1201, The Year of Embers
On the fourth day of Velemir’s lonely and unhappy wait, there came the morning when he could not contain his anxiety any longer. The Ithilnien treehouse felt like a crypt, its inhabitants gliding past each other more like polite ghosts than the hospitable and courteous family that had met the two friends on the first day of their arrival at Suldanesselar. Yave stopped talking to Bodhi, and her few very short appearances at home in between trysts with her new champion dragged by in the atmosphere of frozen hostility, and poorly hidden contempt from both sides. Bodhi, on the other hand, was strangely content, and glowed with some deeply hidden satisfaction. Perhaps, it was the sight of her smug, jubilant face that drove Yave mad, although her sister’s happiness could not have come from her love life, for Keth’roen had disappeared altogether as Yave told Velemir secretly. There were stories that he had left the city for good, and moved into one of the smaller settlements down in the Sulduskan valley. And Vel doubted that Jon’s prolonged absence was the reason for Bodhi’s cheerfulness either.
Lady Nyonin was visibly upset by these sudden developments but instead of forcing the resolution, resorted to withdrawing to her rooms, leaving her unruly daughters to settle the issue all by themselves. It was very obvious that her mind was not on them and their petty quarrel. The city was aflame with strange rumors about Joneleth and the queen but the elder wizardess refused to utter any opinion on the matter, although her brow often creased in worry. Did she disapprove of Ellesime? Velemir could not answer. But he wondered if her apparent preference of the firstborn son had played a role in the sisters’ discord. Vel could feel the roots of Joneleth’s profound egotism, and arrogant indifference to other’s concerns and opinions in this carefully masked but undeniable adoration by his mother. Not that this was not often this way in other families he knew, but in Jon’s case it was exacerbated by his father’s early demise, whom he resembled very much as Vel had found later, and his mother’s coolness toward her female children. And Joneleth’s sisters were not much help in curbing his ego. Despite Yave and Bodhi’s open conflict with each other, and their displeasure over Lady Nyonin’s favoritism of Jon, each one was awaiting his return wistfully, as if their brother’s mere appearance would settle their grudge, and miraculously restore peace in the house. Velemir could swear Bodhi had some other agenda, but on the surface at least, she was a loving sister concerned over her brother’s prolonged absence.
The half-elf sighed, poking at his food that tasted like wood shavings this morning, and put away his fork looking at the entrance of the spacious dining room. Being unable to fall asleep half of the night, he was unusually late, and thus was forced to take his repast alone. The rest of the family had already finished their morning meal, as he was informed by a cheerful wood sprite serving as a host. The tree spirits were Lady Nyonin’s helpers and generally, you were never alone in the house, as you could always have a chat with one of them, (if you could withstand their constant giggling and flighty conversation).
“Nobody is eating today,” the sprite complained to Vel suddenly. “The young master is back, and everybody lost their appetites. All the nice food is wasted. I should ask him to go away again!”
“What did you just say?” Velemir asked evenly. His heart jumped into his throat but his voice sounded strangely composed, even to himself.
“Young master Joneleth returned home this morning,” the sprite cocked his small, elongated head with sharp, alien features to one side, and smirked at Vel’s expression. “He is resting in his quarters!” he yelled at the half-elf’s back but Vel was already running up the stairs, jumping over three steps at a time.
The house was strangely quiet. Nobody stopped him at the door of Joneleth’s studio, and that was why Vel was able to have a look at what normally was considered a very private affair – an elf in a reverie. In a room that passed for a bedroom, Jon was sprawled on a low oval bed that looked more like an extension of the wall than a piece of furniture. His bright eyes were wide open, staring steadily at the high ceiling above; his hair was strewn in disarray around his acutely exhausted face like a silver halo, or else a cloud of pure light. For the half-elf’s untrained eye, his friend looked almost like he was dead, or at least passed into a deep coma. But a closer look revealed an occasional raise of Jon’s chest, and a deeply sensual, satiated smile playing on the moon elf’s pale lips did not leave any doubt about the nature of his dreams.
