Baldur's Gate II -
Welcome to my online fiction site! On this site you can read my online novel inspired by the game "Baldur's Gate II - The Shadows of Amn". This is unofficial site and it is not associated by any means with Interplay, Bioware or TSR inc. No material from this site can be reproduced for any commercial use and any noncommercial use must be authorized by me.
THE STORY OF A GIRL WITHOUT A NAME
by Janetta Bogatchenko
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My head ached. My knees and hands were raw from the impact with the angry earth. My clothes ... well let's just forget about that. We all looked like a gang of paupers though Jaheira was somewhat more presentable in her gleaming chainmail. The crowd of locals had already started to gather around us, and at the distance, I could hear the angry shouts of the arriving soldiers.
"Why did he ask for the young girl to be taken with him and not you?" Yoshimo looked at me, and for the first time I saw a fleeting emotion on his usually calm and well-controlled face.
"Was it pity," I wondered, "or something else? Nonsense, he was with us for no more than a few hours. Although he did look at her with obvious interest."
"I honestly don't know, Yoshimo," I answered cautiously. "Perhaps, he expects us to give chase."
"I did not know the woman could be so brave and so reckless." He shook his head sadly.
"That evil trickster can run, but he cannot hide from the imminent boot of justice! We will get Imoen back in no time!" Minsc was boiling with the righteous anger. I wondered how did he stop himself from interfering when they took Imoen away. Boo's calming influence was definitely stronger than we have thought.
"We need time to rest and plan. Perhaps, seeking powerful allies would be a good idea. It was a long time, since I saw a caster of his strength." Jaheira looked at me appraisingly.
I shifted nervously under that clear gaze wondering what was she thinking about. Obviously, I was no match for Irenicus in her opinion.
Yoshimo nodded silently and went to check over the dead bodies. His face was unreadable again. Mayhap, he knew some of these people. Yoshimo had plenty of time to leave us, while we had been occupied with Irenicus and the Cowled Wizards. Yet, he was still here and I could not make myself dislike him. Just for a second, there was a genuine feeling in his eyes when he was speaking about Imoen.
I sighed. The girl was my responsibility; no matter what personal feelings I had about her. She was one of mine to care for and she was taken from me. I had to get her back if only to live in peace with myself.
What was Yoshimo's role in all this? Another mystery. If Irenicus had planted Yoshimo to spy on us, he had also planned for us to escape successfully. Now that was preposterous. Why would he let us go after getting into all that trouble to capture us? At the end, he was forced to improvise. That much was clear.
I shook my head in irritation and looked around consciously for the first time. We were inside a grandiose amphitheater built entirely of the white limestone. It was almost a half-mile in diameter. The weather was mild and pleasant here, wherever that was. No sign of the cold drizzling rain that plagued me for weeks on my travels alone.
It was well into the middle of The Leafall by my count for we have spent more then three weeks in captivity. We were ambushed on the 22nd day of The Fading. That much I remembered. The sun was caressing my tired body with its warm embrace and the light wind played with the loose strands of my hair. I realized how much I missed the daylight.
" My lady Thea, it is time for us to move out. That is before the authorities decide to move in." Yoshimo gave me a quick glance of his dark birdlike eyes.
I nodded, noticing how swiftly he adopted my sobriquet, which Imoen let slip out in her last desperate argument with Irenicus. There was no sense in denying it. She was the one who gave me my nickname on the day we first met.
I chuckled at the luck of finesse I demonstrated in my effort to conceal my identity. Ever since these strange attacks on my life started, I refrained from using my given name in any written documents and asked my friends to avoid using it in public. I should have adopted one of these flowery pseudonyms that every lady wizard favored. The names related to the nature cycles and elements were especially popular. I imagined Jaheira's expression after I had asked her to call me Sunset or Nightwind, or some such nonsense. That thought probably reflected on my face, because Yoshimo gave me a startled look.
"You are absolutely right, Yoshimo." I said hastily. "Let's get going."
We pushed through the crowd that had gathered around us and walked away from the pile of rubble that marked the entrance into the tunnel.
In my scholarly days at Candlekeep, I had read about the ancient empires, distant and alien cultures that had disappeared into the well of time leaving behind many wondrous edifices of unknown purpose. The structure that surrounded us had reminded me of these. It was built like an ancient circus, with multiple levels accessible from the wide staircases, and huge colonnaded entrances looming at the four sides of it. Each level hosted multiple stores, wine shops and taverns and all other commodities normally associated with the large gatherings of people.
The crowd that was moving up and down the stairs was as diverse as selection of goods. Dark Calimshani merchants, whose skin was glossy with exotic oils, traded with lighter and slimmer local folk; bearded dwarven weaponsmiths offered their equipment to gaping halflings and humans alike; gnomish peddlers skimmed the crowd carrying trays with mysterious trinkets on their heads. I spotted an effeminate shape of an elf cloaked in gray as she or he passed swiftly by.
At short, it was a gigantic marketplace. It was noisy, smelly, and delightfully abundant with normal life. Irenicus must have owned the whole section in this coliseum with its entire infrastructure of basements, linked with natural caves by tunnels dug deep into the earth. I doubted that anybody in this busy market could have imagined what horrors were hidden two hundred paces beneath their feet.
Yoshimo was keeping close to me, carefully scanning the crowd. I presumed he decided to stay with us for the time being.
"I think I know where this is. As I told you before, we are in Athkatla, the City of Coins." He said confidently.
"He is right." Jaheira confirmed. "I recognize the place." She nodded at the magnificent stone colonnade, which graced the closest entrance. "We are in the capital of Amn, the city of Athkatla."
"You are a treasure trove of geographical knowledge." I answered mildly. "Have you been here before? I had never seen this place."
"You may have never been here, but I have." She looked dazed with sorrow. "Those who Harp, tend to travel. Khalid and I … we had been here before."
"Before we met you, little treacherous fool." I added in my head.
She stopped suddenly and pulled me aside.
"Listen," she said carefully speaking in a hushed voice, so nobody but me would hear. "I have been thinking it over and over and finally, I understood what happened. These things you have told me down there. I understand - you thought you were in love with him. Silence! Let me finish, girl. It must have hurt you – seeing us so close, while you have learned about … about your ancestry. I said, be silent! I understand that a mind can create a delusion, a fairy tale of a sort. You must have been living in this dream for months. I can see now, how much you have changed after that final fight with Sarevok."
I just gaped at her stunned with this sudden development.
"I know he was kind to you. He was very gentle and compassionate person. I asked him to ... watch over you. I thought it would be easier for you to speak with him about your ...problems than with me. I know I can be rather harsh and judgmental. You must have taken it for what it was not, and that made things worse. I can understand and forgive that. I can even forgive you for not telling me right away that you saw him die." She looked at me piercingly. "What I shall not understand and shall not forgive is if you will continue to live in this … this delusion and insist on it."
I blushed hotly remembering how material my 'fantasy' really was. That night, when I had walked into the library and found him alone - the snake vision that struck me at the entrance was a warning indeed, a warning against treachery and deceit coming from myself! No man, even the most devoted husband, could have resisted the love charm crafted especially for him. Jaheira must have suspected something, but never uttered a word. I could have sworn that she was deliberately covering up the whole affair. Now, I though I understood. It was such a bitter irony that the person closest to him would be the last one to find out that he was unfaithful!
Jaheira squeezed my hands firmly and continued. "I must stay with you for various reasons. I had promised your foster father and I have other … obligations as well. Now that you have grown so strong in your powers as Bhaal’s child – you need somebody to watch over you. No, don’t argue with me! But I swear to Gods on this very spot that if you ever mention that supposed 'affair' of yours again, I will leave the group and you will neither see me nor hear from me again. Do you understand me clearly?"
"Yes I do Jaheira." I said weakly.
"Good. Now let’s make our plans. We have to bring salvation to the living and vengeance to the dead. This is more important than our personal matters." She raised her emerald eyes to the heavens.
"Khalid? Silvanus, let his soul hear me now! We will make our peace after we meet in the otherworld. But if I had to spend the rest of my life hunting the one who is responsible for your death – so be it." She turned to me. "If you have any doubts about hunting this ... creature, better tell me now."
"I will not leave you until Khalid's death is avenged, that much I promise." I answered. "But we have other things to worry about - like finding where did they take Imoen."
She nodded. "I think, I may still remember something of the city. The natural place to go for information would be the Slums. But first, we need to ask around here."
We stopped near the moderately clean and prosperous little booth, making a show of sorting through the merchandise and asking questions. The facts that we learned were disturbing.
In the state of Amn, the government heavily regulated use of magic. The mysterious Order of the Cowled Wizards was in control. It was forbidden to cast any spells on the streets of Athkatla. Therefore, when Irenicus blasted away half of the Waukeen Promenade (that was how they called their trade district), he violated one of the most strictly enforced Amnish laws. No wonder these wizards have been over him like ducks over the dung beetle!
The last useful piece of information that we obtained was about the guild war going on in Athkatla underworld. It looked like some outsiders had recently challenged the local thieves guild. There were rumors of missing people and mutilated bodies that had been found around the city.
The shopkeeper agreed to make a deal with us on some jewelry that we carried out of the dungeon. We also bought some change of clothes and basic utensils. Judging by her abilities to bargain, we would not get far in Athkatla without money. At least she allowed me to change in my newly purchased tunic and leggings in her booth.
We passed the brightly stripped circus tents and cages with wild animals; Minsc was excited as a child looking at the giant snake, which slithered in endless loops inside its confinement. He was slapping himself on the knees and snorting with laughter. Then we almost had to use force to pull him away from the pen with the moose. He remembered his own imprisonment and was shouting angrily at the unfairness of keeping the big animal in such a small space. It took all my subtle cunning to persuade him to stop making noise and move on.
"Boo and Minsc shall return to free the noble beast from its vile imprisonment," he grumbled feeding the moose an apple that he snatched from the passing peddler. The animal was crunching on it with total indifference to its captivity.
"Take this coin, grumpy halfling and be gone from my sight!" He turned to me again. "The only thing that prevents me from tearing this cage apart here and now is our concern for Imoen. We need to think about freeing her from the clutches of these evil wizards!"
"I just thought of the place we had to check, before we make any decisions." Jaheira intervened diplomatically. "I should have remembered it right away. Well, better late than never. I hope Ribald is still there."
"And what will that be, mistress Jaheira?" Yoshimo asked interestedly.
Jaheira sighed and pointed toward the hawker at the small half-hidden door of a shop.
"Weapons both magical and plain!" The fellow was wailing excitedly with his eyes half-closed. "Stolen Armor from the lairs of Dragons! Scrolls of magic for our licensed customers!" He winced and added less enthusiastically. "You had to be at least 21 years of age and show a proper license to purchase these." The hawker sighed and continued with more vigor. "Come to the Adventurer's Mart! Anything you dream of, we have! We also have the stuff you never heard about but may need anyway!"
Thus, we entered the Adventurer's Mart. It was surprisingly big inside for its nondescript shabby entrance. It occupied two levels of the Promenade. The shadowy interior was filled with magical paraphernalia, rare books and scrolls, enchanted weapons and armor. Behind the bookshelves, I spotted a fine gilded harp on its carved pedestal, surrounded with chairs for the audience. An eerie screech of some unknown beastie from upstairs added to the atmosphere of the place.
The man at the counter was slim and attractive, with unmistakable trace of elven blood in his quick intelligent face. He smiled at me briefly, noticing me gape at his wealth of magical equipment.
"Ribald Barterman at yer service, I ..." He suddenly swallowed the rest of his sentence and looked at Jaheira as if he saw a ghost.
"Greetings to you, good sir. All is well in this fine menagerie of yours, I trust?" She said returning his direct stare.
"It is... well enough, Miss Jaheira. Ye'll not bring more Harper trouble to me doorstep, good lady?" He stole a quick glance at the harp in the corner and smiled seductively at her.
"Oh Ribald, Ribald. Silvanus be praised, some things never change. Relax, I am not here on official business."
"I will trust ye on this, Miss J though, with your kind there is always something brewing. But I should mind me manners." He shook his head and made a little bow generally in my direction.
"I gather the young lady is traveling with you. Can I have a pleasure of making an acquaintance?"
"Yes, I suppose you can," Jaheira sighed. "This is Thea. She was the ward of my late friend Gorion, you must remember him."
"No kidding!" He looked at me intently and laughed. "I guess, he had a great sense of humor then."
"Why would you say so?" I asked slightly puzzled with this exchange.
"Oh, excuse me miss Thea, I was merely thinking that naming a planetouched child in this manner was a slight exaggeration. You must surely know that Theo was a word for god or deity in old Alambish8. That’s a dead language now though it’s a predecessor of modern Chessen and Thayish. Some even say that Theo is an ancient transcription of Overlord Ao’s name."
"My mother was Chessen," I muttered absentmindedly. But I must have looked truly dumbfounded, which caused him to lose some of his zeal.
"Stop stuffing girl's head with your obscure tales!" Jaheira responded angrily. "She has enough problems in dealing with reality! And I know that you are a linguistic genius, there is no need to flash it."
"What did you mean by saying I am 'planetouched'?" I interrupted. I was not going to let her cover thing up this time.
Ribald looked anxious. He shot a quick glance at Jaheira then looked at me again.
"But surely ye must have known," he muttered guiltily. "It's the eyes. You see I deal in rather unusual merchandise here. Some of my stock comes from other Planes. Well, when the price is right. I do have connections. I have seen many aasimars9 in my life. I surely can mark one when I see her." He winked. "You must not feel ashamed or anything. Most of your kin is very nice folk, may be a little centered in this 'dedication to goodness' stuff."
"Now you lost me entirely," I said in a small voice. "I know my eyes are of quite unusual color, but I was told - it is my elven ancestry."
"Nay," he said shaking his head stubbornly. " ‘Tis nothing like elven blood. Though ye may have some elven lineage too, 'tis hard to say. But 'tis golden metallic shine – you cannot mistake it with anything. Ye must have had a celestial for a grand granddaddy."
"Really, Ribald, you should stop this nonsense." Jaheira said firmly. "Though, I would say if you are right, it might be something we should be aware of. It may explain certain aspects of her nature."
"You mean that is why I was holding so strongly against my other blood?"
"Be silent, child, let's not get carried away."
That did it. Now I was called 'child' again. And I was totally helpless against her, because I owed her the price of honor and blood, which would never be repaid.
What Ribald was telling us was probably just his fancy. This supposed celestial blood was a surprise, but compared to my other troubles it was nothing. I sighed and turned to him again.
"I was wondering if I could ask you a couple of questions." I said warily.
Unfortunately, the conversation with Ribald only confirmed my worst speculations on the nature of Imoen’s arrest. All that he was able to add was his own disastrous experience in dealing with the Cowled Wizards. It turned out that his friend was arrested and detained indefinitely on the allegations of casting a minor spell without a license. He added that nobody has ever returned from that ‘detention’ and that the only way to avoid unpleasantries with the Cowled Wizards over using magic in the city was to buy a license, which was in a way a legalized bribery.
"Well, thank you sir," I gave him my best smile, though his news troubled me deeply. "I would like to browse through your merchandise now."
"Most certainly, my lady, feel free to call on me whenever you find a trinket to yer liking." He winked. I had a strange feeling that his accent was apparent only when it was convenient to him.
The shop was filled with magical items, but most of it was terribly expensive. I especially needed a new robe. After a while, I selected the ugliest second-hand mantle with some minor enchantment against the missile weapons. It was stark black, same as my new tunic, as a sign of my mourning. After our conversation with Jaheira, the sense of guilt and self-loathing had returned to haunt me with double strength.
Khalid was trustful and passionate. He was also thoughtless enough to share his true name with me, in a rush of compassionate fever, after I wet his shoulder with tears and confessed my true feelings on that fatal night. I can still see the expression on his face, filled with kindness but so remote - I could have cried out in frustration. My tears were real. I did not plan it to happen that way. But I knew - I would have never got him without the love charm. This one secret is going to die with me for I would rather give up my soul than my pride.
My curse and greatest failure is my inability to resist my own desires. The more forbidden the thing is to me – the more I crave it. Khalid was suffering immensely from his own ‘duplicity’ without understanding what was causing his spontaneous fits of passion. Nevertheless, he was unable to stop himself from coming to me every time I cast the charm. He would enter my rooms with that strange sedated look of a man walking in his dream, his deep dark eyes glazed with passion, his hands shaking. The smell of burning incense would permeate the air with flavor of cinnamon and dark magic. My body still remembers the touch of the silk sheets on my skin, the scent of his hair, the sweet taste of his breath.
When I saw his desecrated, naked body on the stone slab in that ghastly room - something happened within my very soul. Like a thin crack was opened and my living essence started to leak out, leaving behind an empty lifeless shell. I am not sure if I would ever recover. I shall hunt Irenicus down to the end of the Universe if needed, and will not stop until his evil heart would bleed in my hands. Perhaps, I don’t deserve to live after what had happened. I would rather be writhing endlessly in the wall of the Damned, being slowly dissolved by the ghostly slime, than suffer endlessly from guilt and despair. Though nobody knows where the soul of the Bhaal’s child would go after they are dead. I may not end with Lord Kelemvor after all.
Jaheira had been strangely restless during these two months and was leaving the Palace almost every day. I was mad at having to share him but my spells were unable to break them apart and I could not master enough courage to force things. Khalid had never suspected anything. After initial barriers have been broken, he became genuinely infatuated with me. I did not have to use the love charms any more. He was perfectly convinced that he loved both of us.
My other curse is being unable to stay attached to anything I cherish. It is deeply rooted fear of loosing the person I would dare to love. I knew that my flight from them had been caused by the need to escape the bonds of affection, which were becoming too intense for me to bear. If only Jaheira could have left things as they were and did not insist on following me! I would have been dead by now, but he may have lived.
I was slowly passing along the line of scroll lecterns, deep in my thoughts when a sudden loud hiss broke my concentration.
"Hell and damnation!" I swore in astonishment. "There is a live wyvern in here!"
"Don't you worry, miss," a mousy little woman, who was browsing through the potions on the table, calmed me. "This is Lucy. Ribald keeps her to protect his scrolls and magic ingredients from mice and rats. She is totally harmless."
Lucy ignored me with royal indifference, so I gathered my wits and quickly retreated to the lower level.
My companions were gathered around Ribald's counter, waiting for me to finish my shopping. Ribald was taunting one of his customers. I gathered it was his favorite sport. This time it was a jovial, red-nosed dwarf, with a strong smell of spirits about his person. The guy's name was Brelm. He spent the last hour lingering near the front desk and exchanging jibes with Ribald. Judging by their lively exchange, they were old pals. Brelm was bantering about some gigantic silver sphere that appeared in the slums out of nowhere. We made our farewells with Ribald and his guests and left the store in a somber mood.
