CHAPTER FIFTY EIGHT
Night stoops from her seat amid the rolling spheres of the universe over the couch of an awakened and trembling sleeper.
9-10 of Nightal 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
"Oh, this is indeed an annoyance," Ryndeth said in his best conspiratorial tone. "Why, my lord Ithilnien, I would have loved to hear that arrogant voice of yours once again. Begging, groveling, pleading with me to show a spark of compassion… same as your sister begged for help, bleeding to death under the burning skies of Suldanessellar. The child that she miscarried that day would have been the youngest of your bloodline, and my firstborn. Yet you never cared much about simple things like family or bonds of blood, did you? Would-be-gods pay little heed to mortal affections. Tempting though it is, I am not going to remove the silence spell: one has to sacrifice little pleasures for greater gains."
Here Ryndeth paused, looking intently into my face, maybe searching for the signs of fear and remorse. Certainly, he finally succeeded in shaking my composure. I stared back at him, wondering at the identity of his long-dead lover. She could not have been the blue-eyed beauty who had boldly strolled into the dragon lair at my side, daring me to steal the Silver One's eggs - the timing of the two events felt dead wrong. It was more likely that Joneleth had more than one sibling.
I nodded slowly, seeking his eyes, but this time the elf paid me no attention. If anything, he became angrier with every word he spoke. It was painfully clear that despite his earlier comments, Ryndeth did not truly separate me from Irenicus, nor was he much interested in establishing my identity.
"No one came to save my poor Yave," he continued quietly, while the fingers of his left hand winded the knotted string around his right palm, "because every able spellcaster in the doomed city was out on the streets, battling the energy vortices that tore Suldanessellar apart, or tending to the wounded and dying. And my wife's noble brother, Suldanessellar's greatly celebrated Archmage… youngest to attain that rank in thirteen generations… one so splendidly gifted with intelligence, luck, and good looks that even the Queen could not resist his charms... what was he doing on that accursed day?"
He felt silent, looking at me intently, as if drinking in my distress. Having learned the tale of Suldanessellar's catastrophe, I knew how that story had ended, yet hearing it from the mouth of an eyewitness had a very different effect -- this time I could almost feel the shade of a memory tingling at the edge of my awareness.
"Our Pride and Hope was busy, plundering the powers of disintegrating mythal," Ryndeth confided in dramatic whisper. "His magical talent was strong enough to tackle the spell cast by the Elder Ones in the mists of time, strong enough to challenge the Guardian of Balance, yet not sufficient to complete the deed. While the Tree of Life blazed like a torch, and the air resounded with shrieks of agony of his perishing brethren, our Archmage struggled to absorb the energies of the discharge. Luckily for us, the sheer volume of his task defeated him. It was later discovered that he had tried to rob the Tree of Life of her magic for the 'simple' purpose of elevating himself to the state of divinity. Some ambition, but Joneleth Ithilnien was never shy to try and get what he wanted."
Pausing briefly and shifting his gaze away from my face to check on the security of my bonds, the elf dropped his dramatic manner, and continued in a more prosaic tone. "I assume you know nothing of this. It is doubtful that Irenicus shared the story of his downfall with a mindless clone. Whatever he put into your head was not meant to be used for long, as this type of construct is usually created mindless, given as much intelligence as a simple homunculus. I am surprised you are capable of rational communication, even though Demin irrationally thinks you have a personality of your own. Even if she is right, I doubt you can comprehend the scale of your inherited sins... yet it is to my benefit that you no longer remain ignorant. The Seldarine might frown upon me for ending your existence without explaining you my reasons."
I did not like the implication of that speech any better than his expression, but I continued to stare at him, unblinking and unmoved.
"Your sister Yave, and our unborn child died that day, among many others," Ryndeth switched his stance again - now he began to pace along my bed. "Some might say you were only advancing the inevitable; the People are a dying race and our days on Toril are numbered. Our women give birth once in many decades while humans and orcs breed like vermin. Your union with the Queen never produced any offspring... I have often wondered if Ellesime had had a premonition. Irenicus's crime not only damaged the mythal and snuffed out the lives of elderly and sick, it killed all of our children and expecting mothers."
Giving me a quick glance and seeing that I was once again motionless, the elf continued in the same mild, droning tone that scared me more than any of his earlier angry outbursts.
