Baldur's Gate II -
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The first and foremost sensation of my captivity was the stench of a dead flesh - the smell of an embalming fluid mixed with an undertone of rotten meat, void filled with nauseating smell emanating from a hand touching my face. The insane giggle floating in my half-dead brain, "I can smell it, therefore I am..." Oblivion.
Then the light so harsh and bright that it was better to keep my eyes shut. Yes, it was . . . much better to stay dead. Maybe that drooling, lazy voice would go away. Its maniacal persistence in my head was wearing down my hastily built defenses, breaking through my barriers, prying deeper and deeper.
Slam, the barrier goes up again. Oblivion. Other than occasional whiff of carrion mixed with embalming resin and that voice- I cannot recall anything from those first days, or was it - weeks?
I could not see a thing, I did not want not look. I had to go blind. I did not feel anything. I would not feel pain. I was just a mind floating in stinking darkness filled with incomprehensive noise.
Supposedly, my defensive powers were very good, even in those early days. Later, I had found many festering wounds upon my person, mostly in sensitive areas. I had not have a slightest idea of how I had gotten them. I was very glad of that fact. The electric burns on my palms also turned to be a surprise. Thank you - Father- I am not a totally ungrateful child after all. Imoen was not so lucky.
My floating stinking void suddenly popped up like a bubble. I could see again. I could feel the pain. My body itched and ached in thousand spots. I stank like a pig, and I was gasping for breath. I could feel somebody shaking me as a familiar breathless melodious voice chimed in my ears.
"Wake up little sister, wake up. We have to get out of here."
Imoen was remarkably efficient. She looked fresh and clean and, as always, pretty as a toy. That was peculiar under the circumstances. I did not know then that she was hurt on a level deeper than the mere eye could see. With her bright golden beauty and joyful nature she was attractive enough to invite our captor’s ‘special’ attentions. I guess, breaking a delicate porcelain figurine was more alluring than smashing a filthy voodoo doll I looked; breaking it piece by piece was even more fun.
Gods be praised (though I cringe at the though of attracting attention of any deity) that I am dark-haired and suntanned. There is almost no trace of elvish blood in my appearance. Imoen looks more fairy-like than I even though I supposedly have some elvish ancestors. I cannot understand how did she live through those "experiments" of his, or did not loose her sanity forever. At the time of my release, I knew nothing of it.
Me head was still dizzy and my heart hollow, when a vision of the red-stained dagger being cleaned on the white linen hit me with a certainty of the brick between the eyes. I gasped, as the memory of that night became reality again. The wave of guilt and sorrow overwhelmed me. Our capture and my lover’s death were entirely my fault.
Even today, so many years later, I still cannot forget my first reaction. Being unable to forget and forgive myself hurts. The horrid creature, who was both the torturer and the victim, was the only one to blame for all that had occurred; but what was the point of trying to find oblivion in revenge?
Imoen was talking to me, trying to shake me from of my stupor but I cannot recall a word of what she’d said in the first few moments. The world continued to spin around me - I found myself in a round metal cage in the room with a look of a torture chamber. You can recognize it even if you have never seen one in your life. I had seen way too many.
Perhaps, the builder of that particular one envisioned it as a research facility of a sort but a good old-fashioned metal cage is just what it is - a tool of pain and misery. There were more cages and, unsettling enough, more people inside some of them, both dead and living.
In the cage just across from mine, a young attractive woman sat on the floor in a lotus position. Her limpid green eyes looked at me as serious as ever, as she calmly went through her druidic meditations. Her leather tunic was torn, her belt missing, her hair filthy, but there she was - resolute to go through her workout. That finally broke the spell. I moaned and limped out of my cage with some help from Imoen, who wrinkled her pretty nose, no doubt, at the smell of me.
"Gods, what I really need right now is to pee." I whimpered.
"Glad you are finally awake. It’s time we start moving," responded the woman in the cage cheerfully, springing up from the floor.
"Jaheira! I am truly glad you are alive." I felt an immense relief at seeing her. She was steady as a rock and if she was here there was still hope that we can get out of this mess.
"It would be nice if you can free me from this stupid cage, girl."
"Me thinks, she got it right!" said the rumbling voice from the left. "By Silvanus’s beard an Mielikki's bow! We were worried about you!"
I whirled around and found myself face to face with a smiling giant who looked at me kindly through the bars of the next cage. His usually clean-shaven head and chin were covered with thick bristle. It was dark and wiry. I almost sat on the floor laughing with relief.
"Silvanus’s beard indeed! I never thought I would see anything like this in my life. Minsc, I take it - they deprived you of ALL sharp objects?"
He scratched at his stubble loathingly. "Minsc and Boo will look like brothers before long."
"Oh, no ... Not that hamster again! Are you saying you still have the little bugger with you?"
Boo was the name of an amicable hamster who was technically Minsc’ property. I suspected that the reality was more complicated than that, and ‘who owned whom’ in this duo was a gray zone. Minsc claimed the rodent was sold to him ‘by an old chap in a red dress who was smoking a pipe’. That sounded rather fishy to me, for the only old man with a pipe that I knew of, was a bit too busy to engage in a pet trade. Than again, he was a very nosy individual.0
As a dedicated ranger Minsc had made the hamster his familiar, though personally I thought this selection was a bit extravagant. Boo was Minsc’ last bastion of defense against the onslaughts of berserker rage, and a calming influence for his nerves. Minsc was a Rashemi, and as many of their warriors carried a curse of an uncontrollable battle rage (though many of the Rashemen considered it a blessing). I was delighted to learn that the ranger got to keep his little companion.
"There is too much of me to search properly." He grinned. "They took my swords but not my hamster!"
"There was fighting going on all over the place and I found the key from your cage left here on the table." Imoen repeated. She was talking to me, I realized.
That final phrase suddenly got my attention. Fortunately, in times of need my mind turns into a razor-sharp instrument of a field surgeon. There was no place for emotions now.
"What kind of fighting?"
"Men in black ... hooded assassins ... they all looked much the same to me."
"This sounds very much like the ones who took us," Jaheira responded from inside her cage. "And they can return any moment to finish the job! Are you going to work on getting me out of this trap or what?"
"Wait, are you saying that those people have been fighting between themselves?"
"No, the others… they looked ... strange, sinister. I cannot say what they were … my head hurts…" Imoen whimpered in pain pressing her fingertips to her temples.
"Are you girls going to help me break out? Boo is getting restless!" Minsc inquired in his turn.
After a brief search we found the key from Jaheira’s cage hanging on the wall in the small adjacent room. The fact that the cell where they kept Imoen was opened, but she was left without a guard, and that the keys from the cages have been left lying around was not just an open invitation - it was a farce. Whoever kept us captive obviously wanted us try to escape. Worse than that, we did not have any choice but to follow his trail of breadcrumbs, and maybe walk straight into a trap. I always prefer to have an ace or two hidden up my sleeves; at that moment all the cards have been in the hands of other player.
Minsc’ cage did not even have a lock. Whoever took care of him just welded the door of the cell with iron bars. Jaheira and Imoen watched in silence as I tried to remember all the metal softening tricks that I ever knew. Minsc spent all the time since he was imprisoned tirelessly bending the rusty spikes. No old metal cage could resist that kind of treatment for long – but so far it was holding.
"You are an insolent child, my dear! If you had not had run away from us nothing of this would have happened! Even Boo has more sense than you! What is it you are trying to do now? One of your little magicks, is it?"
I moaned. "By Oghma’s inkwell, Minsc! I am trying to concentrate!"
"If you cannot pick this with your pretty little fingers, let Imoen try." He actually laughed.
He can laugh and make inane comments like that in any impossible situation. I think this is the nature of saints and children, and he is both with his heart of gold and bizarre sense of humor, though a little bit of wit would not have hurt.
"Oh, Minsc, just shut up. Go teach Boo suck eggs! I am going to leave you here to rot, if you don’t stop rambling!" His cage creaked. The magically softened metal gave up as he shook it one last time outraged at my remark.
"You are a smart one! You said this on purpose to make me mad, right?"
"At least you are still as impudent as you used to be." Jaheira shook her head at me.
"What happened to the others?" I was brave enough to ask. They all sobered and went quiet.
"Dynaheir is dead, lassie, I lost her," Minsc said finally.
That was a shock. I turned to Minsc and actually saw tears on his eyes. He was shaking. The big guy’s grief was as deep as his anger. I realized that this had thrown his entire life into chaos.
Another death on my conscience! I remembered the lightning storm at the distance. Dynaheir was a Rashemi Witch, and what I had seen that night was her last stand. Minsc and Dynaheir were kin and he was bound to her as her personal guardian and protector, as many Rashemi berserkers who follow their wichlaran. Now that she was dead, what will happen to him? Would he be able to continue his ‘dajemma – a ritual quest of a warrior’ - alone? Would he be able to keep his battle fury under control without her influence? I did not have the answers.
"I shall stay with you to avenge her,” he reassured me immediately, “I will take the life of whoever slain her with this hands, that I swear. I had failed her for the last time and now I will follow his trail to the Nine Hells if needed!"
I suddenly shivered.
"Minsc...we will punish whoever did this to us and killed her! But first we need to get out of here alive."
"I would like to find out what happened to Khalid." Jaheira said suddenly in a clear serious voice. "Did he have a chance to speak with you before they jumped us? I hope he is fine," her voice trembled just a little. "If he is free, he is probably looking for us now."
I almost had a fainting spell at that. "I ... I cannot remember anything at all from that night," I stammered, gripping the twisted metal piece with my cold and clammy fingers. "I was not able to remember who I am at first." That part was true at least. The silence that followed threatened to swallow the remains of my courage.
"We need to start moving. He left when a golem brought news of the attack on this place, but he can be back any moment now. I need … we need to get away from him!" Imoen said fervently.
"Who is 'Him', Imoen?"
"Irenicus… he said his name was Irenicus."
We searched the room quickly only to discover a relatively harmless magical Construct, standing idly in the adjoined closet over a pile of rusty discarded weaponry, old armor, and bloodstained rugs. I got the impression that one of its duties was to dispose of the stuff left behind by the prisoners. I did not dare to think about what had happened to the former owners of those things. The pile was ominous, but even a rusted weapon is better than none. I picked a bloodstained leather shirt from the top of the pile. It could fit a woman or a child. Jaheira silently took it away from me.
We armed and outfitted ourselves as best as we could, though it did not seem that we had any chance against the master of this place, weapons or no weapons. The Construct proved to be quite talkative. I heard - they call these things golems. I had never seen one before. It was basically a roughly shaped clay statue with flat eyeless face. It was quite fascinating! I do always try to learn about things magical. Being a student of the Craft myself, I crave information. This is the main aspect of my otherwise ordinary and boring personality. It is not surprising in somebody who spent her entire life in the biggest fortress-library of the Realms.
My foster father Gorion, praised be his name, had encouraged my reading and obsession with books for he was that way himself. He was also my first and only teacher of the Craft. I doubt anybody else would have thought of teaching me magic. They all seem to think the taint is in my blood. They actually tried to explain it to me, to clarify why I should stay away from the only passion of my life, the only respite that I have and my only hope to establish myself as something entirely separate from the essence of my real father.
When the curse of my origin was discovered it had driven me further away from so-called 'social interactions'. The man, who had died on that wretched rainy night trying to protect me, was the only person besides Gorion who was able to see the terrified twenty-year-old under the arrogant, acerbic personality that I present to the rest of the world. At the end, it had cost him his free will and his life.
They taught me well not to show any weakness. There were days when I hoped to find a cure for my condition. If I could only reach for the cursed divine essence and drive it out - purify my blood with the witch fires of Mystra! If I could burn out the taint! I used to dream about it, though my mortal body would not survive the transformation. Insolent as I am I have no desire to be transformed into an undead lich1 . Though, it may be better than what awaits me after death now.
"How many female lich’s are out there, anyway?"
"What is it you are muttering, baby? Why would you want to be a lich?" Imoen inquired timidly.
I squirmed, "Imoen, I am two months older than you."
"Will you please stop looking at this golem like you want to take it apart here and now? We don’t have time for this!"
"I sure will, Jaheira. I was merely thinking over what it was saying about The Guardian. What may that be?"
"We will find out soon enough; let’s get going."
The first room that we had entered hosted a surprise. A crackling, buzzing machine spitted out electric discharges and nasty little critters with bat-like wings. The creatures were simmering with electricity as well, and shocked the hell out of us before we disposed of them all. But the machine kept sputtering out more! Fortunately, by that time I had figured out which lever to pull to shut down the whole construction.
I remembered the Encyclopedia of magical creatures that described the little imp-like beasties. They were called 'mephits' and were not the creatures of our Plane. There should be more than one kind. They can cast one particular spell akin to their element. If you know in advance what to expect, they are not particularly dangerous.
"One of his toys he called it," Imoen said, "A lightning portal device."
"Are there any more of these? Or any other kind?"
" I don’t know, baby, I guess it can be. I know little of this place." She blushed.
"You seem to know much more than the rest of us together, Imoen."
"He… he hurt me, a … a lot. He thought I was you for some time. I don’t know why! I did not want to tell him that he was wrong. He showed me something about myself... I don’t want to talk about it! He had been talking about the great potential, the Bhaal’s quintessence. Do you know what it means?" she was shaking. "If only I can remove this pain, like a little dagger stuck in my skull."
"I can place another healing spell on you if you wish," Jaheira offered quickly.
"No, no, it is not that kind of pain. I hope it will get away. We had to leave this place! He can come back any moment now! I don’t think I would want to live through another…"
So, our captor took Imoen for a Bhaaalspawn at first - that was the fact worth remembering. I was followed by assassins and potential kidnappers along the Sword Coast for more than a year. They always knew their target no matter how many times I tried to cover my trail and change my name. I have used many names in my travels and the one by which I was known in Baldur’s Gate – our last long stop before my final flight – had nothing to do with my real identity. Imoen was with me most of the time and she never thought of hiding her name. Besides, her shock of bushy golden-red hair and cheerful laughter were impossible to forget once you have put your eyes on her.
"We better take her out of here quick," Jaheira said emphatically.
I simply nodded, for there was not much I could do about Imoen’s condition without knowledge of what had caused it.
In a few steps, the corridor opened into a huge underground cavern filled with glittering rose light, and shimmering shadows. For a moment, I stood there speechless.
In front of me, the giant clusters of flame- and grape-colored crystal thrust from the dark-ochre floor like some exotic anemones almost meeting the low multicolored ceiling. The intricately shaped, fragile stalactites hung from above meeting the spiral-curved stalagmites, rising up from the ground. Whoever our enemy was, he was not entirely blind to this dark beauty for he had kept this cavern in its natural state.
I heard a distant tinkling of water and caught the light reflected off the surface of the murky underground river. The sight of water almost made me moan for I was extremely dry and thirsty. My skin was covered with filth and pus and I could not stand my own stench.
I was also ravenous. I did not recall eating anything during my captivity though Imoen insisted that I was force-fed while unconscious. At the moment, all our food consisted of two stale loaves of bread given to Minsc and Jaheira as their daily rations. This should do for a while unless we wanted to try a rat on a stick.
The light at the center of the cavern suddenly shimmered and solidified into a tall, alien-looking man, smug and flamboyant in his quasi-oriental outfit. Judging by the height and bluish-white skin color of the stranger, he was not the creature of this Plane. The shiny golden rings in his nose and ears, combined with the bright silk turban gave me some clue to his identity.
"The Guardian!" gasped Imoen.
"Umm, a ‘genie’, to be precise,” I responded, “I think they would call it 'djinn' in Calimshan,"
The djinn laughed. Its laughter sounded peculiar, as its vocal cords were producing something akin to a thunder in the stifled atmosphere of the underground cave.
"If I am not mistaken, you are indeed what a northerner would call a genie,” I continued un-baffled, giving the creature a slight nod of my head. My heart was racing like a frightened rabbit, but my face stayed calm and controlled. “I always thought it fascinating, that the inhabitants of the Elemental Planes would so easily adapt to our superstitions about them. Look at you, wearing this stupid headgear and trousers! I think this type of outfit is out of fashion even in Calimshan for about three thousand years!"
"Time flows differently in our realm, oh Sarcastic one! We are a conservative race. By the way, I am Aataqah,” the djinn responded bemusedly, “You have escaped somewhat later than I had hoped."
"And now I am supposed to say, ‘What is going on here?’ Consider it said!" I was rather irritated with the whole circus. "I assume your master will show up next?"
"I have no master, oh Daughter of Bhaal, and I welcome you to my little piece of this place!” He smirked and made a wide sweep with his both hands.
“The Shattered one thinks that he has control over me, while in fact I indulge my curiosity by watching him. Your name is well known amongst those who watch. Your life's thread is bright indeed, though in your path lies many a dark, and frayed end."
"Just stuff it." I was fuming with irritation and had my most powerful spell at the tip of my tongue but the djinn ignored my murderous expression most graciously.
"You are a rather daring little lady for a Daughter of Murder! But back to business - tell me, oh Spawn of Bhaal, are you ready to answer the riddle?"
"Oh, another one of these,” I clicked my tongue and made a rude gesture at the creature, “Why would I want to indulge you?"
"Firstly, because I will help you if you do it right, as I did already. Secondly, because you had to be curious of what I wish to ask!"
"I am not, “ I scowled.
"Somehow, I thought you would be more compliant,” the djinn complained, and shook his ethereal finger at me accusingly. “But you are as self-reliant as all of your kin, Daughter of Murder! So defiant and yet so pleasant to the eye!” He smiled most benevolently. “I like women with a bit of a temper."
I knew I looked dismal and smelled like a privy so if it was an attempt at flattery - it was lost on me. But to show a bit of acquiescence at this point was logical, for obviously the creature’s intentions were subtler then I first assumed.
"Ask your question quick and maybe I will answer you, Mr. Genie." I acceded trying to sound interested but still avoiding the commitment.
