2 to 4 of Marpenoth 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
“I don’t understand how I did it,” I said, somewhat awkwardly, rubbing my aching temples. “And I did not even know what happened, until you put a name to it.”
“A sixth circle magic – done without a verbal component – and you have no idea of how you did it?” Omwo gave me an odd look, and I finally made out that his eyes were of that elusive gray-green color, speckled with brown, that is so common in small rodents and birds. “What are you, elf-boy, one of them sorcerer types? Then why do you even bother with scrolls and spellbooks?”
“I don’t think I have inborn magic ability, if that’s what you mean,” I answered carefully, trying not to think of what could have happened had my anger released itself on him instead of the soup bowl. “I just… remember things, that’s all. Sometimes the proper syllables and hand-signs just surface in my head, without any effort on my part. This time I simply wished the thing gone, and my raw will made it happen… somehow.”
“I just remember – somehow,” Omwo mocked my sullen intonation. His talent of impersonation was almost flawless, which fact did not make me any happier about his performance. “What is it you are going to ‘remember’ next, elf-boy? How to stop the flow of time? Or how to turn us all into peeping squirrels?”
“Perhaps.” I replied with a forced laugh. “I have no idea how it happens though, and have little control over what I remember and when.”
“He has no idea,” the little man shook his head in mock horror, making faces at me from his spot across the fire. “Well, elf-boy, if you happen to ‘remember’ any seriously powerful magicks, please do it as far away from me as possible – preferably on another Plane! And, by the way, since I was going to ask you anyway, why did you pick such a ridiculous moniker? Don’t tell me that ‘Jon’ is what your mother called you,” he shook a finger at my raised eyebrows. “This is not a name suitable for one of your blood. Sorcerer, magician, or both – you are still one of them. At least, you look like one rune-singing, sword-dancing, tree-dwelling, full-blooded elf. I’ve met enough of your kin in Tethyr to recognize the haughty, pointy-eared look. Yet you talk like a human – without the slightest accent to your speech. You act like a human, and by the Gods - you even sleep like one, although everybody knows that the fair folk have no need of sleeping.”
“I am not interested in your pointless speculations, trickster,” I replied coldly, “and my name is my own business. I am not asking, who gave you the name that resembles the sounds made by a pot with boiling porridge. Omwo Fredegar – what kind of a name is that?!”
“By Urogolan’s divine underwear – an elf with a rudimentary sense of humor!” Omwo squinted at me through the half-opened fingers of his left hand, and smirked. “For one of the People, you are a queer one, Jonnie, and I am amending my opinion of your many talents,” the jester noticed my sour expression, “for the better, only for the better, my dear mageling! And, by the way, please forgive me the spoiled dinner. Still, what’s a measly bit of pepper-skin between friends?”
He winked at me, and I nearly bite my tongue in frustration but thought better of provoking the halfling into another long-winded speech. Alas, my good intentions went unrewarded, as no one seemed to have been capable of stopping Omwo’s verbal flood once he was at it.
“Our travel back to the civilized lands is going to be quite interesting,” the annoying creature promised cheerfully. “I guess the young ones were not lying, when they told me you’ve suffered some sort of a stroke, and don’t remember much of your past?”
I glanced at the twins – the pair of them looked away guiltily. Of course, they were in their right to share everything they knew about me with the rest of the world – I thought angrily. It was not like they owed me their lives and sanity! Now the bloody halfling was going to mock me, and nag at me at every opportunity.
Indeed, Omwo did not make me wait for long, but jumped right into it “There must be a fine story behind your haughty facade, pale mageling, the story that I am going to worm out of you, eventually,” he declared gaily. “You’ll save yourself and me a lot of trouble if you give it up, and tell us all of it right away. No? A pity, but I am up to the challenge.”
“Why would you want to know my story?” I asked nervously. “What is in it for you?”
“And why not, wonder-boy? We are bound to travel together, at least for a while, and if you ever fall victim to that strange sickness of yours, we need to know how to deal with it, yes – no? Besides, I am a professional storyteller, and what is a better distraction from my present troubles than a New Story? My old one turned out to be a rather grim nightmare, so what of it?” He stopped and chuckled nervously looking at his plump little hands with blackened and broken fingernails. “One needs to move forward with his life,” Omwo continued cheerfully. “It has been a while since I’ve held a stylus in my hands, and my fingers are itching just from looking at you.” He waved them in front of his face experimentally. “You will make a perfect character for a play – a comedy perhaps? Or even a teary melodrama? Now, how would you like that?” Once again the halfling winked at me, and gathered his homely, intelligent face into one of its more peculiar grimaces. With rising panic, I realized that he was only half-joking.
