CHAPTER FIFTY SIX
8 of Nightal 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
"You cannot hide anything from me." Sister Demin told me, pacing back and forth across the rug covered floor. "My faith empowers me. I can separate the truth from lies."
I was the one fastened to my seat with restrains, yet she appeared to be the less comfortable of the two of us.
"What would you like to hear me say, Eminent one?" I inquired mildly. "I have retold my story as many times as you requested. You know it inside and out, yet you still remain unsatisfied."
"I want to hear it one more time, starting from the beginning." She replied testily, obviously annoyed at the trace of amusement in my voice.
I could see cracks appearing in her controlled facade, but pretended to be fully ignorant of her cranky mood. In truth, her discomfort imbued me with poorly concealable glee. Long gone was the quiet self-assuredness that she had so proudly displayed on the first day of our acquaintance. Lately, the priestess of Rillifane, and the Esteemed Ambassador to Queen Zaranda's Court appeared weary and irritated, as if barely keeping herself from panicking.
In all due honesty, the way my Elven brethren had treated me in the last couple of days had pushed me over the edge of resigned tolerance and into the side of barely controlled malice. I hated being treated like a dangerous animal. This very afternoon, after I had been allowed an hour's break for personal hygiene, Demin's guards had reattached my restraints. They had not been gentle about it. Demin herself had walked in an hour later to remove her magical gag before restarting interrogation. Needless to say, I was kept chained and muzzled at all other times. Only twice in two days of my stay in Sister Demin's custody, I had been allowed food and water. Both times the priestess had heavily padded the area with silence spells. After all that humiliation, taunting her with my exquisitely polite, tongue-in-cheek attitude, was but a small payback.
"You keep repeating that one day you woke up in a shack in the middle of the Great Desert, remembering nothing of your past, not even your name," she snapped at me, as if disturbed by the idea. "I refuse to believe in such a clumsy lie."
"It was a sick house, not a shack," I corrected her courteously, "belonging to a temple of some obscure goddess. Did they call her Waukeen? I believe so. Humans are funny like that; they think that a goddess of wealth and prosperity would not mind being worshipped in a dingy hovel, draped over with animal skins. They would bring her a heel of bread or a comb of wild honey, and go on dreaming about one day finding a pot of gold or having a lucky throw at dice. Scowling does not become you, Sister. "I glanced back at her, giving her my brightest smile. "I was very sick at the time, and the human who took me in was a priest, just like you. For a while, he even made me believe that I was one of them."
"A servant of a N'Tel'Quess goddess made you believe you were one of them?" The priestess looked at me in disbelief. "You have not told me this part before. How was that even possible? Surely, you could not have..." She stopped herself with visible effort of will. "Any faith that preaches succor and hope deserves a measure of respect." Coming from her mouth, that sounded dubious enough to make me chuckle.
"Even if it serves the spiritual needs of the short-living vermin?" I raised an eyebrow in mocking inquiry. "You astound me with your tolerance, Sister."
"Of course, for an exact copy of a madman who tried to become a god himself, any faith can only be subject of mockery!" Demin snapped her mouth shut, visibly angry at the slip of her tongue.
"I would have expected you to be more versed in theological disputes, Sister." I said cautiously, after a brief, tension-filled pause. "Why would me considering myself a human – even for a brief time – put a bee up your bonnet?"
"Enough of your taunts!" Demin snapped at me angrily. "You shall not distract me from my purpose. Let us go back to your story. That human priest who took you in, did he have a name?"
Sometimes, I still missed Chyil and his way of thinking about the whole Faerun as if it were his personal garden.
Yet, I finally began to separate myself from the humankind. My two days in captivity, being forced to speak Elven at all times and communicate with the bona fide elves, convinced me that I was one of them. Or, at least I appeared to be one of them. I would have preferred to learn certain truths differently, and there were other aspects of this communion that made me detest my newly affirmed racial identity.