"Very well, oh Defiant one! Imagine yourself being captured and doomed to die," the djinn smiled nastily, "Your sibling was taken with you. The only way out would be to forsake your own life for his freedom. But even then, maybe both of you would die. Would you sacrifice yourself or not? That is my question!"
"I cannot not answer one way or another, for the question is ambiguous,” I offered. “There are many circumstances when I would choose one way or another. For one, my brother Sarevok was my sibling, who tried to assassinate me, I had to kill him by my own hand later on."
The djinn cringed and felt silent for a moment or two in deep thought. When he spoke again his voice sounded uncertain, as if he had to abandon his ‘script’ and improvise on a spot.
"Bah, oh Smart one, that was unforeseen.”
Then his face brightened again. “Ugh…yes, I cannot resist your ugh… ingenuous appeal, oh Daughter of Bhaal! So I am succumbing to your charms. Go talk to Rielev. Offer him the release that he craves and you shall find that the direction of your next journey would soon become apparent. Fare thee well!"
The genie vanished hastily with another, rather theatrical flash of light. A little thunderclap followed a few seconds later, as if whoever was taking care of the sound effects remembered to turn it on finally. I had the feeling that his prepared speech was much longer and that I had somehow beaten him in his little game.
I sighed. "Looks like we may have a chance to escape after all. Though I think the djinn was lying about his relation to our captor. He sounded too well-coached."
"I did not really get it," Imoen sighed. "What did he want? What are we going to do now?"
"I would be damned if I am going to make another step before I wash myself," I lifted my chin stubbornly. "Maybe we all are going to die in the next hour or so but if this is going to happen I want to die clean."
"Are you sure you want to do this right now?" Jaheira was puzzled. "He can return any moment."
"I don’t think he is going to interrupt this little spectacle until we locate whatever he wants us to find." I suggested. "And in any case, he is not getting me back alive! I can still feel his dirty hands on my skin."
“The touch of the undead brings rot and decay,” Imoen muttered, “I would prefer the caress of a Loviator’s priest to His touch for the Maiden of Pain gives cleansing in agony…”
We exchanged frightened looks with Jaheira. Never before our brave-hearted and cheerful Imoen would have considered turning to the Goddess of Pain for consolation.
"Boo says - we can scare away legions of evil with our smell! Perhaps we should stay this way and take advantage over the enemy?" Minsc boomed loudly, interrupting this awkward moment.
Upon hearing this Jaheira smacked him smartly on the bottom with the flat of her scimitar and started to pull her shirt off without another word.
"I am going, I am going!" He hastily retreated from the field.
We bathed and drunk the murky water; then washed our clothes and ate some of the bread. Having my hair clean felt like a holy miracle. I braided it and wrapped the braid around the crown of my head in my usual fashion. Amazingly - that made me feel better. I gathered the pitiful remains of my once expensive gray silken outfit and secured it with a string. My clothes were in abominable condition, slashed and torn in many places.
Imoen just washed her face and hands. I noticed her new ornate belt but decided against asking about its origins. By that time we allowed Minsc to return from his exile behind the rock. All his stubble had mysteriously disappeared. I guessed shaving his head before battle was a sort of ritual to him, akin to cleaning his sword.
"Minsc and Boo are back,” He declared happily. “Oh, my eyes are blinded with shining beauty! All these pretty ladies and just the two of us. Ouch! There was no need to pinch, Jaheira. You will make Boo nervous."
I giggled tensely.
"Hey lassie! Now you look like a soldier ready for battle, yes? Are we going to kick some serious butt today?"
"I look like a rat trapped in a maze, Minsc," I answered, " but whoever is trying to make me push the button and get the cheese, is going to have a very long wait."
He laughed and gulped down his portion of the stale bread, sharing it with Boo, who scuttled happily in and out of his sleeve.
Afterwards we continued on our journey. The place was creeping with all sorts of magical life forms - there were mephits, little goblins, mutated rats and mice, and some weirder creatures that I did not even try to recognize. All of this was offensive, foul, yelling and trying to scratch, bite, kick, and put an arrow in you from around every corner. It was very annoying and I got angry enough to chew nails, when after following the long, dark corridor filled with all that magical riffraff, we had walked into the dead end. We had to carefully retrace our steps to the cavern, and take a different way from there.
Before long, we found a round chamber with yet another Construct. That one was a blind golem, that responded only to the simplest of commands. It was another servant of our captor, used to perform the humble task of cleaning the sewage. After searching in vain for clues we left the golem in its room.
By that time we’ve got used to continuous annoyance of having to fight our every step through the dungeon. Soon, we were rewarded for our patience by discovering something of major importance.
I stumbled and nearly vomited as we had entered the spacious chamber behind a heavy wooden door. It was filled with the familiar stench of the preserved death, the smell that I had first discerned on the hands touching me in my trance. We explored the room after disposing of yet another set of mephits. It was a strange place, filled with round tanks made of opaque green glass. It appeared that the tanks, or rather whatever was floating in them, was the source of that awful smell.
"I know this place! I was here with him!" Imoen was almost hysterical. "This things in the tanks used to be his servants… It is a punishment of a sort. He can keep them alive like this forever."
"Calm down, girl. This cannot be true. There is nothing alive in this room but us now. Being a druid, I can feel the living things." Jaheira was seriously upset.
"Perhaps this apparatus can be activated by magic," I suggested.
"Yes, some sort of activation device is required. I can feel their eyes on me still. Let’s get out of here," Imoen wailed.
"We will, Imoen, as soon as I finish searching the room. We may find some clues to our mystery here. What was that you’ve mentioned, about my potential that he was trying to unlock?"
"I don’t care if he can make me strong as an orc! All I want is to get out of here and see the sky again, maybe for the last time! You don’t know what he did to me!" She was truly weeping now.
All I could do was to hold her and let her cry for a while. That was when I realized, that something truly evil had been done to her while I was unconscious. We had our difficulties with Imoen. I always suspected that she was driven to me more by the desire to prove herself equal or better than by anything else. But still, she was the closest thing I had for a family.
I do admit that I am paranoid and not very trusty. We had our ups and downs with the girl but over the last half a year we learned the degree of our dependence on each other. There were times when I needed her as much or even more then she needed me. We shared the memories of our childhood in Candlekeep and that was precious. Now that she was badly hurt the misery that she caused me by her sudden demand to come clear with my lover’s wife seemed distant and unimportant. Surely, I could not blame her for what had followed. The whole affair was of my own doing. Everything that had transpired was the result of my decision to leave rather than to face the consequences of my actions.
That did not make me any closer with Imoen though. The hard sick feeling of doubt was stuck in my heart, and nothing would dispel it. I could only hope that after we escape from this hell, somehow, I would set it right with everybody. For now, I needed to get them all safely out of there.
I looked around the chamber one last time and noticed a folding chair equipped with the mechanical manipulators. The master of this place cared for his own safety and comfort while playing his little torture games. Imoen was quiet now.
"You are right, of course, we better search this place. It may help us to find the way out." Imoen said in a hollow voice.
"We will get out, I give you my world."
"We will kick his evil ass all the way to the early grave, my girl! Yes?" Minsc grumbled.
Imoen nodded wearily and wiped the tears from her eyes.
The things in the tanks stayed dead, and although I stared into their cloudy depths almost forever, I was not able to perceive anything useful. So, we continued our journey along the dusty corridors of this strange prison.
I asked Minsc to explore the corridor ahead, looking for traps and was surprised when Imoen suddenly showed some spirit. She was absolutely outraged by the fact that I tried to keep her ‘pinned to my skirts’ and deny her the rightful place as our scout. She was very much her old self again. I hoped for her sake that I was making a right decision by letting her do it. She was a wonder to watch as she crept silently along the walls, almost becoming one with the shadows. Her recent whim of studying the basics of concealment magic helped her a lot. I had to agree that she had become reasonably good with illusion spells and could detect things invisible to the untrained eye.
I was never interested in this sort of tricks but I have to say honestly that it has its uses. It is relatively safe, too. My expertise is in what they call a school of Conjuration. Being the bread and butter of a battlemage this kind of magic requires incredible attention to details and patience of a fisherwoman, setting her nets in the immaterial depths of alternative dimensions. Except that things that you have to catch are ugly and dangerous. Many a conjurer ended up as a nasty splatter on the map of the world by letting her summoned charges wriggle out of control. The fact that I am still alive after running wild for so long without any guidance is incredible by itself.
She was back in minutes, silent and frowning thoughtfully.
" I found a thing that would interest you, baby. It is another one of those tanks but the being inside is truly ‘alive’ and it can communicate. It scared the hell out of me! It does not really talk. You can hear it inside your head, kind of. I though I was turning insane again for a moment."
"Let’s go and see what it is for ourselves." I said cautiously.
"Are you sure it’s necessary? Perhaps, we should try to press forward and find our way out of here quick. I feel like our time is running out."
Jaheira was always impatient. I looked at her pale tired face and a sense of guilt and desperation twisted in my heart like a knife again. I knew I was doing the right thing by looking for clues. The parting words of the genie Aataqah were a strong incentive to follow every possible lead. But I was at a complete loss of how to handle her. I was afraid to argue and afraid to let it go. She could smell a rat in my very change of the attitude towards her. Hell, I was not ready to relay the facts to her and to take responsibility for what had happened. To my complete astonishment, Imoen came to my rescue.
"Can’t you see it, she is doing the only right thing, Jaheira? If we want to get out of here, we need information. Every hole in this place is magically sealed! Trust me, I know. And I know you wouldn’t wish to face Him again! Our only chance to escape is to find a weak link, a clue pointing out to what this place is, and the only way we can get that clue is to speak to somebody who actually belongs here! So let her do her thinking and …Oh, I am so sorry, Jaheira. Forgive me. I did not want to offend you … I am tired. I am so tired. I need to get out of here soon."
She was all shaky again and Jaheira was trying to calm her down with a simple blessing spell. I had a sudden premonition of horrors yet to come.
We crept along the corridor following Imoen, but for once, no creature stirred in the dark corners of our prison. The heavy door creaked on its rusted hinges, and we entered a dusty dark room packed with furniture. It looked like a kind of a broom closet. A place where all broken and forgotten things would silently collect dust for generations to come. Overall the room, though dirty and abandoned, did have a look of been visited occasionally. The trail made by human feet was zigzagging across the dusty floor. The dome of dusky green glass towered at the left wall covered with dirt and spider webs. It slightly buzzed and whispered at me.
"There is no light here." Indeed the only light source was internal glow of the glass dome. It was a colossal glass jar similar to the ones we had seen in the big room, but somewhat older and of more primitive design. It vibrated with hidden power.
"I need to have a closer look. There is something going on here. Please stay where you are, just in case."
I muttered a spell and a quick glimmer of runes settled on my shoulders. I tugged at my skirt caught on some invisible splinter. The fabric stretched and ripped. I cursed. Jaheira sighed resolutely. There was a spark of laughter in her green eyes though.
"Please be careful." Imoen sounded meek.
"Looks like good old pickle jar to me. If what’s inside gives you any trouble Minsc and Boo will chop it into relish!"
I chuckled nervously at Minsc’s comment and approached the tank. It was big, murky, and smelly. Something cloudy and ethereal floated in its depths but the thick cover of dust covered the dome so it was impossible to see clearly.
" Pleasse, pleasse come closser..." A whisper in my brain suddenly became audible.
"What are you? Where are you?" I staggered.
"You are not one of the sservantss, I can feel you presence, you are ghosst in the darkness ... come closser into the light sso I can ssee you."
I gathered all my resolution and cleared the front of the warm slippery glass with my sleeve. It took me some time to recognize what was hovering within the tank. At first, I had mistaken the being inside for a sort of jellyfish, preserved in its own juices. Then I made out the details. My heart sank. Floating in the green liquid was a naked human brain trailing the spinal cord like some gruesome attachment, and surrounded by the white cloud of raw nerves and dead blood vessels. A pair of eyes linked to the brain with the pale strings of nerves was bobbing right in front of my face, staring at me intently. All the bone and muscle tissue was gone.
"Gods have mercy on us!" I croaked. "Are you dead or alive?"
"Doess not matter. Not anymore. Masster has done this to me, and sstill I live... I dream mosst of the time."
"What had happened to you?"
"I don’t remember. I died. I think it wass a magical accident of a ssort, an essperiment gone wrong. I wass to live forever as a reward for my sservicess... but I don’t wish it anymore…"
"Who is this master you speak of? Is he the one named Irenicus?"
"No, noo don’t usse thiss name... You don’t undersstand ... Yess, I wass a sservant, a faithful sservant but alsso a friend. All of it iss gone now. My youth, my dreamss of immortality."
"Are you all right? You have gone all white." Jaheira asked with sudden concern and I realized that the whole conversation was going on inside my head. I nodded silently trying to keep a grip on myself.
"I am all right, I had established a contact with this... thing..."
"I am not a thing, I am Rielev. That wass my name." The voice wailed suddenly in my mind. "You are hiss prisonerss? Yess, I can feel it. Ssome thingss never change. He will be angry. Will you help me to esscape? To sstop thiss endless pain... I will help you in return."
"How can we help you to escape? You cannot leave this tank." Momentarily, I had a feeling of a smile from him.
" I want you to take out the batteriess. The magic sstorage devicess. If you take them - I will die at leasst. I will tell you everything you need to know, if you promisse to help me. I beg you."
"I see." Silence enveloped us, so dense - it was almost palpable. His shadow was quivering like a jelly within the dim circle of light. I was suddenly very tired and cold, and my mind refused to cooperate. I knew I was following a trail of breadcrumbs like a dutiful mouse guided into a trap, but it was my only trail.
"Well, I will do it." I said aloud, and was shaken by the sound of my own voice. Jaheira was looking straight at me, but amazingly did not ask anything.
"Good, now assk, and I will tell you all that I know of thiss place. I shall help you to esscape." The voice was whispering inside my head again.
"Why," I asked him silently, "do you serve him so dutifully, even with your death?"
And so we talked, and I uncovered some secrets, and found more questions. Poor restless soul! The torment of being suspended forever between life and death had driven him mad long time ago. There was almost nothing left of his memories - just the dieing whisper of the mind. I suspected that as his physical body was dissolving in that evil solution, which was supposedly preserving him, his memories were fading away, leaving him fewer and fewer bright spots of his life faintly connected with quivering links of remembrances lost.
I wondered what kind of a perverse joke his ‘master’ had played on him, by granting him this sort of immortality. It was a fascinatingly evil thing to do to your faithful friend and servant. At the end Rielev started to realize that he was just another experiment, and wanted to stop it. That was why I managed to convince him to share everything he still remembered with me. Looked like Irenicus had a habit to come here and talk to him from time to time, discussing his ongoing affairs. He probably thought of it as of his biggest joke - to torment the crazy non-living thing with the details of his current nastiness.
It was a blessing, to let him go. Every time I come close to the flimsy border that separates us from the ‘other side’, I remember Rielev. He was probably that first pebble that tripped the avalanche, unraveling his master’s plans for us. He told me, among the other things, that I should be able to talk to other servants, using the magic storage device that powered his tank.
There had been a few objects scattered among the trash in the room that I found useful, including the sewer golem keystone. Rielev had informed me that his master left it there for us. Some people just totally lack imagination! What was it - arrogant perception of everybody else’s mind as a ‘minor’ one or rigid thinking?
* * * * *
The green light flashed brightly again and the white fog coalesced into a woman’s shape. This time she was agitated and spitting like a hellcat. But her male companion paid no heed to her moods. His voice sounded as cool and arrogant as ever.
"So your scheme backfired again. Now I have to rid my house of this infestation of thieves. I knew it sounded too good to be true."
"Aran has more guts than I though." She spat. "I took his best people and turned them into my minions. He barely has any wizards left to cover a simple smuggling operation. And still he dares to challenge you!"
"A cornered rat is the most dangerous one."
"I will take care of it myself!"
"No," he mused. "Just send me the few of the ones you have taken, to wipe out this vermin. It will be entertaining to watch. And I want that headhunter, you had mentioned. Deliver him to me, but don’t play with him. Not just yet."
"What can you possibly want from him? These humans think they are fast and stealthy but I perceive their every motion as if they move in a thick jelly, really. You cannot imagine how fascinating it is to watch the food run. You can see every hair on its head, every capillary under its skin so close - it makes your mouth water."
He shrugged. "You are getting too excited about it. It is just another state of your body." His remark was interrupted by a scream. He frowned irritably. "This is such a nuisance. I had to stop my work and come here to take care of this petty robbery. I think I will have to put more traps at the entrance. Something powerful but simple."
"How is your work going? Is she talking to you now?" She asked eagerly.
"Which one are you asking about? The pretty doll is talking too much for my taste. She is really getting on my nerves. You would think that kind of blood would grant at least some bit of intelligence. The other day she tried to jump off the platform inside the Plane of Air. But she has a lovely behind."
She leered, showing too much teeth. "What about the other one?"
"She is still in a coma. Or, at least, she is faking it rather well. I cannot get any kind of response, though I tried all the usual sensitive areas and neural centers."
"Can I help you with this? I just found this enthralling book by Sir Tamdorn Torquemad. He was one of the heroes of the Order of Most Radiant Heart and Grand Inquisitor himself. You would not believe what they used to do with the suspected witches!" She chuckled. "To think of how much knowledge was lost over the years. It pains me." She did a funny little motion with her fingers, like turning some invisible screw. " I suspect, that deep in his heart, he worshipped devotedly to Loviatar, the Maiden of Pain, much to Helm’s dismay."
His laughter boomed with the loud echo in the little room.
"Even those pompous asses used to have some little fun every now and then. How fitting! I will borrow this memoir from you, certainly. But first, I want to test some of my theories. This invasion," he gestured with his hand disapprovingly, "may actually be useful after all."
"What do you mean ‘useful’?"
"The classic ‘rat in the labyrinth’ setup. The thieves will provide a distraction, so they can escape and try to get out. I want to observe the subject’s reactions unhindered. The little doll is going to free her friends from their cells and the rest is a matter of my imagination."
