Highharvestide 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp

I was certain that the missing cadaver was that of my covetous adversary – reverend Addazahr. His coffin did not look any different from the other sturdy stone boxes, carved soundly yet blandly from the cheap grey shale that was abundant in the area, and decorated with usual piscine motifs. I noted however, that even the fish on his coffer looked jaded and disappointed but perhaps it was just a play of my imagination that was running wild these past few days. I thought if that obvious lack of distinction, even after death, was the last bit of indignity that had driven the crooked spirit of the forlorn cleric to its final transformation into the vengeful undead, and found myself puzzled and annoyed at his dogged pursuit of the oracle and her revelations. If I could, I would have traded her enigmatic prophesy and my hopeless quest for the solid stability of intact memories. But the jahi obviously had different views on the matter. I wondered briefly if both of us were indeed cursed by Aluril, as each one coveted something that the other considered inconsequential nonsense.

Yet, what did I know of the ways of spirits and their fate after a morbidly fascinating transition that we call ‘death’? Only that every single soul would be summoned and sorted out according to its personal beliefs, and thus would gain what it ultimately deserved. The jahi had chosen to give up his promise of paradise for the last chance of snatching his heart’s desire by the throat. My own situation was even more fantastic, and I was hardly the right person to judge the deceased. What the oracle had told me about myself sounded strange even by the highly flexible mystical standards of this world. Supposedly, I was granted a mortal soul after losing my elven spirit. Yet, how was this even possible, without losing my personality as well? I had no answer. Perhaps, the ways of the divine were not meant to be understood by mortals. Therefore, the only way to perceive the ultimate meaning and the workings of the Universe would be to become a god yourself, which brought me back to the issue of my original ‘sin’. Was it ultimately ‘bad’ to strive for absolute knowledge? Or was it only bad for an intelligence born into a mortal body, and being a divinity de-facto erased that barrier, thus freeing you from the bonds of morality? Go figure ... Although the choices that Addazahr had made for himself did not work too well either.

I shuddered, snapping out of my uneasy reverie, and surveying the cell. The lid of the sarcophagus was hurled to the floor and cracked, as if in a violent outburst of temper, but the coffin itself was empty. Mirri had finished searching the tomb. So far, her only discoveries were a few scraps of fabric, too old to discern their origin, and an elaborate hairpin, bent and rusted but decorated with gilt and faux gems of multicolored glass. I wondered if the bauble was dropped by Zaureen on her first visit to this place.

“They did not even bother to trap it,” the girl snorted her disapproval at the obvious lack of ‘professionalism’ in the Addazahr’s final arrangements. 

“Probably because there was nothing valuable there at there first place,” Kessen replied, “I checked the other coffins, they did not even put the usual few coppers to pay for your crossing into the otherworld.”

“They had different beliefs, blockhead! Perhaps their souls go straight to the Plane of Water?” Mirri smiled briefly at her twin, and I noticed that her spirits improved significantly after that brief intermission at the dried up fountain. “By the Lady Who Smiles - what a strange place to look forward to.”

“Wet and sluggish, eh? Let the Lady Luck save us from such a fate.” Kessen made a sign to avert evil, and I wondered if they both were tymorans, as such faith was very suitable for their respective choice of professions.

“Look, sagirah! I knew Tymora would not let us down.” The boy raised his hand triumphantly and I noticed that he was holding a strip of brilliant green silk. “I suspected the blasted munchkin would be drawn to his lair. See - it is stained with blood, I wonder which one of us has got him at the end?”

“I did,” she girl muttered unhappily. “I saw him squirm as my blade cut into him. I had no choice, and I suppose he is better dead than carrying that thing on his chest. Still, I hope we can avoid killing him when we find them.”

“You and your bloody sentiments again,” Kessen scowled. “You see, sidi - she is hopeless. One wonders, what did they teach you in that school of yours? How to pluck roses and retrieve lost kittens?”

“Every job could be done with minimal bloodshed,” she shrugged. “That was what our class master used to tell us anyway. There is no need for excess violence. In fact if you like killing too much, you will never make a true professional.”

“Did you ever kill anybody, or it was all just talking and looking at your navel?”