Their primal hatred of me forced me to accept the unacceptable. I admitted to myself that my memory loss was likely irreversible, that the burden of my past could not be lifted by any other means but death. There was nothing I could do to change the course of events. So, the looming inevitability of paying for the crimes that I had not committed had lost its repugnance. No one can live in a state of existential dread for long: either your mind breaks, or you become inured to misery. By some testament, there is an existence of sorts even at the bottom of the Abyss. If I could believe half of the things that Demin's guards whispered about me behind my back, he had already been there and come back.
Yes, I felt dismay over their treatment of me. But the possibility of a quick execution did not bother me much. Maybe, I was too distraught by the grotesqueness of the situation to be afraid.
"His name was Chyil," I finally answered her with an air of cold reproof, "as I have told you a few times already."
"So, you left his house and crossed the Great Desert alone in the middle of hurricane season, to arrive in Darromar in the company of three adventurers and a small child." She nodded to herself. "Soon upon your arrival, you started making inquiries about the location of Evereska. You also took a new name, whereas your followers continued to call you by a different one."
"I had all the reasons to try on a new identity," I said quietly. "Chyil called me 'Jon', but for all I know, he could have made it up. I never had any way of finding out where that name came from."
"Now this is a lie," the priestess stated flatly without turning her head. "According to your own story, someone else confirmed that 'Jon' was indeed your name. As a matter of fact, they provided you with its full version as well"
"You cannot count that other source as reliable. The dragon was in a state of delirium."
"You told me that she recognized you before she died."
The silence that hung between us was keener than the edge of executioner's blade.
"You are mounting up one ridiculous tale upon another!" Demin could no longer contain her frustration. "This is as bad as your other story – the one about the Water elemental who convinced you to search for the hidden city of Evereska. Whatever else you are, Master Demadan, you are a very bad liar!"
"Why would I bother to invent such ridiculous lies?"
"How would I know the inner workings of your mind?" Demin scowled at me, continuing her pacing routine along the cream-colored wall.
"You know the basic facts about the tragedy of Suldanessellar and the Bhaalspawn Wars." She said flatly. "This is not surprising, since the entirety of Faerun is still buzzing with rumors. I believe that you wanted to exploit your terrible resemblance to the Shattered One. That is why you sought me out in Darromar, making sure to come under my eye. My mages tell me that your face is not the result of a masterful illusion. But several other possibilities remain, one worse by far than all others."
I shrugged resignedly, keeping my eyes on the faraway side of the room.
"Were you planning to contact the Queen?" Demin stopped in her tracks, looking at me with grave suspicion. "Was your ultimate goal to break Ellesime's heart again? Maybe Ryndeth is right. You are one of the Shattered One's cloned copies. I know such despicable practices exist. Some of the more powerful necromancers have access to the spells of that kind. The question that remains, though, is how much free will do you possess now that your maker is dead?"
"There must be ways to detect a clone," I parried instantly. "You have used enough magic on me already to tear a hole in the Weave! Don't tell me, Sister, that you cannot master such a trick. It is clear that you have the skills of a number of accomplished mages at your disposal. And if they cannot do it for you, you can find another expert to examine me."
"A clone as sophisticated as you would have protections," she replied with a grim chuckle. It was tinged with a tiny spark of hysteria, which I did not fail to detect.
"There must be magical ways to determine if I am telling the truth. You are the chosen vessel of the Seldarine here, damn you. You can do something to find if I am lying."
"And what do you think I was doing here all this time?" Sister Demin said suddenly, in a very different tone of a voice.
The priestess calmed down a little as she stopped her furious pacing along the curved wall, then looked at me with the expression of a bird that has cornered a worm.
"By Rillifane's testimony, you have only lied once." She sighed, grabbing the loose ends of her gray knitted shawl and tugging sharply at them. "That was when you've tried to avoid talking about the dragon calling you by the dead one's name. What am I supposed to make of it? You seem to believe in everything you've said. For an amnesiac, you know too much about things you claim to have forgotten, yet you have little understanding of the basic facts of life."