"Is not it a bit risky? Making them run free in your lab. Why bother getting all of them out anyway, not just the girl?"
"I want her concentrated on her task of getting out, not worried about what happened to the others."
"You don’t mind that the other one will talk?"
"And tell them what? She does not have enough brains to present any danger. And I will make sure that she cannot harm herself and damage a valuable specimen. Don’t worry. Your share will be safe enough."
As all the buzzing and whispering died inside the glass prison and the light went out fading slowly to nothingness I wished silently, that if Rielev had worshipped any gods- they would be lenient on his wounded soul. He deserved it for he had suffered enough to redeem whatever crimes he may have committed in the past. Willingly or not he provided us with the first solid lead on the nature of or captor’s interest in us, in me in particular.
Whoever Irenicus was, he was fascinated with death, enthralled and scared at the same time, desperately looking for the way to cheat it. I was the Child of Murder, the daughter of the god of violent death. Perhaps, he expected me to possess some special powers related to his favorite subject? Puzzled with this discovery I recalled the lines of an ancient poem :
All that will bring us to the edge,
For mortal heart is golden pledge
Of inexpressible seduction
And immortality bequest...
... and shivered with sudden chill. I never thought along these lines before. For me my heritage was a curse, not a temptation.
"He is finally dead, isn’t he? I couldn’t look away. I have seen the death before, but never was I so drawn to it. Almost as if I craved to see it happen."
I turned slowly. Imoen stood by my side looking intently into the green glass.
"He finally got his rest. It was his strongest desire." I said tiredly.
"Death is … pretty. Why do I say this? Or please, take me away from here before it is too late!"
I hugged her and walked her to the door nodding for the others to follow. The small ornate cylinder in my hand pulsed with hidden power and glowed slightly. It was demanding my attention in its quiet way. There were others in the hall of jars and Rielev had told me how to wake them up.
"So you can actually charge unanimated objects to make them store raw magic. Interesting idea. I would love to speak with this guy …" I mused.
"No you would not! Trust me on this one!" Imoen snapped viciously.
I blinked. "Calm down, little sister, I was merely speculating. We will return to the jar room now. I need to interview some of the pickled people there."
"How can you? They are dead."
"Nope, their jars are different. They have some minimal level of power maintained naturally. But you need this," I balanced the cylinder on my hand, " to make them speak."
"You seem to have had a really interesting conversation with that guy," Jaheira reflected from somewhere in the gloom behind.
"So I did. Let’s get going."
Perhaps under different circumstances I would have felt more remorse and some compassion for the servants stored in the jars. However, I had three living souls dependant on me and no other way to get the information I needed.
As we entered the hall of jars again, Imoen squirmed and bit her lip but otherwise stayed quiet and remote. My explorations took some time. Only few of the jars contained conscious beings. Those living inhabitants were mostly mad and raving. They could add little to the information Rielev had already provided. Yet, there were some unusual twists to the plot. One of the poor despondent creatures kept gibbering about a certain object that will grant him an access to the 'genie'. Aataqah was not the only djinn bound in this dungeon; that much I knew already from Rielev.
I wondered again, what was Aataqah’s role in this. The cavern of crystals, which he claimed as his place of residence was there long before all the other parts of this dungeon were built. The underground river in the cavern was not just an ordinary stream - the pools formed by its waters reflected strange and disturbing images. Rielev insisted that the place was a source of raw magic energy, which our captor tapped and used to power his underground complex. There were strange magical areas in our world, some left from the Time of Troubles, others ancient as time itself and buried deep underground. I frowned irritably at my lack of information. I needed more data to elucidate these wild speculations.
"Next we move to the library," I sighted finally.
"How do you know it is safe?" Imoen asked.
"You should have asked how do I know there is a library," I smiled," but I will let it pass."
"Are you suspecting me now?" She bristled.
"Imoen," I said as gently as possible. "I don’t think you are in control of your actions. That’s all I meant. This belt you are wearing. I probed it - it is enchanted."
She gasped. "How can you! … I cannot remove it - that is true! But it is not what you think." She blushed hotly. "I am not a puppet! It is a protection spell. Look at this and dare say you don’t trust me!"
Abruptly, she shoved her hands into my face, palms up. The thin white scars were encircling her wrists. They looked like they healed years ago, but I remembered her hands and those marks had not been here before. I grabbed her wrists into my hands and looked closer.
"A dagger of the mind," I muttered. "Did you try to kill yourself?"
She went white. "Yes, several times, but he would not let me do it! Once you are his, he would not let you escape that easy. This belt, it casts a ward spell on you, which will not let you die, does not matter how hurt you are. You can bleed almost to death or break all you bones, but still survive." She sobbed. "He let me lay for hours bleeding but alive. He said - I can only learn from my own experience."
"I am sorry, Imoen," I whispered. I just did not know what to say at this point.
"Peace, girls. I had already lost my witch. I am not letting any of you to come to any more harm, while I am still breathing." Minsc said abruptly.
"Let me handle this, Minsc." Jaheira grabbed Imoen by the shoulders and pulled her aside, hugging her tightly and muttering intently into her ear.
I let her do it. There was not much that I could do. Yet, if anybody could help, it was Jaheira with her extensive knowledge of medicinal spells and natural sensitivity to the rhythms of the living body. I considered the situation in the pause that ensued. I would be damned if I knew how to break out of this vicious circle! There was a trap behind every step we took. Every turn led back into the cage. Well, he could not have thought of everything. There should be some holes in his weavings. I was not going to use the golem key until I finished with the library. We were relatively safe to explore this place until I opened the sewer door, I decided. But it is better to keep a spell or two ready. Besides, Rielev warned me to expect surprises if I wonder off the path laid for me.
It is always fascinating to see the monster 2 sublimate into a physical body. They usually go for the latest nightmare they can ‘divine’ from your memory. Mine are usually weird, but this time I managed to coerce my summoning into a shape of a hobgoblin. The second one was easier. Normally I can control up to five summoned creatures, which is about the natural limit. I always wonder what perverse logic is behind this number. Probably just a mental block for I heard that in elder times mages marched into a battle with the armies of summoned monsters and skeletal warriors. "Pandemonium Apercu" - the Bible of Conjuration, does not say anything on the matter either.
With two hobgoblins marching at front, we proceeded down the dusty corridor with caution. I did not want to risk Imoen in her present state of mind, though Jaheira insisted that I was wrong and that the danger itself was best distraction for the girl. So, when the first crossbow bolt hit the front goblin with a thud, Jaheira cursed and looked at me appreciatively. Her scimitar was out in a flash and light as a feather, she jumped in front of the sturdy dwarf in the black chain mail. Steel met steel with a sick rasping sound.
I commanded the hobgoblins to cover the crossbowmen, while chanting my next incantation. Jaheira was pushing her opponent back effectively, parrying his axe with her shield. He was obviously the leader of the group that attacked us, for he was barking commands to his comrades. Two more axemen rushed to his help, but Minsc intercepted them first.
There were six or seven of those strange dwarves, all covered head to toe with chainmail, gray skinned, and completely bald characters. It did not look like they have expected us, for they were ill prepared and disorganized, but they had advantage in numbers. They smelled faintly of iron forge and smoke, and their dark pebble-like eyes shone with madness. They yelled, cursed, and whistled with glee as they rushed at us from the semidarkness of the narrow passageways. In moments, the whole room was crawling with them. I thought vaguely of the cockroaches as I released the spell.
A well-placed lightning bolt took out one of the attackers. Minsc had two or three of them on him now, and was enjoying himself immensely. The hand-to-hand combat was his dominion, so I left him to it and concentrated on my next task, for I spotted the major player in the game - an enemy enchanter. I realized abruptly that all these events took no more then few minutes of real time for he did not have a chance to finish a single spell.
As I started my casting I spared Imoen a quick glance. She stood in the middle of the raging battle cool and efficient with her bow and arrows. Inadvertently, this momentous distraction was enough for a crossbow bolt to hit me in the shoulder.
"Curse it! My spell is ruined, watch the caster Jaheira!"
I recognized his wailings as a nasty mind control spell and was bracing myself for the worst, when an arrow flashed by burying itself deep in his throat. He felt, blood bubbling from his mouth, quivered and went quiet. Imoen was shooting arrows with a steady hand of a veteran fighter. I wondered if a danger sense worked as a medicine for her.
"Back off, baby! We can handle this," she screamed.
"Get out of the way girl if you are hurt!" Minsk yelled, hacking at his two remaining enemies. The third one was already down.
Something hit the ground, rolled to my feet, and stopped. I looked closely into the still living eyes of the severed head as I sagged to the floor clawing at the spike in my shoulder. They were dark and angry. Blood was flowing freely between my fingers, leaving my head empty and light. Well, at least it was still attached to my neck, I thought weakly.
The fight was over in seconds. After their leader lost his head, the remaining dwarves lost their nerve, and were defeated quickly. My monsters were dead too, punctured by crossbow bolts like pincushions. They sizzled slightly, dissolving in black pools of ichor. But they took the crossbowmen with them.
Jaheira rolled the head out of her way with the tip of her boot and kneeled before me, getting a steady grip on my upper arm. Her green eyes held mine as she chanted the healing spell and her hand gripped the bolt, quickly pulling it out of my flesh. I screamed, but the pain was already gone and the wound was cleaned and sealed magically.
"Not even a scar left," Jaheira smiled proudly. "You have to do it properly, before the blood stops by itself."
"How about a friendly kiss instead of spells? Boo told me it is a much better medicine." Minsc was bleeding profoundly from many small cuts but it did not seem to spoil his cheerful demeanor.
"Get over here, you comedian." She gripped his head firmly and planted a kiss on his forehead after applying a quick healing spell. He grinned and retreated to collect weapons and ammunition from the fallen enemy. After inspecting the chain mail on the headless corpse of the leader, he whistled in surprise and pulled it off without hesitation.
"Here is your princely trophy, sister. I have seen you scimitar at work. Remind me never make you angry."
The black mail shirt reeked of blood and dark magic and was indeed a rare piece of Craftsmanship.
"It stinks with death." Jaheira cringed.
"Butt kicking for goodness! It will protect you better than your leather. Take it."
"I guess you are right. Thanks for caring." She took the mail reluctantly but hold it on her outstretched hands, still undecided.
"Let me," I said tentatively, and pulled the mail shirt out of her hands. I draped it carefully over the stone bench and backed away, just far enough. I hit it with the acid splash first, so that all dried blood dissolved with a hiss. Next, I called fire. Not a trace of gore remained when I handed it to Jaheira, still slightly warm and shining darkly. Imoen clapped her hands and Minsc nodded with approval as Jaheira pulled it over her head.
"I always thought you mages need your spellbooks for this stuff to work. Why, you always used to carry around a mulepack of them," Minsc stated cheerfully. "Looks like you don’t need them after all!"
"Most of it is here." I tapped a finger on my forehead. "Though, every beginner is strongly encouraged to keep a written record. And, off course, I always keep all decent grimoires I can get my hands on. I wish I could get my things back. It will be hard to restore my spells from memory."
He finished searching the corpses with practical ruthlessness of a seasoned warrior who had seen way to many deaths in his time to care about such flimsy thing as ethics. And he was right, curse it! We have been robbed of all our possessions and coins, as well as our freedom.
"Here is something strange. Why would this guy carry around a bag full of acorns?
"Let me see it, Minsc," I opened a small suede bag. "It is not just acorns, there are other seeds as well."
"This chief character had it around his neck. That is, when he had one." Minsc said insensibly.
Indeed the bag was stained with blood but suede was thick enough to protect the insides from been soaked. Jaheira looked over my shoulder with interest.
"Hmm, I can see birch and linden 3 seeds here, as well as oak acorns."
"You better keep it than. Perhaps we will discover the meaning of this later." I handed the seeds to Jaheira.
"I found some gold and jewels too, lassie. Boo told me you’ll need a decent dress when we make it out of here." Minsc chuckled at me. "Not that I mind a glimpse of a pretty leg or two, but you may catch cold if you go around like this outside. I never knew a girl, who cannot be cheered up by a new dress."
I nodded silently, indicating, that I did not wish to discuss this any further. He was right - I looked like a scarecrow. My formerly elegant overdress was in tatters. The gray silk was slashed and torn in many places and covered with ugly rust colored stains, which I was not able to remove. Both of the sleeves were half ripped off, exposing my scarred and burned arms and shoulders. Jaheira healed the injuries, but could not avoid scarring. I did not pay it much attention. Not that I normally cared much about my appearance anyway. Yet, about two months ago, things have changed.
Now that my lover was dead and my sandcastles lay in ruins, I settled in a kind of a silent numb despair. Hating myself felt like a proper thing to do. It would have been easier, if I could share this agony with the others. But my deep and desperate sense of guilt prevented me from telling anybody that I had seen him dead. The pain was like a cancer, eating me from inside, but still, the crime was too shameful to confess it.
"We need to search the library," I said reasonably after a short pause. "I guess that was the turn we passed just before they jumped us." I turned to Imoen. "By the way, that was a great shot!"
She shrugged. "Those dwarves were Duergar, I think. I still remember some of the geography lessons from Candlekeep. You have always skipped them under the pretense that they were boring. Duergar are all evil, no wonder they serve him."
"There is no such thing as good or evil. It is only your prospective that makes you choose sides," I answered automatically.
"Oh, yeah? I would like you to meet Irenicus close and personal!" Her voice ringed with hatred so intense, that I was scared for her.
"Peace," I said. "I already did." I showed her my arms. "And geography was boring. I was reading about polymorph spells at that time. Remember Melicamp, the talking chicken?" I chuckled. "I was fortunate I did not end up like him!"
She almost smiled, for her lips curled up involuntarily at this shared memory, and calmed down a little.
"Your scars, I have a few too. He likes to play with the knives. That is why he keeps this army of dwarf smiths here - to keep his knives sharp."
She shrugged and glanced quickly at Jaheira, then looked away as if scared of her own thoughts. This bothered me for a second, but soon I forgot about it. Later, I remembered this detail and all that it implied. We appropriated some particular useful items, including backpacks and an assortment of weapons from the dead Duergar. I was particularly happy to get my hands on a sling and a bag of heavy lead bullets.
We returned to the library. I carefully searched it shelf by shelf. But there was absolutely nothing there that could help us. I found a few common scrolls. All these materials were familiar to me and suitable, perhaps, for the beginner. He obviously had removed everything valuable. I wondered, if he knew I was a scholar of magic, or if he cared at all.
"It makes me homesick," said Imoen suddenly. "All these dusty shelves and books nearly spilling over."
"Well, it makes me sneeze," I chuckled getting off the ladder, "and this is a far cry from Candlekeep. I wonder where does he keep his personal books and scrolls."
"In his study, probably." Imoen answered automatically.
I only raised an eyebrow at this and stayed silent. I found a few useful items among the old history tomes and textbooks. These were a thick ledger in octavo bound in a cheap brown cloth, a half-empty bottle of ink, and a bunch of dry feathers, suitable for quills. All these treasures I packed carefully in the capacious leather pouch, which I stripped off the dead Duergar leader. I carefully tore off the first few pages out of the book. It was a machine shop inventory of a sort listing iron bars, screws and whetstones; all scrawled with unsteady hand and a loathing for spelling. I guessed that the original owner of the book would not need it any more and so, settled the book on my knee, and sharpened the quill. Jaheira moaned. I blinked suspiciously at her.
"What? I need to keep some sort of a record, you know. I left my old journal behind in Baldur’s Gate."
"Do you have to waste time on this? We can be dead tomorrow or in an hour."
"Indeed, that is why I am trying to keep these chronicles going. Manuscripts last longer than people."
"Who is ever going to read this?" She shrugged. "Suit yourself, but don’t waste your breath on presenting us all as mighty heroes. You should know by now how long human gratitude lasts."
"You know my position on this, Jaheira. We have been over this many times. I will try to stay as neutral as possible for the active participant of the events. I thought you were happy enough with my accounts before."
"You had not wrote a word in the last two months. I knew it was too good to last. I was right."
"You cannot enter the same river twice."
"What do you mean by this?"
"I am not the same person that I was two month ago."
"So I see."
"I am sorry for all that happened, baby." Imoen suddenly blurted out. "You know I never meant you to come to any harm, nor …"
"I know you did not, Imoen. Nobody could have foreseen the future. Enough of this talk, I am responsible for this group’s survival and I am going to see us through. Everything is going to be fine. Nothing of it is your fault."
I was stuttering, so desperate I was to stop her from talking. She looked at me wretchedly, but did not continue.
"Why would you, of all people, blame yourself, Imoen?" Jaheira was astounded at the notion. "If anybody is to blame, it would be me, for sending Khalid ahead, instead of you. It had clearly been an ambush. I was the leader and so I was responsible."
"Peace, women. I am the one who was blind and she paid dearly for it!" Minsc was now pacing back and forth between the shelves, unable to keep still. "This evildoer is going to taste my sword yet! Her death will not go unpunished!"
"Hush, Minsc. Whoever holds the heaviest burden knows it in his heart. We cannot bring back the dead. But at least we can care for the living."
I said this in a cold and final tone then closed the journal and packed everything neatly in the bag. It was time to move on.
The corridor behind the library led to another dead end. When we tried to move in the opposite direction, behind the room with dead Duergar, we encountered a magically sealed door. That place rang a bell in my memory, for the shape of the lock implied some sort of a special key. Rielev had mentioned this place and later one of the servants confirmed its existence. I made a mental note for myself to look for the key.
Down the corridor, we found a cunningly set trap. Imoen was able to locate and disarm it, but it was not pretty. So, he did not want us to go in this direction? Curiosity kills the cat, but in that case, all we got was couple of nasty scratches from the half-bred demon, confined inside the magical bubble in the room behind the trap. We released and killed it without much understanding of what purpose had it served. At least I had the satisfaction of ruining his experiment. Childish of me, but at this point the danger sense gave way to a reckless desire to have it all over. I was so tired of been worried and so desperate that even openly confronting Irenicus looked like a feasible idea. It was time to use the sewer key.
