familiar vials of thick green glass, (Mirri confessed that they poured one down my throat while I was unconscious, and that probably explained the awful taste in my mouth), a strange murky concoction that I was able to identify as a potion of invisibility, and another vial of white porcelain containing the yellow smoking liquid that I classified as an elixir of speed. It was anybody’s guess why would Zaureen keep all these bottles at hand, while engaged in her nighttime activities. But the main prizes of that collection were the periapt of protection from charm that I tossed into Kessen’s hands with a chuckle after explaining him what it does, and a slim wand with a symbol of twining flames, carved into the polished rosewood. That one I saved for myself, as neither of the twins would be able to use it anyway. The wand of fireballs was a remarkable weapon, and since its magic was not my own I hoped, I could use it without adverse effects even when facing a living, humanoid foe. (I was wrong again, as the later events proved unequivocally; my curse was more subtly crafted and versatile than anything I could have imagined.)
By the time I was done going through the magical junk, the grayness outside acquired a rose tint, and the oil lanterns became extinguished one by one. We had no time to loose. The twins collected their gear, wrapping themselves tightly into their cloaks, and strapping the knives and short swords to various places on their bodies. The potion bottles were divided equally between the three of us, and my leather flask was filled with remaining water. We had no food, but that could not be helped. When they finished their preparations, the brother and sister looked a formidable pair, bristling with weapons attached to every visible spot. I had to admit that it compensated somewhat for their lack of clothes. But their half-naked limbs were dangerously exposed to the elements, and I was positive that the clinking of chains in their garments would give us away to anything lurking in these tunnels from two miles away.
There was also a matter of light, or to be more accurate, the lack of it. The room beyond the rotating wall was huge, judging by the echoes that any small sound would make reflecting from invisible walls lost in the darkness. It was also completely devoid of light. I was the only one with eyes sensitive enough to navigate in that space, relying on the feeble glare coming from the narrow entrance. Yet, we would have to close the passage behind us to conceal our means of escape, and thus remove our only source of illumination. The oil lanterns in the sanctuary were too bulky to be carried underground and we had no time, nor resource to make enough torches, or to re-light them if they go out in the catacombs.
Thus, we had to rely on magic. The task had pleased me, as it was always the case when I could display my skill before the audience easily impressed by the arcane, even when the spell itself was as primitive as the light cantrip. Lacking a staff or a rod, I resorted to casting it on one of Mirri’s arrows, and enjoyed the expression of childish delight on her pretty face when a tongue of cold magical flame leapt from the tip of her missile, and bloomed into a crown of steady white radiation. She accepted the glowing arrow with a strange little smile, and I thought that she held it like a rare blossom rather than a simple torch, even magical by nature. Maintaining the spell required minimal concentration, and I was pleasantly surprised at how easily the threads of magic knotted into a sturdy permanent weave inside my mind. I was positive I could sustain that enchantment for hours, which should have been impossible for an apprentice mage of my level.
Once inside the dark vault, Kessen located the lever that triggered the mechanism of the secret door, and activated it. The wall rumbled, and rolled back hiding the exit. We were now on our own in the tunnels haunted by the jealous ghost of the undead cleric.
We’ve found ourselves in a chamber roughly rectangular in shape, with many dark and narrow cul-de-sacs occupied by stone coffins extending in every direction, rather like many appendages of an octopus or similar amorphous creature. In the very middle of it squatted a four-sided basin, devoid of water or any other liquid. It was decorated with bas-reliefs of waves, playful dolphins, and other watery creatures. A tall obelisk that once upon a time served as a base of a fountain rose mournfully from its center. Each side of the stone pyramid was marked with a pictogram glorifying various aspects of water - an angry profile of a rising wave, a simplified double arch of a fountain, a single raindrop round at the bottom and peaked to a sharp point at the tip, and finally, a curly beard of a river rushing down in mad excess of a waterfall.
I trailed a hand across deeply engraved letters that spelled the name of the deity, in whose name that altar was once consecrated. “It looks like my friend Aluril was once venerated as one of many aspects of Istishia.”
“And who would that be, sidi?” Kessen asked sincerely. “A demon lord or a godling?”
I looked at him with a strange mixture of amusement and pity. Truly, he was a child of this dry land, so deprived of water that even the name of one of the four Elemental Lords ruling its aspect invoked nothing but remote curiosity.
“Istishia, the Water Lord, is the God ruling over the Plane of Water. But some of the human tribes consider him a female deity.” I answered mechanically, wondering - how by the Abyss did I know these facts? “It looks like this place was once his shrine; or maybe the temple dedicated to the Water Woman was built on the ruins of older construction. I cannot be sure. This place was not always a desert. Once upon a time, it might have been green and wet. I certainly hope that this basement is connected with the underground cave complex that permeates the entire area under the ridge. I’ve seen many entrances to these caves on my way out of Aluril’s oasis, and they were without doubt made by the flow of rushing water. There maybe even some hidden springs and pockets of moisture. The air definitely smells odd here.”
“That it does, sidi, you are right.”
“I know about Istishia,” Mirriam snorted. Her eyes were sparkling with laughter in the uneven light of the magic torch. “Unlike this desert rat I’ve spent the whole year in the real coastal city, squeezed between the sea and the mouth of the river. I’ve even been to Myratma and Zazesspur twice.”
“That was the year when the Black Dustan’s gang tried to take over our territory,” Kessen shrugged. “Precisely why Father sent you to Memnon, away from trouble.”
“But it was hardly a quiet girls-only institute,” the sister retorted, and giggled mischievously. “That was what he told Ma. In reality, it was one of the best assassin training schools along the coast, and it was the happiest time of my life. Well, almost,” she blushed suddenly.
“We have no time for this,” I interrupted her - then remembered my resolution. “You must have liked it there indeed…Mani naa ta?... feith ... perhaps, you can share some stories with us later?”
She gleamed with unexpected pleasure and nodded silently. I mentally praised myself for finally finding a way to deal with her. Ed’ i’ear ar’ elenea! A diplomacy may succeed were a simple reason won’t. If I can manipulate the girl’s feelings, her brother would be more manageable too.
We had searched the fountain chamber for clues and directions, and finally decided it was just a huge pantheon for deceased priests of Istishia. Being a neutral god of a remote disposition, the Water Lord did not compel his followers to perform any atrocities so common to the darker human cults. And so, the skeletal remains of his clerics rested in peace in their placid sarcophagi, ornamented with sculptures of fish, octopi, and other aquatic critters. Except the one that was empty.
Mani naa ta – what is it (elv)
feith – wait (elv.)
Ed’ i’ear ar’ elenea! – by the sea and stars (elv.)