CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
14 of Marpenoth 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
Even as I vainly struggled with the harsh syllables of the Draconic speech, a deep menacing growl rolled across the cavern, rebounding from the stone walls and low, stalactite-encrusted ceiling, and filling the chamber with a resonant hum of secondary echoes. There was a gurgling, suffocating quality to it, which made the final effect even more chilling.
“You dare to defile my daughter’s name with your vile mouth, Shattered One? Do you think you can take her away from me again while I am still breathing?”
The voice that invaded my mind in unison with the uproar was as different from the wyrmling’s chirruping as the booming of the Perch dragon bell was from the tinkling of wind chimes.
“Adalon?” I recoiled as if physically hurt. “Trust you to turn up alive out of sheer spite and stubbornness of mind!”
In the dim light of my fading magic sphere, I could see the slight shift of the silver dragon’s head as her single remaining eye opened a crack. Only now did I notice that her other orb had been gouged out by Iryklagathra’s claw, and that the empty socket was oozing dark congealing gore. Her powerful jaws unlocked, finally letting go of her enemy’s throat. I averted my eyes, wondering how on Toril she had not choked on her enemy’s blood - there was enough liquid in the puddle under the two dragons to float a medium sized boat. A strong whiff of festering flesh mixed with the same harsh metallic stench that I had detected earlier assaulted my nostrils. An enterprising alchemist could make a fortune here on spell components alone, I thought with some chillingly rational part of my mind.
“Don’t worry, my stay on this Plane has been already extended beyond all reasonable limits. Most likely I will depart within the next hour or so. Much to your chagrin, I am sure.”
That last remark was followed by a mental equivalent of a smile; the kind you would expect to see on the face of a shark rising to the red-tinted surface after a bloody sea battle. Remarkably, Adalon’s sarcasm made me feel sick. She was effectively using my own weapon against me, and succeeding at it. But bitter irony aside, my presence here required explanation.
“I won’t pretend to be deeply upset over your condition, Bright One, since you would not believe me anyway. But for all it’s worth, let me assure you - I have nothing to do with this present calamity. My involvement in this mess was purely accidental, and I am sorry it turned out this way.”
The long silver tail twitched, trying to disentangle itself from the blue wyrm’s own appendage, and drooped: even that smallest effort was beyond the dying dragoness’ ability. Surprisingly, I felt a surge of discomfort over that show of weakness, mixed with some other mysterious emotion – was it pity? I did not wish to know. It was impractical and ridiculous – Adalon had been my enemy in the past and was a potential source of information at present – and that was the extent of our relationship. Yet the strange sinking feeling did not subside, but became stronger. I was ready to dismiss the rising sense of uneasiness, when my erratic memory played the strangest trick on my disturbed mind - the one that left me reeling with shock and prone to losing control of my emotions.
In a flash, the world had shifted around me, and I found myself strapped to a rough slab of stone, my hands and feet chained securely to sturdy metal spikes, my neck restrained with an iron collar. The universe shrunk to the white-hot core of pain somewhere in the region of my stomach that was slowly expanding upwards, following the motion of the gloved hand that was drawing the knife through my abdomen with the maddening precision of a well-established routine. His first vertical stroke parted the flesh, opening the abdominal cavity all the way from the groin to the lower section of the ribcage, and I knew with strange certainty that the second one would be a horizontal slash, revealing the big intestine. I could not see the face of my tormentor – only his back, bulging with obscenely overdeveloped muscles and crisscrossed with leather straps…the figure had lifted its hand – the long blade was dripping with crimson rivulets. I screamed silently and thrashed, jerking at my chains – only to find myself back in my bed in Amkethran, being restrained by Chyil’s old hands. Another nightmare – or was it a reminiscence of true experience?