We returned to the sewer golem, and I reluctantly placed the enchanted stone on its outstretched hand. The construct creaked, turned around, and left the room.
"That was pretty easy," Imoen said shakily, after golem stomped away.
"Blind and obedient," I said. "I wish all men would be like this! The world would become much safer place."
"Sirrah! Your father must be rolling over in his grave, for not spanking you enough!" Minsc grumbled. "Boo and I may just decide to put his soul to rest, alas for a short time!"
"I am afraid it is too late, Minsc." Jaheira shook her head. "Though, I would help you to hold her down."
"Peace, friends" I said. "Present company and hamsters excluded."
We had followed the golem through the cave of wondrous crystals and beyond. That corridor now had an opening. I could hear the booming steps of the golem, the screech of a rusty metal and afterwards the splash and stout ‘wham’. Something squealed as if being kicked by the heavy stone foot. The massive door was opened into the ultimate darkness. Ripe and fetid stench of cloaca assaulted our nostrils. We jumped aside as the golem passed us on its way back. The door started to creak slowly. I grabbed the torch from the nearest ring of stone and pushed inside, before it shut itself. The others followed. I could barely see anything in the dim light of my torch. The round chamber was filled with the stench of refuse emanating from the round pit in the middle. The pit was covered with the massive iron grating, which was now closed. The rest of the room was lost in the shadows, but I could just make out piles of trash, accumulated around the walls.
"Somehow, I don’t think he uses this particular door on his way out." I mused.
But before I could make any more observations or further comments, a hateful shriek filled my ears and a pale shapeless thing covered with slime jumped on us out of the dark.
"Hell and damnation!" I yelled in sheer panic. "What is this?"
"An Otyugh, I think," Jaheira answered as she grabbed her scimitars. "Ugly and diseased carrion eater! Be very careful with this one."
Minsc only grunted something inaudible as he jumped forward, pushing me aside. His swords flashed, whacking at the beast. The arrow whizzed past my ear as I prepared a spell.
Suddenly Minsc yelped in pain and cursed violently.
"It is holding me! I will need help."
I could hear Imoen muttering something on the background. What was she up to? No time to find out.
Jaheira was in the action, trying to distract the beast from the big guy. This left her no time and space to heal. The ugly thing had our ranger’s foot in its jaws. Now it was steadily chewing on Minsc’s knee, having him enveloped in its disgusting tentacles. Jaheira hacked off one of the Otyugh’s legs and proceeded with the other appendages, but it was holding on like a dog. Minsc was pale and sweaty now, unsuccessfully trying to cut thorough the beast’s thick eyestalk.
I spun and pushed the torch into Imoen’s hand, then rushed ahead with a curse almost tripping over my skirt in process. Somehow, I managed to get a grip on Minsc and planted my palms on his back. He staggered heavily.
"I need a skin contact for this to work!" I shouted frantically, shifting my hands to his bare neck. Instantly I formed a single wish in my mind, and desperately tried to concentrate on it, to issue a direct command for the body to heal. A crack of a bone and moan broke my concentration.
"Stop it!" I ordered to myself inside my head.
His skin felt cold and clammy with perspiration. Suddenly, a vision of a snake, ready to strike, filled my mind.
"Please not now!" I begged silently.
The world was frozen in suspense. The healing energy flowed from my fingertips into my patient. Minsc shrugged as if shaking off a dizzy spell. His right hand moved like a spring, and the beastie squelched and died. Minsc staggered and sat heavily on the floor.
The snake in my mind sprang up and flied into my face. I screamed and almost fainted.
"I keep forgetting about these weird things that you can do." Jaheira shook her head and kneeled before our brave warrior, cutting the leggings on his injured foot with her knife.
My head was swimming, but I tried to cover my condition by being harsh.
"Hey, I don’t think your nature devotion is any less occult or obscure! However, I don’t mind it. In fact, you would have done a better job in healing him, if you remembered that you are our only witchdoctor at the moment!"
She flashed at this and dutifully concentrated on healing the big ranger’s leg. "Imoen, would you please move closer with the torch, so I can see, what I am doing here?"
"You are harsh on her." Imoen whispered. She was the one who kept her head cool during the whole affair, and cleverly slowed the creature down with a minor spell. Now she was shivering with reaction and this caused the torch in her hand to flicker and cast unsteady shadows on the damp gray walls.
"She is a hot head." I shrugged. "I need everybody to work together, me included. Otherwise, we all will die. This was stupid of me, not to send a scout ahead."
"The rivers will flow away from the sea tomorrow, no less," Jaheira muttered. "You are actually criticizing yourself for a change."
"I am only human."
"Are you making fun of me? After what you just did it sounds rather hypocritical."
Her tone was calm and that finally got me. "She knows my weak spot, and is using it deliberately to offset my balance! " I took a deep breath and proceeded, with as much arrogance as I could manage.
"You are aware of my feelings on the matter. I did express them more than once. Nevertheless, you continue goading me with the history of my unfortunate conception and birth!"
Now she looked stunned.
" It was not my fault, and I know nothing about the motives of my ‘divine’ parent, or about his plans for me. Yet, you insist that I must be held personally responsible for the fact, which took place nine months before I was born!"
"Don’t be ridiculous, I never said anything of a sort!"
"But you bloody meant it!" I went raging. "Ever since this whole story was uncovered I wanted to ask you something, but you always cleverly managed to avoid it. Now, I am just going to ask it anyway!"
My hands were shaking, and Jaheira’s calm demeanor ignited me even more.
"How long have you been involved into planning my life for me? How many of you carefully watched my every step, ever since I learned to walk?"
She was pale and obviously hurt with my hateful and childish accusations, but I just could not stop myself. My usual self-control suddenly melted, and the words were pouring out like the contents of a punctured wineskin.
Jaheira stayed silent through my long accusatory speech, which made me feel rather like a small child, having a tantrum. I suppose that was how she had seen it. When I realized that she is not going to answer to any of this, my anger died, replaced with embarrassment. I was totally spent.
Now it is probably a good time to explain what was this all about. Jaheira had all the rights to be paranoid about my hidden powers and inner motives. For being a product of divine concupiscence towards a mortal female,I am paranoid about this myself. Yes, I can heal and cure poison with the touch of my hands, but any lesser cleric would perform these tasks with greater success. The difference was, the cleric would be drawing on the power of his or her deity. I had these abilities innate. There were also less gentle and more sinister powers that I started to suspect in myself.
Personally, I think that my conception was an act of pure malevolence and ruthless ambition, rather than lust. The god who fathered me was not known for his tender heart and merciful attitude. It was the deity of Murder and Violent Death - Bhaal. He met his own death not long after his rendezvous with my mother. It is known that he was aware of his coming demise, for it was prophesied, and tried to cheat by the simplest trick known to every mortal - producing an offspring.
I have no doubt that he did not plan to leave his children alone after his death. There have been many of us, coming from many races and nations of the Realms, as the prophesy stated. I was lucky to have had a semblance of a real family, for my mother had a friend, who had adopted me after her death in childbirth and became my real father and the teacher of Magic, who had never shown me anything but kindness and support. I had never wished for any other life but a steady and stable existence inside the walls of Candlekeep, with all the books in the world within my easy reach and every traveling scholar of Magic eventually stopping there to give a presentation. I was deprived of all this after my stepfather Gorion was murdered violently by my insane half-brother Sarevok.
Ever since, I was forced to strive across the land like a tornado, leaving chaos in my wake. Every sleepy derelict village that we visited bore the seeds of trouble. Every man or woman whom I would dare to love would be in desperate danger by a mere fact of being near me. Nevertheless, some brave souls attached themselves to me driven apparently by strong currents of fate. Every so often, I feel my pull on the others like a candle feels its pull on the night moths and gnats. Neither of us can do anything about our deadly attraction. I don’t fancy myself as a great beauty, if anything, my looks can be considered titillatingly exotic.
The attraction I am talking about works on the different level. It is as if the fabric of the reality will create a vortex around my fate, and drag others into it. There is nothing pleasant about it. It works as a trap for both sides. When I tried to flee and leave everybody behind, it only led to further death and desperation. At times I do think of the death as a way out. My major fear is that this is exactly what my dead progenitor would have wanted. This is the way to eliminate the weakest spawns of Bhaal, so that the world would be left on the mercy of the strongest contestant for his throne.
I know it sounds like a hypocrisy, but I would give every bit of those ‘special powers’ that I have just to be a normal person, with my own ambitions and desires, not that of the dead evil god. I consider myself quite a talented mage. I am curious and inquisitive by nature. More than anything else, I want to become known as a specialist in my chosen field and live a peaceful life of a scholar. I do not have any political aspirations or mad desires. Why do I have to share my body with the essence so vehemently alien to me?
Unfortunately, it does not look like my heart’s desire will be taken into a consideration by whoever is watching over my fate. That is the main reason under my refusal to worship any deity. I am proud of my agnosticism, though it sounds so funny coming from me! How can you be an agnostic in a world were deities walk the land and consort with mortals? Well, let me try to make myself clear. The gods crave human worship even more than humans crave power and sex. For the gods will cease to exist without mortal veneration. They will simply die and drift forever on the waves of the ether, slowly dissolving into nothingness. Mortal beings, on the other hand, would not suffer much from their gods demise. We would still have magic and science, arts and Crafts invented and much enjoyed by us. After all, even the supposed death of the goddess of magic did not destroy the Weave, though it was heavily disrupted. Mortals create gods, not the other way around. That is my firm and strong belief. The deity would show its face to occupy the throne after all the groundwork of developing and honing the momentous idea into an abstract concept or well-respected Craft had been done by the mortals. Thus, we have the goddess of Joy taking over theater performances or the god of Abstract Knowledge becoming also a patron of laboratory research. It is not like I wish that all the gods would disappear. I simply don’t care about them. They exist on their particular Planes and supposedly take care of their worshippers. I do not worship anybody or anything and I don’t need anybody to look after me. Though I would probably love to be able to walk the Spheres and see the distant worlds and the inhabitants of the other Planes.
When I learned about my father’s identity, I was disgusted and terrified. Jaheira and I have had many arguments on the matter. None of them usually went as ugly as the last one. She thought of me as of an insolent child, which I admit was partially true. But I was not going to change my ways to please anybody, even Jaheira. She had always looked like she was no more than a few years older than me but she had an elven blood too. I never dared to ask how old she actually was but had always thought of her as of a wiser, older sister. Something I had never had with Imoen. To think of what I did … No, the dead are buried, and grass is growing tall over their graves. I should care for the living.
What bothered me most at the moment was something that happened during the fight. Those visions I started to have - they were quite disturbing. It was like a returning nightmare, only it happened in my waking hours…
I would hear a hissing sound and see the golden stream of sand falling from the hot blue sky into the bowl of a gigantic hourglass. The sand would consolidate into a coiled shape of a serpent, which would rise leisurely with the same hissing sound to stand on its tail, looking straight into my eye. Slowly, deliberately it will imitate my every move, keeping its gaze fixed on mine, and at the same time swinging rhythmically akin to a pendulum. The time would be suspended, so I would see every scale on its long body and every flicker of its dark forked tongue. Then it would strike like an unwinding spring and fly into my face with its fangs poised!
That was usually when I was able to regain control of myself. The first time it happened was two months ago, when I left my bedroom in the middle of the night, sleepless and heart sick, and headed into the library to console myself with reading. Right before I entered the library, I had a vision of a snake. He was inside alone, and the fire was dancing high in the fireplace. When I later recalled that night, I had never remembered the snake vision. Not until I have seen the bloody dagger, being wiped on the white linen of his shirt.
Now I wondered if the vision had been a warning or a premonition of a sort. If the first one proved to be so deadly, what did the second one mean? Was it something I was about to do? Or was it something happening at this very moment in the entirely different part of the world, but inevitably linked with my fate?
* * * * *
You serve your greed in apt disgrace,
Resolved to turn your heart to stone.
But when your luck will turn its face,
You’ll have to meet your doom alone.
For blood is spilt, and price is paid,
And every coin has other side,
Your fate is sealed and path is laid
To follow whim of cruel pride.
* * * * *
Yoshimo was troubled. Something at the back of his mind kept nagging at him, like a splinter left under the skin, or a little chip of bone in this unreachable place between his teeth. He sniffed the air and listened - a sudden chill run down his spine. He had realized what was bothering him - the utter silence of the night.
The street was quiet and empty, which was unusual for the Slums, even at this time of night. In this place beggars and urchins, drunkards and prostitutes of every race and gender shared the sidewalks with wild cats and dogs across the clock. On occasion, the flood of liquid refuse would shower on the unlucky passerby from the open window or door. Curses and screams, weeping and scuffle would mix with moans of pleasure, a howling of a dog doused with hot water or a cry of a baby, sick from neglect into the never-ending symphony of the city. He was never alone here. There were always witnesses and this made life dangerous, but also reliable. If you play by the rules and pay your dues to whatever criminal boss was currently in charge of your part of the city - you will be fine. And he learned the rules of the game earlier than he learned to read and write for he was a successful bounty hunter in a dozen of big cities of the Realms. The trick was to never let yourself feel any sympathy for your quarry. If you stay coolheaded and professional and don’t let the subject get to you - you will be finer still.
He retrieved runaway slaves, thieving servants and adolescent girls, seduced and whisked away by their lovers - sometimes the girls ended up in the funhouses of the distant cities. These were high-rated criminal cases. The domestic category included adulterous wives and children running away from their parents. Yoshimo was rather philosophical about his profession. People would always try to run away from their duty, which they perceived as their chains. His job was to gently or maybe not so gently remind them of their obligations to the law, to their owner, or their spouse. He preferred to use sleeping draughts and a garrote, rather then the brute force. He had had a nice collection of padded manacles and collars, in case the subject was not cooperating. He had a stable income and a savings account in the local bank. The girls liked him, for he always had some little extra to buy a trinket or two.
His current paramour was a plump pretty girl, who was making quite a name for herself in the local thieves guild. Kachiko worked in the richer part of the city. She frequented local tavern, which welcomed foreign traders. There she flirted with the dim-witted rich merchants, getting them drunk and excited enough to follow her into the narrow alleys, behind the Wakeen Promenade. The owner of the place was well paid of course, and he strictly forbade any "funny business" on his premises. What happened to his guests outside did not trouble him much and if a headless corpse of a missing tradesman turned out in the morning, well, ' they should have known better', was his usual response. Kachiko was very good with her knives, and she usually had a backup so, when she went missing for several days, he did not worry much. But now he remembered this and the thought made him uncomfortable. Not that he was much in love, he would never loose his head for a woman for his true passion in life was money, but there was no obvious reason behind her sudden disappearance and he liked logic and order in everything.
After listening quietly to the wind for several minutes, Yoshimo shrugged and continued on his way. He was quite a handsome figure in his dark, undescriptive but expensive clothes. His lean, fit figure moved noiselessly from shadow to shadow making it hard to follow. His destination and favorite hangout, the Copper Coronet tavern, was only a few paces away when a womanly shape robed in a hooded cloak crossed his path. He swore in surprise then laughed sharply in recognition as her dark eyes gleamed at him with the delighted smile.
"You’ve bested me today, Kachi. Where have you been all this time? I missed you." She did not answer, just pressed a finger to her lips, and beckoned with her other hand to follow.
"What is it you are playing at?" He asked, astonished and little uneasy.
But he had not seen her for a week and a swing of her hips under the cloak was inviting enough to make him interested. He followed her back along the dark deserted street almost in a run but never managed to catch up. At the corner, she stopped and smiled radiantly, signaling him to follow again. He was out of breath, but her face stayed calm and pale though normally she would have flushed heavily from so much exercise. Now he was really worried, but the imp of unsatisfied curiosity was pulling at his legs as he followed her reluctantly under the arc of the tunnel leading into the shady alley behind the Promenade.
She was waiting for him in the darkness, her shape somehow more sinuous and inviting than he remembered. But as he stepped forward to grab her in his hands and give her a good shake for his trouble - her hood fell off, and instantly a blue magic flame flowered in her hands. This woman was not Kachiko. Her eyes flashed blood red like rubies, and her blonde hair, cut short to her shoulders, gleamed with the golden sheen in the unsteady light of the spell. He glimpsed her lithe, attractive body clothed in the black leather corsage and high-heeled boots. Then she threw her casting at him, and a thrill of happiness and desire to serve and worship this incredibly beautiful creature engulfed his mind, and swallowed every other thought and desire. He felt to his knees sobbing miserably at his mistress obvious displeasure.
"Filth," she muttered disgustedly. "You are lucky today, for he wants you alive, though I cannot comprehend, why." She chanted another spell and a portal opened to a gray and dusty underground place, filled with whispers. "Stand up and follow," she barked showing her white gleaming teeth in a scowl. He followed obediently and the darkness closed behind them.
* * * * *
We left the sewer as soon as Minsc declared himself fit to move.
"They have to do better than this to stop Minsc from kickin’ the ultimate butt of evil! If you cut my leg off, I’ll have a new one made out of iron. Just think of the possibilities!" He stomped his newly healed leg, smiled amenably at me, and turned to Jaheira.
"Thank you m’lady for patching me up so quickly."
"I am not a blacksmith, Minsc. You better keep both of your legs the way they are now." She muttered.
"Yeah, but the iron leg sounds like a nice treat that I can give to this Irenicus fellow!"
I slowly came back to my senses after the surge of an uncontrolled temper. Jaheira was quiet and cold as a snow maiden. She looked at me haughtily, virtually ignoring the whole subject of my outburst.
"So be it," I thought. "Two can play this game."
"Come on, Minsc, I am aware of your extraordinary sturdiness and fighting abilities." I interrupted his jovial revelations on the subject of the uses for the iron leg. "Even so, allow me to put some spells on you. I would have preferred to have a full day’s rest, but we cannot afford to loose any time now."