"I think we should go to the Government district and make inquiries about Imoen." I said as we stopped to consider our course of action.
"I disagree," Jaheira interrupted me sternly. "We all need rest. We did not have much sleep for the last two days."
Indeed her eyes were red-rimmed and her face taut with exhaustion. Minsc was as solid as ever, but I realized how tired he was, by the absence of his regular cheerful remarks. I did not feel any better myself, and Yoshimo was as impenetrable as ever.
"I cannot force you to follow, Jaheira." I answered with a sigh. "But I won't be able to sleep or rest until I got some information on her whereabouts."
"We should go to the Copper Coronet," Yoshimo said suddenly. "It is a tavern in the Slums. If you need information – that is the place to start with. I do have connections within the Shadow Thieves guild. Mayhap, I will be able to pull some strings for you."
"I do appreciate your offer, my friend," I said diplomatically. "But right now I think we should go straight to the authorities and report what had happened."
"You are so naive!" Jaheira was irritated. "Did not you hear what Ribald told you?"
"I did, and I trust him. I also trust your judgment. Nevertheless, I have to try to go through the official channels first. I am almost sure it will fail, but we must give it a try."
"As you wish," she sounded resolute this time. "The shortest way to the Government district would be through the Slums anyway." She looked at Yoshimo inquiringly. He nodded. "We can at least stop at the Copper Coronet and drop our luggage."
I knew what she had in mind – once we were there, it would be twice as hard to refuse the welcome embrace of a hot bath and a clean bed and drag my sore feet through the city in search for clues. Technically, she was right – a few hours of rest would not make a big difference. But I had a strange, almost superstitious feeling of urgency.
"We will make a decision when we get there." I said finally.
The streets were getting narrower and dirtier with every turn that we took. A loose plaster hung from the crumbling walls of derelict houses; the stench of urine and rotting vegetables filled the air. We were entering the Slums indeed. But Yoshimo was sure of himself and seeing a familiar bulk of Minsc’s shoulders in front of me was reassuring. Jaheira was following at the rear, her hand on the hilt of her scimitar. This provided me with some sense of security, for being denied the use of my magic, I felt very vulnerable. This district was no worse than the tenements around the Thieves guild in Baldur's Gate, although the smell was somewhat more pronounced, but being unable to use my spells for self-defense made all the difference.
Judging by the sun, which was hovering high above our heads, it was about noontime now. We broke out of the dungeon in the busy morning hours, when the marketplace was filled with people and spent most of the morning on the Promenade. The sunrays reflected merrily of the multiple poodles of sludge and glittered on the glass of broken wine bottles. I was sweating and itching under my stark-black garments. The feeling was unusual, for normally I would have used a minor cooling spell. I sighed. It was tough to be a normal citizen. As I spotted a rather expressive image on the nearby wall worked in bright red paint, Jaheira pulled me by the sleeve and muttered her disapproval of cities. I only chuckled under my breath. Nothing here could offend my senses after Irenicus's dungeon. It was the regular dirt of human habitation.
Yoshimo halted with a sharp exclamation as a slender nondescript man stepped in front of him, then relaxed, as if in recognition. I noticed that his right hand was caressing the hilt of his katana, whilst he displayed his most reassuring smile.
"Coo! A familiar face where I least expected it." The newcomer’s sharp eyes slid off Yoshimo and turned to the rest of us. "One of you would be miz Thea, aye?"
Minsc swore and quickly moved between me and my would-be assailant, pulling his sword out of its scabbard. In the past year or so, my late brother sent a number of hired assassins after my sorry hide. Some of them took their time to find out who I was before flashing their weapons.
"Confound it!" I thought, "Information does travel fast around this place!"
"Peace," I said aloud, for Yoshimo's reaction was a good enough indication that this character was somewhat trustworthy. "Let him speak first." I turned to the man. " I am not sure we can confirm or deny this information. You understand. Can you introduce yourself before we continue this conversation?"
"Well, bless me for bein' an idiot if I haven't gone and forgotten me manners. My name be Gaelan Bayle. Tis lad here can tell ye as much!" He winked at Yoshimo.
"I've heard of him, Thea-san ... at least a little. He is a fellow with many connections in the local underworld. An 'honor among thieves' kind of guy." Yoshimo responded with the same kind of mild amusement in his voice.
"Now that 'tis settled, can we go back to business, missy? I got it yer is the one I be lookin for?" Gaelan was grinning at me pleasantly.
"Supposing it is so. What is it that you want?" I answered wearily.
"Coo! 'Tis not what I want, but what I can be doing for ye. You might be wantin information about a young lass arrested by the wizards on your arrival here, aye?"
"You have the information about Imoen?"
"If that be her name yes, I do." He smirked again. "But I cannot be standin here discussin it with ye. Them walls have too many ears. If you need this information I be takin ye to my place. It's not far from here. Yoshimo lad will vouch for yer safety under my roof."
After a short conversation, we agreed to follow the jovial gangster to his residence. The house did not match its master's humorous nature. I doubted he actually lived there. More likely, it was one of the many hideouts he used in the city. It was a grim two-stored affair with no windows on the first floor and thick iron bars covering narrow apertures far above our heads. It looked more like a fortified tower than a house. I cringed at the thought of this being another trap – we will have a hard time getting out.
I was pleasantly surprised with the interior. Like most of the houses in Amn this one had a mosaic floor. Surprisingly, the furniture and the wall decorations matched the blue and rose-colored patterns of the mosaic. Whoever owned the place did not try to save on the lamp oil either, for there were plenty of brightly lit lanterns everywhere.
Our host smiled hospitably at us and indicated that we should take our seats. Yoshimo positioned himself in front of me, so that I could see his face while Gaelan could not. A little boy of about ten years old brought the tray with chilled wine, silver cups, and cold water in a fogged crystal pitcher. One look at it made me remember how hot I was. Gaelan nodded and the boy filled his cup with wine then added water to the drink and handed it to his master. The thief sipped from it and looked at us expectantly. Yoshimo inclined his chin slightly.
"Just water for me, sir," I said politely.
It was obvious that he expected us to follow certain etiquette in our dealings with him.
"I will have some wine," Yoshimo tilted his head agreeably.
"Boo says, 'tis no need to spoil a good cup with no water, yes?" Our ranger waved the boy with the pitcher away from his glass of wine. Jaheira politely accepted hers and nodded to add more water.
"Now that ye all cooled down a bit let me get to the point," our host waved the boy out of the room. "There be a powerful group in this city who would be willing to help ye to find both young woman and the wizard who kept ye prisoners."
I only lifted my eyebrow at this. By that time I had a very good idea of what that 'very powerful group' may be. The Shadow Thieves attacked Irenicus’s compound with the desperation of the damned. The blue-eyed assassin who had murdered Khalid was a member of the Shadow Thieves too. Therefore, they were the ones responsible for our abduction. However, there were secrets hidden inside secrets. Something must have happened between our kidnapping and their first attack. I still had no idea of the nature of their disagreement with Irenicus. I looked intently at our host. I knew that my gaze usually made people feel uneasy and used it deliberately on many occasions.
He shifted on his seat and laughed shortly. Yoshimo’s lips quirked.
"So are ye be interested in gettin help from me friends? Mind it, they be powerful enough to challenge Cowled Wizards. Not only they will find yer friend and the wizard, they will help ye get to them."
I looked at Yoshimo, but he was wearing his blank poker face again.
"And what would they want in return?" I asked mildly.
"Oh, a mere twenty thousand gold pieces. It may seem to be costly, but think of the danger in crossin' the Cowled Ones!"
I only nodded at this. So, it was that simple. A mere greed. Well, what would you expect from gangsters? Perhaps, their disagreement with Irenicus was over money as well. The thing was, we were poor as church mice at the moment. Funny enough money could never stay long enough in my pockets to make any visible impact on my lifestyle. Thousands have passed through my hands and into the greedy paws of various merchants and traders. Where was that splendor that surrounded us in the Baldur’s Gate Ducal palace?
Speaking of which, where was all the money? All spent on books, rare scrolls, and magical equipment. The rest was turned into letters of credit to varios Realms' banks. These were gone by the time I regained consciousness. I doubted there was anything left now on these accounts. Jaheira's finances were her own business but she assured me she was in much the same state as I. Minsc never owned anything more than his weapons and his hamster. At least I was not aware of his financial affairs. I suspected that he managed to send most of his share home, by some unknown means, though he never told us much about his family.
"I don't have that much money right now," I said carefully. "Perhaps you know of some employment opportunities in the city? I am a mm ... scholar, and my friends are accomplished fighters. We can hire ourselves as mercenaries, perhaps."
Gaelan was his cheerful self again. "I gather we have a deal then! I can wait ‘till yer come with the cash! Brus 'll be waiting for ye outside. He's me nephew, an' he'll show you to the Copper Coronet tavern if ye like. 'Tis a nice place to start looking for a job! There was also some fellow named Madeen at the Council Hall looking for people and such. Don't know much about him, but there were rumors that he worked with the Cowled Wizards. You may want to check fer yeself though."
I nodded. Our deal was sealed and there was not much left to discuss now. He would not give us any more information without the payment. So, we had to get him the money. I glanced at Yoshimo; amazingly, he was sulking.
"By the way," Gaelan added when we rose to leave. "If you need to sell or trade yer loot and such, there is a fellow upstairs named Arledrian. He'll give ye a good price and won't ask any questions."
Jaheira jerked at this, but held her tongue. Minsc laughed soundly. We checked upstairs before leaving. All sort of merchandise was piled there on the floor without any order. I made a fair guess that these were the stolen goods. The only item that caught my eye was a pair of spectacles displayed in a silk-lined box on a small table. The thief in charge assured me that these were glasses of identification. That magical instrument allowed its user to see beyond the surface of the things and detect the most rare enchantments placed on the items.
Being a Conjuror I denied myself the spells from the school of Divination. When I tried to cast one of these, it left me with a throbbing headache for days. Gorion tried to explain it to me once. It all centered on the delicate balance of powers and the fact that spells from different schools of magic required different mental states to be achieved before casting. He said I could break my mental block only if I start doing proper psychic exercises for the Divination school, but that in turn would limit my Conjuration abilities. After thinking it over, I decided to stick with what I did best and gave up on the weak Divination school entirely. That was extremely inconvenient when a magical object needed to be identified, for I could never do that job. Imoen's recently acquired proficiency in Divination and Illusion spells helped a lot. I sighed and put the box back on the table. We needed all the money we could save to get Imoen back.
When we walked out into the street the little boy was waiting for us.
"My uncle told me to take ye to the Copper Coronet," he said. "Or would ye rather go to the Government district to check about that job?"
I lifted my chin stubbornly. "We shall go to the Government district." Nobody objected, though Jaheira gave me a vexed look.
* * * * *
A steady beat of migraine pulsed in my ears. My head was swimming from sheer exasperation and my body was covered with cold sweat. My patience was at its limit. I sarcastically thanked Mystra for my total inability to cast any spells at the moment for I would have burned the place down if I could!
Over the last two hours, I had spoken with a dozen different people, including two obvious members of the Cowled Wizards. They all have been maddeningly stubborn in their refusal to supply me with any information about Imoen. Bylanna Lanulin, the City Magistrate looked like a nice and understanding woman at first but when it came to discussing the affairs of the Cowled Wizards she clammed up like an oyster.
Every wretched clerk was puffing his cheeks at me with an expression of extreme superiority, which only the clerks can master properly. The higher officials, who were mostly representatives of the local 'upper classes', were even worse! I was used to corruption and dumb self-confidence of the Baldur's Gate bureaucracy but their Amnish counterparts were advanced much further in their utter degradation. By the end of the second hour it struck me that the only way to break this wall of silence would be an extensive application of cash. For that matter, it was easier to deal with the straightforward criminals than with this crooked scum, and paying off the Shadow Thieves did not sound like a bad idea anymore.
At least I found the price of a magic license. I had to put together five thousands gold to be allowed spellcasting inside the city walls. It looked like an outright necessity now but my pockets were empty. I sighed and returned to the wizard named Tolgerias. He was the one who needed assistance of some kind but refused to name his task before I commit myself to it. He had also denied me any information about Imoen's whereabouts.
"All right I will do this job for you if you give me any clue about my friend's case," I said. "I will not question your motives or require any assurances, just tell me if she is alive and what can I do to help her!"
He looked at me with somewhat tired expression. "All I can promise is that I will look into this matter for you. However I can guarantee nothing. If this means we shall not work together, so be it."
"I guess it's the best I can get from you," I nodded. "Now what was that job you wanted done?"
Tolgerias glanced at me apprehensively, and suddenly decided I was worthy of his time after all. The case itself was interesting, although twisted beyond any rational belief. Tolgerias wanted us to hunt down and capture a criminal - a maniac obsessed with hatred of magic. The guy was supposedly the last heir of a noble house, once rich and powerful but now decimated and impoverished by several generations of bad luck. This character, named Valygar Corthala, was a ranger by profession and luckily for the wizards of Athkatla was rarely seen within the city walls. On his last visit he went on rampage and killed two of the Cowled Wizards. Being the only officially recognized organization of spellcasters in Athkatla, the Cowled Ones took it personally and vowed revenge.
The unusual twist about our task was the fact that Tolgerias wanted his man dead or alive to be delivered into his hands. He would not be happy with anything less then a body brought into his presense. The idea of carrying around a mummified corpse did not sound a bit facsinating. In fact it was rather morbid. But whatever his motives were I was now trapped with my agreement to work for him. Crossing the Cowled Wizards did not sound like an option with Imoen in their hands! Tolgerias provided us with directions to Corthala's house in the Docks district, and mentioned that Valygar had some friends among the rangers in the Umar Hills. That was a long trip from the city. I decided this journey could wait until we got some proof of his whereabouts.
Looking back at the event I can say that it was a mutual understanding. I needed a motive to escape the city and hide from my guilt, and my inability to face Irenicus on my own. Earning the promised gold sounded good enough reason, and promised hope in some distant future.
We stopped at a nice green plaza in front of the pompous statue to some local
bureaucrat. It was much cooler outside now for the sun was swimming in the long,
feather-like clouds and a light breeze brought fresh, moist air from the sea.
Athkalta was a coastal city and a big trade center. Judging by the length of
the shadow it was between third and forth hour afternoon time.
"Umm... excuse me, sir. Y-y-you... you look like a warrior. Could you help me?"
This timid voice belonged to a boy of about twelve, thin as a straw and sunburned like a toast. The child looked totally out of place on this meticulously clean plaza with its cut green lawn and the water pouring merrily from the marble bowl of the fountain. His originally blue shirt was patched many times over and it looked like he was sleeping on the streets for the last week or so. However, there was something in his appearance, which made me wonder if he really was a street kid. Somehow, he managed to look innocent and unsoiled even in these rags.
"What is it, little one?" Minsc asked eagerly. Boo peered out of his pocket curiously. "Why would you need a warrior? Boo and Minsc are the greatest warriors of the Realms!" He looked at Jaheira's scowl and continued with less bravado. "Ahem, almost. How can we help?"
The story that the boy has told us was a strange one. It was accompanied by a storm of exclamations from Minsc and many compassionate looks from Jaheira. The child, whose name was Delon, was an orphan and a sheepherder from the small village called Imnesvale in the Umar Hills. There had been a rush of strange disappearances of both sheep and people in the area. Minister Lloyd, the village mayor supplied him with money and letters to the authorities and sent him to Athkatla with the caravan of traveling merchants. Mayor supposedly had relatives in the city and the merchants promised to direct the boy to their house. He got lost on his way there, got all his money stolen and spent the last few days sleeping in front of the City Magistrate, hiding from the guards and trying to sneak inside past the clerks at the entrance. He was not very successful and was trashed and thrown out many times before he spotted Minsc with his great sword strapped to his back.
The best we could do was to supply the boy with money and take him to the magistrate with us. Bylanna was not very helpful. She could not spare any guardsmen to be sent to Imnesvale. However she promised to keep the boy under her wing until the arrangements could be made to send him home with another caravan.
I was wondering if the Imnesvale trouble had anything to do with the case of Valygar Corthala. What if the renegade ranger lost his wits altogether and was now stalking the Umar Hills? Somehow, it did not ring right.
"We shall help the boy and his village ourselves!" Minsc proclaimed zealously when it became clear that there would be no help from the authorities. The kid was looking at him admiringly with his blue eyes, big as saucers. Minsc was always kind to children. Boo cleared his whiskers and peered at me accusingly from his shoulder.
"Perhaps when the situation will settle down a bit," I answered cautiously. "We can't make any commitment, you understand. And we already have an agreement with the Cowled Wizards."
All said and done we were ready to return to the Slums. But that endless day was not over yet, for a new trouble awaited us around the corner.
This time the trouble came in a neat package of about three and a half feet tall, dressed rather splendidly in a magenta robe, slightly shabby around the edges, and adorned with many a fascinating gadget. Simply speaking, it was a gnomish peddler hanging right in the middle of the street walk with a bag o'goodies in his hot little hands. Though, Jan would fry me alive or rather talk me to death if he will hear that his magnificent self has been referred to as a 'peddler'. He is a 'salesman' for Oghma's sake! Or better, a freelance-inventor-turned-businessman.
Ah, had I known what we were getting into, I would have run for my life, cause there is no shame in admitting one’s defeat facing the forces of nature! Jan Jansen was a tiny hurricane of epic tales and anecdotes stored in a body of the middle-aged gnomish wizard and inventor turned rogue, and his sense of humor defied seasons and weather conditions. He was bald as a turtle and his beard had more silver than black in it even then, but he had the energy of a ten-year-old and about as much respect for other people's deficiencies.
We were in the middle of a rather fascinating demonstration of his latest invention and hottest product – a kind of a magical bomb he called with his usual flourish a Flasher Master Bruiser Mate, when a tax collector pranced on us like a fox on a flock of geese. That guy's name is blazing in my memory with huge letters of fire, because he was responsible for saddling us with Jan.
Trax (that was that reptile's name!) accused Jan of illegal trade and tax evasion and tried to get the evidence from us. Well, the best way to make me stop talking is to try to get anything out of me by force. I have to admit, I do have my weaknesses, but being easily intimidated is not one of them. When the sullen tax collector slithered away, followed by his guard, Jan was left with an ultimatum to stop his illegal activities permanently or get a long jail term next time he is caught with the customer.