“Learning how to meditate and relax your muscles is a must, if you need to get through a particularly narrow spot, or wiggle out of the ropes, when you are captured and tied up,” she answered stubbornly. “And no, I did not kill anybody yet. Though I did take part in a very dangerous mission that involved tickling some lazy merchant’s belly with a sharp point of my dagger. Luckily for me, the fellow just fainted on a spot,” she smiled at the memory. You see, the first years are not required to kill, and I never made it to the graduation thanks to Ma’s panic attack.”

“I bet you will be throwing up your dinner all over the place after your first human,” he muttered. “I did, anyway. Just pretend it is a tree stump or a sack of grain, and don’t faint on us,” The boy threw a quick glance in my direction and I felt like he was calculating if I was capable of killing. That look made me feel extremely uncomfortable. “You will get used to it, sagirah. Leave the halfling to me. I shall take care of him, and our magician can handle the worm.”

“She is right.” I decided it was time to squash their brewing discontent. “If we can incapacitate the halfling without killing him and dispose of his parasite, it would be the best solution. Since he was Zaureen’s right hand, he should know his way around this place better than anybody else, who is still among the living. Besides, I thought you were interested in finding that treasure.”

That sent the little wheels in his head spinning, and we were able to come with a decent plan of action afterwards. The bloodstains on the floor proved to be an efficient way to track the little actor across the endless corridors of the maze that began as soon after we exited the main chamber. Sometimes we had to stop and retrieve our steps to the stain we had marked last, but there was always another rusty brown speck to be found after a fork or a loop in the winding tunnel. After a while, I started to suspect that the jahi was leading us exactly where he wanted, and it made me uneasy. But since we had no other choice but to follow this path of ‘breadcrumbs’, I decided not to worry the twins with my suspicions since it would have made them more fretful than they already were. I could not blame them - ever since we left the stone paved burial hall, we had entered the nastiest part of the dungeon. The tunnels here were of gray and porous natural stone that had never seen the touch of a chisel, and they grew narrower and more desolate as we moved away from the temple grounds.

My speculation about all the tunnel network being a work of rushing water was confirmed by the smoothness of the curves, and unpredictable looping of our path. The air became dump and musty, which clearly pointed to the presence of water somewhere close. Every now and then, we would come upon a foul critter of one sort or another, a usual menace in such places. Rats and pale poisonous centipedes were as common here as snakes and lizards on the surface. At any rate, I was content that the twins took it upon themselves to dispose of this nuisance with swift, steady strikes of their knives. Once or twice, we were jumped by a nastier sort of vermin, which I classified as a rare semi-conscious life form known as jermlaine, and that Kessen called jinxkin. These were vicious little buggers about one foot tall and vaguely humanoid in shape, resembling bald mice standing upright, with tiny red eyes that were well adjusted to absolute darkness. They bit and scratched with utmost ferocity, and seemed particularly attracted to the twins jingling attire and the golden braid on my tunic. I was forced to defend us with a spray of magic missiles, regretful though it was to waste the arcane energy on this rubbish.

The tunnel winded forth and inclined downwards. For a moment, I had another spell of déjà vu; I knew if I closed my eyes, I could open them again in another place, lit with sputtering torches and smelling vaguely of rot and embalming fluid. There would be flashes of magic in the air, and a distant buzz of complex machinery, yet it would feel home. It was so persistent - I had to give up to it and shut my eyes for a brief second. Nothing happened but the feeling would not go away, and at the end only a gentle tug at my sleeve, accompanied by a jingle of golden chain broke the spell.

“Can you hear it, Jon-Jon?”

“What is it?” I growled, then shook off my fantasy and nodded, squeezing her hand in a brief gesture of apology. Daydreaming in the dungeons is a most dangerous habit. The girl looked at me mildly, but I could clearly see concern floating in the depth of her huge dark eyes.

“I think I can hear the sound of running water to the left,” she said simply, “and that is where the bloodstains are going.”