"Hey, you don’t have to make all this fuss just because I got a little scratch," he grinned broadly. "Not that I don’t like to be the center of attention of so many beautiful ladies!"
"Clown," I mumbled, applying myself to the task of spellcasting.
The steady shining of the spiritual armor spell settled on him followed by more subtle luck charm. Those were adequate protections against the horde of kobolds, which immediately attacked us in the corridor beyond the sewer. With Imoen holding the torch and a stream of magical missiles sizzling in the air and igniting the filthy red fur we had enough illumination to finish the little goons and follow the narrow corridor to the barred door at the end. I coughed and sneezed from the brown smoke, which now filled the passage. The door was closed but Minsc was able to force it with a single shove of his shoulder. As it burst open, Imoen staggered and gasped. It opened into the room, which looked like the living quarters of the master.
It was a handsome studio with a marble fireplace cracking merrily with fire and an expensive looking chess set laid open on the side table. The game was abandoned at some particularly elegant combination. I longingly looked at it, thinking over the possible ways out for the black. Their queen was about to take the white rook, and thus, imminently doom itself to the flank attack from the white bishop. I gently picked it up and moved it to the side square, which promised relative safety and a possibility to regroup.
"Please stop it!" Imoen shrieked at me.
"What?" I jerked my hand back, instinctively.
"This whole place is trapped, I can feel it!"
I looked around, noticing light attractive furniture, shelves loaded with books and scrolls, a cozy armchair by the fireplace and a big four-poster bed in the corner.
"Are you familiar with this room?"
"Yes, I am." She went silent.
I shrugged. "Do you think he would trap his own quarters?"
"He can do anything," she shook her head desperately, "any nasty rotten trick you can think of, just for the fun of it."
"Well, than we better not touch anything here, until we checked for traps."
Imoen was right - he had trapped the place, though not extensively. She was able to disarm all of his magical traps easily, which confirmed my opinion on our jailor’s character – arrogant to the point of been ridiculous. We took full advantage of this feature and searched his drawers and chests freely. I was happy to recover some of our stolen belongings, including my spellbooks, and plunder few semi-rare magical scrolls, though nothing special caught my eye there. The only thing worth mentioning was a little ugly statue, which depicted an air elemental. This was a reward for my patience, for that was the key I specifically looked for.
I was almost purring with content when something else caught my attention. The sudden whiff of air came from the heavy velvet curtain at the far side of the room, bringing with it a taste of moisture and a smell of green grass. I walked there, pulled the curtain aside, and stopped frozen in astonishment.
" Hey! What is it our bad girl found this time?" Minsc cheered looking over my shoulder.
The short tunnel behind the curtain opened into a big cavern. The subtle underground air currents carried the smell of fertile soil and wet greenery from that grotto - a welcome relief after dry dusty air of the dungeon. As we entered it a sensation of tranquil harmony settled over my mind. The walls of the grotto were shiny from water oozing over them in small rivulets. Every little crevice hosted a plant, so that the dark ochre cavern was draped with ferns and lichen. Deep green moss covered the floor. The air was rich with moisture. The dim light that filled the cavern had no obvious source and, I assumed, was provided by the long-term spell. Three immense trees grew in the center of the cavern taking most of the space. However, even that peaceful and pleasant scenery bore the seed of corruption. The leaves on the trees were still green, but the edges were touched with black and yellow. The trunks were solid, but showing traces of infection with the creeping fungi.
Suddenly three woman figures materialized in the clearing, visibly out of nowhere, surrounded by the glitter of green and gold.
"These are dryads! They should not be here! This is impossible!" Jaheira was shaken. Seeing the woodland spirits trapped here in a subterranean dungeon, deprived of sunlight, wind and flowing water was the worst abomination she could have imagined. Her druidic instinct broke her silent fury with me, which she maintained since our disastrous conversation.
She looked at me urgently, for I just stood there speechless, touched with harmonious beauty and sensual grace of the nymphs.
The first one was supple, light-skinned, and delicate. She was the vision of beauty, with green liquid eyes and a stream of pale green hair braided in a thousand little plaits and stringed with gold and ivory beads. She had a figure of a dancer. Her hands were strong but thin and graceful, with long flexible fingers. Her tree was a birch. An intricate necklace adorned with golden leaves and small emeralds jingled slightly on her pale neck as she moved.
The second one was physically powerful and athletic with gleaming dark brown skin and hair the color of dark copper. Her curves were perfection of the well-shaped muscle. I guessed her tree was an oak. Her eyes were the shade of burned caramel and her full raspberry colored lips rounded in a half-smile. Her necklace was of amber beads, carved in the shape of acorns with silver leaves.
The third dryad was lush and shapely, with rounded feminine figure, skin the color of honey, and beautiful heart-shaped face. Her eyes were pure gold and her hair bright lavish green of the linden tree leaves in the middle of June. She smelled faintly of honey and midsummer heat, and her necklace was of golden bees and miniature flowers, where each petal was a tiny pearl. Akin to her sisters, she did not wear anything but her jewelry and her long lustrous hair. Her effect on Minsc was stunning. Poor fellow was positively hypnotized but at the same time almost frightened. I knew very well that Minsc was not immune to the ladies charms, for I have overheard Dynaheir’s sarcastic remarks over his numerous ‘distractions’ in their journeys.
"Spare me, oh Polynesius 4 , the honey child," he muttered. "Fay of pleasure and eternal sleep."
"I am Cania," she smiled. "But I know the one you speak of, though I cannot say we like each other."
Minsc blinked sheepishly at this, but was obviously much relieved.
"I am Ulene," tinkled the Birch spirit.
"Elyme is my name," added the Oak one.
I tilted my head in polite acknowledgement. "Why are you here, illustrious spirits?"
"He imprisoned us here. We are his possessions."
"But how did it happen that you are trapped here? Is not it impossible to keep a dryad against her will? Can’t you just leave?" I said.
"We can’t leave our trees."
"Our trees will die and we will die with them."
"He stole the seedlings of our trees, planted them here and killed the actual trees."
"Is there any way we can help you?"
"You can help us. If you can find our seeds."
"The acorns of our trees."
"If you take them away from here and give them to the Woodland Queen, she will replant the trees and then, we can leave him. The trees will die, but new ones will grow."
"This is rather mysterious. The seeds should be on your trees, shouldn’t they?"
"He takes them away every year to destroy them."
"He enjoys our misery. He sent the Duergar to abuse our trees and ruin the seeds."
"The trees are sick. He must keep some of the acorns to replant them when they are dead. The Duergar may have them. Seek out Ilyich, their tribe leader."
I looked at the moss-covered floor. It was littered with broken twigs, leaves, and bits of bark but not a single acorn or a seed was left there. The trees looked ravished and disheveled, now that I had a closer look.
The cavern was filled with slow sad rustle of leaves and play of shifting shadows. Poor trapped spirits! They did not look so bright and beautiful to me anymore. Their very essence was tainted with a touch of decay the way their trees were diseased. My mind revolted against the very idea of that corruption, albeit deep in my soul an ever-present worm of skepticism started its work.
"Every single creature in this place hates the master, yet they follow his orders and comply to his desires. What if the dryads are also following his commands?" I thought half-heartedly.
Jaheira put an end to that by stepping boldly forward and pulling out the bloodied suede bag. She was carrying it around her neck like the dead Duergar. She untied the cords and presented the bag to the dryads.
Cania, who was closest to her, gasped and lowered to her knees as she recognized that bag.
"I plead to you, Nature child! Take these to our Queen in Windspear Hills!"
Jaheira flinched from embarrassment and quickly kneeled herself holding the bag in her hand, as if offering it to the dryad.
"Please, dear spirit, there is no need to beg, I will do all I can to deliver your acorns safely to your Queen."
All three dryads were trembling and excited. Cania sprang up and touched Jaheira gently on the forehead with her fingertips.
"Thank you, Nature child. If you do this, you will save our bodies and souls from this defilement. Irenicus is rotten at the core and he spreads his spiritual disease to everything he touches!"
"You know, when I was a child I dreamed of the tree nymphs; of being one with the forest," Imoen said suddenly in a trembling voice. "How beautiful you are! I, … I almost cannot see you. But your allure has no effect on him, does it?"
"You are welcome, child," Cania answered kindly. "You are right about him, but how do you know that?"
"He touched and defiled her the same way he did us!" The Oak dryad exclaimed angrily. "Don't give up to him, young woman - that much we learned from our captivity! It does not matter how he appeals to you, keep your spirit locked away, and fight back. That is the only way to survive!"
"He is barren inside," said Ulene, the Birch spirit. "We can awaken desires and instill emotions in the living, but it does not work with him. You cannot seduce a dead man, and Irenicus gives me the creeps for he is like a walking corpse!"
"Irenicus, even his name is synonymous with death and ugliness," Elyme added with disgust.
"The only thing I learned I dare not say aloud," Imoen muttered. "I must leave this place, before it is too late! Little sister, why cannot we go home?" She looked at me pleadingly.
I remained silent through all that exchange, but now it was time to make decisions.
"We will be able to deliver your acorns to the Queen only if we escape from here," I said reasonably. "So, if you have any clues as to how we can accomplish this, you are welcome to share them with us."
"We will help you!" Cania, the Linden dryad sounded excited. "You will need a portal key to enter the next level of his dungeon. That is what he uses. Alas, you cannot get his key, so you should get a copy. The one that he made for his wife."
"There is a woman who actually lives with this monster?" I was astounded, though now I remembered one of the servants speaking of the 'Mistress room' and how dangerous it was.
"Oh, no. Her feet never touched this place. That was in the past. She despises him, but he still loves her or at least he thinks he does. He said - she is responsible for ruining his life."
"He built a room for her in the middle of this ... madhouse," Elyme said scornfully. "It is right here, connected with our grotto. We go there sometimes, to touch her things … the things he put there for her. He thinks that he preserves his memories in that way, but there is nothing inside him to preserve, just death. His dungeon is death all around."
"Death is different," Imoen said suddenly, "it can be pretty and seductive. He showed me."
"Let's go see this room," I interrupted. "Is there anything else we should know about it?"
"It is trapped, so be careful! We can go there as we wish but if any mortal being enters it - something bad will happen. We don't know what it is."
The 'Mistress room' was right there, its entrance hidden at the shadowy corner of the cavern. As we paused reluctantly at the door, one of the dryads reminded us to be careful. Indeed, the moment Imoen stepped on the threshold, a distant sound of alarm buzzed and went quiet again. Nothing happened, so after waiting for several minutes we entered.
It was an elegant circular room, just big enough to be spacious and cozy at the same time. A round Calimshani carpet beautifully patterned with green and white was the centerpiece of the bedroom decor. It covered entire floor and was so soft that your feet sunk into it. It felt like the field of grass. I understood why the dryads wanted to come here. It was as if you entered a different universe.
The light wooden furniture was of exquisite Craftsmanship. Every little table supported a piece of art or an antique vase with live tropical plant in full bloom. The flowers filled the room with heavenly fragrance. The bed was an elegant creation of oriental design, covered with green patterned silk, and decorated with four bedposts. Each bedpost was mounted with a glittering globe of polished green stone.
Hazy warm light of unknown origin filled the chamber. It was bright enough to read. And sure, a book was laid open, as if forgotten, on the side table near the bed. It looked like a person who lived here left not a moment ago and would soon be back. A marble head of an elven princess was on display on the elegant stand by the bookshelf.
"This is impossible!" Imoen exploded. "This place, it can not, should not belong to the same man who owns these terrible glass containers! These flowers and statues, all of this is a terrible mockery and abomination!" She almost choked.
"Maybe this is a side of him, we had not seen yet," I said calmly, trying to subdue her sudden fury.
"He thinks of this place as of sanctuary to his spirit!" She spat in disgust. "But he does not have any! He was talking about this room while he was cutting and tearing and … showing me..." she stopped. "He thinks, he built a shrine to his lost love, but she despises him and so do I! I … I spit on his name, on his filthy being! I would have burned this place down, if I could, but this in nothing. This is not a shrine, it is just a room meaning nothing, filled with nothing but empty desire."
"If it means nothing, why are you so angry?" I thought fleetingly.
A warning cry from dryads suddenly interrupted us. We all turned sharply and saw the guardian of this hidden paradise, summoned by the sound of the alarm. A terracotta-red clay golem was coming in our direction.
"The sanctuary of the Mistress room was violated!" It rumbled. "Thou shall pay for thy crime!"
It was a massive construct with rather silly expression of perpetual doom on its face.
"Where goes the stench of evil, there shall go a cleansing wind of Minsc and Boo!" Our ranger exclaimed cheerfully. He jumped forward and whacked the golem on the side with his sword. There was a nasty scraping sound of metal on pottery.
"No effect? I need a bigger sword!" Minsc yelled and whacked again.
His second blow had the same result. The golem turned around and tried to hit Minsc on the head with his fist.
"Hey, be careful of what you are doing!" Jaheira cried out banging the golem with her shield. "There is not much left there to begin with!"
"Damnation!" I exclaimed in some agitation. "This thing is immune to all sharp weapons, we should use clubs and staves!"
"Butt kicking for goodness!" Minsc ducked under the golem's swinging arm. "Boo says, we may have a little something here that it will find unpleasant."
He grinned impishly and ducked again. With a flash of an illusionist, he dropped his recently acquired backpack on the floor and produced a warhammer out of it. Jaheira exchanged a quick glance with him and threw him her shield, whilst getting a good two-handed grip on her staff.
She delivered a powerful blow to the golem's side. It turned around swiftly and made a swing at her. I grabbed my sling and loaded it with the first lead bullet. Jaheira was holding her ground with the golem, although he had reached her once and a big black bruise marred the side of her face. An arrow swished past me and hit the golem on the chest without much effect. I sent a nasty metal piece flying and grabbed for another. My bullets struck the construct with snapping noise.
At that moment, Minsc hit the golem with a hammer from behind. I heard the sound akin to the cracking pottery. The clay idol moved with surprising speed, but our fearless ranger was just a bit quicker, for he dropped to his knees and rolled over out of golem's reach.
"Come on, get me if you can! You half-baked clay pot!"
This time he was holding his shield up, covering his head and swung his hammer at the golem's ankles. It sagged. At the same time, Jaheira landed a sound blow at its back. The golem creaked again and suddenly scattered in a shower of chunks of pottery.
"Thus breaks the pot of evil and here comes more of it to follow! More evil butt headed our way to drive the mighty kick of Minsc's boot!" Minsc rejoiced, just as I sighed with relief.
Yep, he was right. The second golem showed up right after we finished the first one.
"I don't understand why are you so happy about it," I grumbled and launched a spell.
I do not know what possessed me to try magic on the golem, but the result was disastrous. Not only did it resist my magic missile, it also decided to concentrate solely on my humble self in its murderous pursuit. I was running around like a mouse chased by a cat, while my friends clouted the construct with blunt objects. All the time Minsc was making jokes about wizards in general and their intellectual abilities, while whacking at the golem with his hammer. Finally, the second construct was down and I was able to catch my breath and lick my wounds, figuratively speaking.
"Hey, at least you will remember that golems are heavily resistant to magic, my friend!" Jaheira said solemnly.
Boo squeaked and peered out of his master's pocket.
"Boo says, what?" Minsc listened to the little rodent peeping. "Ah, he said cheer up, Minsc! You are not the only one who does not have much in the brain department!"
"Sure," I said. "Do you know, each spell takes intellectual energy and blows it up into the ether? It is like playing a flute, really. Afterwards you are left empty-headed and nutty as a fruitcake. But jokes aside, I am glad I am still in one piece." I was slightly embarrassed by all the fuss.
"Good work with a sling, back there," Imoen smiled encouragingly. "It took me back to our days together in Candlekeep."
I was quite good with a sling since I was a child. It was my weapon of choice when for some reason I was not able to use magic. Now that Imoen reminded me, I recalled our first prominent adventure together and smiled. Imoen appeared in my life when I was about ten years old and has held a prominent place in my heart ever since. She befriended me in a blink of an eye, and in a week's time we were saving a thrush's nest in the Candlekeep gardens from a cat.
Imoen was always a softhearted girl. The type that would worry about stepping on a bug, and would be always nursing some sick kitten or pup in the backyard. I usually tagged along with her for solidarity's sake, when she managed to pull me away from my reading.
The young thrush was naive enough to make her nest in the middle of the thick thorny bush in our gardens. It seemed like a good idea at first, but it was way too close to the apple tree and Slinky, Phlydia's gray tabby cat, was able to creep down the tree branch into the midst of the bush, avoiding its thorns. Couple of small stones from the sling aimed with steady hand was enough to send him down into the shrubbery, meowing from ignominy. That would stop him from trying his luck for a day or so. But he would come back to do it again, so we would have to keep our eyes open and slings ready. Imoen was skipping classes and I had to bring her food out there.
When the thrush had her little ones out of the nest and learning to fly, it was the worst, for they were on the ground half of the time and we had to chase the cat out continuously. Imoen and me camped in the garden for the whole day, and only Gorion's interference prevented us from staying there overnight. That was the first (but not the last!) time when I adamantly refused to follow his orders.
The idea of abandoning our quest when we had already spent so much time trying to save the stupid birds was extremely irritating. Besides, I really did not want Imoen to get upset. I was rather shy and unsocial, as a child, and her suddenly acquired friendship had meant a lot to me. We had been able to find a compromise though, for Phlydia was a sweet old lady and she agreed to keep Slinky under house arrest for a while. Later the gang of young Oghmites decided to share our vigil and spend their free time in the gardens watching. The birds learned to use their wings soon, and flew away happily into the big world. Every year since we had thrushes visiting the garden, albeit they have learned and picked safer spots to nest.
Unfortunately, eight years later I was not there to save old Slinky's neck from a doppelganger 5 , who had him for dinner one night after these vile creatures invaded the Candlekeep. He was not the only victim of that disaster, for many old friends of mine were slain by the doppelgangers. We wiped out all the fiends but that did not bring back the dead.