"Now I am once again been thrown out of the black market economy," Jan sighed profusely. "I have to collect a lump sum in gold to buy Trax's superior. But a finger of fate is pointing me in a different direction! Do you need another member in your party? You look like an industrious bunch to me."
We looked at one another. Minsc was grinning. Even Jaheira's hard-set face softened a little. Yoshimo laughed shortly and glanced at me inquiringly.
"Hmm," I said pretending to hesitate. "And what skills can you offer to my party, good gnome?"
"I can use a crossbow quite efficiently, mind it, and these babies," he petted the bag with Bruiser Mates, " will stop your average foe in his tracks better then a turnip stew left on the window on a chilly morning will stop a fly from getting out. Uncle Scratchy used to say it is much better than the sticky paper they bring from Calimshan, but what can you expect from the Calimshani products anyway? I can also cast a spell or two to get you out of a 'sticky' situation of your own." He looked at my pained expression and smirked mischievously.
"Enough!" I threw my hands up surrendering to this energetic onslaught of syllables. "You can join us, but be aware, we are up against very dangerous foes. A friend of mine was kidnapped and is now imprisoned by the Cowled Wizards."
He paled just a little, but to do him honor, did not hesitate even for a second. We left the Government district with Jan Jansen in tow, listening to the fascinating tale of the entire order of the Cowled Wizards been tricked into buying a spoiled shipment of salamander dust by some distant relative of his.
* * * * *
FIRST Excerpt from ANOMEN's LETTERS TO MOIRA.
My dearest sister!
I promised you to write about every little thing that happens to me, so we can share all my adventures and mishaps and have a little laugh together when I come home to visit. Well, I am keeping my promise, as I always do, and you have to bear with my babbling at least for now. I wish I could visit you more often, but you are aware of our agreement with Father – he does not want to see me around more than once a month. I hope you like these little tales of mine, though I cannot compete with the books we have been enjoying together. Remember how I used to hide in your room to read about the adventures of Sir Galeod 10 because Father would never let me read romances? Well, no time for this nonsense now. The life of a soldier is not exactly the fairy tale and if I want to advance to Knighthood all my time should be dedicated to the endless fight against Evil and endorsement of all that is Good and Noble.
Now, back to my promised adventure. Yesterday the most unexpected thing had come to pass in a place most unusual and now you, my dear, will have a detailed account of the events as they happened.
As you recall from my previous letter, which I hope was delivered directly into your hands, Sir Ryan Trawl, my mentor and Spiritual Father at the Order of Most Radiant Heart has summoned me to his quarters to bestow upon me my next task on my path to Righteousness. That was quite unusual assignment for he asked me to investigate persistent rumors concerning a resurgence of the slave trade in the city.
I have no desire to go into the gruesome details of my task here for these are not for the maiden's ears, speaking figuratively. Sufficient to say, that one tavern in the Slums was a suspect place. Sir Rayan actually mentioned that a young man of my age might be somewhat familiar with such locales. What gave him such an idea I cannot even start to comprehend, for the place he sent me to was truly a den of evil! He had also said that I should do my best not to stand out in the crowd.
As I entered, all my senses were assaulted at once, for the noise, the smell, and the look of the place is indescribable! I tried to ask questions about the slave trade connections, but all I got was a couple of tasteless and indecent jokes from the local maids and numerous suggestions to mind my own business from the local ruffians. Nobody dared to challenge me openly, for all that scum would never dare to assault the Acolyte of the Order, and I was instructed to investigate rather than to start an open riot. I was ready to leave, disappointing though it was, without being able to fulfill Sir Ryan's request. Suddenly the chitchat and drunken carousing of the deprived mob was interrupted, as the most unusual group of travelers has entered the place...
* * * * *
We reached the Copper Coronet tavern at dusk. The shabby houses of that decaying neighborhood looked odd in the golden rays of the setting sun with long shadows creeping silently forward and making everything look like an old lithograph. I remembered that one rather vividly, for it decorated one of the reading rooms in the Candlekeep library – the eternal struggle between light and shadow with little demon-things hiding in the corners.
Jan had insisted that he would stay with us tonight, though his house was practically next-door.
"To get to know each other better." He chuckled.
The first thing I noticed about the Coronet was how busy it was. The public inside was quite merry and amazingly egalitarian. The nobles mixed happily with the vagrants and fortune-hunters of various sorts. I normally prefer to keep a low profile. I really don't like crowds. Especially drunken ones. So, I wrapped my scratchy black robe around me and pulled the hood down to shade my eyes.
"Do you think somebody here might recognize you?" Yoshimo asked softly. "I thought you have never been in Athkalta."
"I have not." I answered with some mild irritation. "I just don't like the way these men are ogling me."
"I never thought you were … shy." He smiled.
"Me neither." I blushed and shook the hood off. My hair spilled out as the pins that were holding it rained on the floor. I cursed. Somebody behind my back laughed roughly but went quiet after one look from Yoshi.
"That is much better," he smiled at me approvingly.
"Are you quite done displaying your charms?" Jaheira snapped angrily. "Trust me, this is not the place for it!"
"Boo does not like it here," Minsc said suddenly. "His nose can pick up a bad apple from ten feet away and he says - this fruit is rotten."
"As my aunt Peggy used to say, one rotten turnip could spoil a full basket! She was the one who married a halfling though. Never followed her own good advice, poor thing. We used to call her Peggy because she would always peg along after some chap of questionable character." Jan looked at me and swallowed the rest of his tale.
The common room in the Coronet was large and functional. The huge grille that occupied the pit in the center was abundant with sizzling red meat. It was separated from the rest of the room with a low railing. A number of rickety wooden tables and chairs filled the rest of the space. Most of them were occupied. We were all tired and hungry, and anxious to crawl into bed and sleep for about a decade or so. Yeah right. Like anything in this world ever happens the way I want it.
A red-haired girl dressed in a nondescript practical outfit but wearing rather expensive looking shoes was the first disaster that rushed at me on that memorable evening. Her name was Nalia d'Arnise. The lady in question was on the verge of hysteria and was blaming all around her, us included, for refusing to help in her dire situation. Luckily for Nalia, a muscular fellow with a cudgel was discreetly following her at a distance. The Copper Coronet was hardly a place to seek compassionate souls, as we discovered soon. I was wondering later, if she ever learned how much her Papa was paying that hired bodyguard to protect his vigorous child from being hurt in her 'expeditions'.
Nalia was the only child of a rich and noble family prone to sneak away in the middle of the night and go 'slumming'. It turned out that while she was away on one of her adventures, helping poor oppressed masses, their castle was besieged. Now she was trying to hire a group of mercenaries to sneak inside and rescue her father. She was offering money and we needed this gold desperately to pay for the information about Imoen. But I was not sure if we could handle that situation, and we already had a commitment. So I told her - we shall speak later.
I just finished my negotiations with Miss Nalia when a man's voice, accented with that unmistakable petulant tone of Amnish upper classes addressed me from behind. I groaned and turned around fuming with irritation. I have had enough of Amnish nobility for one day!
The voice belonged to a young man of about my age. Nothing remarkable - pretty face not marked with much intellect, dark hair, blue eyes, rather dashing beard and mustache (I hate facial hair on men!). Built like a statue of Lathander11 but with an expression of incessant constipation on his tormented brow. That was my first vision of Anomen Delryn and sometimes I wish that it had also been my last one!
"Fair lady, what brings you to this cesspool of corruption?" He repeated his question with the most benevolent bow of his head.
"Frankly speaking," I said with as much noble grace, "This is none of your business, kiddo."
This shook him a little but he was still in his 'benevolent' mode.
"In truth it is. I am honor-bound to protect all persons from corruption and evil. This place contains both. Be you an adventurer who cometh seeking others of like mind?"
This required something more than simple sarcasm.
"Indeed, I am. And who might you be?" I uttered meekly as a lamb.
"Chance smiles upon you, for I am an adventurer of some worth. I am Anomen Delryn, warrior priest of Helm. What is your name?"
"I wonder if this is your favorite pick-up line," I said with glee. "Does it ever work? And were did you get this idiotic accent from? Reading too much romance novels?"
That finally got him, for his coloring changed from pleasant pink to bright strawberry.
"I shall ... let it pass." But the noble warrior's voice shook with fury now and his eyes were throwing lightning bolts at me to my continuous delight. "Tell me true, be you a force of good or evil?" He finished suddenly.
That threw me off balance and I answered somewhat more seriously than I intended.
"There is no true good or true evil. The universe is a balance of all things."
"Bah! The excuse of the damned! Begone from my sight and enter not back into it until your heart be prepared to honor purity and the triumph of what is good." He said with some visible relief in his voice. "I should not have wasted my time on the likes of you!"
"Indeed you should not," I nodded merrily to him and walked away to join my party, all of whom were busily pretending not to listen to this exchange, and now were bursting from an effort not to laugh openly. Jaheira alone was strangely silent and looked back at the young man with an expression of a trader buying a horse.
"You should not have rebuffed him so completely," she said after we settled at the table in the corner and started our long overdue meal. "He might have been useful addition to the party."
"I asked around," she continued solemnly. "There is only one other fighter type here looking for companions. A dwarf named Korgan. I heard he is … unstable." She gave Minsc a quick glance. "I think we may be better off with this young Anomen fellow. And don't give me these looks! You may benefit from the company of someone of your own age." She made emphasis on this and looked at me intensely.
My heart sunk.
"Here we go." I thought. "She is going to punish me again. Well, if she really wants this pompous ass in the party, she can go and ask him herself!"
"Yeah, right." I said aloud. "Following this logic we may as well invite that other guy at the bar who had offered me his services. The one to whom you promised to fry some interesting parts of his anatomy!"
"Speaking of woman’s logic, did I ever tell you a story about my niece Violet, who did not want to marry a turnip farmer?" Jan started tentatively.
Two hours later, I could not even do that. The events that have followed passed in a blur. Sometime during our meal, Minsc disappeared unobtrusively only to show up half an hour later shaking with rage. He has talked with the tavern’s owner and got his permission to check on the special ‘services’ offered to the preferred customers. Consequently he discovered some rather interesting facts.
The ‘entertainment’ that the Coronet was offering included more than questionable food and spirits. The rooms upstairs hosted a fine brothel featuring both male and female prostitutes, which by itself was not that uncommon. The unusual twist was the fact that most of the ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ were slaves hold there against their free will. However, Minsc did not stop at this discovery and went further into the premises. What he found there enraged him almost to the point of having one of his berserk’s fits. He was able to control himself long enough to return to our table. Then he dragged us with him to the back quarters of the Coronet.
They featured gladiator fights down there or better say, public executions. The half-starved slaves were forced to fight against wild beasts and hungry trolls in the pit, while ‘noble’ visitors would observe this atrocity from the safe distance. We ended up going over the rail and into the pit after Minsc, when he finally lost it and jumped right between the troll and its victim. Then we had to fight our way into the back rooms, where they kept their human ‘fodder’. It was total insanity after the day of endless travels through the city and the night spent in the Irenicus’s dungeon. I have no idea how we survived this.
Having a druid and a ranger in the party has its advantages when dealing with wild animals. I have to say watching the beast master being torn to pieces by his own pet panther was not a pretty sight. But it was quite acceptable, after I have seen a small child in one of these cages. When we freed all the slaves from their cells, the fight spread into the corridors beyond the arena and finally spilt into the common room. Most of the customers were fleeing the onslaught and I noticed with grim satisfaction that the proprietor of the ‘illustrious’ establishment was fighting for his life with his best gladiator, surrounded by the circle of vengeful former slaves.
"You have lied to me!" A voice filled with excitement shouted in my ear. I flinched. "You are fighting to support good and noble ends!" My would-be protector was in the middle of the fray, wielding his mace with what, I reluctantly had to admit, was a decent skill. He turned and beamed a smile at me enthusiastically.
"Yes, yes." I mumbled, ducking from the arrow sent by one of the Coronet guards. "Whatever. If I’d be you, my lord Delryn, I would look behind me!"
At that very moment, another guard landed a blow of his club at the young idiot’s head. I am afraid the word that I used is not appropriate even in this private journal. I grabbed for the wand I was carrying at my belt. A bolt of frost stopped the attacker permanently but young Delryn has already sagged to the floor like a sack of grain. I had broken my nail in the process of pulling the wand and now looked at my chafed and scarred hand in disdain.
"Now that he was injured fighting on our side, we have an obligation. I strongly recommend that you allow him to join us," Jaheira reiterated calmly.
All I could do was gape, like a fish pulled out of the water.
SECOND Excerpt from ANOMEN's LETTERS TO MOIRA.
Our first heroic deed was liberation of the slaves in that dreadful Pit of Corruption. I was fighting valiantly at the lady’s side until the last slaver in the tavern met his well-deserved end. Then I bowed elegantly and offered her my weapon to bless it with the touch of that delicate hand.
"My lord Delryn," she offered gracefully, "I accept thy service. You may travel with us and protect me from Evil that surely awaits us around every corner on our noble quest! My near sister was taken from me by the group of evil wizards and I desperately need a hero of thy worth."
Crystal tears sparkled on her long dark lashes and these mysterious eyes of liquid gold shone with excitement and admiration, as she looked at me in the most charming fashion.
You know sunshine, how Mother always insisted that you should be sheltered from everything that is not appropriate for the young lady of your status. Sometimes I wonder if she was wrong after all. Some practical skills and knowledge of real life could be useful for a woman. Don’t take me wrong; I am not talking about attending a public school or university. This is absolutely out of question, and I have to agree with Father on this matter. But perhaps, a private pension would be a good idea.
Now I am traveling with a group of trusted companions!
I am floating in the endless star-studded darkness. Kaleidoscopic, brittle lights glittering in the velvet sky surround me. How beautiful. You can almost touch them with your hand. Oh better start picking them one by one and pleating them into garlands. First the blue one, then the white, now the red one … Oh no, not the red one. Now it is growing, it is coming closer and closer threatening to envelop me in its crimson glow. Its pale red rays form a crown, which is mine to wear. Who is whispering these sweet, seductive words into my ear? Offering power and freedom - all for the price of blood.
Imoen? Why is she here? She is floating in front of me, beckoning me to follow. Slowly, deliberately we descend. I hate to leave my beautiful star garden behind. I do not wish to enter these gates again. The sanctity of this place was violated; its protective powers stripped away by the horde of lying shapeshifting thieves. Why do you bring me here, Imoen? She is talking to me, but I cannot hear her. It is hopeless. What does she want?
Father? Oh, no, he is dead. All of them are dead. That other one, in the red robe. What does he want from me? Lies, it is all lies. Sweet and soothing, syrupy tales of a happy childhood and a peaceful life under the blue cloudless sky. The sky is drenched in blood. It is raining blood, my father’s blood. Everything is soaked with it. The flood of crimson fills my dream. It is steaming. The red fog is saturated with power; it is humming with it. I am floating in it now. The power permeates through my skin, fills my every pore.
"It is yours to command," comes the tantalizing whisper. "The choice is yours - you can have it all, or nothing. And you are not the only one who would pay for your choices."
I gasp and wake up. The sky outside my window is still dark. I am drenched with perspiration. "It is just a nightmare," I say to myself. Just a simple nightmare. But why are my palms sweating blood?
* * * * *
The first thing I saw next morning was Jaheira’s stern face. She woke me up quite unceremoniously and was right to do so, for the sun was standing high in the Athkalta bright blue sky and the noise from the streets below indicated it was well past the early morning. Indeed it was late, and there was almost nothing left in the Coronet’s kitchen, so I had to raid the pantry and satisfy myself with the stale bread, milk, and some late apples, which was a meal from heaven by my recent standards. Jaheira sat there watching me eat, but all the others had already left, being dispatched by her on various errands.
"We have to talk," she said solemnly after I gulped down the rest of my milk and looked at her expectantly.
"Remember Nalia d’Arnise, the girl who asked for help yesterday?"
I nodded in confirmation and bit into an apple.
"Well, she was still here this morning, nearly in tears. She could not find anybody. And by the way, that bodyguard of hers left, because he realized that with lord d’Arnise trapped inside his own castle nobody is going to pay his bills. I promised her - we will help." She looked at me as if challenging me to voice my objections.
I shrugged. "Do you think I would not like to do just this? It is a matter of time though. We need to find this elusive Corthala character, if we want to establish some sort of truce with the Cowlies."
"D’Arnise castle happens to be one day march away, and it lays to the East from Athkatla, same as the Umar Hills."
"Do you think we will need to follow Valygar that far? I somehow hoped we will be able to locate him in the city."
"After that conversation with the little boy from Imnesvale I am pretty sure - Corthala had fled the city and is now wrecking chaos in the countryside."
"You are probably right," I sighed. "But we need to check his house in the Docks just to make sure."
"Yoshimo is looking into this," she said quickly. "He offered his services and I agreed. It will be much easier for him to do it without causing any trouble. I gave him some gold to bribe the servants."
"Excellent idea!" I nodded. "That was a smart move, Jaheira. And it will keep Yoshimo occupied."
"I thought you like him."
"He is about as reliable as a used carriage salesmen." I grinned. "I think his relationship with the Shadow Thieves is somewhat closer than he wants to admit. But I cannot say I dislike him." I glanced at her briefly but she stayed calm. "Now there is an issue of the Hendak’s request to root out slavers. I hope that we will be able to chew this piece we are trying to bite off." I finished my apple melancholically and disposed of the core.
Jaheira laughed sharply. "Very amusing indeed. Well, everybody should be back here by noon, including Yoshimo. If your omniness would not have slept like a log through the entire morning, you could have attended our meeting with Hendak. We discussed some of the details of this expedition. He insisted - we should go through the sewers. He wanted to go with us - but in his present condition, even after my healing, he is just too weak. That final fight with his former owner had cost him two fingers on the right hand. Good for him he is taking over the Coronet, for his fighting days are over."
I recalled the barbarian slave leader and his fierce fight with the grisly tavern owner Lehtinan. After he finished the fiend, Hendrak has pleaded to us to free the children from the slaver’s compound in the Slums. I did not realize how badly was he hurt in that battle.
"After spending three weeks of my life caged like an animal..." Jaheira cringed at this but did not interrupt. "Oh, well, I do not approve of caging animals it is just a figure of speech. I wanted to say - you can save yourself the trouble of convincing me to help these children. I overslept today because I went through every offensive spell in my books last night. I have quite a nasty collection of cantrips ready." I smirked at her. " Hope this makes you happy."
Her eyes shone and for the first time since we escaped Irenicus’s prison she smiled at me brightly, the way I remembered it from our better days.
"This young noble of yours," I continued carefully, "What was his name? Oh yes, Delryn, do you think he is going to be all right?"