It was an underground river, dark and murky as sin, and yet all of a sudden I thought that this must be the same stream that washed over my unconscious body in the elemental pool a few days back. It seemed to me that ages have passed since I exited the weird’s abode, and yet it was less than three days ago that I was sitting at the bank of her pool thinking of exiling myself there forever. Just remembering what had come to pass since then made my head spin. The sluggish trickle of water filled the passage, spreading over the floor covered with gray pebbles, and leaving only a few wet patches of solid stone to thread on. We found the last rust-brown splotch at the very edge of the water. Any traces of blood further on would be washed away by the current.

 As we walked forward, carefully picking our path in the shallow water the steady glow of the magic torch reflected from the polished grey stone of the ceiling above, and played on the obsidian surface of the stream. I tested the water briefly - my fingers were chilled by the mere touch. Maybe the river was fed by cold underground springs that mixed with the warm currents coming from the surface. It reeked vaguely of iron and sulfur - a familiar bouquet of smells that I remembered from my swim in the elemental pool. Yet, there was something else coming from the passageway before us, a sweetly cloying odor of rotting flesh and, unmistakably, a fresher note of the surface air. I stopped abruptly, drawing attention of my companions with a sharp nod and a hiss. They froze in their tracks. It took me less than a second to cast a simple cantrip, and as a glow of a small flame enveloped my finger, I saw clearly that the fire wavered and bent forward. The air in the tunnel was moving, and that could only indicate one thing - we were coming to an opening into a larger cavern.

Kessen made a silent sign and disappeared into the dark mouth of the passage ahead. Mirri looked at me, and I could see that she was extremely annoyed at the notion of staying behind, and not being entrusted with this task. But her own role was no less important than her brother’s, and so she complied. Something stirred at the border of my awareness then, and vanished without a trace. I stood still, trying to discern the elusive sensory input. There was no mistake; I realized suddenly - far ahead of us, almost swallowed by the trickling and splashing noise of the river, I could barely hear a slow melody played on a simple wind instrument.

When the boy finally came back his face looked pale and upset. It was so unlike him that I wondered if he was under the charm spell again. But no, a metallic glitter of the amulet at his bare throat was still visible. It should have protected him from another psychic attack.

“What have you seen?”

“It is him, sidi. But Bane take me if I understand what is going on.” He described the situation briefly.

“I see,” I nodded my assent. “There is no other way but to follow our original plan. I will rely on you both.”

Kessen inclined his chin, briefly touching his forehead, then his heart with the tips of his fingers. I felt a stirring of unfamiliar feeling in my chest - was it gratitude for his unquestioning acceptance of my leadership? On the other hand, was it not natural for him to comply? I was his superior in matters such as designing and executing the stratagem. Never mind this - I thought briefly. I shall have to sort through these sentiments after the battle is done.

We advanced carefully with me in the lead, and the boy slightly behind carrying the torch. His sister followed at her own pace as it was planned. The tunnel narrowed then sharply turned left, and forked into two conduits – the left was dry and narrow, whereas the right one was filled to overflow with water. I looked at Kessen, and he silently pointed at the right arm. The river flowed that way, and there was also a faint glimmer of light coming from that direction. The reek of rotting flesh permeated the air, and the music was louder now, washing over us in waves of weeping sorrow. It was a simple melody, something akin to a lullaby or an evening prayer. Yet, its accords tapped into such a vast reservoir of loneliness and despair inside me that I staggered at the sound of it. My heart was pierced with an icy bolt of grief, my mind swathed with a thick blanket of apathy. I had to struggle against the strongest desire to sink into the cold water under our feet weeping at my misery. The boy touched me by the hand, silently pointing at his ears and his brow. His face was paler than a ghost’s, and I saw two shiny rivulets streaming down his cheeks. Fortunately, that was enough to snap me out of my dazed mood. He had warned me about the music, and it was my overconfidence that made me forget about the trap.