Velemir retreated shamefacedly, almost tripping over the inconveniently placed bench in process, and closed the door behind him with a feeling of having peeped into something inappropriate. Later that night, he asked Joneleth about the approximate time of their departure back to Evereska. The elf smiled lazily, and said that Vel should consider accepting the queen’s offer of a residency, and a position at her court.
“Besides,” he added after some thought, “Is there anything that you can learn in the Academy that I cannot teach you better all by myself? You will be the only apprentice and assistant I will ever need, Velemir Rielev. And I promise to be a very lenient master.” Jon finished that little speech with a hearty chuckle, and winked at his suddenly quiet young friend.
“You are serious about it, are you Joneleth?” Velemir inquired in a shaky voice. “It would be too cruel to joke with me like this.”
“I am deadly serious,” Jon nodded. “You can stay in our house until you decide to get a place of your own. And if you are worried about your belongings – we can send a letter to the Academy and to your parents, and have your stuff delivered here within a few months. Or I can fetch your gear when I decide to go back for a few days. I would probably need to retrieve some of my more expensive books and equipment.”
“You know how I feel about you,” Velemir replied, blushing like a rose. “I could not even fantasize about being your only apprentice. Seriously, I feel like every dream that I have ever had has suddenly become true. You won’t be sorry, that much I can promise! I will stay loyal to you till the rest of my natural life and beyond.” Later on, the half-elf could not fathom what possessed him to blurt out that latest reassurance. It was like a sudden shadow that fell over him, and saddened that otherwise perfect moment. Luckily, it passed as quickly as it came.
“You are too darn serious for your tender age,” Jon answered with a mischievous smirk, and ruffled Vel’s curly dark hair. “You should be thinking of girls and dancing, and some such nonsense, not your potential demise. We are too young to worry about these things in high summer, when there is love and happiness in the air, and every leaf in the high forest is bursting with life. There will be time enough to think about departures later.”
“Well, I do not possess your exceptional optimism and virility,” Vel chuckled in return. “The whole city is buzzing with gossip of your exploits. Tell me, Jon, is it true that nobody saw you or the queen outside her bedroom for the entire episode of your stay in the palace?”
Highharvestide 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
She clung to me like a drowning sailor to a piece of flotsam, a highly appropriate comparison in her condition, albeit the danger of slipping back into the turbulent waters of the pool under the waterfall was slim, as the surface we were resting on was relatively flat, if slippery. I could feel the quick running of her pulse under my hurting fingers, and the sudden heat suffusing her entire body made me wince, for the pain in my burnt digits was too acute to ignore it. The girl felt my sudden discomfort, and broke the kiss that was becoming too protracted for her to breathe properly.
“Are you badly hurt, Jon-Jon? I am sorry I forgot about your burns. That was a terrible sight – you were blazing like a torch.”
She was out of breath, and her voice was quivering badly. That fact made me wonder, whether despite her enticing exterior she had had any sensual experience at all. It would be extremely awkward to find out that she was still a virgin, I thought impassively. In her eagerness to give me more room, Mirri tried to disentangle herself, and almost slid from the rock. I had to catch her and pull her back, hurting myself even worse in process, and muttering something incomprehensible that may have closely resembled a curse. She tensed but this time stayed still, thanks the Gods. By that time, my skin was hurting in too many places to care about any particular spot. I was mostly concerned about my hands. If I get lesions from these burns, casting spells may become a problem. Mages usually do spend a lot of time worrying about such things, I remembered with some remote and forlorn part of my mind. But since I could do nothing about it, I decided to think about it later.
What seriously bothered me at the moment were not my burns, but my reaction to the girl’s soft, warm body in my hands, or to be precise - the total absence of it. I could feel her trembling with excitement, and shifting slightly, trying to adjust herself at my side rather ineptly. My silk aba was gone, burnt to a crisp, and washed away by the cold currents. The other parts of my attire were in equally poor state. We were both practically naked, shivering in each other’s hands like a pair of eager lovers. The feel of her small, round breasts brushing against my skin should have produced at least some minimal physical response, even in my hurt and confused state. Yet there were none. I may have as well held a wooden doll or a marble statue in my hands, not an eager young woman, highly excited by my kiss. It made me feel ... uneasy, especially measured against her own enthusiastic if clumsy response.