When everything came back into focus, I had to force my eyes away from the terrible wound on the silver dragon’s side that was still leaking dark ichor. No wonder I was assaulted by the memory of my old dreams – Iryklagathra’s talons had sliced through Adalon’s flesh like a butcher’s cleaver through a side of beef. How many hours had she spent here, lying on top of her hoard entwined with her dead enemy, losing the last vestiges of her life-force and hope with every passing minute? The parallel between my private nightmares and my enemy’s condition was so direct that I could ‘feel’ her agony by the mere act of looking at her injuries, and had to fight the rising wave of panic caused by the unwanted inflow of images and empathic emotions, provided by my eager imagination. Luckily, Adalon’s forceful and resentful manner of speech immediately snapped me out of my daze.
“An accident, you say? Hardly so... My anima is ready to depart, as my body is no longer suitable for living. But something was holding me back. Unfinished business can be a strong incentive to cling to one’s life as you well know.”
“Then, perhaps, we can reach an understanding? I was hoping for some answers, and... a closure? Since you obviously knew me very well in the past…”
The distress over my momentary weakness was passing, but I was still shaken over it, so kept my eyes away from the dragon’s bloodied flank. I was sure that insanity that possessed me after having a good look at her lacerations was a symptom of the same hidden ailment that prevented me from casting harmful spells on humanoids. Was it Joneleth’s way of weakening me to seize full control of his body?
“The great Lord Xymor has given me strength to hold on to this life for two days longer than is proper for a dragon. I will suffer this indignity no longer. In all truth, I thought it was my reluctance to abandon my young daughter and face the final judgment that was holding me here. But now I am sure - I was waiting for you, Irenicus.”
I flinched as if slapped on the cheek. The word sounded familiar enough to vanquish the last of my doubts and ignite my anger. Yet I had no idea who had first graced me with that name, and on what occasion.
“Irenicus. It means – the Shattered One? A curious moniker. Why did you call me that, Adalon the Bright?”
“Do not even bother with your old tricks, Exile. One time was enough.”
“Ah. But you don’t understand – and how can you? Most of the time I don’t believe it myself. You see, I am not the one who stole your eggs. My name is Jon.”
“Find another audience for your mental games, Irenicus. I don’t have the time. This conversation is draining my strength, and I cannot afford the luxury of clean and pure anger. I have precious little blood to spare. But before I die I want to tell you something very important: you are not going anywhere with my daughter tonight. All the exits from this place are magically sealed, and the enchantment that is woven around the cave will disrupt your summoning and teleportation spells. Only I can dissolve the trap. I paid the lion's share of my hoard for that scroll – but the enchantment is a solid one. As soon as I draw my last breath your fate will be sealed as well.”
“Are you insane?” I almost choked on these last words. “I may die here - but your child will share the same fate!”
“Thanks to your thievery, and the wicked rituals that the dark ones had performed on my eggs, my son was so weak that he could not break the shell. He died shortly after I helped him out of the egg. His sister is strong, but death from thirst and starvation will be cleaner than the bloody sacrifice on the altar of Lloth or one of her demonic underlings.”
“What possessed you to think I came here to steal your children? My presence in these mountains is pure coincidence, and if not for your magic I would not have even known the story of the stolen eggs! I have no recollection of it. For all I know, I may not even be the same man.”
“I knew you had no shame, Shattered One, but it sounds as if over the last two years your have lost your wits as well. Your past lies were at least original.”
“I am not lying, you demented reptile! I have no memories of any events prior to my awakening three months back and even these recollections are not clear. What is the point in punishing someone who does not remember his crimes?”
“I told you – I have no energy left for your lies. I am leaving you to your thoughts about the manner in which you will soon die, Shattered One. It brings me strange comfort to know that your bones will forever rest among my own...”
“Wait. Wait...Wait! How can you do this to your own daughter? You have no true knowledge of my evil intent towards her. And to bury her alive with your worst enemy... is not the price of such revenge too great to pay?”
“Oh, make no mistake - it is breaking my heart to know that she will be in your power yet again. Not for long though, since you will not last more than a few days without water. Deprived of my care she is going to die anyway... and knowing that you will follow her is a consolation of sorts.”