This time she burst out laughing. "The young fellow’s name is Anomen and I think he was quite taken with you, though let's wait until he finds out who you truly are." She frowned. "These Helmites are harsh and suspicious bunch. First thing this morning he went to petition his superiors at the Order of Most Radiant Hearts and got their permission to travel with us. He said they were happy enough to let him. I wonder if the Order is aware of your divine origin."
"Hmm, Most Radiant Hearts indeed," I muttered in distress. "All we need right now is an attention of this most enthusiastic Clerical Order of ‘good’ alignment. Athkalta was a center of Bhaal’s worship at one time if you remember. Our ‘friends’ - the Shadow thieves were the most devoted acolytes of Papa’s."
"I hate it when you joke about it!" Jaheira flinched.
"What would you want me do instead?" I raised an eyebrow cynically, "beat my head over the wall, and ‘repent’?"
She only sighed and continued with less enthusiasm. "It sounds like the whole city is filled with rumors of the Bhaalspawn; some even link you with the destruction of the Promenade. Fortunately, nobody has a name or clear description. The Order may have wanted to keep an eye on your activities. Anomen is rather… zealous in his quest for Knighthood."
"Great," I thought grimly, "now we have two potential spies in the group - one for the Shadow thieves, and one for the Order."
"He is waiting for us in the Common room. Please, Thea, try to be tolerant. Sometimes you can be so... childish." Jaheira finished tentatively.
"I cannot tolerate absurdity in any of its forms," I grumbled. "But I promise you - I will do my best. I just hope he will stop calling me ‘fair lady’ or my sense of humor would take the best of me."
We entered the Common room and found our new companion all geared up and ready to go. His eyes shone with excitement but there was a new gleam in them - an unmistakable curiosity of a man looking at a dangerous specimen of a poisonous snake under his booted foot.
THIRD EXCERPT FROM Anomen’s LETTERS TO MOIRA.
My dearest Moira!
I have to confess I had never been so thrilled in my life. Sir Ryan charged me with the most serious task. I am not permitted to go into the details but sufficient enough to say that this is going to be the most important part of my quest for Knighthood. The mysterious lady with whom I met in the tavern is a person of a Major Importance. There are groups in this city that would be interested in kidnapping and using her for their less then honorable ends. My duty is to travel with her and her group of companions and make sure that no harm comes to them while they are under the watchful eye of the Order. It is going to be an Adventure worth of Sir Galeod and his Illustrious Companions! I have only been with them for a few days but already I have enough stories to fill a book or two. Now let me start with the first tale of my Great Adventure. I promise - you will not be disappointed!
THE TALE OF THE SWORD IN THE SEWERS
If you do not recall it from my previous letter, there are six of us. Let me list to you my new companions in an order that I met them, so that you will have a better idea of their personalities. First is enigmatic and hot-tempered lady Thea who is a wizard as I recently discovered - an explosive combination. Second is brave lady Jaheira - a druid and a healer. Third is Minsc - a ranger with a few loose screws in his head. Forth would be Yoshimo - a strange and untrustworthy character but a skilled rogue. Finally the fifth is an annoying, arrogant gnome named Jan, who cannot stop talking about himself and his bothersome relatives. I have to say I myself like to tell a story or two about my own adventures, but this gnome is worse than a Calimshan Itch!
We entered the Bowels of Athkatla through the secret door in the Coronet to follow the trail of the wicked group of slavers who made frequent deliveries of their ‘living merchandise’ to the tavern through the sewer network. The former gladiator and slave leader Hendak assured us that there was a hidden entrance inside the sewers leading into the slavers compound - a dry-docked boat on the East Side of the Slums. We obtained a map of the city and lady Thea together with that vexing gnome traced the path from the tavern and into the slavers lair. It looked like a relatively short trip but what a thrilling adventure it proved to be!
The dark oily water covered most of the floor in that dreadful place and the most terrible monstrosities slithered on its surface. My blood quickens at the very memory of that! The thrill of adventure! The vigor of being fully alive! I am only myself in the moments like this. I jumped intrepidly in front of the monster that lady Jaheira named ‘jelly,’ though it was nothing like your favorite dessert, my dear, for it was brown smelly lump of ooze the size of the horse. It tried to envelop me into its disgusting embrace and spat out poisonous clumps of its own body as my mace hit it with the juicy thuds. The others joined in and soon the creature dissolved into slime. We dispatched of three of these ugly things before the area was clear.
Suddenly, strange noises under the sewer grill drew my attention. I leaned over the grate and glimpsed a movement under the rusty iron. Carefully I lowered my hand under the grid to investigate. Imagine my disgust when a horrible undead claw gripped at my wrist and started to pull me down the drain! I fell on the floor desperately struggling to get rid of the cursed thing. Minsc yelled in fear for my life and grabbed my legs to keep me from sliding further down. Finally, they pulled me out with the withered and mummified hand hanging on my wrist. It was trashing and clawing at me still though, judging by the appearance of the stump, it was separated from its owner long time ago. A good blow of my mace finished the thing. I wanted to throw it back into the sewer but lady Thea insisted on keeping it for further investigation. She was actually somewhat amused by the whole affair. Strange insensitivity in a woman! Sometimes she has the most peculiar ideas, but a woman’s logic is not something I want to dwell on. The awful gnome bubbled with a stupid tale of his distant relative poking his nose into the dragon’s maw to count its teeth. I am not really sure what did he mean by this but I guessed it was an attempt to ridicule my behavior. Well, it was rather childish of me to poke under that grate, but without it we would have never found the hand.
Further down the corridor we fought valiantly with the horde of goblins and disposed of them. The sight that awaited us around the corner was the saddest picture you can possibly imagine - a pair of skeletons entwined in each other's arms suspended from the cruel rusty chain. The smaller of the two had an engagement ring on its finger bone. I would have kept it for you - but later events proved its utter importance. Who were these sad lovers? How did they end there? This mystery is forever hidden by the mists of time.
I can go forever describing our wonders through the strange maze and numerous encounters with the enemies. The sewers are crawling with eerie, deadly life and I will never look at the small iron grates on the street with the same eyes again. We found a man who lived down there for ten years feeding on rats and mildew, in a company of a giant carrion crawler. Even goblins avoided him, for his stench was too strong for their taste. He seemed absolutely mad at first and was speaking in riddles. I have to admit - I feel a little embarrassed. I would have never guessed that that old lunatic was of any importance!
It turned out that the spirit of an enchanted weapon, thrown into the cloaca by his disgruntled owner, possessed the man. The sword Lilarcor is the creepiest living piece of metal I had ever seen, for the damned thing has a twisted mind of a madman! And it talks too. It had being laying in wait for some fool to pick it up for a few centuries. When it got tired of waiting it overcame the simpleminded sewer scavenger and made him scratch some dumb verses on the drainpipes near the place of its imprisonment. I had to confess that after reading some of that poetry I swore never to dabble in rhyming again. I wonder how long my resolution will hold! That old guy was supposed to give us ‘clues’ to the riddles that the sword’s imagination concocted. The engagement ring, the mummified hand of its former owner, and some other odd items were placed in a certain order in front of the drainpipes. That finally satisfied the crazy sword.
After we had fished the wicked blade out of the sewer, its victim was released and run out of the place like all the demons of the Abyss were on his tail! Now on top of having to bear with a simple-minded Rashemi ranger and a mad gnome wizard I must listen to the incessant banter of the heinous sword. It should be enough to drive a lesser man crazy!
When we finally found the door into the slavers compound I was ready to jump forward all by myself, just to get away from that thing. Fortunately, logical thinking prevailed. I had to confess I never went into a battle accompanied by a wizard, never mind two of them. The Order usually frowns upon such things and I have little trust for magic not granted by the Divine. But it was a great fun to sneak on these slavers under the invisibility spell, which covered all of us after the little guy puffed his cheeks and wiggled his fingers for five minutes. I probably forgot to mention that our annoying gnome buddy is a wizard himself, though his other skills are more mundane and include opening locks and disarming traps. We went through that place like a hot knife through butter, steel and magic cleaning our path before us! These disgusting people did not stop at allying themselves with Yuan-Ti - the creepy snake people. They also employed trolls as their watchdogs. We freed the slave children and took them back to the tavern with us, though this time we went through the streets of the city. The crowd cheered at us but we also saw the distressed, pasty faces of the corrupt city guards. I guess they lost their main source of income.
Ah! That is a life for me, my dear. It feels good to be a hero, though I wonder if all my companions share this noble emotion.
Tomorrow we are leaving the city and marching east to the Umar Hills in pursuit of a dangerous criminal. We should stop for a day or two at the D’Arnise estate. There had been an invasion of some sort and we promised lady Nalia, Lord D’Arnise’s only heir, to rescue her father from the clutches of Evil.
* * * * *
As the night enveloped the land in its chilling embrace, it became clear that the winter was closing on us for the air was cooling rapidly. I was shivering in my black woolen robes. It was our first night camping under the open sky since we have escaped Irenicus; and I suddenly remembered my futile and lonely flight from Baldur's Gate.
I was not alone any longer, at least not physically. I was not caged like a captured beast. But inside, my soul was locked in the deepest and loneliest cell of my own making. I have slammed the iron doors behind me and thrown away the keys. Nobody will ever be able to find a path down there and my heart will wither slowly within this dark well of solitude but others will be protected from the chaotic play of my desires.
I remembered Khalid again - his warm and sympathetic understanding, his shy intelligence, and gentle sense of humor. His bronzed smiling face glowing with the hidden fire of passion floated to the surface of my memory. I sobbed and stifled myself, afraid to wake up the others. Feeling chilled to the bones, I spread my palms over the fire drinking its pleasant warmth. My companions were sleeping in their blankets around the fire. Jaheira was shifting restlessly in an uneasy sleep, plagued by nightmares.
My own dreams had been chaotic lately with terrible images of death crowding my head and above all - Imoen’s silent and desperate ghost that was trying to warn me, to scream her message out of the ever-lingering bloody mists. Tonight another figure visited my dream.
I was in the library, trying to concentrate on my assignment, scanning through endless pages of the dusty grimoire. Gorion was tough on me lately, like he was trying to squeeze the quintessence of the knowledge worth several years of study into a few brief lessons. I was cold and tired. The room was silent - not even a crackle of an upturned page or a rustle of a rough cloth on the stone floor would reach my ear.
He has entered with a cat-like grace of a predator and smiled at me through the narrow slits of his painted mask.
"You are born of Murder the very essence of that which takes life. Why do you reject the gifts that have been offered to you?"
The wall behind him shifted and opened into another dimension - that of the twisted nightmare. The silent crowd of stone statues surrounded him, their faces contorted in horror of sudden death. I looked at their faces intently. Some were my childhood friends, some total strangers. They were all united in this horrible museum of putrefied flesh. And behind them - Imoen’s white, tear-stricken face, a mute plea in her eyes, her silent scream.
"Don’t listen to him ...will come too late... Can you see through the pain? Can you see..."
That was when Minsc woke me up for my sentry duty. Now I trembled remembering that dream again.
Then a strange prickling sensation, which I normally associate with been watched interrupted my trance. I turned. Yoshimo nodded at me. He rose silently from his blankets and moved closer to the fire in two noiseless steps. His features were calm, his eyes bright and intelligent despite a long tiresome march over the rough terrain and barely a few hours of rest.
"Judging by the stars, you still have more then an hour of sleep," I said nonchalantly.
He shrugged silently and went over to check on the ponies. We had to invest most of the money that we earned in our latest expedition into supplies and pack animals. It was expensive but vital for success of our mission. Amazingly, the beasts liked him. There was a soft snort and some quiet equine sounds from the darkness. Yoshimo returned, shedding sugar crumbs from his fingers and winked at me. I made a wry face at this.
He walked back to the fire and settled near me. For a while, we both stayed silent looking intently into the dancing flames. There was that strange feeling of closeness that you sometimes develop toward a total stranger if you spend enough time watching the fire together. I guess it comes from some deep prehistoric roots that we cannot comprehend.
"So, what do you think, is it really worth it?" He asked suddenly.
"What do you mean?" I was taken aback by this sudden question.
"Being a child of god of course," he said matter-of-factly. He was still looking at the fire and the flames gave his sharp exotic features almost a surreal look.
"So, you are aware of this fact at least," I muttered. "Does providing a vessel for the return of the Spirit of Murder sound like a pleasant prospect to you?"
Yoshimo shifted uncomfortably. "You don't have to become a puppet. Any power, whatever the source is, can be turned to serve your own ends. Be it good or evil."
"You really don’t understand this, do you?" I asked tiredly.
The only person who did understand was dead now, though even he was unable to fathom the depth of my loathing of the Bhaal’s heritage.
"Everybody is convinced that I do have a free will in the matter, a degree of freedom to pick and choose from the bag of goodies left by the benevolent Papa; that by controlrces me they can control my ‘powers’, if you will. Well, the gift comes with the strings attached. I am convinced that it is either all or nothing. If you give up a finger to access some ‘divine powers’ - it will bite off your entire hand. Eventually, I will have only one alternative. Either to give up everything including my memories, my personality, and my current beliefs and be taken over by the immortal soul of that dead freak or to die. There is nothing else. Zero. Zilch. No afterlife, and no hope. That is one of the reasons, I don’t venerate to any of these so-called deities."
"Is that so?" He asked quietly, raising an eyebrow.
"About been an agnostic12? Quite so." I shrugged. "I had read the Alaundo prophecies a hundred times over. He is very clear about the whole affair. The Bhaalspawn would bring death and destruction to the land and the one that would outlive his brethren, would ascent to take over the throne of Bhaal."
"Taking over the throne of God does not sound that bad." He shook his head. "I still don’t understand you. If you feel this way - why do you go on living?"
"Oh, but there is another catch, my friend. We are supposed to eliminate each other one by one. I just don’t want to make it any easier for the winner." I smiled bitterly.
I had my own agenda though, which I was not going to share with him. I was hoping that if by any chance I would happen to be the winner of that cruel rat race, I would still have a chance to quit at the very last moment and thus deny the old evil his return through my body. It was a fitting revenge for throwing me into this world as a helpless pawn of his ingenious mind, for raping and killing my mother as well as hundreds of other helpless females. I though that this retribution would be especially appropriate if it will come from his daughter, rather then his son.
"Life is a cruel thing." Yoshimo shook his had sadly and looked at me again with his dark almond-shaped eyes. "At least you had a loving family. Tell me about your childhood. What was your adoptive father’s name again?"
We have been talking in hushed voices, so that not to disturb the sleepers but the night was fading and gray light of dusk was creeping onto the sky. One of the sleeping figures on the other side of the fire stirred and turned over. For a moment, I felt a stare of the man’s light eyes. There was a flicker of sympathy in them.
* * * * *
The air was filled with the acrid smell of burning flesh. Not that of the humans for the soldiers collected their fallen and a mass grave was hastily dug near the palisade. They will be taking the dead bodies from the stakes at the front entrance and burying these as well. The corpses they were burning now were mottled green, with dangling long arms and legs. These were trolls, though occasionally a long-tailed, limp body of the Yuan-Ti would be thrown into the blazing fire as well. After we sneaked into the castle with Nalia’s help and unlocked the main gate in the deep of the night, the joined force of the remaining D’Arnise guards and the local farm folk armed with pitchforks and rusty scythes wiped the trolls out. The creatures were relying on fear they have instilled into humans by means of mass slaughter and utmost cruelty. They did not realize that people fighting for their home might be driven to heroism by sheer desperation. Unfortunately, we had not been able to save Nalia’s father - he was tortured to death by the invaders. But he protected his daughter’s inheritance by refusing to point the location of his hidden treasury.
I was sitting on the grass away from the crowd and trying to concentrate on the task of sorting through collection of scrolls that were my part of the plunder. All of it was left behind by the powerful Yuan-Ti mage, who was the brain behind the troll’s sudden attack and the right hand of Torgal - the troll chieftain. It was a tough magical duel and I was somewhat proud of myself for being able to outwit the snake sorcerer. I was not so proud of my handling of Torgal, but that was another story.
I was so engaged in this that it took me several minutes to realize I was not alone any longer.
"What is it, Nalia?" I said with a sigh, recognizing her red calfskin slippers in my field of vision. "We have already talked about your situation and I am really sorry, but we cannot take you with us. It is way too dangerous." I looked up at her.
"Can’t you see that staying here is even more dangerous for me than going with you?" She flushed. "The Roenalls will show up as soon as they learn about Father’s death," her lip quivered, "and then I would not have a choice. I would have to marry Isaea Roenall because my father agreed to the engagement. To think about what would they do with my land and my people!"
"You cannot marry me instead, for obvious reasons," I said sarcastically. "And why, for Oghma’s sake, can’t you just say ‘no’? It is not like they are going to kidnap you and force you into marriage."
"You don’t know them," she shook her head defiantly, "I would not put it behind them to do exactly that!"
"Nalia," I said sternly, "I do not wish to distress you any further but just think about what is it you want to do. Your father’s body still lies down in that crypt. It is your duty to take care of his funeral. He died protecting your inheritance. It is your land, as you just mentioned, and your people. If you do not want it, fine. Split it between your farmers; make them the yeomen or something. But you have no right to run away like this! What do you think will be left of this place in a few months if you simply walk away with us? You know how your aunt is - she would take all the gold that is left and abandon the castle to the elements. Your titled neighbors will jump in and fight each other over every square foot of your land. Not to mention that the trolls will be back and in larger numbers. There will be nothing left but smoldering ruins. You have a window of opportunity right now. After you showed your bravery and generosity your soldiers and common folk will unite around you."
"You think so?" She blinked.
"Your guard captain Arat, is a very skilled soldier and he is dedicated to your family. I talked with him after our conversation yesterday - he will pledge his loyalty to you. I talked with the village council as well. They would rather have you as their liege lady than any Roenall. And if you threaten your aunt with cutting her allowance - don’t look at me like this, yes, I had a peak into your father’s will before I handed it to you. He left everything to you unconditionally, and it is up to you to continue to pay her keep or kick her out without a copper. As I was saying - all you have to do is to tell her that your future husband may not wish to continue to support your dear widowed auntie. I bet she would stay here to provide you with a female ‘companion’ if you want to stick to the conventions required by the society. You are of legal age, aren’t you?"
"Yes," she whispered. "I have turned 21 this summer."
"So, you can arm your people and tell Roenalls to take a hike. If you make a hint to your other neighbors that you may one day marry one of their heirs instead - they will support you. I would have lent you Anomen for matrimonial purposes, but I am afraid he is not ready to settle down yet."
Nalia smiled weakly. "I am afraid he would not want to marry me even if he was ready to settle. Besides, I don’t like him."