That was when I saw Mirriam snicker into her sleeve. Kessen was grinning openly, though he had the modesty to look away after catching my accusing stare. But Omwo himself seemed to be unaware of my growing annoyance, or at least he did a good job of ignoring my furious stares.
“Exciting, is not it?” he smirked at me like a small jovial toad. “Although if I were to write you into a story I would have to give you a more suitable name,” Omwo gave me an appraising look. “How about Dinaer – that would be ‘the Silent One’ in elven, although to tell the truth my Quenya is as rusty as my Espruar. Maybe, Avarier, ‘the Unwilling One’ – sounds appropriate enough, eh?” I gave him another dark scowl, but the little man only sniggered, rubbing his hands excitedly.
I wondered if there was anything short of a direct hit by a fireball that could have discouraged the halfling from making fun of me. No other method had a chance, I decided finally, and violence was not an option, at least not in my present situation.
“Enough of this nonsense,” I finally hissed into his grinning face, grinding my teeth and trying my best to keep my temper at bay. “I will no longer listen to your babbling, little man. And if you value your health, you will leave me alone from now on. Speaking of which, why bother with my unexciting persona?” I said meaningfully, as if just hit by a bright idea. “For all you know I might be just a boring invalid, fighting for survival. Why don’t you instead write a play about your own miserable adventure in Abbot Addazahr’s dungeon? I think your experience as a trusty vizier to that crazy bitch would make for a fine story,” I finished in a cold drawl, looking him over with a sort of a stare one would give an annoying insect.
That finally shut him up, albeit he looked back at me with a rather hurt expression, muttering some inaudible defenses, which in turn caused Mirriam to groan, blush, and stare down into her empty soup bowl. Now that reaction brought me onto entirely new level of annoyance, and nearly caused me to pointedly ignore the girl for the rest of the night.
The rest of our dinner passed uneventfully, if one did not count Omwo’s remarks on my uncalled-for sensitivities, and his offers to check my bowl for any unwanted condiments. By the end of the meal I once again seethed at his excessive attention, thinking that in his evil incarnation the halfling had been far more bearable. But even though Omwo turned out to be a true pest, the twins gawped at his clownish jests, and giggled at his never-ending stream of jokes that were rather dark, although funny, if one had a taste for that kind of humor.
After meal Mirriam collected the empty dishes, giving me a disapproving stare, and an exaggerated sigh. I did not like her attitude anymore than I liked Omwo’s jokes, but of the two evils she was the lesser, and so I answered her with a nod that brought a hint of a smile back to her face.
Her brother was less insolent but equally persistent in his wish to use me for his personal ends. Tonight, Kessen wanted me to sort out our bounty of magical artifacts, and the fact that I wished to go back to my arcane studies did not seem to matter much to him. After a few feeble attempts to wiggle out of this chore, I figured out he was too persistent, and gave up. Strangely enough, it caused a fit of merriment in the group my companions, although for the life of me I could not understand what was so funny about it.
A small pile of strange, and supposedly magical, items discovered in the Addazahr’s treasure chest was spread out on a woolen blanket by the fire. Most of them were broken or rendered powerless, some were of unknown and, likely, trivial origin, but a few looked interesting, and deserved closer scrutiny.
Firstly, I examined the few weapons of minor interest: a short sword, a couple of daggers, and a rapier. Minor enhancement magicks were cheap, and used frequently by many craftsmen of the Realms – even the sleepy hollow, such as Amkethran, boasted a shop that sold some magically improved weapons. Alas, the armaments in our treasure pile brought no surprises. None of the spells woven into these weapons came anywhere close in complexity to the powerful enchantment set on the Fiery Sleeper, and once again I wondered, if Mirriam even realized the value of the gift given to me so casually.
There was one niftily crafted, wickedly curved scimitar that finally drew my attention, and caused Kessen to fidget impatiently even as I probed and examined the sword. It had a pommel shaped in a likeness of the desert hawk’s head, with the eyes made of dark obsidian, and a strange set of runes etched along the blade. Some of the etchings resembled graceful silhouettes of running horses, others – the pennants flowing on the wind. Perhaps, the enchantment had something to do with speed, I guessed correctly, even as a weapon singed in my hands, its secrets revealed.
“It is done,” I smiled confidently, “Kessen, if this is going to be your chosen piece of bounty – you are a lucky one. I think this is the Scimitar of the Sirocco. Or, at least, that is what the runes suggest.”
“Can you perhaps, err... elaborate?” the boy replied doubtingly. “It may be pretty obvious to you, effendi, but I have never heard of it.”