"Incidentally, among other innocents that night, you murdered your own mother." There he stopped, giving me an ugly, wicked smile that looked like a death grimace. I did my best to conceal any emotions.
" Lady Nyonin lasted longer than her daughter. She succumbed to a wasting sickness almost two weeks after your attack on the Tree of Life. Idle tongues suggested that she died of shame, knowing that her womb had brought forth such a monster." The same wicked, cruel smile crawled back onto Ryndeth's feral face as his fingers tightened on the string he was nurturing between his palms.
"For better or worse, she never learned of her son's final punishment."
Ryndeth paused, shaking his head. "The Elders found Joneleth unworthy of the Spirit and the Queen herself petitioned the Seldarine to strip him of the link to the Plane of Arvandor. After her prayer was answered, she banished him into Exile. Many whispered that Ellessime simply wanted him back one day, and so had ignored the public outcry for an execution. I tend to agree with them," he stopped in mid-step, turning back to face me.
"A century had passed before you came back to claim your revenge. Just when we started to believe that you were dead and truly gone. Your second attack on Suldanessellar was no less devastating: it wiped out half of the city's already dwindling population, and permanently damaged the mythal. Indeed, your destructive skills had grown over the time of your Exile. That second time you conquered the city, albeit not without help from many powerful monsters."
Noticing my acute interest he cringed, quickly switching to the next part of his story.
"Suldanessellar was doomed, if not for your one mistake. Apparently in your quest for vengeance, you had made some powerful foes, and Ellessime was able to tap into that enmity to orchestrate your defeat. We were rescued by a Spawn of Bhaal, set on her revenge upon you... but as every action driven by hatred, our deliverance was futile. Even the High Mages, who repaired the mythal after your first attack, were not able to finish the job properly. It is well known that the art of High Magic is fading from Toril, and after the recent devastation of Evermeet, it is considered truly gone. Thus, after your second attack, no one came to our help. The Tree could not recover on its own, and for the past two years, the mythal has been shrinking daily. The city is going to die when it's gone as we won't be able to hold back the ever growing hordes of orcs, goblins, and humans. Soon Suldanessellar will follow on the steps of Evermeet and Myth Drannor."
Too many pieces of the puzzle fell into their places at once. I was almost shaking with frustration: he was giving me too much to think about, yet no room to act.
"I am telling you all this so that you can better understand my predicament," Ryndeth interrupted himself. "I've guessed out Demin's plans for you. She thinks you might be an illegitimate offspring of the minor branch of House Ithilnien, who can be presented to Ellessime as a sort of consolation prize."
To say that I was shocked at the idea was a classic understatement . Any thoughts of talking to the Queen that I had nurtured were wiped out by that single blow. I blanched, and this time Ryndeth noticed my discomfort, smiling gleefully as he continued his verbal assault.
"Aren't you sensitive for a handiwork of a madman? Many would have traded their souls to switch places with you, but have no fear of that fate. We cannot afford even a trace of Irenicus's presence near Ellessime - hers is the only will that sustains what is left of the city, and she remains half-mad with grief. Regardless of what you are, by all laws and traditions, as your closest relative, I am entitled to deliver the death blow. Gruesome as it is, it is my responsibility."
Silence, poisonous as blight, fell between us. Unable to contain his agitation, Ryndeth stalked the space between my bed and the door. I could not raise my head and look him in the eye for the fear of exposing the full spectrum of my emotions. I was not afraid of death. Over the past few months of my existence, death had been a daily possibility, a shadow following me at every step. But to have a 'choice' of dying like a chained dog at the hand of a madman, who confused personal revenge with his 'duty', or to be bestowed upon the Queen as a fine piece of male flesh... All of a sudden I remembered the touch of Mirriam's lips in the semi-darkness of my bedroom. I had been a fool to send her away - and a greater one to die without ever knowing a woman.