We pressed forward, ankle deep in rushing water, doing our best to ignore the numbing effects of the tune. I only hoped I wouldn’t have to endure it for long, for my ears were extremely sensitive, and the hidden musician was very good at what he was doing. The sight that greeted us at the next turn of the tunnel was something I am not likely to forget, even if I will live through another millennia, which is most unlikely although possible, and irrelevant to this part of the tale. The cavern that we entered was huge; its low ceiling hung with needle-like stalactites, and propped up with twisted pillars of stalagmites. Right in the middle, a bright spot highlighted the area where a narrow shaft pierced the roof of the cave bringing the inflow of outside air, and pale daylight. The current that we followed gathered into a narrow sleeve of foaming water, gathering speed and ferocity, and leapt into the deep crevasse that ran through the cavern floor effectively cutting off the larger portion of it. I could hear the noise that the stream was making as it hit the bottom of the rift down below, but it was too distant to interfere with the music that flooded the grotto with its crying cadences.

The floor of the cavern was strewn with bones. I observed with detached interest that these were mostly humanoid; but there were a few horned craniums of domestic cattle, and sad, long-faced skulls of equines. Some of these remains still had patches of flesh and sinew but all were in a badly decayed state, which was not surprising considering the moist atmosphere of the cave. So, this was the source of the stench - I noted absently. In the middle of that grisly display sat Omwo, pressing the fragile tubes of panpipes to his lipless mouth, and making my heart weep with sorrow at the sweet, poisonous melody that his clever little hands extracted from the instrument. The light pouring from the opening above filled the cavern with enough illumination to perceive the grisly details of the scene before us, although the portion of the cave cut away by the chasm was shadowed, and I had to strain my eyes to see the distant walls. At a first glance, it looked like the halfling and his parasite were the only inhabitants of the place.

“Will you be able to shoot this thing out of his hands?” I wheezed through clasped teeth. “I don’t think I can resist this tune much longer.”

“Here goes your professed desire for peaceful solution, sidi,” Kessen nodded with a sound that was intermediate between a chuckle and a sob. “I need to get closer.”

“I said – shoot it out of his hands, not kill him. I shall try to distract him for you.” I hissed back, straightening to my full height and walking towards our foe. Every step was a challenge, as I had to fight back the desire to drop down on my knees and weep at my misery.

 “Greetings, reverend Addazahr!” I cried mockingly, when I noticed that the halfling spotted my approach. “Would you like to continue our little discussion? I have to admire your talent, but this jingle is rather trying on my nerves.”

Omwo did not stop playing but gave me a sharp nod of his bald, egg-shaped head.

“If you grovel soundly enough, I may spare you the worst,” Addazahr’s voice undulated in my mind, “I knew you’d come, even if it took you all night to find me. Welcome to my humble abode, worm. Do you like it here?”

Unfortunately, this telepathic exchange did not stop him from continuing his wicked tune. I cringed but quickly gathered my wits.

“It is a bit drafty in here, and your taste in furnishing is ... peculiar. But I cannot argue with your choice of locale. The waterfall sure beats the tasteless little box with ersatz fish they originally put you in, and I suppose one can get used to sleeping among the rotting goat carcasses.”

“I knew you would like it here, my dear boy. You are fascinated with death, are you not? A remarkable trait for one of your kind. I am the one who can bring you peace, you know.”

Fortunately for me, by that time Kessen had crept close enough to shoot. An arrow whistled by, and I heard a brief cry of pain and a clattering noise that the instrument made falling among the pile of bones. I dived for it, colliding with the halfling in mid-air, and sending his plump little body in the opposite direction. Omwo yelped and jumped to his feet cursing and spitting, even as I grabbed the fragile construction of ivory tubes and brass and hurled it into the dark stream.

“You will pay for this fallacy!”

“It looks like my list of offenses is growing very fast,” I responded catching my breath and starting to cast.

There was one simple cantrip that I could use on the fiend without hurting his host, and I intended to give it a try, to buy us time. The ray of positive energy spread from my palms as I finished the spell, connecting with the halfling’s chest. It did not do anything to Omwo’s living body but I felt a silent howl of pain from the undead ringing inside my head. As the little actor jumped away clutching at his breast, I followed with a second casting of disrupt undead spell, driving him further back.

“Kri-Niss! Come to your master’s defense!” Omwo yelled suddenly. Unlike the telepathic communications of Addazahr, the halfling’s voice sounded shrill and frightened. I wondered briefly, if we would have time to finish the job before his summons would be answered. The name sounded rather intriguing.