"Please accept my sincere apologies for not helping you condemn myself." I almost laughed at her. "Everybody on this Plane, it seems, is set on using me in one way or another: the pirate's brood, dragons, prophetic apparitions – even Gods. And they all keep complaining that I am not being obliging enough. Help yourself then, and get inside my head like the others already did. You seem to be the only one so far who showed some restraint."
"You are pushing your luck with me, Master Demadan, are you not?" Demin tilted her head to one side, once again acquiring a remarkable resemblance to a bird. "I would have given much to discuss you with Adalon."
"That dragon is dead," I replied solemnly. "Go question her bones if you wish. Don't forget to ask her what she saw in my head. I would have given much to learn the spell that she used on me."
"Ah, but you told me that one of her hatchlings survived, and accompanied you to Darromar." Demin wagged a finger at me. "And I saw a little girl in the theater with you. Now I cannot but wonder if there is a grain of truth to your tale. I should have ordered the little one to be taken at the same time as you, I suppose. Now, I fear, it might be too late to start looking for her."
3 of Nightal 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
"Looks like the moon-thing was the only unusual item inside that tree." Omwo puffed out. He looked disappointed, and his bald forehead was creased with furrows.
Miamla nodded her agreement. Her mouth was stuffed with squirrel-food, as were the pockets of her coat and cloak. They had searched the squirrel's cache and the entire patch of ground around the tree roots many times. There was not a trace of the missing elf's belongings though, nor, for that matter, of a recent campsite, at least not in the tiny clearing where they camped themselves. The halfling extended the search, trying to deduce the most likely path of the creature that had dropped the crescent brooch into the tree – assuming it had been walking on ground, not jumping from tree to tree like a squirrel.
Only half a mile to the south, on the bank of a small forest spring, he finally found a place where a pair of beasts of burden had been tethered for a while. The grass around the spot had been grazed upon recently. There were a few half-visible hoof-prints in the yellow mud by the water. Omwo could not be sure if the prints belonged to pack horses or mules – his tracking skill was amateurish at best – but he was able to figure out that the prints belonged to two different animals.
The halfling poked at the prints some more, wishing he was capable of making something out from them. Kessen would have figured it out in a flash. But Kessen was not with them anymore, and there was no point in wishful thinking. Omwo turned back to the wyrmling and froze in his tracks. The little one was holding the silver brooch by its horns whilst slowly turning around as if in a trance.
"What is wrong with you, child?" The halfling fussed in distress. "Was there a poisonous 'shroom in that pile by chance? You should have let me look at the stuff before gorging yourself on it!"
The girl giggled quietly, opening one huge eye the color of winter ice, and winked at him. Then she pointed her gaunt chin at the crescent in her hands. Only now Omwo noticed a surge of fiery sparks running through white metal. The largest gem at the brooch's middle twinkled and lit up with blue inner fire casting eerie electric reflections on Miamla's pale hands.
Stunned, Omwo peered at the gray square of the sky above his head, hardly visible among the network of crisscrossing tree-branches. There was no way a sunray could peep through the shroud of low-running clouds. Shakily, the halfling looked back at the child's hands.
Miamla had been turning around with the silver crescent in front of her in the manner of a dowsing rod. The light inside the largest gem winked out, to reappear in the smaller stone at the tip of one of the horns. The halfling muttered a curse and instantly regretted it. He should not be teaching the child this kind of a language. Luckily for him, Miamla was too busy to notice his mutterings. As she turned around and around, the magic light – and at that point Omwo had little doubt about the spark's origin – continued to flicker. No matter which way she turned, it always moved to the side of the crescent that was pointing north-east.
9 of Nightal 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
Sister Demin sat bolt upright on her meditation cot. Her head throbbed, so she rubbed her aching temples. For the third night in a row she tried to fall into a trance to receive, if not a revelation, then at least a hint of clarity from her celestial patron. Yet Rillifane's divine will remained veiled. Moreover, she got an impression that the Great Oak was displeased with his High Priestess for trying to puncture that veil. Tonight, Demin almost felt a hint of divine annoyance. She was only praying for his guidance. But it almost felt like the Green Sentinel of the Woodlands was sulking. Such a supposition was, of course, ridiculous, if not outright blasphemous.