"I could have told you that much if you bothered to listen," Joneleth's mocking whisper reverberated in my frantically spinning mind. "They will always hate you for being the brightest of them, and more so for defying their so-called 'justice' and shaking their dust off your feet! But will you ever let me into your consciousness? The girl and her twin were supposed to be our saviors - that is if you did not push her away with your idiotic choices. Ellessime will pay for her iniquity - but would it have hurt to bind your little human fancier to your will? She was willing to jump over the cliff for you, literally, but now she is gone, taken by another. And you are faced with a threat from this gnat who dares call himself a 'relative'! What a travesty of a family welcome! I could never understand why Yave allowed that nothing into her bed. Likely it was her comeback for another lover that Bodhi stole from her. This is what they call woman's logic..."
And with that final sneer he was gone, as quickly as he surfaced, leaving me puzzled and distressed, as always after his visits. Yet this time it was a little different. I could feel the aftertaste of Joneleth's personality clinging to my mind like a pervasive scent. Was he drawn in by the bait of familiar face and voice? I had no time to think the matter over - it looked like our coexistence in the same head was coming to a close.
Semiconscious and reeling from my experience, I shuddered, making a small noise of discomfort, and that was enough to trigger Ryndeth's reaction. In one quick, silent jump the elf was upon me, knocking me down with a stunning blow to my jaw and pinning my chained hands to my chest. Next his sword-hand pressed the hard edge of his blade to my bare throat.
"Don't even think about fighting back," he whispered into my ear, "for I shall slit your throat the moment you make the slightest noise. I also suggest dropping any hope of biding your time. Sister Demin was summoned to an important meeting and I have chosen my most reliable men to stand guard tonight. Other priests won't dare to interfere until she is back, so you are totally in my power."
I nodded, seething with anger and disappointment. In the end, all I could do was deny him the satisfaction of seeing my fear. Instead of pleading for my life, I stared back into his face, trying to express the whole depth of my resentment. Amazingly, that was enough to make him wince.
"No! Not like that!" Ryndeth pulled back, hissing in frustration. "Your eyes... there is nothing in them but contempt. How dare you blame me for dispensing the Seldarine's justice!! Would you rather wait for a public execution? If you try to enter Suldanessellar wearing this face, the crowd will tear you apart before the Queen has a chance to stop them."
He grabbed a handful of my hair, thumping the back of my head against the wall. "I have heard that humans are keen on public burnings and hangings. Rumors were, the Tethyran King's guard have hanged six of the Goldfeathers - the old Duke and his five eldest sons. Some were whispering that it was all your doing, Shattered One. That it was your way of getting back at the Duke, for trying to expose you as a murderer of king Errilam. Still, I cannot bring myself to slash your throat while you don't accept that I have the right. Here, look at this!"
He thrust a hand into the neckline of his coat, pulling out the knotted string that I spotted earlier. From the string dangled a small object – a leather pouch about the size of an oyster.
"I knew it would come to this," Ryndeth complained loudly as if speaking to somebody who was not in the room. "I knew it the moment this was forced upon me, as if the burden of being his kindred was not enough. Nevertheless, I am the only witness, the caretaker, and the executioner. Let it not be said that I did not fulfill my duty."
He turned back to me with the familiar mad glint in his eyes.
"I told you I shall offer you a bargain, Broken One," he said almost reverently. "A chance that you don't deserve and most definitely will not be able to use to your advantage. Yet I owe it to Yave's mother, so you should blame lady Nyonin for all the consequences of her final wish."
He thrust the blade of his sword back into its scabbard, at the same time pulling out the pair of thick leather gloves, which he immediately put on his hands. I stared at him in confusion, understanding only that for some weird reason known only to him I was spared the death by the blade, wondering if Ryndeth deemed it too easy for me.
The elf pulled the strings of the tiny pouch with his teeth, prying it open, and shook something out of it. His hands were shaking, and the expression on his face hovered between horror and reverence. Slowly, he opened his gloved palm, bringing its contents into the shaft of moon ray spilling from the window. A tiny red spark glowed in his hand like a smouldering ember.
"Take it, it is yours," he nodded at the thing in his hand, then instantly shirked away from me, clenching his fist, as if stricken by a spasm of indecision. "No, I should not let you touch it here, that close to the living quarters. Surely the spell will strike you, cleansing the land of your vile presence, yet there is always a small chance of the side effects."
I continued to stare at him, with what I hoped was highly condescending and arrogant air. This time my efforts were wasted. Ryndeth's attention was locked on the object in his hand. Slowly, he opened his fist, bringing its content back into the path of moonlight.