She wrinkled her nose and said in an amazingly good likeness of the young noble’s haughty voice: "A commendable spirit, to help others ... although with maturity, girl, you will come to realize that not all are worthy of such attention."
"'Tis truly an adventure for weak-willed. I've fought campaigns against the Hillgnasher giants, and slew twenty of the foul beasts." I answered in the same voice. We both snickered.
"That’s him, all right. I hope that with maturity he will come to realize how outstandingly ridiculous his posture is." I said finally subsiding my giggles.
Nalia nodded. "Seriously, I do not wish to marry at all. I want to continue study magic and to help my people. The way you put it - it sounds so easy. But it is not, really. You have left your home when your father was killed, have not you?"
"I was forced to leave," I shook my head sadly. "There was a price on my head and I would have endangered my home by staying. And it was not actually mine," I sighed. "I was allowed to live there as long as Gorion was alive, but I never belonged. I would rather not talk about it."
Nalia nodded thoughtfully then suddenly clapped her hands together and looked at me. "I want to make you a present, something personal so that you can remember this conversation."
I frowned. "There is no need. The Flail of Ages is a gift beyond any and I was really surprised that you allowed us to keep it. You know it was instrumental in our victory over the trolls. I was little surprised you father kept it disassembled and its parts hidden in so many different places."
She looked a little embarrassed. "That was actually why I came here to talk to you today. I need to warn you. The flail is a powerful magical weapon and it has been in my father’s care for some time. It was the creation of the Rakshasa, a race of vengeful spirits, which crave human meat. Father told me once that they have used it as bait, 'losing' it repeatedly countless times. That was why he kept it dismantled - so they cannot feel its magic. I would not like it in the castle now that he is gone. It would only bring more trouble."
I glanced at her with some speculation. "I hope we will be able to take cake of ourselves, but thank you for the warning. I shall speak with Anomen about it; you know we have decided he is going to keep it for he is the most skilled in this type of arms."
She continued after a while. "I am sorry I could not spare much money to pay you - I am aware of the situation with the ransom you have to pay for your friend’s rescue." She hesitated for a minute then pulled out something from her belt pouch and handed it to me. "This is for you. I hope you will like it. It is not much but it is a token of my friendship."
I looked at the scroll she was offering me. It was a sheet of yellow parchment covered with the neat rows of symbols. The letters danced down the page merrily like a troupe of frolicking monkeys, every row starting with a glowing capital letter in a shape of a curious little dragon, a thoughtful owl, or a sly weasel.
"But Nalia!" I exclaimed after reading through the scroll for several minutes, "Would not you need it for yourself? You told me - you want to continue studying magic!"
She shook her head. "I want you to have it. In fact if you wish I can help you to prepare the ritual. You’ve convinced me my place is here. If I cannot go with you, I want you to have a companion in my place that will share your journeys and make your life little easier. Mayhap, you will remember me and one day our roads will cross again."
She brought all the ingredients for the spell from the castle and we went deep into the forest together. The air was crisp and clean here. Note a single whiff of the death fires would penetrate through the almost leafless canopy of trees and bushes. Only the damp smell of the forest and the distant hoots of birds in the shrubbery. At the small clearing under the open gray sky we lit the small copper brazier filled with charcoal and threw the strands of dry autumn grasses into the fire. The blue aromatic smoke rose into the sky. I muttered the verses of the spell from the scroll looking deep into the fire. Nalia tended the brazier and sprinkled it with a fragrant powder from the little bronze container. The fire blazed bright yellow then darkened into the reddish brown and extinguished itself with a low hiss. Everything stilled; even the noisy curious birds stopped their eternal squabble in the bushes and went silent. I looked at the scroll - it was blank now, all the symbols washed away by the invocation. I sighed.
"I guess that was it, Nalia. Looks like we failed to attract anybody’s attention."
The dry rustle of the grass at the back interrupted my tirade. Nalia was looking at my feet and a silent grin was spreading on her face. My heart pounded as I turned with deliberate slowness and looked behind me. He was sitting among the dry leaves not two paces from me. His beautiful gold-brown eyes looked steadily into mine studying me carefully. He was thin, long-legged and gray, tinted with reddish brown at the sides of his small furry rump. His long sensitive ears quivered slightly as if he was ready to jump back into the bushes at my first move. It was a young jackrabbit and he came called by the ritual of find familiar that was Nalia’s generous gift to me.
I crouched before him and slowly stretched my hand stopping it few inches away from the creature. The rabbit sniffed at my fingers and sat on his hind legs looking at me appreciatively.
"Hi there," said a small clear voice inside my head. "Cute, aren’t I? My name is Puck and I am hungry." He though a for a second as if listening to my thoughts and added slyly. "Yes, you can scratch me behind the ears if you wish."
We have entered Imnesvale at twilight. The sun, red and glorious, was setting low over the grassy knolls sending its golden rays all over the small valley hidden deep within the slopes of the Umar Hills. The hills themselves were covered with the rich overgrowth and we have spotted a deer grazing at the edge of the forest and a few other smaller animals as we made our way down the road. My new familiar was tired of hopping ceaselessly after every female rabbit in sight and was soundly asleep in my backpack. They made acquaintance with Boo, though the noble hamster watched Puck’s antics with an air of sarcastic superiority and retired to Minsc’s pocket early today.
Our three ponies, loaded with supplies trudged relentlessly behind with Yoshimo leading the front one. Somehow, he took over caring for the pack animals and managed it pretty well with some help from Minsc.
I walked alone as was my habit lately, trying to sort through the facts related to our current task of finding Valygar Corthala. Yoshimo was able to confirm the fact that Corthala owned a cabin in the Umar Hills. His footman claimed that his master fled after having a heated dispute with the Cowled wizards, refusing to fulfil their request. He said nothing about the killings, but it was only to be expected from the loyal servant.
In front of me, Minsc and Jan were having one of their squabbles over the delicate matter of hamster diet. Boo was getting overweight and Minsc blamed Jan for sneaking extra food to his buddy. They made the most comical pair for the gnome’s head barely reached to the big ranger’s waist.
"May I join you for a bit of conversation?" Anomen’s reluctant voice at my side interrupted my musings.
I nodded silently indicating that he can join me at my side of the road. An awkward note in his voice made me feel guilty for I was rather harsh on the young fellow and he was a decent soldier, as our adventures in the Nalia’s castle proved many times over. His clerical spells were also extremely handy; and although I never felt comfortable in dealing with divine powers I found it useful to have another healer in the party. Besides, after Jan started his new epic about the adventures of the retarded half-orc Ano, even I felt somewhat sorry for the target of his jokes. Jan was going a bit too far, as I had pointed to him gently. Well, all I got for my trouble was a tale about a girl Liza, who once felt from the roof of her house and landed on her head, which caused some serious trouble in her choice of suitors. That made me feel certain camaraderie toward the fellow sufferer from Jan’s abuse, so I was willing to show some understanding.
"We have traveled for a long time now in each other’s company, but yet I knew almost nothing about you," he stated suddenly.
That gave me a surprise and I looked at him speculatively. He must have read my expression for he blushed suddenly and muttered with some reluctance. "Yes, I know about your … heritage. Sir Ryan, that is the knight who is responsible for the training of young initiates, had mentioned it when I asked his leave to join your party."
"I suspected as much," I nodded.
"But the Order has no ill wish towards you," he said hastily. "They simply want to protect you from … from your enemies. I had to admit - I was suspicious of you at first, but not anymore. Not after we’ve destroyed the slavers and liberated D’Arnise’s castle from the trolls!"
I chuckled. "Oh, I would not call it that. We only sneaked into the castle through the back door and opened the gates. D’Arnise people did the rest of it."
"You are forgetting that I have seen you single-handedly finish Torgal," he said stubbornly.
"Oh, trolls are susceptible to all acid based spells, including the cloud kill. Truly told, I was surprised myself. I was fully prepared to be gutted like a sheep in the slaughterhouse when I entered that room. It was reckless."
"As you wish." He hesitated, and then continued. "I had to confess - I’ve overheard your conversation with Yoshimo few nights before."
"Naughty boy, Anomen." I shook my finger at him. "Did not they teach you at the Order not to pry on other people’s private conversations?"
"I did not want to!" He flushed with anger then subsided. "You are trusting him with your most private thoughts."
"Well, it is up to me to choose my confidants, is not it?" I said with some irritation. "And I did not tell him anything he did not already know. I think he is working for the Shadow Thieves in the same way that you are working for the Order."
"You cannot compare that vile association hosting thieves and assassins with the noble Order of Most Radiant Hearts!" He exploded. "How much do you know about the Order anyway?"
"A little," I confessed. "But enough to feel suspicious about your motives. The same way I am suspicious about the Shadow Thieves. If you have overheard that conversation you know my feelings toward the Bhaal’s heritage."
He nodded silently.
"I have absolutely no desire to be a pawn in anybody’s hands. Be that the Shadow Thieves, the most noble Order of Radiant Hearts, or Irenicus for that matter."
"The Order has no desire to control you," he said stubbornly. "We are aware of the fact that you have stopped the war between our two nations and have the utmost respect for your actions."
"As Jaheira used to say, you are so naïve." I sighed. The Order is a political organization, is not it?"
"In fact it is not," he answered quickly. "I always thought that the Order should pay more attention to the things mundane. Just think about all the suffering that your average commoner has to endure under the incompetent rule of our civil government! If the Order would take over the country, we can rewrite the laws the way they should be written, eliminate corruption, and establish order. Nothing should stand between the perpetrator and the iron hand of justice like nothing could stand against the full array of the Armies of the Order! When the pennants are flying in the wind and the armor of our Knights is shining like a thousand bright stars on the field of Glory I can almost feel the presence of the Divine!" His eyes took that glazed, dreamy look that you normally see on the face of the passionate lover speaking of his subject.
I coughed. "Trust the Order to establish order, indeed."
He looked at me suspiciously. "Do you disagree with me, my lady?"
"I have no opinion on the matter whatsoever," I said sarcastically.
But my irony was lost on him again for he shook his head and proclaimed gravely: "You are a stranger in this land but surely even you must recognize that more can be done to fight Evil then simply confront its most obvious minions with a sword."
Luckily for me, a long-eared head poked out of my backpack at that very moment and a hungry bunny made his demands on my time. Anomen looked at Puck with some mixture of annoyance and benevolent acceptance of my ladylike affection to small furry animals.
"There is one good use for the familiar at least," I thought thankfully.
"What do you think I was doing there, sleeping?" answered the shrewd rabbit voice in my head.
"Remind me next time not to interfere when Jan starts another one of his Ano stories."
The first thing we run into in the Imnesvale was a crowd of its angry citizens gathered on the village green. The good farmers were angry and frightened. The situation in the little valley was spinning out of control. From what Dylan told us we had been aware of the people and the living stock killings, but he never went into the grisly details. Whoever was murdering people started to break into their houses and after the terrified family would find another victim of the nocturnal attack, they could not even bury their dead for the body would simply disappear next morning. Farmers, who lived on the outskirts of the valley, abandoned their lands and sought refuge in the village. The merchants abandoned their trade and fled. The few that remained lingered for too long and now were afraid to leave for the roads were dangerous to travel at night.
We followed the village mayor to his house, after the crowd dispersed throwing their wild accusations and desperate complaints at him. All sorts of weird rumors and theories were discussed, starting with the appearance of the group of ogres in the nearby hills and ending with the legend of a thousand year old evil witch that would awaken once in a hundred years to satiate itself on the blood of its victims. It turned out that Lloyd Wainwright, that was the mayor’s name, had already hired a group of mercenaries to track down the killers, but they ventured into the hills and never returned. On top of it, the village ranger Merella was missing for almost a month and nobody dared to approach her cottage in the woods.
"Do you think our friend Corthala is responsible?" I whispered to Jaheira, as we listened to the Minister Lloyd complaints.
"I am starting to doubt his involvement," she answered honestly. "A single man cannot terrorize the entire community without falling under the suspicion. Nobody here even mentioned his name once. Though, it will require further investigation."
"We had to find him if we want Imoen back," I said in distress. "We may as well get ourselves hired by the mayor to investigate these killings and disappearances. It will bring us to Valygar at the end and we definitely can use the reward that the mayor is offering."
So we signed the deal and went to explore the village for we still had about an hour of daylight before the sunset. Afterwards, we all gathered in the local tavern to discuss our findings.
The industrious duo of Minsc and Jan had the most adventures that evening. They made friends with half of the local farmers by, as I reasonably guessed, getting drunk on the local raspberry mead and telling the bunch of most incredible tales to the local youngsters. As result they had a tail of young country bumpkins following them everywhere and begging for more. They ended up buying their escort a half a barrel of ale and leaving them happily unconscious on the village green.
"I don’t think the parents of these boys will be particularly happy about it, Jan" I shook my head. "Especially with all these disappearances. You should not have done it. Imagine these boys will decide to go look for trouble and stray into whoever is responsible for all these murders! It is dark outside for Oghma’s sake!"
"You are starting to sound almost like Jaheira, your Worship" he cocked his head. "We’ve made sure that they can defend themselves by providing them with a sword!"
"For goodness sake, Jan!" Jaheira exploded. "You just gave a bunch of drunken youngsters a sword? It is extremely irresponsible!"
"Bah! We left them Lilarcor, my dear lady. Boo says, there is no harm if the boys will have a little fun and I was pretty tired of that stupid thing!" Minsc boomed happily. "Besides, with the heroes like us in the deal there is not going to be any danger soon, yes?"
"Look what we got here," continued the gnome happily. He showed me his hand with a shiny blue object. Closer examination confirmed that the object was a beljuril - a valuable gem indeed. The catch was - they have obtained it by paying half of its market price to the local farmer for all his chicken stock. It turned out that the farmer made the bird swallow the stone to hide it but his neighbor saw him do it and told Jan, for a fee of about another half of the price of the gem. They fed the chicken some sort of purgative and it relieved itself with a stone.
"It is no wonder you were not a big success as a businessman," I sighed. "Though, it sounded like the farmer really needed these money. What did you do with the rest of the chickens?"
"We let them roam free!" Minsc explained happily.
"Sure," I said with a sigh. "In a few generations the Umar hills will be plagued by the hordes of the feral chickens, on top of their other problems. Unless the foxes get them first. Anything else, anybody?"
"We found a wizard who looks for some rare magical ingredients." Yoshimo said soothingly. "In fact you may be interested to speak with this guy. He claims to be a member of the Cowled Wizards and he definitely knows much more about these disappearances than he was willing to tell us. In fact, the ingredient he was mostly interested in was a mimic13 blood."
"’Tis an evil person this wizard!" Anomen exclaimed emphatically. After our latest conversation he had attached himself to Yoshimo and followed our mysterious rouge like a shadow. I was wondering what was this sudden friendship all about.
"The wizard has a fair and gentle daughter, who is in love with the young man named Daar. The evil enchanter would not have it, so he is building a stone golem to guard his daughter from the attentions of her suitor in his absence. He has no right to deny the young lovers their happiness!" Our romantic squire finished with disdain.
"Sounds like our young lad here had a similar experience." Jan raised an eyebrow wickedly and nodded at Anomen. The target of this remark blushed fiercely and kept his silence.
"Did I ever mention a story about my nephew Eddie, who was in love with our neighbor’s daughter Darlin, whose father used to chase him out of his property with a poker? Poor Eddie decided to build a flying machine to be able to get over the wall between the two houses. The problem was, by the time he had finished it his passion was ten years hence married to the baker who lived just across the street! You can see the machine in the circus if you want, for Eddie donated it to them and joined himself, cause nobody else was able to fly it anyway. Very tragic story indeed."
Everybody laughed; even Anomen’s lips quirked though he fought himself stoically not to show his amusement.
"I had talked with the village children," Jaheira picked up the conversation when we finished laughing. "The little girl Kaatje told me that last month she saw a strange thing getting away from the ranger cabin, leaving a trail of blood. The people are so scared that nobody went to check on their ranger, though she had been missing for a few weeks now. I say - we should go to her cabin first thing in the morning."
"Agreed," I nodded. "But this business about the mimic blood is also very suspicious. Thank you, Yoshimo." Yoshimo smiled silently. Anomen’s lips tightened with anger. "Thank you, Anomen. You guys did a great job. If the wizard is looking for a mimic in the area plagued with sudden disappearances, it certainly gives me ideas."
"This still may be Corthala," Anomen said sharply
"May very well be him." I agreed. "Now I stayed at the inn and had a chat with Vince, the innkeeper. He has the reputation of a local blab and rightfully so. I got my earful of the stories about the witch and have leafed through the copy of the so-called Umar Witch Project annals. These, he claims, were left behind by the expedition of three young wizard apprentices, who were looking for the witch and went missing last spring. The only useful piece of information that I found there was the fact that Umar supposedly had dwelt in a cave somewhere in the woods. Nobody ever found it, or if they did - they never lived to tell about their discovery. I had to warn you however, that all of this may be just Vince’s plot to attract more visitors."
"Gee, a standard tactic that." Jan agreed enthusiastically. That reminds me of my great uncle One-eye and how he tried to draw attention to his turnip stall at the Promenade."
"Please Jan! Not now." Jaheira groaned pleadingly.
"But, I was just going to tell how he posted these enchanted banners all over the city. People were supposed to come and whack at them with the blunt object. There was something about mice too but I cannot put my finger on it. Then the banner would show a map with directions to the One-Eye’s stall. Every hundredth one could get a secret code to win a prize - a trip to the Calimshite Hot Spas or a camel. Somehow, I think he run out of camels before any of his turnips were sold!"
* * * * *
That night I had a dream. Irenicus came to me through the bloody fog covering the endless plane of my nightmares, his beautiful painted mask frozen forever in that awful smile. He was taunting me again with my weakness, with my inability to restrain my darker side.
"You rest each night uneasy, you are weary, you struggle daily. It will not stop until you acknowledge what you are. Until you embrace it." He mocked.
Imoen was there again, silently screaming her warning. She wriggled in pain encased in the burning cloud, but still tried to deliver her message, though no words would come out. Suddenly I could hear her voice.
"The taint is inside you. If you follow your blood - you will end just like him... can you see through the pain of your own misery? Can you resist your nature?"
* * * * *
It was bright and sunny outside as we ventured into the Umar hills next morning. This far south the weather was mild and the night cold did not touch the evergreen oleander shrubs and the cypress trees that swayed gently on the light breeze. My mischievous familiar was hopping merrily around, as we made our way slowly up the hill.
"Do you mind if I join you again, my lady?" Anomen suddenly appeared at my side.