"Curse you, Irenicus, in whichever hellhole the demons are gnawing at your bones." The priestess said with feeling. "I wish that Ellesime never set her eyes upon your arrogant face!"
Her temples flared with renewed headache, almost as if the dead one heard her and cursed her in return. Demin pursed her lips, daring the pain to overcome her willpower. Miraculously, her migraine faded. Demin nodded to herself in satisfaction – there was no need to ask for Seldarine's assistance over such trivial ailment. Her self-control was sufficient. The young disciples who chose clerical vocation were subject to iron discipline. After centuries of service the truly dedicated ones learned to govern their bodies by the power of their mind.
"Blessed High Priestess!" came a soft call from the entrance to her private chambers.
Demin's eyes opened wide as she rose from her bed, adjusting her clothes. Her first reaction was a hot wave of panic. It subsided in a moment, after she realized that were one of her most secret fears to come true, the junior priest would not be calling for her so meekly.
As was her habit, Demin had changed into a comfortable informal robe before retiring for the nigh. The heavily embroidered formal attire was left in the care of young acolytes. Being the favored servant of the Leaf Lord and the confidant of the Queen, Demin was always welcome here, in the ancient temple of Sacred Circle. It had not been a problem to arrive from Darromar in secrecy with an unconscious prisoner in tow. Keeping the rumors from spreading was a far more difficult task.
Ever since the Temple in the Hills had been restored and re-consecrated to the Seldarine, Demin had visited here frequently, and even formed a bond with the new contingent of clerics. She had lent a hand in restoring the grove around the Circle of Power and giving shape to the new Sanctuary. That was the way of elven architecture: focused on the art of growing rather than putting together, with living wood being its material of choice. The Temple now flourished, and Demin had her own quarters here as a sign of honor and appreciation.
Nested in a narrow valley between the shallow crags of the Starspire Mountains, on the very edge of the forest of Wealdath, the Temple in the Hills had always been a place of contemplation and reprieve. But hidden threat had long hung over its peaceful façade. The Temple was sitting next to the Starspire Ridge, and the Ridge's vast system of caves had too many conduits leading directly into the Underdark. More than a year had passed since the devastating attack on both the Temple and the tree-city. The artisans, who had survived the carnage unleashed by the minions of the Shattered One, had restored most of the Temple's statuary. Yet some of the priceless art had been lost forever.
Of the great statue of Angharradh – the elven personification of the Mother of All – nothing remained, bar the goddess' marble head. The statue's body was shattered into smallest fragments by the Lolth-worshipping vandals. After the Temple had been cleared of drow, the severed head had been found at the exact center of the ruined Circle. Miraculously, its face had not been disfigured – only smeared with the blood of executed elven captives. Much to the Angharradh clerics' sorrow, there were no artists left in Suldanessellar that deemed themselves talented enough to repair the likeness of their deity.
Demin suspected that Lolth herself had ordered the sacrilege. It was a common belief among the Tel'Quessir that the spider-bodied demon could not tolerate the images that celebrated her rival's physical beauty. According to the People's sacred texts, Angharradh had become Corellon Larethian's new consort after Arachne-Lolth's failed attempt at usurpation of power. Lolth's treachery was punished with transformation into a monster and permanent Exile into the depth of the Abyss. The parallels of that ancient legend with Suldanessellar's most recent history were scary and prophetic. Demin preferred not to dwell on such analogies for long, even though these days her mind was drawn back to them over and over again.