At first glance, the gem on his palm did not appear rare or beautiful; it was a dim spec of dark-red quartz or volcanic glass carved in a shape of a teardrop. In truth, it lacked the most important property of a precious jewel – the ability to reflect and refract light into the eyes of the beholder. To the contrary, the gem seemed to absorb rather than reflect the moonrays, drawing energy deep into its core. But deep within the stone glowed a spark of dark burgundy fire, piercing the pupil of one's eye like a hot needle. Indeed, it felt as if the stone possessed an awareness of sorts. I could swear that after a few moments of fixing my eye on the spark, the gem became conscious of my presence – the glow became stronger and more vibrant in color.
Ryndeth gasped and closed his hand, quickly dropping the gem back into its pouch. "It responded to your presence," he said bewilderedly, "even though it should not have. The 'Kiira stone cannot be attuned to the presence of a soulless construct. But if you are not a construct, then what are you?"
He looked into my eyes unblinkingly, as if searching for an answer. The severity of confusion showing on his face almost made me feel sorry for him. Instead of trying to answer, I nodded at his hand, a mute question reflected in my eyes.
"This is the Selu'Kiira of the Mistwinter clan," Ryndeth replied with a weird little chuckle. "If you are indeed a scion of House Ithilnien, this is the depository of your ancestral knowledge. Only one of the Blood can touch it and remain whole of body and mind. Only a mage of great natural talent can claim it. Only a humble one, pure of heart and Spirit can merge with it and survive the process. Once upon a time, Joneleth's mother handed it to me, pleading to pass it onto him. Alas, I never had the opportunity. His trial was quick and secret, the nature of his punishment announced to us only after his hasty departure. On his second coming, Irenicus was too busy claiming retribution from his once-beloved. Will you take it from me now, relieving me from this burden?"
Omwo pulled out his pipe, rewrapping the folds of his travel cloak around his small, rotund form, then tucked it back into his pocket with a heavy sigh. According to the stars, it was close to midnight and he still had no idea of how long his vigil would last. There was no sign of Miamla, nor alarm of any kind going on the grounds below. Instead of quickly completing her reconnaissance, the dragonette vanished without a trace, leaving him to vent his frustration on the cliffs above the Elven sacred grounds. After some consideration, the halfling decided to wait until sunrise. Now he was stuck with his decision, chilling his butt off in the middle of a cold night. Most frustratingly, the halfling could not afford to light a pipe, let alone cook himself a hot meal.
"The mageling better be worth the sacrifice," Omwo muttered to himself a thousandth time. "Not that I am not going to make Master Joneleth pay for this misery by writing a play describing the whole affair in the most comical light. He might look like a wimp, but he is not a fair maiden to be so easily abducted by a bunch of roughnecks, and neither am I a prince Charming to chase them across half the Faerun, fighting off vampires and other nasties."
Omwo sighed one more time, and peeped down from his perch on the fallen tree trunk. During the hours of Miamla's absence he had scouted the location, finding the quickest and seemingly easiest way to descend to the grounds below. Than he found himself an observation spot that allowed the best view of the Elven Circle, including the graceful structure that looked like a newly built temple. Finally there was nothing left to do but wait, and he was not particularly good at that. The halfling was a fine comedian, a decent playwright, sometimes an adventurer of repute, but spending hours in the chilly darkness waiting for the next move of his quarry was not among his professed talents.
He would have completely missed the action, if the night were not so cold. As it happened, Omwo became so uncomfortable at his post that he decided to risk going down to the Circle and investigating, rather than continuing to freeze in the dark.
"If that dragon has half the wits she seems to possess, she will be inside already, drinking hot tea and making friends with elves," he told himself, hauling up the pack with Miamla's possessions. As he was about to lift it to his shoulder, something glowing like a streak of blue fire spilled to the ground.
The silver brooch that served them as a compass was aflame with blue radiance. The one tip of the crescent that was pointed at the valley below was particularly bright, pulsating like a giant firefly.
Omwo could never recall his hasty journey downward. The night was bright and starry, with moonlight flooding the valley to the brim with its silver radiance, outlining every protruding root and treacherous stone on the goat trail he followed. Still, the path was steep enough for an unwary climber to break her neck many times over.