I sighed, but decided to make the best of the situation, and accepted his company with a polite nod. If he would somehow acquire a sense of humor, he can become tolerable. Bah, he almost smiled yesterday. Another month or two and he will become a human being. Yoshimo looked at me mockingly, which only made me more resolute in my decision to promote a friendly conduct.
"Sure you can, Anomen." I answered in the most amiable tone and braced myself for another epic tale of the Order’s victories.
"I heard that you had a step-father, Gorion. What was he like?" He asked suddenly.
I was totally surprised by this question and somewhat lost for he sounded genuinely interested. "He was a ... kind and understanding person. A great teacher too. He was my first and only tutor in the Craft. Why would you ask?"
"I don’t know," he stumbled. "I overheard you speaking about him with lady Jaheira. I guess I am envious. My relationship with my father, Lord Cor, is rather strained. After my mother died he started drinking heavily and that was when our connection was broken. He wanted me to take over his mercantile business but I was never really interested in commerce. To tell you the truth - I could not stand all the dirty machinations and corruption behind the deals my father was involved in." He stopped for a second and looked at me attentively. I nodded for him to continue. "He was contemptuous of my choice to join the Order. He said I was never good for anything and will be a failure as a soldier as I was a failure as a son."
"That was not a very nice thing to say to your child," I muttered. "A person nurturing his own insecurities would lash like this on the ones close to him out of desperation sometimes. I guess that caused you to crave your Knighthood even more?"
He stopped on his tracks. "How do you know?"
I shrugged. "Let’s just say, I had a similar experience. No, not with Gorion. It does not really matter." He looked at me intently. I blushed and improvised quickly. "After my heritage was discovered I was not able to find an instructor who would agree to teach me magic; they were all afraid of me. It made me particularly stubborn in my desire to continue."
"You know," he said seriously. "You remind me of my sister Moira. We are very close she and I. There is a sense of her in your bearing, my lady. Moira can be stubborn... she refuses to leave our father's side even at his drunken worst, staying to take care of him. She always wanted to break free of the conventions, which the society imposes on the young lady of our class. She says - she has no desire to marry some ignorant lout whose only attractions are his ‘blue’ blood and coffers stuffed with gold. She wanted to go to school, may be even attend the university, though I do not think they accept female students there. Moira said - she would dress up as a boy and run away if father would try to force her into the wedlock." He chuckled.
"Remarkable," I said in some puzzlement. "First Nalia, now your sister. Is it a common practice in Amnish society? I bet being so close to Calimshan has something to do with it. Women have somewhat more freedom in the North. There are plenty of female scholars and paladins in our lands. If you think your father can force your sister into unwanted marriage or do her any other harm you surely should interfere."
"I don’t think he would dare. She is effectively running his business now. He even says - she made a better son than I ever did. I am just afraid that his ambitions would take the best of him. I doubt he would be able to resist the temptation if he thinks he can gain in status by selling his own daughter into marriage." He interrupted himself suddenly and frowned at his own thoughts. "I regret abandoning her to her fate, alone with Father but there was little I could do. The Order is not paying me that much. I am sure she is ... fine, she... I am sorry, my lady I do not wish to continue this conversation. I ...can’t."
He stopped suddenly, bowed to me, and walked away briskly.
That’s the side of him we have not seen yet," said a small voice in my head, "maybe the young fellow is not half that bad after all."
"All of that would surely explain his fanatical devotion to the Order and his choice of the patron deity." I answered.
"Heh, dunno about gods and such, you expect too much from a simple bunny," the rabbit responded.
"Helm is a God of Sentries, the Watcher God, the deity that supposedly stood guard and held back all the others from accessing the Celestial Stairway, when Lord Ao expelled all the divine pranksters from the Outer Planes for stealing the Tablets of Fate14," I explained. "He is not that popular in the divine society, if you understand what I mean."
"It does not sound like much fun to serve this guy."
"It sure does not! And in any case I would be suspicious of anything that is wearing an extra eye on its palm and supposedly responsible for the creation of the Beholders15!"
This lively exchange was suddenly interrupted by the mental wave of curiosity mixed with fear. What I heard could not be translated into any logical thought, but it was a message nevertheless. ‘Danger’ was the mental image that I have got. The rabbit pranced from the bushes he was investigating thoroughly in a search for more female companions, no doubt, and jumped into my hands trembling uncontrollably.
"What is it, little one?" I asked. "Have you seen a wolf, perhaps?"
But all I got from him was a wave after wave of fear and a vision of the dark hole leading deep into the rock. I walked forward parting the thick overgrowth and at that moment my vision blurred and a familiar serpentine pendulum filled my mind. The snake sprang into my face and as I lost my grip on reality somebody caught my falling body from behind.
FORTH EXCERPT FROM Anomen’s LETTERS TO MOIRA.
THE TALE OF THE VILE MIMIC.
At this point in our journey I am very much used to the things magical, but it never stops to amaze me how much power can be called forth by the force of one’s Mind. I have to admit that a wizard in a battle is sometimes worth a squadron of soldiers. I was unjustly neglecting my own clerical studies and this mistake had to be corrected.
The creature which was hiding inside that awful cave, littered with broken bones of the unfortunate, was indeed a mimic - a most vile type of the Shapeshifter. Judging by the amount of the humanoid remains in the cave it had being there for many years, if not decades. It had also attracted parasites that kept it company and cleaned the bones. When it spat a discharge of its sticky goo on us, a pair of Umber Hulks crept out of the shadows. I grabbed for my weapon valiantly but the hellish glue covered my hands and my legs were stuck to the floor.
The horde of summoned creatures stopped the onslaught and by the time I extricated myself from the adhesive that mimic dispensed on us, the deadly oversized beetles were finished by the acid cloud spell. Believe me my dear, things could have turned much uglier if not for the presence of mind of a certain lady wizard who is as stubborn as she is beautiful and, I am afraid, totally indifferent to yours truly.
Well, a real life sometimes lacks the intensity of the Romance but it is abundant with little surprises; and it is up to us to make the best of it. At least the gnome stopped pestering me with his tales lately. To think of it, some of his anecdotes are pretty funny, now that I got used to them. He does not mean any harm and he is very kind to lady Jaheira, who suffered a great loss lately. They are not speaking about it much but I found out - she lost her husband in the most tragic circumstances. Strangely, their relationship with Thea is very strained. You know I notice such things after growing up in a family as dysfunctional as ours.
But I better cheer you up with the most romantic finale to my tale for our discovery of the mimic cave resulted in at least one happy ending. When we returned to the village I was very much against the delivery of the tonic made of the mimic blood to the wizard Jermien. Remember I mentioned him at the beginning of this story? Turned out - the wizard was not entirely evil, just misled by his own perception of the Reality. After lady Thea handed him the flagon with the tonic poor fool used it immediately on his unfinished golem. The golem came to life and his first action was to try to unscrew the wizard’s head from his shoulders, which may have been an improvement in my humble opinion. Ah, it is contagious. I sound almost like Jan now! Fortunately, we have been able to destroy the golem with some help from the wizard’s daughter admirer. The boy was there just in time and Jermien, softened by his near death experience, granted him the hand of his daughter.
Dirbert woke up with a mother of all headaches, cold feet, and a mouth full of straw. To think of it straw was everywhere - in his socks, under his shirt, and even in certain places inside his pants, better not mentioned, which did not make it any less itchy. He spat the stems out and groaned. He was answered by the whimpers coming from the pile under him. Two teary-eyed, fuzzed heads popped out of the straw heap. So, Nel and Val were here too.
He vaguely remembered yesterday’s night. They have been drinking ale, a lot of it. A group of strangers came into the village. One of the newcomers, a gnomish wizard was telling all these wonderful tales which got them so excited - they decided to run away from home and go adventuring. His friend, a giant of a man, with a magnificent blue tattoo on his head and a hamster on his shoulder had bought them a keg of ale. Dir could not recall what happened afterwards.
An appearance of that little band of adventurers was an event by itself, with all the roads closed for months and everybody flocked like chickens inside their houses. Well, there was that halfling girl and her friends. But they had disappeared into the thin air about two weeks ago. Just walked out in a broad daylight and never returned. It only added to the villagers’ hysteria.
"Probably realized what a dump Imnesvale is," he muttered to himself. "Hey lads, do you think we have any of that beer left that the big guy bought us?" He asked hopefully in a general direction of his companions.
"Cheer up! There is plenty left in the keg! By the way, now that you finally awake can we go and kill something?" came an unexpected answer from the darker corner of the barn. For the place they had slept in was indeed an old barn, now he remembered.
Dir sprang up to his feet. He tried to anyway. His head swam gently and he was forced to drop to his knees again with a moan. Neler was vomiting noisily on the floor and Val was not far from that as well, having turned green as a fresh lettuce.
"Come on! Give me a hand over here! Will you?" continued an indecently cheerful voice from the corner.
"Will you please shut up?" Dir finally managed to growl over his dry retches.
"Bah! ‘Tis no attitude for a plucky swashbuckler!" came the answer. "What’s a little hangover when facing your first great adventure! Don’t you want to be a hero? That’s what they do every night you know - get drunk, wake up with a hangover, go kill some dragons and get the horde, so you can sell it and get yourself some more beer!"
"Who are you anyway," Dir answered grimly. "I don’t recall having anybody with us when we came in here."
"That’s human gratitude to you, ah?" the voice said gravely. It sounded more than a little strange, Dir decided. The voice had a cutting edge to it, like it was slicing each word rather than uttering it.
"You practically begged me to join you, little twerp, didn’t you? And now you can’t even remember me? And I was gonna share Vallah’s favorite hangover recipe with you - dragon blood with daisies! Mind it, it had to be the blood of the dragon that bit yer! Nuh, you don’t deserve me," the voice wailed in contempt. "D’you have a decent sewer around here, so I can cut your hand off and be done with it?"
"We don’t have no sewers around here, no sir." Neler mumbled. "Who would build a sewer if you can always use bushes?"
"And I don’t want my hand to be cut off, thank you," Dir added.
"Aha! Scared you to death you whimpering little brat! Now be a good boy and come pick me up, pleese?" The voice took a tone of cunning sweetness. "You’ll want your ale anyway, and I am sitting on top of your keg!"
Dir staggered into the corner where the voice was coming from. What he saw there, gave him goose bumps. There was no person sitting on the ale cask, and no way anybody could be hiding in the barn, but the sun was shining brightly through the multiple cracks in the rickety walls and was reflecting merrily off the blade of a huge gleaming sword. The sword was laying across the barrel, with what Dir thought was an undeniably smug expression on its hilt. It was practically radiating impatience.
"Ugh, Dir, d’you think that’s the thing that was doin all the talkin?" Val stammered, looking over his shoulder.
"Of course it was I!" came a quick answer from nobody in particular. "Or d’you think one of you here is a clairvoyant?"
"It’s a talking sword! Run for it!" Neler squeaked and pranced for the door.
Dirbert backed away but stopped short of running away.
"It must be some sort of a trick," he mumbled. "There is no such thing as talking swords."
"Yeah? There’s no such thing?" The funny voice hooted loudly. The sword popped up and danced a little jig on the casket. "Next thing you’d say there’s no such thing as flying pigs or giant space hamsters!"
"Dunno bout hamsters," Dir said sullenly, "but how do I know ‘tis is not a trick of some sort? That gnome fella can be hiding in the straw laughing his head off at us."
"Come on, just grab me in yer hot little hands, will you?" The sword asked beguilingly and tilted its hilt in invitation. "We’ll talk all you want while hacking on monsters!"
Somehow its expression reminded Dir of a dog wagging its tail. He hesitated for a second, then stretched his hand tentatively and snatched the gleaming hilt.
The sword laughed like a maniac and leaped into the air blade up. Dir had to grab it with his other hand to stop himself from being dragged around the barn in a strange war- dance. He tried to drop the cursed weapon, but discovered to his horror that his hands were stuck on the sword’s hilt. He yelled in terror and nearly wet himself.
"Don’t be such a baby!" the sword scorned him. "You wanted an adventure – and here you got it! I am not letting you go, no sir. I had enough of these would-be heroes dropping me into the privy at first occasion! Now lets go and kill some dragons!"
"I...I dunno nothing bout dragons!" Dir wailed pitifully, "I know Mom would be mad at me if I go killin dragons without asking her first!"
He was a big boy – he just turned sixteen that past summer and his shoulders were broader than that of the other boys of his age. But still his round face was white under the freckles and his big blue eyes streamed tears. The other two boys crept warily back into the barn, and were watching the whole scene, ready to run yelling for help.
"Arghh!" The sword made some inaudible noises. Dir could swear - it was muttering curses in some unknown languages. It turned slightly in his hands as if to survey the situation.
"Come on," it said in a more reasonable tone, "let’s sit down and discuss this like adults." Dir sniffed pathetically at the funny word. "My name is Lilarcor, by the way. Hey, there is some of that ale left in the keg!"
They sat on the floor around the keg and poured the ale into the rough wooden cups, which they brought with them last night. The sword let go of one of Dir’s hands. After a few rounds everybody felt significantly better. Soon, killing a dragon or two did not sound like a bad idea at all. They dunked the sword into the barrel at the end, though for that they had to vandalize the top. It giggled and hiccupped, and told them tearful stories about being abandoned in the sewer by his previous owner.
"And now, hic," it continued, " he gives me away to the gang of teenagers, hic. Just cause his little rat thinks I talk too much! Oh, it’s useless, hic. My life is ruined. Throw me into the lake, will you? Is there a decent lake around here anyway? So I can rise from it carried by the fairy hand, hic, on the full moon nights. You know, I was a moonblade once, hic."
There was nothing they could do to make it feel better but to agree to go kill a dragon right away. Fortunately, Valsben remembered that there was a cave somewhere in the hills. They decided to go and give it a try.
They could not find the cave, though they spent almost an hour looking for it among the barbed raspberry bushes in the Hills across the river. They disturbed many a small game including rabbits, mice and quirky green lizards, but fortunately found no trace of dragons.
Val reluctantly confessed that he was not that sure about the location, he just heard his Da speaking about the cave with the blacksmith.
"They were both drunk," he admitted, "and in any case they were speakin about the witch’s lair, in that cave. Ugh, that’s where Umar was takin her victims to drink their blood and flay their skin. I dunno if any dragon would share the spot with the vampire witch!"
"Vampires, dragons, big deal! Let’s go kill something!" The sword was writhing restlessly again in Dir’s hand.
But the boys were tired and scratched in many places, the sun was bright despite the season, and the grass on the knoll was soft and green. They sat down to have a sip from the keg they have been carrying with them, and were awakened four hours later by the ceaseless protests of Lilarcor.
"As a friend of mine used to say - there is no glory in watching the grass grow!" It wailed. "Come on, let’s move. I will get all rusty if you don’t give me anything crunchy to sink my teeth in!"
"You can chuck wood, if you’d like." Nel suggested sheepishly.
"What do you think I am - a woodchuck?" the sword asked angrily.
"What’s a woodchuck?" Neler asked in return.
"Dunno." The sword admitted reluctantly, "just heard somebody mentioned them and wood. Come on! What’s the matter with you guys! Already chickened out? I think I’ve heard voices coming from the other side of that hill, whilst you’ve been snoozing!"
"I am thirsty," Dirbert said stubbornly. "And I am not goin anywhere till I had another drink."
"Sure,go for it, just don’t take all night."
Refreshed and emboldened by another generous application of alcohol they continued on their quest. Dirbert thought reluctantly of what they are going to do when the keg would run out. But it seemed like a distant worry right now.
They finally found the cave when they made it over the grassy knoll of the next hill.
The narrow crevice was well hidden behind the bushes but it looked like somebody visited the spot recently and chopped away the thorny overgrowth covering the entrance into the cavern. There were multiple footprints in the mud, some of them made by the steel-studded soldier’s boots, and the air had the strange acrid smell. Dir was significantly relieved after seeing these tracks and decided that whatever danger was lurking inside, it was probably taken care of by the owners of the prints.
They squeezed through the narrow opening into the smelly darkness. The bitter, nauseating odor was much heavier inside the cave. Valsben was carrying a smoldering pine branch, which Lilarcor chopped off the nearest tree after they threatened it to go back to the village for the lantern. After performing that mundane task, the sword was grouchy like an old bear with a toothache. It complained that the pine resin gave it a rash and Dir had to promise he would oil it properly with the dragon fat afterwards.
"Gee, a dead beetle!" Val yelled suddenly. "Look, another one, all pooped out! Man, these are huge. Somebody had a lotta fun here."
"Yeah right," the sword complained sullenly, "the proper heroes don’t have to take a lie-down every half an hour. They go round and do the killin. D’you know how many dragons are left out there? Them dragons are, whattsa name, indangirrid spices."
"I thought, spices are what they bring from Calimshan, like pepper an stuff." Nel said curiously.
"That’s what the druid called them," sword answered vaguely, "I bet, she knows her lingo better than I know the insides of a dragon. Mayhap, they make seasoning ouuta the dragon scales. Them dragons come in different flavors too. Make sense to me."
"Dunno," Dirbert said absentmindedly. "Does not look like there is anything left for us to kill in here."
They poked through the remains of the dead beetles. Each one was the size of a cow, with wickedly crooked mandibles, and covered in heavily armored dark carapace. Amazingly, there was no trace of the external damage on the armored beasts, though they were properly and utterly dead.
"Heh, I know the sight," the sword cackled. "These Umber Hulks had their proper doze of the poison cloud. When I was younger, these wizard’s tricks were not allowed. You had to hack yer monster fair and square, right between the eyes. Otherwise, it would not count as a proper fight. Next thing you know, she would try to do in a dragon like a bug in a bottle!"
"Who’s she?" Dir asked.
"You would not like her, trust me on this one," Lilarcor closed the subject quickly. "Hey, what’s here in this corner?"
That was the strangest thing of all. It looked like a big sturdy chest at a first glance, though blasted into smithereens with a blunt object by somebody with a rather persistent set of mind. The splinters of reddish wood covered the floor mixed with shredded leather upholstery.
However, Dir was puzzled completely by the pair of clawed hands, bleeding and broken, which lied between the remains of the chest. The hands looked like they had been violently torn out of their sockets. But there were no broken bones or shreds of muscle tissue on the stumps. Instead, they ended in splintered clumps of redwood. That entire area was covered with sticky yellowish goo, which by now almost dried out.
What gave Dir the creeps was the amount of human and animal remains around the chest. The skulls and bones were stacked neatly in piles and heaps (where they have not been scattered around by the angry attacker).
"That’s a mimic, if I’d ever seen one!" Lilarcor twisted violently in Dirbert’s hands. "Bastards! Now they go around killing interestin stuff without me. I bet that Chaos blade that he is using now would not find its own sharp end with a lantern on a sunny day!"