Ever since her consort's Exile, Ellesime had foresworn the delights of physical love. Over the many centuries of her existence, she had outlived many lovers and friends. Yet none of those other losses had affected her so strikingly. On the surface, the immortal daughter of Rillifane remained as ageless and beautiful as ever, but the Queen no longer bothered to attend the Summer Dance, or let herself be entertained by any of the young courtiers who actively sought to capture her eye. Her once intense interest in humans and their culture had passed after the end of the Tethyran Wars. Nowadays Ellesime maintained a political liaison with Queen Zaranda's court, but their cool partnership was nowhere close in intensity to Ellesime's romantic friendship with King Errilam.
It appeared that Joneleth's final death did not register in Queen's tormented mind. He remained as much alive to her today as he had always been over the century or so of his Exile. Over those bleak decades, Ellesime's loneliness had been breaking Demin's heart. It continued to make her feel angry and helpless today. Ellesime had made the wrong choice, but she did not deserve a punishment that lasted forever. It was because of her loyalty, that Demin made a wrong choice of her own.
The High Priestess' devotion to
her Queen had always bordered on the edge of obsession. Thus when Demin first
noticed Joneleth's look-alike in the Queen Zaranda's theater, her thought was
of Ellesime and what a resemblance like that could do to the Queen's peace of
mind. The decision to snatch the young man from the street without notifying
anybody was ill-thought. Bringing him secretly into Wealdath was hardly a
better choice. Yet what else was she supposed to do? Leaving the look-alike of Suldanessellar
worst enemy to walk the streets of Darromar was unacceptable.
Deep inside her heart, Demin knew that in part her rash decision had been the result of a false hope. It was preposterous to imagine that physical similarity could soothe the heart scorched by the double fires of passion and betrayal. That a pair of blue eyes on a young face would have meant anything to the Queen whose spirit-bond to her chosen mate had been severed so brutally. But there was always hope, however insubstantial it appeared at first. There wasn't a chance left now that the double's appearance could be explained by natural means, but Demin did not know it at the time.
Now she suspected that her wrong choice would bring more misery and ruination upon their heads. She was genuinely scared of her prisoner and the implications of his tale, even though she stubbornly refused to admit it. Time was running out, and Demin had to commit herself to a decisive course of action before one of the guards or the temple priests did it for her. Their whispers were growing louder, and the priestess wondered how soon one of them would run off to Suldanessellar bearing the frightful news to the people on the streets.
That was unacceptable to her. She knew she had to deliver her report in person, if only to soften the blow. Demin's other option was to execute her charge without a trial, later making Ellesime accept it as a fait accompli. Time was flowing through her fingers like water, yet the High Priestess could not make up her mind. Reviving the horror of the past, and making Ellesime live through another public trial, went against the High Priestess' very nature, yet condemning an innocent soul to a secret execution felt almost equally bad.
"Eminent Sister, you must come quickly!" the voice of the temple's most senior cleric called to her. "I would not have dared to disrupt your meditations, but this is most urgent. The Guardian wants to talk to you. You must come now."
"Ai, little one, what do you make of this?" Omwo whispered in fascination, squinting at the vista below.
The halfling was looking at a narrow, densely wooded valley, contained by two ranges of limestone cliffs. He was currently sprawled flat on his belly at the very edge of one of the cliffs. At the very center of the valley, in the midst of the densest growth, where the trees stood like a veritable Sylvan army, sat a small clearing, roughly circular in shape. Its border was defined by very old trees, sprinkled with an outgrowth of young pines and spruces.
Beside rusty autumnal grass and a layer of last year's needles, the interior of the ring contained a complex pattern of radial lines and strange symbols. The pattern looked like it was formed by an interwoven network of living roots. A number of beautiful white stone statues were visible through the fuzz of shady evergreens. Unlike the faceless run-of-the mill sculptures that adorned human parks and gardens, these did not look out of place among trees. Quite the opposite, like most of the elven art, the statues looked like they belonged in the forest.
Some of the sculptures appeared meditating, while others were depicted dancing, fencing or playing musical instruments. And yet, there was a certain sense of unity binding them together, as if every one of the marble entities were part of the larger whole, different yet united in their purpose. A symbol of a crescent moon, outlined in pure shimmering white, was drawn at the very center of the circle.