“Oh, it is quite simple: the blade has an enchantment that enhances its range, and the power of attack; but its major ability is to augment the speed of the mount you are riding.”
“Are you serious?” he looked at me in astonishment, “Of course I want it! This is incredible artifact, but how would you know it has such powers?”
It was rather hard to explain, I realized suddenly. Almost impossible, in fact.
“I can sense it. Rather like written letters form simple words, these runes make words of power… only they are more transparent? No, I suppose it does not make much sense. Yet I know what I am feeling.”
“Are you telling that you can simply read the arcane auras of enchanted objects?” the halfling asked abruptly. “You are the most curious specimen, elf-boy, most, curious.”
Something in his voice told me it was not a common feat, and I immediately wished that he had not said it aloud. Acknowledging my ability to identify magic woven into the enchanted items by way of simple concentration did not please me much. In fact, it made me feel even more troubled. Not only I was capable of performing impressive arcane feats by mere power of will, it turned out, I could also read magic auras of certain objects. Yet the most frustrating part was the sheer unpredictability of my many talents and limitations. Had the Water Spirit been correct about my identity? Was I indeed a reincarnation of the renegade mage, who had once obliterated an elven city, by draining the life-force of its semi-divine protector?
The mere thought of that incredible power lying at the tips of my fingers, and yet out of my reach, was exasperating. My state of mind resembled that of an eager lover, who knows that satisfying his passion could bring about his ruin, yet cannot not stop himself from earning after the object of his desires. The lost power of Magic was my illicit bride, and I could not stop thinking about reclaiming her, yet was terrified of such possibility all the same.
My task of locating Evereska, and warning her inhabitants of the unknown danger, which would soon threaten their city, suddenly become real and urgent. Since I did not wish to die a nameless weakling who could not face the true nature of his condition, I was bound to follow the commands of the superior Powers. And so far the quest given to me by Aluril was my only path to restoration. I looked in turn at each one of my companions thrown at me by the currents of fate, evaluating them mentally, and trying to decide if the nuisance of their company was worth the advantage of traveling with a group. The things will work themselves out by the time we reach the Tethyran border – I decided finally – or they will not. There was no need to hasten the events.
Besides, I was growing rather fond of the twins, odd as it was. They were young and eager to prove themselves in my eyes, and I found strange comfort in their childish admiration. Omwo was a true troublemaker, and I wondered if I could free myself of his presence, even before we reached the first settlement. But the only realistic way of getting rid of the halfling did not appeal to me, simply because his death would have brought more trouble than resolution. I sighed, wishing for a miracle resulting in Omwo’s immediate and final muteness. Regrettably, my spontaneous talent of spellcasting would not manifest at will, and so I turned back to my explorations of our magic artifacts.
As I dug deeper into the pile of tarnished oddities, my discoveries multiplied. There was a pair of green suede boots, in surprisingly good condition, which, as my fingertips brushed over their soft surface, gave me a fit of jitters. I pried the strange footwear out of the heap of broken weapon parts, and dusted it carefully. My hands were shaky, and I tried to hide my distress by faking uncertainty. Alas, Omwo watched me with sharp interest through all these pathetic convulsions.
“The Boots of Elvenkind!” the halfling declared with a smirk, after looking closely at the markings worked into the heels of the boots. “I gather you will choose these as a bounty, elf-boy? The whole group would benefit if you do. The way you move, I could hear your impressive but noisy gait from yards away. All mages are usually as graceful as pigs, but I expected better from one of the elven descent. Take these, and be happy you’ve got a pair! Even if you don’t want to wear them, the boots would fetch a hefty sum in any joint trading in magical goods.”
I blinked but accepted his words with a polite nod. The elven dagger, gifted to me by Mirriam, did not stir any controversial emotions when I first touched it. But maybe the boots were a more personal item? Yet they had a nice enchantment woven into their soft leather: a spell that moderately increased one’s stealth, and made him look unobtrusive, if he could stay absolutely still – a feat near impossible with my temper.
I put the boots aside, and opened a small box, into which Kessen had placed the few pieces of jewelry from the treasure chest that, in his opinion, had had the slightest chance of being magical in nature. To his great disappointment I quickly dismissed most of the box’s contents as purely ornamental. When I finished sorting through the trinkets and dropped the non-magical pieces back into the box, the only items left in my hand were the three rings. So, I offered them to my cohorts for closer examination.