Not that I particularly cared about Mirri’s feelings, or craved a carnal intercourse with any other female. On the contrary, since my initial recovery, and later after Aluril completed my healing, my body did not show any signs of sexual arousal in any situation, and stayed virtually indifferent to any sensory inputs. To put it blunt – I did not care for any partners, male or female; neither did I have any erotic dreams, highly appropriate for an adolescent male body. I did not pay attention to that particular aspect of my physiology until then, as it was not important compared to my other predicaments. The spontaneous jest of kissing the girl was aimed more at warming her up, and maybe as another exercise in control. But now I was sorry I have given up to that impulse. At the same time, I wondered if Mirriam was aware of my lack of reaction (that is if she even knew what to expect from a man in my position), and if yes - how did she explain it to herself? It was a highly embarrassing situation, and a potential trouble, better nipped in a bud. I pushed her away carefully, trying to make it feel natural, and making appropriate small sounds of exaggerated discomfort.
“My dear, it feels like I am about to shed my skin, rather like that unfortunate Naga character. Speaking of which, I am not that sure I finished him. And there may be more of his kind hiding in this abysmal place. We need to start moving. I gather, you don’t have any weapons or potions left on your persona? Did you lose it all in your fall? It was an awfully stupid move on your part. Imagine what could have happened if you’d hit this rock instead of water.”
“Jon, you are babbling,” she noticed with astonishment. “I admit – I was not thinking properly. But what’s done is done, and I am glad I followed you, exactly because there maybe more of these critters hiding in the dark. Although the halfling only called one name.”
“I remember that much!” I retorted quickly. “Now, about weapons...”
“I have a dagger strapped to my ankle, and a healing potion rolled in a piece of cloth. Do you have any broken bones?”
“I don’t think so,” I answered cautiously. “If I had any I would have felt it by now.” At least it looked like she was willing to forget about the kiss for now. Maybe later I can pretend that nothing happened. “What about you, can you move all your limbs freely?”
“Now you sound like Chyil,” she giggled suddenly. “I think I will be fine, don’t worry about me.” A small hand found mine in the darkness, touching me lightly like the wing of a butterfly, and withdrawing instantly. “I should not lay hands on you, when your skin is hurting so badly,” she muttered fussing with her gear. “Here, take this for now.” I felt a small bottle pressed into my hand. “When we get out of here we will need to find bandages. My grandmother told me that burns must be treated by washing them with cold clean water, and then applying the salve of apricot oil. I do have some in Henna’s packs. Let us pray we can get out of here and find her still in one piece.” She sighed, probably remembering her small pony that we had left outside the temple complex before entering. It felt like it happened a hundred years ago on another planet.
By that time, my eyes were almost adjusted to the lack of illumination, and a feeble light pouring from above was enough for my elven sight to discern our shapes huddled together on a small rock sticking out of the dark water. I nodded and uncorked the bottle with my teeth. She was no different from any other females – that is she would try to take control under pretense of ‘caring’, if I give her the slightest opportunity. But I was too unsettled by these other matters to argue. The potion tasted worse than I could remember, however it gave me the much-needed boost of energy, and my burns stopped hurting almost instantly.
“Do you feel better now?” Mirri asked hesitantly. “Jon, I saw a flash of light when I was falling. Was it one of your spells?”
“Yes,” I answered curtly. In my highly self-conscious mood, I had no desire to let her see me in the state of undress; neither was I particularly thrilled by the idea of looking at her virtually naked body again. However, there was no need to let her know my reasons. “I am not about to repeat it and ruin my night vision,” I continued neutrally. “I can already see all there is here, which is nothing useful or dangerous. Wait a minute, what by the Nine Hells is this?”