I sighed and looked at Imoen, breaking away from my memories. She was always everybody's sweetheart, a kind of golden child trusting and enthusiastic about everything, at least on the surface. At dinner table, she was always chirping and bubbling with a new tale of adventure, which just had to be told.
She would get excited about a new friend and will fall in love instantly. But she could never compromise on her passions. If she found a weakness in you - she would be bitterly disappointed and denounce her friendship instantly. We had come a long way from our early days of naïve idealism and youthful exuberance. However, Imoen did not want to admit this to herself.
"Perhaps she could not accept any kind of change, and it is impossible for her inner self to be forced into a new shape," I thought bitterly. "I am much less courageous."
I was only afraid that if she could not bend she would be broken instead.
After dispatching the golems, we immediately returned to the 'Mistress' bedroom and searched it carefully. There had been a few vicious traps, including explosive and acid spells. The key to the portal was there, as well as some minor magical artifacts.
The place had lost its charm for me. I was looking at all the fancy furniture and art, smelling the sweet cloying perfume of the orchids and my fantasy added an underlying stench of the rotting flesh to that exquisite bouquet of fragrances. I looked into the blind eyes of the statue, and her face seemed to contort with revulsion. Maybe all of that was a product of my imagination. I shrugged. It was time now to make a major move.
"My friends, can you trust me once more with choosing our path from here?" I asked earnestly. " It may seem like a deviation, but my instinct tells me to follow this trail and I trust my inner sense more than I trust my eyes."
"Speak your mind, comrade," Jaheira said honestly. "You have always been a good leader and intelligent planner."
"I prefer swords to words." Minsc grinned. "Lead the way as you always did and Minsc will follow with his blade ready!"
"I will trust you with my life, as I always did." Imoen concluded and looked at me trustingly.
I always forgot what color her eyes were. They seem to change tone from gray to green or brown, flecked with little golden specks, if the light was right. Now they were murky gray with pain lurking under the surface.
"I have a reason to suspect that every word that we utter can be heard by the mage who captured us." I said carefully. "I don't think he is spending all his time watching us, but all the same he is seeing most of our progress through his labyrinth and I don't want him to know, what I think I know." I smiled. "That was rather awkward, was it not?"
"That is why I prefer my swords to your gibberish!" Minsc said enthusiastically. "If he is watching, I hope he can hear me now." He raised his head to the low ceiling and yelled.
"Hey you, rat-brained piece of refuse! Come out and meet my sword! We are all heroes here - girls, Boo, and me! Evil butts will be liberally kicked in wrathful indignation!"
"Oh, shut up Minsc," Jaheira said thoughtfully. "If she is right, he is not going to come out, until his timing is right."
Imoen trembled uncontrollably.
"That is why, I ask you to trust me blindly," I said. "We need solidarity to come out of this alive. I have my own reasons to feel responsible for what have happened to us. Shush, Jaheira, I don't want to discuss this now. All I am asking for now is your faith in me."
"That is a lot to ask for." She smiled brightly. "Especially from someone with your divine background! Peace, I was making a joke, your headstrong omniness!"
I sucked my breath but swallowed that well-deserved compliment.
"I am pretty sure, you know what you are doing," she continued emphatically. "So if the others will agree, I will not question your decision. Just remember that our trust is not blind, you earned it in the months of our travels together."
Imoen just nodded in agreement.
"Boo says - we shall trust you, girl. Evil is a maze of deceit, and the cheese it hides is never worth the running. So keep clear around the corners." Minsc concluded suddenly.
"I thank you all," I said with feeling, for in fact I was touched by their trust. " We shall move back to the library now and rest for a while, before we make our next move."
If that sudden reverse of direction had surprised them, at least they did not argue. That was exactly the effect I was aiming for with my little speech. Therefore, down we went, taking our leave with the dryads, through the maze of the narrow dark passages, past the stinking corpse of the Otyugh in the sewer and through the cave of the shimmering crystals.
The library was silent, dusty, and disheveled, the same way we left it. I was in a dire state of mind and my thoughts were racing like mad squirrels in an upturned barrel. I was afraid to venture any further without a short rest, for my spells needed careful preparation and what I was capable of now may not be sufficient. On the other hand, we were racing against time, therefore we may not have another shot at what I had intended.
I sat quietly in the dark corner and tried to gather my wits for the coming task. The little ugly statue in my backpack was a key to the 'other' djinn room. At least, I hoped it was.
"The one, which is hidden behind a locked door near the library," I thought.
From what Rielev had told me I gathered it was rather important for me to see that other djinn. The first djinni, Aataqah, was bound in the crystal cave not to give us a warning, but to control the flow of radiation, generated by the mysterious magic field in that cavern. The magical energy was used to power the entire complex we were trapped in. The crystal outgrowth and the scrying pools formed by the subterranean river, were just the side effects of that strong magical field. The djinn used these pools to amuse himself in his captivity. I was wondering what would have happened to a person who would be unlucky enough to fall asleep in that cave. He would probably wake up as a chicken if not something nastier! We have been quite reckless to bathe in these waters.
* * * * *
"Damn it!" the man, who was looking into the crystal ball, sprang up from his hard wooden stool and started to pace intermittently back and forth across the rough stone floor of the chamber. The room was furnished in a spartan manner with rough wooden benches and tables, and lit sparsely with a few candles. All available surfaces were clattered with curious sharp instruments: knives and needles, pincers and pins. The bookshelves were creaking under the weight of books and scrolls and various magical paraphernalia. Some of the shelves brandished strange jars and bottles half filled with various substances, and marked on the labels with meticulous handwriting.
The farthest wall of the room was made out of thick heavy glass with a fortified wooden door in the middle. That partition separated another little room, or rather a prison cell, with a plain bed and a table. It was now empty.
Two long tables, whose purpose was transparent to any curious eye, dominated the front room. The tables were supplied with two pairs of shackles each. One table had a big wooden screw attached to the set of peculiar round rollers. A strange nightmarish creature was wriggling in the shackles on one of the tables. It sported a gray wrinkled skin, hanging in loose folds, as if it was two sizes too big for its owner, long gnarled limbs with sharp claws and a mouth filled with pointed yellow teeth. The creature was moaning and groaning as if in pain. Its features were continuously transforming, for a moment shifting into a semblance of a beautiful woman, then a frightened child, but always reversing back to the gray nightmare.
The man, who continued his pacing across the room, with his shadow stretching and shrinking on the stone floor, was quite an extraordinary individual. He presented a rather dashing figure in his tight fitted breeches and a gold-studded leather harness. That extravagantly narcissistic garment left his hands and chest bare, displaying much of his bronze gleaming skin and well-developed muscles. There was something unusual about his face though. It was dainty and arrogant in that exaggerated caricatured way of the painted Kara-Turan dolls. If one looked closer, he would have noticed that the man was wearing a mask; so artfully Crafted and painted that one could easily mistake it for the actual face. The eyes were real, shining blue and fierce through the narrow slits in the ivory façade, and a capricious outline of the lips could be seen through the mouth gash. He had been called by many different names in his long life span, but from now on, he shall be called by the name he had gave to himself - Irenicus.
"By the Abyss!" He swore again. "Everything is ready. She got the damn portal key. I don't understand what is holding her back!"
"So, your little Bhaalspawn refuses to cooperate. How peculiar," said a suave and pleasing woman's voice from the dark corner. His golden-haired sister was reclining on a small pouf. At the moment, her face bore an expression of mild amusement. Tonight she was dressed in soft purple velvet instead of her usual black leathers. The smooth fabric clung to her body draping it most invitingly. She rose gracefully from her seat and moved to investigate the creature on the table.
"I take this is your newly acquired toy? What do you want from it?"
"Just a way to pass time before real fun begins." He made a dismissive gesture. "This thing is a greater doppelganger, and a rather creative one at this, for while its brethren can impersonate any individual they have ever seen, this one can work from a good portrait. This can be quite entertaining."
She inspected the wriggling creature on the table. It whimpered pitifully and shifted into a form of a small child. The man shrugged in disdain and made a small sign with his right hand. As dark blue flames enveloped the monster, it howled desperately and shifted into the luscious womanly shape then reverted to its ugly self.
The woman turned away from the table, her full attention now on her restless companion. Her pale face was a mirror image of her brother's mask - the same cold and splendid beauty.
"Joni, what is it that you want from the Bhaalspawn, that cannot be extracted by the means of a simple interrogation?" She asked softly.
"Don't be ridiculous," the man jerked. "I have already been down that road. Much good, it did me! If I try to force the information out of her - she would go back into coma." He paced some more and answered in a gentler tone. "What I need from her is something rather simple and natural - her true name 6 . I cannot complete the ritual without it!"
The woman looked puzzled for a moment.
"It is almost impossible to learn somebody’s true name without their consent! You can try looking in her family archives of course, if you know who they are!" She wrinkled her pretty nose. "Wait a minute, what is her given name at least? It sounded like all the Sword Coast was ringing with the name of the Bhaal's stubborn Daughter. That name, it was just on the tip of my tongue! How strange - I cannot remember it now."
"Exactly. Everybody have heard rumors of the Bhaalspawn who had killed her ambitious brother, and thus stopped the war, but nobody can recall her name. She had used at least five different names over the last six months. Hopefully, your headhunter will be able to pry some information out of her, even though, she has a much sharper mind than her friend Imoen." He shrugged in annoyance. "It was much easier to explore that head!"
"Imoen is the name of your blonde little pet?" The woman asked with visible irritation.
"She is a red-head of a rather peculiar shade." The man smiled behind his mask.
"You seem to have grown quite fond of her!" She moved with the eerie grace of the flowing mercury back to her seat, stretched, and crossed her elegant legs in high-heeled boots. Her slashed skirts shifted, exposing the length of one perfectly shaped thigh. "I thought that you had somewhat better taste in women!" She spat out.
Irenicus glanced at her with hidden mirth through his strange mask and shook with silent laughter. "If I did not know you so well, I would have said you are jealous, Bodhiane!"
His sister hissed like a cat and made a face at him. "So I am, Jonelath, and you know I have reasons for that! You have been leaving me out of your plans for months! Then you took that flaxen prig to your bed, and now I can see that you are still playing stupid mental games with that bitch who cast you out!" She nodded at the table where the chained doppelganger assumed the form of a naked elven woman with sharp, intelligent features.
"After so many years, you are still finding pleasure in this! Did not you get tired of her clones?"
"The clones are not nearly that entertaining. All they can do is scream and die gracefully. My friend Frennedan here, on the other hand, can take my boots off and lick them clean for me if I ask him nicely."
He walked to her side and tangled his gloved fingers in her bright tousled hair. She shivered with pleasure under his touch and looked hungrily into the eye slots of his mask.
"You know, you are the only one who is worthy of me, and I am the one who is worthy of you, my dear!" He whispered seductively.
Her white teeth flicked in a sharp feral smile and her eyes glowed unnaturally red in the shadows. Their kiss was long and passionate, though strangely, the mirror on the wall reflected only the man.
* * * * *
We approached the massive bronze door and surveyed it with some awe. To say it was heavy would be an understatement. The stone had sagged and yielded under its weight. There were no visible keyhole or lock on the bright polished surface, and at the edges, the metal looked like it was one with the adjoining granite. I carefully placed the elemental statue into the niche provided in the wall. It fitted nicely. The result had surpassed all my expectations.
The door shimmered and dissolved into nothingness; and a howling wind of hurricane strength swept us off our feet and sucked inside the dark void. After few desperate moments of struggle, I found myself in the semidarkness, clinging to the railing of the immense wooden platform awash with wind that was blowing seemingly from all directions at once. My voice was lost in the incessant screaming of the air; my torn clothes were billowing around me like the sails of a ship and my hair was streaming loose behind me in a dark swirl. Thank goodness, the others were all there! And in somewhat better shape than I, for I was the only one in the group wearing the stupid dress. It was not particularly cold or hot in there, but the wind blew away every bit of my body heat and I was shivering continuously under its strong assault. I tried to ignore my virtually naked state as well as I could and looked around.
Our platform was freely floating in air, surrounded by boiling clouds of glowing violet and purple. Bright electrical discharges flickered continuously in the midst of that murky purple broth, followed by the distant rumble of thunder. Far away and above, the vast bubble of the canvas sail was pulling the anchoring ropes, trying to break away into the endless dark sky. Below us, the row after row of ballast weights held the platform from flying upward.
The wind gradually subsided to the level where I could let go of the railing and make a few tentative steps away from it. The floor was vibrating slightly as if a powerful engine was hidden under its flimsy wooden surface. The part we were standing on was semicircular in shape and ended abruptly, like it was cut in the middle by an enormous knife. At the center of that wide side, to my relief, the shimmering doorway was hanging in the air surrounded by nothing. The air around it was solid as stone, so there was no way I could look at the other side of it.
"Can you please stop your dangerous maneuvers and explain the meaning of this to us, less gifted individuals?" Jaheira spoke sarcastically.
"Swords are better than words, as I always say! But this height is making Boo nervous," Minsc added.
"Unfortunately, I know as much as any of you about this place. I was not expecting this." I waved my hand around. "There is a djinn bound somewhere in here, who holds information vital to our escape. We better find him soon, before our captor realized that we got into the place he did not want us to go."
Imoen stood absolutely still all that time, clutching the wooden rail.
"This is a different Plane," she muttered. "I did not expect you to take me here."
"You have been here before?" I brightened. "Perhaps, you know where the djinn is bound?"
"No," she shook her head fervently, "no, please don't ask me any more questions! I … I tried to jump off this platform when he brought me here. I don't want to speak about it."
She went silent for a moment. "All I know is that this is a different Plane of Existence. He would not be able to see us here, if he is watching. But there is nowhere to hide. We cannot survive here for long." Her voice trailed in a whisper.
"We need to find the djinn, and we need to do it quickly. Do you recall any special dangers?"
"No, please don't ask."
"Let's give this place a shake and see what falls out!" Minsc rumbled enthusiastically.
"Hold you horses, Minsc," I said with feeling, for he was really getting on my nerves lately.
"Let me summon a servant first!"
All I was capable of was one decent conjuration. I tried to do my best with what little strength I had left by closing my eyes tightly and concentrating on one of my worst nightmares - the Gnoll Stronghold in the Woods of Sharp Teeth. At that time, dreams of the gnoll torture pits still held a prize place in my collection of horrors. I got what I wanted - a resulting monster appeared as a burly gnoll with a halberd.
I had to confess that my momentary annoyance with Minsc played a role in my choice of a monster. I was immediately sorry, for one look at the gnoll was enough to send him into one of his darker moods. He held his hatred of gnolls on a tight leash, but I had no excuse to provoke it.
The rounded part of the platform ended with a narrow bridge leading away into the dusky and windy emptiness. The monster was sent forward, with us following at a distance. That measure was validated soon, for after a dozen steps a pair of mephits attacked the gnoll. By that time we knew how to deal with mephits and a rain of missiles, both arrows and lead bullets, finished the duo quickly and efficiently. Shooting in the blowing wind was not an easy task, but it worked at the short distances. After that point our narrow passageway forked. Going left brought us another pair of mephits and afterwards - a dead end. The gnoll perished in that second fight, so we had no choice but to return to the main path and proceed forward carefully, with Imoen moving silently ahead of us.
My head was hurting from cold and lack of sleep, for the menacing wind continued to blow from all directions and rip off my clothes. Ugly metal constructions protruded from our path into the emptiness beyond, bearing huge windmills. The purple mist was billowing around their wings and swirling away, slowly dissipating into darkness. It looked like the engine below was producing the endless supply of that purple stuff saturated with electricity. The air tasted strange here. Suddenly, I realized what was causing my headache - it was the strongest magical field I had ever felt!
Imoen turned abruptly pressing a finger to her lips. She was only ten paces ahead of us, for I insisted that she stayed within a visible range. She tiptoed back to me looking more excited than worried.
"Mephits," she said quietly, "dozens of them, all different kinds. I think it is their nesting ground. It is fascinating."
"I respect your interest in mephits mating behavior," I grinned. "But it looks like we had to wipe them out. Sorry Imoen, but they are an aggressive bunch."
She nodded with a sigh.
"Every creature born from earth will eventually return there." Jaheira said solemnly.
"Hmm, I am not sure if this is applicable to mephits." I said. "You see, they are born in this plain, mayhap, they can only breed in that monstrous magical field that this place emanates. I bet they have their nests all over these windmill supports!"
"Why is it you always have an explanation to everything?" Jaheira raised an eyebrow. "I bet, you would offer advice to your executor, on how to better tighten a rope around your neck!"
I blushed at this. Imoen looked hurt and only Minsc laughed freely and profoundly.
"You are going to alarm the beasts if you don't stop laughing." I said with mild irritation.
"Oh, I am sorry, lassie. But she is right, you will teach everybody how to better tie their bootlaces!"
"Well, are we going to continue this chitchat, or shall we do something about the mephits?"
That finally stopped the circus.
I described my plan to everybody and quietly moved forward, followed by our archers. Jaheira was ready with her healing spells. The first spell that I casted, hurtled forward a tight ball of a gray ooze. It hit the floor and enveloped everything in a radius of twenty paces from its epicenter in the sticky and scratchy nets. I barely had time to retreat. Stepping back to the edge of my weaving I observed the results. Over two dozen mephits were caught in my nets, struggling helplessly against the magical restraints. The arrows were whistling past me, but the wind was stronger here, at the heart of that magical structure, and only few of the mephits were hit. I raised my hands and incinerated the area with a fireball.
When the flames subsided the only creature still alive on the big circular dais was a little beast glowing red with anger and agitation. Before I realized why did it survive my attack, it spat a long jet of flame at me scorching my hands and face, and singing my eyebrows and lashes.
It was dead in seconds, slain by Minsc. Jaheira's quick spell erased all traces of my burns. However, deep in my heart I felt some sort of empathy for the creature, for I was paid back with my own coin. The fire mephit gave me a lesson in humility.