The rings were as distinctly different in appearance as they were in magical powers. The first band was of white gold, crafted into a extravagant and tasteless shape, so favored by rich merchants, with a setting fashioned into a likeness of a lavish bouquet. However, out of the three round nests intended for holding the precious stones, only one still possessed a huge cabochon-cut ruby, the other two were empty. The other, smaller ring was made of delicately carved ivory, adorned with yellow gold; its front piece resembled the smiling face of a cat, made complete by the shiny green eyes of cut emeralds. The last and final band was of plain copper, cast in the shape of a wyvern biting its tail.
“Which one will you take?” I asked Omwo, after carefully explaining the powers of each ring. “What would you go for: a safeguard, a certain death, or a castle in the sky?” Having said my piece, I looked straight into the little man’s puzzled face, daring him to make a choice under my mocking stare. Omwo blinked, and predictably picked the ring with a big ruby.
I chuckled and let him have it without any further commentary, then picked the cat-ring and offered it to the blushing maiden.
“Wouldn’t you rather keep it for yourself, Jon-Jon?” She asked with a wry smile. “You have this talent of falling from great highs into the abysses below.”
“I may say the same about you,” I replied testily. “Take it, for I would feel better if you wear it the next time you decide to jump after me.”
Mirriam shook her head, but accepted the bauble. I nodded, and slipped the remaining band on the little finger of my own left hand. The copper felt warm to the touch. I seriously doubted I would soon have a chance to use it, but it was a curious artifact, and I wanted to give the enchantment on it a closer scrutiny.
“I am sorry Kessen, but this one will be of no use to you.” I told him.
“No need to apologize!” the boy replied laughingly. “I would not take it even if you paid me. And by Tymora’s luck - I hope you will not have the chance to test it, effendi. Are we about done with the loot?”
“There is nothing of value left in the pile,” I said hesitantly, “assuming the halfling will take the sword, and the daggers, we are about done.”
“Yes, but what is this?” Kessen pointed at the small bag of gray velvet tied at the neck with a beaded, festooned cord.
“I think it is empty,” Mirriam ventured, picking it from the blanket and untying the cords. “Can I take it to store my lockpicks and other junk, please? My pack is a total mess,” she complained loudly and thrust her hand inside before I could say a word or try to take the bag away from her.
“Mirriam, stop it this very moment, you foolish girl!”
But I was too late. Her hand had already disappeared inside, and judging by the expression on her face the bag was not empty after all. She made a small frightened noise and blanched, trying to pull her limb out but visibly unable to do it.
“What happened?” Kessen leapt to his feet rushing to his sister’s side.
But I was already there, clutching her arm with my both hands.
“Don’t panic! We will not let this thing have you. Kessen – take her by the shoulders and by the love of Gods – don’t let go!”
“You are hurting me!” Mirri replied in a voice bubbling with laughter. “I think, I can take it out now, I was simply surprised at first – that’s all!”
“Take out what?” I asked sharply. “You cannot pull this thing out. If it is a planar creature – a sort of a small demon – with a mouth shaped like a bag, we will need to extricate you out of it carefully. Just don’t panic, it can be done if you follow my directions exactly. Kessen, don’t stand there like a rock – take her by the shoulders and pull gently.”
“I am not the one who is panicking,” the girl pointed out in an annoyingly sweet and steady voice, “If it is a demon of some sort, it is a rather small and fuzzy one.” She yipped and giggled suddenly.
“What is it with you, wretched child? Can’t you follow the simplest of commands? I’ve asked you to stay still.”
“It’s trying to nibble at my fingers, and it tickles,” she shifted under my iron grip. “Can you please let go of my arm now, Jon-Jon? I think that whatever it is, it really wants out of the bag.”
I hissed, but relaxed my grip on her arm. Mirriam winced, and quickly pulled her hand out. In her fist squirmed a small, dark-furred creature, with a long, hairless tail.
“Just look what you did to my arm!” she complained loudly. Both Omwo and her male twin chortled in the most ridiculous manner. “I think, I am going to have bruises all over my hand now,” the girl muttered, and dropped the animal into her lap, rolling the sleeve of her silk shirt up her forearm.
It needs to be mentioned, that she had exchanged the harem-girl outfit for her custom dazzling-bright set of clothes just before dinner, as her pony’s saddlebags held ample supply of these awful garments. Two sets of purple-red round spots were slowly forming on her arm, and I shifted my gaze, pretending that nothing was out of the ordinary.
“It’s a rat!” I exclaimed in utter disgust, after having a good look at the creature, which she pulled out of the bag. Indeed, the animal had a wiggly nose, a pair of floppy ears, and a long naked tail, which it dragged behind with certain reckless panache. “A planar rat,” I added after a short consideration. “How by the Nine Hells did it get in there?”