In the water beating steadily against the jagged shores of our refuge, I saw amorphous splotches of the Naga’s remains bobbing up and down like dirty rags. There was not much left of Kri-Niss, but among the charred sheets of skin and fragments of the spinal cord floated something resembling a large leather sack. I slid down the slippery rock, as close to the water level as I dared to come without falling down, and after several unsuccessful attempts managed to fish it out of the pool. Luckily for me, it was not heavy. At least it was not nearly as much of a burden as the girl’s limp body. Yet, by the time I scrambled back to our perch, I was covered in slime and scratched worse than I was before swallowing the healing potion. Mirriam, of course, was not happy about it but I ignored her pointedly.
“What is it?” she asked for a hundredth time when I finally managed to pull the sack up to a slightly drier place.
“The Naga’s stomach,” I deigned to reply. “According to some sources on monster’s ecology, they tend to carry their most prized possessions in their belly, regurgitating the contents when they feel the need to use some of their gear. I was lucky this particular specimen did not have time to spit out whatever enchanted items he was carrying.”
She grunted something in response, which sounded suspiciously like her disgust over my eagerness to see what maybe hidden inside, but I disregarded her commentary yet again. I unsheathed the magic dagger that was still hanging from my belt next to the empty wand case. To my slight surprise, I noticed that the blade of the Fiery Sleeper was glowing faintly in the dark. The light was sufficient to illuminate the palms of my hands, and the rubbery surface of my mysterious trophy, but too weak to discern anything else. As the sharp tip of the knife parted the thick folds of Naga’s skin, and my eyes beheld what was hidden inside, I cried out in delight and dug deeper, burying my hands to the elbows in the wet, smelly contents of the sack, and clutching my coveted prize.
It was a case of hard leather and brass covered in acidic goo, and half-digested remains of the predator’s last meal. Quickly, I proceeded to open it, ripping off the slime-coated lock with my trembling fingers. The sight of the things that I pulled out from inside of it made my heart skip a bit, as I reveled in elated ecstasy, and almost physical pleasure of that find. It was the Naga’s collection of various arcane scrolls – a thick, leathery bundle of parchments and animal skins, rolled together in a tight cylinder. All my inconsequential troubles and insecurities were quickly forgotten at the sight of it, and I dug deeper into the bundle of scrolls and parchments, hovering over the precious pile on my knees, and trying to separate them without destroying the texts. I was so involved in that important task that it took me awhile to realize that the illumination in the cave suddenly became brighter, and that Mirri was jumping up and down on our small rock, waving her hands and trying to attract someone’s attention.
The underground lake and the pitiful isle we were stuck upon were located at the bottom of the rift that was formed by an expansion and erosion of the sharp fissure in the floor of the original cavern. The fissure in its turn was probably created by one of the many earthquakes common in the Calim Desert area. The legends attributed these to the eternal struggle of the genies Calim and Memnon to free themselves from the magic bonds, imposed upon them millennia ago by elven high mages. So far, their efforts were fruitless and resulted only in frequent reshaping of the local landscapes. I could certainly commiserate with the rebellious djinni princes, buried under many tons of red rock and sand, although the effect of that struggle currently served to trap me, and the besotted maiden in this abysmally wet and cold place. The dreary reservoir was fed by the dark underground river, which jumped from the cliff above our heads, and poured down like a column of liquid tar infused with silvery streaks of coruscating foam.
When I finally noticed my companion’s agitated state, and raised my head to have a look at the source of her excitement, my eyes beheld a view that was highly ridiculous but also somewhat alleviating. In the gray darkness of the chasm, I saw a small figure, scaling the treacherous wall on the right side from the waterfall. The figure was wearing green robes, tightly stretched over the plump, rounded body, which from my current viewing angle looked rather like an oversized egg. Although most of all, the climber resembled a grotesquely overweight child, with un-proportionally large, bald forehead, and exceedingly hairy feet. A sturdy piece of rope connected the odd creature with the glittering shape of his taller companion, who watched the whole ordeal from the edge of the cliff. The scene was illuminated by a big, madly swinging lantern, strapped to the climber’s back. I laughed silently, admiring Kessen’s resourcefulness, and wondering what method he employed to enforce Omwo’s cooperation. Whatever was his reasoning - it was working wonderfully. And it looked like the halfling knew the terrain well. He was sliding down the steep wall with amazing agility, finding footing where I could see only the sharp, slippery planes of the cliff.