The place was empty of everything now. The wind quickly swept away piles of ash and charred bone. At the center of the circular area, eternal fire burned in the round pit. Above our heads the dome of the magical sail pulled endlessly at its restraints. The world was filled with endless howling of the wind and rhythmical noise of the strange machinery below. I bent over the railing to get a better view. From here, I could see the jets of violet steam, coming out of the engine. They were veined with pink and permeated with electricity. The pink color subsided as the gaseous matter was moving away from the generator. Ten paces away it was uniformly deep purple.
"Fascinating, isn’t it?" Imoen whispered excitedly.
"If only I could understand the meaning of it!" I sighed in exasperation.
"Here is something you will find interesting," Jaheira's serious voice announced from the farthest end of the dais.
Indeed, that was it! She found a side bridge, leading up to the smaller circular area. In the middle of that crea, an ornate golden flask was sitting ostentatiously on a red velvet pillow. This craving for scenic effects had always afflicted our host. The snake in my head rose sinuously to the surface of my mind. Its poisonous stare held mine for a fleeting moment, then it stroke like an arrow flying in my face!
I shook my head and grabbed the flask. My hand went right through it. The air in the close vicinity coalesced into brilliant white circle. The djinn stepped through.
"What is it you wish from me, wizard?" His voice boomed over the howling of the wind.
I stared at the creature in the close copy of Aataqah's costume.
"Do you all dress up like that?" I asked blankly. "Is there some deep meaning under this fashion show?" I gestured at his turban and loose oriental trousers of bright silk fabric.
The djinn smiled. He looked somewhat older and more intelligent than our friend Aataqah.
"Judging by the fact that you are here, the master was distracted and you managed to make you escape. Be careful, little one, he will be back on your trail soon enough." He shook his ethereal head sadly. "As for your frivolous question, well, the people we had met on your home Plane in the place your now call Calimshan, loved this type of paraphernalia. We wanted to promote a friendly conduct, so we shaped ourselves in that manner, for your eyes at least. Be assured that a Beholder will see me differently."
"You said 'Plane'," I gestured with my hand. "Where is this place?"
"In the Plane of Air, of course!" The djinn was baffled by my ignorance. "The home of the Djinn kind and many other aerial creatures. I was captured and bound here by the one you call Irenicus."
"Ah, you are his prisoner too. I thought so. What is it you are guarding here? What is this structure for?"
"I can smell your blood, little one, as well as that of your companions!" He looked at me piercingly.
"You ask way too many questions, but I will answer. This place is linked with your Prime Material Plane, though truly told, it is only one of the billions of Material Planes in the Universe. He is tapping the Radiation Magic Stratum of your Plane. Such sites are rare and most of them can be found in the area that you call the Underdark. The drow call them faerzress, I think. The excess of magical energy is tunneled here in the form of gaseous matter and diffused by the windmills into the Plane of Air. He is polluting us with the Radiation Magic and draining your own Plain of its resources! The total amount of raw magic in one Plane should stay balanced. He is only using fraction of what the faerzress is generating. Soon he will run out of magic for this resource is not limitless."
We stood in silence while I digested that information. My companions looked lost.
"But what is your role in all this?"
"I guide the flow of the gaseous matter, so that it is not disturbed. Without me, the wild currents will soon create turbulences that will tear this place apart. In addition, I guard the items that he had chosen to store here. I have something of yours too!" He smiled mysteriously. "It is a strange mark that your soul leaves on anything you use, Child of Bhaal!"
"Are you saying that anything I touch, will have my mark on it forever?"
"No, just something important to you, something you got attached to."
"Hmm, I wonder, what is that mysterious thing of mine, that you hold? I recovered my books of magic and my necklace. Everything else of any importance to me was left behind in Baldur's Gate …"
The djinn looked puzzled.
"It is your weapon, oh splendid one! Don't you care about your weapons?"
"Not really! I am a scholar, you see, a magic user. Most of the things that I care about, cannot be taken from me, for I carry them in my head."
"But you certainly would like to have that thing back!" The djinn exclaimed in agitation. "If you free me from my captivity, I will give it back to you!"
I laughed bitterly.
"Should I be surprised? Everybody wants something from me. I would have helped you without any payment - if I only knew how!"
"You are an honorable person, oh Daughter of Murder. I am surprised to discover it in one of your blood. But I will hold you by your worlds! Will you help me to break free of our master's binding?"
"He is no master of mine, and yes, I will."
"Then go and find the flask, to which I am bound. This one is just an image, projected here from your Material Plane. If I can get my hands on the real one, I will destroy it and thus, will be free of the Shattered One!"
"Why do you call him so?" I wondered. "Never mind, just tell me, where can I find this flask of yours?"
"I cannot tell you, or splendid one, for I cannot see the things that happen on your Plane of Existence clearly. I can feel that he keeps it somewhat close, but not on his person. Ask his dryad concubines," he gave Imoen a sharp glance, "or his Duergar servants."
"I will," I nodded. "For I really don't have much of a choice. I need to set you free, for my own reasons!"
The journey back to the portal was uneventful. As we stepped through the shimmering doorway, the hurricane sucked us in and spat out on the other side. My head went spinning from the feel of sudden stillness and the stuffy air of the underground. It was strange to be able to hear little noises and rustles again, like the sand gritting on the stone floor of the dungeon and the squeaking of rats somewhere in the corners.
"You got used to that continuous squall after a while." Jaheira sighed ink,istfully. "All that fresh air! I gather we are going to visit the dryads again?"
"You are right, as always, my friend." I answered her brightly. My spirits improved significantly after our conversation with the djinn.
As fast as we can, we trotted back to the dryad's place. They were all there discussing something, which excited them greatly. Cania, whom I now recognized as their unspoken leader, brightened and stepped forward at the sight of us.
"You have returned! Can we help you with something else?"
"Yes my lady Cania, we will require help in somewhat delicate matter," I said formally. "You may be able to help us to locate a certain object, belonging to our mutual enemy. This object can be a key to freedom for another prisoner - a djinn captured and bound in the Plain of Air. It looks like an ornate golden bottle. Mayhap you have seen it in your master's possession?"
She blushed with pleasure. "It is so noble of you to risk your own safety for the sake of another! I knew we could rely on you in our plea." She looked at the other dryads assertively. "I think we shall give her the flask; there will be no harm in this to us. If that can free another prisoner from his clutches - we shall be happy to help that poor spirit!"
They all nodded in agreement and Cania walked to her tree with a quick step. She returned in a moment carrying a heavy golden flask - an exact copy of the ghost one, we have seen in the Plane of Air.
It took all my resolution not to cry out in excitement.
Stepping over the ashes of the dead mephits inside the Plain of Air, we approached the stand with the flask for the second time. The semi-transparent apparition of the djinn was hovering in the air above the place of his binding. At the sight of us, it solidified into more recognizable form. It was dancing in the air with joy.
"I sense that you have the flask I am bound to! Will you give it to me?"
"Take it, it is yours." I said simply offering him the bottle.
"My name is Maalaq, oh noble one! Let us make the exchange! Here is your sword. And let me make you another gift from my heart to yours. Check the little chest on the side walkway. It will contain a summoning ritual for the Elemental from this plain!"
The cursed flask flashed in his hands and dissolved into a cloud of golden sparks.
"At last! I am free! I feel that I must warn you, oh splendid one! Get away from this place before it is too late!"
The djinn shimmered and vanished from our sight. I was standing there with the sword in my trembling hand and pain filled my heart like icy water. That sword - Chaos was its name and chaos it had brought into my life - once belonged to my late brother Sarevok. After I picked it up from the spot where his flesh melted away, I gave it as a gift to my friend, who later became my reluctant lover. It was with him on the ill-fated night of our capture.
Jaheira recognized it too and tears slowly filled her beautiful green eyes.
My throat was suddenly parched with thirst and my heart racing like broken clockwork.
"I can read the sign of the evil fate that has befallen our comrade in this cursed weapon!" Minsc groaned.
"Minsc, will you take it from me as a mark of our quest to avenge the fallen?" I asked in a dead voice.
"I shall take it from you and wield it in battle to honor the living and repay my debt to the dead! I shall stand ready with sword in my hand and sorrow in my heart, for evil is always lurking in the shadows and it is a task of the righteous to see the justice being served!" Minsc finished with tears in his voice and wept shortly, for he was kind-hearted behind his rough facade, and if he was not falling into his senseless berserk's rage, tears came as easy to him as laughter.
"Where is life, there is always hope. Maybe he was just captured like us. I will turn this place upside down to find him!" Jaheira said intensely.
Imoen was trying to speak, but I squeezed her hand in mine with such strength, that she whimpered in pain and stayed silent.
I kept my face steady as a stone mask. I could see myself with my inner eye staggering, with my hair loose, clothes torn and cheeks scratched raw, so that blood will drip down my chin mixed with tears, wailing and shrieking and dusting my head with ashes. Hell, physical manifestation of my grief would have provided some relief and temporarily absolution. Nothing is worse, than silent pain eating at your heart from inside, than restraint to show your grief and cry your eyes out, or even tell anybody what torments you so.
There comes the time when words will fail and reason is no more. I cannot continue from here. The events that followed our ordeal with the djinn bear too much pain for me. Imoen at one time in her quest for salvation started writing a diary, as means to avoid the gripping insanity. I will use some of her writing to proceed with our story. I will pick it up myself from where I can start being rational again.
* * * * *
O rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.7
* * * * *
IMOEN'S DIARY, PART ONE
The storm keeps howling inside my head and it hurts. Maybe if I start writing it will stop? I need all my strength to stay sane. She is always scratching something in her journal. Maybe I can show her this diary later and She will read the words that I could never say aloud.
Whom am I kidding! She will never see this. I am going to die here and Irenicus is the only one who will see these lines before they burn. He will laugh. Oh how will he laugh! He always says that I am unhappy because I don't understand myself. That I need His help to see my Purpose.
Sometimes, he can be charming and seductive like death itself. He said he is fascinated with my delightful simplicity. That I lack imagination to be insincere. I guess he does view me as his favorite pet, but it is Her that he really wants! He keeps calling her Godchild. That is so funny. I can almost cry.
He says, I am right to care for the sick and the helpless. It is just that I do it in a wrong way. He explains to me, that they need to be helped to die, because that way they will be delivered from their suffering. Their souls will reincarnate into better vessels. He keeps telling me, that they shall call me the Angel of Mercy, if only I will understand my Purpose. He says Death is a blessing that you shall bring to the needy with a giving hand. He keeps asking, "Do you understand now?" But I can't. I am afraid that She may actually understand.
No. I am not going to follow this trail again. I will take anything that comes my way, because there must be a Reason for it. If only I can talk to her one more time! To warn against that Thing that will eat her from inside. No matter. She hates me now.
The storm is howling in the night outside. How can it be, that I hear it? There can be no wind underground, though I can remember how windy it was on the Plain of Air. She was holding my hand. I still have a bruise from that grip. How can She be so cruel? I should have told them that Khalid was dead! But She was holding my hand. I did not want to hurt her more than I needed to.
She looked like a figurehead at the nose of a ship ready to fly off. Her clothes full of wind, her dark hair flying loose. How can one so beautiful be so cold? She has no heart. I always knew it. She never liked me much. She did not even want me to follow her. Just tolerated me around like a stray dog. We grew up together; She was always like a sister to me. But as I realize now, for her I was only the old innkeeper's niece to whom her noble father decided to give an education out of charity.
When my uncle suddenly sold his old tavern in Waterdeep and bought an inn in Candlekeep, I was truly no better then the street urchin. I was well fed and clothed and always had a safe place to sleep in, but otherwise running wild and doing what I wished to do.
My Mom was a famous courtesan so while she was alive she had plenty of money to support her brother's family and pay my expenses. She would come to visit me once a week like a vision of ultimate beauty, dressed up in silk and velvet and smelling like a perfume shop. I loved her dearly until I understood where her money was coming from. The street kids explained it all to me quite vividly. I asked her right away and was told to mind my own business.
Next thing I know - I was sent to some expensive girls-only boarding school. I remember how I was kicked out of at least three boarding schools in one year because of the "bad influence" I had on the other girls. I guess throwing a dead rat into the soup cauldron or stealing the schoolmistress’s slippers from her bedroom on a bet can be considered such. My Mom would just sigh and pay all the fees without saying a word.
They never told me how my mother died. I was sent home from the last pension she put me in. The day after her funeral old Puffguts returned home all shaky, dumped a bag of coins on the table, and told Aunt Agnes that we are moving. We have been in the cart headed to Candlekeep next morning. Dear Auntie never liked me much, but was bound to have me in the house because of the money. We never would have managed without Mom's cash for Uncle Winthrop liked good company too much. He was the kindest of men; don't take me wrong! But he had always had a bad habit of drowning his sorrows in a wine bottle. Aunt Agnes was sick almost all her life with some ‘woman’s sickness’ - that was why they never had their own children. She died a year later after we moved to Candlekeep.
I never figured out why a scholar like Gorion took an interest in me. I guess he wanted his noble born daughter to have a company of somebody of her own age. He did not think I was a ‘bad influence’. They had been my true family ever since, and Candlekeep had became my true home. It was like all the dreams I ever had of a place to call my own suddenly became true. I started to call her sister when we turned fifteen.
She does not know that a quick cut is the least painful. I learned it when Jaheira took her friendship away from me. I knew all the time that Jaheira was using her for her own reasons! It was only fitting that Jaheira's own husband had cheated on her. Khalid, poor fool, was born to be led by his nose by a stronger woman. He was totally besotted with her; I could see it right away. Everybody falls in love with her amber eyes, the moment they see her. She does not ever notice. She is so cold and logical. How could She fall for him? I saw them in the garden kissing then followed them to her bedroom. I had to stop them. I had to tell her that it was wrong!
I could not look away when I entered. I still blush when I remember. When I am dead, I hope She will read this and understand how much I cared for her.
Irenicus said that I need to learn for myself about relationship between man and woman, and then I would understand Her of per. That it is in the nature of a Godchild to take what She wants where She sees it! He said I am ridiculous and act like an adolescent because I do not know any better. He said that once I become a woman, I would change. That he shall help me with this. Filthy bastard! He knows nothing of love. The way they looked at each other was enough to put my soul on fire. Nobody ever looked at me like that.
Irenicus keeps repeating that a body is just a case for the soul. That you may as well enjoy its pleasures, while you can. That when the person is dead, when the beautiful instrument that resided inside is gone - there is nothing left to care for. Once, he brought me to that place and took a knife. He opened Khalid's poor body like butcher opens a pig. He showed me his heart and asked me to touch it. To see for myself that there is nothing left in there, no love, no hatred either. He had said the love is all in your head, in your memories. Maybe he was not lying that time? He seemed to be in pain sometimes. My memories are fading. How long had I been in his possession? Eons probably. Time is not moving. It is frozen here. Where am I? I don't remember how I got here. Sometimes he comes to see me. Afterwards I am always sick.
When we left the Plain of Air, I was weeping. But I could not utter a world. My tongue was frozen. She led us back to His bedroom. I could not see that place without feeling ill. She used a portal key on the doorway. She always knows how to do things right.
There was a person waiting on the other side. I never saw him before but I did not like him. He looked at me as if he was undressing me in his head. Like he knew what Irenicus was doing to me. He had eyes of a bird looking at a particularly appetizing worm! He said his name was Yoshimo and that he was kidnapped and brought to that place by some assassins. I did not trust him but She had said that it was fine for him to join us. I think Yoshimo was afraid of her. He never looked at her the way he looked at me.
She did not tell him her name. She never tells anybody her name. I think I am the only one who still remembers it. Maybe Jaheira does too. When Gorion was killed, She had said, there is a reason why nobody should know her name. That in public I shall call her sister or friend, if I wish to, but never by her name. She said people had killed their parents and siblings in the past, to hide their true names. I thought She was loosing her wits. Maybe she was right. Maybe She wants me to be dead, I would never know.
Yoshimo was a bounty hunter. He told me that and added that he had plenty of money to spend on pretty things like me. I said that I was not interested. Yoshimo warned us of some sort of danger in the next room. When we entered, there were mephits all over the place. That was why I did not recognize that room at first. They were coming out of these strange traps on the floor. She said later, these were little portals to the Elemental Planes. We had to kill all the mephits and destroy the portals. She was absolutely exhausted by the time we have finished. That Yoshimo fellow, he was no coward, that much I remember.
Then I heard Jaheira scream. When we were children, I once saw a she-falcon, whose mate was killed by an archer. She screamed and screamed as she flied over his body. Then she rose up as far as I could see and folded her wings, plunging into the earth from the sky. She was dead when I lifted her in my hands. I cried for her. I never thought I would hear somebody screaming like that again, until I saw Jaheira after she found Khalid's mutilated body.
I thought I was going to die right there! I tried to tell Jaheira that he did not suffer, that all of this had been done to the dead body. She would not listen. Then I remembered Her and looked around. She was white as a marble and cold as ice. She did not say a word. There was not a single tear in her eyes. She was moving like a machine and her voice sounded like it was coming from a Halruaan automaton.
They talked between themselves those two who had both loved him. I was scared how a matter-of-fact their tone was. They decided there was no hope of raising him. Even if the Gods were willing. The body was damaged beyond hope. Jaheira asked Silvanus, the old God of Nature, to take his soul. Minsc helped them put together a funeral pyre out of the remains of the furniture. They soaked it all in oil from the lanterns. They both kissed him goodbye. Then She called forth fire.
I did not know what they told each other. They just watched the fire burn. They have been standing there forever, holding each other like they would collapse if they let go. I was left alone in my corner, crying my eyes out and praying that no one notice me. Then I heard Jaheira say something in a voice that carried over the crackling fire.
"There is no disgrace on the dead."
* * * * *
We had left the smoldering ashes of Khalid's funeral pyre behind. I was shaky, but determined. I told Jaheira as much as I dared, which was far less than I should have. But I could not suppress the truth any longer! Our new pact was signed in his blood. Jaheira accepted my formal offer - we would stay together and try to be civil to each other until his killer is brought to justice. I lost her trust but gained her alliance. It may not be a bad deal for the price that I paid.