It looked like after five days of harsh travel they finally reached their destination. The silver amulet in Miamla's pocket proved to be a steadfast and trustworthy guide. Much to Omwo's astonishment, no one had tried to interfere with their journey. His surprise had soon turned into suspicion. He and Miamla had been able to hitch rides on farmer's carts and peddlers' wagons all the way from Darromar to the very banks of the river Sulduskon. There, they had crossed the river on a passing fisherman's boat. After that, they had trekked through the hidden mountain passes for a full day and a night, eventually emerging on the other side of the Starspire Ridge. Neither wandering ogre bands, which by now moved as far south as the outskirts of the Tethyran capital, nor regular bandits, had intercepted them even once. It was almost as if the pair of travelers bore an omen of good luck painted upon their brow.
Even their crossing of the fast-flowing, cold river had been smooth and uneventful. The silent, cloaked fisherman refused to take Omwo's proffered bit of silver and pointed to a hidden trail that eventually brought them to the equally mysterious mountain pass.
That fact alone troubled the halfling more than he was willing to admit. Having been born in Faerun, one could hardly disallow the frequent divine interference with everyday life. But he usually preferred to be in control of his own actions, or at least to know the exact nature of the powers that ordered him around. Being a well traveled and educated type, Omwo was very much aware of the significance of the silver crescent. Yet there was always a possibility, however small, of another power masquerading as Corellon Larethian. His first look at the circle of statues had laid his doubts to rest – the place radiated a sense of power and quiet contemplation.
"One of us should go down there and check," Omwo said thoughtfully. "I suppose it better be someone they would trust." Miamla was sprawled on the ground next to him, with her chin supported by her cupped hands. At his suggestion she nodded without taking her eyes from the valley below, and chirruped something in a bird-like tongue that he had yet to understand properly. "Can you er… change into your other form and sneak up on them?" He asked hopefully.
She nodded and crawled away from the cliff's edge. The halfling turned his head to make sure that the wyrmling understood his request, but she was already gone, vanishing from sight in plain view.
Only her clothes and backpack lay on the stony ground in a neat pile. Soon Miamla's shimmering, almost-transparent silhouette – eerily akin to that of an overgrown dragonfly – slid past him into the valley below.
All he could do was to stifle a gasp and follow her silent flight with his eyes. The elves should trust one of her race, he assured himself. Plus she would be able to converse with them if they captured her. He could not say the same about himself.
Shivering from a sudden onslaught of chill, Demin marched down the chipped marble staircase leading into the misty darkness. Behind her, she left the subtle whispering of the agitated clerics. It had been requested that she descend the tunnel alone. In all her time since the temple recovery from the Enemy, she had only been here once, and that was as a member of the Queen's retinue. The Council had decided to bury the dead and abandon the underground compound to their memory. The storage rooms and priest quarters despoiled by the drow were rebuilt above ground. But Ellesime had been obliged to enter the catacombs under the old Temple's ruins at least once: to conclude the concord with the new Guardian.
Demin had a great deal of respect for Adalon and her past services. The priestess could not blame the silver dragon for seeking the termination of her Guardian vows. Even though Adalon's eggs were restored to her in the end, the Shattered One's theft had destroyed the dragon's confidence. The safety of her future offspring meant too much to the dragon, and so Adalon had convinced them to let her go. Since the troops of the offending drow settlement had been all but decimated by the Spawn of Bhaal, it was safe to assume that Suldanessellar had gained a few decades of relief before the drow could reform.
Now the High Priestess' mind was full of doubts. If she were to believe her prisoner, Adalon had perished in a fight with a rogue Blue within two years from the termination of her vows. Could her death have been the Draconic Gods' punishment for the abandonment of her duty? Ellesime would feel greatly saddened by this death, and might even blame herself for consenting to the silver dragon's choice. Adalon had provided a worthy replacement, still, their new Guardian had not turned out to be quite as steadfast and reliable as her, or so the rumors and the occasional giggles from the youngest of the priests implied.