“Can you see them now, Jon-Jon?” the girl shouted excitedly. “I knew Kes would find a way to get us out of here. Look, they even found a lamp!”
“I wonder if this halfling fool has suction pads on his fingers,” I responded somewhat grouchily. “He is scaling that precipice like a wall gecko, albeit a very corpulent one. But perhaps, it is Kessen who is doing all the work, and the rascal is simply dangling on that rope like fish bait.” My mind was still on my precious scrolls, and being distracted from my research, even for such an important matter as our would-be rescue, was aggravating.
But my misgivings and speculations were short lived. Soon it was clear that the wall hosted a sort of a rudimentary stairway, made of artificially carved footholds and iron brackets, hammered deep into the stone to provide support for a brave mountaineer, who was agile enough to master the tricky steps, and did not suffer from vertigo. I wondered briefly, who would have built such a construction in a place like this, although at the second thought the answer was right on the surface. Long time ago, abbot Addazahr chose the rift as his private treasure vault building the access route, and later in his undead state, enlisting the services of the peculiar guardian. The Naga was regularly fed with whatever meat was handy, and in return protected the jahi’s treasure from the flock of adventurers and fortune-seekers, drawn to the old temple and its labyrinths despite the infamous Curse of Malcontent.
All these facts and many equally bizarre details soon became available from Omwo’s own mouth. After he was freed from the undead, the halfling turned out to be quite talkative, and was more than eager to cooperate to remove any potential doubts on the matter of his true feelings towards Zaureen and her strange cult. At first, I suspected that the argument of a rather sharp knife played a role in his transformation but later events made me doubt my first assessment. It was truly surprising that Omwo survived the ordeal. I felt a certain respect for the girl’s finesse with the garrote – she had managed to throttle the halfling soundly enough to make him lose consciousness without the lethal outcome, exactly as I planned. A few blue-black bruises around his throat hardly mattered, in view of his otherwise sound condition. Omwo led Kessen to the Addazahr’s secret cache of equipment in the upper cave that hid some minor provisions like lanterns and lamp oil, ropes and pickaxes. In the past, the halfling had frequently accompanied Zaureen to the cave and down the cliff for what he called ‘the restocking expeditions’. But I shall not speak of it lightly. The Addazahr’s treasure deserves more attention in this document than a brief mention of its existence, since that strange discovery had changed the entire dynamics of our journey and brought in its wake many stranger consequences.
My first move was to make sure that my precious scrolls and parchments were safely packed back into their case, and transferred up the wall on a rope that Kes lowered for that purpose. It was not possible to communicate with him directly, since the rush of the waterfall drowned all the sounds that were not uttered in the exact vicinity of one’s ear, and the lantern light was diffused into grayness by the thick curtain of mist half the way up to the top. However, he and Omwo agreed to tug at the rope twice when it was time to pull it up. The boy was making a great sacrifice, I thought sarcastically, by not rushing forth to see his much-coveted treasure. But the halfling was not strong enough to pull Mirriam or me up the rock; and besides, he was not yet trusted with such a task.
When we finally had a chance to talk, Kessen scorned me for not sending his sister up first. I only shuddered and changed the subject. It was no use to try explaining to him, how important these scrolls were for me, or the fact that I had to pry the girl’s fingers away from myself one by one, before I finally managed to tie a rope belt around her waist, and hurl her up against her numerous protestations. That was truly annoying but understandable, since she was not yet through the shock of being plunged into extremely cold water for the second time today. In order to make it to the wall I had to swim across the lake with her holding tightly to my neck. She was clutching at me with both hands, while I was clasping my case of scrolls. With all her squirming and adjusting herself, it was a wonder we did not drown.