By now my thoughts were racing in a wild frenzy. I had no doubt that the dragon was not bluffing – the cold finality of her last words left no uncertainty in my mind.
“What about a binding vow? An oath powerful enough to satisfy even your paranoia? I can swear to deliver your daughter safely to the halflings, or to any other place you will deem appropriate, and leave her there!”
“You should have thought about this ‘before’ you tricked me into trusting you with the safety of my children. Your word is worth nothing to me, and I don’t believe there is a vow strong enough to bind you. Be assured - nothing will save you from my retribution. Even if I had the power to put the geas on you - I am sure you would find a way to counteract it.”
“Does that mean you don’t have the power? I would let you do it, if this is the only way to convince you! Or you are dismissing the very thought of it, because it means leaving me alive?”
“I am somewhat surprised at your overeager display of deference. I expected you to show more dignity. The rumors that I have heard of your last stand at Suldanesselar claimed that you were defiant to the end when facing Ellesime... but these were probably lies, designed to avert your enemies’ eyes from the fact that you’ve cheated death yet again.”
“I have no idea what are you talking about. Surely your wounds must have driven you mad, if you can even contemplate the revenge by means of killing your only child!”
“You will not escape me this time, Irenicus, and that knowledge makes you desperate, does it not? Are you that afraid to die? You must be: every time that you remember the place you will go to in your afterlife, fear and shame must singe the rotten remains of your soul. Good. It pleases me to know I have bested you at the end.”
“You’ve bested nobody, you bat-brained lizard! It is not the idea of dying that rattles me, but the thought of the sheer stupidity of it all. I would hate to die without ever learning who I am. I won’t pretend I feel much sympathy for you or your wretched offspring, but even a blasted weakling like her deserves better than to die of thirst in this dark and stinking hole, because her mother cannot think of another way to exercise her stale vengeance! Are you any better than the Blue Wyrm that you attacked so recklessly? Iryklagathra was seeking revenge on the descendants of his enemy’s allies, and you are trying to avenge yourself on someone who, perhaps, bears the face of your enemy, but not his memories. Moreover, what is the point of this ‘vengeance’ if it will result in the horrible death of the very one you were trying to protect?”
“Do not try to sway me from my course with your useless rhetoric! Your false pretence at ‘memory loss’ would not fool a child.”
There was something in her intonation though, that made me exult – was it the first hint of a doubt?
“May efreet take your tongue, Ruthaerea! Assuming that I am he – would it benefit me to stoop to such a crude lie? Would not he think of something much more devious? The vision you wove into your trap gave me the impression that he would.”
“The magic that I used had no power to instill illusions or tap into suppressed memories. Yet again, you have been caught in your own lies, Irenicus.”
“Lies they might be – but tell me, Adalon, did you have a nightmare about an angel, dazzling with light, entering your lair and turning into an ugly demon that stabbed you through the heart, a few days before your eggs were stolen?”
A silence deeper than the deepest trench in the floor of the Trackless Sea was my only answer.
“Am I right – you had such a dream, did you not?”
“You put it into my mind.”
“Even if I – no, he – had the ability, why would he bother? To warn you of your impending doom? To gloat over your ineptitude to interpret the clear warning? Ridiculous. When I stumbled through the trapped door, I had a vision about the day when your eggs were stolen. I knew you had that dream because in the vision you told me so. Now you are saying that your magic had nothing to do with it. The whole truth of this affair is hidden from our eyes, and might be much more complicated than you or I would ever guess. I was foolish enough to believe that among the dozens of nameless peaks studded with halfling villages our party just happened to stumble upon the one closest to your cave. Was I delusional when I thought that I have some degree of free will? Or was my path charted from the start by powers beyond my comprehension? Alas, this is just one of many questions to which I, as yet, have no answer. That aside, will you at least consider listening to my part of the story before making the final judgment? Assuming that I will have time to finish it.”
Another silence – this one was even longer and deeper than the one before. All I could hear was the quick, nervous breathing of the little dragonette, who sat utterly quiet and motionless half way between Adalon and me, looking even more like an exquisite silver ornament. I wondered briefly - how much of our conversation had she understood? Finally, when I was beginning to seriously worry about the outcome, Adalon stirred.