"Why would anybody need a lantern on a sunny day?" Neler asked confusedly.
"’Tis called, a sarcriledge16," the sword answered sullenly. "’Tis what you use when you wanna be funny bout somethin."
The sudden violent shriek interrupted that conversation. Something gray and hunched, with black furry mane jumped them from the darkness. It seemed huge and threatening and it wielded a sharpened piece of bone in one of its paws.
The boy’s nerves have already been fried by all the strange discoveries they made in the cave and the soothing effects of the alcohol were wearing off.
Neler yelped and dropped to his knees covering his head with both hands. Val just stand there gaping at the creature as it advanced baring its yellow fangs.
"R…run, run for yer life from the dragon!" Dir yelled in panic and would have fled but for the damned sword in his hands.
It pulled on him and dragged him forward, despite all the resistance he could manage. Dir felt rather like a carp caught on a line, desperately trying to pull free from the shiny piece of steel, which was tugging him forward, demanding his muscle power to satisfy its stupid blood thirst.
"Kill it! Hack it into the little pieces! Gut it like a fish!" The sword was jittering like mad in his hands. "What are you waitin for? Stop dragging like a sack with cow manure! You are slowing me down! Now just make a little twist to the left and go for it!"
"Well, well, well. And what do we have here?" said a light and humorous woman’s voice from behind.
At the same time, an arrow whizzed past Dir’s ear and the menacing creature squeaked once and dropped down with a thud.
"Now, Minsc, you better go and relieve the poor lad of your property. Good thing we decided to stop by and check on the cave again on our way to the ranger’s cabin. I bet, you could track these fellows for miles just by the smell they leave behind."
"I would like to know whose idea it was to buy them alcohol." Another female voice with clear notes of irritation interrupted the first speaker. "Jan, you are going to take the boys to the village and explain everything to their parents. And don’t give me these looks! You are over two hundred years old, for Silvanus’ sake! You should have known better."
"You know, this reminds me of the fix my grand grand uncle Itchy got himself into, when he tried to crush a mindflyer’s party uninvited…"
Dir could swear afterwards that he heard the sword purr like a cat being scratched behind the ears, whilst the big ranger unglued his numb fingers gently from the Lilarcor’s hilt and took the sword away from him.
That night we had a ‘council of war’ in the Common room of the Imnesvale only tavern. It was raining outside and the monotonous beating of the raindrops on the windowsills soothed my nerves and quieted my paranoia. We have not being able to locate Valygar Corthala yet, and we were quickly running out of options in our other investigation.
The band of ogres camped in the local woods proved to have peaceful intentions, amazing though it was. They even managed to establish some sort of truce with the village now. We eliminated the mimic and thus, hopefully, put to rest the Umar witch legend. All the same, something bothered me about that tale, though I could not put my finger on it. Vinchenso, the innkeeper, had tried to make Umar into some sort of a local attraction, but most of the villagers took it rather seriously and their fears run few generations deep. Perhaps, the mimic was just a construct left behind by something much more sinister, or a freeloader who moved into the cave when the previous host abandoned it for some mysterious reason. There had been way too many bones in that cave and we did not dare to investigate it any further for the low passage behind the little underground lake looked unstable and its ceiling had collapsed in many places. Now, there were few possibilities still unchecked. Like a rumor of a wolf pack, leaded by an actual werewolf, lurking in the forests.
Our recent visit to the missing ranger cabin was most disturbing. The house looked like it was abandoned for quite some time. Nobody bothered to replace the broken windows or fix the door which hang loose on its hinges. The rain was leaking inside and the dead autumn leaves rustled on the warped and cracked floor tiles. In the bedroom, we found evidence of the violent struggle, but the bloodstains on the messed bedcovers looked old, and it was impossible to assess the timing of the event. My only hope now was the crumpled note that we found on the floor near the bed.
"Vince," I called the innkeeper, "can you please come here and have a look at this?"
"It is always my pleasure to help a fellow scholar of history," he bowed elegantly despite his significant bulk and rolled to our table.
Vince claimed to be interested in the local history, but I judged him a neophyte. Of course he had so many archeologists visiting the place over the years that he picked up some terminology, but most of the stuff he proudly called his ‘collection’ was a common backyard junk.
I showed him the note that we found in the ranger’s cabin. It was a short letter addressed to somebody called Wallag, written in a bold, steady hand. It contained a crude but efficient map. This Wallag was supposed to follow the group of his comrades using these directions. They were searching for the wolf pack, supposedly terrorizing the area. The fat black cross marked the spot of the alleged wolf lair. The note was signed Mazzy.
Vince gasped. His plump cheeks turned gray. It was disturbing to see his normally cheerful demeanor to be replaced so quickly by grave concern.
"So, that’s where they have gone," he muttered.
"I gather," I said. "You recognize the hand of the person who wrote this?"
"I think I do," he swallowed. "This is Mazzy’s handwriting, ok. She left a letter to her parents with me when they left. I still have it." He sighed. "Have not been able to find anybody who would wish to leave the village ever since."
"Mazzy Fenton is a name of the halfling fighter, whom minister Lloyd hired to investigate the killings?" asked Jaheira.
"Yes, the little lady knight." The innkeeper answered affectionately.
Anomen’s lips tightened as if in anger but he did not say anything. This made me feel uncomfortable for some reason, especially after I noticed a passing smile on Yoshimo’s face.
"Do you know anything about this location?" Jaheira pointed her finger at the map, indicating the Mazzy’s band final destination.
"I hoped it would not come to this," Vince made a sign to avert evil. "That’s the temple site, ok. Everybody is trying to pretend it is not there. Like if they ignore it – it will go away by itself."
"Now we are getting serious!" I interrupted. "So, you have concocted all these stupid tales about Umar and the evil ogres lurking in the woods, while the source of the real danger was obvious from the start? Man, you could have saved us a lot of trouble by being a bit more straightforward!"
"Look," he said reluctantly. "It is not that simple. The Umar," he hesitated, "may be an ancient myth, but the thing that you found in that cave was quite real. Was not it?" I nodded. "And the ogres. They proved to be refugees from the south. But how should we know they did not mean any harm? We just hoped that all these rumors about the temple were not serious. Because if they are serious – we are in big trouble indeed."
By then my heart was racing in unison with my thoughts. "What rumors?" I asked carefully. "You better be clear about it Vince. What kind of a temple we are talking about?" Jaheira looked at me and put her hand soothingly over my trembling fingers.
"Shush, Thea. I am sure it has nothing to do with Bhaal."
The innkeeper winced.
"Oh, you mean THAT kind of a temple. No, nothing like this. The Imnesvale was once a center of the cult of Amaunator – the ancient Sun god. There are ruins of his temple deep in the woods. They say the great prophetess is buried inside. The temple used to be the bastion of light and it was built on top of even older ruins of an alcazar, which belonged to some ancient evil. That’s all I really know. Honest. Tamek, the bookseller would know more about it."
The Imnesvale was an old settlement, and it normally attracted many antique dealers including a grouchy old bibliophile from Athkatla. This fellow made Vince’s inn his permanent summer residence. He insisted that some of his rarest manuscripts came from the local fairs and auctions. Unfortunately, he claimed to have his entire stock send out, when the trouble with people disappearances started. He was stuck in Imnesvale ever since because he was afraid to travel back to Athkatla. I made a note to myself to check on him later for I could not believe a bookworm like him would part with all of his treasures even in the most dire circumstances. He may have something more interesting than the Umar Witch Project booklet concocted by Vince. The locals hinted on some ancient ruins located not far from the village, but the antiquary refused to discuss the subject adamantly. I guessed he either did not want any competition over his primary source of ancient artifacts or was afraid of something.
I thanked Vince and dismissed him politely, then looked at our young cleric. "Amaunator, Does this name ring any bells to you Anomen?"
He blushed and shook his head reluctantly.
"I wish I could have access to the Candlekeep library right now," I sighed. "If you ask me, there is way too many deities in Faerunian pantheon and I am only familiar with a few. I don’t even want to think about all the other gods and demigods that infest this Realm rather like fleas the back of a street dog!"
This statement was followed by silence. Anomen went pale, then red. Jaheira muttered something under her breath. In the ensued pause Yoshimo’s laughter sounded like a roll of thunder. He barely smiled generally. Now he was bended over unable to hold himself and tears of mirth poured out of his eyes. Jan grinned and Minsc joined in with his own booming laughter. The tension was relieved.
"Excuse me, your worship," Yoshimo whipped his eyes and grinned at me, "It is just your narration was rather …graphical."
"Oh, she is famous for that kind of statements," Jaheira grumbled reluctantly. She nodded at Anomen. "You better get used to this, if you want to continue travel with us."
He looked at me and muttered something inaudible, then turned to her.
"Lady Jaheira, you seem to be a woman of noble stature and benevolent faith. What had brought you to the dangerous life of adventure in such a peculiar company?
"There are things called duty and obligation, young man. I happened to give my word to the father of the young lady here, as well as to certain others."
"But what about your beliefs? Should not your druidic rituals require your complete attention?"
"There is a certain price you have to pay if you seek a more active role in championing the Great Balance. Somehow, I was not able to settle to a quiet and contemplative life in unity with nature. What about you? What do you seek in our company besides honor and glory?"
He shifted uncomfortably. "My path is set and my life lies clear before me since I am a squire set to seek knighthood in the Order of Most Radiant Heart. It is merely a benefit that a member of the Order can make a place for himself in this world whilst seeking to destroy Evil and uphold what is Good and Noble!"
"If you say so. Though what place you choose to make for yourself remains to be seen, young man." She finished with him and turned to me suddenly.
"Well, what course shall we take from here, Thea?"
"Are you asking for a geographical or moral answer?"
She laughed humorlessly. "It is not going to work with me and you know it. The young fellow here is not familiar with your tricks so you can throw him off balance when you want to divert his attention. But I know you better than that. In this case, the geographical answer would define a moral choice. Are we going after Mazzy and her gang or do we concentrate on our search for Valygar Corthala?"
"Rats!" I exclaimed in a mock exasperation. "You’ve got me cornered here! Oh deary me, what should I do – succumb to the temptations of my ‘Evil’ side and abandon Mazzy to her dire fate and concentrate on reaching Imoen quickly, or stay on the boring path of righteousness and valiantly rescue the gal ( if she is still alive) and save the village, making a load of quick cash in process? What a moral dilemma!"
Anomen’s knuckles went white. There was a coughing noise coming from Yoshimo. It looked like he was trying to stifle another fit of laughter.
"Can you stay serious once in a while?" Jaheira snapped.
"Don’t pay attention to this load of crap my dear chap!" Minsc slapped Anomen on the back mightily. The young squire flinched. "She will never admit doing anything good for the sake of it! But Boo says - she is a good girl deep inside, and I trust his judgement more than I would trust a High Priest of Tymora!"
Jan furrowed his brows and pronounced rather seriously: "Hmm. You know, this reminds me of my dear old aunt Magenta. We always called her Maggie. She was slightly overweight and being of gnomish persuasion – naturally on the shorter side. Somebody told her that she would look more interesting in black." He winked at my stark black outfit and grinned like a toad. "So, she had joined the Shar17clergy, just cause she wanted to wear that black velvet chemise and trousers. The catch was – she had to perform at least one act of wickedness each month to stay in. Always had to watch out when she was visiting Mum. Maggie would try to either sneak extra salt in your porridge or tie your shoelaces together!" He sighed tragically. "Deep inside she was the kindest person. Would always apologize afterwards."
"Don’t you give the girl here any ideas," Jaheira smiled. "I like my porridge the way it is."
"Yeah, right," I muttered in distress. "Salty porridge indeed. If MY dark side would take over, it will be a bit more intense than the spoilt oatmeal."
"That’s why we like you so, your Worship!" Jan answered happily. "With you around life is never boring!"
"Yippee! Let’s go kill something right now!" chinned Lilarcor from under the dinner table.
"Minsc, would you please teach this thing some table manners?" I asked acerbically.
* * * * *
We have been walking through the impenetrable dark and spiky tangle for hours. The forest looked strange there. The lifeless carcasses of the trees, black and skeletal, guarded the path that was overgrown with thorny bushes. The soil squashed under our feet and the dark, smelly liquid was oozing out filling our footprints. No bird song, rustle of small animals or whistling of wind among the treetops would disturb the silence. The only noise was the sound of our own footsteps. Even my vigorous familiar was intimidated to the point of asking me to pick him up. I scooped him off the ground and now he was safely asleep in my rucksack. We left the ponies in the village and now all our supplies were limited to the blankets and the three days worth of rations. We would have to find drinking water in the wilderness.
Minsc and Yoshimo took turns in scouting ahead and I trailed slightly behind others, straining my ears to the slightest noise in the bush. I felt uneasy for the last half an hour. There was that strange steering in my subconsciousness, which I started to associate with the coming of a snake-vision. It never came. I was musing on the nature of my visions for quite some time now. In every case, that I could remember (except the battle with the Outygh) the image was followed immediately by the event that can be best described as the point of origin, the nucleus of the treacherous and malevolent plot. Sometimes the danger was clear, sometimes it took time for the scheme to unravel, but once the seed was planted - it would always bear the fruit. I was wondering if it was one of the ‘gifts’ of my blood, which my dreams prophesied.
A sudden movement in the nearby undergrowth interrupted my thoughts. At that point of our journey through the woods, I was tight as a coiled spring and ere I could consider the consequences of my action, my hands moved forming a familiar pattern and my lips chanted the incantation. The iridescent sphere of light sprang from my fingers and flied forward in a flash of pale light. There was a growl in the bushes and as the massive fanged shape leaped at me it was hit by the chromatic orb spell and frozen in the momentous immobility. I cursed, for the look and the smell of the beast were hauntingly familiar. It was huge, with heavily muscled figure of a vaguely humanoid shape, its paws were equipped with the razor sharp claws, and its maw was filled with wicked teeth. Its patchy reddish fur was smeared with dried blood. There was no way I could mistake it for anything but what it was – a genuine werewolf.
For a moment, my mind was flooded with memories of the red, salty tide of bloodlust, of the pull of the moon, of the undeniably sweet taste of raw meat in my mouth. Minsc and Jaheira were the only ones, who were still with me from the group that had landed on the werewolf island last year. Local villagers adopted us as their own. At the end, all of us were infected with lycanthropy. We had to split the heart of the pack leader between us and eat it raw, for that was the only cure at the advanced stage of the infection. My mind lingered on that last moment before the reverse of the curse, on the racking pain of the cure working its way along my bloodstream.
By the time I was done with reminiscences, Minsc shoved me out of the way and pulled out his sword. At that very moment, the magical paralysis wore off. The beast looked at me in awe, then suddenly whined, turned its tail, and fled.
"We had to follow her!" Jaheira cried anxiously.
"How do you know it was her, my lady?" Yoshimo raised an eyebrow.
"I felt…affinity. We have to speak with her before we can consider any course of action."
I nodded in agreement. That moment, before the werewolf turned and run, something had passed between us. Not only I knew it was female - I knew she had recognized me as well. Though what was there to recognize? The curse of lycanthropy was cured long ago.
We tracked her to the hole in the ground half-hidden by the fallen tree trunks and overgrown with vegetation. There were some wolf prints in the dirt around it, though most of them old and almost invisible.
"I had to go in there alone," Jaheira said suddenly.
Everybody looked at her.
"Are you saying you want to face a cornered werewolf in her lair alone?" Yoshimo asked carefully. His face was pale and covered with perspiration. I suddenly realized how alien he must have felt in the deep forest, so far away from his usual habitat of crowded streets and seedy taverns.
Jaheira tilted her head and, without saying a word, made a complicated gesture with her both hands. A sudden chill run through my veins. She started to shift, her whole body becoming liquid and semi-transparent, glowing red like a mass of molten glass. I had seen that transformation many times, but it still gave me the creeps. She radiated heat like a hot furnace. Her shape flowed silently into the wolf form and solidified, hardening as we watched, individual filaments forming from the rapidly cooling mass. She shook herself and looked at me seriously with her big, emerald-colored eyes. Her ears twitched. Next she turned around and slunk into the dark opening like a silent shadow.
Minsc swore and rushed to follow her, but I stopped him with a quick sign.
"She is doing the right thing. We have no chance to learn the truth about what is going on here, unless she can convince the creature to cooperate. And she has much better opportunity to succeed on her own. Remember how fast she is in the wolf form? She will outrun the werewolf if there is a danger."
Jaheira emerged half an hour later in her human form, followed by the naked muscular woman, covered with nothing but her long copper-colored hair. The lady was stunning, even in her half-starved, bedraggled condition although her eyes reminded me of two glowing embers.
"This is Anath," Jaheira stated calmly. "She is going to lead us to the Shade Lord’s stronghold."
"Follow my trail to the temple. It is to the east of this den. Be wary of the shadows that lurk there," the werewolf said in a strangely deep and mellow voice.
The beast-woman’s shape distorted. Unlike Jaheira’s, her transformation was not in the least attractive or mystical. Her entire body twisted and convulsed as if in a violent seizure. Her arms stretched and her nails curved into claws. Her skin sprouted coarse reddish fur and her beautiful face deformed into the terrible muzzle of the werewolf. Next, she leaped forward and disappeared in the bushes.
"What is the meaning of that?" Anomen cried out in anger. "Since when are we consorting with Evil beasts like her?"
"Silence boy." Jaheira snapped. "I would not let you speak rashly of the things you do not comprehend."
"Hush, Anomen," I said cautiously. "Thread lightly on these dangerous grounds. Can you please explain the matter to us Jaheira? Who or what is this Shade Lord?"
"The Shade Lord is the creature of darkness, the minion of the Shadow Plane, who was imprisoned here by the priests of Amaunator centuries ago. This monstrosity established its presence in our Plane and possessed the body of a local Senor, a powerful noble. The whole region felt under the dominance of the darkness. After long and bloody struggle he was overthrown by the forces of light, his castle was leveled to the ground and the temple of the sun god was built on top of it. Now that Amaunator’s powers had dwindled, the Shade Lord escaped and summoned his servants, who took over the sun temple and turned it into the place of shadows again." She stopped for a moment, and then continued. "Anath was running with the wolf pack in these woods for years. They did not normally attack humans and the damage they did to the livestock was not severe. The best proof of it is the fact that lycanthropy was not widespread in this area." She looked at Anomen as if daring him to challenge her opinion. "I know it may sound strange to you but even among the werewolves there are ones who try to contain themselves and would not attack unless provoked."