“Kri-Niss!” he yelped again, scrambling among the loose fragments of rock, broken ribcages, and misshapen lumps of calcite that covered the cavern floor. I followed him at a small distance, cursing at the ineptness of my helpers, and wondering what took the girl so long, when the small figure of a halfling stopped abruptly and squirmed, choking and scratching at his throat. Gradually, as the effect of the invisibility potion wore off, Mirri’s shape became visible behind Omwo, her hands firmly holding the ends of the garrote looped around the halfling’s plump neck. His face turned purple, his eyes bulged as he convulsed and went limp in her hands. At that moment, the coil of iridescent green sprang from his chest, aiming at her. She was agile enough to jump back with a startled cry, and the crippled ghost landed on the floor, wiggling and coiling in impotent fury.

“Kri-Niss! You, treacherous bastard! I shall turn you inside out, before flaying your striped hide and tying your bleeding carcass into a thousand knots!”

It was a very odd threat indeed but I had no time to think about it, as my target was finally free of its living perch. Quickly I hit the jahi with every magic missile I could master, trying to confuse the already weakened worm and prevent him from slipping away. Simultaneously, my right hand pulled out the dagger, briefly stroking the rune etched into the hilt. This time I had enough sense to shut my eyes before invoking the sunbolt spell, though first I made sure that the undead was well within its range.

Its dying shriek reverberated inside my skull. I quickly opened my eyes to see the jahi dissolve into a greenish pool of sludge, and then evaporate into a cloud of mist. Something told me that this time the job was done properly, but I crouched over a quickly disappearing green smear, just to make sure it was not coming back.

“Ssstt, you’ve finished my foolishsh masster, little two legss!” It was a strange voice, full of hissing consonants, and so alien that I shivered with revulsion at the very sound of it.

My head snapped up, even as I jumped back to my feet, clutching the blade in my hand. Most likely it would be useless against the thing that was hovering over the edge of the crevice, right at the place where the waterfall was falling from the cliff. It resembled a very large snake. Its body was thick as a tree trunk, and was covered in repeating charcoal black and bright crimson stripes. Its hide glistened wetly, as it coiled and uncoiled under a spray of foaming dark water, clearly enjoying itself. Yet, its head was round and prominent, with vaguely humanoid features on a scaly noseless face.

“How nassty of you, my ssweet little morsselss! Poor Kri-Niss would have to hunt for hisss fresh meat now, but at leasst he sshall be free! I almosst feel ssorry to finissh your livess, little humanss. But Kri-Niss needs hisss sssusstenansse.”

“What is it, Jon-Jon?” Mirri wondered in a high childish voice. I gave her a sharp glance and noticed that she was staring at the snake-like creature with eyes full of excited wonder. “I want to touch it. Yes, it looks so ... wonderful.”

“Yess, come closser my little ssnack,” the Naga (for I finally identified him as a spirit variety of the infamous family of aberrations) hissed excitedly. “We will have sso many interessting ssthingss to disscuss with you my pressciousss!”

The girl walked forward with an absent look in her eyes, and a sweet transfixed smile on her face. For a second, I was almost tempted to let her go to him (and I wondered later if I should have) but I suppose a common sense prevailed over another fit of irritation, and I grabbed her by the ankle, sending her tumbling to the floor, and yelled at the top of my lungs for her brother to wake up and shoot. Fortunately, the Naga’s suggestion spell was directed at Mirri alone, as Kessen responded with a barrage of arrows, aiming at the creature’s head. Some of them had found their target and were now sticking out of the monster’s hide like needles of a porcupine. Regrettably, neither one of them hit any critical spot.

The Naga hissed and answered with a spray of multicolored radiance, which flashed from his mouth like a fan of quivering rainbows, and covered the entire area in dazzling, scintillating lights. I barely had time to duck behind the nearest stone, recognizing it for what it was, but the boy was not so lucky. I could hear him screaming in anguish as he rolled on the floor, tearing at his eyes. Mirriam was in no better condition as she still was dazed from her unanticipated fall when the color spray hit, blinding, and stunning her instantly.