“Speak out, but be brief. I will give you one final chance – even a condemned murderer deserves the final plea.”
“O please, Infallible One, your way of putting it makes me feel like I have been tried and found guilty already! Pardon me. You cannot blame the defending party for being a bit… defensive, can you?”
As I rushed through the story of my wretched awakening in Amkethran and all the consequent trials, the flames of murderous fury in the dragon’s remaining eye subsided to the level of mere resentment and mistrust, with occasional sparkles of surprise and curiosity. I had never considered myself an exceptionally good narrator, but I suppose the matter of one’s life being on the line can stimulate even the dullest of tongues, and hone the most inadequate logic to perfection. The part that I found most difficult to relay was, of course, the loss of my magic. But omitting it would have taken away the core of my dilemma, and the motivation behind my submission to Aluril’s coercing. To put it simply, it would have irrevocably convinced Adalon that I was lying once again. After agonizing over it awhile, I decided it was not something I could risk in my position, and consequently forced myself into a brief but painful admission of the truth. Alas, I immediately sensed a hint of satisfaction mixed with amusement radiating from the dragon’s mind.
“Someone has done an excellent job at curbing your appetite for power, Shattered One,” was all she said.
Needless to say, it was enough to nearly make me lose my temper and revert to the bitter animosity that had marred the beginning of our conversation. Yet, as Adalon herself had mentioned, unfinished business can be a strongest motivator, and I dearly wanted to get out of her cave alive, if only to restore myself to a semblance of normality. Besides, admitting my handicap to a mortally wounded opponent was not nearly as intolerable as it might have been had the dragon been in her full health and prowess. But regardless of that ultimate humiliation, what really drew my captor’s attention was the recounting of my meeting with Aluril, and her morbid foretelling. Adalon took the news of the recent attack on Evermeet badly, but it was the prophesied destruction of Evereska and her people that upset her to the core. I only shook my head at that display of mental debilitation – what was the fate of the People to the dragon, who was already half-dead, and not even of the same species?
“I have some knowledge of that place,” she revealed after giving it some thought, “and of the ‘Water Woman’, as the humans call the power that inhabits it. The Brook of the Other is something of a legend, but the memories of it have been passed down among the dragonkind of the desert and the Marching Mountains for generations, although its location varies from tale to tale. Some even say that the portal can be opened at her wish inside any body of water on Toril. What has been confirmed, however, is that her prophesies always come true. Nevertheless, this remarkable story by itself does not prove or disprove anything, nor does your claim of having lost your memories and arcane abilities. You could have gained the knowledge of the oasis’s existence by some vile and sinister means. And as I don’t have the power to challenge you to a magical duel, I have no way to test your other claims. You seem to be fit enough to conjure lights, and I saw you use your magic to thwart the Sharpfangs’ first attack. Admittedly, it was not nearly as impressive as your usual flashy style, but incredible for someone who (as you claim) learned his first cantrip about three weeks ago. Now, have you any serious proof of your visit to the Heart of Water, Exile?”
“If you are set on disbelieving me from the start, then what is the point of me telling my story, Ruthaerea?”
“I have much at stake, and very little faith in you, Shattered One, thus you would be wise to withhold your commentary on my character and disposition. Even so, I will not hold your lack of respect as proof of your falsehood, and will rely strictly on the facts of your story to judge your intentions. Have you not told me that the oracle gifted you with a set of new clothes befitting a prince? Yet I see you draping yourself in rugs and goat hides. Can you explain this discrepancy to me?”
“Why do you question my every word?” I was seething with annoyance at her arrogant tone, cursing myself for wasting time trying to appease the dragon. Yet, having got this far, there was no sense in turning back “I lost it all while battling the Naga in the catacombs under the Istishia’s temple. No, it is not another lie, and I did not suddenly regain my full magic proficiency back then. If you want to know - the Naga nearly burnt me to a crisp. There is nothing left of the water elemental’s gift except the belt pouch and the… wait a minute. I still have the brooch that she gave me! Will it do as a ‘material proof’ or will you think it a fake? There is nothing special about it – just a trinket with a pretty blue stone.”