I tried to breath deeply to make the sharp knots of pain in my stomach go away. Ever since I first saw his body a kind of seizure settled over my muscles. I was literally paralyzed for a few minutes, my breath had seized. Then it came back slowly. Still only the need to push forward, to lead others out of that place made me move. If I was alone I most likely would have lied down and died. But I had to walk, to put one foot in front of the other. And so I did.
From that moment forward everything I saw around me looked like a reflection in a twisted mirror. My memories of that place faded. I had to restore the details by talking to others. So the rest of the journey out is blurred, and I still think some of the images that I recall were my feverish dreams.
At some point, the tunnel brought us to a brightly lit room filled with familiar glass domes. Long before we approached it however, we could hear the angry voices and clash of weapons. It was a strange battle. A naked woman, covered in greenish slime was parrying with a man in black hooded garb. She was holding her grounds but the mere sight of his black coat put me into frenzy. I knew that kind of clothes close and personal. A flame arrow struck his back before I could control myself and she finished him with one sure stroke.
She turned around and I was able to see her features clearly. It was one of the most terrifying images I brought out of Irenicuses prison. Half of it was perfectly normal, even beautiful, woman’s face. I thought I saw some resemblance to the marble head in the 'mistress bedroom'. The other half was misshapen and twisted, like the face of a wax figurine that was left for too long near the blazing fire. The skin had puckered and in place of one eye there was nothing, just the empty space.
The floor was littered with broken glass and stained with green ooze spilled from the broken glass jar. I could see that the rest of the glass domes contained the identical copies of that same woman repeated over and over as in a parody of a toy factory. As I watched in my stupor the creature shrieked loudly and attacked. We had to kill her. There was no other choice. I gathered Irenicus was making these clones of his wife regularly, to play his little torture games.
Imoen was deeply upset, but I had not had any strength left to deal with her after all that happened. Jaheira too was still in a shock. Thus the girl was left without support from either of us.
Room after room we passed, fighting our way out through the men in black and more gray dwarves rtalabandoned their mutual fighting to attack us. Little orcs were squirming under our feet. A crazy doppelganger jumped at us after we released him from his prison. This was turning into a madhouse.
"Are these the people who broke in while I was in a coma?" I asked Imoen after we entered another hall littered with corpses.
"I doubt they would have held that long," she whispered. "I cannot say how much time had passed, but probably more then a day."
"He must have left the corpses here to rot," I said dispassionately. "Judging by the amount of bodies they are pretty desperate, whoever they are. They keep trying to get to him even though he killed so many at their first attempt. Look, most of these people have been dead for a long time."
Indeed, rigor mortis had settled over most of the bodies. I bent over the corpse of a man whose throat was practically torn out. Strangely, there was very little blood on the ground. He was chalky-white and lifeless. His bright blue eyes were staring straight into mine with that puzzled expression of a man who cannot believe that he is dead. I recognized him at once. That was the blue-eyed assassin, who had slain Khalid. There was no anger left in my heart, no pity either, just ashes. I did not tell anybody. There was no point.
We could hear the distant racket of a battle going in one of the tunnels. My head was empty of any thought but the desperate drive to get out. I sensed the danger in the air for a strange cracking noise was coming from the walls, and twisted copper cables that snaked around narrow passages sparkled and burned. I felt acrid smell of the molten metal. I heard desperate cries of men dying close by. It all meant nothing.
The swirl of purple matter was dangerously unstable. It was pulsating madly around the ever-rotating windmills. Every now and then, the currents would form vortices that will travel slowly across the surface of the glowing mass, engulfing the supports and slowing the blades of the windmills. The platform was throbbing continuously with deep, arhythmical tremors.
The flock of ethereal air elementals hovered above the doomed structure. The feel of unstable magical field attracted them. Their semitransparent bodies reflected quick flashes of electrical discharge and shone beautifully in the fizzy violet light.
The mephits were agitated too. They flocked together and circled the platform in complicated loops and spirals. But there was no way back to their cozy lairs on the Prime. Their regular gates were all destroyed.
It was deadly quiet in a half-flooded corridor that we entered next. There have been more corpses clustered in that tunnel, all black-hooded assassins. Their faces were dark and bloated. Some of the dead men were still clutching at their throats as if they died from suffocation. The air had the bitter aftertaste of raw almonds.
"A poison cloud spell," Jaheira muttered carelessly.
I only nodded. I was not able to feel any compassion for these men. Not after what we had been through.
I realize that up to this point I did not say a word about our new companion, Yoshimo. His appearance in my life coincided with the gruesome discovery of Khalid’s body, as we had met him at the entrance to the chamber of portals. The details of that first meeting before entering the fatal door had fled my memory altogether. Then I forgot about him completely, even though I suspected that he was our enemy’s spy. When I recovered my wits it was too late to get the first impression. So, I tried to attain the second one.
He was a man of an average height, wiry and fit, with distinctly oriental features of his thin, intelligent face. His eyes were bright and evasive. I had met few Kara-Turans in our parts of the Realms in my travels. They were all very private and meticulously polite. Yoshimo was different for he was quick to rebuke any potential offence, and a bit aggressive in his fast, nervous conversation. I suppose it was inevitable in his situation. After all, he was trying to fit into a strange group of desperados, and that was his only chance of getting out of there alive.
His story of his own abduction did not sound right. But he stuck to it and after a while I started to think that it was quite possible that he was not lying. After all, he had rather creative imagination and flashy style. (As I had soon discovered!) Why feed me a lie that was so bland and simple?
Yoshimo told us from the start of his line of work, which had only strengthened my suspicions. Meeting the professional bounty hunter right after an uneasy escape was too much of a coincidence. But in the string of quick battles and evasive maneuvers that we had to take, he had proven his battle prowess many times over. So I decided to let him stick with us and be prepared for his next move when it comes.
By the time we had reached the tunnel with suffocated men, Yoshimo was the only one in the company who still had the energy to show some initiative. He was scouting the grounds ahead as he took over Imoen's duties. He did it in a casual way without offending her and I was relieved, for I was worried about her. That scene at Khalid's body must have shaken her badly. I hoped that she would forgive me for not being able to pay much attention to her condition. We will need to sit down and talk seriously. But first, we have to take her away from there.
"Maybe I should take her to the temple of Ilmater?" I thought. "His priests can do wonders in cases like hers."
At that moment Yoshimo turned to me and waved his hand urgently. He had found the passage leading to the surface.
The djinn Maalaq was floating in the air not far from the former place of his imprisonment. He observed the play of purple matter with utter attention and not a small amount of pleasure. Still, he held some of the turbulences back for he could feel that the Godchild was too close.
He could sense desperate fear of the forest spirits, as the grass in their cave was withering with heat and water streams boiled and steamed. Well, they would have to rely on the Godchild's good will and hope that their acorns will be delivered, he thought smoothly.
He also sensed the wild joy of excitement coming from young Aataqah, for the youngster knew that he would be released from his binding with the blast of magic that powerful. He would disintegrate of course, but that would only destroy his corporeal shell, bound in that cursed Prime.
The wizard was occupied with personal matters. Sometimes Maalaq could feel his master's psyche quite clearly. He perceived it as that of a sadistic child, so naïve in his mindless obsession with vengeance, and concentrated on his precious self that you can almost forgive him in his misery. Maalaq smiled wickedly as he felt Irenicus disengage from his lover and became aware of the major disaster brewing. The djinn shook with laughter. There was nobody there to observe him, but he was used to this human way of expressing his emotions.
Suddenly dozens of smaller, simpler minds filled with hatred and fear flooded the djinn's awareness. He had felt that kind of disturbance starting few days ago when a number of human creatures broke into the underground complex. They were dying faster this time, disappearing from his mental landscape almost instantaneously.
Finally, he had felt the Godchild moving to the edge of his circle of power, and becoming a shade at the distance. At that instance, Maalaq released his grip on the magical field. He watched the platform and its contents crumble with greater joy than he had expected. The purple mass was now leaking into the shimmering black portal, filling it to the point of bursting. He could feel Irenicus weaving an escape gate. Then the doorway collapsed and winked out of existence. He lost all his awareness of the Prime Material Plane at once. It was a relief of the magnitude he did not expect. However, he also felt sadness somehow. He hanged in the air for a while, basking in the sense of freedom. His features became increasingly transparent as he was dissolving like a puff of smoke. The last thing to go was his jovial smile. It hovered in the air like an upturned crescent moon long after the djinn himself was gone.
We were delirious with joy when we finally burst outside. There was still battle going on all around us, but I barely noticed it. I had to shut my eyes tight at first, for the sun was too bright. We have been deprived of the sunlight for too long. Then the earth exploded. The slope shook under our feet and the entire passage behind collapsed, littering the ground with dust and debris. As deep tremors ran through the shaken earth, and the purple sparks flew, the walls crumbled. Finally, a strange flash of light engulfed the explosion site, and then all went quiet.
"I guess, the djinn was not lying after all," I muttered lifting myself up from the ground.
Jaheira looked at me blankly. "It was a close call," was all she said.
Imoen was crying again. "The dryads," she said, "they are buried down there…"
The time stood still for a moment then a tall figure of a man had risen from the ground, shaking off the stone chips and the splintered pieces of wood. He looked magnificent even in his slightly disheveled state. His tight leather garments adorned with jewelry, hugged the perfect body of an athlete. But his face… I strained my eyes to see it better. There was no mistake about it – that stunning, lifeless visage of my dreams was a mask. Only his eyes were alive, watching me mockingly through the narrow slits.
My mind was strangely calm and focused. I was going to meet my end with as much dignity as I could master. I almost smiled, banning the offending thought. "He dresses more like a gigolo, than a wizard of his caliper!"
They sprung from the ruins like a flock of darting shadows, black-hooded and silent. Their daggers flashed in the bright sunlight, their arrows whizzed in the air. There were dozens of them coming at him, attacking at once without a warning.
"Nobody crosses Shadow thieves and lives," the rasp came from a burly man in his fifties, who hurtled his short sword at the wizard. The weapon dissolved in a cloud of smoke before striking its target.
We were trapped between the rock and the hard place. In our haggard state, with my magical energies spent and everybody else at the limit of their endurance the best choice was to stay on the sidelines of the show.
As a shower of arrows flew towards the tall figure at the epicenter, a sudden flash of magical fire incinerated them all. The wizard surrounded himself with pulsating shield of fire. I shuddered at the sound of the familiar drawl from my comatose nightmares, as his chanting voice rolled over the battlefield. His assailants were falling one by one - torn to pieces, burnt, or frozen alive. After a few minutes of that senseless carnage, no one was left to stand against him. That was when Irenicus turned to face us. I readied myself for the worst.
"You are not going to torture us any longer!" Imoen’s high-pitched voice suddenly filled my ears.
I grabbed for her to stop the senseless sacrifice, but it was too late. Imoen, wriggling out of my hands, was hurtling her puny magical missiles at him, her eyes blazing with pride and her cheeks pink from anger.
I almost cried from pity. That was the first spell that I have learned when I was about six. She was so pretty and fresh at that moment, shining with clean inner fire that my heart sunk. I knew he was going to hurt her. For someone like him just seeing her bright lively beauty was an itch that needed scratching! I pulled out my knife. Jaheira threw herself at me, bringing me to the ground. I saw Minsc trying to rise to his full height and charge, but stopped in his tracks by the invisible shield woven of air. Irenicus obviously meant to deal with Imoen on his own terms.
He bathed her in a blaze of fire.
"Torture? Silly girl you just don't understand what I am doing, do you?" His voice was filled with fatherly indignation at her screams of pain. "I am not letting you go; not after I finally got so close to unlocking your potential," he sounded calm and confident, and at that moment, I decided that he is not going to get me back alive.
"We don't want anything from you! Thea will never accept it!" she cried, wriggling from pain of her burns.
I blinked and tried to scramble to my feet but at that moment we were interrupted again. A number of milky-white stars flowered in the air around the battlefield. Each one coalesced into a bright gate. A half a dozen or so cloaked men stepped through!
"This is getting more and more insane," another fleeting thought in my overheated brain. I seized Imoen and tried to channel a healing spell into her burnt body. She shrugged and went still, as it surged through her. Jaheira caught her from my limp hands. Her green eyes were filled with despair – I knew that she was spent too. No healing powers left in her.
"This is an illegal use of unauthorized magic! Cease your battle at once and surrender to the authority of the Cowled Wizards!" The oldest of the newcomers demanded.
A death spell blasted into his face, turning him into a cloud of gray dust.
"Must I be interrupted at every turn? Enough of that!" Irenicus sounded genuinely angry now.
When his first fireball went off, we hugged each other and dived for cover, all three of us – Jaheira, me, and Imoen hitting the ground at the same time.
That second assault was more severe and lasted longer. The Cowled Wizards (if that was who they were), managed to put some nasty scratches on his hide. Even so, at the end their fate was the same as that of the black brotherhood. They had all fallen to his superior powers.
Yet, as I watched in horror as the last gray-cloaked mage was incinerated into ashes, more of the white stars appeared. That was when Irenicus was finally forced to change his stance. Faced with their final ultimatum he looked sharply at his remaining enemies and laughed. The sun was blazing high in the sky, shining over tens of dead and dieing men all slain by him, and he just stood there calm and composed, looking through the eye-slits of his strange mask.
"All right, I will surrender myself." He drawled in that deep arrogant voice of his that made my teeth ache. "But you must take the girl as well!"
I started to rise from the ground, trying to keep some dignity. There was not much left of me – a bleeding, dirty hag in dusty rags. To my astonishment, he pointed a finger at Imoen, who trembled like a rabbit in Jaheira's embrace. Then he looked directly at me and I thought that I saw him wink under the mask. The cowl of the superior wizard nodded as he made a sign for his subordinates to grab Imoen.
“You cannot possibly do this!” I protested weakly.
“Are you going to offer yourself in exchange?” Jaheira whispered franticly into my ear. “Better that they take her, than he!”
Imoen sobbed silently as they dragged her away from us.
It was all happening so fast that I did not have time to respond. I understood their position. They needed to seize the momentum to deal with their most powerful enemy on their terms. There was no way they could have overwhelmed Irenicus, so they were accepting his conditions to trap him on their own grounds later.
I was at a loss at our tormentor’s priorities. I was his primary target, therefore I expected him to request my arrest, not Imoen’s. As it was, we had won some time to petition the authorities on her behalf. She would be back with us in a few hours I told myself as I watched the white stars of teleporter spells fade away in the air. I could not have been more wrong.
0. Note from sister Omphalla:
Upon reading through this remark several times, I came to realize that the author was probably speaking of the great sage of the Realms, famous traveler and womanizer, Elminster, though why would he fancy to engage in trading in hamsters, even the Miniature Space ones is beyond me.
1. Note from sister Omphalla:
Lich - an undead mage; most commonly a necromancer upon his death turns himself into one.
2. Note from sister Omphalla:
"Gorgons and hydras and chimeras dire." It is amazing to observe how the wizard's mind works to explain the workings of magic from 'inside'. There is always a confusion about generic summoning spells. Most sources indicate that the spell takes shape in the caster's mind first and then pulls the closest matching creature into caster's area. However if you follow this logic, the summoning spells used inside the Elemental Planes should not work at all.
3. Note from sister Omphalla:
For those who are not familiar with flora of the Faerun here is my quote from "Nature's Tree Kingdom": Oak - Any of numerous monoecious deciduous or evergreen trees or shrubs of the genus Quercus, bearing acorns as fruit. Birch - Any of various deciduous trees or shrubs of the genus Betula, having unisexual flowers in catkins, alternate, simple, toothed leaves, and bark that often peels in thin papery layers and has light coloration. Linden - A handsome tree (of the genus Tilia), having cymes of light yellow fragrant flowers loved by bees, and large heart-shaped leaves.
4. Note from sister Omphalla:
Rashemen is noted for its rather unusual nature spirits. The one named Polynesius is a flower spirit that attracts bees. A lesser form of dryad, which inhabits groves of flowers. As a spirit, she gains control of those who smell their blossoms. They are very fickle, hating those who would kill their blooms in order to please a lover, seeing it as a grave insult. After making love to the picker of the blooms, they inevitably kill them for the offense. One can tell a field protected by these spirits by the tiny red and white petaled wild flowers that grow interspersed there. However, the honey produced from these groves is unusually rich and prized in the making of mead, so many Rashemi try to succor these spirits.
5. Note from sister Omphalla:
A doppelganger is a very dangerous kind of a fiend of omnivorous persuasion. These monsters can shapeshift and will mimic an appearance of a person they desire to impersonate. Doppelgangers are also known for their treachery and deceit. The Greater doppelgangers had been known to slay their victims, then consume their brains and thus gain the ability to imitate their victim's behavior and everyday habits in detail. It is rumored that the entire family of some dwarven tribe leader was once slain by the Greater doppelgangers and afterwards successfully impersonated. The fiends wanted to gain knowledge of his treasure locations and traps layout.Though other sources indicate that to kill the person is not necessarily a requirement for a shapeshifter.
6. Note from sister Omphalla:
A person's name can be used in powerful magical rituals that can bind one to the will of the caster or drain one's inner energy and strength. Both true given name and a family name is needed for the ritual to be complete. In many cultures through the Realms parents will give a child one 'true' name and another 'common' one to be used in everyday life. Nobody is more paranoid about his or her true name than magic users. The more powerful the wizard is, the harder he will guard his true name. The owner of this journal went to considerable length to conceal hers, though she was not entirely successful, as we will find out later.
7. Note from sister Omphalla:
The Sick Rose, By Blake, William, Earth Sphere, Kingdom of Britain, 1757-1827 Earth reckoning. I could not stop myself from adding a bit of good poetry to this rather hectic literary concoction. A sad story, which will follow needs a good epigraph.
Last modified on January 27, 2002
Copyright © 2001 by Janetta Bogatchenko All rights reserved