At that moment I realized with some grim satisfaction that our only chance of survival rested (yet again) on my shoulders, and mused fleetingly at the hidden humor of Aluril’s warped prophesy. Did I have to attach myself to the pair of young fools, whilst all they were capable of was getting themselves captured, and incapacitated at every turn? Kri-Niss was obviously a powerful mage, and his repertoire of spells was broader than mine. I did not stand a chance of winning that duel. All I had were a few cantrips that were insufficient to kill the thing, even if I managed to hit him every time with them. And I bet that the Naga had some magic resistances. I could grind my teeth in frustration and whine at the misfortune of loosing my magic again, or I could try to use my superior intellect and think. The only weapon that would be any good against the monster was strapped to my belt, next to the dagger sheath. As I pulled the wand of fireballs out of its case, I grinned at the subtle irony. The jahi himself supplied me with the weapon of choice against his pet, for I had no doubt now that Addazahr kept the Spirit Naga as a guardian of his hoard, providing him with food and entertainment in return. The Nagas would eat almost everything, preferring a slightly ‘ripened’ flesh to fresh one, and savoring the humanoid meat as true gourmands.

I clutched the wand tightly, daring to raise my head above the rock that served me as a shelter. Kri-Ness was lowering himself on the edge of the crevice, preparing to sink his poisonous fangs into the closest immobilized victim. I shook my head, smiling sardonically at the Naga, and sent the first fireball flying. The effect was beyond my wildest expectations. I managed to hit the Naga’s body with a flying fire seed that immediately expanded into a roaring sphere of fire, engulfing the monster and everything within twenty feet in hot waves of flame. Luckily for the twins, they were far enough from the edge of the rift, and lying flat on the ground. The girl moaned and stirred as her cloak caught fire, and started to roll away from the edge, beating at her clothes. Her chained outfit was torn and twisted but at least it was inflammable. Her brother was in no better condition but he managed to scramble on all fours and crawl behind the nearest stone.

Kri-Ness cried in a high ululating pitch, and dived back into the waterfall, away from the cliff edge. He was badly burnt, and his brightly colored hide hung in blackened patches from his charred body. How did he manage to maintain his flying spell was a mystery. Perhaps, it was a specially trained ability. I smiled briefly, congratulating myself on the first success, and rushed to the side of the rift to finish the job. I knew my next attack would be lethal but needed a closer range, as the Naga was hiding in the cloud of mist rising from the stream of falling water that would soothe the effect of the second fireball. I saw him hovering in the midst of the water spray, with rainbows playing across his once black and scarlet, banded skin that was now smoking black ruin. His mane of coarse red hair was badly singed, and partially missing. His eyes were round and yellow, lacking the pupils and eyelids, and they stared into mine in intense puzzlement, as if trying to comprehend the audacity of the prey that was fighting back. I decided it would be the last question that his strange mind would have to ponder on in this life, and quickly raised the wand for a second strike. The Naga’s forked tongue flicked in and out of his mouth cavity, chanting an incantation, even as I pointed the wand at his face and activated the spell.

We finished almost at the same time, and I saw the Naga’s body explode in flames, even as a streak of crimson, brighter than a rivulet of molten lava, spread from his mouth enveloping me in a deadly wave of fire. I screamed in fear and pain, raising my hands protectively over my face, and dropping the wand. My clothes combusted. I could feel the skin of my arms blistering and burning under the intense heat of arcane fire. My own fireball spell backfired, adding to the devastation. My mind played a strange trick on me then, as I suddenly remembered myself falling into an infinitely deep chasm filled with liquid fire. Another memory flooded over the first stream of images, and I felt face forward into the rift before me, expecting a sharp spear of the broken tree branch to pierce my stomach, but finding only the wet hissing of mist washing over my falling body.

I hit the pond below head first, entering the ice-cold water, and giving myself to the boiling darkness of oblivion. The Naga never even reached the bottom, as I found later. His body simply disintegrated from the intense heat of the second fireball, and rained down in heaps of ash and flakes of blackened skin.