“It will do you good to keep a grip on your temper, Exile. Show it to me. I think I will be able to judge for myself if the ‘trinket’ as you call it, comes from the Plane of Water.”
“There is an obvious ambiguity to your logic, Adalon. Which, certainly, it is not in my interests to point out, but I will do so anyway because it amuses me. If I were as cunning and deceitful as you think, would it be a problem for me to obtain such an object? Suit yourself; I shall surrender the item. Although, I have to point out that it is a rather devious way to solicit treasure for your hoard!”
I unfastened the bag, suddenly aware that I had not seen the ornament ever since I had first put it inside. Despite its unusual origin, I had placed no sentimental value on it, and was intent on selling the thing at the first opportunity. Since I routinely kept my spellbook in the same waterproof bag, it was the best warranty of the pin’s safety. Luckily, all the contents of my belt pouch were still intact, and as soon as my fingers located the sharp edge of the small ornament I pulled it out with a great degree of relief. To be precise, the thing was too large to be called a pin, as it barely fitted on the palm of my hand. It was fashioned from a very bright white metal that I had initially taken for silver but later identified as mythral, shaped in a form of a crescent moon entangled in leaves and vines, and bedecked with blue stones.
The central gem was the most remarkable of all – a massive sapphire the size of a sparrow’s egg, cut and polished with wonderful skill and precision. Regardless of its obvious value the ornament was too extravagant for my taste, as it was clearly designed to be worn on very special occasions, intended to be used either as a hatpin or a brooch. I had never been able to detect any kind of magic emanating from it, (which was not remarkable considering my meager ability), and it had never showed any hidden powers or undue effects.
Yet, to my greatest surprise, when I pulled the brooch out of the bag to show it to the dragon, it looked very different indeed. The entire surface of the ornament glowed softly; as for the central stone – it was virtually on fire, sputtering wave after wave of a bright radiance that immediately filled the cavern with an eerie dance of shadows and azure light.
“Damn it, Adalon, is this another one of your tricks? Do you think you can impress me with such a childish display?”
“Now I can see that your ordeal has clearly robbed you of your once quick and incisive perception, Exile. But the most remarkable fact about your present condition is that you can carry Corellon’s holy symbol in your pocket without recognizing it for what it is, and without any obvious harm to yourself!”
I looked at the ornament in my fingers in acute horror as though it was a black viper, or a scorpion poised to strike me at my first imprudent movement. How could I have been so blind? Of course, the stones were blue, not green, but to miss such a telling feature as its crescent shape was unforgivable! The fact that it had come from Aluril should have warned me that it could not be ‘just a silly trinket’ to adorn one’s holiday clothes. Remarkably, my immediate recognition of the deity’s name and position among the Seldarine did not strike me as odd, nor did my sudden knowledge of his sacred paraphernalia…
A wave of hot, stinging anger filled my head. So, this was the Seldarine’s way of controlling my every step? Did they really think they could get away with it, and guide me to my ‘salvation’ like a mindless puppet? And this after Aluril had assured me of my supposed free will and practically begged me to engage in the stupid quest of saving her precious elven city? Was she in league with them? Naturally, there had never been any need for me to search for Evereska’s location – the Seldarine would have guided me to it using one trick or another. My fingers uncurled, dropping the gleaming symbol into the pile of bloodstained gold under my feet. Its pure radiance became even brighter – a scintillating tongue of blue flame against the dark yellow of the accursed metal.
“Keep it in your hoard for all I care! I have no use for the sign of the Seldarine’s favor!”
“That was a harsh and foolhardy deed, although nothing worse than I would have expected from you. You would be wise to hold on to the gifts bestowed upon you - they might yet come in handy. Now, show me your hands, Joneleth.”