Disposing of both the scroll case and the shivering maiden made me feel somewhat better, and I finally turned my attention to our odd rescuer, who was chatting non-stop about Addazahr and his treasure through the whole affair of sending my essential charges up the wall. When Mirriam’s slim shape disappeared in the mist of the waterfall, I looked at the little actor. Omwo was standing at the narrow stripe of dark stone that was the only landing at the base of the wall. In his impatience the halfling was clutching and un-clutching his big fists inside the sleeves of his robe. The lantern that was still attached to his back surrounded his ugly head and fat shoulders with the weird golden halo of an esoteric saint.
“Tell me, halfling, why such a sudden zeal for betraying your old master’s secrets? Would you turn on us with the same eagerness, given half a chance?”
Omwo’s small, homely face quivered with a strange mix of emotions, among which to my utter surprise I discerned genuine anger.
“Have you ever been raped, my dear boy?”
The question made me recoil, as if from a blow in the face. Some strange obscene images of torture and humiliation rushed through my mind, but I quickly suppressed an unwanted aftertaste of my old nightmares. None of them were real, I reminded myself.
I suppose the look that I gave him was an answer in itself, for he waggled from foot to foot with a strange insane giggle, and continued in his high-pitched, stinging voice. “I know you weren’t. You have this particularly vain and arrogant look about yourself, which comes with a deeply entrenched sense of self-importance, and un-vilified dignity. All of you elven folk wear it like a mask! And now you are thinking – who would want to touch this little creep with a ten feet pole, yes? I did not mean just the physical violation of the body, my boy… A broken spirit, a mind taken apart piece by tiny piece, a personality unraveled like an old, moth-eaten jersey. I had to live through years of this abuse, believe it or not. Always half-conscious of the worm’s presence at the back of my mind, but always forced to return to the state of mindless adoration. Does it answer your question or not?”
“What about Zaureen,” I asked cautiously. “Did you feel any loyalty to her, at least?” The little actor was obviously a more tragic and complicated figure than I could have imagined. It was hardly his fault that he looked like a misshapen clay figurine, molded by inept fingers of a child. Still, every look at him made the corners of my lips quiver.
“The one who laughs the last, laughs the best,” Omwo declared in a deep ‘tragic’ voice and wagged his short finger at me. He was very sharp in catching this sort of reaction, I realized belatedly.
“The poor diva was never particularly smart,” he switched to a singing falsetto. “But we actor types rarely are. You can call it a professional handicap, my dear boy. We entice emotions in others, and this is not a job for the cold logical type like you, if you got my meaning. I feel sorry for Zaureen but to put it bluntly - she had it coming for a very long time. And she was responsible for the deaths of many of my friends and colleagues, even before she foolishly exposed herself to the worm.”
“But why would you want to share the riches, for which in your own admittance you have paid such a high price?” I asked suspiciously. “It would be natural to send us on our way, and take it all for yourself.”
“Are you truly that stupid or you are making fun of me? I am no bloody giant to trot through the desert with a sack of gold! If I want to get my share of it I will need your help.”
“I don’t trust you, Omwo. And nothing you’ve said so far has been enough to make me change my mind.”
“And because of it, you are going to stand here forever, asking idiotic questions, and freezing your butt off?” Omwo asked winking at my non-existing attire, and making a rude sound with his wide, lipless mouth. “Or would you rather go with me, and have a look at the fortune, the likeness of which you have never seen in your wildest dreams? What are you risking, elf? You can always slit my throat after I show you the treasure.”
“You can rest assured I will, halfling, if I sense any foul play.”
“A play is always a play, foul or fair.” Omwo shrugged it off. “And I used to be the master of them all.” He gave me an ironic stare from under his heavy lids. I still could not make out the color of his eyes, I realized with some confusion. “Now stop acting like a fool, my dear boy, and prepare to see your glorious future.”
There were not one but two heavy chests with iron-enforced lids hidden in the small niche at the base of the cliff. One of them was half-filled with gold coins; the other held gold and silver vessels, exotic weaponry, as well as several smaller boxes with uncut gems and many exquisite pieces of jewelry. I had no idea how much money it all constituted at the end, but it did look like the treasury of a small kingdom.