Down below, the halfling staggered through a coup of evergreens, finally making it to the path that swiveled around the trunks of giant blue-firs, leading to the ring of stone statues. The cold night air smelled of wet pine needles and rotting leaves. Somewhere at a distance, he could hear the slow trickle of water flowing into a hidden forest bog. Veiled in the eerie fall of moonlight, the Seldarine's Circle looked even more impressive than from his perch on the cliffs. Omwo had no time to stop and pay close attention to the detail, otherwise he would have noticed that many of the gods and goddesses lacked limbs and parts of apparel, others looked like they were recently put on their freshly restored pedestals.
The crescent in Omwo's hands continued to pulse with such brightness that the halfling wondered if sentinels that were surely posted around the perimeter of the Temple were blind as well as deaf. He was certain that despite his best care he had made enough noise to alert a trained ranger's ear. ( He should not have worried - the sentinels were ordered to ignore the noise.) He was close to the edge of the Circle, hiding in the shadow of the largest blue-fir he ever saw, when he heard them approach. At that same moment, the silver brooch in his hands flashed like a beacon and went dark. Omwo froze, then dropped to his belly on the very spot where he was standing. His next move was to free himself from the straps of his backpack and crawl to the edge of the clearing, keeping his weapons close at hand.
Judging by their height and stature the incomers were Elven, one significantly taller than the other. For a time, Omwo could not understand the nature of the jingling sound coming from their direction. Then they stepped into the ring of dancing statues, wading through the river of moonlight that flooded the clearing. That was when the halfling noticed a cobweb of silvery chains running from the tall one's waist to his bare feet. His hands were crossed above the beltline, and judging by his awkward stance, the tall elf was not using them to keep the equilibrium as he walked. He stumbled at every step as his companion prodded him to move on. Slowly, the pair made it to the center of the Circle marked with Corellon's Crescent.
There the one wearing chains stopped, abruptly turning to face his escort. As his long white hair was blown away by the gust of wind, moonlight washed over his thin, rigid profile. Omwo wheezed somewhat angrily: heavy bruises, covering the side of Joneleth's face that he could see from his hiding spot, did not bode well.
"Would you dare to defy the Seldarine even here, at the very equinox of their power?" Ryndeth's mouth quivered as the words spilled out of him, as spiteful and malicious as his plan of revenge.
"It matters not to me," he continued to ramble, pushing me forward through the maze of silent statues. "I brought you here to be judged by your own Blood. You've denied it for too long. Feel the power of your ancestral magic and repent! It will show no mercy to the rotten and barren seed."
Hastily, he positioned me at the center of the Circle, facing south-east. I shut my eyes, saying quick goodbyes to the ones who put their faith in me during my short stay on this Plane. Their faces, old and young, joyful and full of sorrow, flickered before my inner eye in a swift procession. Two of them caused me particular discomfort by refusing to fade away: the old, wrinkled priest with skin baked brown by relentless beat of the desert sun, and the dark-haired slip of a girl with a smile warmer than summer night.
"You have my word, that once you've accepted the 'Kiira's verdict I shall free you from your bonds and let go," Ryndeth tugged at my chains, jerking me back to reality. "This particular stone has been worn by the High Mages of your family for generations -- mayhap it will let you master it," yet he immediately shrugged off this possibility. "You should take the gamble anyway, as this is your only chance of freedom."
The night air was cold, but the torrent of moonlight poured on us with intensity of its daytime counterpart. Ryndeth's face was sweaty and flushed with excitement. He was bubbling, I noted to myself as I nodded my agreement. Unfortunately that prompted him for more pointless commentary.
"Even if the 'Kiira burns out your mind, turning you into a walking vegetable, which is, by the way, is the most likely outcome, in your last moments, you will see and comprehend your true identity. Certain as death, your worthiness will be confirmed, but perhaps at the price of sanity. In that case, I promise to end your life quickly and painlessly. Now that you know the stakes, take the gem from me with your bare hand and press it to your forehead."
For a while, he fumbled with my chains, freeing one of my hands from the contraption strapped to my waist, then pushed something into my quivering palm.
Omwo shifted his weight from one elbow to another. The two elves in the Circle of statues went on with their discussion. He could hear not a word of it, but the expressions on their faces spoke volumes. Just to be on the safe side the halfling loaded his crossbow, knowing very well that he wouldn't have a chance for a reload.