“Why? Do you expect to find a sort of a demonic mark there, or a burn from the ‘holy flames’? And why are you calling me by ‘that’ name again?”
“Please tell me - why am I wasting my time with you? By all means - suit yourself and die from thirst and starvation in the dark!”
“I am not sure that I would not choose it over the alternative. Here - have a good look!” I strolled across the pile of treasure and practically shoved my palms towards the dragon’s remaining eye.
“Come closer, my eyesight is fading.”
“Are you mocking me? Even a blind worm would be able to see that there are no markings on my hands from this distance! I will have to climb on top of your deceased visitor to get any closer.”
“Then do so indeed. You can use his corpse as a ladder.”
“I suppose you are going to come alive all of a sudden, and sate your thirst for revenge on my lifeblood? Be my guest - I am sick and tired of the mental games that everybody plays with me, starting with the leader of the Seldarine and ending with the human girl barely out of her baby teeth!”
I climbed up the blue dragon’s scaly side in a fit of blind fury, my feet sliding on the half-congealed dragon blood. The prospect of getting slaughtered by the enraged dragoness did not scare me anymore. If Adalon thought it a clever trap – let her kill me. It was a cleaner way to go anyway.
“Now, is this close enough for your liking?”
“How ironic - the great puppet master is upset at being somebody else’s toy. The Seldarine’s sweet vengeance rings in your angry words, Exile. Pray that whatever they did to you will assuage me as much as it did them. Yes, this is close enough. Put both of your hands on my forehead. And if you want to live yet – drop all your mental shields.”
Adalon’s eye was so close that I could see every fine scale in the metallic lining of her giant brow. Her pupil was a narrow black slit, splitting the shiny disc of her iris into two symmetrical halves. I could see my pale reflection in both sides of that broken mirror, as if my very being was split in two within the depths of her silver eye. My skin tingled, and I could virtually feel the dragoness’ mind probe the contents of my head.
“What is it now? Another test? Just kill me quickly and be done with it!”
“Why would I want to kill you, after I have learned that leaving you alive may be a better punishment? Relax, and let me finish the spell. It is a simple Mind Scan. You can shield yourself from me and die inside my trap, or you can let me see what I want – what will be your choice?”
“Read my thoughts if you dare, impudent fool, but remember - I am nobody’s puppet, not yours, nor the Seldarine’s!”
“Oh, but you are, Joneleth. You are the puppet and the puppeteer at once, the executioner and the convict, the vivisector and the rat, the predator and the prey. How very unfortunate for you. Did not you offer to be put under a geas just a few moments ago? There is no need for this – someone has already done it! Someone whose magic is far superior to mine, and whose binding you will never break in your present state. You can never kill an innocent with a spell again, because if you do – you will die a slow and terrible death.”
“If you mean the Seldarine, then it comes as no great surprise. They have done a fine job of crippling me yet again!”
“That is where you are mistaken, Joneleth. You always judge everybody else by your own standards, do you not? Corellon Larethian would never do such a thing – not even to someone like you. And neither would his brothers and sisters of the Seldarine.”
“Bah! It figures they would never stoop so low as to put a geas on someone they deprived of his soul. It would be too mild a punishment for the Seldarine. Naturally they would not do it – they would go for something even more ruthless but ‘civilized’! ... But enough of this mockery – can you tell me who was it? To whom should I send my letters of contempt? Or, following your less refined draconic tradition - whose heart shall I rip out of his living body with my bare hands?”
“Now, that would be something I would very much like to see, Joneleth. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is possible, even for someone with your exceptional cunning and alacrity. Have you not guessed it already? Only one wizard that I know of could have done such an intricate and elegant weaving, with all the loose strands carefully braided and hidden within the main body of the spell. You personal signature is unique, Exile, - you surely did it to yourself.”
Xymor (Justicemaker) - Dragon Deity of Enlightened Justice, Greater Power of the Seven Heavens
Alignment: LG , Symbol: A reptilian eye superimposed over a square of gold.
Ruthaerea – Angry One (elv.)