I came back to my senses deep under water, rolling helplessly in the cold currents of the underground pool. My lungs were about to explode but I could not see the surface in any direction, as everything around me was a rush of black water. When my head finally hit the surface, it was a pure luck more than any conscious choice of direction. I gulped the air like the most precious gift ever given to me, bobbing on my back among the boiling currents and incessant noise of the falling water. Now I could see the vague outline of the cliff edge very far above. But the true height of the wall from which I had fallen was hidden from my eyes by the semi-darkness. Later I estimated the depth of the chasm as reaching forty to fifty feet. I needed light badly to be able to get out, and the only spell I could think of at the moment that could work in this abysmally wet and cold place, was the flare cantrip. It would create an instantaneous flash that would last only a second, and that could blind you efficiently, if you are not careful about its location. I lowered my eyelids and concentrated on the faraway spot in the direction of the looming cliff.

The darkness exploded with white radiance. For a fleeting second, I could see the irregular pattern of pool’s shoreline, the dark, semi-transparent column of the waterfall cast in black glass, and a flash of golden chainmail as a slim body plunged into the water next to me, sending cascades of foam and small waves in all directions. I swore passionately, and tried to think of anything I wanted less than diving into the deep numbing cold of the pool again. I could not even see which one of the twins had followed me down, but was certain that he (or she) was doomed without my help. The chainmail could drown even the best swimmer in a situation less challenging than falling head first from the fifty feet cliff into an unknown reservoir below. Still, did I have any choice? Was I ever given any choice after a certain step was taken? I took a few slow, deep breaths and dived in the general direction of the fallen body. The swirling currents took me into their cold embrace, dragging me down, turning me around like a puppet, forcing me to open my mouth and take a lungful of cold, stinging death. I groped for anything that was not hard stone and water, finding nothing by emptiness on my first attempt. My wet hair was plastered all over my face when I was forced to surface after the first time, gasping for air and dodging the cold heavy spray falling from above.

I managed to pull Mirri’s lifeless form to the surface on my second dive. Her body was cold and slippery as a dead fish, and I dragged her to the small isle, sticking from the center of the pool under the waterfall like a lonely tooth. I could only praise the Gods that neither of us had landed on it. It was a solid piece of rock, consisting mostly of sharp edges and narrow slippery flats, and covered with foul-smelling sludge. Her face was cold, same as her hands and feet, and I could not even see her well in the darkness, and recognized it was she and not her brother, only by the shape of her slim body under my fingers. The girl was almost naked to the touch of my hands, as her ridiculous attire that was not much to begin with was further messed by her fall. I grabbed her hands in my aching, burnt ones – they were cold as two small icicles. Her heart was still beating but each pulse came slowly, and feebly. She needed warmth badly, though most of all she needed to start breathing again. I turned her on her stomach, hoping that the water that she swallowed would leak out of her nose and mouth. It did not work. There was only one thing left to do, and I cringed even as I thought of it. There is no other way, I reminded myself as I clumped my mouth over her cold lips forcing the air from my lungs into hers. On the third attempt, Mirri stirred and coughed, snapping her eyes open and sending a shiver down my spine, as her invisible lashes brushed over my cheek. I recoiled, pulling myself away from her swiftly, and turning her on her side. She spewed water, coughing and shaking violently. For a time I held her firmly in my hands, letting her free her lungs of excess fluid. My singed skin started to burn again, now that I was out of the cold water, and the very thought of casting another fire spell made me sick, even as I tried to think of what to do next.

“Jon,” she finally whispered in a voice that was a shadow of its normal self. “When I saw you fall, I thought you were finally done for, but I needed to know for sure... that was why I jumped.” Her teeth chattered, interrupting that rather pathetic recital. “I am glad you’ve pulled me out. You know, I cannot swim.”

“Then why did you follow?” I wanted to ask harshly but could not. Instead, I lowered my face to hers, finding it more by touch than by any other sensation, and planted my lips on her cold trembling ones, giving her a long skillful kiss, that sent tremors through her entire body, and finally brought a wave of heat to her cold cheeks, and the icy palms of her hands.

I should not have done it. There was no desire for her in my flesh - only a cold, calculating amusement.



Last modified on April 12, 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Janetta Bogatchenko. All rights reserved.