In all honesty, violence was the last thing on his mind. Bushes along the circumference of the holy grounds likely teemed with sentinels, and the Temple was too close not to bring forth a company of priests and their guards at the first sign of a trouble.
The pair in the Circle continued to argue, until finally it looked like Joneleth agreed to do whatever was asked of him. His detractor gave a single laugh and passed something from hand to hand. Then things began to happen too fast for Omwo's liking.
First the Circle was illuminated by a flash of white light, too bright to bear. As the halfling shut his eyes tight, something whizzed past his head. Then it rained briefly, with a multitude of stinging-hot droplets. When the stinging sensation ceased, Omwo opened his eyes, trying to retain his night vision. Someone rolled on the ground inside the ring of statues, weeping and moaning like a wounded animal. Second figure was sprawled on its back not far from the moaner's feet. The grass was covered with fine silver dust, as if generously sprinkled with finely grounded white metal. Then the moaning stopped as abruptly as it began.
I was sitting on the ground, groping blindly around. My hands were no longer bound and bundled inside the contraption. I could feel my bare feet move freely on the cold grass. Every inch of ground and stone around me, as well as my clothes and skin were covered in fine metallic dust, but of my chains, there was not a trace. My head felt as if it had been forcibly removed from its place, then put back without any respect to its original orientation. Cautiously, I checked out my hands, then inspected the grass next to where I sat. There was no sign of the 'Kiira stone in sight, and for the life of me, I could not remember what I did to it.
My head continued to hurt, yet I could not notice any other changes to my physique or my disposition. I had not acquired any superhuman powers or magical abilities, at least not on first check. Neither did I feel restored or content. In truth, there was a certain creeping feeling of loss eating at my heart. Almost as if I had held my memories in hand, only to be forced to let go of them once again. I could clearly recall and comprehend the sequence of events that had brought me from Calimshan to Tethyr and beyond, but that was all. Ryndeth had either lied about the extent of 'Kiira stone's powers or had been deceived himself.
Someone was moaning in the dark next to me. Instinctively, I called out Ryndeth's name, then clapped my mouth shut, grasping the extent of my stupidity -- I had just let him know I was no longer bound by the silence spell.
I acted on pure intuition, without letting myself pause and think about his past promise to let me go once the transfer of the 'Kiira stone was complete. In a single motion, I rolled to my side, vacating the spot were I sat just a moment ago. Then I dived behind the stone head of some goddess that sat next to the center of the Circle. As it happened, Ryndeth's sword pierced the splintered remnants of the hand-trap left in my wake. Moaning furiously at his miss, he stumbled after me. Something unusual in his stance alerted me even before he turned, letting moonlight reflect off the bright metallic blot that covered half his face. It looked like a blind half-mask, or a splat of liquid silver smeared over living flesh. I bet it hurt as hell, yet even half-blind and smarting from the burn, Ryndeth was steadfast in his pursuit of me.
I barely had time to gather a handful of silver dust and fling it into his remaining eye, before sprinting for the trees at the edge of the Circle. Yet the elf was faster, throwing his long, slender sword at my back in a manner of javelin.
Transfixed by the sword, I fell to the ground at the feet of a graceful maiden, standing on the tips of her toes with a sword raised high above her head. There I lay, feeling blood trickle down my back and under my armpit, and listening to Ryndeth's unsteady gait as he slowly approached my side. His injury must have rendered him mute or nearly so, thus I was spared another verbose exposition. After he pulled the blade out of my shoulder, I went still, bracing for the final blow. It never came. Instead I heard a thump, a muffled gurgle, then a heavy thud that his body made as it hit the ground.
When I managed to roll myself to my back, clutching the bleeding hole and wondering if absence of the gurgling sound meant that my brother-in-law had missed the lung, the first thing that I saw was Omwo's toad-like grin. Ryndeth's body lay close by, a crossbow bolt protruding from his throat. Yet my respite was short-lived.
"Bloody Hell, elfling, " Omwo sucked in his breath, staring at me as if I had grown a pair of horns in place of hair , "Gods must really love you, must they not? Otherwise, how would you get a ruby wedged into your forehead?"