“It is a he,” Mirriam picked the rodent up and proudly presented the evidence. The animal wiggled in her hands, but did not make any attempt to escape or harm her in any way. In fact, a look in his tiny eyes was too intelligent and calm for a mere rat. I winced uncomfortably - there was something deeply disturbing in its stare – akin to the conscious mockery; as if the blasted critter knew all about the commotion he had caused, and enjoyed it.
“He is my rat now,” Mirri cooed at the animal lovingly, tickling his belly and scratching behind his little ears. “And I am going to take good care of him. But first, I need to name him. Anybody has any ideas?”
“There is no point in naming it,” I shrugged trying to sound disinterested, and to keep my frustration with her actions out of my voice. The little incident bothered me more than I was willing to admit. If that pouch had indeed been the Bag of Devouring, there would have been nothing left of her, not even bones to bury. “Your rat will disappear back into his planar lair in a few hours, Mirriam,” I suggested tonelessly, “and you will never see this particular creature again, even if you manage to coax another one like him out of the bag.”
Mirri looked at me wearily, and asked why was I acting like a vindictive child – was there anything wrong with what she did? What was I supposed to say - that she could have got herself killed, and that I did not like the idea of dealing with her aggrieved twin after the fact? I refused to answer, and changed the topic completely.
Remarkably, I was proved wrong about the rat. By some weird chance, that particular version of the Bag of Tricks always summoned the same rodent, no matter how often I tried to call forth a different planar animal. After a day of trying, I had given up experimenting with it and had let Mirriam play with her new toy. The rat was dubbed Myrat, and Mirri turned summoning him into a kind of a ritual, accompanied by billing and cooing, feeding him scraps of food, and teaching him small tricks of fetching her combs and thieving tools, as well as filching small personal items from everybody in the party. (Eventually, the rat learned to do the stealing trick exceedingly well.) There seemed to be no other use for Myrat’s talents.
Two days after Kessen and Omwo pulled me, the girl, and the treasure chest out of the rift, we abandoned the Naga’s caves. It happened on a warm, starless night; and we had spent the previous day loading the little pony with bags and boxes, which held most of the undead Abbot’s ill-begotten treasure, and distributing the rest of the load through the four backpacks. The ruins of Zaureen’s temple still smoldered at the distance, although the orange glow had diminished visibly, and the horrible shrieks of her followers had stopped altogether; instead, the eerie silence lay upon the desert. We quickly passed through the forest of stone needles and descended into darkness. As I walked the familiar trail for the third time, a quiet sense of purpose settled over me. The path before me was long and perilous, but treading it no longer felt futile, for now I possessed both the wealth sufficient to cover the expenses, and the companions, who, willing or not, would serve my purpose.
Before the march, I had tried to argue with Kessen about the practicality of taking all of the treasure with us. If Henna were overloaded, we would have to carry all our food and water supplies on our backs through the endless miles of sand of the Calim Desert. Yet if there was one topic that the boy could not discuss without his mind losing all its flexibility, it was the subject of money. It was a sort of a personal obsession, and the dark fire that had flared in his eyes whenever I had hinted at the possibility of leaving some of the heaviest items behind, had made me feel wary. That was the side of Kessen that I had not noticed before, or if I had, I had never imagined it to have such dominance over his character. Again, his unreserved, almost childish, greed and shifty manner, coupled with personal charm and flamboyant pattern of speech, had reminded me of someone else – someone who had once been as familiar as the well-worn pair of shoes, and yet I had not been able to retrieve the memory of that other man – it had been well out of reach, locked away together with the rest of my mysterious past.
Most likely, after my plunge head first into the lake inside the Naga’s cavern, the Gods had decided that for this leg of my journey I had had my share of small and large disasters. Our journey north towards the mountains was slow but uneventful, despite Omwo’s sinister anecdotes that featured desert Purple Worms, and the specters of the jinn, Calim and Memnon, who on the dark nights rose from their tombs under the sand to haunt the passing caravans. The little bard was exasperatingly annoying, but had turned out to be more resilient than he looked. After a few days and nights spent walking in the harsh desert climate, Omwo had lost most of his lard, yet he continued to roll over the sand dunes and fields of hard clay with surprising alacrity. A tiny whistle, which had been his sole instrument after the loss of his dreadful pipes, had been used to whistle merry tunes at every stop, and sometimes on the march, even though the halfling carried an ample share of our supplies in his backpack.
Quenya or High-elven is the most prominent of the elven dialects spoken in the Realms.
Espruar is the written language of the elves is Faerun, developed by the Moon elves.