I remembered Durlyle of the werewolf island, the local historian, whose strange shy spirit was so alien in his werewolf body. His friendship granted us the means of our escape. I would never forget him and the smell of belladonna18 flowers, his parting gift, still stirs the strangest memories.
"The Shade Lord destroyed her pack and turned them into the shadow wolves that plague the Umar Hills at night. I think we have found the Imnesvale’s curse at last," Jaheira finished glumly.
We had followed Anath’s tracks through the forest. The tension in our little company was almost palpable. Anomen’s mouth was set into a hard thin line; Yoshimo was pale and nervous. Even Jan was unusually silent. I realized that he did not utter a single joke since we had entered the woods. I only hoped that the sense of an instinctive, unspoken understanding that started to develop between us as a group during the ordeal with the liberation of the D’Arnise castle would return at the sight of danger. These emotional undercurrents and split loyalties were dangerous for our survival. I looked at Jaheira and silently nodded at the back of our stubborn young cleric. She closed her eyes in agreement and moved closer to him. I made a sign to Yoshimo and Jan to ready their weapons.
The woods were becoming thicker and it was almost impossible to keep an eye on everybody, so I asked Minsc, who was at the lead tracking the werewolf to slow down. It was at that moment that the first shadow wolf chose to attack.
It was a patch of moving darkness, wolf-shaped nothingness, emanating cold, deadly numbness and the stench of death. It jumped on Yoshimo from behind and I saw the thief’s eyes, usually so vivid and assertive go blank as that of a corpse. He was paralyzed with fear and revulsion as if his life force was drained out of him by the touch of the shadow.
Amazingly, the first to react was Jan. Minsc and Jaheira were a few steps away from Yoshi and my hands did not finish the weave yet, as our brave gnome brandished his sword, newly acquired from the grateful Imnesvale wizard, and leaped at the shadow wolf with the audacity of a ferret. The shadow abandoned Yoshimo and snapped its jaws at Jan. The gnome parried its attack with his small magical blade. Fortunately, Jan’s ferocious attack worked as a catalyst to break Yoshimo’s trance. He grabbed for his katana and came to Jan’s help in turn.
As a fountain of magical missiles burst from my fingers and a pale pink light illuminated the area, as some sort of a magical firework, I saw the shadow wolves creeping from every direction. The missiles hit the shadow wolf and it exploded with magical fire. There were five or so of the shadow wolves in the pack. After we regrouped, quickly forming a circle, the battle only lasted a few minutes. The shadow creatures bites caused numbness and frostbite, but they were very sensitive to magically enhanced weapons. And the fire based spells, as I discovered, would do a great deal of damage.
We burst into the clearing through the still maze of the dry skeletal trees in close pursuit of the last of the shadow wolves. I looked at the ground. It was no longer soft and wet forest soil. The gray stone blocks have been carved by human hands and polished by generations of restless feet. Though by now mosses and lichens covered the stones of the pavement with ragged green and rust-colored carpet, and the ever-growing creepers succeeded in bringing down the walls, which could have withstood an assault of a small army. The decrepit walls surrounded the ruined temple area and here and there the eye could make an archway or a wrecked staircase. The silent fountain, overgrown with mildew and algae and stinking of rot, finished the image of degradation and decay.
I only had a few moments to make these observations for the fleeing shadow wolf brought a pack of his brethren on us, followed by stronger human-shaped shadows. It was an eerie silent battle fought among the disheartening bleak ruins under the lead-colored sky, and the only sounds were coming from the clang of our weapons and the feverish chanting of cantrips. The shadows were falling under our assault but more and more of them were pouring out of the darkness of the ruins.
I was too busy unleashing continuous stream of magical missiles at the wave after wave of the shadow creatures to notice much of what was happening around me. Suddenly, the flock of shadows attacking us scattered and fled. Some of them drifted swiftly away, others dissolved like a fog and faded into nothingness. I turned around puzzled by that sudden development.
Anomen was standing still like a statue, his face white with tension, his eyes opened wide, but blind to everything but his inner visions. His lips were moving, repeating over and over the strange rhythmical mantra, which had that incredible effect on the shadows. I listened for a moment, and the recognition dawned on me, brought by the memories of our not so distant past. He was reciting the Turn the Undead chant. The wording was different, perhaps, for he was calling on his powers as a priest of Helm, the Watcher’s God. But the ancient rhythm was the same forming a never-ending, looping musical pattern, which Viconia used to call a ‘gut music’ because, as she said, ‘you need to put your voice into your stomach to do this’, and ‘it gives me cramps afterwards’.
I sighed remembering our dark companion. Viconia DeVir was an elf, to be precise, a drow elf. How she ended up on the Surface was a long and complicated story, filled with pain and misery caused by different individuals to her, and returned tenfold by her to these same responsible individuals. Once, we had saved her from the hand of a blind ‘justice’, which took a form of an overzealous mercenary soldier. I was never especially fond of the Flaming Fist troopers. That particular one was convinced that raping and gutting a single drow female without any reason but the color of her skin, was a really good idea. Viconia was a rebel by nature. She refused to cooperate. Fortunately for her, we happened to be in the area and helped her to convince the guy that he was wrong. Unfortunately for him, he did not want to give up without a fight. Viconia was a cleric of a strange dark cult, dedicated to the goddess of Hidden Pain and Suffering Shar. This was by itself an incredible fact, for almost all of the drow worship Lloth – the Spider goddess of the Underdark. Yes, Viconia was a definite ‘bad apple’, from the point of view of an orthodox drow society. I loved her dark sense of humor and rebellious attitude. We parted, after she decided that our little company was too law-obedient and compassionate for her taste.
A loud howl erupted from the shadowed ruins. A large, staggering shape of the werewolf emerged from the darkness and tumbled down the staircase. Her body contracted in agony and twisted into a tight knot of furred limbs. She did not have time to complete the transformation and lied at my feet in a shape half-human and half-bestial, trembling from the enormous effort it took to stay alive.
" It’s a trap, godchild," she slurred in a hardly-recognizable speech. "Use the mirror to gather the light…avenge my pack. I wish you can succeed where I failed…"
Her eyes glazed over and she went still. Her beautiful pale face was strangely at peace now and I thought that she died the way she lived – half the way between two worlds, humane and lupine. It was strangely appropriate. There were no visible wounds on her body and still she was dead, drained of her life energy by the vampiric touch of the shadows.
As Minsc and Yoshimo finished the remaining shadows and Jan helped Jaheira to chase the last of the shadowed wolves, Anomen broke his chant and joined me on the ruined staircase. He was pale but strangely satisfied. I nodded at him and kneeled before the body of the dead werewolf to close her eyes. He shrugged by kept his silence.
"So, he can keep his emotions at bay after all." I thought feeling some respect.
I looked up in the direction Anath had felt from. There was a dim glow in the shadows. The stone debris littered the staircase. I climbed the dusty stairs. It was one of these obscure mystical devices that the temples like to display so much. An enormous cut and polished piece of quartz was mounted on the stone altar. It was probably enchanted for it glowed slightly in the surrounding semi-darkness.
"Be very careful, my lady." Anomen’s voice spoke from behind. "There still shadows around. I can feel it."
I turned around. He followed me discreetly up the stairs. I only shrugged. The man proved his usefulness and he was probably right in not allowing me to venture far from the others alone. I looked around carefully. There it was – a huge frame of the smooth marble to the left from the crystal shard altar.
It was the strangest mirror one could imagine. It gleamed like a polished metal and the subtle shades of green and purple played on the dull gray surface in the unsteady flickering light of the deepening dusk. Not a single scratch marred the shiny façade despite the devastation that the rest of the temple suffered over the uncounted years of neglect. I touched the mirror slightly. My finger created a strange pattern of concentric rings on its surface, like a ripple from the stone thrown into a still water. It disappeared as soon as I removed my hand. My face frowned at me from the shining depth. I looked closer at my own image and almost choked – my head was surrounded with the crimson glow of the flame wreath I had seen in my dreams.
"What is it, my lady Thea?" Anomen looked over my shoulder.
His image flickered. The change was so fast and subtle – you almost could not see it. It was as if he was reflected not in one but in two mirrors, both of them warped, and both images were superimposed on one another. In one of them, he was surrounded by the superstitious golden shine and his eyes were cold, like the blue frost in the underground caverns of the Ice Island. I shivered as the deep cold of that stare touched my heart. The other reflection was outlined with darkness and the eyes of that image were like two black pools of madness, flicked with red. The two faces drifted apart slowly, then the silver fissure spread across the mirror splitting the two images.
"A strange mirror indeed. I wonder what is it made of." Anomen’s voice sounded so absolutely unabashed that I turned to look at him. He was peering in the mirror with an expression of a mild curiosity, no more. When I looked back there – our reflections looked normal again. Slightly distorted, but absolutely ordinary.
"She said to use the mirror, I wonder what exactly did she mean …" My voice trailed off. I was tired of all the sinister predicaments that surrounded my life. Sometimes an apple is just an apple, though in my case, I definitely would be looking for an Evil Stepmother 19behind the every fruit that I receive.
I pushed at the polished gray stone of the frame. Surprisingly, it gave in. The frame was not one with its base.
"Looks like it’s rotating. There must be some hidden mechanism in the base." I pushed the mirror again. It span gently around its axis, supported by an invisible shaft. The bright reflection of the glowing crystal moved across the dark pavement and for a second felt back on the stone. The shard flashed with golden fire and went dim again as the reflected light moved away. The darkness seemed to advance on us as the flicker of gold disappeared.
"Have you seen that?" Anomen sounded excited. "Let’s do it again my lady! There seems to be powers locked within this stone!"
"Anath was speaking of the trap, Anomen. And the shadows, you’ve seen how the darkness became deeper after the reflected light moved away."
"That was only your eyes perception after the light died away, my lady. There should be no harm in bringing the light into the places of darkness!" He was so impatient that I could not stop him, and I understood how much that creepy shadowed place was pressing on his mind. Anomen was always a morning person, waking up before everybody else and feeling gloomy at nights, and his uncanny resemblance to the famous Lathander statue (the one were the deity is depicted as a naked youth with a harp) was a source of another endless string of jokes from Jan Jansen and dry chuckles from Jaheira.
He grabbed the slippery marble frame and turned it slowly until the bright reflection was again falling on the shining stone on the pedestal. The golden light filled the crystal and flooded the whole area at the top of the stairs with the brilliance akin to the sunlight. The darkness shrank back, and then exploded with shadows. The shaded area behind the mirror was swimming in living darkness. The shadows were squirming, pushing, pulling on the heavy frame but their ethereal bodies were unable to interact with the heavy stone. It looked like all the shadows from the temple area gathered here in a desperate attempt to shut down the light. I could feel the cold ghostly hands grabbing at me, pulling me deeper into the shadows, clawing at my throat squeezing my heart with the icy cold fingers. My body went numb. My eyesight was fading. I could hear the screams and curses of our comrades coming from downstairs and feel Anomen’s desperate attempts to fend the shadows off me with his bare hands. He was afraid to use the Flail of Ages in such close proximity and he could not pull me out into the light for my body suddenly became heavy as lead.
"Chant," I croaked. "Use the chant."
Thanks Oghma, he retained enough presence of mind to understand. He dropped me and started the deeply resonating recital of the Turn the Undead chant. It had immediate effect on the shadows for their grip on me lightened, and then withdrew. I dropped to my knees, murmuring the most destructive fire spell that came into mind. I was half numbed and my fingers barely moved but when I finished it a fireball the size of a horse scorched the area within ten feet from the stone mirror. It was way too close. The wave of flames enveloped me and put my clothes on fire. But I was happy to feel the pain from my burns for at least, I could feel my body again.
The others burst onto the staircase from below. Jaheira threw her cloak over my smoldering mantle.
"What is it you two have been doing here?" She yelled fighting back the shadow. "By Silvanus, you are trouble enough on your own!"
"Looks like Thea has a bad influence on the young lad here," Minsc chuckled cleaving another shadow in half with Lilarcor. The damned sword was hissing with delight at every swing.
I looked at Anomen, who stubbornly continued his recital. He looked disheveled. His face and hands were scorched with flames and his immaculate breastplate, which he polished every day till it would shine like a new brass pot, was blackened with soot. He also looked guilty and repentant.
"It was nobody’s fault, Jaheira." I shouted unleashing another magic missile spray. "Our spectral friends here did not like us turning on the light!"
"I can’t imagine why," she grumbled in response and made an intricate gesture with her hands. As a flaming scimitar appeared in her grip she doggedly concentrated on eliminating the shadows.
When we finished that second fight, everybody was exhausted to the point of collapse. We gathered around the shining crystal so that our two healers could tend to the wounded. The sky was turning from smoke gray to anthracite and the night was falling rapidly on the cursed forest. The bright beacon of the stone thrown enough light to illuminate the staircase behind the altar. It led down into the underground level of the temple.
"Why would a Sun god want his temple to have a basement?" I mused.
"You are forgetting the history of this place, Thea." Jaheira replied dryly. "It was built on top of the Shade Lord castle, remember?"
"It had probably sunk deeper into the ground, too." I nodded. "You are right. Most of the ceremonies must have taken place outside, under the open sky. There should be an altar of a sort, but we cannot cut through all that vegetation and these ruins look rather unstable for me."
"We might want to spend the night under the open sky before venturing in," she said matter-of-factly.
"Yes," I said. "Looks like we have to go down there."
I surveyed the others. Yoshimo was cleaning his katana thoughtfully. I wondered if a shadow would leave any visible trace on the blade of any weapon. Jan was happily sharing some munchies with Minsc and yes - Boo was out there too. The little gnome managed to sneak extra food to the hamster all the time. Minsc was not very happy about it, but for now all three of them seemed to be content sharing their supper.
Anomen pulled his armor off and was looking at the darkened breastplate sullenly. There was a spot of soot on his perfect nose.
"Yeah, he is kinda cute, when he is not angry," said a sly rabbit voice inside my head.
"Oh, so you are awake. I almost forgot about you. Do you want to come out?"
"I sure can use a bathroom break." Puck scrambled out of my backpack and made a few tentative hops around. "I wanna go downstairs." He disappeared quickly in the shadow. "Hey there is a huge hole in the ground here, and it looks like something huge and nasty was coming in and out of it!"
"It may be not safe for your familiar on his own, my lady" Anomen said suddenly raising from the ground.
"You are absolutely right, Anomen." I murmured gratefully getting on my feet as well. "He just found something out there. We better go and investigate."
"Mind if I join you?"
I nodded silently.
"I had to confess, it feels bizarre. Can you really communicate with your bunny like that? My sister would have loved it." He smiled.
"I sure can," I shrugged. "Sometimes he is rather annoying. It is like always having somebody at the back of your head watching you all the time. He does not really recognize the word privacy."
"Hey, I am just a reflection of yourself, silly," my rabbit interfered again. "Your ‘alter ego’, mon ami. And don’t ask where did I get all these foreign words from. They are in your subconsciousness."
We walked in the direction that Puck projected. There was a huge stone well in the pavement. Perhaps, it was filled with water once, for it smelled of damp and mildew. The walls of the well were scratched and crushed as if an enormous claws dug into its stones.
8. Note from sister Omphalla: The dialects that had been spoken in the elder days in the region South East from the Sea of Fallen Stars are united into Alambish family of languages.
9. Note from sister Omphalla: Planetouched is a general world to describe those, who can trace their bloodline back to a being from the Outer Plane, either celestial or demon. Aasimars are humans or half-elves with some trace of celestial blood. Some have a minor physical trait, such as unusually colored eyes or hair. The demon breed is called cambion or tiefling. Aasimars are generally renown for their tendency to support good and noble cases, though some are less fanatical and some had been known to stray away from the path of righteousness altogether.
10. Note from sister Omphalla: Romance - a species of fictitious writing, originally composed in meter or in prose, such as the tales of the Netheril; hence, any fictitious and wonderful tale; a sort of novel, especially one which treats of surprising adventures usually befalling a hero or a heroine; a tale of extravagant adventures, of love, and the like.
11. Note from sister Omphalla: The Lord of the Morning Lathander is traditionally depicted as a golden-skinned athletic male of exceeding beauty who has just fully entered early manhood. He has a reputation for being sometimes overly enthusiastic and slightly vain.
12. Note from sister Omphalla: I cannot but notice that this blatant proclamation of agnosticism is conflicting with the author’s overall behavior. The mere fact of this journal existence is an act of veneration of Lord Oghma in the way he most appreciates it, not to mention her frequent use of the Lord of Knowledge name. It may be a habit left from the author’s childhood. Nevertheless it is clearly there.
13. Note from sister Omphalla: Mimic is a strange and deadly creature that can transform itself at will into the likeness of any object that roughly fills a space of about 5 cubic feet. It can be a massive door, a treasure chest, or a barrel. A mimic’s body is hard and has a rough texture. It uses its heavy pseudopod or spray of adhesive to trap the unsuspecting travelers and treasure hunters. Then it would slam its opponent against its hard body or use acid attack.
14. Note from sister Omphalla: This is an obvious allusion to the Time of Troubles, when gods were expelled into the Material Plane by the Overlord Ao and forced to search for the missing Tablets of Fate. I would refer the readers to the appropriate historical sources for detailed explanation.
15. Note from sister Omphalla: It is a legend, which is always vehemently denied by Helmite priests, though it was never reliably proved as being right or wrong. According to it, Helm once created a new species, which he called Spectators. The creatures consisted of one central orb located in the middle of a huge round body and numerous appendages sporting multiple smaller eyes. The species were of neutral alignment, capable of casting powerful spells, and dedicated to serve as sentinels to their divine patron. Later they were corrupted by Lord Bane and twisted into horrible caricatures of themselves which are called Beholders or ‘eye tyrants’.
16. Note from sister Omphalla: I gather the sword mixed up the terms ‘sarcasm’ and ‘sacrilege’ here, the resulting term is rather colorful, but I deny any responsibility for it.
17. Note from sister Omphalla: Shar is a dark goddess of hidden pain, vengeance and deep night. She is fighting a never ending battle with her sister Selune, the moongoddess.
18. Note from sister Omphalla: An herbaceous plant with reddish, bell-shaped flowers and shining black berries. The whole plant and its fruit are very poisonous, and the root and leaves are used as powerful medicinal agents. It is rumored to be the cure against lycanthropy in its early stages. Also called ‘deadly nightshade’.
19. Note from sister Omphalla: A common children’s tale speaks of a beautiful young girl who was poisoned by her evil Stepmother with the help of a poisoned apple.
Continue to the next Chapter of Part Two
Last modified on August 29, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by Janetta Bogatchenko. All rights reserved.